Behind-the-scenes Activities at Various Allied Headquarters
During Pleime Campaign
Unlike other accounts of Pleime-Iadrang battle which mainly focused on what was happening on the battlefield, this article will examine what was happening behind the scenes at various Allied Headquarters (II Corps, First Field Force Vietnam, 1st Air Cavalry Division, MACV, Joint General Staff) while the Pleime campaign was unfolding, by pasting up details gathered from three first-hand documents pertaining to this campaign:
1. Why Pleime
2. Pleiku Campaign
3. G3 Journal/IFFV
Why Pleime is II Corps's After Action Report published in September 1966. Pleiku Campaign is 1st Air Cavalry Division's After Action Report submitted on March 4, 1966. G3 Journal/IFFV recorded entries of events as they occurred by the hours during the Pleime campaign from October 20 to 30, 1965.
Furthermore, another reference document is an interview with General Kinnard, done by Alexander Cochran in 1984 and published in Military History (Cochran, Alexander S., "First Strike at River Drang", Military History, Oct 1984, pp 44-52, Per. Interview with H.W.O Kinnard, 1st Cavalry Division Commanding General) that I recently found at the library of United State Army Heritage & Education Center, Carlisle, PA.
II Corps Headquarters was located in Pleiku, under General Vinh Loc's leadership. 1st Air Cavalry Division Headquarters was located in An Khe, under General Kinnard's leadership. First Field Force Vietnam Headquarters was located in Nhatrang, under General Larsen's leadership.
All of these three Commanding Generals were relatively new in the Central Highlands scene: General Larsen was
appointed IFFV Commander in September 1965; General Vinh Loc, II Corps Commander on June 20, 1965; and General Kinnard had recently debarked on Quinhon beach together with troops of 1st Air Cavalry Division in October 1965 while bulldozers were frantically clearing a piece of jungles to establish its headquarters in An Khe. Therefore, the most knowledgeable person on the military situation in the Central Highlands during that time was Colonel Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff, who held this position since December 12, 1963 under General Do Cao Tri, then General Nguyen Huu Co, and finally General Vinh Loc. All of these three Commanding Generals respected and valued Colonel Hieu, not only for his general staff skills, but also for his tactical commanding skills.
Among the three Allied Commanders, General Larsen's voice weighed the most: vis-a-vis General Kinnard, since 1st Air Cavalry Division was put under IFFV Command; vis-a-vis General Vinh Loc, since II Corps relied entirely on IFFV Command on supplies.
Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth
Information coming from First Field Force Command indicated that on October 19, 1965, around 7 p.m., about 2 Viet Cong companies opened fire and assaulted Pleime camp (G3/IFFV 10200500H). Around 10 a.m. on October 20, the commander of Pleime camp guessed that the attacking enemy force was of a battalion size (G3/IFFV 10201030H). Around 3:45 p.m., G2/IFFV estimated that about 2 VC battalions were present in Pleime camp surroundings and could be units belonging to NVA 32nd Regiment or VC 95th Regiment (G3/IFFV 10201545H).
Thus, it appeared that NVA B3 Front Command launched simultaneously two major battlefronts in Military Region 2: one in Hoai An District, Bong Son; and two at Pleime, Pleiku. What was critical for the high commands in charge was to determine accurately where was the enemy's primary thrust and where was its secondary thrust in order to react appropriately.
When the Viet Cong showed signs of a preparation for a major attack in Bong Son, II Corps Command moved its two reserved forces, Airborne Task Force A and Marine Task Force Alpha, down there. Furthermore, General Vinh Loc also displaced to Bong Son to take direct control of the counterattack operation which was named Than Phong 6 operation.
In his Pleiku campaign report, General Kinnard revealed that the American Commanders believed that the enemy main effort was Bong Son. He wrote (Pleiku, page 10):
Prior to 19 October, the available intelligence indicated strong enemy involvement to the east and north-east of the division's base area. Because of the threat to the rice harvest in the coastal regions from Tuy Hoa to Bong Son, the emphasis on planning for tactical operations was directed to that general area.
Despite recurring reports in II Corps Tactical Zone that the Plei Me CIDG camp would be attacked (most of which were discounted) the enemy attack at 191900 October was mildly surprising. But, even with the building feeling of major enemy involvement, there still was general consensus that the coastal lowlands remained the real target area of Viet Cong efforts in the corps area.
General Vinh Loc agreed with general consensus in thinking Pleime was the enemy secondary trust (G3/IFFV 10201650G):
- 16:50H: CG II Corps plans Than Phong 6 to go as scheduled, relief of Plei Me 2d priority.
Meanwhile, at II Corps Headquarters in Pleiku, only Colonel Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff, had a different opinion. Based on his own analysis about the military situation and the string of VC operations in Central Highlands lately, Colonel Hieu reached the conclusion that NVA B3 Front Command was applying the "one main attack and two diversionary attacks" tactic (Pleime, end of chapter II), with Pleiku as main attack, and the two diversionary attacks - the secondary one in Hoai An District - and the primary one at Pleime. Consequently, Colonel Hieu, besides submitting a request for two Special Forces companies, one American and one Vietnamese, to reinforce the defense of Pleime camp, also asked for Task Force Ingram comprising one infantry battalion and one artillery battalion to assume the security of Pleiku City and its airport as well as to give support to the relief column.
