The Political Commissar at the First Battle Against the Americans in Central Highlands

Around beginning September 1965, the US 1st Air Cavalry had finished establishing its troops in An Khe, and began launching search and destroy operation in Bong Son (Binh Dinh). In face of this situation, the Politburo and the Military Central Committee ordered the Central Highlands Front to race against the clock to inflict heavy damages to the ARVN, to weaken the pacification efforts, to impede the American troops in their search and destroy mission, and at the same time to rush into readying to attack the American troops and to achieve victory at the first battle. The major effort was to defeat the strategy of the American limited war with our strategy of "speedy attack and speedy resolution".

To implement the above-mentioned objective, the Political Commissar and Central Highlands Front Command launched the dry season campaign of 1965, aiming at destroying an ARVN unit and create an opportunity forcing the Americans troops to intervene in order to destroy an American unit.

In the enlarged meeting of the Party Committee Front, presided by Chu Huy Man - Party Committee Secretary of the Front, concurrently Political Commissar, in defining clearly the task and in planning the campaign, everybody agreed the campaign tactic should be to "put a siege on an outpost in order to destroy the rescue column", first to attack the ARVN troops, then to destroy the Americans, luring the American troops out off their strongholds, entering deep into the treacherous mountainous jungles in order to destroy them. The first issue was that our forces were limited to three regiments; with theses forces the process of encircling the outpost to attack the ARVN rescue column should attain a high combat efficiency (annihilating the ARVN task force) while our troops would sustain low casualties in order to preserve sufficient forces to attack the Americans.

The second issue that everybody was concerned was the time gap between the moments the ARVN troops were annihilated and the Americans jumped in to rescue them. Would our forces that attacked the ARVN troops have enough mobility time to be at the anticipated location to meet and attack the American troops? And the last issue was the attack method and the success norm in terms of destroying the American troops. A consensus was reached concerning the two first issues. As for the third one (success norm in terms of destroying the American troops), there were different opinions. Some noted that, in the past history of American coming to the rescue of Korea, the Red Army troops had succeeded in destroying a whole American battalion in any one battle. Some said that in the Nui Thanh battle, we had only one battalion minus and yet were able to destroy two American companies. The discussion carried on for a long while; finally comrade Party's Secretary concluded: "The targets of this campaign are to destroy the ARVN task force and to destroy an entire two American companies. Although I set the success norms as such, I propose that you all continue to ponder further and to study in depth how to deploy our troops to attack the Americans, especially in regard to counter the "frog hopping tactic" of the enemy. The important issue is to build up the resolve to attack the American in our troops. It is imperative that measures be taken to ensure that each one of our troops and cadres must thoroughly grasp the concept of this campaign." Another important issue comrade Secretary reminded the general staff of the battlefield in his direction was to ensure that the troops were mindful in building solid fortifications, clever camouflages, rapid deployment, when in assault keeping tight formations, maintaining close combats et attacking deep, coordination between infantry, mechanized and anti-aircraft units.

That night, Chu Huy Man called me (Front Political Chief) in to work with him. After listening to my report, he said: "We have the political upper hand, and the morale is high in each of our cadres and troops. What remains to be done is how to develop that advantage. That is why I called you in, so that we can discuss together." That night, Chu Huy Man and I worked until one a.m. He suggested several ideas to our battlefield political unit: "Build up resolve in troops, develop the combat leadership role of cadres and party's members, build up confidence among the population, develop military democracy in order to develop creativity among us…"

Beginning of October 1965, the Central Highlands Front Command received a telegram: The Central Military Committee and the Joint General Staff approve the resolution and planning of Pleime campaign. The Party Committee Front met to study these directives. When the meeting was over, Chu Huy Man lead a group of cadres to inspect the battlefield at the siege area of Pleime and the enemy defense to decide on the process to follow in set up a siege of the outpost. He further conducted an inspection of the area where the ambush would be set up to attack the enemy relief column when we put a threatening pressure on the outpost. After Chu Huy Man's group returned from the inspection mission, the Front Command completed the tactic planning of the campaign. With the available forces, it was imperative to achieve two most fundamental issues: one was to inflict a heavy damage to the ARVN mechanized forces in order to weaken pacification position of the enemy; and two was to make speedy preparation to crush the American troops, to contribute in the efforts of defeating the strategy of quick attack and quick resolution of the "limited war" of the American.

In the 1st phase of the campaign of encircling the outpost and destroying the relief column, we achieved great victory: destroying the 3rd task force and one battalion, one enemy infantry company, destroying, damaging 89 military vehicles, downing many airplanes.

Beginning November 1965, the Front Party Committee opened an enlarged meeting, presided by Chu Huy Man. The meeting assessed the outcome of the 1st phase of the campaign, and unanimously declared that: The fundamental task entrusted to the 1st phase was to thwart the intention of liberating the outpost by air force, compelling the enemy to dispatch an ARVN relief column by land to be destroyed by us was successful.

