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  • James Houser

November 14, 1965 - The Battle of Ia Drang

Updated: Jan 23

November 14, 1965. A horde of Huey helicopters descends on Vietnam’s Central Highlands to unload their passengers. Stepping off the skids are Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore and his 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, and they are walking into America’s first major ground battle of the Vietnam War. The subsequent Battle of Ia Drang, immortalized in the book and film “We Were Soldiers”, has a dubious legacy – as does the whole Vietnam War.

There’s a lot to say about the Vietnam War, and I’ve already said it a couple times this year. If you want to read all about what a miserable mess the American involvement in Vietnam was, please check out two earlier posts I made about the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, and the very beginning of American military operations in Vietnam with Operation Starlite in 1965.

So with those out of the way, I’m still going to link Ia Drang to the Vietnam War overall, but I’m not going to discuss HOW America got into Vietnam. I repeat myself often enough in these posts so I will try to not rehash those previous posts in this one, so I can focus my full attention on the Battle of Ia Drang. Granted, I’m addicted to context, so I’m still going to explain just how much this little mountaintop conflict meant for the Vietnam War as a whole and what it demonstrated about American involvement and strategy. I’m just going to skimp a bit on the backstory. If (IF) you want all that backstory, you know where to find it.

The United States had had military advisors in South Vietnam since the 1950s, but only in 1965 did America begin a full-scale commitment to propping up the corpselike government of the Republic of Vietnam. On March 8, 1965, a swarm of Marines came ashore near Da Nang in a statement that was pointless from a military perspective (they weren’t invading anything and they could’ve just gotten off the boat at a local port facility) but instead served as an overt symbol: the United States of America had come to Vietnam, and they were here to do battle. From this point on, the conflict in Vietnam would widen even though the United States had not declared war. On August 18, 1965, American forces conducted Operation Starlite, a “search and destroy” mission that pitted the Marines against a Viet Cong outpost in the village complex of Van Tuong. This action marked the first major U.S. combat operation in Vietnam, but it was still a small-scale affair compared to the great battles soon to take place.

With my mention of the Viet Cong, it’s a good time to make an important note. When the Americans went into battle in Vietnam, they were fighting against one of TWO opponents. Normally, the terrible guerrilla actions and brush fighting were done against the National Liberation Front of Vietnam (NLF), which the South Vietnamese Saigon Government had nicknamed the “Viet gian cong san” (Communist traitor to Vietnam) or shortened as Viet Cong. This was the widespread guerrilla organization present in the cities, rice paddies, and forests of South Vietnam. They never did call *themselves* the Viet Cong; that was a name the Americans picked up from the South Vietnamese.

The other force was rarer, but more formidable and ultimately more of a threat. This was no guerrilla organization or partisan band, but the PAVN – the People’s Army of Vietnam. The PAVN was the North Vietnamese Army, usually infiltrated into South Vietnam along the winding paths through Laos and Cambodia known as the “Ho Chi Minh Trail.” Compared to the Viet Cong, which was based throughout the South Vietnamese countryside and operated as a peasant militia, the PAVN was a standing military with rank hierarchy, decent training and a high level of discipline. It was the PAVN, not the Viet Cong, that Hal Moore’s 7th Cavalry would engage at Ia Drang.

The Viet Cong, though, had seized control of much of South Vietnam by 1965. Since the South Vietnamese government had been unable to stop this expansion, American troop numbers had been steadily rising ever since the summer of 1965. Soon American strength in Vietnam would reach the level of 300,000 of all services – but they did not rule the countryside.

That was still Viet Cong territory, especially the Central Highlands northeast of Saigon. This was old Vietnamese Communist stomping ground, the site of victories over the French, an area with few highways and a scattered population. This made it a perfect spot for the Viet Cong to build bases as safe havens from the Americans and South Vietnamese forces, and also posed a major threat to South Vietnam’s territorial integrity. Vietnam is a long and narrow country, and from their bases in the Central Highlands any Viet Cong attack stood the chance of cutting South Vietnam in two. But the Viet Cong weren’t the only ones in the Central Highlands in late 1965.

North Vietnam had operational control over the Viet Cong, and by 1964 was infiltrating PAVN regiments south into “safe zones” to assist with the war against the South, and increasingly against the Americans. The 32nd, 33rd, and 65th PAVN Regiments – organized as the B3 Front - had assembled in the Central Highlands by November 1965, concentrated in the vicinity of Pleiku Province. The commander of the B3 Front, General Chu Huy Man, planned to strike the South Vietnamese forces in the region and hopefully gain control over these territories. Even though North Vietnam and the United States were not officially at war, the presence of these forces in South Vietnam represented a major escalation of the conflict. Instead of using the Viet Cong as their proxies, Ho Chi Minh’s Communists were making a major effort with their own state military. This was a bluff, and they waited for the United States to call it.

The United States was HERE to call this bluff. General William Westmoreland, commander of American forces in Vietnam, had large units standing by that he was just itching to use against the North Vietnamese Army. Among them was the 1st Cavalry Division. Though today the 1st Cavalry is the U.S. Army’s premier heavy armored formation, in 1965 the 1st Cavalry served a different function. It was the Army’s experimental “airmobile” formation, serving the same function that the 101st Airborne serves today. It essentially functioned as a helicopter-borne infantry unit, launching lightning strikes onto landing zones to deploy combat-ready troops at any location with astonishing rapidity and violence of force. The 1st Cavalry “rode” into battle on their new horse, the UH-1 “Huey” helicopter, a workhorse aircraft that served as an early version of the modern UH-60 Black Hawk.

After an attack on the Green Beret camp of Plei Me in October 1965, Westmoreland decided to use the 1st Cavalry Division to go on the offensive in Pleiku Province. Throughout the early days of November, several units struck into Pleiku, finding fierce resistance but unable to come to grips with the enemy forces. The Americans simply could not find the Vietnamese soldiers, who made excellent use of cover and concealment to avoid battle when it was not in their favor.

On November 11, 1965, this all changed when an intelligence source revealed the location of all three PAVN regiments. The 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry was given the order to prepare for an air assault to dig out and annihilate the North Vietnamese B3 Front in a decisive engagement. The next day – November 13 – the 3rd Brigade’s commander selected the man and the unit to lead this attack. He told Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, commanding 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, to prepare for an airmobile assault the next morning. The 7th Cavalry, once led by Custer to its demise at Little Bighorn, was going to spark the first major American battle of the Vietnam War.

The notion of “search and destroy” was a key component of American doctrine in the first phase of the Vietnam War. Rather than spreading out their forces in an extensive occupation of Vietnam, the Americans conducted large-scale combat sweeps throughout the countryside to root out and destroy the Viet Cong or PAVN resistance. This strategy was ultimately flawed, mainly because their foes would simply hide when they didn’t want to fight – and if they DID decide to fight, it was only when they had the advantage.

The Battle of Ia Drang would develop not because the Americans had found the PAVN, but because the PAVN thrilled at the challenge. Colonel Nguyen Huu An received word that the Americans were coming, and on November 13 – just as Colonel Moore was briefing his officers – Colonel An briefed his. He told his soldiers that they were about to engage in a decisive battle to test the Americans’ mettle in series of company- and battalion- size actions. For the Vietnamese, as much as the Americans, this would be a first encounter battle. Each would be sizing the other up over the clatter of assault rifles, the pounding of artillery, and the screams of wounded men.

On the morning of November 14, 1965, Colonel Moore and elements of his B Company loaded up into their Hueys and set out for a spot designated as Landing Zone X-Ray, one mile south of the Ia Drang River and very close to the Cambodian border. After a half hour of bombardment, Moore and his troopers disembarked at LZ X-Ray at 10:48 am. They landed only 200 meters from a PAVN battalion headquarters, and soon the Vietnamese troops were scrambling to counterattack. The trouble for Moore’s battalion soon became apparent: they had placed a small force on top of an ant’s nest, there were several thousand PAVN soldiers in the area, and their entire lifeline was the constant shuttling of troops and supplies via the Huey choppers – of which there were a limited number, which would only grow smaller as North Vietnamese fire brought them down. At the end of this wafer-thin lifeline, the 1-7 Cavalry would fight for its life for the next two days.

Moore quickly ordered the perimeter secured, and for the first hour and a half, things seemed relatively quiet. At 12:15, though, the first shots of the Battle of Ia Drang were fired when B Company’s troopers ran headlong into the 33rd PAVN Regiment. Soon Lieutenant Henry Herrick’s 2nd Platoon of B Company was cut off on a knoll, isolated in front of the rest of 1-7’s perimeter by almost 100 meters. Under devastating fire, the platoon was virtually surrounded, with Herrick and most of the senior sergeants being killed. It fell to buck Sergeant Ernie Savage to take command of the pinned-down platoon, which would have to survive until nightfall on the little knoll. The platoon soon suffered eight killed and thirteen wounded, with Sergeant Savage racing back and forth to call in artillery and air support. The trauma of 2nd Platoon, though, was matched all along the perimeter.

