In war, truth is the first casualty.
Late in the day, November 18, Brigadier General Dick Knowles, whose headquarters were by now besieged by a growing throng of reporters demanding information on exactly what had happened at Landing Zone Albany, convened a news conference at II Corps Headquarters. The word that trickled in from the field was that an American battalion had been butchered in the Ia Drang Valley, and the sharks were gathering. Knowles, who had been aware of the fighting at Albany since he overflew the battlefield at midafternoon the previous day, says, “I did not get timely information. We did not get it sorted out until the next day [the 18th]. That’s when we learned the details.” Asked if Colonel Brown had reported what he had seen and heard during an early visit to the Albany perimeter the morning of the 18th, Knowles says, “No.” It would appear then that Knowles’s headquarters got its first real idea of the scope of the tragedy when Associated Press photographer Rick Merron—who had finagled a ride into Albany—returned to Camp Holloway midmorning of the 18th and staggered into the 1st Cavalry Division press tent, pale and shaken by what he had seen and photographed, and told his colleagues that the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry had been massacred in an enemy ambush. Division public affairs officers swiftly informed Knowles of the report by Merron.
How and why it took more than eighteen hours for the assistant division commander to get the first direct detailed account from the battlefield—and why that information had come, not through command channels, but from a civilian photographer—is a question that lingers. Knowles says, “Lieutenant Colonel Hemphill had been getting pieces of information from the artillery and from all over that fit into a running description of a fight; but nobody, not even McDade, had the full magnitude until the next day. We kept getting body counts and casualty figures all that morning [of the 18th].” The reporters gathering in Pleiku thought they smelled a cover-up. The news conference that followed did little to dispel their suspicions.
Knowles told the news conference that a battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) had had a “meeting engagement” with an enemy force of equal or larger size, and the American battalion had suffered “light to moderate casualties.” Knowles reported that the enemy force had suffered four hundred-plus killed and had broken off the engagement and withdrawn. The cavalry battalion had held its ground and won a victory. The general’s summary of what he understood had happened at Albany was greeted by roars of disbelief from the assembled reporters.
In short order the wires were burning up with reports of the heaviest American casualties to date in the Vietnam War; hints of an Army cover-up of a disastrous ambush; reports that the American forces were withdrawing—some accounts said “retreating”—from the valley. Much of the reporting was overstated and oversimplified; some of it was just plain wrong. What had happened at LZ Albany was by no means a classic ambush. The element of surprise worked for the North Vietnamese and against the American column; Colonel An’s soldiers had between twenty minutes and an hour to maneuver into position to launch their attack. The battle at Albany encompasses something of all these precise definitions: There were a meeting engagement (with the recon platoon at the head of the column); a hasty attack (on the lead company); and a hasty ambush (of the rest of the column)—all of which occurred within a period of no more than five minutes.
But the reporters were not the only ones who were skeptical about what they had been told, and what they had not been told. That morning, November 18, at 10:15 A.M., the American commander in Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, visited 3rd Brigade Headquarters at Catecka. During a thirty-minute briefing, Colonel Brown failed to mention anything at all about the fight at LZ Albany, limiting his report to an overview of the X-Ray fight. Later in the day Westmoreland stopped in Qui Nhon and toured the Army 85th Evacuation Hospital. In his “history notes” (journal) entry covering November 18, General Westmoreland wrote: “I … flew down and visited the brigade commanded by Colonel Tim Brown. He gave me a briefing and we flew over the operational area. I then flew down to Qui Nhon where I visited the men in the hospital. They were mostly personnel of the 1st Cavalry who had been wounded in the recent operation in Pleiku. While talking to them I began to sense I had not been given the full information when I had visited the Brigade CP. Several of the men stated they had been involved in what they referred to as an ambush. Most of the men were from the 2nd of the 7th Cavalry.”
The Westmoreland history notes entry for the 18th add: “One other thing happened in the afternoon. After returning to my office from a trip to Pleiku, Colonel [Ben] Legare [MACV public affairs chief] came in and informed me that a story had been filed that was highly critical of the 1st Air Cavalry. This came as no great surprise to me since I had suspected it after talking to the men in the hospital. I then called General [Stanley] Larsen and told him to get the facts. I told Colonel Legare to send a planeload of press up the next morning in order to get a briefing on exactly what had happened.”
General Westmoreland was now concerned that the Cavalry Division had bitten off more than it could chew, and certainly far more than the American public was able to digest so early in the war. He also worried about sending South Vietnamese forces up against the North Vietnamese in the Ia Drang region.
In his journal entry for Friday, November 19, Westmoreland wrote: “General Bill DePuy returned from Pleiku where I sent him because of my concern that the 1st Air Cavalry and the (ARVN) Airborne task force might get involved in more than they could handle, and a bloody nose for the ARVN general reserve would be adverse to government morale. Further, I feared that intense sustained combat would wear down the Cavalry Division to the point that it might not be capable of performing its mission during the next several weeks. I asked DePuy to look into all these factors and get me a report. After talking to all the commanders and advisers concerned, he recommended that the new phase of the operation be confined north of the river [the Ia Drang] since the river is unfordable and thus would reduce the risk of unsuccessful operations, particularly for the ARVN Airborne.”
Whatever his own misgivings, Westmoreland was thunderstruck by the impact those first, negative news accounts of the battle at Albany had back home. The general was catching hell from the Pentagon, and he lost no time giving hell to the Saigon bureau chiefs of the various American media.
In his journal entry for November 20, Westmoreland wrote: “I had my monthly background session with the press. I discussed the battle at Pleiku, starting with the attack on Plei Me camp and going through the subsequent phases. I read a wire I received from Secretary of Defense quoting headlines from the Washington Post and Star implying the retreat and withdrawal of the 1st Cavalry Division. I then explained to them I had a great respect for the press. I reminded them that I had resisted censorship of the press and was on record to that effect. I stated that stories such as those in the Washington newspapers were having the following effect: 1. Distorting the picture at home and lowering the morale of people who are emotionally concerned (wives). 2. Lowering morale of troops.”
During General Westmoreland’s November 18 trip to Pleiku, I finally delivered the briefing that I had refused to leave the battlefield and fly to Saigon to deliver. At 8:45 A.M. my surviving company commanders and staff and I were lined up and waiting when two jeeps pulled up and Westmoreland arrived, accompanied by General Cao Van Vien, chief of the South Vietnamese Army Joint General Staff, Major General Harry Kinnard, and Barry Zorthian, chief of the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO). I had served with General Westmoreland in the late 1940s on Airborne duty at Fort Bragg, and General Vien had been a classmate of mine in 1956-1957 at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.
We went into a borrowed Quonset hut and each of us who had played a role in the fight at LZ X-Ray briefed General Westmoreland and the others. Things went smoothly, except for one moment. During Captain Matt Dillon’s portion of the briefing he mentioned a report by our men that they had seen the body of an enemy soldier they suspected was Chinese—he was large, and was dressed in a uniform different from that of the NVA—which disappeared from the battlefield before we could retrieve it. Westmoreland reacted angrily and forcefully, telling us all: “You will nevermention anything about Chinese soldiers in South Vietnam! Never!”
The men of the battalion were lined up by their small pup tents. Westmoreland walked down the line of troopers, stopping and chatting with various men, asking them where they were from and making small talk about sports. Then I asked General Westmoreland to address them. Standing atop the hood of his jeep, he thanked the men for their courage and performance in battle. He added that the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry would be recommended for a Presidential Unit Citation for the extraordinary heroism displayed in combat.
Westmoreland’s sensitivity to the issue of Chinese advisers traveling with the North Vietnamese on the battlefield may well have been provoked by an article by Charles Mohr in the November 17, 1965, issue of The New York Times. Filed from Saigon, the article reported that prisoners captured in late October around Plei Me Special Forces Camp had appeared at a news conference in Saigon, telling reporters that they had entered South Vietnam through Cambodia and had received assistance from Cambodian militiamen. Mohr’s article added that the prisoners told the reporters that each of the North Vietnamese People’s Army regiments had one Chinese Communist adviser. “An official American spokesman commented, ‘We don’t have positive knowledge of Chinese advisers but it is a distinct possibility.’”
Clearly that article had touched a raw nerve at the White House, and just as clearly the command posture at MACV had changed radically in the previous twenty-four hours. There would be no more discussion of Chinese involvement in the fighting in South Vietnam. President Johnson remembered Korea, and his fear of Chinese intervention in Vietnam led him to exercise unprecedented personal control over the selection of bombing targets in North Vietnam. The Air Force was forbidden to operate within thirty miles of the Chinese border for fear of provoking an incident.
The question of Chinese advisers was no less sensitive to the North Vietnamese. The battlefield commander in the Ia Drang, then-Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huu An, says that it was a point of pride that the People’s Army—which had Chinese army advisers down to the regimental level during the French war—did not have any foreign advisers in the field at any time during the war with the Americans. Asked about U.S. Army Signal Intelligence intercepts of radio transmissions in the Mandarin Chinese dialect in the vicinity of his headquarters on the Chu Pong massif on November 14, 1965, An said: “We had that language capability and sometimes used it to confuse whoever might be listening.”
Congratulations on a job well done had been pouring in ever since our return to Camp Holloway. I assembled the battalion and read to them this message from the Army Chief of Staff, General Harold K. Johnson, to Major General Harry Kinnard: “On behalf of all members of the United States Army, I salute the intrepid officers and men of the 1st CavDiv for their superb action in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. Your Sky Soldiers and their brave Vietnamese allies carry the hopes of free men everywhere as they repel the heavy enemy attacks. The Army and the nation take pride in your display of courage, determination and fighting skill. The brave and resolute performance of the 1st CavDiv in this battle is in keeping with the finest traditions of the American soldier.”
Out on the Albany battlefield, as night fell on November 18, all the American dead had still not been recovered. Bob McDade and his men hunkered down for another miserable night on that blood-soaked ground. Captain Joel Sugdinis says: “We remained at Albany all day on the 18th without contact, and again pulled in tight in a defensive perimeter for the night. We did not put out observation posts or patrols, but relied on harassment and interdiction fires around the perimeter to thwart any enemy approach. No one came. The next morning, the 19th, we continued to police the battlefield but the smell of decaying bodies was getting very bad.”
Lieutenant Rick Rescorla ran into a sergeant from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry and learned that Lieutenant Larry Hess had been killed. “He was a classmate of mine, OCS Class of April 1965, the son of an Air Force officer and just 20 years old. We pulled out of Albany that day. Several soldiers [were] still unaccounted for, but the press corps had started arriving. Just before we left a member of the press asked: ‘What’s the official name of this place?’ ‘The Little Bighorn,’ a lieutenant said cynically. ‘Don’t say that,’ Captain Joe Price protested. ‘There’s been no defeat here.’”
Washington was now thoroughly awakened to the ferocity of the fighting at X-Ray and Albany and to the large numbers of American dead and wounded beginning to arrive from the battlefields. The war was entering a new and much more deadly phase; President Johnson wanted to know what that meant and what it would cost. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, then headed for Europe on NATO business, was told to return by way of Saigon and conduct one of his famous fact-finding missions. He was instructed to focus on the Ia Drang battles and report to the president with his recommendations.
After just two days’ rest at Camp Holloway, the men of 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry were ordered back into the field—trucked back to the Catecka Tea Plantation to mount perimeter guard around 3rd Brigade headquarters. At LZ Albany, on November 19, helicopters began lifting out the survivors of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry for the short flight to LZ Crooks, just six miles away. At Crooks the exhausted troops were ordered to take over a section of the defense perimeter alongside Colonel Bob Tully’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry. McDade’s battalion had still not accounted for all its men. The battalion was reporting 119 killed, 124 wounded, and 8 missing in action. When the final division headquarters report was made on March 4, 1966, the total Albany casualties for the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, Alpha and Bravo companies, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, and attached artillery observers were: 151 killed, 121 wounded, and 4 missing in action.
McDade’s men were exhausted and shaken by the fire storm they had endured at Albany and felt that they should have been withdrawn from the field before nightfall on November 19. As darkness fell, says Sergeant John Setelin of Bravo Company, “we thought if we hung around out there it was all going to happen to us again. That night it got so quiet you could hear a mouse piss on cotton. Every time we did hear a noise in the bush we fired on it. Finally, the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cav people came over and said if we didn’t quit shooting they were going to take our ammunition away.” The Crooks perimeter passed a generally quiet night with only two rounds of incoming mortar fire and no casualties.
My own battalion, standing guard around the brigade headquarters and airstrip at Catecka, was not so lucky. Sergeant Ernie Savage was in charge of the handful of survivors of Lieutenant Henry Herrick’s 2nd Platoon, the Lost Platoon from LZ X-Ray. They had dug deep foxholes in their sector of the Catecka perimeter. At around nine P.M., as I sat in the operations tent, Captain Jerry Whiteside, the artillery coordinator, came in with grief and apprehension written all over his face. He said, “Colonel, our artillery just had a short round land in your Bravo Company lines.”
