At Ia Drang in 1965, they fought each other with an intimate, bloody ferocity that left hundreds dead and scores maimed, and yet decades later, old enemies could embrace in friendship.
At our first meeting in 1982 to map out the research that would consume a decade and result in the publication of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, my coauthor and best friend, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Hal Moore, told me that we had to return to Vietnam and to the Ia Drang battlefields.
More than 300 American troopers of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and thousands of North Vietnamese Army regulars had perished on that ground in November 1965 in the battles that opened a war that would drag on for 10 long years.
Why would anyone who had somehow survived the bloodiest and costliest fighting of the entire Vietnam War want to return to the birthplace of his nightmares and walk that blood-soaked red earth on a remote plateau in the Central Highlands? The general knew instinctively that there were answers to be found there to questions that haunted us all; that if we hoped to find peace for ourselves and our fallen brothers it would be there among the termite mounds dotting the tangled jungle and tall elephant grass.
Our new book, We Are Soldiers Still, tells the story of that journey across the years and miles and a long night spent stranded on a battlefield known as Landing Zone XRay, amid Khmer Rouge guerrillas from nearby Cambodia, tigers and the spirits of those who had fallen there in desperate hand-to-hand fighting in that long-ago November.
Our traveling companions on the journey were three of the North Vietnamese officers who had done their best to kill us all—Lt. Gen. Nguyen Huu An, the enemy battlefield commander; and Colonels Vu Dinh Thuoc and Tran Minh Hao, who had fought there as lieutenants. We met and talked with other Ia Drang veterans of the other side during our days in Hanoi before beginning the long trip south. This led to some remarkable exchanges.
At one point, my seatmate on the bus, Colonel Thuoc, tapped me on the chest and told me through the interpreter: “You have the heart of a soldier. It is just like mine. I am glad I did not kill you.” Stunned, all I could do was nod and think to myself: Me, too, colonel. Me, too.
It has now been 43 years since those bloody battles of our youth, and yet the memories of the killing and dying—little more than a footnote in the schoolbooks of both the United States and Vietnam—are as fresh as yesterday in our hearts and minds. Now we know that the dwindling down of our years to a precious few means little, because we are soldiers still. —Joseph L. Galloway
-Excerpt from We Are Soldiers Still by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (USA Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway. Copyright © 2008 by Joseph Galloway and General Hal Moore. Published by arrangement with Harper Collins Publishers.
After being refused permission to journey to our old battlefields in the Ia Drang on two previous visits to Vietnam, suddenly in the spring of 1993 the official government objections on grounds of safety and security vanished.
Shortly after publication of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young in the fall of 1992, we were approached by a producer at ABC Television’s Day One program. Terry Wrong told us he would like to make a documentary on the battles and the veterans that would involve taking a group of us back to Vietnam and to the battlefields. After a series of studio interviews in New York, a number of Ia Drang veterans were chosen to make the trip to Vietnam with me and Joe Galloway. Joining us would be the Day One crew, including anchor Forrest Sawyer and producer Terry Wrong.
Before we left the United States for Hanoi, the Vietnamese government Foreign Press Office asked if there was anything else we wanted to do or anyone else we wanted to see on our trip. Joe immediately suggested that we ask that Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap meet us at the Vietnam Military Museum in Hanoi and give us a briefing on his conduct of the campaign against the French at Dien Bien Phu. We sent a cable back asking for this.
We landed at Hanoi’s airport on October 13, 1993, an hour behind schedule, and were met by our Vietnamese minders as we stepped off the plane. They were agitated and rushed us through the formalities in a matter of minutes. “General Giap is waiting for you at the museum,” one of them explained.
It was clear that there had been major changes since our last two visits to Hanoi. The airport—still surrounded by the big water-filled craters that American bombs had dug in the rice paddies—had been expanded and was jam-packed with humanity, where just months before it had been smaller and much sleepier. Change did not end there. The highway to the capital had been widened, potholes had been repaired, and new homes and shops were being built along the roadside. Now there was real traffic to contend with on the highway and the streets of Hanoi—more cars and a plague of small, noisy, smoky motorbikes had joined the quiet stream of bicycles that had owned those streets before.
The death of Communism and the old Soviet Union had clearly had a salutary effect on a nation that had once been an important client state and the recipient of much Soviet assistance. That support had evaporated and Vietnam was now cautiously searching for another way forward that involved some of the benefits of capitalism, especially foreign investment.
The Vietnamese Communist Party, shaken but still very much in control, had decided to ease up and see what happened. After nearly four decades of rigid party control Hanoi residents were now experimenting big-time with capitalism and a more free market. A state-owned shop that once displayed four cans of evaporated milk in a dusty window had been transformed into the Hong Kong Kung Fu Video and Coffee Shop, and its tiny tables were jammed with young Vietnamese watching Bruce Lee movies. On the sidewalk in front, four new businesses were in operation selling trinkets, tea and cakes, tins of Russian caviar, and bottles of brandy. Change was in the air.
This ancient Red River Delta capital was bustling and busy where it had been quiet and somnolent on our previous two trips. A hundred privately owned restaurants had sprung up where once there had been fewer than half a dozen. People were building small brick and stucco two- and three-story shop houses alongside the airport road.
At the museum, with its welcoming array of gray-and-green-painted cannons, antiaircraft guns, and old Russian tanks, we were welcomed by a smiling General Giap. It was hard to square the image of this small, amiable gray-haired former schoolteacher with the fact that this was the man who, along with the former waiter Nguyen Ai Quoc, a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh, had built an army out of an unarmed gaggle of peasant boys and girls and led them with great skill against the Japanese, the French colonialists, the United States and, more recently, against their former ally and neighbor, Communist China.
Giap greeted Joe and me as old friends in token of our two previous meetings and shook hands with the rest of our traveling squad during a brief stop in a museum reception room. He welcomed them as fellow soldiers to a Vietnam now at peace. Joe and I had talked through our feelings about these meetings with our old enemies on the earlier trips. For us this was research, capturing the words and thoughts of these men for history. Some of the others in our group of veterans were less comfortable with the idea; they were still angry at those who tried to kill them so long ago, and had in fact killed many of their friends. Some, like former-soldier-turned-journalist Jack Smith, expressed their feelings in the early discussions with the enemy commanders. Others listened quietly but tensely to the explanations of the North Vietnamese officers that their troops had no choice but to kill wounded Americans they found as they searched the battlefield at night for their own wounded and dead. “How could we pass them by when they were still armed and might shoot us?” asked one of the enemy generals. Most of the Americans would find peace on this journey.
We had asked for this briefing because of the importance of Dien Bien Phu and the defeat of the French in setting the stage for America’s beginning involvement in the affairs of the two Vietnams. Giap had told us earlier that if we Americans had studied the lessons clear for all to see in the wake of Dien Bien Phu, we would never have come here. He was right about that. Even more puzzling was the fact that we Americans had paid the tuition—by the end of the French war in Indochina, the United States was financing about 70 percent of the cost of that war—but had not learned the right lessons. Any serious study of our war in Vietnam has to begin with the French war; and those were the books I read on the troopship that brought my battalion to South Vietnam in the summer of 1965.
Giap led the way to a large room in back where a huge 20-by-30-foot sand-table exhibit depicted in full detail the battlefield of Dien Bien Phu, the scene of his greatest victory over the French in 1954.
The general, speaking through an interpreter, told us he made one daring decision that changed the course of the siege and history, a decision that he said could have cost him his life. After the French bet everything they owned in Indochina on drawing Giap and his Viet Minh army into a decisive battle in the remote mountain valley, Giap drew a tight cordon around their positions. Another army of peasant laborers pulled and pushed old American 105mm artillery pieces captured by the Chinese in Korea along a 60-mile dirt road through the mountains.
His soldiers tunneled and trenched and burrowed in the red earth, drawing the noose ever tighter around the French strongpoints and positions, while the big howitzers were set into positions on the forward slopes of the mountains surrounding the doomed French garrison.
