Arc Lite Operation Planning and Execution in Pleime Offensive
On October 26, 1965, as Pleime had just been liberated, Colonel Hieu made plan for an exploitation operation in the pursuit of the two withdrawing NVA regiments to the Chupong-Iadrang complex.
He immediately foresaw the possibility of annihilating the B3 Field Front forces with B-52 airstrikes because of a stroke of luck in intelligence gathering about the military situation of the enemy troops by the hours and by the days.
Amidst all the methods of intelligence gathering, there was the radio intercepts of open communications in Mandarin between the Chinese Advisors at regimental level and divisional level. These Chinese Advisors discussed in the open on everything: logistics, personnel, troop unit locations, movements, morale, status, losses, casualties, cadres’ intentions, and planning. When the Chinese Advisors talked, Colonel Hieu listened in. When they stopped talking, he relied on other methods of intelligence gathering.
In Pleime, cuộc chię́n lịch sử, page 94, Colonel Hieu stated unequivocally that the victory achieved in the Pleime counteroffensive into Chupong-Iadrang complex was due to the acquisition of a solid intelligence on the enemy situation:
The battle from phases 2 and 3 also introduced an aspect never seen up to now because for almost 20 years, during the Franco-Vietnamese war, seldom pursuit operation was considered after each time the enemy made appearance and when it was conducted, no significant results had been achieved. Therefore this time around, the determination not to allow the enemy to escape, coupled with the solid intelligence on the enemy situation had permitted the battle to develop to maximum degree and scale and at the same token lead to the biggest victory ever achieved by the ARVN and its Allied. So with the certainty of getting a plethora of ongoing and updated by the days of solid intelligence on the enemy military situation, Colonel Hieu draw up his operational plan of using Arc Lite to destroy the enemy en mass at Chupong-Iadrang complex.
His objective was to be able to nudge B3 Field Front into an attack posture which would require the three regimental units to cluster into respective staging areas in preparation for movement to attack; at that precise brief moment of a less than 24 hour window of opportunity, they would be closed enough that the center of mass would become targetable for B52 airstrikes.
His plan would have the following elements of diversionary moves:
- 1/ to herd the scattered troop units toward Chupong-Iadrang complex;
- 2/ to entice the enemy to decide to attack again in order to make him to regroup closer together at assembling areas for training and rehearsals and tighter together at staging areas for preparation in movement to attack;
- and 3/ to prolong - with a troop insertion close by the enemy staging areas - the attack posture and the retention time of troops at these staging areas where the concentration of troops would be the most dense, and to offer to Arc Lite the maximum window of opportunity to effectively strike.
Colonel Hieu then submitted his operational plan and its feasibility to MACV/General Westmoreland for approval.
The next step was to set up a coordination team comprising the II Corps, the Air Cav Forward Command Post, the First Field Force and MACV.
The execution of the plan and the determination of timing for starting of each of the three diversionary moves relied on the assessment of intelligence data of Colonel Hieu. The orders issued to the Field Commander/General Knowles were assumed by General Larsen in three occasions:
- On Oct 27, for the herding operation (1st Air Cav Brigade)
= on Nov 7, in the Chu Pong sanctuary the depleted 33d Regiment licked its wounds and waited for its stragglers to come in. The remainder of Field Front forces were quiet.
= only fragmented units and stragglers remained east of the Chu Pong-Ia Drang complex as the 33d Regiment began to assess its losses.
- On Nov 8, for the enticement operation (3rd Air Cav Brigade)
= On Nov 9, the 33d Regiment gathered in the last of its organic units and began to count noses. There were many missing. And at Field Front headquarters north of the Ia Drang, it was a day of situation analysis.
= On 11/10, Field Front headquarters, after evaluating the situation, had reached a decision. With American units seemingly withdrawing to the east of Pleime, the decision was to attempt to regain its early advantage with an attack. The target once again was the Pleime CIDG Camp. The division headquarters set the date for attack at 16 November, and issued orders to its three regiments.
= On 11/11, the 66th Regiment was at (center of mass vic YA 9104); the 32nd (YA 820072), the 33rd (YA 940011).
= On 11/12, Field Front units continued preparations and rehearsals for the scheduled attack on Pleime.
- On Nov 12, 1/7 Air Cav Battalion was ordered to make plan to air assault Chu Pong massif (for the distractive operation)
= On 11/13, Field Front forces began staging in the Chu Pong-Ia Drang area in preparation for movement to Pleime and the projected 16 November attack. Some recon parties and transportation units already had moved out.
- and Nov 14, for the distractive operation (1/7 Air Cav Battalion)
On Nov 15, at noon, B-52 air strikes began at B3 Field Front forces (center of mass vicinity YA8702) and continued for 5 days, until 11/19 (Why Pleime, chapter VI):
For five consecutive days, from 15 to 19 November, the giant B52 bombers had flown a total of 96 sorties. One after the other, the areas of the Chu Pong massif - each of 20 square miles - underwent a systematic earthquake spreading from West to East. VC bunkers and trenches which so far had resisted the strikes by tactical aircraft and artillery began to score direct hits by the 750-pound bombs. The heavy canopy of the jungle ceased to be effective in both concealment and cover. The "back door" into Cambodia was closed and to escape, the VC remnants were reduced to utilize the narrow valley of the Ia Drang.
Enemy casualties as results of Arc Lite operation amounted to about 2,000 dead.
On November 15 and 16, B-52 airstrikes aimed mainly at the positions of units of the 33rd and 32 Regiment; on November 17, 18 and 19, units of the 66th Regiment; and on November 20, units of the 32nd Regiment. ̣
The "coup de grâce" surgical strike was finished off by the Airborne Brigade ending the Pleime counteroffensive on November 26, 1965