Commenting on General Nguyen Huu An’s Account of Plâyme Campaign

In his book Chiến Trường Mới - Hồi Ức (New Battlefield, Mémoire - PAVN Printing House – Hanoi 2002) General Nguyen Huu An gives an account on Plâyme Campaign from his perspective. Because it is a mémoire, it contains many wrong details, in particular pertaining to the chronology of events.

= Based on the terrain configuration and the enemy status at that moment, we anticipated with almost certainty the enemy would dispatch troops to relieve Pleime. In fact, it was only after a 10 day siege of Pleime that one enemy relief task force entered our ambush site, and was heavily beaten by our 320th Regiment, and yet failed in relieving Pleime.

General An errs in two accounts.

First, it took the armored relief task force three days - not ten days - to reach the ambush site; the delay was a counter-measure to the mobile ambust tactic used by the Viet Cong. The relief task force was quickly created in the morning of 10/20, but was ordered to fake patroling in the vicinity of Phu My, and only to rush to and destroy the ambush site on 10/23.

Second, the relief task force succeeded in piercing through the ambush and entered Pleime camp in the evening of 10/24.

= After the attack, 33rd Regiment retreated back to its base located at 20 kilometers to the west of Pleime.
= The actions of 33rd and 320th at Pleime became a threat to Route 14. The enemy II Corps Command was unable to gather a force to relieve Pleime, forcing the American troops to intervene.

In its efforts to relieve Pleime camp, II Corps Command only requested as reinforcement Task Force Ingram which comprise an infantry battalion used to replace 22nd Ranger Battalion to secure Pleiku airfield and one artillery battalion helilifted to Phu My near the ambush site to give firepower support to 3rd Armored Task Force.

The two 33rd and 320th Regiments, after failing “to lure in the relief force by attacking an outpost” were ordered to retreat to Chu Pong rear base in order to join force with 66th Regiment in planning for a second attack against Pleime camp.

II Corps Command requested the help of US 1st Air Cavalry to pursue the two withdrawing VC regiments to the footsteps of Chu Pong Massif, rather than to come to the rescue of Pleime camp.

= Brother Chu Huy Man, Commander, brother Dang Vu Hiep, Political Commissar and I at the headquarters were making arrangements to prepare for a second phase of action against a target near Pleime. Upon receiving news from all directions reporting that the Americans had inserted troops, we issued an order to delay the attack of Chu Ho.

By taking the decision to postpone the second attack against Chuho/Pleime in order to eradicate the new threat imposed by the appearance of US 1/7 Air Cavalry Battalion first, B3 Field Front Command fell into the scheme that enticed it to maintain the three regiments immobile at the staging areas, allowing time for B-52 to target these concentrated group (it took the B-52s eight hours to fly from Guam to Chu Pong).

General An is more honest than the VC historians who claim the VC attacked Pleime camp in order to lure the American troops into Ia Drang and destroy them, when he said that B3 Field Front Command was planning a second attack against Pleime camp when suddenly the American troops landed at the footsteps of Chu Pong and decided to postpone that second attack.

Colonel Hieu writes in Pleime, Trận Chiến Lịch Sử, page 94:

Cuộc hành quân Dân Thắng 21 chấm dứt, trại Pleime vững mạnh trở lại, nhưng trong số hai Trung Đoàn V.C. đã tham dự, ta mới gây cho chúng được hơn 400 tổn thất nhân mạnh. Sự rút lui của địch là một chủ trương sáng suốt và hợp lý của BCH mặt trận V.C. nhưng địch sẽ tìm cách rửa hận và vì trại Pleime hẻo lánh còn là một cái gai trước mắt.

Operation Dan Thang 21 terminated, Pleime camp was back to its feet; however, we had only inflicted 400 casualties to the two VC regiments. The enemy withdrawal was a wise and rational decision taken by B3 Field Front. However the enemy would look for an opportunity for a revenge and Pleime camp was still an eye sore to them.

