A Military Genius in Action at Pleime-Chupong-Iadrang Battlefront

The Pleime-Chupong-Iadrang Battlefront lasted 38 days and 38 nights, from October 19 to November 25, 1965 and comprised various campaigns, operations, battles which intertwine with one other: Plâyme campaign (B3 Field Front , 10/19-27), Pleime campaign (II Corps, 10/19-11/25), Pleime-Chupong Campaign (II Corps/1st Air Cavalry Division, 10/20-11/20), Pleiku campaign (1st Air Cavalry Division, 10/23-11/25), operation Dan Thang 21 (3rd Armored Task Force, 10/20-27), operation Long Reach (1st Air Cavalry Division, 10/27-11/25), operation All the Way (1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 10/27-11/9), operation Silver Bayonet I (3rd Air Cavalry Brigade, 11/9-18), operation Silver Bayonet II (2nd Air Cavalry Brigade, 11/18-25), operation Than Phong 7 (Airborne Brigade, 11/18-25), Ia Drang Valley battle (1/7th, 2/7th, and 2/5th Air Cavalry Battalions, 11/14-17), LZ X-Ray battle (1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion, 11/14-16), LZ Albany battle (2/7th Air Cavalry Battalion 11/17).

The Viet Cong Command at division level, the South Vietnamese Command at corps level and the American Command at division level all threw in division sized troop units in this battlefront:

- B3 Field Front: 32nd Regiment (334th Battalion, 635th Battalion, 966th Battalion), 33rd Regiment (1st Battalion , 2nd Battalion , 3rd Battalion), 66th Regiment (7th Battalion, 8th Battalion, 9th Battalion), 415th Local Force Battalion, 120 mm Mortar Battalion , 14.5 mm Anti-Aircraft Battalion.

- II Corps: 3rd Armored Task Force (3/5 Armored Battalion, 3/6 Armored Battalion, 21st Ranger Battalion, 22nd Ranger Battalion, 1/24 Infantry Battalion , 91st Airborne Ranger Battalion), Airborne Brigade (3rd Battalion, 5th Battalion, 6th Battalion, 7th Battalion, 8th Battalion ), Alpha Marine Task Force (1st Battalion , 4th Battalion) .

- 1st Air Cavalry Division: 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade, 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade.

The conductor holding the baton to direct the orchestra in playing the Pleime-Chupong-Iadrang symphony was Colonel Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff. He displayed his military genius talent in this battlefront in four domains: controlling and directing general officers, reading the enemy’s mind, conceiving strategic plans, executing tactical moves.

Controlling and Directing Commanding Generals

The Pleime-Chupong-Iadrang Battlefront involved directly the following high ranking officers: General William DePuy, Chief of J3/MACV, General Stanley Larsen, I Field Force Commander, General Vinh Loc, II Corps Commander, General Harry Kinnard, 1st Air Cavalry Division Commander, General Richard Knowles, 1st Air Cavalry Division Forward Command Post Commander, Colonel William Bennett, 5th Special Forces Group, Colonel Theodore Mataxis, II Corps Chief Advisor. Furthermore, General Westmoreland, MACV Commander and General Cao Van Vien, Chief General Joint Staff, were also indirectly involved in this battlefront. As in general practice, whoever has some degree of command weighs heavily on their authority. Colonel Hieu had to muster all his skills and dexterity to make all these high ranking officers to accept and to adopt all his ideas from the beginning to the end of the Pleime-Chupong-Iadrang Battlefront.

- General William DePuy

General DePuy, Chief of J3/MACV was brought into the action because the operational concept as conceived by Colonel Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff, consisted of using B-52 airstrikes to destroy the three NVA Regiments at their staging areas in Chu Pong. The feasibility plan was studied as earlier as September 1965, prior to the attack of Pleime camp on October 19, 1965 (Intelligence Aspects 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.

The planning in terms of luring the three NVA regiments to regrouping close enough to become targets for B-52 airstrike and scheduling of the airstrikes was done by G3/II Corps Command. When it was appropriate, G3/II Corps would signal to General DePuy to execute the strikes.

The right moment was not when the enemy attacked Pleime camp with only two 32nd and 33rd Regiments, but rather on November 15 when they were lured back to Chu Pong to join force with 66rd Regiment into attacking Pleime camp for the second time set for November 16 (Arc Light Strike at Chupong-Iadrang Viewed From G3/IFFV):

- 11/15/65 at 10:30H: MAVC J3 (Gen DePuy) Gen DePuy called Col Barrow and asked if Arc Light had been cleared with CG II Corps. Col Barrow replied yes, CG II Corps has approved Arc Light. Target area approved by Col Barrow and Col McCord. Also Gen DePuy wanted to know if the elem of 1st Cav had received the 151600H restriction on not going west of YA grid line. Col Barrow informed Gen De Puy that the 1st Cav had acknowledged receipt of the restriction and would comply. Gen DePuy personally changed target configuration.

- 11:45H: To: 1st Cav (Capt Coller) 1st Cav inquired on whether 1st Cav has any objections on new target area as changed by J-2 MACV. Ref: Secret Message AVCGT 1511651XF DT 6417052Z. 1st Cav stated they are quite satisfied particularly with the reaction time.

- General Stanley Larsen

When he received a request from II Corps to provide two Special Forces companies to reinforce Pleime camp under siege since October 19, General Larsen questioned who in II Corps Headquarters made that request in the absence of General Vinh Loc (G3 Journal/IFFV, October 21):

- 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.

Later, when Colonel Hieu requested General Larsen to provide Task Force Ingram in order to organize a Rescue Task Force with an infantry battalion to secure Pleiku City and an artillery battalion to support the 3rd Armored Task Force, the request was denied ( G3 Journal/IFFV, October 20):

- 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.

- 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.

The reason General Larsen did not want to withdraw Task Force Ingram from Bong Son and assign it to Pleiku was because he was convinced that for the Viet Cong, Pleime was only a lure while Bong Son was the target (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.

Nevertheless, Colonel Hieu succeeded in persuading General Larsen that Pleime was the target and Bong Son was only a lure and got Task Force Ingram for the Pleime front (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.

During the phase of Long Reach operation (All the Way of 1st Air Cavalry Brigade and Silver Bayonet I of 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade), General Larsen still held control of the operation. Documents show that he personally intervened troop maneuver in three instances:

- In the first instance, on November 8, he ordered 1st Air Cavalry Brigade to switch the operational direction of the units from west to east (Pleiku, page 67):

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.

- In the second instance, on November 12, to the amazement of General Knowles, General Larsen personally gave the order to abandon the east and revert back to the west in the pursuit of the enemy (Coleman, page 196):

That day - November 12 - General Larsen was visiting the division’s forward command post at the II Corps compound. He asked Knowles how things were going. Knowles briefed him on the attack on Catecka the night before and then told him the brigade was drilling a dry hole out east of Plei Me. Larsen said, “Why are you conducting operations there if it’s dry?” Knowles’s response was, “With all due respect, sir, that’s what your order in writing directed us to do.” Larsen responded that the cavalry’s primary mission was to “find the enemy and go after him.” Shortly after, Knowles visited Brown at the 3rd Brigade command post and told him to come up with a plan for an air assault operation near the foot of the Chu Pongs.

This contradiction in General Larsen’s attitude can be explained by the fact the idea of switching back and forth the operational direction was not his but rather Colonel Hieu’s who use a diversionary move in order to attack the enemy by surprise. It seemed like General Larsen had only a vague idea Colonel Hieu’s operational concept in the attack of the enemy on November 14, two days prior to the date the enemy scheduled to attack Pleime camp for a second time on November 16(Why Pleime) :

Convinced that friendly forces had lost tracks of its units, VC Field Front quickly made a decision to regain its advantage with an attack. The target again was Pleime and the date of attack set at 16 November. The plan was known within the VC ranks as the second phase of the attack of Pleime. All the three regiments would be committed this time as well as a battalion of 120mm mortars and a battalion of 14.5mm twin-barrel anti-aircraft guns which were both en route down the infiltration trail and scheduled to arrive in time for the attack. According to the declaration of a surrendered political officer, the scheme of the new attack would have as primary objective the destruction of the camp.

The VC Suicide, 14 November 1965

But the above plan would never be carried out because only some days later, the 3rd Brigade resumed pushing west. (Operation Silver Bayonet).

- In the third instance, on November 16, General Larsen did not allow General Kinnard to withdraw his troops out of LZ X-Ray, forced General Kinnard to delay the withdrawal for another day (Cochran):

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.

The reason for General Larsen not to heed General Kinnard’s request was not because of the pressure coming from the media as General Kinnard believed, but it was in order to execute Colonel Hieu’s operational concept which consisted of annihilating the enemy with B-52’s carpet bombings: after two days of carpet bombings the western region of LZ X-Ray, on November 15 and 16, on November 17 the target was the landing zone itself (Why Pleime) :

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 Vinh Loc

When the Viet Cong began its assault on Pleime camp in the evening of October 19, General Vinh Loc was commanding Than Phong 6 operation in Bong Son. He was of the same opinion of the American high ranking military that Pleime was only a lure and Bong Son was the target (G3/IFFV 10201650H):

- 16:50H: CG II Corps plans Than Phong 6 to go as scheduled, relief of Plei Me 2d priority.

But then, Colonel Hieu was able to persuade General Vinh Loc who left Bong Son to return to Pleiku the next day, November 20, not to take control of the Pleime front but only to back up Colonel Hieu whose general staff and tactical skills he completely trusted. From his part, Colonel Hieu was very discreet and tactful to the point people thought he was merely executing orders from higher up authority. He always readied a response to whoever, like General Larsen, questioned his authority: “The Chief of Staff always checks with the Commanding General prior to make a decision”. However, in general, Colonel Hieu contented to feed his suggestions to General Vinh Loc and let him formulate them into orders. The end results were that General Vinh Loc was promoted from Brigadier to Major General and was proclaimed the hero of Pleime by the media.

G3 Journal/IFFV recorded various contributions of General Vinh Loc in the Pleime campaign (G3/IFFV):

- 21/10, 11:45H: Fm Maj Mobley FFV Adv - About 30 minutes ago Gen Larsen in a discussion with Gen Vinh Loc, decided that they would not commit the Ranger Bn now at Pku in reaction against VC vic Plei Me at this time. Because the unit, Bn vic Plei Me is in a strong enough position to hold. The 1st Air Cav Bn will hold in position until Ranger Bn is moved out of Pleiku. No change in 1st Air Cav status at this time. Decision subj to change. Gen Larsen desires Gen Smith be advised of this decision.

- 10/22, 17:50H: CG called CofS sometime prior to 1700. Than Phong 6 will terminate tomorrow. TF Amos will be extracted tomorrow. TF Ingram is to move during early morning hrs to Pleiku.

