Back to Our Battlefields
For us it was an irresistible urge that gnawed at us for nearly three decades-a need to return and walk the blood-drenched soil of the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam, where two great armies clashed head-on in the first major battle of a war that lasted ten years and consumed the lives of 58,256 Americans and perhaps as many as 2 million Vietnamese.
Joe and I had tried twice before, in 1991 and again in 1992, to reach the Ia Drang during our research trips to Vietnam. The Vietnamese government officials in Hanoi had flatly refused permission for such a journey, uncertain whether we had some hidden agenda among the restive Montagnard tribal people in the Central Highlands where our battlefields were located. Or perhaps because our battlefields were located just five miles from the Cambodian border and Khmer Rouge guerrillas had been raiding across the border in that area, creating havoc in the thinly scattered villages near that border.
When we suggested on our 1992 visit that we might simply hire a car and set off south to visit the Ia Drang, our Foreign Ministry minder pointedly said if we left Hanoi on such a mission we would be "followed by a car full of people; not very nice people; and we won't be able to help you then." Only with the publication of Joe's cover article on the Ia Drang in U.S. News & World Report and the release of our book-both translated into Vietnamese and very carefully read in Hanoi-did the roadblocks fall in the fall of 1993. We had proved by our writings that our only desire was to accurately report what had happened in the Ia Drang Valley, and we were just as interested in their version of this slice of history as we were in our own. Visit by visit, article by article, our hosts warmed to us personally and to our quest for the ground truth about battles that had deeply affected our lives and theirs.
There was another important factor: The world had changed. Communism had died in the Soviet Union and was being transformed in neighboring China. The rise of the Asian tigers-capitalist neighbors like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, whose economies were booming-had not gone unnoticed by Hanoi. They were maneuvering to gain initial diplomatic recognition by Washington and were seeking foreign investment and most-favored-nation trade terms. This would not come for another year. Communism was alive in Vietnam but it was busy putting on a new face.
Now, in October 1993, a chartered Soviet-made Hind helicopter was lifting off the runway at the old Camp Holloway airfield at Pleiku in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The two Vietnamese civilian pilots confessed up front that they had no idea where, in that rugged plateau that butted up against the Cambodian border, the football-field-sized clearing code-named Landing Zone X-Ray was located. So Bruce Crandall, one of the most experienced pilots in Army Aviation, and I knelt in the narrow space between them in the cockpit, unfolded my old and detailed Army battle map, and, using Joe Galloway's even more ancient Boy Scout compass, pointed the way to the place where our nightmares were born.
In the back of the rattling old helicopter was an assemblage of American and North Vietnamese military men, old soldiers all, who were journeying together to a place where we had all done our very best to kill each other in one month of ambush and assault and set-piece battles in November 1965. It was here that the men of America's 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and those of the 66th, 32nd, and 33rd regiments of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) had tested each other in the crucible of combat. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 North Vietnamese regulars had been killed or wounded. A total of 305 Americans had died and another 400-plus had been wounded in that time of testing. No one who fought there, on either side, talked seriously about who won and who lost. In such a slaughterhouse there are no winners, only survivors.
What had now brought this little group of survivors together to travel back to a painful shared history? It was, of all things, a book published a year earlier that opened long-closed doors and allowed us to make this needed journey. The book was We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young, written by Joe and myself.
We were bound, in this thirty-five-mile flight, for the jungled mountain plateau near the Cambodian border where I had led my beloved troopers of the 1st Battalion 7th U.S. Cavalry in a helicopter air assault into a battle where we would be vastly outnumbered at times. That any of us survived is testimony to the fighting spirit of the great young Americans-the majority of them draftees-who, when their backs were to the wall, fought like lions and died bravely.
Had I commanded the men on the other side I would have said much the same thing of the North Vietnamese peasant boys drafted into their own army and sent south down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to intervene in the war raging in the southern half of the country. They, too, fought bravely and were not afraid to die in the storm of napalm, bombs, artillery shells, and machine-gun and rifle fire we brought down on them. Now their commander, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Huu An, and I were in the air, returning together to that ground hallowed by the sacrifices of our men. This time we came in peace, old enemies in the process of becoming new friends-something that would have been inconceivable just two years before.
These seminal battles that opened the waltz in Vietnam-which would stand as the bloodiest of the entire Vietnam War-had been largely forgotten in the long years of combat that followed before helicopters lifted the last Americans off the roofs in downtown Saigon in April 1975.
Joe, a war correspondent who had stood and fought beside us in Landing Zone X-Ray, and I had made two trips to Vietnam in search of the story of those who fought against us. These trips resulted first in a cover article Joe wrote in U.S. News & World Report on October 29, 1990, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of our battles, and then in a contract to write our history of the battles. It was not lost on our former enemy commanders that we had dealt honestly with them and quoted them accurately in both the article and the book.
When ABC television and the Day One program offered to take us back to Vietnam to make a documentary film, the Vietnamese authorities in Hanoi agreed to all that we proposed, including the long-denied trip back to the battlefields in the Central Highlands.
Why this obsession with a remote clearing so far from anywhere? What had happened here years before that indelibly seared the experience into the minds and hearts of men who had fought in other battles and other wars? Those dark November days of 1965 still powerfully grip the imagination of those of us who survived the battles of the Ia Drang on both sides.
Late on Saturday, November 13 of that year, my undersized battalion of only 450 men-most of them draftees led by a hard corps of career Army sergeants who had fought as Infantrymen in Korea and World War II-was ordered to make an air assault by Huey helicopters deep into enemy-controlled territory just five miles from the Cambodian border.
The orders to me were simple: We believe there is a regiment (about 1,500 troops) of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers in the area of the Chu Pong Massif, a craggy spine of tumbled peaks over 2,300 feet high that ended at a clearing not far from the Drang River but reached back over ten miles into Cambodia. Take your battalion in there and find and kill them.