This time, Herrick charged too hard. As his platoon trotted up the finger of land, the young lieutenant spotted a few enemy troops. The North Vietnamese fled and Herrick swung his 27 men in hot pursuit. Within minutes, they were more than 125 yards to the right of the rest of Bravo Company. Seconds later, they ran straight into 150 North Vietnamese headed down the mountain from the west. Herrick's platoon, which the headline writers would name "the Lost Platoon," was quickly surrounded. With help from one of Nadal's platoons led by Lt. W.J. "Joe" Marm, Herren pushed to within 75 yards of Herrick's position before being driven back. Americans were dropping, wounded and dead, in the dry grass all around.
Below on X-Ray, Moore urgently called for air, artillery and helicopter-gunship strikes on the North Vietnamese attack routes down the mountain and sent the rest of Nadal's men up to reinforce Herren. As Nadal moved toward Herren's left flank, he ran into 100 to 150 North Vietnamese charging down a dry creek bed -- a natural highway that led off the mountain straight to the heart of the landing zone. "They're PAVN [People's Army of Vietnam]," the Vietnam veteran yelled into his radio. These were no black-pajama guerrillas pouring off the mountain. They were North Vietnamese regulars in khaki battle dress, their pith helmets camouflaged with clumps of elephant grass. Most were armed with Soviet-made AK-47 rifles, and all carried big pouches full of wooden-handled "potato masher" hand grenades. They also had Maxim heavy machine guns and RPG-2 shoulder-fired rockets.
Bill Beck, a 22-year-old machine gunner from Harrisburg, Pa., was in Nadal's company. "We were left of the dry creek bed, about 30 yards, and moving forward toward Chu Pong," he recalls. "I heard Bob Hazen, the radio operator, yelling about Lieutenant Taft being hit, that he was hit in the neck and bleeding to death. I could see Hazen leaning over Taft when a North Vietnamese blasted him from behind, and I saw his radio explode into pieces." A handsome 6-footer from Highland Park, Ill., 23-year-old Robert Taft was the first young lieutenant to die in the Ia Drang Valley.
Out in the landing zone, the choppers were bringing in the first men of Bob Edwards's Charlie Company. A native of Trenton, N.J., Edwards had entered the Army straight from Lafayette College, where he had finished at the top of his ROTC class. He was, in Hal Moore's view, "a superb and very perceptive leader -- aloof and strictly business."
Moore was deeply worried about his left flank. Lieutenant Herrick's charge far to the right seemed to have confused the enemy commander; the North Vietnamese attacks were now shifting to the left, and Moore had to shift with them. He ran into the landing zone under heavy fire, grabbed Edwards at the helicopter door and "yelled at him to run his men toward the mountain, tie in with Nadal's company on the right and get ready to be attacked in strength." The young captain sped off in the direction Moore pointed, waving at his 106 men to follow. Within a few minutes, they had found cover or scraped shallow holes in the woods just off the landing zone. A minute or two later, a wave of more than 550 North Vietnamese slammed into the thin line of waiting American riflemen.
Moore and Sergeant Major Plumley had been in constant motion on the battleground and the landing zone, shifting newly arriving troops to where they were needed most. When a new flight arrived, Moore stood in the open, guiding the helicopters to the safest landing spots. "After giving Edwards his orders, I was walking along the line by the creek bed when the firing around my head took on a distinctly different sound -- like a hell of a lot of bees," Moore remembers. "I felt a firm hand on my shoulder. It was Sergeant Major Plumley, shouting above the noise of the guns: 'Sir, if you don't find some cover you're going to go down, and if you go down we all go down."' Moore reluctantly moved to the waist of the figure-8 clearing and set up his command post behind a big termite hill.