Plei Me Battle

Introduction

Over these 39 past years, Vietnamese and American military histories have mentioned and put into Hollywood movies the historical battle at Ia Drang Valley, in the Highlands of the Center of Vietnam in November 1965. But nobody has talked and written in detail the feigning to attack an outpost in order to destroy the rescue column tactic used by the North Communist troops to ambush rescue column of our troops, composed by the 3rd Armored Squadron (latter renamed the 8th Armored Cavalry Regiment) and the 21st Ranger Battalion acting as the spearhead in the rescue of the besieged Plei Me outpost, 40 kms south of Plei Ku City.

At that time, our troops were falling into a huger trap set up by a NVA regiment waiting for the victim to slowly entering the death area on Provincial Route 6C leading from Plei Ku to Plei Me.

This article is based on the personal experience of the author and the recounts of the Rangers who belonged to the 21st Ranger Battalion still alive. At that time, they were Platoon leaders of various companies belonging to the 21st Battalion, and they were young officers, recent graduates of the Dalat National Military Academy. Class of 19 Nguyen Trai, and they are also close friends of the author and together we had gone through life and death in famous battlefields of II Corps, stationing in a romantic city named Sweetheart Pleiku with rosy cheeks and red lips in the well-known poem of Vu Huu Dinh which has been put into a song by Pham Duy.

Opposing Forces

Enemy:

NVA 32nd Regiment with 3 Battalions, 344th, 635th and 966th, with Major Ma Van Minh as Regiment Commander.

NVA 33rd Regiment of Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huu An as overall commander. One battalion of 60, 82 and 120 mm mortars. One 12.7 mm anti-aircraft artillery battalion. One H15 Local Force Battalion.

And NVA 66th Regiment with 3 Battalions, 7th, 8th and 9th commanded by Lieutenant Colonel La Ngoc Chau on their way through the HCM infiltration trail.

ARVN Group A:

3rd Armored Regiment (-) comprising 12 M41 tanks and 8 M113 armored vehicles.

1st and 2nd Companies belonging to 21st Ranger Battalion, some troops on foot scouting the route, some troops protecting the armored vehicles (riding on M41 tanks and M113 armored vehicles).

ARVN Group B:

The 21st Ranger Battalion Command Post and 4th Ranger Company followed Group A approximately 2 kms on the advance axe, with military vehicles transporting ammunition, fuel and drinking water, along with the engineer squad with 21 M113 armored vehicles, 2 RM8 armored vehicles armed with 30 mm machine guns and 2 105 mm Howitzers.

ARVN Group C:

1st Infantry Battalion, belonging to 42nd Regiment coming down from Kon Tum and Tan Canh was commanded by Captain Ma Van Nong and took another route than the Provincial Route 6C taken by 21st Ranger Battalion and the Armored Squadron.

Reserved Forces: 22nd Ranger Battalion under the command of Captain Pham Van Phuc, stationed at Cu Hanh airport, Plei Ku, ready to intervene by helicopters.

Battle Scenario:

At 11:30 pm on 10/19/1965, one battalion of NVA 33rd Regiment surrounded and used sappers and mortars to attack and shell continuously and fiercely on to the Special Forces camp of Plei Me. This camp was 40 km south of Plei Ku city. The troops in the camp comprised of 12 American Advisors, an ARVN Speical Forces team and approximately 400 GIDC Montagnards with their spouses and children living inside the camp. The enemy did not overrun the camp and intended to lure in and destroy the rescue column before finishing off its task of occupying the camp Plei Me.

Furthermore, the enemy had positioned machine guns, anti-aircraft artillery and mortars on hilltops around the camp to shoot down our airplanes.

From Plei Ku, before the troops’ departure, I saw one of our Skyraider AIE airplanes shot down by enemy 12.7 mm anti-aircraft machine guns; the pilot was able to eject out and his orange parachute dangled on the blue sky above camp Plei Me.

We knew that the enemy used once again the classic feigning to attack the camp in order to destroy the rescue column tactic, however our troops had no other choice and took up the challenge of letting the enemy choose the battlefield.

A rescue task force of II Corps under the command of Brigadier General Vinh Loc was set up comprising an Armored Cavalry Regiment (-) with one tanks company of 12 M41s, one personal carriers company (-) of 8 M113 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Trong Luat. The task force was reinforced by 21st Ranger Battalion, 1st/42 Infantry Battalion, and 2 105 mm artillery tubes following the rescue column.

The armored unit and 21st Ranger Battalion were gathered at Phu My, at the junction of QL14 and Provincial Route 6C during two days in order to reassemble support, logistic and artillery units and to wait for 1st/42 Infantry Battalion coming down from Dak To and Tan Canh.

The enemy had studied in detail this stretch of the road for a long time before starting the battle. It was selected to ambush the rescue column and had the shape of an elbow where the head of the rescue column would be blocked. At this site, the NVA 32nd Regiment dug in camouflaged fox holes and bunkers. Another forces composed by NVA 344th Battalion, belonging to the NVA 32 Regiment with approximately 400 soldiers would block in the rear of the rescue column; at the same time, enemy sapper forces deployed on high grounds (20-30m) with fierce firepower from anti-tanks rockets B40, machine guns SKZ57, 57 mm artillery and numerous automatic rifles AK47 from hidden holes aiming at attacking and annihilating our main forces.

The enemy uses 2 battalions belonging to 33rd Regiment and 2 battalions belonging to 32nd Regiment as main trust to attack the rescue column. Furthermore, it had one battalion belonging to 32nd Regiment as reserved forces.

1st Company/21st Ranger Battalion took the lead, commanded by Lieutenant Vong Lap Dzenh, Company Leader. First Lieutenant Huynh Kim Tac, Class 19 Dalat, Platoon leader of 1st Platoon/1st Company/21 Ranger Battalion riding on a M41 turret jumped down to fight and he commanded the entire platoon to counter-attack fiercely. Furthermore, firepower of 50 mm machine guns from M113 armored vehicles and anti-mass assault machine guns from M41 tanks repulsed the enemy attacks. Meanwhile, First Lieutenant Ngo Hoang Gia, Class 14 Thu Duc, Platoon Lead of 2nd Platoon/1st Company/21st Ranger Battalion moving on foot along the two sides of the road was also attacked by a superior number of enemy troops, emerging from camouflaged holes on the right side of the advance axe, aiming at destroying our troops. First Lieutenant Gia courageously commanded two assaults into hand to hand combat, determined not to allow the enemy to have the upper hand on the battlefield. 2nd Ranger Company with Lieutenant Vo Vang, Class 17 Dalat, as Company Leader and I, First Lieutenant Tran Quoc Canh, Class 19 Dalat, Platoon Leader, covered M41 tanks and proceeded along the unique road leading to Plei Me.

Right from the outset, the advance of the rescue column was extremely slow because the lead platoon of First Lieutenant Ngo Hoang Gia had to proceed on foot to search the two sides of the road.

At around 3:00 pm, the forward unit A was coming down from a high hilltop into a valley (the shape of a wok or horse saddle), in order to climb up a high position in front when it was attacked by an enemy force using machine guns; the unit could not retreat nor advance and was prevented from deploying right or left by forest trees. The enemy emerged from foxholes and attempted to overrun our positions, but was stopped by firepower from our tanks, using mass destruction weapons and 50 mm machine guns as well by our Ranger forces.

The enemy, from high positions on hilltop, attacked and pierced 2nd Ranger Company's left flank. Immediately, the rangers counter-attacked, interdicting the enemy from approaching tanks and armored vehicles. Meanwhile, firepower of 50 mm machine guns on M113s and M41s simultaneously repulsed consecutive enemy attacks coming from hilltops and camouflaged holes along the advanced axe of the rescue column. Anti-mass 76 mm weapons of M41 tanks destroyed holes and fixed fortified bunkers of the enemy. Ranger and armored forces of Group A had neutralized the attempt to destroy the rescue column by NVA 635th Battalion/32nd Regiment.

