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Remembering Vietnam's 'defining battle' 50 years ago part of this Veterans Day

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.
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Joe Galloway interviews in Seattle with Vietnam Veterans will help focus on Commemoration

Programs of support for veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq are conscience-manifestations of thanks from a nation. Now there's a growing movement to touch that same national conscience 50 years late to extend a thank you to veterans of the Vietnam War who received a markedly different reception when they returned home. 

The Vietnam War Commemoration, aimed at spurring events and activities in states, cities and towns around the country to recognize Vietnam Veterans and their families for service and sacrifice, has already had one high-visibility event in this state.  

old galloway
Joe Galloway 

But additional local visibility will likely lie ahead as a week-long series of interviews with veterans of the Vietnam War, conducted by Joe Galloway, the Vietnam correspondent whose book and the movie it spawned made him likely the best-known war correspondent of recent times, will take place in April in Seattle. Ideally, other Vietnam Veterans events will emerge to attract additional focus to Galloway's visit and the 50thCommemoration.

The high-visibility event already held was a Commemoration tribute on October 9 that attracted more than 2,500 Vietnam veterans from around the Northwest onto the parade field at JBLM for a salute ceremony, massing of the colors and Keynote speech by retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.The event, conceived by Lt. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, I-Corps commanding general, was only the second Vietnam War Commemoration event at one of the nation's military bases.

Lanza, saying that as he noticed that Vietnam Era veterans were among those enthusiastically welcoming soldiers home from deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, said he realized of the Vietnam veterans: "they had never had that" welcome-home reception so he helped create a thank you opportunity.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in having no knowledge of this Vietnam War Commemoration, mandated by Congress in 2008 and launched by presidential order in 2012, until the JBLM event, and even then only as curiosity as I went to the Internet to try to find when the 50th anniversary of Vietnam would be.

Then came an email exchange in November with Galloway, a one-time colleague at United Press International, the wire service for which he covered the Vietnam War. I've written a couple of Flynn's Harp columns on him and he's now among those who receive this column and we exchange emails occasionally.

 

Galloway Advised me that he has a role in the Vietnam War 50thAnniversary Commemorative project, serving as a special consultant to the project run out of the office of the Secretary of Defense, doing oral-history interviews with Vietnam veterans.

In connection with the 50th Anniversary Commemorative, Galloway has been doing three-a-day, two-hour interviews with Vietnam veterans from across the services spectrum, noting he has "65 two-hour interviews in the can now, beginning with Colin Powell and working outward."

"So you should come to Seattle and do interviews," I told Galloway, a Texas boy who as a correspondent was decorated for heroism on the battlefield and praised by the late Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf as "the soldiers' reporter" because of his caring and regard for those whose battles he covered.  

So I wrote two columns in November, the first related to the interviews he's doing around the country and the second about the Battle of Ia Drang, made famous by his book "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young," and the movie produced from it, "We Were Soldiers."  

I got the word a week or so ago that Galloway will be here for a week of interviews April 12-18 and he may have with him retired Army Lt. Gen. Claude M. "Mick" Kicklighter, who is charged with overseeing all aspects of the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration, and sometimes travels to a location with Galloway.

While Galloway covered both Iraq and Afghanistan, it was his coverage of Vietnam which draws his continued and weighs most heavily on his shoulders and in his thoughts.

Galloway's interviews in Seattle may include Bruce Crandall, the helicopter pilot whose heroism in repeated flights into the death zone of the Ia Drang battlefield to bring supplies and evacuate the wounded that brought him the Medal of Honor, as well as prominent visibility in the movie made from Galloway's book. Crandall has retired to Kitsap County.

"We don't have a big budget and so we'd need a university or something like that to provide space and assistance to do the interviews," Galloway told me.

I quickly touched base with Pam Pearson, the vice president and general manager of KCPQ-13 for help and she readily agreed to provide whatever studio space and technical assistance he needed through the week.

"First time we've ever had a television station as our facility," Galloway enthused.  

In addition, Gloria Fletcher, president of Sound Publishing, which owns and publishes daily and weekly newspapers across the state - many in areas of heavy military concentration - has agreed to help promote Galloway's visit as well as events that may be related to it, and thus provide visibility for companies that may wish to participate in some manner.

This coming Memorial Day is the opener of what Kicklighter has described as the "most active phase" of the 50th Commemoration, which will run to Veterans Day 2017. and finally conclude on Veterans Day 2025.

