Arc Light over Chu Pong Operation

It all started with the appellation Chu Pong Operation, then due to changes in the enemy military situation, it became subsequently Pleime-Chupong Campaign , then Pleime-Chupong-Iadrang Campaign .

Other related military operations comprise: Pleime Campaign, Pleiku Campaign, Long Reach Operation, All the Way Operation, Silver Bayonet I Operation, Silver Bayonet II Operation, Ia Drang Campaign, LZ X-Ray Battle, LZ Albany Battle.

Chu Pong Operation

End of 1964, Chairman Mao Zedong of Red China turned on the green light for the Viet Cong to upgrade attacking forces to divisional level in its conquest of South Viet Nam. In the meeting dated 10/05/1964, Mao Zedong told Pham Van Dong (Vietnam War, 1961-1975, Wilson Center):

According to Comrade Le Duan, you had the plan to dispatch a division [to the South]. Probably you have not dispatched that division yet. When should you dispatch it, the timing is important.

Beginning of 1965, the NVA 304th Division received order to prepare to infiltrate South Vietnam (General Nguyen Nam Khanh):

Early 1965, the Joint General Staff summoned me and the 304th division commander to give us the order to enter the South on a combat mission.

In August 1965, the NVA 304th Division received order to intensify preparation to go to Central Highlands by September (304th Division):

Early August 1965, the Defense Ministry gave the order to 304th Division Commander "to bring the entire 304th Division to battlefront B… all preparations must be achieved within two months."

In September of that year, B3 Field Front Command finalized the Plâyme Campaign to be conducted with its three regiments – the 32nd, the 33rd and the 66th.

The plan was to be carried out in four phases: 1) The 33rd Regiment would put up a siege of Pleime camp to lure II Corps’ main force out of Pleiku City; 2) The 33rd Regiment would ambush and destroy the relief force; 3) Both Regiments would combine force and overrun the camp; 4) The 66th Regiment would combine force with the two regiments to conquer Pleiku City.

The Viet Cong conceived the Plâyme Campaign with the direct help of Red China. A Chinese Advisors General Staff Headquarters was established in Phnom Penh to coordinate the campaign (Pleime, Trận Chiến Lịch Sử, page 124):

The natural corridors often mentioned by General Delange in 1951 would not be efficient without the existence of Cambodia, without the concealment of Red Chinese advisors who enjoyed full amenities living in Pnom Penh, without the excellent communication by ways of telephone and airgram between Phnom Penh and Hanoi.

It was the intercepts of open radio communication of the Chinese Advisors between the Phnom Penh headquarters and the regimental battlefield command posts that allowed II Corps Command to obtain a real-time intelligence of the enemy military situation throughout the campaign and to design a flexible counter-measure plan accordingly, which lead to the victory of Pleime Campaign (Pleime, Trận Chiến Lịch Sử, page 94):

Therefore this time around, the determination not to allow the enemy to escape, coupled with the solid intelligence on the enemy situation had permitted the battle to develop to maximum degree and scale and at the same token lead to the biggest victory ever achieved by the ARVN and its Allied.

In September 1965, II Corps Command conceived the Chu Pong Operation. The intention was to crush the three NVA regiments at the precise moment they congregate at their assembly areas to stage for the imminent attack in Chupong with B-52 carpet bombing, even before they could act (Intelligence Aspect of Pleime/Chupong Campaign, page 6):

The Chu Pong base was known to exist well prior to the Pleime attack and J2 MACV had taken this area under study in September 1965 as a possible B-52 target.

Pleime-Chupong Campaign

However, on September 19, B3 Field Front Command decided to start the attack sooner with only the two 32nd and 33rd Regiments and intensified the preparation one month before the attack(Why Pleime, chapter III):

As early as 19 September - one month before the attack - a thorough preparation down to the lowest level was carried out. Numerous exercises and rehearsals were conducted by each unit on maps and rehearsals were conducted by each unit on maps and sand tables. Meanwhile, transportation companies assisted by forced local laborers were rushing to prestock rice and ammunition.

II Corps Command reacted with a modified plan: Pleime-Chupong campaign.

The operational concept was: to repulse the attacking enemy, and wait for the two 32nd and 33rd Regiments to regroup with the 66th Regiments in Chu Pong in order to use B-52 airstrike as pre-planned.