That errant 105mm howitzer shell exploded among the foxholes in Sergeant Savage’s sector. PFC Richard C. Clark, nineteen, of Kankakee, Illinois, was asleep on the ground next to the foxhole he shared with Specialist 5 Marlin Dorman. Clark was killed instantly. Specialist 4 Galen Bungum still grieves over what happened. “I just couldn’t believe this. He was right next to me in Ia Drang when we were trapped. We made it through that, we got out of there, and then he gets killed by our own artillery. Why did Richard Clark have to die that way?”
The next day a dozen or so of my troopers stood waiting for me outside the operations tent in the chill early-morning fog. They were scheduled to leave that day en route to the United States for discharge upon completion of their terms of service. I had told Sergeant Major Plumley I wanted to speak to each such group before departure. This was the first group to go since the Ia Drang. These young men, each wearing the thousand-yard stare in his old man’s eyes, had gone willingly into the inferno at X-Ray knowing that he had only a few days or a week left on Army duty. We had been together for seventeen months now and I knew them well.
I told them how proud I was of each of them, and how they should always hold their heads high for what they had done against such great odds. I told them I would remember them always. Then I walked down the line shaking each man’s hand, personally thanking them for what they had done for their country, for their comrades in battle, and for me. It was an emotional moment. They formed in a column of twos and marched off, straight and tall, to the helicopters waiting to take them back to what they called The World.
At LZ Crooks, Bob McDade’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry troopers at last were climbing aboard helicopters that would fly them back to Camp Holloway. Captain Myron Diduryk wrote: “On the 20th, back to Pleiku where we got new fatigues, boots, underwear; had showers, good food and genuinely rested.” Specialist 4 Dick Ackerman remembers it well: “Received new uniforms, boots (they ran out of my size before they got to me), got showers and felt 100 percent better. We spent the night there and next day went back to An Khe base.”
Some of the 2nd Battalion officers elected to keep their old fatigues with their name tags and patches. Rick Rescorla says, “We returned to Holloway and for a while we were buoyed up with the fact that we had survived. All gloomy memories were shoved below the surface. That night, Saturday, Dan Boone, Doc Shucart and a few of us drifted down to the Vietnamese Officers Club. We had showered but still wore our stinking fatigues. The contrast with Albany made the opulent surroundings unreal. The Vietnamese wives and girlfriends were brilliant in red, green and blue dresses. Some of our group had the nerve to ask the girls to dance, but most of them sniffed our fatigues and retreated to the powder room. You couldn’t blame them.”
Out at the tea plantation, on November 20, the 1st of the 7th prepared to travel by truck convoy up Provincial Route 5 and Route 14 to Pleiku, and then east on Route 19 over the Mang Yang Pass to An Khe base camp. We would have to drive through the place where the Viet Minn ambushed French Group Mobile 100 in 1954. I was determined there would be no repeat of history this day. We rehearsed counterambush tactics before loading aboard the deuce-and-a-halfs—two-and-a-half-ton Army trucks. The sergeant major and I rode in the back of the first truck in line. The battalion command helicopter would shadow the convoy overhead, with Matt Dillon, Jerry Whiteside, and Charlie Hastings on the radios, just as they were that first day in X-Ray, ready to bring down fire support. The 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry supplied two Huey gunships and two H-13 scout helicopters to fly the route ahead of us. Just before we pulled out I was informed that the division band would play us into An Khe base on our arrival there.
The trip from Catecka to An Khe was hot, dusty, and completely uneventful. When we arrived the division band was nowhere in sight. The 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry had come back to a no-key welcome, but who gave a shit? We were home, and the division commander, Major General Kinnard, came by to visit with the men. When we got to Delta Company and Sergeant Warren Adams, I stopped the division commander and described in detail the damage Adams had done to the enemy with his machine-gun platoon at X-Ray. I told him that Adams had been “acting first sergeant” of Delta Company for more than eighteen months and fully merited an immediate battlefield promotion to first sergeant. Both the general and the sergeant were taken by surprise. But General Kinnard gave the order, and Adams was promoted the next day.
At noon, November 20, Colonel Tim Brown turned over control of the Ia Drang Valley operation to the division’s 2nd Brigade, commanded by Colonel William R. (Ray) Lynch. Lynch was a battlefield veteran of World War II and Korea. He and his three battalions now assumed responsibility for the continuing operations in Pleiku province.
Late in the afternoon of the twentieth, the 3rd and 6th battalions of the South Vietnamese Airborne Brigade made contact with a battalion of General Chu Huy Man’s battle-weary People’s Army troops hard by the Cambodian border, north of where the Ia Drang crosses. The hapless North Vietnamese battalion had been a bit slow on the withdrawal toward sanctuary in Cambodia and now they would pay the price.
The radio message received by the American gunners who had twenty-four 105mm howitzers set up on LZ Golf and LZ Crooks described the target: “Enemy in the open!” The American advisers with the Vietnamese Airborne task force adjusted the artillery fire by radio, ripping the enemy battalion apart. They reported that at least 127 bodies were strewn over the killing field when the barrage lifted, and that the South Vietnamese were amazed and delighted at the pinpoint accuracy of the American artillerymen. A Vietnamese radio message was received by one of the batteries firing during the action. Translated, it said: “Artillery too close! Artillery too close! But very nice! Keep shooting!”
Among the American advisers on the ground with the South Vietnamese Airborne task force in the Ia Drang Valley that day was a big, burly American major, H. Norman Schwarzkopf, West Point class of 1956. Schwarzkopf remembers that the sudden appearance of the South Vietnamese troops on the North Vietnamese route of withdrawal shocked the enemy battalion.
“They were tired and beaten and almost home free,” Schwarzkopf says. “They had had all they wanted. When we opened up with small arms and artillery they threw down their guns and ran for it. No resistance. Later, the Airborne brigade commander and I sat resting under a big tree while the men searched the woods policing up enemy equipment. They brought in rifles and machine guns by the armload, piling them in front of us. The pile of captured gear grew so large that I accused the Vietnamese general of having brought all those weapons out from Pleiku just to impress me. He laughed like hell, but invited me to go out in the brush and see for myself where it was all coming from.”
This was the last major action in the Ia Drang campaign. For the next five days, Colonel Ray Lynch’s soldiers and the cavalry scouts of the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry patrolled widely, screening the western part of the valley up to the Cambodian border with little or no contact. On November 27, the last cavalry unit still in the field returned to home base at An Khe.
The last units of Brigadier General Chu Huy Man’s B-3 Front crossed into Cambodia. They were beyond reach now. They would reinforce, reequip, rest, and rehabilitate their surviving soldiers, and then, at a time of their choosing in the spring of 1966, reenter South Vietnam and resume their attacks.
Major Norm Schwarzkopf watched them go and was disgusted with the U.S. policy that permitted the creation of North Vietnamese sanctuaries across the border in supposedly neutral Cambodia. He was not the only military man in the field who was angered by a policy that tied the hands of the American and South Vietnamese forces.
Major General Harry Kinnard and his boss, Lieutenant General Stanley (Swede) Larsen, both appealed to General Westmoreland and U. S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to do everything in their power to persuade Washington to review and revoke the restrictions on American freedom of action along and across the border.
Both Lodge and Westmoreland requested that review in November 1965; they got back a cable from William Bundy, assistant secretary for Far Eastern affairs at the State Department, copied for Defense Secretary McNamara, Joint Chiefs chairman General Wheeler, and Bundy’s brother, McGeorge, at the White House. Will Bundy’s cable said:
“Separate message through military channels will contain authorization for self-defense measures applicable to existing Silver Bayonet situation. This will include authority to U.S./ Government of Vietnam units to return fire, to eliminate fire coming from Cambodia and to maneuver into Cambodian territory as necessary to defend selves while actively engaged in contact with PAVN/VC units. It excludes authority to engage Cambodian forces if encountered, except in self-defense, to conduct tactical air or artillery operations against populated Cambodian areas, or to attack Cambodian base areas [emphasis added].… We recognize these distinctions might be most difficult to preserve, but from political standpoint it is essential that this be done.”
General Kinnard and the 1st Cavalry commanders said even this slight relaxation of the restrictions on hot pursuit into Cambodia was not communicated or explained to them in time to be utilized during the Ia Drang Valley campaign.
Not long after this, orders came down to all the 1st Cavalry Division brigade and battalion commanders that we were never to speculate or suggest to any reporter that the North Vietnamese were using Cambodia as a sanctuary or that they were passing through Cambodia on their way to South Vietnam. This refusal to admit what we knew was true, and what even the newest reporter knew was true, struck all of us as dishonest and hypocritical.
