Turning Point

How the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley Changed the Course of the Vietnam War

Fifty years ago today, one of the Vietnam war’s most ferocious battles broke out in the Ia Drang Valley. But the battle’s true toll would prove to be the hubris it bred in U.S. commanders.

Fifty years ago today, November 14, 1965, the first wave of troopers from a battalion of the First Cavalry Division, an elite unit of the U.S. Army that had turned in its horses for helicopters and an experimental “airmobile” assault doctrine, debouched from its Bell UH-1 “Huey” transports into a tree-lined clearing, dotted with patches of elephant grass and red-brown anthills. Suddenly, 90 Americans found themselves in the Ia Drang Valley, deep in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands, a remote Communist base area from the days of the French Indochina War of the late 1940s and early1950s.

Within seconds of touching down at the base of the Chu Pong Massif, a 2,400-foot high mountain mass that stretched some seven miles westward into Cambodia, the battalion commander, a no-nonsense West Pointer named Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore, had sent out scouting parties into the tree line at the clearing’s edge. The rest of his force began to secure a perimeter in the center of the clearing. The battalion “had come looking for trouble,” Moore wrote years later. “We found all that we wanted and more.”

Army intelligence estimated the presence of a single enemy regiment of about 2,200 soldiers in the immediate vicinity. In fact, Moore’s battalion, the 1st of the 7th Cavalry, had landed within strolling distance of three regiments of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN)—the regular army of North Vietnam. As it happened, the North Vietnamese, too, were looking for trouble. According to Brig. Gen. Chu Huy Man, commander of the Central Highlands front, most of his troops had only recently arrived in the Highlands after an arduous, two-month trek from North Vietnam down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.They had been very active in the area over the preceding month, laying siege to a Special Forces camp at nearby Plei Me. Now they hoped to lure the newly arrived American forces into a major engagement in order to learn their tactics—especially how they used helicopters to deploy infantry units deep inside Communist-held territory, and to keep them supplied in extended operations.

Although it is little remembered today, the battle that unfolded over the course of the next three days proved to be one of the most intense and savagely fought ground actions in American military history since World War II. Moreover, it marked a strategic sea-change with profound implications in the violent struggle for control over South Vietnam that had been escalating slowly since 1959.

Even before Moore's battalion established a firm perimeter and landed its entire complement of 450 troops into the fighting zone, the 33rd and 66th Regiments had launched multiple assaults against the Americans. All were turned back with very heavy PAVN casualties. One unlucky American platoon from B Company was completely cut off and surrounded by the enemy 300 yards to the northwest of the battalion perimeter. By the time it was rescued about 28 hours later, it had fended off countless enemy assaults, and 20 of its 27 men had been killed or wounded.

Hard fighting continued throughout the afternoon of November 14. Only the deft insertion of another American battalion into the fight under heavy fire, and emergency resupply missions by a helicopter pilot who would later be awarded the Medal of Honor, prevented the North Vietnamese from overrunning the perimeter and routing the Americans on the first day of the battle.

As night settled over the cramped and corpse-littered battlefield, the outnumbered American force had taken 87 casualties. But the American infantry alone had killed around 200 PAVN troops; another couple of hundred of the enemy had fallen well outside the perimeter as a result of fighter bomber attacks and pinpoint-accurate artillery fire.

soldiersAround 7 a.m. on November 15, the North Vietnamese launched a furious three-company (about 400 men) frontal assault against the lines of C-Company, killing three of its five officers within minutes. By 7:15, the North Vietnamese had launched two more powerful assaults from entirely different directions. As Moore’s men threw up torrents of machine gun and rifle fire to blunt the attacks, a dozen enemy mortar and rocket rounds exploded within the American perimeter, killing and wounding several of Moore’s troopers.

