The Siege of Plei Mei: Visiting a Vietnam War Battlefield (1)
Above Photo: Plei Mei in 1968-1969 (Google Earth image)
On a recent BACK-related research trip to Vietnam, I headed down the remote (sometimes off-limits and more often inaccessible) spine of the Central Highlands, very close to the Laotian border.
This was because I wanted to see some Vietnam War sights and sites, and to also re-explore the area where my novel and screenplay for BACK is set – close to the Vietnamese-Laotian border and the tri-border jungles of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
One of the places I visited on the trip was Plei Mei Special Forces camp, where I found many relics from the vicious battle that had raged there, which I’ll write about in Part 2 of this article.
In the Part 1, I thought I’d review Plei Mei’s Vietnam War history, accompanied by some superb original photography of the siege, the camp and of operations in the surrounding area after the siege had been lifted back in 1965.
In 1965, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) apparently wanted to assess the capabilities of the US Air Cavalry, so they decided to attack and besiege Plei Mei camp, planning to then launch an ambush on vehicles and men sent to break the siege, which would also serve to draw the US Air Cavalry into a fight.
Triangular-shaped Plei Mei, located 40Km from Pleiku, was a windswept, red dust-covered remote Special Forces outpost surrounded by thick bush.
On the night of October 19th 1965, what is often seen as a major turning point in the Vietnam War took place when the NVA attacked the camp. Until then the NVA had not stood and fought in a major battle; instead preferring hit and run tactics. At the time of the attack the camp was defended by only eight US soldiers and 250 Montagnard tribesmen.
The NVA first attacked a patrol, then a nearby outpost, killing 20 or more men, then at 11 p.m. the assault on the main camp began.
Capt. Harold Moore, commander of the Special Forces unit at the camp, said in an interview with Stars and Stripes (which I base the below account on): “First came the mortars and the 75mm recoilless rifle fire. Most of our casualties inside the camp came within the first few minutes.”
The NVA kept up the assault all night, unsuccessfully attempting to blow open the main gate.
The first air strikes went in at 1:30 a.m. blasting targets right up to the perimeter wire of the camp as flare planes illuminated the area. Before the week-long siege had ended, there’d been 585 air strikes and the camp and surrounding area resembled a World War 1 battlefield.
Firing from holes dug earlier, the NVA returned the machine-gun fire from US planes, including Skyraiders, throughout the night.
Moore admits that he had little hope of surviving that first night. Some 1,000 NVA were pressing the attack and bodies were stacking up along the wire. Planes reported the surrounding hills swarming with enemy troops.
“Our men fired until the barrels burned out on the machine guns and the bullets were tumbling out. Some of the machine guns got so hot they started runaway firing.”
By good fortune the Americans escaped injury the first night, but shortly after sunrise a helicopter crashed 500 yards from the camp. Moore decided to take out a small patrol to attempt a rescue of the chopper crew.
With him were Sgt. Daniel Shea and SFC Joseph Bailey, plus 10 Montagnard troops.
Shea recalls, “We got out of the gate OK and turned right toward the airstrip. Just before we started to cross it, they opened up with machine guns from hidden bunkers dead ahead of us.”
Bailey was killed and Shea was hit in the arm before the patrol could get back into camp.
“We thought the VC would leave during the day, but they didn’t — the fighting continued heavy through the afternoon,” Moore added.
The first reinforcements came when 12 Americans and 250 Vietnamese Rangers were dropped at the camp and quickly joined in the fighting. Supplies were also air-dropped into the camp (Some of the air drops landed outside the camp, while two defenders were killed when a pallet of supplies fell on them inside Plei Mei.)
In addition, an 85-man patrol out on a six-day swing through Viet Cong territory learned of the assault and fought their way back into the camp despite a warning to stay clear.
The armored relief column coming from Pleiku — 25 miles to the north — was hit by Viet Cong firing from fixed positions along the dirt roadway, but instead of pressing forward as expected, the column spun around and withdrew in the direction it came until the attack was broken off. Then they moved forward again.
On the third morning after the attack a combined force of 250 men went out of the camp to take on the VC in their own territory. An American captain was killed and another was injured, but the patrol accounted for some 35 of the enemy.
The next morning another patrol led by Special Forces advisers went out.
“Our training is to do the unexpected, so instead of staying behind the barricades, we moved out,” Moore explained.
By this time Moore and his men had been four days without sleep.
“One man went to sleep while firing his mortar. I went over and found him leaning against the barrel.”
Moore’s luck also ran out during the fourth day.
“I was listening to President Johnson on the radio when I got hit by shrapnel. They gave me a shot of morphine and that was all for one.”
Today the Plei Me area is quiet again. Moore and Shea have recovered from their wounds and continue to man the outpost.
Around the camp the scars are rapidly disappearing into the underbrush. An occasional body can be found with the skull staring up into the sun, and the fields are littered with live shells and unexploded mortar rounds. Scraps of metal from the napalm bombs still hang in the outer wire.
Where the Montagnard village once stood at the entrance to the camp, now only black ashes remain. The families have all moved inside and live in bunkers along the defensive line.
The small souvenir American flag that was hoisted by the men during the battle is gone. It. went to the wife of Sgt. Bailey.
Moore and Shea feel the camp will be attacked again one of these days. They feel the Viet Cong needs a victory to offset the battering defeat they received the first time.
Nor do Moore and his men feel their position is too strong to be taken.
“Any point can be taken if the enemy is willing to pay the price,” he added.
During the battle, a Skyraider pilot, Captain Melvin C Elliott was shot down while strafing the area around the camp. After evading the NVA for 36 hours, Elliott was rescued by helicopter.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
The full Stars and Stripes article is here: http://www.stripes.com/news/plei-me-fight-stands-as-war-turning-point-1.37008
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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