General Kinnard says this was the point at which, under political direction, the American military surrendered the initiative to North Vietnam. What it said to Harry Kinnard was that this war would never end in an American victory. Initiative had been sacrificed to the polite diplomatic fiction that Cambodia was sovereign and neutral and in control of its territory. By the time another American president lifted the restrictions and the U.S. military crossed into Cambodia, Kinnard says, it was already too late.
Bob McDade’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry survivors had spent the night at Holloway, getting their first decent sleep in a week. Now, on November 21, they were assigned four deuce-and-a-half trucks, more than enough to hold the hundred-plus men left of this battalion, to take them across the Mang Yang Pass and home. While they stood in ranks waiting to climb on trucks, Lieutenant Rick Rescorla wanted to hold a platoon ceremony to honor the men who had fallen. “I called my appointed bugler and asked him to blow Taps. ‘Present arms,’ I ordered. The bugler blew the sad and bitter notes.”
Sergeant John Setelin: “On Sunday they loaded the whole battalion, all that was left of the 2/7, on four trucks. That tells you how many of us were going back on our feet, out of maybe four hundred and fifty who started this thing. It took hours to get there and we were as afraid then as any time in X-Ray or Albany. Figured with our luck we would get hit going home. We all sat facing outward, rifles at the ready, watching every bush, every hole, every rock.”
As the 2nd Battalion pulled into An Khe base they rolled past the tents of the 1st Battalion where we were preparing the personal effects of our dead to be sent home. We cheered them as they passed. That little American flag that had flown at X-Ray now decorated one of the trucks. As they approached the clearing by brigade headquarters, the division band struck up the 7th Cavalry regimental march, “Garry Owen,” and the division color guard dipped the 1st Cav colors in salute. Darkness fell and someone hollered for “the bugle.” Rick Rescorla’s battered old French bugle was unlimbered and the designated bugler blew “Garry Owen” on it to the wild cheers of the battalions.
Rescorla adds, “Captain Diduryk came up to me. The band was playing Garry Owen. ‘Hard Corps was your platoon nickname, but now I want to use it for our whole company,’ Myron said. ‘I’d also like to use the bugle as Bravo’s bugle for the rest of our tour. OK?’ I agreed, saluted, gave him a ‘Garry Owen, sir,’ and then trudged off to join the survivors making their way slowly up the hill to the mess. About 150 had been killed, 130 wounded, some maimed for life. I recalled those bright, young faces. They would not grow old with us. If I ever got the chance I would say to them: You were a ragtag bunch but Uncle Sam never sent better men into battle. I wasn’t crying. It was the rain. Hell yes, it was only the rain.”
Doc William Shucart: “I remember us coming back to An Khe on trucks. They had the division band out playing for us. A victory parade. They played ‘Garry Owen.’ It was a very emotional, very stirring sight. I thought: Here we were in the wrong place at the wrong time, got our asses kicked, and they got a band out playing for us. That was the doctor in me thinking that.”
Captain Joel Sugdinis: “I don’t believe either side won or lost at Albany. The North Vietnamese did leave first, without destroying us. But is that a U.S. victory? I believe each side was severely battered and each side was grateful to still resemble a military organization when it was over. We both went on to fight other battles, being much wiser for the experiences at the Ia Drang.”
Lieutenant Larry Gwin: “We stayed at Albany for another day and night, cleaning up the unspeakable debris of battle, and we slowly realized we must have inflicted a terrible defeat on the enemy. Victory was the only thing that gave us strength to continue. I’ve tried to forget that day since I’ve come home, but I realized that those hours of close combat are as fresh in my mind now as if they had just been fought. It will take a long, long time to forget that day at Albany.”
Lieutenant Colonel Bob McDade: “I never thought of it as a victory. We got into a scrap. We gave a good account of ourselves and proved to the men that we didn’t have to be afraid of [the enemy]. The 2nd of the 7th was a good battalion. The men fought bravely.”
Colonel Tim Brown: “The NVA just plain got the jump on them. These two battalions ran into one another; it was like a saloon fight. One of them pulled his gun before the other did. He got the edge.”
People’s Army Lieutenant General Nguyen Huu An: “This [Albany] was the most savage battle in the Ia Drang campaign. We consider this our victory. This was the first time our B-3 Front fought the Americans and we defeated Americans, caused big American losses. As military men we realize it is very important to win the first battle. It raised our soldiers’ morale and gave us many good lessons.”
