The US Air Force played two different roles in the Pleime Campaign:
- in Phase I, the secondary role of supporting the ground troops in repulsing the enemy attack of Pleime camp;
- in Phase II, the main role of destroying B3 Field Front forces at its Chu Pong base.
When B3 Field Front Command decided to attack Pleime camp on October 19, 1965 - earlier than planned – with only two regiments – the 32nd and the 33rd - while the 66th was due to arrive only by mid-November, II Corps Command contented to mount a counter-attack which was only aimed at repulsing the attacking troops, and waited for the moment B3 Field Front Command stage for an attack with its three regiments together.
The delay tactic was achieved with operation Dan Thang 21 heavily supported by USAF fire power.
II Corps Command gathered only sufficient ground troops to prevent the enemy attacking forces to overrun Pleime camp guarded by 500 CIDG montagnards with the reinforcement of two ARVN/US Special Forces 160-man teams and to overwhelm the rescue column with a meager contingent of 1,000 troops. These two groups faced 2,000 regimental troops each. The repulsing force was provided by the poundings of various USAF fire power. This explains why II Corps Command only requested the reinforcement of Ingram Task Force comprising one infantry battalion and one artillery battalion and opposed the involvement of an entire Air Cavalry Brigade as recommended by General Kinnard. This also explains why II Corps Command did not choose to engage the Marine Alpha Task Force and the Airborne Task Force, its two reserve forces, as it did in the Duc Co’s siege in August 1965.
The USAF support action is evaluated by a Project CHECO Report entitled The Siege of Pleime dated 24 February 1966.
- Air support at Pleime camp:
For the next ten days [following October 19], air power played a key role in breaking the attack. In 696 day and night strike sorties, B-57s, AIEs, F-100s, and F-8s rained 866,300 pounds of GP bombs, 250,380 pounds of frag bombs, 485,880 pounds of napalm, plus rockets, CBUs and cannon fire on VC positions as close as 35 meters from the outpost walls. When it was over, the enemy had lost 326 killed in action by body count, and the camp’s defenders estimated that up to another 700 dead had been carried off. This was the largest close air support operation of the war, and perhaps the most effective.
- Air support at the ambush site:
The airborne FAC in the flareships on station directed 74 strike sorties, with the fighters using napalm, general purpose, frags, CBU, 2.75 rockets and 20 mm cannon in support of the column. “Puff”, the AC-47, dropped 25 flares and expended 4,000 rounds of 7.62 mm minigun fire against the attackers. By 0930, 24 October, fire on the convoy had dwindled to small arms, and by 1300 the VC broke contact because of the air strikes.
Besides the heavy casualties inflicted on the NVA troops, the USAF airstrikes had also destroyed most of the antiaircraft and mortar weapons, resulting in the enemy lacking these crew served weapons in the LZ X-Ray battle (Why 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 reason: the enemy has lost nearly all their heavy crew-served weapons during the first phase.
Once the two NVA regiments had been repulsed from Pleime camp, II Corps Command focused in the use of B-52 airstrikes to destroy the entire three regiments of B3 Field Front forces at the same time.
1st Air Cavalry Brigade was assigned the task of herding the scattered troops of the two retreating NVA regiments back to Chu Pong base with operation All the Way from October 27 to November 9.
3rd Air Cavalry Brigade was assigned the task of enticing B3 Field Front Command to regroup its three regiments in preparation for a second attack of Pleime camp with operation Silver Bayonet I starting November 10.
1/7 Air Cavalry Battalion, 2/7 Air Cavalry Battalion and 2/5 Air Cavalry Battalion were assigned the task of fixing the three NVA regiments immobile at their staging areas on Nov 14 to Nov 17.
B-52s entered in action in the afternoon of November 15 (precisely at 1600H) and pounded the entire Chupong base areas for the next five consecutive days.
- Pleiku Campaign, 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.
- 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.
11/15/65 at 10:30H: MAVC J3 (Gen DePuy) Gen DePuy called Col Barrow and asked if Arc Light had been cleared with Commanding General II Corps. Col Barrow replied yes, Commanding General II Corps has approved Arc Light. Target area approved by Col Barrow and Col McCord. Also Gen DePuy wanted to know if the elem of 1st Cav had received the 151600H restriction on not going west of YA grid line. Col Barrow informed Gen De Puy that the 1st Cav had acknowledged receipt of the restriction and would comply. Gen DePuy personally changed target configuration.
- On 11/16: Arc light bombing strike 1602H-1632H, area YA 8607, 9007, 8600, 9000; all aircraft on target except one whose load dropped in general area, YA 8015, 8215, 8212, 8412, results being investigated.
- On 11/17: Arclight request YV 932985, YV 936996, YA 898005, YA 898019. TOT 171300.
- On 11/18: Arc light for 1300 TOT. Priority 1. 9201-9401-9298-9408. Priority 2. 9099-9299-9096-9296. Priority 3. 8306-8506-8303-8503.
B-52 airtrikes actually continued beyond November 20, as indicated by G3/IFFV daily log, when operation Than Phong 7 was carried on:
- 11/21/65 at 22:00H: II Corps Capt Neary and Capt Martin - (Encoded) Request time of Abn Bde atk on obj vic YA 810055. Is Abn Bde aware of Arc Lite #4 at 221210H.
- 22:50H: II Corps Capt Neary - Ref encoded msg (log item #60). This request for info is for confirmation that subject (arc lite) is well coordinated. It also pertains to II Corps sec msg, cite number 174, which affects some subj (Arlite msg, gives southern boundary of area of opns which falls within Arc lite tgt. No times are included for movement south). Confirmation of time of movement is required as well as confirmation that subj of encoded msg (Arc lite) is coordinated.
- 11/22/65 at 01:00H: II Corps Capt Neary - Ref inquiry made by Maj Amey: The Abn Bde will not move south toward their objective area in the south until after Arc light. Actual time is unk, but will be coordinated with Arc light.
- 14:50H: G3 Air (Capt Green) Arc Light strikes were not on time. No results as yet.
Airplane losses in Pleime Campaign
According to Project CHECO Report:
- On 10/20 at 0950H: HUIB shot down providing air cover for resupply. Four US KIA. B-57 shot down, crew bailed out, safely recovered. Another B-57 forced to land at Pleiku.
- On 10/20 at 2330H: C-123 hit by ground fire – not serious. Another C-123 hit by 15 rounds 30 caliber. Causing serious damage. Two more C-123s hit by ground fire.
- On 10/21 at 0950H: HU1B crashed 15 miles south of Pleiku, on cover for medevac. Four US KIA.
- On 10/22 at 0135H: A1E shot down west of camp, pilot ejected.
- On 10/22 at 1020H: A1E shot down south of camp. Pilot rode aircraft to ground.
- On 11/13: Two UH1Bs brought down by intense ground fire. One A1E shot down, pilot was killed.
- On 11/16: Two HU1Bs shot down, crew of first helicopter was evacuated safely, but second helicopter crashed, killing all four crewmen on board. .
Totally, in the Pleime Campaign, USAF had 6 HUIB, 2 B-57, 3 AIE shot down and 3 C-123 damaged more or less by ground firepower.