As a young man Ernest Hemingway wrote, “when you go to war as a boy, you have a great illusion of immortality. Other people get killed; not you.”
Joseph Lee Galloway experienced this illusion at the age of 17 when he convinced his mother to sign for him so he could join the Army. He had just graduated high school but dreamed of reporting from the front lines of battle like his hero, World War II war correspondent Ernie Pyle.
But in fact, Galloway didn’t join the Army. It seems he’d won the skirmish with his mother, though she ended up winning the initial battle.
As they drove to the recruiter’s office they passed the local daily newspaper building and she tried a new tactic.
“Joe, what about your journalism?” she asked, knowing that he had developed a love for reporting while writing for his high school newspaper.
It worked. He asked his mother to stop the car. He marched in to the press office, asked for a job, and was hired on the spot.
That solved one problem but there was a lingering itch for action.
After 18 months at his hometown paper Galloway applied for a position with United Press International (UPI) in Houston, Texas, with the hopes of eventually traveling abroad to write for the national news agency.
“There was something about the UPI that always caught my interest,” said Galloway. “It was about being fast. It was about being first. It was about being the best, and it was about leaving the Associated Press in the dirt.”
In January 1961, at 19, UPI offered him a job, but it wasn’t in his first choice of Houston, Texas. Instead, he landed in Kansas City and later Topeka, Kansas, where he ran his own bureau covering state politics before he was legally able to vote.
After three years of diligent work he saw a newswire report by Neil Sheehan indicating there could be war brewing in a place called Saigon.
“I determined that if America got involved this would be my generation’s war and I had to be there to cover it,” said Galloway. “So I started working on my bosses to get over there. It came to a point in 1964 when they were going to have to send me to Asia or fire me.
“I may have been a nuisance about it but eventually I got what I wanted.”
Right after the 1964 election he was shipped to Tokyo, Japan, and immediately began chomping the bit to get to Vietnam where—by this point—war looked inevitable. His supervisors answered his requests with laughter. They had just sent two seasoned reporters there.
“I said to them, ‘Y’all should really think about this, considering you just spent $3,000 to get me over here,’ recalled Galloway. “I told them that if they didn’t send me to Saigon I’d probably have to quit and pay my own way down there—and hell, while I’m there I may as well just sign on with the [Associated Press] and man, you’ll really regret that!”
Six months later the Marines landed in Vietnam and so did Galloway.
“I loved the Marines,” he said. “The best part was getting to meet guys like P.X. Kelley and later I even met a young Army major named Norm Schwarzkopf,” he said.
General Paul X. Kelley would eventually become the 28th Commandant of the Marine Corps. Army General H. Norman Schwarzkopf would go on to command all coalition forces during the first Persian Gulf War.
By the fall of 1965, two things had changed. First, instead of battling guerillas, American forces were now fighting the North Vietnamese Army, which had moved down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Second, the 1st Air Cavalry Division, an experimental outfit of 435 helicopters and Army paratroopers trained in a new method of combat, had arrived.
Galloway knew when this new airmobile assault unit met the North Vietnamese Army he would have his story.
In mid-October he found his way to Plei Me, an Army Special Forces camp in the central highlands of Vietnam. There he rendezvoused with the airmobile assault unit getting ready for the first major battle between U.S. troops and “regular” Vietnamese army soldiers. When Galloway arrived at Plei Me, he was directed to report to Major Charlie Beckwith, the camp’s commander. Beckwith wasn’t exactly thrilled to have a reporter on board.
“I need everything in the damned world,” Beckwith told Galloway. “I need ammunition. I need medical supplies. I need food. I need water. I’d love a bottle of Jim Beam and what has the Army in its wisdom sent me but a … damned reporter! I’ve got news for you son. I have no vacancy here for a reporter but I need a corner machine gunner and you’re it.”
Three days later, the cavalry had arrived—Galloway’s ride was there.
Led by Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore and Sergeant Major Basil Plumley—two names Galloway wouldn’t soon forget—the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment met up with Beckwith’s Special Forces at Plei Me. The next day they would depart for the Ia Drang Valley where Moore had orders to “find and kill” the North Vietnamese Army.
Ia Drang was everything they had anticipated, but Moore’s under-manned unit was quickly surrounded by the enemy at Landing Zone (LZ) X-Ray.
Galloway heard about the action but was stranded at a nearby fire support base. A helicopter was the only way in and it was too dangerous during daylight. He asked Moore’s operations officer, Captain Matt Dillon, to radio in for permission to fly in that night.
“If he’s crazy enough to want to come in here and you’ve got room, bring him,” Moore responded.
At sundown on November 14, 1965, just one day after his 24th birthday, Galloway stepped aboard a Huey helicopter and flew into the deadliest battlefield of the Vietnam War. Three men would receive the Medal of Honor for actions in that battle.
“It was the best choice of my life,” said Galloway. “There in the tall grass of Landing Zone X-Ray I earned the best friends of a lifetime.”
At first light, his nerves were tested when out of nowhere “all hell broke loose.” Galloway found himself lying flat in the dirt to avoid being shot. Then he felt something impact his ribs. It was the combat boot of 6-foot-2-inch Sergeant Major Basil L. Plumley, who barked, “You can’t take no pictures layin’ down there on the ground, sonny!”
Galloway could barely hear the sergeant major over the gunfire and explosions, but he got to his feet, and it’s a good thing he did.
He could hear Moore shouting “get ’em off me Charlie!” and looked up to see two American fighter-bombers coming right at him. The first one had already dropped two eight-foot long napalm bombs which were tumbling through the air toward him. The bombs flew just over his head and impacted less than 20 yards behind him, scorching a fire team of American combat engineers. Galloway watched in horror. The second bomber pulled away at the last minute thanks to Moore’s call.
Galloway and Tommy Burlile, a medic, jumped to their feet to help, but Burlile took a sniper’s bullet to the head and collapsed mid-stride. Galloway continued on and helped carry one of the wounded from the Napalm fire.
“When I lifted him by the ankles his skin slipped right off and I could feel his bare bones in my hands,” said Galloway. “It took three hours to medevac him out and he screamed the whole time—regardless how much morphine he was given. He died two days later in the hospital.”
The two-day battle that followed was intense but Galloway successfully followed the first rule of war reporting: Live to tell the tale. After the smoke cleared, he not only had a story, he had the story. He was an exclusive eyewitness to the bloodiest battle of the war and he knew he could tell it. Unfortunately he also knew the 1,200 words UPI would give him to tell it wouldn’t allow him to scratch the surface. It would take a book to tell it right but that would take time and Galloway was a man on the move.
He served a total of four tours in Vietnam as a reporter and covered the 1971 India-Pakistan War. In 1976
he became UPI’s Moscow bureau chief. Three years later he finally returned to the United States. By 1982 he was writing for U.S. News and World Report.
That same year Moore and Galloway reconnected and began the 10-year writing process to properly describe the battle at LZ X-Ray. The result was the 17-week New York Times bestseller, We Were Soldiers Once … and Young. A decade later it was made into a movie titled simply, We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson as Moore and war movie favorite Barry Pepper as Galloway.
“From that day to this, I’ve loved soldiers and Marines, and I feel more comfortable with them than any civilian audience I can think of,” said Galloway. “Unfortunately I had to stop all that runnin’ around, chasing up sand dunes behind 19-year-old Marines, but I surely miss it. I hate to think of my friends over there and I ain’t there for them. I ain’t there to stand beside ’em, and I ain’t there to cover ’em.”
After all, they were there to cover him in 1996 when he lost his wife to cancer. Devastated, he sat on the edge of his bed all night. When he opened his blinds the next morning he saw a half dozen guys walking and talking on the sidewalk outside his home. Then a green van full of Army officers pulled up.
The Cavalry had arrived.
A colonel approached Galloway, snapped to attention, and while holding a firm salute, said, “Sir, we represent the 17,000 men and women of the 1st Cavalry Division. A long time ago you stood beside us in a very bad time and place. Now we are here to stand beside you.”
Their appearance stirred a mix of emotions in Galloway.
“You cannot buy such loyalty and friendship for millions,” he said. “You can only earn it the hard way.”
Two years after his wife’s passing Galloway was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device for conspicuous heroism during the battle of Ia Drang—a distinction no other civilian has received for actions during the Vietnam War.
After documenting—and surviving—some of the most dangerous war zones on Earth, Galloway’s youthful illusion of immortality is long gone. He has since decided that “there are old war correspondents and bold war correspondents but no old, bold war correspondents.”
Save one, some might argue.
Joseph Andrew Lee is a USO staff writer.