(Attacks, from 19 October to 26 November 1965)
In September 1965, the American Command deployed the 1st Air Cavalry at An Khe (Gia Lai), in order to prevent us from cutting the Highlands with the coastal area. The ARVN created the 24th Special Zone comprising the two provinces of Kontum and Gia Lai and transferred the primary operational responsibility in the Highlands to the American troops in order to implement the “search and destroy” plan in their “limited war” strategy.
In the Pleime, Bau Can, Duc Co areas (20 km southeast of Pleiku city), the enemy had the US 3rd air cavalry brigade, one ARVN airborne task force, one ARVN armor squadron and one ROK regiment, supported by artillery, air force (including B52 bombers), looking to destroy our regular forces and assisting the pacification program of the GVN troops.
In this background, the Highlands battlefield Command decided to change the mission of liberating northern Highlands and focused in launching Pleime campaign, aiming at joining with the entire South battlefield in destroying one US element in order to expand and consolidate the liberated zone, to establish base camps, to train the infantrymen and the service units. Through combats, we study step by step the American troops, and build up our confidence in our fight with the Americans and our victory over the Americans. Major General Chu Huy Man was assigned Commander and concurrently Commissar of the campaign, colonel Nguyen Chanh and lieutenant colonel Nguyen Huu An was assigned Deputy Commander. Comrade Huynh Dac Huong held the position of Deputy Commissar, lieutenant colonel Nam Ha was the Chief of staff, lieutenant colonel Dang Vu Hiep was Deputy Political Chief.
The involved forces comprised 3 infantry regiments (320th, 33rd, 66th), one sapper battalion, one artillery battalion, one 12.7mm anti-aircraft battalion; together with local armed militia attacking enemy communication lines and rear areas.
Early October 1965, based on assessment of enemy status and our preparation readiness, the campaign Command had decided to assign tasks to the units as following: the target and area to destroy the enemy was camp Chu Ho, siege set on Pleime camp, ambush to destroy the rescue column established on route 21 (from Hill 538 to Hill Blu). The area where our troops would attack the Americans would be the Ia Drang valley. Diversionary targets were Duc Co and Tan Lac camps. Target of sapper units was Bau Can camp. Coordination direction was set west of route 14 and Kontum. The guiding concept was to encircle the camp in order to destroy the rescue column, aiming at destroying the enemy out of its fortification.
Regarding combat method: put up a siege on a camp to attract a rescue column of ARVN troops by land, create an opportunity to destroy a task force or a regiment of enemy regular forces. Force the American troops to counter-attack in order to gradually destroy American companies one by one while they are maneuvering. Coordinate main regular forces with small activities of other units, creating continuous attacks, and dispersing enemy resistance.
Regarding the use of forces: the 33rd regiment (minus 2nd battalion) attacks Pleime camp, reinforced by one 12.7mm anti-aircraft company. The unit that attacks the rescue column on route 21 is the 320th regiment. The 66th regiment and the 2nd battalion are assigned the task of blocking the enemy when it counter-attacks. The diversionary activity at Duc Co is assumed by the 200th artillery battalion. The diversionary activity at Tan Lac is assumed by the local company. The activity of coordination is the 15th battalion at Gia Rai.
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.
At 7:00pm on October 19, the campaign began, the 200th artillery battalion and the local militia company attacked Tan Lac and Duc Co camps, aiming at attracting the attention of the enemy. At 10:54pm on the same day, the 33rd regiment opened fire to destroy the Chu Ho forward outpost, leading forces into encircling Pleime camp.
On October 20, the enemy used the air force to pound fiercely on the 33rd regiment’s deployment. Communications between companies and battalions were constantly disrupted. Along route 21, an enemy reconnaissance company slipped in small groups through the ambush terrain of the 320th regiment. The next day (October 21), the enemy disembarked a Special Forces battalion on Khop village 5km north of Pleime. The 3rd Task Force and the 21st rangers battalion were concentrated at Phu My.
On October 23 (at 12:00pm), the 3rd armor task force launched the operation from Phu My in the direction of Pleime, with the intention of arriving in Pleime by the evening. The task force comprised 3 M113 and tanks squadrons, the 21st ranger battalion, the 1st battalion/42nd regiment and two 105mm artillery guns. The enemy proceeded cautiously because it was afraid of the ambush. At 4:30pm, the bridgehead of the column reached the middle of our ambush site. At 4:48pm, the enemy bombarded suddenly hill 538 where we deployed our blocking force. Afterwards, the enemy used 5 tanks in horizontal formation to attack this target. At this location, our troops destroyed 2 vehicles, and held our position. Our 634th and 635th battalions assaulted and destroyed the enemy along route 21. An enemy element retreated at hill Doc Lap, our troops organized multiple assaults, but failed to occupy the hill. Results, we destroyed 59 tanks, armored vehicles and 800 enemy soldiers, captured 2 105mm guns and 6 ammunition vehicles, 20 weapons of various types, shot down 2 airplanes.
Faced with the defeat of the ARVN, general Westmoreland, commander of the US expeditionary army came up to the Highlands, ordered lieutenant general Harry Kinnard, US 1st air cavalry commander: “to find the enemy and seize the initiative into our hands.” Following that order, the US 1st air cavalry entered the campaign battlefield. At 7:00am on October 24, the enemy used 93 helicopters to disembark the first US battalion 2km south of Phu My. At 3:00pm on the same day, the Americans continued to use 60 helicopters to disembark the 2nd American battalion with 105mm artillery guns and 106.7mm mortars at Plei Do Doat 10km northeast of Pleime camp.
Upon receiving the aid from the American troops, the remaining enemy of 3rd task force and the newly attached force (the 22nd rangers battalion and the 91th airborne ranger battalion) continued its strek toward Pleime, but they were stopped by our fierce attacks.
On October 10, the American task force command arrived at Bau Can. Vinh Ho, ARVN II corps commander, was also present aboard the helicopter to command the ARVN relief efforts of Pleime.
The participation of the American troops intensified suddenly the enemy firepower. They concentrated their attacks at the positions of the 33rd regiment, in order to support the ARVN counter-attack bridgeheads. Assessing this situation, the campaign command concluded that we had destroyed an important ARVN mobile element which forced the American troops to get involved in the fight. The mission of putting up a siege at Pleime had been achieved. We decided to abandon the encirclement and to regroup our troops. We would use the two 320th and 33th regiments in the ready to defeat future enemy counter-attacks. On October 29, we took the initiative to end the 1st phase of the campaign.
By end of October, the enemy discovered the rear areas of our two 33rd and 66th regiments. On October 31, the enemy disembarked American troops at Mui village, missing in its attack against our reconnaissance team, and then withdrew immediately. Another enemy company landed at Pleila Brieng to attack our signal unit. On November 2, one American battalion entered the plantation at Duc Nghiep and remained there one day. On November 3, one American company landed at Plei The; this unit made contact with one company of the 33rd regiment. On November 4, one American company together with the ARVN troops attacked an abandoned location of our 2nd battalion; our 3rd battalion that was present nearby organized an attack at the flank of an enemy platoon. On November 6, one American company attacked one company of our 1st battalion. Our 2nd battalion initiated an attack in combination with the 1st battalion and destroyed nearly en entire enemy company. On November 10, the American troops decided to replace the 1st brigade with the 3rd. In this phase, the Americans deployed their troops with the intention to test our forces. We caused damages to each American unit and adjusted our forces in preparation for the decisive battle.
On November 11, one American battalion continued to land down at Plei Ngo, 12km west of Pleime. In receiving this news, the campaign Command decided to implement the 2nd plan. Starting phase 3, the sapper team of 952nd battalion used 4 mortars firepower to attact the command post of US 3rd brigade at Bau Can. In coordination with Pleime battlefield and Eastern Nam Bo, sapper troops attacked the command post of US 1st air cavalry in An Khe.
After the reconnaissance team confirmed the position of 9th battalion/66th regiment 3km northeast of Chu Prong (the enemy named this area as X-ray landing zone), at 10:00am on November 14, the 3rd brigade disgorged 2 grenade launcher companies 11km east of X-ray LZ. After establishing the battlefield, the enemy concentrated artillery and helicopters to attack the area of X-ray LZ. At 10:48 am, the American troops used 8 helicopters to disembark the leading element of the 1st battalion (109 soldiers among who were lieutenant colonel Harold Moore and captain John Herren) at X-ray LZ. 35 minutes later, the enemy continued to disembark A company comprising 106 soldiers commanded by captain Nadal. Having in hands A company, battalion commander Moore launched a two prong attacks against our 9th battalion. While the enemy attacked our 9th battalion, its battalion commander had not returned from a regiment meeting, the executive officer commanded our troops at the battalion level to fight against the enemy and requested reinforcement from the 13th company. Although taken by surprise, our troops fought with courage. The 13th, 11th and 12th companies in hearing gun shots initiated attacks against enemy flanks. The enemy B company was attacked fiercely at both of its flanks. The 2nd platoon commanded by lieutenant Herrick was cut off and encircled. Battalion commander Moore called up A company to come to the rescue but it was also been attacked. That evening, the battalion commander and the executive officer of our 9th battalion returned, but they did not return to their command location and thus did not have the 11th company in control. Consequently, the units of the 9th battalion had to abandon their positions: the 12th and 15th companies withdrew to Ea Koc stream; the 13th company retreated toward the 7th battalion. During their withdrawal, the 13th company met the commissar of the 66th regiment, who ordered this company to have the 9th platoon to turned back to face the enemy, while the rest of the company readied to fight.
In the evening of November 14, upon receiving report from the recon team, the campaign Command ordered the commissar of the 66th regiment to accompany the 7th battalion in attacking the remaining troops of the US 1st battalion at X-ray LZ The 7th battalion (minus 3rd company) at south Chu Prong at 5km from the enemy, was lead by the 9th platoon/13th company/9th battalion, departed at 10:50pm, but did not encounter the enemy who had moved away. At 5:00am on November 15, our troops made contact with the enemy; the battalion deployed and used 82mm mortars to put brief pressure against the enemy, then launched the assaults. We and the enemy fought hands to hands; taken by surprise, the enemy put up a weak defense; we killed more than 200 soldiers (among who were 80 Americans); the remaining regrouped and called for help from other companies. But these units were also under attack by us and could not come to the rescue.