For a few minutes during that unforgettably intense morning, PAVN assault teams got inside C Company’s lines, and began to kill wounded Americans. According to Lt. Col. Moore’s after-action report, by 8 a.m., the entire LZ was “severely threatened,” and a fair number of soldiers in and around his command post had been killed or wounded by increasingly dense small arms fire. Yet the Americans held on doggedly, as Moore and his company commanders deftly maneuvered squads and platoons from one sector of the perimeter to the next, turning back each enemy thrust in turn.

After the final assaults against Charlie Company that morning, Lt. Rick Rescorla surveyed the grim scene: “There were American and PAVN bodies everywhere … There were several dead PAVN around one platoon command post. One dead trooper was looked in contact with a dead PAVN, hands around the enemy’s throat. There were two troopers—one black, one Hispanic—linked tight together. It looked like they had died trying to help each other.”

“The enemy were aggressive, and they came off the mountain in large groups,” Moore’s after-action report continues. “They were well camouflaged and took excellent advantage of cover and concealment. Even after being hit several times in the chest [with M-16 fire] many continued firing and moving for several more steps.” As the battle progressed, PAVN troops “dug into small spider holes” just outside the perimeter and waited for American defenders to expose themselves before firing their weapons. Others “dug into the sides and tops of anthills” and had to be eliminated with antitank weapons.

By all accounts the battle at LZ X-Ray came to bloody crescendo between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. on the morning of November 16. The PAVN launched a series of three 100-to-200-man assaults in rapid succession, testing the exhausted American defenders to the breaking point. Thanks to excellent defensive preparation and the skill of forward artillery observers in placing high explosive artillery right in the midst of the assault units as they moved in toward the perimeter, the American infantry handily fended off each assault.

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Badly battered over three days and nights of fighting, the People’s Army’s 66th and 33rd regiments began withdrawing soon thereafter from the battlefield at X-Ray for good. Moore’s exhausted but unbowed battalion was airlifted out of X-Ray as well.

Gen. Man’s forces had taken close to 2,000 casualties, including more than 600 men killed in action, as counted on the battlefield by American forces. American losses at X Ray were 79 killed in action and 121 men wounded, many severely.

But the battle of the Ia Drang Valley wasn’t truly over. Not yet.

The next morning, Lt. Col. Bob McDade had orders to march the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry out of X-Ray, where it had bivouacked uneventfully the night of November 16, to LZ Albany several miles to the northwest for its extraction. As his 550-foot column came into the Albany clearing, scouts captured two PAVN soldiers. McDade assembled his company commanders and sergeants at the front of the column to discuss whatever new intelligence he could gather from the enemy prisoners. Meanwhile, the men in the column dropped to the ground to relax, smoke, or get some desperately overdue sleep.

Unbeknownst to the Americans, the 8th battalion of the 66th PAVN regiment lay in wait just out of sight beyond the clearing. At 1:20 p.m., the Communist unit, which had been held in reserve during the earlier fighting, executed a textbook-perfect ambush, cutting the column to ribbons with machine gun and rifle fire, and grenades. Caught with all their leaders at the front of the column, all unit coherence was lost among the Americans, and the fighting quickly degenerated into a number of savage, isolated firefights and hand-to-hand combat.

“I gave my orders to the battalion,” said the 66th’s commander, Lt. Col. Nguyen Huu An recalled years after the event. “Move inside the column, grab [the Americans] by the belt, and thus avoid casualties from the artillery and air.” Of the 400 men in McDade’s unit, 155 died and 124 were wounded by the time the fighting ended. The battle at Albany proved to be one of the worst defeats of an American battalion in the entire Vietnam war.

***

Fought between November 14 and 17, 1965, the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley was the first major engagement between regular U.S. Army forces and the People’s Army of Vietnam. As such, it marked a major escalation in the war, for up to that point in the conflict, the fighting had been carried out largely by the proxies of the struggle’s chief architects in Washington and Hanoi: the indigenous guerrillas of the insurgency in the south—the Vietcong—against the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, i.e., South Vietnam.

