By its long duration, by the size of the area of operations, by the results obtained, the battle of Pleime has become the biggest engagement in 1965, a year of deadly combat in the Central Highlands.
For the enemy, it was the last attempt in the long end of the rainy season and also a test case to pave the way for the eventual venture in 1966. But for us, it offered an opportunity to confirm the progress we had made despite the unfavorable weather conditions and to consolidate our conviction in a better future.
Therefore the importance of the battle of Pleime could not be assessed through statistics of results, although Pleime has been the biggest and fiercest battle and has inflicted to the enemy the heaviest losses since 1951.
To appreciate the full significance of the battle of Pleime, let us restrain our ecstasy in such a victory and stoop for a while to speculate about the consequences if, unfortunately Pleime had been a success for the VC. In other words, if the enemy anti-aircraft fire positioned around the hill of Chu Ho had shot down lots of helicopters and aircrafts, if all the troops and their dependents living in the Camp of Pleime had been slaughtered, then would the relief column still have had the motive and the ardor to rush hardily - as they had done along the Phu My-Pleime axis - and meet the chance to engage with so many VC major units?
The triumphal exploitation and pursuit by the 1st Air Cavalry Division during the second phase could be partly due to the impetus given by that initial success. It was also the main reason why that major unit which had just come to Vietnam accepted without hesitation the challenge from a crack enemy major unit.
If the battle of Pleime had failed since its very beginning - in the defense of the Camp - the enemy would have succeeded in spreading the panic among the population in accordance with their boasts in the attack of the District town of Le Thanh in May 1965. The loss of Pleime would mean also the abandon of Pleiku, the isolation of Kontum and the permanent interdiction of Highway 19.
Sixteen years ago, in North Vietnam, the Communists had once succeeded in establishing their control on Highway 4 and seizing the whole string of hills north of Vinh Yen. They had threatened to celebrate the 1951 Tet Festivals for their troops in Hanoi. The same catastrophe would have happened to the Highlands last year if the VC had overrun Pleime.
That was not all. For a friendly defeat at Pleime would have also led ineluctably to a massacre of the lowland people living in the Highlands by the Fulro rebels. For a VC victory at Pleime would have prevented the troubles and demonstrations which were fomented by opportunists, because under a communist regime, there would be no religions, no freedom.
But fortunately, the gallant troops in the Highlands, closely supported by armed helicopters and fighters had not refused any sacrifices in the first phase, had succeeded in confusing the enemy estimate and had surprised them by their ardor and tenacity.
So far the VC always succeed in rallying and reassembling their troops after action. This time, after the lift of siege of Pleime by friendly forces, they faced a 22-day pursuit and had to disintegrate to escape. Their morale which had lowered significantly was more affected by the fact that many wounded had been left behind or abandoned during withdrawal. That explains why the number of enemy casualties and deserters had increased in Phases II and III. In the last ten days, they ran out of food and engagements could be compared to fascination "partridge shooting" parties.
Objectively speaking, Pleime does not present any strategic value. But it has been selected as a main objective because the enemy always tries to marry up tactics and propaganda, to adjust combat activities with psychological warfare. They intended to surprise us because they were convinced that the operations in An Lao and Kim Son, North of Binh Dinh had bound 6 battalions of the ARVN General Reserve, 4 battalions of the 22nd ARVN Infantry Division and three US helicopter companies to the coast. But our prompt maneuvers had shifted them into being surprised and losing the initiative.(*)
We learned from experience that nothing could be more precious than being able to gain one more minute in withstanding and delaying the enemy in a remote outpost. It was precious even for the zone commander who could then rely on the combative spirit of the troops to arrange for the relief. It is in the very moment one begins to doubt about the arrival of reinforcements that these are preparing and most anxious to accomplish their mission.
The second lesson from the battle of Pleime is that the VC are not exclusive masters of the jungle and mountains. For with modern engineer equipment and revolutionary tactics, the helicopters could land everywhere and landing zones constructed at any places, whether on tops of hills or amid dense jungles. It was for this reason that the VC had totally failed in their estimate about possible landing zones.
We also learned that in the previous battle of Duc Co, the VC always tried to take advantage of darkness to assault armored units. This time at Pleime, they had used the same tactics, offered to armored units one more opportunity to achieve exploits, and enhanced the pride of the 3rd Armored Squadron (stationned in Pleiku), the oldest armored unit in the ARVN which had taken part in the fierce fighting in Ninh Binh, Nam Dinh, Vinh Yen in North Viet Nam, before the cease-fire in 1954.
The terrain at Pleime is covered by dense vegetations but the soil is hard, small streams rare and armored cavalrymen could feel comfortably "at home".
In most cases, infantry protection is required to ensure the security of armored columns. The battle of Pleime on the contrary was a typical case in which the infantry elements considerably restricted the mobility and capabilities of the armored turrets. For this reason, Armor company commanders should not in the future cling to two-principles and had better expose themselves daringly instead of limiting their mobility with close infantry protection. This would provide not only liberty of action but also the arguments to defend oneself in case of being surprised.
The damage suffered by friendly forces on Hill 210 at night 23 October was not due to the enemy skill as "dead shots" but to the fact that company commanders and platoon leaders had given to their troops too much liberty in taking care of themselves. If their meals had been prepared collectively, there would have been more men and more time to dig fox-holes for troops' protection and also to set up defensive works for the whole unit.
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:
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.
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Nowadays, the world knows Pleime much better than the Highlands or Pleiku. Through the sacrifices by about 500 heroic soldiers of the ARVN and Allied Forces at Pleime, a new concept and policy for the Highlands have found their expression.
The enemy would never forget their disaster at Pleime. Some day, they would take their revenge, and come back again around Pleime so that they could redeem their "honor". By its position, Pleime always reminds of Chu Pong, of the Cambodian border and of Cambodia herself with her inexhaustible supplies of rice, medicines and also of perfidy.
The recent infiltration of new units from North Viet Nam such as the 88th, 24th, 66 Regiments, the 321st and 308th Divisions continue to maintain the enemy pressure upon the Highlands. But at the same time it reveals the dilemma which Giap and his clique are now facing. Their plan to use Cambodia as a sanctuary for their aggression could precipitate that country into disaster, because no one can tolerate the foolish arrogance of the capricious prince who has betrayed the Free World and turned his own country into a communist satellite.
The Bu Kheo Airfield, west of Highways 19 across the border, had an important role in the battle of Pleime. High-ranking VC cadres had landed there, on their way from North Vietnam to the Field Front. By letting the Communists use Bu Kheo, Cambodia which pretends so far to be "neutralist" has demasked herself.
The infiltration routes which French General Delange worried about would never present any dangers if Cambodia did not comply to overlook the machinations the Communists are conducting on her territory. Without Cambodian rice, without the presence of Red Chinese advisors in Pnom Penh, without the communications between Hanoi and the Khmer capital, the infiltration of VC units from North Vietnam could never take place and develop.
The name "Pleime", pronounced "Play me" by foreigners has become easily familiar to alien historians and correspondents. In fact, the VC have used all their tricks and deployed all their capabilities in their game at Pleime last year. Is it for this reason that the "Spring campaign" in 1966 has not taken place in the Highlands?
(*) Extract from a memorandum signed by Col Daniel B. Williams, A/DSA II Corps MACV sent to C.G. II Corps on 25 Oct 1965: "At 1500 hours on 24 October General Westmoreland called and asked for a general rundown on the situation,... He wound up the conversation by asking that his personal congratulations be passed to General Vinh Loc on his handling of his troops to meet the various emergency situations."
Pleiku, the 1966 Rainy Season
Major General Vinh Loc