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Remembering Vietnam War Correspondent Joe Galloway

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Former war correspondent Joe Galloway, the only civilian awarded a Medal of Valor by the Army for combat action in the Vietnam War, died last week at the age of 79. We're going to listen back to excerpts of two interviews with him.

As a 24-year-old UPI correspondent, Galloway was at the first major battle of the Vietnam War. He collaborated on the bestselling book about that battle called "We Were Soldiers Once... And Young: Ia Drang - The Battle That Changed The War In Vietnam." He wrote it with the man who led that campaign, Lieutenant General Harold Moore. The book was also made into a film. Galloway later wrote for U.S. News and World Report and for Knight Ridder newspapers. He was critical of the runup to the Iraq War, which brought him to the notice of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

We're going to listen to part of our interview with Joe Galloway from 1992 about their book. General Moore led 450 men of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry into the Ia Drang Valley. They never expected to be surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. Reinforcements came from both sides. The battle ended with 230 Americans dead, 240 wounded and 3,000 North Vietnamese dead. A note, please be aware - in about six minutes, there is a graphic depiction of a soldier injured in battle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Joe Galloway, I'm going to ask you to describe what it was like to be on the ground in the middle of a battle in which there was rocket fire, bombs, cannons, ground artillery.

JOE GALLOWAY: This was shocking. This was overwhelming noise. You couldn't hear yourself think. The second morning, the enemy launched a major attack on the southeast side of this little football-sized clearing. And all of a sudden, this thunderous attack erupts, and we're right behind the company that's being hit. And the machine gun fire and the rifle fire and the rocket grenades of the enemy that pass through that company are landing on us. Men next to me fell over with a bullet in the head. I was lying down as close to the ground as I could get, seemed like the right thing to do.

When I felt the toe of a combat boot in my ribs, and I sort of turned my head and tilted up and looked, and it was the battalion sergeant major, a man 6'3" tall, a big bear of a guy. And he bent over at the waist and sort of yelled down at me so I could just hear him. And what he said shocked me. He said, sonny, you can't take no pictures laying down there on the ground. And I thought about that for a minute. And I realized he's right. I can't do my job down here. And the other thing that crossed my mind is I think we're probably all going to be killed. And if that's the case, I'd just as soon take mine standing up anyway. So I got up and went about my business.

GROSS: What did you shoot?

GALLOWAY: I was carrying a Nikon camera and an M16 rifle.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GALLOWAY: And on occasion, I used them both.

GROSS: Did your pictures turn out from the battle?

GALLOWAY: The pictures were - for somebody who was as scared as I was, they weren't too bad.

GROSS: Now, this battle lasted four days and four nights. Did you get any sleep at all, either of you, during the length of the battle?

GALLOWAY: Sleep sort of leaves your mind. I had been on the perimeter with one of Colonel Moore's - his Bravo Company. And that was foxholes and alarms all night and 100% alert, so I got no sleep that night. And I got no sleep the next night. And I think it was on the last night we were in there, somewhere about 2:00 in the morning, it kind of caught up with me. And I remember leaning back against a tree. And the last thing I remember for about an hour and a half until the shooting started again was I remember that same fellow who booted me up onto my feet in the middle of the firestorm. I remember him kneeling down, the sergeant major, and putting a poncho liner over me and tucking me in like I was his son or his grandchild.

And I thought, what a tender gesture from such a tough man. And I did, I just conked out. I slept for a couple of hours. I woke - I was awakened by the renewed fighting and came up out of the poncho liner and went back to work. Some of that work, I would say, you're not so much a newsperson in those circumstances as you are of - another set of hands. A bit of - you can be of use. You can carry the wounded. You can bring water. You can carry ammunition. You can...

GROSS: Did you carry the wounded?

GALLOWAY: I did. I did. The one memory that will never leave my mind is what they call a friendly fire incident that occurred on the second day. And we were around the command post, and someone said, my God, look. And I looked up, and there were two canisters of napalm that had just been released by a U.S. Air Force F-100 jet. And they were coming directly at us. And there was - his wingman was behind him and alongside, and if the first set of napalm cans didn't get us, the second were surely going to. And I can remember Colonel Moore screaming, get him to pull up, pull up, pull up, and the - Charlie Hastings, the Air Force forward controller, on the radio screaming at that pilot.

The damage was done with the first two, but we could maybe stop the second plane from dropping his - and Charlie managed to do that - but the other two just, like, slow motion coming down at us. The officer next to me, he knew something I didn't know, that if you are caught in napalm, the one thing you need to do is protect your eyes. And he turns, and he put his face into my shoulder and protected his eyes while I just watched them come.

And they went just directly over our heads. And they struck in the middle of a couple of small foxholes where our engineer detachment were dug in in the grass. And the napalm engulfed them, and we could see them dancing in the fire. And as soon as that that napalm died down and we could run out into that smoldering grass, we did. And a man loomed up in the smoke, and he said, get this man by his feet. And I reached, and I caught his ankles. And when I did, the nylon of the the combat boots crumbled in my hands and the flesh came off. And I could feel the bones of his ankles in the palms of my hands. And you never, ever forget something like that. Those men lay for an hour or so in our little makeshift aid station right beside us, screaming in pain in spite of all the morphine in the world. This affects you. You're no longer that - you can't be a detached observer in those circumstances. You - this is - these are people who are giving their lives to save yours.

