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We Were Soldiers Once... and Young

by Lt. General Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway
 

Reviewed by Dave Pascoe

As any student of the Vietnam war soon learns, there are two basic types of books about the war: political tomes and your basic war story.

First published in 1992, We Were Soldiers Once . . . became the rare Vietnam war story to ever become a New York Times best seller. Its a collaboration between then Colonel Hal Moore and UPI journalist Joe Galloway, Moore the commanding officer, and Galloway the reporter who was present every step of the way during that fateful two weeks in early November, 1965.

Known as the battle of Ia Drang, it take's name from the river valley near the Cambodian border south of Plei Ku in the Central Highlands. At the heart of the Ia Drang battle lies the introduction of the helicopter into ground warfare, the now famous UH-1 "Huey" and the CH-47 Chinook. The result of the vision of Lt. General John Gavin expressed in his 1957 essay "Calvary -- and I Don't Mean Horses, the 11th Air Assault Division was born at Ft. Benning, Georgia in 1963. Ia Drang marks the first full-scale battle test of air cavalry.

The words of Lt. General Hal More, the commanding officer at Ia Drang, offers one view on how well that test succeed: "There is no doubt in the mind of any of my men but that for the helicopter, we'd all be dead." Yet these successes were not quite what they were claimed to be, as the remaining war years were to see the loss of over 6,000 helicopters and 4300 pilots, numbers that make the loss of B-17 bombers over Germany seem small in comparison.

Lyndon Johnson, having acquired Vietnam from the ambitious foreign policy of the recently assassinated John Kennedy, in the face of upcoming elections, and eager to make a decisive stand against the NVA, is not about to step back from Kennedy's disastrous mistake. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara seizes on the recently developed concept of air mobility, Johnson backs him, and the U.S. Army is launched into an 8 year escalation of defensive warfare.

At the same time, and setting the stage for Ia Drang, are Hanoi's military planners who envision a classic conventional campaign to crush the Army of the Republic of Vietnam in October 1965. They would lay siege to the American Special Forces camp at Plei Me, consisting of a mere 12 U.S. advisors and several hundred Montagnard mercenaries. This was one of the few conventional warfare attacks launched by the NVA until Tet 1968.

Ia Drang was a response to the nearly successful October, 1965 attack on Plei Me, which was thwarted when the U.S. unexpectedly brought in U.S. troops as reinforcements. After the Plei Me attack, the North Vietnamese regular army retreated to the Chu Pong massif (mountain). Col Hal More was ordered to find and engage the enemy, having only a vague notion of where they were.

The authors write:"One month of maneuver, attack, retreat, bait, trap, ambush and bloody butchery in the Ia Drang . . . .was the Vietnam War's true dawn -- a time when two opposing armies took the measure of each other." And:

"The North Vietnamese commanders had a deep-rooted fear that the lessons they had learned (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."

More of an air assault probe into the Ia Drang river valley to locate the withdrawn enemy, Moore had little idea of what was waiting for him. Unbeknownst to him, the 1st of the 7th Cavalry choppers set them down right smack 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.

"There was that big red star on the intelligence map, which indicated that the biggest target of all was way out west," Moore recalls, meaning beyond the Laotian border. That intelligence was, of course, wrong. What follows is one of the more incredible battles of the Vietnam war. Though cut to ribbons with 300+ casualties, and fighting against 10:1 odds in an ambush, the enemy was defeated.

Click to continue . . .

 

LZ Xray

Wounded waiting at LZ XRay for a Huey ride out.

The story is skillfully woven with a mix of first hand accounts from Moore and Galloway, as well as dozens of grunts and officers. Galloway, no elitist, shrinking violet journalist, is a 23 year old Texan who totes an M16 and later mans a 30 cal machine gun, offers up one of journalism's finer moments. Each contributor injects a little of themselves into the story, yielding a unique format.

This book is as worthy of its account of an incredible battle, as it is for the no-nonsense, matter-of-fact way that it is told. Electrifying and horrifying at once, there's not a bit of hyperbole here. You get the sense that the story is told only hours after the battle, by troops still in shock, in voices as flat as the thousand yard stare.

In all the 'Nam stories I've read, none has ever been told better. Its not merely Galloway's literary skills that rise to the surface, but a wisdom and temperament that preceded his assignment. While heroics abound, its the writer's matter-of-fact presentation that stands proud here. Nor is there any lack of appreciation for the skill of the enemy, the mark of a commander (Moore) who doesn't make the mistake of underestimating his adversary.

Like all good war stories, its more than a story about war. It covers the gamut from strategy and tactics to the intensely personal and human cost of war. No one-sided tale, the depth of this effort is apparent by the presentation of the other side through numerous interviews of the NVA officers, who present us with their thinking and strategy. A rare account indeed. Its even more remarkable when we discover that Joe Galloway and the two commanding officers, Hal Moore and Nguyen Giap, actually met in Hanoi in 1990 to discuss and compare their accounts of Ia Drang. You find it hard to believe until you see a picture of the three of them together.

Though told in a somewhat militaristic style, it doesn't get bogged down with the sort of military jingoism that ruins so many war stories for the uninitiated. Unlike a Dale Brown novel, where one about wants to strangle the author for the injudicious use of meaningless acronyms and military jargon that only a veteran of that service could understand, about the only difficulty you'll have here is keeping the various companies and regiments straight. UPI reporter Joe Galloway sees to it that the names, places and actions are comprehensible for the common reader as words can make it, even in a battle that takes place over two weeks and four Landing Zones.

A sub theme revolves around the introduction and first successful use of Air Assault (aka air modility) with the now famous (or infamous) UH-1 Huey helicopter. Here we see why the grunts developed a love/hate relationship with the aircraft that carried them into death's way, as well as rescued them from it.

Tactically and strategically, this battle was a disaster, for though both sides ultimately claimed victory -- the North Vietnamese Army with a casualty rate of at least 10:1 -- the NVA lost their fear of the helicopter and developed the techniques to defeat it at the moment of its introduction. Though the battle of LZ X-Ray might well be called a success, what happened immediately afterward was an unmitigated disaster. As two reinforcing battalions depart the LZ, they make the mistake of allowing themselves to become strung out in a long column, without communications, to be chopped to pieces by the NVA once again swarming down off the mountain, stringing the story out longer than it should have been.

Whether you're just interested in war stories, or have an abiding interest in air mobility, We Were Soldiers Once . . . . will probably go down as one of the very best to come out of Vietnam, or any other war, for that matter. Even after my third reading, it still seemed fresh and full of new dimensions. This is a book with a very wide perspective indeed.

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