The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

January/February 2004
FEATURE
   
 

Sandbag For A Machine Gun: Jack Smith on the Battle of the
Ia Drang and the Legacy of the Vietnam War

BY JACK SMITH


I have pancreatic cancer. If it is Agent Orange, it's not the first time this damned war has tried to kill me.

Let me tell you about the first time. In fact, the whole and true story of my journey home from Vietnam. But before I do, let me set the scene for you.

It is November 1965. The Ia Drang Valley. The nearest town, Pleiku, a remote Vietnamese province capital. And west of town, beyond the stilted long-huts of the Montagnards, flat scrub jungle cover the hills by the Cambodian border. A smugglers' haven, and now the infiltration route for the first North Vietnamese regulars to invade South Vietnam.

American regular infantry, the first sent to Vietnam as the war escalates, have come to this border country to hunt the People's Army of Vietnam. They are the men of the First Air Cav, the first Army infantry division to ride into war in helicopters. The leading unit is Lt. Col. Hal Moore's 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment. Driving their choppers into a landing zone designated X-ray, a few miles from the Cambodian border, on the
14th of November, 1965, they land on top of a North Vietnamese Army base. A ferocious battle ensues that lasts three whole days. Hal Moore's battalion several times comes within inches of being overrun. In the end, reinforced to brigade strength, the U.S. troops destroy the better part of a North Vietnamese division at X-ray. Seventy-nine Americans are killed, 121 woundeda total of 200 U.S. casualtiesthe highest toll of the war till thenbut there are roughly two thousand North Vietnamese
casualties.

I came in on the last day of the battle. I remember the NVA bodies were piled so thick around the foxholes you could walk on them for 100 feet in some places. The American GIs were the same color as the dirt and all had that thousand-yard stare of those newly initiated to combat.

The next day, after a restless night, my battalion, the 2/7, walked away from X-ray toward another clearing called LZ Albany. Around lunchtime, we were jumped by a North Vietnamese formation. Like us, about 500-strong.

The fighting was hand-to-hand. I was lying so close to a North Vietnamese machine-gunner that I simply stuck out my rifle and blew off his head. It was, I think, the only time during the war that a U.S. battalion was ever overrun. The U.S. casualties for this fourth day of battle: 155 killed, 121 wounded. More dead than wounded. The North Vietnamese suffered a couple of hundred casualties.

The fight at LZ Albany was largely overlooked as an aberrationpoor leadership, green troops. In this first encounter between their main force regulars, the two sides focused instead on X-ray. Interestingly, both drew the same conclusion: that each could win using the tactics of attrition.

The ferocity of the fighting during those four days was appalling. At one point in the awful afternoon at Albany, as my battalion was being cut to pieces, a small group of enemy came upon me, and thinking I had been killed (I was covered in other people's blood), proceeded to use me as a sandbag for their machine gun. I pretended to be dead. I remember the gunner had bony knees that pressed against my sides. He didn't discover I was alive because he was trembling more than I was. He was, like me, just a teenager.

The gunner began firing into the remnants of my company. My buddies began firing back with rifle grenadesM-79s, to those of you who know about them. I remember thinking, "Oh, my God. If I stand up, the North Vietnamese will kill me; and if I stay lying down, my buddies will get me." Before I went completely mad, a volley of grenades exploded on top of me, killing the enemy boy and injuring me.

It went on like this all day and much of the night. I was wounded twice and thought myself dead. My company suffered about 93 percent casualties93 percent.

This sort of experience leaves scars. I had nightmares. For years afterwards I was sour on life, by turns angry, cynical, and alienated.

Then one day I woke up and saw the world as I believe it really is, a bright and warm place. I looked afresh at my scars and marveled, not at the frailty of human flesh, but at the indomitable strength of the human spirit. This is the miracle of life. Like other Vietnam veterans, I began to put the personal hurt behind me, and I started to examine the war itself and to make sense of it.

When I went back to Vietnam a few years ago, I met Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the man who engineered the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu and then commanded North Vietnamese forces in the war with South Vietnamand us. He conceded that because of the Ia Drang his plans to cut Vietnam in half and take the capital had been delayed ten years. But then, he chuckled, it didn't make a difference, did it?

We won every battle, but the North Vietnamese in the end took Saigon. What on earth had we been doing there? Was all that pain and suffering worth it, or was it just a terrible waste? This is why Vietnam veterans often have so much trouble letting go, what sets them apart from veterans of other wars.

Nothing is so precious to a nation as its youth. And so, to squander the lives of the young in a war that, depending on one's point of view, either should never have been fought or we were never prepared to win, seems crazy. Yet, that's exactly what happened in Vietnam. However justified the war seemed in 1964 and 1965and, remember, almost all Americans then thought it wasit no longer seemed that way after Tet in 1968. And no matter what you may remember of the war, we never really fought it to win.

When I was wounded it caused a minor sensation at home. My father was Howard K. Smith, the anchorman and TV news commentator, who was then at the peak of his career. That the son of a famous person should get shot in Vietnam was, in 1965, news. When I returned to the United States after my tour in Vietnam, President Johnson, who was a friend of my dad's, invited me to a dinner party at the White House. I remember a tall, smiling man who thanked me for my service and
sacrifice. I liked him then; I still do today. Yet no one bears as much responsibility for the conduct of the war as he does.

In the Gulf War we took six months to put half a million troops into the war zone. In Vietnam, it took more than six years. We were too timid to carry the fight to the enemy until the end, and we triedimpossiblyto keep the war contained to South Vietnam.

The result was that our enemy, a small country waging total warthat is, using all its resourcessaw a super power fighting a limited war and concluded that if it could just sustain the 10-to-1 casualties we were inflicting for a while, then we would tire and leave, and it would win. Of course, Ho Chi Minh was right. The war also changed character. The Sino-Soviet split made it seem less like a war of national liberation and more like a civil waran internal squabble. After the Tet Offensive in 1968, we quit and began the longest and bloodiest retreat in U.S. history. Dean Rusk, then-Secretary of State, many years later ruefully told me, ``They outlasted us.''

The fact is, democracies don't fight inconclusive wars for remote goals in distant places for very long. Pham Van Dong, Ho's successor, said that.

Whether the war was right or whether it was wrong, it was fought in such a way it could never really have been brought to a conclusion. That now seems clear with time. What a waste. It's why so many veterans of Vietnam feel bitter.

Well, we finally did get our parades and we finally did build our memorial on the Mall in Washington. These helped. But so many veterans were still haunted by the war, and I was, too.

Fourteen years ago, I watched the Berlin Wall come down and, as an ABC News correspondent, I witnessed first hand the collapse of communism. I remember thinking, ``My God, containment worked. We won the Cold War.'' And however meaningless Vietnam seemed at the time, it contributed to the fall of communism. Hardly justification for what we went through in Vietnam, but at least it was something.

Then ten years ago, an event changed me. An opportunity to go back to Vietnam. With ten other Ia Drang veterans, I traveled back to the jungle in the Central Highlands and for several days walked the battlefield. Did I find the answer to my question? No, I don't know if what we did in the war ultimately was worth it. But what I did find surprised me.

North Vietnam may have conquered the South, but it is losing the peace. A country that three decades ago had the fourth strongest army in the world has squandered its wealth on fighting its neighbors and is poor and bankrupt. You look at Vietnam today and you wonder why they fought the war. Many North Vietnamese wonder, too.

What struck me was the overwhelming peacefulness of the place, even in the clearing where I fought, LZ Albany. I broke down several times. I wanted to bring back some shell casingssome physical manifestation of the battleto lay at the foot of The Wall here in Washington. But, do you know, search as I did, I could not find any. The forces of nature had simply erased it. And where once the grass had been slippery with blood, there were flowers blooming in that place of death. So I
pressed some and brought them back. Flowersthat's all that I could find in that jungle clearing that once held terror and now held beauty.


What I discovered with time may seem obvious, but it had really escaped me all those years on my journey home from Vietnam: The war is over. It certainly is for Vietnam and the Vietnamese. As I said on a Nightline broadcast when I came back, ``This land is at peace, and so should we be.'' For me, Vietnam has become a place again, not a war, and I have begun letting go.

I have discovered that wounds heal. That the friendship of old comrades breathes meaning into life. And that even the most disjointed events can begin to make sense with the passage of time.

This has allowed me, on evenings like this, to step forward and take pride in the service I gave my country. But never to forget what was, and will always be, the worst day of my life. The day I escaped death in the tall grass of the Ia Drang Valley. Thank you.

Jack Smith gave this speech November 3, 2003, at the I Drang Survivors Banquet in Crystal City, Virginia.

   

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