Units of Group B followed from behind and were commanded by Major Le Van Tui, Armored Squadron Deputy Commander and Captain Nguyen Van Sach, 21st Ranger Battalion Commander, and Lieutenant Nguyen Van Huan, Executive Officer with 4th Company under the command of Lieutenant Nguyen Thanh Banh, Class 16 Dalat as Company Leader and 1st Lieutenant Nguyen Van Chinh, Executive Officer of 3rd Company which was the last rear unit. The battalion put up a fierce defense, then maneuvered back to the rear to secure the force and regroup for a night defense at a hamlet with abandoned tunnels and bunkers at 1km behind the ambush site. Our troops repelled several attacked launched by 344th and 944th Battalions belonging to NVA 32nd Regiment. Throughout the night, luminous flares dropped by Dakota C47 airplanes of VNAF above the hamlet allowed our troops to assess the situation of foes and friends. By dawn, the enemy retreated. An inventory showed that Group B lost approximately 2/3 of the vehicles that had been destroyed by B40, SKZ57 and 75 mm field artillery right at the outset of the battle.

During the fight, while it was still daylight, I looked back at the troops behind on hilltops and saw heavy smokes reached high up on the sky, heard gun shots of small arms popping up at a long distance (2 kms), because I was at the bottom of the valley, and artillery and heavy guns exploding nearby.

Set Up Defense Positions

Afterwards, on the outset of nighttime, I realized that it would be risky to lie down in one line along the dirt road through the nigh because the defense positions were without depth. Furthermore, if the enemy came close and intermixed with our troops, it would be hard to distinguish foes from friends, and either our troops would mistakenly shoot at each other, or the enemy (because the sounds of AK47's shots were mighty loud, totally different from the ones of Carbine M1's shots that were rather weak) only threw grenades, then it would be difficult to detect their positions in order to react appropriately. It was quite a dilemma, individual weapons and grenades could not be used for fear of hurting friendly troops and revealing our positions, and thus we had to rely on uniform recognition and resort to bayonets for close combat during the night…

On the first day of fight, by sunset, a group of US 1st Cavalry Division's UH1B helicopters helilifted 22nd Ranger Battalion leaded by Captain Pham Van Phuc as battalion commander onto the left flank, 2 kms south of the advance route of 21st Ranger Battalion and 3rd Armored Squadron (toward Chu Ho mountain). Because it was already dark, 22nd Ranger Battalion stayed put in defense positions for the night. Although the enemy was heard moving in the night, but 22nd Ranger Battalion did not engage with the enemy because it was at a distance; only artillery was called in action at the direction of enemy movements.

First Lieutenant Ngo Hoang Gia recounted as following:

At the beginning, upon being ambushed, 2nd Platoon/1st Company/21st Ranger Battalion of 1st Lieutenant Ngo Hoang Gia swiftly deployed into frontal position and charged directly into enemy positions for close range combat, each ranger, including the signal man was a combatant fighting at the front line. The close range combat lasted approximately an hour when it became dark, limiting the vision and observation of the surroundings. 2nd Platoon continued to maintain its deployment and by the night reassembled into small groups, leaning either on each other or on trees to protect each other. At dawn, a survey of the platoon indicated to 1st Lieutenant Ngo Hoang Gia that 2 combatants were killed and 3 other wounded.

At 2nd Ranger Company, I tried to contact Vo Vang, its leader and the other platoon leaders in order to regroup; but all efforts were futile because the darkness prevented me to find them. Besides, the main task was to provide close protection to tanks. My immediate reaction was to find the closest armored officer; I found Aspirant Lieutenant Tuyen, a handsome guy, and we succeeded in gathering 6 M41 tanks; we took position on the hillside left to the troop advance axe, and organized a night defense perimeter, with 23 rangers. To make place for troop positioning, to clear fire zones and to facilitate observation of enemy’s movements, tanks flattened surrounding bushes. The tanks formed a round encirclement and the rangers dug foxholes in between 2 tanks to prevent the enemy from entering through open spaces. Everybody sit tight in the foxholes through the night, aiming gun points outward, ready to open fire at any moving object or any noises caused by friction with surrounding fallen trees and branches.

