Moments after stepping off the helicopter into the Ia Drang Valley at Landing Zone (LZ) X-Ray on Nov. 14, 1965, Spc. Four Bill Beck, a native of Steelton and current resident of Cumberland County, realized this was not going to be a routine search and destroy mission.
“(W)e went into the battle, soon as we landed, the gunfire started,” he said. “When the action started, guys got shot and killed, to the right in front of me, the lieutenant, Taft, my buddy got shot in front of me.”
Beck and his unit had landed practically on top of two regiments of enemy troops. They were outnumbered by more than 2 to 1.
Beck was an assistant gunner with the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. “A machine gun crew always had three members,” Beck recounts, “you had the gunner, the assistant gunner, and the ammo bearer. When we went in LZ X-ray, my buddy, Russell Adams, was the gunner... (a)nd we had an ammo bearer that carried extra ammunition, extra two maybe 300 rounds.”
When the shooting started, Adams went to work with his M60 machine gun. But Beck soon realized that their ammo bearer was missing.
“Russell breaks off with the machine gun, my job’s to stay with him and assist him with the machine gun. I have extra ammunition plus I help feed that belt in the machine gun. He breaks off (to the) the left, we end up where we ended up, in our position, so we’re looking around, no John. His name was John. I won’t give his last name. John’s not there with our extra ammunition. So, we’re doing our fighting, doing the best we can for, you know, half an hour or whatever it is and we’re getting low on ammunition. We don’t have extra ammunition because John’s not there. So that’s when I tell Russell I’m going to get some ammunition. I run back to the rear.”
On the return trip, Beck stopped to give first aid to a wounded soldier. He continued back to Adams location, taking fire the whole way. “I was being shot at the entire time. I’d run 10, 20 yards and I had to dive on the ground to dodge these bullets.”
By now the enemy was close enough to throw hand grenades.
“(O)ne threw a hand grenade out at me from the creek bed,” he recalled. “I got my ammo, heading back to Russell, and that was about 50 yards from Russell. I’m running parallel to the creek bed, this grenade comes out, rolls right in front of me ... (W)ent to go to the left, jump out of the way, it went off ... Big white burst, here it was a concussion grenade. You know, been shrapnel I’d probably been wounded, seriously. I don’t even think I hit the ground. I looked down and it went off.”
Soon after returning with the ammunition, Beck spotted a wounded soldier nearby.
“I tell Russell, ‘I’m going, give this guy some help over here.’ So I run over there ... he has a bullet in his chest. I spend like a minute with him, wrap him up best I can, get back over to Russell, because that’s where my job is supposed to be, but I took time to help this guy out. Call for a medic, he actually came and got him. And then, uh, the irony of this thing is, just as I get to Russell, Russell gets shot in the head.”
Taking over the machine gun, Beck held his position for several more hours before being relieved and sent to regroup with his company.
But the battle was far from over. His company soon moved forward to assault the enemy again.
“So I’m out there with this M-60, and it was very hard to see the enemy over there, I don’t care where you were at because they were hidden in the trees, bushes, behind ant hills, and they blended in real well. And they weren’t a large target so they could look like a hump of dirt, in nice camo, nice uniforms on that blended in, so you had to look for movement or some gunfire or something if you had a good fix on them. Otherwise, you just sprayed the area, which I was doing a lot of the times. I thought ‘Well, we’re getting fire from somewhere over there, anywhere, at least spray the area, so they’ll keep their heads down so we can advance.’”
Beck’s company continued to try to advance against the enemy for the next two days. Beck recalls the end of day two.
“Well then that day was over and we’re more tired and we’re counting our losses. You’ll look around and say ‘where’s so-and-so’ and they say ‘oh, he got wounded’ or ‘he got killed’ and geez, you look around and figure how many men are still with us but we were getting reinforcements along the way, but they were strange guys, you know, they were newer guys that were strange people to us. The ones we knew, our buddies and stuff, were starting to be missing, you know, and your best buddies and stuff weren’t there anymore. You only had one or two of them that you knew. So we went into the third day, pretty much the same thing the third day.”
By the time the 1/7th withdrew from the battlefield they had suffered 121 wounded and 79 dead. The three-day total for the entire battle of the Ia Drang was 308 killed, 540 wounded, and four missing. Beck and his companions returned to Camp Holloway to rest and recuperate, and to try to figure out what had happened to their missing companions.
“We’re few in number, we’re standing around, the ones that made it and we’re talking about where’s so and so, where’s this guy and where’s that guy, and I’m actually telling them my buddy Russell Adams that got shot in the head, ‘I think he was killed’ because of the wound, the severity of it. They said ‘Oh, no,’ somebody else comes up and ‘they sent him to Japan to the hospital’ so I thought ‘Oh, thank God, there’s hope for him.’ And they’re asking about John, my ammo bearer. I said, I said ‘Where’s John’ or something like that, expecting they’d say he was wounded or killed. They said ‘He’s down in his tent,’ down in his pup tent, we had pitched there at our base camp. I said ‘You’re kidding me.’”
Beck learned that John had simply returned to the landing zone and climbed aboard a departing helicopter.
“So I go down there mad, I go down there and I’m thinking of doing harm to this guy, now it turns to anger, not in a good mood anyhow, none of us. So I go down there, flip the tent open, John’s sitting in there, on his helmet and he’s got his face in his hands. I looked down at him and start reaming him out, giving him hell. He never does say anything to me. They gave him a medical discharge.”
Russell Adams survived his wounds, and he and Beck are still friends to this day.
Beck still struggles to relate his experiences. The psychological wounds are still fresh. The emotion and pain are evident in his voice, but he tells his story with the same bravery he showed on the battlefield on those three days 50 years ago. At times it seems as if he does so out of a sense of duty to the fallen, although only Beck knows for sure why he is willing to face these events again and again. Perhaps he is still searching for an answer to a question posed long ago:
“I don’t know how I made it out of that and, uh, there are other people that were the right and left of me, one of ‘em being my Captain Nadal, who’s right with me, and he missed the bullets also. Men beside him and beside us and between us, they were all killed. And he and I talked today, we look at each other and we say ‘We don’t understand’ you know, how we made it ... and why. That’s what I remember about that.”