Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.
—THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON,
in a dispatch from Waterloo, 1815
In our Mad Minute we had swept the area outside our perimeter. Now I ordered a sweep inside our lines. At 7:46 A.M.the reserve elements, the recon platoon, and the survivors of Charlie Company began a cautious and very deliberate patrol of the territory enclosed by our troops. I ordered them to conduct the sweep on hands and knees, searching for friendly casualties and North Vietnamese infiltrators in the tall elephant grass. They also checked the trees inside the line of foxholes closely. By 8:05 A.M. they were reporting negative results.
At 8:10 all units on line were ordered to coordinate with those on their flanks and prepare to move five hundred yards forward on a search-and-clear sweep, policing up any friendly casualties and all enemy weapons. There was a long delay before this dangerous but necessary maneuver could begin. Radio checks, ammo resupply, coordination with flanking units—all these took time for men who were slowing down mentally and physically after forty-eight hours of constant tension and no sleep. My last rest had been those five hours of sleep the night of November 13. I could still think clearly but I had to tell myself what I intended to say before I opened my mouth. It was like speaking a foreign language before you are completely fluent in it. I was translating English into English. I had to keep my head, concentrate on the events in progress, and think about what came next.
The sweep began at 9:55 A.M., and Myron Diduryk’s men had moved out only about seventy-five yards when they met enemy resistance, including hand grenades. Lieutenant James Lane, Diduryk’s 2nd Platoon leader, was seriously wounded. I stopped all movement immediately and ordered Diduryk’s company to return to their foxholes. Sergeant John Setelin, his burned arm still throbbing, was unhappy. “That morning we were ordered to sweep out in front of our positions. I didn’t like that. At night I felt fairly safe because Charlie couldn’t see me and I was in that hole and didn’t have to get out. But when daylight came I wanted to cuss Colonel Moore for making us go outside our holes. We were told to make one last sweep, a final check around. During that sweep, Lamonthe and I brought in one of the last of our dead. Big man, red hair, handlebar mustache. We found him next to a tree, sitting up, his rifle propped up on another tree. One round through his chest, another through the base of his throat. We got him back, running and dragging him.”
Lieutenant Rick Rescorla, as usual, was in the middle of it all. “I led my platoon forward into the silent battlefield. We followed a twisting path through the clumps of enemy dead. Fifty yards out we crossed a clearing and were approaching a group of dead NVA machine gunners. Less than seven yards away the enemy head snapped up. I threw myself sideways. Everything was happening in slow motion. The grimacing face of an enemy gunner, eyes wide, smoke coming from his gun barrel. I fired twice and went down, looking foolishly at an empty magazine. ‘Grenade!’ I called back to my radio operator, [PFC Salvatore P.] Fantino. He lobbed a frag to me. I caught it, pulled pin, and dropped it right on those NVA heads. Firing broke out up and down the line and there was a scramble back to the foxholes. Seven more men wounded along the line, including Lieutenant Lane. Sergeant [Larry L.] Melton and I crawled back out with backpacks of grenades while the others covered us. That handful of enemy died hard, one by one, behind the anthills.”
When that firing broke out Diduryk reported by radio. I grabbed Charlie Hastings, the forward air controller, and my own radio operator, Specialist Bob Ouellette, and along with Plumley we ran the seventy-five yards to Diduryk’s command-post foxhole. Rescorla was thirty to forty yards off to the left front, regrouping his men. I told Hastings to pull out all the stops and bring down all the air firepower he could lay hands on, bring it in now. Orbiting overhead was a flight of A-1E Skyraiders from the 1st Air Commando Squadron. Captain Bruce Wallace, the flight leader, says: “I remember talking to Charlie Hastings on the radio. ‘X-Ray, this is Hobo Three-One, four A-lEs, bombs, napalm, and guns. Please key your mike for a steer.’ The reply: ‘Roger, Hobo Three-One, X-Ray. Your target is a concentration of enemy troops just to our southeast. Want you to come in first with your bombs, then your napalm, then your guns on whatever we see that’s still moving around out there.’ ‘Affirm X-Ray. We are ready for your smoke.’”
The aerial attack began. Hastings had also called in a flight of jet fighter-bombers. Within minutes the brush out beyond Diduryk’s lines was heaving and jumping to the explosion of rockets, 250- and 500-pound bombs, napalm, 20mm cannon shells, cluster bombs, and white phosphorus. Peter Arnett, then a reporter for the Associated Press, had hitched a lift into X-Ray this last morning. Arnett was near Myron Diduryk’s foxhole busily snapping pictures.
After several minutes of this I told Charlie Hastings: “One more five-hundred-pounder very, very close to kill any PAVN left out there, then call them off.” I told Diduryk to order his men to fix bayonets and move out. Within ten seconds we jumped off into the black smoke of that last five-hundred-pound bomb. Overhead, Air Force Captain Bruce Wallace’s flight of Spads was reassembling and getting a battle-damage assessment from Charlie Hastings: “On many missions that report would contain estimates that the flight had destroyed suspected enemy truck parks or bamboo hooches or inflicted casualties on suspected enemy pack animals. LZ X-Ray was different. Charlie Hastings would tell it like it was. Tactfully if we didn’t do it right: ‘Roger, Hobo, no score today, but thanks for your help anyway’ Enthusiastically if we did it right: ‘Roger, Hobo, exactly what we needed. The ground commander sends his compliments.’”
Rescorla and his men had been watching the air show appreciatively. “We gathered for the last sweep. Suddenly a fighter-bomber plowed down from above. We buried our noses at the bottom of our holes. An express train screamed down and the explosion shook the earth. The bomb landed thirty yards from our holes. We came up cursing in the dust and debris. The call came to move out. Every available trooper, including Colonel Moore, pushed the perimeter out.”
This time it was no contest at all. We killed twenty-seven more enemy and crushed all resistance. I looked over a field littered with enemy dead, sprawled by ones and twos and heaps across a torn and gouged land. Blood, body fragments, torn uniforms, shattered weapons littered the landscape. It was a sobering sight. Those men, our enemies, had mothers, too. But we had done what we had to do.
Aside from wanting to make certain that Diduryk and his men did a clean, safe job, I had one other reason for joining the final assault personally. Rick Rescorla watched. “Colonel Moore, in our sector, was rushing up to clumps of bodies, pulling them apart. ‘What the hell is the colonel doing up here?’ Sergeant Thompson asked. I shook my head. Later we saw him coming back at the head of men carrying ponchos. By 10:30 A.M. Colonel Moore had found what he was looking for. Three dead American troops were no longer missing in action; now they were on their way home to their loved ones.”
Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDade and the rest of his men of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry had begun marching toward LZ X-Ray from LZ Columbus, three miles east, at around 9:30 A.M. McDade brought with him his headquarters company, plus Charlie and Delta companies of the 2nd Battalion. He had also been given Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry. They closed in on our position at about noon. In the forefront of the column was Specialist 4 Jack P. Smith, son of radio and television broadcast journalist Howard K. Smith. Jack Smith wrote of what he saw in a 1967 article for the Saturday Evening Post: “The 1st Battalion had been fighting continuously for three or four days, and I had never seen such filthy troops. They all had that look of shock. They said little, just looked around with darting, nervous eyes. Whenever I heard a shell coming close, I’d duck but they kept standing. There must have been about 1,000 rotting bodies out there, starting at about 20 feet, surrounding the giant circle of foxholes.”
Others echoed Jack Smith’s astonishment. Specialist 4 Pat Selleck, hardened by three days in X-Ray, listened to the newcomers: “I heard one soldier say, ‘Jesus Christ, what did you guys do out here? It looks like a bloodbath. All you see is bodies all over the place walking in here.’” Specialist 4 Dick Ackerman, a native of Merced, California, was in McDade’s recon platoon as it marched into X-Ray. “Upon entering the LZ the first thing I saw was enemy bodies stacked like cordwood alongside the trail, in piles at least six feet high. I have never forgotten that sight.”
At 10:40 A.M., with two fresh battalions—Bob Tully’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry and Bob McDade’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry—now in or on the way to X-Ray, Colonel Tim Brown ordered the weary survivors of my 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry to prepare to pull out for some needed rest. Brown also told us that Captain Myron Diduryk’s Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion and Lieutenant Sisson’s platoon from Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, which fought alongside us would also have the same opportunity to rest and refit. We would fly by Hueys to Landing Zone Falcon, and from there by CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters on to Camp Holloway in Pleiku.
