NVA 66th Regiment in Pleime-Ia Drang Campaign

Early August 1965, the Defense Ministry gave the order to 304th Division Commander "to bring the entire 304th Division to battlefront B… all preparations must be achieved within two months."

In the 304th Division's party committee to discuss about the combat mission were present the following comrades: Truong Cong Can divisional political commissar, was the party committee's secretary and the delegates: Hoang Kien division commander, Nguyen Nam Khanh deputy political commissar, Huy Dinh political chief, Hoang Binh deputy chief of general staff, Nguyen Lam chief of arrears, La Ngoc Chau 66th regimental political commissar, Le Kha Phieu 9th regiment political commissar, Nguyen Man Thach 24th regiment political commissar, Nguyen Duc Gia 66th regiment artillery commander.

Defense Ministry's comrades delegates were also present at the meeting.

The two comrades, division commander and political commissar, relayed General Vo Nguyen Giap's opinions expressed when he inspected the combat readiness of the division: At the moment the Americans were pouring in troops in mass into the South; it would take the division two months to reach the Western Highlands, and would have to engage the American troops immediately at the Western Highlands battlefield; therefore they should be mentally prepared to vanquish the Americans at the first battle. Cadres' and soldiers' resolve should be built prior the division's departure.

Consequently, the combat target on the battlefield at this present time is not solely the ARVN, but also the American expeditionary troops and its allies, who are professional and well equipped with modern weaponries. The immediate and urgent tasks are to set up personnel's organization, to provide additional training and exercises to the troops to fit with the conditions and combat targets on the battlefield; specifically, to build up troop’s heath conditions and endurance to ensure a good retentions of troops engaged in long march operations.

In the training task, the political commissar emphasized the training of cadres was key, in particular of those in charge at various levels.

After the party committee's meeting, units rapidly switched from peace time mode to combat mode, all activities from training, formation, were geared to combat conditions. After 10 years of peacetime training, this was a combat challenge to create in each unit, each cadre, and each soldier habitudes of a combatant. During this phase, the division was visited by comrade Tran Van Quan, the first political commissar of the division and several cadres returning from the battlefield to share their combat experiences, and to help the division in implementing training organization based on combat experiences recently obtained from the battlefield.

The command of the lead unit comprised comrade Hoang Kien division commander, comrade Son Hung political deputy chief and comrades chiefs of tactics, signal and reconnaissance. The Defense Ministry's order indicated that the division would operate in Western Highlands; therefore the division commander assigned comrade Xiem and comrade Na, two company leaders who originated from Western Highlands, to separate from their units to joint the lead unit.

On September 20, 1965, Western Highlands Command sent out comrade Ha Vi Tung to welcome 304th division's cadres and to brief them on their tasks.

The situation in Western Highlands was relatively hot at that time.

On the enemy's side: after the defeat at Duc Co and Kontum, the enemy had changed its organization in order to reinforce combat effectiveness of its main and regional forces, by concentrating its troops to protect key locations like provincial cities, towns and strategic routes. It created the 24th special zone at Kontum, Pleiku, abandoned tactical zone, and established II corps. Also in September, forward units of US 1st air cavalry landed at An Khe, with the aim of destroying our main forces in Western Highlands, and stifling the revolutionary uprising of local population.

On our side: since July 1965, the Central Party and the Central Military Committee had assigned major general Chu Huy Man as Commander and Political Commissar of Western Highlands Front.

In August 1965, the Joint General Staff reinforced Western Highlands with 33rd Regiment (this regiment was 101st regiment of 325B division). To that point, the Western Highlands' main forces comprise 3 infantry regiments, 5 sapper battalions and several machinegun battalions; the main force and in each local city already had 1 infantry battalion, 1 sapper company and several team of machineguns; each district already had from 1 infantry platoon to 1 infantry company.

The Western Highlands' armed forces at this time were not numerous but all 3 army troops were well developed, and units had gone through combat experiences and were well motivated.

