WASHINGTON, March 26 (UPI) -- "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young," with Mel Gibson is a box office hit across America and to many of us who went to Vietnam it is the best movie to come out of the war.
The movie, perhaps, most truly tells the story of the war, of the line infantryman, of what he endured, how he fought and, in the end, how he prevailed.
In November 1965, some 450 men of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, the "Garry Owens," were dropped by helicopter into a small clearing in the Ia Drang Valley, a rough and rugged area in the central highlands of Vietnam. Some 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers immediately surrounded them and the book and the movie are the story of their battle and the plight of a sister battalion that was chopped to pieces a few miles away.
The men who survived that battle are in their 50s and 60s now. They came home to less appreciation than veterans of any other war and to less understanding of what they went through. As American servicemen are again in harm's way, this movie may help people understand our times and our wars. It is hard to watch without shedding a tear for those who gave their lives there and for those who came back.
The book and the movie, like so many things in war, grew out of accident, the chance meeting and lifelong friendship of two exceptional men: Hal Moore, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, and Joseph Galloway, a United Press International reporter and the only journalist on the ground throughout the fighting.
Galloway, who recently stepped down as a senior writer for U.S. News and World Report, gave an interview to his old news service, UPI, and powerful insight into the Vietnam War, wars in general and how news reporters covered them.
Q. How did you first get to Vietnam?
A. At the beginning of April 1965, right after the first battalion of Marines landed in Danang, I came down to Vietnam from UPI's Asia Division headquarters in Tokyo, and I was there the first time for 16 months from 1965 to the fall of 1966. I was 23 years old and eager to see it.
Q. So you were already with UPI before the war?
A. I went to work for UPI in the winter of 1961 in Kansas City and in the fall of '61 I became the bureau chief in Topeka, covering the state house and other stories, including the "In Cold Blood" murder case. I guess that about 1963 I started reading Neil Sheehan's dispatches out of Saigon and Dave Halberstam's stories in The New York Times. I decided there was going be a war there. It was going to become an American war, and it was going to be my generation's war, and I damn well was going cover it. So I raised so much hell that eventually, just after the election, in November 1964, they transferred me directly from Topeka to Tokyo. How about them apples? That was hard to do for a young reporter in those days.
Q. Did UPI have a big staff in Vietnam when you got there?
A. We had at that time a two-man bureau in Saigon, Mike Malloy who was the bureau chief, and Ray Herndon, a fellow Texan, and I was the build-up. I landed there, spent about two days, got my press card, and left immediately for Danang. And spent the next six to eight months covering every Marine operation in what became I Corps, the Northern part of Vietnam near the North Vietnamese border.
Q. How did you come to move down to central highlands and meet up with the 1st Cavalry Division?
A. In the early fall of '65 I moved up to the central highlands, up to An Khe base camp, the new 1st Cav division had just arrived, things seemed to happen up there. In August I was flying back to Danang on the old Airforce C-123 milk run, and it stopped in a lot of places and it stopped in Pleiku and I looked out the tail gate and when they dropped it to throw the mail and cargo off, I saw them heaving bodies out of a helicopter.
I grabbed my pack and jumped out, and found out quickly that the fat was in the fire at a place called Du Co, a Special Forces camp, interestingly enough just a few miles from the Ia Drang river, and I made my way up there. There was a South Vietnamese airborne battalion that was going to make a march. They had been fighting up there for weeks. And they were pulled back to Pleiku and they had to walk out, and it was a 20-some mile hike through Indian country. I went along with them and I met a brand new major by the name of Norm Schwarzkopf (H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who would later command all coalition forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War against Saddam Hussein).
If you look in my book you'll see a picture I took of Schwarzkopf leading those little guys out of there. And I came back in October and was working out of Pleiku when the North Vietnamese besieged the Plei Me Special Forces camp, and it was real dicey happenings. They had shot down two Air Force fighters and a Huey helicopter, and they had closed off the airspace. This place was ringed with enemy .50-caliber machine guns, and they were playing hell with the air.
I had hung around Camp Hollaway at Pleiku enough and most of the helicopter pilots around there were old Texas Aggies (graduates of Texas A&M). I played poker and drank whiskey with them a lot. One of them happened upon me walking down the flight line cussing, and said, "What's up?" I said. "I'm trying to get into this Special Forces camp and nobody's going in there." He said, "Let me get the clipboard" and he took a look and said "Well, no wonder nobody's getting in, they closed the air space," but he said, "I'd like to take a look at it. I'll give you a ride." So he was an old Texas boy, Ray Burns, out of Gadado, not too far from my hometown of Refugio. Ray flew me in there, and I jumped out and they threw some wounded on and he left. An old Special Forces sergeant came up to me and he said, "Sir, I don't know who you are but Major Beckwith wants to see you right away." I said, "Well which one would he be?" and he said, "The big guy over there jumping up and down on his hat." And I went over and sure enough it was none other than Major Charlie Beckwith who would later found the Delta Force. (Beckwith was to become perhaps the most famous Green Beret of his time, planning and leading a raid on a North Vietnamese prison camp and later helping H. Ross Perot rescue employees from Teheran after the takeover by Ayatollah Khomeni.) And old Beckwith said, "Who the hell are you?" I said "I'm a reporter." He looked hard at me and said, "I need everything in the whole God damn world -- I need ammo, I need medical supplies, I need food, I need medivac, I need everything, and what has the Army sent me in its wisdom -- but a reporter." He said, "I have news for you, son. I have no vacancy for a reporter but I do need a corner machine gunner and you're it." So I did that for a few days until we were relieved by an armor column, and the 1st Cav blew in, and that was my first hike with them.
I was leaving the camp and went over to say goodbye to Beckwith, and he allowed that I had been a halfway decent machine gunner, and he said, "Where are you going" and I said, "I'm going with the Cav," and he said, "You don't have a weapon."
I said, "In spite of what you had me do in the last few days, technically speaking I'm a non-combatant."
And he said "There ain't no such thing in these mountains son." He told a sergeant "Get him a rifle" and he gave me an M-16 and I marched out the gate with it on my shoulder.
Q. Had you been in the military or been trained to shoot?
A. Nope. But when you're a kid growing up in Texas, you learn to hunt, so I could generally make out OK. So I went off with the 1st Cav and that led inevitably toward the Ia Drang valley operation.
Q. How did you get to the battle?
A. The day they went in, on Nov. 14, 1965, I was at brigade headquarters. I had tried to slip onto the helicopter with the troops and got yanked off. They needed the space for a medic and you can't argue with that. The brigade commander, Colonel Brown, said, "Well it's probably gonna be a long hot walk in the sun, but if anything happens you can ride with me."
Well, it happened. About noon, I flew out with him, we circled over the LZ (U.S. forces created and defended Landing Zones for their helicopters), columns of smoke were rising high in the air, and Hal Moore on the ground was telling his commanding officer: "Sir, you can't land that thing here, the LZ is way too hot. You fly that thing in here with all those antennas and it's gonna get shot to ribbons." And right underneath us we saw an Air Force Sky Raider (a propeller driven, close support fighter/bomber) trailing 100 yards of smoke of fire and go straight into the jungle.
I had a set of earphones on and they were hollering, "Anyone see a chute?" and I watched him all the way in, and I said, "Nope, no chute." That guy is still there, Capt. Paul T. McClellan, Jr. They never recovered his remains.
Five or six years ago we were in touch with his widow. He was married and had five kids when he died. The army (that) got in touch with her said, "We'll run a team out there and recover this remains."
She said "No, leave him there. That's where he died doing what he wanted to be doing, so he can just rest there."
Colonel Brown pitched me off at an artillery base five miles away, and eventually during the afternoon, five or six press showed up. I believe including Pete Arnett (a reporter for the Associated Press). So we were all trying to get in (to Moore's hot LZ) but nobody was having any luck. I spotted Hal Moore's S3, his operations officer, a captain named Greg Dillon (Capt. Gregory "Matt" Dillon). And I sidled off and I said, "Greg, I want to go in there." He said, "I'm going in as soon as it's dark with two choppers full of ammo and water, but I can't put you on there on my say so," and I said, "Call the old man (Moore)," I had marched with the battalion three days before. And he got Hal Moore on the radio and told him what he was bringing in and when.
He said, "Oh, by the way I have this reporter named Galloway who wants to come in," and the reply on the radio was: "If he's crazy enough to want to come in here and you have room bring him." So then all I had to do was hide out from the rest of the reporters until it was close to five o'clock. Then, just like the movie, I came riding in.
Q. So the movie has you coming in a little differently?
A. You know what you have to do if you're taking a 500-page book, which is crammed with people, facts, and reality, and you're trying to turn that into a 120-page, triple-spaced screenplay. You collapse time lines, you take three or four people and make them one, you have one character doing what five guys really did, these sort of things that you have to do.
Q. Do you think the movie adhered to your book?
A. It was beautifully done and the old man and I were on location a good bit of the time, and after we saw the results, we decided 85 percent reality, 15 percent Hollywood, and that's the reverse of normal out there. So we ended with the right guy in Randy Wallace.