The rest of Colonel Moore’s battalion was coming in by chopper, but his battalion was being swamped on all sides by the North Vietnamese forces. Various terrain features – a creek bed, grassy fields, random treelines – became major landmarks for which men fought and died. The landing zone itself came under fire, with the Huey pilots braving hails of machine gun and mortar fire to deliver troops and pick up wounded soldiers. 1-7 was effectively a speck of American olive drab in a sea of Vietnamese jungle, with the PAVN doing their best to destroy the intruders and wipe out this isolated band.

For all the gory tactical details, it is best to check out Hal Moore’s amazing book, “We Were Soldiers Once…and Young.” The movie is okay too. By the end of November 14, Moore’s cavalrymen had assembled a 360-degree perimeter around their little landing zone, but the Vietnamese attacks had not abated. They continued throughout the night and grew stronger on November 15, when a three-pronged attack by Colonel An’s troops nearly crumpled the American perimeter. Moore was forced to call in truly heavy support. The artillery and napalm strikes of local units and air support had greatly hurt the Vietnamese attackers, with some of the napalm landing too close and killing Americans instead. The big guns came in, though, at 16:00 on November 15 when the first B-52 bombers plastered the Vietnamese base areas. The B-52 was a heavy strategic bomber made for dropping nuclear weapons; this was its first use in tactical air support, and it delivered a devastating payload onto the Vietnamese attackers.

Colonel Moore’s nemesis at Ia Drang, Colonel Nguyen Huu An, displayed remarkable coolness during the battle. Around 16:00 on November 15, he had been leaning on his walking stick, examining the terrain, when one of his staff officers tackled him to the ground to avoid blasts from one of the B-52s. An picked himself up and dusted himself off with an almost insulted contempt, saying that when so many bombs were going off, it was only God that determined who lived or died and it was useless to dodge. Though he was convinced he was winning the battle, even An respected the force of American firepower, describing it as “devastating.”

Moore’s battalion was condemned to fight for its survival in a space of highland jungle the size of a football field, as the Vietnamese commanders ordered more and more battalions into the fray. Though the 1st Cavalry’s troopers held on, it was a nightmarish clash that rivaled anything in the World Wars. The destructive firepower flying around killed and wounded dozens of men by the hour, with Vietnamese marksmanship, camouflage and determination taking a growing toll of Moore’s men.

It was at this phase that Moore called “Broken Arrow,” – code for a U.S. unit about to be overwhelmed, prompting a new wave of air strikes. The 1-7 Battalion also received reinforcements from the 2-7 Cavalry Battalion starting on November 15. News reporter Joseph L. Galloway helped pull two wounded men to the helicopters during the duel of November 15, for which he would earn the only Bronze Star given to a civilian in the whole Vietnam War. But men were being grievously wounded by shot, shell, bomb and flame almost by the minute.

By November 16, though, the drop site was secure. A final wave of PAVN attacks had been met earlier that morning, and the deceased Lieutenant Carrick’s platoon – what was left of it – had been rescued. Against all odds, Moore’s troopers had fought and held the bloody knoll south of Ia Drang. The heavily reduced 1st Battalion was withdrawn, with its place taken by its sister 2-7th Cavalry and the newly arrived 2-5th Cavalry. Unlike in the movie, there was no epic bayonet charge up the hill to the tune of “Sergeant Mackenzie.” That was a cinematic addition that had no place in the real narrative of the battle; the true story is that Moore’s troopers held their drop zone for two days and left, handing it over to other units. This was heroic enough, since they had basically endured 48 hours of hell at LZ X-Ray.

But the battle was not over. That’s where the movie ends, of course: with Moore’s troopers triumphant, counting the enemy dead and withdrawing. But the Battle of Ia Drang still had one more sad act to play out. The American commanders had decided to abandon LZ X-Ray and march the 2-7 and 2-5 battalions to Landing Zones Albany and Columbus, respectively. The reason was that B-52s were on their way to plaster the entire LZ X-Ray region, hoping to destroy what was left of Vietnamese troops and bases in the area. The 2-7 and 2-5 Cavalry Battalions had to get clear of this strike and catch their rides somewhere else for the schedule to hold true.

The 2-5 Cavalry reached its destination with no incident, but its partner unit was not so lucky. The 2-7 Cavalry advanced north-northeast to LZ Albany, close to the Ia Drang River itself, until they were ambushed on November 17. The PAVN’s 33rd and 66th Regiment launched a surprise attack on the strung-out column of 2-7 Cavalry; the Americans had come within 200 yards of the waiting Vietnamese without being spotted. The PAVN troopers struck the head of the column and slashed at its length, with units peeling off here and there to overwhelm isolated detachments of Americans. Though the head of 2-7’s column managed to reach LZ Albany, most of A Company and survivors from the ambush were cut off to the south and under attack from all sides. A Company survived until 2-5 Cavalry sent out a relief column from LZ Columbus to rescue them, but not without suffering heavily both from PAVN mortar fire and from misplaced American airstrikes. Once again, B-52 bombers pummeled the PAVN forces and proved decisive.

