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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
In standard infantry tactics, forces are moved into an attack position out of range of enemy small arms. Their objective is bombarded by artillery and air strikes, and under cover of this fire the infantry begins to move forward. At a prearranged point the supporting fires are lifted and the final assault is launched. In air combat assaults in Vietnam the process was somewhat different. The men were staged in a secure area some distance away and loaded on troop-carrying helicopters. Meanwhile, their landing zone was taken under fire by artillery, air strikes, and gunships. The bombardment continued as the troop-laden helicopters approached the zone, lifting only seconds before the initial wave touched down. Emerging from their helicopters with all guns blazing, this initial assault wave secured the landing zone to allow the rest of the attacking party to land. And this is precisely what happened at Landing Zone X-ray on the morning of November 14, 1965.
When the lead elements of Company B touched down at 1030 hours, it was probably fortunate that they were unaware of the odds they were to face. What they were soon aware of was that the aerial reconnaissance had been deceptive. What had looked like an open clearing from the air was actually thick elephant grass up to five feet in height. The area was dotted with eight-foot-high anthills, and the terrain to the west on the foothills of the Chu Phong Mountains was especially dense.
But while far from ideal, this ground did not prevent helicopter landings, and the battalion commander, Lt. Col. (later Lt. Gen.) Harold G. Moore, immediately ordered the rest of the battalion to close. Within minutes the lead elements of Company A were on the ground. So far the landing had been unopposed, but at 1245 hours Company B, moving northwest to expand the landing zone, ran headlong into two companies of North Vietnamese infantry. The resulting fire fight triggered a barrage of North Vietnamese rocket and mortar fire on the landing zone, which made immediate helicopter reinforcement extremely hazardous. Most of Company C and the lead elements of Company D had landed, but as the helicopters began taking heavy ground fire, Colonel Moore waved off the rest of the lift. The forward rifle companies, now under intense, close-range machine-gun and automatic-weapons fire, broke off their attack and hastily assumed defensive positions. One platoon of B Company, however, found itself surrounded.
Now aware that his battalion was heavily outnumbered, at 1500 hours Colonel Moore requested reinforcements. The 120 men of Company B, 2d Battalion, 7th Cavalry, were alerted to fly into the battle area, and the entire 2d Battalion, 5th Cavalry, was moved by air to Landing Zone Victor, about two and a half miles southeast of Landing Zone X-ray, and was ordered to march overland toward the sound of the guns at first light the next day.
Meanwhile, the cut-off platoon of Company B was taking heavy casualties. At 1620 hours a coordinated attack by Company A and the remainder of Company B to relieve them stalled in the face of heavy enemy fire. Unable to make forward progress and risking defeat in detail (that is, having his companies picked off one at a time by superior enemy forces), Colonel Moore saw that the immediate key to survival of his battalion was to hold the landing zone at all costs and to await reinforcement. As he pulled his companies back into a tight perimeter around the landing zone, helicopters began to land the lead elements of Company B, 2d Battalion, 7th Cavalry, and by 1800 hours the entire company had closed. By 1900 hours the perimeter defense was complete, and the battalion awaited the attack it believed was to come.
At dawn on November 15, the North Vietnamese struck bringing Company C under heavy attack and wounding its commander. Despite fierce hand-to-hand fighting, the company managed to hang on. At 0715 hours Company D also came under attack, and by 0745 the entire battalion was under fire. At 0755 Colonel Moore again asked for reinforcements, and Company A, 2d Battalion, 7th Cavalry, was alerted to move in by air. For the next two hours the rifle companies of the 1st Battalion kept up their fire and held their position. The North Vietnamese fire began to slacken by 0900 hours, and by 1000 hours they broke contact. Shortly thereafter the four rifle companies of the 2d Battalion, 5th Cavalry, marched in from Landing Zone Victor to join the perimeter.
With ten rifle companies now available—his own four, two from the 2d Battalion, 7th Cavalry, and four from the newly arrived 2d Battalion, 5th Cavalry—Colonel Moore launched an attack to rescue the stranded platoon, and at 1510 hours, November 15, contact was finally reestablished. The survivors had undergone a harrowing experience, one described vividly in the official history of the battle: