The Truth about the Pleime Battle
When writing about the Pleime Campaign, American historians saw only the battle at Ia Drang Valley and ignored the battle at Pleime. On the other hand, North Vietnamese historians claimed that the objective of the battle at Pleime was to attract the American troops to a readied trap set up in the Chu Prong mountainous areas. Both viewpoints distort the historical truth.
Let us consider the account presented by the LZ X-Ray website as an example:
In late October '65, a large North Vietnamese force attacked the Plei Me Special Forces Camp. Troops of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Cavalry were sent into the battle. After the enemy was repulsed in early November, the 3rd Brigade replaced the 1st Brigade. After three days of patrolling without any contact, Hal Moore's 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, was ordered to air assault into the Ia Drang Valley on Nov 14, his mission: Find and kill the enemy!
At 10:48 AM, on November 14th, Moore was the first man out of the lead chopper to hit the landing zone, firing his M16 rifle. Little did Moore and his men suspect that FATE had sent them into the first major battle of the Vietnam War between the American Army and the People's Army of Vietnam - Regulars - and into history.
Or the account presented in the US 1st Air Cavalry website, the division that was involved in this Pleiku Campaign:
On 10 October 1965, in Operation "Shiny Bayonet," the First Team initiated their first brigade-size airmobile action against the enemy. The air assault task force consisted of the 1st and 2nd Battalions 7th Cavalry, 1st Squadron 9th Cavalry, 1st Battalion 12th Cavalry and the 1st Battalion 21st Artillery. Rather than standing and fighting, the Viet Cong chose to disperse and slip away. Only light contact was achieved. The troopers had but a short wait before they faced a tougher test of their fighting skills; the 35-day Pleiku Campaign.
On 23 October 1965, the first real combat test came at the historical order of General Westmoreland to send the First Team into an air assault mission to pursue and fight the enemy across 2,500 square miles of jungle. Troopers of the 1st Brigade and 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, swooped down on the NVA 33rd regiment before it could get away from Plei Me. The enemy regiment was scattered in confusion and was quickly smashed.
On 09 November, the 3rd Brigade joined the fighting. Five days later, on 14 November, the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, reinforced by elements of the 2nd Battalion, air assaulted into the Ia Drang Valley near the Chu Prong Massif. Landing Zone (LZ) X-Ray was "hot" from the start. At LZ X-Ray, the Division's first Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War was awarded to 2nd Lt. Walter J. Marm of the 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry. On 16 November, the remainder of the 2nd Battalion relieved the 1st Battalion at LZ X-Ray, who moved on to set up blocking positions at LZ Albany. The fighting, the most intensive combat in the history of the division, from bayonets, used in hand-to-hand combat, to artillery and tactical air support, including B-52 bombing attacks in the areas of the Chu Pong Mountains, dragged on for three days. With the help of reinforcements and overwhelming firepower, the 1st and 2nd Battalions forced the North Vietnamese to withdraw into Cambodia.
When the Pleiku Campaign ended on 25 November, troopers of the First Team had paid a heavy price for its success, having lost some 300 troopers killed in action, half of them in the disastrous ambush of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, at LZ Albany. The troopers destroyed two of three regiments of a North Vietnamese Division, earning the first Presidential Unit Citation given to a division in Vietnam. The enemy had been given their first major defeat and their carefully laid plans for conquest had been torn apart.
The 1st Cavalry Division returned to its original base of operations at An Khe on Highway 19.
In the two above-mentioned accounts, the role of the ARVN units was not mentioned; furthermore, the main stage of the Pleime Campaign was focused at the Ia Drang Valley, while the battle at Duc Co occurring at the end of the campaign and conducted by an ARVN airborne brigade was ignored.
At the Conference on Pleiku/Ia Drang Campaigns organized by the Vietnam Center in Washington on 11/12/2005, at the annual reunion of veterans of the US 1st Cavalry Division who took part in the Ia Drang Valley battle, not only the role of the ARVN units was not mentioned, even the naming of the battle events has been distorted: instead of Pleime/Ia Drang Campaigns, it has become The Pleiku/Ia Drang Campaigns! The Pleime Battle has been eradicated from the pages of American historians.
Viet Cong’s Perspective
In this same conference, the Viet Cong were invited to participate, and General Nguyen Van Uoc of the NVA appeared as a special guest speaker who presented the viewpoint of the NVA about the Pleime Campaign. According to General Uoc, the main objective of the Pleime Battle was to attract the American troops to the Ia Drang Valley, where a trap was awaiting them. He handed to Dr. James Reckner, the Director of the Vietnam Center, a printed document to back up his assertion. The document notes:
Early October 1965, based on assessment of enemy status and our preparation readiness, the campaign Command had decided to assign tasks to the units as following: the target and area to destroy the enemy was camp Chu Ho, siege set on Pleime camp, ambush to destroy the rescue column established on route 21 (from Hill 538 to Hill Blu). The area where our troops would attack the Americans would be the Ia Drang valley. […]
Regarding the plan, the campaign was divided into 3 phases: Phase 1. Encircle Pleime camp, destroy the ARVN rescue column; phase 2. Continue to encircle Pleime camp, forcing American troops to get involved; phase 3. Concentrate forces aiming at attacking a major American force and destroy it and end the campaign.
If that was true, then the VC tacticians were a real genius. The well-designed plan involving a division-sized battle to attack a base camp with three regiments (32nd, 33rd, and 66th), would require at least two or three months of studies. The Pleime Battle, according to this VC document, began on October 19, while the ship Rose that transported the first units of the US 1st Air Cavalry Division arrived at Qui Nhon port by mid September, and these units went up to An Khe to start clearing the jungle in order to settle down in tents. It is hard to imagine the VC would have anticipated and taken into account the American troops of the US 1st Air Cavalry Division element in the planning of the Pleime attack months ahead.
Two months before, when the Viet Cong attacked Duc Co outpost, II Corps dispatched an airborne task force and a marine task force to rescue the outpost, while the US 173rd Brigade was sent in to protect Pleiku. It was normal that when the Viet Cong used the same diversionary tactic of feigning to attack an outpost to destroy the relief column when they attacked Pleime, they would obviously expect that the relief column would be made of ARVN units while the American troops would be involved only as a peripheral role; the Viet Cong would not be that psychic in predicting that this time around the American troops, with the US 1st Air Cavalry, would jump in head-on in the battlefield alone.
On the other hand, the Viet Cong claimed to use the tactic of feigning to attack an outpost to destroy the relief column to attract the American troops. But in reality, the American troops that went in the Ia Drang Valley did not do so to rescue anybody and furthermore, the Viet Cong were caught by surprise, rather than were in a ready posture, since its battalion commander was not present with his attacked unit.
While the enemy attacked our 9th battalion, its battalion commander had not returned from a regiment meeting, the executive officer commanded our troops at the battalion level to fight against the enemy and requested reinforcement from the 13th company. Although taken by surprise, our troops fought with courage.
The VC document continues:
The victory of the Pleime campaign […] has left many significant lessons learned in terms of military art.
First of all, it is the art of accurate prediction of the combat opponent. When the American troops entered the South, direct combat was an inevitable thing. However, at this period in time (October 1965), our knowledge regarding the Americans was very limited. The personnel organization, the art of combat, the capabilities of the American troops were still question marks to us. To verify this, since the American troops were present in the Highlands, we opened the campaign to attack Pleime. Our purpose was to fight and study hand in hand to complement our initial assessments. The reality had shown that our predictions were correct.
If that was true, then if the Viet Cong wanted to test direct combat with the American troops, why they did not aim at the US 3rd Marine Division already present in Da Nang since May 1965 and had to wait for October when the American troops showed up at the Highlands?
The Viet Cong had had the opportunity to study and to gain ample experience in terms of fighting the American troops that provided support to the ARVN units. Colonel Mataxis, II Corps Senior Advisor, wrote about the fightings against the enemy in the An Khe area along Route 19 in February of 1965:
At this time, the Corps chief of staff (Colonel Hieu) and the Corps senior advisor reconnoitered the area to clarify the situation for the Corps commander. They found that the VC troops were in battalion strength, well equipped, and had used conventional infantry tactics of fire-and-movement. Also, the VC had been well trained in the techniques of antiaircraft fire against helicopter gunships. Those being fired at directly would seek cover, but those in the flanks would continue firing at the chopper. The reconnaissance determined that the VC effort to seize the An Khe Valley was sparked by large numbers of hard-core Viet Cong troops.
The VC document acknowledges that following the fighting against the American troops at the Ia Drang Valley, an ARVN airborne task force jumped into action at Duc Co to attack the enemy on retreat into Cambodia.
On November 17, the enemy disembarked an airborne task force at Duc Co and Plei Che to cut off our front and rear end. The 320th regiment had only the 334th battalion remaining on the battlefield and consequently was unable to put up a fight against the enemy. On November 26, 1965, the campaign ended.
It appeared then that the enemy was harassed by the airborne task force from November 17 to 26. However, the document did not elaborate on losses sustained by either side in this battle at Duc Co.
It is ludicrous for the Viet Cong to claim victory in their Pleime Campaign, while their units were decimated at the ambush site (32nd Regiment), around Pleime camp (33rd Regiment), at Ia Drang Valley (66th Regiment), and Duc Co area (334th Battalion/32nd Regiment)
The Historical Truth
Both American and Viet Cong interpretations of the Pleime Campaign are inaccurate. The Viet Cong Pleime Campaign was part of the 1965 Winter-Spring Campaign, which aimed at slicing South Vietnam into two along Route 19 from Pleiku in the Highlands down to Qui Nhon on the coastal area. And the Pleime Battle was the last effort of a series of consecutive attacks launched by the Viet Cong since the beginning of 1965 in II Corps.
Following is a list of that series of attacks:
- On 02/03, the VC attacked camp Halloway manned by the US Army 52d Combat
- On 02/20, the VC attacked CIDG firebase FOB1.
- On 02/22, the VC ambushed Suoi Doi company.
- On 02/24, the VC surrounded 220 troops at firebase FOB2.
- On 03/08, the VC attacked camp Kannah and camp Plei Ta Nangh.
- On 04/21, the VC attacked two Marine battalions on Highway 1.
- On 05/26, the VC attacked the village of Buon Mroc.
- On 05/28, the VC seized the Pokaha bridge in Kontum and Le Bac
bridge in Phu Bon simultaneously.
- On 05/31, the VC overran Le Thanh District.
- On 06/01, the VC ambushed the Kontum Province Chief's party visiting Le
- On 06/03, a VC regiment ambushed a battalion of ARVN 40th Regiment on its
way to relieve Le Bac bridge near the village of Phu Tuc.
- In mid-June, the VC attacked the village of Toumorong west of Kontum.
- On 06/30, a VC regiment ambushed an airborne task force at Cheo Reo in
Thuan Man District.
- On 07/01, the VC launched a massive mortar attack on the garrison of Thuan
- On 07/07, the VC attacked Dak To District in Kontum Province.
- At the beginning of August, the VC, after besieging Duc Co camp during
July, attempted to overrun this camp.
- On 08/09, the VC ambushed the relief column task force on Highway 19.
- On 08/18, the VC attacked Dak Sut District.
- On 10/19, the VC attacked CIDG Pleime camp.
These consecutive attacks were part of unified planning. To counter these attacks, II Corps Command had devised a well-defined strategy of when to counter-attack, when to hold, and when to withdraw:
To determine the strategy to be used in meeting this anticipated VC offensive, a meeting was held at II Corps headquarters in Pleiku by representatives of General William C. Westmoreland's staff led by Brigadier General William E. DePuy, then MACV J-3, and the ARVN Joint General Staff (JGS) headed by General Nguyen Huu Co, former II Corps commander who had been appointed head of the ARVN military forces. It was agreed that due to the increased build-up of enemy troops, II Corps during the rainy season would adopt essentially a defensive posture in the highlands. The new II Corps commander, Major General Vinh Loc, in line with the defensive posture to be taken by his corps, analyzed the "military worth" of all key outposts and district towns. He decided that those posts in exposed positions would be held as long as possible to cause the highest casualties to the attacking communist forces. If after an attack it was determined that it would be to our military disadvantage to reinforce at that time, due to lack of troops or air support, the posts would be ordered to withdraw, using escape and evasion tactics if necessary. Those earmarked as keys to the defense of vital areas within each province were to be held at all costs. Contingency plans were drawn up and ARVN general reserve troops and the U.S. and ARVN Air Force airlift and fighter planes were earmarked as the nucleus of a "fire brigade" which could be rushed to critical areas in the highlands.
II Corps general staff analyzed and determined accurately which battlefront was diversionary, which battlefront was the main thrust in the entire 1965 Winter-Spring Campaign; and it also determined accurately that the Pleime Campaign was the decisive fight of the Winter-Spring Campaign aiming at conquering Pleiku before moving in Qui Nhon. Analyzing various intelligence sources, II Corps general staff anticipated the enemy would unfold its Pleime Campaign in three phases: 1. Encircle camp Pleime with NVA 32nd Regiment; 2. Destroy the relief column with NVA 33rd Regiment; 3. Overrun camp Pleime then proceed to assault Pleiku with 32nd, 33rd, and 66th Regiments.
One reason the Viet Cong had chosen to attack camp Pleime because it was close to Pleiku to lure II Corps into sending rescue troops taken out of the headquarters (all other units were tied down with security task in various local areas); and this action would deplete the number of troops defending Pleiku. Another reason for the choice was that it allowed establishing an ambush site that would be out of reach of artillery firepower based at Pleiku; this would render the tanks vulnerable without artillery support.
II Corps general staff anticipated all war game moves of the enemy and counteracted accordingly as following: 1. Feign to be taken in enemy diversionary tactic by dispatching two Airborne Ranger Companies, one American and one Vietnamese to reinforce the camp; 2. Request that the Americans send in a US Air Cavalry Brigade to defend Pleiku; 3. At the same time also request the Americans to helilift artillery arsenals onto hilltops nearby the ambush location to lend support to the tanks. This artillery support allowed the rescue column to destroy without too much difficulty in the NVA 33rd Regiment at the ambush location. Meanwhile, American and Vietnamese air forces decimated the NVA 32nd Regiment around camp Pleime. The remnants of these two regiments withdrew back to Chu Prong areas, where the NVA 66th Regiment stationed as areserved force. As a result, camp Pleime was liberated and the enemy was unable to execute their plan of conquering Pleiku.
The ARVN prevailed in the show-down on Pleime battlefield because it maneuvered its units on the chessboard better than the enemy. It is worthwhile to point out that unlike the battle of Duc Co that had occurred two months earlier, II Corps Command did not have to use the two seasoned reserved forces of airborne and marine corps, and had merely used an infantry battalion along with two ranger battalions and the 3rd Armored Squadron.
After the siege of the camp Pleime was broken, II Corps Command had a conference with the American high military authority, in which it was agreed to pursuit the withdrawing enemy with the units of US 1st Air Cavalry Division as the main force and the ARVN Airborne Brigade as areserve. What happened at the Ia Drang Valley was not pre-planned by either side: the Viet Cong did not anticipate that the American troops could pile in so swiftly their units onto the battlefield, and the American was caught by surprise in stepping inadvertently on a huge ants colony. Both sides sustained heavy casualties, and yet both sides monopolized victory.
To block the enemy from retreating across the Cambodian border, II Corps Command requested a general reserved force comprising an airborne brigade from Saigon to be sent out to Duc Co. This time, the airborne units searched, ambushed and killed numerous enemy troops. The VC document did mention this battle of Duc Co, but did so perfunctorily because their troops were seriously defeated. Fortunately, General Norman Schwarzkopf narrated this battle in his book, It Doesn't Take A Hero (1992):
The airborne was alerted to prevent the North Vietnamese regiments defeated in the Ia Drang Valley from escaping back into Cambodia. I was half asleep in my room at the Manor BOQ after a big meal of curried chicken and beer when the call came to get out to the airport. Truong had assembled an unusually large task force of some two thousand troops to go to the Ia Drang the following morning, and had chosen me as his advisor.
We flew in transports to the red clay strip at Duc Co, my old stomping ground, then by chopper south to the river valley. From the minute we stepped off our helicopters we were involved in skirmishes and firefights. The valley was about twelve miles wide at the point where the Ia Drang flowed westward into Cambodia-and somewhere in those miles of dense jungle the main body of the enemy was on the move. We had landed to the north, and Truong ordered the battalions to cross the Ia Drang and take up positions along the Chu Prong Mountains, which formed a series of steep ridges to the south. It was fascinating to watch him operate. As we marched, he would stop to study the map, and every once in a while he'd indicate a position on the map and say, "I want you to fire artillery here." I was skeptical at first, but called in the barrages; when we reached the areas we found bodies. Simply by visualizing the terrain and drawing on his experience fighting the enemy for fifteen years, Truong showed an uncanny ability to predict what they were going to do.
When we set up our command post that night, he opened his map, lit a cigarette, and outlined his battle plan. The strip of jungle between our position on the ridges and the river, he explained, made a natural corridor-the route the NVA would most likely take. He said, "At dawn we will send out one battalion and put it here, on our left, as a blocking force between the ridge and the river. Around eight o'clock tomorrow morning they will make a big enemy contact. Then I will send another battalion here, to our right. They will make contact at about eleven o'clock. I want you to have your artillery ready to fire into this area in front of us," he said, "and then we will attack with our third and fourth battalions down toward the river. The enemy will then be trapped with the river to his back."
I'd never heard anything like this at West Point. I was thinking, "What's all this about eight o'clock and eleven o'clock? How can he schedule a battle that way?" But I also recognized the outline of his plan: Truong had reinvented the tactics Hannibal had used in 217 B.C. when he enveloped and annihilated the Roman legions on the banks of Lake Trasimene.
