Crushing the American Troops in Western Highlands or in Danang?

Right in the introduction of his article Crushing the American Troops in Western Highlands General Nam Khanh wrote:

"Early 1965, the Joint General Staff summoned me and the 304th division commander to give us the order to enter the South on a combat mission. Comrade Deputy Chief of Staff said: "You must think carefully: we are going to engage an American troop, our main force must strike the enemy with an "upper-hand" advantage. The high command gives you two the control to lead a full division into the South, to joint with the people and militias of the South to defeat the American troop and succeed in the very first fight."

A few paragraphs later, he added:

" End of 9/1965, the forward units of 304th division entered Western Highlands when the Pleime campaign was about to start. B3 Command (comrade Chu Huy Man, Commander and Political Commissionaire of B3) summoned me and the 304th Division Commander to receive operational order. Comrade Chu Huy Man said: "304th Division is the first full division to enter the Western Highlands. The Pleime campaign has started, the 304th Division will participate in phase 2 of the campaign, and will constitute the force which will attack directly the US 1st Airmobile Cavalry newly arrived in Vietnam and was on its way up to Western Highlands. I will maneuver to attract troops of the US 1st Cavalry for you to attack. Being the first full division to engage combat with the Americans, you must strike a "demoralizing" coup to the American troops. So that from that point on whenever they saw the main Vietnamese force they would panicked in fear."

At first, the reader might think that NVA 304th Division received the order to enter the South to attack US 1st Air Cavalry, since the order from the Joint General Staff in early 1965 - " The high command gives you two the control to lead a full division into the South, to joint with the people and militias of the South to defeat the American troop and succeed in the very first fight" - was similar to General Chu Huy Man's in September 1965 - "Being the first full division to engage combat with the Americans, you must strike a "demoralizing" coup to the American troops."

However, a closer look will reveal that it was not possible that 304th Division could have received the order in early 1965 to attack US 1st Air Cavalry because this division did not come into existence until June 1965 and received the order to go to combat in Vietnam on June 15, 1965 when Defense Minister McNamara allowed the US Army to use one airmobile cavalry division to be included in the 16 divisions that would be committed in the Vietnam battlefield (When We Were Soldiers… Moore). Moreover, upon receiving the order to lead the US 1st Air Cavalry into the battlefield of Vietnam, General Kinnard, its Commander did not want to establish his camp at An Khe in Central Islands, but would rather in Thailand in order to more security for his troops (Moore). Furthermore, the forward units of US 1st Air Cavalry were only present at An Khe in early October 1965. For these reasons, it would be preposterous to state that in early 1965 the NVA JGS sent 304th Division to Vietnam "to attack US 1st Air Cavalry and to defeat at the very first attack."

Then which Y US combat unit was it? In order to solve the unknown variable Y, the best way is to pinpoint with accuracy which US combat unit first had already entered Vietnam in early 1965. Stanton notes (Vietnam Order of Battle) there were the following three units, not counting the Special Forces units which were present in Vietnam sin November 1965, but these units were insignificant quantities as they formed groups of 3 to 5 US officers commanding Montagnards militias in outposts scattered all over the four corps (5 in I, 16 in II, 5 in III and 8 in IV) :

- March 19, 1963 - 52nd Aviation Battalion (Combat) Plaice

- October 01, 1964 - 14th Aviation Battalion (Combat) Qui Nhon

- March 08, 1965 - 9th Marine Amphibious Brigade with two battalions 3/9th and ̀ 1/3rd.

Furthermore, the following US Marines' document, Chronology of key Marine Corps events in the Vietnam War, 1962-1975 notes:

March 8, 1965 -The 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) commanded by BGen Frederick J. Karch landed at Da Nang, Vietnam, consisting of two Marine battalions, one arriving by air and over the beach. The following day, the MEB assumed control of the Marine Task Unit 79.3.5 at Da Nang, which became Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 16.

Significance: This was the first deployment of U.S. battalion-sized U.S. combat units to Vietnam. Although the mission of the 9th MEB was limited solely to the defense of the airbase at Da Nang, it was, nevertheless, indicative that the U.S. advisory phase in the Vietnam War was to be transformed into more direct U.S. participation.

Consequently, we can conclude that the unknown variable Y was the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) and adjusted General Nam Khanh's introduction as following:

"Around March 1965, the Joint General Staff summoned me and the 304th division commander to give us the order to enter the South on a combat mission. Comrade Deputy Chief of Staff said: "You must think carefully: we are going to engage the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) , our main force must strike the enemy with an "upper-hand" advantage. The high command gives you two the control to lead a full division into Danang, to joint with the people and militias of the South to defeat the American troop and succeed in the very first fight.

Nota bene: the other US combat units presented early in Vietnam right after this unit was:

- May 06, 1965 - 3rd Marine Division with 4 regiments, the 3rd, 4th, 7th and 9th

- May 06, 1965 - Company D/16th Armor

- May 07, 1965 -173rd Airborne Brigade

- June 29, 1965 - 1st Brigade/101st Airborne Division (separate)

The answer Y= 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade is confirmed up by the following paragraph of General Nam Khanh:

After receiving the mission order, I and the 304th division commander discussed and agreed that the first fight would result in the annihilation of an American battalion - this feat did not have a precedent in the imperialistic history of the American troops (including in the 1951-1952 Korean War). The first time a full division of main force of the People's Army of Vietnam faces an opponent whose combat capabilities are unknown to us, and yet equipped with the most modern weaponry; in order for us to defeat them to the point of "remembering for life" and "fearful" is not an easy task. In the capacity of the person in charge of the division going South, I was keenly aware the critical situation of the matter required a thorough preparation in political ideology and organization. (...)

In terms of combat techniques, we study thoroughly the American troops, their experience in the invasion war in Korea, we organized reading on combat accounts in Korea in the Northern region."

Because the aimed target was a Marine unit - " whose combat capabilities are unknown to us, and yet equipped with the most modern weaponry ” – in Danang, which " required a thorough preparation ”, General Nam Khanh studied " thoroughly the American troops, their experience in the invasion war in Korea, we organized reading on combat accounts in Korea in the Northern region ", since the American troops in question here were also a Marines unit, the 1st Marine Division.

In fact, after 8 North Korean division crossed the 38th parallel to invade South Korea, President Truman ordered General McArthus to send American troops in South Korea. General McArthur selected the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade composed of 6,500 Marines to land at Pusan beach, South Korea. After taking over Pusan, McArthur boldly ordered 1st Marine Division to attack the rear of North Korean troops by landing at Inchon, the seaport of Seoul and close to the 38th parallel. Afterwards, end of October, the 1st Marine Division together with other units of NATO bloc advanced to the northern parts close to Red China's border. Here, 1st Marine Division was attacked by 8 Red China division using human waves tactic and pouring down from mountain tops and fierce close combats using bayonnets took place. The 1st Marine Division had to withdraw along 78 miles of torturous mountain roads to reach Hungnam seaport, suffering more than 4 thousands casualties and the Marines were pickep by boats to the high sea. See Brief history of the Marine Corps during the Korean War

After 4 months of rigorous training in close combats with bayonets familiar to the Marines, on August 15, 1965, NVA 304th minus (comprising the command unit and 66th Regiment) received the order to go into operation. However, on their way along route 599, they were ordered not to proceed to Danang, and to report to B3 battlefront instead as attachment to 32nd and 33rd Regiment that were about to launch the Pleime campaign, to assume the task to engaging the US 1st Air Cavalry that could be attached to II Corps in Western Highlands. This change in terms of target might be caused by the fact NVA JGS realized the sudden and speedy built up of Americain troops around Danang and Chu Lai areas with 2 Marine Division, the 1st and 3rd, with an effective of more than 20 thousands troops, which rendered quasi impossible to achieve the objective of "attacking the American troops and succeed in defeating at the first strike" with NVA 66th Regiment; and therefore was ordered to go to Western Highlands to impossible to achieve the objective of "attacking the American troops and succeed in defeating at the first strike" instead. A sign which indicated the change in strategy of NVA JGS was the transfer of General Chu Huy Man from Military Region 5 comprising the two provinces of Quang Tri and Tri Thien under the 17th parallel to B3 Battlefront in Western Highlands in August 1965.

Upon learning that they would not attack the Marines but rather would attack the 1st Air Cavalry Division - commencing at cross road number 9 in lower Laos - troops of 66th Regiment discarded their bayonets along the path. General Nguyen Nam Khanh wrote: "a section of cadres and combatants assessed mistakenly that American troops could not be attacked with using close range combat with bayonets, and dismantled and abandoned almost all bayonets along route 559 (from route 9 to B3)."

In writing "American troops", General Nam Khanh undoubtedly meant "US Air Cavalry troops".

Route 559 was Ho Chi Minh trail.

An other indication of the change in NVA JGS's target was the fact 66th Regiment arrived late at the battlefield, when the Pleime campaign had already started, which meant that the factor of 66th Regiment was not included in the original planning of the campaign. This shows that the NVA JGS did not plan to launch 304th Division in Western Highlands in the beginning of 1965; but even in August 1965, it still sent this division to Danang and aimed at the Marines who were the first US combat troops to enter Vietnam with the intention to "defeat the American troops and to achieve it with the first strike". General Nguyen Nam Khanh wrote:

" End of 9/1965, the forward units of 304th division entered Western Highlands when the Pleime campaign was about to start. B3 Command (comrade Chu Huy Man, Commander and Political Commissionaire of B3) summoned me and the 304th Division Commander to receive operational order. Comrade Chu Huy Man said: "304th Division is the first full division to enter the Western Highlands. The Pleime campaign has started, the 304th Division will participate in phase 2 of the campaign, and will constitute the force which will attack directly the US 1st Airmobile Cavalry newly arrived in Vietnam and was on its way up to Western Highlands. I will maneuver to attract troops of the US 1st Cavalry for you to attack. Being the first full division to engage combat with the Americans, you must strike a "demoralizing" coup to the American troops. So that from that point on whenever they saw the main Vietnamese force they would panicked in fear."

Furthermore, the fact of adjusting the tactics in using bayonets indicates that there was a switch in the attack target from the Marines to the Air Cavalry. Troops of 304th Division underwent a retraining in the use of bayonnets, from recruiting soldiers "at the same time well trained, versed and determined" daring to ram into the Marines, to recruiting only 330 soldiers who were quick on their feet to face the Air Cavalry troops: "The use of bayonets in this battle was not to entrust to anybody, but to select highly motivated and determined combatants to defeat the American troops. Then to motivate, to train to the perfect the bayonet tactics, close range combat and light foot, under enemy fire in order to ascertain close contact appropriate to the Americans target that we will face at Ia Drang valley".

Conclusion: Beginning 1965, the initial order imparted to 304th Division was to enter South Vietnam, to the Danang area to attack 9th Marines Brigade and to gain victory at the first battle. But then due to the changing of military situation, in November 1965, 66th Regiment which constituted 304th Division minus received the order to crush US 1st Air Cavalry: "you must strike a "demoralizing" coup to the American troops”.

Comments

Objections from a reader
(member of Trái Tim Việt Nam Online; Mục: Chiến Thắng Oai Hùng của QĐNDVN -
Chiến Dịch Plây Me).

- Western Highlands battlefield was highly important to both sides of the participants in this war, with each side wanting to control and to dominate it.

- At that time, the force of a NVA Infantry Division was very top-sided in comparison to the force of a US Infantry Division, in particular in terms of firepower. In consequence, the NVA JGS had to select a battleground that would limit the American might while facilitate the expansion of our troops. One must add that according to your "guess" the direct combat target aimed by 304th Division prior to entering the South was the American Marine Division stationning in Danang would implicate that the NVA JGS used its weakness to go against the American strength? Because in Danang, the Americans had in place fortified base camps, and their firepower could be deployed to the maximum, including artillery for the gunships!

- NVA's and 304th Division's strong point was to mobile attack when the enemy was moving out of its stronghold. This explains the diversionary attack of Pleime outpost to force the ARVN and Americans to dispatch rescue troops, which means troops coming out of their bastion. If the attack occured in Danang, the Americans would not have to go anywhere; they just had to sit tight and shoot out, calling in artillery and air power to wipe 304th Division out of existence.

- In Centeral Highlands battlefield, our troops enjoyed generous supports from the Montagnard tribes, and coupled with the advantage the nearby Ho Chi Minh trail, 304th Division could easily access to the battlefield, unfold a secret battle plan. On the contrary, if it had to go down to Danang, 304th Division had to bypass the whole network of outposts established along route 19 from An Khe down to Danang, tipping of its presence and losing troops on the way. It would be reduced down to 1/4th or if lucky to 1/3rd of its effective. Do you think the NVA JGS was a "child"?

