As Americans mark the day that honors veterans, those who fought in what history suggests was the defining battle of the Vietnam War are preparing to share memories of that Ia Drang Valley battle where U.S. forces and North Vietnamese regulars clashed for the first time 50 years ago Saturday.
It was the service and sacrifice of those who fought in this generation's wars in the Middle East that were mostly on the minds of those using this as a day to remember. Afterall, the Vietnam War had been over for almost a decade before the oldest millennials were even born. So for most, it's the stuff of history books.
But Ia Drang is the focus of this column, in part because my friend Joe Galloway has been, for the past nearly two years, a key player in the effort to say thank you, 40 years on, to the Vietnam veterans who got only disdain when they first returned home. And because of his visit to Seattle earlier this year as part of his role of interviewing Vietnam veterans, this area was a key participant in the national, Congressionally mandated, focus on Vietnam.
An additional and important Seattle-area tie to Ia Drang is that Bruce Crandall, a Kitsap County resident, was a hero of the battle as one of two helicopter pilots who flew nearly two dozen times into the heat of the battle to ferry in supplies and take out the wounded. Both Crandall and his now-deceased fellow copter pilot Ed "Too Tall" Freeman were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroism and were heroes of both Galloway's book and the movie made from it.
I've written previously about Galloway, a one-time colleague at United Press International, and his war correspondent role for UPI that led to his book, We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, and the movie made from it, We Were Soldiers, that brought the Battle of Ia Drang to an historical high point. And having turned in his camera for a weapon as the battle swirled around him, he was awarded the Silver Star for his battlefield rescue under fire of a wounded soldier.
Both Galloway and I have special memories of UPI, the uniquely beloved wire service where most of us would have worked for free (and during union contract negotiations, it was frequently suggested to the company that we almost did). Add to that the mutual friends who shared those memories, including Tracy Wood now a writer in Orange County, one of a cadre of talented female correspondents UPI was forward thinking enough to send to the Vietnam war zone, and Bob Page, the boss of all of us as UPI's second in command, who now owns publications in San Diego.
With the help of Q13 Fox television and its general manager, Pam Pearson, Galloway was able to conduct more than a dozen interviews with Vietnam Veterans, including Crandall, during his week here. And I got to interview him twice, at Seattle Rotary and the Columbia Tower Club, during that week and this column is an occasion for an exclamation mark on Galloway's role here with the Pentagon's effort to preserve the recollections of those Vietnam Veterans.
As Galloway has written: "What happened there, in the Ia Drang Valley, 17 miles from the nearest red-dirt road at Plei Me and 37 miles from the provincial capital of Pleiku, sounded alarm bells in the Johnson White House and the Pentagon as they tallied the American losses. It was a stunning butcher's bill of 234 men killed and more than 250 wounded in just four days and nights, November 14-17, in two adjacent clearings dubbed Landing Zones X-ray and Albany. Another 71 Americans had been killed in earlier, smaller skirmishes that led up to the Ia Drang battles."
"The North Vietnamese regulars, young men who had been drafted into the military much as the young American men had been, had paid a much higher price to test the newcomers to an old fight: an estimated 3,561 of them had been killed, and thousands more wounded, in the Ia Drang campaign," Galloway recalled.
Galloway, and historians after him, described the battle of the Ia Drang Valley as defining, even though the war dragged on for another eight years before the end of U.S. involvement, and 10 years until the actual fall of Saigon.
It was defining, Galloway wrote, because it "convinced Ho(Chi Minh), (General) Giap and (Defense Secretary Robert S.) McNamara the U.S. could never win." The realization of both sides was that the American citizenry would not accept for a long period the pace of casualties that the companion battles in the Ia Drang Valley produced.
Although President Johnson, having listened to McNamara's sense that we couldn't win in Viet Nam, no matter how many men we sent there, huddled with his key Advisors and they determined: "send the soldiers anyway."
In fact the current issue of Stars and Stripes devotes a special section dedicated to "Vietnam at 50," and headlined "Ia Drang Valley: Where the U.S. truly went to war."
So I exchanged Veterans Day emails with Galloway on the forthcoming 50th gathering.
"On Friday I mark my 74th birthday; at the time back then I never figured I would live to see my 25th birthday," he said. "On Saturday I gather with my Ia Drang brothers at an anniversary dinner hosted by the 1st Cavalry Division Association."
"The memories always begin flooding in around early November each year, but this year, the 50th anniversary of the battles is even more intense," he wrote.
"I have received stories and emails sent to me by Trudie Olson, widow of PFC Jimmy Nakayama, whom I carried out of the napalm fire at Landing Zone X-Ray, and from Camille Geoghegan Olson, daughter of Lt. Jack Geoghegan who was killed in action when he got out of his foxhole and ran to rescue one of his troopers, PFC Willie Godbolt. Geoghegan and Godbolt's names are side by side on Panel 3-East at the VN Veterans Memorial in DC. Together in death as they were in life."
"So many memories from a long-ago war," Galloway mused. A phrase likely echoed in some way by veterans of all the wars on this day to honor their contributions.