The forward group of cadres and soldiers of 304th division arrived in Western Highlands when the entire Western Highlands front were feverish with the preparation of Pleime campaign. The first attack of Western Highlands armed forces campaign aiming at annihilating an element of American troops, continuing to destroy an element of ARVN troops, taking control of a great mountainous and populated area, especially a mountainous area that had a strategic importance.

The Western Highlands front's party committee had assessed: "American troops would appear on the Western Highlands battlefield eventually, and they would increased ARVN troops' activities, but they would not be able to overcome fundamental weaknesses of the ARVN troops which becomes worst by the days. We must remain alert in all aspects, regularly indoctrinate politically our soldiers to be ready to destroy American troops, to gain the upper-hand at the first battle and to train our cadres and soldiers to take measure to counter American weaponries, especially in the areas of aviation and chemical warfare." (Resolution adopted by the Western Highlands' Party Committee in the Pleime Campaign)

Tactically, the Party Committee and the Front Command decided to select Pleime as the siege target, forcing the enemy to move out of its base camp to rescue Pleime, which allows us to destroy it. We must inflict heavily the ARVN troops to force the American troops to intervene before they had time to prepare themselves, and to react to counter our moves, forcing them to fight our way, allowing to destroy an element of the American troops, crushing them when they just venture into Western Highlands.

The tactical plan would comprise 3 phases:

Phase 1: Encircle Pleime and destroy the ARVN rescue column.

Phase 2: Following the outcome of phase 1, either continue to encircle or overrun Pleime to force the American troops to intervene.

Phase 3: Concentrate our forces in an area to destroy from 4 to 5 American companies, combining with attrition to eliminate from 1,200 to 1,500 American soldiers.

The campaign's command used forces as following:

33rd Regiment puts up the siege.

320th Regiment destroys the rescue column.

66th Regiment coming late will participate in phase 3 to destroy American combat units. Therefore someone must to go out to meet and instruct 66th Regiment so that it can prepare itself on the run and to be ready to fight upon arrival on the battle scene.

After been brief about the general task of Western Highlands front and the intention of the front in the use of 66th regiment, 304th division command deployed troops rapidly and organized reconnaissance of terrain in one hand, in the other hand it dispatched cadres to the rear to meet and relayed preliminary orders to 66th regiment. This regiment was put under the direct control of the front command.

On October 19, 1965, at night, gunshots started the Pleime campaign, 20th battalion fired artillery into Duc Co camp 49th Sapper battalion attacked Tan Lac. While the enemy focused it’s attention on Duc Co and Tan Lac, 11th battalion, 33rd regiment attacked in surprise Chu Ho, an outpost protecting the southeast side of Pleime, then organized the siege of Pleime.

Understanding well the tactic of "encircling a camp to destroy the rescue column", cadres and soldiers of 33rd regiment rapidly concentrate its forces to set up the siege, forcing the enemy to organize a rescue column.

General Vinh Loc, II corps commander considered Pleime as a strong defense of the border and a key outpost and thus reacted swiftly when the enemy set up a siege at Pleime. During 5 first days, the enemy used air force and artillery to bombard fiercely around Pleime, but 33rd regiment troops held the ground and tightened the siege.

On October 23, 1965, 24th special zone used 21st and 22nd ranger battalions, 1st battalion 42nd regiment and 3rd armored squadron to rescue Pleime. The ambush to destroy the rescue column set up by 320th regiment was waiting for them for a long time. The fight occurred all day long, and by 10:00pm 320th regiment was in control of the fight, destroying 3rd squadron and one battalion, one infantry company, damaging 89 military vehicles.

On October 24, 1965 the Americans dispatched 2 air cavalry to Pleime, the same day Westmoreland came to the forward command of US 1st air cavalry brigade to review the situation and decided to discontinued the sweeping operation conducted by the American troops in Bong Son (Binh Dinh) and concentrated forces in Western Highlands in order to launch operations deep into our rears to assist the ARVN in recuperating from its defeat.

On October 31, 1965 the Americans used helicopters to insert troops at the village of Mui, Plei Ia Prieng, then at Quynh Kla and at southeast of Ia Mo stream.

At this moment, 66th regiment was on its way, its operational formation was 20 days away from the combat zone.

