Vietnam War Battlefields: The Lessons Of The Ia Drang Valley, LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany.
Above Photo: A North Vietnamese officer communicates with his commander during a battle.
When I was in Vietnam on a research trip for my Vietnam War/Backpacker crossover novel, BACK, I tried without success to be taken into the Ia Drang Valley, which is now strictly off-limits. I wanted to visit the notorious Vietnam War battle of LZ X-Ray (and the less famous but equally bloody LZ Albany), which took place in 1965. LZ stands for ‘Landing Zone’ – small clearings in the jungle or bush where helicopters could safely land.
The LZ X-Ray battle is now remembered in popular culture more for being the subject of the film ‘We Were Soldiers’, starring Mel Gibson.
During my trip research, I came across an excellent article by Joe Galloway, the only newsman trapped with the US solders in the Ia Drang Valley when the North Vietnamese Army attacked. His article sets out the very different lessons drawn from the Ia Drang battles by the US Administration and by Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi at the time.
Below is an edited version of his article, originally posted on historynet.com, and I’ve put a link to the full, unedited article at the end.
Many of the photos I sourced actually turned out to have been taken by Joe Galloway too; most of them are now hosted on www.lzxray.com, an excellent website that contains many more original photos from the battle and is well worth checking out.
Ia Drang – The Battle That Convinced Ho Chi Minh He Could Win.
By Joe Galloway.
“November of 1965, a lone, understrength battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) ventured where no force—not the French, not the South Vietnamese army, not the newly arrived American combat troops—had ever gone: Deep into an enemy sanctuary in the forested jungles of a plateau in the Central Highlands where the Drang River flowed into Cambodia.
What happened there, in the Ia Drang Valley, 17 miles from the nearest red-dirt road at Plei Me and 37 miles from the provincial capital of Pleiku, sounded alarm bells in the Johnson White House and the Pentagon as they tallied the American losses—a stunning butcher’s bill of 234 men killed and more than 250 wounded in just four days and nights, November 14-17, in two adjacent clearings dubbed Landing Zones X-ray and Albany. Another 71 Americans had been killed in earlier, smaller skirmishes that led up to the Ia Drang battles.
To that point, around 1,100 Americans had died in the United States’ slow-growing but ever-deepening involvement in South Vietnam, most of them in twos and threes. Now the North Vietnamese Army had arrived off the Ho Chi Minh Trail and had made itself felt. In just over one month, 305 American dead had been added to the toll from the Ia Drang fight alone. November 1965 was the deadliest month yet for the Americans, with 545 killed.
The North Vietnamese regulars, young men who had been drafted into the military much as the young American men had been, paid a much higher price to test the newcomers: an estimated 3,561 of them had been killed, and thousands more wounded, in the 34-day Ia Drang campaign.
What happened when the American cavalrymen and the People’s Army of Vietnam (NVA) collided head-on in the Ia Drang had military and civilian leaders in Washington, Saigon and Hanoi scrambling to assess what it meant, and what had been learned.
Both sides understood that the war had changed suddenly and dramatically. At higher levels, both sides claimed victory in the Ia Drang, although those who fought and bled and watched good soldiers die all around them were loath to use so grand a word for something so tragic and terrible that would people their nightmares for a lifetime.
The big battles began when then–Lt. Col. Hal Moore, a 43-year-old West Point graduate was given orders to airlift his 450-man 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, into the valley on a search-and-destroy mission. After a cautious aerial reconnaissance by helicopter, he selected a football field–sized clearing at the base of the Chu Pong Massif, a 2,401-foot-high piece of ground that stretched to the Cambodian border and beyond for several miles.
Sketchy American intelligence said the area was home base for possibly a regiment of the enemy. In fact, there were three NVA regiments within an easy walk of that clearing, totalling some 1,600 troops.
Two of those enemy regiments had already been busy since arriving in the Central Highlands.
In mid-October, the NVA’s 32nd Regiment had surrounded and laid siege to the American Special Forces camp at Plei Me.
Although they could have easily crushed the defenders—a 12-man Special Forces team and 100 Montagnard tribesmen—the NVA dangled them as bait, hoping to lure a relief force of the South Vietnamese Army out of Pleiku and into an ambush laid by their brothers of the NVA’s 33rd Regiment.
