Just months after 23-year-old reporter Joe Galloway got to Vietnam, he found himself with Lt. Col. Hal Moore and his beleaguered 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment at Ia Drang. The epic Nov. 1965 battle, where Galloway took up arms to save soldiers’ lives—for which he received a Bronze Star with V Device—forged a deep friendship between the two men. Their collaboration led to two books, We Were Soldiers Once…And Young and We Are Soldiers Still: A Journey Back to the Battlefields of Vietnam, and the film We Were Soldiers Once, destined to be a classic on the war. Galloway’s storied career of reporting around the globe has spanned more than four decades. His unyielding commitment to truth—and to Vietnam vets—is as solid as ever.
You were born just before Pearl Harbor. Did WWII have an impression on you?
I did not meet my father until the end of 1945. He was gone to war, as were five of his brothers and four of my mother’s brothers. So my earliest memories are of living in houses full of frightened women, peering out the window for the telegram man. It kind of sensitizes you to that stuff. I was young, but I followed the Korean War too. I well remember a local boy, a Marine killed in Korea, coming home to a hero’s funeral.
Were you destined to be a war reporter?
I had read Ernie Pyle’s columns and his collected work and I thought if a war comes along in my generation, I want to cover it. And preferably as Pyle covered his war. I didn’t see myself as doing it for a lifetime or a career.
Did you see the Vietnam War coming?
I was reading the early dispatches by David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Malcolm Browne and I knew we were going to have a war there and it would be our generation’s war. I was in Topeka, Kan., covering state politics and some juicy murder trials and things like that for the UPI.
How does a kid reporter in the Midwest get to cover Vietnam?
I thought it was be a big war and I’ve got to see and experience this. I thought, it’s coming, and it’s my generation’s war and I’m going to be there, come hell or high water. I’d actually been working to get there since 1963. I just started writing a letter each week to my bosses, explaining why they should send me to Vietnam. Well, you know, right after the 1964 election was over, I got a call from my boss asking if you have a trench coat. I didn’t know what he was talking about and I said no. He said, “Well you better buy one, because you’ve been transferred to Tokyo.” It was the UPI Asia headquarters, so at least I was propositioned for Vietnam. So I got out there in November 1964, and the first thing I did was put in for a transfer to Saigon. The chief laughed at me and said “I just sent a second man to Saigon. There’s no way in the world we’ll need any more than that.” I said, “Well, we’ll see.”
Did you know much about the place?
I read like a madman trying to get the history right and get a feel for this place and these people. There were many times that I wished some of those who were ordering this war and commanding it had done the same thing.
Your wish didn’t take long to come true?
The Marines landed in March 1965, and they had to start shuffling people in, and I came along a few weeks later, in April. They shipped me in and I had two days in Saigon and then I was off to cover the Marines. I cut my teeth on the Marines and made every operation in I Corps—I even made a combat amphibious assault landing. I was only 23, but I had been working for UPI since 1961, and I’d worked for papers for a couple of years before that.
Were you prepared for what you found?
I’ve got to say I arrived knowing nothing about war firsthand. I’d seen some John Wayne movies and such and I thought, with the Marines landing, I need to get there in a hurry because it might be over pretty quick.
How long before reality set in?
I was disabused of that notion pretty early on with the Marines. I hadn’t even got to the black market to get fatigues and combat boots. I was still wearing chinos and loafers when Henri Huet, who was shooting pictures for UPI at Da Nang, dragged me onto a C-130 and we were off to someplace I didn’t know. We landed in Quang Tri city. It was under so much heavy enemy pressure that the Americans would fly in to operate in the day but flew back out at night back to Da Nang. We got off that bird and Huet ran over to a Marine UH-34, talked to the crew chief and then waved at me to get on this thing. I still didn’t know where we were going but were off and soon we were circling a hill in the middle of a rice paddy. I could see concentric rings of fighting holes and people in them. So we dropped down and landed, and the guy shut down the engine. When he did, there was literally dead silence on that hill and there was a battalion of South Vietnamese all dead. These guys hadn’t had time to dig a proper foxhole, but just to scrape out a little depression. Their hands were out like they were still holding rifles, but all the rifles were gone. We were there to pick up the bodies of the two American advisers. We stayed that night at the MACV compound, and it got mortared and the ARVN compound across the road was hit with a satchel charge. I then began to wonder just how long this might war might take. It didn’t seem to be going our way.
