Vietnam 1965: Portents of Failure – The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley

In August 1965, while General William C. Westmoreland’s finalized the details of his ground war strategy, 700 skytroopers from the 1st Cavalry Division disembarked from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Boxer at the port of Qui Nhon, South Vietnam. At the time, international military analysts considered the 1st Cavalry (whose troopers called themselves the “First Team”) to be the most technologically sophisticated ground combat unit in the world. The 1st Cavalry’s large contingent of helicopters, including the new UH-1 Huey and twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook, provided the skytroopers unprecedented mobility; and in modern warfare, mobility translated into killing power.

The newly-arrived skytroopers established their base camp at An Khe, fifty miles from Qui Nhon along Route 19 in Binh Dinh Province. Eventually, the division had 20,000 men and over 400 helicopters at An Khe. Aircrews parked the massive fleet of choppers atop a barren section of the base known as the Golf Course.  That name originated during the base’s construction, when skytroopers cropped the vegetation at the huge heli-port so close to the ground that the area resembled a well-groomed golf course.[1]

Although the skytroopers at An Khe were gung-ho to get into action against the Vietcong, the division initially had a hard time finding the guerrillas. One of the 1st Cavalry’s best units, Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore’s 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, reported killing only ten Vietcong between mid-September and mid-November.[2]

By September 1965, the ground war in South Vietnam resembled a sitzkrieg.  All across the country, U.S. units failed to find and fight the Vietcong. In Washington, officials wondered how the U.S. would ever win the war, and break the will of the Communists, if U.S. forces could not engage the enemy.

But just as doubts surrounding Westmoreland’s strategy surfaced in Washington, the search and destroy strategy was given a new lease on life, when, in mid-November, the skytroopers of the 1st Cavalry Division went head-to-head with the soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army in western Pleiku Province.

The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley (Ia is pronounced “Yah” and means “river” in one of the Montagnard languages of the Central Highlands) marked a milestone in the Vietnam War. For the first time in the conflict, conventional, regimental-sized units of the North Vietnamese Army fought against battalion-sized formations of the U.S. Army. The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley put to the test both the 1st Cavalry Division and Westmoreland’s search and destroy strategy.

At 10:48 a.m. on the morning of November 14, 1965, lead elements of Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry landed by helicopter in a clearing designated as LZ X-Ray.  The landing zone lay a few hundred feet east of the imposing Chu Pong Massif – a 2,401-foot-high mountainous mass straddling the Cambodian-South Vietnamese border. The 1st Battalion’s mission was simple – search the Ia Drang Valley and destroy the Communist troops believed to be bivouacking there. Unknown to Moore, he and his men touched down dangerously close to three battalions of the North Vietnamese Army’s 66th Regiment, which was strung out along the eastern edge of the massif. Lt. Col. Nguyen Huu An, commander of those forces, later told Moore, “When you landed here, you landed right in the middle of three of our battalions of the 66th Regiment, our reserve force. It was the strongest we had.”[3]

Lieutenant Colonel An immediately ordered into action the units closest to LZ X-Ray. At 12:15 p.m., the first of several North Vietnamese assaults began against the skytroopers in the landing zone. For the next two days, North Vietnamese regulars, and members of the Vietcong’s H-15 Battalion, made repeated attempts to overrun Moore’s battalion. On a couple of occasions, the khaki-clad Communist troops came within minutes of smashing through the American line, only to be beaten back by artillery fire, airstrikes, and the grim resolve of the G.I.’s holding the perimeter. By mid-day November 16, the battle for X-Ray came to an uneventful end. The traumatized American survivors gathered up their dead and headed back to Camp Holloway at Pleiku. However, the fighting in the Ia Drang Valley wasn’t over.

One of the battalions sent to LZ X-Ray to relieve Moore’s exhausted men, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, under the command of Lt. Col. Robert McDade, received orders to march overland from LZ X-Ray to LZ Albany. The plan called for the troops of 2nd Battalion to be extracted by helicopter from LZ Albany, which sat two miles almost due north of X-Ray. In the intervening space grew thick patches of jungle and scrub brush. Why McDade received orders to walk to Albany for an extraction remains a mystery.  His unit could have easily been extracted from LZ X-Ray. McDade never fully understood the military justification for his battalion’s jungle march.

McDade’s superior officers, including Colonel Tim Brown, Brigadier General Richard Knowles, and Major General Harry Kinnard, ordered the 2nd Battalion to cross an area recently swarming with Communist troops.  Then, once at LZ Albany, the battalion would be extracted by helicopter.  But LZ Albany could only handle one chopper at a time. Landing zone X-Ray, on the other hand, was significantly larger than LZ Albany; it could take eight choppers at once. Going to Albany for an air extraction did not make sense, especially if the battalion came under attack and needed to be quickly extracted from the area.  Plus, searching for the enemy in thick jungle invited an attack.

The most plausible explanation for the mission is also the most controversial. McDade’s battalion was bait.  The 2nd Battalion was supposed to locate and draw in the North Vietnamese and Vietcong so U.S. airstrikes and artillery could score a high body count. On November 17, on the trail leading to LZ Albany, McDade’s battalion pulled in the North Vietnamese and Vietcong and the result was a very high body count. But it was the Americans who suffered the high casualties. Second Battalion lost 155 Killed in Action and 134 Wounded in Action on that day. By the end of the battle, the Communists had rendered McDade’s battalion inert. Had it not been for airstrikes and artillery, the 2nd Battalion would have been completely destroyed by Communist forces.[4]

Months earlier, when President Johnson ordered U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam, he and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara hoped the U.S. show of force would convince the leaders in Hanoi to end their support of the insurgency in South Vietnam. That dream faded as spring turned to summer and summer to fall. The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley dashed any remaining American expectations for an early end to the ground war. At the Ia Drang, Hanoi signaled it had no intention of ending the struggle in the South in spite of the U.S. troop build-up. Rather, Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap made it clear that their soldiers would stand and fight the Americans in set-piece battles, rather than cut and run in the face of superior U.S. mobility and firepower. The battle portended the beginning of a larger, deadlier war; it also held importance for the future conduct of the war for both sides. Communist leaders in Hanoi and U.S. officials in Saigon believed the battle offered the strategic and tactical lessons to achieve victory in South Vietnam.

Neither the Communists nor the Americans conceded defeat at the conclusion of the battle. The reason for this apparent incongruity is easy to explain. The North Vietnamese Army and the U.S. Army each had its own set of metrics to define victory. At the Ia Drang, the North Vietnamese had sought to lure the Americans into the hinterland, limit the mobility of U.S. forces, reduce the effectiveness of U.S. firepower, and inflict large numbers of casualties on U.S. units. Hanoi believed its soldiers accomplished all of those objectives during the battle. Westmoreland’s definition of victory was the inverse of the Hanoi’s. He wanted to kill large numbers of Communist troops in South Vietnam’s hinterland, prove the helicopter’s applicability to the war in South Vietnam and to his attrition strategy, successfully deploy massive amounts of firepower along the South Vietnamese frontier, and achieve a favorable kill ratio between the U.S. Army and North Vietnamese. He believed his skytroopers accomplished those aims.

Just hours after the end of fighting, and before any post-battle analysis had been completed by his headquarters staff, Westmoreland proclaimed a U.S. victory against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong at the Ia Drang. In an interview with Morley Safer of CBS News, Westmoreland stated in his measured but firm voice, “I characterize this entire campaign as being the most successful of this, ah, conflict thus far. I feel that its success is really unprecedented.” [5]

Always concerned about public relations, and seeking to impress his superiors in Washington with a battlefield success, Westmoreland moved quickly to frame the battle as a resounding U.S. victory before the American media or anyone in the administration framed it otherwise.  Some of the soldiers who survived the intense combat at LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany disagreed with their commanding general’s interpretation of events. An unnamed soldier who witnessed the slaughter of his comrades at LZ X-Ray remarked to a television reporter, “It was pretty bad, we kinda [sic] walked right into a [sic] ambush [at LZ X-Ray], and uh, we hit the, hit the ground…there was elephant grass out there about three foot high and to look over that, snipers could pick you up real easily and let you have it…we couldn’t do anything, we were all pinned down….”[6] According to this soldier, the men of the 1st Cavalry, who prided themselves on their mobility, and who had been trained to take the offensive, had been forced to remain in a defensive posture while the North Vietnamese and Vietcong held the tactical initiative in the woods surrounding the landing zone. Lt. Col. Hal Moore noted in his after-action report that the battle at LZ X-Ray was a near thing for the Americans. It was definitely not Westmoreland’s unprecedented success. According to Moore, American firepower, especially the non-stop firing of artillery, saved his troopers at LZ X-Ray from being overrun.[7]

In his post-battle public statements, Westmoreland completely discounted the catastrophe that befell the troopers of the 2nd Battalion at LZ Albany. On Thanksgiving Day, Westmoreland visited the grieving survivors of the 2nd Battalion. The general thought he’d give the demoralized troops a pep talk. However, in comments completely divorced from reality, Westmoreland told the assembled troopers, “I want to congratulate you on your distinguished victory. You were fighting regular North Vietnamese troops. You men of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry have distinguished yourselves. You fought bravely, you fought with skill….”[8] The skytroopers listening to the speech were flabbergasted. Many felt outraged at the sheer audacity of Westmoreland’s statements. Their facial expressions said it all. Some men frowned, others snickered, and a few put their heads down, unable to bear the sight of the general. And this wasn’t because Westmoreland’s speech postponed their Thanksgiving dinner. The grunts of 2nd Battalion knew the enemy had defeated them at LZ Albany. Yet, here was Westmoreland shamelessly claiming a victory at LZ Albany after the death and wounding of 300 of their friends and comrades. Unknown to but a few at the general’s headquarters, Westmoreland had a more important reason for meeting with the troopers of 2nd Battalion and trumpeting their “victory.” A CBS News television crew was with Westmoreland and the survivors of 2nd Battalion on that day. The general wanted his “victory” speech to be heard by the American public. Any admission that 2nd Battalion had been defeated at LZ Albany would not have played well in Peoria or Washington, so Westmoreland put on a show and the men of 2nd Battalion served as his props.

Although Westmoreland was less than truthful about the ambush at LZ Albany, he persuaded himself that the overall Ia Drang campaign represented a victory for the U.S. and for his attrition strategy. In Westmoreland’s mind, the 1st Cavalry Division had achieved several important objectives at the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.

Even though ample evidence existed at the time that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong sought battle at the Ia Drang, Westmoreland insisted the U.S. successfully hunted down the enemy in western Pleiku Province and obliged him to do battle on American terms. For the attrition strategy to succeed in South Vietnam, this is exactly what U.S. forces had to be able to do over and over again in the road-less expanses of South Vietnam. Since U.S. forces had done it at the Ia Drang Valley, one of the most remote regions in all of Indochina, Westmoreland concluded that U.S. units could find the enemy anywhere, which meant the U.S. would be able to attrite the enemy at a level of its own choosing – a factor crucial to breaking the enemy’s will to resist.

Just as important as finding the enemy, the 1st Cavalry Division was able to fight the enemy in sustained combat along South Vietnam’s western frontier. This is where Westmoreland wanted to fight Communist main forces, far from South Vietnam’s population centers and in locations where the full weight of U.S. firepower could be brought to bear on the enemy without causing collateral damage.

Before the Battle of the Ia Drang, there existed doubts within the U.S. high command and at the White House about whether U.S. forces could actually pursue an attrition strategy in South Vietnam’s hinterland. The most senior ranking officer to question the feasibility of fighting in the hinterland was Westmoreland’s immediate superior in Honolulu – CINCPAC Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp. Being a true navy man, Sharp thought U.S. units should be based close to the South China Sea and the ports that supplied them. Sharp wasn’t sure American troops could be resupplied and reinforced by helicopters alone. The admiral also believed the Communists should be encouraged to come down from the highlands to gain access to the lowland population. Once enemy units entered the relatively open country along the coastal plain, they could be destroyed by accurate and deadly U.S. firepower. American firepower, according to Sharp, would be far more effective against the enemy in South Vietnam’s lowlands than in the wooded highlands. In addition, the proximity of U.S. troops to resupply and reinforcement on the coast would enable U.S. units to rapidly “pile on” the enemy after he had been fixed on the ground. However, the reported high enemy death toll at Ia Drang, plus the ability of the 1st Cavalry to reinforce and resupply by helicopter, dispelled Sharp’s doubts about U.S. units operating in the highlands. Sharp, like Westmoreland, concluded after the battle that the 1st Cavalry could operate a multi-battalion operation far from its home base at An Khe and still inflict prohibitive casualties on the enemy.

Both Sharp and Westmoreland recognized that the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley was a test of the airmobile concept, which involved the rapid cross-country movement of U.S. troops by helicopter. The 1st Cavalry’s Brigadier General Richard T. Knowles summarized the concept in an interview with CBS News, “I think the thing that is new is this, this, this pogo type concept where we leap into an area, start a fight, finish it up to the best of our ability and then jump over and latch on to another chunk of the enemy and chew him up. You couldn’t get into this area on the ground. You just couldn’t make it and couldn’t resupply. You had to have helicopters to support what we’ve been doing.”[9] The 1st Cavalry’s overall commander, Major General Harry W.O. Kinnard, went further, “With air mobility, the soldier has been freed forever from the tyranny of terrain.”[10] Knowles and Kinnard viewed the helicopter as a panacea.  The magical flying machine would overcome South Vietnam’s physical obstacles; it would take U.S. soldiers into the heart of enemy territory; it would enable the U.S. to attrite the North Vietnamese and Vietcong; and ultimately it would win the war.  For Knowles and Kinnard, the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley proved the helicopter’s worth.

But the helicopter distorted American thinking, especially with regard to the Vietnamese environment. The whirlybird made American military men believe the impossible was possible. Traveling at over 100 miles per hour, the UH-1D “Huey” shrunk time and space, making South Vietnam seem smaller than it was. The helicopter carried men through clouds, over mountains, along valleys, and into jungles; it jumped rivers, rice paddies, beaches, and swamps. The helicopter so warped American perceptions that military men came to believe the machine could overcome all of South Vietnam’s environmental constraints. Westmoreland once told a group of G.I.’s, “We have complete air superiority…and we can do anything we want anywhere we want. We can put our people in and out of any place in the country”[11] It was that sort of thinking that led Westmoreland to believe that the helicopter would allow him to set the tempo of the war and determine the rate of enemy attrition.

U.S. commanders were not the only ones smitten with the helicopter. Regular grunts and journalists believed in its power too. Robert Mason, one of the first chopper pilots deployed to South Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry in August 1965, observed that the other pilots in his unit believed the war would end quickly because U.S. troops, riding in helicopters, would soon defeat the ground-bound, primitive guerrillas.[12] One American reporter said of the helicopter, “Airmobility, dig it, you weren’t going anywhere. It made you feel safe, it made you feel Omni…”[13] “Omni” meant omnipotent. Journalist Jonathan Schell summed up the influence of the helicopter on American perceptions of the South Vietnamese environment, “Helicopters, with their ability to move slow or fast, to circle, and to hover, enabling a viewer to scrutinize a landscape from the top or from any angle, give him [the pilot] a feeling of mastery over a scene….”[14] The helicopter deceived the Americans into believing they could find, fix, and kill the Vietcong and North Vietnamese anywhere within South Vietnam.  That belief was reinforced at the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.

U.S. commanders were also encouraged by the deployment of firepower against Communist units at the Ia Drang. A successful attrition strategy depended on the United States deploying its full complement of weapons in the most remote regions of South Vietnam.  Ia Drang showed that that could be done.  Artillery, helicopter gunships, ground attack planes, and B-52 bombers rained down death and destruction on the Communists around LZ X-Ray, LZ Albany, and along the slopes of the Chu Pong Massif. The Ia Drang witnessed the first use of the B-52 in the role of tactical air support. Not surprisingly, the Air Force claimed the B-52 raids against the Chu Pong on November 16, 1965, resulted in a large, but indeterminate, number of Communist casualties.

And then there was the enemy body count. Lt. Col. Harold Moore determined that U.S. forces had racked up 634 confirmed Communist kills in the vicinity of LZ X-Ray.  Confirmed kills meant that Moore and his men had actually gone out and counted bodies on the battlefield.  Moore estimated that another 1,215 Communist soldiers had either died or been wounded around LZ X-Ray, but their bodies were never found.[15] U.S. officials later asserted that an additional 430 Communist troops had died at LZ Albany and LZ Columbus – the bulk of those casualties fell to airstrikes and artillery. Hanoi alleged that 559 of its troops died during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.

