For the past 35 years the US Army and the North Vietnamese have claimed victory in the October to November 1965 Ia Drang Valley Battle. While the United States side of the battle has been extensively documented, the Vietnamese version has remained obscure.
Although heavily colored by communist hagiography and propaganda, recently published People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) accounts provide answers to many questions and acknowledge a number of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) mistakes and command failures. When added to information from US sources, these accounts reveal how greatly the fog of war, over optimism and blind fate influenced the battle.
The B3 Front Plan
According to PAVN, the Ia Drang Battle grew out of the B3 (Central Highlands) Front’s plan to lure US and South Vietnamese forces into battle on terms favorable to the communists. The plan included besieging the remote Plei Me border outpost south of Pleiku in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands and forcing US and South Vietnamese forces to come to the rescue. The goal was to annihilate five or six US companies.
The NVA 320th and 33d Regiments were to launch the campaign, but one of the NVA’s finest units, the 304th Division would reinforce the B3 Front. In August 1965 the 304th received orders to move south to the Central Highlands. The 304th’s lead element, the 66th Regiment, was scheduled to arrive in time for the campaign’s final phase.
Aware they could not match newly arrived US forces. power, NVA commanders knew their strategy was risky. During political indoctrination sessions before the campaign began, 320th Regiment troops expressed serious doubts.
The troops had reason to be skeptical. The 33d Regiment, launching the Plei Me siege on 19 October 1965, was stunned by unexpectedly powerful US air strikes that inflicted heavy losses and totally disrupted communications between regimental headquarters and forward units. After the battle, B3 Front headquarters admitted that this loss of communications with front-line units severely hampered its ability to make timely and informed command decisions during this phase of the battle.
The 320th Regiment’s ambush of a large South Vietnamese relief column on 23 October also resulted in heavy NVA casualties. On 26 October, two days after the 1st Brigade, 1st US Cavalry Division, arrived in Pleiku, the B3 Front commander decided that discretion was the better part of valor and ordered troops back to the Ia Drang base area.
From 24 October to 9 November, 1st Brigade, 1st US Cavalry Division, heliborne airmobile elements fought a series of engagements against retreating communist troops in the Ia Drang Valley. The 33d Regiment bore the brunt of the US attacks. The regimental hospital was overrun on 1 November. On 4 November, US 2d Squadron, 12th US Cavalry Regiment forces engaged two 33d Regiment, 3d Battalion companies in a stiff battle. On 6 November, two 2d Squadron, 8th US Cavalry Regiment companies estimated several hundred NVA 1st and 2d Battalion, 33d Regiment forces killed. Twenty-six US soldiers were killed; 53 were wounded.
The B3 Front viewed the 4 and 6 November engagements as victories and claimed that from 29 October to 9 November five US platoons had been annihilated and that 385 US troops were killed or wounded. Actual 1st Brigade losses were 59 men killed and 196 wounded. The NVA 33d Regiment suffered catastrophic losses, being reduced to less than half its authorized strength.
Post battle NVA analyses conclude that US helicopter leap-frog attacks into the heart of the base area had thrown the NVA back onto the defensive, disrupted command and control, and prevented the NVA from concentrating forces. The US 1st Brigade withdrew, setting the stage for the arrival of the two principal participants in the Ia Drang Battle: the 1st US Cavalry Division’s 3d Brigade and the NVA’s 66th Regiment.
The Battle Heats Up
The NVA attacked on 12 November. Twenty-six NVA sappers, armed with four mortars and guided by local guerrillas, raided the new 3d Brigade Headquarters at the Catecka Tea Plantation, killing seven US soldiers and wounding 23. Earlier, on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the 66th Regiment had dropped its heavy equipment, lightened its packs and proceeded by forced march to the battlefield. The 66th crossed into South Vietnam on 1 November and headed for assembly areas. During the approach the regiment suffered its first losses. On 3 November, the 8th Battalion was ambushed by a US reconnaissance patrol, provoking a vicious night engagement that led the 8th Battalion to believe it had annihilated a US platoon.
On 10 November, the 66th Regiment arrived at the Chu Pong Massif on the southwestern side of the Ia Drang Valley near the Cambodian border. The Chu Pong, a massive terrain feature, housed B3 Front Headquarters, its support units and supply warehouses. The regimental headquarters and the 7th Battalion occupied adjacent bivouac areas on the mountain’s southeastern face. Five kilometers away, the 9th Battalion occupied the eastern face. The 8th Battalion established a base in the Ia Drang Valley itself, perhaps eight miles away. Although tired and hungry from the long forced march, the troops began building huts, digging fortifications and transporting rice and ammunition from the B3 Front’s supply caches.
While the 66th Regiment’s battalions were at almost full strength. 500 men with from 120 to 125 men per company and well-equipped with AK-47 and SKS rifles, light and medium machineguns, RPGs, 82-millimeter mortars and recoilless rifles, Central Highlands jungles were foreign to them. Most of the men were as unfamiliar with the terrain as US troops were.
The 1st Battalion, 7th US Cavalry, arrived at landing zone (LZ) X-Ray, a clearing less than one kilometer below the 9th Battalion’s positions. This fact played a significant role in the coming battle.
NVA histories reveal that contrary to claims that the NVA lured US troops into a trap, the NVA were completely surprised by US troops’ 14 November landing at LZ X-Ray. When the first US helicopters arrived, 66th Regiment and 9th Battalion commanders were surveying the terrain several kilometers away on the banks of the Ia Drang River. The 66th Regiment Political Officer Ngoc Chau and the 9th Battalion’s deputy political officer were also away from their offices.
From his new headquarters atop the Chu Pong, B3 Front Forward Commander Nguyen Huu An watched in dismay as US air strikes and artillery blasted the 9th Battalion area and as waves of US helicopters swooped out of sight behind the mountain. Once on the ground, 7th US Cavalry troops advanced straight up the slopes of the Chu Pong toward 9th Battalion positions.
Under heavy bombardment, unable to see what was happening because of the thick jungle vegetation and with its forward outposts eliminated in the initial US attack, the 9th Battalion did not detect approaching US troops until they were only 100 meters away. US troops advanced in two columns, one headed for 9th Battalion’s 11th Company; the other headed for the 9th Battalion Headquarters area. Just as the shooting began, the 9th Battalion almost collapsed.
Acting on his own, the 11th Company commander launched a fierce counterattack against US troops, but the 9th Battalion political officer, who in the absence of the military commander was in charge of the battalion, panicked. He bolted from the command post, leaving the battalion leaderless.
A lesser unit might have broken and run, but 9th Battalion troops were among the NVA’s best. A first lieutenant, the senior officer left in the command post, immediately took charge. Calling for help from the unengaged 13th Company, he ordered all headquarters personnel. cooks, runners and medics to grab weapons and fight. One by one, the battalion’s four companies joined the battle as work details returned and commanders pieced together what was happening.
The 9th Battalion commander, racing back from the banks of the Ia Drang, reached the 11th Company an hour later but never returned to his command post, and he never reestablished contact with all of his units.
At 1700, US troops finally withdrew. The 9th Battalion’s units also began retreating, scattering in all directions. The 66th Regiment commander bypassed the 9th Battalion to return directly to his regimental command post, got lost and did not find his way back to his headquarters for two days.
Some isolated troops, not realizing their units had left, remained behind and continued to engage US forces in scattered fire fights until late that night. The 9th Battalion reported destroying one US company and crippling another. After the battle, the 9th Battalion commander was severely criticized for failing to regain control of his battalion and allowing it to disintegrate.
Meanwhile, B3 Front Forward Headquarters and the 66th Regiment were trying to control the battle. Learning that the commanders were not at their command posts, Deputy Regimental Commander Pham Cong Cuu, who was at 7th Battalion Headquarters when the attack occurred, alerted the battalion to prepare to move out.
Taking a group of 7th Battalion officers with him, Cuu went forward to assess the situation. He arrived in the 9th Battalion area in the early afternoon and found it in a state of confusion, with many wounded moving to the rear and no one sure what was going on. The wounded deputy battalion political officer could tell him only that the enemy troops were all US forces (no South Vietnamese) and that they were aggressive and well-armed.
Chau, arriving in the area later, encountered the 9th Battalion’s retreating 13th Company and directed it to leave one platoon behind to maintain contact with US forces. During the 66th Regiment commander’s absence, Chau assumed command.
