Pleime Campaign and Pleiku Campaign

After the participation of US 1st Air Cavalry Division in Pleime Campaign, Major General Kinnard, Commanding General, drafted his after action report Pleiku Campaign. Its original title was Long Reach Operation, which depicts the "long reach" pursuit efforts of the Viet Cong from Pleime camp to Chu Prong hideouts. This name's substitution has caused many people to believe that the campaign in which US 1st Air Cavalry took part was entirely different from the Pleime Campaign. It might not be General Kinnard's conscious intention to induce such a negative effect, nevertheless the consequence has been that many American historians and authors when writing about the Pleime battle have had the tendency of burying the name Pleime together with the main role played by the ARVN, and in lieu to promote the name Ia Drang together with the main role played by the USAF in parallel with the North Vietnamese Armed Forces.

General Kinnard dated his Pleiku Campaign on March 14, 1966 and submitted it to General Westmoreland, US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. Since US 1st Air Cavalry was attached to ARVN II Corps in the Pleime Campaign, a copy of this classified document was given to ARVN II Corps. Afterwards, Colonel Hieu, II Corps Chief of Staff, made reference (#30) of General Kinnard's after action report in his own after action report of Pleime Campaign, signed by General Vinh Loc, and submitted to the TOC/Joint General Staff. In his report, Colonel Hieu tactfully filled up some gaps and rectified some oversights found in Pleiku Campaign.

A copy of Why Pleime had been given to General Kinnard who sent an acknowledgment letter to General Vinh Loc:

20 December 1966
… I have finished reading your fine book Why Pleime and found it most readable and enjoyable and found myself reliving those hectic, important days of last fall. The mention which you made of me in the book was most kind and, believe me, is reciprocated in my own esteem of your splendid leadership characteristics. This book will become a treasured one in my personal library…
Major General Harry W.O. Kinnard
Acting Assistant Chief of Staff for Force Development
The U.S. Department of the Army
Former Commander 1st Air Cavalry Division
(An Khe)

1. Reading the Enemy's Mind

When the Viet Cong started the attack against Pleime camp on the night of October 19, 1965, US 1st Air Cavalry was being attached to Than Phong 6 Operation in Bong Son in the coastal area. This operation was a II Corps' reaction against a VC attack in Hoai An District which occurred simultaneously with the attack against Pleime camp. General Kinnard was of the same opinion with I Field Force Vietnam Commander and with II Corps Senior Advisor that Hoai An, not Pleime was the main VC trust. (Pleiku, page 10):

Despite recurring reports in II Corps Tactical Zone that the Pleime CIDG camp would be attacked (most of which were discounted) the enemy attack at 191900 October was mildly surprising. But, even with the building feeling of major enemy involvement, there still was general consensus that the coastal lowlands remained the real target area of Viet Cong efforts in the corps area.

However, Colonel Hieu had immediately determined that the Viet Cong was applying the tactics of "one point and two faces" (Pleime, end of chapter II), with "point" being Pleiku, and the two "faces" being Hoai An - secondary - and Pleime - primary. Consequently, Colonel Hieu advised General Vinh Loc, who, at that time, was conducting Than Phong 6 Operation, that he should come back to Pleiku as soon as possible (Pleime, beginning of chapter III).

Colonel Hieu further assessed that the Viet Cong was applying the tactics of "attacking the outpost and destroying the relief column" at the Pleime battle, based on the following factors (Pleime, chapter IV):

1. The Viet Cong used a regiment when attacking Pleime and yet did not overrun it, but merely put a siege on it.

2. They ringed the camp with anti-aircraft weapons in order to interdict an airborne relief attempt and to force II Corps to dispatch a Relief Task Force by land.

3. NVA 33rd Regiment, which put pressure on the camp, had infiltrated South Vietnam barely a month ago and was a weaker combat force than NVA 32nd Regiment, which set up the ambush and was present in the Highlands and was already involved in several attacks since the beginning of 1965.

2. LTC Luat Held Up the Armored Relief Task Force

When General Kinnard sensed that LTC Luat was hesitant to push forward the Armored Relief Task Force during four days, from 20 to 24 of October, he concluded that LTC Luat only gained confidence when he was promised with the guarantee of artillery support from the US 1st Air Cavalry Division (Pleiku, page 21):

To try to get the column moving on the 24th the 1st Brigade placed an artillery liaison party with the armored column, thus guaranteeing US artillery fire support for the task force. However, the task force commander elected to remain in that position for the night while sending back to Pleiku for additional supplies. The artillery liaison party came into the task force on one of the incoming medical evacuation choppers late on the afternoon of the 24th.

In the summary section of the report on page 123, General Kinnard made mentioned again of LTC Luat's timorous attitude:

After the initial meeting engagement on 23 October between the armored task force and the North Vietnamese 32d Regiment, there was more than a little reluctance on the part of the TF commander to get his column rolling toward Pleime. It was only after the guarantee of fire support from the 1st Air Cavalry artillery units and the actual placement of an artillery liaison party from the 1st Cav artillery in the column that the task force once again got moving to the CIDG camp.

Colonel Hieu corrected General Kinnard's misconception in asserting that all actions taken by LTC Luat from the time he left Pleiku to the time he reached Pleime were subjected to specific orders from Colonel Hieu. On 21 October, Colonel Hieu had ordered LTC Luat to move the relief column to Phu My where he would linger and fake aggressive patrols within a 10 kilometer radius for two reasons: one, to gain time to allow to gather more reinforcements to further strengthen the relief column, and two, to counter the mobile ambush tactic the Viet Cong adopted this time around, instead of the static ambush that had been their common practice in previous attacks. It was only when these two factors were met that LTC Luat received the order to proceed. (Pleime, chapter IV).

In the morning 21 October, the Luật Task Force moved on, along the Phu My-Pleime axis but to simply conduct aggressive patrols within a 10 km radius! The order had been expressly given by II Corps Command to the T.F. Commander, Lt Col. Luat, to simulate the imminent approach of a relief column to the Pleime camp while in reality, he had to wait for more adequate and sufficient attachments which would be moved by air from Kontum and Binh Dinh to Pleiku, as soon as the weather conditions allowed the air movements.

3. The Initiative of Pursuing the Enemy After the Relief of Camp Pleime

When mentioning about the circumstance in which US 1st Air Cavalry received the mission of pursuing the enemy after the relief of camp Pleime, General Kinnard wrote (Pleiku, page 31):

October 26-27 marked the turning point in the division's operation at Pleime. On the 26th, General William C. Westmoreland, Commanding General, US Forces, Vietnam, visited the Brigade Forward command post at Homecoming. Even with the limited intelligence available at that time, it was apparent that the NVA effort at Pleime had been something more than a routine, "baptism of fire" operation. In the conference between General Westmoreland and division officers the theme was expounded that US Forces must now do more that merely contain the enemy; he must be sought out aggressively and destroyed.

And General Kinnard also provided the telegram he received from I Field Force Vietnam Commander that spelled out the official mission (Pleiku, page 15):

Phase II: (Message 1312 from CG- FFV, to CG, 1st Air Cav Div, dtd 310145 Oct 65)

"Subject: Confirmation of VOCG FFORCEV to CG, 1st Air Cav Div, 28 Oct 65.

"Ref:
A. Msg 1097 from AVF-CG-CP, DTD 221421Z
B. Msg 38215 from MAC J311, DTD 270629Z (NOTAL)

"Elements of 1st Air Cav div currently deployed vicinity Pleiku will coordinate with and establish an area of operations vicinity Pleime CIDG camp and undertake operations to find fix and destroy VC forces which endanger that general area."

In section 10. Concept of the Operations (Pleiku, page 16) and section 11. Execution (Pleiku, page 17), General Kinnard did not mention that the pursuit the enemy phase was II Corps Command's initiative, and that US 1st Air Cavalry continued to be an attached unit to II Corps.

Colonel Hieu rectified this oversight by reporting the important meeting held on 26 October at the TOC/II Corps with the presence of American Advisors and all unit commanders. In this meeting, Colonel Hieu recommended the pursuit of the enemy to the very heart of Chu Prong sanctuaries with the means of air mobility provided by US 1st Air Cavalry. In this phase, US 1st Air Cavalry played the role of main effort with Long Reach Operation and ARVN Airborne Brigade as a reserve force (Pleime, chapter V).

Colonel Hieu also laid out clearly the combined operational concept between II Corps Command and 1st Air Cavalry Division Command (Pleime, chapter VIII).

In phase III, the operations had been conducted through a close cooperation between ARVN and US Forces: that was the latest procedure ever put into application since the second World War. It is characterized by:
- Joint intelligence and support activities.
- Commonly-shared concept of operations and results.
- Separate TAOR.
- Separate command.
- Separate deployment of forces.
- Separate conduct of activities.
- Separate reserve.

The above procedure has brought many good results, especially in a country such as ours where the psychology of the people is charged with complexities and subtleties. I also find in that procedure a real competitive spirit between the two armed forces and between units.

American advisors at II Corps relayed the idea of pursuing the enemy to the highest American military authorities and received the agreement and approval of I Field Force Vietnam and COMUSMACV Commanders.

After the Pleime Campaign, General Westmoreland highly praised the combined operational concept conceived by II Corps (Pleime, preface):

The effectiveness of this highly organized, closely integrated, cooperative effort has not often been emulated in modern warfare.

4. The Role Played by CIDG Eagle Flights

General Kinnard acknowledged the support lend by CIDG Eagle Flights that II Corps attached to 1st Air Cavalry Division to be used as scout and recon teams. This teams were particularly attached to 1/9 Cavalry Squadron from 1 November (Pleiku, page 46) to 15 November (Pleiku, page 58). However, General Kinnard seemed to belittle this Montagnard recon teams when he first encountered them on 25 October, during the Pleime's relief phase (Pleiku, page 24):

B 2/9 Cav Sqdn was returned to squadron control at 1230 hours and the squadron (-) began search operations in the area of the Le Thanh District Headquarters (ZA246245) with a Special forces CIDG "Eagle Flights" attached. The attachment, despite the aerial connotation, actually was a Montagnard ground reconnaissance group consisting of six, 5-man scout squads.

For Colonel Hieu, though, it seemed that these Eagle Flight teams were II Corps' prized show cases (Pleime, chapter V). They had been created as "fire station" squads ready to jump down to extinguish fires that Viet Cong sappers ignited at isolated remote CIDG outposts in II Corps areas.

On 27 October, 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.

5. The Role Played by Airborne Rangers Teams

Besides the supporting role of Montagnard Eagle Flights, II Corps also provided 1st Air Cavalry with recon teams of Airborne Rangers on helicopters in search and destroy missions. General Kinnard remained silent on this point. Colonel Hieu made indirect mention about the activities of these Airborne Rangers teams by way of an attachment to his report of a captured Viet Cong document depicting the activities of 1st Air Cavalry at Pleime and Ia Drang (Pleime, document B). Let us quote:

2nd Phase: use small detachments and coordinate with Vietnamese Special forces Rangers to conduct raids into our rear (28 Oct to 11 Nov 1965).

Vertical landing by "frog leaps" into our rear by helicopters (28 Oct. to 10 Nov. 1965). Forces used: from one battalion to one company of US troops or two companies of US troops coordinated with Vietnamese SF Rangers.

Before landing. Reconnaissance of landing zones by repeated air reconnaissance or by small Vietnamese SF Rangers teams.

Vietnamese SF Rangers or US reconnaissance elements always land first to secure the LZ for the landing of riflemen, fire support elements and CP.

After landing. The Vietnamese SF Rangers usually push far in patrols.

6. The Event on 11/9/1965

On 10 November 1965 (Pleiku, page 73), General Kinnard wrote in the report that starting 9 November

the movement and shift in emphasis from west to east was to further stimulate a forthcoming decision from NVA division headquarters.

and on 10 November, 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade replaced 1st Air Cavalry Brigade.

General Kinnard did not specify what he meant by "a forthcoming decision from NVA division headquarters". However, before searching for an understanding of this decision, let us talk about the shift in operational direction from "west to east".

On November 08, Colonel Hieu fed to General Kinnard this concept of changing the direction in operations through I Field Force (Pleiku, page 67):

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.

Such was Colonel Hieu's diversionary tactic that would cause the Viet Cong in believing that 1st Air Cavalry Brigade had lost track of their whereabouts and relaxed their guard, allowing 1st Air Cavalry Brigade to surprise them with an unexpected tactical move (Pleime, chapter V):

On 9 November, the movement and shift in emphasis from west to east commenced and on 10 November, the US 3rd Brigade relieved the US 1st Brigade. But in reality, the VC units were located by that time in the following places, as proved later on by subsequent operations launched into the very heart of the Chu Pong-Ia Drang complex: 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.

7. Concept of the Attack on Landing Zone X-Ray on 11/14/1965

And here was the "forthcoming decision from NVA division headquarters": to attack camp Pleime for the second time. Colonel Hieu immediately studied a plan of a pre-emptive attack at LZ X-Ray and this operational concept was executed by units of 1st Air Cavalry Division.

