TURBOTVILLE — For those who have read Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s book “We Were Soldiers Once and Young,” and seen the movie it’s based on starring Mel Gibson, there’s no need to explain the horrific combat endured by troops from the 1st Air Cavalry Division in the first major battle of the Vietnam War.
Ken Edwards, now 82, was one of those troops. The Lewis Township resident was among the wave of choppers that flew men from Hal Moore’s 1st Battalion/7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Division to the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. Landing Zone X-Ray would be the ground from which the first large-scale battle pitting an American battalion versus North Vietnamese Army regulars in what would become a 10-year war in Vietnam.
Edwards, originally from Muncy, enlisted in the Army. He did so, he explained, in hopes of keeping his three brothers — Tom Bob and Jack — off the battlefield. He also had two sisters, Janet and Barb.
“I served their time, too,” said Edwards. “That was the deal I made when I enlisted.”
Edwards and troopers from the 1st Air Cavalry embarked on a new style of warfare for the United States at the time — “airmobile” or a helicopter war. It was a strategy planned by military brass and then-President John F. Kennedy. Artillery barrages preceded the insertion of Moore’s men Nov. 14 at Ia Drang by scores of “Huey” helicopters, which barely touched down as they soared in and out of the valley.
“We were full of guts and glory,” said Edwards, noting he and his fellow troops were prepared and not yet fearful. “It was very little time (before they saw combat). You just run into it. You never knew what it was like to be confronted (by the enemy). It all happened so fast.”
Casualties mounted quickly for the men of the 1st as fighting ensued almost immediately and continued through the night. On day two, a reenforcement company was choppered in and air assaults aided the American troops on the ground. Another landing zone (Albany) was cleared as the North Vietnamese continued dropping mortars in the ongoing assault of X-Ray.
More than 240 American troops were killed in the days-long battle while more than 1,500 North Vietnamese troops were reportedly killed. Some of the American bombing runs resulted in “friendly fire” deaths to American troops as well. Hand-to-hand combat was reported throughout the battle as the far outnumbered American troops repulsed several ambush assaults by the NVA. That close combat prevented the Americans from relying more on air assets, which included the use of B-52s, and artillery fire from nearby firebases.
Three days in, Edwards was wounded in the shoulder. He later sustained a leg wound when he was stabbed by an enemy bayonet during hand-to-hand combat.
“You have to survive,” he said. “I pulled it out and kept going.”
Despite the wounds, he was just stitched up and sent back into battle, as was often the case in remote areas of Vietnam.
Edwards lost a close friend on the battlefield, and saw many others wounded.
“I saw him get hit out of the corner of my eye,” he said. “I’m lucky to be alive today. I played dead a lot. It’s what kept me alive.”
Enemy troops walked over the dead and wounded at Ia Drang, checking for anyone that may still be breathing. The North Vietnamese made no secret the tactic of killing all soldiers, refusing to take prisoners.
“They kicked me,” Edwards remembered. “They lifted my arm and I could feel it when they let go; it just fell limp to the ground. That’s what saved me.”
Edwards, who went on to fight in the northern-most combat area of the war — I Corps — as well, earned four Purple Hearts before being shipped home.
Even today, more than 50 years after the Battle at Ia Drang Valley, and nearly two years after Moore passed away (Feb. 17, 2017) at the age of 94, Edwards remembers the man he so admired.
“He cared for his men,” said Edwards. “He was the sunshine of my life. He’s a man I’ll never forget.”
As for the war, Edwards and his fellow combat veterans remember because it never leaves them.
“You try to forget, but you never forget,” he said.
“Here today, gone tomorrow,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion.