Illuminating History: Who You Fight For

Colonel Howard Moore had been around long enough to notice the contrast the moment he had stepped off of the transport plane.  Now he sat in his Ford pickup, stalled on the streets of Los Angeles with all the time in the world to think everything over.  Howard, or ‘Hal’ as is men called him, had served in the Army for almost thirty years, and could remember long ago when the long parades of American soldiers returning from the fight against the Nazis had marched through the streets of New York to grand ticker tape parades. But this was nothing like1945.  Not only was there an absence of celebration, but a spirit of anger and resentment reigned over the nation.  He sensed it immediately, and it made him bitter.

A few years ago, a resolution had been passed by congress and signed by President Johnson.  In retaliation for an attack on U.S. warships in the South Pacific, the resolution, not even a formal declaration, would eventually send millions of American boys to a little strip of jungle hell they called ‘Vietnam’.  Eager for a chance to prove themselves to their fathers of Greatest Generation fame, hundreds of thousands joined up to do right by their nation, their families, and those allies who needed aid.

Howard had watched as the green recruits poured into boot camp.  He had watched somberly as they were beaten down.  He had grinned as they got up again.  He had worried about their inabilities, and had beamed when they overcame them together.  Most of all, Howard had trusted the brotherhood forged by trial.  Eventually, the Platoons and Squads became tight-knit units of friends who would die for you just as readily as you would die for them.  He felt that these were his sons and brothers, and he was there to guide them.  But Howard had still fretted about one thing.  He knew that nothing could prepare these men, trained though they were, for the sting of death.  They were not ready to become killers.

As it goes in war, the men didn’t have long to wait to experience death.  Howard, now known as ‘Hal’, stood in front of the Battalion before him, the beams of Vietnamese sun burning their young, unscarred faces.  “As men of the 7th Cavalry, we have always held the distinct privilege of charging into battle on the cutting edge of military tactics. The horse, the automobile, the tank.  We’ve ridden them all into battle for the last hundred years.”  He paused.  “But today, we are testing the new horse.  A contraption General Custer himself could never have dreamed of.”  Hal turned to the machine behind him.  “This beauty is called the UH-1 Iroquois, more affectionately known as a ‘Huey’.”  The men were impressed.  “She will bring us into battle, and when the job is done, she will bring us home.”

Hal was standing in the mess tent when an aide sped through the open flap of the tent and zigzagged through the tables towards him.  He told him there was an emergency briefing, and he was needed urgently. Hal took up his jacket and turned to his second in command.  “Gather all of 1st Battalion on the launch pads!”.

Hal burst from the general’s tent and ran towards the launch pads.  The men were all gathered, M14 rifles slung haphazardly over drab uniforms.  “Men!” Hal yelled across the field of helmets glistening in the moonlight.  “The Red army’s on the move.  If they continue unimpeded, they will devastate the defenses of our southern allies.  We have not yet shown these people the tenacity of the American soldier, but now is our chance!”

The blades of the Huey sliced the air as the helicopters waited for take off.  Half of the 1st Battalion crammed into the doorways of each.  Hal sat at the open door of the lead chopper as it snaked through valleys of dense jungle and dark rivers.

Light was just peaking over the tops of the hills when Hal spotted the landing zone.

The helicopters hovered above the ground. Hal leaped out the door and crushed the thick jungle grass beneath his boots, the first American boots on the field.  The rest of the men threw themselves off, forming into platoons as they landed.  Hal briefed his sergeants.  “The NVA are massed ‘bout three miles north.”  “How many?” one asked.  “Between one and two thousand,” Hal replied.  “We only have eight hundred!” exclaimed one Sergeant.  “Yes, and we are to hold this landing zone until reinforcements arrive. We kill them all, or we die, whichever comes first.  But they will not advance beyond this point.  All we have is each other, but in my book, that is enough.”   The men nodded.  “First and second platoons patrol will the perimeter.”

It had been hours.  The scouting platoons had not returned. In the interim, burst of gunfire had rung from the jungle, growing less and less distant each time.  It was nearly noon when Hal spotted the first pith helmet of the NVA soldier foolishly peaking out of the tall grass.  He signaled down the line to his sergeants as he crouched behind the small lump of earth, his only cover.  The bullets split the air above Hal as he watched through is rifle sight for the muzzle flashes coming from the clumps of grass.  He let out some short bursts and watched as the dead enemy slumped into view.

The next 24 hours were a blur of haze and fire around Hal, who always led in the front of every charge, and bore the brunt of every counter attack.  Despite his boldness in the face of the Vietnamese guns, Hal was unscathed after the first two days, and it angered him.  Why was he saved while his brothers were torn apart by the constant fire?

Slowly they were being driven back.  The NVA had unlimited reinforcements, and soon 1st Battalion had their backs to the jungle, the open landing zone spread before them.  There were not one or two thousand as intelligence reports had estimated, but three thousand soldiers hiding in the tall grass, slowly creeping up on the Americans.  Hal waited.  Most of his unit was torn, not a man was unscathed. They were sleep deprived, hungry and some suffered from shell shock.  But Hal would rather die here, fighting for his brothers, than anywhere else.

Hal waited.  Every muscle tense.  Down the line, he saw what was left of the battalion.  This would be their last battle.  There was no wind, only stillness and absolute quiet. The grass fifty yards ahead wavered as the Viet Cong crept towards them.  Hal slowly chambered the first round in his M14.  He set his remaining grenades before him.  He breathed in.  Suddenly a shriek from above nearly made him deaf, followed by the silent free fall of four canisters from the Marine F4 Phantom.  All was again still, until the napalm canisters detonated.  In a flash of scorching fire, the billows of flame engulfed the entire landing zone.  Hal stood in awe of the destruction. Heartened, Hal led the final charge, overwhelming what remained of the Viet Cong troops, and with his brothers, securing victory.

It was 1968.  Howard, still sat in his truck, the road ahead blocked off by anti-war protesters.  He was still wearing his uniform.  Many soldiers were taking them off as soon as they took their first step off the military base, for fear of public ridicule.  From beyond the windshield of his truck, Hal stared at the protesters marching down the road.  One woman dragged an American flag on the road, trotting over it as she went.  He looked down at his uniform.  His mind raced to images of his brothers.  Some were alive, some in hospitals, and many dead.

He tried not to be bitter.  This was his nation.  These were his neighbors.  He and his men just wanted to do right by them, and they had turned their backs on them.  He had worn his uniform in the face of screaming Viet Cong attacks and scorching napalm.  His uniform had been blown by the propellers of the Huey helicopter, had been stained with the blood of his friends.  It was the uniform of his brothers, and he was proud of it, and it was going to take more than some protesters to convince him otherwise.

Hal drove on.  He had let go of his bitterness and resentment.  Because sometimes, when those at home turn on you, the only ones there to keep you safe are the ones who are in the trench with you.

Hal Moore passed away peacefully at the age of 94 on February 10, 2017

The battle of la Drang was the first major clash of American and Vietnamese in the Vietnam War, and the American victory that took place there has since become legend.

Ethan

Photo Credit: Wikipedia Public Domain – Combat operations at Ia Drang Valley, Vietnam, November 1965. Major Bruce P. Crandall‘s UH-1D helicopter climbs skyward after discharging a load of infantrymen on a search and destroy mission.

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