By Don KramerSeptember 26, 2008
FORT LEWIS, Wash. - Three desperate days and two nights of close combat nearly 43 years ago in Vietnam's Central Highlands came to life at Fort Lewis Monday.
The first action by a battalion-sized U.S. force in Vietnam against North Vietamese regulars took place in the Ia Drang Valley. The battle is studied in detail by Army leaders at Fort Leavenworth and Carlisle Barracks, Pa., largely because of a writer who never served a day in uniform, but is universally regarded as every inch a military man.
Joe Galloway, co-author of "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young" and its new sequel, "We Are Soldiers Still," attracted crowds to his book signing at the Fort Lewis Post Exchange. With the line stretching across the lobby and out the front doors at 1 p.m. - the end of his two allotted hours - PX manager Patrick McGhee agreed to extend the signing until the last customer received a signature and personal note at 3 p.m.
The PX at Fort Hood recently enforced its book-signing time limit with the popular writer, McGhee said, creating enough disappointment and hard feelings that the III Corps commander has since requested his return.
Galloway, a 24-year-old United Press International war correspondent in November 1965, chronicled the struggle between Lt. Col. Harold G. (Hal) Moore's 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment and elements of three regiments of the People's Army of Vietnam.
His accounts were immediate, authentic and heart-wrenching, stories that only an eyewitness could write. Those stories filled his first book and informed the second about his return to the battlefield in 1994.
"He wasn't one of those reporters who left after a few interviews to go to the rear for a shower and hot chow," said Dick Merchant, a retired lieutenant colonel who fought at Ia Drang and surprised Galloway at the signing. "He stayed with us through it all."
Galloway was presented with the Bronze Star with device for valor on May 1, 1998, for braving heavy enemy fire at Ia Drang to rescue a wounded Soldier in the open and getting him to the battalion aid station. A medic died next to him in the effort. It was the only such award presented to a civilian for actions in Vietnam, according to the "We Were Soldiers" Web site.
Another Ia Drang veteran, Medal of Honor recipient Bruce Crandall came to see Galloway at the signing. They hugged as only comrades in combat embrace each other.
Crandall commanded Alpha Company, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion that carried the 1-7 Cav. into combat and repeatedly flew missions to resupply them and carry out their dead and wounded through murderous enemy fire.
Galloway hitched a ride on a resupply Huey with the 1-7 Cav. operations officer, Capt. Greg "Matt" Dillon, arriving the evening of Nov. 14, the first day of the battle.
At its end two days later, both men in tears, Moore said to Galloway, "Go tell America what these brave men did; tell them how their sons died."
The scribbler gets to work
Galloway, who refers to himself as a "scribbler," wrote accounts of the battle and published photos that were reprinted worldwide at the time, but the pair never wrote a linear account of the entire battle until Moore retired as a lieutenant general.
Galloway finally sat down with Moore and began outlining the book. In the interim, he published a more comprehensive cover article about the Ia Drang battles in "U.S. News and World Report," for which he won the National Magazine Award in 1991.
The first book was published in 1992 and 10 years later released as a movie called "We Were Soldiers" starring Mel Gibson. "Hal says the movie was about 65 percent accurate," Galloway smiled to a customer, "and I say it was about 75 percent. That's not bad by Hollywood standards."
The second book was published this month, which generated Galloway's tour around the country.
After four hours of signing, the author contemplated the lessons he drew from covering a number of conflicts for almost 45 years.
"Soldiers today are more sophisticated, better educated, better trained by far, better armed and equipped," Galloway said. "But that's not what soldiering is about. Soldiering is an affair of the heart. And the hearts of Soldiers never change. They haven't from Roman legion times. Soldiering is a selfless, sacrificing occupation. There is nothing else like it in civilian society.
"In that, there is not one whit of difference I see in the draftees of 1965 to the great Soldiers we've got today," he said.
The lessons he hoped his readers will draw from his books are of teamwork through leadership. His sentiments echoed the I Corps Battlefield Imperatives of Lt. Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., of teamwork, discipline, accountability and respect.
