There never was a time when, in my opinion, some way could not be found to prevent the drawing of the sword.
—GENERAL ULYSSES S. GRANT
One month of maneuver, attack, retreat, bait, trap, ambush, and bloody butchery in the Ia Drang Valley in the fall of 1965 was the Vietnam War’s true dawn—a time when two opposing armies took the measure of each other. The North Vietnamese commanders had a deep-rooted fear that the lessons they had learned fighting and defeating the French a decade earlier had been outmoded by the high-tech weaponry and revolutionary airmobile helicopter tactics that the Americans were trying out on them.
The North Vietnamese wanted their foot soldiers to taste the sting of those weapons and find ways to neutralize them. Their orders were to draw the newly arrived Americans into battle and search for the flaws in their thinking that would allow a Third World army of peasant soldiers who traveled by foot and fought at the distant end of a two-month-long supply line of porters not only to survive and persevere, but ultimately to prevail in the war—which was, for them, entering a new phase.
The 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) was born of President John F. Kennedy’s determination that the U.S. Army, which for a decade had focused exclusively on training and arming itself to fight World War III on the plains of Europe, prepare to fight a series of small, dirty wars on the world’s frontiers. Toward that end Kennedy gave the U.S. Special Forces their head—and a distinctive green beret to wear. The Special Forces were good at what they did, counterguerrilla warfare, but clearly they were not the force needed to deal with battalions and regiments of regular soldiers in the Communist armies of liberation. For that matter, neither were the regular infantry divisions of the U.S. Army—hidebound, road-bound, and focused on war in Germany. Something new and totally different had to be created to meet the challenge of the jungles of Indochina.
What would that something be? No one was absolutely certain, but a coterie of young colonels and brigadier generals hiding out in the bowels of the Army’s research-and-development division in the Pentagon had an idea, a dream, and they had been tinkering with it for years.
In the summer of 1957, Lieutenant General James M. Gavin, who won early fame and swift promotion with the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II, was chief of research and development for the Army. He had a vision of a new fighting force, something that he described in a seminal article as “Cavalry—And I Don’t Mean Horses.” His vision centered on the helicopter, that ungainly bumblebee, which made a very limited combat debut in Korea, principally hauling wounded to the rear two at a time.
Jim Gavin’s dream was that someday bigger, faster, and better helicopters would carry the infantry into battle, forever freeing it of the tyranny of terrain and permitting war to proceed at a pace considerably faster than that of a man walking. The helicopter, Gavin believed, held the possibility of making the battlefield truly a three-dimensional nightmare for an enemy commander.
Gavin’s dream was enthusiastically shared by Brigadier General Hamilton W. Howze, chief of Army Aviation, and other pioneers like Colonel John Norton, Colonel George P. (Phip) Seneff, Colonel John J. (Jack) Tolson, Colonel Bob Williams, and Colonel Harry W. O. Kinnard. World War II had proved there were shortcomings and limitations in the practice of airborne warfare; but airmobile warfare could address most, if not all, of those limitations.
By mid-1962, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, pursuing President Kennedy’s vision, seized on the airmobility idea. McNamara ordered the Army to determine if the new UH-1 Huey helicopter, the big CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter, and their sisters in rotary-wing aviation made sense on the battlefield of the future.
An Airmobility Concept Board was created and, in short order, the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) was born at Fort Benning, Georgia, in February 1963. Its commander was Brigadier General Harry Kinnard. The 10th Air Transport Brigade (Test) was activated under the command of Colonel Delbert Bristol, and the Aviation Group (Test) was created under the command of Colonel Phip Seneff. To assess it all was the Test/Evaluation/Control Group, under Brigadier General Bob Williams. These units would encounter no bureaucratic resistance or red tape at Fort Benning: The new assistant commandant there was Brigadier General John Norton. Talk about stacking the deck!
The 11th Air Assault Test began at the bottom and built upward, starting with only three thousand men for individual air-mobility training and testing in platoon-size and company-size elements. By June of 1964, the Army added two more brigades of infantry, plus artillery and support units, and began training and testing battalion, brigade, and division tactics.
At that time, America had not yet recovered from the shock of President Kennedy’s assassination and was only beginning to measure the man who had succeeded him, Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson was passing the first wave of Great Society legislation, which would restructure America, and that was his main agenda. But the trouble in South Vietnam would not go away and could not be safely ignored in an election year.
The country he called “Veet-Nam” was already beginning to gnaw at Lyndon Baines Johnson’s innards. It was not the place Johnson would have chosen to make a stand against the Communists. In 1954, when the French were trembling on the brink of disastrous defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and President Eisenhower’s advisers debated the pros and cons of American intervention in Indochina—intervention possibly even including a nuclear strike—then Senator Lyndon Johnson stood up strongly against that folly, arguing against any war on the Asian mainland. Johnson was proud of that.
Johnson had, however, inherited John F. Kennedy’s hyperactive foreign policy as well as Kennedy’s principal advisers, the men he derisively nicknamed the “You-Harvards.” In Kennedy’s thousand days the nation had gone through the Bay of Pigs debacle, the Berlin Wall crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, and the crisis over the tiny, and largely inconsequential, kingdom of Laos. Days before Kennedy fell to an assassin’s bullet, Ngo Dinh Diem, the autocratic ruler of South Vietnam, was deposed and murdered in a coup d’état that was at least sanctioned, if not sponsored, by Washington.
Kennedy’s successor, new to the job and moving into an election year, could not afford to be seen as soft on communism. President Johnson was approving a slow but steady buildup in the number of American advisers in South Vietnam.
Now, in the summer of 1964, important decisions were also being made in Hanoi, the capital of Communist North Vietnam. In the defense establishment and the ruling councils of the Communist party a group of Young Turks pressed the case for escalating the war so as to liberate the southern half of the country. They argued that simply to continue providing guns and ammunition and encouragement for the Viet Cong guerrillas was not enough: The time had come to intervene on the battlefields of the south with regiments and divisions of North Vietnamese People’s Army regulars.
These better-armed, trained, and motivated soldiers should infiltrate South Vietnam, they argued, and launch hammer blows against the weak and unmotivated South Vietnamese army. In short order, they would liberate all of the land and people south of the 17th Parallel. Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap vigorously opposed the suggested escalation as hasty and premature, and urged that the guerrilla-war phase, which was proving ever more successful, be continued.
President Ho Chi Minh came down on the side of escalation and the army high command drew up a daring plan for the dry-season campaign of 1965. Three regular army regiments would be brought up to strength, trained and equipped, and sent south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia to launch a stunning autumn offensive that would begin in the remote Central Highlands and perhaps end in Saigon.
Hanoi’s planners envisioned a classic campaign to crush the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), starting in October 1965, after the monsoon rains ended in the mountains and plateaus of Pleiku province. They would lay siege to the American Special Forces camp at Plei Me with its twelve American advisers and four hundred-plus Montagnard mercenaries.
That attack, in turn, would draw an ARVN relief column of troops and tanks out of Pleiku and down Route 14, thence southwest on the one-lane dirt track called Provincial Route 5—where a regiment of People’s Army troops would be waiting in a carefully prepared ambush. Once the ARVN relief forces were destroyed and Plei Me camp crushed, the victorious North Vietnamese army regiments would then take Pleiku city and the way would be clear to advance along Route 19 toward Qui Nhon and the South China Sea. Whoever controls Route 19 controls the Central Highlands, and whoever controls the Highlands controls Vietnam. By early 1966, the North Vietnamese commanders were certain, South Vietnam would be cut in two and trembling on the verge of surrender.
The North Vietnamese preparations were well under way by the fall of 1964, while Lyndon B. Johnson campaigned across America promising that “American boys will not be sent to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” That fall the 11th Air Assault Test Division conducted a crucial two-month test in the Carolinas. The theory of helicopter warfare was proved to the satisfaction of the U.S. Army in the largest field exercises since World War II. Now the Pentagon began the process of incorporating the Air Assault Division into the regular ranks of the Army.
As the new airmobile division moved toward becoming a reality, the situation in the theater of its most likely employment—what Lyndon Johnson called “that damned little pissant country,” Vietnam—deteriorated by the day, both politically and militarily. Saigon’s generals took turns staging coups d’état and being the strongman of the month, while the Viet Cong guerrillas expanded their control of the rice-growing Mekong Delta and reached north into the rubber country.
So long as he was presenting himself as the reasonable, peaceful alternative to the hawkish Republican challenger, Senator Barry Goldwater, Johnson resisted the recommendations of his advisers for a massive escalation of the American military presence. Once he had beaten Goldwater and was president in his own right, Lyndon Johnson was certain, he could cut a deal in the best Texas tradition with the Vietnamese Communists.
Already frustrated by a series of terrorist incidents aimed at Americans in Vietnam, Johnson exploded when, on the night of February 6, 1965, Viet Cong sappers mortared and mined the U.S. advisers’ compound and air base at Pleiku in the Central Highlands. Eight Americans were killed and more than one hundred wounded. “I’ve had enough of this,” Johnson told his National Security Council.
In retaliation, within hours carrier-based Navy jets struck the first targets inside North Vietnam. By March 2, Operation Rolling Thunder, a systematic and continuing program of air strikes against the North, had begun. While the Navy warplanes safely came and went from aircraft carriers at sea, the U.S. Air Force jets based at Da Nang were clearly vulnerable to enemy retaliation.
When General William C. Westmoreland, the American commander in Vietnam, asked for U. S. Marines to guard the air base, he got them. On March 8, a battalion of Marines splashed ashore on China Beach. On April 1, President Johnson approved General Westmoreland’s request for two more Marine battalions, plus 20,000 logistics troops. He also agreed with General Westmoreland that the Marines should not be limited to strictly defensive duties; now they would fan out and begin killing Viet Cong. For the first time since the Korean War, American combat troops now deployed for action on the Asian mainland.
In a major speech on April 7, the President urged that the North Vietnamese negotiate a reasonable settlement, and offered them a piece of a huge Mekong River economic-development project that Washington would finance. Hanoi replied that there could be no negotiations while American planes were bombing North Vietnam.
By April 15, the White House was entertaining Westmoreland’s request for the dispatch of an additional 40,000 American troops to South Vietnam to raise the ante. In mid-June, Westmoreland urgently asked that the number of U.S. troops in the pipeline be doubled. He now wanted approval of a force of 180,000 men, most of them American, some of them South Korean, by the end of 1965. And the general was projecting that he would need at least an additional 100,000 or more in 1966.
President Johnson was inclined to give Westmoreland what he wanted, but he was also determined that this war would be fought without unduly distressing the American public. Surely so rich and powerful a nation could afford both a brushfire war and his Great Society programs.
Johnson decided, against the advice of his military chiefs, that the American escalation in South Vietnam be conducted on the cheap: There would be no mobilization of reserve and National Guard units; no declaration of a state of emergency that would permit the Army to extend for the duration the enlistments of the best-trained and most experienced soldiers. Instead, the war would be fed by stripping the Army divisions in Europe and the continental United States of their best personnel and materiel, while a river of new draftees, 20,000 of them each month, flowed in to do the shooting and the dying.
With the U.S. Marines beginning combat operations in the northern part of South Vietnam, and the newly arrived 173rd Airborne Brigade now operating in the central part of the country, Hanoi’s military planners were forced to take a new look at the winter-spring campaign planned for Pleiku province. Senior General Chu Huy Man, who commanded the campaign, says that in June 1965, the People’s Army high command decided to postpone the audacious plan to seize the Central Highlands and attack down Route 19 to the coast.
“That plan was postponed for ten years,” General Man says. “It was completed in 1975.” The new plan would follow the opening sequence of the original: The People’s Army forces would lay siege to Plei Me Special Forces Camp, ambush the inevitable South Vietnamese relief column when it ventured out of Pleiku city, and then wait for American combat troops to be thrown into the battle to save the South Vietnamese.
“We wanted to lure the tiger out of the mountain,” General Man says, adding: “We would attack the ARVN—but we would be ready to fight the Americans.” Major General Hoang Phuong, now chief of the Institute of Military History in Hanoi and a veteran of the Ia Drang battles, recalls: “Headquarters decided we had to prepare very carefully to fight the Americans. Our problem was that we had never fought Americans before and we had no experience fighting them. We knew how to fight the French. We wanted to draw American units into contact for purposes of learning how to fight them. We wanted any American combat troops; we didn’t care which ones.”
The Americans that Man and Phuong would meet in due course had not yet left the United States in June of 1965, but they smelled something in the wind. In early May 1965, commanders of the 11th Air Assault Division began receiving informational copies of the after-action reports of the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s battles and operations in Vietnam. By late May, battalion, brigade, and division commanders and staff were reporting to heavily guarded classrooms at the Infantry School in Fort Benning, Georgia, for top-secret map exercises. The maps the games were played on covered the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.
By mid-June the Pentagon ordered the division commanders to begin an intensive eight-week combat-readiness program that focused on deployment to South Vietnam. Secretary of Defense McNamara announced on June 16 that the Army had been authorized an airmobile division as part of its sixteen-division force.
In early July, the Pentagon announced that the 11th Air Assault (Test) Division would be renamed the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and that it would take over the colors of that historic division that had distinguished itself in combat in the Korean War and in the Pacific theater in World War II—not to mention horse-cavalry skirmishes with bandits along the Mexican border in Texas and New Mexico in the early 1920s.
In a televised address to the nation on the morning of July 28, 1965, President Johnson described the worsening situation in South Vietnam and declared: “I have today ordered the Airmobile Division to Vietnam.”
On that day, convinced that the President’s escalation without a declaration of emergency was an act of madness, General Harold K. Johnson, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, drove to the White House with the intention of resigning in protest. He had already taken the four silver stars off each shoulder of his summer uniform. As his car approached the White House gates, General Johnson faltered in his resolve; he convinced himself that he could do more by staying and working inside the system than by resigning in protest. The general ordered his driver to turn around and take him back to the Pentagon. This decision haunted Johnny Johnson all the rest of his life.
In South Vietnam, the 320th Regiment of the People’s Army of Vietnam was midway through a two-month-long siege of Due Co Special Forces Camp in the Central Highlands. A young Army major, H. Norman Schwarzkopf, West Point class of 1956, was adviser to the South Vietnamese Airborne battalion that was hip deep in the fighting at Due Co. A quarter-century later, General Norm Schwarzkopf would date the birth of his famous hot temper to those days, when he begged and pleaded on the radio for someone to evacuate his wounded South Vietnamese soldiers, while American helicopters fluttered by without stopping.
That week, the 33rd People’s Army Regiment left Quang Ninh province in North Vietnam on the two-month march down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam. Brigadier General Chu Huy Man was already in the South overseeing Viet Cong operations against the U.S. Marines in the Da Nang-Chu Lai region, but he had orders to return to the Western Highlands to establish the B-3 Front, a flexible and expandable headquarters charged with tactical and administrative control over both the People’s Army and Viet Cong units operating in the Highlands. Man’s new assignment was to prepare a warm welcome for the Americans in Pleiku province.
The first leg of the new, high-tech Airmobile division’s journey to the war zone would be decidedly low-tech. Beginning in August, the 1st Cavalry would ride to war in a mini-fleet of World War II-era troopships, and their helicopters would sail to South Vietnam aboard a flotilla of four aging aircraft carriers.
The cavalry troopers launched into a flurry of packing equipment, getting their shots, writing wills, getting last-minute dental and health problems cleared up, resettling their wives and kids off-post, and taking short leaves if they could be spared. In early August an advance party of 1,100 officers and men flew to Vietnam to begin preparing a new home for the division at An Khe, a sleepy hill town halfway up Route 19 between Qui Nhon on the coast and Pleiku in the mountains.
One of the battalions preparing to ship out was mine. My name is Harold G. Moore, Jr., but “Hal” will do just fine. In 1957, as a young major fresh out of the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth and assigned to the Pentagon office of the chief of research and development, I was in on the birth of the concept of airmobility. I was the one-man airborne branch in the Air Mobility Division for two and a half years. In that job I worked for Lieutenant General Jim Gavin, Colonel John Norton, Colonel Phip Seneff, and Colonel Bob Williams.
I had already worked for Harry W. O. Kinnard when he was a lieutenant colonel heading the Airborne Test Section at Fort Bragg in 1948. As a twenty-six-year-old first lieutenant, I volunteered to test experimental parachutes for Kinnard. It was a certainty that Kinnard would always remember me: On my first jump a new steerable parachute I was testing hung up on the tail of the C-46 aircraft, and I was dragged, twisting and trailing behind the plane, at 110 miles per hour, 1, 500 feet above the drop zone. The tangled mess finally broke free a few minutes later, and my reserve chute got me to ground safely. When I reported in to Kinnard all he said was: “Hello, Lucky.”
While I was pulling a three-year tour of NATO duty in Norway in the early 1960s, I heard rumors that the Kennedy administration was taking a hard new look at the airmobility concept. In August of 1963, I finished the NATO tour and began a year of schooling at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. I had been a lieutenant colonel for four years and was fighting for battalion command on my next assignment.
By then the Army had created the 11th Air Assault Test Division, with Major General Harry Kinnard commanding. I wrote my old boss a letter asking for an infantry battalion in his new division. (In those days a division commander could select brigade and battalion commanders simply by asking for them by name. Since the mid-1970s, such commanders are chosen by Army selection boards on a competitive basis.) In April 1964, as I was finishing the War College, the Pentagon informed me that Kinnard had requested that I be assigned to command the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry, which had been detached from the 2nd Infantry Division and assigned to the 11th Air Assault Test.
On Saturday, June 27, I arrived at Fort Benning, Georgia. It had been arranged that I would take the five-day battalion-commander refresher course before actually taking command. But any thoughts of a refresher went out the door when Colonel Thomas W (Tim) Brown, the 3rd Brigade commander and my new boss, arrived and told me to turn my course books back in. “You take command of your battalion at nine A.M. Monday and we are going out on a three-day field exercise right after.” He gave me the phone number of Captain Gregory (Matt) Dillon, the battalion S-3, or operations officer. Dillon told me that the barracks and headquarters were on Kelly Hill, five miles out on the reservation from the main post at Benning. My wife and five children were staying with her parents in nearby Auburn, Alabama, until we got quarters on the post.
On Monday, June 29, as scheduled, I took command of my battalion. I was forty-two years old, a West Point graduate of the class of 1945, with nineteen years’ commissioned service, including a fourteen-month combat tour in Korea. In a brief talk to the troops afterward I told them that this was a good battalion but it would get better. “I will do my best,” I said. “I expect the same from each of you.”
Even before taking command, I had a long talk with the most important man in any battalion: the sergeant major. Basil L. Plumley, forty-four years old and a six-foot-two-inch bear of a man, hailed from West Virginia. The men sometimes called him Old Iron Jaw, but never in his hearing.
Plumley was a two-war man and wore master parachutist wings with five combat-jump stars. He was what the young Airborne types call a four-jump bastard: Plumley had survived all four combat jumps of the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II: Sicily and Salerno in 1943, and then in 1944, D day at Normandy, and Market-Garden in the Netherlands. For that matter, he also made one combat parachute jump in the Korean War, with the 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment. He ended World War II a buck sergeant and was promoted to sergeant major in 1961.
The sergeant major was a no-bullshit guy who believed, as I did, in tough training, tough discipline, and tough physical conditioning. To this day there are veterans of the battalion who are convinced that God may look like Sergeant Major Basil Plumley, but He isn’t nearly as tough as the sergeant major on sins small or large. Privately, I thanked my lucky stars that I had inherited such a treasure. I told Sergeant Major Plumley that he had unrestricted access to me at any time, on any subject he wished to raise.
After the ceremony the company commanders and battalion staff got a look at their new boss and a word on my standards. They were fairly simple: Only first-place trophies will be displayed, accepted, or presented in this battalion. Second place in our line of work is defeat of the unit on the battlefield, and death for the individual in combat. No fat troops or officers. Decision-making will be decentralized: Push the power down. It pays off in wartime. Loyalty flows down as well. I check up on everything. I am available day or night to talk with any officer of this battalion. Finally, the sergeant major works only for me and takes orders only from me. He is my right-hand man.
Personal descriptions of the key players in the 11th Air Assault Division, and in my battalion that year, will be useful to the reader. These men appear and reappear throughout this story.
Major General Harry W. O. Kinnard, division commanding general. Harry Kinnard, a native Texan, was forty-nine years old that year. He was West Point, class of 1939, and Airborne qualified in 1942. Kinnard was one of the shooting stars of the 101st Airborne in World War II. He was Brigadier General Tony McAuliffe’s operations officer, G-3, at the Battle of Bastogne in the Bulge, and the man who suggested that General McAuliffe specifically respond to a German surrender demand with one historic word: “Nuts!” Kinnard became a full colonel at age twenty-nine.
Brigadier General Richard T. Knowles, assistant division commander. Dick Knowles was forty-five; a Chicago native, he held an ROTC commission from the University of Illinois. Knowles served in Europe in World War II in a tank destroyer group. In Korea he made the Inchon landing with an Army artillery battalion attached to the 1st Marine Division. Later, in North Korea, he earned the Silver Star leading a counterattack that routed seventy-five North Koreans who had penetrated his battalion perimeter. He originally came to the 11th Air Assault as a colonel commanding the division artillery. When Knowles was promoted to brigadier general he shifted to assistant division commander for operations, and in this capacity he spent most of his time in the field supervising the training and operations of the division. Knowles was slender, six feet three inches tall, and enthusiastic; he always arrived with a pocketful of good cigars.
Colonel Thomas W. Brown, 3rd Brigade commander. Tim Brown was forty-four years old and six feet one inch tall; he was West Point class of January 1943, a native New Yorker and another World War II paratrooper who had served with the 11th and 13th Airborne divisions. He and I were students together at the Infantry School Advanced Course in 1951-1952, and we served together in the 7th Infantry Division in the Korean War. In 1952-1953 he was a battalion commander in the 32nd Infantry Regiment, while I commanded two companies and was operations officer of the 17th Infantry Regiment. Brown was quiet, cool, incisive, and perfectionistic. In the true Kinnard mode, he gave his battalion commanders guidance, then gave them the freedom to run their units. He had commanded the brigade since early 1963 and participated in the early development of airmobile doctrine, tactics, and techniques.
The officers of my new battalion were the usual great Army mix of men who had come to their jobs from West Point, ROTC, Officer Candidate School, and military schools like The Citadel. Most of the young second lieutenants had come in through OCS and college ROTC programs. There were three rifle companies in the battalion—Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie companies—each at full strength supposed to have six officers and 164 enlisted men. They were my maneuver elements.
Each rifle company had three rifle platoons plus one platoon of three 8 lmm mortar squads for fire support. Each rifle platoon, in turn, had three rifle squads plus a weapons squad of two M-60 machine guns for fire support.
In addition, the battalion had a combat support company, Delta Company, consisting of a reconnaissance platoon, a mortar platoon, and an antitank platoon. We converted the unneeded antitank platoon into a machine-gun platoon for Vietnam duty. Delta Company was authorized five officers and 118 enlisted men.
The Battalion Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) was authorized fourteen officers, a warrant officer, and 119 enlisted men. HHC comprised command, staff, communications, medical, transportation and maintenance, and supply personnel. The medical platoon in HHC included the battalion surgeon, a captain, and a Medical Service Corps lieutenant in charge of operations. They ran the battalion aid station in garrison and in the field, and supplied each of the platoons in the other companies with medical-aid men—those conscientious and courageous medics who were invariably called Doc.
Some of the battalion officers:
Captain Gregory P. (Matt) Dillon, operations officer. Matt, the thirty-two-year-old son of a World War I Navy chief petty officer, was a native New Yorker who was married and had two children. He was commissioned out of ROTC at the University of Alabama where he was a dash man on the track team. He had twice commanded companies, including B Company of this battalion. He was blessed with a clear head and a quick mind and he was a “people person.” The battalion “3,” or operations officer, in any unit is the commander’s alter ego, the detail man who turns concepts into plans and then pulls together all the many pieces of a complicated military operation. Matt Dillon was my “3” for two years in both battalion and brigade command and he was simply superb.
Captain Gordon P. (Rosie) Rozanski, the commander of Headquarters Company. Later, in Vietnam, he would serve as battalion supply officer, or S-4. Rosie, twenty-six years old, hailed from Elysian, Minnesota, and was commissioned out of OCS. He was a bachelor who was cheerful, blunt, unflappable. He was responsible for selecting and securing battalion headquarters in the field; for feeding the officers and men in the headquarters and support sections; and for maintaining and securing a huge inventory of weapons and communications and electrical gear.
Captain John D. Herren, the commander of Bravo Company. Herren, a pipe-smoking twenty-nine-year-old bachelor, was an Army brat—his father was an Army lieutenant general—and a graduate of West Point, class of 1958. He was calm, thoughtful, friendly, and steady: No one ever saw John Herren get flustered.
Captain Robert H. (Bob) Edwards, the commander of Charlie Company. Bob was twenty-seven years old, married, a native of New Jersey. He was a Distinguished Military Graduate of the ROTC program at Lafayette College in 1960. Slender, five feet nine inches tall, Edwards was very bright and very quiet; he spoke briefly and to the point. He was exceptionally competent and so were the men and officers he commanded in Charlie Company.
Captain Ramon A. (Tony) Nadal, the commander of Alpha Company. Nadal originally came to the battalion as its S-2, or intelligence officer. He was twenty-nine years old, a West Point classmate of John Herren, and the son of an Army colonel. Tony’s father, a native of Puerto Rico, had been an Army specialist in Central and South American affairs, and Tony grew up in that part of the world. He was married and had one child. In the last days before we shipped out to Vietnam, Tony Nadal turned up at my headquarters pleading for a company command. He had a year of combat duty in Vietnam, commanding a Special Forces A Team, and he wanted to go back. He had been assigned to Korea and was on leave in Oklahoma when a friend in Army personnel heard that the 1st Air Cav was shipping out to Vietnam. Nadal got in the family car and drove halfway across the country. At Fort Benning the division personnel types told Tony he could have a job as brigade communications officer. He made a desperate two-day trip through the division searching for a troop command job. I liked what I saw and heard, so I told him that though I couldn’t give him a company right away I would take him on as battalion intelligence officer. On the ship, Tony’s books on Vietnam, which filled a big box, were required reading, and he taught classes on the terrain and the enemy we would face.
Captain Louis R. (Ray) Lefebvre, the commander of Delta Company. Like Tony Nadal, Ray Lefebvre came to me hunting a troop-command job, and was assigned as an assistant operations officer before he got his company. Lefebvre, a thirty-two-year-old native of Bonners Ferry, Idaho, was married and had four children. Commissioned out of ROTC at Gonzaga University, Ray had also served a previous tour in Vietnam (1963-1964), and was fluent in Vietnamese. Because of his language capability he was slotted for a civil-affairs staff job at division headquarters. Ray came to me pleading for a job that would get him out of headquarters and into the field with troops. “Something is going to happen and I want to be in on it,” he said. I told him that if he took the battalion air-operations job in the S-3 shop under Matt Dillon he would eventually get a company. He did.
Air Force First Lieutenant Charlie W. Hastings, twenty-six, an ROTC graduate of the University of Northern Colorado and a trained F-4 pilot, was assigned to us as the battalion forward air controller six weeks before we sailed for Vietnam. Charlie took a lot of good-natured kidding from the Army ground-pounders, but he gave as good as he got. He marched with us, learned the ways of the cavalry, and swiftly demonstrated his competence with an M-16 rifle.
