Introduction - General Swcharzkopf’s Reaction to Pleime Counteroffensive into Chupong-Iadrang Complex’s operational concept.
Just like he marveled before LTC Ngo Quang Truong’s uncanny operational concept in setting up the ambush in Than Phong 7 operation:
He likely would marvel the same way before Colonel Hieu’s abnormal – out of the ordinary - operational concept in setting up the ambush in Pleime Counteroffensive into Chupong-Iadrang Complex:
It's not an extraordinary operational concept as far as General Hieu is concerned at all. Furthermore, he considered this Eagle-Darting-Down-From-The-Sky tactic to catch the prey was only effective if the prey was a slow-moving lamb, but became ineffective if the prey were quick-to-run-into-the-bushes Vietcong foxes. He learned through experiences that the tandem Infantry-Armor formula was more suitable to the Vietnam battlegrounds, and proved to be more effective in rounding up the ever evasive Vietcong foxes. That was why as soon as he took command of the 5th Division, according to the ARVN 5th Division's Senior Advisor, John Hayes, General Hieu immediately converted the Armor Cavalry Regiment from the role of "Palace Guards" into a fierce instrument of attack. Before bringing in General Hieu to the 5th Division, General Tri, a former paratrooper, used exclusively the "Plunging Eagles" tactic in rapidly discharging and picking up small teams of paratroopers, and was able to establish an impressive record of numerous but then small victories. Initially, this tactic seemed successful but was soon neutralized by those seasoned Vietcong foxes that would disperse and vanish into the bushes as soon as the helicopters appeared on the horizon.
And so, General Tri tilted toward General Hieu's idea and switched tactics into using more often the "round up" tactic, using the tandem Infantry-Armor formula, especially in crossover border operations.
Aren't we witnessing a stroke of a military genius; no, rather two strokes of a military genius, since both were the doings of Colonel Hieu:
- the first one in herding two battalions in a narrow corridor of Ia Drang Valley through the proxy of the ARVN Airborne Brigade and
- the second one in herding three regiments in a vast Chupong-Iadrang complex area stretching from Pleime camp to Chupong massif through the proxy of US 1st Air Cavalry Division.
1. The Intelligence Factor.
To execute the operational concept as planned the pre-requisite of its success was the capability of knowing exactly the precise moment and the location when the three regiments close in, not before and not after, to become suitable targets for B52 strikes.
Colonel Hieu had that capability. He could pinpoint the movements of the three regimental headquarters on their convergence paths to Chupong-Iadrang complex, when they were on the move and when they paused, oftentimes he even knew what their cadres were doing: meeting to resolve the spies case, counting the noses, assessing the losses, planning sessions for a second attack, reorganizing combat units, training, and rehearsals, setting attack D-day, attack readiness status, assembling location, staging location, dispersing time.
He had at his disposition different intelligence sources: Eagle Flights and Airborne Rangers recon teams, prisoners/ralliers/deserters’confessions and testimonies, radio intercepts. Plus radar and infra-red reports from aerial surveillance and target acquisition platoon and Radio Research Unit from 1st Air Cavalry. Among those intelligence sources radio intercepts of communication between Chinese Advisors at regimental and divisional levels were the main key to real-time intelligence knowledge. He only knew what the Chinese Advisors discussed in their communications, and they discussed a lot, almost everything. When they stopped talking, he had to rely on other less on real-time intelligence reports from other sources.
When asked by 1st Air Cav Intelligence folks how G2/ II Corps was able to get intelligence so precise to the point the enemy suspect internal spies, the response was “we have special agents.” Those unintentional “special agents” were none other than the Chinese Advisors who discussed freely and openly among themselves on everything: logistics, locations, troop morale, cadres’ intentions and plans, orders of battle, etc.
Montgomery was constantly defeated by the foxy Rommel until the day his intelligence succeeded in cracking the German code and defeated the mighty Rommel in the Sahara desert because he was able to intercept and decipher radio communication from German’s units.
It's a stroke of sheer luck that Colonel Hieu was able to acquire such reliable intelligence in the execution of his operational concept. Without that is was certainly doomed to failure. Ergo, it is quasi impossible to duplicate this feat: herding three regiments into one location and destroying them with B52 strikes.
In Pleime, cuộc chiến lịch sử, page 94, Colonel Hieu stated unequivocally that the victory achieved in the Pleime counteroffensive into Chupong-Iadrang complex was due to the acquisition of reliable intelligence on the enemy situation:
2. Herding the Enemy Troops to Chupong-Iadrang Complex.
"Herding the enemy troops?! Never heard of such thing at West Point!"
The initial mission assigned to the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade in phase 2 of the Pleime campaign was the pursuit of the two 32nd and 33rd Regiments on the retreat march back to Chupong-Iadrang complex, “search and destroy” the enemy in operation All the Way. But it soon became a “herding” operation, aiming at canalizing, at rounding-up the scattered troop units to a common location to destroy them more efficiently with B-52 strikes.
To these days, everybody, even the high ranking American officers who were directly or indirectly involved in carrying out this operation and the Vietnam War scholars and historians, thought that the operational concept consisted of “searching the enemy, fixing them, then destroying them with air assaults”. If that was correct then the 1st Air Cavalry did not harvest many results. 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 All the Way conducted by 1st Air Cavalry Brigade was a breeze, like “walk in the park” (Coleman, page 189):
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 to the west and went in LZ X-Ray (Coleman, page 196):
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 instead his main concern was to focus in monitoring moves and positions of the various 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
= Side-bar: Command and Control at Pleime Counteroffensive Operation
In the second phase of the Pleime campaign that the American side called Long Reach operation initially and Pleiku campaign afterward, Colonel Hieu – through General Larsen – was in control, General Kinnard and General Knowles were in command.
On 11/7 (Coleman):
On 11/13 (Coleman):
On 11/14 (Coleman):
On 11/16 (Cochran):
- (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)
= Side-bar: Colonel Hieu and General Larsen
When the Pleime camp was attacked on October 19, 1965, Colonel Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff, requested General Larsen, First Field Force Vietnam Commander for reinforcement. General Larsen questioned Colonel Hieu’ authority and command skills (G3 Journal/IFFV):
General Larsen progressively came to appreciate Colonel Hieu’s insights and command skills during the Pleime camp rescue operation and consequently agreed wholeheartedly with Colonel Hieu’s operational concept in the Pleime Counteroffensive into Chupong-Iadrang Complex. Of course, Colonel Hieu was smart enough to hide behind General Vinh Loc in his dealing with all the American military big shots. He was one of a kind chief of staff, wasn't he?!
Later on, Colonel Hieu was assigned to lead the 22nd Infantry Division and continued to have the chance to work closely with General Larsen at first then with General Peers, Larsen's replacement at IFFV.
3. The Enticement Diversionary Move
The B3 Field Front Command bit the 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade’s enticement diversionary move and made plan for a second attack set for November 16. This time it would commit all three regiments, 32n, 33rd, 66th, plus
For the next five days, until 11/13,
And on 11/13,
It was time to call in B-52 airstrikes. However, in order to induce the B3 Field Front Command to prolong the holding of troops at their respective staging areas, Colonel Hieu devised a distractive diversionary move with the insertion of one 1st Air Cavalry “at 3 kilometers northeast Chu Pong, 200 meters from the location of the 9th Battalion 66th Regiment” (General Huu An) on 11/14. Upon seeing the insertion of 1/7 Air Cavalry Battalion at LZ X-Ray, B3 Field Front “issued an order to delay the attack of Chu Ho,” and refocused its attention toward attacking the newfound enemy unit. In so doing, it kept its troop units concentrated at their respective staging areas.
Another reason for the choice of 11/14 for the insertion of 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion was to avoid the deadly firepower of 14.5 mm anti-aircraft guns that would have shot down all the troop transport helicopters and of the 120 mm mortars that would have decimated ground troops before enemy assaults.
The 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion’s main mission was to distract the enemy and stay put as a blocking position. If the enemy decided to remain in place, then fine and the better for B-52 strikes. If he decided to attack, then hold the line to allow B-52 strikes where supposed to.
When only the 9th Battalion/66th Regiment made the engagement, only one 1st Air Cavalry Battalion, the 2/7th, was sent in as reinforcement, instead of applying the pile-up tactic in committing more troop units, so that not to make B3 Field Front rush in the 32d and 33rd Regiments, which would jeopardize the use of B-52 airstrikes, with friendly and enemy troops too closed to each other.
When B3 Field Front committed an additional battalion (the 7th/66th Regiment), the 2/5th Air Cavalry Battalion was dispatched into LZ X-Ray by marching by foot from LZ Victor, undetected by the enemy.
That day, 18 sorties had been dispatched, and
On 11/17, the two air cav battalions were ordered to abandon the LZ X-Ray, to allow B-52 targeting the landing zone itself.
- by not having the 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion sweeping westward in searching of the enemy, instead of having it securing the landing zone perimeter;
- by bringing in only one reinforcement battalion, the 2/7th, instead of piling in en mass more troop units when the enemy accepted to engage;
- by having a troop unit rotation on 11/16, instead of increasing the presence of troops at the landing zone;
- by having the two replacement battalions, 2/7th and 2/5th, continue to hold at the landing zone, instead of moving westward in pursuit of the retreating enemy units;
- by not pulling out entirely and rapidly the two replacement battalions by helicopters on 11/17, instead having them march slowly on foot northwestward to make way for B-52 airstrikes at the landing zone;
by all these maneuvers, General Knowles - or somebody else behind him -demonstrated that his intention for the ground attack into the footsteps of Chu Pong was to execute a distractive diversionary move, and not
4. Destroy the Enemy with B-52 Air Strikes
So the uniqueness of Pleime Counteroffensive into Chupong-Iadrang Complex operational concept was to destroy the three NVA Regiments, 32nd, 33rd, and 66th, not by ground forces but by airstrikes. To reach that stage, Colonel Hieu had the following maneuvers executed by 1st Air Cavalry by the bias of General Larsen’s orders:
- Starting 10/27, herding the scattered 32nd and 33rd troop units toward Chupong-Iadrang complex with operation All the Way conducted by 1st Air Cavalry Brigade. General Knowles thought it was a search and destroy operation.
- Starting 11/8, enticement diversionary move by switching the operational direction from west to east with operation Bayonet I conducted by 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade. General Knowles still thought it was a search and destroy operation. He was disappointed because the operation drilled into dry holes.
- Starting 11/14, distracting diversionary move by inserting the 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion at the Chu Pong footsteps. LTC Hal Moore thought he was conducting a routine search and destroy operation.
And after all these elaborate preparation phases,
- Starting 1600H on 11/15, B-52 airstrikes began at B3 Field Front center of mass vicinity YA8702 and continued for five days, until 11/19 (Why Pleime, chapter VI):
Enemy casualties as results of B-52 airstrikes amounted to about 2,000 dead
= Who did the stalking? Colonel Hieu.
= Who gave the green light signals for each of the four – herding, enticement, distractive, B-52 airstrikes – maneuvers to start? Colonel Hieu.
So the operational concept had B-52 airstrikes as the main effort and 1st Air Cavalry ground forces as supportive effort. General Kinnard got it all wrong when he wrote (Pleiku Campaign, page 93):
General Kinnard’s misconception is an indication that the operational concept of Pleime counteroffensive into the Chupong-Iadrang complex originated from II Corps Command rather than from 1st Air Cavalry Division Command.
