BATTLE of LA DRANG'S INFLUENCE on HELICOPTERS in COMBAT
In November 1965, approximately 450 men of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, under the command of Lt. Col. Hal Moore, were dropped by helicopter into a small area in the Ia Drang Valley. Approximately 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers immediately surrounded them, unexpectedly.
Three days later, less than two and a half miles away, a sister battalion was chopped to pieces. Combined, these two actions at the landing zones X-Ray and Albany constituted one of the most horrific, amazing and significant battles of the Vietnam War.
The battle of la Drang shows how helicopters started to have a major influence on combat operations and the evolution of warfare. The battle also showed how organizations, such as the air cavalry, with its enhanced ability to locate and battle the enemy, and the airmobile division, which was advanced in mobility, became useful means of warfare.
Without the helicopter and airmobile divisions, it is impossible to count how many troops would have been needed to win the Vietnam War. The tactics used in the battle of la Drang were based on the massive use of helicopters.
The First Battalion, 7th Cavalry was shipped off to la Drang Valley of Vietnam, where they became a part of first major offensive in Vietnam using helicopters as the prime vehicle of assault transport.
The battle of Ia Drang was the first battle fought with an airmobile division. Helicopters were first used in combat by U.S. armed forces for medical evacuation during the Korean War. While many helicopter assault techniques were developed later by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, it was the formation of the 11th Air Assault Division and the development and action of small turbine engines that first brought air mobility to the battlefield.
In the third quarter of 1965, the first airmobile division was sent to Vietnam. This division showed its strength in the la Drang Valley in the fall of 1965. Military intelligence indicated that there were two North Vietnamese Army regiments in the area: the 33d Regiment, at Plei Me, and the 32d Regiment, which was waiting in ambush to destroy the expected relief column from Pleiku, north of Plei Me. The commander brought in the airmobile division, which ambushed the enemy with deadly accuracy. This was a decisive factor in repulsing the attack.
Throughout the battle, the airmobile concept proved itself. Scout ships would reconnoiter and locate enemy groups, rifle elements would fix the enemy in place, and heliborne units, supported by massed air and ground firepower, would attack and defeat the enemy troops. These tactics worked successfully again and again during the battle.
AT LA DRANG
The battle of la Drang was fought in a river valley near the Cambodian border south of Plei Ku in the Central Highlands. This battle introduced the helicopter into ground warfare with the use of the UH-1 Huey and the CH-47 Chinook. This battle marked the first-ever battle test of air cavalry.
After the war, Lt. General Hal More, the commanding officer at Ia Drang, summed up the use of the helicopter using these words:
There is no doubt in the mind of any of my men but that for the helicopter, we'd all be dead."
The battle of la Drang was a follow-up to the near successful attack on Plei Me, in October 1965, when the U.S. brought in U.S. troops as reinforcements. After this attack, the North Vietnamese retreated to the mountains. The U.S. was faced with the difficult task of locating and engaging the enemy.
In the book, "We Were Soldiers Once and Young," the authors write: "The North Vietnamese commanders had a deep-rooted fear that the lessons they had learned (through fighting the French) had been outmoded by the high-tech weaponry and revolutionary air mobile helicopter tactics that the Americans were trying out on them."
The First Battalion 7th Cavalry choppers, which was one of the best-trained and equipped air-mobile formations in the U.S. arsenal, landed directly at the base of the mountain, on which some 6,000 North Vietnamese regulars were massed, at what is now the famous LZ X-Ray.
A military intelligence map indicated that the biggest target was far out west but the map was wrong. The battallion came to fight the enemy on their own ground and they opened that effort with a visit to this clearing that was code-named X-Ray. Weeks before, the North Vietnamese commanders heard of the battalion's deployment to their region and they were ready to fight. This battle was a surprise and is considered one of the most incredible battles of the Vietnam War. Though cut down with more than 300 casualties, and fighting against 10 to 1 odds in an ambush, the enemy was defeated.
Many people believe that the battle of LZ X-Ray was a success but there is no denying that what happened immediately afterwards was not. As two battalions departed the LZ, they allowed themselves to become strung out in a long column, which was chopped to pieces by the North Vietnamese Army.
HELICOPTERS as WARFARE
In October, when two North Vietnamese Army regiments launched an attack on a U.S. military camp at Plei Me, Gen. Westmoreland chose elements of the new airmobile division. With their firepower and helicopters, the 1st Cavalry would hopefully be able to fly over enemy blocking forces and break the siege.
When faced with this counterattack, the NVA retired to the mountains but the general was not satisfied. He ordered the 1st Cavalry to switch to an offensive operation. At this point, the U.S. was unaware that the NVA was hiding in the la Drang Valley, where the 1st Cavalry was preparing to touch down to seek the enemy. Immediately, the batallion was faced with heavy fire and a strenuous counterattack.
While the 1st Cavalry was extremely outnumbered, they managed to hold on with the help of sustained fire support from artillery, gunships, napalm and massive B-52 arc-lite strikes.
The battle introduced the Hueys, which were used with moderate success as a gun ship with door mounting machine guns on the M23 armament subsystem. They could also be armed with a pod or side-mounting six-barrel "minigun" and seven-tube, 2.75-inch rocket launcher on the Emerson Electric M21 armament subsystem, and the M5 chin-turret mount for a grenade launcher. The Hueys were also armed with two fixed-mounting cannon on the armament subsystem. The reflex sight was used for sighting guns and rockets on the Huey.
The military was still learning about using helicopters in combat during this war. Pilots in Vietnam discovered that many of the helicopter designs' features carried penalties. High cockpits were obvious target, and the Huey's drive shaft created a partition that made it difficult for crew chiefs to come to the aid of the cockpit crew if they became injured. Its magnesium skin resulted in very intense fires, and contributed to significant corrosion problems. The airframe was also too weak to support most of the weapon systems that allowed the helicopter to become an effective ad-hoc gunship. Nonetheless, the Huey demonstrated an ability to sustain a substantial amount of combat damage and still return home.
HELICOPTERS AFTER the WAR
The helicopter began to play a significant military role during the Korean War. In addition to serving as artillery spotters, helicopters pulled downed pilots from the sea and saved many lives by rapidly moving the wounded from the front line to hospitals. Helicopters became even more prominent in the Vietnam War, where they were widely used for the rapid deployment of combat troops.
During the battle of la Drang, helicopters served in a new role as helicopter gunships, attacking ground targets with machine guns, cannon, and missiles. But battlefield successes came at a high price, as 4,200 American helicopters were destroyed during the…