A Critique of General Bui Nam Ha’s Opinions about Plâyme Campaign
In the book, Chiến thắng Plây Me: ba mươi năm sau nhìn lại: tài liệu hội thảo khoa học(*), which compiles essays of presenters at the 30 year anniversay of Pleime Victory symposium, Major General Bui Nam Ha contributes his understanding of the Plâyme Campaign with his presentation, Từ Plây Mê-Ia Đrăng đến Sa Thầy, Đắc Tô, Một Chặng Đường Phát Triển Đầy Sáng Tạo Trong Nghệ Thuật Đánh Mỹ Ở Chiến Trường Tây Nguyên.
He introduces himself as a participant in the campaign in the role of B3 Field Front Chief of Staff.
The presentation is fraught of errors and gives the impression of a propaganda speech rather than a military analysis of the action.
Operation Long Breach
Right at the outset, General Nam Ha commits a serious error in naming the American search and destroy operation as Long Breach. It is not a typo matter; he writes a few paragraphs later:
The 1st air cavalry division (...) established a campaign combined force aiming at launching operation Long Breach (translation: đốt phá) to search and destroy our main forces.
It is beyond comprehension how could General Nam Ha translate Long Breach as đốt phá (to destroy by fire). Nevertheless, let us skip this minor issue since the correct appellation of the operation in question is Long Reach coined by ARVN II Corps Command when the operation was assigned to US 1st Air Cavalry Division to pursue the enemy withdrawing troops after the phase of Pleime siege. Colonel Nguyen Van Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff, writes in Pleime, Trận Chiến Lịch Sử, page 101:
Vì vậy quyết định phải tổ chức truy kích địch của Bộ Tư Lệnh Quân đoàn II, trong đó Sư đoàn I Không Kỵ làm nỗ lực chính và Liên Đoàn Nhảy dù VN làm trừ bị sẵn sàng tham dự khi tình hình tiến triển và đòi hỏi, được toàn thể chiến sĩ của Sư đoàn hân hoan nhận lãnh, vì đã mấy đơn vị được may mắn mở những trang sử đầu của mình với một cuộc trường chinh (Long Reach).
Therefore the decision to organize an enemy pursuit of II Corps Command, in which 1st Air Cavalry Division is the main effort and ARVN Airborne Group is the reserved force ready to intervene when necessary, was wholeheartedly accepted by the entire division, because rarely an unit got the chance to open its first history pages with a trường chinh (Long Reach) operation.
US 1st Air Cavalry Division conducted operation Long Reach with three operations named All the Way (10/27-11/9, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade), Silver Bayonet I (11/9-11/17, 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade), and Silver Bayonet II (11/17-11/26, 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade). In his after action report, General Kinnard changes Long Reach to Pleiku Campaign allegedly to erase all vestiges of II Corps Command’s leadership.
The main campaign’s objective was the American troops
General Nam Ha writes:
The primary stated resolve of the campaign was to lure the enemy into battle in order to encircle and destroy the main reserve force of the campaign – US-ARVN, in particular the American troops.
The truth lies at the opposite side. The initial main objective of Plâyme campaign was the total destruction of the entire II Corps forces with a “fake an attack against an outpost to lure in and destroy the rescue force”. It is to avoid a major engagement with the American troops that, instead of launching the campaign at the end of 1965 or beginning of 1966 as scheduled, the campaign fired the first shot on October 19, 1965 with the hope that US 1st Air Calvary that had just set foot on Qui Nhon beach end of September and was busy setting up camp at An Khe mid-October would not be combat ready, despite the fact that NVA 66th Regiment would be only able to arrive at the Chu Pong rear base beginning November.
Then, when the two 32nd and 33 Regiments withdrew to Chupong-Iadrang complex in joining force with 66th Regiment in preparation for a second attack against Pleime camp, a decisive attack which would overrun the camp at once without attempting to lure in a rescue force. As a matter of fact, B3 Field Front Command did not organize a direct confrontation against 1st Air Cavalry Brigade when its troops were herded back to Chu Pong rear base and chose only to regroup its troops in order to attack Pleime camp a second time when it mistakenly thought that 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade in replacing 1st Air Cavalry Brigade had lost its tracks and switched its defensive posture to an attack posture in preparation to attack Pleime camp again. It was when the NVA troops moved in to staging areas that they were caught by surprise when the American troops suddenly attacked them at the footstep of Chu Pong massif. In brief, B3 Field Front folded its troops back to Chu Pong not with the intention to lure and destroy the American troops but mainly to prepare for a second attack against Pleime camp.
With a terrain that offers “jungle to hide our troops, jungle to keep away the enemy troops”, furthermore with excellent camouflage techniques, secrecy awareness, rigorous discipline, our troops succeeded in limiting and neutralizing somehow various fire powers generated by American air force and artillery – their main reliable strength.
General Nam Ha is not aware that the main ARVN-US operational concept in the campaign was to destroy the enemy with B-52 airstrikes, rather than ground troops and artillery. Colonel Hieu writes in 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.
The second element is to implement the mobile attack of the regular force which basically consists of close contacts with the motto: “Attack by grabbing the enemy’s belts”. Following that principle, from the campaign Commander down to each combatant of all units, made efforts to get as close as possible to enemy, depending to his function and position. All aims at getting an entire battalion into a hand to hand combat situation. That was our attacking concept, which allows us to the upper hand, while the enemy is put into a passive and awkward position, having to react to our initiative from one situation to another one, from one battle to the next one.
There are three instances in which the ARVN-US allied forces did not show any sign of awkwardness in countering the “attack by grabbing the enemy’s belts” tactics:
- (1) The tactic used by the Viet Cong to destroy the armored rescue column at the ambush site was to position combatants armed with bayonets and knives next the armored vehicles in the ready to slaughter the enemy combatants who would instinctively emerge out of the vehicles to attempt to counter attack on the ground. LTC Nguyen Trong Luat was well aware of the VC tactic and had ordered his combatants to remain inside the vehicles when attacked and to blindly toss out hand grenades. When the attack ceased, all the tankers had to do was to go around the vehicles and look for enemy dead whose bodies were mutilated by hand grenade explosions.
- (2) With the “hold the tail, strike the head” tactic using ground troops for a diversionary side kick attack and B-52 for the main killer airstrikes, the VC troops were rendered helpless under the bombardments while the American troops stood unharmed at a 3 kilometer safety distance.
- (3) When the ARVN paratroopers entered the battlefield at the last phase of Pleime campaign, the troops of the two remnant VC battalions – 635th and 334th – avoided all contact. Nevertheless, the ARVN paratroopers succeeded in ambushing them twice, and killed about 200 VC and captured numerous weapons that were abandoned in their flight.
A coward LTC Nguyen Trong Luat
General Nam Ha writes:
Chiến đoàn 3 thiết giáp ngụy lọt vào trận địa phục kích dài 4 km trên tỉnh lộ 21. Trung đoàn 320 được tăng cường vận động ra đường lao vào xung phong đánh giáp lá cà. (...) Sau 10 giờ giáp chiến quyết liệt, đẫm máu (từ 16 giờ ngày 22 đến 2 giờ sáng ngày 24-10), trung đoàn 320 đã căn bản tiêu diệt được chiến đoàn 3 thiết giáp. Chỉ huy chiến đoàn là trung tá Nguyễn Trọng Luật đã leo lên trực thăng trốn thoát từ mờ sáng 24.
The ARVN 3rd Armored Task Force entered the 4 km ambush site set on Provincial Route 21. The 320 Regiment attacked with a bayonet branding assault. (...) After a 10 hour intense and bloodied combat (from 16 hour on the 22th to 2 hour in the morning of the 24th of October) 320 regiment literally annihilated 3rd armored task force. LTC Nguyen Trong Luat, task force commander, escaped by helicopter early morning of the 24th.
One wonders where did General Nam Ha get this unfounded detail. The truth is LTC Luat succeeded in piercing through the ambush site and led his armored task force into Pleime camp in the evening of the 24th of October.
Victory of Pleime battle
General Nam Ha writes:
Sau 2 ngày vây ép, xét thấy đã đủ gây cho địch tác động phản ứng dây chuyền, ngày 26-10, ta quyết định “mở vây” căn cứ Plây Me và chuyển toàn bộ hai trung đoàn 320, 33 về bố trí ở khu trung tuyến chiến dịch ở vùng Đông bắc và Đông nam suối Ia Mơ. Vùng hậu tuyến chiến dịch thuộc địa khu từ Bắc – Đông bác Chư Pông đến thung lũng sông Ia Drăng, thế trận vây diệt quân chiếu đấu Mỹ đã được hình thành.
After 2 days of encirclement and pressure, we determined our scheme of forcing the enemy to react in sequences, on October 24, we decided “to end the siege” of Pleime camp and moved the entire 320 and 33 regiments to position in central area of the campaign located at the northeastern and southeastern parts of Ia Meur river. At the rear arrears of the campaign expanding from north-northeast of Chu Pong to the valley of Ia Drang, the battleground to destroy the American troops had been set up.
Was it no that the effort to lure in and attack a rescue force by attacking the outpost fail due to a high casualties suffered at both the siege and ambush site that forced B3 Field Front Command to withdraw its troops back to rear bases in order to organize a revenge instead? Colonel Hieu writes in Pleime, Trận Chiến Lịch Sử, page 94:
Cuộc hành quân Dân Thắng 21 chấm dứt, trại Pleime vững mạnh trở lại, nhưng trong số hai Trung Đoàn V.C. đã tham dự, ta mới gây cho chúng được hơn 400 tổn thất nhân mạnh. Sự rút lui của địch là một chủ trương sáng suốt và hợp lý của BCH mặt trận V.C. nhưng địch sẽ tìm cách rửa hận và vì trại Pleime hẻo lánh còn là một cá gai trước mắt.
Operation Dan Thang 21 terminated, Pleime camp was back to its feet; however, we had only inflicted 400 casualties to the two VC regiments. The enemy withdrawal was a wise and rational decision taken by B3 Field Front. However the enemy would look for an opportunity for a revenge and Pleime camp was still a eye sore to them.
General Nam Ha writes:
Địch bắt đầu phản ứng mạnh. Bộ Tham mưu liên quân Mỹ-ngụy đã hủy bỏ cuộc hành quân càn quét Bồng Sơn (Bình Định) để đưa chiến đoàn thủy quân lục chiến ngụy lên giải vây cho Plây Me, tiếp đó không vận ào ạt sư đoàn 1 kỵ binh bay, trung đoàn Nam Hàn, hai chiến đoàn dù ngụy, trung đoàn vận tải trực thăng Mỹ lên Plây Cu, tham chiến. Chúng dùng hàng trăm lần chiến B52 và bom Coribou (bom phát quang) chi viện cho các trận đánh.
The enemy counter-attack forcefully. The US-ARVN General Staff had abandoned the sweeping operation at Bong Son (Binh Dinh) in order to bring the ARVN Marine Corps task force to rescue Pleime, the helilifted hastily the US 1st air cavalry division units, the South-Korean regiment, two ARVN airborne task forces, the American troop transport helicopter squadron up to Pleiku to participate in the combat. They used hundred times B52 and Caribou bombings to support the battles.
General Nam Ha was wrong in many issues:
-“the ARVN Marine Corps task force” was brought in not to rescue Pleime but to assume the security for the withdrawal of the 3rd Armored Task Force from Pleime camp back to Pleiku City. Colonel Hieu writes in Pleime, Trận Chiến Lịch Sử, page 94:
Để bảo vệ cuộc rút quân của Chiến Đoàn Thiết Giáp, trong ngày 27-10 chiến đoàn A TQLC được không vận từ Banmêthuột tới trục Phú-Mỹ Pleime để giữ an ninh. Chiến Đoàn thiết giáp rời trại lúc 11g sáng ngày 28-10 để trở về Pleiku.
To protect the withdrawal of the Armored Task Force, on October 27 the Task Force A Marine Corps was airlifted from Banmethout to Phumy-Pleime to assume the security. The Armored Task Force left the camp at 11 hour in the morning of October 28 to return to Pleiku.
- The entire “US 1st Air Cavalry Division” was not airlifted up to Pleiku. One Task Force Ingram comprising an infantry battalion and an artillery battalion was extracted from operation Than Phong 6 in Bong Son to reinforce operation Dan Thang 21 in the relief effort of Pleime Camp. The infantry battalion relieved ARVN 22nd Ranger Battalion in securing Pleiku airfield and the artillery battalion gave support to the Armored Task Force at the ambush site.
- “the South-Korean Regiment” was not present at the Pleime scene during the period October 19 to November 1966. Only by the end of 1966 that one South-Korean battalion was brought up to Central Highlands to reinforce US 4th Infantry Division to conduct combined operations along National Route 19 near the Cambodian border.
- the B-52’s were not used in support the ground troops, but as the main effort to destroy the enemy. The ground forces were rather used to assist the B-52’s in getting potential targets.
The diversionary tactic of US 3rd Air Brigade
General Nam Ha writes:
Từ cuối tháng 10, quân ta đã cơ bản điều chỉnh xong đội hình. Trung đoàn 33 tiến ra vây diệt chặn đánh lữ đoàn 1 kỵ binh Mỹ ở khu trung tuyến chiến dịch trên các khu chiến Quynh Kla, Plây Bolga, Plây Ngo, bờ tây sông Ia Mơ. Từ 30-10 đến 11-11, trung đoàn đã tiêu hao, tiêu diệt nặng các phân đội quân Mỹ khiến chúng phải rút lữ 1 kỵ binh bay ra khỏi vòng chiến và đưa lữ 3 kỵ binh không vận vào tham chiến ở khu hậu tuyến chiến dịch.
