The Vietnam generation loses a giant

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Our dinner group, Gen. Moore (seated), (L-R) Tony Armstrong, Skip Ragan, Terry Garlock, Joe Galloway, Bob Metzger, Woody McFarlin. Photo/Terry Garlock.

Our dinner group, Gen. Moore (seated), (L-R) Tony Armstrong, Skip Ragan, Terry Garlock, Joe Galloway, Bob Metzger, Woody McFarlin. Photo/Terry Garlock.

 

On Feb. 10, we lost a great American in Auburn, Ala., at age 94. The American public may not know of U.S. Army Lt. Gen. (ret.) Hal Moore, but they should. Any Vietnam veteran can tell you about Gen. Moore and his sidekick, Joe Galloway. They know Gen. Moore for a reason other than the three stars he earned, and they know Joe because he was an extraordinary correspondent in Vietnam, conning his way into hot battles while the reporter pool waited in safer places.

Then-Col. Moore epitomized leadership. He was the first to rise, the last to eat, the last man on the last helicopter out of a battle. When things were bad and inviting panic, Col. Moore spread calm and decisive control. He led by example, most famously in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, the first combat meeting of U.S. troops and the battle-hardened NVA, where our troops were vastly outnumbered, where Col. Moore and civilian reporter Joe Galloway became welded together by a few days that changed their life.

I had children by adoption late in life, and when I pondered the crap they would learn about the Vietnam War, I decided to write a book about my brothers so they would have at least one source of the truth. I chased Joe Galloway, asking him to write his thoughts about Vietnam vets as the foreword to my book, and he finally agreed. I can think of no better way to honor the memory of Col. Moore than to share that foreword with you, about the men Col. Moore led, the men he loved.

Foreword
by Joseph L. Galloway
(from Terry Garlock’s book, “Strength & Honor: America’s Best in Vietnam”)

If you have fed from a steady diet of Hollywood movies about Vietnam you probably believe that everyone who wore a uniform in America’s long, sad involvement in that war is some sort of a clone of Lt. William Calley, that all three million of them were drug-crazed killers and rapists who rampaged across the pastoral landscape. Those movies always got it wrong, until “We Were Soldiers,” a 2002 Hollywood film that finally got it right. Ask any Vietnam veteran who has seen the movie. The movie is based on a book that I and my lifelong friend, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Hal Moore, wrote together, “We Were Soldiers Once, and Young.” We wrote that book precisely for the same reason Terry Garlock wrote this book, because we believed a false impression of those soldiers had taken root in the country which sent them to war and, in the end, turned its back on both the war and the warriors.

I did four tours in Vietnam as a war correspondent for United Press International: 1965-66, 1971, 1973 and 1975. In the first three of those tours at war I spent most of my time in the field with the troops and I came to know and respect them and even love them, though most folks might find the words “war” and “love” in the same sentence unsettling if not odd.

Then-Col. Hal Moore, circa the Ia Drang Valley battle. Photo/Terry Garlock.
Then-Col. Hal Moore, circa the Ia Drang Valley battle. Photo/Terry Garlock.

In fact, I am far more comfortable in the company of those once-young soldiers today than with any other group except my own family. They are my comrades-in-arms, the best friends of my life and if ever I were to shout “help!” they would stampede to my aid in a heartbeat. They come from all walks of life. They are black, white, Hispanic, native American and Asian. They are fiercely loyal, dead honest, entirely generous of their time and money. They are my brothers and they did none of the things Oliver Stone or Francis Ford Coppola would have you believe all of them did.

On the worst day of my life, in the middle of the worst battle of the Vietnam War, in a place called Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam, I was walking around snapping some photographs when I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. It was a tall, lanky GI who jumped out of a mortar pit and ran, zig-zagging under fire, toward me.

He dove under the little bush I was crouched behind. “Joe! Joe Galloway! Don’t you know me, man? It’s Vince Cantu from Refugio, Texas!” Vince Cantu and I had graduated together from Refugio High School, Class of 1959, 55 boys and girls. We embraced warmly.

Then he shouted over the din of gunfire: “Joe, you got to get down and stay down. It’s dangerous out here. Men are dying all around.” Vince told me that he had only ten days left on his tour of duty as a draftee soldier in the 1st Battalion 7th U.S. Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). “If I live through this I will be home in Refugio for Christmas.”

I asked Vince to please visit my mom and dad, but not tell them too much about where we had met and under what circumstances. I still have an old photograph from that Christmas visit. Vince was wearing one of those black satin Vietnam jackets, with his daughter on his knee, sitting with my mom and dad in their living room. Vince Cantu and I are still best friends.

When I walked out to a Huey helicopter leaving Landing Zone X-Ray I left knowing that 80 young Americans had laid down their lives so that I and others might survive. Another 124 had been terribly wounded and were on their way to hospitals in Japan or the United States. I left with both a sense of my place, among them, and an obligation to tell their stories to any who would listen. I knew that I had been among men of honor and decency and courage, and anyone who believes otherwise needs to look in his own heart and weigh himself.

LZ Albany was a separate battle one day after ours only three miles away in which another 155 young Americans died and another 130 were wounded.

Hal Moore and I began our research for the book-to-be in 1982. It was a 10-year journey to find and ultimately to bring back together those we could find who fought in the battles of LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany. We had good addresses for perhaps no more than a dozen veterans, but we mailed out a questionnaire to them to begin the process.

Late one night a week later my phone rang at home in Los Angeles. On the other end was Sgt. George Nye, retired and living very quietly by choice in his home state of Maine. George began talking and it was almost stream of consciousness. He had held it inside him for so long and now someone wanted to know about it.

He described taking his small team of engineer demolition men into X-Ray to blow down some trees and clear a safer landing zone for the helicopters. Then he was talking about PFC Jimmy D. Nakayama, one of those engineer soldiers, and how a misplaced napalm strike engulfed Nakayama in the roaring flames, how he ran out into the fire and screamed at another man to grab Jimmy’s feet and help carry him to the aid station.

My blood ran cold and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I had been that man on the other end of Nakayama. I had grabbed his ankles and felt the boots crumble, the skin peel, and those slick bones in my hands. Again I heard Nakayama’s screams.

By then we were both weeping. I knew Nakayama had died a day or two later in an Army hospital. Nye told me that Jimmy’s wife had given birth to a baby girl the week he died. Nye had encouraged Nakayama to apply for a slot at Officer Candidate School, and when he returned to base camp at An Khe he found a letter on his desk approving that application with orders for Nakayama to return immediately to Ft. Benning, Ga., to enter that course.

George Nye is gone now, but I want you to know what he did with the last months of his life. He lived in Bangor, Maine. The year was 1991 and in the fall plane after plane loaded with American soldiers headed home from the Persian Gulf War stopped there to refuel. It was their first sight of home. George and some other local volunteers organized a welcome at that desolate airport. They provided coffee, snacks and the warm “Welcome home, soldier” that no one ever offered George and the millions of other Vietnam veterans. George had gone out to the airport to decorate a Christmas tree for those soldiers on the day he died.

Honor and decency and uncommon courage were common among the soldiers who served in Vietnam. I think of how they were, on patrol, moving through jungle or rice paddies, nervous, on edge, trying to watch right, left, ahead, behind, all at once. A friend once described it as something like looking at a tree full of owls.

They were alert for sign, sound or smell of the enemy, and they watched each other closely. At the first sign of the oppressive heat and exhaustion getting to someone the two or three guys around would relieve him of some or all of the heavy burden that the infantryman bears: 60 or 70 pounds of stuff. Rifle and magazines. A claymore mine or two. A couple of radio batteries. Cans of C-Rations. Spare socks. Maybe a book. All that rides in the soldier’s pack. A soldier’s buddies would make it easier for him to keep going. They took care of each other, because in this situation each other was all they had.

When I would pitch up to spend a day or two or three with such an outfit I was, at first, an object of some curiosity. Sooner or later a break would be called and everyone would flop down in the shade, drink some water, break out a C-Ration or a cigarette. The GI next to me would ask: “What you doing out here?” I would explain that I was a reporter.

“You mean you are a civilian? You don’t have to be here?” Yes. “Man, they must pay you loads of money to do this.” And I would explain that, no, unfortunately I worked for UPI, the cheapest news agency in the world. “Then you are just plain crazy, man.”

Once I was pigeonholed, all was right. The grunts understood crazy like no one else I ever met. The welcome was warm, friendly and open. I was probably the only civilian they would ever see in the field; I was a sign that someone, anyone, outside the Big Green Machine cared how they lived and how they died. It didn’t take very long before I truly did come to care.

They were, in my view, the best of their entire generation. When their number came up in the draft they didn’t run to hide in Canada. They didn’t turn up for their physical wearing pantyhose or full of this chemical or that drug which they hoped would fail them. Like their fathers before them, they raised their right hand and took the oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

It is not their fault that the war they were sent to fight was not one that the political leadership in Washington had any intention of winning. It is not their fault they had to fight the war with a crazy patchwork of rules that tied their hands. It is not their fault that over 58,000 of them died doing their duty while America tore itself apart contesting whether the Vietnam War was a noble cause or a mistake.

As I have grown older, and so have they, and the book and the movie have come to pass I am often asked, “Doesn’t this close the loop for you? Doesn’t this mean you can rest easier?” The answer is no, I can’t. To my dying day I will remember and honor those who died, some in my arms. I will remember and honor those who lived and came home carrying memories and scars that only their brothers and sisters can share and understand.

In recent years Hal Moore and I completed a second book, a sequel titled “We Are Soldiers Still: A Journey Back to the Battlefields of Vietnam.” Just as Hal Moore and I felt the need for a second book, Terry Garlock felt compelled to write this book with true stories of Vietnam vets to counter the twisted history still serving as common knowledge. As you read the stories in Terry’s book, think about this: they were the best you had, America, and you turned your back on them.

***

I took from Joe’s last sentence part of the title of my book. Knowing Joe was visiting Gen. Moore in Auburn in May that year, I arranged to have dinner with him. I told him casually, but with fingers and legs crossed and hope in my heart, “I’ll bring a few helicopter pilots. Please bring Gen. Moore with you if he’s up to it. We would love to buy his dinner, too.”

The guys I took with me all had been Cobra helicopter gunship pilots in Vietnam: Ed “Skip” Ragan (Peachtree City, Ga.), Tony Armstrong (Jesup, Ga.), Woody McFarlin (Canon, Ga.) and Bob Metzger (Davis, W.V.). Bob Metzger drove in from West Virginia for that dinner. John Synowsky, my Vietnam platoon leader and recipient of the Soldier’s Medal for heroism when he risked his neck to rescue me when I was shot down, was miffed that I didn’t invite him, but I didn’t think he’d want to drive in from Texas. The point is, this was a very special occasion for us.

I had arranged for a private meeting room at an Auburn restaurant, and when we arrived, there sat Joe Galloway and Gen. Moore with their first drink awaiting our arrival. We soon relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company with stories and laughter like only comrades in arms can have, keeping the terrible things to a quiet word here and there but mostly hidden deep inside where we carry them always. If I had even more room for words here, I still would not tell you what was said around that table.

We took lots of photos, including the photo op of each of us alone with Joe and Gen. Moore, and I made a bound photo book for the guys since it was an evening close to our heart. The photo of all of us together, taken by a waiter, reminds me that we all have little memories of regret, and I do have a regret from that night.

Gen. Moore was 89 then, and a bit fragile, so I brought a stool for him to sit on with us standing behind him. He resisted but I gently insisted and he politely sat. I was too stupid to realize until later that he didn’t want to sit, he didn’t want to be treated as special or weak, he wanted to “Stand with his men!” I will always wish I had a do-over.

On the drive back to Atlanta, I asked the guys a question. “If you could choose any two people alive today to have dinner with like we just did, who would you choose over Joe Galloway and Gen. Moore?” We had a moment of silent contemplation, then we all agreed the answer was, “Nobody!”

Joe is still among us, a sought-after speaker to Vietnam veteran groups, and Gen. Moore left rather large footprints.

The example of Gen. Moore reminds me of a friend who was an infantry Company Commander in Vietnam, Bill Neal (Hague, Va.). Bill and his men lived in the jungle fighting a tough enemy. Bill became a skilled tactician, learning from each encounter how to best deal with the enemy’s maneuvers in a way that got the job done and kept his men alive. He blamed himself when things went sideways. When Bill was able to take his men for a few days of rest, they came in tired, filthy, and eager to relax while someone else watched for the enemy. On one occasion Bill was able to take his weary men to a mess hall for Thanksgiving dinner, and he took his place at the end of the line. A senior officer approached Bill to say, “Captain, come with me to the officer’s line and you’ll get faster service.” Bill responded, “Thank you, sir, but no, I eat with my men.”

I have had occasion to say since getting to know Bill, “If you have a son in combat, pray that he has a leader like Bill Neal.”

Gen. Moore’s passing is a reminder there are too few military leaders who inspire subordinates to excel. Leadership and honor was personified in him, and by his example, the officers, NCOs and enlisted men who knew him learned and were better for it. As he rests in well-deserved peace, millions of Vietnam vets will revere him always.

[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City, Ga., occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. You can reach him at terry@garlock1.com.]