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(Dan Williams)

You can run from it, and it will catch you and eat you—or you can face it.

At the height of the war, more than 500 journalists were in Vietnam, most ensconced in Saigon, listening to official military briefings. Only a dozen or so were in places where guns were firing around them. One of those was Joe Galloway, co-author with retired Army Lt. Gen. Harold Moore of We Were Soldiers Once … And Young, an up-close account of the November 1965 Battle of Ia Drang, the first clash between large forces of the U.S. and North Vietnamese armies.

 The book, published in 1992, has sold more than 1.2 million copies. It was made into a 2002 movie with Barry Pepper as Galloway and Mel Gibson as Moore, a lieutenant colonel at Ia Drang in the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile).

During the battle, napalm bombs were inadvertently dropped on Moore’s troops, and two soldiers were burning in the inferno. Galloway, joining others running through enemy gunfire to rescue them, grabbed the ankles of one burned soldier and pulled him out. In 1998, he received a Bronze Star with a “V” (for valor) for that action—the only civilian awarded a valor medal by the Army during the war.

Galloway discussed the war’s impact on his life and views with Editor Chuck Springston.

When did you and General Moore decide to write We Were Soldiers? We planned to write this book from the day we were leaving Landing Zone X-Ray [one of the Ia Drang battle sites]. We didn’t state it, but it was in both of our minds. In 1976 I was on my way to an assignment as Moscow bureau chief for UPI. I stopped in Washington to take briefings from the State Department, the CIA and others. General Moore was the deputy chief of staff for personnel for the Army and invited me to dinner.

We shook hands and made an agreement that when I finished wandering around the world and he got out of the Army, we would pick it up and run with it. I spent three years in Moscow and then was transferred to Los Angeles as the bureau chief. He had retired from the Army in 1977 and moved to Crested Butte, Colorado, where he was manager of a ski resort.

In the winter of 1980, I was in my living room in Los Angeles, flipping through the channels and found the sequel to American Graffiti. It begins where they left off in the first movie. The kid with the horn-rimmed glasses had been drafted, sent to Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division and was listed missing in action.

All of a sudden the screen was filled with a mass Huey helicopter air assault. I found myself sitting in my chair, shaking like a leaf, with tears rolling down my cheeks at the sight and the memories. I thought, you can run from it, and it will catch you and eat you—or you can face it.

I picked up the phone the next morning and called General Moore at his home in Colorado. “Are you ready to start work on this book?” He said, “I sure am.” I said, “I’ll be there tomorrow.” We talked about what we wanted in the book. That was the beginning of 10 years of research.

How did your divide up the research? When we started, we knew where about 15 people were. We wrote a questionnaire about two pages long and asked them to write their memories of the battle.

General Moore did the early work of going to 1st Cav reunions, finding the guys who were veterans of Ia Drang and taping interviews with them. I was trying to find other people. It was remembering somebody who remembered that old Joe came from Texas or Florida.

You would call the VFW there, and you’d call information and see if there was a phone number with that last name. Maybe you’d call five or 10 people in that town and ask, “Do you know this guy?” Sometimes we hit the jackpot. Before it was over, we interviewed over 250 individuals.

When did you start the writing? I pitched a story on the 25th anniversary of the Ia Drang battle to my bosses at U.S. News, and they agreed to send me, the general and a photographer to Vietnam. We went in August-September 1990. The North Vietnamese were not as cooperative as we had hoped. They were sending us to places they sent the usual visiting reporter—foreign ministry, trade and economics guy, people like that.

They did give us two guys that were useful. One was Gen. [Vo Nguyen] Giap [North Vietnam’s top general during the war]. One was Gen. Hoang Phuong, the Army chief of history. He was very helpful, but we still did not get who we wanted: Hal Moore’s opposite number at X-Ray, Gen. [Nguyen Huu] An, who at the time of the battle was a lieutenant colonel. We also wanted the overall commander, General Chu Huy Man, and we couldn’t get him.

So we said, “How about can we go to the battlefield?” Our minder at the foreign ministry said that would be a very bad idea and refused permission.

I wrote a cover piece for U.S. News on Oct. 29, 1990. I went up to New York to accept the magazine editor’s association award for best feature story that year, our Ia Drang article. I ran into Harold Evans, who had just become president of Random House. He had been the senior editor over all of U.S. News. He said, “I want to publish that book.” I said, “What book?” And he said, “The one you’re going to write.”

The book needed to be handed in before Christmas of 1991. I took a leave of absence from my job at U.S. News in August of that year. The general was staying with his wife over at his son’s house, about 15 miles from my farm in Virginia.

 I got a cable from Hanoi saying if you will come back again, we’ll give you the people you are asking for: General An, General Man, several others. We were in the middle of writing the manuscript and decided it was worth the gamble. We went back [October-November 1991], and they put us in a guesthouse inside the walls of the defense ministry compound. Every morning we would sit down with one of those guys and run the tape recorder for four or five or six hours. We got a long interview with General Phuong, the historian. It was really fascinating to see the other side.

Why were they more inviting in1991 than during your first visit? They had seen that cover story in U.S. News. They began to get the idea we weren’t after propaganda. We weren’t digging up old bones. We were trying to genuinely research a slice of history in both our countries. So they decided to give us what we wanted.

How did you come up with the book’s title? FedEx brings me a package at the farm in Virginia. In it is the cover of our book, and it’s got the title, “One Valley Too Far.” General Moore was in the next room. I called him in and said, “Look at this.” He said, “Over my dead body.” And I said, “OK, we’re going to have to go to New York City and give them a better title.” We had been kicking round titles for the whole year and had a list of 30, not one of which was “One Valley Too Far.”

On the train to New York from D.C, we got it down to the last line of the prologue: “We were soldiers once, and young.” We went to Random House headquarters and walked into Harold Evans’ office. He had the chairman of the board, every editor and graphics editor in this office.

He says, ”Joe, we understand you don’t like our title.” I said, “Harry, it’s not that we don’t like your title; it’s that we like our title better than your title.” He said, “And what would that be?” Looking at a graphics editor because I knew she had read the whole book, I said, very carefully, “We were soldiers once and young.” And I saw a tear roll down her cheek, and I knew we had them. Evans looked around at the rest of them and said, “Well, we could certainly change that cover, couldn’t we?”

What was the source of the “We Were Soldiers” phrase? It percolated off a little quartet of poetry from A.E. Housman. It goes like this: “Here dead we lie/Because we did not choose/To live and shame the land/From which we sprung. Life, to be sure, /Is nothing much to lose,/But young men think it is,/And we were young.”

What was it like to see yourself portrayed on film? It was a little strange in the beginning. When I met Barry Pepper, he had a thousand questions. Did I wear dog tags? Yes. What was my blood type? I said, “Why do you want to know that?” He says, “ I’m going to have one [set of dog tags] made, and I’m going to wear it while I’m filming this movie.”

He said, “What did you carry in your pack?” I said, “A block of black-and-white film, a block of Kodachrome negative color, three lenses, two cameras, some socks and a change of underwear, four canteens, 20 magazines for an M16 and a couple of books.” He says, “What are the titles of the books?” I said, “Street Without Joy, by Bernard Fall, and This Kind of War, by T.R. Fehrenbach.” Once again I said,  “Why do you want to know this?” He said, “I’m going to get all of those things and put them in my pack.” I said, “Barry, nobody’ll know they’re there.” He said, “I’ll know they’re there.”

I told this to Hal Moore, and he said, “Joe, I’m really worried. Mel Gibson hasn’t asked me one question.” Two different styles of acting. Gibson just hung around Moore, normal talking and soaked him up. Moore’s kids will tell you that they could sit in a dark theater, close their eyes, listen to Gibson talk and hear their dad.

What made you, a journalist noncombatant, rush into the fray when napalm bombs struck Moore’s men? Pure instinct. I had no time to think. I felt the heat from the napalm fire on my face, and I could see two men dancing in that fire. I had no thought other than to go into that fire and help pull one of those boys out. I pulled out a kid named Jim Nakayama from Rigby, Idaho. He died two days later. He had a baby girl born that week of the battle.

Did other journalists ever criticize you for stepping into the action, rather than just observing it? Were you criticized for carrying a gun? Never. Never. I saw the same 15 or 20 reporters, photographers and TV guys on every operation, in every battle. They spent their time with the soldiers and the Marines, sharing the dangers. There were battalion commanders who would say, “Look I don’t have this detail of two guys to be your body guards. You’ve got to protect yourselves. If you’re not carrying a weapon, you can’t come with us.” So most of those 15 or 20 also carried a weapon.

What did the press get right in Vietnam, and what did the press get wrong? Mostly the press got it right. The people I knew, who were with the soldiers and Marines, were reporting on the war in front of us. And what you see is what you see. I don’t see that [Associated Press reporter] Peter Arnett or Joe Galloway or Walter Cronkite lost that war. We never had enough men on the ground to win that war. To win, you would have to invade, occupy North Vietnam. And that doesn’t take into account what Lyndon Johnson most feared:  The Chinese would come in as a participant as they did in Korea. How many men would it have taken, and how long would we have been occupiers? Would my sons and grandsons be over there now?

After the U.S. started sending military advisers to Vietnam in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, was it still possible to stop the escalation to combat troops? Absolutely. When I went there in April 1965 we had 12,000 to 13,000 advisers on the ground. We could have stopped at that point and continued to train and supply the South Vietnamese until we could see either they could do it [on their own]. If they couldn’t, then pull out.

Do you think South Vietnam could have survived if we had continued to fund its military after U.S. troops withdrew in 1973? There are those who say [South Vietnam fell because] Congress stopped further aid in ’75, but at that point a lifeline of aid was already on the way, probably a year’s worth, so it wasn’t like the Vietnamese had no bullets left or gasoline for their fleets or fuel for their aircraft. They had plenty of it. What they didn’t have was the ability to stand up to the North Vietnamese Army.

What do you see as the lessons of the Vietnam War? I would say the most important is don’t go to war against someone without understanding the culture and history and preferably having at least 100,000 Americans who speak the language. If we’d understood that a little clearer, we might not have decided to get involved in a civil war in that country.

In a civil war with Communists on one side and a supposedly democratic regime on the other, didn’t it make sense for the U.S. to support  the anti-Communist forces? Instead of supporting them, training them and arming them, we came in with our own troops in 1965 and basically told the Vietnamese: Get out of the way and let the big boys take care of this. And it didn’t work.

Do you think there are any parallels between the Vietnam War and recent wars? Afghanistan is another country where, if you understand its history and culture, you don’t go in thinking you can put a lot of troops on the ground and succeed. It didn’t work for Alexander the Great. It didn’t work for Queen Victoria, or for the Russians. They all got their asses kicked, and we just go happily marching in. We’re going to establish Jeffersonian democracy, and you’ve got a bunch of people who have no desire to become democratic. Culture and history. Know it before you get involved.

To a lesser extent that applies in Iraq That place is ribboned with tribal and religious schisms. Once again, the lessons were there in Vietnam. We paid a terrible tuition: 58,315 American dead; 300,000 wounded. A lot of people came home with PTSD. We can learn a lot, but it doesn’t help unless the leadership in Washington learns something too.

Is there any particular political or military leader that you admire? When I was a 19-year-old kid reporter in Kansas City, one of my mentors and friends was former President Harry Truman. I thought he had done a terrific job as president, and I sat and listened to him quite a lot.

How did you get to know him? My first day of work the boss said, “You’re going to be on the night shift, and eventually the New York desk is going to want you to call Harry Truman and ask him a question. Here’s his home phone number.” A couple of weeks later, sure enough, there was the New York desk, saying call Harry Truman and ask him this question.

With trembling hands, I dialed the number, and Mr. Truman answered his own phone. I was apologizing like crazy for disturbing him at 9:30 at night, and he said, “No, no son, that’s OK. I like reporters. It’s editors I hate. Ask your question.”  [Afterward], he said, “Come see me some time at the library.” A couple of weeks later I wondered over to the [Truman presidential] library and talked to him, listened to him really. I made that journey quite a few times.

You got your first journalism job at a paper in Texas when you were just 17. How did you do that?  I had been a campus stringer at the community college in Victoria for about six weeks of my entire college career. I was bored out of my mind with college and wanted out of Refugio, Texas. I browbeat my mother to let me enlist in the Army. Because I was 17 she had to come along and sign the papers. We were driving by the newspaper office, and she said, “Joe, what about your journalism?”  I said, “Good call, Mom. Shut off the car.” And I walked in and went up the managing editor. He hired me on the spot.

It’s ironic. That journalism job ultimately put you in a war zone probably as deadly as anything you would have experienced had you joined the Army.  I’ve thought about that through the years.

Born: Nov. 13, 1941, Refugio, Texas

Residence: Concord, North Carolina

Journalism career: Victoria Advocate in Texas, 1959-1961; United Press International, 1961-1982, covered India-Pakistan War in 1971; U.S. News & World Report, 1982-2001, covered Gulf War 1990-91; Knight Ridder Newspapers, 2002-06, covered Iraq War 2003 and 2005-06; retired 2006, but wrote column for McClatchy/Tribune Syndicate until 2010

In Vietnam: April 1965-September 1966, January-March 1971, six months 1973, January-April 1975; five postwar visits researching books

Government: Special consultant to Secretary of State Colin Powell, 2001-02

Today: Boards/advisory boards of 1st Cavalry Division Association, National Infantry Museum, Army Aviation Museum, Americans in Wartime Museum


First published in Vietnam Magazine’s February 2017 issue.