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The Ia Drang campaign provided the U.S. Army a remarkable–if dangerous–opportunity to demonstrate the merits of its newly developed airmobile tactics. The infantry, no longer restricted to the slow pace of marching into battle, could be inserted by helicopter at a moment's notice wherever they were needed.
An extensive training period ostensibly prepares pilots for combat flying. But flying in and out of Vietnam's hot LZs, where dust, heat and the enemy worked in concert to bring down the fragile aluminum birds, it took a good pilot with nerves of steel and a special sense of duty. Major Willard Bennett, commander of Charlie, or C, Company, 229th Aviation Battalion (Assault Helicopter), 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), was just such a pilot, with the ability to think and react adeptly in the most intense combat situations. On a November 1965 night, while flying over the hell that the Ia Drang Valley had become, Bennett put on an airmobile show that the grunts on the ground would never forget. No portion of the Army's airmobile training taught guts–pilots like Bennett provided that.
'I never worried about getting shot and killed–whether that was because I was young or we were so well-trained I couldn't say,' Bennett recalled. 'Getting shot in combat was just not something I really worried about. Flying in and out of hot LZs just came with the job.' What Charlie Company's commander worried about instead were the underpowered and occasionally unreliable engines of the Bell UH-1D Hueys and the equatorial heat that could sap the strength of American flying machines.
'The Huey I flew on my first tour couldn't carry a very big payload,' Bennett said. 'Generally with a crew of four, we could only lift five or six guys. You had to get a running start most of the time to get airborne, and so they required a larger landing zone. By my second tour all that had changed–the engines were much more powerful and much more reliable.'
Bennett's Charlie Company was normally attached to the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, ferrying the infantry to and from combat zones, supplying water and rations and, when it became too hot for the medevacs, ducking in for the wounded. Months before the Ia Drang campaign, Bennett was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for making an emergency night flight to an American forward artillery base on the mountain of Dak To, where a shell had cooked off and exploded in the barrel of a howitzer, critically wounding 17 men. When medevacs were turned back by dense fog that night, Bennett not only led his flight but also refused to turn back as long as U.S. troops remained in the field crying for help. Improvising in the air, Bennett called for troops on the ground to shoot flares from LZs along the way. Using this ingenious method, he navigated his way safely through the mountainous terrain to evacuate the wounded.
Many historians claim that the 230 American lives lost during the fighting at LZs Albany and X-ray versus the loss of more than 1,000 NVA soldiers by body count and 1,000 more estimated killed was a decided victory. Other scholars, however, claim the lessons taught were largely ignored and America was lured deeper into a war it could not win. If the fighting and its results proved to be a historical and military paradox, so did the enigmatic, 34-year-old major commanding Charlie Company.
As a student at Colorado A&M (now Colorado State University), Bennett had enrolled in the the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) to avoid the Vietnam draft. After graduation, having earned an artillery commission, he was sent to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where he ran into a fraternity brother stationed there for Army aviation training. 'He was really sold on the program,' Bennett said, 'and it sounded good to me too.
'The program required an additional year's commitment, but I was young and wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life just yet. Besides, I had just gotten married, and the extra $100 a month the Army was paying aviators looked awfully good just then.'
Bennett received his fixed-wing rating and soon was sent on temporary duty back to helicopter school. After qualifying in helicopters, he was assigned to Korea and, later, Japan. Much to his surprise, both Bennett and his wife, Vonnie, fell in love with military life.
After he returned from the Far East, Bennett's talents as a helicopter pilot were tapped to try out the Army's new concept of air mobility. He was assigned to the 11th Air Assault Test Division at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1964 for 18 months of crucial trials. The purpose was to examine and test theories in helicopter warfare. Satisfied with the evaluations of the 11th Air Assault Division, renamed the 1st Air Cavalry Division (Airmobile), the Army mobilized the unit for war. Major Willard Bennett was assigned command of the 229th's Charlie Company and deployed with the division to Vietnam.
Although Charlie Company had been thoroughly trained in the Army's brand-new airmobile tactics, no training could completely prepare a pilot for the murderous skies over Vietnam. Bennett's role over the Ia Drang Valley may be considered a minor one in the grand scheme of the campaign, but to the severely wounded who were desperate for medical attention, and to the beleaguered troops surrounded and running low on ammo, a fearless chopper pilot was the answer to many prayers. The genesis of Bennett's mission occurred when Lt. Col. Harold Moore brazenly took his understrength battalion and confronted the enemy deep in his own territory.
The ball began rolling on November 14, 1965, when Moore, a hard-charging Kentuckian and West Point graduate (class of '45), mobilized the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), and moved them to a position at the foot of Chu Pong, a 2,400-foot mountain in the Ia Drang Valley, deep in NVA-held territory. There, dense tropical forests gave way to tall grass and red clay. Intelligence reports of a large enemy base camp in that area had Moore and his boss, 3rd Brigade Commander Colonel Thomas Brown, eager to seek out the enemy.