Previously, most of the fighting had been at the small unit level, typically involving platoons, companies, or at most, a single battalion, on each side. After the clash in the Ia Drang Valley, small unit fighting persisted all over South Vietnam. But henceforth the conflict also involved conventional campaigns, pitting multiple regiments and even divisions of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps against the regular army of North Vietnam, commanded and built from the ground up by the hero of Dien Bien Phu, Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap.

Ironically, the leading war strategists in Washington and Hanoi alike had gone to extraordinary lengths to achieve their objectives without deploying large numbers of troops from their own armies. The adversaries pursued strikingly similar strategies of incremental escalation, in which one side and then the other stepped up military and economic support for its proxy forces.

Between 1954 and 1961, the United States poured more than $1 billion in aid to the Republic of Vietnam and its armed forces. Hanoi countered with extensive shipments of arms, equipment, and men to the southern insurgency. Between 1961 and 1963, 40,000 soldiers of the PAVN came down the Ho Chi Minh trail into South Vietnam. There, they took off North Vietnamese army uniforms, donned black pajamas, and took up key leadership positions within People’s Liberation Army Forces—the official name of the Vietcong.

With the Communists making steady gains on the battlefield against the South Vietnamese army (the ARVN), President Kennedy ordered an additional 15,000 American military advisers to Vietnam between 1961 and 1963, along with several squadrons of Marine helicopters (with Marine crews) to enhance the South Vietnamese army’s (the ARVN) performance in the field.

Ominously, American advisers and helicopters did little to reverse the insurgency’s rapidly building momentum. Mired in corruption and lacking in aggressive leadership, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam was regularly outfought—and often routed—by Vietcong forces with inferior numbers and weaponry. Meanwhile, the Communists’ political forces tightened their grip on a steadily increasing number of South Vietnamese villages.

With the Saigon regime on the verge of collapse, President Lyndon Baines Johnson reluctantly crossed the Rubicon in March 1965, deploying two battalions of Marines to Danang—the first U.S. ground combat units deployed to Vietnam. He also initiated a steadily escalating bombing campaign against North Vietnam in order to stanch the flow of men and materiel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the southern battlefields.

Months before the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, both adversaries had committed substantial numbers of regiments and divisions of their conventional armies to the fight in South Vietnam. Despite the protestations of Senior General Giap, the Politburo in Hanoi had approved General Nguyen Chi Thanh’s plan to de-emphasize protracted guerrilla war in favor of a high-tempo conventional campaign waged by PAVN divisions to seize the Central Highlands, cut South Vietnam in two, and force the collapse of the government in Saigon before the influx of American combat divisions could turn the tide of the war.

Both sides immediately recognized the importance of what had happened at Ia Drang. Both sides claimed victory. As Hanoi saw it, not only had the PAVN conducted a devastating ambush at the engagement’s denouement. Its troops had fought with valor, discipline, and great ferocity at X-Ray, shot down several helicopters, and gained invaluable experience in tangling with elite American infantry.

For the American field commander, General William Westmoreland, “the ability of the Americans to meet and defeat the best troops the enemy could put on the field of battle was … demonstrated beyond any possible doubt, as was the validity of the Army’s airmobile concept.”

But it was Hanoi that went on to make the shrewder of the post-battle strategic reassessments.

After Ia Drang and several other conventional engagements against the Americans soon thereafter in Binh Dinh Province, the Politburo, at the strong urging of General Giap, agreed to de-emphasize conventional operations and revert once again to an emphasis on protracted guerrilla warfare. As Giap argued, to commit to a sustained conventional war in 1966 and 1967 against the Americans would be suicide. Superior fighting spirit could not compensate for the American forces’ extraordinary firepower and mobility. It was only through small unit action—ambushes, harassment, hit and run raids on bases and government posts—that, in time, the Communist forces could instill a sense of futility and exhaustion in the American and South Vietnamese ranks. Only through guerrilla war and political struggle could Communist forces in the South disrupt Saigon’s pacification programs and build up and protect the shadow government in the villages.

