Echoes of the Vietnam War

EP17: The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley

Release Date: November 8, 2021

November 14, 1965 marked a pivotal moment in U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Elements of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) entered the first major land battle of the war at landing zones X-Ray and Albany, which would turn out to be proving grounds for a whole new kind of warfare. Hear three personal perspectives from men who survived.

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Echoes of the Vietnam War


(HOST): [00:00:25] Fifty-six years ago this week, a group of men found themselves in dangerous jungle terrain. [00:00:30] It is not an unfamiliar story of the Vietnam War, and yet this battle would forever change the lives of those who fought it, many of whom did not return home. Today we hear the stories from three who did as they try to help us better understand the battle of the Ia Drang Valley. From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, founders of the Wall. This is Echoes [00:01:00] of the Vietnam War. My name is Callie Wright filling in as the host for Michael Croan. Bringing you stories of service, sacrifice and healing. From people who still feel the impact of this conflict nearly 50 years later. This [00:01:30] is Episode 17, The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is made up of more than fifty-eight thousand names each a life cut short by the Vietnam War. The names, because they’re listed chronologically, often place service members [00:02:00] who died together in close proximity to one another. Panel three East has the names of those killed in the first major land battle of the Vietnam War. The names marched down to reveal the more than two hundred men killed in the battle of the Ia Drang Valley. They were part of different groups, all belonging to the 1st Cavalry Division. As of nineteen sixty-five, the Vietnam War had been a series of battles, and while the events of the war certainly affected service [00:02:30] members and their families, the American people saw them as small.

(HOST): [00:02:35] All of that would change when the 1st Cavalry Division came into the Ia Drang Valley on November 14. For four days, Americans and the North Vietnamese battled in one hundred degree temperatures, ambushing each other at unexpected times and with deadly consequences. LZ x-ray an LZ Albany would become known as a ground where the Vietnam War escalated. In the end, American [00:03:00] service members would declare a victory, killing over two thousand North Vietnamese soldiers. However, the win would cost the lives of over two hundred Americans in battle, see many more injured, and completely change the tone of the fighting in Vietnam. This was war. The First Cavalry was formed in nineteen twenty-one in Fort Bliss, Texas. And as their name suggests, [00:03:30] they were known for moving around on horseback. As technological advances happened, the 1st Cavalry traded in their horses for more complex machinery and eventually in Vietnam would become an airmobile unit flying Hueys, Chinooks, and other iconic aircraft throughout Southeast Asia. They were the first full division deployed to Vietnam. In twenty fifteen fifty years from the battle, the VVMF sat down with a group of them to collect their [00:04:00] stories. Our first story comes to us from John Wallenius, a soldier turned teacher who found himself face to face with a terrifying rescue mission near LZ X-ray.

(JOHN): [00:04:13] I was in B company 2nd of the 7th 2nd Battalion 7th Cavalry, and because of because of the situation when we went overseas to begin with, everybody with 90 days or or more who was in the army at the time went overseas. And by the time, by [00:04:30] the time my drawing came up in the middle of November, there were a lot of lot of guys that had were rotating home and going to rotate home. We had we had a lot of men in the unit that were that were old. The point is that the companies were very under-strength when the when the battalion was ordered to go into x-ray by Colonel Moore. They were shorthanded enough that they they got another company from the sister, from a sister battalion, and my company commander was Myron Diederich, who was [00:05:00] an incredible company commander. Colonel Moore said that he was the best company commander he’d ever done, including himself. So Colonel Moore liked to use B company, and so we we assaulted X-Ray with his battalion, and at the time my company was was protecting some eight inch howitzers that were tracked mounted at Plei Me Special Forces Camp, and we got called there to go into into X-Ray and [00:05:30] we assaulted X-Ray late in the afternoon, three or four o’clock.

