Pleime Counteroffensive into Chupong Iadrang Complex

Background

Viet Cong Field Front B3 Command used the tactic “faking an attack against an outpost to lure in and destroy the rescue force” in attacking the Pleime camp from October 19 to 26, 1965. However, II Corps Command defeated the enemy both at the camp and at the ambush site with the help of US Ingram Task Force comprising an artillery battalion and an infantry battalion.

Enemy Situation

After failing to annihilate the rescue column and to overrun Pleime camp, the two 32nd and 33rd Regiment NVA were ordered to retreat to their initial staging area before the attack in the Chupong-Iadrang complex.

Field Front B3 Command needed to retrieve its severely damaged units in order to preserve force while waiting for the reinforcement of 66th Regiment still wandering on the Ho Chi Minh trail. It would take this unit at least a week to close in at the Chupong-Iadrang complex.

The enemy’s losses were as following based on an account realized after 10/27/1965: 211 KIA, 115 KBA, 6 CIA, 1 57 RR, 2 pistols, 2 81mm mortar, 12 cal .50 MG, 3 cal .30 MG, 9 BAR, 37 SMG, 22 rifles, 8 carbines, 2 M79, a B40 Anti tank wpn.

Once the six battalions of the 32nd and 33 Regiment were reorganized and reequipped and with the arrival of 66th Regiment, it was certain that Field Front B3 Command would set up for a revenge, besides its resolve to achieve its goal of overtaking Pleiku as planned by the 1965-1966 Winter Spring campaign.

Friendly Situation

After October 27, 1965, friendly units’ losses are: Abn Ranger, 15 KIA, 20 WIA. LLBD, 1KIA. CIDG, 21 KIA, 21 WIA, 6MIA. US, 12 KIA, 8WIA. 3rmd Cav, 7 KIA, 27 WIA, 4 MIA. 1/42, 32 KIA, 72 WIA, 2 MIA. 21st Rangers, 35 KIA, 5 WIA. 22d Rangers, 12 WIA. Arty, 4 KIA, 2 WIA, 6 MIA. Engr 1 WIA. Total: 111 KIA, 190 WIA, 18 MIA.

Normally in the past, after the relief of a besieged outpost, II Corps Command could not afford to pursue the enemy for lack of sufficient troops and means. However, this time around, seizing the opportunity of a helping hand offered by the US 1st Air Cavalry Division, II Corps Command was able to launch a coordinated operation of exploitation in the pursuit of the enemy that were retreating back to the Chupong-Iadrang complex.

Planning

The planning of this operation was assigned to Colonel Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff, working in coordination with Brigadier General Richard Knowles, 1st Air Cavalry Division Deputy Commander.

The 1st Air Cavalry Division Forward Command Post was established in the compounds of II Corps Headquarters in Pleiku, sharing the facilities with II Corps American Advisor Group. General Knowles was shadowed by Colonel Mataxis, the Senior Advisor.

In order to obtain a well organized working relationship between the two allied commands, Colonel Hieu laid out a clear cut “modus operandi”: joint intelligence and support activities and commonly-shared concept of operations and results; but separate TAOR, command, deployment of forces, conduct of activities and reserve.

Operational Concept

The search and pursuit of the two 32nd ( 334th, 635th and 966th Battalion) and 33rd Regiment (1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalion) should not be too difficult a task for 1st Air Cavalry Division with its fleet of helicopters in hands (435 in lieu of 101 for a regular infantry division). Nevertheless, to destroy an enemy force that had broken up into small units and in hiding amidst a vast area of elephant grass, bushes and trees, was a daunting task which would require months if not years to uncover and to destroy all these scattered piece meal units one at a time.

It is better to be able to attack and kill when the enemy units assembled at one location. This could have a chance to happen since Field Force B3 Command has ordered its attacking forces to return to their initial staging areas in the Chupong-Iadrang complex, while waiting for the arrival of the 66th Regiment.

However, in order to annihilate a division size force comprising three regiments, it would necessitate a force three times larger, which means three divisions, that II Corps Command could not afford.

A better alternative available was to use B-52’s carpet bombings to annihilate the concentrate enemy troops.

Therefore the operational concept for this operation comprised two phases:

Phase I: Herding the scattered enemy units toward a common grouping area. This task was assigned to 1st Air Cavalry Brigade with operation All the Way.

Phase II: Destroying the enemy with B-52’s carpet bombings. General Knowles would coordinate this planning phase with MACV Command in Saigon for the use of this strategic weapon.