Initially, from Nhatrang, General Larsen doubted Colonel Hieu had the authority to make a request for troops (G3/IFFV , 102108202H):
- 08:20H: II Corps Capt Ushijima - Who if anyone at Pleiku can make a Cmd decision if necessary in Vinh Loc's absence? Request you stay on top of Than Phong 6, Plei My and route 21 Opns and ensure timely and accurate info forwarded this HQ. Asn: Chief of Staff is here and has contact w/CG on coast. Question: Can CofS make a decision. Ans: He will have to check w/CG before making a decision.
Furthermore, General Larsen made known that he did not want to withdraw Task Force Ingram from Than Phong 6 operation because he was convinced that the hot spot was Hoai An District, not Pleime (G3/IFFV , 10201235H):
-12:35H: II Corps may request assistance from 1st Air Cav Div. Murray advised Broughton that CG, is not keen on committing the Cav in that area at this time. Broughton said only an alert for possible request and asked what this would do to Than Phong 6 opn. Murray reiterated previous statement about CG not keen.
General Larsen stood firm in maintaining Task Force Ingram in Bong Son for the entire day of October 20 (G3/IFFV , 10202245H):
- 22:45H: From Col Barrow (Info fm Gen Larsen thru Gen Smith): TF Ingram is not to move from its present location to its planned destination (Ref: Than Phong 6). It will remain in place prepared to assist Condor. (II corps Advisory Gp). This includes its associated airlift (fixed wing and Chinooks). Pass to 1st Cav.
It was not until 11:00 p.m. on 10/20/65 that he reverted his decision and assigned Task Force Ingram to Pleime as Colonel Hieu requested (G3/IFFV , 10202400H):
- 24:00H: Gen Larsen cancelled participation of TF Ingram in Than Phong 6 as of 202300H, includes airlift support will be prepared to assist relief of Plei My Camp on 21 Oct.
There were two instances that showed the American commanders had the tendency of wanting to take over the command from ARVN commanders when they were asked to lend support to ARVN units.
The first instance involved Colonel Bennett, 5th Special Force Group Commander, who was the person providing US Delta Team that II Corps Command dispatched to reinforce Pleime camp. Colonel Hieu had this team inserted outside the camp, at 5 kilometers North-East with two missions: the primary mission was to study the troop distribution of the enemy around the camp in order to determine his intention that could be either to overrun the camp or to encircle it just to lure and ambush the rescued force; the secondary mission was to reinforce the defense of the camp (Pleime, chapter IV):
In their progression toward the Camp after landing, the 91st Battalion engaged with the enemy at 1030 hours, killed and wounded an unknown number of VC and captured one 82m/m mortar, two 50 cal M.G., many Chicom submachine-guns and Russian rifles. This contact proved that around the Camp, the enemy had dispersed their troops to prevent being targets for friendly airstrikes and also to ambush our relief forces when they were heliborne in the vicinity.
As more intelligence was acquired about the enemy intentions and disposition, the VC themselves were also gradually aware of the friendly stratagem.
However, Colonel Bennett wanted the US Delta Team to penetrate the camp at once in order to help the American camp commander to prevent a potential rebellion of the Montagnard CIDG combatants (G3/IFFV , 10201825H):
- 18:25H: II Corps Capt Ushijima - Possibility of placing an Abn Ranger Co vic Plei My tonight. Col Bennett was told by SA II Corps, that the a/c would not be available until after 1900 and airlift impossible tonight. Col Bennett then requested 10 Americans be introduced into Camp to assist control of CIDG. Col Mataxis (SA II Corps) replied that due to tactical situation this could not be done.
Colonel Hieu had to turn down that request (G3/IFFV , 10202000H):
- 20:00H: Fm D/SA II Corps to Lt Col Patch. SA II Corps had just returned fm flight over Plei My Camp. Camp still holding out. Flare ships and fighters still supporting. A/1 Avn Co returned to Pleiku, because of weather. Request of Lt Col Bennett, 5th SFG, to move 10 US into camp denied.
Another instance about the American Commanders' strong-arm tactic involved General Harry Kinnard, 1st Air Cavalry Division Commander.
Colonel Hieu only requested one infantry battalion to secure Pleiku City and its airport in replacement of 22nd Ranger Battalion and one artillery battalion to support Dan Thang 21 operation in the relief of Pleime camp. These two supporting battalions closed in at 1:00 p.m. on October 23 (Pleime, chapter IV):
To meet all contingencies, II Corps Command requested US Task Force Alpha (Major General Stanley R. Larsen, HQS Nha Trang) to temporarily assume the security of the Pleiku Airfield and Pleiku city and at 1300 hours, Task Force Ingram composed of one infantry battalion and one battery belonging to the 1st US air Cavalry Division came as scheduled.
However, when General Kinnard came up to Pleiku, he was not content in playing the secondary role of a reserve force, and wanted to get directly involved in the rescue mission by twisting General Larsen's arm in allowing him to bring up not one infantry battalion but rather a full Air Cavalry brigade which would attack the enemy surrounding Pleime camp (G3/IFFV , 10232350H):
- 23:50H: G3, Col Barrow - at approx 2300 CG rec'd call from Col Mataxis and Gen Knowles was with him. Based on info they passed to CG, CG approved commitment tomorrow of all or part of 1st Bde (PKU) at Gen Knowles's discretion. Gen Kinnard was with Gen Larsen. This info passed to Gen Knowles and Col Mataxis at approx 2315h.
(note: CG was General Larsen, Colonel Mataxis was II Corps Senior Advisior, General Knowles was 1st Air Cavalry Division Deputy Commander. In this telephone conversation, General Larsen and General Kinnard were in Nha Trang at IFFV Headquarters while General Knowles and Colonel Mataxis were in Pleiku at II Corps Headquarters).
General Kinnard made known of his veiled power grabbing in following terms in his report (Pleiku, page 16)
The initial concept for this operation was to deploy by air to the vicinity of Camp Holloway a reinforced infantry battalion to provide security for US units and installations in the Pleiku area and to provide a reserve/reaction force for the Pleiku area.
Within a matter of hours the estimate of the situation at Plei Me was revised and the divisional commitment expanded to a brigade task force. The concept then developed to provide limited offensive operations, utilizing air assault techniques to provide artillery fire support for the ARVN Armored Task Force moving to relieve the Plei Me Camp as well as support for the camp itself; and to provide infantry security for artillery positions, while still maintaining a reserve reaction force of not less than one battalion for the defense of Pleiku.
Of course, Colonel Hieu did not feel the necessity of resorting to one US Air Cavalry Brigade to assault the camp itself to liberate it; partly because the relief of the camp could be accomplished with the Armored Task Force supported by artillery firepower; and partly because he knew that the enemy would easily shoot down all helicopters debarking troops with well positioned anti aircraft batteries around the camp (Pleime, chapter IV):
In their progression toward the Camp after landing, the 91st Battalion engaged with the enemy at 1030 hours, killed and wounded an unknown number of VC and captured one 82m/m mortar, two 50 cal M.G., many Chicom submachine-guns and Russian rifles. This contact proved that around the Camp, the enemy had dispersed their troops to prevent being targets for friendly airstrikes and also to ambush our relief forces when they were heliborne in the vicinity.
When General Kinnard noticed that the Armored Task Force lingered at Phu My during three days, from October 20 to 23, he thought that the Armored Task Force Commander, LTC Luat, was experiencing cold feet (Pleiku, page21):
To try to get the column moving on the 24th the 1st Brigade placed an artillery liaison party with the armored column, thus guaranteeing US artillery fire support for the task force. However, the task force commander elected to remain in that position for the night while sending back to Pleiku for additional supplies. The artillery liaison party came into the task force on one of the incoming medical evacuation choppers late on the afternoon of the 24th.
General Kinnard seemed to be unaware that LTC Luat was following Colonel Hieu's orders in applying a counter measure to the Viet Cong mobile ambush tactic, luring the enemy in showing up at the ambush site first, otherwise artillery firepower would shell at ambush targets where the enemy troops have yet to show up (Pleime, chapter IV):
In the morning 21 October, the Luật Task Force moved on, along the Phu My-Pleime axis but to simply conduct aggressive patrols within a 10 km radius! The order had been expressly given by II Corps Command to the T.F. Commander, Lt Col. Luat, to simulate the imminent approach of a relief column to the Pleime camp while in reality, he had to wait for more adequate and sufficient attachments which would be moved by air from Kontum and Binh Dinh to Pleiku, as soon as the weather conditions allowed the air movements.
It would be interesting to mention that large-scale ambushes by the VC have been in recent past conducted within the frame of the tactics of the war of movement. They no longer exist as static waylays.
On October 23, when the Task Force Ingram's artillery batteries were not yet ready to be transported to a location from which the ambush sites were within firing range, the Armored Task Force was ordered by Colonel Hieu to stop mid-way to allow airstrikes to neutralize the ambush sites (Pleime, chapter IV):
At 1700 hours, the Task Force stopped midway while preplanned airstrikes were conducted ahead over suspected enemy concentrations.
Then on October 24, when the batteries were readied to enter into action at 10 kilometers South of Phu My, the Armored Task Force was ordered to resume its advance toward the camp (Pleime, chapter IV):
Throughout 24 October, the situation remained completely quiet. Even so, Task Force Ingram had moved from Pleiku Airfield to position at 10 km South of Phu My in order to provide artillery fire support to the Armor-Infantry Task Force when necessary.
G3 Journal/FFV, on October 24, 1965 at 10:20 a.m., specified:
- 10:20H: II Corps Lt Col Patch, 1 Btry and 2 Inf Co's moved into support range of ARVN in GS/R role.
On 26 October, when camp Pleime had just been relieved, Colonel Hieu took advantage of General Kinnard's aggressiveness to step in phase II of Pleime campaign, in the use 1st Air Cavalry Division's newly developed helicopter warfare to pursue the withdrawing enemy troops to the rear base of Chu Pong (Pleime, chapter V):
On 26 October 1965, while the relief column and the garrison of Pleime were conducting a sweep around the Camp, a conference was held at II Corps TOC with the presence of US advisors and unit commanders.