If the U.S.’s total enemy KIA figures for the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley are accepted at face value (which they should not be), the U.S. lost 237 KIA to the Communists’ 2,279 KIA/WIA. These numbers correlated with Brigadier General Richard T. Knowles’s contention that the battle resulted in a kill ratio of from seven to ten North Vietnamese/Vietcong dead to every one U.S. dead. During the Korean War, the U.S. chalked up a similar kill ratio against the Chinese and North Korean Communists. In that earlier war, the U.S. successfully conducted an attrition strategy against the Communists to preserve a non-Communist state in South Korea. Knowles’s focus on the ten to one ratio in the body count implied that if the U.S. continued to maintain such a favorable kill ratio in South Vietnam, the United States would eventually succeed in attriting the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, with the same results as in Korea – the survival of a non-communist South Vietnam.  But Knowles’ numbers were suspect, not only because his kill ratio matched almost exactly the ten-to-one kill ratio favored by Westmoreland and the staff at MACV, but also because there was no way to verify the huge number of unconfirmed enemy kills either at LZ X-Ray or LZ Albany.

It wasn’t just Westmoreland, or Knowles, who believed the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley represented a U.S. victory. Morley Safer and the news editors at CBS came to the same conclusion. Safer’s nationally-televised report “The Battle of Ia Drang Valley” mirrored MACV’s interpretation of events. In later years, the Pentagon, and especially Westmoreland, frequently criticized the media for its apparently biased, dovish coverage of the war. But there was nothing in Safer’s news story that could be labeled dovish or biased. If there was bias, it was in the U.S. military’s favor.

In “The Battle of Ia Drang Valley,” Morley Safer neither criticized Westmoreland, the troops, nor the attrition strategy. The TV special, like MACV’s press reports, completely ignored the disaster that befell the 2nd Battalion at LZ Albany. Safer also repeatedly professed his support for Westmoreland’s chosen strategy. At the end of the program, Safer, who stared directly into the camera, stated in a wooden, monotone voice, “It [the Battle of Ia Drang Valley] taught us the value of mobility in fighting a guerrilla war…“A lot of men died at Ia Drang, but strategically it was a victory…In the end victory was ours. A lot of Americans died in these woodlands, but overall a very important point was made – that the U.S. infantryman, using established technique, impromptu ingenuity, and plenty of support in the air can seek out and destroy the best guerrilla army in the world.”[16]

Why did Safer provide his viewers with such a flattering portrayal of the U.S. military’s performance at the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley?  Perhaps because Safer and CBS had caught flak from the White House back in August for a televised report on the burning of the village of Cam Ne by the U.S. Marines.  Safer and CBS may have felt pressure from the Johnson administration to be more upbeat in its reporting from Vietnam.  Whatever the case may be, Safer and the editors at CBS News concluded that Westmoreland’s strategy and tactics had been successful at the Ia Drang and would continue to be successful. One of America’s most highly-esteemed news organizations essentially told the American public that General Westmoreland had found the winning formula for the war in South Vietnam.  Neither the White House nor MACV could have written and produced a more favorable assessment of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.

Westmoreland, his subordinate generals, including Richard Knowles and Harry Kinnard, along with the U.S. media, ignored the battle’s portents for the attrition strategy and the airmobile concept. For instance, the Americans did not actually find the North Vietnamese and Vietcong at LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany. Instead, the Communists found the Americans, and initiated combat, at the two landing zones. This was an important point. For the attrition strategy to work, the Americans needed to be able to initiate battle, rather than the Communists. If the Communists began the majority of battles (which they did in the years ahead), they could control their losses and prevent the Americans from attriting their manpower pool.

Lieutenant Colonel Moore later admitted that he did not know North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops were so close to LZ X-Ray on the day of the initial air assault. But the Communists knew the Americans were coming. A number of things tipped off the North Vietnamese and Vietcong to the pending American helicopter assault on LZ X-Ray; one of those was the limited number of usable helicopter landing zones on the east side of the Chu Pong Massif.

Contrary to Westmoreland’s claim that U.S. heli-borne units could go anywhere in South Vietnam, airmobile units could only go where there existed suitable landing zones. The paltry number of landing zones in the Ia Drang Valley hampered U.S. mobility during the battle. The U.S. was restricted to three possible landing zones near the base of the Chu Pong Massif – LZ’s X-Ray, Tango, and Yankee.[17] Moore explained his reason for choosing X-Ray. “[LZ] Tango was discarded as the primary LZ for being too tight, e.g. a “wall” – type LZ with tall trees around it, and for being to [sic] small – capacity of three to four UH-1Ds. It was agreed that X-Ray and Yankee could both probably accommodate eight UH-1Ds at one landing…[subsequently LZ] Yankee was spotted with high stumps and would be difficult to use as a landing zone…I made my decision to land at X-Ray….”[18] If there been other large landing zones further from the base of the Chu Pong Massif, Moore and his men may have been in a better tactical position to fight the Communists when the battle eventually erupted. But since LZ X-Ray was the only truly acceptable LZ in the area that Moore had been ordered to search.  As a result, 1st Battalion ended up landing right in the middle of a hornet’s nest of Communist soldiers; and in terrain that gave the enemy the tactical advantage provided by the massif’s elevation.

The size of the clearing at LZ X-Ray put limits on Moore’s fighting strength.  Specifically, LZ X-Ray’s size determined the rate of reinforcement. Eight choppers at a time could land at the site.  And if the landing zone came under enemy fire, which it did repeatedly during the battle, the rate of reinforcement dropped because choppers could not safely land in the confined space. The size of the landing zone also influenced the extraction rate; meaning how fast wounded soldiers could be pulled out of the battle zone and sent to the rear for medical care. During the heat of battle, enemy anti-aircraft fire dropped the insertion and extraction rates at LZ X-Ray to zero. Thus, the actual physical size of a landing zone had a major influence on U.S. ground operations and casualty survival rates. Contrary to the assertion of the 1st Cavalry’s General Kinnard, the Americans and their helicopters had not been freed from the tyranny of terrain after all.

U.S. aerial reconnaissance, done in the hours before the landing at X-Ray, alerted Communist troops that something was about to happen in the area. Planes and helicopters in the skies above LZ X-Ray signaled to the North Vietnamese and Vietcong that the Americans might soon land troops. The deafening sounds of the twenty-minute-long artillery prep fires directed at the environs of X-Ray provided the enemy further proof of an imminent landing at LZ X-Ray.[19]  And if U.S. aircraft and artillery prep fires were not enough to warn the Communists of the approach of U.S. troops, spotters, standing on the summit of the massif, merely looked out across the expansive lowland between their positions and the U.S. Special Forces camp at Plei Me and saw the assault helicopters making their approach to the landing zone. In a conversation with Hal Moore over two decades after the battle, Colonel An said, “We were ready, had prepared for you and expected you to come. The only question was when. The trees and brush limited our view of the helicopters landing but we had an observation post on top of the mountain and they reported to us when you dropped troops and when you moved them.”[20] Furthermore, the loud whoop, whoop, whoop of descending UH-1Ds confirmed the American assault on LZ X-Ray. First Cav Huey pilot Robert Mason remarked, “How could anyone be taken by surprise by a flight of Hueys?”[21] The element of surprise in battle can often make the difference between victory and defeat. At LZ X-Ray, the Americans, and their vaunted machines, forfeited that important battlefield advantage.

American mobility during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley was also further restricted by the need to hold LZ X-Ray at all costs.  As a result, the skytroopers remained on the defensive during the entire battle, protecting the landing zone’s perimeter from repeated Communist attacks. The skytroopers could not leave the LZ to go on the offensive because if the LZ fell into enemy hands, the G.I.’s already on the ground would have lost their all-important air bridge to the rear and along with it the possibility of resupply, reinforcement and medevac. In consequence, LZ X-Ray became an anchor, holding U.S. troops to its perimeter, while the North Vietnamese and Vietcong maintained the tactical initiative.

The deployment of U.S. firepower at Ia Drang was truly impressive, especially the B-52 arc light raids on the slopes of the Chu Pong Massif (arc light referred to the bright bolts of static electricity that ricocheted from bomb blast to bomb blast at the moment a string of iron bombs detonated across the jungle floor). Yet, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong took steps to lessen the destructive effects of U.S. firepower. Most notably, when engaged in combat at LZ X-Ray, Communist infantrymen fought at close range, so close that at one-point U.S. soldiers fixed bayonets on the ends of their M-16’s to ward of a group of approaching North Vietnamese. Lieutenant Colonel An referred to this tactic as “Hug Them by the Belt Buckle.”[22] Such close quarters combat made it impossible for U.S. troops to call-in helicopter gunships, fighter-bombers, and artillery barrages without risking casualties from friendly fire.

