It’s November 13, 2011, and the car shakes as the wind whips across the road. November has settled into Indiana with the sniffles, sneezing leaves from trees onto the highway and the passing cars.
The northwest area of Plei Me in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam is a day ahead, so it is November 14 there. I don’t know if it’s windy, but I bet it is quieter than it once was.
Forty-six years ago, the Central Highlands of Vietnam was under siege. Air artillery, aerial rockets and air strikes shuddered the earth. At 10:48 A.M., 7th Cavalry Regiment Commander Hal Moore had been the first man out of the lead chopper. He literally hit the ground running, firing his M16 rifle. His mission: find and kill the enemy. When the 7th Cavalry Regiment landed in the area, John Herron’s Bravo Company was kept near the landing zone (LZ X Ray). Alpha Company was ordered past a creek bed. In the ensuing moments, three platoons patrolled the jungle. One platoon was surrounded and pinned down, cut off from the rest of the troops.
My car zooms past stores and restaurants, flags whipping against their poles. Whenever I see a flag flying, I see the faces of men and women etched across the red, white and blue stripes, and Medals of Honor holding each star. Jack Zalen was one of my Vietnam veteran friends. He was killed this year while riding his motorcycle. Forty-six years ago, he had been one of the men in the platoon that found itself cut off.
Moore and his troops had no idea what they would go up against. 450 of our guys were soon to be pitted against 2,000 of theirs. Not one man under Moore’s command nor Moore himself, realized that he had landed in the pages of history: the first major battle of the Vietnam War, the Ia Drang Valley battle.
Getting out of the car in this wind is a chore. If you don’t hang onto something, you may end up in Kansas, Dorothy. This kind of wind in Indiana always blows up a wicked storm. It’s supposed to arrive tomorrow, our November 14, Vietnam’s November 15.
On November 15, 1965, after a day of attacks, reinforcements from the 1st Cavalry Division began to arrive. The battle was raging so fiercely that the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Company had to land at another spot and then move to LZ X-Ray. My brother had arrived with A Company, 1st of the 5th. Efforts continued for the rescue of the cut off platoon. When finally successful, of the twenty-nine men, nine were killed in action and thirteen were wounded.
It took Jack Zalen decades to be able to talk about what the horrors of the night were like for the cut off platoon.
I managed to work my way into Applebee’s to meet my friend for lunch. She and I like the restaurant because it’s convenient to both of us, and because veterans are provided meals at no cost on Veterans Day. We talked about the rain and storms coming, and then how it was supposed to clear and be sunny on Tuesday, November 15.
In Ia Drang, November 16 dawned. By mid morning the battle was over, for all practical purposes and LZ X-Ray secured. The 2nd of the 7th Cav. and the 1st of the 5th Cav were ordered to stay at X-Ray in order to avoid the appearance of a retreat. The remaining battalions were ordered to march to Landing Zone Albany. Unknown to our troops, the enemy were all around, searching for wounded Americans in the tall grass to kill them. The enemy struck at different spots in the marching column of troops. In the first few minutes, seventy men from Charlie and Alpha were killed. Near LZ X-Ray, my brother lay on a field, bleeding profusely from a mortar attack. Four of his men who carried him in his poncho, a medic who plugged up his bleeding holes, a Medal of Honor recipient pilot who flew in under heavy enemy fire, and several nurses and doctors in MASH units, took turns saving his life.
It would take three more days for the battle to end and our men to be gone from the Valley. In the fighting at LZ Albany, 155 men were killed and 124 were wounded. In an odd quirk of fate, on November 24, a passing H-13 scout helicopter was flagged down by the lone remaining American, Toby Braveboy. On November 25 back in Iowa, we were sitting down to Thanksgiving turkey, still unaware that my brother was fighting for his life.
Now here it is, November 13 again. I’m starting Thanksgiving early this year, with a family dinner tomorrow at a friend’s whose daughter is visiting from New York. It will have all the delicious aromas and taste of the Thanksgiving feast, and I will be thankful again for my brother and my Ia Drang survivor friends, and their having another kind of November than the terrible one of 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam.
— ( c ) St. John 2011