This story originally appeared in the October 29, 1990, issue of U.S.News & World Report.
As the sun rose on Nov. 14, 1965, a clear, hot Sunday, four U.S. Army helicopters flew, as unobtrusively as such machines can, across the rugged Ia Drang Valley in South Vietnam's Central Highlands. Below them was a wild and desolate place that in normal times offered a living only to elephants, tigers and a few Montagnard tribesmen. Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore scanned the terrain intently, scribbling notes and marking his maps. He was about to lead the U.S. 7th Cavalry on its most audacious charge since Lt. Col. George A. Custer led his troopers to the Little Bighorn 89 years earlier.
Like Custer, Hal Moore had no use for timidity or half measures. The lean, blond Kentuckian, a 43-year-old graduate of West Point, Class of '45, demanded the best from his men and gave the same in return. Behind his back, the 457 officers and men of the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), sometimes called Moore by Custer's nickname, "Yellow Hair." It was a soldier's compliment, and Moore took it as such.
Moore was hunting big game in the tangle of ravines, tall elephant grass and termite hills around the base of Chu Pong Massif, a 2,401-foot mountain whose forests stretched 5 miles into Cambodia. A month earlier, the 2,200-man 33rd People's Army Regiment -- part of the first full North Vietnamese Army division to take the field since the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 -- had attacked the camp at Plei Me, a vital listening post astride the road to Pleiku, the provincial capital. Saigon and Washington feared that if the North Vietnamese overran Pleiku, Route 19 to Qui Nhon on the coast would be wide open, and South Vietnam could be cut in two. But one of the North Vietnamese commanders, Maj. Gen. Huong Minh Phuong, told U.S. News in a recent interview that the attack on Plei Me was launched only to bait a trap for the inevitable South Vietnamese relief column. The ambush almost certainly would have succeeded but for one new and, for the North Vietnamese, very troubling development.
For years, the U.S. Army had sought to free foot soldiers from the tyranny of terrain. Its solution was the helicopter, the ungainly bumblebee that had made a limited debut in Korea. Equipped with the durable UH-1D Huey and its cargo-carrying cousin, the Chinook, and bearing the colors of the 1st Cavalry Division, the first sky troopers had arrived in Vietnam from Fort Benning, Ga., in mid-September to make the battlefield a three-dimensional nightmare for the enemy.
So when the South Vietnamese ventured out to relieve Plei Me, they had moved under an umbrella of howitzers lifted into position by the Chinooks. When the North Vietnamese sprang their ambush, the South Vietnamese had -- uncharacteristically -- fought like hell. The North's commander, Gen. Chu Huy Man, withdrew toward the Ia Drang, a sanctuary so far from any road that no enemy had ever dared penetrate it. But with the arrival of the air cavalry, no place was safe. It ferreted out North Vietnamese food caches, underground hospitals, even headquarters. "You jumped all over, even into our rear area," says General Phuong. "You created disorder among our troops. You made it very hard for our commanders to keep up with the plan. They were very anxious about the psychological effects of your helicopters and artillery leapfrogging among these green troops."
Hal Moore and his boss, brigade commander Col. Thomas "Tim" Brown, had seen a red star marking Chu Pong Mountain, 17 miles northwest of Plei Me, on an intelligence map at division headquarters. "What's that?" they had asked. "A big enemy base camp," came the reply. Their eyes lit up. For four long days, their men had been beating the brush east of Plei Me and finding nothing but vicious red tree ants, thorny "wait a minute" vines and jungle so dense that, at times, a battalion was lucky to move 200 yards in an hour. They persuaded their bosses that it made more sense to go where the enemy was.
Operating on what Brown later described as "strong instincts and flimsy intelligence," Moore was about to hit the jackpot. His battalion of 28 officers and 429 men -- four officers and 199 men short of full strength -- was about to attack two regiments of North Vietnamese regulars, or more than 3,000 very good soldiers.
Moore's target area contained only three clearings where helicopters could land. One was so small that only two could land at a time; a second was filled with tree stumps. That left a big clearing that Moore designated Landing Zone X-Ray. It could take eight choppers, but it was located directly beneath Chu Pong Mountain. If the North Vietnamese were occupying the high ground, Landing Zone X-Ray could be a death trap. As the battalion assembled at pickup points around Plei Me Camp, the word was that X-Ray would be one more little walk in the sun and then home to base camp for hot food and cold showers. The word, as usual, was wrong.