Late in the afternoon, B3 Forward Headquarters ordered Chau to attack the US position with available forces. Chau sent 7th Battalion troops forward to join the scattered 9th Battalion elements. He placed Cuu in direct command of the assault.
The attack was originally scheduled to begin at 0300 on 15 November, but because of the unfamiliar terrain and continuing US artillery bombardment, it was almost daylight before troops were in position. Two 7th Battalion companies and 9th Battalion elements prepared to assault one side of the US perimeter while the 7th Battalion’s weapons company deployed on the other side as a blocking force. This would also allow them to provide machinegun grazing fire across the position.
At this point it becomes difficult to reconcile NVA accounts with what actually happened. The accounts say 7th Battalion assault companies overran the US position and briefly swept the area before withdrawing at 0645 under heavy US air attack. Surviving US troops were said to have fled into the jungle.
Cuu claims he reported by radio to B3 Front Headquarters that his men had overrun the US position, captured more than 70 weapons and that he had 150 effectives left in his force, which indicated losses of from 300 to 400 men. Cuu admits B3 Front was at first incredulous about his report, asking if Cuu had personally checked the report or if he was just relaying reports from subordinate elements. In fact, a section of the 1st Battalion, 7th US Cavalry’s perimeter had been briefly overrun, but the penetration was quickly repaired and the US position held. Forty-two US soldiers were killed and 20 were wounded.
After what was thought to be a victory, the NVA attack force withdrew, leaving only one platoon behind to maintain contact with the US force. According to NVA accounts, the 66th Regiment’s commanders were unaware of a new US battalion’s arrival on foot: the 2/5 Cavalry, and the lost platoon’s rescue. They knew only of the incessant US bombing and shelling their stay-behind element endured and of the helicopters arriving at LZ X-Ray to evacuate bodies and bring in reinforcements.
The Second Attack
B3 Forward Headquarters ordered a second attack on LZ X-Ray and ordered the 33d Regiment to attack two nearby US artillery fire bases to support the LZ X-Ray attack a mission the 33d Regiment could not carry out. With most of 7th Battalion destroyed, the 66th Regiment was forced to use the 7th Regiment’s unblooded 3d Company and one platoon of 1st Company as the main assault elements, supported by the 7th Battalion’s heavy weapons.
At 2000 on 15 November, NVA troops reached the assembly area and went forward to attack positions. However, the stay-behind force had not noticed that US defenders had pulled their lines back 50 meters in the perimeter section that was the second assault’s primary target. This move, with the constant artillery bombardment, confused the attackers.
Not until 0300 on 16 November did NVA troops get close enough to US lines to launch an assault. Although they claim to have inflicted numerous casualties before being driven back, NVA historians acknowledge that the assault was largely unsuccessful. While US forces actually suffered only six wounded; the NVA sustained significant losses.
According to the Vietnamese, 7th Battalion, 66th Regiment elements returned to the area the night of 16 November to collect the dead and wounded but were detected and fired on, causing panicky US troops to fire wildly around the entire perimeter. This probably refers to an incident at first light on 16 November when US defenders at LZ X-Ray, firing a Mad Minute to preempt a dawn attack, flushed out a large group of NVA hiding close to the perimeter. Vietnamese accounts admit that after this attack the 7th and 9th Battalions were hors de combat: the 7th because of its horrendous losses and the 9th because its units were still scattered and disorganized after the haphazard retreat on 14 November.
Misperceptions engendered by the fog of war and the exaggerated victory claims that two NVA battalions made began a tragic chain of events. Although actual US losses were 79 killed and 121 wounded, NVA commanders believed the original US battalion at LZ X-Ray, the 7th US Cavalry, had been crippled. Blinded by US airstrikes and artillery, NVA commanders did not know that LZ X-Ray had been heavily reinforced, that the cavalry was being evacuated or that LZ X-Ray was to be abandoned the next day. Ignorant of these facts, An ordered the 66th Regiment’s 8th Battalion still fresh and waiting in the Ia Drang Valley to move south to finish off what he believed to be a crippled US battalion.
The 8th Battalion commander, Le Xuan Phoi, headed his men out on the evening of 16 November, but when US air and artillery strikes blocked his route, he was forced to stop and reorganize. At dawn the battalion moved out again, heading south in battle formation with the 8th Company acting as an advance guard some distance ahead of the main formation. The battalion’s main body followed: the battalion headquarters, two infantry companies, a weapons company and the regimental 12.7-millimeter heavy machinegun company, attached to the battalion for this operation.
For US troops left at LZ X-Ray, the night of 16-17 November passed quietly. The next morning the squadrons left LZ X-Ray on foot, heading north toward the artillery fire base at LZ Columbus about three miles away. While the 2/5th Cavalry proceeded directly to LZ Columbus, the 2/7th Cavalry.10 to 15 minutes behind .turned off about three kilometers out and headed for a clearing designated LZ Albany.
Having seen the hundreds of NVA bodies rotting in the sun around the perimeter and after the quiet night at LZ X-Ray, the troops assumed the NVA was finished. Nearly 2,000 NVA soldiers, almost an entire regiment, had been reported killed. After adding the number wounded, there should have been nothing left of the two NVA regiments. The march to LZ Albany would be just a walk in the sun.
Shortly before noon, the 2/7th Cavalry point element tripped over several hidden NVA soldiers who belonged to one of the five-man ambush teams from the 33d Regiment that had been assigned to cover potential helicopter landing zones. US troops captured two soldiers, but three escaped. The US column halted to interrogate the prisoners. Meanwhile, the NVA 8th Battalion’s main body, 1 kilometer behind its lead company, encountered NVA 1st Company, 1st Battalion, 33d Regiment elements. The escaped NVA soldiers reported that two US platoons were just ahead and moving in their direction. Phoi immediately sent a runner to recall his point company and began deploying for battle.
Poor visibility caused by thick vegetation and terrain hampered the NVA and US troops. Unaware he was facing a full US squadron and with little time, Phoi deployed from march formation. He put only the lead company on line, backed by the weapons company. He held the other units in reserve.
The US column again moved forward. Phoi waited until US soldiers were yards away before opening fire. The two lead US platoons were shattered. Behind them more US troops advanced, firing as they came. Only then did Phoi realize that the two platoons were not alone. He moved another infantry company up immediately behind the first, then attacked.
After receiving the battalion’s recall order and hearing the sounds of gunfire, 8th Company, on point, sped back toward the battle. The company’s lead platoon got lost and never made it into the fight. The other company ran straight into the US column’s rear and immediately attacked. Phoi now committed 7th Company, shifting it into a line alongside 6th Company. Meanwhile, two companies of the nearby 33d Regiment, led by Cuu, also entered the fray.
The NVA 8th Battalion was quickly decapitated. The commander died before the battle ended, and the political officer died within the first hour. Almost all company- and platoon-level officers lay dead or wounded. At an 8th Battalion squad leader’s request – an indication of how many 8th Battalion officers were down – the 1st Battalion, 33d Regiment, deputy commander assumed command of both battalions. Within hours he, too, was dead.
Leaving the bulk of the 2/7 US Cavalry trapped between and hopelessly intermingled with NVA forces hidden in the tall jungle grass, US forces at either end of the column regrouped into two separate perimeters. Virtually leaderless and under heavy US air and artillery attack, the surviving NVA troops, their hatred of Americans fueled by communist tales of US atrocities in South Vietnam and party exhortations to become heroic killers of Americans, mindlessly slaughtered US wounded.
Vietnamese accounts of the battle give contorted explanations of why so many US soldiers were shot in the head or in the back. A postwar review reveals that NVA commanders knew what really happened. During the battle there were “mistakes” in implementing the NVA policy on taking prisoners of war. The NVA took no prisoners.
The next day, US forces counted 403 NVA bodies and hundreds of weapons left on the battlefield. In this instance, however, the NVA claim to have annihilated a US battalion was not entirely without foundation. The 2/7th US Cavalry and attached units suffered 155 killed and 121 wounded. The encounter, which Vietnamese histories admit was completely accidental, was one of the war’s bloodiest battles.
