Fighting in the flat-to-rolling jungle terrain of the Ia Drang Valley, some 1,500 square miles, began Nov. 1, 1965, when a platoon of air mobile infantry from Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, came across a North Vietnamese aid station. The U.S. troops overran the station, killing 15 enemy soldiers and wounding another 15.
“The rifle platoon had been air assaulted into the area in response to sightings of scattered small groups by 9th Cav scout helicopters,” according to a 1st Cavalry Division “Interim Report of Operations” from July 1965 through December 1966.
Two more First Team platoons soon landed to “exploit the contact,” but by 2 p.m., scout helicopters saw a battalion-size enemy force of North Vietnamese Army soldiers moving toward the troopers.
Heavy fighting ensued as the 1st Cavalry’s 3rd Brigade sent in reinforcements — at least four more platoons from various units — and by 5 p.m., the entire Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment “were committed to the battle.”
It was a one-day fight that led to 99 enemy soldiers killed and 183 wounded. It also cost the NVA’s 33rd Regiment its aid station, “many patients, and over $40,000 worth of important medical supplies.”
Perhaps just as importantly, the fight cemented in blood a type of warfare never before seen in the world.
“This operation also demonstrated the cavalry squadron at its best,” according to the nearly 50-year-old report; “scout ships reconnoitring and locating enemy groups, followed by rifle platoons fixing him in place, followed by heliborne units finishing him. This tactical concept and theory worked to perfection when implemented by the skilled personnel of the 9th Cavalry Squadron and its backup units, not only in the Ia Drang but again and again during division operations.”
The fighting in the Ia Drang Valley, however, was not finished. During the next two weeks, the firefights grew bigger with bold moves from both sides.
“There was an unprecedented use of air-mobility and firepower as over 400 helicopters consumed 85,000 gallons of fuel daily,” according to the report.
“In another respect ... (the) combat had proven something of even greater importance. They had shown beyond a doubt that the air assault concept was valid under actual battlefield conditions. The campaign had been the acid test of combat for the airmobile division and there can be no question that it fully carried its weight.”
To make it all work, however, the Army needed helicopter pilots — arguably the most skilled position on the Vietnam battlefield.
The pilots of Vietnam didn’t just buzz from landing zone to landing zone dropping off men and supplies.
Helicopters of all kinds, including red cross-marked medevacs, were fired upon regularly. Not only did they maneuver soldiers and supplies in ways and speeds previously unseen in battle, but Hueys laden with an M-60 machine guns, 40-mm grenade launchers, rockets and other weapons attacked the enemy head-on despite being big, and sometimes vulnerable, targets.
“These pilots were amazing,” said Raul Villaronga, 77, a former Killeen mayor and Vietnam veteran who did two tours.
A company commander with the 1st Squadron, 8th Cavalry Regiment, in 1966 and 1967, Villaronga quickly grew to depend on the main Army helicopter of the time — the UH-1 Iroquois, better known as a Huey.
From supplies to fire support, the helicopter did it all.
“When we were in Vietnam, the helicopter was the lifeblood of the Cav,” said former Staff Sgt. Jerry Ward, who served with 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.
For William E. Hattaway, a Vietnam veteran who retired in the Copperas Cove area in 1973, flying helicopters was a huge part of his military career, which began when he was drafted in 1953.
He became an officer and a pilot and was sent to Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion in 1965. He flew Huey gunships and transports during the Battle of Ia Drang Valley.
“He said in that fight, everybody did everything,” said Hattaway’s daughter, Bridget Hattaway.
Pilots would go from gunships to transports, whatever was needed on the battlefield at the moment.
Despite the dangers, pilots flew into hot landing zones without question.
As Hattaway liked to put it: “Your number comes up, or it doesn’t.”
He relied on his training and his crew, and he had a crew that could get things done: mechanics, door gunners and others.
“He had such respect for them,” his daughter said.
Decades later, while touring the 1st Cavalry Museum with his grandson, Jake Mullins, who was about to make his first combat deployment with the 4th Infantry Division, told his grandson to “trust your training.”
Added Hattaway: “Do you know how to call for fire support?”
Mullins told his grandfather: “I’m the best.”
Mullins, 31, is now a sergeant stationed in Germany.
During the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, four helicopters were shot down and another 55 were damaged. More than 200 U.S. soldiers were killed and more than 1,000 North Vietnamese soldiers lay dead.
For his part, Hattaway earned a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Bronze Star Medal and multiple Air Medals with Valor Device. He died last year from natural causes at his home in Kempner. He was 81.
But thanks to him and other pilots of Vietnam, a new type of engagement was introduced to the modern battlefield. Helicopters saved American lives and took a heavy toll on the enemy.
“The enemy was no stranger to the helicopter and the advantages it offers its allies,” according to the 1st Cavalry interim report.
“What (the enemy) failed to grasp was the use of the helicopters in a role other than as mover of supplies, other than a airborne 2½ ton truck. For the first time he found his withdrawal routes blocked, his columns attacked, artillery fire adjusted on routes of exfiltration — all because of the third dimension which the 1st Cavalry added to the war.”