Military history

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The Land and the Enemy

He who controls the Central Highlands controls South Vietnam.

—Vietnamese military maxim

The Central Highlands is a beautiful region; from the heavily populated coastal areas with their white, sandy beaches and flat rice paddies bounded by dikes, it climbs into the rougher, stream-cut foothills and finally on into the two-thousand- to three-thousand-foot-high mountains of the interior, where the French built their coffee and tea plantations. In 1965 the Highlands were the domain of the Green Berets, the U.S. Special Forces. But before the military men and before the French this was the homeland of the many different tribes of Montagnards, or mountain people, each tribe with its own dialect and territory, living a life little changed since the Bronze Age, when they were driven out of southern China to settle the mountain ranges of Indochina, the Malay Archipelago, and even some of the Indonesian islands.

They practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, creating small clearings in the thick jungle, tilling and cultivating corn and cassava and yams in the thin mountain soil until, in three or four years, it was exhausted, and then moving on. The Montagnards live communally in thatch-roofed longhouses built on stilts. They had always steered clear of the lowland Vietnamese, who called them savages and treated them with contempt and harshness. The hatred was returned in kind, and the Montagnards willingly soldiered against the Vietnamese, first for the French and then for the Americans. They were brave, loyal, and deadly mercenaries who were highly effective soldiers in their home territory.

The principal communications and supply route across the Highlands is the fabled Colonial Route 19, which runs from the port of Qui Nhon west to Pleiku, the capital of the Highlands, and on into Cambodia. The 1st Cavalry Division base camp at An Khe was halfway between Qui Nhon and Pleiku, about forty miles from each of those key cities.

Shortly after we arrived in Vietnam, Sergeant Major Plumley and I took a jeep and a shotgun guard and drove ten miles west of An Khe on Route 19, into no-man’s-land, to the PK 15 marker post. There, the Viet Minh had destroyed most of the French Group Mobile 100 in a deadly ambush eleven years earlier. We walked the battleground, where a bullet-pocked six-foot-high stone obelisk declares in French and Vietnamese: “Here on June 24, 1954, soldiers of France and Vietnam died for their countries.” In my hand was Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy, which describes the battle. Plumley and I walked the battleground for two hours. Bone fragments, parts of weapons and vehicles, web gear and shell fragments and casings still littered the ground. From that visit I took away one lesson: Death is the price you pay for underestimating this tenacious enemy.

North of Route 19 and west of the spectacular Mang Yang Pass, the land is hilly and mountainous, with some primary jungle and occasional broad plateaus. The few secondary roads are unpaved, and impassable in the monsoon season. In the Laos-Cambodia-South Vietnam tri-border region there are dense triple-canopy rain forests where the sun never penetrates, the soil is always wet, and tangles of wait-a-minute vines wait for the walker. South of Pleiku and Route 19, north of Ban Me Thuot and west of the Plei Me Special Forces Camp is scrub jungle with stunted hardwood, crisscrossed only by rushing mountain streams, animal trails, and Montagnard paths.

The dominant terrain feature is the Chu Pong massif, rising to just over 2, 400 feet, a jumble of mountains, valleys, ravines, and ridges that runs westward for more than fifteen miles, the last five of them inside Cambodia. North to south the massif measures between ten and thirteen miles. The limestone heights of the Chu Pong are full of springs, streams, and caves. Along the massif’s north side runs the Ia Drang. (Ia means “river” in one of the Highlands dialects.) The Ia Drang is born of the marriage of two smaller streams near the Catecka Tea Plantation on Colonial Route 14 between Pleiku and Plei Me camp. By the time it reaches the Chu Pong area it is swift and deep, and during the monsoon it is a raging torrent. It flows to the west, on into Cambodia, where eventually it empties into the Mekong River and returns to Vietnam far south in the delta.

The soldiers commanded by Brigadier General Chu Huy Man had been training for more than eighteen months. When they joined the People’s Army, each recruit was issued two khaki shirts, two pairs of khaki trousers, a sewing kit, and a pair of “Ho Chi Minh” sandals cut from used truck tires. Those uniforms were expected to last for five years. Basic training lasted thirteen weeks, six days a week, six A.M. to 9:15 P.M. The instructors emphasized weapons and tactics, the hows of warfare, while the political commissars had time set aside each day to lecture on the whys of this war. The recruits were reminded constantly that their fathers had beaten the French colonialists; now it was their duty to defeat the American imperialists. They were imbued with Ho Chi Minn’s dictum: “Nothing is more precious than freedom and independence.”

