Military history

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X-RAY

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5

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Into the Valley

The great joy of the Cavalry was to be so far away, out in the clean air, the open spaces, away from those damned councils.

Buford … felt the beautiful absence of a commander, a silence above him, a windy freedom.

    —MICHAEL SHAARA, The Killer Angels

Sergeant Major Plumley and I rolled out of our ponchos at the old French fort outside the barbed wire at Plei Me Special Forces Camp. It was 4:30 on Sunday morning, November 14, and the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry had work to do today. We walked back to the operations tent, which was manned around the clock. No change in our orders had come through overnight. But over a cup of coffee, Matt Dillon passed along one interesting piece of information that the radio relay intercept team attached to our headquarters had come up with. Says Dillon: “They had made an intercept of a coded message in Mandarin dialect, like a situation report, from a position somewhere on a line from Plei Me camp directly through a clearing at the base of Chu Pong mountain. The intelligence lieutenant had a map with a line drawn on it. He said that the radio transmitter was somewhere on this line. I don’t remember how long that message was—that didn’t really bother me. It was the direction it came from. The lieutenant said he thought that possibly there was a North Vietnamese regiment somewhere out there near Chu Pong mountain.”

Plumley and I shaved, breakfasted on C-rations, and drank some black coffee. Then I got my pack and ammunition ready and cleaned my M-16 rifle and .45-caliber pistol. As day broke that morning it was cool and fresh at Plei Me, with patches of wispy ground fog. This was the middle of the dry season and the sun just peeking over the horizon promised that the day would be a hot one.

John Herren and his Bravo Company troops were flying in from brigade headquarters in Chinook helicopters; I walked out to the dirt strip to meet him and brief the air-reconnaissance party. The same Chinooks that brought in Bravo Company then picked up the big guns of Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 21st Artillery, to move them out to Landing Zone Falcon where they would support our air assault deeper into the valley. Herren’s men moved off to relax in the brush south of the airstrip. They had time to eat, refill their canteens, and check and clean their weapons. Unfortunately they were not as fresh as they should have been. Brigade headquarters had kept them on hundred-percent alert all night.

I walked over to Bruce Crandall’s Huey and quickly briefed those who would accompany us on the recon flight over the Ia Drang Valley. Colonel Tim Brown had told us generally where he wanted us to operate after the landing, but we now had to select a landing zone, and preferably one that would take as many of our sixteen Hueys as possible at one time.

All of us would have preferred not to make an air-recon flight at all. We didn’t want to spook the enemy in the area and possibly alert them to an imminent landing. But we could not choose a landing zone for this assault simply by looking at a 1:50,000 map; we had to overfly the area. We would minimize the chances of discovery by flying high, around 4, 500 feet, and pass well to the southeast of the Chu Pong massif on a straight-line flight to the vicinity of Due Co Special Forces Camp. After orbiting the camp for five minutes we would fly a slightly different return route. Our hope was that any enemy commander in the area would reckon that the two lift ships and the two gunships were on other business in other areas. With binoculars we would be scanning for the right clearing: one with few obstacles and plenty of space.

The flight went precisely as planned. We took no anti-aircraft fire and saw no enemy activity; on our return to Plei Me camp we quickly settled on three possible landing zones: X-Ray, Tango, and Yankee. Major Henri (Pete) Mallet, the 3rd Brigade operations officer, flew in with a half-page “frag”* from Colonel Brown. One of our landing-zone options, Yankee, was about one mile south of the designated area of operations. It was on sloping ground but could take only six or eight Hueys. A possibility. Tango was in the middle of the valley and closer to the Ia Drang by a mile or so, which was good. But it was too small—it could handle only two or three Hueys at once—and, worse yet, it was almost a well, encircled by very tall trees. The pilots hated wells. To land, they had to slow almost to a hover, then drop into the well. Hovering helicopters are juicy targets. We crossed off Tango. That left X-Ray. It was flat; the trees around it weren’t all that tall; and it looked as though it could take up to eight helicopters at one time.

I told the command group that I had tentatively decided on the clearing called X-Ray but wanted some more information. Turning to Captain Rickard, the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Scout section leader, I asked him to take his tiny two-man H-13 observation helicopters on a fast nap-of-the-earth flight through the target area to pick up more details on X-Ray, Yankee, and the surrounding area.

By now all the company commanders had assembled at the battalion command post. While we waited for the scout helicopters to return with their reports, I again urged the company commanders to make certain every rifleman had at least the basic load of three hundred rounds of ammo and two hand grenades plus as much additional ammunition as he felt he could carry. Each of the M-79 grenadiers should have at least thirty-six of the fat little 40mm rounds. Each squad should be carrying two of the new LAW (light antitank weapon) rockets for bunker-busting and taking out machine-gun crews. And I reminded the commanders of follow-on units waiting for their turn to ride into the landing zone to stay tuned to the command net and listen to what was going on so they wouldn’t be in the dark about the situation at X-Ray when they finally got there.

Now the scout pilots returned and reported. Landing Zone Yankee could be used, the scout pilots reported, but it would be risky because it was covered with old tree stumps. X-Ray definitely could take eight to ten Hueys at a time. Finally, they said they had spotted commo wire—a phone line—running east to west on a trail north of X-Ray. That tipped the balance in favor of X-Ray, because it offered certain evidence that there were enemy soldiers in the immediate area. X-Ray would be the assault landing zone, with Tango and Yankee as alternates.

At 8:50 A.M., on the west end of the Plei Me strip, I issued orders to the assembled company commanders, liaison officers, pilots, and staff: Assault into LZ X-Ray to search for and destroy the enemy. Bravo Company lands first, accompanied by my command group, then Alpha, then Charlie, and then Delta companies. Bravo and Alpha will move northwest on my order. Charlie Company will move southwest toward the mountain, likewise on my order. Delta Company will control all mortars. The recon and machine-gun platoons will be battalion reserve. Artillery will fire eight minutes each on Yankee and Tango for deception, then a twenty-minute preparatory fire on X-Ray and adjacent areas. Thirty seconds of aerial rocket artillery and thirty seconds of helicopter gunship prep fire would follow. The battalion rear command post, run by my executive officer, Major Herman Wirth, and our supply point and medical-aid station would both shift forward to Landing Zone Falcon, where the two artillery batteries were located.

Colonel Brown arrived and I walked him through the plan. He agreed with everything, including the selection of X-Ray as the assault landing zone. He chatted with some of the officers and troopers for a few minutes. Then, just before he left, he did something out of the ordinary. Says Matt Dillon: “Colonel Brown called Moore and me aside. He told us: ‘I want you two to be especially careful on this operation.’ He looked concerned.” As we walked Brown to his helicopter he repeated his instructions: “Stay tight” and “Don’t let your companies get separated.” At 9:15 A.M. the two artillery batteries reported they were going into position and would soon be ready to fire. I set 10:30 A.M. as touchdown time. Commanders returned to their companies, the staff to the command post. The Huey air crews were being briefed by their pilots.

Then we got word that because of air movement delays the artillery was not yet in position in LZ Falcon and could not begin the prep fires on the Ia Drang targets before 10:17 A.M. H hour slid back accordingly, and the word was passed down the line. Dillon lifted off in the battalion command helicopter with the fire-support and helicopter-coordination group. Bruce Crandall and I stood beside his chopper, discussing final details. The precise flying time from liftoff at Plei Me to touchdown at X-Ray came up. Crandall’s copilot, Captain Jon Mills, a twenty-five-year-old native of the Panama Canal Zone, worked for a couple of minutes over his maps, flight table, and calculator, looked up and said: “Thirteen minutes fifteen seconds.” I bet him a beer he couldn’t hit it dead on the nose. He took me up on that bet—he kept an honest log—and collected his beer three nights later at Camp Holloway, near Pleiku.

We loaded aboard and Crandall and Mills preflighted the Huey. Then Crandall fired up both his engine and a big fat cigar. We were enveloped in a choking cloud of red dust as all sixteen Hueys strained toward liftoff. Crandall, in the left seat, looked back. I gave him a thumbs-up and pointed westward. He pulled pitch and lifted off, and we were bound for Landing Zone X-Ray.

We flew over a broad, slightly rolling plain dotted with trees thirty to fifty feet tall, interspersed with a few old Montagnard farm clearings, small winding streams, and dry streambeds. We saw no villages and no people. It was Sunday morning but I didn’t realize that: over here we paid attention to the date, not the day. In the field in Vietnam all days were the same: hot and wet, or hot and dry, but always dangerous. Back in Columbus, Georgia, it was Saturday night. My wife had put our five kids to bed and was watching the nightly news on television. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced plans to abolish 751 Army Reserve units, including six reserve divisions. The Yarmouth Castle cruise ship burned and sank at sea, and ninety-one passengers were missing. The New York Times headlined a James Reston think piece WASHINGTON: WAR ON THE INSTALLMENT PLAN. Joe Namath, who had been paid an unthinkable $400,000 bonus for signing with the New York Jets, was having a great first season in pro football.

The troop doors on the Huey helicopters were open. We flew at two thousand feet to reduce the chances of being hit by enemy small-arms fire as we traversed 14.3 miles of hostile country. We flew in four groups of four helicopters each, with each group in a heavy-left formation, and Crandall’s four helicopter gunships guarding our flanks, two on each side slightly forward of us. Captain John Herren, whose Bravo Company troops filled the helicopters, recalls: “It was a misty, cool morning with some low-hanging fog when we lifted off, but shortly after takeoff we broke into the clear and you could see the 105mm artillery pounding the areas around the LZ as we headed in. Vietnam, even in war, was scenic, with the green jungle, heavy forested mountains, and wild-looking rivers crisscrossing the terrain.”

About four miles from X-Ray, Bruce Crandall gave the signal and his pilots dropped down to treetop level to fly nap-of-the-earth on the final approach. Birds scattered as we roared along at 110 miles per hour just above their perches. High overhead in the command chopper, Matt Dillon was running the fire support preparations: “The hairiest part of any operation was always the air assault. We had to time the flight and the artillery so close. When the choppers were one minute out the last artillery rounds had to be on the way or you get Hueys landing with the shells. We always sweated because if you shut down the artillery too soon the enemy could be up and waiting when the choppers came in. This one was precisely on time.”

We were two minutes out now and could see smoke and dust flying around the landing zone. Minimum fire had been directed on the clearing; if there were enemy they wouldn’t be there, but in concealed positions around the clearing’s edge. Now the helicopters of the aerial rocket artillery slammed that perimeter with rockets, grenades, and machine-gun fire, using twenty-four of the forty-eight 2.75-inch rockets each carried. They saved the other half in case we needed help after we got on the ground. As the ARA ships banked steeply away to take up an orbit nearby, the four escorting gunships left us and dashed ahead to take over the firing that would keep any enemy heads down on our final approach.

Major Bruce Crandall recalls: “We went low-level and arrived right on schedule at the release point into the landing zone. The landing zone was not as clear of obstacles as we would have liked but we got our flight in without any real problems. The only movement we spotted in the landing zone was something that looked like a dog scampering into some underbrush on the far side. It was probably an enemy soldier.” Now the door gunners on the lift ships were firing into the tree line as we dropped into the clearing. I unhooked my seat belt, switched the selector switch on my M-16 to full automatic—rock ’n’ roll—and fired bursts into the brush to the left, toward the mountain, as Crandall came in hot and flared* over the dry five-foot-tall elephant grass. As the chopper skids touched the ground I yelled, “Let’s go!” and jumped out, running for the trees on the western edge of the clearing, firing my rifle.

It was 10:48 A.M. Sergeant Major Plumley, Captain Metsker, Bob Ouellette, and Mr. Nik, the translator, were right behind me. Herren and his men came out of their Hueys in like fashion. In (less than ten seconds Crandall’s first lift of eight ships had roared back into the air, banked north, and hightailed it back east. The second wave of eight helicopters was now touching down to disgorge its troops.

I ran across twenty-five yards of open ground, then across a waist-deep, ten-foot-wide dry creekbed, and continued running some seventy-five yards into the scrub brush, leading the command group. We stopped to slap fresh magazines in our rifles. So far we had been unopposed. We were in a lightly wooded area, with scraggly trees twenty to fifty feet tall and dry, brown elephant grass between. The area was dotted with large mounds of red dirt, most with brush and grass growing out of the tops. The size of these old termite hills ranged from that of a small automobile to that of a large pickup, and they offered excellent cover and concealment. The valley was a desolate place, with no villages and no civilians, ten miles east of where the Ho Chi Minh Trail turned left out of Cambodia into South Vietnam.

The heavily forested eastern slopes of the Chu Pong rose steep and dark more than a thousand feet above the clearing. The massif’s lower slopes were covered with thick green foliage, elephant grass, and tangles of brush. Gullies and long fingers of ground led from the bottom of the mountain and blended into the woods and the dry creekbed where we stood. Plenty of places for people to hide. The creekbed just inside the western edge of our clearing was an excellent route of approach for enemy troops coming from the direction of the mountain or the valley, and for us going the other way. That creekbed was a critical feature.

Heading back toward the clearing, we ran into some of Bravo Company’s 1st Platoon troopers, led by Sergeant Larry Gilreath, moving out into the brush. Gilreath yelled: “Moore’s fire team has already cleared this area.” Plumley grinned. He knew that the troops liked to see the Old Man out with them on the ground, sharing the risks. Gilreath and his men headed deeper into the brush to the west. Plumley and I recrossed the dry creekbed and moved around the clearing, checking on the terrain and on the patrols Herren’s troopers were conducting. No enemy contact so far, and I was glad of that. We didn’t want a fight before we got the rest of the battalion on the ground.

The clearing was about a hundred yards long, east to west, and kind of funnel-shaped, with the ninety-yard-wide mouth of the funnel on the western edge near that dry creek. The bottom of the funnel was on the forty-five-yard span of the clearing’s eastern edge. In the center of the clearing was a copse of scraggly trees, about half the size of a tennis court. All told, the space at X-Ray amounted to no more clear ground than a football field.

Now I stopped and looked up at the steep slopes of the mountain. I had a strong sense that we were under direct enemy observation. That, and the fact that everything had gone so well so far, made me nervous. Nothing was wrong, except that nothing was wrong. I continued reconnoitering. There were no streambeds on the north, east, or south. The southern edge of the clearing was closest to the mountain and to those draws and fingers reaching out from the high ground. The terrain to the north and east was relatively flat. My attention continued to be drawn back to the south and west.

I did two things now. I ordered Herren’s 1st Platoon to intensify its search to the west of the creek, and checked to make sure that the rest of Bravo Company was gathered in the clump of trees near the creekbed and ready for action. Herren had most of his troops on the ground; the rest were on the way in the second lift.

This clearing was the only decent helicopter landing zone between the slopes of Chu Pong and the Ia Drang and for two miles east or west. Our assault landing had, so far as we could tell, achieved total surprise. The enemy weren’t around the clearing waiting for us. But we had been seen arriving and the North Vietnamese were already moving in our direction.

The People’s Army commander on the battlefield, then-Senior Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huu An, says, “When you dropped troops into X-Ray, I was on Chu Pong mountain. We had a very strong position and a strong, mobile command group. We were ready, had prepared for you and expected you to come. The only question was when. The trees and brush limited our view of the helicopters landing but we had an observation post on top of the mountain and they reported to us when you dropped troops and when you moved them.”

Sergeant Larry Gilreath’s memory of this morning is clear and sharp: “The 1st Platoon was told to move straight forward about a hundred and fifty yards from where we landed. And from there each squad would send two or three men out further in all directions. Sergeant John W. Mingo in the 1st Squad went forward with a couple of men and hadn’t been out very long when he found ‘a boy’ wandering around in the area. When Mingo brought him in, my exact words were: ‘Boy, hell! That ain’t no boy’” Mingo and his recon squad had spotted the soldier sitting on the ground; surprised, he got up and ran. After a short zigzag chase through the brush, the sergeant tackled him and took him prisoner. Herren passed the word to me. I was pleased that the 1st Platoon had taken him alive, and not surprised when I learned that it was Mingo who caught him. Mingo was a Ranger Company veteran of the Korean War and knew the value of a live prisoner who was able to talk.

It was 11:20 A.M.; just then, Crandall’s sixteen helicopters returned, bringing in the rest of Bravo Company and the 3rd Platoon of Alpha Company plus Captain Tony Nadal’s Alpha Company command group. They ran into the scrub brush on the northern edge of the clearing near the creekbed. Things were quiet, nothing happening yet, so most of the troopers broke out their C-rations and ate a quick lunch. I was on my way out to question the enemy prisoner and had not yet seen Captain Nadal to give him any instructions. We had been in X-Ray only thirty-two minutes and the countdown was on.

John Herren left the rest of Bravo Company in the copse with his executive officer, Lieutenant Ken Duncan, and joined me and my party as we rushed across the creek into the brush where Gilreath’s men were holding the prisoner. He wasn’t much, but he was this battalion’s first prisoner in Vietnam: about five feet seven inches tall, maybe twenty years old, scrawny, wild-eyed, and trembling with fear. He was unarmed and barefooted; he wore a dirty khaki shirt, partly pulled out of his khaki trousers. There was a serial number on one of the shirt epaulettes. He carried a canteen but it was empty. He had no papers, no food, and no ammunition.

When we took a prisoner on the battlefield in Korea, we never got bogged down in long interrogations. No time for that. All I wanted to know was “How many of you are there?” and “Where are they?” A look of apprehension spread over Mr. Nik’s face as he shakily translated the prisoner’s words: “He says there are three battalions on the mountain who want very much to kill Americans but have not been able to find any.” What the prisoner said fit in neatly with what our intelligence people had told us and with that big red star I had seen on the division headquarters map. I still don’t know what that soldier was doing out there in the brush without food, water, or a weapon, but he was a godsend.

Three battalions of enemy added up to more than 1, 600 men against the 175-plus Americans currently on the ground here. I turned to John Herren and ordered him to immediately intensify the patrols in the area where we had found the prisoner. I told Herren that as soon as enough of Tony Nadal’s Alpha Company troops were on the ground to secure the landing zone, Bravo Company would be cut loose to search the lower slopes of the mountain, with special emphasis on the finger and draw to the northwest. If those enemy battalions were on the way, we needed to engage them as far off the landing zone as possible.

We radioed Matt Dillon and told him to come in to pick up the prisoner and take him back to brigade for further interrogation. Dillon landed at 11:40 A.M. The forward air controller, Air Force Lieutenant Charlie Hastings, says that when Dillon put the prisoner aboard the command helicopter and relayed his words that there were many enemy in the area who wanted to kill Americans “the war suddenly had my undivided attention.”

Captain Nadal had been hunting for me while I was in the woods with the prisoner. We caught up with each other after the prisoner was put aboard the command helicopter. I quickly briefed Nadal on the situation and told him that Alpha Company would take over security in the LZ as soon as the next lift brought in the rest of his men. Crandall’s helicopters returned at 12:10 P.M. on their third trip to X-Ray, bringing in the rest of Tony Nadal’s troopers, minus only a few men. Now Nadal had enough men on the ground to be effective.

Suddenly a few rifle shots rang out in the area where the prisoner had been captured. Sergeant Gilreath’s men were in contact! It was now 12:15 P.M. We had to move fast if we were going to survive, had to get off that landing zone and hit him before he could hit us. Only if we brought the enemy to battle deep in the trees and brush would we stand even a slim chance of holding on to the clearing and getting the rest of the battalion landed. That football-field-size clearing was our lifeline and our supply line. If the enemy closed the way to the helicopters all of us would die in this place.

Even as the first shots rang out I was radioing Herren to saddle up the rest of his Bravo Company men and move out fast toward the mountain to develop the situation. Turning to Nadal, I told him that the original plan was out the window, that his Alpha Company should immediately take over LZ security and get ready to move up on Bravo Company’s left when enough of Charlie Company had arrived on the next lift to assume the job of securing the clearing.

In the small copse, the other two platoons of Bravo Company men had opened C-ration cans and were grabbing a bite when they heard those first shots out in the brush. The older sergeants glanced at one another and nodded. Eat fast, they told the men, and get ready to move.

The battle of LZ X-Ray had just begun.

* A frag, or fragmentary order, is an abbreviated version of a commander’s directive concerning his plan for a military mission.

* Hot: fast; flared: the pilot lifts the helicopter’s nose and drops its tail to lose speed suddenly before landing.

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