Special Report: Book Excerpt (10/12/92)
Death in the tall grass
Book excerpt from "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young"
By Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway
It has been 27 years since the first American soldiers were sent into combat in Vietnam and 17 years since the last Americans were lifted off the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon, in headlong retreat from the only war America has ever lost. But the Vietnam War won't go away: It is echoing through the presidential campaign, through hearings on Capitol Hill about the Americans who were left behind and in the growing debate about whether America should step into the civil war in what used to be Yugoslavia.
America's first major battle in Vietnam unfolded in the fall of 1965 in the rugged wilderness of the Ia Drang Valley in South Vietnam's Central Highlands. In four days and nights of savage fighting around clearings code-named Landing Zone X-Ray and Landing Zone Albany, 235 Americans were killed and 245 wounded; the North Vietnamese lost an estimated 2,000 men. The lessons both sides learnedor ignoredfrom the fight helped shape the decade of war that followed and helped determine its outcome.
U.S. News recounted the battle at LZ X-Ray in a cover story two years ago (Oct. 29, 1990). Now, from a landmark book on the Ia Drang campaign written by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.), the U.S. commander at LZ X-Ray, and U.S. News Senior Writer Joseph L. Galloway, who as a reporter for United Press International was present throughout the fight at X-Ray, comes a chilling account of the lesser-known second part of the battle, the desperate encounter at LZ Albanythe deadliest one-day battle of the Vietnam War.
The book, "We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young," and this adaptation from it include the first accounts of a major battle of the Vietnam War from the North
Vietnamese commanders who fought in it.
The North Vietnamese soldiers of Brig. Gen. Chu Huy Man's B3 Front had faded away into the rugged ravines and thick scrub brush of the Ia Drang Valley, withdrawing from the killing fields around the clearing the Americans called Landing Zone X-Ray. American commanders in Saigon and political leaders in Washington were cheering the outcome as a victory in this, the first major battle of America's Vietnam War.
But the North Vietnamese had not gone far, and their commanders, like the Americans, lusted after victory in this opening round of what Hanoi would call "the American war." Senior Lt. Col. Nguyen Huu An, then 39 and a veteran of almost a decade of fighting against the French, was in a bunker on the near slopes of the 2,401-foot-high Chu Pong Massif that loomed over LZ X-Ray. As deputy commander of the 15,000 soldiers of the
People's Army of Vietnam's B3 Front, An had commanded the last 2½ days of battle against the Americans. Now, on the morning of November 17, a messenger from the observation post on the ridge above him reported that the enemy was withdrawing.
Two American battalionsLt. Col. Robert Tully's 2nd Battalion of the 5th U.S. Cavalry (2/5 Cav) and Lt. Col. Robert McDade's 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalryhad inherited X-Ray from the 250 survivors of Lt. Col. Hal Moore's 450-man 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry, who were withdrawn on November 16. Tully and McDade were under orders to get away from X-Ray. A B-52 strike had been targeted for Chu Pong Massif the morning of November 17, and all American forces had to be well outside the 2-mile safety zone when the big bombers struck.
Tully's and McDade's battalions, and Moore's, belonged to the Army's 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile)an
experimental unit that boasted more than 430 helicopters. The 1st Cav represented a quantum leap in military thinking: With helicopters, war now could proceed at a pace considerably faster than an infantryman walking or riding in a truck. But on this day the Airmobile troops left X-Ray the old-fashioned way, on foot, grumbling and groaning under the heavy loads of equipment, weapons and ammunition they carried on their backs.
"It was right back to 1950 Korea or 1944 Europe," Bob McDade recalls. "All we got were verbal orders: Go here. Finger on map. And we just marched off." But Vietnam was not Korea, and those orders proved a monumental blunder.
INTO THE VALLEY
Tully's battalion led the way out, headed northeast toward the artillery base at a clearing a little more than 2 miles away dubbed Landing Zone Columbus. McDade's troops followed Tully most of the way to Columbus, then
veered off and headed for another clearing, named Landing Zone Albany, that lay another 2 miles to the north-northwest.
At the head of McDade's column was the Reconnaissance Platoon under Lt. D. P. (Pat) Payne, 24 and a native of Waco, Texas, who had won an ROTC commission at Texas A&M. Next came Alpha Company under Capt. Joel Sugdinis, 28, a West Point graduate; Delta Company under Capt. Henry (Hank) Thorpe, 32, a North Carolinian who was a "mustang," commissioned directly from the ranks; Charlie Company under Capt. John A. (Skip) Fesmire, 26, of Grass Valley, Calif., who had been commissioned out of Officer Candidate School, and then McDade's Headquarters Company under Capt. Dan Boone from West Virginia. Bringing up the rear was a unit lent to McDade to replace one of his companies that had fought at LZ X-Ray and was now refittingAlpha Company, 1st Battalion 5th Cavalry,
commanded by Capt. George Forrest, 27, a native of Leonardtown, Md., and an ROTC graduate of Morgan State College in Baltimore.
Toward the rear of McDade's column, back in the ranks of Headquarters Company, Lt. J.L. (Bud) Alley, 24, the battalion communications officer, remembers the heat of that day and the heavy loads: "I was carrying an RC-292 antenna in addition to my regular combat load. I weighed about 140 pounds. My normal combat load was 40 or 50 pounds; the 292 antenna weighed 60 pounds. The temperature must have been 96 and the humidity was the same. We were moving as fast as we could through the elephant grass and scrub oaks."
As the weary Americans slogged toward Landing Zone Albany, they were being watched. "We had a position on top of the mountain watching your movements, but it was hard to see from there into the jungle," says People's Army of Vietnam Lt. Col.
Hoang Phuong, a staff officer and historian who was sent to the battlefield by the high command in Hanoi to write an after-action report on the Ia Drang. "So we left people behind watching the landing areas, the clearings."
Staff Sgt. Donald C. Slovak of Columbus, Ga., and his squad of scouts were walking pointat the very front of the line of marchand as they headed for Landing Zone Albany they began to sense that they were not alone. "We saw Ho Chi Minh-sandal foot markings, bamboo arrows on the ground pointing north, matted grass and grains of rice," remembers Slovak.
Deeper into danger. Behind the recon platoon, Alpha Company's executive officer, Lt. Samuel Lawrence (Larry) Gwin Jr.a lanky, 24-year-old 6-footer from Boston who had an ROTC commission from Yaleremembers that the terrain was fairly open, knee-high grass, with visibility about 25 yards through the
trees. But then, he says, "We hit a small ridge line and angled left. The terrain became more difficult. Lots of felled trees and higher grass." The thickening forest began to force McDade's flank securitythe soldiers guarding the sides of his long columnso close to the column that the protection they provided was greatly diminished.
Bob Tully's battalion reached Landing Zone Columbus at 11:38 a.m. and sat down to a hot meal of B-ration hamburgers, mashed potatoes and string beans. Bob McDade's exhausted column plunged ever deeper into an area saturated with enemy soldiers.
The recon platoon was within 100 yards of the Albany clearings when something happened to halt the column, strung out over 600 yards, for a critical hour. Lt. Pat Payne's men captured two North Vietnamese soldiers wearing new uniforms and carrying new AK-47 rifles. Colonel McDade, informed by radio,
ordered a halt while he went forward to interrogate the prisoners.
Although the captured North Vietnamese claimed they were deserters, they actually had been manning an outpostand one of their comrades had escaped through the brush. Remembers Col. Hoang Phuong: "The other recon soldier came back to the headquarters of the 1st Battalion 33rd Regiment and reported to his commander. We organized the battle." The North Vietnamese began hastily closing a trap on the unwitting Americans.
As the North Vietnamese scrambled into position, all up and down Colonel McDade's column weary troopers dropped their heavy loads and slumped to the ground. Some smoked, others dug out cans of C rations and began eating, a few even drifted off to sleep.
McDadea tall, slender 43-year-old bachelor from New York who had fought in World War II and commanded a rifle company in combat in
Koreahad been the Division G-1, or personnel officer, until just three weeks earlier. After a fruitless hour of trying to pry information out of the two prisoners through his South Vietnamese Army scout, Sgt. Vo Van On, the new battalion commander gave up and moved on toward the Albany clearing.
Headless companies. McDade had radioed orders for his company commanders to join him at the head of the column and, one by one, the captains and their radio operators, and in some cases their first sergeants, left their units. In normal times it was not unusual for a battalion commander to summon his subordinates to discuss his plans. But the situation this day was anything but normal: The woods were full of North Vietnamese soldiers, and at the moment of greatest danger, McDade's rifle companies were headless.
In his command bunker on the mountainside, the North Vietnamese
commander, Colonel An, had already issued his orders: "I ordered the 8th Battalion 66th Regiment [fresh reserves that had not been used in this campaign yet] to attack. And I ordered the 1st Battalion 33rd Regiment to launch an attack from the other side. [They] had only one company, but I told them to come anyway."
In the landing zone, Colonel McDade's battalion sergeant major, James Scott, 42, and the operations sergeant, Charles W. Bass of Winterset, Iowa, who had served an earlier tour in Vietnam as a U.S. adviser, stood with the interpreter and the two prisoners. Charlie Bass didn't believe what the prisoners were saying and wanted to question them further. Scott remembers: "Then Bass said: 'I hear Vietnamese talking' [and] that interpreter really began to look afraid. 'Yes,' he said, 'They are the North Vietnamese Army.' We had NVA all around us! Right about then small-arms
fire started up. Charlie was killed right there."
Toward the rear of the column the battalion surgeon, Capt. William Shucart, a Missourian who had been drafted out of his residency at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, also smelled trouble. Shucart recalls: "Before the fight I remember smelling cigarette smoke. Vietnamese cigarettes. I said: 'I smell the enemy smoking!' The next thing we knew, mortars were dropping all around us, then a lot of small-arms fire, and then everything just dissolved into confusion."
Lt. Larry Gwin heard the first shots ring out in the wooded area near where Alpha Company's 1st Platoon was patrolling. He thought the platoon must have caught up with more enemy stragglers. "Then everything opened up," Gwin remembers. "The firing just crescendoed. I heard the sickening whump of mortar fire landing where I had seen our 2nd Platoon disappear."
The Headquarters Company of the 1st Battalion of the 33rd Regiment of the People's Army "waited until the head of the American column was about 40 yards away before they started shooting," recalls Colonel Phuong. "We let them move very close to us. [That] company stopped the advance, while the 8th Battalion, 66th Regiment encircled the American column. All our small parties of men dispersed in the area [to avoid American air strikes] came running when they heard the guns."
The Alpha Company officers, Captain Sugdinis and Lieutenant Gwin, moved into the copse of trees. Sugdinis was frantically trying to raise his 1st and 2nd platoons on the radio. "Almost immediately I lost communication with the 1st Platoon," he recalls. Then he got the platoon sergeant for the 2nd Platoon, Sgt. 1st Class William A. (Pappy) Ferrell, 38, from Stanton, Tenn., on the radio. Ferrell reported that his
troops were intermingled with the attacking North Vietnamese. "Pappy then radioed that he was hit; that there were three or four men with him, all hit," says Sugdinis. "I never heard from Pappy again."
Spc. Jim Epperson, 26, of Alameda, Calif., McDade's radio operator, was with the battalion commander in the grove of trees. "Colonel McDade wasn't getting anything from his people down the line," remembers Epperson. "Charlie, Delta and Headquarters companies weren't reporting because they were either dead or, in the case of Headquarters, didn't have any radios."
Lieutenant Gwin looked back south at the area where he had emerged from the jungle only minutes before: It was now swarming with North Vietnamese soldiers who obviously had cut through the battalion's line of march. Sergeant Major Scott, who had suffered a chest wound in the first minutes of action but had kept on
fighting, could see enemy soldiers in platoon-and company-size units to his left, right and front. "They were up in the trees, up on top of the anthills and in the high grass," remembers Scott.
Having hit the head of the battalion column hard and stopped it, killing most of Sugdinis's two rifle platoons, the North Vietnamese were now pouncing on the strung-out American column. All of McDade's company commanders were still forward, and all but one would remain there for the rest of the battle.
Capt. George Forrest recalls that he and his two radio operators had hiked the full length of the column, in response to McDade's summons, when the first mortar rounds began falling. Forrest, who had lettered in football, basketball and track in college, turned on his heel and made the run of his life toward the rear, back to his soldiers. "Both of my radio operators were hit and killed
during that run," says Forrest. "When I got back I pushed my guys off the trail ... and put them in a perimeter. Fire was coming from every direction so we circled the wagons."
The Americans formed small defensive perimeters at the head and tail of their column, but the soldiers in between were being butchered. North Vietnamese climbed into the trees and atop the brush-covered termite hills, some of them 6 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter, and poured fire down on the Americans trapped in the tall grass below.
Capt. Skip Fesmire was trying desperately to get back to Charlie Company, and he had his executive officer, Lt. Don Cornett of Lake Charles, La., on the radio. He ordered Cornett to get Charlie Company moving forward along the right flank of Delta Company toward the clearing.
Fesmire wanted to get his men out of the North Vietnamese mortar barrage, but it was too
late. Charlie Company charged right into enemy machine-gun positions hidden in the high grass. [Description by Pfc. Jack P. Smith, Page 53.] Charlie Company had begun the day with 112 men in its ranks; by sunrise November 18, 45 of them were dead and 50 more were wounded.
Doc Shucart, the battalion surgeon, saw men falling all around him. "In a very short time I found myself all alone. I picked up an M-16. This was the most scared I've ever been in my life," Shucart says. "I was wearing a St. Christopher's medal around my neck. I thought: 'This is the time to make a deal.' Then I thought: 'I've never been very religious. He isn't likely to want to deal.' So I got up and started looking for somebody, anybody."
Help was tantalizingly close, but it would be a long time coming. Colonel McDade's commanding officer, 3rd Brigade commander Col. Tim Brown, 44, a New Yorker and a 1943
West Point graduate, and his fire support coordinator, Capt. Dudley Tademy, were circling overhead in a helicopter. Brown, a three-war veteran, was talking to McDade, trying to determine where the American troops were so he could call in fire support. Brown recalls, "I asked: 'What happened to your lead unit?' He didn't know. 'Where's your trailing units?' He didn't know. And he didn't know what had happened to any of the rest of them. We weren't in position to shoot a bunch of artillery or air strikes in there because we didn't know where to put them."
"In that first hour or so," McDade says, "the situation was so fluid that I was acting more as a platoon leader than a battalion commander. We were trying to secure a perimeter. I don't think anybody in the battalion could have told you what the situation really was at that time. I could have yelled and screamed that we
were in a death trap, but I didn't know it was as bad as it was."
Higher headquarters didn't know how bad it was, either, but alarm bells had begun ringing. Back at Pleiku, the assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. Richard Knowles, remembers getting a heads-up from a warrant officer whose job it was to monitor food, fuel, ammunition and casualties.
"He had a direct hot line to me," Knowles remembers. "In the afternoon, around 2 or 3 p.m., he called me and said: 'I got 14 KIA [killed in action] from McDade's battalion.' I called my pilot and air liaison officer. We got over Albany, and McDade was in deep trouble. I told [the air and artillery officers]: 'This guy doesn't know what he's got; put a ring of steel around him."
Amid the confusion Colonel Brown ordered up reinforcements, but they were too little and too late. Bravo Company, 1st Battalion 5th Cavalry,
commanded by Capt. Walter B. (Buse) Tully, got orders to march the 2 miles from LZ Columbus to the end of McDade's stricken column. Brown also ordered Capt. Myron Diduryk, a Ukrainian immigrant who grew up on the streets of Jersey City, N.J., to saddle up Bravo Company 2nd Battalion 7th Cavalry for a daring helicopter ride into LZ Albany.
At Albany, the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry was being dismembered. The NVA commander, Colonel An, says: "I gave the order to my battalions: When you meet the Americans, divide into many groups and attack the column from many directions. Move inside the column, grab them by the belt, and avoid casualties from the artillery and air."
Belt to belt, every man still alive on that field, American and North Vietnamese, was fighting for his life. "My commanders and soldiers reported there was very vicious fighting," remembers Colonel An. "I tell
you frankly your soldiers fought valiantly. They had no choice. It was hand-to-hand. When we picked up our wounded, the bodies of your men and our men were neck to neck, lying beside each other. ... We had a competition among our soldiers. About 100 men were later awarded the title 'Killer of Americans."
Spc. Bob Towles of Delta Company, by now wounded, led a dozen of his Delta Company buddies in a charge through the woods and into a grassy clearing, then turned and looked back. "There were the North Vietnamese, rummaging what we had left behind," remembers Towles. "Then they fired bursts from their AKs into the ground. Now I realized what else we had left behind. All of us hadn't made it out of there!"
Lt. Enrique Pujals, a native of Puerto Rico and an ROTC graduate of Pennsylvania Military College, was trying to find someone in the
Charlie Company area who could tell him what was happening when he was hit. "I felt like I'd been struck with a sledgehammer on my right thigh," says Pujals, who was 5 feet, 8 inches tall and had the muscles of a weight lifter. "I saw it out of the corner of my eyea little puff of dust and the trouser leg split and I knew I was hit. My thoughts were silly: A little phrase we used to use back in the world when something went amiss. There goes the weekend! My right leg twisted all out of shape and began to crumple under me. My thigh was broken. My platoon began to get it. Now the screams were from my men. My men were dying all around me and I could do nothing."
The small group of Americans clinging desperately to the grove of trees in the clearing at the head of the column watched as hundreds of North Vietnamese assembled in the woods across the clearing from them. Clearly, their
turn was next. The order was passed: Throw smoke grenades. Lt. Larry Gwin remembers that the perimeter was marked with a rainbow of smoke of every color in the Army inventoryred, purple, green, yellow, white.
Cheering the napalm. Minutes later, relief finally arrived at Landing Zone Albany, in the form of Air Force A-1E Skyraidersold, slow and reliable Korean War-vintage propeller-driven planes that the pilots nicknamed "Spads." The first napalm canisters fell right where the Americans could see masses of North Vietnamese soldiers. Larry Gwin remembers: "That first strike was right on target with two napalm cans. I saw them hit the tops of the trees. Jellied napalm was coming down through the tree limbs and the NVA were jumping up trying to get away and being engulfed in the flames. The Americans were cheering and laughing at each strike [but] stopped when they dropped two
canisters directly onto the position where our 2nd Platoon had been."
Now, with help from Charlie Company platoon leader Lt. Robert Jeanette, who was badly wounded and trapped but still had his radio [his story, Page 57], the command group began calling in artillery fire on the enemy. From the top of a termite hill, Sergeant Major Scott saw the North Vietnamese, time after time, form up 40 or 50 men to charge the American perimeter. "Then Maj. Frank Henry [the battalion executive officer] would adjust the fire on them."
At the tail of the column, Captain Tully's Bravo Company arrived from LZ Columbus and linked up with Capt. George Forrest's Alpha Company troops. Together, the two companies tried to attack through the woods alongside the trail to reach the trapped Americans. They were thrown back.
