A Reporter's Journal From Hell
by Joe Galloway

Part Four: A Season in Hell

It had been a bloody, furious battle all afternoon at XRay. Hal Moore and his men clung desperately to a football-sized clearing at the foot of the Chu Pong Massif, a high mountain mass than ran into Cambodia, five miles distant. Moore's battalion had suffered dozens of men killed and scores wounded. Among the dead: a tall, rangy captain named Tom Metsker, a graduate of The Citadel Class of '71 and Moore's S-2 or battalion intelligence officer. He had been wounded in the shoulder in the opening minutes of the battle and, later, had been sent to a helicopter for medical evacuation. Already aboard the chopper, Tom noticed a stretcher party bringing a much more seriously wounded officer, Capt. Ray LeFebvre, to the crowded helicopter. Tom got off to give his place to Ray, and as he stood in the open door a sniper shot him in the back. He fell into the chopper and was dead when it reached Pleiku/Camp Holloway. I mention this because 33 years later I would marry Tom Metsker's daughter, Karen, and today I am helping raise Tom's three grandchildren.

I was aboard a Huey helicopter piloted by Maj. Bruce Crandall. His call sign was Ancient Serpent 6---and friends sometimes referred to him as Old Snakeshit. This was his last flight of a long, dangerous day. He had had one helicopter shot full of holes and was working on his second bird. It was loaded with crates of ammo and grenades and five-gallon clear plastic bladders of water. I sat on a crate of grenades, peering out into the darkness. As we drew near the landing zone I could see blinking lights moving in a stream down the slopes of the mountain. For a moment I thought I was seeing muzzle flashes, but Matt Dillon shouted that they were tiny lamps that the enemy soldiers had to light their way in difficult terrain. A lot more enemy were on their way to the fight!

The two choppers roared in to land in the tall elephant grass. We jumped off, turned and began throwing ammo boxes and water bladders out. Emptied, both choppers lifted off as we lay prone in the tall grass. The darkness was almost total. Artillery rounds sailed over and exploded in the distance all around us. A voice came out of that darkness: Follow me and I'll take you to the command post…and watch where you step! There are bodies all over the place and they are all ours. In a couple minutes I was getting a short briefing from Lt. Col. Moore who welcomed me with a firm handshake. He told me we were surrounded by the enemy; there had been hard fighting all afternoon and more was coming soon. Then he turned to talk to Dillon, heard about those lights on the mountain and quickly ordered him to help the artillery liaison guy bring fire down on them to make their journey to war even more treacherous. I sat with my back against a small tree close by, rifle across my lap, waiting for what was to come. I felt good. I now had a front row seat at a major battle, something I had been looking to find these last eight months. It was Sunday, November 14, 1965.

That feeling of euphoria lasted until just after first light the next morning. Lt. Col. Moore had a platoon cut off and surrounded by enemy. They had been out there all afternoon and night and much of his energy and planning was devoted to getting them back into the perimeter. He had been planning another assault in that direction when all hell broke loose. An enemy battalion launched an all-out assault on the southeast side of the perimeter, a thin line of shallow foxholes dug in the tall grass by the 100 men of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion. A storm of small arms and machine gun fire and B40 rocket grenades swept over Charlie Company and straight through the command post which was no more than 50 yards behind them. A hail of bullets cracked and snapped all around us. I was flat on my belly, wishing I had spent the night digging a hole in that rock-hard ground. Wishing I could get even lower. About then I felt a thump in my ribs and carefully turned my head to see what it was. What it was was a size 12 combat boot on the foot of Sgt. Maj. Basil L. Plumley, a bear of a man who hailed from West Virginia. He was a veteran's veteran. Had fought in World War II where he made all four combat parachute jumps of the 82nd Airborne Division---Sicily, Salerno, Normandy and Remagen, the Bridge Too Far. One combat jump in Korea with the 187th Regimental Combat Team. He was now working on his third war, his third award of the Combat Infantryman's Badge---an honor the Army accorded to no more than 270 individuals in total. A very impressive dude, he was and is. The sergeant major bent at the waist and shouted over the incredible din of battle----"You can't take no pictures laying down there on the ground, Sonny." I thought to myself he's right. I also thought fleetingly that we might all die here in this place---and if I am going to die I would just as soon take mine standing up beside a man like this. Like a fool, I got up. I followed the sergeant major over to the makeshift aid station where Doc Carrera and Sgt. Tommie Keeton were tending the wounded. Plumley hollered at them: Gentlemen, prepare to defend yourselves! As he pulled out his .45 pistol and jacked a round into the chamber.

Over on the perimeter the enemy had overrun two of Capt. Bob Edwards' three rifle platoons. The captain himself was slumped in his foxhole bleeding from a bad wound. Within the space of two hours Charlie Company, which began the day with a strength of about 100 men, would lose 42 men killed and 20 wounded.

During this fighting two events occurred which are burned into my memory. First, I was over near the clearing shooting a few pictures when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. A tall, lanky GI jumped out of one of the mortar pits about 30 yards away and ran, zig-zagging under fire, across that corner of the clearing. He jumped under the bush I was crouching behind and shouted: Joe. Joe Galloway! Don't you know me man? I'm Vince Cantu from Refugio! In the middle of the worst day of the worst battle of the Vietnam War a guy who graduated with me from Refugio High School, Class of '59, was grabbing and hugging me. "You got to get down, Joe. There are guys dying all around us. This is dangerous shit!" Vince and I talked a little bit. He told me his term of service would be up in two weeks, if he survived this day and the next and the next. "I'll be home in Refugio for Christmas," he said. I asked him to go by and say hello to my mom and dad---but not to get too explicit with the details of where and under what circumstances we had met. Vince made it out, made it home, and in my late mother's photo albums is a snapshot of Vince and his young daughter sitting in their living room. Vince is a supervisor at the Houston Metro bus service, thinking about retiring soon and starting up a new version of a rock band he had when we were teen-agers down home. The Rockin' Dominoes. We are still best friends.

