The Use of B-52 Strike in Ia Drang Campaign
General Westmoreland’s Best Kept Military Secret
Historians and scholars have been denying the fact that the Ia Drang campaign (alias Pleiku campaign, alias Pleime campaign) was an air war conducted by SAC B-52 strike, supported by a ground force operated by the 1st Air Cavalry Division. They deny, at first, B-52 strikes were used at the Ia Drang campaign because they claim there is no written record of it in "any and all" MACV files. When confronted by the fact that it is mentioned in several other documents, such as Pleiku campaign, Why Pleime, Pleime, Trận Chię́n Lịch Sử, and in particular, G3 Journal/First Field Force, they still dispute it was planned by J-3/MACV (General DePuy) as such, because, as they claim, then General DePuy would have left an After Action Report or some written records in the MACV files, even if it was classified as "top secret." No way, they argue, General DePuy could have kept mum about this plan for the rest of his days. Allow me to quote anonymously: "But ANY and ALL secret MACV plans were written down- even the planning for the use of atomic weapons at Khe Sanh. We'd write down a nuclear plan, but hide a plan about B-52s?"
Is it true there is no written record of it in the MACV files? Well, way back in August 2010, I discovered a copy of General McChristian's report, the J-2 of MACV, about the plan. The report is archived at the US Army War College Library and it is titled "Intelligence Aspect of Pleime/Chupong Campaign (October 20 to November 20, 1965)", in which it starts with an unequivocal statement: "The Chu Pong base was known to exist well prior to the Pleime attack and J-2 MACV had taken this area under study in September 1965 as a possible B-52 target." Further, the report clearly shows in length that the plan was carried out in conjunction with the 1st Air Cavalry Division conducting the Pleiku campaign.
Despite this plethora of documents which shows the B-52 strike as the main thrust in the Ia Drang campaign, with the 1st Air Cavalry as the secondary thrust, the plan is still labeled as a mere "theory" concocted out of some kind of delusionary imagination, just because it is not present in any shape and form in General Westmorland's History Notes (29 August-29 November 1965) which covers the period of the Ia Drang campaign.
After an initial superficial reading, I had to admit that everybody was right and I was wrong, and the verdict is without appeal: "If it ain't in Westy's notes, it ain't exist."
But then, a closer look of Westmoreland’s history notes suddenly ended up triggering a sensational "Eureka" effect! Westmoreland's purposeful silence on the subject is a cover-up of the plan: he and his J-3 and J-2 were quiet about the plan, lest the State Department would interfere and spoil it, like in the case of the B-52 strike at Ho Bo Woods scheduled for September 17, 1965:
Saturday, 18 September
*We had hoped to have a B-52 strike on the morning of 17 September to support an operation of the 173d Brigade but at 11 p.m. the evening before it was cancelled. The strike was requested based on some excellent intelligence and I took a personal interest to insure that a nearby village would not endangered. We were under the impression that strike had been approved and had planned accordingly until we heard that the State Department had disallowed it. The Chief of Staff and the J-3 were up most of the night trying to lay on a substitute tactical air strike. The weather did not permit the tactical air strike to go on the 17th so it was postponed until the 18th. I took the occasion of this inhibition of military plans to send a special message to the Chairman of the JCS giving him the facts, pointing out this interference with a well-considered military operation, and suggested that the B-52 strikes be decentralized [SSO Msg. MAC 4679, 181315Z September, (S)]. I don’t expect approval of this because higher echelons have assumed the flavor of my replies.
From that day on, Westmoreland recorded his activities pertaining to the ground operations conducted by 1st Air Cavalry Division to the Pleiku campaign without any mention of the plan of using B-52 strike. He mentioned that
“General DePuy is as fine a staff officer as I have ever served with” (Saturday 18 September),
- “I received a briefing from officers of the 1st Cavalry Division on their recent operations” (Thursday, 19 October),
- “On Thursday I flew up to Pleiku and thence out to the command post of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Air Cavalry Division. The Brigade commanded by Lt Colonel Harlow Clark seemed to be in good morale and was attempting to locate VC in the environs of the Plei Mei Camp” (Thursday 28 October),
- “On Sunday morning, the 31st of October, I departed early for Nha Trang to confer with General Larsen on the operation of the 1st Cavalry Division” (Sunday, 31 October),
- “I had a chance to talk to General Larsen, Colonel Mataxis and General Kinnard” (Saturday 6 November),
- “On Thursday, General Vien and I flew up to Pleiku to visit the 1st of the 7th Cavalry commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore” (Thursday, 18 November),
- “I then flew down and visited the brigade commanded by Colonel Tim Brown. He gave me a briefing and we flew over the operation area. I had a session with General Vinh Loc, General Larsen and Colonel Timothy and we agreed on plans in line with those I had discussed the previous day with General Vien” (Thursday, 18 November),
- “I then flew down to Qui Nhon where I visited the man in hospital. They were mostly personnel of the 1st Cavalry who had been wounded in the recent operation in Pleiku” (Thursday, 18 November),
- “On Friday I called upon Ambassador Lodge and briefed him on the Pleiku battle” (Friday 19 November),
- “General DePuy returned from Pleiku where I sent him because of my concern that the 1st Air Cavalry and the airborne task force might get involved in more than they could handle” (Friday, 19 November),
- “I had my monthly background session with the press. I started off by covering certain trends in the war, mentioned civic action briefly, passed out a handout, mentioned my desire to play up the ARVN military victories in balance with those of US troops, and then went to the map and gave them my concept of VC strategy. I discussed the battle at Pleiku starting with the attack on Plei Mei Camp and going through the subsequent phases” (Saturday, 20 November),
- “General McChristian and I again played tennis with the British Ambassador and his advisor to the Vietnamese National Police” (Saturday, 20 November),
- “I visited the Airborne Task Force at Duc Co as well as the 2d Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division and a Special Forces Detachment” (Thursday, 25 November),
- “I pointed out among other things that I thought this excellent working relationship was unique in the annals of military history” (Friday, 26 November).
However, on November 20, just as the five consecutive days of B-52 strike over the Iadrang-Chupong complex ended, Westmoreland, learning from the experience of this operation, gave the order to his J-2 and J-3 to look into reducing the lead time for B-52 strike to seven hours from 14 hours and 57 minutes:
Saturday, November 20
*On Saturday morning after the intelligence briefing, I told the J-2 and J-3 to get together to develop a more responsive arrangement with SAC in striking targets picked up intelligence. We have made real progress with the 3d Air Division and SAC in recent weeks and I want to keep the pressure on them and gain further improvements. I would like to be able to bring a B-52 strike down within seven hours after acquiring suitable intelligence.
Thus, Westmoreland stopped talking about the plan during its study phase in September and felt free to make mention of it when its execution was over.
Westmoreland had succeeded in fooling the State Department, the press at that time, and contemporary scholars and historians, about the existence of a plan using SAC B-52 strike as the main action and the 1st Air Cavalry Division as a secondary action in the capacity of a ground supportive force to annihilate the NVA B3 Field Front forces in the Chupong-Iadrang complex areas. The plan was studied as early as September 1965, and its execution started on 20 October at Pleime and ended at Chupong on 20 November. The official name for this plan had been coined by General McChristian: Pleime-Chupong campaign. People just fail to recognize it. Maybe a word should be added to it: Arc Light Pleime-Chupong campaign; but then this precision would blow up his boss' cover. It is indeed Westmoreland's best kept military secret. What tour de force!
Nguyen Van Tin
19 February 2016
- 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