On 18 November, the US artillery fire base at LZ Columbus was hit by an attack that was easily repelled. Three US soldiers were killed and 13 wounded in exchange for at least 27 dead NVA. This unsuccessful attack was the 33d Regiment’s belated effort to carry out the order it had been given three days before.
The regimental chief of staff commanded the attack. Because of poor reconnaissance, one battalion’s assault troops missed the perimeter entirely, hitting only thin air. Admitting serious morale problems, PAVN officers faulted the attack for inadequate coordination and the troops for not pressing the assault with sufficient resolution.
Ia Drang Valley
The campaign’s final battle was anticlimactic. On 20 November, South Vietnamese airborne forces, supported by US artillery, encountered the 320th Regiment’s 635th and 334th Battalions along the Cambodian border. The 635th.s commander, whose unit had suffered heavy losses during the South Vietnamese relief column ambush in October, refused to engage the enemy and retreated without authorization, leaving the sister battalion alone on the battlefield.
The two units lost hundreds of men and weapons, and it was several days before the 320th Regiment managed to reestablish contact with the 635th Battalion. A PAVN analysis admits the regiment did not accomplish its assigned mission.
An NVA review of the campaign found that in their first major battle with US forces, NVA commanders had seriously underestimated their opponent. Specifically, the NVA had been surprised by the 1st US Cavalry Division’s armed helicopters’ firepower; the use of B-52s to tactically support ground troops; the power of the 1st Cavalry’s field artillery, which the NVA had believed would be unable to deploy and operate effectively in this roadless, jungle-covered region; and the incredible mobility of 1st Cavalry troopers who, even when their forces were caught at an initial disadvantage, used helicopters to concentrate rapidly and decisively to shift the balance of forces and turn the tide of battle.
The North Vietnamese were also disturbed by leadership problems that surfaced during this campaign. All three regimental commanders were censured for their conduct during the campaign. The 66th Regiment commander received a severe reprimand for failing to command his unit during the LZ X-Ray battle. The 33d Regiment Commander was criticized for failing to maintain contact with his troops during the siege at Plei Me, for not personally commanding the attack on LZ Columbus and for delegating all decision-making responsibility to subordinates. The 320th Regiment commander was cited for failing to personally conduct reconnaissance of the terrain before ambushing the South Vietnamese relief column and for clumsily handling his unit throughout the campaign.
A 1966 Central Highlands Front report claimed that in five major engagements with US forces between 14 and 18 November 1965, NVA forces killed 559 soldiers and wounded 669. PAVN histories claim the United States suffered 1,500 to 1,700 casualties during the Ia Drang Campaign.The US military estimates that 3,561 NVA were killed and more than 1,000 were wounded during engagements with the 1st Cavalry. The US Army estimated 305 killed and 524 wounded for the 35-day campaign. Neither side believes the other’s figures.
The US military viewed the battle as proof that its helicopter-assault tactics and strategy of attrition could win the war. The NVA saw in the heavy US casualties inflicted at LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany vindication for its belief that communist troops could also inflict sufficient pain on US forces. Clearly, each side saw only the results it wanted to see, and each thought it had hurt the other more than it had.
Later in the war, as firepower and attrition continued to take their toll, the NVA realized it suffered from a problem common to all the need for truthful reporting and a willingness to hear the truth. “Based on our experiences . . . we can see that reporting from subordinate commanders to their superiors did not accurately reflect the real situation. Successes were usually exaggerated and mistakes and failures were not reported. This had a not insignificant impact on our operations. It caused senior commanders to misjudge and misevaluate the situation, which in turn led them to make incorrect policy decisions and to set goals and objectives which were unattainable. . . . Commanders must listen to the opinions of subordinates. . . . They must not be afraid to hear negatives, they must not be willing to listen only to those things which are positive, and they must never accuse a subordinate of harboring harmful thoughts and opinions when the subordinate is only telling the truth. . . . Commanders . . . must not be afraid to discuss mistakes and failures. Time after time, after every victory we won, so often that it seemed to be the rule rather than the exception, we fell into the traps of subjectivism, over-eagerness and over-simplification”.
This story originally published on “Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association” by Merle L. Pribbenow in January, 2001. Here is the direct link for those wanting to look through the bibliography: http://www.generalhieu.com/e66pleime-2.htm
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