When it came to discuss the coming scheme and subterfuge of the enemy, the meeting affirmed: We must be ready to face the enemy counter-attack. The Party Committee in the meeting also defined the 2nd phase of the campaign as following: to destroy an enemy unit, an entire set of 4 to 5 American companies, to down 20 to 25 airplanes, to defeat the American "helicopter warfare" and "frog hopping" tactics. To lure a unit of American troops and the ARVN reserved force toward Central Highlands, forcing them to stretch out thin in order to attack and to create favorable conditions for different battlefields to defeat the counter-attack of the first enemy dry season. The meeting also defined the tactical directives and approved the plan presented by the general staff. One issue the Party Committee considered as very important was that our troops should thoroughly grasp while engaging the US 1st Air Cavalry was to strike at its air and artillery firepower, in particular firepower from helicopter gunships. Since we had only few 12,7 mm weapons, we must make full use of all types of infantry weapons to shoot at the enemy airplanes, by organizing groups of anti-aircraft firepower composed of rifles, semi-automatic weapons coming from troops of the main forces, troops of the local forces and local guerilla forces.

During that time, the food supply was very difficult, the danger of hunger in the campaign was inevitable if there was no supplies coming from above et from local surrounding areas. In that situation, Chu Huy Man had to go to Darlac, a populated and richest province in Central Highlands and nearby the battlefront to request that the province mobilize the population to contribute and transport food to serve the campaign. Before going to Darlac, Chu Huy Man called in Nguyen Huu An and I to entrust the establishment of the forward command post of the battlefront in order to command the 33rd, 66th, 320th regiments in organizing to attack the American troops. After analyzing the meaning of this battle, Chu Huy Man said: "I just received the order of the Central Military Committee entrusting to our Central Highlands armed forces to create an opportunity to ensure the annihilation of one or two American battalions in this campaign. Therefore the task of destroying a whole battalion sized American troops is a historical task that our Party, our army, our people entrust to the armed force and people of Central Highlands. In order to achieve this task, you must ensure that our cadres and troops that participate in this battle realize the imperativeness of this historical task, so that they heighten the revolutionary spirit, the valor and aggressiveness in seeking out the American to attack, once engaged to destroy them. You must fight against right wing, negative thinking, which translates into avoiding to be aggressive, facing difficulties, accomplishment mission. In particular, the command attitude and leadership of the cadres, especially of the political units, must penetrate deep and stay close to the troops, and provide moral support to the troops in difficult and critical situations."

When came the time to leave, Chu Huy Man held tight An's hand and mine, and said: "Our combatants' blood and bones and lives are priceless, but if it necessary, they must be sacrificed to gain victory. In this battle, even if we must exchange one for one, we must fight to win. We must destroy an entire American battalion, do you understand me? I repeat, even if we must exchange one for one, we must fight to win, but you are allow to do so only in this battle."

The Ia Drang battle ended with a victory: approximately 400 soldiers of 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment and one company of 2nd Battalion, 45th Regiment, 3rd Air Cavalry, only two dozens survivors reached their base camp.

After the victory of Pleime-Ia Drang, due to the fact the troops had to fight immediately, continuously and fiercely upon arrival at the battleground after a long forced march from the north, our casualties were relatively high, each company was reduced to half. Furthermore, the bad conditions in scarcity of food, mosquitoes' ravage, causing malaria, even acute fever, in number of sick soldiers outnumbering by far the number of wounded soldiers in regimental hospitals, were the causes of lack of internal discipline, troops' lethargy, deterioration in people related behaviors, even reprehensible acts in most units.

Facing this situation, the Front's Party Committee decided to embark on an overhaul of the entire troops. The first effort was to strengthen the combat resolve, the aggressiveness, and the determination to fight the Americans to the end.

For that, the Party Committee and the Central Highlands Front Command organized a session of political indoctrination for the cadres of high and intermediary levels. In this session, cadres were allowed to express freely their inner thoughts. Through sharing, cadres of intermediary and high levels must exercise self-criticism and criticism, each person drew up two sheets of self-examinations, one spelling out clearly positive points and one laying out thoughts and actions contrary to the tradition and the revolutionary nature of the Party and of our army.

This was a serious and profound political activity, an unyielding ideological struggle between in one side, the revolutionary idea of attacking, of defeating the Americans until the final victory, and in the other side, the idea of dreading challenges, sacrifices, wavering, faltering in combat resolve.

On the day that concluded the political indoctrination session, Chu Huy Man held the two sets of papers and said: "These are your lists of self-examination. Keep the positive ones in order to enhance long lasting combat activities, and here are the reports of shortcomings, I had read and saw that you had self-criticized dutifully your political responsibility before the Party. I declare that these reports on shortcomings should be burned."

Waiting for the last papers to be burned into ashes, comrade Front's Political Commissar invited the political chiefs of 33rd, 66th and 320th regiments to advance and he presented to each comrade a piece of string to tie American prisoners under the clamoring applause that resonated the entire jungle.

With all that tranquility, the entire Front stepped into a new episode of combat.

General Dang Vu Hiep
(People's Army Journal, July 04, 2006)


Comments

This article can be used as a typical example of a communist document colored with a coat of hagiography.

1. While various communist documents had recognized that the siege set at Pleime outpost and the ambush established to destroy the ARVN relief column in order to lure the American troops in the battle had failed due to heavy casualties caused by American artillery and air supports and had to withdraw troops toward the Chu Prong areas, General Hiep wrote:

In the 1st phase of the campaign of encircling the outpost and destroying the relief column, we achieved great victory: destroying the 3rd task force and one battalion, one enemy infantry company, destroying, damaging 89 military vehicles, downing many airplanes.

Beginning November 1965, the Front Party Committee opened an enlarged meeting, presided by Chu Huy Man. The meeting assessed the outcome of the 1st phase of the campaign, and unanimously declared that: The fundamental task entrusted to the 1st phase was to thwart the intention of liberating the outpost by air force, compelling the enemy to dispatch an ARVN relief column by land to be destroyed by us was successful.

2. Furthermore, General Dang Vu Hiep wrote that the B3 Front was ready, after the battle of Pleime, for the American counter-offensive to defeating its new "helicopter warfare" and "frog hopping" tactics. While the US 1st Air Cavalry Division's troops had just set their foot in the Central Highlands - which was the reason the B3 Front decided to attack the Americans earlier than planned when they were still unprepared, causing the NVA 66th Regiment to arrive late at the battleground - and did not yet have to opportunity to make use of the newly trained "frog hopping" tactic on the battlefield and while the other American combat units - Marine, 173rd Airborne Brigade, 1/101 Airborne Brigade - did not know and did not have the means to use that tactic, it is hard to believe that the B3 Front Command already knew how to face this untested American tactic.

3. After the fierce battle at Ia Drang Valley ended, although General Hiep did not claim like some communist documents that despite the fact troops of the NVA 66th Regiment endured a forced march lasting two long months and had not finish letting down their backpacks and yet had to immediately engaged in combat with the American troops, still maintained a high level of moral, he admitted that cadres' and rank and file troops' moral were low, and had disciplinary behavior problems; nevertheless he did not attribute it to the defeat syndrome but rather to other reasons:

After the victory of Pleime-Ia Drang, due to the fact the troops had to fight immediately, continuously and fiercely upon arrival at the battleground after a long forced march from the north, our casualties were relatively high, each company was reduced to half. Furthermore, the bad conditions in scarcity of food, mosquitoes' ravage, causing malaria, even acute fever, in number of sick soldiers outnumbering by far the number of wounded soldiers in regimental hospitals, were the causes of lack of internal discipline, troops' lethargy, deterioration in people related behaviors, even reprehensible acts in most units.

4. In order to redress the troops' spirit, General Hiep wrote:

the Party Committee and the Central Highlands Front Command organized a session of political indoctrination for the cadres of high and intermediary levels. In this session, cadres were allowed to express freely their inner thoughts. Through sharing, cadres of intermediary and high levels must exercise self-criticism and criticism, each person drew up two sheets of self-examinations, one spelling out clearly positive points and one laying out thoughts and actions contrary to the tradition and the revolutionary nature of the Party and of our army.

This was a serious and profound political activity, an unyielding ideological struggle between in one side, the revolutionary idea of attacking, of defeating the Americans until the final victory, and in the other side, the idea of dreading challenges, sacrifices, wavering, faltering in combat resolve.

On the day that concluded the political indoctrination session, Chu Huy Man held the two sets of papers and said: "These are your lists of self-examination. Keep the positive ones in order to enhance long lasting combat activities, and here are the reports of shortcomings, I had read and saw that you had self-criticized dutifully your political responsibility before the Party. I declare that these reports on shortcomings should be burned."

Waiting for the last papers to be burned into ashes, comrade Front's Political Commissar invited the 33rd, 66th and 320th regiments to advance and he presented to each comrade a piece of string to tie American prisoners in the clamoring applause that resonated the entire jungle.

It was for General Chu Huy Man's function as a commander to act as such in order to restore the combat resolve in his troops. But when writing about the battle of Plâyme-IaDrang, the communist authors and historians, by discarding the negative list and retaining solely the positive list, they had produced accounts colored by a coat of hagiography.

Nguyen Van Tin
31 December 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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