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.
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."
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.
Landing Zone X-Ray was now, as the pilots put it, "very, very hot." Maj. Bruce Crandall was in charge of the 16 helicopters assigned to the mission. He and his 6-foot-6 sidekick, Capt. Ed "Too Tall to Fly" Freeman, along with their wingmen, brought reinforcements, ammunition and precious water, and they carried out the wounded. If Moore said it was O.K. to land, they landed. Crandall flew two choppers this day -- his first was crippled when it hit a line of trees hauling wounded out of the battle. Crandall vividly recalls one flight: "I saw a North Vietnamese firing at us from just outside my rotor blades [20 feet away]. After taking on wounded, I pulled pitch [lifted out] in a hurry. I had three dead and three wounded, including my crew chief, who was shot in the throat."
Hanoi's Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap says his soldiers learned how to fight the U.S. helicopters in the Ia Drang, and perhaps they did. But they did not have the weapons on hand to apply those lessons -- the Chinese-made heavy antiaircraft machine guns that, if they had been deployed on Chu Pong Mountain, could have closed Landing Zone X-Ray. With their rifles and light machine guns, the North Vietnamese took a toll of American aviators, but during three days of battle only two of Crandall's helicopters were disabled -- and both were put back in service after the fight. Later in the war, however, the lessons the North Vietnamese learned at X-Ray would take a heavy toll.
Up on the mountain, Henry Herrick's Lost Platoon was desperately clinging to a 25-yard circle atop a slight rise. The North Vietnamese overran one of the Americans' two M-60 machine guns. Sgt. Ernie Savage says, "I heard Sergeant Hurdle down there cursing, even over the noise of the firefight. He was famous for that. 'Motherf-----. Sonofabitch. Sonofabitch,' I heard him holler. And then they threw grenades in on him." Sgt. Paul Hurdle, the platoon's weapons-squad leader, had survived the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea and had blown the last bridge behind the retreating Marines, but he did not survive this day. The enemy turned Hurdle's machine gun around and began using it on the Americans. Herrick was mortally wounded. His last words to Savage were: "I'm glad I could give my life for my country."
Command of the 2nd Platoon passed to Sgt. Carl Palmer. Specialist 4 Galen Bungum, who had left a dairy farm in Hayfield, Minn., for the Army, says that on the way up the mountain Sergeant Palmer said: "Bungum, I'll be 43 years old tomorrow, but I don't believe I'll live to see it." Within minutes of taking over, Palmer was shot in the head. Savage and the others laid him behind a log. Shortly afterward, an American hand grenade taken from the slain machine-gun crew sailed over the clearing and exploded beneath Palmer. He died instantly. The mortar forward observer, Sgt. Robert Stokes, assumed it was his turn to take charge, stood up and said: "We've got to get out of here." He was shot through the head and killed instantly.
Command of the Lost Platoon fell to Ernie Savage. A 21-year-old buck sergeant from McCalla, Ala., he had been with the battalion more than two years and was field smart and cool under pressure. He grabbed Stokes's radio and called artillery fire down in a very tight circle. By then, eight of the Lost Platoon's 27 men were dead and 12 wounded.
Midafternoon. Specialist 4 Vincent Cantu of Refugio, Tex., had only 10 days left in the Army when he landed in X-Ray. The local draft board had called him up the day before John Kennedy was assassinated, ending Cantu's fling as lead guitarist and vocalist for the Rockin' Dominoes, a local band whose theme song was "Born to Lose." Now an 81-mm mortar gunner, Cantu was riveted by the deadly drama around him. "We were so close our mortar tubes were pointing almost straight up. The pleas over the radio were desperate. We could all hear Sergeant Stokes, our forward observer, with the trapped platoon. By 2:30 or 3 p.m., it seemed like half the battalion was either dead or wounded. I remember rolling this dead soldier in a poncho. He was face down and when I turned him over I saw the lieutenant's bars on him. I snapped. I thought: These rounds don't have any regard."
By now, Capt. Ray LeFebvre's Delta Company was arriving at Landing Zone X-Ray. LeFebvre had served an earlier tour and was fluent in Vietnamese. Because of that, he had been tapped for a staff job in civil affairs at division headquarters. Like Tony Nadal, he had turned up on Hal Moore's doorstep begging for a rifle company. "Something's going to happen," LeFebvre had said. "I want to be in on it." He got his wish. "I started to unhook my seat belt when I felt a round crease the back of my neck," LeFebvre remembers. "I turned to my right and saw that my radio operator had been hit in the left side of his head. I grabbed his radio and jumped out ... I fired two magazines of M-16 ammo at the enemy, then I was hit." LeFebvre was in action approximately 10 minutes; in that time, he and four men around him killed 25 North Vietnamese.
Out near the dry creek bed, machine gunner Bill Beck was doing double duty while his best friend, Russell Adams, poured fire on the enemy. Beck alternated between patching up wounded Americans and firing at the North Vietnamese with a notoriously inaccurate .45-caliber automatic pistol. He spotted Captain LeFebvre, "moaning, his hand blown apart and his thigh equally bad." Beck bandaged him up and yelled for a medic. LeFebvre was hauled back to the landing zone, where the battalion intelligence officer, Capt. Tom Metsker, wounded in the shoulder, helped him onto a waiting helicopter. Metsker was hit again and killed at the chopper door.
Back on the line, Beck heard someone scream, "Adams is hit." He ran forward to find his fellow Pennsylvanian lying beside his silent machine gun. "The side of his head was a mess. He was trying to talk to me but nothing was coming out. His helmet lay in front of me with a bullet hole in it, and I turned it over. It seemed like Adams's entire brain fell out in front of me. I was horrified. I screamed over and over for the medic."
Beck took over his friend's machine gun. He was now holding the battalion's left flank, directly in the path of the enemy. Alone, mumbling every prayer he could remember, Beck stopped them. "They were shooting at me, bullets hitting the ground beside me and cracking above my head. I was firing as fast as I could in long bursts."
Landing Zone X-Ray was shrouded in thick smoke and dust. "It was a bedlam of men yelling and screaming in English, Vietnamese and Spanish, a constant roar of rifle and machine-gun fire punctuated by the shocking explosions of bombs, artillery shells and rockets," Moore says. He was on the radio to the 3rd Brigade commander, Col. Tim Brown, asking for reinforcements. Brown had a company on alert.
Late afternoon. At about 3:45, Moore ordered Nadal's and Herren's companies to pull back, to evacuate their wounded and dead and to prepare for an attack, preceded by air and artillery barrages, to rescue the Lost Platoon. It began at 4:20. But the enemy had moved forward and dug shallow foxholes; snipers had climbed into the treetops. "We stood up, got out of the trench and the whole world exploded," recalls Lt. Dennis Deal, one of Herren's platoon leaders. "Men were dropping all over the place. The assault line first went to their knees, and then to a crawling position."
Deal's platoon was pinned down by machine-gun fire from a termite hill when suddenly Deal saw "someone get up and charge, just like in a John Wayne movie." Deal adds: "He ran 25 yards across the open ground while all of us were crawling -- the firing was so intense. I saw him throw a grenade behind a termite hill, wait for it to go off, move around to the rear of the termite hill and empty his rifle. Then he fell to his knees. I said to myself: Please get up, whoever you are, don't be hurt."
It was Lt. Joe Marm, another Pennsylvanian who was Nadal's favorite junior officer, another of the batch of green lieutenants who had joined the battalion that summer. Marm had first tried to take out the enemy machine gun with a shoulder-fired light antitank (LAW) rocket. Later, he said he charged the machine-gun nest simply "to get the job done and save time." He destroyed the gun and killed a dozen North Vietnamese operating and protecting it. As he mopped up the last of the enemy, a sniper round smashed into his face and out through his throat. The medics performed a battlefield tracheotomy. Marm survived to receive the Medal of Honor.
Nadal says, "By this time, all my platoon leaders had been killed or wounded and a number of my squad leaders killed." Herren's men gained only about 100 yards; Nadal's moved forward 150. It was now 5:40, and Moore reluctantly ordered them to pull back again. The artillery batteries had no smoke shells but offered to substitute white-phosphorus shells -- the fearsome "Willie Peter" rounds that scattered tiny flaming fragments and laid down a choking cloud of white smoke.
Down on the critical left flank, Edwards's Charlie Company was relatively unhurt but the field in front of it was littered with North Vietnamese bodies. Delta Company had joined the thin line, and the reinforcements that Moore had requested -- 120 men of Bravo Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry under Capt. Myron Diduryk -- began arriving shortly after 5 p.m. Sgt. John Setelin, a 21-year-old Virginian, was with them: "As the chopper dropped in, I caught a glimpse of men in khaki, and I thought we must really be desperate if we are bringing in guys without giving them time to change into their fatigue uniforms. Then I realized their rifles were pointed at us; that was the enemy. When we jumped out, people were firing down on us; the gooks were up in the trees."
Nighttime. By 7 o'clock, Moore had his men digging in. For the first time, the Americans encircled the entire landing zone. Until now, Moore had thrown every man he had into a broad semicircle facing the mountain. The back side of X-Ray had been wide open, but, fortunately, no one had come knocking.
The wounded got immediate attention from medics, more from the battalion surgeon's men at Moore's command post, then were flown as quickly as possible to a clearing station at Camp Holloway in Pleiku set up by C Company of the 15th Medical Battalion -- "Charlie Med." Capt. George Kelling, who ran Charlie Med, recalls: "It was often a race against time to get blood into the soldier faster than he was losing it, while the surgeons tied off the bleeders. We threw caution to the wind and often gave a patient four intravenous cut-downs -- with four corpsmen squeezing the blood bags as hard as they could. It was not unusual for the patient to go into convulsions as a reaction to the rapid infusion of so much cold blood. But the alternative was to let him die."
By dark, all the wounded had been evacuated and the dead collected at Moore's command post; ammunition and water had been distributed; mortars and artillery had been calibrated to fire on a tight ring just 25 yards outside the American lines. Moore now made the rounds. "Morale was high," he remembers. "We knew we were facing a tough enemy. We had lost a lot of good men, but we had stopped them."
Up on the slopes of Chu Pong, the Lost Platoon was on its own; Sergeant Savage had been told that there would be no rescue tonight. He and his men could hear the North Vietnamese talking and took some comfort from radioing instructions that brought artillery fire down on the voices. During the night, with the wounded pressed into service, too, Savage's platoon withstood three North Vietnamese attacks, including one launched by eerie bugle calls from the mountain above.
After 10, Crandall and Freeman finally shut down their helicopters at the Turkey Farm, a temporary chopper pad near Pleiku, 37 miles northeast of X-Ray. They and their fellow pilots had flown nonstop since 6 a.m. "When I tried to get out of the aircraft, it caught up with me -- my legs gave out, and I fell to the ground vomiting and shaking," Crandall recalls. "It took 15 gallons of water to wash the blood out of my first ship, more for the second one I flew that day." Moore's battalion had lost 27 dead and 69 wounded, leaving it with 13 officers and 326 men. The artillerymen at Landing Zone Falcon had fired 4,000 rounds in support of Moore's men at X-Ray.
FIX BAYONETS: Holding the thin green line
Day 2: By first light, at 6:30, Moore ordered his companies to send out scouts to check for enemy infiltrators and snipers who might have crawled up to the American lines during the night. The scouts from Charlie Company ran into trouble barely 100 yards forward of the line, on the left.
Some 300 North Vietnamese, heavily camouflaged and crawling on hands and knees, attacked. The scouts were taking casualties as they tried to pull back. Sgt. Robert Jemison of Columbus, Ga., recalls: "The patrols sent out early saved us from being surprised. They came running back, yelling, 'They're coming, Sarge, they're coming. Lots of 'em.' Our machine guns and rifles cut them down."
Pfc. Willie Godboldt was hit and yelled for help. Jemison was leaving his hole when the platoon commander, Lt. John Geoghegan, stood up, saying, "I'll go." Geoghegan was shot in the head and killed. He was an honors graduate of Pennsylvania Military College. He had deferred his Army commitment for two years to earn a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1964 had married his college sweetheart. John and Barbara Geoghegan spent the next year working for Catholic Relief Services in Tanzania. Their daughter, Camille, was born two months before he left for Vietnam.
At 7:15, Delta Company had come under heavy attack, and X-Ray was under pressure from two sides. "Hand grenades were exploding all around us," recalls Sgt. Warren E. Adams. "One fell in the mortar guys' hole. Sergeant Niemeyer threw a leg over it and his leg was blown off. Nobody else was hurt. I decided the grenades were coming from an anthill nearby, so I grabbed my radio operator and took off with a grenade in each hand and we cleaned up six or eight Vietnamese."
Specialist 4 Willard Parish, 24, of Bristow, Okla., was a Charlie Company mortarman, but this morning he manned a machine gun. "I looked to the front, and it seemed like the North Vietnamese were growing out of the weeds," he remembers. "The training took over. I just fired that weapon, totally unaware of the time, the conditions. I remember a lot of noise, a lot of yelling, air strikes. Then quiet." When he ran out of machine-gun ammunition Parish stood up with a .45-caliber automatic pistol in each hand and kept shooting. Later, they counted more than 100 enemy dead in front of his machine gun. Parish was awarded the Silver Star for valor.
By now Captain Edwards was urgently calling for reinforcements. As Nadal sent one of his platoons to help Edwards, the North Vietnamese charged Nadal's own position. The landing zone was now being hit from three sides. Machine-gun fire swept over the landing zone and through Moore's command post. The colonel's radio operator, Bob Oullette, a bespectacled young French Canadian, slumped over. The crusty medical-platoon sergeant, Thomas H. Keeton, walked over: "I thought he'd gone to sleep. I kicked the hell out of him, told him to get off his ass and help us load the wounded. I picked up his helmet and a bullet fell out of it. It had knocked him cold."
Moore asked for more reinforcements; brigade commander Col. Tim Brown had Alpha Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry on alert.
The North Vietnamese were pressing their attack against Edwards's Charlie Company. "I stood up to observe better and saw the North Vietnamese at a distance of 150 yards, a very large force," Edwards recalls. "I saw a couple of them in hand-grenade range moving toward us. I threw a grenade and was shot under the arm and in the back. I didn't lose consciousness, but I couldn't stand up." Though badly wounded, Edwards remained in command for 3 more hours, until the attack was finally beaten off. Then his radio operator, Ernie Paolone, who was also wounded, dragged him to the aid station. The 1st Platoon commander, Lt. Neil Kroger, 24, was found dead in his foxhole, surrounded by four North Vietnamese he had killed with his bayonet. A fifth, strangled to death, was in the hole with him, with Kroger's hands locked around his neck.
At around 8, with the North Vietnamese pressing their attacks against Edwards's Charlie Company and Nadal's Alpha Company, the Delta Company antitank platoon, which had traded in its unneeded antitank weapons for six .30-caliber M-60 machine guns -- each with a full four-man crew and triple the usual load of ammunition -- came under heavy attack. The three M-60 machine guns of the reconnaissance platoon also had been added to that sector of the line. "They picked the wrong place," Moore says. "Adams's machine guns chewed them up; they were killing guys 700 or 800 yards out."
But Landing Zone X-Ray was in grave danger of being overrun. The mortarmen, set up in pits near Moore's command post, were firing both their 81-mm mortars and their rifles and were taking heavy enemy fire. One mortar was hit and knocked out. At least two others grew so hot from rapid firing that there was danger of a shell cooking off -- exploding before it left the tube. Water was scarce, so the sergeants and their gunners stood and urinated on the mortars to cool them.
Moore now ordered the reconnaissance platoon, his last reserve, to counterattack into the Charlie and Delta Company sectors, and he called in the helicopters carrying the Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, reinforcements. He then pulled Diduryk and one of his platoons back into reserve, on alert to reinforce any section of the line that crumbled.
Moore called for all his units to mark their locations for the pilots overhead and the artillery observers by throwing colored smoke grenades. Air Force Lt. Charlie Hastings, the forward air controller, says, "On the second morning, I used the code word for an American unit in trouble and received all available aircraft in South Vietnam for close air support. We had aircraft stacked at 1,000-foot intervals from 7,000 feet to 35,000 feet, each waiting to receive a target." Two more batteries of 105-mm howitzers were deposited in Landing Zone Columbus, 2.5 miles from X-Ray, putting a total of 24 artillery pieces in support of Moore. As all that blessed relief rained down, an accident came perilously close to wiping out Moore and his command post. An Air Force F-100 Super Sabre jet mistakenly dropped two canisters of napalm into the area. Moore was shouting at Hastings, the air controller, to call off the F-100 pilot's wingman, who was about to release his napalm, too.
Sgt. George Nye of the 8th Engineer Battalion had come in with a small demolition team to help Moore's battalion. "Two of my people, Pfc. Jimmy D. Nakayama and Specialist 5 James Clark, were a few yards away, and Colonel Moore was hollering something about a wing man and I looked up," Nye recalls. "There were two planes, and one had already dropped his napalm. Then everything was on fire. Nakayama was all black and Clark was all burned and bleeding." Nakayama died. Three days later, Nye learned that Nakayama's wife had given birth to a baby girl on the day her husband was killed. Soon afterward, orders came through approving Nakayama's reserve commission as a second lieutenant.
Just after 9 a.m., with the Alpha Company reinforcements arriving, Moore shifted Diduryk's men into the battered line held by what was left of Edwards's Charlie Company. Sergeant Setelin remembers crawling along that line finding foxhole after foxhole filled with dead Americans. By 10, the enemy attack had been beaten off. Edwards and his men had held.
Afternoon. Three hours later, Moore ordered all four companies on the line to move out 300 yards to the front and police the battleground. Dead North Vietnamese and their weapons littered the area. Some enemy dead were neatly stacked behind the termite hills; thick trails of blood marked where others had been dragged away. More than 40 dead Americans were recovered and evacuated. What was left of Charlie Company was pulled out of the line.
Earlier in the day, the brigade commander, Colonel Brown, had moved the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Cavalry, led by Lt. Col. Robert Tully, to Landing Zone Victor, 2 miles from X-Ray, and told them to reinforce Moore. By noon, they were closing in on Moore's position, and what they saw stunned them. Sergeant Adams was on the line when the first of Tully's men marched in. "My God, there's enemy bodies all over this valley," the newcomer shouted. "For the last 30 minutes, we've been walking around and over and through bodies."
Moore now ordered a two-pronged attack -- by two companies of Tully's men across the slope of Chu Pong and by Herren's Bravo Company to rescue the Lost Platoon. Herren's men reached the knoll at 3:10. "When I got there I walked over to where Henry Herrick was lying dead," Lieutenant Deal recalls. "It seemed so unnatural for my friend to be lying stomach down with his face in the red dust. I looked away; I did not want to remember him that way. But I have." Sergeant Savage had not lost a single man after taking command, despite a long night and day of attacks. When Herren's men told them that it was safe to get up, not one of them moved for 5 minutes. "They just stared at us in disbelief," Deal says.
Nightfall. With his reinforcements, Moore beefed up the lines. His tally showed that on Day Two his battalion had lost two officers and 44 men killed, three officers and 22 men wounded; the four line companies were down to eight officers and 260 men. Charlie Company had started the day with five officers and 102 men and ended it with no officers and 45 men. A bright moon rose in a clear sky before midnight and lighted the battlefield.
CHECKMATE: Driving off the enemy
Day 3: At 4:22, an estimated 300 North Vietnamese attacked Capt. Myron Diduryk's sector from the southeast. Diduryk, 27, a native of the Ukraine who had emigrated to the United States at age 12, was, in Moore's words, "the best battlefield company commander I've ever known, including myself in Korea."
Diduryk had prepared for the possibility of a night attack. His men were dug in deeply, two to a foxhole, and the holes were spaced to provide interlocking support. Before nightfall Diduryk and his artillery observer, Lt. William Lund, had registered the artillery ranges so the 105-mm howitzers at Landing Zones Falcon and Columbus could fire instantly. Now, by the light of parachute flares kicked out of an Air Force C-123 overhead, Diduryk's men poured rifle and machine-gun fire on the attacking North Vietnamese while Diduryk and Lund directed artillery fire back and forth across the killing zone. The North Vietnamese broke and ran.
Nine minutes after the first attack, they tried again, this time with about 200 men. Again, American artillery and rifle fire chewed them up. The attack shifted to the southwest. The North Vietnamese were thrown back a third time.
"I heard bugles blowing," says Specialist 4 Pat Selleck, a 24-year-old rifleman from New York City. "I saw, in the light of the flares, waves of the enemy coming down off the mountain in a straight line. The company was shooting them like ducks in a pond." Twice during the attacks, Moore's reconnaissance platoon had carried huge loads of ammunition out to Diduryk's men. Less than 2 hours later, at 6:27, the North Vietnamese attacked again, this time directly at Diduryk's command post. Now, in less than 15 minutes, the attackers were dragging off their dead. Diduryk had only six men lightly wounded, but the field in front of him was piled with enemy dead. Diduryk would return to Vietnam for another tour of duty with the 1st Cavalry. In the spring of 1970, in another landing zone, he was killed by a sniper.
Moore now invented something that would be widely used for the rest of the Vietnam War. Finding that his companies had plenty of ammunition, he ordered every man on the line, on a signal at 6:55, to shoot anything in front of their lines that worried them. When this "Mad Minute" of random firing began, 50 North Vietnamese leapt up 150 yards forward of Alpha Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry. The North Vietnamese had been sneaking up and assumed the firing meant they had been spotted. They were shot down. Elsewhere along the line, the "reconnaissance by fire" killed six other North Vietnamese, including two snipers shot out of the trees. A third sniper was spotted an hour later trying to climb down and get away. He, too, was killed.
At 9:55, Moore ordered the nine companies now on the line to move forward 500 yards. Within the first 50 yards, Diduryk's men came under heavy fire. Moore pulled them back and called in artillery and air bombardment that killed another 27 of the enemy. The rest of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, under Lt. Col. Robert McDade, now began arriving at X-Ray from Landing Zone Victor. Specialist 4 Jack Smith, now an ABC-TV correspondent, later wrote: "The 1st Battalion had been fighting continuously for three or four days, and I had never seen such filthy troops. They all had that look of shock. They said little, just looked around with darting, nervous eyes. Whenever I heard a shell coming close, I'd duck but they kept standing. There must have been about 1,000 rotting bodies out there, starting at about 20 feet, surrounding the giant circle of foxholes."
McDade's and Tully's battalions were to relieve Moore's men at X-Ray, but Moore did not hand over his position until every company had accounted for every one of its men. Long ago, at Fort Benning, he had promised his battalion that he would never leave a man on the battlefield, never permit one man to be carried as "missing in action."
In three days and two nights, his battalion and attached units had lost 79 killed and 121 wounded. The enemy had lost an estimated 1,300 dead. Approximately 400 American air sorties had been flown in close support, the artillerymen at Landing Zones Falcon and Columbus had fired some 18,000 shells, and helicopter gunships had fired 3,000 2.75-inch rockets. Before Moore's men left, they were treated to one last spectacular. Shortly after noon, Chu Pong erupted as 24 Guam-based B-52 strategic bombers, for the first time in history, bombed in close support of troops on the ground.
Finally, Moore gave the O.K., and the helicopters began lifting his men out of the valley. Hal Moore, the first man on the ground, was the last man of his battalion to leave. In the cockpit of the helicopter that carried him away were his old pilot buddies Bruce Crandall and Jon Mills. After they landed at Camp Holloway in Pleiku, Moore checked to make certain his men were being taken care of and then rejoined the pilots. "Where can we get a drink around here?" he asked. Crandall and Mills pointed to a small officers' club nearby. Inside, they ordered gin and tonic, but the bartender refused to serve them, pointing disdainfully at Moore: "He's too dirty." Moore unslung his M-16 rifle and laid it across the bar; Crandall and Mills sighed and pulled out their .38-caliber pistols. "You've got exactly 30 seconds to get some drinks on this bar or I'm going to clean house," Moore said through clenched teeth. They drank, and when it dawned on the crowd who their unwashed and unwanted guest was, they drank for free.
To this point, the Ia Drang Campaign had been a magnificent feat for the cavalry. But before the fighting ended another 155 Americans would die in the Ia Drang Valley.
AMBUSH: Blundering into disaster
Day 4: On the morning after Moore's battalion left X-Ray, with another massive B-52 raid planned on Chu Pong, the two battalions that had relieved Moore's men -- Bob McDade's 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry and Bob Tully's 2nd Battalion of the 5th Cavalry -- were ordered to march to two nearby landing zones. The brigade commander intended to continue maneuvering to block the enemy's retreat and to destroy him.
Tully, an experienced commander, marched his men out of X-Ray the same way they had arrived: Two companies abreast with artillery fire pounding the brush ahead of them. In less than 2 hours, his men covered the 2 1/2 miles to Landing Zone Columbus. But McDade, who only three weeks before had been the division's personnel officer, had not commanded troops in 10 years. Staff officers needed a battalion command in order to make colonel, and Maj. Gen. Harry W.O. Kinnard had given McDade his battalion, but not without reservations. He had sent his personal aide, Maj. Frank Henry, to serve as McDade's second-in-command and to "keep things going till McDade could get his feet wet."
As Tully, who had left first, neared his objective at Landing Zone Columbus, he radioed McDade and offered to have his artillery specialist relay the correct coordinates to McDade's artillery man so that McDade's men would have the same protection on the way out of X-Ray. McDade said it wasn't necessary and moved out.
McDade's lead unit, Alpha Company, was deployed in a wedge formation, and the rear guard -- a company borrowed from the 1st Battalion of the 5th Cavalry -- was also properly deployed, but those in between marched single file with little regard for security. Some men had gone two days and nights without sleep, and during their frequent stops they sprawled, exhausted, in the grass.
The 8th Battalion of the 66th People's Army Regiment was taking a rice break at midday along the Ia Drang River when scouts reported that the Americans were approaching. McDade's lead unit captured two prisoners, and the Americans halted for 20 minutes while they were interrogated. That permitted the enemy commander time to set up a hasty L-shaped ambush. The North Vietnamese planted their machine guns atop the termite hills and raced through the jungle, drawing the long leg of the L alongside the Americans.
As their mortars opened fire, the North Vietnamese regulars maneuvering alongside the American column wheeled and attacked. In the center of the column, Charlie Company took the worst of it, losing 20 killed and many more wounded in the first minute. Some men fired wildly in every direction and another company complained it was being hit by friendly fire. At that point, as the enemy pressed the attack, McDade apparently believed that what was happening was a shootout between Americans. Lt. S. Lawrence Gwin wrote that McDade radioed orders for everyone to cease fire.
A bad situation got worse. By now, the North Vietnamese were in among the Americans and up in the trees. Anyone who moved got shot. Major Henry and the artillery observer got on their radios and began calling in artillery and air bombardments. That prevented a massacre, but with the column stretched out for almost 1,000 yards in the tall grass, the artillery shells and napalm that killed the North Vietnamese also killed Americans. The lead unit, Alpha Company, had spread out around the edge of the clearing before the attack and lost two platoons, 50 men, in the first minutes. It would emerge from Albany with only 20 men left out of 100. Charlie Company, which set off from X-Ray with 110 men, lost 50 killed and 50 wounded.
In late afternoon, Diduryk's Bravo Company, which had left X-Ray with Moore's men, was pulled out of Pleiku and dropped by helicopter into Albany. The cocky veterans of X-Ray drew a perimeter around the clearing and lent courage to the shaken defenders. Another company of the 1st Battalion of the 5th Cavalry marched from Landing Zone Columbus toward the tail end of McDade's half-mile-long column.
