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Ia Drang Valley: Pvt. Bill Beck’s Battle

An air cavalryman in an iconic fight

When the Hueys took them into a clearing in the Ia Drang Valley, the men had no idea they were heading into a fight.

They were American air cavalrymen, trained in a new kind of warfare in which the helicopter gave them mobility on the battlefield. The cavalrymen were calm and confident, far better prepared than the draftees who would be inserted willy-nilly into South Vietnam in months to come. They’d trained as a team pioneering air assault before coming to Vietnam. That day, 450 of them were deposited in the tall grass at Landing Zone X-Ray, named for the final letter in the phonetic alphabet.

On the slopes around the forested Ia Drang, far from cities, rail lines, or highways, two regiments totaling 2,000 seasoned North Vietnamese regulars, or NVA, were ready.

On the slopes around the forested Ia Drang, far from cities, rail lines, or highways, two regiments totaling 2,000 seasoned North Vietnamese regulars, or NVA, were ready.

The Hueys began landing at X-Ray at 10:48 a.m. on a bright, sunny Nov. 14, 1965. By the end of the day, 16 UH-1D helicopters made four troop lifts before the landing zone became too violent and had to be closed. The outfit was the 1/7th Cavalry, a battalion in the regiment that Gen. George Armstrong Custer had commanded during the Indian Wars.

“It started routinely. I got off the ship and stood there. I opened a can of C-Rations. Then, Taft, our platoon leader, got word on the radio to turn around and head towards a creek bed. That was when they opened up on us.”

One of the cavalrymen was an assistant machine gunner, 22-year-old Pvt. William A. “Bill” Beck, of Steelton, Pa. He may have been typical of the citizen-soldier of 1965. He had few expectations beyond getting today’s work done and finding his way back to chow and a shower.

Battle of Ia Drang Valley

1st Cavalry soldiers disembark a UH-1 Huey helicopter during the Battle of Ia Drang Valley. Pvt. Bill Beck arrived via Huey. U.S. Army photo

“When I was growing up in Steelton, I never even owned a BB gun,” Beck said. “But I had an excellent mentor in Spc. 4 Russell Adams, the machine gunner. We alternated carrying the gun and hauling ammo boxes. I was six-foot-two and Russ was a small kid, about five-six, but he loved that machine gun and he was tough as nails.”

Lt. Col. Harold G. “Hal” Moore commanded the “first of the seventh.” Assistant machine gunner Beck was a member of Moore’s A Company, led by Capt. Ramon A. “Tony” Nadal. Within the company, Beck belonged to a platoon led by 1st Lt. Robert E. Taft, who stepped off a Huey at Landing Zone X-Ray in the middle of the final day of his life.

“It started routinely. I got off the ship and stood there. I opened a can of C-Rations. Then, Taft, our platoon leader, got word on the radio to turn around and head towards a creek bed. That was when they opened up on us.”

Beck and Adams were now anchoring their company’s left flank. A green-clad North Vietnamese appeared in front of the two men. Adams got off a burst of gunfire that killed the foe. Another NVA threw a concussion grenade. Beck recalled, “It exploded directly in front of me. If it had been a shrapnel grenade, it would have killed me.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-201">
    Jack French

    They are all heroes–even to this day. The Ia Drang will never be forgotten. I was not there. I know some of the heroes personally, and have touched the names of those Cav guys on the WALL who gave their ALL for us.
    Best to Bill and the rest of the Ia Drang troopers. Your efforts and sacrifices are not forgotten.
    From a comrade-in-arms of the 282nd Avn Co (RW) Blackcats.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-202">

    To those who gave all for their country. I applaud you with all my heart and soul. You are the reason that our country still stands today. Don’t feel that you gave your lives, blood, and sweat in vain for you are the ones that make our country strong. Don’t let anyone take your honor away for you fought with dignity and courage. God bless you all and forgive those who make judgement upon these brave men.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-208978">

    Ive known Bill “satch” Beck for over 30 years. I am only 43 so I was’nt even around when this battle was fought. I have read many different things about Viet Nam but may I say this is the most impressive thing I have ever read. Satch never speaks of this bexause of his humility but one thing I will say is how proud I am to tell people that I know this hero and I call him friend.