"Plumley never told war stories, never gave interviews. When reporters or historians would call, he would listen to their spiel quietly and then simply hang up his phone"
We buried Command Sergeant Major (ret.) Basil L. Plumley in the red dirt of the post cemetery at Fort Benning, Georgia, on a beautiful sunny fall afternoon. Every move by the Army pallbearers, honor guard and firing party was done with a precise attention to detail that the sergeant major would have appreciated, or even demanded. [CSM Plumley died from cancer on Oct. 10, 2012, in Columbus, Ga.]
Plumley was 92 years old and a legendary figure among noncoms and soldiers in three wars. He was a heroic figure long before his exploits figured in a book published in 1992, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, and a movie released in 2002, We Were Soldiers. He was also one of my best friends for the better part of half a century.
He was Airborne Infantry in World War II and the Korean War. Plumley made all four airborne combat operations of the 82nd Airborne Division during the Big War: Sicily, Salerno, Normandy and Holland. He made one combat jump with the 187th Regimental Combat Team in Korea. He wore Master Parachutist wings with a gold star signifying those five combat jumps.
When the Vietnam War really came home to America in the summer of 1965, Plumley was serving as sergeant major to the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), commanded by Lt. Col. Hal Moore. The sergeant major, a native West Virginian, was a quiet, monosyllabic man—until he wasn’t. When he wasn’t, Moore says, Plumley could be gruff and “even ornery.”
He was a big man, 6 foot 2, and when he drew in a deep breath, preparatory to ripping the hide off some offending trooper, he seemed even bigger and taller. Although he wore the Combat Infantry Badge with Two Stars—one of only 325 men to do so—at the top of a chest full of ribbons, Basil Plumley never told war stories and never gave interviews. When reporters or historians or even students at the Army’s Sergeant Major Academy would call to ask questions, Plumley would listen to their spiel quietly and then simply hang up his phone.
I first met Sgt. Maj. Plumley in early November of 1965. I had accompanied 1/7 Cav on a medical civil action mission to a remote Montagnard village east of Plei Me Special Forces Camp in the Central Highlands, followed by a hard, slow slog through dense bamboo and wait-a-minute vines—a long, hot walk and crawl through jungle gloom. Just before sundown we forded a neck-deep mountain stream, then dug foxholes and rolled up in our ponchos for a cold, wet, miserable night. At first light I boiled a canteen cup of water over a bit of C4 and was fishing around for a couple of packets of powdered coffee when I looked up to see Hal Moore and Basil Plumley standing there looking me over. Moore informed me, “In my battalion we all shave…including reporters!” I groaned. Plumley grinned big as I dug out my razor and bar of soap and diverted my coffee water for a new task.
Our next real meeting would be in battle at Landing Zone X-Ray, a clearing at the base of 2,300-foot-tall Chu Pong Massif in the Ia Drang Valley, on the morning of November 15. I had flown in after dark the night before in a Huey helicopter piloted by Major Bruce “Old Snake” Crandall and packed with crates of ammunition, grenades and mortar rounds. I found that I was the only reporter on the ground and had an exclusive seat at the biggest battle of the war. That morning at dawn my exhilaration was greatly tempered by the sight of 20 or 30 dead American soldiers wrapped in their ponchos, booted feet sticking out, in a long, sad line in the beaten-down elephant grass. I was sitting with my back to a small tree near a large termite hill where Moore and his staff were working the radios, when all hell broke loose.
A battalion of North Vietnamese regulars boiled out of the dense brush and tall grass and slammed into the thin line of Captain Bob Edwards’ Charlie Company just inside the trees on the southeast side of the perimeter.
Moore’s makeshift command post at the termite hill was inside the beaten zone. Enemy rifle and machine gun fire scythed through at about knee-high. The noise of battle was deafening. I rolled onto my belly and concentrated on getting as low as possible. Suddenly there was a thump in my ribs and I turned my head carefully to see what it was: a size 12 combat boot on the foot of Sgt. Maj. Plumley.
He bent at the waist and shouted down at me, “Can’t take no pictures lying down there on the ground, Sonny!”
I thought: He’s right. I also thought it highly likely we might all die here in this remote mountain valley, surrounded by a vastly larger enemy force, much as this same outfit had fallen in the Little Bighorn River valley nearly a century before. So I got up and followed Plumley as he moved over to the makeshift aid station and yelled at the battalion surgeon, Captain Robert Carrera, and the medical platoon sergeant, Tommie Keeton: “Gentlemen, prepare to defend yourselves!”
As if to punctuate how imminent the danger was, Plumley whipped out his M1911 Colt .45 pistol and jacked a round into the chamber. Plumley thought we were in dire danger of being overrun, and he was going around alerting the only available reserves—a kid reporter, a doctor, a medic and some of the wounded.
The following night an Air Force C-123 was keeping the battlefield illuminated with flares. The parachute failed on one burning flare and it plunged right into the middle of the pile of ammo crates that constituted our supply dump. Plumley leaped to his feet and ran over and, bare handed, lifted the burning flare out of the crates, reared back and threw it out into the clearing. For that, and other actions in the battle, he would earn his second award of the Silver Star. And there began another Basil Plumley story we would both laugh over for years.
After the Ia Drang battles, I moved on to other operations, other units, but in January of 1966 I got word from Moore, now wearing the eagles of a colonel and commanding the 3rd Brigade, to hotfoot it to 1st Cav’s home base at An Khe. There he briefed me on an upcoming operation into the Bong Son area along the central coast. Then he said something that froze my blood: “By the way, Sgt. Maj. Plumley has a bone to pick with you, so you best see him and make it right.” Soon enough I was with the sergeant major, and he was telling me how one of my stories about that flare incident had frightened Mrs. Plumley back home in Columbus, Ga. My boss at the United Press International (UPI) bureau in Saigon had been given sketchy information about Plumley’s actions through radio reports reaching U.S. headquarters there. He had taken some liberties and blown the story out of proportion with lines like: “Sgt. Maj. Plumley will wear the scars on his hands for the rest of his life.” I was still on the battlefield when that story moved on the wires. I told Plumley, “I did NOT write that story!” His response: “It had YOUR name on it, Joe.”
I gave up and asked, “What will it take to make it right with you, Sergeant Major?” He grinned and said that he really admired the Smith & Wesson short-barrel .38 Special on my belt. I told him he could not have my belt gun, but I would see that he got a brand-new pistol just like mine. The erring UPI boss brought a new pistol back from home leave, and I delivered it to a delighted Plumley. Nearly 40 years later, I was sitting at the dinner table at Plumley’s home in Columbus as he gave a couple of movie stars a tour of his gun collection. He opened his sock drawer, pulled out that .38 and waved it around, telling them, “Joe Galloway gave me this gun!” He called it a peace offering; I called it a peacemaker.
They broke the mold when they made Basil Plumley. He was mentally sharp right to the end, and we all wanted him to stick around for a few more years as an inspiration to today’s sergeants major of all services. But when his wife of 62 years, Miss Deurice, died last Memorial Day, something broke inside the toughest man I ever met. He had concealed the fact that he had the softest heart in the world from everyone but her and their daughter and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Joe Galloway was a longtime war, military and foreign correspondent and is the co-author with Lt. Gen. Hal Moore of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, which was made into a feature film in 2002, and the follow-on book, We Are Soldiers Still. He now resides in Concord, N.C.