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Forward Support in the Ia Drang Valley


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.



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 in combat.

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, would lead his brigade into combat when the division deployed to Vietnam.

“ 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, the 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 village of An Khe, 68 kilometers west of Qui Nhon on Colonial Route 19.

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, the 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.”


Into the Fire

The Chu Pong Massif dominates the serene valley of the Ia Drang, rising 500 meters above the valley floor and stretching westward 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 line above 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 directly overlooking the clearing below.

In the early morning hours of 14 November, as Lieutenant Colonel Moore prepared his battalion for the air assault into Landing 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 battalion.

After a 13-minute flight from Plei Me, the initial eight UH–1 Huey helicopters of the first lift dropped their tails to reduce speed and touched down into X-Ray while their door gunners fired into the trees around the clearing. It was 1048 on a clear, quiet morning; Lieutenant Colonel Moore was the first 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 from 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 of fire.

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 fire.

Sometimes the fog of war favors the unprepared. With the battlefield shrouded in smoke and dust, American forward observers found 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 and leaving immense stacks of shell casings scattered about the firebase.



Support

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. Captain Joe Spencer, the Forward Support Operations Officer for the FSE, quickly established an air bridge to both X-Ray and Falcon. 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 forces.

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.


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 the 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, but, 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 registration specialists met the emergency by processing remains with the assistance of a team of volunteers from the maintenance battalion.

At 0640, as Moore and his staff began preparations for rescuing the lost platoon, the 7th Battalion of the North Vietnamese 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 the air overhead and the distinctive crack of the detonating high explosives, 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 Columbus, 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 Tully’s 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 the relative safety of X-Ray. Amazingly, once Savage took charge the previous afternoon, the platoon was able to avoid any additional fatalities. Savage’s precise placement of artillery throughout the siege enabled the platoon to survive the long ordeal. For 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 of artillery 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 batteries 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 in the Ia Drang, Hal Moore climbed aboard his command chopper. He was the last man of his battalion to depart the battlefield.



Aftermath

The following day, a North Vietnamese ambush decimated McDade’s 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 Big Horn.

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 men—stripped 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 from C Company, 27th 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, Moore extended 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 victory 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 direct, intense 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 which 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.
ALOG

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.