Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore, the 1st Battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) was dropped into landing zone X-Ray, a clearing in Ia Drang Valley on 14 November 1965. Surrounded by thousands of regulars from the People's Army of Vietnam, the American troops faced a formidable enemy. Moore's men acquitted themselves admirably, but with seventy-nine dead the battalion suffered far too many casualties for what it gained. Three days later a sister battalion fared worse, with over two hundred men killed in action.
The Battle of Ia Drang Valley tested a new military strategy: airmobility. The first campaign in which American forces engaged large-scale North Vietnamese regular units, it was also the bloodiest campaign since Lyndon Johnson had dispatched ground troops to Vietnam. Ia Drang sent an ominous message to the American people, letting them know that only an open-ended, massive commitment of American troops and resources could shift the war in favor of the United States.
Newsweek reported the battle in a feature story, “Fury at Ia Drang.” A photograph depicting three wounded men from the 1st Cavalry helping one another heads the article. It bears the caption: “Red Badge of Courage.” Reporting the first major battle of the Vietnam War, Newsweek drew a parallel with Crane's novel, still a benchmark for men at war. Many of the young men who fought at Ia Drang were seeing combat for the first time, and, like Henry Fleming, they, too, wondered how they would react in combat.
The Newsweek reporter was not the only one to recognize the parallel between Ia Drang and Crane's portrayal of Chancellorsville in Red Badge. The same week the news magazines reported Ia Drang to the American people, KXKX-FM, the CBS radio affiliate in Oakland, California broadcast Edmond O’Brien's dramatic reading of The Red Badge of Courage on its regular program, The Spoken Word. O’Brien had recorded his abridged reading in 1957, the same year another prominent Hollywood actor, Robert Ryan, had recorded an unabridged reading of Red Badge. The person in charge of programming at the Oakland radio station recognized the newfound relevance of Red Badge after Ia Drang and the suitability of O’Brien's recording for a one-hour program (“Radio Highlights”).