Editor’s Note: This is the ninth installment of a 10-part series on the Vietnam War, highlighting veterans from Central Texas and the issues they faced. Read the full series at forthoodherald.com/vietnam.
In 1963, Joe Galloway was a young reporter in Topeka, Kan., working for news agency United Press International. It was about that time he began reading news reports about the turmoil and political conflicts that were going on in Vietnam
“I had a very strong hunch that there was going to be a war there. It was going to become America’s war, and my generation’s war, and I wanted to cover it,” said Galloway, 73, in an exclusive interview with the Fort Hood Herald last week. His experiences in covering the 1st Cavalry Division’s role in Vietnam were detailed in the book “We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young.”
Before America sent fighting troops to Vietnam, Galloway began writing a letter a week to his bosses in New York, pleading to be transferred to Asia.
“I think I made such a pest of myself that they either had to send me or fire me.”
Eventually, he was transferred to Tokyo, Japan.
“I was happy to go there because it was closer to Vietnam, and it was the control desk for Vietnam coverage.”
When Galloway arrived to Vietnam in early 1965, “I knew nothing about war except what I had learned from watching John Wayne movies,” he said.
He thought the war would be over quick after Marines landed in Vietnam.
“My first week on the ground with the Marines taught me that that was probably not the case. ... That was out of sheer ignorance of the situation, of the enemy, of the culture, of the country. I was as ignorant as most Americans were, but I had to learn very quickly and combat is a very stiff task master. You learn quickly or you get killed.”
Eventually, he came to realize that the war would take massive resources, especially with Vietnam’s large borders that could easily be infiltrated by both sea and land.
Galloway said he estimated it would take about a million U.S. troops to get the job done. At the peak of the U.S. presence in the war, in 1968-69, the U.S. had about 500,000 troops in Vietnam. Early on, he formed a belief that the American people would not be willing to spend “in terms of lives and national treasure” what it would take to gain a victory in Vietnam.
“I didn’t go around trumpeting that because I spent my time in the field with Marines and soldiers,” Galloway said. “I didn’t cover the politics of it.”
Added Galloway: “The mistakes that were made were made by politicians, not by soldiers.”
After the 1st Cavalry Division, along with its 435 helicopters, arrived to Vietnam in September 1965, Galloway began covering the First Team.
First Team experience
One of his early experiences with the 1st Cavalry was a march with the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment.
The soldiers had marched all day through thick jungle, into a high altitude level, crossing a stream.
“Right before dark, we forded a swift mountain stream, quite cold. It was about neck deep,” Galloway said.
They camped for the night in a clearing on the other side of the stream. No fires, cigarettes or other lights were allowed.
“It was probably the coldest night I’d ever spent wrapped in a poncho, just wet. The next morning I thought would never come.”
But eventually it did, and as the light was coming over the horizon, Galloway took out a piece of C-4 explosive to boil some water for coffee.
“I had just got my canteen cup boiling, and was about to put the coffee powder in, and I looked up and there were two guys standing on the lip of my foxhole: a lieutenant colonel named Hal Moore and his battalion sergeant major, Basil Plumley,” Galloway said. “Moore looked at me and he looked at my hot water, and he said, ‘Son, in my outfit, everybody shaves in the morning, including reporters.’ ... I shook my head and dug out my razor and my soap, and re-purposed my canteen cup of hot water.”
Moore and Galloway eventually became close friends, and together wrote “We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young,” which detailed 1st Cavalry’s historic Battle of Ia Drang Valley. The book became a movie in 2002, starring Mel Gibson as Moore.
Calls from the colonel
After the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965, Galloway was in and out with the 1st Cavalry Division during the next few months.
Moore was soon promoted to colonel and became the 1st Cavalry’s 3rd Brigade commander, and would personally invite Galloway to ongoing missions.
“Whenever he was doing an operation, which was constantly, he would brief me on it and invite me to join them,” Galloway said. “Col. Moore believed in freedom of the press. He believed in news coverage. He believed the American people had a right to know how their sons were being commanded. How they were operating, what they were doing and the sacrifices they were making.”
Moore, who eventually became a three-star general and retired in 1977, told his own men to answer questions, too, if the question was in their lane.
It was a healthy relationship, Galloway said, adding at any given time in Vietnam, there were about 500 correspondents reporting on the war. He saw the same 12 or 15 reporters on many of the missions he went on.
“There were those of us who saw our purpose as covering the Marines in the field, the soldiers in the field, and that was our piece of the war,” Galloway said. “You tried to file something every day, but that was, in of itself, very challenging.”
After 16 months, Galloway told his boss he didn’t want to come back.
“I had seen what I thought was my fair share of killing and dying. I had come to the conclusion that there was no way we could win this war. And I didn’t want to see any more (of it).”
However, Galloway did come back multiple times, eventually seeing South Vietnam fall to the North in 1975.
“I saw the war over 10 years time,” he said.
“Vietnam was the most openly and freely covered war in the history of the United States,” Galloway said. “If you could get an editor to write a letter saying he would use your stuff, and you could get to Saigon, you could get accreditation from the Military Assistance Command. With that accreditation card, and one from the South Vietnamese, you were free to go anywhere in the country. ... That was not the case in any previous war, and pretty much, hasn’t been in any war since then.”
Reporters could ride on military aircraft and march with rifle platoons on the ground.
Overall press coverage of the war was “fairly accurate, fairly honest... different reporters from different nations going after different stores,” Galloway said.
“The pictures don’t lie. The film doesn’t lie.”
At the end, some in the military used the media as a scapegoat “to shoot the messenger, if you will,” Galloway said. “But we didn’t cause the war to start. We didn’t cause the war to end. That’s way above our pay grade. The war was started by politicians. It was ended by politicians. If you want to do some blaming, you can point at four different presidents in a row.”
Galloway said his most important stories from Vietnam happened during his first year there, during the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, where many 1st Cavalry troopers lost their lives.
No one came out the same, Galloway said.
“You can not merely be a witness in a situation like that. People died all around me. I had their blood on my hands. I carried dying boys. I carried ammo. I carried water. And I carried a rifle, and I made use of it.”
Originally from Texas, Galloway now lives in North Carolina and works as a consultant for the national commemorative program marking the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.