The Significance of the Battle of Ia Drang

Morley Safer, who was at the time the Vietnam correspondent for CBS News, reports on the Battle of Ia Drang.

The Battle of Ia Drang Valley was the first major battle between the United States Army and the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN). History's first large scale deployment of light infantry forces by helicopter occurred here, and this battle is where the first use of B-52 strategic bombers in a tactical support role was made.

In the summer of 1965 the North Vietnamese army was assembling forces in the Central Highlands region in preparation for a campaign to capture Pleiku city, where the II Corps of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was headquartered. That would put them in position to gain control over Highway 19, which led from Pleiku east to the South China Sea coastline. Doing so would effectively sever South Vietnam in two. Three PAVN regiments were tasked with destroying U.S. Special Forces outposts in the region as a prelude to the drive on Pleiku.

On October 19, 1965, a U.S. Army Special Forces camp at Plei Me, some 40 kilometers to the southwest of Pleiku, was attacked. The joint ARVN-US Pleiku Campaign was undertaken to relieve the besieged camp at Plei Me, which was mostly defended by Montagnard tribesmen. The lifting of the siege by South Vietnamese ground forces and American air power was followed by the pursuit of retreating North Vietnamese units. That pursuit set the stage for the Battle of Ia Drang.

Battle of Ia Drang Map
Map: On October 19, 1965, the North Vietnamese Army attacked a U.S. Special Forces Camp at Plei Me, with the eventual goal of conquering the entire Central Highlands region.

Airmobile Assault at Landing Zone X-Ray

In the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration was shifting emphasis from the heavy, conventional units facing the Soviet threat to Western Europe to the creation of light "airmobile" units needed to carry out counter-insurgency missions. The first unit of this type to see major combat belonged to the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division and was led by Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore, one of the two authors of We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young - Ia Drang, The Battle That Changed The War In Vietnam. On November 14, 1965, in hot pursuit of North Vietnamese troops retreating from the confrontation at Plei Me, Hal Moore led his air assault specialists into Landing Zone X-Ray. The fight that developed there is remembered today as the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, the first large unit engagement of the Vietnam War and the first-ever large scale helicopter air assault.

The North Vietnamese Army units withdrawing from Plei Me had traveled all the way to the Cambodian border. On the Cambodian side, in the Chu Pong hill mass, with their backs to their main supply depot, three PAVN regiments turned and waited behind fortified bunkers. From those positions they began to pour mortar fire at Landing Zone X-Ray. Situated at the eastern base of the Chu Pong Massif, LZ X-Ray was a clearing only large enough to fit eight UH-1 Huey helicopters.

On the second day of this three-day battle, U.S. Strategic Air Command B-52 bombers were called in to "carpet bomb" PAVN positions; their first use ever in the role of tactical support for ground troops. As thousands of bombs were unleashed on North Vietnamese forces amassed in the Chu Pong hills, U.S. Army 7th Cavalry reinforcements arrived by helicopter at LZ X-Ray, where they were ambushed by North Vietnamese forces waiting in the surrounding thickets. On the morning of 16th, the third day of the siege at LZ X-Ray, the final North Vietnamese assaults were repulsed.

PAVN Ambush at Landing Zone Albany

Since B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers were on their way from Guam, with the slopes of the Chu Pong massif and LZ X-Ray itself their intended targets, remaining U.S. forces had to clear out fast. They split into two groups: One headed towards a landing zone for artillery, code-named "Columbus", and one marched towards Landing Zone Albany. The column arriving at LZ Albany had gone almost 60 hours without sleep, while enduring four hours of marching.

Battle of Ia Drang Map
Map: The Columbus-bound unit reached the LZ without incident. The troopers bound for LZ Albany ran headlong into a strong enemy column marching to attack airmobile artillery at LZ Columbus.
"Ia" is a Montagnard word for "river", so "Ia Drang River" references "The River Drang", which drains the Ia Drang Valley.

As they arrived at LZ Albany they were ambushed by hundreds of North Vietnamese Army soldiers. A close quarters battle ensued, lasting for 16 hours. In the first few minutes of that battle, 70 men were lost to two American companies at the scene. Again B-52 bombers arrived to save the day, although due to the close-quarters fighting, air and artillery strikes at LZ Albany are believed to have killed North Vietnamese and American soldiers indiscriminately.

A Temporary Change in PAVN Tactics

By Day 5 the Battle of Ia Drang was over. The U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division reported 1,500 North Vietnamese deaths by body-count, an additional 2,000 by estimate, and 304 deaths among their own troops. Five days of B-52 bombing runs explain the need to estimate casualties on the other side, as well as the high estimate. The North and South Vietnamese armies produced their own casualty counts and figures vary considerably by source.

The high number of casualties inflicted by the Americans was made possible by the North Vietnamese decision to stand and fight. This had not been the usual way of fighting for PAVN and the Viet Cong insurgents, and it would not be again until the 1968 Tet Offensive. Some have suggested that the high command in Hanoi was willing to sacrifice those three regiments in order to see how well American troops could fight and to learn how to prepare North Vietnamese combat units for confrontations with the United States in future.

The Significance of the Battle of Ia Drang Valley

Writing in the January-February 2001 volume of Military Review, Vietnam War historian Merle L. Pribbenow described North Vietnamese errors and command failures at Ia Drang, citing historical reviews published by the People's Army of Vietnam after the war. According to PAVN, the planners of their Winter-Spring 1965 Campaign, from which the Battle of Ia Drang developed, had besieged the remote border outpost at Plei Me intending to annihilate five or six U.S. Army companies by compelling forces to come to the rescue, whereupon they would be ambushed. That plan failed.

In their first major battle with U.S. forces, North Vietnamese commanders seriously underestimated their opponent. Specifically, they were surprised by the firepower of the 1st Cavalry Division's armed helicopters, by the use of B-52s in a tactical air support role for ground troops, and by the power of the 1st Cavalry Division's field artillery. The North Vietnamese had believed that field artillery would be unable to deploy and operate effectively in that roadless, jungle-covered region. They were also taken by surprise by the incredible mobility of 1st Cavalry troopers who, even after being caught at an initial disadvantage, used helicopters to concentrate forces rapidly and decisively, turning the tide of battle.

With a longer-range perspective, the Battle of Ia Drang represented an encouraging development for Hanoi. As Hal Moore wrote in his memoir Hal Moore: A Soldier Onceā€¦and Always, Their peasant soldiers had withstood the terrible high-tech fire storm delivered against them by a superpower and had at least fought the Americans to a draw. By their yardstick, a draw against such a powerful opponent was the equivalent of a victory.