- 10/26, 19:00H: Capt Valley to TOC - Capt Valley informed G3 that CG had directed 1st Cav to commit as required all elems of 1st Bde in Pleiku - Plei Me area to assist in relief of Plei Me and the destruction of the VC forces in that area. DSA II Corps informed and requested to advise Gen Vinh Loc that if required additional Bn's of Cav would be positioned Pleiku for that town's security.

- 10/27, 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).

- General Harry Kinnard

General Kinnard demonstrated an arrogant character. He considered himself to be the most competent in air mobile assault tactic. He objected vehemently to General Westmoreland who wanted to separate the three brigades of the 1st Air Cavalry Division and used them to reinforced far apart regions (Cochran):

Within several hours after I arrived in Vietnam, General Westmoreland told me that he wanted to split the division into three separate brigades at great distances apart throughout all of Vietnam. I knew that I had to oppose this very strongly – and I did so by explaining the rudiments of the air assault organization and concept of employment. He had not known this because he was not in the States during the air assault testing.

(…)

You’ve got to remember that I was the only one who had ever commanded an air assault division. (…) Only General Gavin had commanded longer than I. I knew in a way that no one else did the real capabilities and limitations of an air assault division.

When II Corps requested General Larsen to provide one infantry battalion and one artillery battalion to reinforce the 3rd Armored Task Force in the rescue mission of Pleime camp, General Kinnard manipulated in wanting to bring in a whole air cavalry brigade and to assume the role of rescueing the camp (G3 Journal/IFFV, 10/23):

- 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 2315.

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.

It was fortunate that Colonel Hieu did not let General Kinnard spring into rescuing Pleime camp by helicopters because those air cavalry helicopters would be undoubtedly shot down by the Viet Cong anti-aircraft well positioned around the camp (Why Pleime) :

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.

Not being allowed to rescue the camp, General Kinnard still attempted to grab the power when, not aware of Colonel Hieu’s use of delaying tactic to counter the mobile ambush tactic used by the Viet Cong in ordering the 3rd Armored Task Force to linger in the vicinity of Phu My waiting for the appropriate moment before advancing, he pushed LTC Luat to advance without fear (Pleiku, page 21):

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.

After Pleime camp had been liberated, II Corps Command took the decision to pursue the withdrawing enemy and requested General Larsen and General Westmoreland to allow 1st Air Cavalry Division to act as the main force and Airborne Brigade as the reserve force (G3 Journal/IFFV, 10/27):

- 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 area of tactical operation of 1st Air Cavalry Division was agreed upon between Colonel Hieu (II Corps) and Colonel Williams (I Field Force VN) and was passed on to the involved commands (G3 Journal/IFFV, 10/30):

- 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.

Nevertheless, in order to prevent General Kinnard from overreaching, Colonel Hieu devised 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.

In phase 3 of Pleime campaign, after the battle at LZ X-Ray at the footsteps of Chu Pong massif, General Kinnard again wanted a piece of the action in having his 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade pursuing the enemy over the Cambodian border (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 assume the responsibility of finish off the enemy and only needed the 1st Air Cavalry Division to provide artillery support in establishing a new firepower base near the Cambodian border at LZ Crooks in support of the Airborne Brigade in its Than Phong 7 operation aiming at annihilating the two surviving enemy battalions, the 635th and the 334th; the 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade played the role of a reserve force (Silver Bayonet II operation) with the main mission of securing the firebase at LZ Crooks (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.

- General Richard Knowles

General Knowles was given by General Kinnard full authority in the command of the three brigade of the 1st Air Cavalry Division in the Long Reach operation which comprised three phases: All the Way, Silver Bayonet I and Silver Bayonet II. The Forward Command Post of the 1st Air Cavalry Division was set up next to II Corps Command and General Knowles together with his general staff took residency in the II Corps American Advisors' compound, while General Kinnard remained at An Khe’s Headquarters and monitored the operation from far behind (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 hand manage this thing from back in An Khe.

General Knowles was not of a passive type of officer that only knew to take order; he preferred to be in command and required full control when given a command post. Early on, when he led Task Force Ingram to reinforce II Corps, he demonstrated his intransigent character (Coleman, page 87):

After setting up his field headquarters just outside the II Corps command in Pleiku City, Knowles […], he called Kinnard and said, “Hey boss, communications being what they are, we have potential for problems with the setup the way it is. If you and Swede don’t have enough faith in me, then get someone up here who does.” Knowles didn’t have to work hard to convince Kinnard, who was a strong believer in delegating to subordinates. But Kinnard had to convince Larsen that Knowles needed to have the flexibility to operate. This was still very early in the active American involvement in the war, and senior commanders were generally tiptoeing their way into positions of dominance. So Knowles’s orders were amended to read: “Assist the ARVN if called upon to do so, and seek permission if time and communications permit.” Essentially, it was a carte blanche for Knowles.

Because he did not conduct the operation and only followed it from An Khe, General Kinnard did not know all the details of the battles that occurred in Chu Pong and Ia Drang, which explains the facts that

- 1) he did not select to go into Chu Pong (Cochran):

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.

- 2) he thought that air cavalry troops went in Chu Pong not knowing clearly where the enemy was located, as stated above. In reality, II Corps had passed on to General Knowles the exact locations of the three Viet Cong regiments (Pleiku, page 76):

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).