Ironic Incidents

In the night, upon suddenly hearing a man on the move, a tanker on duty on the touret raised his voice: “Who’s that?” Silence…”Who’s that” once more.

It seemed the enemy was coming up from down the road to the hilltop where our troops were stationed. I was curled up inside a hole with my radioman carrying a PRC-10 radio, and fumed against the inexperience exhibited by the tanker.

In the eerie silence of the night, I yelled out loud, several times: “Open fire…Open fire…” and yet the tanker did not open fire. Then I heard the enemy yelling out loud: “Huge forces…”, followed by the resounding firepower of B40 or B41, along with automatic rifles AK47 and machine guns coming from all directions. Only at that moment, our 50mm machine guns opened fire and the 6 M41 tanks started their engine and moved up and down to avoid anti-tank rockets. We, rangers sitting in foxholes, not fearful of enemy’s fires, but of being crushed by our own tanks, jumped all up out of foxholes, and moved up and down in unison with our tanks.

After the fight, when the battlefield became quite again, we jumped down into our foxholes, ready to fight… After a moment, while I was sitting next to my radio man, I unintentionally looked back over my shoulder toward the inside of the defense perimeter, and saw a dark undistinguishable shadow (because I was looking up toward the sky from the bottom of the hole, and trees and bushes had been cleared last evening) was feeling its way along a nearby tank…I raised my voice just for him to hear: "Who's that…?" He answered: "Infantry", perhaps that was the enemy's signal to recognize one another at night. I recalled that there was one battalion, belonging to 42nd Independent Regiment operating jointly with us; this battalion might have been following another group and I have not seen an infantryman of this unit during the course of this operation. I thought it might well be that his unit was attacked, and he might have strayed onto our ranger formation? I told him: "This is the rangers, not the infantry, go away…!!! He hastened to respond: "Yes, sir…" and reverted back inside the defense perimeter.

It suddenly dawned on me that how would he be able to find his unit when it was so dark. I called out to him: "It too dark, you would not be able to join your unit, lie down next to me, you will look for your unit at daybreak." He responded: "Yes, sir…" and lied down behind my back. I still remained in the foxhole, pointing my rifle outward. At that time, rangers were equipped with individual automatic rifle Carbine M2 (which was pitiful, because rangers were a reserved force and elite of the Corps).

What had happened was during the assault, this individual ran through the defense perimeter of our troops, got confused and was left behind, while all his comrades escaped out. Feeling the tanks and realizing this was a ranger camp, he attempted to make his way out in between the tanks and tumbled onto our troops. Lying still a while, he suddenly stood up and climbed out the foxhole. I jumped out after him, my left hand holding the Carbine, my right hand reaching out to grab his waist belt, above his two hands. “For Christ sake, a grenade!!!” I was dumb struck by the sight. He was attempting to unlock the grenade, but was unable to achieve it maybe his hands were trembling too much. Regaining my composure, I held back my Carbine away from him with my left hand, while I still held his hand with my right hand, I threatened him: “If you make a movement, I will shoot.” I really wanted to move my finger to the trigger in order to kill him, but how could I possibly release the rifle in order to reach the trigger. Besides, the safety device was still in the locked position. My radioman who was with me in the same foxhole was still not aware of the situation. I called out his name in low voice, he came out of the foxhole, and I told him: “This one is a VC, tie him up.” It took him a while to find out the string to tie the two arms of the enemy behind his back and both his legs, and then put him down against the back of a tank. At that moment, I became a sentinel looking outward for the enemy and a warden watching a prisoner within. Only me and the radioman knew about this and I did not reveal to anybody because not knowing how the battle would enfold, spreading the news would cause panic to everybody, and thus would not benefit anybody. At dawn, the sun had not yet appeared, thick fog had not yet dissipated, one of my rangers walks toward me, obviously to look for me, and I pointed him to the captive VC lying there. He stepped back, yelled in panic: “Killed him.” I burst out laughing. I then called Aspirant Lieutenant Tuyen of the armored unit who emerged out from the top of the M41 tank and slided down on to the ground. I pointed to him the VC lying next to the tank. He jumped up and yelled in panic: “Kill him...” because this enemy slept next to the tank through the night without him suspecting a thing.

At first, the prisoner was very afraid because everybody demanded his death, but he saw that I treated him nicely, gave him food, drink, cigarettes (although he was still tied up), inquired about his conditions, his family…I still remember his name was Trung and his face was radiant, smiling and responded with sincerity to my questions because he knew he was spared of death. Afterwards he requested to untie him and promised never to run away. Seeing that he was gentle and pitiful, I had his feet untied. I was lucky that he had lost his rifle during the combat, otherwise my life would be jeopardized, and I would not have the chance to recount this memory to you …

Another small memory is that in my radio PRC 10 was the incessant high pitched, sharp, sarcastic voice of a northerner lady belonging to Military Zone B3 (the command of the secret base): "Son Tay calling Dong Dang, answer." All were code names of northern sites. Discomfort for being subjected to the non stop calling, partly because of my humor nature, partly I wanted her out of my private radio wave lengths, I told her: "Dong Dang had ceased to live long time ago, don't call him anymore, stop bothering me …" I thought after hearing this, she would not contain her laugh, but order is order, she kept on calling.

Team Spirit

That morning, I had my soldiers scout the surroundings to collect weapons of both ours and enemies and bundle them and notified M113s to get them and take them away with the prisoner because we received the order to advance again. They weighted too much for us to carry on our shoulders on the road of operations.

At that same time, there was an anecdote which is both sad an hilarious. We had a number of our rangers KIA. I gave order to a subordinate to put the corpses in ponchos (used as raincoats and tents). Maybe because he was a rookie, he dared not touch the corpses. I sternly admonished him: “He won’t punch you, won’t bite you, what are you afraid of? If you don't take care of friends, of teammates, when comes your turn, nobody will take care of you…” These words seemed to make sense to him, and he performed his given task immediately. This made me smiled and sad at the same time… The rangers live fiercely, bravely but do not last long; bullets avoid man but how can man avoid bullets. Everybody dies, if not soon then latter, but to live and to die with meaning and beloved by everybody is what counts.

By dawn, the remnant units of the three 344th, 365th and 966th Battalion of NVA 32nd Regiment abandoned the battlefield, retreated to their base camps located in the Chu Prong Massif, near the Cambodian border. Seriously wounded combatants were carried to a field hospital comprising a few buildings made of forest logs and high grasses, located within 13 kms southwest of the Special Force camp of Plei Me.

On October 25th, 1965 morning, after cleaning up the battlefield and sending off wounded combatants, 21st Ranger Battalion and the armored units of tanks and M113 proceeded toward camp Plei Me, mopped up the surrounding and ended the siege set up by the NVA troops.

Conclusion

Although outnumbered by the enemy who selected the battlefield with better weapons, had the upper hand in terms of choice of terrain to ambush the relief column, our troops were still able to accomplish their mission of relieving camp Plei Me, and in doing so to break up the enemy’s plan of slicing the highlands into two.

Thirty years after the battle of Plei Me in which I had participated and 29 years after the Black April, deep down I want to forget about the sorrows of the war. But my younger brother urged me to write to fill up the gaps and to allow the future generation to have a better understanding of one aspect of the Vietnam War. Such are my modest contributions.

Tran Quoc Canh, Class 19
(excerpt from Đa Hiệu magazine, issue 74th , 6/2005)

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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