The real strength of my battalion was in its sergeants, most of them combat veterans who had served in the battalion for three to five years. Typical of the senior noncoms was Sergeant First Class Larry M. Gilreath, a Korean War veteran out of Anderson County, South Carolina. He was platoon sergeant of the 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, and had been with the battalion since 1961. During that time he trained more new second-lieutenant platoon leaders than he had fingers on his hands. Lieutenants came and went; Gilreath was forever. He was stability and continuity; he knew every man in his platoon and knew that man’s strengths and weaknesses. There was someone just like him in virtually every platoon in the battalion.
Once I had taken command, my goal was to create the absolute best air assault infantry battalion in the world, and the proudest. Every man in the battalion had to know and believe he was an important part of that best. We trained and tested. Senior military officials from throughout the U.S. Army and allied forces were frequent visitors to Fort Benning; the word had gone out that something new, different, and deadly in the art of warfare was being created here. Hundreds of helicopters were handed over to us, and the air crews and the infantry became a tight team as we flew on operations in the forests and swamps of Georgia and the Carolinas.
If this system could be made to work, the soldier’s time would be spent fighting, not walking or waiting for a truck or wondering whether supplies would ever find him. Like the knight on a chessboard, we could now attack the flanks and rear of the enemy in a matter of minutes. The helicopter would add a 110-mile-an-hour fast-forward capability to ground warfare.
During those fourteen months before we sailed for Vietnam, we spent most of our time in the field, practicing assault landings from helicopters, and the incredibly complex coordination of artillery, tactical air support, and aerial rocket artillery with the all-important flow of helicopters into and out of the battle zone. Commanders had to learn to see terrain differently, to add a constant scan for landing zones (LZs) and pickup zones (PZs) to all the other features they had to keep in mind. We practiced rapid loading and unloading of men and materiel to reduce the helicopter’s window of vulnerability. Total flexibility was the watchword in planning and attitude.
There was one bit of sobering reality that I insisted be introduced at every level in this training: We would declare a platoon leader dead and let his sergeant take over and carry out the mission. Or declare a sergeant dead and have one of his PFCs take over running the squad. We were training for war, and leaders are killed in battle. I wanted every man trained for and capable of taking over the job of the man above him.
The 11th Air Assault’s graduation ceremony was the final test program, Air Assault II, conducted in the Carolinas during October and November of 1964. Some 35,000 soldiers were involved; the 11th Air Assault Division was pitted against the “aggressor” forces, the 82nd Airborne Division. Hundreds of VIPs from Washington popped in and out to see helicopter warfare in action; their presence lent weight to a first round of rumors that we were being trained for duty in Vietnam.
Ironically, late one night in the battalion command post we listened in on the new PRC-25 field radio to an American forward air controller directing an air strike in Vietnam. We could hear the rattle of gunfire and the explosions of the bombs twelve thousand miles away on a freak bounce of radio waves that briefly brought the real war to the pine barrens of South Carolina where we were playing war games.
For much of this time my battalion was at, or near, its full authorized strength of thirty-seven commissioned officers, one warrant officer, and 729 enlisted men. That changed in the spring of 1965, when we lost eight of our fifteen platoon-leader lieutenants. Most were reserve officers who had completed their commitments and were released from active duty; others were transferred or reassigned elsewhere. Between April and July we also lost by discharge or reassignment our intelligence officer, surgeon, personnel officer, air operations officer, supply officer, assistant medical officer, chaplain, and two company commanders.
In early June we were assigned six brand-new second lieutenants. We plugged them into the vacant rifle-platoon leader slots and gave them seven weeks of “get rich quick” on-the-job training in airmobile-air assault tactics. But in early August, shortly before we deployed, all six were yanked out of the battalion to stay at Fort Benning and attend the six-month Infantry Officers Basic Course: Someone had discovered an Army policy that new lieutenants could not be sent into combat before attending. The policy may be sound, but the net result was that the battalion and the troops in the ranks were whipsawed by unnecessary leadership changes.
Each rifle company got three new rifle platoon leaders, except Alpha, which got two. Each rifle company had a mortar platoon, but we had no officers to lead them. Delta Company had a new recon-platoon leader, Lieutenant John Arrington, and a new mortar-platoon leader, First Lieutenant Raul E. Taboada-Requera.
There was precious little time to jam fourteen months’ worth of airmobile training into the new lieutenants’ heads. We did our best and so did they. When they reported in, I called them all in, together with their platoon sergeants, and told them we were heading for war and time was short. I issued two orders: One, platoon sergeants will teach their new platoon leaders everything they can about airmobility, small-unit tactics, the men in the ranks, and the leadership those men deserve. Two, the new lieutenants will keep their mouths shut except to ask questions, and will listen to and remember everything the platoon sergeant tells them.
In early July the Pentagon announced that the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) had served its purpose; now it would become the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Colonel Brown, with an eye to military heritage and tradition, immediately asked that his two battalions be given the historic colors of the 7th U.S. Cavalry. My battalion was reborn as the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry. Our sister battalion became the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry.
In the days when Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer commanded the 7th Cavalry the regiment adopted a rowdy Irish drinking song, “Garry Owen,” as its marching tune. The words “Garry Owen” made their way onto the regimental crest, and the officers and men of the regiment customarily accompanied each exchange of salutes with a hearty “Garry Owen, sir!” We picked up the tradition with the 7th Cavalry colors, and the troops accepted it all with enthusiasm.
