FORT BENNING, Ga. (May 2, 2012) -- A gathering of heroes and legends took place Saturday in Columbus.
The leaders and Soldiers who fought in the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, the U.S. military's first large-scale engagement in the Vietnam War, came together at the downtown Marriott for what could be a final time to share memories and discuss their roles in an event chronicled in the 1992 memoir, We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young. It also got adapted into the 2002 film, We Were Soldiers, part of which was filmed at Fort Benning.
"Welcome to history," said Roger Messick, who coordinated a three-day reunion of Ranger Classes 4 and 5, which graduated in 1958. "I'm sure it's happened many times in the past. Considering age and health, I'm not sure how many more times it'll happen in the future."
The two-hour Ia Drang Valley program kicked off the reunion's final day. It featured a question-and-answer session with some of the battle's key players, including retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and retired Command Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley, who led Fort Benning's 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment.
The four-day fight in November 1965, part of a larger operation known as Silver Bayonet, was costly for the U.S. -- 79 Soldiers were killed at Landing Zone X-Ray, and 155 more from 2nd Battalion after an ambush at LZ Albany. More than 250 troops were wounded at Ia Drang Valley, while 305 Soldiers died in the entire 35-day operation.
"These are figures that today's Army looks at, and they're stunned," said Joe Galloway, a war correspondent and journalist who co-wrote the book with Moore. "But there were more Americans killed in the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965 than in the entire Persian Gulf War. And that's a good thing we can bring the kind of power to bear at times where a whole war goes by with fewer casualties than one battle.
"It changed all our lives, for the better mostly. No man left that field quite the same man he was when he arrived. Too much happened too quick in every direction."
The surprise attack Nov. 17 that overran the marching column of 2-7 Cav. Soldiers near LZ Albany was the deadliest ambush of a U.S. unit during the Vietnam War. Galloway said it took a particularly heavy toll on C Company, which started the day with 110 Soldiers. The following morning, eight were accounted for -- everybody else was dead or wounded.
Retired Col. Tony Nadal, who served as a rifle company commander at the Ia Drang battle, said he took less than 100 Soldiers into X-Ray. Eighteen were killed and 26 wounded, including all three of his platoon leaders.
"There were a lot of tough battles in Vietnam," he said. "I will say it was fierce. One of my sergeants killed a (North Vietnamese soldier) with his bayonet. My machine gunner was killing people with a .45-caliber pistol."
Retired Col. John Herren, another company commander in the battle, talked about the infamous "Lost Platoon" depicted in the book and movie.
"I want to make a point here -- it wasn't lost," he said. "Joe Galloway and General Moore, I don't know how you got that into the book. They were not lost; they were cut off.
"Now, they didn't know exactly where they were," he quipped, drawing laughter from the audience, "but that doesn't mean they were lost."
Now 90 and in failing health, Moore made his way to the reunion from Auburn, Ala. He and most in the group returned to Vietnam in 1993. The general said he met with his battlefield counterpart, Nguyen Huu An, then a lieutenant colonel, who commanded North Vietnamese forces at Ia Drang Valley.
"We were both trying to kill each other back in those days, but I went back to the Ia Drang Valley and made friends with him," he said. "There were so many men killed in action on both sides in those terrible battles at X-Ray and Albany."
Retired Col. Bruce Crandall earned the Medal of Honor for his actions in the battle. He flew 22 missions in an unarmed helicopter into enemy fire to bring ammunition and supplies while evacuating the wounded. By the end of the Vietnam War, he had flown more than 900 combat missions.
"Usually, the question I get when I speak is, 'What the hell happened with the medevac?'" Crandall said. "The medevac was led by a commander who shouldn't have had command. He required a green landing zone for five minutes, and of course, the Infantry doesn't get five minutes."
About 42,000 rounds of artillery and ammunition were fired into LZ X-Ray over two days, said Plumley, who wears a Combat Infantryman Badge with two stars for service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam -- one of only 270 issued by the Army.
"That battalion was the best trained, in good physical shape and most disciplined that I've ever seen," he said. "We did real hard training at Fort Benning before we went into X-Ray. … But that battalion was made up of hard, disciplined, well-trained and well-commanded Soldiers who didn't give a damn how rough their training is as long as you're fair about it. I was glad to have been a member of it."
Galloway related an incident from an early reunion many years ago in Columbus that illustrates the respect Plumley commands and fear he still strikes in the unit's veterans.
"It was up in the hospitality room, and everybody's had a few pops. All of a sudden, Sergeant Major Plumley arrives, steps in the door," he said. "And I saw guys who had served a two-year draftee tour in the Army and had been out for 25 or 30 years, turn white, backs against the wall. As the sergeant major made his way into the room, they made their way along the wall and out the door. They were afraid he still had their name and number."
Moore and Galloway collaborated again on We Are Soldiers Still, published in 2008.
"Joe and I made a helluva good team in writing those books," Moore said. "I'm glad to hear they're still popular. I think any captain or lieutenant can read those books, and they'll learn how to do better with their troops and train them better. But no more books."
Crandall said he gave out the 50,000th copy of the first book to U.S. troops in Afghanistan in March.
"They're still not only buying the book, they're using it as their Bible," he said.