So, even before Ia Drang, you were having doubts?
No, it didn’t take Ia Drang to convince me that we didn’t have enough force to counter a guerrilla force the size of the Viet Cong, never mind the NVA. If you read your Clauswitz, you know you need 10 regulars for one guerrilla, and we sure didn’t have that.
And the South Vietnamese weren’t up to it?
They didn’t look to be. But it’s like we walked in and said, “OK, were taking over this war.” And, you know, the Vietnamese had been fighting a long time themselves and they were more than happy to sit back and see how we did.
So, your views of the war were getting shaped right away?
Shortly after I got to Da Nang, an old UPI hand, Ray Herndon, took me to meet a Vietnamese corps commander. He was a very intense guy and we were sitting there, drinking tea, when he leaned forward in his chair and said: “Are you Americans serious about this? Are you here for the long run? Because we’ve been fighting this war for 20 years and if you come in and take it over, I want you to know if you cut and run, your helicopters taking you out will have people shooting at them, and it will be me and my troops.” I sat there thinking, these are questions for Westmoreland, not me!
But, you were confident we could defeat the Viet Cong?
Well, at that moment I knew they were damn good local guerrilla boys, they knew the terrain and all the hiding holes and we didn’t. They were very skilled at what they did and made do with not a lot. But they were more a nuisance if you were a Marine battalion— unless they laid a battalion-size ambush, and then you’d have your hands full.
How did Ia Drang affect you?
That’s when the chill really ran up my back, when the NVA were coming at us in division-size force. And those guys, there was no quit in them, they came through a sea of our fire to close with us. Hal Moore looked at me one time and said, “You know, I’m really glad we don’t have to walk to work through that.” That’s when I really realized that we’d bit off a really big chunk here and I wasn’t sure it going to turn out very well at all.
You thought that, but couldn’t say it in your reporting?
I worked for UPI. We were not paid to have an opinion and if we did we were to keep it to ourselves. And for me, there was the other thing. I thought, “This war we can’t win but I’m not going to say that, because I don’t want to hurt my friends, the soldiers who are fighting this war.” You know the one thing about soldiers is that if they are in combat and they are losing their friends and buddies, you can’t tell them that they died for nothing. You can’t say that, you wound them, you hurt them, you damage them. And that I could not do.
Do you regret that you couldn’t express what you were beginning to believe?
I did the best I could through my pictures and my stories. I did go home on leave in 1966, and the local paper sponsored a talk about the war. I showed some of my pictures and I told them the truth as I saw it. I said: “You know we are really up against it, and I’m not sure this will come out well. This will take a lot longer and a lot more of your sons, and even then you have to know, if we are going to go into this thing, are you going to stick with it? Because this is going to be a lot harder than anybody thinks.” I don’t know what of that audience absorbed, you know, it was very early in the war and the folks down here are very patriotic.
Were they feeling the war directly by then?
There were probably 25 young men from a 100-mile radius around my hometown who fought in the Ia Drang Valley. Some of them were the best friends of my life and all but one of them was Hispanic. They were drafted, late 1963, early 1964. And who got drafted then? If mama had money to get you into college, you didn’t get drafted or if you had some plausible excuse, but these kids got drafted.
You’ve been called a “soldier’s reporter.” Why is that?
It was the Ernie Pyle thing. I didn’t go over there to cover Saigon politics, I was there to cover soldiers in the field, which was what I saw as my job. There were maybe 500 accredited correspondents at any give time in Vietnam, but I saw the same 15 or 20 on most of the operations or in most of the battles. There were just those people that did their job and it was the one they wanted to do even though it was not particularly easy to spend a lot of nights on the ground and in a foxhole and get shot at a lot. But if you’re going to be reporting on soldiers in a war, that’s where you have to be.
What was that experience like, diving into an operation?
Almost always the same. You hooked up with a company and you were dressed like they were, you marched alongside them and sooner or later there was time for a smoke break and you’re sitting there in whatever shade you can find and the Marine or GI next to you looks around and says, “Who the hell are you?” When you say you’re a reporter, he looks at you and says: “You’re a civilian and you’re out here with me? Damn, they must pay you a lot of money.” When I’d say, “No, I work for UPI, the cheapest outfit in the world,” he’d say, “Well, then you’re crazy!” Then the next guy down the line asks, “Who is that guy?” He’s a “crazy damn reporter.” But if you stay the night, and the next day you became “their crazy damn reporter.” And nobody understands crazy like the infantry. They didn’t have much but they were the soul of generosity—the grunts would share their last canteen of water with you. They didn’t have much, but they would share it all, including their lives and their deaths.
Was it tough when guys you were with were suddenly gone?
I went out once to spend a day and night with an amtrac crew. Three days later they hit a mine and killed them all. Those things happen and they are stunning in the intensity of it. And as you get into worse fights, then you’ve got dead and wounded people all around you and, you know, you just have to do like the soldiers do. You’ve got to do your job first.
And there is not time to deal with it?
There was one time General Moore was taking several of us who had been at a reunion out to the Fort Benning cemetery. I had a young woman photographer with us and one of the guys she’d been talking to, Tony Nadall, who’d been a company commander at Ia Drang, found the headstone of a sergeant who was his radioman on the first day at LZ Xray. There were five of them abreast with Nadall out forward when a burst of machine gun fire came across and killed the other four. Nadall didn’t see it and couldn’t hear it because of the din of battle. He only knew something was wrong when the cord on his radio stretched to the max. He turned back and saw them all lying there. Well, when he saw this tombstone, he just knelt down and wept. Later, the photographer asked him, “You know, that was a long time ago, why are you weeping now?” Nadall said: “At the time nobody could stop to grieve, if we did stop to grieve for every man who was killed, we’d all die. We had to keep going to do the job. We told ourselves we’d deal with this some other time. Well this is the time for me, the first time I’ve seen his name carved on that white marble marker.”
Has time helped you all heal the pain?
It doesn’t stop. It doesn’t go away, I think we all know that now. Hal Moore and I used to hope, “OK, we’ll get the book done, that will close the loop.” But, when all those men were dying around us, we were all young, we didn’t know what life held, or even understand what those around us dying were giving up. You know, the joy of a wife, having kids and seeing grandkids, and shit, even the bad stuff that happens in life. So your appreciation of their sacrifices only grows as you understand more of what there is good in life, that they gave up. So the passage of years doesn’t make it easier, in fact it makes it harder.
You also had to be a soldier.
Only on occasion, when it got so intense that I thought my helping would make a difference. And I have no apologies. It really pissed me off to have people shooting at me. You know, they gave reporters these lovely little ID cards, and in the tiniest print it said that I was a civilian noncombatant with the equivalent rank of major in the U.S. Army, and if I fall into the hands of the enemies of the U.S. I’m to be afforded all the privileges they would afford a major in the army. You know your chances of waving that card at some guy with a bayonet on his AK coming at you are not very good at all. I figured, they didn’t sign up for the Geneva Convention and I didn’t either. The first time I was introduced to General Giap in Hanoi, he turned to me and said: “Ah yes, the reporter who carried a rifle. I heard about you.”
How did Hal Moore impress you?
I watched him in battle, I watched him back at base camp and I saw a man who was born to be a soldier, to be a commander. I’ve known him for 46 years and we call each other best friends. He is the least changed individual that I ever met over those many decades. A man of high morals, high integrity. He likes to say that he graduated at the very top of the lower 20 percent of his class at West Point. He worked hard to get into and through that school, and he totally applied himself to the job of leading soldiers. On the boat headed for Vietnam in July 1965, he had a box of books with him. He was reading the history of the conflict, the country and the people. He became as knowledgeable as he could as fast as he could, so as to be more effective. He was the finest commander on a battlefield that I ever saw. He had the knowledge base with which to fine tune his instincts and he was focused like a welding torch. Of all of us on that battlefield at Ia Drang, there was really only one guy who was certain that we weren’t going down, that we were going to defeat that enemy in that place. Everybody else, including Sergeant Major Plumely, the three-war guy, had doubts. But out there, Hal Moore was supremely confident that we could do it, that we would do it, that we would prevail—or at least survive
Your deep relationship was forged there and in subsequent operations?
When we left Ia Drang, we did get off by ourselves and talk. And any time he was planning an operation, he would get word to me or even sometimes send a chopper to get me and sometimes I would sit in on the planning. I was back and forth often and he would always put me with the 1st of the 7th. To this day, I consider that battalion my home in the Army. So I saw him often and then I marched with the battalion when it had other commanders, during my first tour.
Hal Moore left before you ended your first tour?
And I watched them try to get him to leave when his tour was over. He didn’t want to. He kept saying, “I got one more thing I need to do.” And they had his replacement standing by for about a month, as he ran a couple more operations before he finally gave up and went home.
What finally got you to end your first tour, after 16 months?
My first tour lasted until September 1966, and I swear to God I would have stayed but for one thing, all my buddies had served their 12 months, or 13 if they were a Marine or Hal Moore, and they went home. All the sudden I’m out there marching among a bunch of greenhorns, and that’s a bad situation to be in. As the statistics show, it’s that first three months that you’re in combat that you take 65 to 70 percent of your casualties for the year. It’s a real steep learning curve, and if you are marching with them you are vulnerable to all the mistakes you’ve already seen made and you have to wait for them to wake up in the situation, and that can be depressing and dangerous. Sometimes I went on these operations with a Vietnamese who shot movie film for UPI. He was a veteran—not sure which side he fought on—of the war against the Viet Minh. We could be marching along with an American infantry outfit, through the rubber country, for instance, and I’d see his eyes get real big and he’d say to me, “Mr. Joe, this is a bad situation, they don’t have flanks out.” He knew and I knew the VC could snap an ambush in rubber country from a quarter-mile on your flank and whack you before you knew what was happening. In a case like that, I’d try, diplomatically as possible, to say something to the colonel, and sometimes they’d listen and sometimes they’d say, “Who the hell are you to tell me how to run the battalion?” And with that I’d just put up my hands and say, “Hey, the next helicopter that comes by, would you have it give me and my cameraman a ride out of here?” You know, it was best just to leave.
Years later, you learned how your experience at Ia Drang was a model for the final thrust of the NVA?
We were desking the fall of Cambodia out of Saigon. And I was sitting there working on that when the end started in the Central Highlands. It all seemed very familiar. Later I talked to the NVA General Man. By 1975 he was senior general, but back in 1965 he was a division commander at LZ Xray. He was an old revolutionary and he had a twinkle in his eye as he told me: “You know, we tried to cut the country in half with that operation in 1965, we were going to besiege Plei Me camp, draw a relief force out of Pleiku with the last of the troops there, draw them into regiment-size ambush, turn and take Pleiku and ride on down the highway to the coast. The only thing to stop that from happening was the intervention of the First Cavalry. You were able to bring artillery and hopscotch along with the relief column and really lay the air cover on, so our plan didn’t work. So in 1975, all we had to do was pull that plan off the shelf, dust it off, make a few changes and this time it worked real good.”
Are you amazed you survived more than two years covering the war?
When I was 23 living with my roommates in our “animal house” in Saigon, we’d make book on who among us might actually live to see our 25th birthdays. Some didn’t make it. I’m the luckiest man you ever talked to.
Was the reporting coming out of Vietnam getting it right?
You know, it may seem counterintuitive, but I say it was mostly right. Now, the truth was not palatable to the politicians and certainly not the commanders at times, but I think the reporting in the field was pretty good. I know it was bought at a terrible price. Some 70 of my friends paid for those stories with their lives. I think the field reporting and reporting on the war itself by the people at the front, such as it was, was accurate. And one reason why it was so good was that I knew that I could go out with a company of Marines, and might spend three hours, three days or a week, and eventually I would leave and write a story and ship my pictures. I knew chances were real good that my story would run in Stars & Stripes. It might take weeks, but eventually my story would filter back to that company. Or, if it didn’t run in Stars & Stripes, it would run in their hometown paper and mama would cut it out and put it in their next letter. And I knew I could see those guys again, and you really don’t want to screw up a story about men who are armed and dangerous and who you will likely see again. It makes you a very cautious and careful reporter with the facts. That was one of the benefits of learning the trade in a deadly place. I’m fortunate because I sort of came of age on the battlefields of Vietnam, professionally and personally.
