Pleime Campaign or Pleime-Iadrang Campaign?

When II Corps Command decided to send a relief column to rescue Pleime outpost that was besieged by the Viet Cong since October 19, 1965, it knew that the B3 Central Highlands Command intended to use the "encircle an outpost to destroy the relief column" in order to take over Pleiku, as the first phase in the Winter-Spring campaign aiming at slicing South Vietnam in two along National Route 19, from Pleiku down to Qui Nhon. II Corps Command undertook the proper counter-measures, and the results were that the relief column was able to break through the ambush site and proceed to liberate the outpost on October 29, 1965, with the artillery and air supports lent by th US 1st Air Cavalry. The remnant troops of the 320th and 33rd Regiments were compelled to withdraw to the Chu Prong Massif areas. The Pleime campaign ended; the Winter-Spring campaign was foiled.

Then, General Westmoreland decided to put into use his new "search and destroy" tactic and ordered the US 1st Air Cavalry to unilaterally jump into Ia Drang valley. The NVA 66th Regiment, which just arrived at this B3 Command base camp, after a two-month march, had to engage into combat before finishing unpacking. A first bloodiest fight ensued between the NVA and the US sides.

Next, II Corps Command request the Joint General Staff to dispatch a general reserve force from Saigon to the Central Highlands to pursue the NVA troops on their retreat route toward their secret base in Cambodia. The ARVN 3rd Airborne Brigade intercepted two NVA battalions in the Duc Co area near to the Cambodia border.

That was what really happened, but the North-Vietnamese Communist authors and historians distorted the truth in their account of the Pleime campaign. First they claimed that the plan of the campaign had been modified from encircling the outpost to attack Pleiku, to encircling the outpost to lure in the American troops into Pleime to inflict them with the first unforgettable blow; then, not even at Pleime, but rather at Ia Drang.

The boundary set for this article is to only address the second issue, which is the North Vietnamese Communists' claim the objective of the attack on Pleime outpost was to lure the American troops into Ia Drang valley. This contention can be found in the 5 following North Vietnamese Communist writings:

1. Pleime Campaign

2. The First Battles Against the American Troops - 304th Division, volume II

3. Pleime-Ia Drang's Victory

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

5. Chiến Dịch Tiến Công Plây Me (The Pleime Attack Campaign)

Quotes - First, let's quote what these 5 documents say about the plan of the Pleime campaign.

1. Pleime Campaign

Regarding the plan, the campaign was divided in 3 phases: Phase 1. Encircle Pleime camp, destroy the ARVN rescue column; phase 2. Continue to encircle Pleime camp, forcing American troops to get involved; phase 3. Concentrate forces aiming at attacking an American major force and destroy it and end the campaign.

2. The First Battles Against the American Troops - 304th Division, volume II

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.

3. Pleime-Ia Drang's Victory

End of 9/1965, the forward units of 304th division entered Central Highlands when the Pleime campaign was about to start. B3 Command (comrade Chu Huy Man, Commander and Political Commissionaire of B3) summoned the 304th Division Commander and me to receive operational order. Comrade Chu Huy Man said: "304th Division is the first full division to enter the Central 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 Central Highlands. I will maneuver to attract troops of the US 1st Cavalry for you to attack.

The Pleime campaign began from 19 to 10/29/1965, by way of encircling and isolating Pleime outpost, forcing the ARVN troops to come to the rescue and we had annihilated one entire ARVN regiment and its armored task force. Once the ARVN troops are severely wounded, the American troops would be forced to come to the rescue. At first, we calculated the American troops would come to the rescue within a week. But in reality it was only after 15 days that the Americans poured in their troops in Ia Drang valley (the spot we anticipated to fight them), which allowed us more time to prepare for a better battle plan.

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

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 et to create favorable conditions for different battlefields to defeat the counter-attack of the first enemy dry season.

5. Chiến Dịch Tiến Công Plây Me (The Pleime Attack Campaign)

In order to achieve in general this combat method, the campaign has defined the different locations where the enemy is to be destroyed (attack areas):

- Siege target (area of ignition): camp Pleime, in which to destroy Chu Ho outpost.

- Ambush area where the relief column is to be destroyed (area in which to attack the enemy relief task force that counterattacks by land): Provincial Route 21 along the 4 km stretch from Hill 538 (12 km north of Pleime) to Hill Blu (north of Hill 301).

- Area where the Americans is to be attacked (area in which to attack the relief task force that counterattacks by air): Ia Drang Valley.

3 or 2 Phase Plan? Let's rearrange these quotes for comparison's sake.

1. Pleime Campaign

- Phase 1: encircle camp Pleime, destroy the ARVN relief task force;

- Phase 2: continue to encircle camp Pleime to compel the American troops to intervene at camp Pleime;

- Phase 3: converge troops aiming at destroying an American unit at location xxx and end the campaign at this location.

2. The First Battles Against the American Troops - 304th Division, volume II

- Phase 1: 33rd Regiment encircles camp Pleime and 320th Regiment destroys the ARVN relief task force;

- Phase 2: 33rd Regiment and 320the Regiment continue to encircle or overrun Pleime, compelling the American troops to intervene at camp Pleime

- Phase 3: Converge troops - at xxx- aiming to destroy from 4 to 5 American companies, in combination with attrition tactic aiming at putting out of combat from 1,200 to 1,500 American troops.