By end of October, our troops were basically in assigned positions.3rd Regiment advanced to encircle and destroy US 1st Air Cavalry Brigade in the middle section of the campaign formed by battlefields of chiến Quynh Kla, Plây Bolga, Plây Ngo on the western side of Ia Meur. From October 30 to November 11, the regiment inflicted heavy losses to the American units forcing them to withdraw 1st Air Cavalry Brigade out of the combat zone and replaced it with 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade which was airlifted to participate in the combat at the rear bases of the campaign.
Us 3rd Air Cavalry replaced US 1st Air Cavalry Brigade in a troop rotation as a ploy to lure the enemy into regrouping to be destroy by B-52 airstrikes. . Colonel Hieu writes in Pleime, Trận Chiến Lịch Sử, page 106:
Ngày 10-11 Lữ Đoàn 3 được cử thay thế Lữ Đoàn 1 đã hành quân ròng rã gần nửa tháng nay. Về phía VC thì sư hoạt động hướng về phía Đông của Sư Đoàn 1 Không Kỵ đà làm cho chúng đinh ninh rằng đại đơn vị này đã dồn mọi nỗ lực về hướng Đông trại Pleime. Cho nên bộ Chỉ Huy mặt trận VC đã lại ra lệnh chuẩn bị một cuộc tấn công trại Pleime lần thứ hai.
On November 10, 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade was assigned to replace 1st Air Cavalry that had operated continuously during half a month. As for the VC side, the switching of the operational direction to the East of 1st Air Cavalry Brigade let them believe that this large unit was focusing all efforts to the East of Pleime camp. And consequently, the VC Field Force Command ordered a preparation for a second attack against Pleime camp.
General Nam Ha writes:
Trung đoàn 320 tham gia chặn đánh hai chiến đoàn dù quân ngụy đến cứu nguy cho lữ 3 kỵ binh bay Mỹ tại vùng Tây suối Ea Kreng (Plây Thê) và Đông suối Ea Man. Quân ta tiêu diệt được tiểu đoàn 2, đánh thiệt hại nặng tiểu đoàn 1, lữ 3 kỵ bnh không vận. Bị loại khỏi vòng chiến ngày 19-11, lữ 3 Mỹ phải rút chạy về Plây Cu. Chiến dịch Plây Me-Ia Đrăng kết thúc.
320th Regiment participated in attacking the two ARVN Airborne Task Forces that came into rescuing 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade at the Western area of Ea Kreng river (Plây Thê) and the Eastern area of Ea Man river. Our troops destroyed 2nd Battalion, inflicted heavy losses to 1st Battalion, 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade. Rendered ineffective for combat on November 19, Us 3rd Brigade was force to flee to Pleiku. Plây Me-Ia Đrăng campaign ended.
General Nam Ha was deadly wrong.
- 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade withdrew to Pleiku on November 18 after the battle at LZ Albany and was replaced by 1st Air Cavalry Brigade and became the reserved force to ARVN Airborne Group.
- ARVN Airborne Group came into action on November 11 in order to finish off the two remnant battalions – 635th and 334th – of 32th Regiment. These two battalions avoided all contact with the Vietnamese paratroopers, but were nevertheless ambushed twice at “the Western area of Ea Kreng river (Plây Thê) and the Eastern area of Ea Man river” on November 20 and November 24 respectively.
The 32nd NVA Regiment which remained uncommitted and unscratched throughout the second phase, was finally found and forced to fight, although it had tried to avoid contact as much as possible.
Plây Me campaign Chief of Staff
General Nam Ha introduces himself as “a participant of the campaign and the former Field Front Chief of Staff”. According to Colonel Hieu’s intelligence source the Chief of Staff of B3 Field Front he faced at Pleime campaign was Colonel Ha Vi Tung (Why Pleime, chapter III):
At the Western Highlands Field Front Headquarters, VC General Chu Huy Man wearing a second hat as Commanding General of Military Region IV, and his principal assistants Colonel Quan, Assistant to the Commanding General, and Senior Colonel Ha Vi Tung, Chief of staff (during the Indo-China war, Ha Vi Tung was commander of the 803rd Regiment which together with the 108th Regiment constituted the main forces of the Viet Minh in the Central Highlands. To their credit were the occupation of Kontum and the defeat of French Task Force #100 on Highway 19.) studied the plan they had formulated..
Where is the truth? I would prefer to refer this issue to historians, in particular VC historians. Here, I would simply assume that – taking into consideration Ha Vi Tung’s intelligence and thoroughness as reflected in Why Pleime and comparing them to Bui Nam Ha’s ignorance and superficiality as reflected in his presentation – Ha Vi Tung was the initial Chief of Staff and was replaced by Bui Nam Ha after the debacle at Pleime camp.
(*) Viện lịch sử quân sự Việt Nam, Quân đội nhân dân. Bộ tư lệnh Quân đoàn 3. Nhà xuất bản Hà Nội: Quân đội nhân dân, 1995.