Military history

3

image

Boots and Saddles

Come on, boys, and grab your sabers

Come on, boys, and ride with me.

Give the cry of “Garry Owen,”

Make your place in history.

—author unknown, Vietnam 1965

Before our air assault on the target area, Captain Matt Dillon and I flew a brief, high-altitude helicopter recon mission, selecting landing zones and forming the operation plan. During the flight we spotted a small Jarai Montagnard village, and I made a note to warn the troops that there were civilians, either friendly or at least neutral, in the area. And I decided to forgo using artillery or tactical air-prep fires before landing. Most of the clearings in that area were Montagnard slash-and-burn farm fields. Bad enough we had to land helicopters and men to trample through their pitiful yam and cassava patches; we didn’t need to plow them up with the heavy stuff or cause civilian casualties.

We shuttled the battalion in on sixteen Huey troop-transport choppers, called slicks to differentiate them from the rocket- and machine gun-carrying Huey gunships. Plumley and I landed with the first elements of Captain Tony Nadal’s Alpha Company. There was no resistance, but the clearing was occupied—by half a dozen Montagnard men and women, all bare to the waist and busy cutting brush. They disappeared swiftly into the heavy jungle. I was glad we had skipped the prep fires.

For the next two and a half days we ran small-unit patrols throughout the area. UPI reporter Joe Galloway, a twenty-three-year-old native of Refugio, Texas, marched with us. Earlier, Joe had wangled a helicopter ride into the Plei Me Special Forces Camp while it was under siege and, because of the shortage of fighters, found himself assigned to man a .30-caliber light machine gun. When he hooked up with us, he carried on his shoulder an M-16 rifle, which the Special Forces commander, Major Charles Beckwith, had handed him when the Plei Me fight was over. Galloway told Beckwith that, strictly speaking, under the Geneva Convention he was “a civilian noncombatant.” Beckwith’s response: “No such thing in these mountains, boy. Take the rifle.”

Galloway remembers: “My first time out with Hal Moore’s 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry was a hellish walk in the sun to a remote Montagnard mountain village. We got into a patch of brush and wait-a-minute vines so thick and thorny that every step had to be carved out with machetes. We covered maybe three hundred yards in four hours, and forded a fast-running chest-deep mountain stream just as darkness fell, then huddled in our ponchos, wet and freezing, all night long.

“At first light I pinched off a small piece of C-4 plastic explosive from the emergency supply in my pack and used it to boil up a canteen cup of water for coffee. If you lit C-4 very carefully you could be drinking hot coffee in maybe thirty seconds; if you were careless it blew your arm off. Over a first cigarette I watched Moore’s men. First, they shaved. Shaved? Up here? I was amazed. Then the colonel himself, blond, jut-jawed, and very intense, a son of Bardstown, Kentucky, and West Point, walked by on his morning rounds with Sergeant Major Plumley. Moore looked me over and said: ‘We all shave in my outfit—reporters included.’ My steaming coffee water went for a wash and a shave, and I gained a measure of respect for the man.”

That day we came to a Montagnard village, deep in the mountains. A toothless old man emerged from the longhouse, fumbling with the buttons on a tattered old French army tunic and proudly waving a small French tricolor flag, certain that the comrades of his younger days had at last returned. I’m not certain that the situation and our nationality were ever explained to his satisfaction.

Our medics treated the sick and injured, while Tom Metsker and an interpreter sought information on any enemy in the area. They drew a blank on possible enemy, but the medics turned up one young boy with a badly burned arm, who needed hospital treatment. The village leader and the boy’s father finally agreed to his evacuation. The medics called in an American helicopter to carry out the child, who had been wounded by fire from another American helicopter.

The boy and his father, carrying a jug of water, a large chunk of raw meat wrapped in green leaves, and a crossbow, climbed aboard quivering with fright. They had crossed from the fifteenth century to the twentieth in a matter of minutes. Galloway, watching and photographing the scene, thought to himself: “Nothing is simple in this war; maybe it never is in any war.”

We continued patrolling south and east, finding nothing and growing more frustrated by the hour.

Turns out we weren’t the only ones who were frustrated. General Dick Knowles was decidedly unhappy with the lack of results. Says Knowles: “Conventional wisdom indicated that the enemy had drifted into an area southeast of Pleiku and we were directed to conduct operations there. Shortly after the operation started, Major General Stanley (Swede) Larsen, the Corps commander, visited us and asked how things were going. I told him we had no contact to speak of and didn’t expect any. Where upon Larsen asked, ‘Why are you conducting operations there?’ My response: ‘That’s what your order in writing directed us to do.’ The general answered that our primary mission was: Find the enemy and go after him.”

Knowles knew what to do with that kind of guidance. In the late afternoon of November 12, he flew south from Pleiku in his command helicopter looking for Colonel Tim Brown, who was with me in the field. He climbed out of the chopper, cigar in hand, and asked how it was going. Brown, who seldom wasted words, replied: “Dry hole, sir.” Knowles turned to me: What do you think? “Nothing here, General; we’re just wearing out the troops.” He turned back to Brown: “Tim, what do you think about heading west—a long jump into the Ia Drang Valley?” Brown said that would be better than here: “From what I remember, your G-2 said something about a base camp out there.”

Knowles gave us the go sign. Later he would say that he gave that order “based on strong instincts and flimsy intelligence.” In minutes Knowles and Brown boarded their helicopters and were gone. I told my staff to do a map study of the Ia Drang Valley and begin planning an operation. I had no doubt that my battalion would be chosen to mount the attack into the Ia Drang. To date Brown had given the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry every job in which there was a possibility of contact with the enemy. The 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, his other battalion, had a new commander and staff and Brown was trying to break them in gently.

Knowles, Brown, and I were comfortable with each other. We had worked together closely for the last eighteen months. They knew their stuff on airmobility and helicopter warfare, and I had gone to school on them. They knew they could count on me, and I knew they would provide all the support I needed, sometimes even before I knew I needed it. General Harry Kinnard had fostered that kind of leadership in the 1st Cavalry Division. Kinnard came out of the great Airborne school of thought that authority has to be pushed down to the man on the spot, because you never know where leaders will land when units jump out of airplanes. What was true for parachute operations was likewise true for fast-moving airmobile combat units leapfrogging across difficult terrain.

Early on Saturday, November 13, Colonel Brown shifted my battalion to new areas south and southwest of Plei Me, where we again conducted patrols from widely scattered company bases. We set up the battalion command post in an old French fort just outside the fence of the Plei Me Special Forces Camp. The American Special Forces often located their camps on the sites of old French army posts, strategically situated on Communist infiltration routes.

The enemy had not changed, nor had the need to keep track of his movements. In almost every case the French had chosen well, locating these eyes-and-ears posts so that they covered the most logical enemy routes through these rugged mountains. But for the French army, and for their American successors as well, these patrol bases were remote and isolated, far from help, which was tied to bad roads. They were tempting targets, often attacked and sometimes overwhelmed and overrun.

Each leg of this triangular fort was a heavily overgrown six- to eight-foot-high wall of dirt about ninety yards long. Long years of disuse, and the annual monsoon rains, had crumbled the firing positions, the steps, and the walls themselves. The adjacent Special Forces camp, also triangular, didn’t look all that much better. During the late-October siege, Plei Me camp had been attacked by mortars, sappers, and a storm of machine-gun and small-arms fire, and the few flimsy, tin-roofed structures that the enemy hadn’t blown up had been beaten up by big pallets of supplies that U.S. Air Force transport planes had dropped in by parachute.

That afternoon Colonel Brown ordered me to send a rifle company back to Catecka Tea Plantation to help secure the defense perimeter around his 3rd Brigade command post for the night. Captain John Herren’s Bravo Company drew that assignment. The night before, at 11:23 P.M., an estimated two companies of Viet Cong guerrillas had attacked the brigade headquarters and nearby aviation-fuel storage and engineer facilities. The attack was beaten off in an hour, but seven Americans were killed and twenty-three were wounded. Six enemy dead, clad in black pajamas, were found.

Not a quarter-mile through the tea bushes from Brown’s tents stood a lovely white colonial mansion. The French plantation manager lived there, and if you strolled the road you caught glimpses of young women in bikinis taking the sun beside the swimming pool. The mansion had been neither mortared nor attacked the night before. Army intelligence said the French owners paid the Viet Cong a million piasters a year in protection money and paid the Saigon government three million piasters a year in taxes. The plantation billed the U.S. government $50 for each tea bush and $250 for each rubber tree damaged by combat operations. Just one more incongruity.

That afternoon, Saturday, November 13, Joe Galloway hitched a lift from Pleiku out to Catecka to Brown’s headquarters. He says: “Two French correspondents who had ridden out with me wangled an invitation to spend the night with their countryman in the mansion. I dug a foxhole under one of those $50 tea bushes out on the perimeter around brigade headquarters with Bravo Company. Dug it deep, set out some spare magazines for the rifle, and settled in to celebrate my twenty-fourth birthday with a can of C-ration peaches and another can of pound cake. The word was that Hal Moore’s battalion would launch deep into the bush the next morning.”

