Half a century of vivid memories

Story by Keith Oliver, Soldiers

Army part of ambitious Vietnam commemoration

Sgt. Philip Fink calls in support during The Battle of Dong Xoai while assigned as an advisor to the 52nd Vietnamese Ranger Battalion. in 1965 (DOD photo by U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Steve Stibbens)

Sgt. Philip Fink calls in support during The Battle of Dong Xoai while assigned as an advisor to the 52nd Vietnamese Ranger Battalion. in 1965 (DOD photo by U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Steve Stibbens)

It’s not a single, grand gathering.

Like the war that spawned it, the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration is built on a series of markedly local – “small unit,” if you will – initiatives and relationships whose spirit and imagination have already begun to take hold among those participating.

Battle-tested vets from that divisive conflict remember well the whomp-whomp-whomp of Army and Marine choppers, the eerie whistle of incoming mortar rounds and the distinctive, staccato fire from enemy AK-47 assault rifles.

What they too often did not hear, upon returning stateside, was “thank you” or, even, “glad to have you back.”

“Beginning this year and every year for the next 10, our commemoration partners will host hometown events to welcome their own veterans home,” explained renowned author and combat reporter Joe Galloway.

While American involvement began in 1959 and continued through John F. Kennedy’s presidency, 1965 was the year that U.S. forces began deploying to Southeast Asia in substantial numbers — a logical starting point for this grassroots-fed undertaking.

The Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series that year, and “Green Acres” lit up American television screens that were rapidly converting to color. Billboard’s Top Ten included hits by the Four Tops, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Author Robin Moore’s novel “The Green Berets” hit The New York Times bestseller list (followed in 1968 by a movie of the same name featuring John Wayne in the title role). Imagery captured by Lou Dellapuca, John Kloczkowski, Horst Faas, Eddie Adams and Steve Stibbens were impacting the American consciousness with striking, often harsh, film and photos that led the evening news and practically leapt off the pages of “Life” and “Time” magazines.

Galloway, whose own passion and commitment to the commemoration was forged on the battlefield in Vietnam’s la Drang Valley that half-century ago, has answered a call to serve as consultant, oral historian and unabashed cheerleader for this congressionally mandated and funded salute.

That salute is long overdue, according to retired Army Lt. Gen. Ray Mason, who kicked-off his own service’s participation with a Pentagon auditorium assembly in 2013 during the commemoration’s planning phase.

True to the committee’s charter, this son of a three-tour Vietnam vet’s first instinct was to reach out to the folks he led from his own Beltway foxhole as the Army’s worldwide logistics chieftain. “I had nine civil service professionals working for me in the G-4, each a Vietnam veteran. What an opportunity to properly and publicly acknowledge them, to say ‘thanks.’”

“These men are quiet professionals, very humble,” said Mason. “Many of their colleagues did not know they’d served in Vietnam. Here was our chance to honor them, maybe even provide something of a catharsis for them as we listened to their stories, about why they joined the Army in the first place, what it was like to get those orders to Vietnam, to hear what was going through their minds upon arrival, their wartime experiences … and the coming home piece.”

As a “young Army brat, it was difficult for me to watch my dad come back and not get treated appropriately, at least in my mind,” said Mason. “I could feel that it wasn’t right.”

They’ll be doing it “right” in Casper, Wyoming, June 4-7, according to Vietnam War hero Lee Alley, who was decorated for gallantry with both the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star (in addition to earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart).

Writing in the Casper Journal last year, Alley wondered “why so many people disrespected warriors when our duty and service to the nation was honorable.” The Wheatland resident and vice chairman of the Wyoming Veterans Commission, has been part of the planning since its inception and sees the event as “a great opportunity for a weekend of honor, celebration and remembrance.”

True to the state’s western heritage and look-you-in-the-eye cowboy ways, Wyoming is the kind of place where citizens might be apt to deal with the rough ambiguity of the Vietnam War, or any war, for that matter.

Alley, once called “the Audie Murphy of Wyoming,” remains low-key about his personal acclaim but bold in his advocacy for the vets of his state.

“Wyoming people are willing to stand up, and I’m glad to be a part of that,” he said. “I think it might be that we tend to have a rural background and we’re good ol’ country boys, but we have strong support among the citizenry as well.”

“The governor and the legislature back us (the veterans),” he said. “And whether the governor is a Democrat or a Republican, my experience on the Veterans Commission is that we’ve never been denied anything we’ve asked for.”

That works both ways, noted Deidre Forster, the Wyoming Military Department’s public affairs officer. In addition to the significant service by Wyoming natives on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, “our Guardsmen were among the first waves of American military members sent out to combat the War on Terror,” she said. “And we have also answered the call for hurricane recovery, third-world medical assistance, humanitarian aid, peace-keeping in Kosovo and a myriad other non-combat missions (which) have continued to keep the 3,000 Wyoming National Guard members decisively engaged.”

And it was a Wyoming Fallen Marine, Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps of Dubois, who was the subject of the acclaimed HBO movie, “Taking Chance.”

Such is the setting for this month’s event, where the military department’s organizational values were adopted from The Code of the West, including the opening lines, “Live each day with courage – Do what’s right. Do what’s needed. Do the hard things.”

When Galloway, the Wyoming event’s featured speaker, witnessed American Soldiers doing the hard things 50 years ago, he was in the company of such combat leaders as Lt. Col. Hal Moore, Sgt. Maj. Basil L. Plumley and Maj. “Snake” Bruce Crandall. The Battle of Ia Drang was the first major action between U.S. Army and North Vietnamese regular forces, and saw nearly 250 U.S. and 1,000 enemy combatants killed, Nov. 14-18, l965.

“We Were Soldiers Once … and Young,” co-authored by Galloway and Moore, (the commanding officer of lst Battalion, 7th Cavalry) chronicles the now-iconic battle, which was also depicted in the motion picture “We Were Soldiers,” starring Mel Gibson and Sam Elliott. More recently, 2014’s Golden Globe-nominated “St. Vincent” cast Bill Murray in the role of a cranky but good-hearted Ia Drang vet, a story element included by writer-director-producer Theodore Melfi in deference to his father having fought there.

Hal Moore received the Distinguished Service Cross for his courageous leadership during those bloody four days and retired from the Army in 1977 as a lieutenant general. Crandall was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroically piloting his unarmed Huey helicopter into the maelstrom some 22 times to medevac wounded Soldiers and to deliver desperately needed water and ammunition.

Galloway was decorated with the Bronze Star with Combat “V” for exposing himself to enemy fire in rescuing several of Moore’s troopers — the only civilian journalist to receive such an honor.

He and Crandall were co-presenters during graduation week for the Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, as the Army’s rising leadership continues to study the lessons of Vietnam. Galloway also appeared at a 50th commemoration event in Seattle, where his duties included taped interviews with Vietnam veterans, an ongoing project designed to capture their wartime experiences for posterity.

“These are the most honorable people I know,” he said.   “It’s just not in me to let their stories go.”

Editor’s note: Hear more from Joe Galloway about 50th commemoration events, his special bond with Vietnam veterans and his experiences in Vietnam, here: http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2015/06/q-a-with-joe-galloway/.

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