Reporter's Journal From Hell
Part Three: The Things We Carried...
I beat feet back to Pleiku and the MACV compound where we bunked in
a big room full of double-decker bunks and ate in the officers' mess.
There was also a telephone in the bar and from there we filed our stories,
with great difficulty, via the military phone system. "Tiger, get me
Puma. Puma, hello Puma Switch, get me Tan Son Nhut Switch. Hello Tan
Son Nhut, can you connect me to Saigon PTT? Allo PTT. Can you get me
51382. It's BUSY? You got to be shittin' me. Please. Try. Again. Hello.
Hello. *UCK! Tiger, get me Puma..." Our priority was Four, or lower
than whale dung. Any PFC could pick up the phone, give his priority,
and bump us off the line. UNLESS we picked up that phone and said: This
is COLONEL Johnson, Priority One, get me Puma Switch. We kept that one
in reserve for very urgent traffic. It usually worked. Our rolls of
exposed film went into small manila envelopes with caption sheets describing
what each roll contained. We scouted around for a "pigeon," anyone bound
for Saigon who would agree to carry the film and call UPI upon arrival
for pickup. The film was processed in a makeshift darkroom created out
of an old toilet in the UPI bureau; printed and captioned; then hand-carried
to Saigon PTT where it was put on a radio transmitter and broadcast
to UPI Tokyo for relay on to New York and the world.
During one of the
relatively few quiet times in Pleiku my friend Bob Poos of AP and I
were invited to a "special occasion" by the II Corps commanding general,
Maj. Gen. Vinh Loc. He was cutting a ribbon on a "new installation."
We wandered along to find, to our great amusement, that the general
was formally opening a brand new South Vietnamese Army-owned and operated
brothel in a large bungalow. Along came Col. Ted Metaxis, chief American
adviser to Gen. Vinh Loc. His eyes bulged when he saw us, cameras on
our shoulders, grinning broadly. As he walked by the good colonel said,
out of the corner of his mouth: "If you write anything about this I
will have you killed." He seemed fairly serious. The line of South Vietnamese
soldiers waiting to inaugurate the establishment already stretched around
On November 10th thed 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division moved
into the field to continue operations around Plei Me Camp. I hooked
up with the 1st Battalion 7th U.S. Cavalry which was lifting by helicopter
into a remote area east of the Special Forces Camp, searching for the
North Vietnamese who had fled. I had my new M-16 rifle on my shoulder,
20 full magazines in my pack. I also carried these things: two full
canteens on a pistol belt. A sheathed bayonet. Two Nikon F cameras on
my shoulder and around my neck. I had a 35mm lens on one, a 43-86mm
zoom lens on the other. My pack contained the magazines for the rifle.
Clean socks and drawers. Shaving gear. A dozen rolls of Ektachrome color;
a couple of bricks of Kodak Tri X black and white. C-rations for a couple
of days. A bottle of Louisiana hot sauce to make them semi-palatable.
Half a dozen small reporter notebooks. Couple of spare pens. Two books---Bernard
Fall's Street Without Joy, and T.R. Fehrenbach's This Kind of War. A
fist-sized lump of C-4 plastic explosive, about which more later. Strapped
beneath my pack was a nylon poncho liner rolled inside an Army rubber
coated poncho; on its side an entrenching tool. It was a fairly respectable
load to hump through the jungle---but at least I did not have to carry
all that PLUS a few mortar rounds or claymore mines or radio batteries
as most of the grunts I walked with were humping. Their loads could
reach 60-70 pounds.
We heli-lifted into an old cassava field, hacked and burned out of the
jungle. We had a fleeting glimpse of some half-naked people fleeing
the farm field into the jungle as we landed. In short order the battalion
was on the ground, formed up and moving out. We followed a well beaten
path straight in to a tiny village peopled by the Montagnard, a hill
tribe distinct and apart from the Vietnamese. They were primitive but
perhaps the most decent and honorable people in the whole damned country.
