The Wars for Viet Nam

Carland, John M. Combat Operations -Stemming the Tide: May 1965 to October 1966. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2000

pp. 147 – 150

“. . .An Assessment

Following the Pleiku campaign, General Kinnard made three claims of success. First, he believed that the 1st Cavalry Division and its airmobile concept had been tested in combat and had passed “with flying colors.” Second, the division had prevented North Vietnamese forces from splitting the country along the Pleiku-Qui Nhon axis. Finally, while thwarting the enemy's strategic aims, the division had destroyed the better part of three North Vietnamese regiments. Westmoreland agreed, saying at a news conference that the Pleiku campaign had been an "unprecedented victory."

The efficacy of airmobility was, in fact, proved during the campaign. Because of the helicopter, Moore's 1st of the 7th Cavalry had dropped suddenly and unexpectedly out of the sky on 14 November, achieving surprise. And once the battle began, helicopters sustained the effort, bringing in supplies and reinforcements and evacuating the wounded.

The achievement at X-RAY and the survival of McDade's force at ALBANY also owed a great deal to firepower. Air strikes and artillery broke up enemy assaults and concentrations and probably killed as many or more North Vietnamese than did American troops on the ground. Here, too, the helicopter played a major role. Because no roads existed near the Chu Pong Massif, artillery and ammunition had to be lifted by helicopter to firebases within range of the battlefield. In addition, helicopter gunships were a constant element in the campaign.

But if helicopters were decisive, they also had weaknesses. Once Kinnard's combat elements became dependent on them for mobility and firepower, wear and tear on flying equipment, spare parts shortages, pilot fatigue, and massive fuel consumption became factors in the battle. Kinnard pointed out that his maintenance troops put more helicopters into operation than were removed during the campaign, but he had to admit that if the campaign had continued with the same intensity much longer, his ground crews would have fallen behind.

More fundamentally, however, the campaign raised questions about the airmobile division's staying power. The division had been hard put to sustain a single brigade in the western highlands at an acceptable level of activity, relying heavily on the Air Force to keep the troops supplied and the helicopters fueled. The Air Force's 2d Air Division in Saigon reported that during November, at the height of the campaign, it delivered a daily average of one hundred eighty-six tons of supplies to Kinnard's command, with 58 percent of the total being fuel. The effort represented 16 percent of the entire airlift work load expended in South Vietnam during the period and one-fourth of the flying time. While the effort continued, the backlog of cargo awaiting delivery to commands other than Kinnard's increased by 50 percent.

Beyond maintenance and logistics, questions also remained about the 1st Cavalry Division's performance in combat. If the presence of helicopters gave the unit outstanding mobility at the beginning of the operation, the circumstances changed at X-RAY and ALBANY once battle was joined. When heavy incoming fire kept helicopters from bringing in reinforcements or from moving troops to more defensible positions, the men in the Ia Drang Valley were on their own. Lacking the tanks, trucks, and other heavy equipment that made the job of infantrymen in standard divisions so much easier and safer, they lost many of the advantages U.S. forces usually had over the enemy and were essentially on par with the North Vietnamese, fighting as light infantry. The presence of massive air support and artillery was the only real edge they had, providing the margin between life and death. In this light, the future for airmobile operations was clear. As Kinnard stressed in his final assessment of the campaign, the support of the Air Force would be essential in almost every large operation that the 1st Cavalry Division undertook.

Firepower was indeed a crucial factor, but the fight at ALBANY demonstrated that the enemy was capable of countering even that advantage. When McDade declined Tully's offer of marching artillery support on his way into ALBANY, he appears to have assumed that fire would be available if needed. It was, but the enemy's tactics at ALBANY--staying close to the Americans--partially nullified its effect. At this juncture, the North Vietnamese had the advantage because they were fighting on their own terms in a place of their own choosing. Circumstances changed when the Americans solidified their positions, allowing commanders to use their fires to good effect. But it was a very near thing.

The strategic implications of the campaign were less clear. There was no evidence, then or later, that Hanoi had a plan to cut South Vietnam in two. However, it is likely that Kinnard's division slowed and then halted a North Vietnamese effort to dominate the highlands by overrunning Special Forces camps and, perhaps, even Pleiku City.

Attrition was another goal--on both sides. The North Vietnamese clearly hoped to take a heavy toll of Americans, while the 1st Cavalry Division wanted to find, fix, and destroy as many enemy units as possible. Overall, Kinnard's forces suffered 305 killed and 524 wounded during the campaign while killing, according to official records, 1,519 of the enemy by body count and another 2,042 by estimate. The figures for the enemy's losses in four of the five major engagements--at the enemy hospital on 1 November, at the ambush north of the Chu Pong on 3-4 November, at X-RAY, and at ALBANY--are nonetheless open to doubt. At X-RAY Colonel Moore recognized that estimates were almost never accurate and reduced the total of 834 killed submitted by his men to 634 because the former figure seemed too high. At ALBANY nothing resembling an organized and accurate body count took place. Anecdotal evidence obtained from Americans who participated in the battle strongly suggested that the enemy had suffered substantial losses, but that hardly justified the numbers General Kinnard cited for the action.

All in all, little time was spent on the ambiguities dogging the campaign. For MACV, the main conclusion seemed clear: American forces had killed hundreds of enemy and had won a victory in their first major fight against North Vietnamese regulars. If ALBANY had been a near disaster, X-RAY was the model of what a successful engagement should be in Vietnam. Whether or not President Johnson would allow hot pursuit into Cambodia, the way still seemed open to winning the war. . . .”

(Footnotes deleted.)