3. Pleime-Ia Drang's Victory

- Phase 1: Encircle and put pressure on camp Pleime, compelling the ARVN troops to come to the rescue, who when sustaining heavy losses will certainly force the American troops to come to the rescue, but not immediately at camp Pleime, rather…

- Phase 2: 15 days later, the American troops will be lured into Ia Drang valley (the anticipated location to attack them).

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

-: Phase 1: encircle the camp and destroy the ARVN relief task force at Pleime, thwart the enemy's intention to liberate the camp by air and compel the ARVN to dispatch a relief task force by land, allowing us to destroy it;

- Phase 2: get ready to face with the enemy's counterattack - launched by an American unit and an ARVN general reserve force, not at Pleime but rather toward the direction of Central Highlands because the American troops will be "frog hopping" to Ia Drang and the ARVN general force will arrive at Duc Co, but not that we lure them but rather extend them thin to attack them.

5. Chiến Dịch Tiến Công Plây Me (The Pleime Attack Campaign)

- Phase : Encircle camp Pleime.

- Phase 2: Ambush the ARVN relief task force.

- Phase 3. Attack the Americans at Ia Drang valley.

Flawed Representations The accounts of Pleime campaign's plan given by the 5 North Vietnamese Communist documents show flaws in their representation.

- Flawed Representation #1. In Pleime Campaign and The First Battles Against the American Troops - 304th Division, volume II, it was said that phase 1 and phase 2 were aiming at luring the American troops by encircling the camp and by inflicting heavy losses to the ARVN relief task force; why then a phase 3 was necessary to converge troops at another location (Ia Drang) to destroy an American unit.

- Flawed Representation #2. In Pleime-Ia Drang's Victory, General Nguyen Nam Khanh spelled out clearly that Ia Drang had been chosen as the trap to lure in the American troops: "Once the ARVN troops are severely wounded, the American troops would be forced to come to the rescue. At first, we calculated the American troops would come to the rescue within a week. But in reality it was only after 15 days that the Americans poured in their troops in Ia Drang valley (the spot we anticipated to fight them), which allowed us more time to prepare for a better battle plan." How was it possible for the plan to predict that the American troops would not intervene at Pleime and only at Ia Drang? And if the plan anticipated that the American troops would jump in within one week, why the 66th Regiment was not dispatched to arrive on time at the Ia Drang battlefield? Furthermore, how is that possible that a strategist could be that foolish to establish an ambush at the rear base camp of the battlefield command post and the main force, where ammunition and food were stocked, and causing the troops of 9th battalion to be attacked by surprise while they were been distributed ammunition and rice and cooking their lunch?

- Flawed Representation #3. In The Political Commissar at the First Battle Against the Americans in Central Highlands, General Dang Vu Hiep said B3 Front was getting ready, after the Pleime battle, for the American counter-offensive, "to defeat the new American tactic of "helicopter warfare" and "frog hopping". Troops of US 1st Air Cavalry just arrived at Tay Nguyen - which was why B3 Front had decided to advance the attack date to take advantage of the unpreparedness of the American troops, causing the 66th Regiment to show up late - and did not yet have the chance to try out the "frog hopping" tactic on the battlefield and the other American combat units - Marines, 173rd Airborne Brigade, 1/101st Airborne Brigade - did not know and were not capable of using this tactic. It would be preposterous to claim that B3 Front had a clear vision of how to counter this tactic.

Furthermore, General Hiep said that the objective of phase 2 was to " 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." If such was the case, the Viet Cong would be on the disadvantage side because the American had much more mobility than them.

- Flawed Representation #4. In Chiến Dịch Tiến Công Plây Me (The Pleime Attack Campaign), Colonel Pham Van Gioi said the reason for selecting the attack area of Ia Drang was when the Americans jumped in this dense jungle area they would be forced to land on clearing spots where their troops could set up ambush sites.

If the ARVN relief task force by land sustains heavy losses, and the enemy wants to come to the rescue of this area and "search and destroy" our main force, it has to use the force of the US 1st Air Cavalry to enter the rear of our formation or the campaign rear base (Ia Drang Valley). In such case, the enemy can only insert troops at clearing sites in the valley; we have the conditions to select the locations to destroy the enemy; that was why the campaign had selected Ia Drang valley to be the area to attack the enemy that landed by air.

It should be a lot more clearing sites besides the three X-Ray, Albany, Columbus landing sites. It is difficult to select a right ambush site for a relief task force by land. It would be a lot more difficult to select a right one for a relief task force by air; especially when the Americans had not had the chance to experiment and the Viet Cong did not have the experience to counter the "helicopter warfare" and "frog hopping" tactics of the US 1st Air Cavalry.

Conclusion

B3 Front's plan was to encircle Pleime camp to destroy the ARNV relief task force in order to conquer Pleiku. In the eventuality the American troops intervene to help the ARVN troops, NVA 66th Regiment would lend a hand to 320th Regiment and 33rd Regiment in dealing with them. Unfortunately: one, the American troops did not intervene; two, 66th Regiment did not arrive on time as planned; three, 33rd Regiment and 320th Regiment had to withdraw due to heavy American artilleray and air bombardment; four, 66th Regiment was struck by surprise when it just arrived at Ia Drang valley site. In order to appear proactive instead of reactive, the authors of the 5 above-mentioned documents had added Ia Drang into the plan of Pleime campaign to become the Pleime-Ia Drang campaign.

Nguyen Van Tin
11 January 2007

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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