Friday, August 3, 2012

Garden of Eden 3: Battle of the la Drang Valley

Garden of Eden 3

A heart-warming novel sharing love, heroism, and the rite of passage during the Vietnam War

Battle of the la Drang Valley

Technically, la Drang was a series of battles spread out over several miles. Highway 51, south of Pleiku: Two ambushes against an ARVN column sent to relieve Plei Me, October 23-25; Plei Me: Under siege, October 19-25; la Drang Valley: Several skirmishes beginning November 6, 1965. This analysis describes briefly what happened at LZ X-Ray and LZ-Albany which has come to be known as the Battle of la Drang.

This two-part slugfest took place November 14th through November 18th in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. American forces consisted of the 1st Battalion, 7th Calvary, 2nd Battalion, 7th Calvary, and the 2nd Battalion, 5th Calvary of the United States Army.

General Giap’s forces included the 33rd, 66th, and 320th Regiments of the People’s Army of Vietnam, PAVN, plus the National Liberation Front, NLF, of the H-15 Battalion. General Giap’s intentions were to cut Vietnam in half by driving a wedge through the ARVN forces before the Americans could establish a military buildup.

ARVN, Army of the Republic of Vietnam, was for the most part poorly led and poorly trained. Many of their officers had no formal military training. Nor were they enthusiastic about fighting. The ARVN major who led the ARVN column to relieve Plei Me drug his heels for two days causing additional casualties at the camp. Many of the South Vietnamese soldiers were capable, they simply had ineffectual commanders.

General Westmorland and his staff wanted to test their newly developed air mobile cavalry. A search-and-destroy mission was planned to track down the enemy insurgents that besieged the Special Forces camp at Plei Me. The insurgents had withdrawn to their sanctuary in the la Drang Valley.  Army Intelligence was lousy. The untested Americans were about to enter a region where they would be up against what some considered the best light infantry in the world.

It was soon discovered there were 1,600 communist troops on the Chu Pong Mountain northwest of Plei Me. The Americans were told not to attempt scaling the mountain, bombers would do the job. What they didn’t know at the time, there were additional communist forces in the valley superior in numbers to the Air Cavalry.

Just before 1300 hours on the first day, the Vietnamese attacked in force. At first, all went well. Casualties were inflicted on the enemy. The Americans held the advantage of air superiority and field artillery. But soon the situation grew critical. Massive attacks, repeated frontal assaults, flanking maneuvers. The enemy was relentless, attacking again and again. The Americans held on, calling down artillery and air strikes against the communist forces besieging them from every direction.

Valor became a common virtue those first fifty hours. The United States Army stood their ground against a relentless enemy that seemed impervious to death. Hundreds were slaughtered, hundreds more wounded. Seventy nine Americans were killed and one hundred and twenty one wounded. The battle was won. A great victory has been achieved. Colonel Brown then requested permission to withdraw his men from the battlefield. His troops were exhausted, having not slept for two days, and more PAVN soldiers were reported in the valley.

General Westmoreland refused Brown’s request, stating he wanted to avoid the appearance of a retreat. B-52 Stratofortresses were on the way from Guam to bomb the Chu Pong Mountain, so the Americans were ordered to march to a safe zone away from the target area. They walked straight into the 8th Battalion, 66th Regiment, 1st Battalion, 33rd Regiment, and headquarters of the 3rd Battalion, 33rd Regiment of the PAVN.

A nightmare ensued. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting. Air strikes were called down which resulted in American casualties by friendly fire. The six foot grass made it impossible to see. Trees rose up one hundred feet. The tide of battle ebbed and flowed. In the end, an additional one hundred and fifty five Americans lay dead, and over a hundred more wounded. General Westmorland had just made his first tactical blunder of the war.

It should be noted that Captain Ed Freeman, United States Army, flew his Huey helicopter in and out of the combat zone fourteen times that first day bringing in ammunition, water, and medical supplies, and flying out approximately thirty critically wounded. The fighting was so intense the Medevac commander ordered his crews not to land. That was wrong. The men on the ground fought bravely and honorably. They needed all the support they could get against a courageous and determined foe. Ed Freeman was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor by President George W Bush. Major Freeman passed away in Boise, Idaho in 2008.

The kill ratio was 12 to 1 in favor of the Americans. General Westmorland saw that as a winning strategy. He never deviated from his WW2 experience. He failed to see the significance of Dien Bien Phu or the centuries of Vietnam battling the Chinese.

General Giap is portrayed by Hanoi and others as one of the great generals in history. His tactics were straight out of the pages of WW1. US casualties ran over 58,000. General Giap’s losses were estimated near 1,000,000.