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.
At 10:17, two batteries of 105-mm howitzers -- 12 guns that had been deposited by Chinooks in a clearing 6.2 miles east of X-Ray -- began firing on X-Ray and, as a diversion, the two other clearings in the area. After 20 minutes, the barrage stopped and helicopter gunships poured .30-caliber machine-gun fire and 2.75-inch rockets into the woods nearby. At 10:48 the first eight Hueys landed at X-Ray.
Moore jumped out of the first helicopter with Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley, radio operator Specialist 4 Bob Oullette and a Vietnamese interpreter close behind. Plumley, a laconic West Virginian, was on his third war. He was what young paratroopers admiringly call "a four-jump bastard" -- one of the few men who had survived all four World War II combat parachute jumps made by the 82nd Airborne Division. He had jumped again in Korea with the 187th Airborne.
The lead elements of Capt. John Herren's 119-man Bravo Company ran toward the tree line, firing their rifles, while the second wave of choppers landed. Moore now had nearly 100 men on the ground, but it would be 35 minutes before any of the 16 Hueys assigned to him could return with more troops. If the landing zone came under attack, Herren was his most experienced company commander. He had run Bravo for 18 months, and he knew his men and his business.
Moore already was rewriting the rules of helicopter assault landings. Rather than spread his men in a thin circle around the clearing, he kept most of Herren's troops concealed in a clump of trees near the center of the landing zone, ready to react to any threat, and he sent four six-man squads 100 yards in every direction. Within 30 minutes they captured a prisoner. The straggler said he was a deserter who had been hiding in the brush for five days. His next words were chilling: "There are three battalions on the mountain who want very much to kill Americans but haven't been able to find any."
By now the rest of Herren's men and the first men from Capt. Ramon A. Nadal II's Alpha Company had landed. Tony Nadal was a West Point classmate of Herren's and an Army brat, the son of Col. Ramon A. Nadal, West Point '28. He had already served in Vietnam with the Special Forces, and when he had heard that the 1st Cavalry Division was headed over, he had driven to Fort Benning and pleaded for a job. Hal Moore made Nadal his intelligence officer, and on the voyage across the Pacific, Nadal had lectured the battalion on what was waiting for them. He got his company in October.
Moore believed what the prisoner was saying. He told Herren to push his men toward the mountain, paying particular attention to a finger of high ground that jutted out toward the landing zone. He told Nadal to get ready to move his Alpha Company toward the mountain on Herren's left, just as soon as enough of Capt. Robert Edwards's Charlie Company were on the ground to guard the landing zone.
ENGAGEMENT: Walking in Custer's footsteps
Day 1: By 1:30, Capt. John Herren's men were under attack by about 250 troops, and he radioed that his 2nd Platoon, on the right, was in danger of being cut off. The platoon was commanded by Lt. Henry Herrick, a red-haired Californian fresh out of Officer Candidate School who had joined the division along with a gaggle of other green lieutenants a month before it sailed for Vietnam. In October, after a soldier drowned when Herrick ordered a river crossing without a safety rope, his platoon's senior man, Sgt. Carl Palmer, had complained to Herren: "Something has to be done about the lieutenant or he'll get us all killed." Herrick was, in the words of an OCS classmate, "a balls-to-the-wall kind of guy -- a hard charger."