Vietnam-Land/air battle: “the helicopter war”

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The Battle of Ia Drang was the first major battle between the United States Army and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) (referred to by US fighting units as the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) during the Vietnam War.) U.S. CIA agents had been tracking the NVA armies movements since the early fall, and by November 13 U.S. forces had been moved in to attack, backed by artillery equipped with special napalm tipped shells.The two-part battle took place between November 14 and November 18, 1965, at two landing zones (LZs) northwest of Plei Me in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam (approximately 35 miles south-west of Pleiku). The battle derives its name from the Drang River which runs through the valley northwest of Plei Me, in which the engagement took place. “Ia” means “river” in the local Montagnard language.

By May and June 1965 the military situation in the South had sharply deteriorated. During June ARVN lost the equivalent of an infantry battalion a week. In these circumstances General Westmoreland decided to try to hit first, always his preferred strategy during the war. He committed the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), an entirely new military formation that went to war on the wind.

Helicopters came into their own during the Vietnam conflict, which is sometimes known as “the helicopter war”. US Army, Marine, Air Force and Navy helicopters flew an astonishing 36,125,000 sorties: 3,932,000 attack; 7,547,000 assault (troop landing); 3,548,000 cargo; and 21,098,000 reconnaissance, SAR (search and rescue), and other missions. The US lost ten helicopters over North Vietnam and 2,066 in South Vietnam to hostile fire, and an additional 2,566 went down to non-hostile causes. Army aviators suffered the highest per capita casualty ratio of any US military contingent in the war.

The US Army embraced the helicopter following the 1947 Key West Agreement that gave the Air Force control of most fixed-wing military aircraft. While very vulnerable to ground fire, helicopters proved invaluable in a variety of roles, including reconnaissance, liaison, troop lift, resupply and medical evacuation (medevac). Utilizing the helicopter, the Army created a new type of division that seemed ideally suited to a war with few roads. The Army experimented with the 11th Air Assault Division (Test), which then became the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). The 1st Air Cavalry Division, as it was known, was entirely airmobile. Although it would take many lifts to move the entire division, all of its 16,000 men and equipment, including artillery, moved in 435 helicopters.

Westmoreland considered breaking up the division into its component brigades and stationing them at various locations around South Vietnam. Division commander Major General Harry W.O.Kinnard strongly objected and Westmoreland assigned the 1st Air Cavalry intact to an area of central Vietnam, just north of Route 19 where it passed through the village of An Khê. The division arrived there in September 1965 and had been in Vietnam only a month when Westmoreland committed it to battle.

US intelligence had identified a PAVN troop concentration in the western Central Highlands, where General Giáp had been assaulting Special Forces camps for some time with the intent of seizing them preparatory to a drive to the sea.

Brigadier General Chu Huy Mân commanded PAVN units on the western plateau. He planned to lay siege to the Special Forces camp at Plei Me, with its 12 Americans and some 400 Montagnards, in the expectation that this would attract a road-bound ARVN relief force, which could then be ambushed. With the relief column destroyed and the Special Forces camp taken, Mân hoped to assault Pleiku City, clearing the way for an advance down Route 19 toward Qui Nhón and the coast. As Lieutenant General Harold G.Moore, who was then a battalion commander and participated in the subsequent fighting, noted, “Whoever controls Route 19 controls the Central Highlands, and whoever controls the Highlands controls Vietnam.”

Mân positioned his three regiments around the 2,500-foot-high Chu Pong massif on the Cambodian border, and on 19 October attacked the Plei Mei Special Forces camp. This attack and the ambush of an ARVN relief force failed, thanks in large part to US air support and air-lifted artillery.

Operations in mid-October by units of the 1st Air Cavalry provided intelligence on PAVN dispositions and General Westmoreland decided on a spoiling attack. This resulted in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, a forested area just east of the Chu Pong massif, from 23 October to 20 November. It was the first major battle between PAVN and US Army units and one of the war’s bloodiest encounters.

On 27 October Westmoreland committed a brigade of the 1st Air Cavalry to search-and-destroy operations. For two weeks there was sporadic but light contact between the opposing sides. This changed on 14 November. Over the next four days savage fighting erupted over landing zones (LZS) X-Ray and Albany. It began when Lieut. Col. Harold Moore’s understrength 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment—some 450 men—landed at LZ “XRay” almost on top of two PAVN regiments of 2,000 men. Outnumbered and in unfamiliar terrain, the Americans fought desperately. In bitter, sometimes hand-to-hand combat, the Americans drove back the attackers. Beginning the next day, 15 B-52 bombers from Guam began six days of Arc Light strikes on the Chu Pong massif. It was the first time that B-52s were employed in a tactical role in support of ground troops. Moore’s battalion was relieved by Lieut. Col. Robert Tully’s 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, which was then ordered to vacate LZ “X-Ray” and march overland to “Albany” two miles away. Three PAVN battalions ambushed the Americans en route, and in the most savage one-day battle of the war 155 Americans were killed and another 124 wounded.

The battle ended when PAVN units withdrew across the border into Cambodia. In a month of fighting the 1st Air Cavalry had lost 305 killed. The Americans estimated PAVN losses at 3,561, less than half of these confirmed. Both sides claimed victory. The PAVN learned they could survive high-tech American weapons and the new helicopter tactics. They also learned to minimize casualties by keeping combat troops close to US positions in what Giap referred to as his “grab them by the belt” tactic.

The PAVN had inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans, even while suffering horrendously themselves. But the PAVN leadership believed that even lopsided body counts favoured them and would eventually wear down American resolve. The Americans believed they had prevented a decisive PAVN success before the US deployment could be completed. Westmoreland and his chief deputy, General William DePuy, both of whom had learned their trade in the meat-grinder battles of World War II, saw their estimated 12 to 1 kill ratio advantage as proof that the war could be won through attrition, by carrying the conflict to the PAVN in search and destroy operations. Indeed, Time magazine selected General Westmoreland as its Man of the Year for 1965. In that year the United States lost 1,275 killed, 5,466 wounded, 16 captured, and 137 missing. RVN forces lost 11,403 killed, 23,296 wounded, and 7,589 missing. The Allies estimated VC/PAVN dead at 35,382 killed and 5,873 captured.

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