For four days in mid-November 1965, the skytroopers of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) grappled with the soldiers of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) in the elephant grass and jungle growing below the heights of the Chu Pong Massif 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, main-force units of the PAVN fought against battalion-sized formations of the U.S. Army.
When President Johnson ordered U.S. ground troops to South Vietnam beginning in March 1965, he and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara hoped that the U.S. show of force would convince the leaders in Hanoi to end their support of the insurgency in South Vietnam. But the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley indicated that the communists had no intention of ending the struggle in the south in spite of the U.S. troop build-up. Rather, the DRV made it apparent at Ia Drang that its 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 signaled the beginning of a larger, deadlier war. It also shaped the future course of the war. Each of the belligerents came away from the Ia Drang believing they had found the strategic and tactical means for achieving victory in South Vietnam.
Neither side in the battle at Ia Drang conceded defeat. Instead, the DRV and the United States both claimed to have won the battle. The reason is that the PAVN and U.S. Army each had its own set of metrics to define victory. For the PAVN, it was important to draw the Americans into the hinterland, limit the mobility of U.S. forces, blunt the effects of U.S. firepower, and inflict large numbers of casualties on U.S. units. The PAVN accomplished all of these goals at the Ia Drang. Westmoreland’s definition of victory was the inverse of the PAVN’s. He wanted to find, fix, and kill communist main-force units in the hinterland, prove the airmobile concept’s applicability to the war in South Vietnam and to his attrition strategy, successfully deploy firepower along the South Vietnamese frontier, and achieve a favorable kill ratio between the U.S. Army and PAVN. He believed the 1st Cavalry Division accomplished these objectives at the Ia Drang.
Westmoreland quickly proclaimed a U.S. victory at the conclusion of the battle. In an interview with Morley Safer of CBS News, Westmoreland stated in his measured but firm oral style, “I characterize this entire campaign as being the most successful of this, ah, conflict thus far. I feel that its success is really unprecedented.” He made this assertion without first ordering the MACV staff to conduct a thorough study of the course of the battle and the tactical successes and failures of U.S. and PAVN troops. In part, he based his assertion of U.S. victory on the battle’s kill ratio, which favored the U.S.
The common soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division who survived the combat at LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany had a different perspective on the fighting and its outcome. 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 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….” This soldier had been trained to take the offensive, close with the enemy and destroy him with massed force and firepower. But at X-Ray, he and his comrades had been required to remain in a defensive posture for three days, while the PAVN held the tactical initiative in the woods surrounding the landing zone. His unit had not gone on a search and destroy mission. Instead, it had been the PAVN who did much of the searching and destroying in the jungles and grass at Ia Drang. Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s after action report confirms that the battle at X-Ray was a near thing for the Americans. In the end, it was American firepower, particularly the non-stop use of artillery, that saved the troopers at X-Ray from annihilation.
But Westmoreland ignored that troubling reality, just as he downplayed the catastrophe that befell the troops of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment. On Thanksgiving Day 1965, Westmoreland visited the battle-weary troops of the 2nd Battalion. Days earlier, on November 17, 1965, A PAVN ambush in the vicinity of LZ Albany nearly wiped out the battalion. The unit suffered almost 300 casualties. Westmoreland wanted to buck up morale with a victory speech. He said, “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…” The skytroopers listening to this speech expressed disbelief and anger at the audacity of Westmoreland’s claims. They knew they had been defeated at the Ia Drang. But Westmoreland did not give his rather insensitive speech solely for the troops of the 2nd Battalion. A CBS television crew was at the scene and the general wanted his pep talk to be heard by the American public. He sought to influence public perceptions of the war. He was trying to prop up home-front morale as much as the morale of his own troops.
In a larger sense, Westmoreland considered the Ia Drang battle a victory for the U.S. because of what the battle meant for the attrition strategy. In order for the attrition strategy to be successful, U.S. forces had to be able to find, fix, and kill communist soldiers in large numbers in the otherwise impenetrable jungles of South Vietnam’s hinterland. It appeared to Westmoreland that the 1st Cavalry had done just that at the Ia Drang, even if one of its battalions had been nearly destroyed in the process.
In the days before the battle, U.S. foot patrols found the enemy under the trees west of the Special Forces camp at Plei Me. In the Ia Drang Valley, the Americans succeeded in finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. If Westmoreland’s attrition strategy was to succeed in South Vietnam, the U.S. had to be able to find and fix the communists in such road-less areas. Westmoreland believed that if the enemy could be found at the Ia Drang, one of the most remote regions in all of Indochina, the U.S. could find him elsewhere, which meant the U.S. would be able to attrite the PAVN.
But even more important than finding and fixing the enemy, the 1st Cavalry was able to fight the enemy in sustained combat along South Vietnam’s western frontier. This is where Westmoreland wanted to fight the communist main-force units, 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 inflicting collateral damage, e.g. killing civilians. Before the Ia Drang battle, there had existed doubts within the U.S. command whether or not U.S. forces could actually pursue an attrition strategy in the hinterland. CINCPAC Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp was one of the most senior ranking of the naysayers. He wanted U.S. units closer to the South China Sea and the seaports that supplied them. But the Ia Drang battle dispelled the doubts about operating in the highlands. It proved to Westmoreland and Sharp that the 1st Cavalry could operate a multi-battalion operation far from its home base at An Khe without ground reinforcement or ground resupply.
For MACV, the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley represented a test run of the airmobile concept, which entailed the rapid movement of U.S. troops by helicopter. The 1st Cav’s Brigadier General Richard T. Knowles summarized the concept in an interview with Morley Safer, “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.” The 1st Cav’s Division Commander, Major General Harry W.O. Kinnard, went further, “With airmobility, the soldier has been freed forever from the tyranny of terrain.” [Coleman, Pleiku, 31] For Knowles and Kinnard, the helicopter could fly American troops above South Vietnam’s physical obstacles. The helicopter would take U.S. forces to the enemy in the most difficult environment in the world and enable the U.S. to attrite the PAVN and Viet Cong. The helicopter, for all intents and purposes, was going to win the war. And the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley supposedly proved that it could do it.
But the helicopter distorted the American perception of South Vietnam’s land and waterscapes. The machine 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. It carried men through clouds, over mountains, along valleys, and into jungles. It jumped rivers, rice paddies, beaches, and swamps. Westmoreland once told a group of GIs, “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” [Appy, Patriots, 310]. The generals were not the only ones smitten with the helicopter. The regular grunts believed in its power too. One of the first chopper pilots deployed to South Vietnam with the 1st Air Cavalry in August 1965, Robert Mason noted that the men of his unit believed the war would end quickly because U.S. troops, riding in helicopters, would soon overwhelm the ground-bound PAVN and Viet Cong [Mason, Chickenhawk, 362, 397]. Another GI told reporter Michael Herr, “Airmobility, dig it, you weren’t going anywhere. It made you feel safe, it made you feel Omni…” [Herr, Dispatches, 13]. Reporter Jonathan Schell summed up the influence of the helicopter on American perceptions of South Vietnam, “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….” [Schell, Ben Suc, 100] Technology duped the Americans into believing they could overcome South Vietnam’s environmental limitations.
At the Ia Drang, U.S. commanders felt encouraged by the deployment of firepower against the PAVN. The U.S. had been able to bring to bear the full complement of U.S. weapons in the border regions of South Vietnam. Artillery, helicopter gunships, tactical fighter-bombers, and the B-52 had all rained down death and destruction on the communists. The Ia Drang witnessed the first use of the B-52 in the role of tactical air support. Not surprisingly, the Air Force and MACV both claimed the arc light raids carried out along the slopes of the Chu Pong Massif on November 16, 1965, resulted in a large, but indeterminant, number of PAVN casualties. A successful attrition strategy in the hinterland depended on the ability of U.S. firepower to rack up communist dead; and MACV concluded that U.S. firepower had indeed killed untold numbers of PAVN soldiers at the Ia Drang. The PAVN disputed that claim.
And then there was the body count – the final tally of dead from the battle. Granted, U.S. forces had been mauled badly during the four-day battle. U.S. Killed in Action amounted to 79 at X-Ray, 155 at Albany and 3 at LZ Columbus. Another 250 had been wounded. At LZ X-Ray, Lt. Col. Harold Moore calculated enemy confirmed dead at 634 with another 1,215 as unconfirmed killed or wounded. [Moore, After Action Report, 17]. U.S. officials claimed another 430 PAVN died at Albany and Columbus. Hanoi claimed a total of 559 PAVN KIA at the Battle of the Ia Drang. If the U.S.’s total KIA figures are accepted, the U.S. lost 237 KIA to the PAVN’s 2,279 KIA. These numbers correlated with Brigadier General Richard T. Knowles’s contention that the battle resulted in a kill ratio of from 7 to 10 PAVN to 1 US. During the Korean War, the U.S. had achieved a similar kill ratio against the Chinese and North Korean communists. In that earlier war, the U.S. had successfully carried out an attrition strategy against the communists to preserve a non-communist state in South Korea. Knowles’s focus on the body count implied that if the U.S. continued to maintain the favorable kill ratio attained at the Ia Drang, the U.S. would succeed in attriting the communists in South Vietnam, with the same results as in Korea – a non-communist South Vietnam free from communist aggression.
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 televised report “The Battle of Ia Drang Valley” mirrored MACV’s interpretation of events. In later years, the military and Westmoreland in particular, would criticize the media for its supposed biased, dovish coverage of the war. But in November 1965, Morley Safer neither criticized Westmoreland, the troops, nor the strategy. In his televised special, Safer, like MACV, completely ignored the disaster that befell the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry at LZ Albany. Moreover, Safer repeatedly expressed his support of Westmoreland’s chosen strategy. He remarked, “It [the Ia Drang] taught us the value of mobility in fighting a guerrilla war…” He stated, “A lot of men died at Ia Drang, but strategically it was a victory.” In his closing remarks, Safer sounded more triumphist than even Westmoreland. “The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley” concluded with the following statement. “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.”
Westmoreland, his subordinate generals, and the U.S. media establishment ignored the battle’s ominous portents for the attrition strategy and the airmobile concept. For instance, the Americans did not actually find the PAVN at LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany. It was the PAVN that found the Americans and initiated combat at the two LZs. This was an important point. For the attrition strategy to succeed, the Americans needed to be able to initiate battle, rather than the PAVN. If the PAVN 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.
Lt. Col. Moore admitted that he did not know the PAVN were so close to LZ X-Ray on the day of the air assault. But the enemy knew the Americans were coming. A number of things tipped off the PAVN to the pending American helicopter assault on LZ X-Ray. One of those was the restricted number of landing zones on the east side of the Chu Pong Massif.
Contrary to Westmoreland’s claim that the Americans could go anywhere in South Vietnam, airmobile units could only go where there existed suitable landing zones. The paltry number of landing zones at the Ia Drang severely limited U.S. mobility during the battle. The U.S. was restricted to three possible LZs close to the base of the Chu Pong Massif – LZs X-Ray, Tango, and Yankee [Coleman, Pleiku, 203-204]. Lt. Col. Moore Hal Moore explained why he chose X-Ray. “[LZ] Tango was discarded as the primary LZ for being to 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…” [Moore, After Action Report, 3] X-Ray was the only, truly acceptable LZ in the area. Had there been others further from the base of the Chu Pong Massif, Moore and his men may have been in a better tactical position to fight the PAVN. But Moore’s troops ended up landing right in the middle of a hornet’s nest of communist soldiers. The size of X-Ray also put limits on his fighting strength. It dictated the number of men who could be inserted at one time, the rate of reinforcement, and the extraction rate. The Americans and their helicopters had not been freed from the land and its limitations after all.
The U.S.’s aerial reconnaissance, done in the hours before the landing at X-Ray, notified the PAVN that something was about to happen in the area. The crashing sound of the artillery prep fires directed at the environs of the LZ gave further notice of an approaching landing at X-Ray. Moreover, PAVN soldiers standing on the eastern side of the Chu Pong Massif merely had to look across the expansive flat plain between the mountain and the camp at Plei Me and see the assault helicopters making their approach to X-Ray. And if all of that wasn’t enough, the loud whine and whoop, whoop of the descending UH-1Ds confirmed the American assault on LZ X-Ray. As helicopter pilot Robert Mason acknowledged, “How could anyone be taken by surprise by a flight of Hueys?” [Mason, Chickenhawk, 275]. As every tactician understands, the element of surprise in battle can make the difference between victory and defeat. At the Ia Drang, American helicopters forfeited this important battlefield advantage.
Ironically, American mobility at X-Ray was restricted by the need to hold the LZ. If the LZ fell into enemy hands, the GIs on the ground would have been cut off from resupply, reinforcement and medevac. As a result, LZ X-Ray became an anchor, holding U.S. troops to its perimeter, while the PAVN roamed at will around the Americans.
The application of firepower at Ia Drang was impressive, especially the earth shattering arc light raids carried out along the slopes of the Chu Pong Massif. But the PAVN took actions to mitigate the effect of U.S. firepower. Most notably, when engaged at X-Ray, the PAVN fought at close range, so close that the GIs fixed bayonets to ward off roving teams of PAVN. Lt. Col. Nguyen Hu An, who led the PAVN forces, referred to this technique as “Hug Them by the Belt Buckle.” [Galloway, Vietnam Magazine, 5] With the PAVN intermingled with American troops, the Americans could not call in aerial rockets, bombs, napalm, and artillery on the enemy.
The environment at the Ia Drang favored the PAVN. Lt. Col. Moore described the area at X-Ray. “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…” [Moore, After Action Report, 4]
PAVN troops used the area’s vegetation and terrain to their tactical advantage. They moved on LZ X-Ray from their base camp on the Chu Pong Massif by passing down a series of low-lying draws. The draws offered a measure of concealment from patrolling U.S. troops. PAVN soldiers wore light tan colored uniforms, which blended well with the surrounding elephant grass. To add to their camouflage, the communist soldiers attached local plants to their clothing, which made it very difficult for the Americans to see them. Moore admitted, “He was an expert at camouflage and used every bit of cover and concealment to perfection….” [Moore, After Action Report, 23] PAVN soldiers set up machine gun positions behind the ant hills. Snipers climbed into the high trees to shoot down on exposed GIs lying in the grass. The tall elephant grass enabled the PAVN to approach the landing zone without detection. And the jungle canopy hid the PAVN soldiers from roving helicopter gunships and fighter-bombers. Small game trails and Montagnard footpaths permitted the PAVN to travel to the battle site in dispersed formations. Once near the LZ, they reformed into larger units moments before an attack. At the end of a skirmish, the PAVN broke up into small squads, fading back into the jungle along multiple paths. The diffuse character of the trail system, and the dispersal of big units into small squads while traveling, mitigated against the effectiveness of U.S. bombing and artillery barrages.
The discipline and dedication of the PAVN at the Ia Drang should have given Westmoreland pause. The communist soldiers fought tenaciously. The vast majority were willing to die rather than surrender. The Americans only took six prisoners at X-Ray during three days of combat, which illustrated the effectiveness of the PAVN’s indoctrination program, the level of commitment of the PAVN troopers to their cause, and their extreme hatred of Americans. When undergoing interrogation, one of the PAVN POWs said through a South Vietnamese interpreter, “…there two regiments on that mountain [Chu Pong]. They want very much to kill Americans….” [Galloway, Vietnam Magazine, 5] Some of the communist soldiers displayed an almost superhuman fanaticism. Moore remarked on the PAVN’s fervor, “Even after being hit several times in the chest, many continued firing and moving for several more steps before dropping dead” [Moore, After Action Report, 8]. These reports pointed to a disturbing fact. The PAVN would not be easily defeated in South Vietnam.