The environment at the Ia Drang favored Communist forces. Moore described the environmental setting. “The terrain was flat and consisted of scrub trees up to 100 feet high; thick elephant grass varying in height from one foot to five feet; and ant hills throughout the area up to eight feet high with thick brush and elephant grass on and around them. Along the western edge of the LZ, the trees and grass were especially thick….”[23] Communist troops used the area’s vegetation and terrain to conceal their movements. For example, Communist soldiers based on the Chu Pong Massif approached LZ X-Ray by first marching down a series of gullies located on the slopes of the mountain.  These gullies hid them from the eyes of U.S. troops at the landing zone. Furthermore, Communist soldiers wore light tan uniforms, which blended well with the surrounding elephant grass. Communist troops also attached local plants to their clothing. Hal Moore referred to the soldiers on the opposing side as, “…expert at camouflage and [they] used every bit of cover and concealment to perfection….”[24]

Communist soldiers set up machine gun positions behind ant hills; snipers climbed into the high trees to shoot down on G.I.’s lying prone on the ground, and others belly-crawled through the tall elephant grass to reach the landing zone undetected. High jungle canopy hid Communist troops from roving helicopter gunships and tactical fighter-bombers. Deep, camouflaged bunkers protected Lt. Col. An’s headquarters atop the massif. A multitude of small game trails, revealed to the Communists by Montagnard sympathizers, permitted the North Vietnamese and Vietcong to travel to the battle site in dispersed formations, reducing the number of casualties falling prey to U.S. airstrikes and artillery. Then, once near the LZ, Communist troops reformed into larger units before launching their frontal attacks. At the end of a skirmish, the larger Communist units broke up again into small squads, fading back into the jungle over multiple pathways. In contrast, the Americans at LZ X-Ray were in the open and vulnerable to enemy mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and small-arms fire; and the reason for their exposure was obvious – the helicopters delivering reinforcements, supplies, and ammunition required open space in order to land.

The discipline and dedication of the Communist soldiers at the Ia Drang should have given Westmoreland pause. The zeal displayed by Communist troops certainly gave Hal Moore pause. The North Vietnamese and Vietcong fought doggedly – the majority were willing to die rather than surrender. Illustrating both the effectiveness of Communist indoctrination and a high-level of devotion to the cause, the Americans took only six prisoners at LZ X-Ray during almost three days of combat.

The North Vietnamese in particular felt an intense hatred toward the Americans. When undergoing interrogation, one North Vietnamese POW said through a South Vietnamese interpreter, “…there two regiments on that mountain [Chu Pong]. They want very much to kill Americans….”[25] Moore remarked on the fervor of his Communist enemy, “Even after being hit several times in the chest, many continued firing and moving for several more steps before dropping dead.”[26] Later, in a post-battle briefing attended by Secretary of Defense McNamara, Moore said Communist soldiers were, “…well-disciplined, determined to the point of suicidal fanaticism, and boiling down off the mountain in the kind of human-wave attacks not seen since Korea.”[27] Moore’s report to McNamara pointed to a worrisome conclusion – the Communists would not be easily defeated in South Vietnam.

The Ia Drang battle, and the larger campaign of which it was a part, showed the vulnerability of the thin-skinned UH-1D Huey to ground fire. Fifty-nine choppers sustained damage during the entire month-long campaign in western Pleiku Province.[28] In addition, the division’s choppers burned through 70,000 gallons of fuel in one day of operations. The 1st Cavalry’s fuel supply reached such a critical stage by the end of the campaign that Moore’s battalion had to be trucked rather than flown over the dangerous, ambush-prone Route 19 from Pleiku to An Khe. The vulnerability of helicopters to ground fire, and the copious amounts of fuel needed to keep them aloft, should have raised questions about the feasibility of using the machines to carry out the attrition strategy in South Vietnam’s jungle vastness’s, but it did not.

For a whole set of reasons, Westmoreland chose to downplay or dismiss the battle’s portents.

By late 1965, American civilian and military construction teams were in the midst of building a huge logistical system across South Vietnam to support Westmoreland’s chosen strategy. If attrition, and the tactics employed to implement it, had been shown to be ineffective at the Ia Drang, the entire edifice of Westmoreland’s war would have been thrown into question. If Washington concluded that attrition could not succeed, then the construction of large logistical bases, the expansion of the South’s road network, the laying of dozens of airstrips, and the improvement of South Vietnam’s ports would have been unnecessary.

In a very real sense, the enormous scale of the military’s engineering work in South Vietnam locked Westmoreland into an attrition strategy. By fall 1965, the general could not easily reverse course. The physical momentum of the build-up compelled him forward. With big bases arising across the country, and hundreds of thousands of troops either in-country or on the way, the general could not admit attrition would not work.  So in lieu of an honest reappraisal after the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, Westmoreland chose self-delusion.

Westmoreland also knew that his career depended on the success of the attrition strategy. Westmoreland was if nothing else a very ambitious man. He had career aspirations that went beyond Vietnam. He knew that if he succeeded in Vietnam, he would be an American hero on a par with Eisenhower.  Someday in the future he might be in a position to run for high office. He also understood that if attrition did not win the war, his career would end. In America, a comfortable retirement and public anonymity awaited a defeated general. Furthermore, Westmoreland wanted to lead American forces in a big war. That was a career officer’s highest aspiration. For him to have come out and admitted after the battle that the U.S. wasn’t likely to win in the South, and that the attrition strategy wasn’t going to work, went against his “can do” personality, his desire to oversee a big war, and his personal wish to end his career on a high note.

Most importantly, if attrition failed to break the Communists’ will to resist, there existed no fall back strategy. Attrition was it. Westmoreland had already rejected the use of U.S. troops in an enclave strategy, counter-insurgency strategy, and a static defense of South Vietnam’s borders. Without attrition, Westmoreland had no other means of achieving the U.S. objective of forcing the Communists to cease operations in the South. If attrition did not work, the United States could not save South Vietnam, and that meant the war was already lost. So the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley had to be an American victory.  If the battle had been a defeat or a draw, it meant the U.S. had little chance of success in South Vietnam. Thus, it was not surprising Westmoreland claimed the battle as an American victory; too much was riding on its outcome to have allowed it to be framed any other way.

Following the battle, Hanoi came to different set of conclusions. Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues on the Politburo believed the battle proved the value of their strategy, which entailed luring the Americans into South Vietnam’s hinterland, employing the environment to tactical advantage, prolonging the war for as long as possible, and inflicting large numbers of casualties on U.S. forces. In the first major battle between the North Vietnamese Army and the U.S. Army, Hanoi concluded that its troops had bested the Americans. Communist leaders believed they had found the winning formula for their war against the United States. As later events would show, the Communists drew the proper lessons from the battle, while Westmoreland did not.

American officials, including Westmoreland, wanted very much for Hanoi to draw two main conclusions from the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.  First, the U.S. would inexorably grind down Communist forces in the South.  And second, it would be in Hanoi’s best interest to immediately end its war against the Saigon regime, otherwise the U.S. would drain its manpower pool. But Hanoi refused to accept those two conclusions. Instead, the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley spurred the North Vietnamese and Vietcong to redouble their efforts in South Vietnam.


Endnotes

[1] New York Times, “Copter Division Reaches Vietnam,” R. W. Apple Jr., September 13, 1965.

[2] Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once…And Young, Ia Drang: The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam, (New York: Random House, 1992), 39.

[3] Ibid., 51.

[4] Ibid., 218-220.

[5] CBS Reports, “The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley,” with Walter Cronkite and Morley Safer.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] J.D. Coleman, Pleiku: The Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 31.

[11] Christian G. Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, (New York: Viking, 2003), 310.

[12] Robert Mason, Chickenhawk, 1983, Reprint, (New York: Penguin Books, 2005), 362, 397.

[13] Michael Herr, Dispatches. 1977, Reprint, (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 13.

[14] Jonathan Schell, The Village of Ben Suc, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), 100.

[15] Lt. Col. Hal Moore, After Action Report: Ia Drang Valley Operation, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, 14-16 November 1965, 17.

[16] CBS Reports, “The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.”

[17] Coleman, Pleiku, 203-204.

[18] Moore, After Action Report, 3.

[19] Moore and Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once, 58.

[20] Ibid., 62.

[21] Mason, Chickenhawk, 275.

[22] Joseph Galloway, “Ia Drang: The Battle That Convinced Ho Chi Minh He Could Win,” Vietnam Magazine, October 18, 2010,  https://www.historynet.com, 5.

[23] Moore, After Action Report, 4.

[24] Ibid., 23.

[25] Galloway, Vietnam Magazine, 5.

[26] Moore, After Action Report, 8.

[27] Moore and Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once, 339.

[28] Shelby L. Stanton, The Rise and Fall of an American Army: U.S. Ground Forces in Vietnam, 1965-1973, Novato, California: Presidio Press, Inc., 1985, 60.

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