The execution of the plan was to be carried out in two phases: 1) to repulse the attacking enemy; 2) to herd the decimated troops of the two attacking regiments back to Chupong.

- Phase I: Repulsing with Dan Thang 21 operation

When the 33rd Regiment attacked Pleime camp on October 19, II Corps Command took up the challenge (Why Pleime, chapter IV):

II Corps Commander decided to play the enemy's game. Since the VC expected to successively eliminate our forces the scheme of maneuver had to make the best use of the factor TIME and to exploit the inherent weaknesses of the enemy troop disposition.

In the afternoon of October 20, an Armored Task Force was dispatched to rescue the camp and on October 21, a group of two SF Ranger companies were sent in to reinforce the camp.

US Air Force was used as the main force to repulse the enemy at both camp and ambush sites (Project CHECO Report ,The Siege of Pleime, 24 February 1966):

- at Pleime camp

For the next ten days [following October 19], air power played a key role in breaking the attack. In 696 day and night strike sorties, B-57s, AIEs, F-100s, and F-8s rained 866,300 pounds of GP bombs, 250,380 pounds of frag bombs, 485,880 pounds of napalm, plus rockets, CBUs and cannon fire on VC positions as close as 35 meters from the outpost walls. When it was over, the enemy had lost 326 killed in action by body count, and the camp’s defenders estimated that up to another 700 dead had been carried off. This was the largest close air support operation of the war, and perhaps the most effective.

- at the ambush site

The airborne FAC in the flareships on station directed 74 strike sorties, with the fighters using napalm, general purpose, frags, CBU, 2.75 rockets and 20 mm cannon in support of the column. “Puff”, the AC-47, dropped 25 flares and expended 4,000 rounds of 7.62 mm minigun fire against the attackers. By 0930, 24 October, fire on the convoy had dwindled to small arms, and by 1300 the VC broke contact because of the air strikes.

- Phase II: Herding with Long Reach operation

Pleime camp was liberated. II Corps Command learned through intelligence source that the two 32nd and 33rd Regiments were ordered to withdraw and prepare for another attack together with the 66th Regiment (Pleime, Trận Chiến Lịch Sử, page 94):

Dan Thang 21 operation finished, Pleime camp was back on its footing, but among the two VC Regiments that had joined in the attack, we only inflicted the enemy with more than 400 killed. The withdrawal was a rational and intelligent initiative taken by the VC Field Front Command. But the enemy would attempt to take revenge and furthermore, the remote Pleime camp remains an eye sore to them.

The mission of herding the enemy troops was assigned to 1st Air Cavalry Division with Long Reach operation (Pleime, Trận Chiến Lịch Sử, page 101):

Therefore the decision to organize an enemy pursuit of II Corps Command, in which 1st Air Cavalry Division is the main effort and ARVN Airborne Group is the reserved force ready to intervene when necessary, was wholeheartedly accepted by the entire division, because rarely an unit got the chance to open its first history pages with a trường chinh (Long Reach) operation.

And in order to keep the enemy’s tongue wet, while extending the TAOR of 1st Air Cavalry Division, II Corps command retained the control of Pleime camp; thus, it still appeared vulnerable to an enemy’s attack (G3 Journal/IFFV, 10/30):

- 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.

Long Reach operation was carried out with two phases: All the Way operation with 1st Air Cavalry Brigade and Silver Bayonet I with 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade.

All the Way operation (October 27-November 9)

The 1st Air Cavalry Brigade set out to herd the scattered small units of the 33rd Regiments back to Chu Pong, meanwhile G2/II Corps monitored their migration through radio intercepts (Intelligence Aspect of Pleime/Chupong Campaign)

On 10/27, the lead elements of the 33d had closed on it forward assembly area, the village Kro (ZA080030); on 10/28, the 32d Regiment had nearly closed its base on the north bank of the Ia Drang; on 10/29, the 33d Regiment decided to keep the unit on the move to the west, to Anta Village ( YA940010), located at the foot of the Chu Pong Massif; on 11/1, the 33rd regiment headquarters closed in at Anta Village; on 11/2, by 0400 hours, the 2d, the regimental CP had arrived at Hill 762 (YA885106); on 11/05, units of 66th Regiment continued to close in the assembling areas in the Chupong-Iadrang complex; on 11/07, the depleted 33d Regiment licked its wounds and waited for its stragglers to come in, meanwhile the remainder of Field Front forces were quiet; on 11/08, only fragmented units and stragglers remained east of the Chu Pong-Ia Drang complex; on 11/09, the 33d Regiment gathered in the last of its organic units.

Silver Bayonet I (November 9- November 17)

On November 9, the 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade replaced the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade and had the mission to entice B3 Field Front to regroup its three regiments to stage for a second attack of Pleime camp (Pleiku Campaign):

By this time Field Force Vietnam had asked the division to consider moving this operations east of Pleime. (Page 67)

The movement and shift in emphasis from west to east was to further stimulate a forthcoming decision from the NVA division headquarters. (Page 73)

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. (Page 76)

On November 11, the 66th Regiment was at (center of mass vic YA 9104); the 32nd (YA 820072), the 33rd (YA 940011). They became available targets for B-52 airstrike.

The time over target was set for 16:00 hour on November 15 at the enemy force’s center of mass (vicinity YA8702).

In order to accommodate the slowness of the B-52’s action – which required a 72 hour notification and an eight hour flight from Guam to Chupong - on November 12, 1/7 Air Cavalry Battalion was ordered to get ready for a diversionary tactic operation to be executed at Chupong’s east side footstep. On November 14, 1/7 Air Cavalry Battalion air assaulted LZ X-Ray, forcing B3 Field Front Command to postpone its attack of Pleime camp and to focus its attention in dealing with the new threat (General Nguyen Huu An, Chien Truong Moi – Hoi Uc):

Brother Chu Huy Man, Commander, brother Dang Vu Hiep, Political Commissar and I at the headquarters were making arrangements to prepare for a second phase of action against a target near Pleime. Upon receiving news from all directions reporting that the Americans had inserted troops, we issued an order to delay the attack of Chu Ho.

On November 15, at 1600 hours, the first waves of B-52's struck at center of mass vic YA 8702, about 7.5 kilometers west of LZ X-Ray, aiming at the 32nd Regiment positions. On November 17, after the three 1/7, 2/7 and 2/5 Air Cavalry Battalions had abandoned LZ X-Ray, B-52's struck the landing zone itself, aiming at the 66th Regiment troops still lingering around the area.

B-52 carpet bombing continued for 5 consecutive days (Why 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.

On November 15 and 16, B-52 airstrikes aimed mainly at the positions of units of the 33rd and 32 Regiment; on November 17, 18 and 19, units of the 66th Regiment; and on November 20, units of the 32nd Regiment. ̣

Pleime-Chupong-Iadrang Campaign

On November 17, intelligence source intercepted communications indicating B-52 airstrikes caused the enemy to suffer around 2,000 killed and the two surviving Battalions – 635th and 334th – had received order to withdraw to Cambodia through the narrow corridor of Ia Drang river, the first along the north side of the river and the latter the south side. II Corps decided to finish off the campaign with operation Than Phong 7 conducted by five ARVN Airborne battalions.

On November 18, a new artillery support base was established at LZ Crooks (YA 875125), secure by 2/5 Air Cavalry Battalion.

Based on precise intelligence source, 3rd and 6th Airborne Battalions were inserted on the northern area of Ia Drang in the afternoon of 11/18 in order to ambush 635th Battalion at YA 805080 on 11/20.

And also based on accurate intelligence source, the four 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Airborne Battalions –after crossing Ia Drang river to the southern side (3rd Airborne Battalion reverted back to the northern side to destroy three training centers), set up an ambush site to intercept 334th Battalion at YA 815070 on 11/24.

The 38 day long campaign ended on November 26 (Pleime, Trận Chiến Lịch Sử):

On November 24, as no more contacts were made with the enemy, the Airborne Brigade withdrew from the area of operations and the 3rd phase of Pleime campaign ended at 18:45H on November 26 with 265 VC killed (BC), 10 others and 58 weapons captured.

Nguyen Van Tin
20 April 2015

Documents

- Primary

- 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

general hieu