Firstly, Colonel Hieu chose that 14 November 1965 to be D-day, two days prior to the day the Viet Cong had scheduled to attack Pleime camp a second time, because around that time, units of enemy had not yet been re-equipped with anti-aircraft weapons and heavy mortars that they had lost during the first attack on Pleime camp - the battalion of 120 mm mortars and the battalion of 14.05 mm anti-aircraft guns had not reached the battlefield. (Pleime, chapter V):

The ratio which amounts to 1/10 has proved how lucky the 1/7 battalion had been because it was rather surprising that from the hills which dominate the LZ, the enemy did not position any crew-served weapons to support their attack. Such a situation could be explained only by the following reasons:

- The enemy has lost nearly all their heavy crew-served weapons during the first phase.

- They had been surprised by the attack of the 1/7 battalion and their commanders had failed to make the best use of the terrain.

- Their tactics relied mostly on the "human waves" and they were too confident that their attack would disorganize the 1/7 battalion very quickly.

General Kinnard did notice Colonel Hieu's wise foresight (Pleiku, page 88):

The NVA effort unquestionably was hampered by the unexplained delay in getting the heavy mortar and heavy anti-aircraft battalions off the infiltration trail and into the battle zone.

Secondly, Colonel Hieu had units of 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade landed down at the south edge of area where the three NVA regiments had concentrated, at the foothill step of Chu Pong massif, rather than to penetrate further up north, and not to ambush the enemy at its rear bases, but to establish a blocking position preventing soldiers of the three regiments to move down southward, so that B-52's bombs could deliver deadly blows:

It is worth mentioning that since the afternoon on 15 November, the B52 stratofortresses had also taken part in the battle with five daily bombardments of the Chu Pong massif. On 17 November, the targets also included LZ X-ray and the two friendly battalions were so ordered to move 3 km away from the LZ, northward and northwestward to another called LZ Albany.

General Kinnard also mentioned about the use of B-52's bombs in his report (Pleiku, page 88):

The 15th also marked the introduction of a new weapon by the American forces and one which struck terror in the hearts of even the most hardened enemy soldier. Shortly after noon a large area in the vicinity of YA8702 suddenly erupted with hundreds of thunderous explosions that moved across the ground like a giant carpet being unrolled. The B-52 bombers had struck. For the next five days the big bombers systematically worked over large areas of the Chu Pong Massif. The NVA soldiers lived in fear of these attacks because they believed each raid covered a 20 kilometer area and they were told that ordinary trenches and foxholes were of no protection.

Therefore, the main efforts in the attack into the enemy rears in Chu Pong massif from 14 to 17 November 1965 were not of Colonel Hal Moore's 1/7 Air Cavalry Battalion at Landing Zone X-Ray, but rather of B-52 carpet bombardments aiming at the entire three NVA regiments, specifically the 32nd and the 33rd on the two days of 15 and 16 November, and specifically the 66th on 17 November at Landing Zone X-Ray. The B-52 bombers killed approximately 2.000 NVA combatants.

8. The Event on 11/19/1965

On 18 November 1965, General Kinnard revealed that a new artillery position was set up at Landing Zone Crooks, but failed to state its purpose (Pleiku, page 96):

Just prior to the attack, the 2/5 Cav, moving to the west to a blocking position, air assaulted into L-Z Crooks (YA875125) along with an artillery battery. The battalion conducted patrols from the new base and during the night received light probes and harassing small arms and mortar fire.

Colonel Hieu was more specific in saying that on 17 November 1965 (Pleime, chapter VI):

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. 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.

In the afternoon of 17 November 1965, Colonel Hieu made arrangements for

the C130's Squadron of the 7th US Air Force to airlift within only a few hours: the Airborne Brigade Headquarters; the Airborne 1st and 2nd Task Forces Headquarters; five Airborne battalions: the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th , from different distant places, such as Saigon, Bien Hoa, Vung Tau and Phu Yen to Pleiku. It was thanks to their contribution that the operation had been able to commence exactly as scheduled.

Concurrently, Colonel Hieu asked 1st Air Cavalry Division to establish a new artillery fire base at (YA875125) so that the coming ARVN Airborne Brigade operational areas would be within artillery firing range.

In this phase of Pleime Campaign, General Kinnard did say that starting 20 November, 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade replaced 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade and continued search and destroy operations and its Forward Command Post was put at Duc Co camp (Pleiku, page 102):

The 3d Brigade moved its combat elements to Landing Zones Crooks and Golf, which fitted in with the scheme of maneuver of the 2d Brigade, which was assuming control of combat elements in the battle zone. After turning over control of units in the field, the 3d Brigade began movement back to An Khe base with the 1/7 Cav and other attached and organic elements. For the 3d Forward Support Element, it was the first relief since the campaign had started on 23 October.

