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 20, 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.
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 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, Moore led the air assault specialists of the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division 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. LZ X-Ray was a clearing only large enough to fit eight UH-1 Huey helicopters, situated at the eastern base of the Chu Pong Massif.
On the second day of this three-day battle, U.S. Air Force B-52 strategic bombers were called in to "carpet bomb" PAVN positions; their first use in the tactical support of 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
With B-52 Stratofortresses 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 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.
As they arrived at the clearing 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.
By Day 5 the Battle of Ia Drang was over. U.S. forces had suffered 240 deaths, a casualty figure not seen by Americans since the Korean War, while by American estimates more than 2,000 North Vietnamese forces had been killed.
Encouraging Results, Ominous Developments
The battle came to be seen as a blueprint for tactics by both sides, as the United States and North Vietnam escalated force levels in South Vietnam. The Americans took advantage of superior capabilities in air mobility, artillery fire and close air support on the battlefield, while the North Vietnamese saw that they could neutralize superior U.S. technology by quickly engaging American forces at very close range. During the clashes, PAVN General Nguyễn Hữu An stated: "Move inside the column, grab them by the belt, and thus avoid casualties from the artillery and air."
As Lieutenant Colonel Moore wrote in his book, "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."