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Battle of Ia Drang
By Sgt. Maj Clayton Dos Santos, Sgt. Maj Dale J. Dukes and Mr. James Perdue

During the Vietnam War, the United States (U.S.) forces launched a bold mission in the contested region called the Ia Drang Valley.[1] Considered for many as the first major battle during the war between the U.S. Army and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), both sides showed the importance of tactics, key equipment, and capabilities to overcome an enemy in severely restricted terrain. The Battle of Ia Drang brought a clash to the confidence of U.S. Soldiers, who possessed effective fire support and close air support during operations, against a trained indigenous enemy who knew very well the terrain and was acclimatized to the weather in that region.[2] This article will explore the intent of the forces engaged in this battle, some of the important actions developed during this conflict, and the aftermath that ensued. With these topics in mind, it is relevant to first examine the historical background in order to better exploit the lessons-learned and the outcome of this battle.

Background

In October 1965, the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division Commander, Major General (MG) Harry W.O. Kinnard realized the NVA forces were moving to the west, rapidly approaching the Cambodian border. Therefore, he started to consider the Chu Pong Massif, a rugged mountain south of the Ia Drang River as a potential key terrain for the enemy. Thus, he ordered his 3rd Brigade commander; Colonel (COL) Tim Brown, move westward toward the Cambodian border to search and destroy NVA forces in that region.[3]

On the other hand, in mid-October, North Vietnamese General (GEN) Chi Huy Man, Commander of the Western Field Front Headquarters, had an unsuccessful attack in the region of Plei Me, east of Chu Pong Massif. In order to reorganize his forces in a staging area, GEN Man ultimately selected the same region as COL Brown decided to search for the enemy.[4] Although different composition and plans, the strategies and tactical movements executed by the opposing forces provoked an unintended collision in the region of the Ia Drang.[5]

NVA Forces Composition and Plans

GEN Man’s forces in that region were the 32nd NVA Regiment, the 33rd NVA Regiment, and the 66th NVA Regiment. In the Pley Me engagement, the 32nd and the 33rd NVA Regiment had lost a large part of their combat power. For instance, the 33rd NVA Regiment had lost 890 soldiers that were killed in action and more than 600 soldiers that were missing or wounded; however, despite the significant losses, the 33rd NVA Regiment reported approximately 1100 soldiers remaining in the organization.[6] On November 10th, the 66th NVA Regiment was already in place in its assembly area atop the Chu Pong Mountain. It is important to mention that the 66th NVA Regiment was nearly at full strength, and it was the most complete NVA force regarding soldiers and capabilities in that region.[7] Even with the losses sustained during the Pley Me campaign back at the end of October, the elements within the 66th NVA Regiment were still ready to fight. GEN Man’s intent was to reinforce his combat units with 120mm mortars and 14.5mm machine guns.[8] On November 11th, 1965, the NVA were positioned strategically along both banks of the Ia Drang River. The NVA’s goal was to inflict as many casualties as possible upon the enemy forces. They called this strategy the “War of Attrition”, which means by denying victory and raising the casualty rates, the NVA could overcome the U.S. forces.[9] On the other hand, U.S. forces had a completely different mindset for the impending scenario.

U.S. Forces Composition and Plans

On November 13th, 1965, the 3rd Brigade commander, COL Brown, ordered Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Harold G. Moore, Jr., the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry (1/7) commander, to execute an airmobile assault into the Ia Drang Valley to search and destroy enemy forces. It is vital to mention that the airmobile assault concept was formed at Fort Benning in 1963, where the 11th Air Assault Division led the pilot program. The operation was scheduled to be conducted through the 15th of November. The brigade had a total of 24 helicopters and COL Brown allocated 16 of them for LTC Moore’s battalion operation. The intent of not supplying all helicopters to the 1/7 Cavalry was to ensure the brigade could provide air support for the other two battalions for resupply purposes and could move platoon sized elements.[10] Unfortunately, during the Battle of Ia Drang, the temperature was about 100 degrees and there were no easily traveled roads or alternate supply routes. Without roads, the U.S. forces relied heavily and solely upon helicopters. The helicopters were held responsible for bringing all classes of supplies such as water and ammunition as well as airlifting all wounded and dead U.S. Soldiers; therefore, the airmobile assault not only worked as an element of surprise, but also a necessity within this battle.[11]

