The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

January/February 2003
 
   
 

We Were Soldiers Once . . .We Are Brothers Now

BY JOE GALLOWAY


People fed a steady diet of Hollywood movies about the Vietnam War probably believe that all three million Vietnam veterans were drug-crazed killers and rapists who rampaged across the pastoral landscape.

But Hollywood got it wrong - until now. That's because the film, We Were Soldiers, gets it right. Ask any Vietnam veteran who has seen the movie. In fact, ask any American who has seen it. It is based on a book I wrote with my lifelong friend Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Hal Moore; a book written precisely because we believed that 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 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, I spent most of my time in the field with the troops. 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.

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. 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, 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, 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 '59. 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."

Vince told me that he had only ten days left on his tour as a draftee soldier in the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division. "If I live through this, I will be home in Refugio for Christmas." I asked Vince to 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 wearing one of those black satin jackets, with his daughter on his knee, sitting with my parents in their living room.

Vince Cantu and I are still best friends.

When I got on a Huey leaving LZ X-Ray, I left knowing that 80 young Americans had laid down their lives so that I and others might survive. An additional 124 men had been terribly wounded and were on their way to hospitals in Japan and the United States. I left with 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.

Hal Moore and I began our research for We Were Soldiers Once and Young in 1982. It was a ten-year journey to find and to bring together those who fought in LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany, a separate battle in which 155 young Americans died and 130 were wounded. We had 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. On the other end was Sgt. George Nye, retired and living very quietly 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 demolitions men into X-Ray to blow down some trees and clear a safer landing zone for the helicopters.

Then he talked 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 day he died - and that when Nye returned to base camp at An Khe he found a letter on his desk. He had encouraged Nakayama to apply for a slot at OCS. The letter approved that application and contained orders for Nakayama to return immediately to Ft. Benning, Georgia.

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 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 or his fellow Vietnam veterans. George had gone to the airport to decorate a Christmas tree for those soldiers on the day he died.

When we think of ourselves, we think Shakespeare, Henry IV, Act IV, Scene 3:

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother."

When I would pitch up to spend a day or two or three with an infantry 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 all 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 numbers came up in the draft, they didn't run and hide. They didn't turn up for their physicals wearing pantyhose or full of chemicals or drugs. Like their fathers before them, they raised their right hands 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 that 58,200 of them died, their lives squandered because Lyndon Johnson and, later, Richard Nixon could not figure out some decent way to cut our losses and leave the Vietnamese to sort the matter out among themselves.

As I have grown older, 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 can share and understand.

Editor's Note: Veteran journalist Joe Galloway, who has 42 years of reporting under his belt - much of it of the military variety -  joined the 350-newspaper Knight Ridder Washington, D.C., Bureau in November to anchor its war coverage. "We are thrilled and honored to have Joseph Galloway, arguably the foremost war correspondent of our time, join Knight Ridder's war coverage team," said John Walcott, KR's Washington Bureau Chief.
 

   

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