Giap was under orders from the Politburo to launch human wave attacks on the French in the late afternoon of January 26, 1954. He walked around the sand table with a pointer in hand, showing us all that had been made ready for the attack. But he said he had grown increasingly worried that such an attack would play into the hands of the French; that his artillery was vulnerable to the big guns of the French, and to launch human-wave attacks would destroy much of the force so carefully built and trained over the last 10 years, with no hope of replacements for the terrible losses he would suffer in such an attack.
“I disobeyed my orders. I called off the attack,” Giap told us. “At the time I wasn’t sure if this would cost me my life.” But Giap knew that he could not afford to use China’s human wave tactics against the French because he couldn’t replace either the manpower or the big guns sited in the open and vulnerable to French counter-battery artillery.
Instead he ordered his artillery pieces pulled back to the reverse slopes of the mountaintops, and the laborers began burrowing through the earth and rock to construct impregnable gun positions where they could fire on the French below and then swiftly pull the guns back into the mountain itself. His troops were ordered to keep digging the trenches ever nearer the French lines.
When everything was ready, then, and only then—on March 13, 1954—Giap signaled the attack, and this time he would use his tactics, designed for a Vietnamese army, first cutting French supply and reinforcement lines and the vital airstrip with his artillery while the Viet Minh troops closed in on and overran the surrounding French hilltop strongpoints one by one.
All this he told us quietly, matter-of-factly, with no hint of bragging or boasting. He was there; the Politburo was not. He knew the strengths and weaknesses of his army and the positions. He knew that the French commander was betting everything he had on a victory at Dien Bien Phu. So was he. It was a winner-take-all game, and Vo Nguyen Giap would win using Vietnamese tactics, not Chinese tactics.
The men chosen to make this trip were all old friends and comrades. Former A Company 1-7 Cavalry commander Col. (ret.) Tony Nadal and former B Company 1-7 Cavalry commander Col. (ret.) John Herren were both West Point graduates and professional Army officers. After retiring from the Army, Herren continued to work at the Pentagon as a civilian employee, while Nadal worked as a human resource officer in several large corporations. Former executive officer of A Company 2-7 Cavalry Lt. Larry Gwin left the Army as a captain, earned a law degree at Yale and practiced law in the Boston area. Former A Company 1-5 Cavalry commander Lt. Col. (ret.) George Forrest retired from the Army, coached basketball at his alma mater in Maryland for a time and then became director of a program designed to keep disadvantaged minority youngsters in high school. Former B Company 1-7 Cavalry Sgt. Ernie Savage, after retiring from the Army, had remained at Fort Benning, Georgia, as a civilian employee helping train Army Reserve soldiers. Former A Company 1-7 Cavalry assistant machine gunner Bill Beck, after completing his two-year tour as a draftee, went back to being a commercial artist. Former helicopter commander Lt. Col. (ret.) Bruce Crandall was badly injured in a helicopter crash on his second combat tour in Vietnam, and after retiring from the Army, he was public works manager in Mesa, Arizona. Command Sergeant Major (ret.) Basil Plumley retired after 32 years in the Army, then worked as a civilian employee at Martin Army Hospital at Fort Benning for another 15 years. Former C Company 2-7 Cavalry clerk Jack Smith, after his two years as an Army draftee, went back to college and drifted into television news as an on-air correspondent for ABC, a job that his father, the broadcast pioneer Howard K. Smith, had held.
The following day, our group of Ia Drang veterans met with Gen. Nguyen Huu An and seven of his commanders who had fought against us at X-Ray and Albany. The meeting was held outdoors on the shores of one of Hanoi’s seven lakes. For most, on both sides, this was their first time to sit down across from each other. General An welcomed the Ia Drang veterans to Hanoi and did most of the talking on his side. I thanked them for the opportunity for such a historic visit by old enemies. The meeting outdoors in the sweltering heat was mercifully brief. We would have a chance to talk more that evening at dinner.
For all of us the greatest revelations and emotions came that evening, in a floating restaurant built on a barge on Hanoi’s West Lake. When we walked up the ramp we were stunned to be welcomed by a large table of Vietnamese war veterans who regularly gather there to talk of old times over a good meal. These were all crippled war veterans, men missing arms, legs, eyes. Their wheelchairs were crude and decrepit, as were the prosthetics replacing their missing arms and legs.