- 3) he did not clearly understand the operational concept conceived by Colonel Hieu in the use of B52’s carpet bombings to destroy the enemy troops and consequently he wondered why the 32nd Regiment did not join the 66th Regiment in attacking 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion at LZ X-Ray on November 15 (Pleiku, November 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.

and he misinterpreted General Larsen’s attitude in not allowing to withdraw troops from LZ X-Ray on November 16, as mentioned above (not because of pressure from the media but in order to prepare for B52 carpet bombings right at the landing zone).

General Knowles was the person that coordinated with MAVC in the execution of the operational concept using B52 carpet bombings in this campaign (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.

There are no documents, including the two first hand sources Why Pleime and Pleiku Campaign that touch upon the relationship on a personal basis between General Knowles and Colonel Hieu; however, there is mention regarding the close working relationship between the 1st Air Cavalry Division Forward Command and II Corps Command. The various documents show clearly that II Corps Command shared with 1st Air Cavalry Division Forward Command daily and real time intelligence reports as well as operation concepts: herding enemy troops, direction switching of operations as diversionary move, scheduling assault into LZ X-Ray to establish a blocking position, and using B52 carpet bombings to destroy the enemy.

It is kind of hard to comprehend why General Knowles chose not to report with transparency to General Kinnard that all of his actions were based on Colonel Hieu’s ideas and suggestions. For instance, around 3 p.m. on November 14, when 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion began to engage with two Viet Cong battalions at LZ X-Ray, General Kinnard was surprised why General Knowles chose to insert troops at that location (Coleman, page 219):

When he arrived, Knowles showed him the situation map he had propped up against a palm tree. Kinnard took one look and said, “What the hell are you doing in that area?” Obviously, someone hadn’t kept the boss informed about Larsen’s guidance to get after the enemy even if it meant walking away from the dry holes in the east. Knowles told Kinnard, “The object of the exercise is to find the enemy, and we sure as hell have!” Knowles remembers an awkward pause before Kinnard said quietly, “Okay, it looks great. Let me know what you need.”

In paragraph 1) above, General Kinnard was quoted talking to Cochran, “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.” Why did General Knowles remain silent instead of revealing to General Kinnard that was Colonel Hieu’s idea!

Allow me to open a pair of parentheses in pointing out that since General Kinnard only had a vague knowledge about Pleime campaign, while Pleiku Campaign was a very detailed and precise report, it is safe to deduct that although it bears General Kinnard’s signature, but its content was General Knowles’s and its secretary was J.D, Coleman, a Captain and G3 General Staff of 1st Air Cavalry Division. In the acknowledgement section of his book Pleiku, The Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam, 1989, page xv, Coleman wrote:

A special thanks also to Lieutenant General Richard Knowles for his patience with me in those initial interviews twenty-two years ago and, more recently, in hours of consultation on the aspects of the campaign that didn’t appear in the after-action report.

- Colonel Theodore Mataxis

One of the reason documents did not mention about the relationship between General Knowles and Colonel Hieu might be because Colonel Hieu usually communicate with General Knowles, as well as the other American officers, through the intermediary of Colonel Mataxis, II Corps Chief Advisor.

The G3 Journal/IFFV recorded several contributions of Colonel Mataxis in the Pleime campaign (G3/IFFV):

- 10/20, 12:35H: Fm Lt Col Broughton G3 Adm for Col Barrow. II Corps would like the two Abn Rngr Co's and helilift moved ASAP to Camp Holloway Army Airfield Pku where they will stage for airmobile opn airlanded assault vic Plei Me. Lt Col Broughton asked again about air assets offered. Told 12 passable, 14 H34 and 4 gun ships, no CH47. Lt Col Broughton was asked what troops will be committed by II Corps. Ans unk at this time, firm answer around 1315 after return of SA. But 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.

- 10/20, 16:50H: II Corps (D/S II Corps). G3 to D/SA II Corps. If TF Ingram is delayed, one Bn can be moved to Pleiku tomorrow providing weather permits. Is this wanted? from D/SA to G3. A/1 and 119th Air Mob Co's enroute to Bong Son. CG II Corps plans Than Phong 6 to go as scheduled, relief of Plei Me 2d priority. He will move force overland to relieve camp.

- 10/20, 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. 18 VNAF H-34's were cancelled. It was apparently a false report. ZA 160050 is correct coord for Plei My. Abn Ranger Co discussed is one of the two Delta elems under SF control. They are in Pleiku.

- 10/20, 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. KAC msg reads. Armored forces: 3d Armored HQ, 21st Ranger Bn, 3/5 Tank Co; 2/6th Armored Inf Co departed fm AR 780480 and will proceed to AR 765274 tonight and set up blocking positions, will proceed tomorrow. 2 Abn Ranger Co's assit tomorrow.

- 10/20, 22:20H: II Corps Adv (Sgt Albreago) 41 Regt, CP 962784; Mar TFA CP 863754; 1st Mar Bn 874765; 4th Mar Bn 862756; Abn Bde CP 819886; 3 Abn Bn, 819886; 8 Abn Bn 819886; 5 Abn Bn, Bong Son; 6 Abn Bn, 819886; 7 Abn Bn, Bong Son; 4 Abn Bn, Phu My.

-10/ 21, 10:00H: Msg, CG to DSA II Corps - Any of 3 circumstances would result in committment of Cav Bn to Pleiku. Pleiku reserve, a Ranger Bn is pulled out to reinforce. It appears if Pleiku in danger of atk. If weather conditions such that Cav Bn must be moved out before An Khe, Pleiku or area in between is nonflyable.