Besides the support from the helicopters’ capabilities, the 1/7 Cavalry received fire support from two 105mm howitzer batteries of the 21st Artillery. LTC Moore also knew that COL Brown would provide additional fire support if necessary.[12] By air, the U.S. forces identified possible landing zones that could be used. LTC Moore ultimately decided to use the Landing Zone (LZ) identified and named X-RAY, because it would be able to accommodate 8 to 10 helicopters landing at one time.[13]

The U.S. forces needed to amass Soldiers on ground as quickly as possible for the plan to work. The U.S. forces strategy was to destroy the NVA’s will to fight. Although the risks involved included engaging with an enemy on its own terrain and with a potential concentration of forces, still, the U.S. forces were confident and ready to attack.

The strategic goal of this tactical approach was to maintain the political order in Vietnam in order to achieve the U.S. interests in the region. This strategic concept guided the operational and tactical concepts of the U.S. forces throughout the war.[14] The violent confrontation of these two different approaches, provided opportunities to establish actions and outcomes during this battle that supported some authors who consider it as one of the bloodiest of the Vietnam War.

The Battle

On November 14th, the U.S. forces intelligence received information that the enemy was located five kilometers northwest of LZ X-RAY. With credible intelligence that another enemy force would probably be southwest. In hopes to confuse the enemy, the 21st Artillery launched eight minutes of indirect fire on the other two potential LZs, Yankee and Tango. Following the bombardment, the 21st Artillery, the 20th Artillery, and the 229th Aviation Battalion swept LZ X-RAY with a rain of fire for about 20 minutes, preparing the area for the infiltration of 1/7 Cavalry.[15] After the barrage on the morning of November 14th, LTC Moore’s B Company was successfully infilled and located on LZ X-RAY. The unit secured the perimeter, and they did not encounter any enemy resistance during the first couple hours. At approximately 1100 a.m., A Company, 1/7 Cavalry joined the other element on the ground. Around 1300, the battalion had the first engagement with the enemy. About 1700, with all the 1/7 Cavalry units positioned in vicinity of LZ X-RAY, LTC Moore already estimated that 500-600 NVA soldiers were fighting against his forces, and most likely more NVA soldiers were on the way.[16] LTC Moore saw himself nearly surrounded by NVA forces and fighting on three fronts: One company was defending LZ X-RAY, two companies were actively engaging the enemy, and one platoon from B Company had become isolated, fighting for their lives.[17]

The Lost Platoon

As soon as B Company landed on LZ X-RAY, its commander, Captain (CPT) John Herren, ordered Lieutenant (LT) Henry Herrick to move his platoon to a more tactically advantageous position on the ground. When the platoon got into the new position, NVA forces had opened fire against them and quickly retreated into the dense vegetation. After initially calling on the radio asking for permission from CPT Herren and not receiving any word back either way, LT Herrick decided to pursue the enemy forces.[18] The enemy had disappeared into the bushes and their exact locations were now unknown; however, LT Herrick kept searching forward. Approximately 100 meters beyond his initial position, he found himself faced with a two-platoon sized enemy, which forced him to make the decision of attacking. Nonetheless, the attack was unsuccessful, ultimately forcing his platoon to transition into a defensive position and wait for help. Although some authors consider LT Herrick’s decision a reckless action, others have considered the events that unfolded positive in one aspect for the 1/7 Cavalry. The audacious action confused the enemy, which required the NVA to commit more troops for the secondary effort against this small U.S. force.[19] LT Herrick’s platoon had 29 Soldiers assigned when he started pursuing the enemy. After being isolated and suffering seven direct attacks while waiting for support, his unit sustained nine losses, including himself, and 13 Soldiers wounded. In the afternoon of November 15th, LTC Moore finally rescued the lost platoon from his B Company.[20] As one of the consequences of the LT Herrick tactical movement, it was becoming clearer on how to develop a better counteraction scenario against the NVA forces maneuvering closer to LZ X-RAY.

NVA Forces

On November 14th, and contrary to widely held belief, the NVA forces were actually surprised by the U.S. airmobile assault into LZ X-RAY. The U.S. forces had inserted themselves less than a kilometer from the NVAs 9th Battalion positions. At the time of the assault, the 66th Regimental commander and the 9th Battalion commander, the leaders of the two NVA units in that area, were studying terrain several kilometers south along the Ia Drang River. During the first engagement by the U.S. forces, the NVA units did not react or demonstrate any response to the U.S. forces operations.[21] The NVA could not initially maneuver fast enough due to the heavy U.S. forces bombardment in that area. The NVA also failed to realize due to the thick vegetation that limited their visibility and movement, that the U.S. forces had already advanced up the hill in two columns ready to attack the NVA’s 11th Company and the headquarters element of the 9th Battalion. The NVA forces tried to react, but it was too late, and they suffered heavy losses, which forced them to retreat from the U.S. forces.[22]

During the Battle of Ia Drang, the NVA forces prepared and accomplished two coordinated attacks against the U.S. forces. The first attack happened at 0300 on November 15th, when the NVA forces using two companies coming from the 7th and the 9th Battalions prepared and executed an assault on one side of the U.S. forces, while the rest of the 7th Battalion arrayed and assaulted the other side of the U.S. forces position. About 0645, after failed attempts to gain ground and continuous U.S. Artillery bombardment, the NVA decided it needed to withdraw, leaving behind only one platoon to remain in contact with the U.S. forces.[23]

The second coordinated attack took place at 2000 on November 15th. The goal was to attack LZ X-RAY with the 66th Regiment, while the 33rd Regiment would attack the two U.S. Artillery positions that were supporting LZ X-RAY. Due to the constant U.S. Artillery bombardment, the 66th Regiment did not launch the assault until November 16th, at 0300. After claiming to have inflicted several losses on the U.S. forces, the 66th were not capable of sustaining the fight and retreated.[24] The combination of ferocious attacks demonstrated the U.S. forces combat power and resilience on the battlefield.

1/7 Cavalry Regiment

LTC Moore’s command post was positioned in the center of LZ X-RAY. From there he controlled operations, requesting air strikes, artillery support, and repositioning his forces on the ground. Although the 1/7 Cavalry had shown an elevated level of training and competence by expelling the enemy forces and holding their ground for two days, LTC Moore faced some relevant setbacks. One of them was the difficulties in calibrating the Artillery support. At the beginning, the fire support reacted quickly; however, they were ineffective. The reason for inefficiencies were the dust and smoke in the air, the terrain features, and the speed at which the enemy moved throughout the region.[25] Another complication he observed was the helicopter air traffic during the battle. Resources, personnel, and the air support required constant coordination coming into the valley. He had already lost two helicopters which caused him to become even more involved in preventing any additional incidents related to his crucial helicopter support. On the ground, the situation was not much different. The number of U.S. Soldiers wounded was increasing, and he had just four aidmen and his surgeon to support his entire battalion.[26] After analyzing the intent and some of the actions developed by both sides during this conflict, it is possible to reflect about some of the outcomes witnessed within this battle.

Aftermath

As a result of the events that played out during the Battle of Ia Drang, on the morning of November 16th, the 2/7 Cavalry Regiment relieved the exhausted battalion from their fight. LTC Moore marched alongside his unit until they reached the extraction zone and were airlifted back to the U.S. forces headquarters.[27] Among the many lessons-learned for the U.S. forces, one was the inability to understand the enemy indeed. The U.S. believed their superior training and equipment would be enough to overcome the much larger NVA forces, not considering the enemy skills, familiarity with the terrain, and courses of actions.[28] Alternatively, the leadership was a point of inflection on several occasions. In a notable example of successful leadership action, LTC Moore remembered when one of the B Company’s platoons was isolated and cut off from the battalion’s support. When the platoon commander, LT Herrick was killed, Sergeant Ernie Savage took charge and kept the rest of the platoon’s Soldiers alive. The competence, shared understanding, and well-trained leaders at all levels proved to be essential during the unit’s military operations.[29] Moreover, in that chaotic environment, LTC Moore took responsibility for tactical mistakes such as putting emphasis on the air preparation of Chu Pong Massif.[30] An overall assessment of LTC Moore’s leadership style is that his attitude and actions demonstrated a good commander’s presence and projected confidence to his Soldiers, positively influencing the unit.[31]