During the afternoon and night, the North Vietnamese roamed the battlefield, killing and being killed in desperate, isolated little incidents. Specialist 4 Jack Smith, who lay wounded in the grass, wrote that the enemy ran around "screeching with glee when they found one of us alive ... Every few minutes, I heard some guy start screaming 'no, no, no, please,' and then a burst of bullets."
Division headquarters seemed oblivious to the debacle. General Kinnard and his second-in-command, Brig. Gen. Richard Knowles, later said the brigade commander, Colonel Brown, had not alerted them. Brown said he could get no coherent report from McDade. "We had ample resources at hand to reinforce Albany -- Hal Moore's men would have gone in a minute -- but no one asked," says General Kinnard.
SILENCE: Counting the cost
Day 5: When the sun rose, McDade's battalion had lost 155 killed, 125 wounded and at least five men missing in action. A lieutenant stood in front of Specialist 5 Jon Wallenius, a Bravo Company mortar observer, and asked for volunteers to bring in the American dead. First they brought in the whole bodies; then the pieces. Wallenius and the others dragged the ghastly cargo to waiting Chinook helicopters, stacking the last one full to the ceiling. "When we raised the tail ramp, blood poured through the hinges," he says.
Landing Zone Albany was abandoned a day later, and four days after that, one of the Americans missing in action, Pfc. Toby Braveboy, a South Carolinian of Creek Indian descent, staggered into a clearing and, with his bloody undershirt, waved down a passing helicopter. Braveboy had been badly wounded on November 17, played dead while the enemy executed others near him and then crawled off to a creek bed. On the third day, the last man in a squad of North Vietnamese troops passing by spotted Braveboy lying in the brush against the bank and turned, raising his AK-47 rifle to finish him off. Braveboy lifted his shattered left hand in supplication, shaking his head. "He was so young, just a boy, not more than 16 or 17," Braveboy recalled afterward. "He walked away."
EPILOGUE: Delivering the sad news
The guns were silent at last. But 12,000 miles away, in Columbus, Ga., the sleepy Southern town outside Fort Benning, the tragedy was just beginning to unfold. It was early in the war, and the Army had not yet formed the casualty-notification teams that later delivered and tried to soften the terrible news. The telegrams were simply handed over to taxi drivers to deliver. Some women collapsed at the sight of a cab pulling up outside; others huddled inside, refusing to answer the knock.
Lt. Col. Hal Moore and his men had done their duty in the Ia Drang Valley. Now Julia Compton Moore -- the daughter of an Army colonel, the wife of a future Army general and the mother of two sons who would follow their father to West Point -- would do hers. Julie Moore knocked on too many doors in the flimsy thin-walled apartment complexes and trailer parks around Columbus -- grieving with the women, comforting the children and wondering when the taxicab might come to her door. She never forgot one very young, Hispanic widow, pregnant with a baby who would come into this world fatherless. Julie Moore attended the funerals of all her husband's men who were buried at Fort Benning.
If you want to know the true cost of victory in the Ia Drang, ask Julie Moore.
U.S. News Senior Editor Joseph L. Galloway was the only civilian correspondent at Landing Zone X-Ray. He hitched a helicopter ride to the battlefield on the first night of the fight, riding atop crates of hand grenades. One day past his 24th birthday, the young United Press International correspondent was savoring his only present, a front-row seat at the biggest battle of the war. Galloway left Vietnam in 1966, vowing never to return, but was sent back in 1971, 1973, 1975 and 1990.
Death valley. Remote and inaccessible, the Ia Drang Valley had long been a Communist sanctuary and infiltration route into South Vietnam's Central Highlands. Only a few clearings dotted the tangle of scrub brush, ravines and huge, sun-baked termite hills below the Chu Pong Massif.
Day 1: Moore staves off disaster, Nov. 14, 1965.
U.S. casualties: 27 killed, 69 wounded
Day 2: Charlie Company's trial by fire, Nov. 15, 1965.
U.S. casualties: 46 killed, 25 wounded
Day 3: The North Vietnamese fail, Nov. 16, 1965.
Total U.S. casualties (Nov. 14-16): 79 killed, 121 wounded