In this excerpt from “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young,” coauthors Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway describe the first moments of the battle of Ia Drang in 1965, which set the tone of the war in Vietnam and even changed the direction of the conflict.
Captain Ray Lefebvre, commander of Delta Company, was about to earn his Combat Infantryman’s Badge, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart, all in the next seven minutes.
He remembers, “When we came in, the mountain was off to our left and we were taking a lot of fire. We settled down near the wood line. There was lots of fire coming from the woods.
Taboada was hit in the hand while we were hovering.
“I was starting to unhook my seat belt when I felt a round crease the back of my neck.
I turned to my right and saw that my radio operator had been hit in the head; the same round that cut me killed him.
He just slumped forward, still buckled in. Nicklas was a young guy, just twenty, came from Niagara Falls, New York. I jumped out.
Firing was coming from the mountain, and three or four of us moved about fifty to seventy-five yards toward the trees, to the sound of the firing, and stopped in a small fold in the ground.”
With Crandall, flying Serpent Yellow 3, were Chief Warrant Officers Riccardo J. Lombardo, thirty-four, of Hartford, Connecticut, and Alex S. (Pop) Jekel, forty-three, of Seattle, Washington.
Pop Jekel was the father of nine children. During World War II, at the age of twenty, he had flown B-24s out of England, and B-29s during the postwar years, until he left the service in 1950. Pop Jekel reenlisted in 1952 and had been flying helicopters since 1963.
Lombardo was in the pilot’s seat and recalls that lift: “As I approached I saw the battle smoke getting heavy. I told Pop Jekel to get on the controls with me. As my skids touched down, my troops leaped out. I saw men lying on the ground. I felt and heard bangs on the back of my seat. I glanced at Pop and he was staring straight ahead, his eyes as big as pie plates and his mouth wide open. I looked ahead and saw a man about fifty yards ahead on the edge of the LZ. He was standing in plain view, pointing a weapon at us. I thought it was one of our people, but something didn’t look right. His uniform was khaki color and he wasn’t wearing a helmet.
“Before I even noticed the muzzle flashes, three holes appeared in my windshield. In my mind I was asking, ‘Why is that bastard shooting at me?’ As fast as that man appeared, he disappeared. Then I was off the ground and banking to the right in a climb, and all the while red streaks were following me. To that point not a word had been spoken over the intercom. Before I could say a word, Pop Jekel keyed the intercom and said: ‘I flew thirty-one missions in B-24s in World War II and that’s the closest I’ve ever come to swallowing my balls.’ That was the last lift of troops I made into the LZ.
“Lombardo’s Huey was so badly shot up it was barely able to limp to Plei Me for patching and then back to Camp Holloway for further repairs. Rick and Pop spent the rest of that afternoon listening to the battle on the tactical radio and sucking down several beers.”
First Lieutenant Roger K. Bean was flying a Huey in the second wave of birds behind Crandall’s. “When we landed I was flying on Captain Ed Freeman’s right wing. We were all taking fire and the number four ship didn’t look like he was going to make it out of X-Ray. I was in the pilot’s seat and Captain Gene Mesch was in the left seat. I was looking over my shoulder at the number four ship when we got hit by AK-47 fire. A round came through the door in front of Gene, entered the back of my flight helmet, tore a hole in the side of my head and came out through the front of the helmet. I was bleeding like a stuck pig and my flight helmet was turned sideways on my head with the earphone covering my eyes. At first I thought I was blind. That concerned me because I was still flying. Gene took the controls and the door gunner patched me up. I was X-rayed at the Special Forces camp and went back to the unit after they sewed me up.”
Several of the Hueys in the first wave of eight took hits, but none crashed, none caught fire, none had to be abandoned in the landing zone. I radioed orders for the other eight Hueys in the fifth lift to get out of the area and wait until I got the landing zone cooled down and under control. They headed back east to Plei Me where they landed, off-loaded the troops, refueled, and shut down to wait.