One of the yardsticks for measuring success in those days was captured enemy weapons. The 2nd Battalion, 7th Cav policed up thirty-three light machine guns, 112 rifles, four mortar tubes, two mortar sights, two rocket launchers, and three heavy machine guns on the field at Albany. It reported 403 enemy killed and estimated 150 NVA wounded.
These were emotional days for me as commander of 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry. I had been on the list for promotion to full colonel for over a year and my number was coming up on November 23. That meant I would have to give up command of my battalion on that date. I had also been pushing my staff hard as we wrote letters of condolence to the families who had lost loved ones killed in action and prepared recommendations for medals and awards.
We had problems on the awards: We had few who could type, so many of the forms were scrawled by hand by lanternlight. Many witnesses had been evacuated with wounds or had already rotated for discharge. Too many men had died bravely and heroically, while the men who had witnessed their deeds had also been killed. Uncommon valor truly was a common virtue on the field at Landing Zone X-Ray those three days and two nights. Acts of valor and sacrifice that on other fields, on other days, would have been rewarded with the Medal of Honor or Distinguished Service Cross or a Silver Star were recognized only with a telegram saying “The Secretary of the Army regrets …” The same was true of our sister battalion, the 2nd of the 7th.
Every morning during those final bittersweet days of my command of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, Sergeant Major Plumley would appear with a group of men bound for the airfield and the plane that would take them home for discharge. Specialist 4 Pat Selleck of the recon platoon says: “Colonel Moore shook our hands and said, ‘Thank you’ and ‘Go back home.’ I was the second or third guy he spoke to and he had tears in his eyes. I remember what he said: ‘I see that you are married; you have a wedding ring on. Just go home, pick up the pieces, and start your life all over again.’ And basically that’s what I did. I came home to a wonderful wife, tried to readjust, did a decent job at it. I did what Colonel Moore said. I tried to put the war behind me. I served. I did my job. I came home. I didn’t ask for anything, no fanfare, no parades. I went back to work, back to school, and did my best. He might be a general, but to me he’s still Colonel Moore. If it wasn’t for him and all his knowledge and training, I don’t think any of us would have survived the Ia Drang Valley.”
On Tuesday, November 23, the day came for me to turn over command. For the change of command I requested a full battalion formation with officers front and center, the division band trooping the line, honors to the reviewing officer and the colors, and then the pass in review—reminiscent of our weekly Retreat parades back at Fort Benning. I requested that Captain Myron Diduryk’s Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry and Lieutenant Sisson’s platoon of Alpha Company, 2nd of the 7th be included in the parade of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry in token of the fact that they fought bravely alongside us in the battle at X-Ray. And so it was. The band played “Colonel Bogey” and “The Washington Post March” and “Garry Owen.” General Kinnard pinned on my eagles and I spoke briefly and with deep emotion.
Specialist 4 Ray Tanner of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion: “We stood in formation, with some units hardly having enough men to form up. Colonel Hal Moore spoke to us and he cried. At that moment he could have led us back into the Ia Drang. We were soldiers, we were fighting men, and those of us who were left had the utmost love and respect for our colonel and for one another. As I reflect on those three days in November, I remember many heroes but no cowards. I learned what value life really had. We all lost friends but the bravery they showed on the battlefield will live forever.”
On Thanksgiving, the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cav troopers were looking forward eagerly to the traditional Thanksgiving feast of hot turkey and all the trimmings. It was a cold and rainy day that Thanksgiving at An Khe, and it lives on in the memory of some of the battalion veterans.
Colonel McDade: “It was a grim Thanksgiving. I met General Westmoreland in the company street near the mess hall. I told him everyone was just about ready to eat their Thanksgiving dinners, but he said, ‘Get them all together and let me talk to them.’”
Sergeant John Setelin of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion remembers the unfortunate consequences of that order: “For Thanksgiving they gave us a hot meal plus a canteen cup of real coffee, not that instant C-ration crap. Turkey and all the trimmings, the best we ever saw. At that time the indoor mess hall wasn’t completed, so we collected our dinners in mess kits and were walking back to our squad tents to chow down. It was starting to rain. Somebody hollered attention, stopped us and ordered us to assemble. There stood General William Westmoreland himself. He made a speech there in the rain and while he talked we watched the rain turn that hot dinner into cold Mulligan stew. Who knew what the hell the man said? Who cared? He ruined a decent dinner.”