Facing our pressure, the enemy landed 2 105mm artillery company (12 guns) 4.5km east of X-ray LZ in order to coordinate with artillery firepower at Phan Con and to join the air force in support of US 1st battalion. Due to panic and our close troop deployment tactics, the US air force dropped napalm bombs even on the US 1st battalion command post (Moore). The 3rd brigade commander hastened to dispatch the 2nd battalion commanded by lieutenant colonel Robert Tully to Victor area (named given by the enemy) 2 miles off X-ray LZ to rescue the 1st battalion.
During recent days, the enemy had intensified firepower to a high level: 2 105mm artillery batteries (48 guns) had shot 6,000 rounds/day, 130 to 140 air combat sorties each day in support of American troops. Also during this phase (on November 15), the Americans used for the first time 24 B52 airplanes to accomplish a tactical task in attacking Chu Prong area with thousands tons of bombs.
In the morning of November 17, the Americans constantly attacked the area of Chu Prong with B52 airplanes; then launched 2 battalions: the 2nd battalion of US 5th air cavalry regiment and the 2nd battalion of US 7th air cavalry regiment into the area of Ia Drang to block the withdrawal of our troops. Here, two battalions (the 1st and the 8th of the 33rd regiment) had deployed to attack the enemy flank. Taken by surprise, the enemy regrouped in defense. In the course of combat, the commander of the 8th battalion was killed, its commissar was also seriously wounded, and the executive officer of the 1st battalion commanded both battalions and also died. Under such condition, our troops continued to hold positions on the battlefield and fought for 8 hours at Ia Drang; we destroyed nearly one entire American battalion and inflicted heavy damage to another of their battalions. This was the decisive battle of Pleime campaign.
On November 17, the enemy disembarked an airborne task force at Duc Co and Plei Che in order to cut off our front and rear end. The 320th regiment had only the 334th battalion remaining on the battlefield and consequently was unable to put up a fight against the enemy. On November 26, 1965, the campaign ended.
Results of the campaign: we destroyed one mechanized infantry task force of the Saigon army; destroyed 2 battalions, damaged the 1st battalion of the US 1st air cavalry division, killed more than 2,974 soldiers (1,700 Americans), destroyed 89 military vehicles; shot down 59 airplanes.
Pleime was the first campaign launched against the Americans of the Highlands battlefront in the military struggle against the imperialist United States. The campaign had exceptionally accomplished the entrusted task, destroying an American unit right at the first combat. The victory of the campaign has an important significance both politically and militarily, boosting the moral of the military and population of MR5 in particular and the entire nation in general, contributing in strengthening the confidence of the military and the population in the leadership of the Party in the fighting against the Americans, seizing the freedom for the country. Ia Drang valley has entered history, marking the first defeat of the United States on the battlefield in South Vietnam.
The victory of Pleime campaign does not stop at the number of ARVN and US troops killed; it has left many significant lessons learned in terms of the military art.
First of all is the art of accurate prediction of the combat opponent. When the American troops entered the South, the direct combat was an inevitable thing. However, at this period in time (October 1965), our knowledge regarding the Americans was very limited.The personnel organization, the art of combat, the capabilities of the American troops were still question marks to us. In order to verify this, since the American troops were present in the Highlands, we opened the campaign to attack Pleime. Our purpose was to fight and study hand in hand in order to complement our initial assessments. The reality had shown that our predictions were correct.
The choice of the combat method and the victory obtained at the first fight were the distinguished traits of the art in the conduct of the campaign. Although the newly arrived American troops in the South had the superiority in terms of firepower and mobility, but they were too subjective, wrong in self-assessment and underestimated the enemy. These were the weaknesses that we had used in luring the American troops into our trap. Therefore the strategic demand of this campaign dictated that no matter what amount of sacrifices we had to assertain victory with the first fight. Based on this premise, the campaign Command had decided to use the ploy of setting up a siege in order to annihilate the rescue column. By exploiting the mistakes of the enemy to the maximum, it allowed us to design a plan for concrete tactics for each phase. We had prepared adequately the campaign, readying ourselves to any eventualities. In the other hand, we did not underestimate the enemy in preparing the psychological mind set of our combatants to be ready to accept sacrifice in exchange for victory. The sharpness of the art of command was to know how to exploit the weakness, carelessness of the enemy in order to make choice of the terrain, to select the right method of combat, gaining victory at each battle.
In this campaign, the excellence of our plan was to lure the enemy, to lure the American troops into the location of our choosing; to implement our strong point in close combat in order to counter the firepower and mobility of the Americans. The victory of the campaign has demonstrated we had the capability to fight and destroy one by one American battalions.
(Article written based on the report of the Highlands Battlefront, archived at Tactical Department/Defense Ministry, perhaps: The 1965 Pleime Attack, The People's Army Military Institute and III Corps, Hanoi: The People's Army Publishing House, 1993)
Courtesy of Steven Marx