The Johnson administration and General Westmoreland, on the other hand, were exuberant in the wake of the battle of the Ia Drang Valley. With its “kill ratio” of roughly one American to twelve Communist Vietnamese, the battle seemed to go far toward confirming the viability of the attrition strategy Westmoreland had put forward in June 1965 to win the war. Attrition called for powerful, highly mobile American divisions to “find, fix and destroy” conventional Communist regiments and divisions, and leave the guerrillas to ARVN and lightly armed and trained village defense units.

By aggressive search and destroy operations and by cutting off the infiltration of men and materiel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Westmoreland predicted he could reach the “crossover point”—the point by which the number of Communist troops killed or captured exceeded those Hanoi could afford to replace—in early 1967, given the 400,000 or so American troops he would have to do the job. Since the PAVN and Vietcong lacked air cover, and their main mode of transport was by foot, Westmoreland was confident that he could, in effect, bleed the enemy to death, at which point Hanoi’s will to carry on the fight was bound to collapse.

The attrition strategy killed a great many enemy soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, but it failed dramatically to produce the desired results. Despite a massive ground and air interdiction campaign, the U.S. by the end of 1967 had failed to stanch the flow of either North Vietnamese divisions or war materiel into South Vietnam. In fact the flow of Communist troops and supplies had steadily increased from 1965 to 1967. Seventy five thousand PAVN troops had come down the Trail just in 1967, and on January 31, 1968, 84,000 Communist troops launched a massive surprise offensive against more than a hundred objectives countrywide. Two months earlier Westmoreland had predicted the enemy was “on the ropes” and that the war had “reached the point where the end is beginning to come into view.”

The Offensive was eventually blunted, but it was clear in its wake that the Communists still had ample forces to continue fighting indefinitely. More important, they had the will to do so in spades. The United States did not.

In March 1968, the attrition strategy and General Westmoreland were quietly shelved by the Johnson administration in favor of a new strategy designed to regain control of the villages from the Communists. Meanwhile, American forces would be gradually drawn down and the war turned over to the South Vietnamese to fight.

Now, as early as 1964, Gen. Giap had recognized that big unit engagements were a necessary element of a successful protracted war strategy against the United States. Yet Vietnam was not a conventional Western war, and Giap didn’t deploy his divisions with a view to winning conventional victories with those forces. Rather, he used them very selectively, at places and times of his choosing, and almost exclusively with a view to diverting the big American units away from the war’s true center of gravity—the fight for control of the villages and the people in them. As Westmoreland himself admitted after the war: “From the first the primary emphasis of the North Vietnamese focused on the Central Highlands and the central coastal provinces, with the basic end of drawing American units into remote areas and thereby facilitating control of the population in the lowlands.”

And Giap’s conventional forces, although incapable of “winning” battles in the conventional Western sense of the word, could and did inflict heavy casualties on the Americans. Those casualties, coupled with an exceptionally effective propaganda campaign waged by Hanoi, were sufficient to create a growing sense of war weariness and despair among the American people, and to drive a wedge between them and their government over a war in which progress proved very elusive indeed.

It would be comforting to say that as a result of coming to terms with our strategic gaffes in Vietnam we have been able to make better decisions about when, where, and how to use our unrivaled military assets. Regrettably, this seems not to have been the case.

Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, American forces have prevailed in one major conventional war (the Gulf War), lost one major insurgency conflict (Iraq), and come to a tentative draw in another one (Afghanistan) after 14 years of fighting. A great many other limited interventions—one thinks immediately of Lebanon and Somalia—have come to less than satisfactory ends. All too often these conflicts have been, as Professor Dominic Tierney writes, “a limited war for us, and total war for them. We have more power; they have more willpower.”

Perhaps the most valuable lesson we should take away from our history of military intervention since the last Hueys flew out of the Ia Drang Valley half a century ago is that counterinsurgency wars bring into play political, social, and diplomatic complications the American military by temperament and tradition is not very well equipped to resolve. And to ask the military to resolve them pretty much on its own, as we have done so often, is to ask too much.