You cannot imagine the honor you have given me today asking me to be your keynote speaker. I take on this job with the same great enthusiasm as I did the job of flying the lead aircraft into LZ X-Ray and also with the same question “Why me God?” Why me?
How do you give an entire unit the Medal of Honor? If ever one was deserved, I believe it should have been to the 1st Cav Division units involved in the Battle of the Ia Drang in 1965.
Looking back, I think that the real tragedy of the Ia Drang was the small amount of press and public awareness of that action. Very few people to this day have even the slightest name recognition of the Ia Drang or Plei Me.
I would like you in this room to consider for a moment what would likely have happened to the American effort in Southeast Asia if our troops had not fought so valiantly and successfully during the key days in November of ’65. General Hal Moore and his troops would in all likelihood have taken their place along side of General George Armstrong Custer and his forces for not only having died in service to their country but also having died in a major loss. I mean no disrespect to General Custer, I am only speaking on what the perception of the battle of the Big Horn was and is in the public’s eye. Needless to say, we did not lose in the Ia Drang. We won big and because of that we set the standard for combat and conduct on the field of battle in Vietnam for all units to come. The North Vietnamese were shown in the most forceful and effective manner possible that the U.S. fighting man was something to be reckoned with and that they had better change their plans about a quick victory in the South. Further, we established that if we were turned loose from political restrictions over which we had no control, we would win and win big. This political restraint-lesson, sadly, was to be forgotten. That alone resulted in the final agony suffered years later when our forces pulled out of South Vietnam without the victory we deserved and without the victory the South Vietnam people expected.
We can never undo the political ramifications of the Vietnam era. However, we can keep alive and forever memorialize the tremendous courage and sacrifice by our valiant forces involved in this effort, especially those who led the way in the Ia Drang Valley of the Central Highlands in November of 1965.
Today, I am not going to speak of the success of the combat in itself. You have heard the figures about the number of NVA regiments that were no longer “present for duty” after the battle. You know the details of the fighting and many of you wrote the book by your performances during those fateful days.
I would like to spend a little time on what I perceive led up to the success of the 1st team efforts in the Ia Drang and in subsequent battles.
I would also like to make a few comments on what we were doing in the air during the operations around the Chu Pongs and then to make a few comments about the changes I observed between the Division from 1965-66 and 1967-68.
I think the reason we were so successful as a combat force had to do primarily with the quality, training and professionalism at every level of the Division. No unit ever went into combat better prepared than the1st Cav. Division. By going through Air Assault 2 and the experience of the 11th Air Assault Division, we perfected the techniques of combat better than anyone before us. The only thing missing from this training was live ammo going in both directions and, of course, the consequences of that. Our infantry, artillery, signal, aviation and troops in every category knew their jobs. Not only did they know theirs but they also knew and appreciated the jobs of the other sky soldiers. Our infantry officers and men were the finest ever on the field of battle. They made us proud to be with them and to support them every day and in every way. Their leaders were splendid officers and non-commissioned officers of the highest quality, professionalism and courage. The junior pilot in my outfit could handle any operation we were called upon to do. He was at least a W-2 with more than 600 flying hours. He also continued to train from the time he arrived in the country until he departed. We were not an exception as far as units went.
Our first assaults in Vietnam were a continuation of the training and techniques we learned so well here at Fort Benning and in the Carolinas.
Training was a key factor in developing the teamwork and commitment of individuals and units to their fellow soldiers and to other units with, and alongside of whom, they fought. This teamwork and commitment was never more visible nor more important than in the Ia Drang operations. I know, as a part of the Air support during those days, there was never a consideration that we would not go into those LZs to bring in ammo, and vitally needed supplies and to take out the wounded. We knew what needed to be done, we knew how to do it and far more importantly, we were a part of a team totally committed to every one of our fellow troopers on the ground. The artillery and every other support unit felt the same way.
We cared about our brothers throughout the Division and we knew that they cared about us. It was a personal feeling that is as strong today as it was twenty-five years ago. This caring, comradery and commitment of one soldier to another is the hardest thing to explain to anyone who has not shared the experience. It is also the key element that makes one combat unit a winner where another of equal resources and ability is a loser on the battlefield.
I opted to speak about the personal commitment, comradery, sense of duty and selflessness demonstrated by our troopers first in this presentation because it, in my opinion, was the keystone for all that occurred and/or in some cases all that did not occur in the Ia Drang and later.
Now, I would like to share with you some “war stories”, some true — some not so true, but after 25 years who can separate them? Who cares? Some are humorous now but were not so then. Some were painful then and remain so today.
We shall start off with dear old Fort Benning and move on from there.
