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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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