"Search and Destroy": The Origins of Our Air-Mobile Army

Mackubin T. Owens

November 1, 2006

This week (Nov. 14) marks the 41st anniversary of the beginning of the epic battle of the Ia Drang Valley of South Vietnam’s Pleiku Province in the Central Highlands. The first part of the operation pitted Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore’s 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) against three regiments of the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN) in a deadly struggle for Landing Zone (LZ) X-Ray. For better or worse, the lessons of this battle during the early days of America’s Vietnam War shaped U.S. operational strategy for the remainder of the conflict and, indeed, still influence the U.S. Army’s preferred way to fight.

In an effort to validate the Army’s new air-mobility doctrine, which was based on the use of helicopters, Moore’s superiors ordered his battalion to seize and defend a landing zone in Pleiku Province not far from the Cambodian border. The idea was to draw the PAVN into a battle and then to attack the massed enemy forces with supporting arms, disrupting the attempt by the North Vietnamese to seize the strategically important Central Highlands. The plan to draw the PAVN into battle worked—too well. Moore’s under-strength command soon found itself in the midst of a large PAVN base camp containing some 2,000 PAVN troops intent on killing Americans.

The problem Moore faced on November 14, 1965, was holding the PAVN force at bay while he built up sufficient combat power around LZ X-Ray. Although the helicopter assault initially caught the North Vietnamese by surprise, there were only enough choppers to bring in 80 troops at a time. Since the round-trip flight-time between LZ X-Ray and the battalion’s base at Plei Me was an hour, the danger was that the PAVN force would overrun the LZ before the entire unit was on the ground. Even then, Moore’s 450 soldiers would be heavily outnumbered by a skillful and determined enemy.

By all accounts, Moore was a remarkable battalion commander who had prepared his unit well. Despite having lost almost a third of its most experienced soldiers and noncommissioned officers before its deployment to Vietnam because their enlistment terms were about to expire, the 1st of the 7th Cavalry was a fine unit, well-trained, with high morale and unit cohesion. This, along with supporting arms, was all that could keep the battalion from destruction in the Ia Drang Valley.

As Moore wrote in his account of the campaign, We Were Soldiers Once… and Young, “Among my sergeants [at LZ X-Ray] were three-war men—men who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day and had survived the war in Korea—and those old veterans were shocked by the savagery and hellish noise of this battle… We were dry-mouthed and our bowels churned with fear, and still the enemy came on in waves.”

When the PAVN broke contact on November 16, after 40 straight hours of often hand-to-hand combat, Moore’s battalion had suffered 74 dead and 121 wounded. Over 800 enemy dead were counted on the field, and countless others were killed by U.S. artillery and air strikes. Despite the high American losses during the fight for LZ X-Ray, the planners felt that the battle had vindicated the Army’s operational concept. As terrible as the fight for LZ X-Ray was, it was a U.S. victory.

What happened a day later was a debacle, and points to the truth of the observation by the Duke of Wellington that “the only thing worse than a battle won is a battle lost.”

On the afternoon of November 16, Moore’s battalion was heli-lifted out of LZ X-Ray and replaced by its sister battalions, Robert Tulley’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, and Robert McDade’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry. Neither of these units was as well-trained as Moore’s battalion.

Because a B-52 strike was scheduled to hit the suspected PAVN base camp near the Chu Pong Massif on the Cambodian border, the two battalions were ordered to abandon LZ X-Ray and move overland the next day to helicopter landing zones farther east. On the afternoon of November 17, the 2nd of the 7th Cavalry was ambushed as it moved to LZ Albany. Strung out along a trail, three of the battalion’s line companies and its headquarters companies were annihilated. In six hours, 155 Americans died, the highest death toll for any day of the war.

It should be noted that, while Americans have been programmed to be cognizant only of alleged U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, many of the U.S. dead in this battle were wounded American soldiers killed by the Communists after the fighting had stopped. The late Jack Smith, son of the ABC newsman Howard K. Smith, described a night so harrowing that most of us cannot imagine it. Badly wounded but covered by the body of a dead comrade, Smith listened as laughing communist soldiers killed any American they found alive.

The battle in the Ia Drang Valley had important implications for the future conduct of the war. The Army favored “search and destroy” missions, such as the Ia Drang operation, designed to bring the PAVN to battle and then to destroy it. Although U.S. casualties in Pleiku Province were high—some 300 between October 23 and November 26, 1965—estimated PAVN casualties were 12 times higher. Thus the Pleiku campaign convinced Westmoreland that the Army Concept was correct. In a head-to-head clash, an outnumbered U.S. force had spoiled an enemy operation and sent a major PAVN force reeling back in defeat, inflicting far more casualties than it sustained.

Reasonable people may disagree about the Army’s operational concept. For instance, in the opinion of the overall commander of all Marines in the Pacific during much of the Vietnam War, Lt. Gen. Victor H. Krulak, Ia Drang represented an example of fighting the enemy’s war—what North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap predicted would be “a protracted war of attrition.” And, says Krulak, a “war of attrition it turned out to be… [by] 1972, we had managed to reduce the enemy’s manpower pool by perhaps 25 per-cent at a cost of over 220,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese dead. Of these, 59,000 were Americans.”

Krulak’s figures are probably low. Hanoi has admitted that it suffered some 1.4 million combat deaths during the war. But the lessons of Ia Drang transcend Vietnam. The fact is that the United States Army has a preferred way of fighting. The wars the Army wants to fight are conventional wars involving regular troops on both sides. Unfortunately, as Vietnam showed us some four decades ago and Iraq shows us today, we do not always get to fight the wars we want.

Mackubin T. Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.