B3 Field Front Command fell for II Corps Command’s scheme which aimed at enticing them to regroup the three regiments in assembling areas and in particular in staging areas; in so doing the concentrated troop units became targets for B-52 airstrikes.

Furthermore, there was a change in personnel at B3 Field Front Command after the battles in the vicinity of Pleime camp, from a triumvirat of Chu Huy Man-Colonel Quan-Ha Vi Tung to a triumvirat of Chu Huy Mann-Nguyen Huu An-Dang Vu Hiep. Why Pleime, chapter III notes:

At the Western Highlands Field Front Headquarters, VC General Chu Huy Man wearing a second hat as Commanding General of Military Region IV, and his principal assistants Colonel Quan, Assistant to the Commanding General, and Senior Colonel Ha Vi Tung, Chief of staff(1) studied the plan they had formulated.

As for Colonel Nguyen Huu An, he wrote - in his book Chiến Trường Mới - Hồi Ức , page 13 - that when he just arrived in the Central Highlands, B3 Field Front Command comprised

Nguyễn Chánh commander, Đoàn Khuê political commissar, Hà Vi Tùng chief of staff.

It appears that Colonel Nguyen Huu An replaced Colonel Quan as Deputy Commander and Colonel Bui Nam Ha replaced Colonel Ha Vi Tung as Chief of Staff.

It is worthwhile mentioning that Viet Cong’s documents, besides fuzzing details above-mentioned, do not identify by name the 33rd Regiment Commander as well as the 66th Regiment Commander during the Plâyme campaign.

It appears that the 66th Regiment Commander was LTC Le Xuan Chuyen who had defected sometimes in the course of his journey from the North to the South. A VC document reveals that Le Tien Hoa was assigned as the interim Commander of this regiment.

According to rallier Lai Van Cu, 3rd platoon leader/2nd company/2nd battalion/33rd regiment, who turned himself in on November 6, 1965, the 33rd Regiment Commander was Major Sac during the Pleime campaign.

= Our B3 Command held an emergency meeting to assess the situation and set a new course of action. The consensus of the meeting was that US 3rd Air Cavalry applied the "frog leap" tactic into our rear bases in order to destroy our main force. We lure to destroy the enemy; the Americans took the initiative to jump in, which fitted our intention, giving us to switch our action in destroying the Americans. We tried to lure the enemy to the southwest of Central Highlands in order to coordinate with the battlefront of Military Region 5 and with others battlefronts. The objective for this phase of operation was to destroy completely from one to two ARVN battalions and one to two US companies.
= I remember vividly that historical meeting (11-13-1965).

General An did not recall the exact date of this historical meeting. It occurred on 10/14 rather than on 10/13, since B3 Field Front only learned about the insertion of American troops into Chu Pong when 1/7th Air Cavalry landed at LZ X-Ray around 10 a.m. on 11/14.

= In the morning of November 14, we advanced toward Chu Pong massif. On the trails lied many muddy spots, a result of a pouring rain that occurred a couple of days ago.
= By noon, we paused on the south side edge of Chu Pong mountain. I was standing leaning on a cane and was studying the surrounding terrain and not paying attention to anything else, when suddenly Dong Thoai lied down and pulled my foot. At that moment, a string of bomb exploded running pass our location.
= I said jokingly to Dong Thoai:
= Standing up or lying down at this location, you are merely at the mercy of luck.
= My eyes followed the clouds of gray smokes that were dissipating, leaving a long trail along the mountain edge, with trees spilled all over. Way back when I was up in the North, I had read may documents pertaining to the American military machinery. And now, I saw it with my own eyes and was facing it. One B.52 transported 25 tons of bombs. Just for today, they used 24 planes taking turn circling over this Chu Pong area.