GROSS: I'd like to ask you if, during the battle, when you probably thought there was a good chance you would die, if you made any bargains with God or made any promises about what you would do if you did live?

GALLOWAY: I did not. I was very young at the time, just turned 24. I had thought about this myself. And I thought, this is a possibility, but I'd have no wife. I have no children. This is my life I'm risking. And it would cause some pain to my mother and father, but it's worth the risk. Now, I went to war again when I was 49 years old. And I rode with the tanks of the 24th Infantry Division into the Euphrates River Valley, deep in Iraq.

And that was different. I'm married. I have two young sons, 12 and 15. And all the way across that desert, I thought about them. And I thought about once again the young men who were riding with me. And I did do some talking to God on that ride. And what I said was, God, don't Send me back into another Ia Drang Valley. I've been there, and these kids don't need to see that.

BIANCULLI: Former war correspondent Joe Galloway, co-author of "We Were Soldiers Once... And Young," speaking to Terry Gross in 1992. After a break, we'll listen to another more recent interview with Joe Galloway. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's listen now to an excerpt of Terry's 2003 interview with Joe Galloway, who died last week at age 79. Back in 2003, he was military affairs correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and had helped train the Knight Ridder reporters who were embedded with the military during the Iraq War. In 1998, he received the Medal of Valor from the Army for his actions in the Vietnam War.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: I want to ask you about your experiences in Vietnam for a moment. You were the only civilian decorated during that war. What did you do to be decorated?

BIANCULLI: Well, I belatedly was given a Bronze Star with V, the only one the Army gave a civilian during the entire war, for rescuing a wounded soldier during the Battle of Landing Zone X-Ray, an event that, in fact, is portrayed in the in the movie "We Were Soldiers," which was released last year. A very shocking, friendly fire incident where a napalm canister exploded almost in the middle of the command post. And a young engineer specialist that I had talked to earlier was engulfed in the flames. And a medic and I both jumped up and ran toward him. And the medic was shot through the head and killed. And I got to him and helped bring him back to the medics. But he was so badly burned that he died the following day.

For years, I looked for his widow and baby daughter, who was born just a few days before he was killed, couldn't find them. But the movie brought them out and brought them to our reunion last Veterans Day. And I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to them for a long time. It was - I think it was a healing thing for both of us, for all of us.

GROSS: Some of the embedded reporters that you're working with, for them, this is their first war. Did they ask for your advice about whether they should whether they should come to the rescue or whether they should just kind of hang back and be the observer reporter?

GALLOWAY: You know, I wrote a three-page memo to all of them with basically commonsense advice on what to carry and how to conduct yourself and what you do if there's a sudden attack. And I concluded that by telling them, you know, it's OK to be a human first and as a reporter second. It's OK to lend a hand in an emergency to help carry the wounded, to bring water to the soldiers. Whatever seems the right thing to do, do it because your fate is inextricably bound up with theirs.

GROSS: You actually carried a gun during part of the Vietnam War. What led you to arm yourself?

GALLOWAY: Well, I - what led me to arm myself was experience. I had been inside the special forces camp at Plei Me in October 1965, when it was under siege from a regiment of North Vietnamese. It was a very close run thing, and we weren't sure that any of us were going to survive. The camp commander was a famous fellow, then-Major Charlie Beckwith, who later would go on to found the Delta Force and lead the abortive raid into the desert in Iran trying to rescue our hostages. And when I arrived there, Beckwith looked at me. And he said, you know, I have no vacancy for a reporter's son, but I need a corner machine gunner and you're it. And he put me on a machine gun and told me what to do and who to shoot. And I was given basically no choice. I had no ride out of there. And so I did as I was ordered.

And when I was leaving there, Major Beckwith said, you don't have a weapon. And I said, well, in spite of what you've made me do for the last three days, technically speaking, I'm a noncombatant. And he looked at me, and he shook his head. And he said, technically speaking, son, there's no such thing in these mountains. You need a rifle. Sergeant Major, get this man a rifle. And I had that rifle on my shoulder three weeks later when I went into Landing Zone X-Ray. And there, and only there during the rest of my time in Vietnam, did I use that weapon...

GROSS: What did you use it for?

GALLOWAY: ...And only in the direst of circumstances.

GROSS: What was the circumstance?

GALLOWAY: Well, we were seemingly about to be overrun by the enemy. And I thought that I had no choice for my own safety and survival - and the survival of those around me.

GROSS: So you shot?

GALLOWAY: I did.

GROSS: How would you feel - yeah.

GALLOWAY: And no apologies.

GROSS: Now, what about the embedded reporters that you're working with, would you want them to be there for urban warfare if it comes to that? Or do you think it's too dangerous and that they should get out?

GALLOWAY: No. I think if you have gone with the unit to the gates of the thing and they are going in, you should go with them. It'll be - you know, the risks increase very greatly. But you signed on knowing that there were risks. And you don't quit at the last minute and sit back and look through binoculars. I think you go on in with them.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.

GALLOWAY: Oh, a pleasure, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Former war correspondent and decorated war hero Joe Galloway speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. He died August 18 at age 79. After a break, we remember Charlie Watts. The longtime drummer for the Rolling Stones died Tuesday at age 80. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.