After been briefed by the officer from the division, the officer in charge and the command comrades of 66 regiment met and decided to speed up the march to reach the battlefield earlier. The regiment made some adjustment to lighten the loads carried by the troops in order to rush to the battlefield. Understanding the needs of the battlefield, coupled with the news of multiple victories obtained by the Western Highlands Front, the entire regiment was feverish with a new excitement. Everybody was eager to implement the slogan: "Walk quickly, show up all, defeat the Americans at the very first battle." Succeeding in speed up the march among the infantry was quite a challenge; it was more difficult in the case of the firepower section of the troops. The 17th company, with 120mm mortars, and with its troops carrying shells, was slowed down by heavy loads and was always the last unit to reach the destinations. Under such circumstance, the regiment encouraged the infantry unit to share the burden of heavy loads, and organized young men to assist this firepower unit at portions of the road where it was steep or cut through by deep stream. With clever motivational indoctrination, firm regimental instruction, shrew recruitment in manpower, the operation formation of the regime was able to proceed fast to reach the destination in due time as planned.

Although the troops were exhausted by a long march, they nevertheless were eager to engage into combat at once.

On the Western Highlands battleground at this moment, after the American troops were forced to intervene with firepower superiority and swift airmobility by helicopters, they counted to launch attacks to gain military and political victories in order to establish their strength and to boost ARVN's morale. The American troops were cautious; while deploying, they tested the ground; they intended to maximize their strength by airmobility, firepower, which allowed them to strike unexpectedly, to seize control of the battlefield and to force us into passive reaction. But right at the outset, whenever the American troops landed, our forces struck them, confused them and caused damages to them. The American troops did not have time to deploy into formation; we struck first and they had to react to our combat tactics.

On November 6, 1965 the party committee's front assessed: the enemy had committed 3 brigades of the US 1st air cavalry, 4 South Korean regiments, one transport helicopter regiment, 2 US artillery battalions and many airplanes into the Western Highlands; they even intended to use B52 bombers at the direction of Pleime, and they had also discovered some positions of our forces and caches in our rear areas (nevertheless they did not have concrete and accurate information).

[…]

Implementing instructions of the Central Military Committee, the Joint General Staff and Military Zone 5, the Political Party of Western Highlands Front was determined to lead and organize Western Highlands armed forces to create an opportunity to destroy some American combat units, "the objective is to destroy from 1 to 2 American battalions". (Summary report of the Pleime campaign number 05 TMQLV)

The unfolding of the fight during the 10 first day of November since the Americans poured in their troops in the village of Moi, Play Ia Pring, Quynh Kla and south of Ia Mo stream, showed that our troops were determined to attack the Americans but also knew how to fight them, which were proofs that the Party Committee and the Western Highlands Command were right in their assessments about the enemy. At this point, the front command made an adjustment to the tactical plan and decided to select valley Ia Drang as the second key location to attack and destroy the American troops to end the Pleime campaign.

On November 10, 1965, 66th regiment was greeted by cadres of 304th division and of the battlefront and was lead to the Chu Pong areas. The regiment troops were deployed as following:

The regimental command unit at north of the village of Tung (east of Chu Prong mountain). 7th Battalion next to the regimental command unit. 8th Battalion in the area of Ba Bi. 9th Battalion at northeast of Chu Prong.

In the morning of November 11, 1965, the regiment commander went to the command post to listen to the declaration of the Party Committee and to the combat plan. The troops had just arrived to the field; the commanders had rapidly prepared the battlefield; two third of the troops were transporting foods and ammunition; the remaining troops were digging trenches and set up the command post area.

On November 13, the regiment commander had just been briefed about his task and the battle plan, but he did not have the time to carry it out when the situation had changed.

At 7 am on November14, the 9th battalion commander was on a reconnaissance mission by the river of Ia Drang, the political deputy chief was attending a meeting at the regiment command post, only the political chief and the executive officer remained at home. The troops had just brought back rice and were preparing their meals. Suddenly the enemy used airplane and artillery to bombard fiercely on 9th battalion's , 15th company's and Chu Prong areas.