Lieutenant Larry Gwin remembers that General Westmoreland then went off and ate Thanksgiving dinner with the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry.
On November 29, 1965, the brass descended on An Khe for detailed briefings on the Ia Drang battles. The party was led by Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and included the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle K. Wheeler; the Army Chief of Staff, General Harold K. Johnson; General Westmoreland; and Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp, commander in chief, Pacific (CINCPAC).
I was told to brief McNamara and party on the fight at LZ X-Ray. I had heard that the secretary of defense had a fearsome reputation as a human computer, insensitive to people. McNamara sat in the front row in the tent briefing room, filled with commanders and staff officers. I talked without notes, using a map and pointer, for perhaps fifteen minutes. When I wrapped up, saying, “Sir, that completes my presentation,” there was dead silence. McNamara stood, stepped forward, and without a word extended his hand, looking into my eyes. He asked no questions, made no comments.
After the McNamara briefing, still without a new job, I was given a tent and a typist in 3rd Brigade headquarters and got down to work writing my after-action report on X-Ray. It took nine days and three drafts. I arranged for the Air Force to fly a photo recon mission over the Chu Pong massif, the Ia Drang Valley, and the clearing at X-Ray to illustrate the report. On December 9, 1965, I signed the final version and forwarded it to Colonel Tim Brown. Then it went up to Major General Harry Kinnard, who read it and then made certain that copies were distributed to every branch school in the U.S. Army as a teaching tool.
While I was working on the report I received word that Air Force Lieutenant Charlie Hastings, our fearless and superb forward air controller at X-Ray, had been shot down over the Mang Yang Pass while flying an O-1E Bird Dog spotter plane. The good news was that Charlie was alive; the bad news was that he had been severely burned in the crash. He had been evacuated to the Army hospital at Fort Bliss, El Paso, a town full of retired 7th U.S. Cavalry veterans of World War II and Korea. I passed the word to all of them: Charlie Hastings is one of us, a Garry Owen trooper. Take care of him.
The 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry was still carrying four men missing in action after the Albany fight. To the horror of Captain George Forrest, the commander of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, it became clear in December that one of his soldiers was also missing at Albany. He says, “This was a 2nd Platoon soldier, PFC John R. Ackerman. The one thing that had always been drilled into us was accountability: You must account for every man. I was positive we had gotten all our dead and wounded out. When Ackerman’s name came up, before we left, somebody in his squad said they saw him loaded onto a medevac helicopter.
“Then, in December, we got a letter from his mother saying she had not heard from him. I initiated action through the division personnel officer, searching for any record of him in any of the Army hospitals worldwide. There was no record. It was my worst nightmare come true. When we went back to the Ia Drang in April 1966, I spent a day stomping around Albany. At that point I got an appreciation for what we had been in, our position on the ground in relation to the main part of the ambush.
“We found PFC Ackerman’s remains, right about where the 2nd Platoon had been. We found his boots and helmet. In those days we tied one of our dog tags into the laces of a boot [and] wore the other around our neck. We found his dog tag with his boots. That put that to rest. On that day they found four more MI As out there from McDade’s battalion. You know, all of this breaks your heart,” says Forrest.
By then I was the 3rd Brigade commander; the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry was part of my brigade. I decided if we ever went back into the Ia Drang I would personally lead a thorough search for those four missing men. On the morning of April 6, 1966, Sergeant Major Basil Plumley, Matt Dillon, and I took a platoon of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cav and air-assaulted into Landing Zone Albany. No enemy presence. In a matter of minutes we located the remains of eight soldiers, all in one fifteen-by-twenty-yard piece of ground near the three anthills in the center of the clearing. Some of them were clearly American, as evidenced by fragments of green fatigue uniform material, GI web gear, and GI boots. Their steel helmets lay nearby. Other remains were mixed in; just fragments and bones. We touched nothing, but called in the Graves Registration people, who removed all the remains and associated gear. Four sets of the remains were positively identified as the 2nd Battalion’s MIAs; the rest were Vietnamese.
With that operation the 1st Cavalry Division balanced the books and closed a sad chapter on the fight at Albany. Five coffins could begin the long journey home, and five American mothers who had already suffered too much would no longer suffer the agonies of not knowing whether their sons were alive and prisoners, or dead and abandoned in the jungle. And Captain George Forrest and I could sleep a little better at night for the rest of our lives.