The second event came after I had moved back to the command post, located behind a huge termite mound, a key terrain feature in this part of the Highlands. These things were big as a small car, hard as concrete and provided good cover for both us and the enemy. I had just leaned back when suddenly I could hear Moore shouting loudly: "Charlie, call that SOB off of us. CALL HIM OFF!" I turned to my left and could see two F-100 Supersabre jets, one behind the other, headed straight for us. The first had just released two cans of napalm. The second was about to the do the same. Lt. Charlie Hastings, the Air Force forward observer, was screaming into his mike: Pull up! Pull up! The second plane pulled up. That left the two cans of napalm loblollying end over end toward us. Gregg Dillon buried his face in my shoulder. Later he would tell me he had heard if napalm was coming in you should protect your eyes. The two cans went right over our heads and impacted no more than 20 yards from us, the jellied gasoline spreading out and flaming up going away from us. That 20 yards saved our lives, but through the blazing fire I could see two men, two Americans, dancing in that fire. I jumped to my feet. So did medic Tommy Burlile. Burlile was shot in the head by a sniper before he could reach the scene. I charged on in and someone was yelling, "Get this man's feet!" I reached down and grabbed the ankles of a horribly burned soldier. They crumbled and the skin and flesh, now cooked, rubbed off. I could feel his bare ankle bones in the palms of my hands. We carried him to the aid station. Later I would learn that his name was Jimmy D. Nakayama of Rigby, Idaho. His wife Trudie had given birth to their first child, a daughter she named Nikki, on November 7. Jimmy died in an Army hospital two days later, on November 17. For a lot of years I looked for Jimmy's wife and daughter. Last month, after the movie We Were Soldiers was released I received a letter from Jimmy's widow. Last week a letter came from his daughter Nikki, now 36 years old and the mother of two young sons. No single day has passed since that long-ago November day that I have not thought about Jimmy Nakayama, the young woman who loved him, and the daughter who would never know a father's love.

You cannot always remain a witness, above and removed from the story you are covering. There are some events which demand your participation. The battle of Landing Zone XRay was one such event in my life. I will not here recount every event of that battle which continued until the afternoon of November 16---and was then followed by an even more horrific battle called Landing Zone Albany which virtually destroyed a sister battalion, the 2nd Battalion 7th Cavalry. At LZ XRay 80 men died and 124 were wounded, many of them terribly. At LZ Albany 155 Americans were killed and another 121 wounded, most of them in the space of six hours time. Four days---234 Americans killed. Perhaps as many as 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers of the 33rd, 320th and 66th Regiments also died there, by our hand.

It was a watershed event in the American war in Vietnam. At that point 1,100 Americans had died in Vietnam. Before the war ended a total of 58,200 made the supreme sacrifice for our country.

I left XRay the way I had arrived, aboard a Huey helicopter flown by Bruce Crandall, Ancient Serpent 6. But none of us who survived left there the same man he was when he arrived. We had been drenched in blood and horror. I had heard the command "Fix Bayonets!" and seen men use those bayonets on other men. I had carried both the wounded and dead, hauled ammo and water, and, yes, on occasion I put down my cameras and picked up my rifle and used it.

When it was done I flew back to Camp Holloway, hitched a ride to the MACV compound and got on that creaky military phone system and called UPI Saigon. Bureau chief Bryce Miller answered and I fed him my notebooks, names and hometowns, and told him an envelope of film was on the way. When I was done he said: "Have you heard about Dickie Chappelle?" I said no; what? Dickie was a good friend. She had given me some good advice about what we were doing: "The first rule for a war correspondent is you must LIVE to get out and tell the story." I had somehow, against all odds, just done that. Miller then said: "Dickie was killed a few days ago on a Marine operation near Chu Lai. Someone stepped on a booby-trapped mortar shell and she bled to death." I put down the phone and walked outside and sat down on the wooden steps of the Officers Club, put my face in my hands and wept for my old friend, and all my new friends who had died in these terrible November days. The UPI boss, Ernie Hoberecht, wrote me a letter of congratulations on my reporting of the battle and raised my salary from $135 a week to $150 a week. Unheard of. I told my mother about that raise and her response was: "Joe, that's blood money." I thought that perhaps she was right, but it sure wasn't much money for so much blood. The war would drag on for ten long years and many old and new friends would die before it ended.

I soldiered on for UPI until the Fall of 1966 and left, swearing I would never return to Vietnam. UPI sent me back in 1971, 1973 and again in 1975 for the end of it. Since the end of the war I have gone back four more times doing research on the book, helping make an ABC documentary ("They Were Young and Brave," Day One, aired January 1994 and again in the summer of 1994), and one recent trip with my best friend, Lt. Gen. (ret) Hal Moore to walk the old French battlefield at Dienbienphu. On the 1993 documentary trip Hal Moore and I and half a dozen other American veterans of the battle went back to XRay and Albany in company with half a dozen North Vietnamese generals and colonels who had fought against us there. Together we walked those old battlefields and agreed that those events of November, 1965, had been pivotal in all our lives. We have broken bread with them in their homes in Hanoi. It's hard to explain to someone who hasn't lived it, but in a strange sort of way we are blood brothers. There is no hatred; only a shared relief that at least some of us survived to carry the memories of those who died, and bear witness to the horror of this war and all wars.

© 2002 Joe Galloway

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