Galloway had the word and the word was right. He may have gotten it before I did. At about four P.M. Captain Tony Nadal and his Alpha Company troopers were out patrolling when they came on the clear waters of the small Glae River. Nadal approved a request for small parties of his men, under guard, to take turns bathing and washing up. “I was going back with First Sergeant [Arthur J.] Newton and a couple of other guys when I heard rockets firing,” Nadal remembers. “We ran back and found our own helicopters had dumped a bunch of rockets on us in two strafing runs. I got on the radio screaming: ‘Get this goddamn thing away from me!’”

Sergeant Major Plumley and I flew to the scene and met with Nadal and Major Roger (Black Bart) Bartholomew, commander of the aerial rocket artillery helicopter company, who had flown in to investigate. It seems that a unit of our sister battalion—2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry—had screwed up the map coordinates when calling for fire support. Four of Nadal’s men were wounded and carried out by medical evacuation choppers.

Not long after, Colonel Brown flew in, checked on the situation with Alpha Company, and then called me aside. “Hal, I’m moving your battalion west tomorrow morning,” he said, unfolding his map. “Here is your area of operations—north of Chu Pong in the Ia Drang Valley. Your mission is the same one you have now: Find and kill the enemy.” He rapidly outlined the scope of the operation and the resources he could spare: sixteen UH-1D Hueys to move my troops, two 105mm howitzer batteries within range to support us, and at least two days on the ground patrolling.

He added that Alpha Company of the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion would provide the helicopters; the 229th’s A Company commander, Major Bruce Crandall, was on the way now. “One more thing, Hal. In that area be sure your companies are close enough for mutual support.” After he left, I alerted Captain Nadal to what was coming and flew back to the old French fort. On the way, I jotted notes on what needed to be done and radioed Matt Dillon, my operations officer, telling him to put out a warning order to the other company commanders and support units and get the staff together. We had a lot to do and not much time to do it in.

Bruce Crandall, thirty-four years old, was an All-American college baseball star out of Olympia, Washington. He used the distinctive radio call sign “Ancient Serpent 6,” which readily lent itself to profane permutations. Crandall was already there with Captain Mickey Parrish, the helicopter liaison officer, who would stay with us throughout the operation to coordinate helicopter movements. This was standard operating procedure in the 1st Cavalry Division: detailed planning and coordination between the helicopter lift company and the infantry.

We had not yet been in any battalion-size fight in Vietnam, and Bruce Crandall’s helicopter pilots were likewise unblooded. All of us were soon to be put to the test. Crandall was my kind of guy: good at what he did, straight-talking, and dead honest. He knew his people were good—he personally saw to that—and he expected the same high standards of everyone he worked with. It didn’t hurt that Ancient Serpent 6, or “Old Snake” or “Snake-shit 6,” as everyone called him, was one of the funniest men alive. His pilots and air and ground crew proudly reflected Old Snake’s attitudes and professionalism, and Crandall loved them.

“We had sixteen aircraft flying out of twenty assigned to the unit,” Crandall says. “What we lacked in combat experience we made up for in flying time. Our junior pilot had about seven hundred hours in helicopters and was instrument-rated. Most were dual-rated [trained to fly] fixed-wing [aircraft] and helicopters, and every one of the leaders was dual instrument-rated. Most of us had been in the battalion through air-assault training, and our company flew with the expeditionary force sent to the Dominican Republic in mid-1965.”

Crandall continues: “On November thirteenth I sat in on a briefing by Colonel Moore. We went through some discussion as to how we could carry out the attack, artillery sites, tactical air support and so forth, and set up a reconnaissance flight for early the next morning. Moore expected us, the aviation element, to be present during planning and briefing and to be a part of his staff. This attitude was shared by his staff and his commanders. As a team we proved that the whole was even better than the sum of the parts.”

Captain Paul Patton Winkel, whose great-grandfather rode with William Tecumseh Sherman, was a Bravo Company 229th platoon leader attached to Bruce Crandall’s task force for the Ia Drang operation. He talks about what went into the making of that first generation of airmobile aviators: “We trained from July, 1964, until our arrival in Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry in precision flying—four aircraft in V formation at 80 to 120 knots barely above treetop level, flowing with the contour lines of the ground. Radio work, navigation, foul-weather flying. Timing, timing, always timing. Crossing the release point at a critical second. Coordinating with gun ships, artillery, infantry. Practice, practice, practice. On the ground with the troops, high overhead, reconnaissance, reporting. This all paid off. Many of us are alive today because we learned our lessons well.”

By now the word had gone out to Tony Nadal and Bob Edwards to pull their men in from the bush and assemble them in the largest clearings available in their areas for helicopter pickup at first light the next day. Both companies were operating about six miles south of Plei Me. John Herren’s Bravo Company was already assembled at brigade headquarters and would lift out of there.

My staff and I and the liaison officers talked about the hundred and one details that have to be analyzed in a combat operational plan: the terrain; possible landing zones in that rough scrub-and-jungle region; weather forecasts; the enemy; manpower strength in each of our companies; logistics, supporting firepower; and helicopter lift capabilities.

Bruce Crandall’s lift ships, the sixteen Hueys, would arrive at Plei Me fort by 9:30 A.M. Five big Chinook helicopters would arrive even earlier than that to sling a battery of six 105mm howitzers beneath them and take them to Falcon, where they would join another battery of six guns already in place. I ordered an early-morning recon flight, of two Huey slicks and two gun-ships, over the Ia Drang Valley. Matt Dillon; Bruce Crandall; John Herren; the artillery battery commander, Captain Don Davis; the Cavalry Scout section leader, Captain Rickard; the fire support coordinator, Captain Jerry Whiteside; the forward air controller, Lieutenant Charlie Hastings; and I would fly the mission.

“Since Bravo Company is already in one location and will be brought back early, it will be the assault company,” I told the gathering. “Plan for a twenty-minute artillery prep followed by thirty seconds of aerial rocket artillery, then thirty seconds by the gunships. Bravo Company will land right after the gunship run. I will go in with Bravo in the lead assault ship. Tell the commanders to have their men carry the maximum load of ammunition, one C-ration and two canteens per man. That’s it for now. Questions?” There were none.

It was eight P.M. and things were buzzing in the command post (CP), which consisted of four small tents, each about ten feet in diameter—one for the battalion surgeon and aid station; one for S-2 and S-3 (intelligence and operations); one for S-l and S-4 (personnel and logistics); and one for the headquarters company commander. The rest of us slept on the ground, rolled up in our ponchos. Chow in the field was almost always C-rations—cans of ham and lima beans, or spaghetti and meatballs, or beans and franks, zipped open with the little P-38 can openers we all wore on the dog-tag chains around our necks.

Sergeant Major Plumley and I ate and then walked around the inner perimeter of the old French fort, occasionally climbing the dirt berms to peer out into the darkness. Headquarters was guarded by the recon platoon and the machine-gun platoon from Delta Company. We stopped and talked with some of the troopers on the perimeter. It was a quiet night, the bird calls and the croaking of the geckos mingling with the muted hissing of the kerosene camp lanterns that lighted the scene inside the blacked-out tents.

I thought again of the French soldiers who had built and guarded this crumbling post on the frontiers of a now-dead colonial empire. Some things change, but not the rhythms of military life. How different a scene would it have been for a French commander preparing to launch an operation fifteen years earlier?

My thoughts turned to tomorrow’s operation. I felt strongly that the enemy had been using the Ia Drang Valley as a jumping-off point for the attacks on Plei Me and likely had returned there to regroup and treat their wounded. The Ia Drang had plenty of water for drinking and for cooking rice. Best of all, for the PAVN, was its location on the border with Cambodia. The Vietnamese Communists came and went across that border at will; we were prohibited from crossing it.

I knew that the 1st Cavalry’s 1st Brigade, the Plei Me garrison, the division’s helicopter cavalry squadron, and our heavy air and artillery fire support must have taken a heavy toll on them over the last three weeks. The intelligence people were telling me their best guess: possibly one battalion at the base of the Chu Pong massif two miles northwest of the area we were aiming for; possibly enemy very near a clearing we were considering for the assault landing zone; and a possible secret base a half-mile east of our target area. If even one of those possibles was an actual, we would get a violent response.

How ready was my battalion for combat? We had never maneuvered in combat as an entire battalion, although all three rifle companies had been in minor scrapes. Most of the men had never even seen an enemy soldier, dead or alive. We had killed fewer than ten men, black-pajama guerrillas, in the get-acquainted patrols and small operations since our arrival in An Khe.

The four line companies had twenty of their authorized twenty-three officers, but the enlisted ranks had been badly whittled down by expiring enlistments, malaria cases, and requirements for base-camp guards and workers back in An Khe. Alpha Company had 115 men, 49 fewer than authorized. Bravo Company, at 114 men, was 50 short. Charlie Company had 106 men, down by 58. And the weapons company, Delta, had only 76 men, 42 fewer than authorized. Headquarters Company was also understrength, and I had been forced to draw it down further by sending men out to fill crucial medical and communications vacancies in the line companies.