(JOHN): [00:05:36] And when we when we got there, I remember my captain Diederich reporting into The Anthill with Colonel Moore and finding what we were supposed to go. And they they sent the they sent the majority of the company the line. The line platoons on one side of the landing zone, and they sent my platoon the mortar platoon to to the rear sort of the rear [00:06:00] of the landing zone. And they took our FDC section, the Fire Direction Control section, and they consolidated that into the D Company first of the 7th. And I was with the with the three mortar tubes that we that we had set up. And by the time we get the mortar tubes set up and dug very shallow pits for them, it was dark and I assumed and everybody in the in my platoon assumed that we had a an infantry [00:06:30] platoon or something out in front of us and and we were safely behind the line. So I dug a small, shallow, shallow foxhole this deep in case we got mortared, but I wasn’t expecting to fight out of it or anything. And frankly, I went to sleep. And the next morning, as it began to get light, I was waiting for it to get light enough to make some coffee and so made some coffee. And the platoon sergeant and I were standing [00:07:00] around looking out to our front and the elephant grass was about chest high.

(JOHN): [00:07:05] We’re looking out there and there were we had our three guns placed one one to our one to our left, one on the center and went to the right. And we’re looking over and we could just see the tops of the mortars above the grass. And I saw a soldier about 30 yards in front of us and the khaki uniform and a pith helmet. And he was up. He was standing in front of us and we saw him run across and a couple of other [00:07:30] soldiers dressed like that came and came across. And having never seen a North Vietnamese soldier, you know, and sergeant, I looked at one another and said, Who are those guys? Those are the Australians. Are they out in front of us, right? And then we saw a machine gun light machine gun run across to our front. And when they opened up on us, we realized that they were the North Vietnamese. So no, there wasn’t anybody in front of us. And and the mortar platoon had a little firefight that that at that point we [00:08:00] ended up with one killed and five wounded. And that Sergeant Buzo Alvarez from Ponce, Puerto Rico, was and he was on the on the left.

(JOHN): [00:08:11] And when the shooting started early on, we had the soldiers that were with Buzo Alvarez tried to run back to where where I and the platoon sergeant and his RTO were standing and and back to the sergeant [00:08:30] Ratledge’s, which is number one gun, which was a little less forward than they were. And the first soldier to run back was Fred Bush and Fred Bush got back safely and then Jose Gonzalez came running back towards us and and he got shot by the machine gun. Several times, not killed, but severely wounded. And then we we asked to, you know, if there was anybody else out there and it was just Sergeant [00:09:00] Ratledge. No one was sure whether or not Sergeant Ratledge was was dead or alive in the machine gun was very, very close to his mortar, so we didn’t dare throw hand grenades at it because we were afraid we’d kill Sergeant Ratledge. We were debating about what to do about it and the Sergeant Usaltin’s RTOS radio telephone telephone operator Vergie Hibler threw down his pack and and started crawling out to Buzo Alvarez’s [00:09:30] foxhole. So I was there. I couldn’t let him go by himself. So I followed Vergie’s heels out to out to the foxhole and we got out to the foxhole and there was Buzo Alvarez laying on the side of the mortar pit and he was dead.

(JOHN): [00:09:47] So the machine gun, it turned out, was was right on the edge of his his the mortar pit. And we were literally almost within touching distance of it. But it didn’t see us. So we [00:10:00] crawled back and we said, Alvarez is dead. So, you know, we can throw hand grenades. And somebody said, Well, where was he wounded? And I said, Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t see a wound. I said, Well, how do you know he was dead, crawled back out to the to the mortar pit again. And and at that point, the machine gun was firing and we held a mirror under his nose. He was still dead, but we didn’t want to take the chance of somebody accusing us of having him not dead again. [00:10:30] So we we dragged him back. And he was he was a big man. And as we started dragging, the machine gun noticed that we were doing. We were there was somebody there. And fortunately, our guys started shooting back, and so we managed to get back without getting shot. And shortly dispatch the machine gun with hand grenades. But that was our first KIA. It was hard for anybody to believe that, you know, somebody was actually dead.

(HOST): [00:11:10] In [00:11:00] nineteen sixty-five, then Major Bruce Crandall flew Hueys in Vietnam in incredibly dangerous situations. As a major, Crandall felt it was his duty to fly in, and he asked for a volunteer to fly with him. Captain Ed Freeman, who Crandall had known for years, volunteered. It [00:11:30] would both go on to receive the Medal of Honor for the actions performed at Ukraine.

(BRUCE): [00:11:35] Called all of my commanders forward, my helicopters, and told them what was going on and said and asked for one volunteer aircraft to go with me. I never sent a single aircraft or anything. Anyhow, when I asked for volunteers, Ed Freeman volunteered to go Ed and I’d been together for 10 years. I’m Uncle [00:12:00] Bruce to his kids and he’s Uncle Ed to my. And he wanted to go. And he wanted to lead it. Now I’m the commander. So explain that to him. And we took off and I knew they needed ammo, but as a courtesy, I called Hal Moore. I said, I’m out here, I’ve got ammo on board. You want it. And of course, he said yes. We went in and as [00:12:30] we were unloading the ammo, we saw those wounded. So we started loading wounded. And instead of going all the way back to Plei Me, we went to the Firebase, which was five miles. It was 14 and a half miles to to Plei Me. We do two and a half miles in a minute, so are two miles a minute. And so we had a 10 minute round trip, gave us time to load ammo at the ammo [00:13:00] out of the Firebase, and we’d unload that out of one side for the load and wounded on the other in and actually. And we we did that for 14 and a half hours. My My award says we went in twenty two times, but I went in seven times from the other base and so a five mile trip was. [00:13:30]

(BRUCE): [00:13:32] We were when we were in there a lot more times than twenty two. We don’t know how many we changed aircraft. I changed back to one of them that was shot up. They checked it out, duct tape, the whole thing, and I flew it again because there’s no fluid leaks and there’s no binding. You got to fly them. You’re not. You’re not a safety officer. You’re not in the states. It’s you have to fly it or not. [00:14:00] And we did. The next morning, I was ready to go again to take in A Company, the second and seventh and then bring the rest of them and the people in the landing zone got hit. So we had to delay it. I didn’t know why I was being delayed. I was just all sit and I sat for an hour or so when I wish I had been airborne, at least not carry in their troops, but at least carry out their [00:14:30] wounded. So we. That was the 15th week we got second and 7th was closed in the first and fifth came cross country and and we continued to supply them and take out the wounded. So that was the 16th week was a start to clear out of there. We had a B-52 [00:15:00] strike schedule and that was the first time a B-52 raid was used in support of a unit in contact.

(BRUCE): [00:15:08] But the requirement is you’d be two miles away. I don’t know who that was, but it’s not a bad idea because they’re bombing from very high altitude and the unit that moved to Albany got into it real heavy. So we lost over 300 killed in the battlefield for [00:15:30] the operation known as the Ia Drang. It was the heaviest losses any unit said it felt during that first years in Vietnam. But it also established that the helicopters couldn’t handle it, and so the infantry always knew we’d be there. And that was the best thing that we did was confirm the confidence of [00:16:00] the infantry and our helicopters. We knew we’d do it. They just needed to know it too. And now it’s common. We’re using some of the same aircraft, the Chinooks that are in Afghanistan doing the high level stuff. Were in our unit in Vietnam 50 years ago. I was doing it because it was my duty to to the guys on the ground. I was responsible for them as far as I was concerned. But you learn whether [00:16:30] you have fear that you can’t overcome. I learned that it didn’t. When I got out of the aircraft, it didn’t follow me. I learned it. If you trusted your men. They performed. I learned that you even if you don’t know the people on the ground.

