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On selection of combat method in the Operation Plei Me

In the war against the U.S., for national salvation, Plei Me was the first campaign when we directly confronted the US expeditionary force on the battlefield of Central Highlands. Victory of our operation was the result of applying and creatively developing the campaign art in the resistance war against the French, particularly the selection of combat method.

The monument to the victory of Plei Me

In 1965, to shift from the “Special War” Strategy toward the “Local War” Strategy, the US imperialists deployed its most elite divisions and brigades en masse to South Vietnam, with the participation of over 18,000 troops and the 1st Air Cavalry Division. With its great strength and firepower and more than 300,000 troops from the Saigon army, the U.S. hoped to quickly “search and destroy” the South Liberation Army’s main units as well as give assistance to the Saigon army to pacify South Vietnam. Under that strategy, they deployed the Division to An Khe in order to prevent our main force, isolate the Central Highlands from coastal areas, and at the same time occupy the Central Highlands, the Route No.19, and the Central Coast Region, and gradually control the whole Indochina as their greater target.

Against that backdrop, the Party Central Committee determined to defeat the enemy’s “Local War” Strategy so as to take the initiative on the battlefield and push them into passivity. To that end, we decided to launch the Operation Plei Me aimed at annihilating a section of the US expeditionary force, dissolving the Saigon army, and defeating their attack plan in the dry season of 1965. Our forces in the Operation were mainly infantry units and local armed forces with portable weapons and their limited knowledge of the battlefield. However, they always thoroughly grasped the Party’s guidelines on the people’s war and its ideology of revolutionary offensive, while expressing their determination to “search and destroy” the U.S. invaders. In other words, we entered the Operation Plei Me with the high morale and resolve to win. Under the leadership and direction by the Party Central Committee, particularly by the Operation’s Party Committee and Command, after 38 days and nights of constant, courageous, resilient combat (from October 19th, 1965 to November 26th, 1965), we won a glorious victory of strategic significance in the first period of the war against the U.S. on the mountainous battlefield, which is clearly explained as follows.

First, select a combat method properly. After the summer of 1965, the Saigon army on the battlefield of Central Highlands fell into a serious decline; it was unable to organise counter-attacks at campaign level. To provide assistance for the Saigon army in regaining the initiative on the battlefield and realise its plot to control the Central Highlands, the U.S. constructed a new military airport in Gia Lai, transported a thousand tons of materials to Pleiku, and deployed the 1st Air Cavalry Division to An Khe. In that situation, we had to deal with many issues on selecting the targets to attack, identifying the area of combat, and most importantly correctly assessing our object of struggle as the basis for seeking a proper combat method before launching the Operation. While we fully understood the Saigon army via our operations, we lacked information about the US expeditionary force, from their organisational structure to their art of war. In spite of a dearth of experiences in combating the US expeditionary force, the Operation’s Command proactively studied and proposed a lot of combat methods and projects. Thanks to timely reconnaissance, we closely analysed and assessed our enemy. As a result, the 1st Air Cavalry Division was identified as our new object of combat. We were fully aware that this Division was provided with modern weapons and equipment and it adopted the tactics of “leapfrogging” and “helicopter transport.”

Accurately evaluating our object of combat, we decided to employ the combat method of “besieging positions and destroying reinforcements.” More specifically, we would lay siege to a position to compel the Saigon army and the US expeditionary force to deploy reinforcements by land and air as a favourable condition for us to annihilate a large number of enemy troops outside their fortifications. In the Operation Plei Me, our Command directed units to besiege the post of Plei Me, destroyed the post of Chu Ho, and organised a key battle against the Saigon army’s 3rd Armoured Regiment on the Road No.21, thereby forcing the U.S. to mobilise its expeditionary force. When the 1st Air Cavalry Division was deployed, it mounted searches and attacks against our army rear, which gave us a good chance to organise the second key battle against this Division. Thanks to our correct identification of the US expeditionary force as our object of combat and our method of “besieging positions and destroying reinforcements,” we won a decisive victory in the Operation Plei Me.

Second, flexibly employ various forms of tactics and combat. The Operation Plei Me was a battle of wits and strength between our force and the US expeditionary force which was much superior to us in terms of strength, weaponry and manoeuvrability. However, the Operation’s Command creatively applied different forms of tactics and combat, such as siege, ambush, raid and moving attack in each battle to raise our combat efficiency.

Grasping the guidelines on “besieging positions and destroying reinforcements and annihilating enemy troops outside their fortresses as the main method,” at the onset of the Operation, our Command used the tactic of siege to drag the enemy out of their fortresses to destroy. When we used the Regiment No.33 (which lacked a battalion) and a 12.7-mm air defence gun company to lay siege to the post of Plei Me (from the 19th to the 26th of October, 1965) and gradually destroy the post of Chu Ho, the Saigon army fell into passivity. After being unable to break our siege for many times, they had to deploy the 3rd Armoured Regiment to rescue their troops. The deployment of a large number of troops outside their fortifications created a favourable condition for our Regiment No.320 to ambush and destroy the enemy’s Regiment on the Road No.21 (from Phu My to Plei Me).

After the 3rd Armoured Regiment was destroyed, the U.S. hurriedly sent its troops to help the Saigon army, which was also an opportunity for us to attack the US expeditionary force. During the Operation Plei Me, when fighting the US expeditionary force, we conducted 3 raids, including 2 by the Battalion No.7 under the Regiment No.66 on the “X Ray” ground and the other by the Regiment No.33 against the artillery battlefield of Phalcon in the western spring of Ea Mo. In all 3 raids, we succeeded in annihilating enemy troops; however only in the raid by the Battalion No.7, we managed to master the battlefield. Although those raids were not entirely successful, we drew on several initial experiences in destroying each US company and battalion outside their fortresses. Besides, during the Operation, we launched two other moving attacks. To be more specific, our Battalion No.9 under the Regiment No.66 attacked the US 1st Battalion under the 3rd Brigade, and our Battalion No.8 under the Regiment No.66 cooperated with the Battalion No.1 under the Regiment No.33 in destroying the US 7th Battalion under the 3rd Brigade when it was withdrawing its troops towards Ea Mo. In the two moving attacks, we had not grasped the battlefield or made plans; thus we failed to take the initiative. However, we obtained the encouraging results and annihilated a large number of US troops. It should be noted that the offensive advance by our Battalion No.9 provided a foundation for forming our tactic of “moving attacks combined with key positions” later on.

Third, successfully conduct campaign-level key battles. To fulfil the Operation’s goal and task, in the process of preparation, our Command identified two key battles. The first one would be aimed at a large number of the Saigon army’s troops as a domino effect to engage the U.S. force. Doing so would enable us to launch the second one as the basis for defeating the U.S. “Local Ware Strategy.” To that end, the Operation’s Command used the Regiment No.33 to besiege the enemy’s posts and drag them out of their fortifications. Meanwhile, the Regiment No.320 ambushed the Saigon army’s troops in the first key battle and the Regiment No.66 was tasked with destroying the US expeditionary force in the second key battle.

On October 23rd, 1965, to provide support for its troops under siege at the post of Plei Me, the Saigon army’s 24th Special Group decided to send the 3rd Armoured Regiment for the rescue mission as it was equipped with modern weaponry and experienced in combat. Grasping the enemy’s intent, we deployed the Regiment No.320 to the Independence Hill to ambush the enemy’s Regiment in the Road No.21. When the enemy was in our ambush, we locked both ends and attacked the enemy’s flanks. After over one day of fierce combat, we destroyed 800 troops, two 105-mm artillery pieces, and 59 tanks and other vehicles of the 3rd Armoured Regiment. Hearing about the 3rd Armoured Regiment’s failure, General William Childs Westmoreland ordered the 1st Air Cavalry Division to “search the enemy and regain the initiative.” The victory of the first key battle by our Regiment No.320 helped robustly develop the Operation and compelled the US expeditionary force to engage in our Operation. In other words, we quickly achieved the Operation’s goal. Without that victory, the US expeditionary force would not be deployed and we would not have a chance to deal a mortal blow to them. Under the Operation’s combat plan and intent, from the 14th to the 17th of November, 1965, the Regiment No.66 organised direct battles with 2 US cavalry battalions in the valley of Ia Đ’Răng, including the second key battle ending the Operation. The victory in those battles by the Regiment No.66 greatly contributed to successfully accomplishing the Operation.

The victory of the Operation of Plei Me was a result of our courage, wisdom and creativity, while clearly demonstrating Vietnam’s military art of “taking the outdated weapons against the modern ones” in the era of Ho Chi Minh. The lesson on the Operation’s combat method remains valuable and it should be carefully studied, applied and creatively developed in our Homeland defence wars.

Col. Le Quoc Huy, PhD, The Infantry Officer College No.1

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