The Battle of Ia Drang
The war in Southeast Asia between the United States and the government of North Viet Nam was a tragic time for many loyal Americans. For those Americans who showed disdain and scorn for their nation’s brave men and women, it was a time of righteous indignation. For many others it was simply an act of obedience to the laws of the land. This is the story of a group of brave Americans who fought one of the most horrific battles of the war in Viet Nam.
They were led into battle by Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore (later to be promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General). I became friends with Gen. Moore after his book, “We were Soldiers Once…and Young — Ia Drang – The Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam” (1992), was published.
I have had great interest in the battle ever since reading that book and I was totally impressed by his command persona and his love for his troops. His respect for his enemy also exhibited his knowledge of warfare in general.
I’ve written this article as an insight into his legacy and out of my admiration for him as a true soldier’s soldier. This November marks the 50th anniversary of Ia Drang, one of the fiercest battles fought during the Viet Nam War.
The battle of Ia Drang began on 14 Nov 65, as American troops began landing from helicopters into the valley. It was also the first time American and Viet Minh troops fought a major battle. The battle also paved the way for the United States to be-come more involved in a war that had been going on for many years with no real successful outcome for any of the parties involved. The French were forced to abandon their efforts to bring the Viet Minh under their control and, years later, the United States realized the futility of any type of victory is this war-torn land, leaving the Vietnamese to their own devices.
In many ways we truly never understood their mentality and many of us never understood our interest in this nation that pro-vided only death and destruction to anyone who actually tried to interfere, no matter how honorable their intentions.
In 1965, General William Westmoreland, commander of the Military Assistance Command, Viet Nam, decided it was time to begin using American troops for combat operations in Viet Nam rather than solely relying on the forces of the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN). The South Vietnamese Army never really seemed capable of achieving the progress that was necessary to defeat the armies of the north and who, in most cases, seemed indifferent to the outcome.
With National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) and People’s Army of Viet Nam (PAVN) forces operating in the Central High-lands northeast of Saigon, Westmoreland elected to debut the new air mobile 1st Cavalry Division. The 1st of the 7th was a highly-trained and well-equipped battalion and General Westmoreland believed its helicopters would allow it to overcome the region’s rugged terrain.
In October ’65 the North Vietnamese attacked the Special Forces camp at Plei Me but were defeated in their attempt. Many military historians believed this attack to be a ruse, as the Viet Minh were planning a campaign to slice South Viet Nam in half by taking control of the Central Highlands. Whatever their plans originally were, they would be placed on hold. Colonel Tho-mas Brown, Commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, was instructed to move from Pleiku to seek and destroy the enemy.
Arriving in the area, the 3rd Brigade was unable to find the attackers, something that would plague the American military throughout its involvement in the war. Ordered by Westmoreland to press toward the Cambodian border, Brown learned of an enemy concentration near the Chu Pong Mountain range. Acting on this intelligence, though the actual strength of the enemy in the area was never confirmed, he directed the 1st Battalion/7th Cavalry, led by Lt. Col. Hal Moore, to conduct a reconnaissance in force in the area of Chu Pong. Actually, he was ordered to “find the enemy and kill him.”
Lt. Col. Moore was a true leader. He did not expect his men to do anything that he would not do. He was an experienced combat officer and knew too well the dangers combat posed to those who were sent into it. He was a man who truly loved his soldiers and also knew never to underestimate his enemy. He led from the front and fought the enemy, as his men did, face to face. Assessing several landing zones, he chose LZ X-Ray near the base of the Chu Pong Massif.
Roughly the size of a football field, X-Ray was surrounded by low trees and bordered by a dry creek bed to the west. The clearing was also the home of an entire North Vietnamese combat division eager to kill Americans. Due to the relatively small size of the LZ, the transport of the 1st/7th’s four companies would have to be conducted in several lifts. He knew the danger that this type of intermittent transporting would hold, but he also knew his men were well trained and not easily rattled.
The first of these touched down at 1048 hours on 14 Nov and consisted of Captain John Herren’s Bravo Co. and Moore’s command group. Departing, the helicopters began shuttling the rest of the battalion to X-Ray with each trip taking around 30 minutes.
Initially holding his forces in the LZ, Moore began sending out patrols while waiting for more men to arrive. As he himself admitted, things were too quiet and that, especially, made him wary of the situation. At 1215 hours, the enemy was first encountered northwest of the creek bed. Shortly thereafter, Herren ordered his 1st and 2nd Platoons to advance in that direction. Encountering heavy enemy resistance, the 1st was halted, though the 2nd pushed on and pursued an enemy squad. In the process, the platoon, led by Lt. Henry Herrick, became separated and was soon surrounded by North Vietnamese forces.
In the firefight that ensued, Herrick was killed and effective command was taken over by Sgt. Ernie Savage. Sgt. Savage would then be called upon to prove the enemy’s theory incorrect.
They believed that by fighting the Americans at close range they would limit their ability to use artillery, but Sgt. Savage used artillery at close range so effectively he was able to hold their attacks back and prevent his men from being annihilated.
As the battle progressed, Moore’s men successfully defended the creek bed and repelled assaults from the south while awaiting the arrival of the remainder of the battalion. By 1520 hours, the last of the battalion arrived and Moore established a 360-degree perimeter around X-Ray. He wanted, very badly, to rescue Ernie Savage and the lost platoon; Moore sent forward Alpha and Bravo Companies at 1545 hours. This effort succeeded in advancing about 75 yards from the creek bed before en-emy fire brought it to a halt.
In the attack, Lt. Walter Marm single-handedly captured an enemy machine gun position. He would prove to be one of the many heroes of this battle and he was later awarded the Medal of Honor for this action.
Around 1700 hours, Moore was reinforced by the lead elements of Bravo Company/2nd/7th. While the Americans dug in for the night, the North Vietnamese probed their lines and conducted three assaults against the lost platoon. Though under heavy pressure, Savage’s men turned these back using artillery to their advantage. At 0620 hours on 15 November, the North Vietnamese mounted a major attack against Charlie Company’s section of the perimeter.
Calling in fire support, the hard-pressed Americans turned back the attack but took significant losses in the process. At 0745 hours, the enemy began a three-pronged assault on Moore’s position. They were intent on perpetrating a massacre and used all means available to them.
With the fighting intensifying and Charlie Company’s line wavering, heavy air support was called in to halt the North Vietnamese advance. At 0910, additional reinforcements arrived from the 2nd/7th and began reinforcing Charlie Company’s lines.
By 1000 hours the North Vietnamese began withdrawing. With fighting raging at X-Ray, Brown dispatched Lt. Col. Bob Tully’s 2nd/5th to LZ Victor approximately 2.2 miles east-southeast.
Moving overland, they reached X-Ray at 1205 hours, augmenting Moore’s force. Pushing out of the perimeter, Moore and Tully succeeded in rescuing the lost platoon that afternoon. That night, North Vietnamese forces harassed the American lines and on the morning of 16 November they launched a major assault around 0400. With the aid of well-directed artillery, four assaults were repelled and by mid-morning, the remainder of the 2nd/7th and 2nd/5th arrived at X-Ray.
With more Americans on the field in strength and having taken massive losses, something they were not accustomed to up to this point, the North Vietnamese began withdrawing.
That afternoon, Moore’s command departed the field after 48 hours of fierce fighting. The Americans, led by Col. Moore, fought bravely and defeated an enemy who outnumbered them; they also fought with great personal courage and valor.
This battle, although a victory for the 7th, began a series of events that would plague the U.S. effort for many years. Because of the nature of the war, itself, victory could never be defined by territory acquired.
Many times, as the U.S. troops were being withdrawn, the enemy could be seen moving back into the positions that had been so hard to obtain. This was the first major battle that involved U.S. ground forces; Ia Drang saw them suffer 79 killed and 121 wounded at X-Ray. Estimates for North Vietnamese losses were placed at 634 confirmed kills and over 1,215 esti-mated killed and wounded at X-Ray.
For his actions in leading the defense of X-Ray, Moore was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and the men of the First Air Calvary epitomized the title “Warrior” and “Men of Honor.”