The goal now, and one that may be contributed to with the Seattle visit, is development of Commemorative Partners, a program designed for federal, state and local communities, veterans' organizations and other nongovernmental organizations to assist in thanking and honoring Vietnam Veterans and their families.  

Commemorative Partners are encouraged to participate in the Commemoration of the Vietnam War by planning and conducting at least two events or activities during that will recognize the Vietnam Veterans and their families' service, valor, and sacrifice.  

Commemorative Partners must commit to conduct at least two events each year during the commemorative period of 2015 - 2017 that will recognize, thank and honor our Vietnam Veterans and their families.

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Ironic convergence in Seattle of LBJ-focused plays, probable Galloway Vietnam interviews

(This second of two columns deals with an ironic convergence in Seattle as a play depicting Lynden Johnson's failure in Vietnam has its world premiere at the Seattle Rep while a series of special interviews with veterans of that war will likely be conducted in Seattle by the correspondent who made famous the defining battle of the war.)

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As The Great Society, a look at Lyndon B. Johnson's failure in Vietnam, has its world premiere in Seattle, the war correspondent who chronicled the battle that foretold the outcome of that war may well be conducting filmed oral-history interviews with Seattle-area vets for the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemorative.

The world premiere of Robert Schenkkan's play, a co-commission between the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Seattle Repertory Theater, will open at the Rep on December 5 as a companion to the Tony-award winning All the Way, detailing LBJ's initial successes, which opens at the Rep this week.

That first Schenkkan play ironically opens at the Rep on November 14, the 49th anniversary of the start of the four-day battle of the Ia Drang Valley that Joe Galloway's writings made famous.

That Vietnam outcome is the focus of Schenkkan's The Great Society, which depicts LBJ's fall from grace as his major domestic accomplishments are overshadowed by the failure of his conduct of the Vietnam War.

Joe Galloway, a UPI correspondent who made famous the November, 1965, battle of the Ia Drang Valley and the war's outcome that it presaged, now has a special role in the 50thAnniversary Commemorative project that is intended to bring him to Seattle in January or February.

Joe Galloway at Veterans Day in D.C.
(Stars and Stripes photo)
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Galloway is serving as a special consultant to the 50thCommemorative project run out of the office of the Secretary of Defense, doing filmed oral history interviews with Vietnam veterans.The interviews are what would guide his effort to get to Seattle in January or February.

 

Galloway explained that the anniversary commemoration "is really about saying thanks to those who served and urging all the cities and towns across this country to hold their own events honoring those veterans; giving them the welcome that was denied to them half a century ago."    

Galloway had a high-visibility role for this year's Veterans Day celebration at the National World War II Memorial in Washington as keynote speaker and among the hundreds on hand were roughly 20 WWII veterans, who were singled out and thanked repeatedly throughout the ceremony for their service.

 

Galloway noted in his remarks that though the WWII vets' numbers have "dwindled down to a precious few," their contribution to promoting peace and freedom in the world still looms large.  

With an obvious reference to Vietnam, Galloway told the veterans and others in attendance that despite the tremendous cost in lives lost, "There was not a voice raised against that war because it had to be fought and ... it had to be won."

Galloway has completed 65 two-hour filmed interviews for the oral histories, beginning with Gen. (and later Secretary of Defense) Colin Powell, and now is looking to line up a dozen or so Seattle-area interviews. Ideally, the visit for the interviews would be paired with one or more commemorative events in the Seattle area as states and communities are urged to participate in the 50thcommemorative with events to say belated thanks to the Vietnam veterans.

old galloway
Joe Galloway 

Galloway explains that the unedited interviews will be deposited in the Library of Congress Oral History Archives. An edited version (for length and focus) will be transferred to DVD and eventually packaged and sent to every junior and senior high school in the country.

Galloway's "We Were Soldiers Once and Young" and its sequel, as well as his later writings, made the battle of Ia Drang famous for its import in making clear the inevitable Vietnam outcome a decade before politicians finally ended the war.

Galloway was a 25-year-old UPI correspondent who was already battle tested when he found himself, along with the Seventh Cavalry, in the midst of the first major conflict for U.S. troops vs. North Vietnam regulars in a place called the Ia Drang Valley.

In his book and its sequel, "We Are Soldiers Still: A Journey Back to the Battlefields," both co-authored with Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, then a lieutenant colonel commanding a unit of the 7th Cavalry, Galloway focuses on the battle and the soldiers, of both armies, who suffered and died there.