- 10/22, 18:30H: II Corps (Capt Beasley) - Report from II Corps DSA that a FAC made radio contact, the A1E pilot shot down at 220100H Oct. Air cover over head, exact status of recovery effort is unk. (Ref log item 4).

- 10/23, 15:50H: General Larsen has approved the move of another Bn from 1st Air Cav Div to move to Pleiku ETD 1600 to close before dark. Request passed from II Corps SA, to CG 1st Air Cav to Gen Smith to Gen Larsen. Approved given to CG, 1st Air Cav Div through Gen Smith.

- 10/23, 19:45H: Msg, subj: Exchange of Operational Information, to 1st Cav and II Corps DSA, taken to G3 Admin for dispatch.

- 10/23, 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 2315.

- 10/26, 19:00H: Capt Valley to TOC - Capt Valley informed G3 that CG had directed 1st Cav to commit as required all elems of 1st Bde in Pleiku - Plei Me area to assist in relief of Plei Me and the distruction of the VC forces in that area. DSA II Corps informed and requested to advise Gen Vinh Loc that if required additional Bn's of Cav would be positioned Pleiku for that town's security..

- 10/27, 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)

- 10/30, 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 Knowes, Col Williams and Col Mataxis agree.

- Colonel William McKean

Pleime camp was a Special Forces outpost. Its dual commanders were Captain Harold Moore and Captain Tran Van Nhan, and was under the control of Colonel William McKean, 5th Special Forces Group Commander. The Headquarters of the 5th Special Forces Group was located at I Field Forces Vietnam in Nha Trang.

Colonel McKean was the authority that provided the American Delta Team and the Vietnamese Special Forces company that were dispatched to Pleime camp by II Corps Command. Colonel Hieu had this combined Vietnamese American Special Forces team inserted at 5 kilometers northeast of the camp with a dual mission: first was to study the enemy troop distribution around the camp to determine the enemy intention that could be either to overrun the camp or to lure and ambush the rescue force; second was to reinforce 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 McKean, through LTC Bennett, Special Forces advisor at II Corps Headquarters, wanted the American Delta team to go into the camp immediately to help the camp commander to contain a potential rebellion by the Montagnard soldiers (G3 Journal/IFFV, 10/20):

- 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 denied that request (G3 Journal/IFFV, 10/20):

- 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.

- General Westmoreland

General Westmoreland monitored closely the Pleime-Chupong-Iadrang battlefront since its outset. On October 26, he was present at 1st Air Cavalry Brigade headquarters and after listening to a briefing he approved II Corps’s plan to pursue the withdrawing enemy troops (Coleman, page 99):

On the afternoon of the 26th, Generals Westmoreland, Larsen, Kinnard, and Knowles met for a conference at the 1st Brigade’s command post, at LZ Homecoming. […] In the conference between Westmoreland and the division officers, Kinnard hammered on the theme that U.S. forces must now do more than merely contain the enemy or simply reinforce the ARVN. The NVA, he felt, must be sought out aggressively and destroyed. Of course, as far as Westy was concerned, Kinnard was singing to the choir; Westmoreland long had yearned for the opportunity to go on the offensive. Kinnard and Knowles also spent considerable time at the conference explaining to Westmoreland and Larsen exactly what the division could do and how well it could do it. Westmoreland eventually turned to Larsen and said: “Give Kinnard his head.”

On October 22, G3 Journal/IFFV recorded :

- 21:10H: For your info, Gen Westmoreland called at 2045 for info on Plei My and Quang Duc atk.

On October 6, 1966, General Westmoreland summarized the Pleime campaign as following (Why Pleime):

From the standpoint of employment of joint forces, the Plei Me battle was a classic. The signal successes of the latter phases could, perhaps, never have been realized had it not been for the judgment and foresight of Vietnamese leadership. The initial preparatory effort on the ground, paving the way for the introduction of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, was accomplished by Vietnamese forces. Similarly the very successful final phase exploitation was accomplished largely by the Vietnamese Airborne Brigade. The effectiveness of this highly organized, closely integrated, cooperative effort has not often been emulated in modern warfare.

He assessed rightfully the key role of II Corps Command in the first and third phases of the campaign. However, he did not know that even in the second phase when 1st Air Cavalry Division was searching the enemy troops, the results were obtained due to the operational concept of using B52 carpet bombings that II Corps Command suggested to General Knowles, 1st Air Cavalry Division Forward Command Post Commander.

- General Cao Van Vien

Because the Viet Cong’s attack on Pleime camp was a big one, II Corps needed the support from the Joint General Staff in Saigon.

Initially, the Joint General Staff promised to provide 18 H-34 helicopters for troop transportation of the two Special Forces companies for the rescue of the camp, but then changed its mind (G3 Journal/IFFV, 10/20):

- 16:10H: II Corps (Capt Neary) - JGS made available to II Corps 18 VNAF H-34's due to arrive II Corps between 1600 - 1630.

- 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. 18 VNAF H-34's were cancelled. It was apparently a false report. ZA 160050 is correct coord for Plei My. Abn Ranger Co discussed is one of the two Delta elems under SF control. They are in Pleiku.

When the campaign reached phase 2, the Joint General Staff agreed to provide II Corps the entire Airborne Brigade as reserve force while 1st Air Cavalry assumed the main effort role with operation Long Reach.

Then the campaign reached phase 3, the Joint General Staff allowed II Corps Command to gather the five airborne battalions scattered in various locations (Phu Yen, Vung Tau, Bien Hoa, Saigon) and transported them to Pleiku to form the main effort in searching and destroying the surviving Viet Cong battalions with operation Than Phong 7

Reading the Enemy’s Mind

Viet Cong Field Front B3 made meticulous preparations for its Playmê campaign. This campaign was embedded in the Winter- Spring 1965-1966 campaign which the North Communist General Command started the planning since the beginning of 1965 aiming of taking control of the Central Highlands and at cutting South Vietnam in two along Highway 19 from Pleiku down to Qui Nhon.

Colonel Hieu was able to read the enemy’s mind. Firstly, he recognized Field Front B3 was duplicating the tactics the Viet Minh was using in the Highlands in 1954 with some modifications consisting in a series of probing attacks. Then when the Viet Cong attacked Bong Son and Pleime simultaneously, he understood immediately an intent of dispersing II Corps forces, in compelling II Corps to commit at Bong Son front all of its reserve forces – Airborne Task Force 1 with four battalions and Marine Task Force Alpha with two battalions, together with 4 battalions from 22nd Division and three American troop transport helicopter companies (Why Pleime, chapter VIII):

They intended to surprise us because they were convinced that the operations in An Lao and Kim Son, North of Binh Dinh had bound 6 battalions of the ARVN General Reserve, 4 battalions of the 22nd ARVN Infantry Division and three US helicopter companies to the coast.

Furthermore, Colonel Hieu also knew that the Viet Cong used the tactic of “one main attack and two diversionary attacks ”, with Bong Son as the secondary diversionary attack, Pleime the primary diversionary attack, and Pleiku the main attack, which means that to fake an attack at Bong Son to take over Pleime in a transitional phase leading to the conquer of Pleiku, the ultimate objective of the entire campaign.

When the Viet Cong attacked Pleime camp, based on the enemy troop distribution, 33rd Regiment at the camp and 32nd Regiment at the ambush site, Colonel Hieu deducted that the Viet Cong did not intend to overrun the camp and used the tactic of “lure and ambush” with the camp as the diversionary attack (the 33rd Regiment was a weaker combat force that the 32nd) and the ambush site as the main attack (the 32nd Regiment had more tactical experience than the 33rd). Besides, Colonel Hieu knew that, not like in the past, the Viet Cong this time use the mobile ambush tactic, instead of the static waylay, due to the fact its regiment was equipped with adequate transmission devices for easy communications between the regiment headquarters and its ambush units (Why Pleime, chapter IV):

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. Such a change in the enemy maneuver of forces is dictated by the following reasons:

1) Secrecy could be maintained.

2) The VC could avoid losses inflicted by friendly prestrikes on the ambush sites.

3) Flexibility to respond to any contingency

4) They are able to apply such tactics because adequate means of communications are now at their disposal.

When the Viet Cong was compelled to withdraw after failing to “lure and ambush”, Colonel Hieu knew that Field Force B3 would wait for the arrival of 66th Regiment at Chu Pong in order to attempt a second time to conquer Pleime camp.

In order to ascertain a exact reading of the enemy’s mind, Colonel Hieu skillfully made use of intelligence methods: radio intercepts, recon teams, interrogation of prisoners and ralliers, analysis of capture documents and individual diaries of the enemy.

Conceiving Strategic Plans

After determining the intentions the Viet Cong wanted to achieve and the tactics they were about to use, Colonel Hieu deployed his strategic skills to counter all of their schemes.

Countering the tactic of “one main attack and two diversionary attacks”, Colonel Hieu deployed troops appropriately to cope successfully with all the three fronts – at the camp with two Special Forces companies, at the ambush site with the Armored Relief Task Force, at Pleiku City with 2/12th Air Cavalry Battalion. The cleverness of this troop distribution had caught General Westmoreland’s appreciative eyes (Why Pleime, chapter VIII):

Our prompt maneuvers had shifted them into being surprised and losing the initiative. Extract from a memorandum signed by Col Daniel B. Williams, A/DSA II Corps MACV sent to C.G. II Corps on 25 Oct 1965: "At 1500 hours on 24 October General Westmoreland called and asked for a general rundown on the situation,... He wound up the conversation by asking that his personal congratulations be passed to General Vinh Loc on his handling of his troops to meet the various emergency situations."

Countering the tactic of “lure and ambush”, Colonel Hieu dispatched a small force of two Special Forces companies sufficient to contain the 33rd Regiment, and an Armored Task Force comprising two armored companies and about one thousand infantry and rangers troops to engage the 32nd Regiment. Furthermore, he reserved a surprise for the ambush troops in bringing hearvy artillery by huge helicopters near the ambush site to lend support to the relief task force when it clashed with the ambush troops. He said that he was ready “to play the enemy's game” (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.

Countering the tactic of “mobile ambush”, Colonel Hieu applied the “delay” tactic to neutralize it, in forcing the enemy troops to still show up at the ambush site ahead of time and be struck by pre-arranged air and artillery strikes. He ordered LTC Nguyen Van Luat to have his Armored Task Force linger in the vicinity of Phu My (Why 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.

...

Early in the morning 23 October, as soon as report from the Camp reached II Corps Command, decision was immediately taken to push the relief column to Pleime without delay and at any costs.

Stepping into phase 2 pursuing the withdrawing enemy, Colonel Hieu demonstrated his military genius trait in conceiving an outstanding operational concept and sharing it with General Knowles who realized it in the operation Long Reach conducted by the 1st Air Cavalry Division.

