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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
“[When his platoon was cut off, the platoon leader, Lt. Henry T. Herrick, formed the men into a defensive perimeter. ] The North Vietnamese laced the small perimeter with fire so low to the ground that few of Herrick’s men were able to employ their intrenching tools to provide themselves cover. Through it all the men returned the fire, taking a heavy toll of the enemy. Staff Sergeant Clyde E. Savage, the 3d squad leader, firing his M16, hit twelve of the enemy himself during the course of the afternoon. In midafternoon Lieutenant Herrick was hit by a bullet which entered his hip, coursed through his body, and went out through his right shoulder. As he lay dying, the lieutenant continued to direct his perimeter defense, and in his last few moments he gave his signal operation instructions book to Staff Sergeant Carl L. Palmer, his platoon sergeant, with orders to burn it if capture seemed imminent. He told Palmer to redistribute the ammunition, call in artillery fire, and at the first opportunity try to make a break for it. Sergeant Palmer, himself already slightly wounded, had no sooner taken command than he too was killed.
“The 2d Squad leader took charge. He rose on his hands and knees and mumbled to no one in particular that he was going to get the platoon out of danger. He had just finished the sentence when a bullet smashed into his head. Killed in the same hail of bullets was the forward observer for the 81-mm. mortar. The artillery reconnaissance sergeant, who had been traveling with the platoon, was shot in the neck. Seriously wounded, he became delirious and the men had difficulty keeping him quiet.
“Sergeant Savage now took command. Snatching the artilleryman’s radio, he began calling in and adjusting artillery fire. Within minutes he had ringed the perimeter with well-placed concentrations, some as close to the position as twenty meters. The fire did much to discourage attempts to overrun the perimeter, but the platoon’s position still was precarious. Of the 27 men in the platoon, 8 had been killed and 12 wounded, leaving less than a squad of effectives.
“[When the relief column broke through the next day, they found that through] individual bravery, and, most important of all, Sergeant Savage’s expert use of artillery fire, the platoon had incurred not a single additional casualty after Savage had taken command…”
Of the 27 men in the cut-off platoon, 8 had been killed and 12 wounded, leaving less than a squad of effectives.
For Colonel Moore and the men of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, the climax of the battle had passed. At 0930 hours on November 16 the remainder of the 2d Battalion, 7th Cavalry, closed in to Landing Zone X-ray, and soon thereafter the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, was extracted from the battle area to rest and regroup.
Without detracting from the valor of the infantrymen who beat back enemy attacks time and again, often in hand-to-hand fighting, credit must be paid to the role of artillery and air support in the Ia Drang battle. During the fight the light artillery of the 1st Cavalry Division fired some 33,108 rounds of 105-mm ammunition, the aerial artillery fired 3,756 rounds of 2.75-inch rockets, Air Force tactical air strikes pounded the enemy with rockets, cannon, napalm, cluster-bomb units, and 500pound bombs, and, in addition, B-52s of the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, each carrying a 36,000-pound bomb load, were used for the first time in support of ground operations when they bombed the Chu Phong Mountains. This firepower made a profound difference in battlefield losses. From November 14 to 16 Colonel Moore’s force suffered 79 Americans killed in action and 121 wounded, while the enemy left 634 bodies on the battlefield—a disparity that was to carry forward throughout the entire war, where in comparison with the 55,000 Americans killed in action, General Giap admitted the loss of some 600,000 North Vietnamese soldiers in fighting between 1965 and 1968.
In the White House Rose Garden on August 19, 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded the 1st Cavalry Division the highest battlefield honor that a unit can receive—the Presidential Unit Citation. Citing the division for its “outstanding performance of duty and extraordinary heroism” in the battle of the Ia Drang, the President praised the men of the division for “completely defeating the numerically superior enemy.” It was a fitting honor, for the first engagement of the war between the regular forces of the United States and North Vietnam was a clear victory for the Americans. We had won the battle.
The terrible irony of Vietnam is that from 1965 until its withdrawal in January 1973, the U. S. Army not only won this first battle, it won every battle it fought with the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese army. In Hanoi on a negotiating mission nine and a half years after the battle of the Ia Drang, I told a North Vietnamese colonel, “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield.” He replied, “That may be so. But it is also irrelevant.”