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Virginia Review of Asian Studies

Volume 16 (2014): 27-55



Head: Ia Drang Valley


A RE-ASSESSMENT OF THE BATTLE OF IA DRANG VALLEY, 1965: THE ROLE OF AIRPOWER, HEROIC SOLDIERS AND THE WRONG LESSONS
WILLIAM HEAD

78 ABW OFFICE OF HISTORY

ROBINS AFB
In 1993, prior to the actual release of the movie “We Were Soldiers” starring Mel Gibson, I was invited to a preview showing of the movie along with family and friends of many of the main characters in the movie, and the earlier book penned by Joe Galloway and Lt. Gen. Hal Moore. I sat near the middle of a very large theater with a group of colleagues and friends. Just before the movie began a man and woman sat down directly in front of me. I remember being grateful that she wasn’t too tall so I could see over her. At one of the more dramatic moments in the movie a significant player in the story was shot and killed boarding a helicopter. The woman in front of me gasp and began to sob uncontrollably. I discovered later that the person who was shot was the actor playing her father. I also remember as we left the 200 people that left with me never said a word. They were overcome with emotion.
As poignant and impressive as the film and book from which it came were, it was only part of a much larger story. Naturally, Moore and Galloway wrote about what they knew and had experienced and that was the combat at Landing Zone (LZ) X-Ray. There were, in fact, other aspects of the much larger military campaign that began after a Viet Cong (VC) attack on the U.S. Army Special Forces camp at Plei Me in late October and ended on 28 November 1965. The operation was designated Silver Bayonet and it included most of the troops in the 1st Cavalry Division as well as a sustained airpower effort and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN/South Vietnamese Army) forces. It also involved an entire division of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars.1
While this article examines the more well-known combat at LZ X-Ray, it also discusses the ambush at LZ Albany, the massive use of airpower to save U.S. forces on the ground and the misinterpretation of events by senior U.S. leadership. It also examines the significance of the Battle of Ia Drang Valley and why it was a turning point in the war. In a February 2009 CBS News report, correspondent Mary-Jayne McKay, opened by saying, “Of all the battles fought in Vietnam, the one fought in the Ia Drang River Valley in 1965 stands out as a pivotal moment that may have helped escalate the American involvement in that war.”2 Of this there can be no doubt. However, there were other reasons the battle was significant and compelling.
Where Do We Start?
From the time the first reports reached the United States mass media outlets in November 1965 and the public began to see and hear about a battle in the Ia Drang Valley, the name has caused a strong reaction, especially from those who experienced the bloodletting between the U.S. Army and the NVA. Even so, the battles during the Tet Offensive and for Khe Sanh a little more than two years later were more costly and had more impact on the direct outcome of the conflict. Perhaps it is because many people then, and now, have argued that the key to a military victory in the Second Indochina War was the control of the Central Highlands in what was then the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). If so, then this was only the first of many struggles between these skilled opponents in this part of Indochina.
The Battle of Ia Drang Valley was certainly the first of its kind. It was the first time U.S. Army units and regulars from the People Army of Vietnam (PAVN) fought each other in a set piece battle. It was in most respects a conventional engagement unlike the guerilla or low intensity conflict that had previously been the norm in Vietnam. The outcome resulted in deluding Gen. William Westmoreland, Commander, Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) into believing he had found a tactical imperative that would result in victory. Thus, he planned to search out enemy forces, engage them in open combat and kill large numbers with America’s superior firepower and technology. This, he was certain, would force them to eventually relent and sue for peace. In hindsight it would prove to be a substantially flawed concept and one that would eventually lead to defeat.
There was another first that took place in this operation. While B-52 ARC LIGHT bombing raids had been taking place since 27 July 1965, it was the first time they had flown support strikes for ground forces in a major land battle, not just in Vietnam, but ever. Besides, the big bombers, propeller driven, and jet fighter aircraft, flare ships, transports, and observation aircraft proved to be critical in the salvation of their brothers on the ground at both LZs X-Ray and Albany. General Moore and Joe Galloway were not part of the ambush at LZ Albany or the B-52 raid and so the role of airpower is not covered in much detail in their book. Yet, in the first extended news story about the battle, CBS News correspondent Morley Safer reported in his documentary on the Battle of Ia Drang Valley that air strikes had kept the men on the ground alive. For this reason this article seeks to explore not only the role of airpower, but the engagement at LZ Albany which could have, and should have, provided a logical argument for ending the U.S. military presence in Vietnam.3
Background
The Ia Drang Valley is a valley located about 32 miles southwest of Pleiku in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The word “ia” comes from the “Montagnard” or Người Thượng, people’s word for “river” (River Drang). While this region of Vietnam was strategically important throughout the history of mainland Southeast Asia, especially in the First Indochina War, the valley itself remained anonymous to most Americans prior to 14 November 1965.

On the morning of 14 November 1965, 43-year old West Point graduate (class of 1945) Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore from Bardstown, Kentucky, received orders to take his 457 men of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry (1th/7th) into the valley on an air mobility search and destroy mission against what American intelligence reported to be a regiment of irregular enemy troops. As it turned out, Moore was leading his men into a hornet’s nest. Later analysis determined that the enemy had the equivalent of a division of their best light infantry waiting to annihilate the Americans. Moore’s 1st Battalion was supposed to have 765 troopers. Due to illness (mostly from malaria) and end-of-tour departures they were well short of this actual number.4





Lt. Col. Hal Moore at the Battle of Ia Drang Valley
Prior to the insertion of his forces, Moore made an aerial reconnaissance of the area, deciding to land his men in a football-sized clearing at the foot of the Chu Pong Massif, a 2,400-foot hill that stretched just beyond the Cambodian border. His troopers were flown in on UH-1 helicopters and deposited at what became known as LZ X-Ray. Requiring numerous sorties to bring in the entire battalion, not all of Moore’s men had arrived, when just after noon, NVA units struck. This phase of Operation Silver Bayonet would continue here and across the valley between these and other units on both sides for the next four days. Afterwards, senior leaders on both sides declared victory. Those who fought and died did not see it that way. Recalling their comrades bleeding and dying all around them, the words that came to their mind were tragic and terrible. It was an experience that would haunt their dreams for the rest of their lives.
It was the deepest penetration American forces had ever made into the communist held jungles of the Central Highlands. It was here that the Drang River flowed into Cambodia, made a dramatic turn, ran into the Mekong River, and rushed back into Vietnam far to the south. The sweeping Ia Drang Valley or the “valley of death,” as the French called it, was 17 miles from a lone red-clay road that traversed to Plei Me. In the aftermath of the upcoming battle, the U.S. death toll at LZs X-Ray and, later, Albany would shake the government of President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) as well as American military establishment to its very core. The Americans had lost relatively few soldiers up to that point in the war. At Ia Drang casualty numbers shocked the American public out of their apathy over this little war half way around the world. From the moment it began leaders on both sides realized that the war had taken a dramatic turn.5

While Moore’s role in the engagement has been well documented in word and on film, it should be noted that almost all of the 3d Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division were involved. These included the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 7th Cavalry Regiment as well as the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment. Facing them were 2,000 to 2,400 troops of the PAVN B3 Front, 304th Division and some of the best VC available. In addition, to the ground engagement, the battle would witness intense close air support (CAS) by U.S. airpower including a bombing strike by B-52 heavy bombers. The first NVA attacks came against Moore’s forces at LZ X-Ray. They were beaten back after three days and two nights of heavy fighting. However, the ensuing NVA ambush of the 2nd/7th Cavalry, on 17 November, became one of the worse disasters in U.S. Army history. Roughly 60 percent of the 250 Americans killed in action (KIA) during the 35 days of Operation Silver Bayonet died in one day during this second action.6 Had it not been for air strikes, artillery barrages and ground reinforcements the result might have been more like the U.S. defeat at Little Big Horn in 1876 or the British annihilation at Isandlwana in 1879.