The 2d Brigade planned to use Duc Co Special forces Camp (YA840252) as an operating base for its forward CP, and closed during the afternoon. The 1/5 Cav conducted patrolling from LZ Golf, and 2/5 patrolled from LZ Crooks.

But he failed to mention that 2nd Air Cavalry Brigade was opcon-ed to ARVN Airborne Brigade. Its mission was to conduct operations from east to west, as Colonel Hieu indicated in the above-mentioned quotation, in order to execute II Corps planning aiming at preventing the enemy to slip downward south and assisting ARVN Airborne Brigade in channeling the two enemy remnant battalions into the corridor that II Corps Command anticipated they would use to escape back to their sanctuaries in Cambodia.

9. First Air Cavalry Division's Credit in the Pleime Campaign

In the summary section of his report, General Kinnard formulated a key question (Pleiku, page 123):

The question then remains: could the threat have been stopped without the 1st Air Cavalry Division?

His answer was understandably negative. He advanced the following factors: one, II Corps did not have sufficient available troops to mount an effective relief force that would ram through an ambush manned by NVA 32nd Regiment comprising 2.000 combatants; two, LTC Luat was reluctant to advance his relief task force until General Kinnard succeeded in coaxing him by providing him with artillery support; three, the relief task force, after Pleime camp had been relieved, was spared of being decimated by the enemy while conducting a sweep operation around the camp, with artillery power support provided by 1st Air Cavalry Division; four, II Corps did not have the capacity to pursue the enemy to its sanctuary in Chu Pong massif; five, even when ARVN Airborne Brigade entered the battlefield in replacement of 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade, its brigade commander admitted that 1st Air Cavalry's artillery inflicted more casualties to the enemy than airborne units on the ground.

General Kinnard was quite right on all the points. Furthermore, considering the enemy's casualties in Pleime Campaign, among the total of about 6.000 Viet Cong combatants killed, the three air cavalry brigades accounted for 3561 VC killed and 1178 VC wounded, the B-52's for about 2.000 killed, while ARVN units accounted for only about 450 VC killed (200 around Pleime in Dan Thang 21 Operation and 250 at Ia Drang during Than Phong 7 Operation).

Nevertheless, General Kinnard forgot that all the victories that 1st Air Cavalry Division had achieved during Pleime Campaign was due to the clever calculations of a mind at II Corps General Staff: one, Colonel Hieu had guessed right that this time around the Viet Cong was using the mobile ambush tactic, otherwise 1st Air Cavalry Division artillery would have fired into places not yet populated by enemy troops; two, Colonel Hieu had provided intelligence information gathered through interrogation of VC prisoners and deserters, and from Airborne Rangers infiltrating amidst the very heart of enemy territories, pertaining to positions of the three NVA regiments concentrating in Chu Prong massif; three, Colonel Hieu had suggested the diversionary tactic of switching the direction of the operations from east-west to west-east on 9 November which made possible the mounting of a surprise attack; four, Colonel Hieu had 3rd Air Cavalry Brigade attack into Chu Prong on 14 November and in so doing was able to avoid maximum casualties inflicted to American helicopters and soldiers at the moment the Viet Cong did not have available anti-aircraft guns and heavy mortars; five, Colonel Hieu had thought out the concept using for the first time B-52 strategic weapons as tactical weapons in the Vietnam battleground; six, Colonel Hieu had positioned 1st Air Cavalry Division artillery at Crooks from where the areas ARVN Airborne Brigade was about to operate could be covered by artillery support. In brief, Colonel Hieu knew how to put to use (Pleime, chapter V):

a major unit which possesses the highest degree of mobility all over the world and also the most up-to-date equipment and weaponry.

Without Colonel Hieu's control skills, 1st Air Cavalry Division's mighty strength would be merely a formidable punch thrown into an empty space, powerless in delivering a blow at an enemy savvy in stealthy tactics. General Westmoreland expressed a better assessment pertaining to the role played by II Corps in the Pleime Campaign when he wrote (Pleime, preface):

The signal successes of the latter phases could, perhaps, never have been realized had it not been for the judgment and foresight of Vietnamese leadership. The initial preparatory effort on the ground, paving the way for the introduction of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, was accomplished by Vietnamese forces. Similarly the very successful final phase exploitation was accomplished largely by the Vietnamese Airborne Brigade. The effectiveness of this highly organized, closely integrated, cooperative effort has not often been emulated in modern warfare.

Nguyen Van Tin
12 May 2010

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