All the information received and the analysis of the situation converged to the same conclusion.
The enemy units had withdrawn west in the direction of the Cambodian border. This would be their only chance of escape because in addition to the advantages of the terrain, the base of Chu Pong and the sanctuary of Cambodia provided not only shelters but also supplies and replacements of which the 32nd and 33rd Regiments were running short.
For the first time since the war broke out on the Indochinese peninsula, friendly forces had the opportunity to come to such a conclusion. Throughout the hostilities since 1948, the enemy has always been able to leave the battlefield and to withdraw safely, to give up the fighting at their own will.
Thus the chance which was offered to friendly forces had not to be overlooked: the two NVA Regiments were to be pursued because if not, the danger would persist and the enemy would have time to reorganize their units.
Besides that, the above decision could this time be made possible because reserve forces were available, with the presence of the 1st US Air Cavalry Division stationed in An Khe, a major unit which possesses the highest degree of mobility all over the world and also the most up-to-date equipment and weaponry.
On October 27, commanders at various headquarters of II Corps, First Field Force VN, 1st Air Cavalry Division, MACV and Joint General Staff, conferred frantically around the idea of having 1st Air Cavalry Division pursuing the enemy (G3/IFFV , 10271230H):
- 12:30H: Fm Capt Reich, II Corps (w/Gen Larsen): Gen's Larsen, Kinnard and Knowles, and Col Mataxis are now meeting with Gen Vinh Loc to work out extension or modification of present 1st Air Cav Div TAOR vic Plei Me to comply with MACV oral instructions to develop a big TAOR centered around Plei Me to find, fix and destroy the VC in that area. Gen Larsen called Gen Collins requesting MACV touch base with JGS so similar VN instructions can be passed to Gen Vinh Loc. 1st Cav has elements on ground vic Plei Me that are searching around the western side of the camp moving south. Opn being supported by mortars positioned 4K's due south of camp. ARVN is operating from 360 degrees to 270 degrees around camp at a radius of 3K's. Support being provided by tanks. However, the terrain is limiting this support. Gen Larsen told Gen Kinnard to stop the Tuy Hoa opn for evaluation ref COMUSMACV's order. Gen Vinh Loc plans to extract the 2 Abn Ranger Co's from Plei Me. (Passed to G3).
By midnight of October 29, the expanded tactical area of operational responsibility of 1st Air Cavalry Division was finalized between Colonel Hieu (II Corps) and Colonel Williams (IFFV) and passed along to various unit commands (G3/IFFV , 10300050H):
- 00:50H: II Corps (Major Black) - Ref Plei Me: Camp rec'd a few mortar rds, some trip flares were set off and some SA fire. Nothing serious. 7 cas, med evac requested. At 292350 Col Williams called Col Hieu, CofS II Corps. II Corps requested that 1st Cav TAOR be extended to include the Plei Me area except the camp itself. From present line on NS grid line ZA14 east to NS grid line AR77, on EW grid line ZA/AR15, south on AR77 to EW grid line 00, then west to NW grid line ZA14. Col Buchan, Gen Knowles, Col Williams and Col Mataxis agree.
- 00:12H: II Corps Col Williams - Request extension of TAOR (as outlined in telecon fm Maj Black at 0005) be approved by FFV. Col Barrow notified; Request approved 0025; II Corps notified 0030; 1st Cav notified 0040.
Although 1st Air Cavalry Division was assigned an expanded TAOR, it still remained under II Corps' control. In order to prevent clashes among the allied commanders, Colonel Hieu designed a combined operational procedure (Pleime, chapter VIII):
In phase III, the operations had been conducted through a close cooperation between ARVN and US Forces: that was the latest procedure ever put into application since the second World War. It is characterized by:
- Joint intelligence and support activities.
- Commonly-shared concept of operations and results.
- Separate TAOR.
- Separate command.
- Separate deployment of forces.
- Separate conduct of activities.
- Separate reserve.
The above procedure has brought many good results, especially in a country such as ours where the psychology of the people is charged with complexities and subtleties. I also find in that procedure a real competitive spirit between the two armed forces and between units.
1st Air Cavalry Division was assigned the role of the main effort (Long Reach/All the Way operations) with ARVN Airborne Brigade as a reserve force during this phase II of Pleime campaign and did not operate independently, but rather remained under II Corps' control, in particular in two key areas: intelligence and operational concept.
1st Air Cavalry Division Forward Command Post
In order to facilitate the coordination, General Kinnard established a 1st Air Cavalry Division Forward Command Post (1ACD/FCP) next to II Corps Command in Pleiku while the main headquarters remained in An Khe (Pleiku, page ii) :
Our ablility to work closely with the ARVN was enhanced by establishing a division tactical C-F, co-located with the ARVN II Corps Headquarters in Pleiku.
The daily updated intelligence that Colonel Hieu provided to IACD/FCP was precise and accurate, allowing units of Air Cavalry to detect and efficiently destroy enemy troops to the point the enemy cadres were convinced of the existence of spies among their ranks (Pleime, chapter VII):
The 33rd Regiment's cadres, upset by the precision of friendly airstrikes held a conference in an attempt to discover what was allowing such repeated and accurate airstrikes to take place: it was concluded that only spies within the ranks could be furnishing friendly forces the location and movements of the regiment's elements.
Following are excerpts from 1st Air Cavalry Division's intelligence log which demonstrate that G2/II Corps was capable of monitoring closely the movements and actions taken by almost all of enemy units, tactical as well as command, from company level up to division level that Colonel Hieu provided daily to 1ACD/FCP from October 27, when 1st Air Cavalry Brigade entered into action to November 13, the day before 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion landed at LZ X-Ray (Pleiku, page 30-82) :
- October 27
By the 27th, the NVA regiment responsible for the siege of Pleime was positively identified as the 101B or the 33d, the latter designation used almost exclusively thereafter.
By the end of the day, the lead elements of the 33d had closed on it forward assembly area, the village Kro, while its rear-guard battalion, was just beginning to break contact at the Pleime CIDG camp. But Kro was anything but a sanctuary as increasing numbers of helicopters flew overhead.
- October 28:
For the 33d Regiment, the continued pressure from armed helicopters near its advance base at the village Kro (ZA080030) was becoming more and more uncomfortable. The fear of detection had begun to split the units and now many individuals had separated from their organizations and were straggling.
The 32d Regiment had nearly closed its base on the north bank of the Ia Drang, although the exact route it took in its withdrawal from the ambush site still remains a mystery.
- October 29:
The withdrawal of the 33d Regiment was rapidly becoming a nightmare. More and more armed helicopters began striking units of the regiment. So close were these attacks pressing to the advance base that by noon of the 29th the regimental cadre decided to keep the unit on the move to the west, seeking sanctuary. This time it was headed for its "home" prior to the attack on Pleime. This was Anta Village (NVA designation) at YA940010, located at the foot of the Chu Pong Massif. It was here during early October, that the 33d had conducted drills and rehearsals of its attack on the Pleime CIDG camp.
- October 30:
Maintaining unit integrity was becoming increasingly difficult for many element of the 33d Regiment as Cavalry helicopters seemed to be everywhere, firing into carefully camouflaged positions and causing individual to either break and run or reveal positions by returning the aircraft fires. And a new element of danger had been introduced. Infantry units began air assaults in widely separated points throughout the general area through which the 33d must pass.
At time these landings were far enough from regimental units so that battle could be avoided, but in other cases, the cavalrymen found retreating elements and sharp fire fights, always costly to the NVA would result. And with each such engagement, further fragmentation of NVA units would occur.
As the small unit actions increased, the Cavalry obtained its first North Vietnamese captives and more and better intelligence concerning the enemy forces was becoming available to commanders.
- October 31:
The constant harassment from the air and the sudden and unexpected landing of infantry troops at points throughout the area was causing consternation in the enemy ranks. Elements continued to disintegrate and fragment into small parties or, in some cases, individual stragglers. Many of these, left to fend for themselves, soon fell into the hands of Cavalry units. Contributing to the problems of the 33d was the acute shortage of food and medicines since many units could not reach their pre-stocked supply because of the sudden thrusts of the helicopter-borne troopers.
- November 01:
The 33d Regiment sustained a major blow with the loss of its regimental aid station. Many of the patients were captured, along with many of the defenders and, more importantly, medical supplies already in critical short supply.
By now the regimental headquarters had reached the base at Anta village, but the bulk of the regiment was still strung out between Pleime and Chu Pong. And these elements continued to draw aerial rocket and machine gun fire throughout the withdrawal. Also the heavy bombing and strafing attacks by USAF aircraft were directed against regimental positions with increasing accuracy as the secondary target detection system of the 1st Air Cavalry division began to click.
The precision of the strikes was so upsetting that regimental cadre held a conference in an attempt to discover what was allowing the US forces to make such repeated, accurate air strikes. It was concluded that only spies within the ranks could be furnishing the location and movement of the regiment's elements.
The capture of the aid station was a major find for the division and besides the opportunity it provided for destruction of NVA forces, it also yielded documents, including one particularly valuable map, that revealed enemy supply and march routes. These, in turn, were converted into intelligence that led to further interdictory bombings by the Air Force.
- November 02:
The 33d Regiment now received orders to head deeper into the Chu Pong sanctuary. By 0400 on the 2d, the regimental CP had arrived at Hill 762 (YA885106). But while the head of the column had comparative safety, the body and tail, still stretching back to near Pleime, was anything but safe.
Meanwhile, the NVA division headquarters (Field Front) had a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy picture. The last of its three regiments was due to arrive soon in South Vietnam and begin moving into assembly areas in the Chu Pong-Ia Drang area.
- November 03:
The confidence of the newly-infiltrated 66th Regiment was badly shaken by the audacious ambush sprung by the Cavalry Squadron, in the very heart of the Chu Pong-Ia Drang complex. The 8th battalion had gotten itself bloodied before it had been in country for two days and, by losing a prisoner, tipped off its presence in South Vietnam.
The 33d Regiment, meantime, was still trying to pull its bruised and battered tail into the Chu Pong sanctuary. But it became just another day of constant harassment from the air and ground marked by the loss of still more medical supplies and ammunition.
- November 04:
After failing to overrun US positions on the south bank of the Ia Drang, the 8th Battalion, 66th Regiment, broke off the attack and pulled its dead and wounded back from the site of the engagement. The apparent discovery by Cavalry forces of a new NVA infiltration unit would cause the Field Front to re-evaluate its tactical position and begin looking for ways to counteract the continued pressure.
An immediate action was to order the 33d Regiment out of its base at Hill 732, which it had hardly reached, and onto the eastern slopes of Chu Pong in the vicinity of YA922010 with its battalions (when they closed) to take up positions from Hill 732, down through Anta Village (940010) to the north bank of the Ia Meur (980000).
The fragmented bits and pieces of the regiment were still making their way in a generally westward direction, clinging to stream beds, utilizing all available concealment to avoid detection by the ever-present Cavalry helicopters. There still was one unit reasonably intact - the battalion that had acted as rear guard. Starting later and moving more slowly than the rest, it was still east of main Cavalry positions.
- November 05:
The day brought little change to the intelligence picture. The 66th Regiment continued to close into assembly areas in the Chu Pong sanctuary and the 33d Regiment waited for its shattered forces to rejoin the parent unit. The 32d Regiment and Field Front, meanwhile, remained untouched and untroubled north of the Ia Drang and adjacent to the Cambodian frontier.
- November 06:
There was little change in the NVA situation as the 33d Regiment still awaited closure of its rear guard battalion into the regimental base. On the morning of the 6th the battalion was the only cohesive fighting force the enemy had east of the Ia Drang. By night-fall it had ceased to exist as an effective unit.
- November 07:
In the Chu Pong sanctuary the depleted 33d Regiment licked its wounds and waited for its stragglers to come in. The remainder of Field Front forces were quiet.
In the battle area there was diminishing activity. One NVA soldier surrendered with a safe-conduct pass.
- November 08:
Only fragmented units and stragglers remained east of the Chu Pong-Ia Drang complex as the 33d Regiment began to assess its losses.
Friendly intelligence at this point still was not really sure that the entire 33d Regiment withdrew to the west. One prisoner taken at Pleime stated positively that after the battle his unit was to walk for two nights south and east. In addition, there was strong suspicion that elements of the 32d Regiment may have slipped off to the east after the ambush. By this time Field Force Vietnam had asked the division to consider moving its operations east of Pleime if it appeared that was no further contact imminent in the west.
- November 09:
The 33d Regiment gathered in the last of its organic units and began to count noses. There were many missing.
In total, the headcount showed 890 men of the original 2,200 killed, with more than 100 missing and still more suffering from incapacitating wounds. Materiel losses were also heavy with the Regimental Anti-air-craft company losing 13 of its 18 guns and the Regimental mortar company losing 5 of its 9 tubes. Six more mortars were lost by the battalions, along with most of the recoilless rifles. The ammunition, food and medical supply losses also had been crippling.
At Field Front headquarters north of the Ia Drang, it was a day of situation analysis. Encl 15 depicts the intelligence picture as it appeared to commanders on 9 Nov.
- November 10:
There was little or no change in the situation as the transition between brigades continued. The movement and shift in emphasis from west to east was to further stimulate a forthcoming decision from the NVA division headquarters.
- November 11:
Field Front headquarters, after evaluating the situation, had reached a decision. With American units seemingly withdrawing to the east of Pleime, the decision was to attempt to regain its early advantage with an attack. The target once again was the Pleime CIDG Camp. The division headquarters set the date for attack at 16 November, and issued orders to its three regiments.
The 32d Regiment, of course, remained a cohesive fighting force, despite the casualties sustained during the ambush of the ARVN Armored Task Force on the road to Pleime.
The 33d, as has been seen, suffered tremendous losses in its attack of and subsequent withdrawal from Pleime, but it still was to be committed again. With a view toward its future commitment, the 33d's cadre began reorganization of the depleted battalions into a composite fighting unit.
The real cutting edge for the attack, however, was the newly infiltrated 66th Regiment, fresh from North Vietnam and spoiling for a fight. It would be in the (?) of the three regimental effort against Pleime.
The disposition of the 66th on 11 November had its three battalions, the 7th, 8th and 9th, strung along the north bank of the Ia Drang (center of mass Vic 9104).
The 33d Regiment still maintained its positions vicinity Anta Village (YA940010).
The 32d Regiment was still north of the Ia Drang (YA820070).
To add punch to the attack, Field Front also decided to commit a battalion of 120mm mortars and a battalion of 14,5mm twin-barrel anti-aircraft guns. These two units were enroute down the infiltration trail and were scheduled to arrive in time for the attack. The next five days were to be spent in preparation for and movement to the attack.
Thus, for the first time, a full NVA division would be committed offensively against a target in South Vietnam.
- November 12:
Field Front units continued preparations and rehearsals for the scheduled attack on Pleime.
