Where does the story begin? Perhaps the best place is Topeka, Kansas, in the year 1963 when the United Press International wires were carrying the dispatches of Neil Sheehan from a Saigon dateline, and the New York Times was carrying the reports of David Halberstam. And there were those photos by Malcolm Browne of AP of the monks immolating themselves in protest. It struck my mind that there was going to be war in that place, it would become an American war, my generation's war, and I wanted to be there and cover it.

So I began a letter writing campaign, one a week to my bosses in UPI New York. I begged, pleaded, cajoled and after a time, took it as a given that they were going to transfer me to Asia. In time, just after the November 1964 elections, they did. I was home on vacation visiting my parents in Refugio, Texas, when the call came from my immediate boss, Jack Fallon, at UPI Southwest Division Headquarters in Dallas. Did I own a trenchcoat, he asked. Huh? Was my response. Well, if I did not I should purchase one because effectively immediately I was being transferred to UPI Asia Headquarters in Tokyo, Japan.

When I got to Tokyo I wasted no time letting my new boss, the infamous Earnest T. Hoberecht of Watonga, Oklahoma, know that I considered this a temporary pause on my way to Saigon. He laughed. He had two Americans based in Saigon, bureau chief Mike Malloy and Texan Ray Herndon. He could foresee no possible expansion in the next year or two.

From my perch on the Asia Desk I could see Indochina spiraling out of control, descending inevitably into war. A bloody coup in Laos---and one in which UPI scored a huge beat when a stringer named Tim Page rode his motorcycle with film and copy through an artillery barrage, hired a boat to get him across the Mekong into Thailand and delivered the goods. The stories were written by another stringer, Martin Stuart-Fox.

In South Vietnam an endless series of coups continued in the wake of the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem, and the Viet Cong grew ever stronger, moving from one victory to another over the poorly motivated South Vietnamese Army. I was confident I didn't have long to wait.

In March of 1965 the first battalion of U.S. Marines landed at Red Beach, Danang---the first American combat forces to land on the Asia mainland since the Korean War. Within two weeks I was told to get ready. I was UPI's reinforcements. The last thing I did was buy a camera, a 35mm Yashica which was cheap but worked. The last thing Ernie Hoberecht told me was this: Under NO circumstances was I to reveal how much money he was paying me to Malloy or Herndon. I had been transferred to Asia making Guild scale, $135 a week. Herndon and Malloy, and everyone else in Asia, were local hires and most everyone drew less than $100 a week. Some of them far less.

On arriving in Saigon my seatmate on the Air France flight, a soft-spoken Buddhist monk in orange robes, clung tightly to my arm. The white uniformed police who boarded the flight pried him loose and dragged him away. He was put back on the same plane when it left. An unwanted exile. In a few minutes I was stamped through immigration, got my suitcase and was on the way to the bureau at No. 19 Ngo Duc Khe, just off Tu Do Street, in the heart of Saigon. I was given quarters over the bureau for my very temporary stop in Saigon. I was bound for the Marines in Danang just as quickly as I could obtain my South Vietnamese and American press ID cards. Two days max.

That first evening, plied with some decent French wine and a good meal, Malloy and Herndon asked THE question: How much are you being paid? I told them. "Jesus Christ," both of them shouted, composing their angry letters to Hoberecht in their heads. Several weeks later, in Danang, I would receive Hoberecht's response, a letter that began: "Dear Benedict. Malloy and Herndon got their raises."

It should be noted here that Vietnam, from the first day, was the most openly covered war in America's history. I filled out the forms at a building called the White Elephant, headquarters of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, (MACV) press operations. I signed a single sheet of paper with perhaps 5 rules of conduct, agreeing that I would not reveal troop movements while they were underway; I would not reveal casualty figures while a battle was underway; I would not reveal information, generally, that would be of use to the enemy in time for him to use that information. That was it. If I violated these rules my press card could be taken away.

The next morning, suitcase in hand, I boarded an Air Force C-123 transport plane at Tan Son Nhut Airport. It was the "milk run" plane, and made a daily round-trip from Saigon to Pleiku to Hue-Phu Bai to Danang. It took about six hours to get to Danang. When I stepped off, ears ringing, I was grabbed by a husky, handsome half French-half Vietnamese man who said, "I am Henri Huet of UPI. Come with me. There is big trouble in Quang Ngai." I said: What about my suitcase? He said: Fook your suitcase! And threw it in the door of the 8th Aerial Transport Squadron hooch. Henri pulled me toward a C-130 transport which was already spinning up its engines on the ramp. We jumped aboard and it took off. The noise was so loud, and Henri's accent so thick I could make no sense of what he was trying to tell me about where we were going or what was happening.

When we landed, 20 minutes or so later, it was on a small strip in the middle of a squalid town. Henri jumped off and ran toward a US Marine CH-34 helicopter, fondly known as a Shuddering Shithouse, sitting on the ramp. He spoke briefly with a tall American in green coveralls, then waved at me. We got aboard. I still didn't know where I was or what we were doing. The chopper took off, flew out about 10 or 12 minutes and then began circling a bare hill rising up out of the green rice paddies. Out the door I could see there were men on that hill, all lying flat on the ground. When we landed everyone jumped out and there was silence. A dead silence. I looked at the men closest to me and realized that they were dead. Every single one of them. Lying flat in shallow little depressions hastily dug. Some with their arms forward as though holding rifles; but there were no rifles.

I was told that we were there to find and bring back the bodies of two American advisers. We went from hole to hole until we found them, then we and the two crewmen from the chopper got the head and feet and carried them slowly back to the helicopter.

Until that moment all I had known of war I had learned from books and the war movies of John Wayne. I had hurried to get to Vietnam because surely, now that the Marines had landed, the war would be swiftly won. On the ride back to Quang Ngai City I looked at the faces of those two young Americans, now cold and dead, and neither of them looked much like John Wayne.

Back at Quang Ngai airstrip it was getting near the end of the day. Henri explained that it was very dangerous at night and all the Americans usually flew back to Danang. But he had an idea: We would stay the night at the MACV Adviser compound nearby and get a much earlier start than those day-trippers the next morning. Sounded like a plan. At the gate of the compound a very tired looking American captain greeted us warmly. "We have been on 100% alert here for the last five days and nights. We are exhausted and need some relief. You guys are it." He hooked me up with Saigon on his old-fashioned telephone switchboard. I was yelling down a bad line to Herndon in Saigon, telling him what we had seen that afternoon, when enemy mortar rounds fell on the South Vietnamese compound next door. I ducked under the switchboard and kept talking. Afterward, the captain handed us an M2 greasegun submachine gun and a handful of magazines. He showed us where we would sleep, in an empty bunkroom full of double-decker bunks. And where we would stand guard, in a sandbagged bunker facing a barbed-wire fence with a road beyond that. Henri would stand guard alone, from Midnight to 3 a.m. My turn was 3 a.m. to daybreak.

I lay there in the dark unable to sleep till Henri shook my arm and gestured at the door. I took the gun and ammo and entered the bunker for the longest night of my life to that point. Midway through my tour the Viet Cong pulled a satchel charge attack on the South Vietnamese compound across the road. No one approached our fence. Finally the eastern sky began to brighten slightly. The night was nearly over. Thank God. Just then a Vietnamese on a bicycle with a huge bundle on the handlebars came into view, pedaling up that road. I leveled the gun, safety off, and told myself if he made one false move he was dead. About then the captain slapped me on the shoulder: "Son, if you shoot that man you are going to have to cook our breakfast. He's the chef." Whew.

How's that for your first day at war? On the plane back to Danang I thought over what I had seen and heard and decided this war was in no danger of ending soon. It would be long and hard and there would be plenty of it for everyone. But I had no idea how long and how hard it would be, or that there would be enough of it to kill 58,200 Americans and between one and two million Vietnamese on both sides.

Read the next page of Joe Galloway's article.

Send an email message to Joe Galloway

See the Video Interview
with Joe Galloway, and
photos from "We Were Soldiers"

Find original prints from
the Battle of Ia Drang at

Learn more about the
Battle of Ia Drang
at www.lzxray.com

Visit the "We Were Soldiers"
Official Film Website

Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist