|War and peace: The veterans of three regiments that fought in the Pleime campaign, the main battle of which was in la Drang Valley. The woman is Lady Borton, an American reporter. — VNS Photo Luu Phuong Binh
December 22 marks the birth anniversary of Viet Nam's People's Army. Veteran Lê Đỗ Huy reflects on the meeting of the veterans of the Ia Drang Battle, which was the first major battlefield success of the Vietnamese army over the much stronger and better-equipped American army in Pleime, Central Highlands.
In November 2015, I had the honour, once again, of being invited to a meeting of veterans who fought in the siege of Pleime. That operation had lasted a month and had set the stage for the battle of Ia Drang (November 14 to 18, 1965).
Sitting on the last desk, I began an imaginary "roll call" of a unit whose strength has been reducing each day. But at a battle anniversary being attended by veterans of the Indochina wars, one must be ready in case one misses someone.
There is still hope that the Liaison Committee has found some more veterans living in remote areas. Sometimes, several veterans come together to cover the costs of a brother soldier, whose financial constraints prevented him from attending previous meetings.
Now, the number of those left from the three regiments that served at the Central Highland's Front 50 years ago no longer fills a high school classroom.
I did not see Nguyễn Văn Nhậm, who was born in a suburb of Hà Nội. As war raged, he carried a DKZ recoilless gun's shell during the thousand-mile march on foot from the North, but after he fired it at the American Pleime camp water tower, he ran out of "capital" to do that job and became an infantryman instead.
Today, one can find reports that expose the horrors of the war in the archives of the B3 Front (B3 was code for the Central Highlands).
In one company or the other, in this or that month, four soldiers died in action, but eight died from jungle diseases such as malaria. It is an unimaginable situation for those who have never been to war, but the veterans say this was often the case during their hard years in the Central Highland Front.
At the previous reunion, often chatting with the lightheartedness of a child, Nguyen Van Nham had suddenly lowered his voice and told me that he had a serious illness. Now he has faded away, in keeping with the English saying, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."
The soldiers who survived battles don't die. Rather, the souls of their brother soldiers who died young in battle come and take them away from this world.
At the November meeting, a wave of appreciation swept the room as General Huỳnh Đắc Hương, who was political commissar for the Pleime siege, took the floor. He recounted how the battle itself was one fight, and hunger was another. Those days they even had to eat manioc, which was so hard it seemed to have come from the anti-French days that had ended in 1954. The manioc bulbs were like wood. As a young boy, I lived close to Gen Hương's house in Hà Nội.
I remember that after completing his training in the former Soviet Union, Hương was sent to the "B" battlefield (South Việt Nam). It is hard for him to tell the difference between the rich lunch in a Soviet Academy and the "rice ball" flavoured with salt.
Deeply discontented with the corrupted cadres today, Gen Hương said, "Brothers, we shed our blood, but now there are many evil-doers."
Nguyễn Đồng Thoại, one of two staff officers at the Ia Drang Battle, introduced the epoch that began with Ia Drang in 1965 and today's "new game" that began with Việt Nam signing the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership).
In 1965, Việt Nam was two technology generations behind the US. Việt Nam was monocultural, when the Americans' white collars outnumbered the blue ones, but we still won. Today, the US is one of the locomotives of the knowledge economy, while Việt Nam is bogged down in small industries.
Who could estimate the loss those "corrupted cadres" inflicted on the economy and the material and spiritual life of my compatriots, I wondered.
Gen Thoại said Việt Nam's troops at Ia Drang had just arrived from the North, and yet they managed to win that initial encounter with the US Army's "First Team". This was thanks to good NVA training and great determination. The Ia Drang Battle was a mere moment in the ‘Ten Thousand Day' war, but it was a minute that made history.
I thought of Gen Đặng Vũ Hiệp's recollections in Christian Appy's book entitled Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides: "With all those choppers they seemed terribly strong."
I remembered how, several years ago, the NVA veterans from that battle said the Huey HU – 1B crowded the sky over Ia Drang Valley like swarms of bees.
Hiệp was responsible for the political section for the unit commanded by Nguyễn Hữu An during the Ia Drang Battle. Both he and General An have "faded away".
The McNamara war displayed new tactics (such as "spoiling attack," a manoeuvre designed to deter the attacking army while it regrouped for an attack), which the elite Air Calvary first used in Ia Drang.
McNamara quickly withdrew his decision for joint warfare (local war in the parlance of the day) after the Ia Drang confrontation, where his large American combat forces fought two NVA light — infantry battalions.
Recently, armchairgeneral.com/ forums led an Internet discussion group with this quote: "The bloody 1965 Ia Drang campaign unveiled stunning air mobility tactics, breathed new life into the American attrition strategy and convinced Hồ Chi Minh, General Võ Nguyên Giáp and Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara that the US could never win."
While I was at the November reunion in Hà Nội, a member of the Liaison Committee waved to me. This was Đinh Quốc Kỳ, who had seen the end of the war while serving at Camp Davis, Sài Gin, in 1975. Đinh Quốc Kỳ was a member of the Four-Party Joint Military Commission, which was quite a different front for a soldier compared to that of the Pleime siege 10 years earlier. Indeed, Kỳ fought his 10-year war in the South. He did have a chance to see his homeland during that time, but for only two hours. This was during a mission to Hà Nội of the Four-Party Joint Military Commission, while Kỳ was flying in an American Army plane!
Kỳ showed me "the newcomers". These veterans had come from Thanh Hia Province, a land rich in military exploits. I looked at these tall, handsome men, remembering the words of Joseph Galloway, an American reporter, who witnessed the Ia Drang battle: "Their [DRV] peasant soldiers had withstood the hi-tech firestorm thrown at them by a superpower…"
The NVA veterans seemed ready to rush back home to till their fields. It seemed as if they had not aged, though 50 years had passed.
The After Action Report on Ia Drang Valley Operation by the commander of 1/7 United States Air Calvary says in part:
"[The enemy] appeared to be well-trained. He was aggressive… He carried a softball-sized wad of cooked rice, most of them carried a bed roll consisting of a piece of waterproof plastic and a hammock. His weapons were well maintained...."
What is the difference between the Vietnamese today and those "peasant boys," I asked myself, as the veterans continued to share their concern about modern-day "corrupted cadres (officers)". Surely, one powerful advantage of the NVA soldiers at Pleime — Ia Drang was a stainless and strong rear, the Democratic Republic of Việt Nam.
The veterans pointed out another factor that had brought them victory. This is the belief in justice and a moral code. Armed with light weapons, the Ia Drang soldiers succeeded in confronting the modern American military machine. They believed in "the just cause". That term appears often in books published in the United States about Việt Nam's soldiers. In Inside the VC and the NVA the real story of North Armed Forces, authors Michael Laning and Dan Cragg write, "They sacrificed in the belief that their cause was just and that someday they would return home to enjoy peace with their family.…"
I wonder to what extent the "corrupted officers" have damaged our belief in justice and a moral code.
Today, "corrupted cadres" must be haunted by those determined to continue the struggle for a just cause. Word such as "dedicated", "tenacious", "supremely resourceful" and "well motivated", besides "impressively patient" — terms the American veterans used to portrait their enemy in the past — are needed for the Vietnamese to operate in the market within TPP conditions.
Writing in Inside the VC and the NVA the real story of North Armed Forces, veteran Sedgwick Tourison pointed out that during his second tour in South Viet Nam, he faced the regular PAVN ("NVA") troops at the Battle of Pleime "as the first generation of the North that had been educated and raised" under the new regime. That generation grew up when "Uncle Hồ's Era", as my parents called it, was at its peak.
I agree with Tourison that "morality and discipline within the NVA ranks … were not simply a reflection of Communist ideology." That same point applies to many of us over the age of 50, for we were raised and educated under the influence of the democratic republic's values.
I wish the Vietnamese generation entering the "new game" of the TPP would arm itself with the values of the democratic republic of Hồ Chi Minh's era. — VNS