The bombings would be prepared by a diversionary tactic performed by 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade with operation Silver Bayonet I

II Corps Command maximized the use of its intelligence apparatus. Based on daily updated intelligence reports, II Corps Command scheduled accordingly the starting point of each consecutive phases.

Execution

Phase I: Herding the scattered enemy units

On 10/27, Eagle Flights from the Air Cavalry Division went into action. From dawn to darkness, they flew unwarily over the area to search for the enemy. Every suspect enemy presence is carefully checked and dealt with, either by airstrikes or by the Eagle Flights themselves, or by reaction forces. These tactics compelled the enemy to move continuously, to disintegrate and to fragment into small parties and thus they could not avoid being sighted.

By the end of the day, according to intelligence daily report, the lead elements of the 33d had closed on it forward assembly area, the village Kro (ZA080030), while its rear-guard battalion, was just beginning to break contact at the Pleime CIDG camp.

On 10/28, according to intelligence daily report, the 32d Regiment had nearly closed its base on the north bank of the Ia Drang, although the exact route it took in its withdrawal from the ambush site still remains a mystery.

On 10/29, according to intelligence daily report, the withdrawal of the 33d Regiment was rapidly becoming a nightmare. More and more armed helicopters began striking units of the regiment. So close were these attacks pressing to the advance base that by noon of the 29th the regimental cadre decided to keep the unit on the move to the west, seeking sanctuary. This time it was headed for its "home" prior to the attack on Pleime. This was Anta Village (NVA designation) at YA940010, located at the foot of the Chu Pong Massif. It was here during early October, that the 33d had conducted drills and rehearsals of its attack on the Pleime CIDG camp.

On 10/30, according to intelligence daily report, maintaining unit integrity was becoming increasingly difficult for many element of the 33d Regiment as Cavalry helicopters seemed to be everywhere, firing into carefully camouflaged positions and causing individual to either break and run or reveal positions by returning the aircraft fires. And a new element of danger had been introduced. Infantry units began air assaults in widely separated points throughout the general area through which the 33d must pass.

At time these landings were far enough from regimental units so that battle could be avoided, but in other cases, the cavalrymen found retreating elements and sharp fire fights, always costly to the NVA would result. And with each such engagement, further fragmentation of NVA units would occur.

As the small unit actions increased, the Cavalry obtained its first North Vietnamese captives and more and better intelligence concerning the enemy forces was becoming available to commanders.

On 10/31, according to intelligence daily report, the constant harassment from the air and the sudden and unexpected landing of infantry troops at points throughout the area was causing consternation in the enemy ranks. Elements continued to disintegrate and fragment into small parties or, in some cases, individual stragglers. Many of these, left to fend for themselves, soon fell into the hands of Cavalry units. Contributing to the problems of the 33d was the acute shortage of food and medicines since many units could not reach their pre-stocked supply because of the sudden thrusts of the helicopter-borne troopers.

On 11/01, at 0730 hours, about a VC platoon was sighted at 10 km South West of the Pleime Camp. A reaction force was immediately sent by the 1st Brigade of the 1st Air Cavalry Division. Only minutes after, 20 VC were killed and 19 captured. Friendly troops kept on searching and suddenly discovered a VC field hospital well equipped with medicines and surgical instruments made by Communist countries. All the communist origin supplies were still brand-new and amounted approximately to a value of 40000 US dollars.

While the evacuation of the trophy was carried out by helicopters, a battalion size enemy force stealthily moved toward friendly troops and strove to surround their positions. The first engagement between elements of the 1st US Air Cavalry Division and the VC took place. It lasted for five hours until darkness. When the enemy finally broke contact and withdrew, it had been for them a deadly blow by the "First Team": 99 VC were killed (Body count), 44 other VC regulars captured along with 40 weapons. But at least more than 200 other VC were probably killed and wounded.

The capture of the aid station was a major find for the Air Cavalry Division and besides the opportunity it provided for destruction of VC forces, it also yielded documents, including one particularly valuable map that revealed enemy supply and march routes.

According to intelligence daily report, by now the regimental headquarters had reached the base at Anta village, but the bulk of the regiment was still strung out between Pleime and Chu Pong. And these elements continued to draw aerial rocket and machine gun fire throughout the withdrawal. Also the heavy bombing and strafing attacks by USAF aircraft were directed against regimental positions with increasing accuracy as the secondary target detection system of the 1st Air Cavalry division began to click.