Any apprehensions we had at such a chance meeting of old enemies were quickly laid to rest as the Vietnamese veterans smiled and held up a hand-lettered sign that read, in English: Welcome American Veterans. Some of us blinked back tears. We shook hands warmly and visited with them for a few minutes before moving inside to a private room, where we were divided up and mixed together, Vietnamese and American veterans, table by table.
Joe and I were seated with the Vietnamese generals, Man, An and Phuong, whom we now felt we knew well from our previous trips and interviews. After a good Vietnamese meal of spring rolls, fish, chicken and rice washed down by cold beers, we turned to the obligatory preliminary conversations about families and work and life in general as the hot tea was poured.
The lives of professional military officers are not all that different, no matter what country they soldier for. In our earlier inter views we had learned something about their families—General An had a daughter who was an army doctor and a major; General Man had a son who was an engineer and later would study in the United States; General Phuong lived with a daughter and her family. I had always urged my men never to celebrate the killing of an enemy— “remember that he has a mother too”—and to respect them as worthy opponents. From those same conversations and our book, the generals knew something about our families as well.
There were the murmurs of a dozen other conversations at the small tables, and the clatter of dishes in the nearby kitchen, which gave off the enticing scents of the next course. The lights of Hanoi sparkled around the dark lake.
Now the Vietnamese generals pulled closer to the table. General Phuong, the historian, spoke for them all. “We have had your book translated into Vietnamese and I have read it twice already and will read it again,” Phuong told the two of us. “We like your book. You are the first serious historians to come here and ask us for our version of what happened, and you quoted us accurately. You wrote that our soldiers fought and died bravely in battle, and for that we thank you. Like you, we love our soldiers.”
The small, bespectacled Phuong—a lieutenant colonel when he arrived on the Ia Drang battlefields in 1965 to write the Vietnamese army’s report and lessons learned on the battle, and now a major general and chief historian of the Vietnamese army—also had something else to say. “You wrote in your book that our men killed your wounded on the battlefield and this is true. But we want you to know that we never gave such orders. We always knew the value of prisoners. The situation on that ground was very difficult. The fighting was hand-to-hand, and our wounded and your wounded were mixed together. Our soldiers could not go out in the dark and get our wounded and ignore yours, who were armed and could shoot them if they passed them by. These terrible things happen in the confusion of war, and not just on our side.”
It was clear to us that our book about the battles had opened the hearts of these Vietnamese generals and it was that, and our determination to get and tell their side of the story as honestly as we could, that had opened the door to this journey back to our old battlefields.
Ours was not the only fascinating talk going on that evening. Across the room at another table a stunning conversation was unfolding between a Vietnamese army colonel, machine gunner Bill Beck and George Forrest. Through an interpreter the colonel asked where Bill had been during the fight at LZ X-Ray. Bill explained that he had been way out front, guarding the American flank next to the dry creek bed. He drew a quick map sketch on a paper napkin. George Forrest helpfully reached over and added the symbol for machine gun to Bill’s X marking his position.
The Vietnamese officer gasped and turned pale: “You and your machine gun killed my battalion! Four hundred men. You killed my best friend. I am godfather of his daughter and only last month I married her off. This is not very easy for me.” Beck, whose memory of those terrible hours alone on that machine gun mowing down waves of attacking North Vietnamese is photographic, and whose nightmares linger to this day, responded simply and quietly: “It isn’t very easy for me either.”
At other tables, the Americans and Vietnamese told war stories and asked and answered the age-old question: Where were you that day? The dinner ended early, since we had a 4:15 a.m. wake-up call to catch our flight from Hanoi south to Danang, where our road journey to the Central Highlands would begin. We headed back to our rooms at the sparkling new five-star Hotel Metropole with its modern amenities—such a contrast to our old quarters at the Defense Ministry with rats and huge spiders on our first two trips. It was quiet on the bus as each of us turned to his own thoughts about the dinner and our trip south to the Ia Drang in the morning.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.