Book Review: We Were Soldiers Once…and Young

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In August 1965, America was making Vietnam an American war. The newly arrived First Air Cavalry Division had just arrived at An Khe in the Central Highlands, with its 500 helicopters to provide the mobility to hop over the jungles and mountains to find the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), and the airborne firepower to kill them. Helicopters replaced the road-bound jeeps, tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks, and artillery that had opened the French up to viciously effective ambushes.

The First Air Cav was proud and ready; it traced its lineage from the mounted cavalry in the Indian Wars of the 1860s with the Battle of the Little Big Horn and General Custer to World War I, World War II and Korea. The generals believed that the First Cav would quickly secure the area with their superior fighting ability, excellent training, air mobility, firepower, and above all, their paratrooper courage and esprit de corps. No other outcome could be perceived.

Yet three months later 305 troopers were dead and the American military was launched on the bankrupt strategy of “attrition warfare.” We Were Soldiers Once realistically tells the story of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, the first battle pitting U.S. Army regulars against North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars — and the battle that changed the war. Moore and Galloway’s narrative of battle is realistically captivating: it is not a book for those with weak stomachs, as the authors show the realities of small-unit, individual combat in Vietnam against a very determined foe. Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore was the commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, whose lineage ironically included Little Big Horn. Joe Galloway was the only correspondent there. He had to drop his camera and grab a rifle to survive.

It was 10:48 A.M. on November 14, 1965, when Moore landed the 450 men of the 1/7 at Landing Zone X-Ray and was immediately attacked by three regiments totaling 4,000 NVA soldiers. Moore struggled to defend against overwhelming enemy superiority by establishing a tight defensive perimeter with overlapping fields of fire. Yet one platoon leader foolishly took his platoon off into enemy territory and was cut-off for three days.

With nearly 200 dead and wounded and fearing for another “Little Bighorn” for the 1/7, Moore called in the signal”Broken Arrow,” which spurred General William Westmoreland to scramble every jet and helicopter to stave off disaster. Strafing runs and napalm were brought within 50 yards of the Cav’s positions, two dozen 105mm howitzers created a ring of steel around the beleaguered troops, and B-52 bombers smashed the NVA rear. After Colonel Tully’s 2/5 Cav arrived the next day and Colonel McDade’s 2/7 the day after, Moore’s battalion was lifted to the rear and safety.

Or so the Americans thought as the relief battalions trudged back overland for pick up. Tully’s 2/5 made it safely back, but not McDade’s 2/7, whose men had gone without sleep for 60 hours and were spread out 550 yards after marching for four hours through tough terrain. The NVA pounced on them at LZ Albany — killing 155 and wounding 121 GIs. “I think this fight of November seventeenth was the most important of the campaign,” the NVA commander later told Moore and Calloway. “I gave the order to my battalions: ‘When you meet the Americans divide yourself into many groups and attack the column from all directions and divide the column into many pieces. Move inside the column, grab them by the belt, and thus avoid casualties from the artillery and air.’ We attacked your column from the sides and, at the moment of the attack, we were waiting for you.”

“Grab them by the belt” meant go to the bayonet and the 2/7 was the target. The survivors recount how the NVA searched for “Americans who were still alive and killing them off one by one.” Spec4 Jack Smith, the son of television journalist Howard K. Smith, played dead while an NVA machine “gunner started using me as a sandbag for his machine gun.” The Americans hurriedly sent in reinforcements, but the enemy melted away into the jungle and into Cambodia.

We Were Soldiers Once…And Young is much more than a story of a bloody four-day battle. It is all about America’s fixation with attrition warfare. U.S. commanders were reassured that while 305 Americans were killed, NVA losses were estimated at more than 3,561. This “kill ratio” of 1 American for 12 dead NVA led the to an attrition strategy that focused on finding the enemy, closing with him, and utilize American firepower to bleed the enemy to death over the long haul. The bigger the body count, the more likely the North Vietnamese would sue for peace, ran the theory. And thus American soldiers became bait in a trap that killed 56,000 of them, yet ultimately failed to compel Hanoi to admit defeat.

Who were the men who were so willing to fight us to the death? should have been the question asked by American leaders. They never did, but Moore and Galloway did so when they returned to Vietnam to meet with the NVA officers they fought. This makes for a rare look at the campaign through the eyes of both sides. The man Moore directly faced in the Ia Drang was Lieutenant General Nguyen Huu An, who joined the Viet Minh in 1945 and rose through the ranks until he fought as a regimental commander at the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. In the Ia Drang, Senior Lieutenant Colonel An was the field commander of the three regiments that attacked General Moore. In 1992, then commandant of the Senior Military Academy, he told General Moore, “When we attacked the Plei Mei camp in Phase I, we encircled the position in order to destroy the reinforcements. Our purpose was to draw the Saigon ARVN [South Vietnamese Army] column into coming out to reinforce. We had a strong force, but no intention of liberating territory. We wanted to destroy the enemy forces. As we launched the campaign, we learned that American forces had landed in Vietnam. We believed that in Phase I if we attacked Plei Mei, the ARVN will come and we will attack their reinforcements. In Phase II, we believed that the Americans would come and we would attack them. We had learned that the Americans could drop troops far behind us. So in Phase III, we would be ready to attack the Americans in our rear areas.”

The tremendous losses of the 2/7 at LZ Albany showed that after the helicopters landed the troops, they were unable to outmaneuver the NVA in the face of its command of the terrain. The enemy maintained the initiative by attacking, withdrawing, breaking contact, and ambushing at will. American troops could dig in, bring massive firepower to bear if the NVA chose to fight, and inflict upon the NVA many more casualties than they took. But once the NVA broke contact, American troops were unable to force a fight. The NVA melted away, and if the Americans plunged into the jungle after them, they moved away from their LZ and all their firepower and logistical support. Wisely, they rarely pursued the enemy, once contact was broken off.

In the end, the juxtaposition of the battles at X-Ray and Albany really shows that the soldier on the ground and the skill of his commanders is more important than technical expertise or resources. The NVA control over time, place, and intensity of the combat was the reason why attrition warfare failed. In an ironic twist, Moore and Galloway include the history of the famous “French Group Mobile 100” — a force of 3,500 men that was ambushed and slaughtered by the Viet Minh in 1954 by repeated ambushes. This area was about twenty-five miles from the Ia Drang Valley. Lieutenant Rescorla, one of the reinforcements at LZ Albany, found a “big, battered old French army bugle carrying a manufacture date of 1900 and the legend Couresnon & Cie, Fournisseurs de L’Armee.” It was a lesson that was never heeded.

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