Lt. General Hal Moore, one of the greatest American military heroes of the 20th Century, died recently and his passing received scant attention in most media outlets. This is lamentable because he was someone we should teach our children about - a formidable but loyal and compassionate warrior, and a brilliant natural leader whose name is legend at West Point. He will be forever be remembered as a hero of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, probably the most important American military engagement of the last 60 years.
Most Americans have probably never heard of the Ia Drang, the site of the first major encounter between the regular armies of the United States and North Vietnam. Yet that forgotten battle, the beginning of helicopter airmobile infantry warfare, in mid-November 1965 probably changed world politics as much as any other military engagement since World War II.
In 1964, the United States began sending men and materiel to South Vietnam on a large scale. For a year, American troops served primarily as advisors to the South Vietnamese Army fighting Viet Cong guerillas. Although over a thousand Americans were killed during that time, most deaths occurred in brief skirmishes with the guerillas.
That changed in November 1965, when North Vietnam infiltrated thousands of crack soldiers through the Ho Chi Minh trail into the rural Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Using tactics similar to those used successfully against the French a decade before, the North Vietnamese prepared a deadly ambush in the Ia Drang for the undermanned battalion of the American 7th Cavalry Division, led by then Colonel Moore. Several thousand against several hundred.
In a brutal three-day battle, the badly outnumbered Americans were surrounded and nearly annihilated. A new weapon of war, the armed helicopter or Huey, was introduced, and used day and night to transport troops and supplies, evacuate wounded, and launch withering fire on the enemy. The 7th Cav was saved, barely, by the Huey, last-minute reinforcements, and Hal Moore’s brilliant leadership.
After four days, the United States lost roughly 250 men and had 250 wounded during the heaviest fighting. For America, November 1965 became the deadliest month of the Vietnam War to that time, and Americans became familiar with the term “body bag.” North Vietnamese losses were staggering, perhaps ten times greater than American casualties.
Moore engineered a victory over nearly insurmountable odds, only to see its significance lost when the North Vietnamese army later occupied the territory the Americans abandoned. It was emblematic of all that was to come in the Vietnam War. Along with the superb war reporter and photographer Joseph Galloway, Lt. General Moore wrote the seminal account of Ia Drang, “We Were Soldiers Once… and Young”, a gripping account of heroism, courage, and tragedy - required reading for students of history.
In Washington, President Lyndon Johnson sent Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to Saigon to assess conditions. McNamara prepared a memo informing Johnson the North Vietnamese were far stronger than earlier assessments. McNamara presented two options - either quick diplomatic settlement and withdrawal from Vietnam, or a major escalation of American troops. Johnson, and his advisors including McNamara, chose the latter - a fateful decision for America with implications that still resonate today. Within a year, the draft was expanded and American troop strength in Vietnam doubled.
The American general responsible for prosecuting the war, William Westmoreland, shaped his overall strategy based on events at Ia Drang. With 200,000 fresh troops at his disposal, he believed that, based on the ratio of North Vietnamese casualties to American casualties, he could successfully wage a war of attrition. If enough enemy soldiers were killed, North Vietnam would capitulate. Thus was born the “body count.”
It was a foolish and self-defeating strategy. Two years later, with victory nowhere in sight, Westmoreland was sacked after requesting more troops, and President Johnson declined to run for another term.
The North Vietnamese absorbed their own lessons from Ia Drang. Despite heavy casualties, they had fought the vaunted American Army, and its awesome airpower, to a standstill. General Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the 20th Century’s most brilliant generals who masterminded victory over the French in the 1950’s and eventually the Americans in the 1960’s, realized American airpower could be partially neutralized by close-quarter fighting, which made the Americans reluctant to risk killing their own troops. The North Vietnamese could choose where and when to fight, and then simply break off the encounter by retreating into Cambodia to rest and regroup.
Today, more than a half century later, little evidence remains of the killing field at Ia Drang; the foxholes have disappeared, and beautiful wildflowers grow over what was once Landing Zone X-Ray, where many men fought bravely and died. Ia Drang should go down in the annals of American military history alongside Yorktown, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Normandy. It marked the beginning of the end of 20th Century American military supremacy – despite the uncommon valor of Hal Moore and the courageous veterans he led. And now he has joined them for the final time. We owe them all our gratitude for their sacrifices.
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