by Ed Mattson
With a production budget of $75 million and a box office worldwide revenue of $114,660,784, We Were Soldier Once, starring Mel Gibson, Madeline Stowe, Sam Elliott, and Barry Pepper, told the story of the Battle of Ia Drang in the central highlands of Vietnam in November 1965.
The movie was based on the book, We were Soldiers Once…and Young, written by Lt. Gen. Harold G. “Hal” Moore and Joseph Lee “Joe” Calloway, and documented the effort of then Col. Moore, and his men to meet the enemy on their own turf in what would become the first major battle in Vietnam to use helicopters to ferry men in and out of battle. The analogy of Gen Custer’s massacre of the 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn and the fate that may await his own un-tested, helicopter-lift 7th Cavalry, weighed heavily on Col. Moore’s mind leading up to the battle against the battle hardened North Vietnamese soldiers.
Because the actual fighting which took place in the Ia Drang Valley those three days in November and covered an area of approximately 19.5 square miles, the movie only focused in on the battle at LZ X-ray (Landing Zone), which was just about in the center between LZ Albany and LZ Victor. The significance of the helicopter lift on the outcome of the battle cannot be understated, as without that tactical edge, surely Moore’s men would have met with the same fate that awaited Custer’s 7th Cavalry.
The War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which teaches tactical strategies to our military leaders and provides training to the leaders of our closest allies from the lessons learned on the battlefield, covers the finite details of this important battle, which has earned a place in the permanent curriculum. The Ia Drang Valley battle, at a cost of almost 800 US casualties (wounded and killed in action), was not without error, as the troops of Col. Moore were not seasoned veterans, yet with the excellent training they received, they were able to adapt and hold their own against a battle-hardened enemy of far superior numbers.
Following the recent passing of Medal of Honor Recipient, Ed Freeman, who earned his Medal in this landmark battle, the Internet was deluged with criticism of the media for covering instead, the Lindsey Lohans, Charley Sheens, and Sean Penns of the world, and other worthless, over paid bums and events that don’t amount to a “hill—a-beans”, with nary a word on a true living legend in military lore. We should be accustom
ed to this by now as the media (and most Americans) seems to focus on the rift-raft of Hollywood and local stories that will sell to the general public, often forgetting the real heroes who have paid dearly so that such freedoms can be taken for granted.
Having received a stack of emails from those who follow my columns, I felt the story of Ed Freeman needed to be re-visited, and in research, I found a few hidden tidbits, that I didn’t know and thought perhaps my readers would appreciate.
If you have followed me long enough, you know my thoughts on heroism, and that everyone who goes into harm’s way is a hero. There would never be enough medals to go around if those witnessing acts of bravery and sacrifice lived long enough to tell the story. Maybe that’s what makes recognition so special as that for every medal earned there’s probably a hundred that went missing. Col. Moore reflected much the same thought when he wrote…
“We had problems on the awards… Too many men had died bravely and heroically, while the men who had witnessed their deeds had also been killed… Acts of valor that, on other fields, on other days, would have been rewarded with the Medal of Honor or Distinguished Service Cross or a Silver Star were recognized only with a telegram saying, ‘The Secretary of the Army regrets…’ The same was true of our sister battalion, the 2nd of the 7th.” (Harold G. Moore; Joseph L. Galloway (1992) in their book, We Were Soldiers Once … and Young — Ia Drang: the battle that changed the war in Vietnam. Random House.
While the movie has been critically acclaimed and is just about the best war movie ever done on Vietnam, like all movies that have received such stature for realism, it is impossible to tell a complete story of this magnitude in the time frame of about 90 minutes. It is easy for critics to find fault with every Hollywood production, unless every piece of footage used is taken directly from footage of cameras recording an event, but even such accurate depictions then fail prey to what was left on the cutting room floor by the film editors.
Such has been the tale for those who have found fault with We Were Soldiers Once, which focused on the overall combat that took place, the strategy and use of helicopters, sequences which depicted the horrors of battle, and the end result of the campaign which was a seemingly futile effort on behalf of some of the bravest men to ever wear the uniform of this country. Lost to the viewer were “missed opportunities” to fully develop the many heroes who emerged those three days in November, and little is known about what happened when Col. Moore’s troops left the field of battle.
The battle in Ia Drang was probably insignificant strategically, but the Army was interested in testing their theory on using the helicopter-lift program for rapid deployment, for resupplying troops who would then be able to travel fast and light without having to carry cumbersome backpacks with enough ammunition and provisions for a sustained battle, as well as applying the air-lift capabilities for evacuating the wounded. Ia Drang proved that such strategies would pay big dividends and changed warfare the way it is viewed today, particularly in the number of lives that could be saved by early evacuation for medical treatment. In retrospect, however, almost as soon as Col. Moore’s troops left the battlefield, the North Vietnamese were quick to return.
As to heroes, it would take a multi-volume dissertation to document what went on in The Valley those terrifying three days. We Were Soldiers Once only covers one area of the 19 square mile battle and to those who have seen the movie or read the book, can see why it would take so long to document all those deserving of medals.
In my research I found great stories which I hope to share in future articles, but just in the LZ X-Ray area, the heroism was exemplified by Walter Marm who was then a First Lieutenant. He didn’t even earn an “honorable mention” and his character was actually a compilation of characters in the movie, yet he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
His citation reads:
Lt. Col. MARM, WALTER JOSEPH, JR… “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty as a platoon leader in the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), 1st Lt. Marm demonstrated indomitable courage during a combat operation. His company was moving through the valley to relieve a friendly unit surrounded by an enemy force of estimated regimental size. 1st Lt. Marm led his platoon through withering fire until they were finally forced to take cover. Realizing that his platoon could not hold very long, and seeing four enemy soldiers moving into his position, he moved quickly under heavy fire and annihilated all 4. Then, seeing that his platoon was receiving intense fire from a concealed machinegun, he deliberately exposed himself to draw its fire. Thus locating its position, he attempted to destroy it with an antitank weapon.
Although he inflicted casualties, the weapon did not silence the enemy fire. Quickly, disregarding the intense fire directed on him and his platoon, he charged 30 meters across open ground, and hurled grenades into the enemy position, killing some of the 8 insurgents manning it. Although severely wounded, when his grenades were expended, armed with only a rifle, he continued the momentum of his assault on the position and killed the remainder of the enemy. 1st Lt. Marm’s selfless actions reduced the fire on his platoon, broke the enemy assault, and rallied his unit to continue toward the accomplishment of this mission. 1st Lt. Marm’s gallantry on the battlefield and his extraordinary intrepidity at the risk of his life are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.
Ed “Too Tall” Freeman was portrayed by actor Mark McCracken, and was one of the focal heroes in the movie, yet he was not awarded The Medal of Honor until after the movie was well into production and Col. Moore’s book had been published. Freeman’s commanding officer nominated him for the Medal of Honor for his actions at Ia Drang, but not in time to meet a two-year deadline then in place. He was instead awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The Medal of Honor nomination was disregarded until 1995, when the two-year deadline was removed. He was formally presented with the medal on July 16, 2001, in the East Room of the White House by President George W. Bush. His citation reads as follows:
Captain ED W. FREEMAN, United States Army…”Distinguished himself by numerous acts of conspicuous gallantry and extraordinary intrepidity on 14 November 1965 while serving with Company A, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). As a flight leader and second in command of a 16-helicopter lift unit, he supported a heavily engaged American infantry battalion at Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley, Republic of Vietnam. The unit was almost out of ammunition after taking some of the heaviest casualties of the war, fighting off a relentless attack from a highly motivated, heavily armed enemy force. When the infantry commander closed the helicopter landing zone due to intense direct enemy fire, Captain Freeman risked his own life by flying his unarmed helicopter through a gauntlet of enemy fire time after time, delivering critically needed ammunition, water and medical supplies to the besieged battalion.
His flights had a direct impact on the battle’s outcome by providing the engaged units with timely supplies of ammunition critical to their survival, without which they would almost surely have gone down, with much greater loss of life. After medical evacuation helicopters refused to fly into the area due to intense enemy fire, Captain Freeman flew 14 separate rescue missions, providing life-saving evacuation of an estimated 30 seriously wounded soldiers — some of whom would not have survived had he not acted. All flights were made into a small emergency landing zone within 100 to 200 meters of the defensive perimeter where heavily committed units were perilously holding off the attacking elements. Captain Freeman’s selfless acts of great valor, extraordinary perseverance and intrepidity were far above and beyond the call of duty or mission and set a super example of leadership and courage for all of his peers. Captain Freeman’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army”.
Wednesday I will continue with other heroes of Ia Drang to provide a broader picture about the bravery and sacrifice of those whose names are inscribed on section 03E of the Vietnam Wall.
Following his service in the Marine Corps Ed Mattson built a diverse career in business in both sales/marketing and management. He is a medical research specialist and published author. His latest book is Down on Main Street: Searching for American Exceptionalism
Ed is currently Development Director of the National Guard Bureau of International Affairs-State Partnership Program, Fundraising Coordinator for the Warrior2Citizen Project, and Managing Partner of Center-Point Consultants in North Carolina.
Mr. Mattson is a noted speaker and has addressed more than 3000 audiences in 42 states and 5 foreign countries. He has been awarded the Order of the Sword by American Cancer Society, is a Rotarian Paul Harris Fellow and appeared on more than 15 radio and television talk-shows.