But, Truong added, we had a problem: the Vietnamese airborne had been called into this campaign because of high-level concern that American forces in pursuit of the enemy might otherwise venture too close to the Cambodian border. He said, "On your map, the Cambodian border is located here, ten kilometers east of where it appears on mine. In order to execute my plan, we must use my map rather than yours, because otherwise we cannot go around deeply enough to set up our first blocking force. So, Thieu ta Schwarzkopf"-thieu ta (pronounced "tia-tah") is Vietnamese for "major"-"what do you advise?"
The prospect of letting an enemy escape into a sanctuary until he was strong enough to attack again galled me as much as it would any soldier. Some of these fellows were the same ones I'd run into four months earlier at Duc Co; I didn't want to fight them again four months from now. So why should I assume that my map was more accurate than Truong's?
"I advise that we use the boundary on your map."
Long after he'd issued his attack orders, Truong sat smoking his cigarettes and studying the map. We went over the plan again and again late into the night, visualizing every step of the battle. At dawn we sent out the 3rd Battalion. They got into position and, sure enough, at eight o'clock they called and reported heavy contact. Truong sent the 5th Battalion to the right. At eleven
O’clock they reported heavy contact. As Truong had predicted, in the jungle below us the enemy had run into the 3rd Battalion at the border and decided, "We can't get out that way. We'll double back." That decision violated a basic principle of escape and evasion, which is to take the worst possible route in order to minimize the risk of encountering a waiting enemy. Had they climbed out of the valley up the Chu Pong Mountains, they might have gotten away. Instead they followed the low ground, as Truong had anticipated, and now we'd boxed them in. He looked at me and said, "Fire your artillery." We shelled the area below us for a half hour. Then he ordered his two remaining battalions to attack down the hill; there was a hell of a lot of shooting as we followed them in.
Around one o'clock, Truong announces, "Okay. We'll stop." He picked a lovely little clearing, and we sat down with his staff and had lunch! Halfway through the meal, he put down his rice bowl and issued some commands on the radio. "What are you doing?" I asked. He'd ordered his men to search the battlefield for weapons: "We killed many enemies, and the ones we didn't kill threw down their weapons and ran away."
Now, he hadn't seen a damn thing! All the action had been hidden by jungle. But we stayed in that clearing for the remainder of the day, and his troops brought in armful after armful of weapons and piled them in front of us. I was excited-we'd scored a decisive victory! But Truong just sat, smoking his cigarettes.
In summary, the Viet Cong used a diversionary tactic in feigning to attack camp Pleime to conquer Pleiku. They did not envision the ARVN would dismantle this plan by defeating their 32nd Regiment around camp Pleime and their 33rd Regiment at the ambush location with the supports of USAF and US 1st Air Cavalry Artillery. The Viet Cong lit up the dynamite of the Pleime Campaign on October 19, 1965; it was diffused on October 25, when the ARVN relief column entered camp Pleime. The retreating VC troops reverted to their stronghold locations in the Chu Prong areas. The VC Pleime Campaign terminated at this point.
It was only more than two weeks later, on November 11, 1965, that the Viet Cong were caught by surprise when the American troops discovered their hide-out location and were attacked while the battalion commander of the unit being attacked was not present with his unit. The American troops were not lured into Chu Prong by the Viet Cong. The Ia Drang Valley battle ended on November 17, 1965.
At this phase, it appeared that the American troops were exhausted and were not eager to pursue the withdrawing enemy troops trying to cross the Cambodian border. They preferred to let the ARVN Airborne Brigade assume that task. The 334th Battalion of the NVA 32nd Regiment was cornered by the Vietnamese paratroopers in the Duc Co- Plei Che areas for ten days.
Such is the historical truth of the Pleime Battle that the Viet Cong call the Play Me Campaign and that the Americans call the Pleiku/Ia Drang Campaigns.
US 1st Air Cavalry Division's Website
Cục Tác Chiến BQP, Chiến Dịch Plây Me (English translation)
Gen. Vĩnh Lộc, Why Pleime, 1966
H. A. Mulligan, No Place to Die; The Agony of Vietnam, 1967
J. D. Coleman, Pleiku, 1989
S. L. Stanton, The Rise and Fall of an American Army, 1989
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, It Doesn't Take A Hero, 1992
Gen. H. G. Moore and J. L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, 1994
John M. Carland, Stemming the Tide, 2000
Nguyễn Đức Phương, Chiến Tranh Việt Nam Toŕn Tập, 2000
The most comprehensive view on Pleime Battle, narrated in the book entitled Why Pleime published in 1966 comprised three phases: one, Operation Dân Thắng 21; two, Operation Long Reach; anh three, Operation Thần Phong 7.
Nguyen Van Tin
26 December 2005
Updated on 02.04.2007
- 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