The officers and pilots of Lieutenant Colonel John B. Stockton’s highly spirited 3rd Squadron of the 17th Cavalry now became the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry—and had already absorbed the very essence of cavalry esprit. They wore big cavalry mustaches and black Stetson hats, and they carried their papers in leather saddlebags, despite everything that more conservative elements in the division command could do to stop them. Stockton and his men even smuggled their mascot, Maggie the Mule, to Vietnam in spite of a strict no-pets-allowed order intended to ensure that the mule stayed home.
Unfortunately, my battalion and every other in the division now began to suffer the consequences of President Johnson’s refusal to declare a state of emergency and extend the active-duty tours of draftees and reserve officers. The order came down: Any soldier who had sixty days or less left to serve on his enlistment as of the date of deployment, August 16, must be left behind.
We were sick at heart. We were being shipped off to war sadly understrength, and crippled by the loss of almost a hundred troopers in my battalion alone. The very men who would be the most useful in combat—those who had trained longest in the new techniques of helicopter warfare—were by this order taken away from us. It made no sense then; it makes no sense now.
Our last night at Fort Benning was Friday, August 13, 1965. I came home early, around seven P.M., in time for dinner with my wife, Julie, and our five children, who ranged in age from thirteen down to three. I told all of them I would be leaving early the next morning, long before they awoke, and I would be going to the war in Vietnam. Later, I sat on the sofa reading aloud to my daughter, Cecile, six. She looked up at one point and asked: “Daddy, what’s a war?” I tried my best to explain, but her look of bewilderment only grew.
My alarm clock was set for 1:30 A.M., and by 3:30 A.M. the battalion had loaded aboard chartered buses bound for the port of Charleston, South Carolina, where the transport ship USNS Maurice Rose waited at dockside. We sailed from Charleston on Monday, August 16, and it took the better part of a month for the “Ramblin’ Rose” to transit the Panama Canal and cross the Pacific to South Vietnam. On that same date, August 16, the last elements of the 66th Regiment of the People’s Army left their base in Thanh Hoa, North Vietnam. It would take them nearly two months to cover five hundred miles on foot along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to our meeting place in the Ia Drang Valley.
The Rose dropped anchor in the port of Qui Nhon, in central South Vietnam, in mid-September, and we were welcomed ashore by our advance party. With the help of the 101st Airborne a huge area of scrub jungle just north of the town of An Khe had been secured. An Khe, forty-two miles west of Qui Nhon on Route 19, would be the base camp of the 1st Cavalry Division—just as soon as we cleared the jungle and built that camp. It was precisely what General Harry Kinnard had vigorously opposed for his airmobile troops: a fort in the middle of Indian country. Kinnard lobbied hard in Washington, Saigon, and Bangkok for his new division to be based inside Thailand, in its own sanctuary. From there it could launch combat operations inside South Vietnam and onto the North Vietnamese lines of communication inside Cambodia and Laos. The negative responses General Kinnard’s request elicited weren’t even polite. His division would now have to build, garrison, and guard a base camp, and that would reduce the number of troops available to actively pursue and destroy the enemy.
As our Chinook transport helicopters ferried the battalion into An Khe we passed over a small airstrip with a beat-up old three-story yellow building at the northwest end. On the boat coming over I had reread Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy and I recognized that airstrip as the departure point for the French army’s Group Mobile 100 on June 24, 1954, as it headed west on Route 19 and straight into the historic Viet Minh ambush that helped seal the fate of French colonial rule in Indochina.
We stepped off the choppers into a tangle of trees, weeds, and brush, in the middle of what would become our airfield, the Golf Course. Brigadier General John M. Wright, assistant division commander, had decreed that the airfield for the 1st Cav’s 450-plus helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft would have to be “smooth as a golf course.” He wanted no bulldozers scraping the land bare to become a mud hole in the monsoons and a red dust storm in dry season.
The men of the division and some two thousand Vietnamese laborers cleared the site by hand, with machetes and axes, and General Wright had his instant Golf Course. They also built a heavily fortified twelve-mile-long and hundred-yard-wide defense perimeter, called the Barrier Line, around the base. We lived rough: pup tents, C-rations, and showers only when it rained. The battalions took turns manning the picket line of outposts well out from the barrier and running patrols to keep the Viet Cong off guard. My battalion lost two men by drowning on patrol crossings of the Song Ba river during that first month.
In the first days there were a few light probes by the local guerrillas, and nervous troopers shot up a lot of green trees before fire discipline was restored. Alas, one casualty of a nervous sentry was Colonel Stockton’s beloved cavalry mascot, Maggie the Mule, who was gunned down by one of my Charlie Company men as she wandered the perimeter on a dark night.
Sergeant Major Plumley reported the death of Maggie to me: “She was challenged and didn’t know the password.” Plumley added that he would “properly dispose” of the slain mule. He had Maggie’s body winched aboard the division chow truck as it made its morning rounds delivering rations to the battalions. Maggie was dropped off with the C-rations at the truck’s next stop: Colonel Stockton’s 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry. An efficient but hardly diplomatic solution: Maggie’s death and subsequent delivery on the chow truck caused some bad blood between the battalions.
Once each day every man of us, under close supervision, choked down a bitter, dime-size yellow malaria pill. It was an automatic Article 15 offense—one subject to nonjudicial punishment—to be caught sleeping outside one’s mosquito net, no matter how hot it was. Even so, we began losing men to malaria within two or three weeks. Within six weeks fifty-six troopers from my battalion alone had been evacuated to hospitals, suffering serious cases of malaria. The problem was a particularly virulent falciparum strain of the disease, prevalent in the Central Highlands; it was resistant to the antimalarial drugs available to us at that time.
The drain on battalion manpower due to expiring enlistments also continued. At the end of September my battalion had 679 officers and men against an authorized strength of 767. Four sergeants and seventeen enlisted men rotated home in October. In November, six sergeants and 132 men of the battalion were scheduled to leave.
In October we received two officer replacements and two or three NCOs via the “Infusion Program,” which transferred to us men already serving in Vietnam in other units, who presumably would be more knowledgeable of the country and the enemy. One of those officers was Captain Thomas C. Metsker, a muscular six-foot-tall Special Forces officer who was a 1961 graduate of The Citadel, where he was a four-year letter man on the track team. Metsker, a Foreign Service brat who had grown up in Japan and Korea, was an impressive young officer.
Tony Nadal now took command of Alpha Company; I made Metsker the battalion intelligence officer and put him high on my list for command of a company. He often joined me on my five-mile morning runs around the internal camp perimeter.
The other new arrival was First Lieutenant William J. Lyons, twenty-five years old, a Californian and a 1962 Ripon College graduate. Like Metsker, Lyons was qualified as a paratrooper and a Ranger; he came to us from an adviser slot with the 41st ARVN Ranger Battalion. He was fluent in Vietnamese. I assigned him to be Bob Edwards’s executive officer in Charlie Company. In the late afternoon of November 4, Lyons and Sergeant Roy Hitt, a thirty-three-year-old Alabama native, were killed in the head-on collision of two Huey helicopters while delivering mail and chow to Charlie Company out on the picket line.
Our battalion conducted two sweep operations in the vicinity of the An Khe base during this period; we suffered a few wounded (by snipers) and captured a huge Viet Cong flag.
In late October the 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Brigade moved up to Camp Holloway at Pleiku and began pursuing enemy forces involved in the attack on Plei Me Special Forces Camp and the attempted ambush of a South Vietnamese relief column.
Colonel Stockton and his helicopter scout-gunship teams quickly got on the trail of the retreating North Vietnamese. On November 1, one of the cavalry teams spotted a dozen or so enemy troops eight miles west of Plei Me. They were fired on, and fled. Minutes later more enemy were spotted. Stockton put riflemen on the ground and within minutes they captured the 33rd People’s Army Regiment’s field hospital. Fifteen enemy were killed and forty-four others, including patients and hospital staff, were captured, along with tons of medical supplies, rice, documents, and weapons. The North Vietnamese counterattacked that afternoon; the fight had been going on for hours before the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry arrived to reinforce Stockton. There were eleven Americans killed and fifty-one wounded, with enemy casualties estimated at 250.
On that same day, November 1, the lead elements of the 66th People’s Army Regiment began crossing into South Vietnam from Cambodia, moving along the la (River) Drang. Among the documents captured in the hospital fight was an enemy map of the Ia Drang Valley showing trails used by the North Vietnamese. On November 3, General Dick Knowles directed Colonel Stockton to begin a reconnaissance in force on a specific trail running along the Ia Drang two miles inside the border.
Stockton moved his operations base to the Due Co Special Forces Camp and, concerned that the 1st Brigade had moved so slowly in getting infantry reinforcements to come to his assistance during the hospital fight, prevailed on Knowles to shift Captain Theodore S. Danielsen’s Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry to Due Co as well.
That night Stockton set three platoon-size ambushes, one along the Ia Drang trail, the others a mile or so north. The southernmost platoon watched as a reinforced North Vietnamese company approached their ambush on the trail 2.2 miles inside the Vietnam border. The North Vietnamese stopped for a rest break just 120 yards short of the ambush site and then, shortly after nine P.M., resumed the march eastward.
The Americans let the lead elements pass through, but when the heavy-weapons company clattered into the kill zone, the Americans touched off their eight claymore mines, each spewing hundreds of steel ball bearings in a semicircle of death, and poured a storm of rifle and machine-gun fire into those who survived the mine blasts. Captain Charles S. Knowlen then ordered all his ambush parties back to the patrol-base clearing and within half an hour came under heavy attack by a large force of very angry North Vietnamese. When his men radioed that they were in danger of being overrun, Colonel Stockton ordered Captain Danielsen’s company helicoptered in as reinforcements.
The move saved the day, but it also cooked Stockton’s goose: General Knowles said he had ordered Stockton to obtain his explicit permission before committing Ted Danielsen’s Alpha Company troops to action. The incident ended with Stockton being transferred to a staff job in Saigon, and the division losing one of its most controversial and successful battalion commanders.
Whatever else ensued, division headquarters did not at that time move to exploit the success of Stockton’s ambush and pursue the considerable number of enemy reinforcements who had just arrived off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Instead, on November 6 orders were issued for the 1st Brigade to return to An Khe and for the 3rd Brigade to take the field in Pleiku province, effective November 10.
The 3rd Brigade battalions, under Colonel Tim Brown, were my 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry; Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDade’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry; and Lieutenant Colonel Robert Tully’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry. McDade, a Korean War veteran, had been the division personnel officer (G-l) for nearly two years and had been given command of our sister battalion in late October.
On November 9, Colonel Brown and I went to the division’s forward command post in Pleiku for a briefing on the battlefield situation. The intelligence map hanging on the wall had a large red star on the Chu Pong massif above the Ia Drang Valley, west of Plei Me. I asked one of the briefers what significance that star had, and he replied: “Enemy base camp.” The next day my battalion was flown from An Khe to brigade field headquarters in the CateckaTea Plantation, where Colonel Brown’s staff briefed us and gave me my mission: to conduct an air assault five miles east of Plei Me, and find and kill the enemy. I was surprised and puzzled. All the 1st Brigade contact with the enemy had been west of Plei Me, yet they were ordering us to beat the bushes in a different direction. Then there was that big red star on the intelligence map, which indicated that the biggest target of all was way out west.