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Broken Arrow: The Battle of Ia Drang Valley


The Battle of Ia Drang Valley was the first major engagement of the Vietnam War between U.S. forces and North Vietnamese regulars. Fought in the Ia Drang Valley of South Vietnam’s central highlands from November 14-18, 1965, elements of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) quickly learned that they faced a well-trained and well-equipped enemy that was determined to stand and fight. As one enemy prisoner told his American captors, the North Vietnamese troops in the area “wanted very much to kill Americans but [had] not been able to find any.” Neither side would soon forget the deadly duel that ensued.

Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore and his 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment were in the thick of the action against three enemy regiments. The struggle was so intense that after two days of fighting, Moore radioed the code word “Broken Arrow,” which was an urgent call for all available aircraft to rescue an American unit that was in danger of being overrun. With the support of tactical airstrikes and heavy artillery, Moore and his men held on, ultimately breaking the enemy’s stranglehold and opening the way for the arrival of reinforcements.

Lieutenant Colonel "Hal" Moore. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

Moore and his exhausted battalion were evacuated on November 17, but tragedy struck one of the fresh American outfits added to the fight. Ordered to march two miles to a new landing zone, the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment was ambushed along the way by the North Vietnamese and lost around 155 dead and 124 wounded, making it the bloodiest single day for U.S. Forces during the entire Vietnam War. American airstrikes and artillery proved decisive once again, helping the battalion’s survivors and additional reinforcements to drive the North Vietnamese into nearby Cambodia.

The four-day Battle of Ia Drang was brutal and chaotic, resulting in around 234 Americans killed and another 250 wounded. North Vietnamese losses were more severe, suffering between 600 and 1,200 killed. Three Americans, Bruce P. Crandall, Ed W. Freeman, and Walter Joseph Marm, were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroism under fire at Ia Drang. For his unwavering leadership and gallantry while leading his men during the battle, Lieutenant Colonel Moore was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the United States military’s second highest decoration for valor. Moore went on to co-write the bestseller, “We Were Soldiers Once… And Young,” which was later adapted into a major film starring Mel Gibson as “Hal” Moore.

The Battle of Ia Drang by artist James Dietz. (Photo Credit: The Art of James Dietz)

Although both sides declared victory at Ia Drang, Moore considered the brutal fight a draw. As he later reflected, “The peasant soldiers [of North Vietnam] had withstood the terrible high-tech fire storm delivered against them by a superpower and had at least fought the Americans to a draw. By their yardstick, a draw against such a powerful opponent was the equivalent of a victory.”

Regardless of who claimed to be the victor at Ia Drang, both the North Vietnamese and the Americans learned valuable lessons from the battle. For U.S. planners, the outcome re-emphasized the need to use helicopters to quickly deploy troops into remote jungle areas and to rack up high enemy body counts by utilizing superior airpower and artillery. Ia Drang taught the North Vietnamese that by fighting the Americans at close quarters, U.S. forces were denied the ability to utilize airstrikes and artillery due to the danger of friendly fire. By adopting this strategy and slipping away into the dense jungle or across the border into Cambodia, the North Vietnamese aimed to overcome American technological and military superiority. As one writer concluded, “The Ia Drang Valley is where the U.S. truly went to war,” and it “set the tone for the” many years of relentless fighting that would follow.


1st Cavalry Division Association: 1st Cavalry Division Medal of Honor Recipients.

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency: Ia Drang Valley Incident.


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