The 1965 Battle of Ia Drang saw the first major engagement between the
United States Army and the People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN). The
intense, four-day battle in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands became
the template for how Americans fought pitched battles against North
Vietnamese forces, using helicopters for air mobility, close air
support from fixed-wing aircraft, and artillery that could help shield
American troops from miles away.
The North Vietnamese had no qualms about firing on incoming and
outgoing U.S. helicopters, and the communist forces were known among
aviators for their surface-to-air missile positions hidden among the
jungle canopies. So why not plan a simultaneous attack on American
artillery during the course of a pitched battle? The answer is the
Beehive: a close-range artillery round packed with thousands of small
darts designed to kill an entire attacking infantry unit.
During the Battle of Ia Drang, Col. Hal Moore and the roughly 1,000
American and 900 South Vietnamese infantry were supported by an
artillery firebase five miles away from the fighting to the northeast.
Moore later wrote that the firebase, Fire Support Base Falcon, could
provide withering fire from its two batteries of artillery that
included 24 M101A1 105-millimeter howitzers.
As the fighting wore on the artillerymen of FSB Falcon unloaded
thousands of high explosive, smoke, illumination, and white phosphorus
rounds at the North Vietnamese. They kept up a sustained fire and
exceeded the maximum rate of fire for the howitzers, especially at
night. The artillery at Ia Drang kept a “Steel Curtain” around the
Americans at LZ X-Ray and kept the North Vietnamese from overrunning
the U.S. troops in the dark.
With more than 2,500 troops at Ia Drang, unable to make an effective
advance against Moore and his cavalry, some inexperienced communist
commanders might have through of making a run against the artillery at
FSB Falcon, which was situated relatively close to the fighting. A
more experienced commander, like the PAVN Gen. Nguyen Huu An (who was
in command at Ia Drang) knew better. Attacking the artillery would be
If attacked, artillery like the M101A1 have the ability to lower their
barrels, also known as “leveling the tubes.” It’s not a common action,
as artillery don’t often face a direct attack from oncoming infantry.
Aiming artillery at a specific target can be devastating for the
attackers. Standard high explosive artillery shells on their own are
deadly, but in the face of an enemy attack, artillerymen won’t use
high explosive, they’ll use “the beehive.”
The Beehive is the best defense for artillery facing a large number of
incoming enemy troops. It’s a large round, packed with 9,000 metal
flechettes, sharp, non-explosive darts that flip around when the round
is fired. Sending a beehive into an attacking infantry send these
darts hurtling toward soft, squishy targets at high speeds, shredding
those targets and pretty much anything else in their path.
Just a handful of 105-millimeter guns can wipe out a company-sized
unit of infantry. An entire firebase the size of FSB Falcon firing
beehives could completely destroy an entire division, some 10,000 to
At Ia Drang, the Americans were able to push the North Vietnamese back
in a fight that lasted three days, most due to the support from
artillery at FSB Falcon. The U.S. Army notched up a 10-1 kill ratio
and claim victory after all was said and done.
This battle took place right before (a little over a month before) the
battle (Operation Harvest Moon Dec. 09-18) I was wounded on. We
learned from this battle and in the long run killed 450+ VC/NVA on
18dec65 alone. Sounds like a lot but when revisiting the town of KyPhu
in 2008 one of my Marine friend went to the cemetery and viewed the
graves. The US government only confirmed 108 killed. We had 13 KIA
and sadly my partner, Jack Swender, was one of them