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The Bitter Triumph Of Ia Drang
The first major engagement of the U. S. Army in Vietnam was a decisive American victory. Perhaps it would have been better for all of us if it had been a defeat.
February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
This was an understandable error; at the time the North Vietnamese planners were mapping out their campaign, the 1st Cavalry Division had been guarding the Demilitarized Zone in Korea. It was only in June 1965 that their colors were moved from Korea to Fort Benning, Georgia, to fly over a brand new Army organization—the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). This division was designed for a whole new concept of warfare. Whereas in World War II and Korea soldiers had moved into battle on foot or in armored trucks and sometimes in half-tracks and armored personnel carriers, now they would no longer be bound to roads and trails. They would fly into battle in helicopters. Over four hundred aircraft were assigned to the division, including “Hueys” (from the acronym UH1D —Utility Helicopter Model 1D) to transport infantrymen in a combat assault, “Chinooks” (from CH47—Cargo Helicopter Model 47) to move artillery into position, and armed helicopters with machine guns and aerial rockets for additional fire support. Although the North Vietnamese had been forewarned by President Lyndon Johnson’s July 28, 1965, public announcement that the 1st Cavalry Division would be sent to Vietnam, they had every reason to foresee concluding their campaign before the division could be trained and deployed halfway around the world. While this was a logical assumption, it was an incorrect one, for in a remarkable demonstration of strategic mobility, the advance party landed in Vietnam by mid-August, and the combat elements of the division closed by midSeptember. Now the antagonists were in place.
At first things seemed to be going according to plan for the North Vietnamese. By the end of August 1965 they had succeeded in isolating the battlefield by cutting Highway 19, the main supply route from the coast to the provincial capital at Pleiku, and they had also cut Highways 14 and 21 leading south to Saigon. On October 19, 1965, their 33d Regiment began the siege of the Special Forces camp at Plei Me, some thirty-five miles south of Pleiku. As planned, their 32d Regiment was deployed along the road from Pleiku. After ambushing the anticipated South Vietnamese army relief column, the 32d would join in the attack on the camp. But the North Vietnamese had tipped their hand, and Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. Forces in Vietnam, quickly moved to upset their plans. He ordered the 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division (a brigade is roughly the American equivalent of a North Vietnamese regiment), into a blocking position south and west of Pleiku. Flying over the enemy roadblocks, the brigade, and especially its artillery, played a key role in supporting the South Vietnamese relief column, which broke through to the besieged camp at Plei Me on October 26, 1965. The 32d North Vietnamese Army Regiment slipped away to the west, but the soldiers of the 33d, who had been mauled by the South Vietnamese relief column and by American air and artillery strikes on their ambush positions, were further decimated by cavalry gunships as they attempted to retreat. By early November they finally managed to escape their pursuers and began to regroup near the Chu Phong Mountains in the valley of the Ia Drang. With only 700 effective soldiers left of the original 2,200, the 33d Regiment needed help. To replenish his battered forces, the North Vietnamese commander ordered the 2,000 soldiers of his reserve regiment, the 66th, forward from its staging area in Cambodia into the Ia Drang valley. He planned to use this fresh regiment, supported by the 32d and the remnants of the 33d, to renew the attack on the Plei Me camp on November 16, 1965. But the 1st Cavalry Division had other plans.
Earlier, on October 27, with the enemy on the run, General Westmoreland had switched the 1st Cavalry from the tactical defensive to the tactical offensive, with orders to seek out and destroy the enemy forces in western Pleiku Province. Like the North Vietnamese, the Americans were reinforcing. On November 9, Maj. Gen. Harry W. O. Kinnard, the 1st Cavalry Division Commander, ordered his 3d Brigade to join the action. Like the North Vietnamese regiments, this brigade was organized into three infantry battalions, the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 7th Cavalry and the 2d Battalion of the 5th Cavalry. Having failed to locate the North Vietnamese in the areas south and southeast of Plei Me, the 3d Brigade turned its attention to the southwest. After aerial reconnaissance it was decided to order the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, to combat assault into the largest landing site available. Labeled “Landing Zone X-ray,” this was in the valley of the Ia Drang at the very edge of the Chu Phong Mountains. Without realizing it, the 1st Cavalry was launching its attack right into the middle of the North Vietnamese staging area.
Hanoi had not counted on the tactics of a brand new U.S. Army organization.
In their first major battle the Americans were facing terrible odds. As we have seen, there were 2,700 North Vietnamese soldiers in the immediate area—the three battalions of the 66th North Vietnamese Army Regiment and the battalion-sized remnant of the 33d. Nearby were three more battalions of the 32d North Vietnamese Army Regiment. The four American companies, A, B, C, and D, of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, went into the attack with only two-thirds of their authorized strength—20 officers and 411 men.