Galloway himself eventually was decorated with the bronze star with valor for his actions to rescue wounded soldiers under fire, the only time the award was made by the army to a civilian for actions in Vietnam.

"In three days and two nights in Landing Zone X-Ray, and another day and night in a landing zone called Albany two miles away, 234 American soldiers were killed and nearly 300 wounded. The North Vietnamese left behind the bodies of somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 dead," Galloway wrote in an article for History magazine. "No one in their right mind stakes a claim to victory in the middle of that kind of carnage. Funny but both sides did just that." 

Galloway was typically Galloway at a news conference following the battle, as he recalled a clash with a general who had just returned from assessing the battle zone. "He toldthe dozens of reporters who had assembled that there was no ambush of the Americans at Albany. 'It was a meeting engagement,' he said, and added 'casualties were light to moderate.' I had just returned from Albany myself, and I stood and told the general, 'That's bullshit, sir, and you know it!' The news conference dissolved in a chorus of angry shouting."

The forever indictment of President Johnson and his brain trust for what happened in Vietnam was sealed because of Ia Drang. Following the battle, LBJ dispatched Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to find out what had happened at Ia Drang and what it meant.

Galloway, in an article four years ago in History.net magazine, explained what took place thereafter at the highest levels.

"After meeting with the ambassador and key military people, including Hal Moore, McNamara penned a top-secret memo to LBJ, saying in essence 'We have come to a decision point and it seems we have only two choices: Either we arrange whatever diplomatic cover we can find and get out of Vietnam, or we give General (William C.) Westmoreland the 200,000 additional U.S. troops he is asking for, in which case by early 1967 we will have 500,000 Americans on the ground and they will be dying at the rate of 1,000 a month (American combat deaths would actually top out at over 3,000 a month in 1968).' McNamara wrote that all this would achieve was a military stalemate at a much higher level of violence."

  

Galloway's article continued: "On December 15, 1965, LBJ's council of 'wise old men,' which in addition to McNamara included the likes of Clark Clifford, Abe Fortas, Averell Harriman, George Ball and Dean Acheson, was assembled at the White House to decide the path ahead in Vietnam. As the president walked into the room, he was holding McNamara's November 30 memo in his hand. Shaking it at the defense secretary, he said, 'You mean to tell me no matter what I do I can't win in Vietnam?' McNamara nodded yes. The wise men talked for two days without seriously considering McNamara's '1'-getting out of Vietnam-and ultimately voted unanimously in favor of further escalation of the war."

The count of the dead would eventually exceed 52,000, including 1,100 from Washington State.

In the columns on military affairs he wrote for McClatchy Newspapers after his retirement, Galloway frequently criticized the political decisionmakers who put his soldiers in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan. He told me once, when I asked about the criticisms he received from high levels, "I wore out the 'delete' key on my keyboard every year. I didn't take it personally. Most who wrote such diatribes calling me nine kinds of a Commie rat were people who had never worn a uniform, would not send their children to fight in the wars they championed and really were so unread in history as to be unqualified to say a damn word."

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Seattle may have role in Galloway's Vietnam 50th commemorative interviews with Viet vets

Editor's Note:
This is the first of two columns related to the Vietnam War 50thAnniversary Commemorative project, the interviews with Viet vets being conducted by prominent war correspondent Joe Galloway and the effort to make Seattle-area vets part of those Commemorative oral-history interviews. The second column next week will deal with the battle that Galloway's book and subsequent movie made famous and, as President Lynden Johnson's life is being featured in a pair of plays by Seattle dramatist Robert Schenkkan, the role that battle played in LBJ's tragically avoidable decisions about Vietnam.)

 

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Joe Galloway, a self-described country boy from Texas who became the only decorated correspondent of the Vietnam war and earned praise from those whose battles he covered as "the soldiers' reporter," saves special profanity for both the politicians who sent soldiers to die and the protesters who refused to welcome them home.

Galloway's book, "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young" and the movie made from it served to make famous the November, 1965, battle of Ia Drang Valley, which history proved to be the defining battle of Vietnam a decade before politicians finally ended the war.

And while his war-correspondent role continued in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was the battle of Ia Drang that forever marked him as more than a correspondent. It was there in that first major conflict between U.S. troops and North Vietnam regulars that he repeatedly disregarded his own safety to rescue wounded soldiers under fire.

Joe Galloway

He eventually was decorated with the bronze star with V (for valor), the only time the award was made by the army to a civilian for actions in Vietnam.

Now Galloway has a key role in the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemorative project, serving as a special consultant to the project run out of the office of the Secretary of Defense, doing oral history interviews with Vietnam veterans.

"I have 65 two-hour interviews in the can now, beginning with Colin Powell and working outward," he told me.

It may be that the Seattle area and interviews with veterans from this state, as well as helping mark one or more commemorative local events, will be on Galloway's early 2015 schedule.

With Galloway's permission and that of retired Army Lt. Gen. Claude M. "Mick" Kicklighter, who is charged with overseeing all aspects of the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration, several of us are cooperating in an effort to line up the Vietnam vet interviews and ideally one or more Commemorative events.

 

I've written a couple of Flynn's Harp columns on Galloway, a one-time colleague at United Press International, the wire service for which he covered the Vietnam War, and he's now among those who receive this column and we exchange emails occasionally.

The email exchange that led to the effort on behalf of a Seattle visit early next year began when I emailed Galloway to ask about his views of the controversy starting to emerge in reaction to the 50th commemorative project.

 

Noted Vietnam protestor Tom Hayden and others have gathered petitions objecting to the Defense Department website relating to the 50th anniversary commemorative, describing it as a "whitewash."

"I suppose it is only natural and normal that the (expletive) protesters crawl out of the woodwork to p--- on something decent one last time," Galloway replied, noting "I am not speaking for the Commemoration. That isn't my job. But surely these (expletive) can't argue with letting Vietnam veterans tell their own stories in their own words."

Galloway explained that the anniversary commemoration "is really about saying thanks to those who served and urging all the cities and towns across this country to hold their own events honoring those veterans, giving them the welcome that was denied to them half a century ago.

 

Joint Base-Lewis-McChord (JBLM) last month had an event to recognize the 50thanniversary commemoration where about 2,500 veterans and their families showed up at the largest military base on the West Coast for the ceremony, apparently the first at any military base.

Although not related directly to the 50th, the State of Washington, on Memorial Day of 2012, marked the 25thanniversary of completion of the state's Vietnam wall to honor the 1,116 state residents killed or missing in Vietnam.

This area has a particular attraction for Galloway because among the interviewees here would be Bruce Crandall, the helicopter pilot who was a hero of both Galloway's book and the movie for the heroism demonstrated in repeat trips to the Ia Drang battlefield to deliver supplies and evacuate wounded.

Crandall, an Olympia native who attended University of Washington before being drafted, and his wing man, Ed "Too Tall" Freeman, who died a year ago, were both awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery at Ia Drang. Together they flew nearly two dozen missions during both daylight and darkness into the landing zone, bringing essential ammunition and supplies and carrying out 70 wounded, after a med evac unit had decided it was too deadly to fly into the battle zone.

Dick Merchant 

Other interviewees will likely include Richard Merchant, the retired lieutenant colonel who was awarded a Bronze Star with V, a purple heart and other awards, who was the keynote speaker at the 2012 Memorial Day event at the wall in Olympia.

It was during Merchant's first of two tours in Vietnam that he found himself in the battle of the Ia Drang Valley.

In his keynote, Merchant made reference to "those who hated the war but weren't able to differentiate between the war and those who were sent to fight it."

"The soldier above all people prays for peace because he has suffered the deepest wounds of war," he added.

Others I have touched base with on this project thus far include Perkins Coie attorney Karl Ege, who for more than a decade served as chief legal officer for Russell Investments Group, and was a forward observer for a U.S. Marines artillery unit in 1966 and 1967. He has returned to Vietnam on several occasions.

"What is astonishing to me is the high regard the people of Vietnam have for the United States, we are welcomed there with open arms," Ege emailed me.  "The average age of the Vietnamese is less than 30 and the 'American War' (as it is known there) is unknown to the young. It is their 'grandparents war'"

For Galloway, the oral-history interviews with Vietnam veterans bring back memories, and many are not easy ones.

 

In Kentucky, where he was speaker along with the Kentucky governor, himself a Vietnam vet, Galloway recalled for me wandering around the sundial-based memorial. "I stopped at November 1965 and, sure enough, there were the names of two Kentuckians killed in the Ia Drang Valley. I was stopped in my tracks and quietly wept for those boys and all the boys who died in that war."

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