I didn’t like being short-handed, but things had been no different in the Korean War and somehow we made do. You just suck it up and do it, and we would do it the same way in the Ia Drang. The officers and NCOs would do what they could to take up the slack, just as we had done in Korea.

I could only hope that the enemy had been hurt badly in the earlier fighting and was, likewise, short of men. At least I could rely on strong fire support to help stack the deck. The weather forecast—clear sunny days and moonlit nights—practically guaranteed air support, and two batteries of twelve 105mm howitzers would be dedicated entirely to our use.

But my main concern focused on the fact that we would have only sixteen Huey slicks to ferry the battalion into the assault area, an average fifteen-mile one-way flight from the various pickup points. What that meant was that fewer than eighty men—not even one full company—would hit the landing zone in the first wave, and would be the only troops on the ground until the helicopters returned to Plei Me, loaded another eighty, and returned. Later lifts would carry more men—ninety to one hundred—as they burned off fuel and grew lighter in weight.

It was a thirty-minute round trip and at the expected rate it would take more than four hours to get all of my men on the ground. The Hueys would also have to divert to refuel during this process, costing even more time; and if the landing zone was hot and any of the sixteen helicopters were shot up and dropped out, that, too, would immediately impact on the timetable.

I ran an endless string of “what if’s” through my mind that night as I leaned against the earthen wall of the old French fort. Time so spent is never wasted; if even one “what if” comes to pass a commander will be a few precious seconds ahead of the game. My worst-case scenario was a hot LZ—a fight beginning during or just after our assault landing—and I certainly had to assume the enemy would be able to provide it. In any assault into an enemy-held area—whether it’s a beachhead or a paratroop drop zone, and whether you have to cross a major river or, as in our case, land in the base area—the hairiest time is that tenuous period before your troops get firmly established and organized, and move out. This is when you are most vulnerable.

I ran through what I could do to influence the action if the worst came to pass. First, I would personally land on the first helicopter, piloted by Bruce Crandall. That would permit me a final low-level look at the landing zone and surrounding terrain, and with Crandall in the front seat and me in the back we could work out, on the spot, any last-minute diversion to an alternate landing zone, if necessary, and fix any other problems with the lift.

In the American Civil War it was a matter of principle that a good officer rode his horse as little as possible. There were sound reasons for this. If you are riding and your soldiers are marching, how can you judge how tired they are, how thirsty, how heavy their packs weigh on their shoulders?

I applied the same philosophy in Vietnam, where every battalion commander had his own command-and-control helicopter. Some commanders used their helicopter as their personal mount. I never believed in that. You had to get on the ground with your troops to see and hear what was happening. You have to soak up firsthand information for your instincts to operate accurately. Besides, it’s too easy to be crisp, cool, and detached at 1, 500 feet; too easy to demand the impossible of your troops; too easy to make mistakes that are fatal only to those souls far below in the mud, the blood, and the confusion.

With me in that first ship would be Sergeant Major Plumley; Captain Tom Metsker; my radio operator, Specialist Bob Ouellette; and our interpreter, Mr. Nik, a Montagnard.

The second aspect of my plan to deal with any problems at the landing zone was as follows. I would put my fire support team overhead, in the battalion-command helicopter with Matt Dillon coordinating. From 2, 500 feet overhead Dillon would have radiocontact with 3rd Brigade Headquarters, with the battalion rear command post at Plei Me, and with all the company pickup zones. He could monitor all that was said over the battalion command network. Jerry Whiteside would direct the artillery and the rocket gunships. Charlie Hastings would deal with the Air Force fire support. And Mickey Parrish would deal with Bruce Crandall and the helicopter people.

Third, I had to maximize the impact of the eighty men who would be on the ground alone during the first critical half-hour. Standard operating procedure in the new science of airmobile warfare dictated that the lead elements scatter out over 360 degrees and secure the entire perimeter. Not this time. I had been thinking about a new technique that seemed tailor-made for this situation. Bravo Company would assemble in a central location in the landing zone as a reserve and strike force. Four seven-man squads would be sent out in different directions to check out the perimeter and surrounding area. If one of those squads encountered enemy forces I could then shift the rest of the company in that direction and carry the fight to the enemy well off the landing zone.

Around 10:30 P.M. Plumley and I walked back to the operations tent to check on preparations. Everything was going fine. Plumley suggested we get some sleep, saying it might be a long while before we got another chance. We walked back to where we had left our packs, got out our ponchos, rolled up in them on the ground—weapons close at hand—and went to sleep.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!