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Operation Silver Bayonet was the Americans first large scale assault on the NVA. In the eastern foot of the Chu Pong massif, Central Highlands, a Landing Zone was set up as a place of insertion for American troops. LZ X-Ray was the origin of a three day battle from November 14th to the 16th, 1965.
The fighting strength in Vietnam as a whole at the time was 75,000 men, which with the orders of General Westmoreland, was increased to 125,000 men. The men of a newly formed unit, the 1st Cavalry, was to test a new experimental tactic: Air Mobility. The idea of Air Mobility was to insert and extract troops by helicopter. The helicopter of choice was the UH-1 'Huey'.
"The only real flaws in the use of helicopters for insertion and extraction was the technology at the time," says Thomas Gehman, a veteran pilot who was lead ship into LZ Albany. "The UH-1D was underpowered. It had a Lycoming Turboshaft engine (T-53 L-11) of 1,100 Shaft Horsepower. At a density altitude of 8-9000 feet, our available power was extremely limited. After 1967, the T-53 L-13 engine (1,400 Shaft Horsepower) gave the Huey more of what it needed." Several variants of the airframe were born through their necessity in the war.
450 men were to be taken on the first attack for a 13 minute flight from their base camp before touching down. LZ X-Ray was chosen for it's close proximity to the indicated position of the NVA. The only problem with LZ X-ray was its size: it could only allow the landing of 8 helicopters at a time, with 6 in each one; it would take several hours to ship all of the 450 men to the LZ.
5 miles from the LZ, at Firebase Falcon, a barrage of artillery fire was let loose to clear the LZ to make it safe for the initial force. This bout of fire lasted 28 minutes, before stopping exactly one minute before the first helicopters arrived at the LZ.
At 1035 hrs, the first Huey's left their base camp and set of towards the LZ. 4 miles from the LZ they went down and flew the rest of the way at tree top level. Upon arrival, from the helicopters, smoke and craters littered the LZ.
When disembarked, B company, 1st Cavalry, swept the area, and all was quiet and going to plan. At 1115 hrs, they captured a lone unarmed NVA soldier, who was sent straight away for interrogation. A startling revelation was made: nestled in the mountains, poised to attack, and very keen to do so, were 3 whole battalions of NVA soldiers. These figures exceeded drastically what was originally understood. Nearly 1,600 NVA soldiers were to come face to face with only 450 Americans, odds of 8-1.
Minutes after this information had been learnt the first contact was made and the Americans became embroiled in battle with the NVA. After 8 hours of fighting all flights were cancelled due to the incoming darkness and the Americans were left alone, unsupported, the whole night. Out of the original 450, 85 had died or been wounded. Throughout the night, the NVA launched several small attacks, and this allowed them to know which parts of the American lines were weak. The men that were killed during those attacks laid where they died, it was to risky to recover them.
To replenish the force at LZ X-Ray, reinforcements were to land at an LZ a few miles away and fight their way over to the Americans. "Every day was doing something meaningful," Thomas says about his career. "Whether bringing troops out, re-supply, etc. I always felt bad on an assault, knowing I was taking people into something unknown."
At 0650 hrs 200 NVA soldiers attacked C company's 1st and 2nd platoons, and were a mere 75 yds from the American lines, and hand to hand combat took place. The enemy were to strong, and the American line began to fall apart. At this point, LTG Hal Moore, a prestigious leader in the battle, called 'Broken Arrow'.
Broken Arrow was called when an American unit is under pressure or at danger of being overrun, as was happening at LZ X-Ray. When Broken Arrow was called, every available aircraft in Vietnam diverted to an are where they are needed, and drop their ordinance.
During this, two F-100 Super Sabres were approaching the area, when LTG Moore told a radio operator to call them off, but not in time. The lead aircraft had already released canisters of Napalm, and in an effort to call off the second one, he did too. These canisters or Napalm hit American troops, young engineers unfortunate enough to be in the line of fire. Joe Galloway, a reporter attached to 1st Cavalry witnessed this, and he says in an interview that in the flames he can see "men dancing, and screaming… those men are my nightmares."
We asked Thomas how he thinks the war affected him, and he gave us this answer: "I don't feel the experience affected me in any negative way. I'm proud that I was able to do my job. Of course, the Ia Drang battle was surreal in some ways, but my best days were flying hot Thanksgiving and Christmas meals to the infantry while eating C-Rations in flight (cold rations)."
After the third day of fighting at LZ X-Ray, the Americans defeated the NVA indefinitely in a final attack on their forces, and the first major battle in Vietnam was over. Apart from the one friendly fire incident, CAS enabled the U.S to gain the offensive and defeat the enemy.
Over the next two days, more battles would be fought in the Ia Drang Valley, with even more NVA and when those two days had finished 234 Americans were dead, whilst enemy losses were estimated at around 3,000 dead. Some say that there was no victory, in proportion, both sides lost the same amount of men, and there was not advantageous outcome - "The Ia Drang (Pleiku) Campaign was a numerical victory for the US. How it was a factor in the overall Vietnam Conflict can be better assessed by the scholars."
Helicopters also played another major role apart from insertion: MEDEVAC. The Huey, and helicopters in general were highly important in evacuating wounded Americans and saved countless lives. We asked Thomas how it feels to know that he was saving lives, and he says "There is tremendous satisfaction knowing I could have possibly saved some lives. That goes without saying, but there was no way to know the outcome of the wounded."
The battle at Ia Drang Valley was one fought bravely, courageously, and with many a sacrifice. The men who took part, in the battle and the whole war in Vietnam, are a true testament to of the characteristics of a soldier, and are to be treated how any other member of the public is, but this is not the case sometimes. I would like to say thank you to Thomas for providing us with his words and making this article all the more meaningful, and to thank also all veterans, past; present; and future.
By Connor Woodward
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