I told Dillon to get the evacuation organized and rolling. Tully and McDade’s men would conduct a relief in place, taking our positions along the X-Ray perimeter. Dillon put Lieutenant Dick Merchant in charge of the extraction, while we coordinated the relief with Bob Tully and his operations officer, Captain Ron Crooks. We would take out of X-Ray not only our troops and weapons but the last of our dead and wounded and an incredible stash of captured enemy weapons and gear.
By now, late morning, Tuesday, November 16, the personality of Landing Zone X-Ray had changed. What previously had been a killing field had become something else. We moved about with impunity in places where movement had meant death only hours before. Except for our own air and artillery, there was nothing to be heard. It was just too quiet, too suddenly, and that made me uneasy. That old principle: Nothing was wrong except that nothing was wrong. Where was the enemy? Headed back into Cambodia? Still on the mountain, preparing to attack again? Headed north to the Ia Drang and its precious water? And again the old question: Where were the enemy 12.7mm heavy anti-aircraft machine guns? If the enemy commander brought those weapons to bear on us from the mountain above, LZ X-Ray with three American battalions crowding the clearing would present a beautiful target. I told Dillon to step up the harassing artillery fire and to keep the air strikes coming in on the slopes above us. I told him I wanted a picture-perfect helicopter extraction, covered by all the firepower we could bring to bear.
Then, still worried about whether we had accounted for everyone, I ordered the battalion rear command post to do a new accounting on all our dead and wounded. And I told Myron Diduryk to take his company out on one final lateral sweep across his front 150 yards out. That area had been the scene of the heaviest hand-to-hand fighting and I wanted it searched one last time. I was determined to keep my promise that this battalion would never leave any man behind on the field of battle, that everyone would come home.
Platoon Sergeant Fred J. Kluge of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry was moving his men into the fighting holes along the old perimeter. “Two of my men called me over and pointed. There was a dead American sergeant in the bottom of the foxhole. I looked at him and couldn’t help thinking: He looks just like me. I told the two troops: ‘Get him by the harness and drag him to the choppers.’ Someone came up behind me and said: ‘No, you won’t do that, Sergeant. He’s one of my troopers and you will show respect. Get two more men and carry him to the landing zone.’ It was Colonel Moore, making a final check of his positions. If we hadn’t found that sergeant he would have. I had cause to remember his words, and repeat them, just two days later.”
Near noon a Chinook loaded with reporters, photographers, and television crews landed in X-Ray under escort by Captain J. D. Coleman of the division’s public-affairs office. Grimed, numbed, and half-deafened by two days and nights of combat, Joe Galloway stood and watched others of his profession fan out nervously and try to make sense of this battle. Frank McCulloch, Time magazine’s Saigon bureau chief at the time, says, “A helicopterload of us reporters flew into LZ X-Ray on the third day. A few rounds came in and we all flopped down on the ground. We looked up and there was Galloway standing up, saying: ‘Bullshit. That stuff ain’t aimed at us.’”
Charlie Black, of the Columbus (Georgia) Ledger-Enquirer, came up and hugged Galloway. The two walked away from the crowd, and Galloway tried to tell Black something of what had happened in this place, something that Black typed up on his battered old portable typewriter for one of the long reports he airmailed home, to be published in the 1st Cavalry Division’s hometown newspaper, read by the wives and children of the soldiers: “Charlie, these are the greatest soldiers that have ever gone into a fight! There hasn’t been any outfit like this before. It’s something I wish every American could understand, what these kids did. Look over there; doesn’t that make you feel good?” The young reporter turned the older one toward a section of the perimeter where a GI had planted a small American flag atop the shattered trunk of a tree.
J. D. Coleman describes the moment, and the vision of that little flag, in his book Pleiku: The Dawn of Helicopter Warfare in Vietnam: “True, it was a cliché camera shot from every war movie ever made, but there on LZ X-Ray, in the midst of death, destruction and unbelievable heroism, its impact transcended the stereotype.”
The other reporters now clustered around me. I told them that this had been a bitterly contested battle, that clearly we were up against a brave, determined, and very tough enemy in the North Vietnamese soldiers—but that American firepower, discipline, guts, and will to win had carried the day at LZ X-Ray. “Brave American soldiers and the M-16 rifle won a victory here,” I said. My voice choked and my eyes filled with tears as I told the reporters that many of my men who had been killed in this place were only a matter of days away from completing their Army service—but they fought and died bravely. As I stood there I knew that the telegrams that would shatter the hearts and lives of scores of American families were already being drafted.
Charlie Black came up. I had last seen him at the Catecka plantation airstrip six days earlier as we launched our operation into the Plei Me area. Charlie was on his way out after two hard weeks of covering the 1st Brigade actions. I urged him to come along with us; Charlie Black was welcome in every unit of the 1st Cavalry Division. He wrote for the paper read by our families. Charlie begged off, opting instead for a few days’ R and R in Saigon. Now I teased Charlie about missing out on the biggest battle of the war. He flashed his gap-toothed grin and took my ribbing good-naturedly.
Then New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan, who had been wandering around the perimeter interviewing the troops all morning, came over to talk to me. I knew he was an old hand in Vietnam, and a sharp, serious observer. Standing near my anthill command post, Sheehan told me: “This could be the most significant battle of the Vietnam War since Ap Bac.” He was right.
I turned back to business. The battalion rear command post radioed a report that all the men of my battalion and attached units from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry had been fully accounted for and evacuated. Not one single man was missing. Diduryk’s company reported back from their final sweep across the battlefield: no American casualties found. Those reports convinced me we had no MIAs on our conscience, so I gave Dillon the nod to begin lifting our men out of X-Ray. At 11:55 A.M. the first unit to leave was Bob Edwards’s Charlie Company, what was left of it. Dick Merchant says, “My final task was to run the pickup zone for the battalion. It seemed to take forever. Four ships at a time with a load of four troopers each.” Why only four men on a helicopter that could carry ten at a pinch? Because each helicopter hauled out not only men but heaps of enemy weapons and our own excess weapons and equipment.
In my after-action report I would urge that the Army establish tighter control on both friendly and enemy weapons evacuated from the battlefield. We lost a lot of our own weapons, which were taken from our wounded men at the hospitals, and many of the enemy weapons captured and sent out for evaluation by our intelligence officers simply disappeared, siphoned off for souvenirs by rear-area commandos, medics, and helicopter crewmen. We shipped out of X-Ray fifty-seven AK-47 assault rifles, fifty-four SKS carbines, seventeen Degtyarev automatic rifles, four Maxim heavy machine guns, five RPG-2 rocket launchers, two 82mm mortar tubes, two 9mm ChiCom pistols, and six enemy medic kits. Engineers collected and destroyed another hundred rifles and machine guns, three hundred to four hundred hand grenades, seven thousand rounds of ammunition, three cases of RPG rockets, and 150 entrenching tools.
Now came the body count. From the beginning of the fight I had known that higher headquarters would eventually want to know what damage we had done to the enemy. So after each major action in this battle, hating it, I asked my company commanders for their best estimates of enemy killed. With the battle raging back and forth over three days and two nights, it was anything but orderly. There was no referee to call time out for a body count. We did the best we could to keep a realistic count of enemy dead. In the end it added up to 834 dead by body count, with an additional 1,215 estimated killed and wounded by artillery, air attacks, and aerial rocket attacks. On my own I cut the 834 figure back to 634, a personal allowance for the confusion and fog of war, and let the 1,215 estimated stand. We captured and evacuated six enemy prisoners.
On our side, we had lost 79 Americans killed in action, 121 wounded, and none missing.
But the body count on both sides, tragic as it was, did not go to the heart of the matter. What had happened here in these three days was a sea change in the Vietnam War. For the first time since Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the North Vietnamese Army had taken the field in division strength. People’s Army soldiers were pouring down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in unprecedented numbers, and now they had intervened directly and powerfully on the battlefield in South Vietnam. Seventy-nine Americans had been killed in just three days in X-Ray. The cost of America’s involvement in this obscure police action had just risen dramatically. Vietnam was now a whole new ball game militarily, politically, and diplomatically. Decisions would have to be made in Washington and in Hanoi, and they would have to be made soon.
For now, however, my first priority was getting my troopers out of LZ X-Ray safely and quickly and turning responsibility for this battered, blood-soaked piece of earth over to Lieutenant Colonel Bob Tully.
Sergeant Glenn Kennedy and his small group of forty-eight other Charlie Company survivors landed in LZ Falcon at 12:20 P.M. They got off the Hueys and sprawled in the grass in the sun, waiting for the Chinook that would carry them on to Camp Holloway. Delta Company began lifting out of X-Ray at 12:45 P.M.
