Senior Colonel Ha Vi Tung was Chief of Staff of the North Vietnamese Military Region IV in the Central Highlands. His area of operations began in Cambodia, cut across the midsection of South Vietnam, and ended at the South China Sea. A small man with deeply weathered features, Ha was a proven veteran of many battles with the French. His new task in 1965 was to drive his fresh division in a sustained advance through the Central Highlands with the ultimate objective of cutting South Vietnam in two.
From his sanctuary in the heavily forested Chu Pong Massif, just west of the Ia Drang Valley which straddled the Cambodian border, Colonel Ha meticulously planned the upcoming campaign. He cautioned his staff that an operation of this magnitude might oblige them to fight large American units for the first time. In fact, his plan centered on the destruction of a Special Forces camp at Plei Me, manned by a constabulary of 300 Jarai Montagnard tribesmen and 10 American advisors. Ha had two first-rate regiments available for the operation—one would seize the camp and the other ambush the column that the South Vietnamese would certainly dispatch to relieve the besieged garrison. Just in case his initial assault was not successful, Ha would also deploy a battalion of heavy antiaircraft machine guns along expected flight routes to protect his soldiers from marauding aircraft.
By 19 October 1965, Ha and his staff had moved within a few miles of the camp and established a radio link to the attacking regiments. That same evening his troops opened the battle by surrounding Plei Me and closing in for the kill.
The Initial Battle for the Ia Drang
By midnight, Captain Harold Moore, the American commander at Plei Me, knew he was in deep trouble. His camp was being hit from all directions. Mortar and recoilless rifle fire was continuous. Because there was no friendly artillery within range, Moore had to radio for close air support.
By 0400 hours a forward air controller (FAC) aboard a C-123 flareship began bringing in air strikes just as enemy soldiers began their first coordinated assault. Under the watchful eye of the FAC, a continuous procession of pilots dropped napalm and bombs within yards of the illuminated perimeter. Air Force Colonel Edsel Manning, Air Liaison Officer for the II Corps Tactical Zone, had scrambled US Air Force and Vietnamese airpower from every corner of the central region as well as Navy and Marine fighters from carriers off shore. In fact, by early morning on the 20th the skies over the camp were a very busy place. During peak hours, FACs stacked up aircraft and sent them in singly or in pairs to ensure that bombing and strafing runs were synchronized, precise, and continuous.
But for the pilots of the four participating air forces flying eight types of strike aircraft, this was no turkey shoot. Senior Colonel Ha's "flak traps" began to score kills when a UH-1B "Huey" went down east of Plei Me with all four crewmen lost. Later the same day heavy machine gun fire struck two B-57 bombers; one went down and the other was forced to divert to Plei Ku airfield for repair. During the next two days two more fighters and another helicopter would go down.
Just as Colonel Ha had predicted, the South Vietnamese dispatched an armored column to relieve the Plei Me garrison. And right on schedule it tripped an ambush 5 miles from the objective. For 2 hours mortars, recoilless rifles, and automatic weapons took a heavy toll of government troops.
From a tactical viewpoint, both the siege and the American response held few surprises. The enemy soldiers carried out their attacks with customary alacrity and precision, and the Americans had made maximum use of available firepower. However, as the battle progressed, Colonel Ha had become increasingly alarmed at the price he was paying due to Allied airpower. From intercepted radio transmissions and captured prisoners came a description of growing confusion and panic on the enemy side.
Colonel Ha did not expect American aircraft to attack at night, nor was he prepared for such a furious and sustained aerial bombardment. Just maintaining pressure on Plei Me had cost him half a regiment in 2 days. Eighty tons of aerial ordnance steadily drained his force and ultimately made a final assault impossible. In fact, after 4 days of fruitless effort, Colonel Ha reluctantly pulled his battered regiments away from their exposed positions around Plei Me and ordered them westward, back to the sanctuary of Chu Pong Mountain. The enemy had experienced the concentrated effects of American firepower for the first time. And for the first time the siege of an isolated fortress had been broken by airpower alone.
The 1st Cav Joins the Fight
On the evening of 27 October, General Westmoreland visited An Khe, the headquarters of the newly arrived 1st Cavalry Division. He reviewed the recent engagement at Plei Me and instructed General Kinnard, the Division Commander, to embark on a campaign to destroy Colonel Ha's soldiers as they withdrew. Circumstances were perfect for Kinnard's style of airmobile combat. The trackless route back to Cambodia was no impediment to the Division's complement of 476 helicopters. And the aggressive Kinnard proposed to devote an entire brigade to search for the enemy. Individual companies and platoons would leapfrog by helicopter between suspected enemy locations to conduct brief searches all the while protected by armed helicopter gunships and artillery.
