This month marks 50 years since the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, the first major fight between the U.S. Army and elements of its air cavalry and the People’s Army of North Vietnam. Five soldiers from Maryland were killed on the same day (Nov. 17, 1965) during the height of the battle, and others were listed among the heavy casualties inflicted on both sides in fighting across South Vietnam’s central highlands. The story of part of the battle was told in the 1992 book, “We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young,” by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and war correspondent Joseph Galloway. The 2002 movie, “We Were Soldiers,” starring Mel Gibson, was based on the Moore-Galloway book. According to Galloway, 305 Americans were killed in combat in the central highlands between Oct. 23 and Nov. 26, 1965; more than 500 others were wounded. The U.S. estimates of deaths among North Vietnamese regulars ranged from 1,000 to more than 1,700.
Dan Rodricks, The Baltimore Sun
Historians have called Nov. 17, 1965 the deadliest day for U.S. forces in the Vietnam War, a distant conflict — now in memory as much as in miles — that would last another decade, claim more than 58,000 American lives and divide the nation.
The names of the five Marylanders who died on that sweltering Wednesday afternoon nearly 9,000 miles from home all appear on the same black granite slab — panel 3E — of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Listed in the order in which they are believed to have died, some of the names are just one or two lines apart: Sgt. Neopolis Wigfall, 32, of Fruitland, Wicomico County; Sgt. Richard D. Ott, 34, of Baltimore; Spec. 5 Charles T. Steiner, 21, of Cardiff, Harford County; Spec. 4 Wayne T. Lundell, 24, of Silver Spring, Montgomery County; and Sgt. James O. Vaughan, 32, of Baltimore. They were all soldiers from the sky, members of the 1st Cavalry Division, the Army’s new air assault group assigned to flush North Vietnamese regulars from the mountains near the Cambodian border.
A few days later Spec. 4 Oscar E. Cooper, 25, of Bel Air, was killed by a grenade blast on Nov. 21, 1965, less than a week before he was due to leave Vietnam.
On Nov. 14, 1965, helicopters delivered the first soldiers to what became known as “the valley of death.”
The Battle of Ia Drang represented the first major fight between U.S. regulars and the People’s Army of North Vietnam, and while casualties were heavy on both sides, both sides claimed victory. Some historians mark it as the beginning of America’s deep and futile involvement in a body-count war of attrition to keep South Vietnam from being overrun by the invading communists from the north.