Specialist Vince Cantu waited to be called. He says, “Chopper after chopper would fill up and take off. It seemed to take forever. The waiting was stressful. But we waited our turn. After we were airborne I remember praying: ‘Please, dear Lord, don’t let them shoot us down.’ I had seen two choppers and a plane shot down. I thought, ‘You wouldn’t bring us down now after You let us survive three days and two nights of Hell.’ God watched over us; He brought us home. When they pulled us out I had six days left in the Army. I came home complete, not even a scratch. Some of my friends weren’t so lucky. I think about them often.”
Specialist 4 Willard Parish, another Delta Company trooper, recalls his last act in X-Ray: “Some things you remember. We were burying our C-ration cans and things like that, getting ready for choppers to bring us out of the valley. When we dug our foxhole, there had been a small bush on the right corner and it was loaded with leaves. As we were sitting there, getting ready to go, I looked at it and there was only one leaf left on it now. For some reason, I don’t know why, I reached over and plucked the last leaf off that bush and left it bare.”
Lieutenant Rick Rescorla: “We were flown away, but the stench of the dead would stay with me for years after the battle Below us the pockmarked earth was dotted with enemy dead. Most of the platoon were smiling. Suddenly a grenadier next to me threw up on my lap. I understood how he felt. He was, like many, a man who had fought bravely even though he had no stomach for the bloodletting. Each soldier would see the battle through his personal lens. Tactically, it had been a ‘find ’em, fix ’em, and finish ’em’ action—right out of the Benning School for Boys. A tidy show, and the NVA had been defeated piecemeal, feeding their units one by one into a meat grinder.”
Joe Galloway shot a few final photos of Tony Nadal’s weary soldiers clumped around the termite hill, gathered his own rifle and pack, and approached me to say farewell. We stood and looked at each other and suddenly and without shame the tears were cutting tracks through the red dirt on our faces. I choked out these words: “Go tell America what these brave men did; tell them how their sons died.” He flew out to Pleiku and dictated his story over the military telephone system to the UPI bureau in Saigon; next day his story of the fight at the base of Chu Pong mountain stunned our families back at Fort Benning and shocked the world. In Columbus, Georgia, my wife, Julie, got the kids off to school and picked up the Enquirer that morning: “The first paragraph of the story—it was written by Joe Galloway—said the battle was the bloodiest in Vietnam history. Then, in the next paragraph, he quoted my husband. I had to take a deep breath before I read the rest.”
When Galloway finished dictating his story, the UPI assistant bureau chief, Bryce Miller, asked, “By the way, did you hear about Dickey Chapelle? She was killed on an operation with the Marines.” Galloway walked out on the steps of the barracks at the MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) II Corps compound, and sat down. Dickey Chapelle, an old pro who had covered a dozen wars and revolutions, had been a good friend and offered good advice to someone new to the game of war. Galloway sat there in the dark, shaking silently and weeping for his old friend and for all the new ones who had died beside him this week. It was going to be a long war. For the job he did in the Ia Drang Valley, UPI raised Galloway’s salary from $135 a week to $150. When he later told his mother about the raise, she shook her head and said it was “blood money.” Galloway thought that maybe she was right, but it certainly wasn’t much money for so great an amount of blood.
Captain Bruce Wallace and his A-1Es covered our withdrawal from X-Ray: “There came a time toward the end of X-Ray when it became clear to me that leaving an area was often as difficult and dangerous as arriving. We put a screen of ordnance between the enemy and the LZ to interrupt his activities long enough to get a flight of choppers in, loaded, and back out again. I remember the sound of the guns through Charlie Hastings’s microphone as he was boarding the chopper, and my own feeling of relief when they got airborne. I led that last flight of Skyraiders to cover the 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry’s exit from the Ia Drang Valley. That mission ended my personal participation with the 7th Cavalry at X-Ray.”
It was almost three P.M. and there were only a few of us left in the command post to load out: Matt Dillon, Charlie Hastings, Jerry Whiteside, their radiomen, Sergeant Major Plumley, Bob Ouellette, and myself. Plumley, Ouellette, and I were the last to leave the termite hill. We trotted over to the fourth Huey in the final lift. It was waiting, blades turning, pointing west. Plumley and Ouellette jumped on; then I hopped in on the left side and we took off in a sharp bank to the north. As I looked down at the battle-scarred earth and shattered trees below, I felt pride in what we had done, grief at our losses, and guilt that I was still alive.