From the NVA forces side, as mentioned before, NVA commanders underestimated the U.S. forces capabilities. When the U.S. forces used the airmobile assault, it was a complete surprise action for the NVA. They believed the U.S. forces were unable to deploy in a region with no roads.[32] For example, during the battle, the NVA forces faced several leadership problems with the regimental commanders. GEN Man harshly reprimanded his 66th Regimental commander for failing in his attempt to attack and secure LZ X-RAY during the second attack.[33] Looking from a unique perspective, the NVA forces realized that even with the superiority of the U.S. forces equipment and training, the NVA could still inflict heavy casualties upon its enemy. The NVA thought the “War of Attrition” approach could be successful and inflict pain upon the U.S. forces and its leadership.[34]

Conclusion

The Battle of Ia Drang presented a notable example of the affirmation that war is inherently chaotic. In less than 72 hours, this bloody battle left 79 U.S. Soldiers killed, 121 wounded, and luckily, zero Soldiers missing.[35] The NVA forces had suffered even heavier losses, with 634 confirmed dead, six prisoners of war, and an estimated additional 581 presumed dead.[36] The decisions made during that dreadful environment not only had a significant impact and direct influence on U.S. Soldiers and events in that moment, but also in the future events of the entire campaign. It showed that having superior technological equipment and well-trained troops must combine with a willingness to fully understand and not underestimate an enemy. Although all the U.S. Soldiers were well-prepared and ready to fight, the NVA was willing and ready to stand their ground and fight back. Another point to consider is that the strategic and tactical approaches in this battle were diverse and complex; however, leadership influences most of the actions, fostering a significant impact on their operations and the overall success or failure of their missions. In essence, the Battle of Ia Drang brought multiple lessons-learned that may be explored for future military operations.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography
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© 2023 Sgt. Maj Clayton Dos Santos, Sgt. Maj Dale J. Dukes and Mr. James Perdue

Published online: 01/15/2023

Sgt. Maj Clayton is currently an instructor for the Department of Army Operations at the Sergeants Major Course, Fort Bliss, Texas. His previous assignments were as Operations SGM of the 6th Intelligence Battalion and as Command Sergeant Major of the Battle Staff Course, at the Brazilian Army Advanced NCO School. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Resources from São Paulo University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from Santa Catarina University. He also holds a master’s degree in Leadership and Management, from Santa Catarina University and a Master Business Administration in Leadership and Coaching from Anhanguera University.

Sgt. Maj Dale J. Dukes is currently an Instructor for the Department of Army Operations within the Sergeants Major Course, at the Noncommissioned Officer Leadership Center of Excellence, Fort Bliss, Texas. Just prior to becoming an instructor, he completed his master’s degree in Adult Education through Pennsylvania State University as a member of the cohort 6 fellowship program. Previously, he served as the Directorate of Emergency Services and Provost Sergeant Major for Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He has deployed multiple times in support of contingency operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, and Kurdistan.

Mr. James Perdue is currently an instructor for the Department of Army Operations at the Sergeants Major Course. As a Special Forces Sergeant Major (Ret.), he served 27 years in multiple assignments, including the participation in the Battle of Mogadishu. He holds a Master’s degree in Human Resources, a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership, and Master’s degree in Public Administration. His awards and decorations include the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, and Meritorious Service Medal. He earned the Combat Infantry Badge, Military Freefall Jumpmaster Badge, Master Parachute Badge, Combat Diver Badge, and the Order of Saint Maurice.

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