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Missouri Veteran Remembers Battle at Ia Drang

The film, "We Were Soldiers," tells of the events in mid-November, 1965, in the Ia Drang Valley of the central highlands in South Vietnam. It's based on the book, "We Were Soldiers Once and Young," published in 1992 and written by Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and Joe Galloway.


(voice of Joe, 29 seconds, talking about how the movie version is about "85 percent accurate" and 15 percent Hollywood.)


The battle of the Ia Drang began on the morning of 14 November 1965. It was the first time in the Vietnam War that battalion strength forces from North Vietnam and the United States met and maneuvered against each other.


Moore, then a lieutenant colonel ... and portrayed in the movie by Mel Gibson ... was ordered to deploy the American forces at the base of the mountain, then to find the enemy. The plan called for over 400 soldiers from the U.S. Army's First Battalion, 7th Cavalry, to be flown into Landing Zone X-Ray, but only 80 could be helicoptered in at one time.


With the round-trip flights in and out of the area taking over 30 minutes, it would take about four hours to get everyone on the ground.


But at 40 minutes after the first helicopter landed, the Americans were surrounded by about 2,000 North Vietnamese regular Army troops. Even more would soon join the fight.


Hal Moore was a brilliant battlefield commander, and with a little luck, a quickly taken prisoner told him about the Vietnamese troops on the hillsides above Landing Zone X-Ray. He was able to get his men set up into defensive positions, and with artillery and air support, Moore and 450 soldiers were able to stave off the North Vietnamese attacks.


The battle at Landing Zone X-Ray ... a savannah-like area dotted with scrub brush, waist-high grasses, trees and ant hills ... was to last until the morning of 16 November. During the 42-hour-long battle, 79 Americans would be killed; another 120 wounded. Conservatives estimates put the North Vietnamese losses at nearly 2,000.


Back in the United States, Americans learned about the fight through dispatches filed by UPI reporter Joe Galloway, the only reporter there at the time.


(voice of Joe, talking about the correspondents in Vietnam, including Peter Arnett, then of the AP.)


Years after the Battle of Ia Drang, the U.S. Army would award the Bronze Star to Joe Galloway. You see, the fight at Landing Zone X-Ray was so intense, the UPI reporter was forced to use an M-16 to defend the perimeter.


(voice of Joe, talking about using his weapon twice in the Vietnam War.)


Like much of the land won in battle during the Vietnam War, the area around landing Zone X-Ray was to be given up after victory. The soldiers of the First Battalion, 7th Cavalry, had orders to evacuate the hallowed ground, and standing by just a few miles away was another group of American soldiers with orders to relieve and cover the withdrawal of the battle-weary veterans of X-Ray. Among them: Jim Young of Steelville, Missouri.


(voice of Jim, describing being close to the Battle of X-Ray and writing a letter home.)


In November 1965, Jim Young was a rifleman with Alpha Company, First Battalion, 5th Cavalry. His group and others from elements of the 2nd of the 5th and 2nd of the 7th marched into Landing Zone X-Ray on 16 November, and this, by the way, is where the movie's version of the battle ends.


Young and the others spent the night at X-Ray on 100-percent alert ... no sleep. On the 17th, they were to march to a clearing designated "LZ Albany," just a few miles away. In the Army, distance isn't measured in miles; on maps, it's measured in 1,000-yard increments called "clicks." The route they were to take to Albany was about six clicks.


(music, "every step you take, death is holding your hand/walking in Charlie's land.")


The wisdom of marching these soldiers into LZ Albany is debated even to this day. Air cavalry troops are accustomed to coming and going by helicopter. But orders are orders, and a little over three hours after leaving X-Ray, the first part of a 500-yard-long column of American soldiers were closing in on Albany. As fate would have it, the American lead elements captured a couple of North Vietnamese troops, but unlike what happened at X-Ray, the prisoners did not give warning of what was about to take place.


(voice of Jim Young, describing the ambush.)


The North Vietnamese swept into the line of Americans, who were able to set up defensive positions only at the very front and rear of the column. In the middle, the combat was hand-to-hand, with the North Vietnamese gaining the initiative. An enemy machine gun was taking a toll on Jim Young's Alpha Company. A commander asked for a volunteer to take the machine gun out.


(voice of Jim Young, further describing the fighting, and being wounded in the head.)


Though dazed from his wounds, Jim Young was able to seek shelter behind an anthill, when U.S. planes and helicopters began to fire on enemy positions ... which is where he was. Young began to think about getting out of there.


(voice of Jim, talking about the enemy coming out of the brush.)


I talked to "We Were Soldiers Once and Young" author Joe Galloway about Jim Young.


(voice of Joe, calling Jim "a great young American.")


(voice of Jim as he described escaping from behind enemy lines.)


Jim Young hurriedly climbed a hill, hoping to get to within earshot of, and take bearings on, where American helicopters were taking off and landing. That's when, for the second time, he came under friendly fire; an artillery barrage was raining down on him.


(voice of Jim, finding refuge between two big trees.)


Young took shelter in some scrub brush for the night. Meanwhile, back at LZ Albany, in the darkness, the firefights continued. The North Vietnamese regulars, along with a group of Vietcong from the south, were methodically moving through the ranks of American soldiers, executing the wounded. They were taking no prisoners.


The next day ... 18 November 1965 ... Jim Young's ordeal continued. He found a trail, followed it for some distance until he realized he was going away ... not toward ... the American lines.


(voice of Jim, realizing he was following an enemy trail.)


The fighting ended at LZ Albany on the morning of 18 November. Daylight would reveal the horror of what took place there. Jim Young, meanwhile, was still finding his way back to the sounds of American helicopters. In the late afternoon, he knew he was close, but also realized that others were heading there, too. A large group of North Vietnamese soldiers was directly in front of him. This is when, for the third time, he came under friendly fire.


(voice of Jim.)


Young moved away from the firefight and took shelter for the night. On the morning of 19 November, he very cautiously made his way to the American fire base. He arrived just two hours before the base was to be evacuated.


Meanwhile, in other parts of south Vietnam, word was spreading about what had taken place at Landing Zone Albany. Words like "ambush" and "massacre" were heard over and over again. Just one day ... and, as the crow flies, two-and-a-half miles from Landing Zone X-Ray, where 79 Americans lost their lives ... 155 more were killed and another 119 were wounded.


The movie won't take you there. The book will.


"We Were Soldiers Once and Young" was written by Lt. Col. Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway. For more information on Ia Drang, the battle that changed the war in Vietnam, log online:


And one footnote: At a 1985 reunion of Jim Young's Alpha Company, Young got his helmet back, the one with the bullet hole in it. A buddy had retrieved it from the battlefield.


Reporting for KSMU News, I'm Mike Smith.