General An was mistaken when he said he saw B-52 striking at noon on 11/14. The first waves of B-52 bombings exploded around noon of 11/15. Pleiku Campaign, page 88 notes:

The 15th also marked the introduction of a new weapon by the American forces and one which struck terror in the hearts of even the most hardened enemy soldier. Shortly after noon a large area in the vicinity of YA8702 suddenly erupted with hundreds of thunderous explosions that moved across the ground like a giant carpet being unrolled. The B-52 bombers had struck.

The reason General An could stand safely in contemplating the B-52 airstrike was that the areas hit that noon were where the two 320th and 33rd Regiments at the vicinity of YA8702, and he was standing at the vicinity of YA9104 - the staging area of 66th Regiment - about 4 kilometers away.

B3 Field Front Command fell for the “hold the tail hit the head” tactic, 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade held the tail (66th Regiment) at LZ X-Ray and B-52 struck the head (320th and 33rd Regiments) at the center mass in the vicinity of YA8702.

= The information provided by political officer Chau coupled with reports from recon teams, allowed us to identify the enemy confronting our 7th Battalion was US 1st Battalion minus belonging to 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade.

To be more precise, it was US 1/7th Air Cavalry Division. 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade comprised two 1/7th and 2/7th Battalions.

= 7th Battalion had opened fire to attack the enemy since 5:30 a.m November 15. […]After a long while of shootings [which started around 12:00 p,m.] , the enemy landed down one more company of 1st Battalion.

The entire 1/7 Air Cavalry closed in LZ X-Ray by 3 p.m. on 11/14. Around 6 p.m. of the same day, C Company of 2/7th Air Cavalry Battalion closed in to reinforce 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion.

= At the forward command post, we grasped a better control of the situation at this moment. 66th Regiment reported back: 9th Battalion was able to establish communication with 7th Battalion. Thus, the balance of forces in this narrow area was two battalions for each side, with the American side higher in troop numbers, not counting two artillery companies and air force enforcements.

General An was unaware that the balance of forces was not 2:2 but 2:3, because on 11/15 the American side heli-lifted 2/5th Air Cavalry Battalion of 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade at LZ Victor around 5 kilometers away from LZ X-Ray; this reinforced battalion marched stealthily by land and closed in LZ X-Ray by noon to rescue the American company that was isolated since the day before.

B3 Field Front Command fell for the American subterfuge and thought the American side only committed two battalions and consequently did not feel the need to commit more units from 33rd and 320th Regiments. As a result, besides the two 7th and 9th Battalions of 66th Regiments, all the other units of B3 Field Front forces remained immobile at their respective staging areas and became targets for B52 airstrikes.

= Seeing that 1st Battalion was on the brink of being overrun, 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade ordered to the remaining of the troops to march toward the direction of Ia Meur and to regroup near the artillery firebase awaiting further instruction.

On 11/17, the two 2/7th Battalion of 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade and 2/5th Battalion of 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade were ordered to march out LZ X-Ray to a 3 kilometer safety distance to make room for B-52 airstrikes at the very landing zone.Pleiku Campaign, page 93 notes:

For the first time in the Vietnamese conflict, Strategic Air strikes were to be used in direct support of the ground scheme of maneuver. The strikes of the past two days had been in a supporting role, but today the ground forces would be moving in direct relation tho the impending strike.

Accordingly, both battalions still occupying the landing zone, 2/5 Cav and 2/7 Cav, moved off with a mission to sweep to the north, with the 2/5 cav inclining slightly to the east and heading for Columbus. The 2/7 Cav was to follow the 2/5 Cav long enough to put a 3,000 meter safety margin between it and the B-52 target area, then was to sweep to the west and northwest towar a map location (YA945043) named Albany.

= On November 18 […]Two ARVN airborne regiments belonging to the general reserve force were dispatched in a hurry from Saigon together with one American battalion traveling by trucks then marching toward southeast of Duc Co situated on northern side of Chu Pong in order to provide support at the rear while creating a diversionary pressure to reassure the American troops. It was unfortunate that 320th Regiment could only caused light damages and did not destroy any American battalion at that direction.

First, the reason for the intervention of ARVN Airborne Group was to finish off the two remnant VC battalions.

Second, 320th Regiment attempted to avoid any contacts with the Vietnamsese Airborne troops.

Colonel Hieu in Why Pleime, chapter VI notes:

The intelligence estimate on enemy capabilities, made on 17 November indicated that nearly 2/3 of their strength had been wiped off through the engagements in Phases I and II.

II Corps Command thought it was time to throw in the reserve in order to put an end to the battle which had lasted for about one month. Besides suffering heavy losses, the enemy was compelled to fall into the trap set by friendly forces and canalized into the routes of withdrawal which we had foreseen.

This time the main effort was conducted by the ARVN Airborne Brigade whose mission consisted of destroying the fleeing VC units and all their installations around the Ia Drang valley. The 1st Air Cavalry Division which had thus far borne the burden of the attack would continue to exert a pressure from East to West and to provide artillery support for the Airborne Brigade. The 32nd NVA Regiment which remained uncommitted and unscratched throughout the second phase, was finally found and forced to fight, although it had tried to avoid contact as much as possible. The 32nd NVA Regiment which remained uncommitted and unscratched throughout the second phase, was finally found and forced to fight, although it had tried to avoid contact as much as possible.

= On November 19, dozens of airplanes strafed and bombed around Columbus for a long while, then the entire troops were helilifted back to Bau Can. The first operation of American troops in Central Highlands had come to a tragic end.

Pleime campaign only ended on 11/26/1965 when the Vietnamese paratroopers did not detect any VC presence in the areas covered by Than Phong 7 operation. The enemy had thrown away their weapons in escaping to the sanctuaries deep into the Cambodian territories, leaving behind 200 dead.

= The final result we obtained was a victory far outreached than what we had visualized in the beginning, about 1,200 American casualties; we annihilated 1st and 2nd Battalions of 3rd Air Cavalry, damaged heavily 3rd Battalion and some companies, shot down 26 airplanes and captured a great amount of weapons and ammunition.

General An was alluding to 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion at LZ X-Ray and 2/5th Air Cavalry Battalion at LZ Albany.

Pleiku Campaign, page 122 advances the American troop casualties as following:

2. Casualties sustained by ast Air Cavlry Units (by major unit): 1st Brigade KIA 57 WIA 192; 3rd Brigade KIA 239 WIA 307; 2nd Brigade KIA 4 WIA 25; Totals KIA 300 WIA 524.

The number of 26 airplanes shot down is not credible, part because 1st Air Cavalry Division only dedicated 16 transport helicopters for the troop insertion at LZ X-Ray, part because the Viet Cong did not position anti-aircraft guns on the hill sides of Chu Pong which are only 150 meters from the landing zone to gun down the helicopters.

Colonel Hieu in, Why Pleime, chapter V notes:

it was rather surprising that from the hills which dominate the LZ, the enemy did not position any crew-served weapons to support their attack. Such a situation could be explained only by the reason the enemy has lost nearly all their heavy crew-served weapons during the first phase.

Furthermore the heavy anti-aircraft gun battalion slated to support the second attack of Pleime camp was still straggling on Ho Chi Minh trail due to arrive at Chu Pong two days later.

Colonel Hieu in, Why Pleime , chapter V further notes:

Convinced that friendly forces had lost tracks of its units, VC Field Front quickly made a decision to regain its advantage with an attack. The target again was Pleime and the date of attack set at 16 November. The plan was known within the VC ranks as the second phase of the attack of Pleime. All the three regiments would be committed this time as well as a battalion of 120mm mortars and a battalion of 14.5mm twin-barrel anti-aircraft guns which were both en route down the infiltration trail and scheduled to arrive in time for the attack.

Nguyen Van Tin
19 August 2013

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

generalhieu.com