February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
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.
Where was this battlefield? To say that it was in Indochina or more precisely in the central highlands of South Vietnam doesn’t help much. But visualize for a moment the United States as it existed in the 175Os during the French and Indian Wars. Recall that the American settlers lived mostly on a narrow strip between the Atlantic and the foothills of the Appalachians. To the west were a series of outposts—Fort Pitt, at the confluence of the Monongahela and the Allegheny, for instance—to protect the settlements from attack by the French and their Indian allies, whose forces stretched in a great arc from the mouth of the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes, then south to the Mississippi delta.
Now superimpose South Vietnam on that map: its coastline extends about the distance from Pittsburgh (Fort Pitt) to Savannah. Like our early settlers, most of the Vietnamese also live in a narrow strip along the coast. In place of the Appalachians are the mountains of the Chaîne Annamitique, with peaks reaching over eight thousand feet. Beginning in the early 1960s, the South Vietnamese, with the help of American Special Forces teams, established a series of outposts in these highlands along the hundreds of miles of border they shared with Laos and Cambodia. These were built to protect South Vietnam from the North Vietnamese, who, like the French and Indians, also stretched in a great arc to the north and west, from the Demilitarized Zone south along the socalled Ho Chi Minh Trail in supposedly neutral Laos and Cambodia. One of these outposts was at Plei Me, about two hundred and fifty miles from Saigon and a hundred inland from the coast. This was rugged country, inhabited only by small bands of Montagnards (what we would have called’Indians) of the Jarai tribe. About fifteen miles southwest of Plei Me, astride the Cambodian border, the densely forested Chu Phong Mountains rise eighteen hundred feet from the valley of the Ia Drang River. At first glance it would seem a most unlikely site for a battle.
But for the North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap and his field commanders, this isolated area was the perfect place to begin their campaign to conquer South Vietnam. The groundwork for the battle of the Ia Drang had been laid in Hanoi a year earlier when the North Vietnamese Politbureau made what Maj. Gen. Dave Palmer has called “the key command decision of the war”: the decision to commit their regular armed forces to battle in the south. Besides bolstering the guerrilla forces of the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese intended to bring the war to a close by slicing South Vietnam in half with an attack from their bases in Cambodia across the central highlands to the sea. The first step was to be an assault on the Special Forces camp at Plei Me. The 33d North Vietnamese Army Regiment would mount the attack while the 32d Regiment lay in ambush along the approaches of the camp to destroy any relief force. It was hardly a new strategy, but Hanoi had not counted on the airmobile tactics of the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division.
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.
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.
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:
“[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…”
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.”
His remark was particularly telling because it highlighted the disregard for military history and military theory that marked our Vietnam-era Army. The North Vietnamese colonel was echoing an admonition made by Clausewitz one hundred and fifty years earlier:
“If we do not learn to regard a war, and the separate campaigns of which it is composed, as a chain of linked engagements each leading to the next… we are liable to regard them as windfall profits. In so doing, and in ignoring the fact that they are links in a continuous chain of events, we also ignore the possibility that [a successful battle] may later lead to definite disadvantages. This mistake is illustrated again and again in military history… an isolated advantage gained in war cannot be assessed separately from the general results [for] in war the advantages and disadvantages of a single action could only be determined by the final balance.”
The “final balance” of the Vietnam War was victory for the North Vietnamese army and the conquest of South Vietnam. The link between their initial defeat in the Ia Drang and their final victory is revealed by their selection of Ban Me Thuot in the central highlands, just a few miles south of the Ia Drang valley, as the launching point of their final offensive. Repeating the tactics they had used in 1965, they attacked eastward from their sanctuaries in Cambodia on March 10, 1975, concentrating three divisions against one South Vietnamese regiment. The massive American firepower that had saved the day at the Ia Drang and had foiled the offensives of 1968 and 1972 was no longer available to the South Vietnamese defenders, and this time the North Vietnamese were victorious. Quickly exploiting their success, they soon cut South Vietnam in two, as they had planned to do almost a decade earlier, and on April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to the army of North Vietnam.
For the Americans, on the other hand, success in this first battle truly led “to definite disadvantages.” Dazzled by victory, the Army was blinded to the fact that the whole nature of the war had changed. It had become more a conventional than an unconventional war, with the Viet Cong acting as picadors (the horsemen at a bullfight who prod the bull with lances to weaken its neck and shoulder muscles) to wear us down while the North Vietnamese army played the role of the matador, waiting in the wings until it was time for the killing blow. Cocky and sure of itself, enamored of the new and fashionable doctrines of counterinsurgency, the Army could not see what was obvious even to civilian observers. On November 16, 1965, the front page of The New York Times carried the war correspondent Neil Sheehan’s battlefield dispatch. “Although the implications of the fighting were not clear,” he wrote, “it appeared that something was taking place that might indicate a change in the character of the war. The battle around Plei Me… would have been unthinkable only a few weeks previously in what had been primarily a hit-and-run insurgency in South Vietnam by irregulars.” But instead of turning attention to North Vietnam after the Ia Drang battle and applying military power to block infiltration into the South, the combat power of the U. S. Army was largely frittered away in social programs such as pacification and nation building. After seven years with no victory in sight, American patience finally ran out, and in 1972-73 all American combat units were withdrawn from the war. Without American fire support, the combat advantage passed to the North Vietnamese army, an advantage they successfully exploited with their blitzkrieg in the spring of 1975.
Terrible as it may be to say, it might have been better in the long run if we had lost this first battle, as we had lost the first major battle of World War II. While we celebrate the Normandy invasion and VE-Day, few now recall the battle between American and German forces in the Sbeitla Valley in North Africa in February 1943. At the Paid and Kasserine passes, American forces were outgunned, outranged, and outfought, and we suffered a disastrous defeat. This setback provided a valuable lesson, one we never learned in Vietnam. Our initial defeat in North Africa scared us with the knowledge that if we did not devise better strategies and tactics, we could lose the war.
The sad truth is that in Vietnam our mind was never concentrated on how to win the war. Our initial victory had lulled us into the delusion that no matter what we did, we couldn’t lose. Because we did not see the connection between the Ia Drang battle and our ultimate goal, we made the fatal error (as Clausewitz put it) of “taking the first step without considering the last.” When Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford assumed office in 1968, he found that no one could tell him what constituted “victory,” no one could tell him our plan to end the war. We had violated the first and the most important principle of war, the Principle of the Objective, and with such a deficiency, the final outcome was inevitable.