After basic training, some were selected for six months of NCO school and would emerge as new corporals. For the rest, advanced infantry training included familiarization with all weapons, the use of explosives, ambush tactics, reconnaissance tactics, adjusting mortar fire, and patrol tactics. In June of 1964, Man’s soldiers moved up into the mountains of North Vietnam, terrain similar to that in the Western Highlands of South Vietnam. Here physical conditioning was emphasized; they scaled steep slopes while wearing rucksacks loaded with fifty to sixty pounds of rocks. Their advanced training now also focused on the art of camouflage. They got rudimentary instruction in antiaircraft defenses: Fire on full automatic straight in front of the aircraft’s line of flight, so that the helicopter or airplane will fly into a wall of bullets.

When the time came for them to begin the arduous two-month journey down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos, General Man’s regiments broke down into battalions for security purposes, each moving separately and at least three days ahead of the next. Each soldier carried four pounds of rice—seven days’ rations—plus another eight pounds of foodstuffs that were expected to last him the whole trip: two pounds of salt; two pounds of wheat flour; and four pounds of salt pork. One man in every squad carried the aluminum cookpot that the squad’s rice would be boiled in. Each man also carried fifty antimalaria pills, one for each day on the trail, and a hundred vitamin B1 tabs to be taken at the rate of three per week. Despite the pills, virtually every man who walked the trail contracted malaria and, on average, three or four soldiers of each 160-man company would die on the journey. Malaria, diarrhea, accidents, poisonous snakes, and American air raids all took their toll.

Along the route the men passed construction crews; many of the workers were young girls, who were employed by the thousands in improving the network of trails and the campsites that were situated every nine miles along the route. Each camp, which could shelter a company of troops, consisted of a series of crude bamboo huts dispersed along a half mile of trail to make a smaller target for the warplanes. Each man carried a light canvas hammock to string up in the huts at night. Each also carried a long rectangular piece of green plastic for a makeshift poncho. The nights on the trail were cold, the days comfortable. Man’s soldiers marched nine miles each day, the distance between the rest camps where they spent each night. Every fourth day they stayed in camp, taking the day off to rest up, wash their clothes, and tend to minor medical problems.

Porters pushed bicycles, modified with one long pole tied to the frame and rising three feet above the saddle and another long steering pole tied to the left handlebar. Bundles containing more than 350 pounds of rice or ammunition or medical supplies were strapped and tied to the bicycle frame and the tall pole. The porter walked alongside and pushed the load, steering the contraption with the pole tied to the handlebar. No-tech, primitive, ridiculously simple, yes; but it delivered the goods. Packhorses also worked the trail.

Besides his food and medicine, each soldier carried his weapon and a basic load of ammunition. The weapons were those the men had trained with all those months on the firing ranges, a jumble of East Bloc surplus from the factories of the Soviet Union, China, Czechoslovakia, and Albania. Among them were the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle, a superb infantry weapon; the SKS Siminov semi-automatic carbine with folding bayonet; the Degtyarev automatic rifle; the Maxim heavy machine gun; 60mm, 82mm, and 120mm mortars; the 12.7mm anti-aircraft machine gun; the wooden-handled potato-masher type hand grenade; and a Chinese-made 9mm automatic pistol for the officers.

People’s Army soldiers, young and old, were inveterate diarists. Almost every man carried a small notebook, which he filled with copied love poems, the lyrics of popular songs, and his own writings. The men yearned for home and family. The notebook and two or three small snapshots of a sweetheart or wife and children were carried wrapped inside plastic.

Now, in late September, as the American cavalrymen were hacking their new base camp out of the jungle near An Khe, one of General Man’s regiments, the 320th, was already in South Vietnam; a second, the 33rd, had just reached the Cambodian-South Vietnamese border; and a third, the 66th, still had battalions strung out along the trail. The terrain where they would operate for the next two months, from Plei Me camp west to the Cambodian border, is largely a rolling savanna of four- to five-foot-high elephant grass wooded with scrub trees, not unlike the American scrub oak, and some other varieties that are taller and thicker, especially along the creek and stream beds. There are no roads, and only a few trails, in the interior of this region.

The land is drained from northeast to southwest by two small rivers, the la Meur on the west and the la Tae to the east. Although the topographical maps we carried were sprinkled with twenty or so black dots marking Montagnard villages, we saw no villages or Montagnards out there.

The Vietnamese People’s Army historian, Major General Hoang Phuong, who as a lieutenant colonel was sent to the Ia Drang Valley in the fall of 1965 to study the battles and write an after-action report for the high command, says: “When we received the news that the 1st Air Cavalry had come to Vietnam, the commanders of our divisions in the South were very nervous, very worried by what they were hearing about this strong, mobile unit so well equipped with helicopters. The liberation forces moved mainly by foot, were poorly equipped. Our hospital and food services were not so good. How can we fight and win against the cavalry?”

Major General Phuong adds: “In September of 1965, when you landed at An Khe, our commanders in the Central Highlands studied how to cope. We foresaw that the coming battle would be very fierce. First, we evacuated the population and prepared training camps. We improved our positions, dug shelters, and prepared caches of food and underground hospitals. We knew that sooner or later you would attack our zones, and we tried to prepare positions that would neutralize you. We knew that it would not be enough just to make propaganda saying that we were winning. We had to study how to fight the Americans.”

Phuong continues: “On October nineteenth we started our attack on Plei Me at 11:50 P.M. We attacked from three directions. This was the 33rd Regiment. They had rehearsed the attack. When we encircled Plei Me the ARVN sent one regiment as a relief force. On October twenty-third, at oneP.M., the first reinforcements reached our ambush position. Our 320th Regiment had set up the ambush. The battle took place along four kilometers of Provincial Route 5. The enemy made many air strikes, bombing our positions fiercely. The fighting continued until October twenty-fifth. We destroyed the first group of Saigon forces, but other ARVN occupied the high ground and kept fighting. We could not destroy the entire relief column. There were too many of them who survived. Our 320th Regiment suffered heavy losses to air strikes and at five P.M. October twenty-fifth we ordered the withdrawal of our troops from the battle area, including the forces surrounding Plei Me. They were ordered to withdraw rapidly and be prepared to fight against Americans. That was the end of Phase I of the campaign.

“The two regiments involved in this battle were recently arrived from the North, and they did not have much knowledge of this area. The commanders of these two regiments were also new. During the French war they had been company commanders. The commander of the 320th Regiment was Major Ma Van Minh. The commander of the 66th Regiment was Lieutenant Colonel La Ngoc Chau. On October twenty-eighth the Americans dropped some troops in the rear of our base. At that time the headquarters of General Chu Huy Man, B-3 Front, was at Plei Bong Klo.

“We opened Phase II of the campaign from October twenty-ninth to November ninth. At that time our troops were in great disorder. We had many difficulties. You dropped troops close to our headquarters and very close to our units. Our units were broken up, dispersed, and then the Americans dropped into Plei The near the Cambodian border on November third. You destroyed many caches and supplies of food, as well as our hospital. We lost weapons, war matériel, supplies, and our communications. When we withdrew you dropped troops to cut off our units. We lost communications with the retreating units. During these ten days you caused much distress and disorder. Our soldiers did not have time to rest and regroup. When we withdrew to our base here [Chu Pong], we had to send soldiers far away to carry rice and foodstuffs back for their units. Normally it took one day to go there, one day to come back—two days round trip. We lacked communications equipment. We had very few radios and those we had were in very bad condition. Your attacks were very effective. We tried to take advantage of the terrain and avoid contact and casualties. General Man’s headquarters were now in Plei The. He had moved close to the border, to the south of Chu Pong.”

Lieutenant General Nguyen Huu An, now commandant of the Vietnamese army’s Senior Military Academy, was a senior lieutenant colonel and the deputy commander of the B-3 Front in the fall of 1965. From an advance command post near the ambush site, he directed the failed ambush against the South Vietnamese relief force bound for Plei Me camp. During the withdrawal he had pulled his command post back to a position on the slopes of the Chu Pong massif.