- November 13:
Field Front forces began staging in the Chu Pong-Ia Drang area in preparation for movement to Pleime and the projected 16 November attack. Some recon parties and transportation units already had moved out.
Besides intelligence, Colonel Hieu also shared a couple of unique operational concepts.
Firstly, after learning from interrogations of prisoners that NVA B3 Front Command was planning to second attack on Pleime camp, this time to immediately overrun it with all three Regiments, 32nd, 33rd and 66th, with the support of one anti-aircraft battalion and one heavy mortar battalion, with D-day to be November 16, Colonel Hieu devised the following operational concept:
- On November 8, 1965, while 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade (operation Silver Bayonet I) replaced 1st Air Cavalry Brigade (operation All the Way), the operational direction was switched from west to east in a diversionary tactic aiming at inducing the enemy in thinking the American units have lost its traces.
This diversionary tactic was transmitted to 1ACD/FCP via General Larsen (Pleiku, intelligence on 11/8, page 67):
By this time Field Force Vietnam had asked the division to consider moving its operations east of Plei Me if it appeared "there was no further contact imminent in the west".
- On November 14, one Air Cavalry battalion went in at a Chu Pong hill step when the enemy troops were least expecting and at their weakest defensive and counteroffensive postures since the two battalions of anti-aircraft weapons and heavy mortars were not yet present on the battlefield (Pleime, chapter V):
The ratio which amounts to 1/10 has proved how lucky the 1/7 battalion had been because it was rather surprising that from the hills which dominate the LZ, the enemy did not position any crew-served weapons to support their attack. Such a situation could be explained only by the following reasons:
- The enemy has lost nearly all their heavy crew-served weapons during the first phase.
- They had been surprised by the attack of the 1/7 battalion and their commanders had failed to make the best use of the terrain.
- Their tactics relied mostly on the "human waves" and they were too confident that their attack would disorganize the 1/7 battalion very quickly.
General Kinnard did notice this tactical savvy - although he might not know it was Colonel Hieu's foresight (Pleiku, page 88):
The NVA effort unquestionably was hampered by the unexplained delay in getting the heavy mortar and heavy anti-aircraft battalions off the infiltration trail and into the battle zone.
Secondly, Colonel Hieu shared with 1ACD/FCP the operational concept aiming at destroying the 3 NVA Regiments at Chu Pong footsteps during four days from November 14 to 17 as following (Pleime, chapter V):
- On November 14, 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion established a blocking position at a location north east of Chu Pong (LTC Hal Moore, 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion Commander, chose LZ X-Ray).
- From November 15 to 16, B-52 airplanes carpet bombed enemy troops north of LZ X-Ray five times each day.
- On November 17, American troops were ordered to exit LZ X-Ray to allow B-52 bombers to strike the enemy right at the landing zone.
It is worth mentioning that since the afternoon on 15 November, the B52 stratofortresses had also taken part in the battle with five daily bombardments of the Chu Pong massif. On 17 November, the targets also included LZ X-ray and the two friendly battalions were so ordered to move 3 km away from the LZ, northward and northwestward to another called LZ Albany.
General Kinnard and General Knowles
General Kinnard gave full authority to General Richard Knowles, his Deputy Commander, in
the command of 1st Air Cavalry Division units in this Long Reach operation. Consequently, during phase II and III of Pleime campaign, Colonel Hieu coordinated directly with General Knowles rather than with General Kinnard.
That was General Kinnard's style of command, in his own words (Cochran):
I moved a forward CP [Command Post] to Pleiku with one of my assistant division commanders, Gen. Dick Knowles. This was my "modus operandi" whenever the action got hot. My own leadership style had always been to give absolute and maximum latitude to people all the way down the line. I did not want to handmanage this thing from back in An Khe.
This explains the fact General Kinnard was not quite knowledgeable in terms of the intelligence and operational concept which formulated the attack into Chu Pong. Also in the context of this interview, he said:
The choice to go into the Chu Pong, a longtime enemy sanctuary (near the Cambodian border) into which ARVN had never gone, was not mine. It was either that of General Knowles or the brigade commander. We hadn't looked at the area. It wasn't intelligence that led us there. If anything, it was the lack of intelligence, and this seemed a logical place.
Apparently, General Knowles did not reveal to General Kinnard that it was not his idea either and where it originated from!
This equally explains General Kinnard's surprise when he noticed that the NVA 32nd Regiment did not come down to join force with 66th Regiment to fight against 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion at LZ X-Ray on November 15 (Pleiku, intelligence on 11/15, page 88):
Neither has there been an explanation for the failure to commit the 32d Regiment which apparently held its positions 12-14 kilometers to the northwest on the north bank of the Ia Drang.
He did not know that troops of this Regiment as well as of the 33rd Regiment were pinned down by B-52 carpet bombings! (Pleime, chapter VI):
For five consecutive days, from 15 to 19 November, the giant B52 bombers had flown a total of 96 sorties. One after the other, the areas of the Chu Pong massif - each of 20 square miles - underwent a systematic earthquake spreading from West to East. VC bunkers and trenches which so far had resisted the strikes by tactical aircraft and artillery began to score direct hits by the 750-pound bombs. The heavy canopy of the jungle ceased to be effective in both concealment and cover. The "back door" into Cambodia was closed and to escape, the VC remnants were reduced to utilize the narrow valley of the Ia Drang.
