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The end of ‘We Were Soldiers’ was very different in real life

Miguel Ortiz Avatar
battle of la drang
The Battle of Ia Drang was more than what was seen on screen (U.S. Army)

The 2002 movie We Were Soldiers is a rare example of Hollywood making an effort to depict a war accurately. Dissatisfied with previous portrayals of the Vietnam War, director Randall Wallace was “determined to get it right this time.” Based on the book We Were Soldiers Once..And Young by Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and Joe Galloway, both of whom were present at the Battle of Ia Drang that the film depicts, We Were Soldiers had the best source material on the subject. While the movie maintains a high degree of accuracy for a screen adaptation, even being used as an instructional reference in the U.S. Army, its climax is pure fiction. In fact, the actual end of the battle was very different from the movie’s heroic final charge.

battle of la drang search and destroy operation
The Battle of Ia Drang was a search and destroy operation (U.S. Army)

The Battle of Ia Drang was the first major engagement between regular U.S. military forces and the People’s Army of Vietnam. Notably, the fighting lasted from November 14-18, 1965, unlike the three days depicted in We Were Soldiers. This is because the movie only tells the story of 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment at LZ X-Ray under the command of then-Lt. Col. Hal Moore from November 14-16. Their sister unit, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, saw additional fighting at LZ Albany in the north of the valley from November 17-18.

lz x-ray from we were soldiers
1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry troopers land at LZ X-Ray (U.S. Army)

2/7 was commanded by then-Lt. Col. Robert McDade. In the early evening of November 14, the first elements of the battalion’s Bravo Company landed at X-Ray to reinforce 1/7 Cav. The rest of 2/7 followed the next day and eventually relieved 1/7 on November 16 once X-Ray was secured. While 1/7 was airlifted out of the valley, 2/7 and 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, who also joined the fighting at X-Ray, took up defensive positions for the night.

we were soldiers cavalry troopers
Cavalry troopers engage PAVN soldiers at LZ X-Ray (U.S. Army)

On the morning of November 17, the two remaining battalions were ordered to clear out for an incoming B-52 bombing run. 2/5 departed X-Ray marching northeast at 9am, followed by 2/7. While 2/5 continued northeast to LZ Columbus, 2/7 broke off to the northwest toward Albany. At 11:57am, just shy of the LZ, 2/7 captured two PAVN prisoners. Lt. Col. McDade halted his battalion and moved up the column to interrogate them personally. He then called a meeting with his company commanders who moved up the column as well. The majority of 2/7 was left halted in the open. Moreover, company radio operators left for the meeting with their commanders leaving the companies without a connection to air or artillery support.

2/7 toopers at la drang
2/7 troopers in Ia Drang, November 16, 1965 (U.S. Army)

Some of the troopers hadn’t slept for 2 days and security along the column was relaxed. At 1:15pm, hundreds of PAVN soldiers attacked the column. Two battalions hit Alpha Company first and then maneuvered down the formation in an L-shaped ambush. The chest-high elephant grass offered no cover and reduced visibility, devolving the fighting into brutal close quarters.

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1st Lt. Donald Cornett, Charlie Company 2/7’s XO, was KIA on Nov. 17, 1965 at LZ Albany (U.S. Army)

At 2:55pm, 2/5’s Bravo Company marched towards Albany from Columbus to reinforce 2/7. With their help, one helicopter landing zone was established and wounded troops were evacuated. 2/7’s Bravo Company, who were relieved with 1/7, were redeployed to reinforce their sister companies. Lt. Rick Rescorla, the company’s only remaining platoon leader, led the expansion of the defensive perimeter and the troopers settled in for the night.

rescorla we were soldiers once
This image of Rescorla was used on the cover of We Were Soldiers Once…And Young (U.S. Army)

On the morning of November 18, the troopers gathered up their dead, a process that took two days since American and Vietnamese bodies were interspersed and scattered all over the battlefield. Rescorla later described the scene as “a long, bloody traffic accident in the jungle” in We Were Soldiers Once…And Young. One scene from the movie’s finale that had some historical accuracy was the recovery of a French Army bugle from a PAVN soldier by an American trooper. In reality, it was Rescorla who recovered the bugle at Albany.

It wasn’t until November 19 that 2/7 finished recovering their dead and marched another 6 miles to their extraction at LZ Crooks. Official U.S. reports listed 403 PAVN troops killed and estimated a further 150 wounded, though these were likely inflated figures to support the war effort. In 16 hours of fighting, 2/7 lost 155 killed and 124 wounded. It was the bloodiest single day of the Vietnam War and the tragedy at LZ Albany is a common teaching point in the U.S. Army.