How Did It Come to This?
Prior to the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, the Republic of Vietnam (South) had experienced several military and political setbacks. In spite of increased material support by the U.S., the ARVN refused to risk its forces in open combat against the military forces of Communist National Liberation Front (NLF) or VC. South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, maintained a tight control over ARVN forces, most of which were led by Buddhists. This allowed the VC to buildup, train and supply their forces in relative peace. This and other issues led the U.S. to secretly seek an alternative to Diem.
One of the biggest issues facing Diem he brought on himself with his heavy-handed treatment of South Vietnamese Buddhists. This on top of his disagreements with the U.S. on how to conduct the anti-Communist war, created a volatile situation. On 20 August 1963, Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, head of South Vietnamese security forces raided the Xá Lợi pagoda in Saigon dressed in ARVN uniforms. They took 400 monks into custody in Saigon and thousands of others throughout the country. Afterwards, Diem asked to discuss the situation with U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Lodge refused. Having discovered that ARVN generals led by General Duong Van Minh and backed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were planning a coup, Lodge assured the rebel officers the U.S. would not interfere.7
On 1 November 1963, the conspirators overthrew the government promising to allow Diem to go into exile. However, he escaped through an underground passage only to be captured the next morning. Under orders by General Minh, Captain Nguyen Van Nhung murdered both Diem and his brother Nhu in the back of an armored personnel carrier. The former President was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery next to the house of the U.S. ambassador.8
Ultimately, the action proved to be a mistake since the South Vietnamese were never able to build a strong or stable government again. The Communists were delighted. Ho Chi Minh supposedly remarked, “I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid.”9
Less than a month later, on 22 November 1963, President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Leadership passed to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. From the outset, Johnson and his advisers concluded that only an intervention by the U.S. could bring the conflict in South Vietnam to a successful conclusion. On 2 August 1964, the American destroyer USS Maddox received fire from three North Vietnamese gunboats in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. On 7 August, the President took advantage of what later proved to be a false report, to ram through Congress the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It gave Johnson free rein to send U.S. troops into South Vietnam in large numbers.10
By early 1965, MACV commander General William Westmoreland had received assurances of receiving in excess of 300,000 U.S. regulars. As they arrived during the spring and summer he moved them into place in preparation for combat operations in Vietnam rather than continue to rely only on the ARVN. Concurrently, Hanoi had begun sending hundreds of thousands of its own regular forces south to support the VC. One of the main places they sent their best troops was to the Central Highlands northeast of Saigon. It was here that Westmoreland determined to test his new air mobile units of 1st Cavalry Division. Incorporating their UH-1 “Huey” helicopters, the General believed his new troops could be swiftly airlifted into hot combat sites throughout the region, thus overcoming the rugged terrain.
In October, the enemy launched what seemed to be a typical, and unsuccessful, attack on the Army Special Forces camp at Plei Me. The ease with which the enemy was beaten back and their swift retreat should have alerted the U.S. to the fact that something was afoot but that fact was only partially considered. Instead, Westmoreland ordered Col. Thomas Brown, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, to move his forces from Pleiku and find, engage and destroy the enemy. While Brown did not locate the Communist attackers, Westmoreland instructed him to continue towards the Cambodian border. As he drew near the border he received word that there was a group of enemy troops near the Chu Pong Mountains. It was at this point in early November that Brown instructed Moore to conduct a reconnaissance in force with his men from the 1st/7th. It was this action that initiated the Battle of Ia Drang Valley.11
Prior to their deployment to Vietnam all the new units had their designations changed. In what seemed to be a supreme irony to Moore, his unit now held the same 1st Battalion/7th Cavalry designation as George Armstrong Custer. They were also about to go into what the French called the “valley of death.” His men understood the situation and affectionately called Moore “Old Yellow Hair.” Throughout his tour, Moore was constantly aware of the dubious honor of following in the footsteps of the men who had died at the Battle of Little Bighorn. In this regard, Moore was determined that he would not have his men massacred so he read as much as he could about infantry tactics in circumstances similar to the ones he faced in Vietnam and, more importantly, he studied French reports of their experiences against this same foe. Then again, he was painfully aware that he could only control his own actions. If his superiors set him up to fail, he might indeed be leading his men into another Custer-style defeat. As it turned out it was not the 1st/7th but their comrades in the 2nd/7th that would suffer annihilation.12
Brown directed Moore not to climb the nearby mountains, but instead to land in one of several potential landing areas, specifically LZ X-Ray, Albany, Columbus, Tango, Yankee, Whiskey or Victor. Moore selected X-Ray which was a flat clear area surrounded by low trees near the base of Chu Pong Massif, bordered by a dry creek bed to the west and the Ia Drang River about a mile to the northwest. He was to receive artillery support from firebase (FB) Falcon about four miles to the northeast. The LZ was just large enough for eight to ten Hueys to land at one time. As was normal for that time, the 1st/7th had three rifle companies, Alpha, Bravo and Charlie and a heavy weapons company, Delta. As the operation began, they had 457 troopers and 16 helicopters to transport them into battle with each carrying 10 to 12 men. This meant that they could airlift about one full company with each trip taking 30 minutes. As the operation began, Moore led Bravo Company in first along with his command team. They were followed by Alpha, Charlie and Delta companies. The initial plan was to move Companies B and A to the northwest beyond the creek bed and C Company south toward the mountain. Company D, with its mortars and heavy machine guns was to act as a battlefield reserve. Moore’s command post was at the center of the LZ near a six-foot tall termite hill.13