It was an old guerrilla ploy that usually worked, but not here, not now. The South Vietnamese commander knew if he lost the relief force, Pleiku would be left defenseless. He pressed the Americans to provide continuous artillery and air cover as the relief column moved toward Plei Me.
When the ambush was sprung, American artillery wreaked havoc on the North Vietnamese ambush. Both enemy regiments then withdrew toward the Ia Drang with a brigade of Air Cav troopers dogging their footsteps.
Then–Lt. Col. Hoang Phuong, an NVA historian who’d spent two months walking south, charged with writing the “Lessons Learned” report on the coming battles, said that it was during this phase that the retreating NVA troops began learning what air mobility was all about. The UH-1B Huey helicopters buzzed around the rugged area like so many bees, landing American troops among the North Vietnamese, forcing them to split up into ever-smaller groups like coveys of quail pressed hard by the hunters.
On November 3, Lt. Col. John B. Stockton and his 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, battalion of scouts were ordered to focus attention on a particular branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail alongside the Ia Drang River close to the Cambodian border. Stockton sent one of his companies of infantry, under command of Captain Charles S. Knowlen, to a clearing near that site. He took along a platoon of mortars belonging to the 8th Cavalry, which had been sent with Stockton as possible reinforcements if needed.
Knowlen sent out three platoon-sized ambush patrols. One of those platoons set up near the trail and began hearing the noise of a large enemy group moving toward it.
The platoon of Americans held their breath and their fire until they heard the louder clanking noise of the enemy’s heavy weapons company moving along the Trail and into the kill zone. The Americans blew their claymore mines and emptied a magazine each from their M-16 rifles into the confused North Vietnamese and then took off, running like hell straight back to the patrol base. A very angry NVA battalion was right behind them.
Knowlen and his men beat back three waves of attacking North Vietnamese, but the company commander feared the next attack would overrun his position. Knowlen radioed Stockton and begged for reinforcements as fast as possible. Stockton radioed his higher-up, Brig. Gen. Richard Knowles at Camp Holloway/Pleiku, requesting permission to send reinforcements. Knowles denied Stockton permission, but Stockton ignored him and sent the men aboard choppers anyway.
They were about to make history, conducting the first nighttime heli-borne infantry assault into a very hot landing zone. They arrived in the nick of time as the next North Vietnamese assault began. The reinforcements joined the battle, and even the helicopter crews got out of their birds and joined in with their M-60 machine guns and pilots’ pistols.
All of this was merely a prelude, setting the stage for the savage mid-November battles at LZs X-ray and Albany.
When Hal Moore took the first lift of 16 Hueys—all that he was given for this maneuver—into the landing zone he had chosen in the Ia Drang, he was painfully aware that he was on the ground with only 90 men, and that they would be there alone for half an hour or longer while the choppers returned to Plei Me Camp, to pick up more waiting troops.
It was a 34-mile round trip, but the luck was with Moore; the clearing was silent for now.
Then his men took a prisoner, a North Vietnamese private who was quaking so hard he could barely speak. When he finally did say something, it sent chills through the Americans listening to the translator: “He say there are two regiments on that mountain. They want very much to kill Americans but have not been able to find any.”
Within an hour of landing and the second airlift of troops just arriving, the battle at X-ray was joined. There were maybe 2,000 North Vietnamese troops up against 450 US troops a the height of the battle, which lasted for three days and two nights before the North Vietnamese vanished into the tangle of brush and elephant grass, leaving a large circle of their dead scattered around the American position.
The smell of rotting corpses hung heavy over X-Ray as reinforcements arrived in the form of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, under its new commander Lt. Col. Robert McDade. There were now three Cavalry battalions crammed into that clearing. General Knowles wanted to bring in the first-ever B-52 strike in tactical support of ground troops, even though X-Ray was “danger close” to the rain of bombs that would fall on the nearby slopes of Chu Pong.
Moore’s remaining men would be pulled out by helicopters and lifted to Camp Holloway on November 16.
On the morning of November 17, Bob McDade’s 2-7 Battalion plus one company of 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry marched out of X-Ray, headed towards another clearing closer to the river, dubbed LZ Albany.
As McDade’s battalion neared the Albany clearing, it was halted, strung out along 550 yards of narrow trail hemmed in by much thicker triple canopy jungle. The Recon Platoon had captured two North Vietnamese soldiers. A third had escaped. McDade and his command group went forward so the battalion commander could personally put questions to the prisoners through the interpreter.
He also ordered all four company commanders to come forward to receive instructions on how he wanted them deployed around the perimeter of Albany. They all arrived with their radio operators, and all but one of them brought their first sergeants with them too.
The enemy commander, Lt. Col. Nguyen Hu An, had kept one of the battalions of the 66th Regiment in reserve, and unbeknownst to the Americans that battalion was taking a lunch break just off the trail.
The North Vietnamese swiftly deployed along the left side of the column and prepared to attack. The weary Americans, who had had little or no sleep for the last three days and nights, had slumped to the ground where they had stopped. Some ate; some smoked; some fell asleep right there. Suddenly, enemy mortars exploded among the Americans signaling the NVA attack, and they charged through the tall grass and cut through the thin line of Cavalry troops strung out along the trail.
North Vietnamese machine gunners climbed on top of big termite mounds and opened up. Snipers were up in the trees. The fighting quickly disintegrated into hand-to-hand combat, and men were dying all around.
In the next six hours, McDade’s battalion would lose 155 men killed and 120 wounded.
An artillery liaison officer in a Huey overhead wanted desperately to call fire missions in support, but was helpless. All he could see was smoke rising through the jungle canopy. At the head of the column, McDade had no idea where most of his men were and was near-incoherent on the radio. The Americans trapped in the kill zone were on their own.
Later artillery and napalm airstrikes were called in, but they often fell on enemies and friends alike.
All through that night, NVA troops combed through the elephant grass searching for their own wounded, and finishing off any wounded Americans they came across. Both sides had lost interest in taking prisoners. There were no Americans captured and only four North Vietnamese prisoners taken—all at X-ray and none at Albany. When the ambush was sprung at Albany, an intelligence sergeant shot and killed the two North Vietnamese prisoners with a .45-caliber pistol.
An Associated Press photographer, Rick Merron, and a Vietnamese TV network cameraman, Vo Nguyen, had finagled a ride on a helicopter going into Albany on the morning of November 18. After a short stay, Merron grabbed another chopper going back to Camp Holloway, and the word spread quickly that a battalion of Americans had been massacred in the valley.
General Knowles called a news conference late on the 18th. He told the dozens of reporters who had assembled that there was no ambush of the Americans at Albany. It was, he said, “a meeting engagement.” Casualties were light to moderate, he added.
I had just returned from Albany myself, and I stood and told the general, “That’s bullshit, sir, and you know it!” The news conference dissolved in a chorus of angry shouting.
In Washington, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent an urgent message to Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, who was in Europe, ordering him to come home via Saigon and find out what had happened at Ia Drang, and what it meant. McNamara met with Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in Saigon and then flew to the 1st Cavalry Division base camp at An Khe, where he was briefed by senior officers, including Colonel Moore.
On the flight across the Pacific, McNamara wrote a top-secret memo to President Johnson dated November 30. McNamara told LBJ that the enemy had not only met but exceeded our escalation.
“We have come to a decision point and it seems we have only two choices: Either we arrange whatever diplomatic cover we can find and get out of Vietnam, or we give General William C. Westmoreland the 200,000 additional U.S. troops he is asking for, in which case by early 1967 we will have 500,000 Americans on the ground and they will be dying at the rate of 1,000 a month” (the top Pentagon bean counter was wrong about that; American combat deaths would top out at over 3,000 a month in 1968). McNamara added that all this would achieve was a military stalemate at a much higher level of violence.
On December 15, 1965, LBJ’s council of “wise old men,” which included McNamara, was assembled at the White House to decide the path ahead in Vietnam. As the president walked into the room, he was holding McNamara’s November 30 memo in his hand. Shaking it at the defense secretary, he said, “You mean to tell me no matter what I do I can’t win in Vietnam?” McNamara nodded yes. The wise men talked for two days without seriously considering McNamara’s “Option 1″—getting out of Vietnam—and ultimately voted unanimously in favor of further escalation of the war.
Back in Saigon, General Westmoreland and senior Intelligence officers, were studying the statistics of the Ia Drang battles.
What they saw was a ratio of 12 North Vietnamese killed for each American. They decided that these results justified a strategy of attrition: They would bleed the enemy to death over the long haul. One of Westmoreland’s brighter young aides later would write, “a strategy of attrition is proof that you have no strategy at all.”
In any event, the strategy was an utter failure. In no year of that long war did the North Vietnamese war death toll even come close to equaling the natural birth rate increase of the population. In other words, every year reaching out far into the future there were more babies born in the north than NVA we were killing in the south, so each year a new crop of draftees arrived as replacements for the dead.
Seven hundred miles north in Hanoi, President Ho Chi Minh and his lieutenants likewise carefully studied the results of the Ia Drang campaign. They were confident they would eventually win the war. Their peasant soldiers had withstood the high-tech firestorm thrown at them by a superpower and had at least fought the Americans to a draw, and to them a draw against so powerful an enemy was a victory.
In time the same patience and perseverance that had ground down the French colonial military would likewise grind down the Americans.
Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap studied the battles and correctly identified the helicopter as the biggest innovation, biggest threat and biggest change in warfare that the Americans brought to the battlefield.
Giap would later say: “We thought that the Americans must have a strategy. We did. We had a strategy of people’s war. You had tactics, and it takes very decisive tactics to win a strategic victory….If we could defeat your tactics—your helicopters—then we could defeat your strategy. Our goal was to win the war.”
The NVA commander directing the fight at X-ray, Lt. Col. Nguyen Hu An, revealed to us in Hanoi in 1991 that they had figured out one other way to neutralize the American artillery and air power. It was called “Hug Them by the Belt Buckle”—or get in so close to the U.S. troops that the firepower could not be used, for fear of killing and wounding their own. Then, said An, the fight would be man-to-man and much better odds.
For the Americans, Ia Drang proved the concept of airmobile infantry warfare. Some had feared that the helicopters were too flimsy and fragile to fly into the hottest of landing zones. They were not.
All 16 Hueys dedicated to lifting and supporting Colonel Moore’s besieged force in X-Ray were shot full of holes, but only two were unable to fly out on their own. The rest brought in ammunition, grenades, water and medical supplies, and took out the American wounded in scores of sorties. Without them, the battles of the Ia Drang could never have taken place. The Huey was on its way to becoming the most familiar icon of the war.
General Giap also learned one very important lesson. When a US commander asked for permission to pursue the withdrawing North Vietnamese troops across the border into their sanctuaries inside Cambodia, cables flew between Saigon and Washington.
The answer from LBJ’s White House was that absolutely no hot pursuit across the borders would be authorized. With that, the United States ceded the strategic initiative for much of the rest of the war to General Giap. From that point forward, Giap would decide where and when the battles would be fought, and when they would end. And they would always end with the withdrawal of his forces across a nearby border to sanctuaries where they could rest, reinforce and refit for the next battle.
Another political decision flowing out of the Johnson White House—limiting the tour of duty in Vietnam to 12 months (13 months for Marines)—would soon begin to bite hard. The first units arriving in Vietnam in 1965 had trained together for many months before they were ordered to war. They knew each other and their capabilities. They had built cohesion as a unit, a team, and that is a powerful force multiplier. But their tour was up in the summer of 1966, and all of them got up and went home, taking all they had learned in the hardest of schools with them. They were replaced by new draftees, who flowed in as individual replacements and who knew no one around them, and nothing of their outfit’s history and esprit.
The North Vietnamese soldier’s term of service was radically different—he would serve until victory or death. One of those soldiers wrote of marching south in 1965 with a battalion of some 400 men. When the war ended in 1975, that man and five others were all that were left alive of the 400.
General Giap knew all along that his country and his army would prevail against the Americans just as they had outlasted and worn down their French enemy. The battles of Ia Drang in November 1965, although costly to him in raw numbers of men, reinforced his confidence. And, while by any standards the American performance there was heroic and tactical air mobility was proven, the cost of such “victories” was clearly unsustainable, even then. Even in the eyes of the war’s chief architect.
In the late 1940s, Giap wrote this uncannily accurate prediction of the course of the Viet Minh war against the French:
“The enemy will pass slowly from the offensive to the defensive. The blitzkrieg will transform itself into a war of long duration. Thus, the enemy will be caught in a dilemma: He has to drag out the war in order to win it and does not possess, on the other hand, the psychological and political means to fight a long-drawn-out war.
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