To these days, everybody, even the high ranking American officers who was directly or indirectly involved in carrying out this operation and the Vietnam War scholars and historians, thought that the operational concept consisted in “searching the enemy, fixing them, then destroying them with air assaults”. If that was correct then the 1st Air Cavalry did not harvest much result. The Air Cavalry forces only engaged the enemy troops four times (Why Pleime, chapter V): one 11/1, at the 33rd Regiment field hospital, enemy casualties: 299 KIA and WIA, 44 CIA; on 11/3, ambushing the 8th Battalion/66th Regiment in Chu Pong, enemy casualties: 312 KIA; on 11/6, engaging the 6th Battalion/33rd Regiment at Ia Meur river, enemy casualties: 477 KIA and WIA; on 11/14, engaging the two 7th and 9th Battalions of 66th Regiment at LZ X-Ray, enemy casualties: about 1800 KIA, 6 CIA; on 11/17, engaging the 8th Battalion/66th Regiment and the 1st Battalion/33rd Regiment at LZ Albany, enemy casualties: 503 KIA.

According to Coleman, the operation <1>All the Way conducted by 1st Air Cavalry Brigade was a breeze, like “walk in the park” (Coleman, page 189):

After the 1st Brigade battalions generally lost contact with the remnants of the 33rd Regiment on November 7, Kinnard said, in Army Magazine, that, “I had been planning to replace the gallant, but spent, First Brigade with the Third Brigade, commanded by Colonel Thomas W. Brown, and this seemed a logical time to do so.” The general might have been indulging in a bit of hyperbole. The units of the 1st Brigade unquestionalby were gallant, but spent? The 2/12 Cav had spent the longest period in the field, eighteen days total – but its days in contact numbered about five. The 2/8 had fourteen days in the valley and only two days of hard contact. The 1/8 Cav’s one company had one day of contact, while the others had none. And the 1/12 Cav had only its reconnaissance platoon truly get shot at in anger. Compared to times in the field by units later in the war, this was a walk in the park.

Also according to Coleman, after the 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade replaced the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade and conducted the operation Silver Bayonet I in searching the enemy in the east, the units of this brigade only encounter “dry holes” until they reverted back to the west and went in LZ X-Ray (Coleman, page 196):

That day - November 12 - General Larsen was visiting the division’s forward command post at the II Corps compound. He asked Knowles how things were going. Knowles briefed him on the attack on Catecka the night before and then told him the brigade was drilling a dry hole out east of Plei Me. Larsen said, “Why are you conducting operations there if it’s dry?” Knowles’s response was, “With all due respect, sir, that’s what your order in writing directed us to do.” Larsen responded that the cavalry’s primary mission was to “find the enemy and go after him.” Shortly after, Knowles visited Brown at the 3rd Brigade command post and told him to come up with a plan for an air assault operation near the foot of the Chu Pongs.

Colonel Hieu’s operational concept appeared extremely simple (Pleime Counteroffensive into Chupong-Iadrang Complex):

The search and pursuit of the two 32nd ( 334th, 635th and 966th Battalion) and 33rd Regiment (1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalion) should not be too difficult a task for 1st Air Cavalry Division with its fleet of helicopters in hands (435 in lieu of 101 for a regular infantry division). Nevertheless, to destroy an enemy force that had broken up into small units and in hiding amidst a vast area of elephant grass, bushes and trees, was a daunting task which would require months if not years to uncover and to destroy all these scattered piece meal units one at a time.

It is better to be able to attack and kill when the enemy units assemble at one location. This could have a chance to happen since Field Force B3 Command has ordered its attacking forces to return to their initial staging areas in the Chupong-Iadrang complex, while waiting for the arrival of the 66th Regiment.

However, in order to annihilate a division size force comprising three regiments, it would necessitate a force three times larger, which means three divisions, that II Corps Command could not afford.

A better alternative available was to use B-52’s carpet bombings to annihilate the concentrate enemy troops.

Therefore the operational concept for this operation comprised two phases:

Phase I: Channeling the scattered enemy units toward a common grouping area. This task was assigned to 1st Air Cavalry Brigade with operation All the Way.

Phase II: Destroying the enemy with B-52’s carpet bombings. General Knowles would coordinate this planning phase with MACV Command in Saigon for the use of this strategic weapon.

The bombings would be prepared by a diversionary tactic performed by 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade with operation Silver Bayonet I.

Consequently, Colonel Hieu was not overly concerned when the American air cavalry units did not discover many enemy units on their withdrawing routes from Pleime to Chu Pong, and rather focusing in monitoring moves and positions of various the enemy units, in big or small groups, patiently waiting for the moment they all assembled at Chu Pong and annihilating them with B52 carpet bombings (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.

Colonel Hieu continued to reveal his military genius trait in phase 3 of the campaign in operation Than Phong 7 conducted by Airborne Brigade. As a normal practice, the field commander makes decision on tactical moves as dictated by the situations on the battlefield. In this instance however, Colonel Hieu directly controlled the entire airborne operation and dictated all the moves made by the airborne units under the command of LTC Ngo Quang Truong (G3 Journal/IFFV , 11/19):

- 16:55H: 1st Cav (Rear) Capt Parham - Fwd CP states the elem's in Abn TF area was coordinated at higher levels than Fwd G3. The Abn TF knows about it. No other info available.

Colonel Hieu made all preparations and arrangements; LTC Truong had only to execute the orders. The result was that the two surviving battalions of Field Front B3 – the 334th and the 635th – were easily cornered in the Ia Drang valley, causing Major Schwarzkopf to be utterly flabbergasted when he witnessed an extraordinary phenomenon that he attributed to LTC Truong uncanny abilities. Was he aware of what really happened he would reserve his admiration instead and do justice to Colonel Hieu.

Executing Tactical Moves

In the preparation process of Plâyme campaign, Field Front B3 calculated very meticulously II Corp’s availability in terms of troops and equipments. For instance, in the captured Combat Order for an Ambush by the 32d Regiment, showed that the regimental general staff made accurately prediction the components of the Armored Task Force, the number of American units that would be attached and how the relief task force would be deployed:

After the initial attack on Pleime the GVN will likely send a relief column. The relief column will probably be composed of one ARVN Battle Group and one Armored Battle Group from the 24th STZ. There will probably be one or two US battalions in reserve. The relief forces could come by air or by road, whichever is the most suitable. They could arrive at the battle area in one or two days. Their battle formation could operate up to one kilometer from the road. They could have the infantry and armor elements interposed with each other; as an example an Armor element leading with the infantry 500m to one kilometer behind. After the ARVN elements are ambushed they will pull back to the O-Gri area to regroup. ARVN forces behind the ambushed element will probably move to the area of Po Post (20-14), O-Gri (22-18) and Klan (26-22).

Field Front B3 was also successful in diverting II Corsp reserve force comprising five battalions of Airborne and Marine Corps as well as units of 22nd Division in Bong Son, together with the three American helicopter companies prior to the attack against Pleime camp and at the same time took the decision to launch Plâyme campaign more than one month earlier than scheduled in order to avoid the intervention of the 1st Air Cavalry Division that was still on the resettlement process from Qui Nhon to An Khe.

But Field Force B3 was caught by many surprises because Colonel Hieu countered all their maneuvers with clever tactical moves of his own by knowing how to make use of all types of unit forces available to him, especially those that were all of the sudden put into his disposition: American and Vietnamese Special Forces, Airborne Rangers, Montagnard Eagle Flight teams, Rangers, Airborne, Marine Corps, 3rd Armored Task Force and an infantry unit of the 24th Special Military Zone, units of the 1st Air Cavalry Division. Many units were airlifted from Kontum, Ban Me Thuot, Phu Yen, Tuy Hoa, Vung Tau, Bien Hoa, Saigon, An Khe. All these units were inserted and extracted in and off the various battlefields in well executed coordination in a battlefront that lasted 38 days and 38 nights. Each unit was given a task that corresponded to its capacity; consequently each mission was achieved smoothly and without too much effort and yet the desired expectation was satisfactorily fulfilled.

In regard specifically of the use of 1st Air Cavalry Division, Colonel Hieu demonstrated that he knew how to use this tactical unit better than General Kinnard and General Knowles. General Kinnard’s tactical operation to counter the guerrillas warfare was (Cochran):

to seal off the area in which the guerrillas were fighting, to separate them from their source of reinforcement, supplies, weapons.

And the air assault tactic he had developed was:

Right after the Plei Me siege was broken, I felt that it was up to me to find these guys who had been around the camp. So we came up with a search “modus operandi” in which the Cav Squadron was going to range widely over a very large area and I was going to use one infantry brigade to plop down an infantry battalion and look at an area here and there. I felt that we had to break down into relatively small groups so we could cover more area and also the enemy would think he could fake us. You couldn’t put down a whole battalion out there and go clomping around. You had to break down into company and platoon-sized units. You had to rely upon the fact that with the helicopter you could respond faster than anyone in history. I then learned, totally new to me, that every unit that was not in contact was, in fact, a reserve that could be picked up and used. This is my strategy. Start from somewhere, break down into small groups, depending upon the terrain, and work that area while the Cav Squadron roamed all over. The name of the game was contact. You were looking for any form of contact – a helicopter being shot at, finding a campfire, finding a pack, beaten-down grass.

Firstly, Colonel Hieu knew that General Kinnard would not be able to seal off a wide expanded 40 km by 50 km area covered by jungles, even with more than 500 helicopters and 3 air cavalry brigades. Secondly, he also knew that the Viet Cong troops were very clever in avoiding contact with the American air cavalry troops. And he rationalized that in order to destroy an army of troops that scattered all over like rats hiding in cracks and holes, there was only one way, which was to stake out and wait patiently until they assembled in one spot, then to finish them off with B52 carpet bombings. That was why he did not consider phase 2 as a pursuit phase but rather a herding one ( Pleime Counteroffensive into Chupong-Iadrang Complex).

Besides army troops, Colonel Hieu also demonstrated his skill in the use all types of weapons, small and big, ancient and modern: artillery, armor, wing as well of jet tactical aircrafts, armed helicopters, B52 strategic air fortresses, as dictated by various battlefield situations.

Conclusion

Through his various talents in controlling and directing commanding generals, in reading the enemy’s mind, in strategic and tactical planning, Colonel Hieu had demonstrated that he was a military genius. In comparison with the other high ranking officers involved in this campaign, foes and friends alike, he was at the bottom of the hierarchical totem – a colonel among a galaxy of stars -, the youngest – 36 years old – and the less experienced in tactical command, while the others all were combat veterans of the World War II, the Korean War, the First Indochina War and the Dien Bien Phu Battle against the French Army. Holding a chisel for the first time and yet being able to broach a masterpiece sculpture could only be defined as a stroke of genius.



- 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.
- Coleman, J.D., "Pleiku, the Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam", St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1988.

Nguyen Van Tin
16 October 2011

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

generalhieu