After the near-annihilation of 2-7 Cavalry, the last actions were mainly mopping up. Lieutenant Rick Rescorla of 2-7 Cavalry found a battered French army bugle on one of the dead Vietnamese, presumably a trophy of Dien Bien Phu over 10 years ago. The last Americans were evacuated from LZ Albany on November 19. This, more than anything, truly marked the end of the Battle of Ia Drang.

So, who won? Much like a current election, both sides thought they won, but one side really won.

The U.S. Army wasted no time in patting itself on the back for the Battle of Ia Drang. General Westmoreland visited all the battalions that had fought at Ia Drang, including the wounded, and described it as a major victory. The American “body count” claimed that they had inflicted ten times the casualties they lost, while American losses came to a total of 305 killed and 524 wounded in the struggle. Half of these were from 2-7’s deadly ambush on its way to LZ Albany, a deadlier fight even than Colonel Moore’s 48-hour stand on LZ X-Ray. The Americans claimed 4,500 PAVN casualties – which was ludicrous, mainly because the PAVN and Colonel An never had more than 2200 soldiers on the field at Ia Drang.

Colonel An and General Man also claimed victory at Ia Drang, admitting high losses but also claiming ludicrous American casualties. The PAVN admitted to 559 killed and 669 wounded, but claimed to have eliminated 1700 US troops and destroyed 59 helicopters. This, too, was absurd. But the PAVN also had a valid claim of attrition. If we take both sides at their word for their OWN casualties, not the enemies, the Americans suffered 2/3ds of the Vietnamese casualties. “Search and destroy” had worked in theory, but the Vietnamese could absorb extremely heavy losses and keep on ticking, while the Americans could not.

The North Vietnamese had committed their entire nation to the struggle of reunifying Vietnam and throwing out the American forces. American political commitment to the battle, on the other hand, had a hard limit: they could suffer only so many losses before public will started to fade. The Americans could only comfort themselves with the “knowledge” that they were inflicting far greater casualties on the enemy – which, of course, turned out not to be true. It was attrition on the wrong side of the balance sheet.

The North Vietnamese, true, had failed to reach their broader strategic objective of cutting South Vietnam down the middle. The Battle of Ia Drang blunted this attack. But they had learned how the Americans were going to fight from now on, and they had also learned the best way to counter them. Colonel An acknowledged the vast superiority of American artillery and air power: that avalanche of shells, bombs and napalm had been the only thing to save Moore’s isolated unit. He had great respect for the Americans: “Their firepower was devastating. They were practical people who learned from their experiences. They were clever and ingenious, sometimes capable of completely overturning an unfavorable tactical situation.”

But if the overwhelming power of the American military was a problem, the Vietnamese did not regard it as undefeatable. Colonel An described future Vietnamese tactics as “grabbing them by the belt” – that is, getting so close that American fire support would be nullified. The Vietnamese commanders were positively cheered by Ia Drang, “shaking hands to congratulate each other on the victory.” The Battle of Ia Drang had proved American tactics, it was true – the capabilities of air assault were obvious. But in the Vietnamese mind, it had validated the fact that Vietnamese soldiers could stand up to this barrage of fire and inflict severe losses on their opponents.

In this sense, the Vietnamese won the Battle of Ia Drang. Much like George Washington’s Continentals facing the British, winning wasn’t the point – as long as they were still in the game, they were winning. And if Ia Drang had proved anything, it was that the Vietnamese resistance to the United States would stay in the game no matter what level of firepower or weaponry they faced. As Colonel Moore himself commented in his book, "peasant soldiers had withstood the terrible high-tech fire storm delivered against them by a superpower and had at least fought the Americans to a draw. By their yardstick, a draw against such a powerful opponent was the equivalent of a victory." Reporter Joe Galloway later described the battle as the one that "convinced Ho Chi Minh he could win."

And that’s the Vietnam War in a nutshell, isn’t it? Even if you can “win” the battle, you’ll lose the war in the end. Too bad we didn’t learn that lesson before 2003.

The movie “We Were Soldiers” is all right, and actually a pretty accurate portrayal of the battle minus that random charge at the end because the movie needed a climax. The book is better. If you have to choose one, go for the book.

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