The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley took place Nov. 14 through 18, 1965, as 450 newly arrived American troops tried to prevent the North Vietnamese Army from cutting South Vietnam in two.
It was the first major engagement to involve U.S. helicopter-borne assault troops supported by massive artillery, tactical fighters and B-52 bombers. And it became the single bloodiest battle of the entire 10-year Vietnam War.
The fighting on the ground, especially at Landing Zones X-Ray and Albany, was pitched, vicious, hand-to-hand. After firearms, knives were used. Soldiers even ended up choking each other to death.
All told, 305 Americans were killed in the Ia Drang. Two thousand North Vietnamese died there.
This poundingly fierce and heartbreaking tale was recounted by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, former commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry at Ia Drang, and former UPI correspondent and Ia Drang veteran Joseph L. Galloway in their classic 1992 eyewitness account, We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young. (It was made into the 2002 film We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson.)
Moore and Galloway's new book, We Are Soldiers Still, a powerful memoir of reconcilement, relates their several wistful yet investigative journeys to Vietnam in the early 1990s, during which they obtained audiences with many of the key military leaders of the battle.
In September 1990, for instance, they were able to meet Major Gen. Hoang Phuong, observer of the Ia Drang Battle and now chief of the Vietnam Army's Military History Institute. Phuong told the authors that at the time North Vietnamese commanders were confounded by the Americans' ability to quickly move troops around by helicopter. "You jumped all over, like a frog, even into the rear area of our troops . . . you created disorder among our troops."
However, confided Phuong, after learning valuable lessons from the Americans' leapfrogging tactics, he wrote and disseminated to the NVA and Viet Cong guerillas an exceptionally useful pamphlet, simply titled How to Fight the Americans.
On the same trip Moore and Galloway met the merciless yet masterful Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh's fellow architect of modern-day Vietnam and probably one of the greatest military commanders of the 20th century.
Giap was the man most responsible for helping to pin down the Japanese in World War II, and for defeating the French in 1954 and the United States in 1975. He told Moore, "You Americans were very strong in modern weapons, but we were strong in something else: We were an entire, determined people defending our homeland, and we could fight when and where we chose. Our goal was to win."
After Moore presented his old adversary with a Timex watch, Giap, tearfully and to Moore's utter amazement, "clutched me to him . . . and held me like a son in his arms."
In November 1991 Moore and Galloway met the two North Vietnamese senior commanders of the Battle of Ia Drang, Senior Gen. Chu Huy Man and Lt. Gen. Nguyen Huu An.
At Ia Drang, Man revealed to a fascinated Moore that his side used a clever bait plan "to lure the tiger out of the mountain. . . . I knew your helicopters would land there. This is the first time we try our tactics: Grab them by the belt buckle! The closer we come to you the less your firepower is effective."
In October 1993 Man and An accompanied the authors and an ABC-TV documentary crew to the Ia Drang Battlefield. Moore was apprehensive as the helicopters touched down. After they departed, he noticed "an eerie silence" quite unlike the "thundering noise of bombs, rockets and machine guns" during their 1965 touchdown.
On this lonely former battlefield Moore's ghostly memories came flooding back, of how, for instance, "Doc" Randy Lose of Biloxi, Miss., "crawled from man to man plugging their wounds and his own with rolls of C-ration toilet paper after his bandages ran out, keeping them from screaming in pain when the morphine ran out."
As if in answer to his secret soldierly prayers, Moore found himself spending the night in the hallowed Ia Drang: "Just one night on my battlefield to commune with fallen comrades so that they and I could finally be at peace." During this peaceful reverie, however, the eternal, profound battlefield question inevitably arises: Was all this suffering and dying worth it?
Bravely, against all military propriety, Moore answers with a resounding "No!" Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq, he writes, were and are "bloody, dirty, cruel, costly mistakes."
After a long chapter — perhaps too long — on military leadership, Moore abruptly launches into one of the most scorching indictments of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war that you will ever read. In part of it he recalls the moment that, while addressing the West Point class of 2005, he bluntly stated, "The war in Iraq is not worth the life of even one American soldier." The cadets and their professors sat in stunned silence.
Aside from a few chapters which fit into this memoir only tangentially, We Are Soldiers Still is a candid, highly informative and heartfelt tale of forgiveness between former fierce enemies in the Vietnam War. The authors' forgiveness, however, definitely does not extend to the leaders of the present war in Iraq.
Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books on military subjects for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer.