November, 1965 — the Ia Drang Valley, Vietnam.
The lead F-100 Super Sabre had already released his napalm canisters in the wrong direction. As if in slow-motion, the two canisters floated idly toward the American lines. If the second fighter jet mistakenly released his canisters, the troopers and battalion HQ behind the termite mound would be charred beyond recognition. Lt. Col. Hal Moore screamed at Charles Hastings, the US Air Force ground FAC, “Call that S.O.B. off! Call him off!”
Hastings yelled into his radio, “Pull up! Pull up!” The second F-100 did pull up, but the first fighter jet’s canisters tumbled straight toward PFC Jimmy Nakayama and Spec 5 James Clark. Within seconds the jellied gasoline ignited the two soldiers.
Excerpt from “We Were Soldiers Once…And Young” by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and award-winning war correspondent, Joseph L. Galloway: Wrote Galloway, “Nakayama was all black and Clark was all burned and bleeding. Before, I had walked over and talked to the engineering men in their little foxholes. Now those same men were dancing in the fire. Their hair burned off in an instant. Their clothes were incinerated. One was a mass of blisters; the other soldier not quite so bad, but he had breathed fire into his lungs. Somebody yelled at me to grab the feet of one of the charred soldiers. When I got them, the boots crumbled and the flesh came off and I could feel the bare bones of his ankles in the palms of my hands. We carried him to the aid station. I can still hear their screams.”
One medic lost his life giving aid. Other medics pumped morphine into PFC Nakayama and Spec 5 Clark; it didn’t stop the pain. Clark survived; Nakayama died two days later on the same day his wife gave birth to their first child. And the battle for the Ia Drang Valley had just begun.
To recognize from an early age your true purpose on God’s green earth is a godsend. Joseph Lee “Joe” Galloway is one of those fortunate few; he was one of those lucky kids. Joe grew up idolizing the WWII Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Ernie Pyle.
As an aspiring young journalist, Joe Galloway could not have chosen a better war correspondent to admire than Ernie Pyle. His admiration for the most respected journalist during WWII would serve Joe well during his journey as a war correspondent. Joe wouldn’t admit it, nor accept the tribute, but Vietnam veterans consider Joe Galloway the Ernie Pyle of our generation. And this is his story.
Last month I received an unexpected email from Colonel Mark Franklin, Chief, History and Legacy for the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration. Col. Franklin invited me to sign up for an interview at the Atlanta History Center to tell my story of service in Vietnam. Nada, was my first reaction, until I read the email further to find out the man conducting the interview would be none other than Joe Galloway.
Having admired Joe’s writing talent and courage ever since reading his best seller, “We Were Soldiers Once...and Young,” about America’s first major engagement with the NVA on a battlefield called Ia Drang Valley, no way, Jose, was I going to turn down an opportunity to meet such a legend. Admittedly, my real purpose for agreeing to tell my own story was to somehow con, plead, sweet-talk……heck, cry in public if I had to, to take advantage of this once in a lifetime chance to seek an interview with Joe Galloway.
As we shook hands before my interview, I noticed Joe and I shared the same height and about the same weight. Yet, having gained no height since Vietnam, we both sure as hell had put on a couple extra pounds since the war. Yes, we were soldiers once…and young, but unlike yours truly, Joe Galloway still sports a beautiful crop of hair. I felt absolutely at ease with Joe, as if we had shared the same battlefields…perhaps we did. He fired questions in my direction for an hour before we switched interview hats. I had Joe’s attention for 20 minutes before his next appointment, too short a time to interview a war correspondent whose life meets all the requirements for an AMC mini-series. Yet his limited remarks spoke volumes on the price of freedom, centering on the siege of Plei Me Special Forces camp which was the precursor to the Ia Drang Valley.
When asked how many wars he covered as a war correspondent, Joe’s reply was a modest yet honest, “I don’t even know.” A brief synopsis: Shortly after the first US Marines landed at China Beach, Joe began a 16 month tour in Vietnam starting in April of 1965. He completed 2 more tours in 1971 and 1973 plus squeezed in coverage of the 1971 Pakistan–India War. He returned to Southeast Asia in 1975 to register the fall of Cambodia and South Vietnam, reported on six other regional conflicts, and later hooked up with the Army’s 24th Mechanized Infantry Division during the Gulf War to participate in their tank charge across the desert of western Iraq.
In his own words: “I was 23 years old when I began my first of 4 tours in Vietnam, 1965 to 66, 1971, 1973, and I was there for the end of it in 1975. I didn’t come home for 16 years. Assignments included the news bureaus in Tokyo and Saigon then serving as chief of bureau in Jakarta, New Delhi, Singapore, Moscow when the Soviet Union was still intact, and finally Los Angeles. Los Angeles is basically a foreign country, too.”
“I liked WWII cartoonist Bill Mauldin but idolized WWII correspondent Ernie Pyle. I’ve visited Ernie’s grave in the Punchbowl in Honolulu. A year or so ago I received a recently discovered photo of Ernie that was taken right after he was killed on Le Shima. Ernie was lying there with probably the first look of peace on his face in four years of war. It just broke my heart.” Galloway wept.
“Ernie Pyle was my inspiration, and if my generation had to go to war I was going to cover it. Perhaps in doing so it is easier 40 years later to explain why you went to war instead of why you stayed at home. I was working for UPI in Topeka, Kansas covering the legislature, state politics and murder trials. The year was 1963. I wrote my bosses a letter every week begging, pleading; demanding for a transfer to Southeast Asia, to Vietnam. We were going to have a war there, my generation’s war, and I wanted to cover it. Truthfully, I raised hell with my bosses.
“Then after the 1964 election Lyndon Johnson promised that American boys would never be sent to do for Vietnamese boys what they ought to be doing for their own country. Well, I knew Lyndon because I came from south Texas and I knew he was lying…we were going to have a war and I was going to be there. UPI eventually called and transferred me to Tokyo. A little over 4 months later I landed in Saigon right after the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines landed in Da Nang. I spent 2 days in Saigon, got my Press Pass, and hooked up with the Marines for 7 months.”
October of 1965, Plei Me Special Forces Camp in the Central Highlands, Galloway joins the fight: “The North Vietnamese who had come down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, the same ones we eventually fought in the Ia Drang Valley, had surrounded this special forces camp to bait the South Vietnamese Army, the ARVN, to come up this road from Pleiku as a relief column. Their idea was to ambush a relief column then overrun the camp. There was a regiment of the bastards out there surrounding the camp and another regiment lying in ambush.”
“I wanted to get there but the air space was closed. They’d already lost 2 Hueys, 2 Air Force B-57 Canberra bombers, and an A1E Skyraider. I’m stomping around the flight line at Pleiku trying to find a ride when I met this old Texas boy, Ray Burnes, from Granada, TX. He said, ‘What’s the matter, Joe, you look upset.’ I told him I was looking for a ride into the Plei Me camp. Ray replied, ‘Hell, Joe, the air space is closed, man, they ain’t letting no flights in there.’ I told him I didn’t care, I wanted to go anyway. He replied, ‘Well, I’d like a look at it myself. Com’on, I’ll give you a ride in my bird.’ So we flew to Plei Me.”
“I have a photo taken from the chopper as it laid on its side to spiral in. The camp was triangular. You could see exploding mortar rounds and I thought, ‘Geezzzz, is that where we’re going?’ As soon as we landed I jumped off the chopper, they tossed in wounded Montagnards, and my buddy lifts off, smiling at me, giving me the…well, his longest finger. A Special Forces master sergeant ran up to me, ‘Sir, I don’t know who the hell you are, but Major Beckwith wants to see you right away.’ I asked who that was, and he answered, ‘that big fellow over there jumping up and down on his hat!’ And I was thinking, ‘this ain’t good.’”
“So I went over to Beckwith who immediately demanded, ‘Who the hell are you?’ I replied that I was a reporter. Beckwith was furious, ‘I need everything in the damn world, medevac, food, ammo, and what has the Army sent me in its wisdom but a God-forsaken reporter. I have news for you, son, I have no vacancies for a reporter but I’m in desperate need of a corner machine gunner….and you’re it!’ And I thought, ‘this ain’t too good either.’ I was given 10 minutes of instruction on how to care for and feed a .30 caliber machine gun. I stayed on the wall for 3 days and 2 nights until the relief column finally fought its way into the camp.” Note: then-Major Charles Beckwith would best be remembered as the creator of the premier counter terrorism unit, the Delta Force.
Galloway continued, “The 7th Cav. finally relieved us. I recall Beckwith saying, ‘you did a good job on that machine gun, son, how’d you like to come with me on a recon mission?’ I asked where to; Beckwith pointed west and said, ‘Over yonder.’ Yonder was Cambodia, so I asked, ‘how long will we stay?’ and he replied, ‘Oh, a couple of weeks.’ I thought a moment then replied, ‘Major, I’d love to but I’ll probably to be fired for being stuck in the camp for 3 days and out of touch with my office in Saigon.’ Put it this way, I didn’t go into Cambodia.” Galloway hooked up with the 7th Cav.
For the next few days then-Lt. Col. Hal Moore and his 7th Cav. troopers, with renowned Sergeant Major Basil Plumley, ran an operation in the hills east of Plei Me. Galloway: “That was pretty much a walk in the sun, or better yet, a crawl in the jungle. We humped all day, forded a mountain river right before dark, got soaking wet, made camp and dug a hole, wrapped ourselves in our ponchos and almost froze to death. I have never been colder than at 4,000 feet in those mountains in Nam.
“The next morning I’m cooking up a can of water to pour dry coffee into it….I wanted hot coffee. But I looked up and saw boots at the edge of my foxhole, 4 of them…those boots belonged to Lt. Col. Hal Moore and Sergeant Major Plumley, another of those, ‘this ain’t good,’ situations. Moore said, ‘Son, I have to tell you, in my battalion we all shave in the morning, and that includes odd reporters.’ I looked at my hot water, Moore’s looking at it….so I repurposed that canteen cup of hot water. That was my first face-to-face meeting with Hal Moore.”
Sunday, November 14, in the Ia Drang Valley: Galloway: “It’s the first day, first lift of the big battle. I had my first look at LZ X-ray (Ia Drang base camp) about an hour after the 7th Cav. landed. I was riding with the Brigade Commander, Col. Brown. LZ X-ray was easy to spot; the smoke was 5,000 feet in the air. We circled the area while Brown and Moore argued. Brown wanted to land, but Moore kept saying if we did land in the command chopper with all those antennas sticking out we’d be walking home, that the NVA would shoot us up.”
“While they’re arguing, an Air Force A1E Skyraider, engulfed in flames, passes under our chopper and crashes into the jungle. Everybody yells, ‘Did you see a chute, did you see a chute?’ It took place on my side of the chopper and I’m on the net saying, ‘No chute, no chute, he went in with the plane.’ I later found out his name; Captain Paul McClellan, Jr. I know where he is. The MIA/POW organization called his wife about 15 years ago. They said they could get to the crash site to do a dig, maybe uncover his remains. She said ‘no’, that her husband loved what he did and died in a battle that has gone down in history, and to let him rest in peace. She stated her four kids were helped through college by the US Air Force. She was at peace, too.”
Joe Galloway’s final thoughts, final comments: “The survivors of the Ia Drang Valley, the men of the 1st Battalion 7th Cav., will be my friends for life. I saw them fight and die beside each other, for each other, I heard the command ‘fix bayonets’ and saw those bayonets used on human beings. I had men killed on my left and right, and I figured every man who died there, every man who was wounded there, were casualties that saved my life.”
The Hollywood version of the Ia Drang battle depicts Galloway being handed an M-16 then told to ‘defend yourself.’ Joe said, “That’s not really true. I carried one in.” Smiling, he stated, “I ‘brung’ my own.”
American losses at LZ X-ray and surrounding support bases, 308. NVA losses, around 1,700 soldiers and an unknown number of wounded. In the battle, American artillery alone fired more than 18,000 rounds in 53 straight hours of support for Hal Moore and his courageous troopers.
From the book, “We Were Soldiers Once…And Young” – page 200. ‘As they left the Ia Drang Valley, Moore and Galloway came face to face.’ “We stood and looked at each other and suddenly without shame the tears were cutting tracks through the dirt on our faces. Moore choked out these words, ‘Joe, go tell America what these brave men did; tell them how their sons died.’”
Joe Galloway filmed and fought and penned the account of the Ia Drang Valley. For his courage and dedication, UPI raised his salary from $135 to $150 a week. And on a personal note, I had the honor to interview a legend, the man called Galloway, and more than anything else I found a real human being behind the legend, quick to laugh, quicker to shed an open tear recalling the memories of the heroes that still haunt his soul. God be with you, Joe……a job well done, sir.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at email@example.com or aveteransstory.us.