Were Soldiers Once … and Young: Ia Drang: the Battle That Changed the War in
LTG Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway; New York: Random House; 1992. 432
pages. $20-$25. Hard-cover, mass-market paperback, audio editions.
by David Fiedler
By now, most of us have either read the book We Were Soldiers Once … and Young or have seen the movie staring Mel Gibson. Army Communicator readers understand that the book tells the sad story of how – for a second time after the Battle of the Little Bighorn – the hard-luck 7th U.S. Cavalry was almost completely destroyed again as a fighting formation in 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley of South Vietnam.
Moore’s and Galloway’s book goes into the action in great (almost too much) personal detail and produces an almost minute-to-minute account as to who was doing what on the battlefield. For example, Moore’s detail is so fine that he even describes sharing a C-ration breakfast with his sergeant major before the battle and the efforts of one of his junior officers to make a cup of C-ration hot chocolate during a lull in the fighting. Moore’s emotional description of the heroic deeds of individuals in his command (he commanded 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, and elements of 2d Battalion, 7th Cavalry) goes down to the names, hometowns and ages of the members of his battalion, which can’t fail to bring forth a poignant response from even the hardest professional soldier among us.
To recap the situation from the S-6 perspective, in mid-November 1965, 500 air-cavalry troopers from 1/7 Cavalry under then-LTC Moore’s command were dropped into a small landing zone in the Ia Drang Valley. The operation was to be a classic light-infantry sweep of an area suspected of having an (size unknown) enemy force located in it. In infantry terms, it was supposed to be a “find ‘em, fix ‘em, fight ‘em, destroy ‘em” action. The LZ was identified on operational maps as LZ X-Ray and was near the Chu Pong massif (mountain) that dominates the Ia Drang Valley.
National, theater, corps or 1st Cavalry Division intelligence assets didn’t alert Moore to the fact that the Chu Pong massif was home base for a multi-battalion Viet Cong force that far outnumbered Moore’s battalion, and that this force was looking to do battle with Americans. The enemy objective was to engage 1st Cavalry Division units in battle so their commanders could devise effective tactics against the U.S. Army’s new airmobile-division concepts.
Moore mentions a single radio-direction-finding fix provided by the Army Security Agency that indicated there was enemy in the area, but Moore had no clue as to the size, location and condition of the enemy force and went into LZ X-Ray blind, overconfident and piecemeal. Accordingly, first and foremost this book is the story of an intelligence failure, followed by other failures – including communications failures – resulting in tactical disaster. If anyone knew the real intelligence situation, they apparently didn’t tell Moore, and he didn’t have a clue about what he was facing until his lead elements landed on LZ X-Ray.
It’s important to remember that in 1965 the concept of an airmobile division was a new and radical idea. The division, in spite of its name and mode of transportation, was in fact a light-infantry division (not the heavy armored 1st Cavalry Division of today) that once on the ground fought as light infantry but with heavy helicopter support. As stated in the Gibson movie, the 1st Cavalry’s operational concept was that “we will ride into battle and the UH-1 helicopter will be our horse.”
As a circa-1965 light-infantry division – particularly in the combat battalions like Moore’s 1/7 Cavalry – tactical communications depended almost completely on the widely distributed AN/PRC-25 manpack very-high-frequency radio. The AN/PRC-25 was very similar to today’s Single-Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System radio. The radio weighed about 20 pounds with battery, operated in the 30-75.95 megahertz frequency spectrum, transmitted about 1.5 watts of power and came with both three- and 10-foot vertical whip antennas that gave a transmission distance of three to seven miles. Transmission mode was strictly frequency-modulation voice. Communications distance for the AN/PRC-25 could be extended to up to 20 miles by using the RC-292 ground-plane antenna and its associated 30-foot mast.
While this radio was the state-of-the-art solid-state tactical radio in 1965, it must be noted that, unlike SINCGARS, a critical deficiency of this radio was that it had no communications security – either internal or external with it. It also couldn’t frequency hop. Around this time the AN/PRC-25 was modified into the AN/PRC-77 design that would accept COMSEC devices; however, Moore doesn’t mention having any AN/PRC-77s in his force.
I don’t intend here to go further into battle details other than to say 1/7 Cavalry’s landing on X-Ray triggered a battle that decimated most of three American infantry battalions after a three-day running fight. For people interested in the tragic tactical details, I recommend you read the book, see the movie, view the History Channel special on the battle or go to the LZ X-Ray website. I would like to analyze Moore’s and Galloway’s book from the tactical communicator’s (G-6/S-6) perspective so that hopefully we can avoid making the same serious Signal tactical and technical mistakes 1/7 Cavalry made.
The first thing to note is that Moore states several times the big difference between his situation and Custer’s was that he had “support.” He dwells heavily on fire support, including field artillery located on two firebases within 105mm-howitzer range of the battle, close air support from the Air Force and aerial-rocket-artillery support from the division’s rocket-firing helicopter gunships. Moore talks about engineer support, medical support, transportation support and other support, but he never once mentions Signal support! Even though all his command-and-control and combat-support activities were coordinated exclusively over the AN/PRC-25 FM radio, he barely mentions them in that context.
In addition, Moore names his officers and describes their functions in the battle in great detail throughout the book except for his Signal officer, who apparently either didn’t exist, played no part in the battle or was held in such low regard that he wasn’t considered worthy of mention. Also, brigade- and division-level Signal officers apparently were of no support worthy of mention – indicating either a complete breakdown of the S-6 chain or Signal planning during the operation.
I’m completely mystified with this situation. My own experience as the S-6 in an infantry battalion was completely the opposite. LTC William Singleton, my battalion commander, kept me so near that it was a standing joke among the officers that if the colonel stopped short on the trail he’d better watch out because I was going to bump him over. In my dreams, I can still hear his deep East Texas drawl at 4 a.m. saying, “Daaavid, get up, it’s time to move out.” He knew the value of good communications and communications personnel and kept us close to him.
Had Moore done the same with his S-6, the Ia Drang battle’s outcome could have been less costly. S-6s, particularly at the combat-arms battalion level, need to live in the battalion commander’s and S-3’s shadows. The S-6 can’t be timid but must insert himself forcefully as a primary staff officer into every phase of plans and operations to assure good tactical communications. (Sometimes this means you have to be loud to be heard!) A reading of Moore’s and Galloway’s book indicates to me that Moore had no relationship with any of his Signal support, while he maintained a very close relationship with other supporting arms. Obviously, Moore didn’t believe Signal support could help him win battles, so he ignored it – both then and in his book.
The next thing of S-6 significance in Moore’s description of the battle is the spotty way field-radio communications performed. By 1965, the Army had fully adopted the “user-owned and -operated” concept for field-radio communications, particularly for the AN/PRC-25 radio. Each branch of the Army was responsible for training field-radio and wire operations at its branch basic-training and advanced-individual-training courses; while the Signal Corps provided some instructors, it was clearly getting out of the field-radio-operator business – operators would no longer be professional communicators, particularly below battalion level.
Apparently in 1/7 Cavalry this was working OK, since the unit had forward air controllers (who were Air Force-trained on an entire suite of field radios) and field-artillery officers and men such as the forward observers (who had been very well instructed in radio subjects at Fort Sill, Okla.’s Artillery Center). Both FACs and FOs did fine with their radio communications at Ia Drang when communications were identical to those of the combat elements, and they clearly saved 1/7 Cavalry from annihilation.
Unfortunately, judging by Moore’s and Galloway’s book, the same can’t be said about radio communications among infantry elements whose operators trained at infantry centers. Radio communications during the battle between the battalion command post and the fighting companies wasn’t a problem, since they were all packed into a small area around LZ X-Ray and so were well within the AN/PRC-25’s range, even when operators used the less-efficient short antenna. Communications from the CP at X-Ray to its rear-support elements and 1/7 Cavalry’s parent-brigade CP, however, were another story. Moore talks extensively about needing his battalion command-and-control helicopter overhead so he could have its crew and on-board battalion staff officers repeat voice messages for the battalion support base and brigade headquarters at Plei Me, a mere 15 miles away. When the helicopter wasn’t available, there simply was no direct radio communications between X-Ray and the Plei Me base.
Well into the three-day battle, one of the communications noncommissioned officers at Ia Drang finally thought to erect an RC-292 ground-plane antenna to increase the distance the AN/PRC-25 could cover. Using the RC-292, Moore finally did reach Plei Me directly by radio.
Had the battalion had an effective S-6 with a good communications plan, the RC-292 antenna would have been up from the battle’s start, and experience tells us the outcome of the fight could have been better for us because of it. At least the battalion’s helicopter and its staff officers could have been doing more useful things to aid the battle other than repeating voice messages. That alone would have helped Moore’s situation.
Had the battalion had a good S-6 and a good Signal plan, there also would have been AN/PRC-25 automatic-retransmission stations at the existing fire-support bases located between X-Ray and Plei Me. These stations would have been protected by the bases and would have provided another easy-to-install and easy-to-reach communications path back to the support area and brigade CP.
Manpack HF radios such as the AN/PRC-74 and AN/PRC-47 were also available to the 1st Cavalry Division at this time. These radios should have provided immediate direct communications with X-Ray from division bases at Plei Me and An Khe, but they were apparently also forgotten by the S-6 chain and its infantry-branch-trained user-operators.
