Week of October 1
On October 1, 1965—exactly 50 years ago, this week—the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) became operational in South Vietnam. The 1st Cavalry Division was the first airmobile unit in the Army, and represented an innovative new approach to infantry tactics. Composed of 16,000 personnel and equipped with helicopters such as the UH-1 Iroquois (commonly known as the “Huey”) and the CH-47 Chinook, the division was capable of conducting combat operations in terrain that was too difficult or remote for conventional infantry units. Airmobility concepts gave U.S. forces the ability to rapidly move, disperse, concentrate, or displace infantry and artillery units almost anywhere on the battlefield. They proved a significant advance in the tactics of ground warfare.
Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara officially approved units devoted to airmobility in June 1965. The 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), under the command of Major General Harry W. O. Kinnard, combined personnel from Kinnard’s experimental 11th Air Assault Division (Test), the 2nd Infantry Division, and troops transferred from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Kinnard worked to get as many airborne-qualified troops as possible to fill out his command, but many initially assigned to the 1st Cavalry lacked the training that would later become standard for airmobile forces. The division also became one of the first to be issued the new M-16 assault rifle.
The 1st Cavalry Division boasted three direct-support artillery battalions and multiple aviation units composed of Huey, Chinook, and CH-54 Tarhe (“Flying Crane”) helicopters. The division deployed by ship to Southeast Asia in mid-1965, and division personnel built their base camp at An Khê, Gia Lai Province, in the rugged terrain of South Vietnam’s Central Highlands. From there, the 1st Cavalry was able to conduct operations throughout much of the highlands while remaining close enough to the coastal port of Qui Nhơn to avoid being cut off by enemy forces.
Approximately six weeks after the Division became operational, elements of the 1st Cavalry participated in the infamous battles of the Ia Drang Valley, which Lieutenant General Harold (“Hal”) G. Moore later said “changed the war in Vietnam.” In the bitter and bloody fighting at Landing Zones X-Ray and Albany, the 1st Cavalry Division became the first large American unit to engage the regular North Vietnamese Army, and many U.S. leaders argued that the combat in the Ia Drang in 1965 proved the viability of helicopter-supported airmobile warfare.1
1Graham A. Cosmas, United States Army in Vietnam: MACV: The Joint Command in the Years of Escalation, 1962–1967 (Washington DC: Center of Military History, 2006), 245; John M. Carland, United States Army in Vietnam: Combat Operations: Stemming the Tide, May 1965 to October 1966 (Washington DC: Center of Military History, 2000), 54–56, 58–59, 61–63, 66. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young: Ia Drang: The Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992), 10–11, 15–17, 26–28; Spencer C. Tucker, ed., Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 29–30, 50.