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VIETNAM STORY (Page Two)
The word was the Ia Drang would be a walk. The word was wrong
By Joseph L. Galloway
Copied from U.S. NEWS (Posted here Mar 2002)
FIX BAYONETS: Holding the thin green line
By first light, at 6:30, Moore ordered his companies to send out scouts to check for enemy infiltrators and snipers who might have crawled up to the American lines during the night. The scouts from Charlie Company ran into trouble barely 100 yards forward of the line, on the left.
Some 300 North Vietnamese, heavily camouflaged and crawling on hands and knees, attacked. The scouts were taking casualties as they tried to pull back. Sgt. Robert Jemison of Columbus, Ga., recalls: "The patrols sent out early saved us from being surprised. They came running back, yelling, 'They're coming, Sarge, they're coming. Lots of 'em.' Our machine guns and rifles cut them down."
Pfc. Willie Godboldt was hit and yelled for help. Jemison was leaving his hole when the platoon commander, Lt. John Geoghegan, stood up, saying, "I'll go." Geoghegan was shot in the head and killed. He was an honors graduate of Pennsylvania Military College. He had deferred his Army commitment for two years to earn a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1964 had married his college sweetheart. John and Barbara Geoghegan spent the next year working for Catholic Relief Services in Tanzania. Their daughter, Camille, was born two months before he left for Vietnam.
At 7:15, Delta Company had come under heavy attack, and X-Ray was under pressure from two sides. "Hand grenades were exploding all around us," recalls Sgt. Warren E. Adams. "One fell in the mortar guys' hole. Sergeant Niemeyer threw a leg over it and his leg was blown off. Nobody else was hurt. I decided the grenades were coming from an anthill nearby, so I grabbed my radio operator and took off with a grenade in each hand and we cleaned up six or eight Vietnamese."
Specialist 4 Willard Parish, 24, of Bristow, Okla., was a Charlie Company mortarman, but this morning he manned a machine gun. "I looked to the front, and it seemed like the North Vietnamese were growing out of the weeds," he remembers. "The training took over. I just fired that weapon, totally unaware of the time, the conditions. I remember a lot of noise, a lot of yelling, air strikes. Then quiet." When he ran out of machine-gun ammunition Parish stood up with a .45-caliber automatic pistol in each hand and kept shooting. Later, they counted more than 100 enemy dead in front of his machine gun. Parish was awarded the Silver Star for valor.
By now Captain Edwards was urgently calling for reinforcements. As Nadal sent one of his platoons to help Edwards, the North Vietnamese charged Nadal's own position. The landing zone was now being hit from three sides. Machine-gun fire swept over the landing zone and through Moore's command post. The colonel's radio operator, Bob Oullette, a bespectacled young French Canadian, slumped over. The crusty medical-platoon sergeant, Thomas H. Keeton, walked over: "I thought he'd gone to sleep. I kicked the hell out of him, told him to get off his ass and help us load the wounded. I picked up his helmet and a bullet fell out of it. It had knocked him cold."
Moore asked for more reinforcements; brigade commander Col. Tim Brown had Alpha Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry on alert.
The North Vietnamese were pressing their attack against Edwards's Charlie Company. "I stood up to observe better and saw the North Vietnamese at a distance of 150 yards, a very large force," Edwards recalls. "I saw a couple of them in hand-grenade range moving toward us. I threw a grenade and was shot under the arm and in the back. I didn't lose consciousness, but I couldn't stand up." Though badly wounded, Edwards remained in command for 3 more hours, until the attack was finally beaten off. Then his radio operator, Ernie Paolone, who was also wounded, dragged him to the aid station. The 1st Platoon commander, Lt. Neil Kroger, 24, was found dead in his foxhole, surrounded by four North Vietnamese he had killed with his bayonet. A fifth, strangled to death, was in the hole with him, with Kroger's hands locked around his neck.
At around 8, with the North Vietnamese pressing their attacks against Edwards's Charlie Company and Nadal's Alpha Company, the Delta Company antitank platoon, which had traded in its unneeded antitank weapons for six .30-caliber M-60 machine guns -- each with a full four-man crew and triple the usual load of ammunition -- came under heavy attack. The three M-60 machine guns of the reconnaissance platoon also had been added to that sector of the line. "They picked the wrong place," Moore says. "Adams's machine guns chewed them up; they were killing guys 700 or 800 yards out."