More reinforcements were on the way. Back at Camp Holloway, outside
Pleiku, Captain Diduryk's Bravo Company soldiers were pulled out of their bedrolls and the base beer hall. Lt. Cyril R. (Rick) Rescorla27 years old and a tough, cocky Englishman who had served in the British Army before deciding to soldier his way to American citizenshiprecalls that there were no protests among the men who had survived the fight at LZ X-Ray, "but their eyes filled with disbelief."
"Across the field the first lift ships were sweeping in," Rescorla remembers. "The road stretched out past the permanent hooches [quonset huts] of the rear echelon at Camp Holloway. Word spread that we were on a suicide flight. Holloway's finest lined the road to watch us depart: Hawaiian shirts, aviator shades, jeans, beer cans in hands. Cooks and bottle washers, the shit burners, projectionists, club runners. Same Army, different species. No one had shaved, but our weapons sparkled.
Not a man among us would swap places with these lard asses."
At 6:45 p.m., 12 helicopters roared over the Albany clearing, and Diduryk's troops bailed out into the tall grass. Eight of the helicopters went home full of bullet holes. One pilot was wounded.
Larry Gwin watched Rick Rescorla swagger into the American lines with a smile on his face, an M-79 grenade launcher on his shoulder, his M-16 rifle in one hand. "He was saying, 'Good, good, good! I hope they hit us with everything they got tonightwe'll wipe them up.' His spirit was catching. The troops were cheering as each load came in," Gwin remembers.
Fleeing disaster. With Bravo Company's help, the men clustered in the copse of trees at the center of the Albany clearing would survive to see the dawn. But beyond the little circle of safety, scores of young Americans lay wounded and terrified in the high grass with
little hope of rescue in the long night ahead. Some of them desperately tried to escape the killing field, and some succeeded against all the odds.
Two separate groups of half a dozen walking woundedone led by Lt. Bud Alley, the other by Lt. John Howardcrawled, walked and ran circuitous routes through the darkness from LZ Albany toward LZ Columbus. Both groups made it to safety inside American lines the next morning.
Pfc. James Young, 24, a country boy from Keysville, Mo., was cut off from his unit when he was hit in the head by a machine-gun bullet. Alone and suffering from his head wound, Jim Young wandered through enemy territory and, two days later, staggered into LZ Columbus just hours before the Americans abandoned it. Pfc. Toby Braveboya native of Coward, S.C., who was part Creek Indianhid in the brush near the Albany battlefield, badly wounded and unarmed, for
seven days before he flagged a passing helicopter and was rescued.
As dawn broke over Landing Zone Albany on Thursday, November 18, the Americans began slowly expanding their perimeter, moving out into the woods. The battlefield was silent now. For Pat Payne of the Reconnaissance Platoon, shock set in when the searchers returned with the body of Lt. Don Cornett, the much loved executive officer of Charlie Company. "His face was turned to the side," Payne remembers. "He looked like he was asleep. A helicopter landed and stirred the wind. Cornett's hair blew in the breeze and it was beyond my comprehension that such a wonderful person had been killed."
Trail of tears. Rick Rescorla led a patrol down the column, which he remembers resembled nothing so much as a long bloody traffic accident in the jungle. "One trooper dead with weapons laid out next to him, pack of cigarettes
clenched in his hand. Mortar men dead, sitting upright against anthills, rounds still on their backs, as if they were caught during a break. Here and there, between American bodies, lay smaller khaki figures."
Rescorla killed one wounded North Vietnamese soldier who made a sudden move among the fallen bodies. From him Rescorla took a battered old French Army bugle carrying a manufacture date of 1900 and the legend "Couesnon & Cie., Fournisseurs de L'Armee. 94 rue D'Ancoieme. Paris." On some other battlefield, the victorious Viet Minh had taken the trophy. Now the bugle changed hands once more, and Bravo Company would blow it again and again in battles still to come.
During Thanksgiving week, 1965, the battered battalions of the 3rd Brigade rode back over the mountains from Pleiku to their home base at An Khe. It took just four Army trucks to carry all that was left of the 2nd
Battalion, 7th Cavalry. Commanders sat down and began writing letters to the families of the 235 Americans who had died in Landing Zones X-Ray and Albany. Friends gathered the personal belongings of their dead buddies and filled the company streets with a forlorn parade of duffel bags that no longer had owners.
In April 1966, Col. Hal Moore, who had commanded the American troops at LZ X-Ray and then succeeded Tim Brown as commander of the 3rd Brigade, led a small unit back to Albany to recover the remains of the last five missing Americans. Although he had by then been transferred to a staff job, Capt. George Forrest joined Moore's MIA operation. One of Forrest's troopers, Pfc. John R. Ackerman, had been put on the MIA list in December, after his mother had written Forrest saying she had not heard from her son in more than a month. Company records listed Private Ackerman as
"wounded and evacuated," but they were wrong.
Forrest beat the brush in the area where his 2nd Platoon had fought until he found the remains of his missing man. There are still 2,266 Americans listed as missing in action in Southeast Asia. Thanks to Moore and Forrest, not one of them was left behind at Landing Zone X-Ray or Landing Zone Albany.
At midmorning on November 18, after 3rd Brigade commander Col. Tim Brown had visited the Albany battlefield and seen the tragedy firsthand, he received a visitor at his headquarters: Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the commander of all American forces in Vietnam. Brown could not bring himself to tell Westmoreland what had happened at Albany. Instead, he briefed Westmoreland on the victory at LZ X-Ray and left the general to discover the disaster for himself a few hours later, in the wards of an Army hospital on the coast at Qui Nhon.
In his journal entry for that day, Westmoreland wrote: "I began to sense I had not been given the full information when I had visited the brigade [command post]. Several of the men stated they had been involved in what they referred to as an ambush. Most of the men were from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry."
Little Bighorn. In what was to become a too-familiar pattern during the next 10 years, damage control quickly became the order of the day. On the morning of November 19, before the Americans abandoned Landing Zone Albany, a reporter asked the command group: "What's the official name of this place?" A lieutenant shook his head and replied bitterly: "The Little Bighorn." A captain standing nearby snapped back: "Don't say that! There's been no defeat here."
At a news conference on November 19, the 1st Cavalry's assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. Dick Knowles, called
the Albany fight a "meeting engagement" (a chance collision between two forces), claimed McDade's battalion had suffered only "light to moderate casualties" and added that because the enemy had withdrawn, the battle had been an American victory. Knowles's summary was greeted with roars of disbelief by the assembled reporters.
If Landing Zone Albany was a victory, it was both short-lived and costly: The Americans left the Ia Drang shortly after the North Vietnamese, and the American units at Albany had suffered 279 casualties. And no matter how General Knowles and the high command defined what had happened at Landing Zone Albany, the North Vietnamese had the element of surprise and an hour to prepare their attack. "We had some advantages: We attacked from the sides and, at the moment of the attack, we were waiting for you," says Colonel An.
The Americans' concern for massaging
public opinion prompted some officers to rewriteor at least heavily editthe history of the battle at LZ Albany instead of learning what they could from it. When sharply critical news dispatches about the fight at LZ Albany and American plans to pull out of the Ia Drang hit the front pages back home, General Westmoreland caught hell from the Pentagon.
Although by then he had investigated and knew there was more than a kernel of truth in the stories, Westmoreland, according to his journal, told the Saigon bureau chiefs of the American news media that "stories such as those in the Washington newspapers were having the following effect: 1. Distorting the picture at home and lowering the morale of people who are emotionally concerned (wives). 2. Lowering morale of troops." Westmoreland pointedly reminded the bureau chiefs that although he had opposed official censorship, such
negative stories could cause a change of heart.
American soldiers had faced death with courage in the Ia Drang, as they would time and again in other valleys and on other hills. Their commanders in Saigon and Washington could not even bring themselves to face the truth. The Ia Drang, where America's war in Vietnam began, would have been a good place for it to have ended.