The precision of the strikes was so upsetting that regimental cadre held a conference in an attempt to discover what was allowing the US forces to make such repeated, accurate air strikes. It was concluded that only spies within the ranks could be furnishing the location and movement of the regiment's elements.

On 11/02, according to intelligence daily report, the 33d Regiment now received orders to head deeper into the Chu Pong sanctuary. By 0400 on the 2d, the regimental CP had arrived at Hill 762 (YA885106). But while the head of the column had comparative safety, the body and tail, still stretching back to near Pleime, was anything but safe.

Meanwhile, the NVA division headquarters (Field Front) had a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy picture. The last of its three regiments was due to arrive soon in South Vietnam and begin moving into assembly areas in the Chu Pong-Ia Drang area.

On 11/03, at 2100 hours, an audacious ambush in the very heart of the Chu Pong - Ia Drang complex inflicted to the 8th Battalion of the newly-infiltrated 66th Regiment: 112 KIA (Body count), more than 200 others estimated KIA and WIA, 30 weapons captured.

According to intelligence daily report, the 33d Regiment, meantime, was still trying to pull its bruised and battered tail into the Chu Pong sanctuary. But it became just another day of constant harassment from the air and ground marked by the loss of still more medical supplies and ammunition.

On 11/04, a large arms cache was uncovered at 5 km West of the Pleime Camp, in the vicinity of the Ia Meur river.

According to intelligence daily report, after failing to overrun US positions on the south bank of the Ia Drang, the 8th Battalion, 66th Regiment, broke off the attack and pulled its dead and wounded back from the site of the engagement. The apparent discovery by Cavalry forces of a new NVA infiltration unit would cause the Field Front to re-evaluate its tactical position and begin looking for ways to counteract the continued pressure.

An immediate action was to order the 33d Regiment out of its base at Hill 732, which it had hardly reached, and onto the eastern slopes of Chu Pong in the vicinity of YA922010 with its battalions (when they closed) to take up positions from Hill 732, down through Anta Village (940010) to the north bank of the Ia Meur (980000).

The fragmented bits and pieces of the regiment were still making their way in a generally westward direction, clinging to stream beds, utilizing all available concealment to avoid detection by the ever-present Cavalry helicopters. There still was one unit reasonably intact - the battalion that had acted as rear guard. Starting later and moving more slowly than the rest, it was still east of main Cavalry positions.

On 11/05, according to intelligence daily report, the day brought little change to the intelligence picture. The 66th Regiment continued to close into assembly areas in the Chu Pong sanctuary and the 33d Regiment waited for its shattered forces to rejoin the parent unit. The 32d Regiment and Field Front, meanwhile, remained untouched and untroubled north of the Ia Drang and adjacent to the Cambodian frontier.

On 11/06, the 6th battalion of the 33rd Regiment was almost annihilated after an engagement taking place North of the Ia Meur river: 77 KIA (BC), nearly 400 others estimated KIA and WIA.

Up to this point, the 1st Brigade of the First Air Cavalry Division in its "All the Way" (2) deployment over an area of about 2500 square kilometers had given severe blows to the withdrawing VC units but through the contacts made and related above, no traces were yet found concerning the 32nd Regiment. Although the number of VC casualties amounted to 1500, including those suffered in the first phase, one more regiment - the 66th Regiment - had been added to the enemy order of battle.

There was strong suspicion that elements of the 32nd Regiment may have slipped off to the east.

On 11/07, according to intelligence daily report, 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.

In the battle area there was diminishing activity. One NVA soldier surrendered with a safe-conduct pass.

On 11/08, according to intelligence daily report, only fragmented units and stragglers remained east of the Chu Pong-Ia Drang complex as the 33d Regiment began to assess its losses.

Friendly intelligence at this point still was not really sure that the entire 33d Regiment withdrew to the west. One prisoner taken at Pleime stated positively that after the battle his unit was to walk for two nights south and east. In addition, there was strong suspicion that elements of the 32d Regiment may have slipped off to the east after the ambush. By this time Field Force Vietnam had asked the division to consider moving its operations east of Pleime if it appeared that was no further contact imminent in the west.

On 11/09, according to intelligence daily report, the 33d Regiment gathered in the last of its organic units and began to count noses. There were many missing.

At Field Front headquarters north of the Ia Drang, it was a day of situation analysis.

Phase II: Destroying the enemy

On 11/09, the movement and shift in emphasis from west to east commenced in a diversionary tactic in preparation of the attack into the enemy’s formation in the Chupong-Iadrang complex.