As for the operational concept involving the use of B-52, General Kinnard only vaguely knew that General Knowles coordinated it with First Field Force Command and MACV (Pleiku, page 9):
The original plan to employ strategic bombers in support of the division was presented by the Assistant Division Commander (ADC-A) through Field Force Vietnam Commanding General to the J-3 of US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.
Another indication that shows General Kinnard lacked knowledge about the operational concept of the attack into Chu Pong was his response to Cochran who questioned him why he did not withdraw his troops from LZ X-Ray earlier:
At the time of the Xray fight, Swede Larsen was under pressure from the news media on why we left the battlefield. They didn't understand how our unit fought. With an air assault unit, we don't give much of a damn about terrain. You can go anywhere. The focus is on the enemy. You go where he is. At Xray, the enemy broke off, we didn't quit. We were no longer interested in Xray. That piece of ground meant nothing to me. I wanted to go on to where the enemy was. But Swede ordered me to stay in that spot, and I stayed there an extra 24 hours.
Fighting One’s Own War
After winning the battle at LZ X-Ray, General Kinnard wanted to pursue the enemy with his 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade (Cochran):
I recommended to Swede and up through the chain that I be allowed to pursue them into Cambodia. This is not well known, but my request was approved up through channels to include Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge but disapproved in Washington ... I wanted to destroy the enemy. This would have been my next step, this is what I wanted the 2nd Brigade to do...
But that was not what II Corps Command wanted. II Corps Command wanted to finish the fight on his own and only needed to rely on 1st Air Cavalry Division to create a new artillery support base near the Cambodian border at LZ Crooks to lend artillery support to ARVN Airborne Brigade that conducted operation Than Phong 7 to dismantle the two remaining enemy 635th and 334th Battalion. During this operation, 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade played the role of reserve force (operation Silver Bayonet II), with the main mission of securing LZ Crooks firebase (Pleime, chapter VI):
II Corps Command thought it was time to throw in the reserve in order to put an end to the battle which had lasted for about one month. Besides suffering heavy losses, the enemy was compelled to fall into the trap set by friendly forces and canalized into the routes of withdrawal which we had foreseen.
This time the main effort was conducted by the ARVN Airborne Brigade whose mission consisted of destroying the fleeing VC units and all their installations around the Ia Drang valley.
The 1st Air Cavalry Division which had thus far borne the burden of the attack would continue to exert a pressure from East to West and to provide artillery support for the Airborne Brigade.
The operation - dubbed "Thần Phong 7" - began in the afternoon, 18 November when the brigade was helilifted to the area of operations, immediately upon arrival in Pleiku.
LTC Robert Tully, 2/5th Air Cavalry Battalion/2 Air Cavalry Brigade, in his Silver Bayonet II After Action report, complained that his units were confined to the boring task of securing LZ Crooks, in lieu of search and destroy operations:
Recommendations: (1) more time be allocated to search and destroy operations.
During his interview with Cochran, General Kinnard maintained his tone of superiority as if he voluntarily relinquished the task of pursuing the enemy to the ARVN:
People forget that in this phase we operated in conjunction with the ARVN. One name of the game was to get the ARVN to fight their own war. We turned the operation back to the ARVN and help them with fire support, just as the operation had started at Plei Me.
He also expressed his opinion about the ARVN when Cochran asked "What about the ARVN?" as following:
From the beginning, I felt it was critical that the ARVN learn to fight their own war. But they had to learn to crawl before they walked, to walk before they ran.
When American troops went into Chu Pong, Viet Cong troops were unimpressed and faced them squarely and even ambushed them. When ARVN Airborne troops entered Ia Drang, Viet Cong troops were afraid to fight and tried to avoid contacts, but yet were twice ambushed by the Vietnamese Red Hats. Who was still "learning to crawl"? Who knew already "to run"?
It seems that General Kinnard contradicted himself: he professed that he wanted to teach the ARVN to fight its own war; and yet, he maneuvered behind the scenes to overstep II Corps Command in wanting to rescue Pleime camp with his troops in phase I and to pursue the enemy into Cambodia in phase III of Pleime campaign - that, by the way, he preferred to call, for whaterver reason or motive, Pleiku campaign.
Nguyen Van Tin
04 May 2011
- Books, Articles
* Pleiku, the Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam, J.D. Coleman, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1988.
* We Were Soldiers Once… and Young, General Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, Random House, New York, 1992.
* "First Strike at River Drang", Military History, Oct 1984, pp 44-52, Per. Interview with H.W.O Kinnard, 1st Cavalry Division Commanding General, Cochran, Alexander S.
* The Siege of Pleime, Project CHECO Report, 24 February 1966, HQ PACAF, Tactical Evaluation Center.
* Silver Bayonet, Project CHECO Report, 26 February 1966, HQ PACAF, Tactical Evaluation Center.
- Viet Cong