By Staff Sgt. Bryce DubeeNovember 18, 2015
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Nov. 18, 2015) -- The Ia Drang Valley.
It is among the most famous battles in the storied history of the 1st Cavalry Division and the first major battle of the Vietnam War.
Veterans from the division gathered in Washington, D.C., Nov. 14, to commemorate the anniversary of the battle and pay tribute to their fallen comrades in an event hosted by the 1st Cavalry Division Association.
"It's hard to believe it's been 50 years," said Bill Beck, a former machine gunner with Company A, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, who fought at LZ X-Ray. "We're lucky to have made it this far."
While the battle now has a legendary status, Beck said that at the time, the Soldiers on board the UH-1 Huey helicopters heading into the valley weren't aware that they were also riding into the history books.
"We knew nothing [about the battle's eventual historical significance]," he said. "It was just another day for us."
Pfc. Joseph Tramontano distinctly remembers the day he heard the news that the division would be going to war.
Enlisting in 1963 and having graduated from airborne school on Fort Benning, Georgia, Tramontano said that after graduation, Soldiers were being sent to one of three divisions: the 82nd, the 101st and a recently reactivated unit - the 11th Air Assault Division (Test). This new division had last seen action in World War II, jumping into the Philippines, and was now going to test the new battlefield concept of air mobile operations.
"Every day we trained with the choppers," said Tramontano, who was a machine gunner with the 511th Infantry Regiment and later the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment. He added that rumors floated around about the eventual mission for the air mobile - if they would go overseas and if so, would they go to Vietnam.
Then on July 28, 1965, those rumors were confirmed.
"I was sitting in the day room when President [Lyndon] Johnson came on the news," Tramontano said.
One month later he was in Vietnam.
But not all the troopers, from the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Benning, were originally part of the 11th Air Assault Division, many - including Jon Wallenius - came from reflagged units of the 2nd Infantry Division, which had been moved to Korea from Benning.
"I was [on temporary duty] as a lifeguard at the Sand Hill swimming pool," Wallenius said. "And my first sergeant called me and said we're going to make you a [specialist 5] and send you to forward observer school."
From there, things moved in a hurry for Wallenius as the division prepped to deploy.
"We got issued M16s, got one ride in a helicopter and off we went," he said.
INTO THE VALLEY
A member of the scouts for 1-9 Cavalry, Tramontano saw first-hand the threats that were present in Ia Drang. Before the November battle, his unit had scouted the area and observed operation in the region.
"We told them that there was maybe 1,200 to 1,500 [North Vietnamese army soldiers] coming over the mountain," he said. "And by November, there would be 4,000."
The 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, under the command of Lt. Col. Hal Moore, was sent in to assault and destroy the enemy forces.
"Moore wanted some firepower on the ground right with him as we first went into the Ia Drang," said Ed Times, a member of the mortar platoon for Company B, 1-7 Cavalry - the first company to land at LZ X-Ray.
Times recounted his memories from that day during a Nov. 14 live-stream with present-day troopers from 1-7 Cavalry.
"When we first came on in it was kinda quiet, but things started getting live real quick," he said.
By early afternoon, hundreds of North Vietnamese army soldiers were assaulting the 1-7 Cavalry position around the landing zone.
"I was about to head to mass when we got the call the 1-7 was surrounded," Tramontano said.
Company B, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment was sent in the evening of Nov. 14 to support its sister battalion.
Wallenius and Spc. 4 Sam Fantino, the radio telephone operator for 1st Lt. Rick Rescorla, were part of the relief force.
"The LZ was hot, but it wasn't ridiculous," said Wallenius, recalling their arrival at LZ X-Ray.
Fantino said that he and the rest of Rescorla's platoon were sent to support Company C, 1-7 Cavalry along a dry creek bed.
"After we secured the position, Rick went out in front," Fantino said. "He always wanted to see what the enemy saw versus what we saw."
Rescorla was able to correct the fields of fire for his platoon to prepare for the enemy assault.
That attack came the morning of Nov. 15.
"I was drinking coffee with my platoon sergeant and we saw a bunch of guys in khakis run by," said Wallenius, adding that for a brief moment they were unsure who exactly those individuals were until they saw one carrying a machine gun.
"It was just attacks going on day and night," Times said. "You didn't know when they were coming."
For three days, the battle at LZ X-Ray raged, with 80 U.S. Soldiers killed and another 124 being wounded. Estimates for North Vietnamese dead ranged between 600 and 1,200 killed - depending on sources.
But the battle for Ia Drang Valley was far from over.
AMBUSH AT ALBANY
The 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment and the rest of 2-7 Cavalry had moved in to help secure LZ X-Ray, Nov. 16, while 1-7 Cavalry and Company B, 2-7 Cavalry returned to Camp Holloway. The morning of Nov. 17, the remaining 1st Cavalry Division troopers left LZ X-Ray, with the men of 2-7 Cavalry foot marching roughly two miles to the nearby LZ Albany.
"You get through this LZ X-Ray part and you heave this sigh of relief that it's over. Only it ain't over," said Joe Galloway, the famed UPI reporter, who along with Moore chronicled the Battle of Ia Drang in the book, "We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young."
Galloway participated in the live-stream alongside Times and Medal of Honor recipient retired Col. Bruce Crandall, and explained to the current 1-7 Cavalry troopers what happened next.
"The 2nd of the 7th marches off toward a clearing called Albany and walk into an L-shaped hasty ambush by fresh North Vietnamese reserve troops, who've been waiting for their shot at killing Americans," he said. "Something like 155 American boys were killed in a matter of six hours' time in that tall elephant grass - another 130 wounded."
Back at Camp Holloway, while many of the Soldiers fresh from the fight at LZ X-Ray were grabbing a shower, hot meal or even a beer, Fantino said that Rescorla had his Soldiers busy cleaning their weapons and resupplying to head back out if the call came through.
"That was his way," Fantino said.
The call did come, and Company B, 2-7 Cavalry was heading back in to support the Soldiers at Albany.
"The men were all on the slicks [troop transport helicopters]," he said, recalling that he informed Rescorla that everyone was present and accounted for. "He said to me, 'I've never been more proud of my men in my life.'"
Fantino said that Rescorla's pride came from seeing every man ready to head back into combat, even though they had just come from LZ X-Ray and knew what they were flying back into.
"We came [into Albany] at dusk," Wallenius said. "And that was a hot LZ."
Flying in to heavy enemy fire, Fantino said that the co-pilot on their helicopter was hit and they were forced to bank hard to avoid more fire about 10 to 12 feet from the ground.
"Rick looked at all of us and said, 'jump,'" he said.
Landing outside the perimeter, between the U.S. and North Vietnamese forces, Fantino said they had to fight their way in - while at the same time avoiding friendly fire from their comrades already at Albany.
As dawn rose Nov. 18, after the brutal 18-hour fight at LZ Albany, the troopers were able to see the full cost of the battle.
"Charlie Company of the 2nd of the 7th started the day with 110 men and the next morning had exactly eight present and accounted for," Galloway said. "The rest were dead or wounded and evacuated."
As time passed, the veterans of the Battle of Ia Drang came to recognize the significance of their actions and came together each year to reconnect and remember their fallen comrades in arms.
The battle's anniversary, falling so close to Veterans Day, adds even more significance for some.
On Veterans Day this year, Times and other members of the 1st Cavalry Division Association placed bright yellow and black "Cav Patch" wreaths at the World War II, Korea and Vietnam War Memorials - this was Times' 20th year doing so at the Wall, he said.
On this year's 50th anniversary of the landing at LZ X-Ray, many of the surviving veterans gathered for their annual reunion banquet.
"Most of us didn't know each other in Vietnam," said Wallenius, commenting on the almost Family reunion style feeling of the event.
For some, that's literally the case.
First Lt. Erica Tramontano, currently serving in the Operations Section of the 1st Cavalry Division Artillery, said she has been attending the reunions with her father, Joseph, since she was about 8 years old.
"I have 30 uncles," she said, explaining the feeling she has every year she attends.
In fact, she said her father's service was her main impetus into joining the Army and even attended college with the help of a 1st Cavalry Division Association scholarship.
"I'm ecstatic," said the elder Tramontano, about his daughter now serving in the same division that he once did. "I never forced them to join, but I stressed to them that there's no greater honor than to serve your country."
First assigned to 2-7 Cavalry when she arrived on Fort Hood, Tramontano said that even though she had grown up around part of the 1st Cavalry Division's history, she didn't fully realize the significance until she came on active duty.
"It felt like coming home when I got here," she said.
As the veterans gathered to share old war stories and catch up with long-lost comrades, Fantino - who carried with him the French bugle taken by Rescorla at Albany from a North Vietamese soldier - remarked on the strength of the bonds forged 50 years ago in the central highlands of Vietnam.
"No one can understand the kind of feelings that we all have for each other," Fantino said. "It's a brotherhood."