"Combat is a team sport; the best team wins," according to the I Corps imperatives.
Galloway's lessons learned while watching Moore calmly lead his men on LZ X-Ray, could have helped form the I Corps values.
"Never, ever underestimate the impact of unit cohesion," Galloway said, "training together, working together, deploying as a unit, serving as a unit. The more time you spend together, the better you become."
Moore's insistence on integrating his newest Soldiers as quickly as possible into the battalion training plans paid uniquely military dividends at Ia Drang.
"Everybody has confidence in the guy on the right and the person on the left and the guy who's got your six," Galloway said. "And you know one thing: that they'll lay down their life for you. And there's no other occupation in the world where that's true.
"When you ... walk out into the civilian street, that's the end of that. You're in another place, another world," he said.
Moore stepped off his UH-1 helicopter flown by Crandall at 10:48 a.m. on Nov. 14, 1965, and looked to the west at a 2,000-foot land form called the Chu Pong massif. He didn't know it at the time, but the small mountain was pocked with bunkers and caves that held the command and control elements of three PAVN regiments - outnumbering the Americans 10 to 1. Moore's counterpart, Lt. Col. Nguyen Huu An, oversaw operations from one of those bunkers.
Within an hour, his B Company had taken two prisoners. An impulsive platoon leader, Lt. Henry Herrick, saw another running from the LZ and ordered his 2nd Platoon after him, taking his men well away from the battalion's ability to support them. The platoon ran into heavy fire and touched off the battle, becoming the famous "Lost Platoon" whose officer and senior NCO leadership lost their lives early in the battle.
Sergeant Ernie Savage from Alabama held together the remnants of the platoon through attack after attack and remained in contact with the battalion headquarters throughout the conflict until two companies rescued him and his exhausted men two days later.
Galloway's account of Savage's ordeal was one of many stories of uncommon valor.
Specialist Bill Beck had the horrific experience of seeing his best friend, fellow Pennsylvanian Spc. Russell Adams, shot in the head next to him. Beck carried his friend through enemy fire back to the aid station, then returned to his position to take Adams' place as M-60 gunner at a critical position in the center of the 1-7 Cav. defensive perimeter.
Beck and his machine gun sighted down a dry creek bed, a natural avenue of approach that offered cover and concealment to troops on the attack. Beck opened up on wave after wave of PAVN regulars streaming at his position, the keystone of the perimeter. Moore said later that the young specialist from Steelton, Pa., saved the battalion during that first bloody day.
In "We Are Soldiers Still," Moore said Beck returned with his small party to the battlefield in 1994 with an ABC network camera crew and met a retired North Vietnamese officer who asked him where on the battlefield he fought. Beck pointed on a map to his fighting position at the vortex of the American line where the left limit of B Company met the right of A Company. He said he fired his machine gun down the dry creek bed.
"The Vietnamese officer gasped and turned pale," Galloway quotes Moore. "'You and your machine gun killed my battalion! Four hundred men.'"
The second book also recounts Moore's convincing his party of veterans to spend the night on the battlefield against the advice of their hosts. For Moore, it was the opportunity for closure that he had long wanted.
Galloway said he awoke several times during the night to see Moore walking, patrolling the perimeter. One of his brothers in arms asked him how he was doing that night. Moore said, "Fine. I'm just guarding the dead."
Today, Moore is 86 and in declining health, but lieutenants and colonels still study his actions on LZ X-Ray as models of leadership.
"Lieutenant General Hal Moore is the best thing that ever happened to me," Galloway said. "The new book has his chapter on leadership that is worth the price of the book itself. It's all there and it's all common sense."
Galloway said his best friend still lives by the principles he learned at West Point and "in the muddy trenches in Korea on Pork Chop Hill, all these other places. He just can't help himself ... It's just the way of the man. The finest combat leader I've seen in 43 years of going to theater in our wars and other people's wars. We've been best friends for 43 years and I'm the luckiest man alive."
Don Kramer is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.