In 1954, the French decided to draw their struggles in what was once called French Indochina to a close. From then until the end of the Vietnam war, it was the United States of America that would be the primary Western power seeking to solidify their strength in the region and oppose the further spread of communism.
But it wouldn’t be until almost ten years later that direct conflict between U.S. Regular forces and those of North Vietnam would engage and begin an all-out war.
The day this began was November 14, 1965, in the Ia Drang Valley of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. American troops were transported by helicopter to clear landing zones and set up the command center of the operation at a large termite mound in Landing Zone X-Ray (LZ X-Ray).
The LZs were about 30 minutes round trip from the base, and the 16 Huey helicopters could only transport about 12 men each at once. The first boots hit the ground at 10:48 and by 12:15, shots were bring fired. It would be many hours before the battalions were at full strength and the battle would last for several days.
For the first two of those days, it was the job of the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 7th Air Cavalry to hold LZ X-Ray against some 2,500 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. Much of the fabled history of this battle revolves around that 1st Battalion and its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore.
The U.S. troops defeated a much larger enemy force, but with very heavy loses.
1 The Battle of Ia Drang was the first major engagement between U.S. and North Vietnamese regulars.
To many, this marks the beginning of the U.S.’s Vietnam War in the days of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ordered troop build-up. Much of the force Lieutenant Colonel Moore was leading into the jungle had never been combat tested. The North Vietnamese, however, both knew the dense terrain and had been fighting Western nations in it since the beginning of the French Indochina war in 1945.
This battle would soon teach both sides about how to fight the rest of the war.
2 Ia Drang also served as a test for the U.S. military of its new air mobility tactics.
The location of the battle, far into the jungle from any roads, meant troops had to be airlifted in. The idea was that whole battalions could be dropped and complete their mission on the ground, calling in artillery barrages, helicopter support, and bombing sorties (including napalm) as needed, guided by coordinates given from the battalions’ radio operators.
For this purpose, the Air Cavalry was born.
3 This battle was also a learning opportunity for the North Vietnamese military.
Upon getting an idea of the U.S. air mobility tactics, Colonel Nguyễn Hữu An is quoted as saying “Move inside the column, grab them by the belt, and thus avoid casualties from the artillery and air.”
He knew he had to get his troops as close as possible to his enemy, to mix into their lines if they were to avoid direct bombardments.
4 One main tactic Colonel An began using to achieve his counter-strategy to the U.S. air mobility was the human wave.
During the nights of the battle especially, large groups of North Vietnamese would attempt to sneak as far up as possible and then charge the U.S. lines.
This tactic would be seen in Vietnam, again and again, including in the Tet Offensive.
5 One defining element of Ia Drang was the separation and attempted rescues of Lieutenant Henry Herrick’s platoon.
The first shots of the battle were fired at 12:15 on Bravo Company and, as the platoons advanced, Herrick’s was soon flanked and cut off. Before long, eight men were dead and 13 wounded, including Herrick.
The platoon was so pinned down they couldn’t even dig foxholes. Command passed to Sargent Ernie Savage who called in multiple air strikes around the platoon’s position. These and the strong stand made by the remaining men pinned down on the knoll, lead to the death of scores of North Vietnamese troops, who never managed to wipe out the platoon.
Two attempts were made to rescue Herrick’s platoon that day, but both failed. They remained pinned down through the night until around 3:30 the next afternoon when a third rescue attempt succeeded.
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