Were reporters lied to by the military and government?
I would go back to Saigon and everyone there would be bitching and complaining about the Five O’Clock Follies. They’d say, “Joe, they are lying to us.” I’d say: “Well, come out with me. Nobody lies to you within the sound of the guns.”
Has Vietnam been the most uncensored war in our history?
Absolutely. Every war up to then had some form of censorship. WWII was absolute, every line of your copy had to be read by an official Army censor, every picture had to be looked at. They had absolute authority. They could take out a paragraph, a page or throw your whole story into the waste can. Reporters wore a uniform and were subject to the Code of Military Justice. Korea was not so much official censorship, but through control of communications and transport there was censorship by more subtle means. When you come to Vietnam, there is no censorship at all. You come in, you get a letter from somebody saying you’re writing for them or are a staff member and you signed a one-page, five-paragraph set of simple rules of operational security, and that’s it. In Vietnam, in 10 years I think maybe five correspondents had their accreditation removed for violating those simple rules. By contrast, I would say I’m one of the few people who has ever read the embed agreement in 2003. It was 36 pages, single-spaced, and clearly had taken thousands of JAG man-hours to put together. Everybody signed it and nobody read it, including the battalion commanders. They were given their five media people and were told to take care of them. They would sit them down and say “I don’t know about this document, but I’ll tell you how things work in my battalion.” That’s how it worked.
If the reporting was so unfettered, how did the war become so unpopular and still drag on for so long?
On the whole, we did a good a job in reporting the war itself. I don’t speak to politics in Saigon, or the efficacy, or lack thereof of our commanding generals and things like that, just about American soldiers at war.
In light of Vietnam, how could we have gotten into another decade-long war?
If there was a lesson to be learned from Vietnam experience, obviously we didn’t learn it. The easiest thing in the world is to start a war and the hardest is to stop one and get out of it. Someone may be farsighted enough to see victory at the end of that hole in Afghanistan, but I don’t. I don’t even know how you could define victory there, unless it is just getting out alive. The puzzling thing to me is that we are all big boys and we learned when we were kids, especially if you lived in a city, there are neighborhoods you didn’t go into. Yet, as a country and a people we don’t seem to have a facility for picking out weaker people to fight. We pick out the ones who have the bark on ’em.
And we even had the Soviet experience to study to boot?
When I was in Moscow and the Soviets began making their move in Afghanistan, I hotfooted to see my minder in the foreign ministry. I usually went there to bitch about something, so he asked me, “Why are you here, Joseph?” I said, “I’m here to congratulate you, because you’ve invaded Afghanistan. I’ll tell you, if you gave me the most powerful computer in the world and I have plenty of time to work out the one place for you to invade in the world so you could end up like we did after Vietnam, it would spit out Afghanistan. But you guys figured it out without the computer.” He was outraged, but it was true.
Did you try to tell that story to someone at the Pentagon?
I wrote my column every week for eight years and tried my best to wave them off this war, to no avail. There are all these great books and history and all the lessons learned, but nobody seems to read it—no politicians anyway. I look at those Afghans and Iraqis and their improvised explosion devices, IEDs, and they cost us 65 percent of our casualties in Iraq. We never saw the enemy; he blew us up from a quarter mile away with a cell phone, or 200 meters away with a garage door opener. People have no conception of what an IED can do. It makes your blood run cold. Try six 155mm shells in the bottom of the pit, onto that put 60 pounds of C4 explosives and just for fun put five gallons of gas on top of that. Then just put the road back over it and sit back until some Americans drive by.
How do you respond to those who claim the media lost the Vietnam War?
It wasn’t the media. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t Peter Arnett or Walter Cronkite. The war was lost at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue by a succession of American presidents. They all had a hand in it. It was easy for the embittered military officers, sitting around the clubs in the years after Vietnam to bitch and moan about how the press lost the war. We didn’t do it. We did not lose the war. The media does not have the power now to start or end a war. But, frankly, I wish I could have gotten myself out of LZ XRay and sat down and written a story so powerful about that battle that it would have driven LBJ to withdraw the American forces and cut our loses. If I could have done that, if I’d had that power, then there would only be some 1,100 names on that Wall in Washington instead of 58,270. And I would be proud to have carved on my tombstone, “He stopped the war.” But that’s not the way it works, its not how it happened. The press didn’t lose it, and we couldn’t win it, all we could do was our job and that was to try to tell the truth about what was going on.
Beyond Washington, was our military leadership flawed?
It didn’t help that the commander in the crucial years was William Westmoreland, who was a fine fellow and certainly looked every inch a general. But even his own aide wrote a book later about the war and said that Westmoreland’s idea was a “strategy of attrition,” and a strategy of attrition is the proof they you have no strategy at all. And certainly, attrition was never going to work there. There was never one year in the Vietnam War when we killed a number of the enemy that equaled or exceeded the natural birth rate increase in North Vietnam alone. So every year looking out into the farthest future there would be a fresh crop of draftees up there. We certainly were not going to win with those tactics and I’m not sure what other tactic we could have used to win short of nuking North Vietnam and turning into a parking lot. And if we had, I guarantee our sons would be out there garrisoning that place now, and people would still be shooting at them.
How do you feel when vets say that the press stabbed them in the back?
Well, first of all there are not many people who will say that to my face. If they’ve got a real bone to pick with somebody, it’s usually Cronkite or Arnett. All I can do is explain who did lose the war. If you really want to get down to why the war was lost, it is that our military was a draftee force that was at the height of the war taking 20,000 young men a month out of whatever comfortable life they had, giving them a very fast basic training and a little advanced, and bang, they are on there way to Vietnam. And what that meant was the coffins came home to every town and village in America. The first few boys that came back were viewed as heroes and affection was lavished on them and their families. But in a small town, by the third or fourth one, the people begin to wonder: “How long is this going to last. When and how is it going to end?” Somewhere there after Tet, the American people changed their minds about the war. It was costing too much, taking too many lives and it didn’t look like it was ending any time soon.
Your emotions must be very mixed when thinking of the war?
Vietnam is so complicated. You know, these kids who went there and survived and came home, they weren’t given any kind of welcome to speak of. I don’t know that everybody who thinks he was spat upon at the Oakland airport actually was, but I think the attitude of the people that represents was there, and the returning vets felt it deeply. It was shameful that the American people could not separate the war from the young men they sent involuntarily to fight it. And then turned their backs on them, that’s the part that just drives me up the wall. These guys, the veterans of Vietnam, are such patriots. They still love this country in spite of all that, and I think most of them have forgiven the country. But I’m not sure I have yet, not for anything done to me, but for what was happening to my friends. I’m still angry on their behalf. I was proud to be permitted to stand alongside the men who fought in Vietnam, and I’m proud to stand beside them today in the other wars they have to fight.
Did we learn from Vietnam that we must never turn our backs on our war veterans again?
We have to take care of them. I don’t want to hear we don’t have any money left because we pissed it all away on the wars that destroyed those people. Cough it up because you owe it, just like the Vietnam veterans and all the others. You’ve got to do what’s right. I can’t say it better than Hal Moore, who says, “Hate war, but love the warrior.”
We sent them there, we owe them all of the support, all that we promised them. You know, I look at these kids today, pulling five or six tours in Iraq and now Afghanistan, and I know what 12 months in Vietnam could do to a kid, and I know what five or six such tours would have done to them, and it’s not pretty. We are going to be dealing with the consequences, and the cost, of taking care of many of those young men and woman for the rest of their lives. And every war we’ve ever had we say we will do the right thing, then somehow the money doesn’t get voted in by Congress. Read Kipling:
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ Chuck him out, the brute!
But it’s “Saviour of ’is country” when the guns begin to shoot….