Responses

- Besides Western Highlands battlefront, Tri Thien battlefront was as important. The ARVN anticipated the NVA could invade South Vietnam through the Highlands or directly through the 17th parallel. In 1964, the ARVN tried to interdict the route through the Western Highlands by jumping into Do Xa stronghold; and in 1965, ARVN II Corps had succeeded in restraining three NVA regiments in Thuan Man, Than Phong and Duc Co battles. Consequently, the Americans did not have to show up in Western Highlands first, but they rather landed on the coastal areas of Tri Thien since March 1965 to support ARVN I Corps that was weaker than II Corps; II Corps was relatively self-sufficient until October 1965 when the Americans jumped up to Western Highlands.

- The NVA, on the other side, used diversionary tactics in order to let the ARVN/US guessing where its main and secondary thrusts would be deployed between Western Highlands and Tri Thien.

- Beginning 1965, when 304th Division was ordered to enter South Vietnam, General Chu Huy Man was still Military Region 5 commander, which encompassed Tri Thien areas; It was only in June or August that he was transferred to assume the position of B3 commander.

- Beginning 1965, when the Americans had introduced only one combat regiment minus stationed in Danang, outposts scattered between 17th parallel and Danang manned by ARVNI Corps troops could be easily boxed In by local VC forces to allow 304th Division, complete or minus, to wade through unopposed to reach Danang.

- Making preparation to strike a clear and fixed target is easier than an undefined and mobile target, especially when the intention was to impress and to create a psychological impact.

- If indeed "NVA's and 304th's strong point was to attack a mobile enemy maneuvering out of its stronghold" then should it be put to use in luring 9th Marine Regiment to come out of Danang airport? This would economize the commitment of additional troops to lure the ARVN troops in order to force the American troops to come to the rescue.

- My assumption that NVA JGS ordered 304th Division to attack 9th Marine Regiment minus with 2 infantry battalion, a first American combat one-battalion sized unit to enter Vietnam was not at all inconceivable. The plan would certainly be a bold one. But wars oftentimes relied on bold attacks, which struck at well-defended places the enemy least expected and was caught off guard. Especially when the main objective was to impress the enemy. Of course, the NVA JGS ought to come up with a well-crafted plan that would be tailored for an operation of the commando type. Just like in the case of the Americans after the entire fleet was destroyed at Pearl Harbor; Japan thought the Americans would not be able to reach Japan territories by air because the nearest airfield was out of reach. The Americans dispatched a one-way squadron of bombers to bomb the center of Tokyo when the Japanese least thought the Americans would dare and would be able to conduct such a bold bombardment.

- Furthermore, such a commando styled attack in the Tri Thien area could also be a diversionary activity to support attacks launched up in Western Highlands.

- The threat of a NVA invasion across the 17th parallel had compelled the US Marines to establish a forward defense line in Dong Ha.

- In March 1966, NVA troops were not afraid to engage 3rd Marine Division even when the Americans had finished poured in troops in Tri Thien. See http://www.gruntonline.com/US_Forces/US_MarineCorps/USMC_chronology.htm

March 4-7, 1966
The 3rd Marine Division Task Force Delta defeated the 21st North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Regiment inflicting heavy casualties upon the enemy in heavy combat in Operation Utah south of Chu Lai.
Significance: This was the first engagement by Marine units against North Vietnamese Army units.

- If one refuses to accept the reason for discarding and recuperating bayonets along route 559 from route 9 in South Laos to B3 because of the switch in aimed target from the Marine to Air Cavalry, could one provides a more practical explanation?

- During Tet Mau Than, NVA troops sprung into executing commando styled attacks against the enemy at its strongholds all over South Vietnam, right under the nose of the Americans, in Western Highlands, in Tri Thien, in East South Vietnam, etc., even in Saigon and even the American Embassy.

- In 1972, while attacking simultaneously Quang Tri and Kontum, NVA troops succeeded in Quang Tri despite ARVN I Corps got air support of B52 and artillery support of US 7th Fleet and failed in Kontum when ARVN II Corps relied only on air support of B52.

- Diversionary tactics used in Pleime battle was to lure ARVN troops out of their bastion and was inefficient in luring the American troops into Ia Drang. I have addressed to this issue in The Truth of Pleime Campaign and thus would not repeat it here. To assess if my assumption was realistic or not, please refer to http://www.generalhieu.com/pleime-history-2.htm

Nguyen Van Tin
07 November 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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