Kinnard air assaulted his mutually supporting artillery batteries into the huge battle area by helicopter ahead of the infantry so that the maneuver force would have fire infantry platoons and artillery batteries across a wide expanse and to leave the total force vulnerable to defeat in detail. But first impressions can be deceiving. Kinnard's intention was to draw the enemy into a fight and then to use his helicopters to move the scattered units to the sound of the guns in only a matter of minutes.
General Kinnard emphasized time and again that contact was the name of the game. Terrain had little tactical value in this style of war. He instructed his soldiers to seek contact in any form—a helicopter receiving ground fire, a warm campfire, beaten down grass, any sign that would indicate the presence of the enemy. Platoons became the matador's cape - seemingly vulnerable and waved in the face of the enemy - but in reality they were a ploy to draw the enemy into decisive combat. Firepower provided the sword behind the cape. Hidden carefully and raised at the appropriate moment, guns and airpower in the hand of a skilled matador would do the killing.
Kinnard began his hunt on 28 October. Immediately, the seemingly random helicopter assaults began to interfere with Colonel Ha's efforts to collect his regiments. Rockets and machine gun fire from helicopters harassed the North Vietnamese. Occasional airstrikes added to their growing confusion. Finally, on 1 November the Americans got their first major break when a platoon landed on the aid station of the 33d Vietcong Regiment, just a short distance east of Colonel Ha's headquarters. In the ensuing firefight, 100 Vietcong soldiers died. On 3 November cavalry troops landed at the foot of Chu Pong Mountain. That evening the Americans ambushed an enemy patrol, killed dozens, and subsequently held off a battalion counterattack with the help of rocket-firing helicopters.
By 10 November most of the remaining Vietcong force had run the aerial and firepower gauntlet to safety in Cambodia. The cost of the siege and the withdrawal had been enormous. The two regiments could assemble only half their original strength.
Colonel Ha was too much the professional to surrender the initiative without another fight. In the relative quiet of his mountaintop refuge, Ha assembled his regimental commanders, including the leader of the fresh 66th, and planned a renewed attack. For reasons which remain obscure, Ha chose to mount another set-piece attack against the Plei Me Special Forces Camp. In fact, he planned to commit all three of his regiments to the effort and added a battalion each of heavy mortars and 14.5-mm twin-barreled antiaircraft guns. For the next 5 days the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) unit prepared for the attack—their first full-fledged divisional operation in South Vietnam.
Unknown to the NVA, General Kinnard had also decided to renew his offensive. On 13 November, 28 lifts of CH-47 helicopters placed 2 artillery batteries at Landing Zone (LZ) Falcon, miles ahead of the infantry and only 5 miles east of the Chu Pong Massif. At 1030 hours the next morning Lieutenant Colonel Harold A. Moore, commanding the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, began landing three companies on Landing Zone X-Ray, a small clearing at the foot of Chu Pong Mountain and right in the midst of the enemy division on its way to attack Plei Me. The ground around X-Ray was flat, with trees up to 100 feet tall, thick elephant grass, and anthills scattered about.
The battle for LZ X-Ray began the moment the first helicopter touched down. By early afternoon all companies of the 7th Cavalry were heavily engaged. Arriving helicopters were taking hits, and the enemy was attacking the landing zone furiously from every direction. By midafternoon Colonel Moore knew that his battalion was in a fight for its life. Just before dark he pulled all of his forces, except for a single platoon, into a tight perimeter. Incredibly, the platoon with only 12 soldiers alive and unwounded would remain isolated for 2 days, surrounded by the enemy but protected by a barrier of firepower.
As evening approached, the NVA began attacking in larger formations. Wave after wave of determined soldiers threw themselves against the perimeter. During the long night that followed, the two batteries from LZ Falcon fired over 4,000 rounds in support of the besieged cavalrymen. Forward observers "walked" rounds so close to the perimeter that hot shell fragments whistled over the heads of friendly troops.
The attack intensified early the next morning. Enemy fire became so accurate that the forward observer with the most hard-pressed company found himself pinned down and unable to observe. Fortunately, the artillery officer located in Colonel Moore's command post could see the fight, and from his distant position adjusted artillery and airstrikes around the company. Combat soon became so confused that it was difficult to tell friend from foe. For a moment Colonel Moore feared that the LZ would be lost. But he was determined that history would not repeat itself: "It certainly entered my mind that we were the 7th Cavalry Regiment," he recalled, "and by God, we couldn't let happen what happened to Custer."
At 0800, he ordered each of his platoons to throw a colored smoke marker so that air and ground observers could see the precise outline of his perimeter. Then he ordered all fire support brought in extremely close. Soon the artillery formed a protective curtain of steel too intense for the enemy to penetrate. Colonel Moore noted that on one occasion white phosphorous artillery shells proved particularly effective at halting the enemy. Apparently the 66th had never experienced the smoke and burning effect of "WP." Its sudden appearance seemed to have an extraordinarily debilitating psychological effect.