Take heed; these lessons can still be applied to today’s Army, where we still have the user-owned and -operated concept, and we still only talk about implementing a real S-6 program of instruction at the Signal Center to prepare Signal officers for service in combat-arms battalions.
Now for the most important lesson of all from the S-6 perspective. Clearly, 1st Cavalry Division used VHF-FM radio communications at every command level for almost every purpose you can think of. Such a wide distribution of information emitters rightly concerned ASA’s experts.
ASA was the organization responsible for Army COMSEC and electronic warfare. ASA didn’t believe 1st Cavalry Division’s confidence (also shared by many other U.S. divisions) that 1st Cav’s movements were so rapid and its actions so immediate that the enemy couldn’t glean any useful information from the division’s tactical unencrypted radio nets. To prove its point, ASA monitored almost 11,000 1st Cavalry Division radio transmissions as the division deployed.
ASA’s conclusions were that radio operators and the non-Signal-branch-trained NCOs – and the officers who controlled them – had little regard for radio security. ASA found that operators – many of whom were senior NCOs and field-grade officers – were regularly broadcasting classified information in the clear. Examples of the information ASA was able to discover from clear voice-radio-net monitoring included unit call signs, unit radio-net frequencies and all sorts of operational information. ASA also discovered that operators rarely used their widely available off-line transmission authentication system.
ASA provided this information to MG Harry Kinnard, 1st Cavalry Division’s commander, and his S-6 staff, but apparently it was ignored and didn’t trigger any division-wide corrective action led by the G-6. Shortly after this, Moore’s and two other battalions moved into the Ia Drang Valley.
ASA’s findings were never widely publicized and were certainly not mentioned in Moore’s book or the Gibson movie, but ASA monitored more than 28,000 radio transmissions during the actual Ia Drang battle. ASA found that COMSEC was almost never used, unauthorized codes that were easily broken by the enemy were in widespread use, and Army off-line (paper) codes and encryption devices while available were also never used. This kind of arrogance made it very easy for the VC to pick up all sorts of useful tactical information about the U.S. force, including its locations, strengths, weaknesses and battle plans.
It finally became so apparent the mail was being read that, in the middle of the battle, the division Signal officer (G-6) at last tried to do something. The DSO ordered a division-wide radio-call-sign change to regain some security. This action caused so much confusion among the radio operators and the branch-schooled-trained commanders and staffs, including the lower-echelon S-6 staff, that the change was cancelled to restore command-and-control to the division. The DSO’s order was a great example of too little much too late.
Worst of all, after three days of intense battle, Moore’s battalion had finally beaten back the enemy force and secured LZ X-Ray, thanks to overwhelming fire support and reinforcement by two more battalions. It was decided that Moore’s battalion would be airlifted directly out of X-Ray, while the other two battalions (2d Battalion, 7th Cavalry, and 2d Battalion, 5th Cavalry) would withdraw on foot in column toward LZ Columbus, only a few miles away. Once reaching LZ Columbus, 2/5 Cavalry would be airlifted out of the area. The 2/7 Cavalry would break off on the line of march before reaching LZ Columbus and would move northwest a few more miles to LZ Albany, where they would also depart. All movements of both battalions when on the march were coordinated over the unencrypted radio command nets.
After a 2½-hour march, the lead battalion reached Columbus and was safely extracted by waiting helicopters. This cut the U.S. ground force in half. As 2/7 Cavalry closed on LZ Albany, the Americans were met by a fierce VC attack. The attack’s intensity and the VC force’s positioning, in my opinion, could only have been accomplished with foreknowledge of U.S. intentions. Intercepting U.S. radio transmissions and reacting to them (again, in my opinion) is the only way the enemy would have obtained this knowledge. The result was a second, even worse disaster, and again, extremely high casualties.
In spite of ASA warnings about COMSEC, even after the Ia Drang battle, 1st Cavalry Division and other U.S. forces still didn’t take the communications-intelligence threat seriously. To force some action, MG William DePuy, 1st Infantry Division’s commander, decided to either prove or disprove that the enemy was conducting COMINT operations. In the summer of 1966, he had 1st Infantry Division radio nets send information in the clear that would indicate the division’s armored-cavalry troop would be alone on the Minh Than Road north of Saigon at a certain time. Instead, DePuy had prepared a trap with four infantry battalions supported by artillery.
The resulting battle with the VC’s 9th Division caused more than 300 VC dead and also proved to some (but still not all) the enemy COMINT capability. For a time, COMSEC in U.S. divisions improved, but it rapidly slipped back to pre-Ia Drang Battle levels in spite of both DePuy and ASA. Not until 1969 (almost three years later), when 1st Infantry Division troops physically captured an enemy COMINT platoon and conclusively proved the VC was able to gain tactical advantage by means of COMINT, did the picture change dramatically.
The information gained by the VC COMINT platoon’s capture was detailed to the Army under Project Touchdown, a COMSEC training program that will be the subject of a future article from me.
There are several important points that today’s S-6 can learn from Moore’s and Galloway’s book. They are:
|The S-6 is a primary staff officer at battalion level and above. You must first know your job, and then you can’t be timid in asserting yourself, even to the point of being obnoxious. Signal planning, operations and COMSEC need to be drummed into the commander and the G-3/S-3 at all levels. You personally need to know what to do with your equipment and how to do it, and your commander must know that you do. If you see something wrong, like uncovered communications, you must fight it before it costs lives. This will be much easier if your commander has confidence in you.|
|Don’t be part of the arrogance; give even a Third World power like the VC credit for having some brains when it comes to COMINT. Our enemies aren’t 10 feet tall, but they’re not subhumans either. Don’t let political, racial or religious prejudice fool you into thinking your enemy isn’t smart. Some 58,000 American soldiers learned the hard way what it means when a command thinks that way.|
|Know how to build tactical-communications systems and know what works in your environment. Strive to use all your capabilities instead of just one like 1st Cavalry did. Ideally, a mix of HF, SINCGARS and ultra-HF satellite communications needs to be deployed with the lower echelons of the combat arms. How would you feel if you lost soldiers because communications failed and all you had to do to fix it was change to another system, fix an antenna, change a frequency, throw a switch or some other simple action like that?|
|Believe that COMSEC saves lives, and make sure your commander believes it also!|
This last point is extremely important. The “user-owned and -operated communications” concept is with us to stay, at least for now. “Users” are sometimes not in love, for all sorts of reasons, with the radio equipment or the quantities of equipment the Army gives them. This leads to supplementing what’s issued with unauthorized civilian equipment. In the 1960s, it was modified ham-radio gear; in the 1970s, it was citizen-band radios; and recently, it has been tactical units using Family Radio Service radios for unit operations. Not only does use of this sort of equipment break every COMSEC rule in the book, it’s also against Army regulations, command policy and, in many cases, international law.
In the past, ignorant commanders and S-6s have condoned use of this equipment, or at least looked the other way, because it seemed to improve operations. This can’t continue because the security risk is just too great. It’s the S-6’s job to stop this sort of thing dead in its tracks. If anyone asks why, just tell him or her to read Moore’s and Galloway’s book. When analyzed through an S-6’s eyes, We Were Soldiers Once … and Young makes a great example of what not to do even in today’s Army where, thanks to equipment like SINCGARS and KY-57, COMSEC is in common use.
Many of Moore’s problems are still with us! In 1965, most S-6s in combat-arms battalions – if they were Signal Corps officers (some weren’t) – had an O200 military-occupation speciality. “O200” meant basic Signal officer with no experience, just out of the Signal Officer Basic Course. The O200s were expected to learn the fine points of their jobs on their jobs. This was a hard thing to do when many of the battalions they were sent to were already in combat. There was no Signal Center course at that time dedicated to training S-6s, and SOBC didn’t cover near what they had to know. Some lucky officers did get to go to the FA school at Fort Sill for some advanced field-communications training. Most did not, and those who did usually ended up in artillery units.
This situation isn’t very different today. In today’s world, military action – as it was in the Vietnam era – is again in the hands of “light fighters” at the combat battalion and brigade level. The likelihood of deploying large armored formations dependent on area communications and large CP facilities is far less than it was only a few short years ago. With this in mind, the combat-arms battalion S-6 becomes a far more important player and, as Moore’s and Galloway’s book proves, the Signal Corps needs to assure they’re better prepared for it.
Mr. Fiedler – a retired Signal Corps lieutenant colonel – is an engineer and project director at the project manager for tactical-radio communications systems, Fort Monmouth, N.J. Past assignments include service with Army avionics, electronic warfare, combat-surveillance and target-acquisition laboratories, Army Communications Systems Agency, PM for mobile-subscriber equipment, PM-SINCGARS and PM for All-Source Analysis System. He’s also served as assistant PM, field-office chief and director of integration for the Joint Tactical Fusion Program, a field-operating agency of the deputy chief of staff for operations. Fiedler has served in Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard Signal, infantry and armor units and as a Department of the Army civilian engineer since 1971. He holds degrees in both physics and engineering and a master’s degree in industrial management. He is the author of many articles in the fields of combat communications and electronic warfare.
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