On 11/10, 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade replaced 1st Air Cavalry Brigade.

According to intelligence daily report, 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.

The 32d Regiment, of course, remained a cohesive fighting force, despite the casualties sustained during the ambush of the ARVN Armored Task Force on the road to Pleime.

The 33d, as has been seen, suffered tremendous losses in its attack of and subsequent withdrawal from Pleime, but it still was to be committed again. With a view toward its future commitment, the 33d's cadre began reorganization of the depleted battalions into a composite fighting unit.

The real cutting edge for the attack, however, was the newly infiltrated 66th Regiment, fresh from North Vietnam and spoiling for a fight. It would be in the van of the three regimental effort against Pleime.

On 11/11, the three battalions of the 66th Regiment were strung along the north bank of the Ia Drang river;

the 32nd Regiment was also up north in the same area;

the 33rd Regiment maintained its positions in the vicinity of the Anta Village (VC appellation), east of the Chu Pong mountains.

Convinced that friendly forces had lost tracks of its units, VC Field Front quickly made a decision to regain its advantage with an attack. The target again was Pleime and the date of attack set at 16 November. The plan was known within the VC ranks as the second phase of the attack of Pleime. All the three regiments would be committed this time as well as a battalion of 120mm mortars and a battalion of 14.5mm twin-barrel anti-aircraft guns which were both en route down the infiltration trail and scheduled to arrive in time for the attack. According to the declaration of a surrendered political officer, the scheme of the new attack would have as primary objective the destruction of the camp.

On 11/12, according to intelligence daily report, Field Front units continued preparations and rehearsals for the scheduled attack on Pleime.

On 11/13, according to intelligence daily report, 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.

II Corps Command determined that it was the right moment to insert air cavalry unit to set up a blocking position in Chu Pong before the arrival of the two battalions of anti-aircraft and heavy mortar to prevent the helicopters transporting troops from being shot down by guns placed on hill sides and infantrymen from been decimated by mortar shells fired prior to assaults. The D-day would be the next day 11/14.

On 11/14, at noon, helicopters disgorged troops and artillery from the 1st Air Cavalry on the very doorsteps of the Chu Pong mountains. Instead of launching an attack on Pleime, field Front fount itself engaged in a struggle to defend its own base. The landing zone called L.Z. X-ray was about 25 km from the Camp of Pleime, at the eastern foot of the Chu Pong massif. The terrain was flat and consisted of scrub trees up to 100 feet high, thick elephant grass varying in height from one foot to five feet and ant hills throughout the area up to eight feet high with thick brush and elephant grass on and around them. Along the western edge of the LZ, the trees and grass were especially thick and extended off into the jungle on the foothills of the mountain.

After a 20-minute tube artillery preparation, and 30 seconds of aerial artillery fire, the landing of the 1/7 Cavalry battalion began. The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore, himself with the assault company - Company B - landed precisely at 1048 hours on 14 November 1965.

While the helicopters were shuttling back to Pleime to lift company A, the B company commander secured the landing zone by having one platoon dispatch its squads into different areas, 50 to 100 meters off the landing zone to reconnoiter. At approximately 1120 hours a prisoner was taken. He stated that he had eaten only bananas for five days and that there were three VC battalions on the mountain.

At 1210 hours, as sufficient elements of company A had landed, the LZ security mission was given to that company and company B ordered to search the lower portion of the mountain area with emphasis on the finger leading down towards X-ray.

Around 1245 hours, lead elements of company B began to engage in a fire fight of moderate intensity. Shortly afterwards, at approximately 1330 hours, the company commander reported that he was being attacked heavily by at least two companies of enemy and that his right platoon 2B1/7 was in danger of being surrounded and cut off from the rest of the company by a numerically superior force. The fire fight became intense. Also a few rounds of 60 and 81 mm mortar fire began falling in the LZ and on company B.

Shortly after the fire fight began, the last platoon of company A and lead elements of company C landed. Company A was then ordered to move up on the left of company B, to establish physical contact with it, to protect its left flank and to send one platoon up to assist company B in getting to the platoon which was in danger. Company C was ordered to take up a blocking position off the landing zone to the south and southwest to prevent the LZ from being overrun in that direction and to give protection to A company's left flank. Airstrikes and artillery fires were called in on the lower fringe of the mountains foothills and work over the mountain and enemy approaches to the LZ from the west and south. But there were no well-defined terrain features to help and the scrubs and trees all looked alike. The air was heavy with smoke and dust. The fact that the separated 2B1/7 platoon was forward of companies A and B delayed delivery of effective fires in support of these two companies. However, using the technique of "walking" fires down the mountain from the south and west, fires were placed where they gave some help to these two companies. Despite all its efforts, company B reinforced was only able to get to within 75 meters of the cut-off platoon and could get no further.

