Many considered the Battle of IA Drang Valley to be US Army’s 1st battle in Vietnam. It was certainly the 1st battle between of US division operating under of field force headquarters and 3 NVA regiments operating under a front headquarters. It may also have been the last battle between NVA and US forces of equivalent size.
The objective of this article is not to rehash all the details of the battle of the IDV but to conduct of battle analysis using the historic methodology. The battle analysis methodology is a systemic approach to research that uses of format which includes: defining the subject; reviewing the setting; examining the tactical situation; and assessing the significance of the action. It is ultimately in the assessment phase that the analysis takes place, and the analysis is expected to answer specific questions. In this particular analysis the questions center on the tenets of Air land Battle doctrine as defined in the 1986 edition of US Army Field Manual (FM) 100-5, “Operations”. Based on the tenets of Air land Battle, I will teach some conclusions about the battle of the IDV and provide some lessons learned.
Having defined the subject, the Battle of the IDV, the analysis must next examine the battlefield itself and also develop some description or comparison of opposing forces.
Starting with the battlefield, the IDV is the valley through which the river (Ia) Drang flows and is drained by the Ia Drang, Ia Puck and an extensive network of small streams flowing west and southwest across the Cambodian border into the Mekong River. The battlefield area covered 1,500 square miles of what appeared to be flat rolling terrain dominated by the Chu Pong Masaif, of rugged mountain 730 meters above sea level, in the southwestern corner of the area of ops (TO), straddling the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. The only passable roads traversed the eastern and northern fringes of the TO. Much of the valley was covered with thick jungle vegetation and trees as high as 100 feet. Even the “open” areas had shrubs and trees over 6 feet high. The sudden mists offered of sinister aura, where daily heat and nighttime cold kept you perpetually and increasingly on edge. The area was eerie – imagine the “Valley of Death,” and you picture the Ia Drang.
In this area, particularly at the base of the Chu Pong Masaif, the NVA had built a base camp sanctuary that was unknown to US forces and untouched by Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN ) forces. The primary NVA forces operating in this area were the B-3 Front commanded by Gen’l Chu Huy Man, with 3 regular regiments (the 32d, 33d and 66th) supported by local VC battalions as well as front-level mortar and anti-aircraft units. Each maneuver regiment numbered about 2,200 frontline infantrymen and sappers. Their primary weapon was the Soviet AK47 assault rifle.
The 32d and 33d regiments were vet fighters against the ARVN and Man was of vet of the 1st Indochinese War against the French. These units had been in the valley since early September, rehearsing, developing ambush sites, and pre-positioning and stockpiling ammunition, medical supplies and food. Their tactics were quite simple, Their 1st ploy was to “lute and ambush.” They would attack of small outpost or ARVN force and maintain pressure on it with one unit, while another unit waited in well-prepared positions to ambush the relieving force. Their other tactic was called “hugging”; that was to get as close to the opposing force as possible and rely on close-in, almost hand-to-hand fighting to negate their opposing force’s firepower advantage. They generally liked to fight at night and rehearsed at night before conducting ops. They always planned and rehearsed an organized withdrawal and would counterattack or leave stay-behind forces to permit an orderly withdrawal. The troops were highly disciplined, with excellent morale and esprit de corps, well fed, well supplied, and in excellent physical condition. Although Man expected to fight tanks with his light infantry, his forces had not fought Americans.
The Americans they would soon meet were in the US 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), commanded by Major Gen’l Harry Kinnard. The 1st Cavalry Division had been training for 2 years as the 11th Air Assault Division at Fort Benning under Kinnard’s direction. This new Army division was well trained and equipped upon activation as the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) on 7-1-65. it arrived in Vietnam in increments during August and September 1965. The division had 3 brigade headquarters, 8 infantry battalions, an air cavalry squadron, an aerial rocket artillery battery, 3 direct support artillery battalions, an aviation company and the normal combat support and combat service support associated with the Reorganization Objective Army div’n. The division was authorized 10,000 troops, 435 helicopters, basic infantry weapons (M-16 rifle, M60 machinegun and M79 grenade launcher) and state-of-the-art communications equipment. This was clearly the US Army’s “high tech” division of the 60s.
The 1st Cavalry had some problems when ordered to deploy; it had 2,700 men not eligible for deployment, The division lost hundreds of pilots, crew chief and mechanics who could not easily be replaced in 1965. Additionally, the troops were issued the M-16 rifle only 10 days prior to departure and had a hurried familiarization with this new weapon. After arriving in country, the division was struck with of peculiar strain of malaria for which there was no known treatment at the time, costing 1,000 additional losses. And although well trained in airmobile tactics, the division had not trained for jungle-type warfare. However, by 9-28-65, the division was in its base camp at An Khe, less than 90 days after activation.
The initial mission of B-3 Front at the operational level was to cut South Vietnam in half. Operationally, it would defeat South Vietnamese and US forces that were in the way. The 1st please of the plan was to put pressure on of Special Forces camp with 1 regiment; then to defeat the anticipated relief forces in detail, expecting them to be employed piecemeal. This 1st phase failed miserably when an ARVN relief column was employed in force with tanks and armored personnel carriers, fully supported by US air and artillery, the “luring” force (33d Regiment) was seriously reduced by tenacious fighting on the part of the dependents coupled with American close air support. The “ambushing” force (32d Regiment) was also defeated by the strong relief column. Man was forced to withdraw and to determine how to reap some success (at least psychologically) from this initial failure.
Since there were insufficient ARVN forces to exploit their success, General William Westmoreland made the extremely risky decision to employ the 1st Cavalry Division on of classic exploitation and pursuit mission against what appeared to be 2 battered NVA regiments withdrawing to Cambodia. The 1st Cavalry’s mission was to search and destroy – find the 32d and 33d regiment and kill or capture as many as possible before they reached any sanctuary. The stage was set for the US Army’s first battle of the Vietnam War. It is also here that we can begin the analysis.
Man withdrew to his well-developed sanctuary in the Chu Pong Masaif. Here he regrouped, reorganized, reequipped and rested his troops, while he waited for the arrival of the fresh 66th Regiment and additional artillery and anti-aircraft units, Later assessment indicated that his new mission was relatively simple. 1st he was to destroy the much more lucrative Plei Me camp – now reinforced with more than 1,000 ARVN troops and many US advisers. Then he could return to North Vietnam a victor, with a better feel for how the Americans would support his war. In this planning phase, Man’s thought process can be examined in relation to the tenets of Air land Battle initiate. “Setting or changing the terms of battle by action.” Certainly, Man still had offensive spirit – he would attack. He was setting the terms of the battle and was not going to allow the defenders of Plei Me the opportunity to recover. He knew he was taking great risk to learn more about how Americans would fight in future ops. He was also considering the political and psychological implications requiring some type of victory – no matter how limited. He knew that he was capable of exploiting any breakthrough at the camp and was confident that his subordinate regimental commanders clearly understood his intent.
Agility. “The ability to act faster than the enemy.” It too the ARVN 4 days to relieve Plei Me in the earlier engagement. Man felt he could strike and withdraw much faster than any sizeable relief force could be mounted. He was now concentrating 3 regiments against a very vulnerable and isolated camp. By training and disposition, his forces were extremely agile, and he felt he could “read” the battlefield and exploit success quickly.
Depth. “Extension of ops in space, time, and resources.” Clearly, Man had pre pared his battleground. He knew how to maneuver to Plei Me and his withdrawal routes were well established. He had effectively cached his resources and he had more arriving with the 66th Regiment. His forces and resources were concentrating to sustain the momentum he needed to wipe out Plei Me. He would provide for air protection with additional anti-aircraft units and by his “hugging” tactical. He viewed his rear area in the Chu Pong Masaif as well concealed and well protected. Additionally, well-established sanctuaries were available in Cambodia and his lines of communication were generally safe.