There have been thousands upon thousands of battles and scrimmages fought by Americans since coming to the New World. Combat veterans will tell you each is important, but there are those battles that have a greater impact, often changing the nature of the conflict or even the defining moment in who wins and who loses the war. In this issue, we begin with the four-day Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.
Along the Cambodia border in the Central Highlands, roughly 35 miles southwest of Pleiku sits the Chu Pong Massif, a 2,401-foot-high piece of ground that stretches to the Cambodian border and beyond for several miles. The impenetrable rain forests covering the high ground gives way to thick jungle on the flat lands where there are open spaces with small strands of scrubby trees and large patches of razor-sharp elephant grass. So inaccessible is the region, neither French forces, South Vietnamese Army, nor the newly arrived American combat troops had ever been there. The area also belongs to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. It was into this enemy sanctuary that a lone, understrength battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) made a helicopter combat assault.
Lt. Col. Hal Moore, commander of the 450-man 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, was chosen to make the combat assault. Several days before the airlift was to take place, he and members of his staff made a cautious aerial reconnaissance by helicopter to check over the area and to locate a suitable landing zone. Moore selected a football field-sized clearing at the base of Chu Pong Massif. American intelligence said the area was home to possibly an enemy regiment. In fact, there were three North Vietnamese Army regiments within an easy walk of that clearing.
On the morning of November 14, 1965, Moore’s Battalion landed in LZ X-Ray without a hitch. That changes around noon when the North Vietnamese 33rd Regiment attacked. The bitter fighting continued all day and into the night with the enemy relentlessly making assault after assault. Only through carefully placed massive fire support from nearby artillery and tactical air strikes outside the perimeter where they stopped, but casualties mounted on both sides.
No question, the North Vietnamese forces had succeeded in engaging the U.S. forces in very tight quarters, knowing supporting U.S. firepower could only be used well outside the perimeter so as not to endanger American lives. The cavalrymen returned fire, but the Communists were fighting from prepared fighting positions, and many of the American leaders had been felled in the initial stages of the ambush.
As night fell, the cavalrymen waited for the North Vietnamese to attack, but illumination flares provided by Air Force aircraft made the enemy cautious. At daybreak, the North Vietnamese 66th Regiment joined the 33rd Regiment in the attack against the Americans. Again, tactical air strikes and well-placed artillery took a toll on the enemy allowing the U.S. troops to hold out against repeated assaults.
The battle lasted for three days and two nights before the North Vietnamese vanished into the tangle of brush and elephant grass, leaving a large circle of their dead scattered around the American position.
The smell of rotting corpses hung heavy over X-Ray. With the arrival on foot of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry commanded by Lt. Col. Robert McDade, on the morning of November 16, there were now three Cavalry battalions crammed into that clearing, including Lt. Col. Walter Tully’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry. By the third day of the battle, the Americans had gained the upper hand. The three-day battle resulted in 834 North Vietnamese soldiers confirmed killed, and another 1,000 communist casualties were assumed.
Smaller Skirmishes Led Up to the La Drang Battles.
As the battle on X-Ray subsided, McDade’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, was ordered to move cross-country to LZ Albany, where it was to be picked up by helicopter and moved to a new location. The U.S. unit was moving through the jungle in a long column when the 8th Battalion of the North Vietnamese 66th Regiment sprang a massive ambush along the length of the column from all sides. Of the 500 men in the original column, 150 were killed, and only 84 were able to return to immediate duty. Companies C and D took the brunt of the Communist attack – within minutes, most of the men from the two companies were hit. It was the most successful ambush against U.S. forces during the course of the entire war. Photo by war journalist Joseph L. Galloway.
All total in the battle of X-Ray and the ambush near LZ Albany, 234 Americans were killed and more than 250 wounded in just four days and nights, November 14-17, 1965. Another 71 Americans had been killed in earlier, smaller skirmishes that led up to the Ia Drang battles.
Despite these numbers, senior American officials in Saigon declared the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley a great victory. The battle was extremely important because it was the first significant contact between U.S. troops and North Vietnamese forces.
The action demonstrated that the North Vietnamese were prepared to stand and fight major battles even though they might take serious casualties. Senior American military leaders concluded that U.S. forces could cause significant damage on the Communists in such battles. In essence, this tactic leads to a war of attrition as the U.S. forces tried to wear the communists down. Thus began the ‘body count’ as the measure of success. Photo by war journalist Joseph L. Galloway.
The North Vietnamese also learned a valuable lesson during the battle: by keeping their combat troops physically close to U.S. positions, U.S. troops could not use close-in artillery or airstrikes without risking injury to American troops. This style of fighting became the North Vietnamese practice for the rest of the war.
Both Sides Claimed Victory in the Battle Ia Drang
It became more than obvious that the war had changed suddenly and dramatically in those few days. At higher levels, both sides claimed victory in the Ia Drang, they may not have used so grand a word and for something so tragic and terrible. It would become for many, the making of their worst nightmares for a lifetime.
‘We Were Soldiers Once- And Young’ is a 1992 book by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and war journalist Joseph L. Galloway about the Vietnam War. It focuses on the role of the First and Second Battalions of the 7th Cavalry Regiment in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, the United States’ first large-unit battle of the Vietnam War; previous engagements involved small units and patrols (squad, platoon, and company-sized units).
To experience rare footage of the battle and to hear from those who were there, such as war journalist Joseph L. Galloway, please go to the following YouTube video: