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VIETNAM STORY (Page One)
By Joseph L. Galloway
Copied from U.S. NEWS - Special Report: Cover Story (10/29/90)
Posted here Mar 2002
The word was the Ia Drang would be a walk.
The word was wrong.
As the sun rose on Nov. 14, 1965, a clear, hot Sunday, four U.S. Army helicopters flew, as unobtrusively as such machines can, across the rugged Ia Drang Valley in South Vietnam's Central Highlands. Below them was a wild and desolate place that in normal times offered a living only to elephants, tigers and a few Montagnard tribesmen. Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore scanned the terrain intently, scribbling notes and marking his maps. He was about to lead the U.S. 7th Cavalry on its most audacious charge since Lt. Col. George A. Custer led his troopers to the Little Bighorn 89 years earlier.
Like Custer, Hal Moore had no use for timidity or half measures. The lean, blond Kentuckian, a 43-year-old graduate of West Point, Class of '45, demanded the best from his men and gave the same in return. Behind his back, the 457 officers and men of the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), sometimes called Moore by Custer's nickname, "Yellow Hair." It was a soldier's compliment, and Moore took it as such.
Moore was hunting big game in the tangle of ravines, tall elephant grass and termite hills around the base of Chu Pong Massif, a 2,401-foot mountain whose forests stretched 5 miles into Cambodia. A month earlier, the 2,200-man 33rd People's Army Regiment -- part of the first full North Vietnamese Army division to take the field since the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 -- had attacked the camp at Plei Me, a vital listening post astride the road to Pleiku, the provincial capital. Saigon and Washington feared that if the North Vietnamese overran Pleiku, Route 19 to Qui Nhon on the coast would be wide open, and South Vietnam could be cut in two. But one of the North Vietnamese commanders, Maj. Gen. Huong Minh Phuong, told U.S. News in a recent interview that the attack on Plei Me was launched only to bait a trap for the inevitable South Vietnamese relief column. The ambush almost certainly would have succeeded but for one new and, for the North Vietnamese, very troubling development.
For years, the U.S. Army had sought to free foot soldiers from the tyranny of terrain. Its solution was the helicopter, the ungainly bumblebee that had made a limited debut in Korea. Equipped with the durable UH-1D Huey and its cargo-carrying cousin, the Chinook, and bearing the colors of the 1st Cavalry Division, the first sky troopers had arrived in Vietnam from Fort Benning, Ga., in mid-September to make the battlefield a three-dimensional nightmare for the enemy.
So when the South Vietnamese ventured out to relieve Plei Me, they had moved under an umbrella of howitzers lifted into position by the Chinooks. When the North Vietnamese sprang their ambush, the South Vietnamese had -- uncharacteristically -- fought like hell. The North's commander, Gen. Chu Huy Man, withdrew toward the Ia Drang, a sanctuary so far from any road that no enemy had ever dared penetrate it. But with the arrival of the air cavalry, no place was safe. It ferreted out North Vietnamese food caches, underground hospitals, even headquarters. "You jumped all over, even into our rear area," says General Phuong. "You created disorder among our troops. You made it very hard for our commanders to keep up with the plan. They were very anxious about the psychological effects of your helicopters and artillery leapfrogging among these green troops."
Hal Moore and his boss, brigade commander Col. Thomas "Tim" Brown, had seen a red star marking Chu Pong Mountain, 17 miles northwest of Plei Me, on an intelligence map at division headquarters. "What's that?" they had asked. "A big enemy base camp," came the reply. Their eyes lit up. For four long days, their men had been beating the brush east of Plei Me and finding nothing but vicious red tree ants, thorny "wait a minute" vines and jungle so dense that, at times, a battalion was lucky to move 200 yards in an hour. They persuaded their bosses that it made more sense to go where the enemy was.
Operating on what Brown later described as "strong instincts and flimsy intelligence," Moore was about to hit the jackpot. His battalion of 28 officers and 429 men -- four officers and 199 men short of full strength -- was about to attack two regiments of North Vietnamese regulars, or more than 3,000 very good soldiers.
Moore's target area contained only three clearings where helicopters could land. One was so small that only two could land at a time; a second was filled with tree stumps. That left a big clearing that Moore designated Landing Zone X-Ray. It could take eight choppers, but it was located directly beneath Chu Pong Mountain. If the North Vietnamese were occupying the high ground, Landing Zone X-Ray could be a death trap. As the battalion assembled at pickup points around Plei Me Camp, the word was that X-Ray would be one more little walk in the sun and then home to base camp for hot food and cold showers. The word, as usual, was wrong.
At 10:17, two batteries of 105-mm howitzers -- 12 guns that had been deposited by Chinooks in a clearing 6.2 miles east of X-Ray -- began firing on X-Ray and, as a diversion, the two other clearings in the area. After 20 minutes, the barrage stopped and helicopter gunships poured .30-caliber machine-gun fire and 2.75-inch rockets into the woods nearby. At 10:48 the first eight Hueys landed at X-Ray.
Moore jumped out of the first helicopter with Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley, radio operator Specialist 4 Bob Oullette and a Vietnamese interpreter close behind. Plumley, a laconic West Virginian, was on his third war. He was what young paratroopers admiringly call "a four-jump bastard" -- one of the few men who had survived all four World War II combat parachute jumps made by the 82nd Airborne Division. He had jumped again in Korea with the 187th Airborne.
The lead elements of Capt. John Herren's 119-man Bravo Company ran toward the tree line, firing their rifles, while the second wave of choppers landed. Moore now had nearly 100 men on the ground, but it would be 35 minutes before any of the 16 Hueys assigned to him could return with more troops. If the landing zone came under attack, Herren was his most experienced company commander. He had run Bravo for 18 months, and he knew his men and his business.
Moore already was rewriting the rules of helicopter assault landings. Rather than spread his men in a thin circle around the clearing, he kept most of Herren's troops concealed in a clump of trees near the center of the landing zone, ready to react to any threat, and he sent four six-man squads 100 yards in every direction. Within 30 minutes they captured a prisoner. The straggler said he was a deserter who had been hiding in the brush for five days. His next words were chilling: "There are three battalions on the mountain who want very much to kill Americans but haven't been able to find any."
By now the rest of Herren's men and the first men from Capt. Ramon A. Nadal II's Alpha Company had landed. Tony Nadal was a West Point classmate of Herren's and an Army brat, the son of Col. Ramon A. Nadal, West Point '28. He had already served in Vietnam with the Special Forces, and when he had heard that the 1st Cavalry Division was headed over, he had driven to Fort Benning and pleaded for a job. Hal Moore made Nadal his intelligence officer, and on the voyage across the Pacific, Nadal had lectured the battalion on what was waiting for them. He got his company in October.
Moore believed what the prisoner was saying. He told Herren to push his men toward the mountain, paying particular attention to a finger of high ground that jutted out toward the landing zone. He told Nadal to get ready to move his Alpha Company toward the mountain on Herren's left, just as soon as enough of Capt. Robert Edwards's Charlie Company were on the ground to guard the landing zone.
ENGAGEMENT: Walking in Custer's footsteps
By 1:30, Capt. John Herren's men were under attack by about 250 troops, and he radioed that his 2nd Platoon, on the right, was in danger of being cut off. The platoon was commanded by Lt. Henry Herrick, a red-haired Californian fresh out of Officer Candidate School who had joined the division along with a gaggle of other green lieutenants a month before it sailed for Vietnam. In October, after a soldier drowned when Herrick ordered a river crossing without a safety rope, his platoon's senior man, Sgt. Carl Palmer, had complained to Herren: "Something has to be done about the lieutenant or he'll get us all killed." Herrick was, in the words of an OCS classmate, "a balls-to-the-wall kind of guy -- a hard charger."
This time, Herrick charged too hard. As his platoon trotted up the finger of land, the young lieutenant spotted a few enemy troops. The North Vietnamese fled and Herrick swung his 27 men in hot pursuit. Within minutes, they were more than 125 yards to the right of the rest of Bravo Company. Seconds later, they ran straight into 150 North Vietnamese headed down the mountain from the west. Herrick's platoon, which the headline writers would name "the Lost Platoon," was quickly surrounded. With help from one of Nadal's platoons led by Lt. W.J. "Joe" Marm, Herren pushed to within 75 yards of Herrick's position before being driven back. Americans were dropping, wounded and dead, in the dry grass all around.
Below on X-Ray, Moore urgently called for air, artillery and helicopter-gunship strikes on the North Vietnamese attack routes down the mountain and sent the rest of Nadal's men up to reinforce Herren. As Nadal moved toward Herren's left flank, he ran into 100 to 150 North Vietnamese charging down a dry creek bed -- a natural highway that led off the mountain straight to the heart of the landing zone. "They're PAVN (People's Army of Vietnam)," the Vietnam veteran yelled into his radio. These were no black-pajama guerrillas pouring off the mountain. They were North Vietnamese regulars in khaki battle dress, their pith helmets camouflaged with clumps of elephant grass. Most were armed with Soviet-made AK-47 rifles, and all carried big pouches full of wooden-handled "potato masher" hand grenades. They also had Maxim heavy machine guns and RPG-2 shoulder-fired rockets.
Bill Beck, a 22-year-old machine gunner from Harrisburg, Pa., was in Nadal's company. "We were left of the dry creek bed, about 30 yards, and moving forward toward Chu Pong," he recalls. "I heard Bob Hazen, the radio operator, yelling about Lieutenant Taft being hit, that he was hit in the neck and bleeding to death. I could see Hazen leaning over Taft when a North Vietnamese blasted him from behind, and I saw his radio explode into pieces." A handsome 6-footer from Highland Park, Ill., 23-year-old Robert Taft was the first young lieutenant to die in the Ia Drang Valley.
Out in the landing zone, the choppers were bringing in the first men of Bob Edwards's Charlie Company. A native of Trenton, N.J., Edwards had entered the Army straight from Lafayette College, where he had finished at the top of his ROTC class. He was, in Hal Moore's view, "a superb and very perceptive leader -- aloof and strictly business."
Moore was deeply worried about his left flank. Lieutenant Herrick's charge far to the right seemed to have confused the enemy commander; the North Vietnamese attacks were now shifting to the left, and Moore had to shift with them. He ran into the landing zone under heavy fire, grabbed Edwards at the helicopter door and "yelled at him to run his men toward the mountain, tie in with Nadal's company on the right and get ready to be attacked in strength." The young captain sped off in the direction Moore pointed, waving at his 106 men to follow. Within a few minutes, they had found cover or scraped shallow holes in the woods just off the landing zone. A minute or two later, a wave of more than 550 North Vietnamese slammed into the thin line of waiting American riflemen.
Moore and Sergeant Major Plumley had been in constant motion on the battleground and the landing zone, shifting newly arriving troops to where they were needed most. When a new flight arrived, Moore stood in the open, guiding the helicopters to the safest landing spots. "After giving Edwards his orders, I was walking along the line by the creek bed when the firing around my head took on a distinctly different sound -- like a hell of a lot of bees," Moore remembers. "I felt a firm hand on my shoulder. It was Sergeant Major Plumley, shouting above the noise of the guns: 'Sir, if you don't find some cover you're going to go down, and if you go down we all go down.' " Moore reluctantly moved to the waist of the figure-8 clearing and set up his command post behind a big termite hill.
Landing Zone X-Ray was now, as the pilots put it, "very, very hot." Maj. Bruce Crandall was in charge of the 16 helicopters assigned to the mission. He and his 6-foot-6 sidekick, Capt. Ed "Too Tall to Fly" Freeman, along with their wingmen, brought reinforcements, ammunition and precious water, and they carried out the wounded. If Moore said it was O.K. to land, they landed. Crandall flew two choppers this day -- his first was crippled when it hit a line of trees hauling wounded out of the battle. Crandall vividly recalls one flight: "I saw a North Vietnamese firing at us from just outside my rotor blades (20 feet away). After taking on wounded, I pulled pitch (lifted out) in a hurry. I had three dead and three wounded, including my crew chief, who was shot in the throat."
Hanoi's Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap says his soldiers learned how to fight the U.S. helicopters in the Ia Drang, and perhaps they did. But they did not have the weapons on hand to apply those lessons -- the Chinese-made heavy antiaircraft machine guns that, if they had been deployed on Chu Pong Mountain, could have closed Landing Zone X-Ray. With their rifles and light machine guns, the North Vietnamese took a toll of American aviators, but during three days of battle only two of Crandall's helicopters were disabled -- and both were put back in service after the fight. Later in the war, however, the lessons the North Vietnamese learned at X-Ray would take a heavy toll.
Up on the mountain, Henry Herrick's Lost Platoon was desperately clinging to a 25-yard circle atop a slight rise. The North Vietnamese overran one of the Americans' two M-60 machine guns. Sgt. Ernie Savage says, "I heard Sergeant Hurdle down there cursing, even over the noise of the firefight. He was famous for that. 'Motherf-----. Sonofabitch. Sonofabitch,' I heard him holler. And then they threw grenades in on him." Sgt. Paul Hurdle, the platoon's weapons-squad leader, had survived the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea and had blown the last bridge behind the retreating Marines, but he did not survive this day. The enemy turned Hurdle's machine gun around and began using it on the Americans. Herrick was mortally wounded. His last words to Savage were: "I'm glad I could give my life for my country."
Command of the 2nd Platoon passed to Sgt. Carl Palmer. Specialist 4 Galen Bungum, who had left a dairy farm in Hayfield, Minn., for the Army, says that on the way up the mountain Sergeant Palmer said: "Bungum, I'll be 43 years old tomorrow, but I don't believe I'll live to see it." Within minutes of taking over, Palmer was shot in the head. Savage and the others laid him behind a log. Shortly afterward, an American hand grenade taken from the slain machine-gun crew sailed over the clearing and exploded beneath Palmer. He died instantly. The mortar forward observer, Sgt. Robert Stokes, assumed it was his turn to take charge, stood up and said: "We've got to get out of here." He was shot through the head and killed instantly.
Command of the Lost Platoon fell to Ernie Savage. A 21-year-old buck sergeant from McCalla, Ala., he had been with the battalion more than two years and was field smart and cool under pressure. He grabbed Stokes's radio and called artillery fire down in a very tight circle. By then, eight of the Lost Platoon's 27 men were dead and 12 wounded.
Specialist 4 Vincent Cantu of Refugio, Tex., had only 10 days left in the Army when he landed in X-Ray. The local draft board had called him up the day before John Kennedy was assassinated, ending Cantu's fling as lead guitarist and vocalist for the Rockin' Dominoes, a local band whose theme song was "Born to Lose." Now an 81-mm mortar gunner, Cantu was riveted by the deadly drama around him. "We were so close our mortar tubes were pointing almost straight up. The pleas over the radio were desperate. We could all hear Sergeant Stokes, our forward observer, with the trapped platoon. By 2:30 or 3 p.m., it seemed like half the battalion was either dead or wounded. I remember rolling this dead soldier in a poncho. He was face down and when I turned him over I saw the lieutenant's bars on him. I snapped. I thought: These rounds don't have any regard."
By now, Capt. Ray LeFebvre's Delta Company was arriving at Landing Zone X-Ray. LeFebvre had served an earlier tour and was fluent in Vietnamese. Because of that, he had been tapped for a staff job in civil affairs at division headquarters. Like Tony Nadal, he had turned up on Hal Moore's doorstep begging for a rifle company. "Something's going to happen," LeFebvre had said. "I want to be in on it." He got his wish. "I started to unhook my seat belt when I felt a round crease the back of my neck," LeFebvre remembers. "I turned to my right and saw that my radio operator had been hit in the left side of his head. I grabbed his radio and jumped out ... I fired two magazines of M-16 ammo at the enemy, then I was hit." LeFebvre was in action approximately 10 minutes; in that time, he and four men around him killed 25 North Vietnamese.
Out near the dry creek bed, machine gunner Bill Beck was doing double duty while his best friend, Russell Adams, poured fire on the enemy. Beck alternated between patching up wounded Americans and firing at the North Vietnamese with a notoriously inaccurate .45-caliber automatic pistol. He spotted Captain LeFebvre, "moaning, his hand blown apart and his thigh equally bad." Beck bandaged him up and yelled for a medic. LeFebvre was hauled back to the landing zone, where the battalion intelligence officer, Capt. Tom Metsker, wounded in the shoulder, helped him onto a waiting helicopter. Metsker was hit again and killed at the chopper door.
Back on the line, Beck heard someone scream, "Adams is hit." He ran forward to find his fellow Pennsylvanian lying beside his silent machine gun. "The side of his head was a mess. He was trying to talk to me but nothing was coming out. His helmet lay in front of me with a bullet hole in it, and I turned it over. It seemed like Adams's entire brain fell out in front of me. I was horrified. I screamed over and over for the medic."
Beck took over his friend's machine gun. He was now holding the battalion's left flank, directly in the path of the enemy. Alone, mumbling every prayer he could remember, Beck stopped them. "They were shooting at me, bullets hitting the ground beside me and cracking above my head. I was firing as fast as I could in long bursts."
Landing Zone X-Ray was shrouded in thick smoke and dust. "It was a bedlam of men yelling and screaming in English, Vietnamese and Spanish, a constant roar of rifle and machine-gun fire punctuated by the shocking explosions of bombs, artillery shells and rockets," Moore says. He was on the radio to the 3rd Brigade commander, Col. Tim Brown, asking for reinforcements. Brown had a company on alert.
At about 3:45, Moore ordered Nadal's and Herren's companies to pull back, to evacuate their wounded and dead and to prepare for an attack, preceded by air and artillery barrages, to rescue the Lost Platoon. It began at 4:20. But the enemy had moved forward and dug shallow foxholes; snipers had climbed into the treetops. "We stood up, got out of the trench and the whole world exploded," recalls Lt. Dennis Deal, one of Herren's platoon leaders. "Men were dropping all over the place. The assault line first went to their knees, and then to a crawling position."
Deal's platoon was pinned down by machine-gun fire from a termite hill when suddenly Deal saw "someone get up and charge, just like in a John Wayne movie." Deal adds: "He ran 25 yards across the open ground while all of us were crawling -- the firing was so intense. I saw him throw a grenade behind a termite hill, wait for it to go off, move around to the rear of the termite hill and empty his rifle. Then he fell to his knees. I said to myself: Please get up, whoever you are, don't be hurt."
It was Lt. Joe Marm, another Pennsylvanian who was Nadal's favorite junior officer, another of the batch of green lieutenants who had joined the battalion that summer. Marm had first tried to take out the enemy machine gun with a shoulder-fired light antitank (LAW) rocket. Later, he said he charged the machine-gun nest simply "to get the job done and save time." He destroyed the gun and killed a dozen North Vietnamese operating and protecting it. As he mopped up the last of the enemy, a sniper round smashed into his face and out through his throat. The medics performed a battlefield tracheotomy. Marm survived to receive the Medal of Honor.
Nadal says, "By this time, all my platoon leaders had been killed or wounded and a number of my squad leaders killed." Herren's men gained only about 100 yards; Nadal's moved forward 150. It was now 5:40, and Moore reluctantly ordered them to pull back again. The artillery batteries had no smoke shells but offered to substitute white-phosphorus shells -- the fearsome "Willie Peter" rounds that scattered tiny flaming fragments and laid down a choking cloud of white smoke.
Down on the critical left flank, Edwards's Charlie Company was relatively unhurt but the field in front of it was littered with North Vietnamese bodies. Delta Company had joined the thin line, and the reinforcements that Moore had requested -- 120 men of Bravo Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry under Capt. Myron Diduryk -- began arriving shortly after 5 p.m. Sgt. John Setelin, a 21-year-old Virginian, was with them: "As the chopper dropped in, I caught a glimpse of men in khaki, and I thought we must really be desperate if we are bringing in guys without giving them time to change into their fatigue uniforms. Then I realized their rifles were pointed at us; that was the enemy. When we jumped out, people were firing down on us; the gooks were up in the trees."
By 7 o'clock, Moore had his men digging in. For the first time, the Americans encircled the entire landing zone. Until now, Moore had thrown every man he had into a broad semicircle facing the mountain. The back side of X-Ray had been wide open, but, fortunately, no one had come knocking.
The wounded got immediate attention from medics, more from the battalion surgeon's men at Moore's command post, then were flown as quickly as possible to a clearing station at Camp Holloway in Pleiku set up by C Company of the 15th Medical Battalion -- "Charlie Med." Capt. George Kelling, who ran Charlie Med, recalls: "It was often a race against time to get blood into the soldier faster than he was losing it, while the surgeons tied off the bleeders. We threw caution to the wind and often gave a patient four intravenous cut-downs -- with four corpsmen squeezing the blood bags as hard as they could. It was not unusual for the patient to go into convulsions as a reaction to the rapid infusion of so much cold blood. But the alternative was to let him die."
By dark, all the wounded had been evacuated and the dead collected at Moore's command post; ammunition and water had been distributed; mortars and artillery had been calibrated to fire on a tight ring just 25 yards outside the American lines. Moore now made the rounds. "Morale was high," he remembers. "We knew we were facing a tough enemy. We had lost a lot of good men, but we had stopped them."
Up on the slopes of Chu Pong, the Lost Platoon was on its own; Sergeant Savage had been told that there would be no rescue tonight. He and his men could hear the North Vietnamese talking and took some comfort from radioing instructions that brought artillery fire down on the voices. During the night, with the wounded pressed into service, too, Savage's platoon withstood three North Vietnamese attacks, including one launched by eerie bugle calls from the mountain above.
After 10, Crandall and Freeman finally shut down their helicopters at the Turkey Farm, a temporary chopper pad near Pleiku, 37 miles northeast of X-Ray. They and their fellow pilots had flown nonstop since 6 a.m. "When I tried to get out of the aircraft, it caught up with me -- my legs gave out, and I fell to the ground vomiting and shaking," Crandall recalls. "It took 15 gallons of water to wash the blood out of my first ship, more for the second one I flew that day." Moore's battalion had lost 27 dead and 69 wounded, leaving it with 13 officers and 326 men. The artillerymen at Landing Zone Falcon had fired 4,000 rounds in support of Moore's men at X-Ray.
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