I think one of the most awesome sights I ever saw was the arrival of the Division back at Fort Benning from the Carolinas. It had to be the largest traffic jam in history. The hundreds of helicopters and airplanes all inbound at one time over Columbus was a spectacle that may never be seen again. EPA will probably see to that if FAA or some other agency doesn’t. It was an unforgettable sight.
Many of you may not know that shortly after returning to Fort Benning, “A” Co. of the 229th, which was to later lead lifts into the LZ X-RAY, was selected to proceed to the Dominican Republic to participate with the 18th Airborne in that little activity. It was certainly successful. one point of interest in this action was the area in Santo Domingo where “A” Company finally pitched camp. Due to my hard work I was able to find an excellent site for the Unit. While the HQs troops for the 18th Corps went into several of the luxury hotels for billeting and office space, I was able to secure the largest brewery on the Island and the polo grounds next to it for parking the aircraft. The troops slept in the brewery and protected all of its contents. Tough Duty.
Our tour on the Island was cut short by orders to return to Benning. Twelve days after getting back to the Fort we were on our way to An Khê. Incidentally, we found out we were going to Vietnam from one of the wives during a MARs phone-patch two days before we were officially notified. The system worked as per usual.
Most of the troops went by sea and most of the commanders went by air. Being a commander, I went by air with what was affectionately called the Advanced Party. Upon arrival, many of us were assigned directly to units to learn how “we do it” in Vietnam. I went to the 117th Assault Helicopter Company at Quin Nhon where I learned a lot about getting shot at and very little about how “we were going to do it in Vietnam.” My first approach into a hot LZ was into an area just East of the An Khê Pass about where the Koreans went in a few months later. We went in in a stagger trail formation from about 2000′ and I can tell you from that time on I hated the guy who invented that formation and tactic. The enemy on the ground got to shoot at us two at a time for the whole length of the approach. That month with the 117th sold me on limiting the time someone had to shoot at us as well as maximizing the targets at any one time. Once in action with our own troops we never used high altitude, single file, slow approaches although low level navigation was more difficult. Many of our infantry seemed to prefer us not hitting the tree tops with our skids but we just did that to keep everyone awake and eager to get off at the next stop.
At Quin Nhon I heard rumors about how they were clearing An Khê-specifically I heard that no heavy equipment was being used. Everything was to be done by hand. I didn’t believe it. I still don’t believe it. About the first week in August I got the word to report up to An Khê that they had my unit area selected. Prior to that I had made up my mind that being a Major I would not lead by example. I would jut tell my troops what area to clear and let them do the job. No machete work for me! The day I arrived on what was to become “A” company’s happy camping ground, I walked up the little slope identified as mine and saw Col (later Lt. Gen) Alan Birrdett cutting brush in my area. Next to him was someone wearing a star, also cutting brush. I knew I was in trouble! I quickly found a machete and became quite familiar with its use. Just goes to show what positive leadership can do!
Our birds arrived in Quin Nhon and were flown up to An Khê. On the 19th of August Big Ed Freeman was out test flying one of the birds and first earned the title of “Magnet Ass.” He, in some manner, was able to take a hit in the swash plate while flying directly over the Base camp. We were never sure where that round came from. We suspected friendly fire from the 1st of the 9th but were never able to prove it. For the next few months Ed kept up his record of taking hits on the 19th. If we could have afforded the aircraft we would probably have set some kind of a weird record by letting Magnet Assed Big Ed keep going.
In November we got the call to go up to Pleiku and support the Infantry battalions in the Plei Me area. We flew a few missions of little consequence on the first couple of days. Then I was called to an operation briefing with Col. Brown, LTC Moore and their staffs. I recall the discussion concerning where to go to find the enemy. Col. Moore stuck his big hand upon the map and said, “they are in here and this is where I want to go.” His hand covered what to me appeared to be half of South East Asia to include Cambodia. In fact he had identified the Chu Pong mountains, and the Ia Drang Valley. (An aside here, when I graduated from grade school our teachers made out wills for our younger brothers and sisters still in school. My teacher made a will to my younger brother that willed to him “my unique ability to get into trouble and out of trouble without any trouble at all.” (The next several days were reinforced by that teacher’s perception.)
After the briefing the following morning I flew Col. Moore and several members of his staff over the selected area on a reconnaissance. During the reconnaissance I selected several sites where I thought we could get 8 ships in at one time. LZ X-Ray was one. This was about 7:00 in the morning. When we arrived back at Moore’s headquarters he set up a plan of attack and also sent out a scout from the 1st of the 9th to determine if 8 ships could actually get into X-Ray. That is the only time that Trojan 6 ever questioned my judgment, at least the only time that I knew about. All things considered, that in itself is a remarkable record.
We made the first three lifts into LZ X-Ray with very little problem as far as the aviation part went. On the 1st lift while on short final one of my people reported seeing an animal running through the grass in the landing zone. That, we believe was a sighting of the first enemy soldier in X-Ray. (From then on we shot at animals.)
