The Battle of Ia Drang Still Matters
Revisiting 'We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young'
During the morning of Nov. 14, 1965, hundreds of soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division began airlifting into a landing zone a few miles east of the Chu Pong massif in west-central Vietnam.
Their mission was to seek and destroy what they believed were disorganized regiments of the North Vietnamese Army fleeing into Cambodia. The opposite was true. Within a few hours after landing, the battalion was fighting for its life as thousands of combat-ready communist troops poured down from the mountain.
The size and organization of the North Vietnamese force surprised the Americans. Remember, this was … 1965. Beyond the air-cavalry troopers, the only other American troops in the country were the 173rd Airborne Brigade, some Marines and special operations advisers. Now the battalion was in the midst of one of the largest and most important American battles in the past 70 years.
Days later, with hundreds of dead on both sides — most of them Vietnamese — both armies felt they had secured a victory.
Yet U.S. strategic planning was not strategic — commanders stressed finding and destroying the enemy over and over again in tactical engagements. The communists saw the 1st Battalion’s arrival as a trial run for their long-term strategic goal of wearing the Americans down through attrition.
And today, the most definitive written account remains We Were Soldiers Once … And Young.
I first read We Were Soldiers Once … And Young as a teenager after my uncle, a Vietnam combat veteran, gave it to me for Christmas. He also wrote me a letter telling me it was one of the most accurate depictions of the Vietnam War that he ever read.
We Were Soldiers recounts a different and earlier phase of the conflict than my uncle’s war. Hal Moore, who co-authored the book with Joseph Galloway, was a lieutenant colonel and the 1st Battalion’s commander during the Battle of Ia Drang. Galloway, a UPI reporter present at the battle, adds a storyteller’s touch.
Moore is the book’s foundation and was the battalion’s tactical and operational planner. But I think my uncle may have reacted to the liberal use of quotes from riflemen on the ground. These accounts are some of the most horrifying recollections of war that I’ve read.
The soldiers recall North Vietnamese troops mowing down their friends with machine gun fire and executing the screaming wounded. One of the most striking images is after night falls and the fighting slows. The American soldiers defending the perimeter around LZ X-Ray face the mountain in front of them.
Looking out toward the dark slopes are hundreds of flickering lights moving down, toward them as NVA troops move into position for the approaching morning assault.
Moore probably saved his battalion by being on the ground during the battle — instead of staying airborne in a command-and-control helicopter- – in direct contact with the NVA. “I never believed in that,” he writes early in the book.
“You had to get on the ground with your troops to see and hear what was happening … Besides, it’s too easy to be crisp, cool and detached at 1,500 feet; too easy to demand the impossible from your troops; too easy to make mistakes that are fatal only to those souls far below in the mud, the blood and the confusion.”
There are other facts of the battle worth remembering.
For one, the United States learned the wrong lessons from Ia Drang.
The North Vietnamese went into the battle better prepared than the Americans. After an initial communist assault came close to overrunning the Army battalion, the Americans bounced back with a combination of extreme and heavy use of artillery and air support — in addition to sheer martial skill on the ground.
But the liberal use of these weapons later in populated areas would kill thousands of civilians, help undermine political support for the war — and lead to an American strategic defeat.
The scale of Ia Drang, which was in an unpopulated area, and the American belief that it had proven the utility of “air-mobile” operations backed by heavy firepower, helped convince Gen. William Westmoreland and civilian officials in Washington to escalate U.S. involvement in the war.
How units “fractionalize” at the beginning of a battle determines the battle’s shape. Early in the fighting, the 2nd Platoon, Bravo Company under Lt. Henry Herrick pursued fleeing enemy soldiers deep beyond the battalion’s far right flank.
The platoon then found itself vastly outnumbered, surrounded and was nearly wiped out — and Herrick died. It wouldn’t be until the next day that the battalion rescued the platoon’s survivors. In addition to defending the landing zone, saving the cut-off platoon became one of the battalion’s top priorities.
This was totally unpredictable. But these early mistakes radically transformed the battlefield’s structure. Ultimately, the Americans “won” the battle — at heavy cost — by adapting to these changes faster than the North Vietnamese.
The NVA did not see the fight for LZ Albany as a distinct battle. On Nov. 16, the attacking NVA regiments were repulsed from X-Ray and the 1st Battalion withdrew. Two U.S. battalions from the 7th and 5th Cavalry regiments took its place.
The next day, the relief battalions left, with the former proceeding on a two-mile march from X-Ray to LZ Albany to get out of the way of B-52s on their way to carpet-bomb the area.
Hours later, the battalion’s troops — exhausted after more than 50 hours without sleep — approached LZ Albany strung out in a column formation. That’s when they stumbled into the NVA’s fresh reserve regiments arrayed in an L-shaped ambush. The battalion was nearly annihilated.
This is one of the more difficult sections in the book to read. Most of the 155 Americans who died at Albany were likely killed within the first hour as they bunched up under heavy fire — meaning the North Vietnamese could inflict multiple casualties from a single spray of AK-47 fire, or an exploding grenade or mortar round.
U.S. troops booby-trapped themselves because they feared they would die. When collecting their dead, the Americans stacked bodies inside helicopters from floor to ceiling as blood dripped from the doors.
Passages begin with lines like, “Only a few minuets had passed, but Jack Smith’s world was being shot to death all around him.”
Moore and Galloway deserves credit for their account of the battle at Albany. It’s brutal and necessary. Nearly twice as many Americans were killed there than at X-Ray — though a similar tactic of heavy artillery, air support and reinforcements saved the battalion.
In the American consciousness, however, Albany has received less attention than X-Ray. Perhaps it’s too ugly, or because the battle was a premonition of what would eventually doom U.S. strategy in Vietnam. American troops sent into battle without a strategy, except to wage a war of attrition against an enemy that was willing to expend far more blood to win.