A desperate fight in the jungles
of Vietnam 40 years ago marked the dawn of the Army’s
contemporary tactical logistics doctrine.
Much of what is common practice for logisticians today has
roots in the 1960s in the 11th Air Assault Division (Test)
and a large clearing at the base of the Chu Pong Massif in
the Pleiku Province of South Vietnam. The forward support element
concept developed at that time was the forerunner of the
forward area support model under the Airland Battle operational
concept and eventually evolved into the forward support battalion
under the Army of Excellence divisional structure. Today, it
continues to exist as the brigade support battalion within
the modular force brigade combat team organization. For professional
logisticians, recognizing the fundamental principles of our
support doctrine is as important as understanding the evolution
of that doctrine.
Testing the Airmobile Concept
When President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the deployment of
an airmobile division to Vietnam on 28 July 1965, the 1st
Cavalry Division (the new airmobile unit) possessed a vision
of mobility and lethality that was still in its infancy.
The airmobile vision—a revolutionary concept first described
by General James M. Gavin in a ground-breaking article, “A
Proposal for an Airmobile Style of War,” in the November–December
1957 issue of Armor magazine—had evolved around the
notion of the helicopter freeing combat forces from the limitations
of terrain and significantly accelerating the pace of battle.
The employment of airmobility, Gavin believed, would transform
the battlefield into a three-dimensional nightmare that would
overwhelm enemy commanders.
On 15 February 1963, the Army organized the 11th Air Assault
Division at Fort Benning, Georgia, to explore the feasibility
of the airmobile concept on the conventional battlefield. Under
the command of Brigadier General Harry W.O.
Kinnard, the division established a large contingent of aviation
assets to maintain mobility and a wide array of artillery to
provide a lethal umbrella of fire support. “Experiment,
innovate, test, and evaluate” became the division’s
watchwords, but the one constant throughout the existence
of the 11th Air Assault Division was change.
|A pair of
Sikorsky H–34 Chocktaw helicopters hovers above
a landing zone during an air assault operation at
Fort Benning during
the testing of the 11th Air Assault Division.
Not surprisingly, the division’s maverick approach to
change spurred one of the most significant organizational
innovations in combat service support history. During one
of the division’s frequent organizational evolutions,
its Division Support Command (DISCOM) began experimenting with
tailored support elements capable of providing highly responsive,
forward logistics support in the rapidly evolving airmobile
environment. The DISCOM Forward Support Element (FSE) possessed
true multifunctional support capabilities,
with elements drawn from each of the division’s four
functional logistics battalions: the 15th Medical Battalion,
27th Maintenance Battalion, 15th Supply and Service Battalion,
and 15th Transportation Battalion (Aircraft Maintenance).
With a command-selected forward support operations officer
in charge, the FSE maintained operational control of a supply
platoon, a maintenance detachment, a medical clearing company
with medical evacuation capability, and a team from the aviation
maintenance battalion. A graves registration section from the
supply and service battalion was to be attached to the FSE
On to Vietnam
Through many months of intense training, preparation, and
growing pains, the 11th Air Assault Division thoroughly tested
and experimented with Gavin’s
airmobile vision. On 16 June 1965, Secretary of Defense Robert
S. McNamara formally announced the authorization of an airmobile
division in the Army’s force structure and declared
that the 1st Cavalry Division would carry the airmobile concept
beyond the test stage. Colonel Timothy W. Brown, who commanded
the 3d Brigade during the airmobile division test phase,
lead his brigade into combat when the division deployed to
I have today ordered to Vietnam the airmobile division.” With
those simple words, President Johnson announced to the world
the deployment for which the division had prepared since its
inception. On 16 August, the 1st Cavalry Division set sail
from Charleston, South Carolina. That same day, the last elements
of the 66th Regiment of the People’s Army of Vietnam
departed from their base camp along the Ho Chi Minh Trail
in Thanh Hoa Province in North Vietnam. For the Americans,
journey through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific Ocean
would last almost a month; the 800-kilometer foot march through
Laos and Cambodia into the central highlands of South Vietnam
would take the North Vietnamese regulars 2 months to complete.
Destiny would bring these two units together in the valley
of the Ia Drang River.
Brown’s 3d Brigade, arriving aboard the USNS Maurice
Rose, docked in the Vietnamese coastal enclave of Qui Nhon
in mid-September. The division cleared a huge expanse of
scrub jungle and established a base camp just north of the
of An Khe, 68 kilometers west of Qui Nhon on Colonial Route
On 1 November, as lead elements of the 66th Regiment crossed
into South Vietnam using trails that followed the Ia Drang,
the 1st Cavalry Division’s cavalry squadron captured
the North Vietnamese 33d Regiment’s field hospital 8
miles west of Plei Me. A fierce North Vietnamese counterattack
ensued, and, within days, Colonel Brown’s 3d Brigade
began patrolling in Pleiku Province on a search-and-destroy
mission. Assigned to “find and kill the enemy” east
of Plei Me, Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. “Hal” Moore’s
1–7 Cavalry Battalion found nothing but peaceful mountain
villagers. On 12 November, Brigadier General Richard T. Knowles,
assistant division commander, ordered Moore to conduct an
air assault operation near the heart of a suspected enemy
base camp on the Chu Pong Massif above the Ia Drang Valley.
Knowles would later say he issued that order “based
on strong instincts and flimsy intelligence.”
of M102 howitzers provides support from a jungle
firebase in South Vietnam.
Into the Fire
The Chu Pong Massif dominates the serene valley of the
Ia Drang, rising 500 meters above the valley floor and
into Cambodia. At the base of the Chu Pong, a large natural
clearing in the surrounding jungle formed an ideal landing
zone for Moore’s assault into the Ia Drang. The clearing
was flat, with few trees, and big enough to land eight helicopters
in formation. Unknown to Moore, the North Vietnamese 66th Regiment’s
9th Battalion occupied a position less than 500 meters
southwest of the clearing, its 7th Battalion was on a ridge
the clearing, and its 8th Battalion was just across the
Ia Drang to the northeast. The remnants of the 33d Regiment
occupied positions along the east face of the Chu Pong
the clearing below.
In the early morning hours of 14 November, as Lieutenant
Colonel Moore prepared his battalion for the air assault
Zone (LZ) X-Ray, CH–47s positioned Alpha and Charlie
Batteries of the 1–21 Field Artillery Battalion on a
plateau 8 kilometers to the northeast at designated LZ Falcon.
As part of a deception plan, twelve 105-millimeter howitzers
would fire for 8 minutes on two alternate LZs (Tango and Yankee)
before shifting fire and laying a steel curtain around X-Ray
and the adjacent area. Following the 20-minute preparatory
fire on X-Ray, the big guns would lift fire and Charlie Battery
of the 2–20 Artillery Battalion (Aerial Rocket Artillery)
would bathe the perimeter with 30 seconds of rocket and grenade
fire, followed by another 30 seconds of helicopter gunship
fire. This virtually impenetrable umbrella of steel represented
the fine line between life and death for the soldiers of Moore’s
After a 13-minute flight from Plei Me, the initial eight
Huey helicopters of the first lift dropped their tails
to reduce speed and touched down into X-Ray while their
fired into the trees around the clearing. It was 1048 on
a clear, quiet morning; Lieutenant Colonel Moore was the
American to set foot in X-Ray. Within seconds, the next
eight helicopters touched down with a second wave of troops.
At 1120, Bravo Company of the 1–7 Cavalry reported
the capture of a prisoner just as the second lift returned
Plei Me with additional troops. Moore’s interrogation
of the prisoner—reportedly a North Vietnamese deserter—was
simple: provide the location and size of the enemy forces
in the area. The prisoner replied through the battalion
interpreter that three North Vietnamese battalions were
on the mountain,
and they were all very eager to kill Americans. Three battalions
of enemy equated to more than 1,600 men. Moore had only
160 troops on X-Ray.
Moore’s force was outnumbered 10 to 1, so what began
as a search-and-destroy mission quickly evolved into a fight
for survival. Bravo Company made contact with the enemy at
1245, running straight into a North Vietnamese assault force
after crossing the dry creek bed northwest of the landing zone.
While maneuvering to support the 1st Platoon’s flank,
Second Lieutenant Henry Herrick’s 2d Platoon broke off
from the main body of the company in pursuit of an enemy squad.
Within minutes, the North Vietnamese pinned down and surrounded
Herrick’s platoon with a fierce, relentless volley
As the third lift arrived on X-Ray at 1330, the enemy assault
intensified and North Vietnamese scouts began to breach the
landing zone perimeter through the high elephant grass. With
most of three rifle companies on the ground, Moore quickly
maneuvered the few available troops to secure his tenuous
hold on the perimeter, but he desperately needed to slow the
assault. With his operations and artillery liaison officers
orbiting overhead in the command chopper, Moore ordered them
to coordinate the supporting fire, concentrating on the lower
slopes of the Chu Pong before ringing the landing zone with
Sometimes the fog of war favors the unprepared. With the
battlefield shrouded in smoke and dust, American forward
it difficult to accurately direct artillery fire or identify
terrain features, so they “walked” in the rounds.
For the next 5 hours, the batteries at LZ Falcon fired for
effect. By day’s end, the howitzers had fired more
than 4,000 high-explosive rounds, exhausting the gun crews
immense stacks of shell casings scattered about the firebase.
Chinook helicopter lifts a firing section (both howitzer
and ammunition) into a firebase for a mission.
The 3d FSE, supporting Brown’s brigade from Holloway
Army Airfield just southeast of Pleiku (about 56 kilometers
northeast of the firing batteries), worked feverishly to
provide necessary support to X-Ray in the heat of battle.
Spencer, the Forward Support Operations Officer for the
FSE, quickly established an air bridge to both X-Ray and
This would have been a monumental task under ideal circumstances,
but it was a nightmare in combat conditions.
Using procedures developed during the air assault division
test phase at Fort Benning, the 1st Cavalry Division DISCOM
began moving ammunition directly from the division’s
backup support command in Qui Nhon to the FSE (what we call “throughput
distribution” today). The FSE supply platoon broke down
the wooden ammunition crates and organized the fiber containers
inside into individual configured loads for the firing batteries.
From there, CH–47s slingloaded the ammunition directly
to Falcon, depositing each load as close as possible to
a howitzer section.
Improvisation remains one of the most significant characteristics
of the U.S. Army. The timely use of throughput distribution,
combined with the configuration of mission-ready ammunition
loads, was pivotal during the most critical hours of the
battle. Without the direct delivery of vital ammunition from the DISCOM
to the FSE and forward to the firing batteries, the 1–7
Cavalry would surely have been overrun by North Vietnamese
Although the artillery, along with a hail of ground and air
fire, did not halt the North Vietnamese assault on the landing
zone, it crippled the flow of enemy reinforcements into the
battle. North Vietnamese soldiers making their way down the
slopes of the Chu Pong Massif had to pass through a tremendous
fire of ordnance.
Meanwhile, efforts to rescue Herrick’s “lost platoon” continued
with little success. Sergeant Ernie Savage, now leading the
platoon after the deaths of Herrick and Platoon Sergeant Carl
Palmer, fought for his life along with a handful of other survivors.
With the enemy literally in and around his precariously held
position, Savage called in artillery fire and held it as close
to his perimeter as possible. Throughout the day and into the
night, the enemy attacks on the lost platoon continued unabated,
but so did the fire support. The first light on 15 November
revealed scores of North Vietnamese dead in the tall grass
around Savage’s position.
Skycrane positions a 105- millimeter howitzer on
a hillside firebase during the Vietnam War.
Nightfall on 14 November had brought a dilemma to Joe Spencer
at Holloway Army Airfield. During the division’s
test period, someone removed the graves registration capability
from the DISCOM. Spencer found himself in the middle of
biggest firefight of the war with his limited means to
process human remains virtually overwhelmed.
Spencer notified a fellow forward support operations officer
at the division’s base camp at An Khe, Captain Griffin
Dodge, who requested support from the 34th Quartermaster
Battalion in Qui Nhon. The response from Qui Nhon was immediate,
because of the limited availability of air transport, the
response would not arrive until the following morning.
Working through the night, Spencer and his handful of graves
specialists met the emergency by processing remains with
the assistance of a team of volunteers from the maintenance
At 0640, as Moore and his staff began preparations for
rescuing the lost platoon, the 7th Battalion of the North
66th Regiment launched a massive attack along the southern
sector of the LZ. Superior fire support again proved the
difference. The 1–21 Artillery liaison officer to the 3d Brigade,
who was coordinating fire from Brown’s command helicopter
circling above the LZ, directed artillery so close to the
perimeter that individual forward observers on the ground
had to shout
warnings as the howitzers fired each successive volley.
Seconds later, the troops in X-Ray heard the rounds split
overhead and the distinctive crack of the detonating high
immediately followed by the disturbingly familiar sound
of shrapnel tearing through the vegetation around them.
By 0900, the attack was repulsed and the first lift of
reinforcements touched down on the eastern edge of the
landing zone. At
the same time, Brown established a second firebase at LZ
5 kilometers northeast of X-Ray; this added two batteries
of howitzers to the steel curtain protecting Moore’s
battalion. Shortly after noon, Lieutenant Colonel Robert
2–5 Cavalry Battalion arrived to reinforce Moore’s
beleaguered troops after an overland march from LZ Victor,
3 1⁄2 kilometers to the southeast.
Moore and Tully immediately assembled a relief column,
and by 1500 the men of the lost platoon were all inside
safety of X-Ray. Amazingly, once Savage took charge the
previous afternoon, the platoon was able to avoid any additional
Savage’s precise placement of artillery throughout
the siege enabled the platoon to survive the long ordeal.
his gallantry under relentless enemy fire on an otherwise
insignificant knoll in the valley of the Ia Drang, Ernie
Savage received the Distinguished Service Cross.
Despite their horrible losses, the North Vietnamese were
not yet prepared to abandon the fight. All four batteries
rained a ceaseless barrage of hot steel around the perimeter.
Nevertheless, a series of whistles signaled a renewal of
the assault at 0400. The forward observer for Tully’s
Bravo Company, First Lieutenant William Lund, ordered the
to mix point-detonating and time-fused high-explosive shells
with white phosphorous rounds, saturating the enemy with
a veritable shower of death.
By 1000, the siege on X-Ray was broken. Within half an
hour, the lead elements of Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDade’s
2–7 Cavalry Battalion closed on the landing zone after
an overland march from LZ Columbus. A flurry of Hueys and Chinooks
carried the men of the 1–7 Cavalry away from X-Ray
that day for a much-deserved rest. Two days after his arrival
the Ia Drang, Hal Moore climbed aboard his command chopper.
He was the last man of his battalion to depart the battlefield.
Chinook helicopter provides ammunition resupply
during a fire mission in Vietnam.
The following day, a North Vietnamese ambush decimated
battalion as it completed a sweep of the area leading into
LZ Albany, 51⁄2 kilometers north of
X-Ray. While other battalions sweeping the valley elected
to use the supporting artillery fire to clear their march
routes, McDade declined—an ill-fated decision for the
men of the 2–7 Cavalry. As the battalion arrived at Albany,
the 8th Battalion of the North Vietnamese 66th Regiment caught
the Americans in a textbook L ambush, inflicting 279 casualties
in the ensuing melee. Inevitably, there were those who would
draw comparison to Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little
In the aftermath of X-Ray, Moore flew directly into Falcon
to thank the brave men who relentlessly stood by his battalion
through the heat of battle. For 53 straight hours, these
to the waist and covered with a greasy mixture of oil,
sweat, and dirt—managed to fire more than 18,000
rounds in defense of X-Ray. During the battle, mechanics
Maintenance Battalion, replaced recoil mechanisms on two
howitzers firing in support of X-Ray (a maintenance task
usually requiring evacuation) in order to maintain the
rate of fire
necessary to stave off defeat. Surrounded by mountains
of empty brass shell casings rising to a height of 10 feet,
his gratitude to the Soldiers with heartfelt emotion.
In the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, artillery proved
to be the difference between life and death for Hal Moore’s
troopers. But logistics support was the enabling force
behind the firepower, providing the edge necessary to earn
in the face of imminent defeat.
In November 1965, General Gavin’s airmobile concept
received a baptism of fire in the Ia Drang Valley. Under
enemy fire in the central highlands of South Vietnam, the
troopers of the 1st Cavalry Division proved the validity
of numerous tactics, techniques, and procedures, many of
have endured the test of time. Operations in the Ia Drang
also redefined the use of fire support in a war fought
without definable front lines.
In the heat of battle in the Ia Drang, Captain Joe Spencer
defined logistics tenets that would influence an entire generation
of support doctrine: anticipation, integration, continuity,
responsiveness, and improvisation. Men like Joe Spencer played
pivotal roles in the development of tactical logistics concepts,
engineering innovative methods of providing responsive support
forward in the trackless jungles of Vietnam. Yet, while most
logisticians know the tale of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley,
few recognize that moment in time as the dawn of our contemporary
tactical logistics doctrine. Ultimately, the FSE concept,
pioneered by the 11th Air Assault Division and proven in combat
by the 1st Cavalry Division, evolved to become the nexus of
our current forward support doctrine and the foundation of
modern tactical logistics support.
Major Steven M. Leonard is a lead author
for the Field Manual 3–0 rewrite
team at the Army Combined Arms Center and an ob-server/trainer for Operations
Group-Logistics for the Battle Command Training Program at Fort Leavenworth,
Kansas. He is a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College and
the School of Advanced Military Studies.