For decades the senior commanders of the North Vietnamese army have been shadowy, mysterious figures who often fought under noms de guerre. Not much was known of their background and history; even the secret files of the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency held little information. An’s biography is that of a soldier with more than forty-five years on active duty, much of it spent in the field in Vietnam’s two great wars:

“I was born in 1926 in Hanoi. My father was a technician at Bach Mai airport. He was involved in the anti-French movement since 1937 and was put into prison by the French in 1939. So I got this infection from my father and it was a passion for me from a young age. When our Autumn Revolution succeeded in 1945, I joined the army. My first tour was as an enlisted soldier. After that, I was assigned to a school training squad leaders. I also applied for political school and became a company commissar. But I asked to change my job back to military commander. So I have been through all levels in the army: corporal, sergeant, company commander, battalion commander. I became deputy commander and then commander of a regiment at Dien Bien Phu. My regiment fought on [the French strongpoint] Eliane I, right on top of the shelter of the French commander, General [Christian de la Croix de] Castries. When the French war was over, I became a staff officer, then a division commander. I commanded four different divisions—the 35th Division, the 1st Division, and the 3O8th Division, a very famous division with a proud history. I took my current position as commandant of the Senior Military Academy four years ago. Before that I commanded the military academy, which trains regimental commanders. I have three children. My daughter is a major and she is married to a major. My second son is an engineer. My other son is a marine construction designer. I have three grandchildren, all girls. My wife was a teacher of chemistry, but [is] now retired.”

Of the Ia Drang campaign, An says, “When we attacked Plei Me camp, in Phase I, we encircled the position in order to destroy the reinforcements. Our purpose was to draw the Saigon ARVN column into coming out to reinforce. We had a strong force, but no intention of liberating territory. We wanted to destroy enemy forces. As we launched this campaign, we learned that American troops had landed in Vietnam. We believed that in Phase I if we attacked Plei Me, the ARVN will come and we will ambush their reinforcements. In Phase II, we believed that the Americans would come and we would attack them. We had learned that the Americans could drop troops far behind us. So in Phase III, we would be ready to attack Americans in our rear areas. We sent an advance command post to be near the ambush, staffed by myself, deputy B-3 commander, and Lieutenant Colonel Due Vu Hiep, deputy political commissar of B-3 Front, who is now also a lieutenant general. We had a very small group escorting us, maybe forty people total. Some intelligence officers and operations officers on staff. It was a very small, very mobile command group.”

Senior General Chu Huy Man, former chief political commissar of the People’s Army and until recently a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, is now near eighty years of age. He retired from the army only in 1990. His rank of senior general, the highest in the Vietnamese army, is equivalent to the rank of five-star general in the American army; only five men, including Vo Nguyen Giap, have ever achieved it. Man’s personal story: “I joined the revolutionary movement in 1930, just after the Indochina Communist Party was formed. I was imprisoned in Kontum by the French. In 1945, during the Autumn Revolution, I joined the army and became a regimental commander. I commanded a number of regiments and was involved in most of the campaigns of the French war. During Dien Bien Phu, I was political commissar of the 316th Division column. General Nguyen Huu An was one of my regimental commanders in the Dien Bien Phu attack. I moved to South Vietnam in 1964. I was at first stationed in the delta of central Vietnam, then moved to the Central Highlands in 1965.”

General Man says the arrival of the first American combat troops in South Vietnam, especially the 1st Cavalry Division, forced a major change in plans for the fall-winter offensive as early as June of 1965. “We used our new plan to lure the tiger out of the mountain. First we attack Plei Me, then the ARVN reinforcements come into our ambush. Then, I was confident, the Americans will use their helicopters to land in our rear, land in the Ia Drang area. It was our intention to draw the Americans out of An Khe. We did not have any plans to liberate the land; only to destroy troops.” Man says he employed five battalions in Phase I—one reinforced battalion to besiege Plei Me camp and four to prepare the Route 5 ambush—while a sixth battalion remained in reserve. “We didn’t have enough troops,” Man says, explaining the failure of the ambush.

The personality of the campaign changed drastically as the North Vietnamese broke off their attack on Plei Me and abandoned the ambush attempt. General Man ordered his 320th and 33rd regiments back to the Chu Pong base-camp area to rest and regroup. The 320th reached a position along the Cambodian border south of Chu Pong practically untouched, but the hard-luck 33rd Regiment, which had suffered heavy casualties and was battle-weary, would endure additional blows on its retreat west, harassed relentlessly by the Air Cavalry troops of the 1st Brigade.