They practiced slash-and-burn farming, moving in two or three years
when the thin topsoil was worn out by the crops of cassava and yams
that they grew. They lived in thatched longhouses built on stilts. As
we marched in to this particular village a grizzled and bent old gentleman
emerged onto the porch of the longhouse, pulling on a tattered old French
Army tunic and frantically waving a tiny French tri-color flag. He thought
his old friends had finally come back to his mountains. We Americans
must have confused him.
The battalion surgeon, Capt. Robert J. Carrara, and his medics set up
shop and villagers quickly lined up to have their cuts and burns and
sick babies treated. One of the first patients was a young boy who had
been riddled with shrapnel from an American 2.75 inch rocket fired from
a helicopter. His wounds required hospitalization. His father, absolutely
terrified at the thought of leaving his village and his people, gathered
a small parcel containing a chunk of monkey meat and some yams and,
trembling, boarded a helicopter with his suffering son. I wondered how,
or if, they would ever make it back home again.
In the afternoon we moved out of the village headed higher into the
mountains. It was slow going in the heat and for long stretches we were
in a tangle of bamboo and brush and wait-a-minute vines that ripped
clothes and flesh. Big red ants dropped out of the leaves around your
face and disappeared down your neck before clamping down and raising
huge red welts. The point men, two at the very front, had to wield machetes
to cut a hole through the jungle. We might have made 100 yards or so
an hour in those stretches. Hard going. Late in the day we broke out
into easier terrain and made better time. Just before nightfall the
point men strung ropes across a narrow, fast-moving mountain stream
that was neck deep. Always a dicey business if you were carrying cameras.
Hold them and your pack over your head with one hand; use your other
on the rope. The stream was refreshing but cold, surprisingly cold for
Vietnam. The battalion settled into a circular perimeter in a clearing
just the other side of the stream, quickly digging shallow foxholes.
Me too. There would be no fires, no cigarettes. With night it quickly
became cold in our wet clothes. We wrapped up in poncho liner and poncho
but it did no good. I shivered uncontrollably all night long. One of
the longest nights of my life. Finally it grew light and I fished that
lump of C-4 plastic explosive out of my pack, ripped off a thumbnail
size chunk and lit it with a c-ration match. When it caught I quickly
put my canteen cup full of water over the fire. In half a minute over
such an intense flame you had boiling water. I was fishing around for
a couple of packets of instant coffee when the battalion commander,
Lt. Col. Hal Moore, and his sergeant-major, Basil L. Plumley, loomed
up. The colonel welcomed me to his battalion, inspecting me closely
all the while. Finally he said these words: In my battalion, everyone
shaves in the morning. You, too. He was looking at my cup of coffee
water. The sergeant major was grinning broadly. I groaned and dug out
my razor and bar of soap. Coffee would have to wait. I had a feeling
this was a different kind of outfit, with a very different commander.
meeting would pay huge dividends just three days later. That noon, once
it was clear there would be no action on this patrol, I caught a chopper
back to the Catecha Tea Plantation where 3rd Brigade Headquarters was
located beside a rough dirt airstrip, in a plantation full of rubber
trees and tea bushes. From there another lift brought me back to Pleiku
to file a story and ship film. The next night main force Viet Cong,
guided by local sympathizers among the plantation workers, first mortared
and then attacked the Brigade Headquarters at Catecka. Half a dozen
Americans were killed, even more wounded. I jeeped back out. Interviewed
a sergeant who had been sitting in a foxhole on the edge of the dirt
airstrip, loading magazines for his squad. He had about 200 full magazines
sitting there when the enemy attacked. He poured it to them, magazine
after magazine. His hole was surrounded by heaps of empty brass cartridges.
The triangular flash suppressor at the end of his rifle barrel had literally
melted and when he stopped firing at the end of the fight had fused
Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion 7th Cavalry was brought in to pull
security around the Brigade HQ that night. It was Saturday, November
13, 1965. I moved out on the perimeter with the company and dug myself
a good, deep foxhole under a tea bush. I knew it was Saturday but didn't
know the date. I asked a GI in the next hole. He said it was the 13th.
I told him it was my 24th birthday. He said "Happy Birthday" and flipped
me a can of c-ration pound cake. I had a can of sliced peaches in my
pack and, together, they made a pretty fair birthday feast. There were
just enough alarms and outbursts of firing on the perimeter that night
to keep us all wide awake. In the morning the word passed that B Company
was moving out; the whole battalion was moving out on an operation to
the west of Plei Me Camp. I caught up with the Brigade Commander, Col.
Tim Brown, who confirmed that for me. I told him I wanted to ride in
with the 1st Battalion. Brown said it was probably going to be another
long, hot walk in the sun---but I could hang around and if anything
happened he would fly out in his command helicopter and I could go with
I nodded but had a bad feeling about this; felt I ought to go in with
the troops. The 1st Battalion troops lifted on out, replaced by Bravo
Company, 2nd Battalion 7th Cav. Later, when the radios burst into frenzied
reports of action, Bravo 2/7 Cav began lining up and loading up on choppers.
I slipped down the line, found one chopper with room and got aboard.
Just before we lifted off a big lieutenant came down the line looking
in every chopper. He spotted me, waved me off, and put a medic aboard
in my seat. I couldn't complain about that, but there was action out
there in a place designated Landing Zone XRay, and I couldn't get there.
Back to Brigade HQ. Col. Brown came bustling out of the tent with a
couple of his staff officers behind him. He waved me along, moving quickly
toward his command chopper, bristling all over with radio antennas.
He told me that Lt. Col. Moore and his men had gotten into a helluva
fight out there in the Ia Drang Valley and he was headed there. As we
neared the end of the 20 mile flight we could easily locate the battlefield:
a cloud of smoke rose high above it. We dropped down to about 1500 feet
circling the clearing below. I had earphones on and could hear Col.
Brown talking to Lt. Col. Moore. Brown wanted to land; Moore was telling
him the landing zone was under intense enemy fire and if he landed that
command chopper with all those antennas it would be a magnet for bullets.
About then, looking down, I saw an Air Force A-1E Skyraider fighter
plane pass below our chopper, fire and smoke streaming a hundred yards
behind him. The radio squawked: Anybody see a chute? Anybody see a chute?
I watched the plane go straight into the jungle no more than half a
mile from the landing zone. There was, sadly, no parachute. The pilot,
Capt. Paul McClellan Jr., had gone in with his aircraft. He is still
carried as Missing In Action (MIA). He left a wife and five children.
Moore succeeded in waving off his boss. Brown told me on the radio that
he was dropping me at Landing Zone Falcon five miles from LZ XRay and
I would have to catch a ride in from there. More disappointment. I jumped
off the chopper at another small clearing in the scrub brush, this one
filled with a battery of 12 105mm howitzer artillery pieces. They were
firing nonstop, providing support for Lt. Col. Moore's besieged battalion
in XRay. As the day wore on more reporters drifted in. A new AP guy
I had not previously met. Someone from Reuters, probably my friend Robin
Mannock. A couple of others. We met every chopper, begging for a ride
in to the fight. No luck. The day was growing older and except for the
incessant din of outgoing artillery fire we were no closer to the action.
It was then that I ran into Capt. Gregg (Matt) Dillon, the 1st Battalion
S-3 or operations officer. I asked how I could get to XRay. He replied:
I am going in with two choppers full of ammo and water just as soon
as it is good dark. I said I wanted to go. He said he couldn't make
that decision without Hal Moore's approval, but he would get on the
radio and ask him. I stuck with him till he picked up the radio handset
and informed Moore of his plans. "Oh yes, that reporter Galloway wants
to come along." Hal Moore responded: "If he is crazy enough to want
to come in here, and you have the room, bring him along." All right!
I had a ride. Now all I had to do was hide out from the rest of the
gang till they got tired and headed back to Pleiku for the night. I
disappeared behind a tent and waited them out. Finally they were all
gone and Dillon's two choppers roared in. We got aboard in the darkness
and lifted off. I was bound for the biggest battle of the war---and
I was all alone. An exclusive!
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