The Battle of Ia Drang

The Battle of Ia Drang

Slicks approaching LZ The Battle of Ia Drang
Air Cavalry in the Republic of Vietnam, 14-18 November 1965
By Phil Yates

By 1965, the wars in Vietnam had been dragging on for two decades, beginning in 1945 when the Japanese were thrown out and French rule restored at the end of the Second World War. The opening round had gone to the Vietnamese with the French withdrawing in 1954 after the disastrous battles of Dien Bien Phu in the north and Mang Yang Pass, between An Khe and Pleiku, in the south.

The country was split into a communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north and a capitalist Republic of Vietnam in the south.

After the end of the Indochina War, the Democratic Republic in the north continued low-level guerilla activities in the south through the National Liberation Front (NLF—commonly referred to as Viet Cong or VC) while recovering from the war and building up its strength. By 1960, they felt ready to renew the armed struggle and started sending units of the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) south to engage the southern Republic of Vietnam’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). Despite the ARVN being equipped and advised by the United States, they performed poorly against the highly-motivated PAVN and VC units. The initial American response was to send more equipment and more advisors. By 1964 there were 16,000 advisors (more soldiers than in an infantry division) working with the ARVN, but their performance in the field remained poor as their commanders were more interested in preventing coups and looking good by minimising casualties than in engaging the enemy.

Conflict: Vietnam
Area of Operations At the beginning of 1965, the United States President, Lyndon B Johnson, ordered a bombing campaign against North Vietnam in response to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in which it was claimed a US destroyer was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. In March, the US Marines were dispatched to guard the air bases that the USAF was operating from. After attacks on these bases, the US forces in Vietnam were increased again, rising to 200,000 by the end of 1965.

The Air Cav Arrive

One of the first units to arrive was the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), formed from the experimental 11th Air Assault Division. It was believed, rightly as it turned out, that the mobility that helicopters gave this unit would make it perfect for striking elusive targets over a wide area of responsibility. Unlike conventional forces, the air cavalry were not tied to roads and could strike literally out of thin air. The ‘Air Cav’ division assembled at An Khe in October 1965, right in the middle of South Vietnam, perfectly placed to take the war to PAVN units in the Central Highlands on the Cambodian border.
 
Their arrival coincided with the start of an offensive by the PAVN B3 Front. The battle started on 19 October with an attack on the special forces base at Plei Me, southwest of Pleiku, by the PAVN 33rd Regiment. While the Vietnamese gained a foothold in the base, they did not overrun it. ARVN rangers were flown in to reinforce the base until a column fought its way up the road to the base. This was the response that the North Vietnamese had been waiting for. On 23 October, the relief force ran straight into an ambush by the PAVN 320th Regiment.
Things didn’t all go well for the PAVN though. The USAF responded to calls for help with heavy air attacks and casualties amongst the PAVN forces were heavy. When the Air Cav committed their 1st Brigade (Airmobile) to the battle in Operation All the Way, things took another turn for the worse. On 28 October, B3 Front ordered both regiments to disengage and return to their bases on the Chu Pong Massif, a 730 metre-high mountain straddling the Cambodian border. The retreat saw a series of running battles as the Cavalry’s ‘Skysoldiers’ sought out the retreating Vietnamese. A Vietnamese regimental hospital was overrun on 1 November, and battalion-sized battles fought on 4 and 6 November. By 9 November when they finally broke contact, the PAVN 33rd Regiment was down to half strength. The cost to the Cavalry’s 1st Brigade was over 250 men killed or wounded.

Operation Silver Bayonet

Both sides then paused and regrouped for the next phase. B3 Front had ordered the 66th Regiment of the 304th ‘Glory’ Division on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to lighten its packs and proceed to the Chu Pong Massif by forced marches. They arrived on 10 November, going into bivouac and resting, preparing for battle. 
Ia Drang  Valley
Meanwhile, the 1st Cavalry Division pulled the exhausted 1st Brigade out and sent the 3rd ‘Garry Owen’ Brigade to a forward base at the Catecka Tea Plantation near Pleiku for Operation Silver Bayonet. The 3rd Brigade had two battalions of the 7th Cavalry, Colonel Custer’s famous command at the Battle of Little Bighorn. B3 Front greeted them with a raid on brigade headquarters by 26 PAVN sappers on 12 November, killing seven US soldiers and wounding 23.
Bravo Company secures LZ X-Ray The Garry Owens received intelligence that the Vietnamese were located in the area of the Chu Pong Massif. Colonel Thomas ‘Tim’ Brown ordered Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore to prepare his 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry for an operation to see what was there. Reconnaissance identified landing zones (LZ) coded (using the phonetic alphabet) LZ Tango through LZ Yankee in the Ia Drang Valley at the foot of the mountain. Moore selected LZ X-ray for his assault planning to land at 1030 hours on 14 November. LZ X‑ray was a clearing in the tree covered river valley, roughly the size of a football field—just large enough for eight helicopters to land at a time.
Moore had one company of sixteen helicopters available to carry his battalion in to the landing zone—nearly enough to carry one company at a time. With a round trip of nearly an hour, it would take most of the day to bring in the entire battalion. Fire support would be provided by two batteries of artillery, firing from Firebase Falcon, 5 miles (8 km) closer to Pleiku, and helicopter gunships.

First Wave Lands

As planned, Bravo Company secured the landing zone. Half an hour later their scouts brought in a prisoner who revealed that three PAVN battalions were in the area. Moore immediately changed his plan, ordering B Company to scout the mountain as soon as A (‘Alpha’) Company landed, instead of waiting for C (‘Charlie’) Company as originally planned. By 1210 hours, most of A Company had landed. They moved out to take up positions in a dry creek bed to B Company’s left. There had still been no contact with Vietnamese forces at this point, so B Company moved out to the west towards a finger of the Chu Pong Massif.
LZ X-Ray Vietnamese Counterattacks

B Company’s lead platoons came under fire at 1245 hours, and Lieutenant Herrick’s 2nd Platoon, on the right, began pursuing a fleeing Vietnamese squad to the right—straight into the path of a counterattack by the Vietnamese C-11 Company of the K‑9 Battalion. Within 25 minutes Herrick and four others were dead and his platoon was cut off on a knoll. Meanwhile, a Senior Lieutenant at the K-9 command post (the commander was with K-8 on
the banks of the Ia Drang) organised the cooks and clerks to delay the other US platoon on the left, then organised a counterattack against them with C-13 Company around 1330 hours. The Vietnamese battalion’s mortars started bombarding the landing zone around the same time, hitting the last platoon of A Company and the first elements of C Company as they arrived. On landing, the C Company platoon headed south to cover the wide-open left flank and the A Company’s 1st Platoon was ordered to join B Company and rescue the cut-off platoon.
C-13 Company’s counterattack hit between B Company and A Company in the dry stream bed. With B Company heavily engaged somewhere in front of them and the location of A Company’s 1st Platoon’s unknown (it eventually turned out to be on the far side of B Company!), it proved difficult to bring down artillery fire on the attacking PAVN troops. Instead, 3rd Platoon of A Company dropped their packs and charged. They drove the Vietnamese back, but the cost was heavy. The retreating Vietnamese suffered in turn when they fell back across in front of the machine-guns of A Company’s 2nd Platoon.

Right: Illustration by Adam Hook from Elite 154 Vietnam Airmobile Warfare Tactics, Osprey Publishing Ltd. www.ospreypublishing.com
Illustration by Adam Hook from Elite 154 Vietnam Airmobile Warfare Tactics
2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry arrives at the LZ The fire that greeted the rest of C Company when it arrived at 1430 was so intense that the landing zone was temporarily closed. By this time the Vietnamese attacks were heating up, and the position on the landing zone was looking grim. The new arrivals were just in time to avoid the whole force being outflanked and overrun. The attempt to link up with Herrick’s platoon was called off and B Company pulled back to the dry stream bed. With almost his entire battalion engaged, Moore requested reinforcements, receiving B Company of 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry just before nightfall.
The Second Day

The Vietnamese reinforced as well. K-9 Battalion had been badly cut up in the counterattacks, but K-7 arrived to take over the lead. Both battalions were scheduled to attack at 0315 hours, but coordination problems meant that the main attack didn’t take place until dawn on 16 November. An hour later at 0745 hours the attacks had penetrated C Company’s perimeter and encircled the entire perimeter. At this point the Vietnamese B3 Front began receiving reports of victory. With his force about to be overrun, Moore used the codeword ‘Broken Arrow’ to summon every ground attack aircraft in the area to his aid. Despite one aircraft hitting his HQ area, the attacks were effective. Around 1000 hours, the PAVN forces started to withdraw.

Expecting to merely need to mop up the survivors, the commander of 66th Regiment ordered his last battalion, K-8, to join the attack that night. In this he would be severely disappointed. LZ X-ray was heavily reinforced during the day with the arrival of the rest of 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry at the LZ, and 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry which had walked in from LZ Victor. The survivors of 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry were flown out. The two day battle had cost the Americans 79 killed and 121 wounded for a claimed 634 enemy dead and 1215 wounded.

The Morning of 17 November 1965 Ambush at LZ Albany

Having taken and held LZ X-ray, destroying much of a Vietnamese regiment in the process, the Americans could claim victory. However, General Westmoreland, the highest American commander in Vietnam, did not want to fly the cavalry out of LZ X-ray as he was worried that the media would interpret that as a defeat. Instead he ordered the both battalions to march out to LZ Columbus and LZ Albany about 2.5 miles (4 km) northeast and north of LZ X-ray on the morning of 17 November.
Once they were clear, LZ X-ray would be hit by the B-52 Stratofortress bombers that had been pounding the Chu Pong Massif throughout the battle.

Unfortunately for this plan, the PAVN K-8 Battalion, which had been ordered to attack LZ X-ray the previous night, had detoured to the north to avoid US air and artillery strikes. Worse still, the remainder of D-1 Battalion (the first battalion of the 33rd Regiment) was guarding potential landing zones in the area. Around midday, after 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry had split off from the main column to head for LZ Albany, they ran into a patrol from D-1 Battalion. The patrol alerted the PAVN forces in the area, who promptly attacked off their own route of march, throwing companies into the fray as they became available. The cavalry column was cut in two, and casualties were heavy by the time the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, marching from LZ Columbus, and their own B Company (which had been airlifted from LZ X-ray with the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry), airlifted back into LZ Albany, reached them in the early evening. The battle at LZ Albany had been bloody. The cavalry had lost 155 men dead and 124 wounded. They counted 403 Vietnamese bodies on the battlefield, nearly a full battalion.

Victory?

In the battles at LZ X-ray and LZ Albany the 1st Cavalry Division had proved itself and the concept of air mobility. It had carried the fight to the enemy and held the ground at the end of the day, but the cost was high. While the PAVN estimate of 1500 to 1700 American casualties was high, the actual figures of 305 killed and 524 wounded in October and November were still dramatic, representing 5% of the division. In return the US Army claimed 3561 PAVN soldiers killed and another 1000 wounded. Vietnamese sources give the number as 599 killed and 669 wounded. Both sides claimed victory based on their claimed successes against their own actual losses. In reality, little had been achieved. B3 Front had failed to take any ARVN or US bases, and was driven from its own Central Highland base. However, within months of this setback, they were back in action, operating from their old base areas.


Last Updated On Wednesday, February 20, 2013 by Chris at Battlefront