American involvement in Vietnam can stretch back as far as the end of World War II, depending on how you define “involvement,” but one thing is for sure; when the U.S. committed its combat troops to defend South Vietnam, things got hot almost immediately. The most stunning example of the ferocity of Vietnam battlegrounds is the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang, the first time the U.S. Army fought a major battle against the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), North Vietnam’s regular forces.
There are actually several notable firsts that occurred in the Battle of Ia Drang. It was the first time the U.S. employed a large-scale helicopter air assault and the first time B-52 Stratofortress bombers were used as tactical support. Both of these historic firsts would have a huge effect on the battle.
The Beginning of Airmobile Assault on November 14
PAVN and Viet Cong guerilla forces controlled much of the South Vietnamese countryside by the end of 1964. Their main military forces were based in the central highlands, mountainous, almost impassable jungle areas that made attacks from motorized vehicles ineffective. The U.S. decided to use the new tactic of air mobility assaults to hit the communists based there.
The plan was to helo in a battalion-sized force and use helicopters to resupply and extract them. Heavy weapon support would come in the form of artillery, rocket fire, and close-air support aircraft. Lt. Col. Hal Moore, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, was ordered to launch an airmobile assault on November 14 and then to conduct search and destroy operations the following day.
What American planners didn’t know was that the area was flooded with PAVN forces who were planning an attack on the U.S. Special Forces and South Vietnamese (ARVN) base at Plei Me, some 45 kilometers away. They also had heavy weapons and anti-aircraft guns that U.S. leadership didn’t think were present.
When the 1,000 Americans and 900 ARVN troops landed in the central highlands, there were 2,500 PAVN and Viet Cong troops waiting for them – they were already surrounded and outnumbered.
Fighting was centered on two helicopter landing zones. The first was Col. Moore’s LZ X-Ray. LZ Albany was situated further north in the Ia Drang Valley. Before Moore’s force landed, the area was bombarded with air strikes and rockets, which signaled the PAVN that something was amiss. They abandoned the attack on Plei Me and moved to LZ X-Ray.
The first lift of American troops landed just after 11:18 in the morning. By 12:15, the first shots of the Battle of Ia Drang were fired – they landed just 200 meters from a regiment of communist infantry. The Americans didn’t retreat; they advanced. 2nd Platoon, under the command of Lt. Henry Herrick, moved so fast and far it was cut off from the rest of the 7th Cavalry, while the rest of 1/7 regrouped to form a defensive perimeter as the airlifts of men and supplies kept coming in.
The North Vietnamese were relentless in their attacks on the Americans, charging position after position, seemingly unconcerned with dying in their repeated assaults. The fire was so heavy the Americans were unable to dig foxholes, as rising up from the ground was suicide. Helicopters landed among that same intense, close-in enemy fire. Keeping close, it turned out, was an intentional tactic for the Vietnamese.
360-Degree Perimeter around the LZ
Regular PAVN and Viet Cong forces didn’t enjoy the same kind of powerful close-air support the Americans did, and it was a huge problem in pitched battles. The PAVN learned early on that keeping the fighting close to American troops would negate the U.S. advantage in air strikes, artillery, and rockets.
Troops landing in the LZ took immediate, heavy fire and quickly became casualties. The soldiers began to call ineffective artillery fire around the LZ to prevent an all-out charging PAVN assault. By 1520, the Battalion had fully landed and created a 360-degree perimeter around the LZ. By the end of day one, the perimeter had been established, and the 2/7 cavalry reinforced the 1/7.
That didn’t end the assaults. PAVN forces launched three major charges against the perimeter throughout the night but were beaten back with grenades, rifles, and the help of some accurate artillery support. In the morning, Moore ordered reconnaissance patrols in the pre-dawn hours, but the Americans didn’t have to wait long. The PAVN then launched a two-pronged attack against the perimeter.
The Americans took heavier casualties than usual but held their ground. Then the communists launched another attack that led Col. Moore to report a “broken arrow” back to headquarters – he believed he was about to be overrun. It brought all available aircraft to the unit’s defense. Moore’s men marked the area with smoke for the aircraft and then called in dangerously close artillery support.
As the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry began to land at nearby LZ Victor and move toward Moore’s beleaguered troops; a friendly fire napalm attack lit up the American and North Vietnamese. Fighting on the second day began before dawn, but after the intense morning fight, the PAVN began to withdraw by 1000.
B-52 Bombers Began Bombing the Withdrawing PAVN Forces
Although still harassed by sporadic enemy fire and NVA snipers, the 1/7 Cavalry went and found Herrick’s lost Platoon. Although Herrick was killed in the fighting and they had been cut off from the main force, the unit’s own defensive perimeter held throughout the night. Moore’s unit had been weakened but not destroyed, and he refused to relinquish command of his men to fresh incoming units.
Later in the afternoon of November 15, B-52 bombers began carpet bombing the withdrawing PAVN forces to the west of LZ X-Ray. Moore was again ordered to leave the battlefield, this time by the overall commander of American forces in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, to brief him on the battle. Again, Moore refused to leave his men. As night fell on the second day, the PAVN had regrouped and began to probe the American lines.
Aftermath of the Battle of Ia Drang
Four early morning attacks by hundreds of communist troops erupted across the American line. Before the sun came up, artillery observers, machine gunners, and riflemen repelled vicious assaults from the PAVN forces with few casualties. The tide had finally begun to turn. By the time the sun came up, the North Vietnamese no longer had the manpower to keep fighting at X-Ray.
Both sides claimed victory at LZ X-Ray. The Americans lost a total of 79 killed and 121 wounded, while the communists lost an estimated 1,215. U.S. leaders believed they could win the war by high body counts and estimated they had a 10 to 1 kill ratio at Ia Drang. The North Vietnamese learned they could get in close to the enemy to negate the advantage of American firepower. Even Col. Moore would later say that fighting the Americans to a draw was a victory for the North Vietnamese.