U.S. News (12/6/93)
Once more, into the valley of death
Vietnamese and American Vietnam veterans return to the Ia Drang Valley
By Joseph L. Galloway
Twenty-eight years ago, their countries sent these men to this remote valley in the central highlands of South Vietnam to hunt down and kill one another. This time, they came on their own to reach across the gulf of suspicion, anger, pain and loss that still divides the United States and Vietnam. Three senior commanders of the Vietnamese People's Army and 10 American Vietnam veterans sat together in the bush and remembered the four days and nights when they met one another in the first major battle of the Vietnam War.
Twenty-eight years cannot erase the memories of this valley where 234 Americans and some 2,000 Vietnamese lost their lives. As the Russian-made helicopter that ferried them back to the battlefield approached a clearing at the foot of the Chu Pong Massif, Army Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.), who led the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry in the Ia Drang Valley, and retired Lt. Col. Bruce Crandall, who commanded the cavalry's UH-1B Huey troop transport helicopters, leaned into the cockpit, maps in hand, and guided the Vietnamese pilots unerringly to their old landing zone.
The old places. There it was. The Ia Drang flowed snakelike, swollen by the late monsoon rains and dyed blood red by the runoff. A rutted logging road snaked through the southeastern edge of the clearing that the sky troopers of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) dubbed Landing Zone X-Ray. The fighting holes that once ringed X-Ray had eroded and faded away. But the jungle had yet to reclaim the battlefield.
A nervous Vietnamese major warned the veterans not to wander off on their own. There are Khmer Rouge guerrillas on the mountain, he said, and unexploded shells. The Americans wandered anyway, searching for their old places. The dry creek bed where hundreds died was not dry, but everyone was able to orient himself by its location.
American veteran Bill Beck of Harrisburg, Pa., who was an assistant machine gunner in Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, walked through the grass along the creek bank and found the anthill where Americans sought shelter on one side and Vietnamese on the other, only 4 or 5 feet apart. Then he came to the place where he and his gunner, Russell Adams of Shoemakersville, Pa., had made a desperate stand on the hot afternoon of Nov. 14, 1965. Beck looked down at his feet, and there, glinting dully, was a U.S. Army steel helmet, partially buried in the earth. Here, where he had stripped Adams's gear off and found part of his buddy's brain in his helmet, Beck reached down and tugged. The rusted steel gave way. One
side came away in his hand; the rest remains buried.
Col. Vu Dinh Thuoc, who in 1965 was a lieutenant and a company commander in the 7th Battalion of the 66th North Vietnamese Army Regiment, brought out four fat little journals, his diaries of 10 years of war in the South, filled with the tiny script of a man who had neither ink nor paper to waste.
"We had a terrible and difficult trip down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was not even a trail in those days," Colonel Thuoc said. "Each of us carried a load of 70 to 80 pounds, and when men were sick we had to share their loads. Let me read: 'We arrived in the South on Nov. 10, 1965, after two months and 10 days walking, and turned into the Ia Drang Valley. They allowed us to change into our new spare uniforms on this day. We heard engine sounds in the distance, and some of the men in my company asked if they were farm tractors. I
prayed that it was so, but they were American helicopters.' "
Living in the jungles, at the end of a primitive supply line of human porters that stretched through Cambodia and Laos back to North Vietnam, Thuoc and his men often were forced to forage for plants and roots. "The days we went hungry were more than the days we were full," Thuoc recalled. "It is ironic. Back then, we were almost always hungry; now when we are at peace and food is plentiful, I find I cannot eat."
Colonel Thuoc looked into the eyes of each of the Americans. "For a few hours we return to the battle, to 28 years ago when we were trying to kill each other. I am very moved, very emotional, that soldiers who fought each other have finally come together. Our war was strictly for our families and for freedom; nothing else. We didn't hate you."
But the sense of peace that pervaded Landing Zone X-Ray
was absent 3 miles away in the clearing dubbed Landing Zone Albany, where 155 Americans were killed in one day. The fighting positions were perfect, corners still square, dirt still piled on the parapets clear of vegetation.
Former Lt. Larry Gwin of Boston, the executive officer of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, walked through the scrub brush and found the termite hill where he and the survivors of his company had chosen to make their last stand. With a stricken face, Gwin pointed to the still blackened trunks of trees that were engulfed by the napalm that saved the Americans' lives. "What a terrible place to die," he said.
Former Capt. George Forrest of Leonardtown, Md., walked part way down the trail where an American column was trapped and slaughtered. He had run 400 yards along that trail, through a storm of enemy fire, to get back to his company at the tail
of the column. "That jungle is so thick," Forrest said. "I couldn't make that run again today."
The veterans of the Ia Drang still walk with ghosts. At dinner one evening on a rickety floating restaurant in the Hanoi suburbs, former machine gunner Bill Beck sat across from People's Army Col. Nguyen Khac Vien, another veteran of the 7th Battalion of the 66th Regiment.
Through an interpreter, Beck and Colonel Vien struggled to establish where each of them fought at Landing Zone X-Ray. Beck, an artist, finally grabbed a paper napkin, sketched the battlefield and marked his position. His seatmate, George Forrest, helpfully added the universal military symbol for a machine gun.
Across the table, Colonel Vien gasped and turned pale. "That is exactly where my platoon and company attacked," he said. "We lost so many men, maybe 400 in the battalion, that day. We attacked your
machine gun, and your fire killed my best friend. I am godfather to his daughter, and I recently married her off. This is very hard for me."
It was not easy for Bill Beck, either. His best friend, Russell Adams, is still partially paralyzed as a result of the wounds he received that terrible day.
Senior Writer Galloway covered the battle at LZ X-Ray for United Press International and later wrote a cover story about it for U.S. News. Galloway and General Moore have written a bestselling book on the Ia Drang battles, We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young.