On the 4th lift all hell broke loose. Two of the lift ships ended up down in the LZ. My bird attracted heavy fire from within the LZ. An area that was not safe for us to return fire in because of not being able to tell where our troops were. My crew chief was hit in the throat and several Infantry on my bird were also hit before we could unload. We landed and loaded on several more wounded and got out of the LZ. The LZ quickly became a 2 ship size from its original 8 due to enemy activity. While returning to the base, I discussed the problem over the radio with General Moore. Arriving back at the base, I off loaded the wounded, changed aircraft and along with my 1st Platoon Leader Big Ed Freeman, headed back to the LZ with ammo and to evac wounded. Big Ed volunteered for this mission and should have in fact stayed behind to lead the rest of the unit in case something happened to me. I did not have time to argue the point and I will tell you that I could not have picked a braver or more dedicated trooper for the job we had to do. We made several runs into the LZ and then brought a couple of more of our aircraft into the action. Two ships could not keep up with the demand for ammo, water and med evac support. On one lift, Freeman and I landed where General Moore directed and had stationed two med evac ships behind us to come in as we left. We went first to show them exactly where to land. One med evac ship made it to the ground and the second was on short final when it received ground fire. Both ships departed without the wounded and from there on it was all lift ship support. During the rest of the day we split our support effort, relocating units to include infantry and artillery, moving ammo and other resupplies into X-RAY, Falcon and other LZs and taking out the wounded and in some cases the dead.
Our day ended about 10:00 p.m. with return to base at Pleiku. At 3:30 in the morning, John Weaver, my executive officer led a flight of two Hueys that carried in another load of ammo and carried out wounded.
The next day we moved troops, artillery and resupplied throughout the day. By then time and actions were running together. The one thing we knew, we were in one helluva battle and we were going to win.
My most poignant memory of the whole operation took place when we returned from the fourth lift on the first day. The wounded and dead, especially in such numbers, were a new experience for us. We radioed ahead about out causalities and as soon as we hit the ground, medics and regular supply personnel came to our aircraft to attend to the wounded. One of the men was a huge black soldier in only his shorts and boots. He was ringing wet with sweat. He came up to my helicopter and reached in and took the body of one of the young white soldiers up into his arms as gently as lifting a baby. There was no question the soldier was dead. He held him for a minute and then hugged him as tears ran down his cheeks. There was no doubt that he truly felt the pain and grief that this young soldier’s death brought. He held his brother in love and tenderness. No prejudice, no hate, nor envy. Nothing, but the sorrow one soldier feels for another when death appears on the battlefield. I shall never forget that sight, not because of its grief and sorrow but because of the love and compassion that was demonstrated by one soldier for another that he did not even know.
On a lighter side, when the battle was over several days later, we returned to Camp Holloway and it is not true that first stop we made was at the O Club bar there. Nor is it true that General Moore, Jon Mills and I threatened the bartender with physical violence when he questioned our motley appearance and was refusing to serve us. The facts are that we just needed a place to put our weapons after all that action and on the bar seemed like a good place. Jon was correct to point out that the weapons may have appeared to be pointed in the general direction of behind the bar rather than down range. We had to point them some place.
In any case, we did get served and the bartender will never know what might have happened if we hadn’t. The sign behind the bar was a reflection of the quality of the place. It said “This bar is off limits to Dogs and 1st Cav Troops and not necessarily in that order.” The buzz job I led over Holloway on the way back to An Khê the next day was the lowest run we made while in Vietnam.
The First Team was involved in many actions after the Ia Drang but none were, in my opinion, so fierce and so important. We set the standards in November and from that time on we lived up to those standards.
At the beginning of my talk I said I would expound a little about the difference between the 1965-66 and the 1967-68 eras.
I was sent home in August of 1966 to Ft. Carson, Colorado and assigned to an aviation unit being formed to go back to Vietnam. I was at my time of arrival, the 14th ranking pilot in the Company. I did not relish being peter pilot behind 14 passed-over majors.
I worked my way out of that unit and ended up back in the Country in early August of 1967. Upon arrival, I immediately asked for a reassignment back to the Cav rather than going to the Engineer Group that I was slated for.
I arrived at An Khê and was assigned to Division Headquarters.
What was different?
1. Hooch maids shining boots.
2. Search and Avoid vs. Search and Destroy
3. Fewer assaults with few ships
4. Base camps out of An Khê
5. Less action
6. Lower level of training
What was the same?
I lasted only through January 16 shortly before TET at which time I was out with the 1st of the 9 out of LZ ROSS and got mixed up in a bombing run and blown out of the sky by the USAF.
© Bruce P. Crandall
August 10, 1990