On Nov. 14, 1965, soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, loaded onto helicopters and flew to a remote patch of ground in the Ia Drang Valley of South Vietnam’s central highlands. Within an hour, they came under attack for the first time by North Vietnamese regulars, launching a four-day battle that killed hundreds of Americans, perhaps more than 1,000 Vietnamese and changed the course of the Vietnam War.
The Ia Drang Valley is where the U.S. truly went to war.
After years of advising the South Vietnamese against the communist North, and months of chasing black-clad guerrillas, a large formation of American troops faced well-trained, well-equipped regulars of the People’s Army of Vietnam. The North Vietnamese enjoyed numerical superiority in the valley. Unlike Viet Cong guerrillas, the northerners were prepared to stand and fight.
“It had been a small undeclared war mainly fought by South Vietnamese troops with a few U.S. advisers in the mix, sometimes on the ground, sometimes in helicopters,” said Andrew Wiest, a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi and the founding director of its Dale Center for the Study of War and Society.
“It was much bigger than what we had seen before against a much more tenacious enemy,” Wiest said of the battle. “The largely (North Vietnamese Army) units we ran into, they were interested in staying and fighting.”
Fighting was so intense that a battalion commander, Lt. Col. Hal Moore, reported finding a dead American “with his hands at the throat” of a dead North Vietnamese soldier. Three U.S. soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery during the battle.
Mindful of the effects of propaganda, each side declared victory. Moore considered the outcome a draw.
By whatever measure, the chaotic, bloody Battle of the Ia Drang Valley set the tone for the rest of war.
To the Americans, the battle validated their new “airmobile” strategy — using helicopters to move troops quickly into remote jungle areas often without roads and inflict heavy casualties by airpower and artillery.
The outcome convinced the North Vietnamese that they could reduce the threat of U.S. firepower by engaging the Americans at close quarters where U.S. airstrikes would prove risky and then melt away into the jungle or across the border into sanctuaries in Cambodia.
Each side realized it was fighting a war of attrition. The only question was which side could outlast the other.
The battle was part of a campaign for control of the strategic central highlands, which divided South Vietnam north to south. Controlling the central highlands would enable the North Vietnamese to cut the south in two and separate South Vietnam’s northern cities of Hue and Da Nang from the capital Saigon to the south.
A month before the Ia Drang operation, North Vietnamese regulars attacked a U.S. Special Forces base at Plei Me, hoping to lure the ineffectual South Vietnamese army out of its base at the provincial capital Pleiku and destroy it. U.S. airpower lifted the siege and drove back the North Vietnamese.
Lacking confidence in the South Vietnamese, Gen. William C. Westmoreland ordered the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division, which had been in country about a month, to pursue the enemy, using newly minted airmobile tactics. Moore and his 450-man 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, flew into Landing Zone X-Ray at the base of the Chu Pong Mountain west of Plei Me and miles from the Cambodian border.
U.S. intelligence knew that North Vietnamese regulars — probably a single regiment — were in the area. Shortly after landing, a U.S. patrol captured an unarmed North Vietnamese deserter who told them that three regiments, roughly an entire division, were hiding in the nearby mountain.
About 40 minutes later, North Vietnamese launched their attack, hiding in the tall elephant grass and in stands of trees. A U.S. platoon was lured into a trap and surrounded, holding off repeated North Vietnamese attacks despite the death of the platoon leader and several non-commissioned officers.
After two days of intense North Vietnamese attacks and mounting casualties, Moore radioed the code word “Broken Arrow,” calling for all available aircraft to rescue an American unit about to be overrun. The airstrike broke the North Vietnamese siege and enabled reinforcements to reach the LZ.
Moore and his battalion were evacuated the next day, Nov. 17. A fresh unit, the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, was ordered to march from LZ X-Ray to LZ Albany a few miles away.
Shortly after the battalion set out, the North Vietnamese sprang a massive ambush. Nearly 70 percent of the battalion’s soldiers were killed or wounded before airstrikes, artillery and reinforcements drove the North Vietnamese into nearby Cambodia. It would remain the U.S. military’s single bloodiest day in Vietnam through the entire war.
Among the survivors of the ambush was 1st Lt. Rick Rescorla, a platoon leader who died Sept. 11, 2001, rescuing people from the World Trade Center’s south tower until it crashed around him.
The North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong guerrillas absorbed even higher casualties from better-equipped American troops on the ground as well as helicopter gunships and B-52s raining bombs, bullets and napalm.