Texas gathering of Vietnam participants looks back at a hot war
By SIG CHRISTENSON | San Antonio Express-News | Published: April 27, 2016
AUSTIN, Texas (Tribune News Service) — Until the first soldiers jumped off their helicopters at Landing Zone Albany in the winter of 1965, the Vietnam War had been confined to American advisers who had suffered relatively light casualties.
Back home, the conflict wasn’t a prominent blip on the nation’s radar. The civil rights movement and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society were making the headlines and dominating the evening news.
Ia Drang changed that, recalled speakers Tuesday at the LBJ Presidential Library’s Vietnam War Summit. It was the first major clash between American troops and the North Vietnamese Army, the opening engagement in a long and bloody war.
The 450 U.S. soldiers at LZ Albany knew only that they had a fight on their hands.
“It was very, very tough fighting,” said retired Col. Walter Joseph Marm, who received the Medal of Honor because of the battle. “They were determined to kill us and we were determined to destroy them, too. It was a dog-eat-dog kind of a slugfest.”
Marm was among a handful of Ia Drang veterans at the summit, an event that brought 60 speakers from the era to the University of Texas at Austin campus a few days before the 41st anniversary of the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
Those in Austin for the three-day event include Secretary of State John Kerry, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb and singer “Country Joe” McDonald, who earned fame at Woodstock for his anti-war anthem, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.”
“It had several unique things about it,” McDonald, 74, of Berkeley, California, said of the song. “One was, it’s an attitude. It was in your face. In rock ’n’ roll it was a new way to play acoustic music, which went on to Kurt Cobain and whatever, to different people.
“And it wasn’t anti-soldier in any way,” McDonald maintained. “That song was embraced by soldiers in Vietnam, even taught in Marine boot camp as a marching song at one point, and it blamed the Vietnam war specifically on the military-industrial-complex and parents. Parents for allowing them to go and fight.”
The U.S. escalation of military force to prevent a Communist victory over South Vietnam began well before Ia Drang, when the entire 1st Cavalry Division — a force of about 15,000 soldiers — was deployed there. A United Press International correspondent, Joe Galloway, arrived late on the first evening of the clash, Nov. 14, 1965, and spent most of the battle of Ia Drang with Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry.
The fighting already was intense, with the North Vietnamese mounting three attacks on the 7th, the same regiment once led to near-destruction by Gen. George Custer almost 90 years earlier. Retired Army Col. Bruce Crandall, another Medal of Honor recipient from the Ia Drang fight, recalled that his chopper crews flew more than 14 hours that day and brought out 71 wounded. They also took fresh soldiers in, along with food, water and ammunition.
“We knew what we were doing, and I don’t want it to sound like we didn’t have a good idea of what we were doing,” Crandall said. “But we also knew that we had to do what we were doing, otherwise the infantry would not survive on the battlefield.”
That night, one group of U.S. soldiers almost was annihilated, cut off from the main body of 1st Cav troops and desperately fighting off three massed attacks. The “Lost Battalion,” as it was called, had nine dead and 13 wounded as the second day of the battle began.
“When a relief force came in the next day, they had to yell, ‘Are you there? Is anyone alive?’” recalled Galloway, who with now-retired Army Lt. Gen. Hal Moore co-authored a book, “We were Soldiers Once … and Young,” detailing the battle. “And this hand comes out of the dirt and the leaves and waves around and it was (Sgt. Ernie) Savage. They had almost literally become part of the earth.”
The battle, and the headlines it brought, prompted Johnson to order Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to look into what had happened. The eyes-only memo he sent to the president was a sober assessment and offered two options — find a quiet way, diplomatic way out of Vietnam or double down.
On Dec. 15, 1965, the president held a two-day meeting about Vietnam at the White House.
“When Johnson walked into the cabinet room for the beginning of this meeting he had a copy of McNamara’s memo in his hand and he shook it at him and said, ‘Bob, you mean to tell me that no matter what I do in Vietnam I can’t win that war?’” Galloway told an audience of about 700.
“And McNamara looked at him and shook his head, ‘Yes.’ The memo said, roughly speaking, that the North Vietnamese have not only met our escalation of the war, they have exceeded it, and we are at a decision point.”
The fateful decision: Send another 200,000 soldiers to Vietnam.
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