Captured documents and prisoner interrogations revealed that by the time it reached the Chu Pong base area, the 33 rd PAVN Regiment was reporting that some forty percent of its officers and men, including two of the three battalion commanders, had been killed. The 33rd had lost virtually all of its eighteen 12.7mm anti-aircraft machine guns and eleven mortars, and the 1st Battalion, 33rd Regiment, which conducted the siege of Plei Me, was down to only one company of effectives. General An says that the 33rd Regiment was given some replacements and built back to a strength of about nine hundred when it reached the base camp. But the general’s hopes and plans now revolved around the newly arrived 66th Regiment, which had had no part in the Plei Me attacks.

General Man’s three regiments regrouped in the Ia Drang-Chu Pong base area. The region had been a Viet Minh sanctuary during the long war with the French. The Viet Minn’s successors, the Viet Cong, had made limited use of the Ia Drang as a hiding place during the years since 1954. General Man could think of no more ideal place for his secret base and staging area for the 1965-1966 campaign. It had ample water for cooking, cleaning, drinking, and caring for casualties. It had deep, wooded defiles and jungle-covered valleys for basing troops, locating hospitals, and storing supplies. Under the jungle canopy were excellent training areas and wide trails on which troops could move, even during the day, without being detected from the air. Best of all, the Ia Drang Valley was convenient to the inviolable sanctuary across the Cambodian border.

The North Vietnamese porters had hauled, on their sturdy bicycles and pack horses, huge quantities of rice, peanuts, and salt, as well as big cans of cooking oil, to stockpile for the troops. Others brought in tons of ammunition, weapons, EE-8 field phones, and WD-30 communication wire. One huge North Vietnamese supply depot was spread over a square mile across the Ia Drang, less than three miles north of a large clearing at the base of the Chu Pong massif.

The 66th Regiment of the B-3 Front was composed of the 7th, 8th, and 9th battalions, each at or near its full strength of forty officers and 515 enlisted men. Still on the trail and scheduled to arrive in mid-November was a battalion of 120mm mortars and a battalion of badly needed anti-aircraft guns. General Man could also call on the local veterans of the H-15 Main Force Viet Cong Battalion, six hundred strong, for duty as porters, guides, and fighters.

October and early November had not been the best of times for General Man. If the old plan to take Pleiku and attack down Route 19 to the coast had indeed been abandoned by Hanoi, and a new one substituted whose focus was to learn how to fight the new American combat troops, the lesson was proving very costly. The game of foxes and hounds, as played by John B. Stockton’s 1st Squadron of the 9th Cavalry, had been won hands down by the hounds.

But General Man was about to get what he says he wanted: decisive engagement with a battalion of American cavalry soldiers right in his own backyard. And where were the enemy when the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry came calling? Uncomfortably close. According to Man, An, and Phuong, most of the 33rd Regiment was dispersed in a two-mile line along the eastern face of the Chu Pong. The 9th Battalion, 66th Regiment was five hundred yards south and west of a large clearing near the base of the mountain. The 7th Battalion, 66th Regiment was on the ridge line above that clearing, not more than ninety minutes’ marching time away. The 8th Battalion, 66th Regiment was half a day’s march to the northeast across the Ia Drang. The H-15 Viet Cong Battalion was perhaps eight hours distant. The 320th Regiment was over on the Cambodian border, ten miles northwest.

General An says: “When you landed here, you landed right in the middle of three of our battalions of the 66th Regiment, our reserve force. It was the strongest we had. [At] full strength the battalions each had about four hundred fifty men. Also, there was a headquarters battalion. The regiment’s total strength was about sixteen hundred men.”

When it came time to give a code name, for map and radio identification, to that clearing we finally chose for our landing at the base of Chu Pong, Captain Dillon, my operations officer, did the honors. He normally picked short words—the names of animals or birds; one-digit numbers; the letters of the alphabet as expressed by the NATO phonetic system. That day, he went with the letter “X”—or “X-Ray,” in the NATO alphabet. The North Vietnamese in 1965 also used code letters, to shield the identities of their regiments. General An says the code letter for the 66th Regiment at that time was “X.”

Thus was the stage set.

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