The 7th Cavalry, perhaps best known for its 'Last Stand' at the Little Bighorn River, was about to fight against a vastly superior enemy force in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, much the same way Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer had made war in 1876 in Montana Territory against disproportionate odds.
As in much of the Vietnam War, geography played a major role in the battle. Due to the physical features of the area, the best possible landing zone–designated LZ X-ray–was a large clearing located at the base of the mountain. The LZ offered inviting open fields of fire to any NVA entrenched in the high ground overlooking the LZ. Although it was a gamble to land troops in such a place, Moore decided to chance it.
On the morning of November 14, Boeing-Vertol UH-34 Chinooks positioned 12 guns–two batteries of 105mm howitzers–6.2 miles east of LZ X-ray. The artillery began firing on the LZ as well as two other clearings to help create a diversion. As soon as the barrage was lifted, helicopter gunships further prepped the site with .30-caliber machine guns and 2.75-inch rockets.
Thirty-one minutes later, it was show time. Moore's battalion of 28 officers and 429 enlisted men began to land at X-ray eight Hueys at a time. Moore alighted from the first wave of choppers with Bravo, or B, Company, commanded by Captain John D. Herrin, who took his company north and west up a ridgeline toward Chu Pong. The choppers continued to rattle in, dropping troops, ammunition and rations until C, D, E and A companies were on the ground and dispersed. Herrin's Bravo Company, moving up the heavily jungled ridgeline, was the first to make contact. Hearing frantic calls over the command net, the deafening sounds of RPG-2 shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades, Chicom hand grenades and a cacophony of AK-47 small-arms fire, Moore quickly realized he had found what he came looking for–in spades.
'My battalion,' Moore recalled, 'had come looking for trouble in the Ia Drang; we had found all we wanted and more. Two regiments of People's Army of Vietnam [PAVN] Regulars–more than 2,000 men–were resting and regrouping in their sanctuary near there and preparing to resume combat operations, when we dropped in on them the day before. General Man's [NVA Brig. Gen. Chu Huy Man] commanders reacted with speed and fury, and now we were fighting for our lives.'
In the jungle valley surrounding LZ X-ray, the leaders of the 325-B Division of the PAVN were no doubt astounded to learn they had at last lured a battalion of the U.S. 7th Cavalry into the jaws of a vicious ambush. General Vo, however, faced a problem when Moore's battalion bent but would not break. The shattered battalion regrouped and fought fiercely–sometimes resorting to entrenching tools, rifle butts and bayonets but refusing to let the jaws of the enemy snap shut. The 2nd Platoon of Captain John Herren's Bravo Company had been cut off and was being systematically chopped to pieces by the enemy while Captain Ray LeFebvre's Delta Company had taken casualties and killed 25 NVA within 10 minutes of landing on X-ray.
LZ X-ray was heating up for helicopter pilots, too. Major Bruce Crandall, who commanded the 16 helicopters assigned to the mission, recalled: 'I saw a North Vietnamese firing at us from just outside my rotor blades. After taking on wounded, I pulled pitch [lifted out] in a hurry. I had three dead and three wounded, including my crew chief, who was shot in the throat.' The situation was perilous for the troops crammed inside the birds. 'I started to unhook my seat belt when I felt a round crease in the back of my neck,' LeFebvre remembered. He had been grazed. 'I turned to my right and saw that my radio operator had been hit in the left side of his head. I grabbed the radio and jumped out….I fired two magazines of M-16 ammo at the enemy, then I was hit.'
For the most part, the free-for-all on the ground at X-ray on the 14th did not yet involve Bennett's unit. 'My company was normally supporting the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Infantry,' Bennett explained. 'We picked up the infantry and would make air assaults into the jungle with them. That morning we put in Bravo Company [2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry], and although we'd taken some rounds, no one got shot down.
'We had very little to do with X-ray,' Bennett continued. 'I think I got in there on the second morning–the day they got napalmed.' The NVA had thrown everything it had at the 7th and, although ravaged (Charlie Company lost all five of its officers and 57 of its 102 enlisted men), the survivors, with the help of Army and Air Force aviators, held the thin line and refused to accept defeat.
Air Force Lieutenant Charlie Hastings, the forward air controller, called in help. 'On the second morning, I used the code word for an American unit in trouble and received all available aircraft in South Vietnam for close air support. We had aircraft stacked at 1,000-foot intervals from 7,000 feet to 10,000 feet, each waiting to receive a target,' Hastings remembered. With the enemy so near and artillery and aircraft being called in closer and closer, perhaps an unfortunate mistake was inevi-table: An Air Force North American F-100 Super Sabre accidentally dropped two canisters of napalm into the melee, hitting American troops, before Hastings could call them off.
'We went in after the napalmed guys,' Bennett said. 'The LZ was shrouded in early morning mist or fog, and the guy we came for was burned black, without a stitch of clothing on. He was a big man, a Pathfinder, and he was screaming and screaming. I don't think he made it.'
Additional reinforcements, the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Cavalry led by Lt. Col. Robert Tully, marched in from LZ Victor, two miles distant, and the NVA melted into the tall grass and mountains, leaving some of its 2,000 dead behind on the battlefield.
On November 16, after the battle had ended, the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, led by Lt. Col. Robert McDade, landed at LZ Columbus, three miles away. McDade led three companies–Charlie, Delta and a headquarters company. Tully's and McDade's battalions were sent to relieve Moore at X-ray. Before handing over his position, Moore made good on the promise he had made to his battalion back at Fort Benning to never leave a man on the battlefield and never permit a single man to be listed as 'missing in action.'
Lieutenant Rick Rescorla, 2nd Battalion's Bravo Company commander, recalled that a few hours earlier, after beating down a last attack: 'Colonel Moore, in our sector, was rushing up to clumps of bodies, pulling them apart. 'What the hell is the colonel doing up there?' 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.'
With the battle at X-ray seemingly finished, McDade and Tully settled in for a long, uneasy night with their companies on 100-percent alert. Sporadic gunfire from around the perimeter ensured that no one slept. McDade and Tully received orders to pull out of X-ray at 9 the next morning. Twenty-four B-52s from Guam had been ordered to bomb the sides of Chu Pong–American troops would have to put two miles between themselves and the impact area.
Both battalions set out on November 17, with Tully in the lead. McDade would follow Tully to a point, then break away toward a different clearing, designated YA 945043 on the map–LZ Albany.
While Colonel Tully had been in command of his battalion for 18 months and knew the personalities and capabilities of his men intimately, Colonel McDade, a veteran of WWII and the Korean War with three Purple Hearts and two Silver Stars, had had his command for less than three weeks. It had been a decade since he last commanded troops. Most of his men hoped the march would be little more than a stroll in the sun, but the specter of Custer was about to revisit the 7th Cavalry.
Tully moved out in the lead with two companies up and one back. 'We used artillery to plunk a round out 400 yards or so every half-hour,' said Tully,'so we could have a concentration plotted. That way, if we ran into problems we could immediately call for fire.'
About 2,000 meters into the march, as planned, McDade's battalion turned northwest while Tully's continued on toward LZ Columbus, reaching the objective just before noon. The terrain McDade found himself traversing was mostly knee-high grass and felled trees, which did not offer the overheated, exhausted battalions much visibility–25 yards at most. Soon the terrain got much worse, with chest-high elephant grass and thick vegetation. Several huts along the way were searched and fired. In retrospect, it may have been the thick smoke that alerted the enemy. The triple-canopy jungle forced the battalion together and pushed the flankers closer toward the sides of the column.
As Alpha Company, with McDade, was moving into the Albany clearing and the rest of the companies were stretched thin for 1,000 yards behind, enemy rifle fire erupted. The 2nd Battalion had run smack into the enemy–soldiers from the NVA's 8th Battalion, 66th Regiment; 1st Battalion, 33rd Regiment; and headquarters of the 3rd Battalion, 33rd Regiment. Lieutenant Larry Gwin, of Alpha Company, recalled: 'I was out in the grass away from the trees when it started. The rounds were so fast and furious overhead they were knocking the bark off the trees. I ran to them. One round struck the tree I was crouched next to, about an inch over my head….Then I heard the sickening whump of mortar fire landing where I had seen our 2nd Platoon disappear.'
A deadly struggle, just as fierce as the one at X-ray, began to take shape. McDade hastily organized a pe-rimeter and tried to sort out what kind of hornet's nest his battalion had stepped in. In short order he would discover that, as he remembered: 'We were getting fire from three sides. We were getting it from up in the trees, and from both sides. A guy got hit next to me, and I grabbed his machine gun. I braced myself against an anthill. Then we got hit by mortars. It was zeroed in right on us. I looked around and everybody was dead. The commo sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Gunter, fell over hit in the face, dead. The same mortar round that killed Gunter put shrapnel in my back and shoulder. They were closing in for the final assault. I was shooting, trying to break a hole through them, but didn't know which way to go. I went the wrong way, right into the killing zone. I found stacks of GIs.'
With McDade's battalion scattered and pinned down in the tall elephant grass, the battle eroded into several small skirmishes. Charlie and Alpha companies lost a combined 70 men in the first minutes. Although Bravo Company was hastily brought in by helicopter as reinforcements, the situation was grim. The battle raged all afternoon and into the night, with the 2nd Battalion largely outnumbered, outmaneuvered and barely hanging on. As night fell, the perimeter tightened and the enemy crept in close. Ammunition began to run low, and the wounded needed medical attention soon if they were going to survive.
Back in Pleiku, the operations officer knelt and shook Bennett's sleeping form, then quietly informed the Charlie Company commander about the calamity at LZ Albany. 'He summed up the situation by informing me that the guys at X-ray had walked out only to get totally ambushed near LZ Albany,' Bennett recalled. 'The fighting was hand to hand in places, and the guys were really sounding desperate for help over the radio. 'The wounded aren't going to make it,' he told me. 'And they're crying for ammunition."
'The medevac guys wouldn't go in,' Bennett added. 'It was too hot for them. That happened from time to time. I told him I'd fly it and asked him to get another crew to go with us. He went to wake up Jackie Murphy, my co-pilot.'
As was his custom, Bennett flew lead with Captain Ken Jayne as his wingman. As the helicopters thundered through the black night sky, the battle over Albany could clearly be seen. 'The sky over the battle zone was in total chaos,' Bennett remembered. 'Artillery was firing, there were Air Force A-1s zooming in and out, dropping ordnance, rockets, tracers, flares–the whole thing was brilliantly lit up.
'As we got closer, I didn't think we were going to be able to find the LZ; the lights were blinding, the tracers coming from every direction. The radio was full of crackling garbage. And the sky–the sky was an absolute mess. The parachute flares would arch up high and then float down, and there were so many of them I kept thinking one of them was going to go through the rotors and that would be it.
'Finally, a guy on the ground started blinking a pocket flashlight, and one of us picked it up.' Bennett recalled sending a brief, intense radio message: "Blink three times if that's you…now five times…okay, we've got you…we're coming in on your light.' We followed that thin red beam of light in almost like an instrument approach, until we touched down.'
If the troubled sky above the LZ was filled with gunfire, the contested ground at Albany was equally dangerous. As the rotors continued to turn, tracer fire lit up the area, and the battle began taking on a new intensity. The NVA now had two American helicopters as prime targets.
'My crew chief and gunner, as normal, kicked off the ammo and hopped out as soon as we touched down, to help bring in the wounded,' Bennett said. 'There were no stretchers or anything that night; they just pulled in the wounded and stacked them like cordwood in the cargo bay.' The crew chief and gunner were both awarded the Bronze Star with V for Valor for the night's actions.
The enemy began to walk a fierce mortar barrage through the LZ, and Bennett pulled pitch and executed a short hop to another spot, followed by Jayne. 'It just seemed like the thing to do,' Bennett said in retrospect. 'My crew chief and gunner were still on the ground and had to wade through the tall grass and continued loading wounded. The mortars were falling all over the place. Right about then, [the] fuel warning light lit up.' Amid the fierce mortar barrage, the clatter of rounds punching holes in the aircraft and the confusion of the radio and cries of the wounded, he made a quick calculation. 'I knew that when the fuel panel started to flicker yellow, that meant we only had 20 minutes of fuel left,' he recalled. 'If we beelined it back to Pleiku, that was probably close to 15 minutes.' Bennett coolly eyed the flickering yellow lights and waited as the battle raged on around him until the wounded were dragged aboard.
'We loaded everybody we could,' Bennett said. 'We'd be lucky on a hot day to get away with five to six people on with a crew of four, but I think we must have gotten more that night.'
Finally Bennett and Jayne (who would also be awarded the Silver Star for the night's actions) lifted their groaning Hueys up and out of the tiny LZ. 'Together, I think we got out 14 to 15,' Bennett said.
Now Bennett's attention focused on the fuel warning lights. He raced back to Pleiku and sat down on the main air strip, where an aid station was located. 'I gave the order to shut down the helicopters right there,' said Bennett. 'I knew if we lifted off and tried to hover over to our area, we would never make it.'
It was 0200–only two hours had passed since Bennett had been shaken awake. It would take another 34 years before the Army would award Bennett a much-deserved Silver Star in 1999 for his gallantry that night in the Ia Drang Valley.
The battle at LZ Albany added the names of 151 Americans to a growing list of those killed in Vietnam. Another 121 were wounded. The LZ was abandoned the next day. One American, reported as missing in action, was recovered four days later when he waved down a passing helicopter.
In terms of numbers on a chart, the Ia Drang campaign was an American victory, but for commanders like Bennett, the victory was bitter. More than 300 American dead had soured the taste of success.
Brent Swager interviewed Army Colonel Willard Bennett at his home in St. Petersburg, Fla. Suggestions for further reading: We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway (Random House); 'Ambush at Albany,' as told by S. Lawrence Gwin, Jr., Vietnam Magazine (October 1990); and 'Death in the Ia Drang Valley,' by Jack Smith, Saturday Evening Post, January 28, 1967.
This article was originally published in the October 1999 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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