Concurrently, company A minus also made heavy contact with a large force of at least one enemy company which was driving in and along a dry creek bed parallel to the western edge of the LZ. A very heavy firefight immediately broke out. Company A was taking light casualties and extracting a heavy toll from the enemy. One platoon was in such a position that it was able to bring close-in flanking fire on 50-70 VC as they continued moving across their front.

Just as company A firefight broke out, the last elements of company C and the lead elements D landed. The C company commander directed his elements into position alongside his other elements which had landed previously within five minutes, a force of 175-200 enemy headed for the LZ and ran headlong into company C. They were held off and numerous of them killed in the process of trying to get to the landing zone. The action continued for approximately one hour and a half until the enemy, disorganized and decimated, pulled off under heavy friendly artillery and air fires, dragging many of his dead and wounded.

At 1500 hours, as the remainder of the tactical elements of the battalion finally landed, and the enemy fire had slacked off, due to companies C and D actions, the battalion commander could quickly give necessary orders for the repositioning of his troops. Afterwards, two attacks were launched to reach the surrounded 2B1/7 platoon. But they were met by a greatly superior enemy force which from concealed positions was trying to cut off the attacking forces into parts. By 1740 hours, Colonel Moore decided to pull back companies A and B under cover of heavy supporting fires to the fringe of the landing zone and set up a tight defensive perimeter for the night. The battalion was still in good communications with the surrounded platoon and it was ringed with close in artillery defensive fire. By 1800 hours, company B of the 2/7 battalion landed to reinforce the 1/7.

On 11/15, due to the heavy losses they had received in the afternoon, the enemy made only some light probes around the perimeter at night. As for the cut-off platoon, it received three separate attacks from the enemy but thanks to the protection by continued close-in artillery fires, when daylight broke, numerous enemy dead were seen around the platoon.

But as first light came, the enemy reappeared and simultaneously attacked from three directions: from the south, south west and south east. By 0730 hours, the enemy had moved almost to the perimeter foxholes despite taking severe losses from artillery, mortar and close air support. There was considerable hand fighting. At 0755 hours, all platoon positions were ordered to throw a colored smoke grenade to define visually for the air observers the periphery of the perimeter and all fire support brought in extremely close, because the enemy fire was so heavy that movements toward or within the sector of defense resulted in more friendly casualties. Some friendly artillery fire fell inside the perimeter itself and two cans of napalm were delivered in the battalion CP area.

At approximately 0910 hours, company A, 2/7 battalion landed to reinforce. By 1000 hours, the enemy attack was finally repelled, enemy corpses, body fragments, weapons and equipment were littered in profusion around the edge and forward of the perimeter. There was massive evidence of many other enemy dead and wounded being dragged away from the area.

The relief of the cut-off platoon took place in the afternoon and was conducted by the 2/5 battalion which had been sent by the 3rd Brigade and on foot from LZ Victor, had closed into LZ X-ray at 1205 hours. Little enemy resistance was encountered and the platoon was reached at 1510 hours. It still had ammunitions left, was in good morale and suffered only 8 KIA, 12 WIA.

In the afternoon on 15 November, the B52 stratofortresses had also taken part in the battle with 18 sorties of the Chu Pong massif.

On 11/16, the night was relatively quiet until 0400 hours when a force of 250-300 enemy attacked from the south east. Flareship illumination was called for and continuous until 0545 hours. The attack was beaten off by small arms and artillery fires. At 0432 hours, another attack by 200 enemies came in from the same direction but the artillery took a heavy toll. By 0500 hours, the weight of the enemy attack had shifted more to the southwest but repulsed half an hour later. At 0627 hours, another attack came directly toward the CP. At 0641 hours, the enemy had been beaten off and was dragging off bodies under fire.

A search and clear sweep was conducted at 0810 hours by all units on the perimeter. Enemy dead were lying throughout the area and numerous weapons were collected.

The entire battle had lasted continuous for 48 hours and the enemy had suffered at X-ray almost one third of their total losses throughout all three phases:

- KIA (body count): 834

- KIA (estimated): 1215

- CIA: 6

-Weapons captured: 141

- Weapons destroyed: 100

As for the 1/7 battalion, 79 troops were killed and 125 wounded.

The 1/7 battalion left LZ X-ray at 1040 hours on 16 November and was replaced by the 2/7th and 2/5th battalions.

During the day, the two 32nd and 33rd Regiment continued to be struck by B-52’s bombs at north west of LZ Xray in 20 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.

On 11/17, the two 2/5th and 2/7th Battalions were ordered to exit LZ Xray; 2/5th marching northwestward to LZ Columbus and 2/7th northward to LZ Albany. The displacement was also based on the estimate that the enemy had withdrawn in that direction. In the afternoon of the previous day, a friendly helicopter had been shot down over that area, the enemy movement could also aim at attacking the artillery position east of X-ray which had provided effective support to the 1/7 battalion during the last two days.

As soon as these two battalions reached the safety zone at a 3 kilometer radius, B-52s carpet bombed right at LZ Xray annihilating troops of 66th Regiment still lingering at the landing zone.

Meanwhile, 2/7th Battalion fell into a VC ambush conducted by a battalion-size enemy unit, when it almost came near its objective. But once again, the VC had offered themselves as targets for air-strikes and artillery fire: KIA (body count): 403; KIA (estimated): 100; Weapons captured: 112.

Intelligence report estimated the casualties caused by B-52’s bombs during the last three days were around 2,000 killed.

Phase III: ‘Finish’ Em’ .

The intelligence estimate on enemy capabilities, made on 17 November indicated that nearly 2/3 of their strength had been wiped off through the engagements in Phases I and II.

II Corps Command thought it was time to throw in the reserve in order to put an end to the battle which had lasted for about one month and decided to add a third phase to the operation. Besides suffering heavy losses, the enemy was compelled to fall into the trap set by friendly forces and canalized into the routes of withdrawal which we had foreseen.

This time the main effort was conducted by the ARVN Airborne Brigade whose mission consisted of destroying the fleeing VC units and all their installations around the Ia Drang valley. The 1st Air Cavalry Division which had thus far borne the burden of the attack would continue to exert a pressure from East to West and to provide artillery support for the Airborne Brigade.

The operation - dubbed "Thần Phong 7" - began in the afternoon, 18 November when the brigade was helilifted to the area of operations, immediately upon arrival in Pleiku.

On 11/18, from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., Airborne 1st Task Force Headquarters and its three Airborne 3rd, 5th and 6th Battalions were helilifted to landing zone (X84, Y09) on the northern part of Ia Drang River. Airborne 3rd Battalion and Airborne 6th Battalion immediately

set out to sweep for the enemy westward in two different axes. While on the move, Airborne 3rd Battalion was tipped off by Special Forces Rangers teams that a battalion sized enemy forces belonging to NVA 32nd Regiment were shadowing it.

During the day, B-52’s continued to carpet bombing Chu Pong area.

On 11/19, around 11:00 a.m., Airborne 3rd Battalion received order to veer south toward an ambush site set up at (X80, Y08) by Airborne 6th Battalion.

During the day, B-52’s continued to carpet bombing Chu Pong area.

On 11/20, at 2:40 p.m., the enemy troops entered the very center of the ambush and was caught within the field of fire of Airborne 6th Battalion. The enemy suffered about 200 casualties in this engagement.

The same day, at 5:45 p.m., Airborne 8th Battalion was helilifted to location (X82, Y07), to prepare for the insertion of Airborne 2nd Task Force Headquarters along with Airborne 7th Battalion at 11:00 a.m.

During the day, B-52’s continued to carpet bombing Chu Pong area. In total during 5 days, from 11/16, B-52’s performed 96 sorties.

On 11/22, the units already present on the battlefields - Airborne 1st Task Force Headquarters, Airborne 3th Battalion, Airborne 5th Battalion, and Airborne 6th Battalion converged toward location (X82, Y07); by 1:50 p.m. on November 22, all units were reunited at this staging area. From here, the entire Airborne Brigade crossed to the south side of Ia Drang River and climbed up a mountain.

On 11/23, the entire Airborne Brigade reached its peak at (X81, Y06) around 11:15 a.m. They settled down for the night in preparation to ambush the enemy troops at the corridor that II Corps Command had predicted the enemy would utilize to withdraw back to Cambodia the next day.

On 11/24, early morning, Airborne 3rd Battalion was dispatched to the left to intercept the enemy troops. This battalion made contact with the enemy at 8:45 a.m.; Airborne 5th Battalion was sent to the right. This battalion made contact with enemy troops at 10:50 a.m. Airborne 7th Battalion and Airborne 8th Battalion were sent down the mountain and boxed them in against the Ia Drang River.

On 11/24, as no more contacts were made with the enemy, the Airborne Brigade withdrew from the area of operations, terminating the third phase of the Battle of Pleime with 265 VC killed (BC), 10 others and 58 weapons captured. Furthermore, in their sweep, Airborne 3rd Battalion and Airborne 6th Battalion had destroyed 3 training centers, one equipment cache and 75 houses.

Conclusion

The Pleime campaign with its three major battles at Pleime, Chu Pong and Ia Drang was an epic confrontation for all three Armies, ARVN, NVA and USA with each participant throwing in a regiment size and division size and under the control of division commands (II Corps, 1st Air Cavalry and Field Front B3). The Viet Cong side suffered the heaviest loss with around 6,000 KIA, while the American side around 350 death and the South Vietnam side around 250 death.

In comparison with the Dien Bien Phu battle, the Pleime battle offered more excitements to the military observers. In one side, only one tactic of encirclement and defense was deployed at a fixed stronghold within a valley bowl surrounded by hills and mountains; in the other side, ample opportunities for the deployment of various tactics: envelopment, counter-ambushes, relief, pursuit, ambushes, exploitation, attack and destroy, in rapid succession within a wide 40x50 kilometer area expanding from Pleime to Chupong-Iadrang complex.

II Corps Command, with the assistance of 1st Air Cavalry Division, outperformed Field Force B3 Command in the battlefront Pleime-Chupong-Iadrang for possessing a sophisticated intelligence apparatus comprising radio interception stations listening to enemy communications between B3 Headquarters and its regiment headquarters, statements gathered from prisoners and ralliers, documents captured at 33rd Regiment’s medical station (operational orders, maps revealing enemy supply and march routes), reports of airborne ranger recon teams operating deep in enemy territories.

A special point relative to the transmission of reports, memorandum, etc in Mandarin between Chinese Advisors at regiment level (a prisoner stated that each of the 32nd, 33rd and 66th Regiment had a Chinese Advisor), division level at Field Front B3, and at Chinese Central General Staff located in the Cambodian territories, either at the logistical center of Stung Streng, at the Bu Kheo Airfield, west of Highway 19 across the border, or at Phnom Penh. Either for being overconfident or sloppy, the Chinese Advisors cavalierly and openly talked to each other in plain Mandarin, assuming that their enemy did not have handy Mandarin spoken radio interceptors. They indeed did not expect that Colonel Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff, was born in Tientsin and grew up in Shanghai, China and only returned to Vietnam at the age of 20 years old! Consequently, II Corps Command was able to obtain in real time all the movements of enemy troops. This precise knowledge bewildered the Viet Cong cadres who called up a meeting to discuss about this issue and came to the conclusion that it ought to be spies in their midst.

Based on analysis of various intelligence sources, II Corps Command pinpointed with precision various positions of regiments and division headquarters during the entire phase II of channeling the enemy troops (on 10/27, the lead elements of the 33d had closed on it forward assembly area, the village Kro (ZA080030); on 10/28, the 32d Regiment had nearly closed its base on the north bank of the Ia Drang; on 10/29, the 33d Regiment decided to keep the unit on the move to the west, to Anta Village ( YA940010), located at the foot of the Chu Pong Massif; on 11/1, the 33rd regiment headquarters closed in at Anta Village; on 11/2, by 0400 hours, the regimental CP had arrived at Hill 762 (YA885106), meanwhile, the NVA division headquarters (Field Front) got the news the 66th Regiment due to arrive soon in South Vietnam and begin moving into assembly areas in the Chu Pong-Ia Drang area; on 11/04, the 33d Regiment was ordered out of its base at Hill 732, which it had hardly reached, and onto the eastern slopes of Chu Pong in the vicinity of YA922010 with its battalions (when they closed) to take up positions from Hill 732, down through Anta Village (940010) to the north bank of the Ia Meur (980000); on 11/05, units of 66th Regiment continued to close in the assembling areas in the Chupong-Iadrang complex; on 11/07, the depleted 33d Regiment licked its wounds and waited for its stragglers to come in, meanwhile the remainder of Field Front forces were quiet; on 11/08, only fragmented units and stragglers remained east of the Chu Pong-Ia Drang complex as the 33d Regiment began to assess its losses; on 11/09, the 33d Regiment gathered in the last of its organic units and began to count noses and at Field Front headquarters north of the Ia Drang, it was a day of situation analysis; on 11/11, the three battalions of the 66th Regiment were strung along the north bank of the Ia Drang river (center mass at 9104), the 32nd Regiment was also up north in the same area (YA820070), the 33rd Regiment maintained its positions in the vicinity of the Anta Village, east of the Chu Pong mountains and Field Front B3 decided a second attack on Pleime camp scheduled for 11/16; on 11/12, Field Front units continued preparations and rehearsals for the scheduled attack on Pleime; 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).

Furthermore, based on accurate intelligence, on 11/17/1965, II Corps Command estimated that at this point the enemy’s losses amounted to 2/3 of its forces, which means only about 3 battalions still survived, and came to the conclusion it was about time to thrown in the Airborne Brigade which comprised 5 battalions into Chupong-Iadrang complex in order to finish off the enemy. Indeed, the Airborne Brigade encountered only the two 635th and 334th Battalions.

II Corps Command outperformed Field Front B3 because it guessed accurately tactics that the enemy going to use and deftly neutralized them. To counter the tactic of one main attack and two diversionary attacks aiming at seizing Pleiku City with two diversionary attacks, the main one at Pleime and the secondary one at Hoai An in order to disperse forces, II Corps Command prioritized wisely its forces and succeeded in thwarting the enemy efforts in all three fronts. To counter the tactic faking to attack an outpost to lure in and destroy the rescue force, II Corps Command discerned where was the real effort and where was the lure and reacted appropriately; furthermore, II Corps Command reserved a surprise to the enemy in bringing in artillery tubes with giant transport helicopters to a location nearby the ambush site in order to counter the enemy tactic with the tactic of artillery firepower preceding tank firepower. Furthermore, II Corps Command also knew that this time Field Front B3 used the mobile ambush tactic in lieu of the static one as in previous attacks and counter it with a lingering diversionary move to lure the attacking enemy troops to the ambush site prior to the rescue column. To counter the tactic of close embrace, II Corps Command resorted to B-52’s carpet bombings over enemy troops’ heads while friendly units were at a distance of 3 kilometer radius.

On the other hand, Field Front B3 Command was inferior in performance to II Corps Command because it was repeatedly duped by II Corps Command’s various diversionary tactics. Besides the lingering diversionary move countering the mobile ambush tactic previously mentioned, we must add the changing of operational direction from west to east executed by 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade feigning to have lost enemy traces, the diversionary tactic using 1/7th Air Cavalry Battalion in a faking attack at LZ Xray while the main attack was executed by B-52’s in carpet bombings. Furthermore, II Corps Command had chosen 11/14 to unleash 1/7th Air Cavarly Battalion into Chu Pong while the enemy troops lacked the support of their anti-aircraft battalion that would have shot down all the helicopters inserting troops and of their heavy mortar battalion that would have badly mauled the air cavalry troops prior to assaults, forcing the enemy cadres to sacrifice their soldiers in human waves tactic.

II Corps Command was constantly in control of various battlefield situations because it had the advantage of mobility. Field Front B3 needed three months to move troops from North Vietnam to the battlefield in Pleime, which caused 66th Regiment to be absent when the attack on Pleime camp started, and the ground troops to be without support from the two battalions of anti-aircraft and heavy mortar when 3rd Air Cavalry launched its attack into Chu Pong. Meanwhile, with the fleet of more than 400 helicopters from 1st Air Cavalry, II Corps Command could perform “the displacement of 3000 troops over a distance of 160 km in only 59 minutes” ( Why Pleime, chapter V), establish and create swiftly landing zone to provide artillery support any operation anywhere.

The concept of using B-52’s as main effort and ground troops as secondary effort – meaning the ground forces supporting the air forces – was a genius idea; even General Kinnard thought that it was a traditional concept of the air force supporting ground troops ( Pleiku campaign, 17 Nov, page 93):

For the first time in the Vietnamese conflict, Strategic Air strikes were to be used in direct support of the ground scheme of maneuver. The strikes of the past two days had been in a supporting role, but today the ground forces would be moving in direct relation to the impending strike.

General Kinnard’s misconception is an indication that the operational concept of Pleime counteroffensive into Chupong-Iadrang complex originated from II Corps Command rather than from 1st Air Cavalry Division Command.

Nguyen Van Tin
(based on Why Pleime of Colonel Hieu and Pleiku Campaign of General Kinnard)
28 June 2011

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

generalhieu.com