What Really Happened at Ia Drang Battle

After 35 years since the Ia Drang Battle took place, Merle Pribbenow - a former CIA analyst who worked at the Saigon CIA station from 1970 to 1975, and is now in the process of translating PAVN official documents into English - was able to compile a dozen books - published from 1988 to 1995 - written by North Vietnamese authors about the Ia Drang Battle:

1. LG Hoang, Phuong, “Several Lessons on Campaign Planning and Command Implementation During the Plei Me Campaign” The Plei Me Victory: Looking Back after 30 Years. Military History Institute and 3rd Corps (Hanoi: People's Army Publishing House, 1995)
2. Nguyen Huy Toan and Pham Quang Dinh, The 304th Division, vol II (Hanoi, People's Army Publishing House, 1990)
3. Mai Hong Linh, "A Number of Issues Relating to Party and Political Activities During the Plei Me Campaign-1965," The Plei Me Victory.
4. Military History Institute and 3rd Corps, The Plei Me Offensive Campaign-1965 (Hanoi: People’s Army Publishing House).
5. Pham Vinh Phuc, "Special Characteristics of U.S. Helicopter Assault Landing Tactics During the Plei Me Campaign”.
6. B3 Front "1 January 1966 Report on Five Battles Against US Forces,14-18 November 1965".
7. CG Nguyen Huu An and Nguyen Tu Duong, New Battlefields: A Memoir (Hanoi: People's Army Publishing House, 1995).
8. MG Tran Ngoc Son, "A Few Thoughts on the Lessons of the Plei Me Campaign".
9. Do Trung Mich, "66th Regiment Develops the Traditions and Lessons of the Plei Me Victory”.
10. [author not given] "Remembrances of the First Fight Against the Americans in the Central Highlands”.
11. History of the People's Army [no other publishing information given].
12. Military History Institute of Vietnam, The Saigon-Gia Dinh Offensive Theater (1968) , Hanoi, 1988.

Pribbenow points out that “although heavily colored by communist hagiography and propaganda", these accounts, when added to information provided by American sources, nevertheless allow to reconstruct quite accurately what had really happened at Ia Drang Battle. He presents his findings in The Fog of War: The Vietnamese View of the Ia Drang Battle. Following are the salient ones that the Viet Cong accounts do not seem to deny.

1. The Ia Drang Battle was not planned by either the Viet Cong or the American sides.

According to PAVN, the Ia Drang Battle grew out of the B3 (Central Highlands) Front's plan to lure US and South Vietnamese forces into battle on terms favorable to the communists

2. The NVA 66th Regiment was not included in the initial plan - which was designed some time in July 1965 - of the Pleime attack, while this unit got the order in mid August to joint the 320th and 33rd Regiments in the Central Highlands, through a long march that would take 2 months to achieve.

The NVA 320th and 33d Regiments were to launch the campaign, but one of the NVA's finest units, the 304th Division would reinforce the B3 Front. In August 1965 the 304th received orders to move south to the Central Highlands. The 304th's lead element, the 66th Regiment, was scheduled to arrive in time for the campaign's final phase.

3. The 66th Regiment forward group arrived in Central Highlands on November 1, when the Pleime battle was over, after a forced march.

On the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the 66th Regiment had dropped its heavy equipment, lightened its packs and proceeded by forced march to the battlefield The 66th crossed into South Vietnam on 1 November and headed for assembly areas.

4. The 66th Regiment only reached Chu Prong area on November 10.

On 10 November, the 66th Regiment arrived at the Chu Pong Massif on the southwestern side of the Ia Drang Valley near the Cambodian border.

5. The 66th Regiment did not lure the American troops into Ia Drang. It was detected by the American troops.

NVA histories reveal that contrary to claims that the NVA lured US troops into a trap, the NVA were completely surprised by US troops' 14 November landing at LZ X-Ray. When the first US helicopters arrived, 66th Regiment and 9th Battalion commanders were surveying the terrain several kilometers away on the banks of the Ia Drang River. The 66th Regiment Political Officer Ngoc Chau and the 9th Battalion's deputy political officer were also away from their offices.

6. The 66th Regiment troops were surprised that only the American troops showed up in Ia Drang Valley.

Taking a group of 7th Battalion officers with him, Cuu went forward to assess the situation. He arrived in the 9th Battalion area in the early afternoon and found it in a state of confusion, with many wounded moving to the rear and no one sure what was going on. The wounded deputy battalion political officer could tell him only that the enemy troops were all US forces (no South Vietnamese) and that they were aggressive and well armed.

7. The NVA troops failed to accomplish their mission in all three accounts: at the ambush site, at the siege site and at the rear site. All three regiment commanders were cited for poor leadership.

The 66th Regiment commander received a severe reprimand for failing to command his unit during the LZ X-Ray battle. The 33d Regiment Commander was criticized for failing to maintain contact with his troops during the siege at Plei Me, for not personally commanding the attack on LZ Columbus and for delegating all decision-making responsibility to subordinates. The 320th Regiment commander was cited for failing to personally conduct reconnaissance of the terrain before ambushing the South Vietnamese relief column and for clumsily handling his unit throughout the campaign.

And finally, 8. The NVA troops were finished off by an ARVN Airborne Brigade on their retreat attempt across the Cambodian border.

On 20 November, South Vietnamese airborne forces, supported by US artillery, encountered the 320th Regiment's 635th and 334th Battalions along the Cambodian border. The 635th.s commander, whose unit had suffered heavy losses during the South Vietnamese relief column ambush in October, refused to engage the enemy and retreated without authorization, leaving the sister battalion alone on the battlefield. The two units lost hundreds of men and weapons, and it was several days before the 320th Regiment managed to reestablish contact with the 635th Battalion. A PAVN analysis admits the regiment did not accomplish its assigned mission.

Nguyen Van Tin
November 24, 2006


- 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