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 the 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 the following high ranking officers directly: 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 ability 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 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, before the attack of Pleime camp on October 19, 1965 (Intelligence Aspects of Pleime-Chupong Campaign, page 6):
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 forces with 66th Regiment into attacking Pleime camp for the second time set for November 16 (Arc Light Strike at Chupong-Iadrang Viewed From G3/IFFV):
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):
Later, when Colonel Hieu requested General Larsen to provide Task Force Ingram 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):
The reason General Larsen did not want to withdraw Task Force Ingram from Bong Son and assign it to Pleiku was that he was convinced that for the Viet Cong, Pleime was only a lure while Bong Son was the target (Pleiku, page 10):
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):
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):
- 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):
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 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 before the date the enemy scheduled to attack Pleime camp for a second time on November 16 (Why Pleime):
- 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):
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) :
When the Viet Cong began its assault on Pleime camp on the evening of October 19, General Vinh Loc was commanding Than Phong 6 operation in Bong Son. He agreed with the American high ranking military that Pleime was only a lure and Bong Son was the target (G3/IFFV 10201650H):
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 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):
General Kinnard demonstrated an arrogant character. He considered himself to be the most competent in the airmobile 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):
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 rescuing the camp (G3 Journal/IFFV, 10/23):
General Kinnard made known of his veiled power grabbing in following terms in his report (Pleiku, page 16)
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) :
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 proceed without fear (Pleiku, page 21):
After Pleime camp had been liberated, II Corps Command decided 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):
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):
Nevertheless, to prevent General Kinnard from overreaching, Colonel Hieu devised a combined operational procedure (Pleime, chapter VIII):
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):
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):
General Knowles was given by General Kinnard full authority in command of the three brigades 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):
General Knowles was not of a passive type of officer that only knew to take the 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):
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):
- 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):
- 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):
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 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):
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):
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, 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 acknowledgment section of his book Pleiku, The Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam, 1989, page xv, Coleman wrote:
General Knowles revealed that the Cavalry troops were inserted initially at LZ X-Ray on November 14 to grab the "tiger by the tail," then were withdrawn to LZ Albany on November 17 with the intention "to grab the tiger by its tail from another direction":
The metaphor has a Vietnamese connotation and has undeniably Colonel Hieu's imprint (kìm vĩ kích thủ = hold tail hit head)
One of the reason documents did not mention about the relationship between General Knowles, and Colonel Hieu might be because Colonel Hieu usually communicates 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 assist 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 commitment 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 overhead, 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 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)
- 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.
Pleime camp was a Special Forces outpost. Its dual commanders were Captain Harold Moore and Captain Tran Van Nhan, and were 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):
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):
Colonel Hieu denied that request (G3 Journal/IFFV, 10/20):
General Westmoreland monitored the Pleime-Chupong-Iadrang battlefront closely 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 October 22, G3 Journal/IFFV recorded :
On October 6, 1966, General Westmoreland summarized the Pleime campaign as following (Why Pleime):
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 the 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.
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):
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 to take 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 of 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):
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 smooth communications between the regiment headquarters and its ambush units (Why Pleime, chapter IV):
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 the 66th Regiment at Chu Pong to attempt a second time to conquer Pleime camp.
To ascertain an accurate 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):
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 heavy 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):
Countering the tactic of “mobile ambush”, Colonel Hieu applied the “delay” tactic to neutralize it, 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):
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 operation Long Reach conducted by the 1st Air Cavalry Division.
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):
Colonel Hieu’s operational concept appeared extremely simple (Pleime Counteroffensive into Chupong-Iadrang Complex):
The diversionary tactic consisted of inserting of the Air Cavalry troops at LZ X-Ray on November 14 to “grab the tiger by its tail”, then pulling them out of LZ X-Ray on November 17, and moving to LZ Albany “to grab the tiger by its tail from another direction”.
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 focusing on 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):
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 standard practice, the field commander decides 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):
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 quickly 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 the Plâyme campaign, Field Front B3 calculated very meticulously II Corp’s availability in terms of troops and equipment. 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:
Field Front B3 was also successful in diverting II Corps 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 smart 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 a 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 the 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):
And the air assault tactic he had developed was:
Firstly, Colonel Hieu knew that General Kinnard would not be able to seal off a full expanded 40 km by 50 km area covered by jungles, even with more than 500 helicopters and three air cavalry brigades. Secondly, he also knew that the Viet Cong troops were very smart in avoiding contact with the American air cavalry troops. And he rationalized that in order to destroy an army of soldiers 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 of all types of weapons, small and big, ancient and modern: artillery, armor, wing as well of tactical jetaircrafts, armed helicopters, B52 strategic air fortresses, as dictated by various battlefield situations.
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.
Nguyen Van Tin