But Landing Zone X-Ray was in grave danger of being overrun. The mortarmen, set up in pits near Moore's command post, were firing both their 81-mm mortars and their rifles and were taking heavy enemy fire. One mortar was hit and knocked out. At least two others grew so hot from rapid firing that there was danger of a shell cooking off -- exploding before it left the tube. Water was scarce, so the sergeants and their gunners stood and urinated on the mortars to cool them.
Moore now ordered the reconnaissance platoon, his last reserve, to counterattack into the Charlie and Delta Company sectors, and he called in the helicopters carrying the Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, reinforcements. He then pulled Diduryk and one of his platoons back into reserve, on alert to reinforce any section of the line that crumbled.
Moore called for all his units to mark their locations for the pilots overhead and the artillery observers by throwing colored smoke grenades. Air Force Lt. Charlie Hastings, the forward air controller, says, "On the second morning, I used the code word for an American unit in trouble and received all available aircraft in South Vietnam for close air support. We had aircraft stacked at 1,000-foot intervals from 7,000 feet to 35,000 feet, each waiting to receive a target." Two more batteries of 105-mm howitzers were deposited in Landing Zone Columbus, 2.5 miles from X-Ray, putting a total of 24 artillery pieces in support of Moore. As all that blessed relief rained down, an accident came perilously close to wiping out Moore and his command post. An Air Force F-100 Super Sabre jet mistakenly dropped two canisters of napalm into the area. Moore was shouting at Hastings, the air controller, to call off the F-100 pilot's wingman, who was about to release his napalm, too.
Sgt. George Nye of the 8th Engineer Battalion had come in with a small demolition team to help Moore's battalion. "Two of my people, Pfc. Jimmy D. Nakayama and Specialist 5 James Clark, were a few yards away, and Colonel Moore was hollering something about a wing man and I looked up," Nye recalls. "There were two planes, and one had already dropped his napalm. Then everything was on fire. Nakayama was all black and Clark was all burned and bleeding." Nakayama died. Three days later, Nye learned that Nakayama's wife had given birth to a baby girl on the day her husband was killed. Soon afterward, orders came through approving Nakayama's reserve commission as a second lieutenant.
Just after 9 a.m., with the Alpha Company reinforcements arriving, Moore shifted Diduryk's men into the battered line held by what was left of Edwards's Charlie Company. Sergeant Setelin remembers crawling along that line finding foxhole after foxhole filled with dead Americans. By 10, the enemy attack had been beaten off. Edwards and his men had held.
Three hours later, Moore ordered all four companies on the line to move out 300 yards to the front and police the battleground. Dead North Vietnamese and their weapons littered the area. Some enemy dead were neatly stacked behind the termite hills; thick trails of blood marked where others had been dragged away. More than 40 dead Americans were recovered and evacuated. What was left of Charlie Company was pulled out of the line.
Earlier in the day, the brigade commander, Colonel Brown, had moved the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Cavalry, led by Lt. Col. Robert Tully, to Landing Zone Victor, 2 miles from X-Ray, and told them to reinforce Moore. By noon, they were closing in on Moore's position, and what they saw stunned them. Sergeant Adams was on the line when the first of Tully's men marched in. "My God, there's enemy bodies all over this valley," the newcomer shouted. "For the last 30 minutes, we've been walking around and over and through bodies."
Moore now ordered a two-pronged attack -- by two companies of Tully's men across the slope of Chu Pong and by Herren's Bravo Company to rescue the Lost Platoon. Herren's men reached the knoll at 3:10. "When I got there I walked over to where Henry Herrick was lying dead," Lieutenant Deal recalls. "It seemed so unnatural for my friend to be lying stomach down with his face in the red dust. I looked away; I did not want to remember him that way. But I have." Sergeant Savage had not lost a single man after taking command, despite a long night and day of attacks. When Herren's men told them that it was safe to get up, not one of them moved for 5 minutes. "They just stared at us in disbelief," Deal says.
With his reinforcements, Moore beefed up the lines. His tally showed that on Day Two his battalion had lost two officers and 44 men killed, three officers and 22 men wounded; the four line companies were down to eight officers and 260 men. Charlie Company had started the day with five officers and 102 men and ended it with no officers and 45 men. A bright moon rose in a clear sky before midnight and lighted the battlefield.
CHECKMATE: Driving off the enemy
At 4:22, an estimated 300 North Vietnamese attacked Capt. Myron Diduryk's sector from the southeast. Diduryk, 27, a native of the Ukraine who had emigrated to the United States at age 12, was, in Moore's words, "the best battlefield company commander I've ever known, including myself in Korea."
Diduryk had prepared for the possibility of a night attack. His men were dug in deeply, two to a foxhole, and the holes were spaced to provide interlocking support. Before nightfall Diduryk and his artillery observer, Lt. William Lund, had registered the artillery ranges so the 105-mm howitzers at Landing Zones Falcon and Columbus could fire instantly. Now, by the light of parachute flares kicked out of an Air Force C-123 overhead, Diduryk's men poured rifle and machine-gun fire on the attacking North Vietnamese while Diduryk and Lund directed artillery fire back and forth across the killing zone. The North Vietnamese broke and ran.
Nine minutes after the first attack, they tried again, this time with about 200 men. Again, American artillery and rifle fire chewed them up. The attack shifted to the southwest. The North Vietnamese were thrown back a third time.
"I heard bugles blowing," says Specialist 4 Pat Selleck, a 24-year-old rifleman from New York City. "I saw, in the light of the flares, waves of the enemy coming down off the mountain in a straight line. The company was shooting them like ducks in a pond." Twice during the attacks, Moore's reconnaissance platoon had carried huge loads of ammunition out to Diduryk's men. Less than 2 hours later, at 6:27, the North Vietnamese attacked again, this time directly at Diduryk's command post. Now, in less than 15 minutes, the attackers were dragging off their dead. Diduryk had only six men lightly wounded, but the field in front of him was piled with enemy dead. Diduryk would return to Vietnam for another tour of duty with the 1st Cavalry. In the spring of 1970, in another landing zone, he was killed by a sniper.
Moore now invented something that would be widely used for the rest of the Vietnam War. Finding that his companies had plenty of ammunition, he ordered every man on the line, on a signal at 6:55, to shoot anything in front of their lines that worried them. When this "Mad Minute" of random firing began, 50 North Vietnamese leapt up 150 yards forward of Alpha Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry. The North Vietnamese had been sneaking up and assumed the firing meant they had been spotted. They were shot down. Elsewhere along the line, the "reconnaissance by fire" killed six other North Vietnamese, including two snipers shot out of the trees. A third sniper was spotted an hour later trying to climb down and get away. He, too, was killed.
At 9:55, Moore ordered the nine companies now on the line to move forward 500 yards. Within the first 50 yards, Diduryk's men came under heavy fire. Moore pulled them back and called in artillery and air bombardment that killed another 27 of the enemy. The rest of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, under Lt. Col. Robert McDade, now began arriving at X-Ray from Landing Zone Victor. Specialist 4 Jack Smith, now an ABC-TV correspondent, later wrote: "The 1st Battalion had been fighting continuously for three or four days, and I had never seen such filthy troops. They all had that look of shock. They said little, just looked around with darting, nervous eyes. Whenever I heard a shell coming close, I'd duck but they kept standing. There must have been about 1,000 rotting bodies out there, starting at about 20 feet, surrounding the giant circle of foxholes."
McDade's and Tully's battalions were to relieve Moore's men at X-Ray, but Moore did not hand over his position until every company had accounted for every one of its men. Long ago, at Fort Benning, he had promised his battalion that he would never leave a man on the battlefield, never permit one man to be carried as "missing in action."
In three days and two nights, his battalion and attached units had lost 79 killed and 121 wounded. The enemy had lost an estimated 1,300 dead. Approximately 400 American air sorties had been flown in close support, the artillerymen at Landing Zones Falcon and Columbus had fired some 18,000 shells, and helicopter gunships had fired 3,000 2.75-inch rockets. Before Moore's men left, they were treated to one last spectacular. Shortly after noon, Chu Pong erupted as 24 Guam-based B-52 strategic bombers, for the first time in history, bombed in close support of troops on the ground.
Finally, Moore gave the O.K., and the helicopters began lifting his men out of the valley. Hal Moore, the first man on the ground, was the last man of his battalion to leave. In the cockpit of the helicopter that carried him away were his old pilot buddies Bruce Crandall and Jon Mills. After they landed at Camp Holloway in Pleiku, Moore checked to make certain his men were being taken care of and then rejoined the pilots. "Where can we get a drink around here?" he asked. Crandall and Mills pointed to a small officers' club nearby. Inside, they ordered gin and tonic, but the bartender refused to serve them, pointing disdainfully at Moore: "He's too dirty." Moore unslung his M-16 rifle and laid it across the bar; Crandall and Mills sighed and pulled out their .38-caliber pistols. "You've got exactly 30 seconds to get some drinks on this bar or I'm going to clean house," Moore said through clenched teeth. They drank, and when it dawned on the crowd who their unwashed and unwanted guest was, they drank for free.
To this point, the Ia Drang Campaign had been a magnificent feat for the cavalry. But before the fighting ended another 155 Americans would die in the Ia Drang Valley.
AMBUSH: Blundering into disaster
On the morning after Moore's battalion left X-Ray, with another massive B-52 raid planned on Chu Pong, the two battalions that had relieved Moore's men -- Bob McDade's 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry and Bob Tully's 2nd Battalion of the 5th Cavalry -- were ordered to march to two nearby landing zones. The brigade commander intended to continue maneuvering to block the enemy's retreat and to destroy him.
Tully, an experienced commander, marched his men out of X-Ray the same way they had arrived: Two companies abreast with artillery fire pounding the brush ahead of them. In less than 2 hours, his men covered the 2 ½ miles to Landing Zone Columbus. But McDade, who only three weeks before had been the division's personnel officer, had not commanded troops in 10 years. Staff officers needed a battalion command in order to make colonel, and Maj. Gen. Harry W.O. Kinnard had given McDade his battalion, but not without reservations. He had sent his personal aide, Maj. Frank Henry, to serve as McDade's second-in-command and to "keep things going till McDade could get his feet wet."
As Tully, who had left first, neared his objective at Landing Zone Columbus, he radioed McDade and offered to have his artillery specialist relay the correct coordinates to McDade's artillery man so that McDade's men would have the same protection on the way out of X-Ray. McDade said it wasn't necessary and moved out.
McDade's lead unit, Alpha Company, was deployed in a wedge formation, and the rear guard -- a company borrowed from the 1st Battalion of the 5th Cavalry -- was also properly deployed, but those in between marched single file with little regard for security. Some men had gone two days and nights without sleep, and during their frequent stops they sprawled, exhausted, in the grass. The 8th Battalion of the 66th People's Army Regiment was taking a rice break at midday along the Ia Drang River when scouts reported that the Americans were approaching. McDade's lead unit captured two prisoners, and the Americans halted for 20 minutes while they were interrogated. That permitted the enemy commander time to set up a hasty L-shaped ambush. The North Vietnamese planted their machine guns atop the termite hills and raced through the jungle, drawing the long leg of the L alongside the Americans.
As their mortars opened fire, the North Vietnamese regulars maneuvering alongside the American column wheeled and attacked. In the center of the column, Charlie Company took the worst of it, losing 20 killed and many more wounded in the first minute. Some men fired wildly in every direction and another company complained it was being hit by friendly fire. At that point, as the enemy pressed the attack, McDade apparently believed that what was happening was a shootout between Americans. Lt. S. Lawrence Gwin wrote that McDade radioed orders for everyone to cease fire.
A bad situation got worse. By now, the North Vietnamese were in among the Americans and up in the trees. Anyone who moved got shot. Major Henry and the artillery observer got on their radios and began calling in artillery and air bombardments. That prevented a massacre, but with the column stretched out for almost 1,000 yards in the tall grass, the artillery shells and napalm that killed the North Vietnamese also killed Americans. The lead unit, Alpha Company, had spread out around the edge of the clearing before the attack and lost two platoons, 50 men, in the first minutes. It would emerge from Albany with only 20 men left out of 100. Charlie Company, which set off from X-Ray with 110 men, lost 50 killed and 50 wounded.
In late afternoon, Diduryk's Bravo Company, which had left X-Ray with Moore's men, was pulled out of Pleiku and dropped by helicopter into Albany. The cocky veterans of X-Ray drew a perimeter around the clearing and lent courage to the shaken defenders. Another company of the 1st Battalion of the 5th Cavalry marched from Landing Zone Columbus toward the tail end of McDade's half-mile-long column.
During the afternoon and night, the North Vietnamese roamed the battlefield, killing and being killed in desperate, isolated little incidents. Specialist 4 Jack Smith, who lay wounded in the grass, wrote that the enemy ran around "screeching with glee when they found one of us alive ... Every few minutes, I heard some guy start screaming 'no, no, no, please,' and then a burst of bullets."
Division headquarters seemed oblivious to the debacle. General Kinnard and his second-in-command, Brig. Gen. Richard Knowles, later said the brigade commander, Colonel Brown, had not alerted them. Brown said he could get no coherent report from McDade. "We had ample resources at hand to reinforce Albany -- Hal Moore's men would have gone in a minute -- but no one asked," says General Kinnard.
SILENCE: Counting the cost
When the sun rose, McDade's battalion had lost 155 killed, 125 wounded and at least five men missing in action. A lieutenant stood in front of Specialist 5 Jon Wallenius, a Bravo Company mortar observer, and asked for volunteers to bring in the American dead. First they brought in the whole bodies; then the pieces. Wallenius and the others dragged the ghastly cargo to waiting Chinook helicopters, stacking the last one full to the ceiling. "When we raised the tail ramp, blood poured through the hinges," he says.
Landing Zone Albany was abandoned a day later, and four days after that, one of the Americans missing in action, Pfc. Toby Braveboy, a South Carolinian of Creek Indian descent, staggered into a clearing and, with his bloody undershirt, waved down a passing helicopter. Braveboy had been badly wounded on November 17, played dead while the enemy executed others near him and then crawled off to a creek bed. On the third day, the last man in a squad of North Vietnamese troops passing by spotted Braveboy lying in the brush against the bank and turned, raising his AK-47 rifle to finish him off. Braveboy lifted his shattered left hand in supplication, shaking his head. "He was so young, just a boy, not more than 16 or 17," Braveboy recalled afterward. "He walked away."
EPILOGUE: Delivering the sad news
The guns were silent at last. But 12,000 miles away, in Columbus, Ga., the sleepy Southern town outside Fort Benning, the tragedy was just beginning to unfold. It was early in the war, and the Army had not yet formed the casualty-notification teams that later delivered and tried to soften the terrible news. The telegrams were simply handed over to taxi drivers to deliver. Some women collapsed at the sight of a cab pulling up outside; others huddled inside, refusing to answer the knock.
Lt. Col. Hal Moore and his men had done their duty in the Ia Drang Valley. Now Julia Compton Moore -- the daughter of an Army colonel, the wife of a future Army general and the mother of two sons who would follow their father to West Point -- would do hers. Julie Moore knocked on too many doors in the flimsy thin-walled apartment complexes and trailer parks around Columbus -- grieving with the women, comforting the children and wondering when the taxicab might come to her door. She never forgot one very young, Hispanic widow, pregnant with a baby who would come into this world fatherless. Julie Moore attended the funerals of all her husband's men who were buried at Fort Benning.
If you want to know the true cost of victory in the Ia Drang, ask Julie Moore.
U.S. News Senior Editor Joseph L. Galloway was the only civilian correspondent at Landing Zone X-Ray. He hitched a helicopter ride to the battlefield on the first night of the fight, riding atop crates of hand grenades. One day past his 24th birthday, the young United Press International correspondent was savoring his only present, a front-row seat at the biggest battle of the war. Galloway left Vietnam in 1966, vowing never to return, but was sent back in 1971, 1973, 1975 and 1990.
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