Peter Arnett at Vietnam’s First Major Battle
An archivist at the New York Times has discovered a small trove of photographs correspondent Neil Sheehan took 50 years ago while covering the first major clash of the Vietnam War between the American and North Vietnamese Armies. Sheehan shares memories of the battle, which he covered with New Zealand Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Arnett.
“It was 15 November 1965, in the valley of the Ia Drang in the wild mountains of the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. That spring, the Saigon government had begun collapsing under the combined blows of the Vietcong guerrillas and the regular North Vietnamese Army units infiltrating down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos. To save his Vietnamese protégés, President Lyndon B. Johnson had launched what became the big American War in Vietnam.
“[North up the Central Coast] I had found a fishing village in which as many as 600 civilians were reported to have been killed by fire from American aircraft and Navy destroyers.
“[On the morning of 15 November] I reached the artillery position about five miles from a clearing where the battle was taking place. Peter Arnett, an old friend and comrade reporter of many battles, had landed in another helicopter a few minutes earlier.
“The morning was crisp but the gunners were stripped to the waist, slamming shells into howitzers and sending the high explosive hurtling toward the enemy as fast as they could close the breeches and jerk the firing lanyards. ‘Battalion Rear’ headquarters consisted of a major in a tent with a radio tuned to the main battalion radio in the clearing. It was my third year in Vietnam and Peter had been covering war somewhat longer. We had stayed alive by exercising a certain amount of caution. We asked the major what was happening. He said there was a lot of shooting going on at the clearing. We decided to wait five or 10 minutes in the hope there might be a lull. Time up, we went back to the major. Still bad, he said.
“Peter and I looked at each other. We knew we had to get in there. ‘Screw it!’ we yelled and ran to the nearest helicopter and leapt on. Despite the risk, the Air Cav pilots were continuing to fly ammunition into the clearing and lift out the wounded. The pilots of our helicopters took the machine up to about 2500ft to get their bearings on ‘X-ray,’ as the clearing had been code-named. The scene below was terrifying, a circle of hell full of bursting artillery shells and the bombs and napalm of the jet fighters that were stacked up over the clearing and called in one after another to swoop down and unload their cargoes of death. The napalm canisters were a handsome silvery color. They tumbled end over end until they hit and burst into flame. One wondered how the Vietnamese could stand it.”
Original article by Neil Sheehan, The New York Times, November 13, 2015.
Photo by AP.