The Ia Drang battle 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 [Stanton, Rise and Fall of American Army, 60], although few helicopters were actually lost. Nonetheless, helicopter damages should have raised questions about the applicability of the airmobile concept and the attrition strategy.
Westmoreland did not let the battle’s portents discourage him from pursuing an attrition strategy. In a sense he believed what he wanted to believe about the battle. It is understandable why he refused to consider the Ia Drang a defeat, or more appropriately, a draw. By the time of the battle in November 1965, he, the MACV staff, the JCS, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and the President had committed the U.S. to an attrition strategy. The primary U.S. goal in South Vietnam was to convince the DRV and the Viet Cong to end the insurgency in the south. Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton summarized the U.S.’s primary military objective in a July 2, 1965 memo to General Andrew J. Goodpaster, Assistant to the Chairman, JCS, “With respect to the word “win,” [in reference to winning in South Vietnam] this I think means that we succeed in demonstrating to the VC that they cannot win, this, of course is victory for us only if it is, with a high degree of probability, a way station toward a favorable settlement in South Vietnam.” [Pentagon Papers, Volume IV, McNaughton to Goodpaster, 292] In other words, the U.S. definition of victory did not mean the complete destruction of the DRV and Viet Cong military forces. It also did not mean winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese population or holding onto a few coastal enclaves. Victory simply meant convincing the communists to quit the war. That goal could only be achieved through attrition, by punishing the DRV and Viet Cong so thoroughly that they stopped fighting. No other strategy was considered more effective in attaining that end than attrition. Neither a pacification strategy, an enclave strategy, or a static defense of the borders would punish the DRV and VC enough to force their hand. Only the destruction of their big units, and the killing of large numbers of men, would persuade the communists to end the struggle.
With that goal in mind, the JCS and MACV developed their concept of operations for South Vietnam in July and August 1965. The strategy was finalized by the JCS by the end of August [Pentagon Papers, Volume IV, 291-300]. McNamara agreed with the JCS strategy recommendations. He wrote to the President on July 20, “The concept of tactical operations will be to exploit the offensive, with the objects of putting the VC/DRV battalion forces out of operation and of destroying their morale…pressing the fight against the VC/DRV main force units in South Vietnam to run them to ground and to destroy them.” [Pentagon Papers Volume IV, McNamara to Johnson July 20, 1965, 298]. This was search and destroy pure and simple. The attrition strategy, with its focus on big unit engagements, had many proponents, including McNamara. Westmoreland was only one of the strategy’s authors. Westmoreland first implemented the strategy at the Ia Drang in November.
Westmoreland was under incredible pressure to show success with the attrition strategy in 1965. The planned troop build-up of 1966 was riding on the success of the strategy, as was his career, and the political aspirations of President Johnson. Plus, there was no fall back strategy. Attrition was it. He had already ruled against an enclave strategy, a pacification strategy, and a static defense of South Vietnam’s borders. He had nothing else. If attrition did not work, the U.S. could not win, and future deployments to sustain the attrition strategy made no sense whatsoever. The Ia Drang had to be a victory. If it had been something else, the U.S. had no hope in South Vietnam. So Westmoreland concluded that the Ia Drang battle proved the U.S. could win in South Vietnam.
The communists came to the exact opposite conclusion from the battle. They believed the battle had proven the value of their strategy (to lure the Americans into the hinterland) and their tactics. In the first major battle between the PAVN and U.S. Army, Hanoi concluded that the PAVN had bested the Americans with all their helicopters, bombers, and bravado. The communist tactics would be fine-tuned and applied again and again in the future.
After the battle, U.S. officials hoped the PAVN and Hanoi regime would draw the proper conclusions from the Ia Drang and cease and desist in their efforts to undermine the Saigon regime. But Hanoi did no such thing. The battle of the Ia Drang spurred the DRV and Viet Cong to redouble their efforts in the south, increasing the infiltration of PAVN troops down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and ramping up Viet Cong recruitment in the South Vietnamese countryside.