The Battle Begins
Action on the 14th began at 1017 hours with a 30-minute artillery barrage and air strikes. At 1048 hours, Bravo Company led by Captain John Herren touched down at LZ X-Ray. He was accompanied by Moore and his command group, which included World War II and Korean War veteran Sargent Major Basil L. Plumley (1920-2012). Known as “Old Iron Jaw” he proved to be one of the most important leaders during the battle. It is important to understand that the entire brigade was made up mostly of young troopers, the vast majority of whom had not seen combat. The steady hand of veterans like Plumley and others proved critical to the survival of the unit. By the same token, the bravery of these men must also be recognized. At first, this group stayed near the center of the LZ, while smaller units were sent out to reconnoiter the surrounding area.
Col. Moore was agonizingly aware that when he landed he had only 90 men with which to hold the LZ and that it was a 34-mile roundtrip. Luck was with him that day. It needed to be since just minutes after they arrived, a squad under Sgt. John Mingo captured an unarmed prisoner from the 33rd PAVN Regiment. The frightened private told them that there were three regiments on the mountain anxious to kill as many Americans as possible. This news sent chills down everyone’s back. Fortunately, within an hour the second group arrived and still the enemy had not attacked. Before they did Moore would have enough men to hold the LZ; for now.


The first units of Bravo Company, 1/7 Cavalry unloads at LZ X-Ray

What Moore did not know was that the NVA had 2,000 to 2,400 troops nearby under the expert command of veteran Lt. Col. Nguyen Huu An. They also had built a series of interconnecting underground tunnels and rooms that allowed them to pop out in force at various spots all around LZ X-Ray. These troops were well trained, well-armed, dedicated to their cause, and anxious to prove their ability to their new enemy. In addition, Col. An had brought with him a new tactic described as grabbing hold of the enemy’s belt buckle. This entailed getting so close to the Americans that they would not dare employ their artillery or air strikes for fear of hitting their own men. It was a tactic that had some success, but not as much as expected, mainly due the precision of U.S. artillery and especially close air support.14




Col. (later Lt. Gen.) Nguyen Huu An commander of NVA forces at Ia Drang.
As noted, at 1120 hours, the second airlift set down bringing the remainder of Bravo Company and one platoon of Alpha Company, commanded by Captain Tony Nadal. Fifty minutes later, the third group arrived, consisting of most of Alpha Company. They immediately moved into position at the rear and left flank of Bravo along the dry creek bed and to the west and to the south facing perpendicular down the creek bed.15



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