Side-bar: The success achieved by the execution of this operational concept in the case of Pleime Counteroffensive demonstrated that explicit knowledge of that concept does not have to be imparted to the commanders of various levels from top to bottom. It only necessitates that the person who conceives the concept knows the proper use of each of the combat units that take part in the operation. Only the top person has to think; the rest execute according to their respective abilities without a need for thinking. So it did not matter that much when LTC Hal Moore was put in a situation where he did not have time to think, just to react as he was trained.
5. “The Coup de Grace” Operation
On November 17, General Kinnard wanted to have his 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade pursue the enemy remnant troops to the Cambodian border (Cochran):
But that was not what II Corps Command wanted. II Corps Command wished 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, a surgical 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 (Why Pleime, chapter VI):
The 52d Aviation Battalion provided mainly helicopters for the transportation of the five airborne battalions in the area of operations with the additional aid from 1st Air Cav Divison:
By calling in the ARVN Airborne Brigade, Colonel Hieu had the operation cut out for LTC Ngo Quang Truong, who did not have to raise a finger to do anything in terms of preparation, thinking, planning, mapping, arrangement, whatsoever; he just came in and executed Colonel Hieu’s orders and was able to ambush the enemy troops twice. Even battlefield tactical maneuvers were dictated to him by Colonel Hieu (G3 Journal/IFFV, on 11/19/1965 at 16:55H)
LTC Ngo Quang Truong conducted Than Phong 7 operation in such a usual manner under Colonel Hieu’s discreet and yet firm guidance that Major Schwarzkopf was left speechless all through the entire operation! (General Schwarzkopf's Naïveté in the Ia Drang Battle)
6. The Art of How to Bridle a Mustang
= When Colonel Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff, requested troop reinforcement to organize a rescue force to relieve Pleime camp, General Larsen gave him Task Force Ingram, which was actually formed by the 2/12th Air Cavalry Battalion along with one artillery battalion (B 2/7 Arty). But General Kinnard wanted a more significant piece of the action and brought up the entire 1st Air Cavalry Brigade lead by General Knowles. And Knowles demanded to be given carte blanche (Coleman, page 87):
- Colonel Hieu had to put a bridle onto General Knowles’s earnestness in forcing him to be content with the supportive role of securing Pleiku City.
= After the relief of Pleime camp, General Kinnard/Knowles wanted to pursue the withdrawing enemy troops (Coleman, page 99):
- Colonel Hieu had to put a bridle onto General Kinnard/Knowles with a modus operandi (Why Pleime, chapter VIII):
General Kinnard had his idea of how to conduct a tactical operation to counter the guerrillas' warfare (Cochran):
And how to apply the air assault tactic he had developed:
For a while, Colonel Hieu let General Knowles roamed freely the vast area stretching from Pleime to Chu Pong in the search of the enemy, knowing that he would not be able to seal off that wide expanded 40 km by 50 km area covered by jungles, even with more than 500 helicopters and 3 air cavalry brigades, and that he would not be able to find and catch those quick-to-run-into-the-bushes Vietcong foxes. He did not care that much; he had a better idea to deal with the evasive enemy: stalk them, herd them toward a location, then squash them with B52 airstrikes.
* Therefore, on 11/8, he made General Knowles turn his head away from the west toward the east, without much explanation.
* Then again on 11/12, he turned General Knowles’s head back westward, with an enigmatic explanation: to entice the enemy to attack again.
* Then again, without specific explanation – just a routine search and destroy operation, General Knowles was ordered to insert a battalion at the footstep of Chu Pong massif.
* On 11/16, General Kinnard wanted to pull his troops immediately out of LZ X-Ray, Colonel Hieu made him stay one day longer in preparation for B52s to strike at the landing zone itself.
* On 11/17, again General Kinnard became restless and wanted aggressively go after the enemy all the way into Cambodia (Cochran):
Colonel Hieu had again put a bridle onto General Kinnard’s zeal in calling in the ARVN Airborne Brigade that would do a better in a surgical operation than the 1st Air Cavalry.
In all, it appeared that although (Cochran)
It was not sure that
Colonel Hieu did.
Nguyen Van Tin