With the perimeter clearly marked by smoke, helicopter gunships were also able to enter the fray. Heavily loaded Huey attack helicopters rolled in repeatedly to deliver machine gun fire right on the edge of the perimeter. What's more, throughout the critical 40 hours at X-Ray, the Air Force maintained tactical aircraft constantly on station with a fighter-bomber on a target run every 15 minutes. And during periods of desperation, aircraft risked destruction by flying through plummeting artillery shells and small-arms fire to deliver napalm and fragmentation bombs.
Such unrelenting supporting fires gave the isolated defenders the reassurance they needed to continue the fight. But General Kinnard's goal was to win. On 15 November, when enemy pressure slackened somewhat he sent 2 more batteries of light artillery to LZ Columbus, a firebase hastily cut out of the elephant grass only 5 miles northeast of the fight. Lifts of Chinooks, carrying hundreds of rounds slung underneath in a large nylon cargo net, shuttled continuously from base camps to the new firebase without interference from enemy or terrain.
Kinnard also arranged even more exotic treats. Shortly after noon on the second day of the fight for LZ X-Ray, Colonel Ha and his staff saw a large area to their immediate south suddenly erupt in a fiery carpet of thunderous explosions. The first B-52 strike in support of a tactical fight had landed squarely on Ha's rear area. Additional strikes continued along the Chu Pong Massif for the next 5 days. Rumors spread throughout Ha's three regiments that these "carpets" covered 20 square kilometers and that ordinary trenches and foxholes offered no protection.
Colonel Ha tried X-Ray once more on the 16th, and again found himself immersed in a blood bath. Preceded by a moving wall of artillery shells, the Americans pushed outward toward the NVA positions. After 3 days of fighting, Ha's death toll exceeded 1,000. Firepower once again had prevented his victory.
After the X-Ray fight, Ha realized that a prepared infantry perimeter with plentiful artillery was too tough a target. He concluded that the real source of his failure had been the supporting artillery batteries positioned in lightly defended landing zones to the east. He reasoned that an attack there might kill more American soldiers and eliminate the enemy's most devastating source of killing power. So on 16 November, he ordered the 66th Regiment to move toward LZ Columbus and destroy both batteries of artillery positioned there.
Coincidence again played a pivotal role in the battle. On 16 November, helicopters lifted Colonel Moore's tired and battered soldiers out of X-Ray and replaced them with two new battalions, the 2-7th and the 2-5th Cavalry. In keeping with the axiom that "terrain without enemy on it was of no value," General Kinnard ordered the two fresh battalions to abandon LZ X-Ray and close on Columbus to protect the artillery. The 5th Cavalry unit left X-Ray first and closed on Columbus by noon. But the 7th Cavalry left later and traveled by a different route, which led across the path of the 66th Regiment. Unfortunately, the 66th had a 20 minute head start.
Shortly after noon the enemy commander halted his unit a mile or so short of LZ Columbus for a lunch break. Immediately, his outposts reported that a large American column was approaching. With no time to spare, the NVA leader ordered his units into an improvised ambush. Quickly, many of the experienced jungle fighters lay themselves flat in the elephant grass. Others climbed trees to get a better shot. None were under cover. The cavalrymen were practically within sight of Columbus when the enemy opened fire. The horror and heroism of the next hours has rarely been equalled in American wars. Within seconds of contact the enemy soldiers were in the midst of the cavalrymen. Fighting was hand-to-hand. Within minutes hundreds of intermingled Vietname and American dead and wounded littered the open meadow that came to be known as LZ Albany.
Artillerymen only a short distance away listened to frantic radio calls for fire from artillery observers, but were unable to respond for fear of hitting friendly soldiers. Aircraft and helicopters darted in and out of the kill zone but could not find the enemy hidden in the elephant grass.
By early evening the worst was over. A few leaders rallied the remaining soldiers into two perimeters. The survivors marked positions with smoke and called protective fires throughout the night. The next morning the enemy withdrew, leaving behind 400 dead. But in only a few hours, the 7th Cavalry had suffered 157 fatalities—two-thirds of all those lost by the Division during the campaign. To Senior Colonel Ha, the lesson was clear: surprise the Americans and separate them from their firepower, then the battle becomes an even match.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Scales, Jr.
Nota bene: This article is an extract of chapter Firepower and Maneuver in the Second Indochina War of the book Firepower in Small Wars published by the National Defense University Press. LTC Scales accurately named Colonel Ha Vi Tung as the main player in the Viet Cong's side. He failed, though, to point out Colonel Nguyen Van Hieu as the main player in the Allied (ARVN and US) Forces' side. See The Two Main Players of the Pleime Chess Game. (Nguyen Van Tin, 12/11/2009)