By 10 am, the enemy used helicopters to pour in 1st battalion of 3rd air cavalry brigade at northeast of Chu Prong mountain, about 9 kilometers from 9th battalion's position. Then, they split into two prongs, one attacking directly at 9th battalion position, the second attacking 1st company.

Because recon combatants of the battalion had been killed by the enemy right at the beginning, when the enemy came in within 100 meters, our combatants died at the command post using bayonets to kill the Americans, some combatants died while attempting to unlock grenades. Meanwhile, American bodies showed head and back wounds while attempting to flee.

The fierce battle in the valley of Ia Drang-Pleime was a close combat between our main forces and the American troops; the battle lasted 10 hours in daytime. The enemy was supported by artillery and hundreds of airplanes; but finally they were defeated. More than 400 soldiers of 1st battalion and only a few soldier of 1st company/2nd battalion/3rd air cavalry brigade survived to return to the base camp. The battle demonstrated that not only our main forces were determined to attack but also they knew how to defeat the most sophisticated American troops. Although they came in drove, but we still controlled the campaign.

[…]

The Pleime campaign ended with our victory. The first time on the Western Highlands battleground. one ARVN task force and 1 American battalion were almost entirely annhililated, another American battalion and 2 other ARVN battalions were severely damaged, and US 3rd air cavalry brigade were also greatly crippled.

As far as 304th Division was concerned, Pleime victory demonstrated clearly the result of a 10 year training to well prepare our forces. In this campaign this division had only committed the 66th regiment, and had only participated in the final phase of the campaign; but the combatants of 66th regiment who had just marched into the battlefield and unloaded their backpacks to engage immediately the enemy and had joined the combatants of the 101B regiment to become the first flag to destroy an American battalion.

From the attack of 9th battalion on November 11 to the consecutive assault of 7th battalion on the nights of November 15 and 16, 1965, then finally the joint counterattack of 8th battalion and 1st battalion of 101B regiment, altogether the 3 battalions with different tactics deployed in conditions extremely urgent and decisive, cadres and soldiers of 66th regiment appearing the first time to attack the Americans, had contributed with the army and population of Western Highlands in composing a magnificent epical hymn, attacking and defeating the American invaders together with the army and the people under the leadership of our Party.

Coming back to the 66th regiment, in November 1965, the second unit of the division comprising 24th regiment, the division command unit and some dependent units continued to arrive into the battleground. Comrades Huy Dinh political chief, Hoang Binh deputy chief of staff and Nguyen Lam chief of rear unit accompanied the regiment. Before its departure, comrade Le Quan Dao, deputy chief of Political Directorate paid a visit to encourage the troops. Excited by the victory of 66th regiment at Pleime, and learning from the experience of the advanced unit, end December, 24th regiment arrived at north Kontum. At that time, due to the demand of the situation, in December 1965, the Party Committee of Western Highlands Front decided to create 2 divisions, the 1st and the 6th.

1st Infantry Division comprised 33rd, 320th and 66th regiments that had fought and matured at Pleime. 6th Infantry Division were created with a new command, command units and some dependent units. When its arrival, 24th regiment was incorported in the forming of 6th Division.

Parts of division commanders, command units and the dependent units of 304th Division were attached to the front units, parts to 1st Division and 6th Division.

Nguyen Huy Toan and Pham Quang Dinh
304th Division, volume II
2. The First Battles Against the American Troops
, pp 19-42.
(People's Army Publishing House, 1990)

Copied from Trái Tim Việt Nam Online November 13, 2006

Documents

- Primary

- Books, Articles

* Pleiku, the Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam, J.D. Coleman, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1988.

* We Were Soldiers Once… and Young, General Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, Random House, New York, 1992.

* "First Strike at River Drang", Military History, Oct 1984, pp 44-52, Per. Interview with H.W.O Kinnard, 1st Cavalry Division Commanding General, Cochran, Alexander S.

* The Siege of Pleime, Project CHECO Report, 24 February 1966, HQ PACAF, Tactical Evaluation Center.

* Silver Bayonet, Project CHECO Report, 26 February 1966, HQ PACAF, Tactical Evaluation Center.

- Viet Cong

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