In the first major engagement between American and North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War, LTC Hal Moore’s 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry took on a numerically superior North Vietnamese Army (NVA) force in the Ia Drang Valley. The battle was later the focus of the book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young and the film We Were Soldiers.
On November 14, 1965, Moore’s 1st Bn. 7th Cavalry landed with 457 men in the Ia Drang Valley, about 30 miles northwest of Pleiku, in the Central Highlands. They were landed at a designated Landing Zone (LZ) codenamed LZ X-Ray. Soon, they were surrounded by over 3,000 NVA regulars. The bloody battle would change how American soldiers would arrive in battle and the NVA would alter its tactics in response.
During the battle two helicopter pilots, Bruce Crandall and Ed “Too Tall” Freeman would be awarded the Medal of Honor. Also awarded the Medal of Honor was Lt. Walter “Joe” Marm, an infantry platoon commander who distinguished himself during the pitched battle.
Marm was a young platoon leader who had only been in the Army for a little more than a year. He had been a finance major at Duquense University but after graduation, seeing the war in Vietnam was about to escalate, and not wanting to be drafted, he enlisted. He graduated from Officer Candidate School, Infantry Officer Basic, and then Ranger School. He was assigned to A Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, under Moore’s command.
Because the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) troops were faring badly in combat, Army General William Westmoreland had a plan to bolster the ARVN by inserting large American combat formations into the fray.
The Battle of Ia Drang Valley was the first to use helicopters, the workhorse UH-1 “Huey,” to ferry the soldiers into battle, and then bring in supplies, and exfiltrate the wounded.
A Hard Landing
LZ X-Ray was nearly the size of a football field, so Moore’s battalion had to come in a company at a time in different lifts. The first troopers hit the ground at 10:48 in the morning. The last of them didn’t arrive until nearly 15:00 at which time the battalion was already heavily engaged. With casualties mounting, the Medevac helicopters were driven off by intense ground fire. Moore’s troops were already running short of water and ammunition.
Soon after landing, one of Moore’s advancing platoons was cut off and surrounded by superior NVA forces. Marm’s platoon was given the task of trying to link up with the beleaguered platoon before they were wiped out.
“My company commander attached me to Bravo Company to make an assault to try to link up with them,” Marm recalled later in an interview with the Army Heritage Center. “We made an attempt [but] weren’t successful, we had to pull back. We started up a second time late in the afternoon with an artillery prep in front of us. We were taking heavy fire from in front of us from the NVA.”
The enemy had dug in a machine gun on an ant-hill that was about seven or eight feet in height, six feet in length, and surrounded by shrubs and trees. The vegetation made it very difficult for the Americans to lob grenades into the position to silence the machine gun.
Marm then shot at the bunker with a Light Anti-tank Weapon (LAW). Believing that he had knocked out the enemy position, Marm’s platoon began moving forward only to find the enemy firing once again pinning them down.
The Heroism of Lieutenant Marm
Marm then decided that “It’s time for me to do it myself.” He charged across 50 meters of open terrain, eliminating four NVA troops that were trying to move to the flank of his platoon. He charged in front of the bunker on the anthill and tossed a grenade inside. After it exploded he moved to the left side of the bunker and finished the Vietnamese off with his M-16. He killed all eight NVA soldiers in the bunker. That saved his platoon from being wiped out and allowed them to continue to the trapped platoon.
“I turned sideways and told my men ‘Let’s go,’ we’ve got to get up to the platoon that was trapped on the side of the mountain when I got shot,” Marm recalled. The bullet went through his jaw.
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“Kind of ruined my day. I had to feel my teeth to make sure I still had my teeth. One of my sergeants, who was a medic in Korea, came up, him and a couple of other guys were the first up. They patched me up and a couple of my men took me to the back. That was the first day of the battle, and it lasted for two more days,” he added.
Although his wound wasn’t life-threatening, it required that his jaw be wired shut for three months.
He was evacuated to the U.S. and was at Valley Forge Military Hospital, when word of his heroics, from his own troops and AP correspondent Joe Galloway, made its way up the chain of command. A year later on December 19, 1966, Marm was awarded the Medal of Honor at the Pentagon.
‘Helping the Community’
In 1969, Marm requested that he be reassigned to Vietnam, where he went for a second combat tour as a company commander. He remained in the Army, retiring as a colonel in 1995.
In a later interview, Marm said,
“Some people say the Medal is harder to wear than it is to earn. I’ve always been very humble, and feel that I wear the Medal for all those Soldiers in the 1st Cav who were there in that battle and other battles. I’m just the caretaker of the Medal for them. There’re so many valorous deeds that go on in combat, they all can’t be recognized. I’m no braver than many of my fellow Soldiers, I’m just grateful that they authorized me to wear it for them. So I feel I have to uphold the Medal for them. You have to take care of your fellow Soldiers and walk in their shoes too.”
Marm attended many speaking engagements to schoolchildren and wounded veterans as a way of giving back and reaching out to the young people of the country.
“There are great Americans all over the country. So it’s nice to meet them, particularly the kids, and talk to the youth and the future of our country. It’s a many-fold effect – helping the kids, helping veterans, and helping the community,” Marm said.
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