(BRUCE): [00:16:52] They’ll protect you, and they expect you to do the same for them. So it’s a team. And [00:17:00] when I came home, I learned how much I miss my family and how how important it was to have family time because the boys had three sons were starting to grow up and 12 months and 12 days later, I was back in Vietnam with the Cav. Ed Freeman got a battlefield commission in Korea on Pork Chop Hill. He was an engineer. He was my boss at one [00:17:30] time in Panama when I saw his name coming in. I put him in my outfit and then I went and found him and I told him, Ed, I would like to have you serve my unit. He was a great friend for 55 years. He got the medal of Honor in 2001. In the Cav, we had no no way of doing awards because I was short 20 door gunners, [00:18:00] so my clerks and cooks and they flew as door gunners, we could do a distinguished flying cross because it’d be approved at division level. Well, Ed Freeman was nominated by the infantry for the medal and I was nominated and I got a phone call that we were going the same board. And I feel there’s nothing wrong with that, that sounds great. You said, no, you don’t understand. They’re going to establish [00:18:30] that Ed was in the second helicopter and followed you all the time.

(BRUCE): [00:18:35] So that’s 14 hours. He’s he’s your wingman. But he’s the only one who volunteered, I’m the commander, I have to go see. So I had mine withdrawn and I did it rather vulgarly. I called the three star general and told me to have mine up his. I’m not accepting the Medal of Honor and Freeman and [00:19:00] I told him, I said, If Freeman doesn’t get a fair shake, I’m going to come after you because you just tried something and I’ll make it. I know a lot of Four-Star generals and he got the picture because I hung up. I probably should have been a little more polite, but seven years later, I got it. And I don’t know who put me in. I don’t know how that happened. I know that no, no, nobody in the aviation had anything to do with Freeman’s award or my award because I wanted it to be from [00:19:30] the infantry because that’s where we were supporting them. I don’t want it coming from my guys or from us because it doesn’t look, it doesn’t pass the smell test. Ed got the award and it was the best thing ever happened to him. It brought his pride back. He lived another five years. The only criticism I had is he went along to me. Nah, you don’t want that word out, but makes a good story

(HOST): [00:19:59] By the end of the Vietnam [00:20:00] War. Crandell had flown over nine hundred combat missions. After a short break, we will hear a story from journalist Joe Galloway about his experience during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. November [00:20:30] 11th is Veterans Day, a day our nation has declared as a celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good. Join VVMF online for a ceremony held at the Wall in Washington, D.C. We will be streaming the broadcast on our web page or [00:21:00] on Facebook at 1:00 p.m. Eastern. Twenty twenty two marks the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and our commemoration has already started every day at 3:00 p.m. on our website, Facebook page and YouTube channel, we’ll be reading the names of those who died on that day in the Vietnam War, which means that next week you could hear the names and see the faces of those who died in [00:21:30] the Battle of the Ia Drang. You can find the daily reading on our website at or our Facebook page. For a lot of people, it isn’t easy to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., So AMF created the wall that yields an exact replica of the wall at three quarter scale that travels to communities all across America.

(HOST): [00:21:59] The wall [00:22:00] that heals and the mobile education center that travels with it will be in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, November 11th through the 14th. This is the final stop of our twenty twenty one season, and we look forward to announcing our twenty twenty two schedule soon. Finally, what songs do you most associate with the Vietnam War or era? We’re collecting songs and stories for a podcast episode. If you have a story to share, you can email us [00:22:30] at [email protected] Or leave us a short voicemail at 1-202-330-0963. Joe Galloway, a civilian reporter working for United Press International, made it a point to spell correctly the names of those whom he interviewed in Vietnam. He [00:23:00] knew their mothers might be reading the paper and that they might cut out that story and send it back to their sons. And so getting it right mattered. He also was passionate about telling the stories of the men and women who served in Vietnam and other conflicts.

(JOE): [00:23:15] It was Sunday. November 14th, nineteen sixty-five one day passed my twenty-fourth birthday and big, big things were [00:23:30] happening in the Central Highlands, I’d been up there for several weeks covering things and there were attacks and the First Cavalry Division is sending a battalion out into no man’s land. You know, an area where really no one’s gone before and we’re able to do this because of the helicopter. This this is going to be the event that tests [00:24:00] whether the helicopter really is going to be the weapon of choice in Vietnam or the mode of transport. No longer would the infantry have to walk, they would fly to work. Or that was the theory anyway. And we’re going to find out. And I spent that night of my birthday in a foxhole that I dug under tea bush on a plantation [00:24:30] where the brigade headquarters for the 3rd brigade of the first Cav were located. And they they were loading up a company to fly in on this operation, and they had all the Hueys lined up and and I scooted along and found a vacant seat and got in it. And here come a guy down the line. He’s got a medic with him and he’s looking for a place and [00:25:00] he looks at me and says, Who are you? I said, I’m a reporter, get out of there, and he puts the medic in my seat. Can’t argue with that, but I was upset that I couldn’t go in on the first lift and I went to see the brigade commander, Colonel Tim Brown, said, Look, I need to get in there.

(JOE): [00:25:22] And he said, Look, it’s probably going to be a long hot walk in the sun and no action. But just [00:25:30] in case, if anything happens, I’m going to go out there. I got my command helicopter and I’ll give you a ride. Well, wasn’t an hour later that something did happen and all hell broke loose. And the colonel comes zooming out of his headquarters, heading for his chopper, and I’m right behind him. So Colonel Brown flies out to the side of this battle, not hard to find because the [00:26:00] smoke rising off that battlefield is five thousand feet in the air and we circle around and he’s talking to Colonel Moore on the ground. And he wants to land, and Colonel Moore is waving him off. He says, Look, this LZ is just hotter than the pistol. You land that command helicopter with all those antennas on it in here and you’re going to have to walk home. They’ll shoot it to pieces. And so we’re obviously not going to get the land and just about [00:26:30] then an A-1 Air Force Sky Raider Bomber Fighter bomber zooms below us and he’s trailing one hundred feet of fire and smoke. And they’re yelling. Anybody see a shoot, anybody see a shoot? And it was my side of the helicopter. So I was leaning out and I watched him all the way and I clicked the mic and said, No shoot, no [00:27:00] shoot.

(JOE): [00:27:00] He rode it into the ground and he’s still there today. But we were waved off and the colonel dumped me in a artillery fire base about three or four miles away. And I spent the afternoon there looking for a helicopter ride to get into the battle, and they were hard to come by. And as I spent the afternoon, four or five other reporters turned up, including [00:27:30] my nemesis, Peter Arnett of The Associated Press. I had marched with Colonel Moore’s battalion three days before and spent the night with them up in the hills, very cold up on those mountain plateaus. So I spotted a captain rushing by and I knew that it was Colonel Moore’s operations officer, Captain Matt Dillon, and I grabbed him and I said, Matt, I need a ride in. [00:28:00] He said I’m going in as soon as it’s dark with two Hueys full of ammo. I said I want to ride, and he said, I can’t I can’t say yes, it’s got to be the colonel. I said, get him on the radio. So I followed him into the tent and he got Colonel Moore. I could hear the battle going on in the handset of the radio. And he reported to the colonel what he was bringing and when. [00:28:30] And then he said that reporter Galloway wants to come along, and the response of Colonel Moore was I was listening very close. He said if he’s crazy enough to want to come in here and you got room, bring him.

(JOE): [00:28:47] So then all I had to do is hide from the other reporters until it’s got near dark. And they flew back to Pleiku for a hot meal and a cold bunk and a warm [00:29:00] shower. And I got a ride into the pages of history. The following morning, the second morning of the battle, I was sitting with my back against a little scrub oak tree, and all of a sudden the world came apart. Two battalions of the enemy were attacking a company sized section of our perimeter. And we were located right behind [00:29:30] them. Probably no more than 30 yards or so and everything the enemy fired at at that company that didn’t hit something passed right through where we were sitting or laying because I fell over flat on my face, flattening out as flat as I could get. Because everything in the world was sailing through just about knee-high, all kinds of lead. [00:30:00] I felt a thump in my ribs and I looked down and and it was a combat boot. And I looked up and it was Sergeant Major Basil Plumley a bear of a man out of West Virginia. And he bent over and over the din of battle, which is truly deafening. You have no idea how loud war is until you’re in the middle of it. [00:30:30] And he leans over waist bends at the waist and yells down in his loudest voice. Can’t take no pictures laying there on the ground, Sonny. And I thought about it and realized he was right and I got up and I followed him, which is a smart thing to do.

(JOE): [00:30:55] If you’re a war correspondent, follow someone who’s got stripes [00:31:00] on his arm. You can’t go to wrong that way. And especially in the case of Sergeant Major Plumley, this was his third war he had done World War Two. He made all four combat jumps of the 82nd Airborne, Sicily, Salerno, Normandy and Holland, and one combat jump in Korea. And here he was on his third war. And he [00:31:30] he knew that we were in some dire danger of being overrun. And he was gathering up what kind of a battalion reserve he could, including one reporter. And he went over to the battalion surgeon and the medical platoon sergeant, Sergeant Keaton, and he pulled out his forty five and he jacked around into the thing and he hollered at them, [00:32:00] Gentlemen, prepare to defend yourselves. And the doc looked like he had been shot. I mean, he’d been drafted out of his residency and he was an honorary captain is what it really is. And he certainly didn’t expect he was going to have to use that forty-five he was carrying, Plumley was doing what he felt he should do and. As this battle [00:32:30] progressed, you know, Hollywood has the sergeant major giving me an M-16. It didn’t happen that way. I brought my own. I carried an M-16 and a lot of loaded magazines in my pack. You know, there are some events that are so horrific and so immediate that you cannot be a neutral observer.

(JOE): [00:32:59] You can’t [00:33:00] be the civilian non-combatant who stands apart from this thing. These are people who are laying down their lives so that you might live and you owe them something too. And I carried water. I carried the wounded, and I eventually picked up the M-16 and did what I had to do because you can have the greatest story in the world if you don’t live to tell [00:33:30] it, it dies with you. So I did what I what I had to do, and I make no bones about it. That was my first tour in Vietnam. I went on to do three more and I went on to cover Americans at war for forty-three years. I never saw again any battle so immediate, so violent, so bloody, you know, in a matter of four days and nights, [00:34:00] two hundred and thirty-four young Americans were killed and the truth is not a single one of us left that place the same man who arrived there, it changed us all. It changed our lives for me. Eighty-young Americans had laid down their lives so that I might live, live to tell their story, and I knew that I owed them and really all soldiers and marines and a sacred [00:34:30] obligation to tell their stories. That’s that’s a heavy burden, but one that I bear proudly and and I have spent my life since those days, 50 years now, half a century trying to fulfill that obligation.

(HOST): [00:34:50] On August 18th, two thousand twenty one, Joe Galloway passed away. Our CEO and president, Jim Knotts had this to say. [00:35:00]

(JIM): [00:35:01] Joe was an author, Award-Winning newspaper correspondent and civilian reporter during the Vietnam War. Joe was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for helping rescue wounded soldiers during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in November nineteen sixty-five. This battle was depicted in the movie We Were Soldiers starring Mel Gibson, but Joe spent his career with the troops during multiple wars, always telling the story of the war from the soldier’s perspective. Most [00:35:30] of all, in our experience, Joe was an outspoken, irascible and usually unfiltered advocate for Vietnam veterans. We will miss his voice, his unique perspective and his kindness to our troops.

(HOST): [00:35:48] The battle of the Ia Drang Valley cannot be told in one story or even three. It is hundreds of perspectives, hundreds of young men who did not come home and many others who did and [00:36:00] try to help us all better understand what happened. Due to the incredible heroism of many of those who fought in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, the 1st Cavalry became the first unit in Vietnam to receive the presidential unit citation. Thanks [00:36:30] for checking out the official podcast from the Founders of The Wall in Washington, D.C., we published a new episode every two weeks, so be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like it, there are a couple of easy things you can do to help support it. One is to share it with a friend who might like it as well. Another thing that helps us out tremendously is [00:37:00] if you leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts. You’d be surprised how much that little action helps new listeners find us.

Echoes of the Vietnam War

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Echoes of the Vietnam War

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Echoes of The Vietnam War

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