The Epilogue of “We Were Soldiers Once”

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by Ed Mattson

 

In my previous article I wrote about the movie, We Were Soldiers Once, and details that went unnoticed, were overlooked, or are still sitting on the cutting room floor in the film editor’s laboratory at the studio. This was not to criticize the movie or belittle the facts that were presented, but to bring to life more of the heroism than was displayed in the three-day battle 46 years ago.  After all there is only so much that can be crammed into a 90 minute movie.

The main theme that played out highlighted the leadership of Col. Hal Moore who went into the battle with well-trained yet untested warriors using an experimental strategy utilizing helicopters for deployment, re-supply, and evacuation of wounded personnel against a veteran group of soldiers of North Vietnam.

Unlike previous wars where the foot soldiers generally carried everything needed for survival in backpacks, in Ia Drang, the new strategy focused on rapid deployment by soldiers who carried only water, weaponry, and ammunition, so they could move quickly unhindered by the weight of other survival gear. Like the Pony Soldiers in the Indian Wars, who rode into battle, striking fast and furiously, the battle was an experiment to see if the same theory would work only using helicopters instead of horses.

Secondary to Col. Moore’s leadership was the horror that faces every soldier in battle and the realism and finality of death. In today’s world of video games, youth becomes immune to the slaughter of war, where, with a quick click of the mouse, “the game” can start all over again…same warriors, same enemy, and the same heroes. Not so in real life, where there is real pain, blood and guts, where bodies are blown apart or charred beyond recognition by napalm, and where the dead do not come back to life.

While We Were Soldier Once achieved its goal of showing war and all its horror in frightening clarity, it would have been impossible, as was stated by Col Moore himself, to show all the valor and bravery displayed, during the three day battle over nineteen square miles of terrain. So, the third focus of the film was on the acts of the helicopter pilots who, in spite of grave danger, tempted the hand of fate for over fourteen hours and countless sorties in and out of the battle, delivering replacement troops, ammunition, medical supplies, and water, while ferrying the wounded to the base camp hospital.

Bruce Crandall hero-overlooked until 1995

In part one I covered both Lt. Col Harm, who was then a 1st Lieutenant, and Captain Ed “To Tall” Freeman, one of the key helicopter pilots. Harm was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and Freeman was initially awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross along with his wingman, flight commander, and fellow helicopter pilot, Maj. Bruce Crandall. Just how decisions are made on who gets recognized and for what medal, I guess is simply the luck of the draw. By the time history finally caught up with all that transpired in the battle, those in power thought maybe Captain Freeman was also worthy of the Medal of Honor, but the statute of limitations (two years) had passed so they could only award the DFC. In 1995 the two-year time period was lifted, and Congress finally made the Medal of Honor award.

Initially forgotten was Bruce Crandall, known to his fellow warriors as “Snakeshit”, who was awarded the DFC as well as the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for duplicating Freeman’s heroic efforts in flying those missions in and out of the battle. Though movie star handsome himself, he was too old to play his own role so his character was played by Greg Kinnear in the movie. Freeman and others petitioned the military hierarchy to  award the Medal of Honor to Crandall, but Crandall resisted their efforts. Eventually the Medal of Honor was awarded by President George Bush, and reads as follows…

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty: Major Bruce P. Crandall distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism as a Flight Commander in the Republic of Vietnam, while serving with Company A, 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). On 14 November 1965, his flight of sixteen helicopters was lifting troops for a search and destroy mission from Plei Me, Vietnam, to Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley. On the fourth troop lift, the airlift began to take enemy fire, and by the time the aircraft had refueled and returned for the next troop lift, the enemy had Landing Zone X-Ray targeted.

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As Major Crandall and the first eight helicopters landed to discharge troops on his fifth troop lift, his unarmed helicopter came under such intense enemy fire that the ground commander ordered the second flight of eight aircraft to abort their mission. As Major Crandall flew back to Plei Me, his base of operations, he determined that the ground commander of the besieged infantry battalion desperately needed more ammunition. Major Crandall then decided to adjust his base of operations to Artillery Firebase Falcon in order to shorten the flight distance to deliver ammunition and evacuate wounded soldiers. While medical evacuation was not his mission, he immediately sought volunteers and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, led the two aircraft to Landing Zone X-Ray. Despite the fact that the landing zone was still under relentless enemy fire, Major Crandall landed and proceeded to supervise the loading of seriously wounded soldiers aboard his aircraft.

Major Crandall’s voluntary decision to land under the most extreme fire instilled in the other pilots the will and spirit to continue to land their own aircraft, and in the ground forces the realization that they would be resupplied and that friendly wounded would be promptly evacuated. This greatly enhanced morale and the will to fight at a critical time. After his first medical evacuation, Major Crandall continued to fly into and out of the landing zone throughout the day and into the evening. That day he completed a total of 22 flights, most under intense enemy fire, retiring from the battlefield only after all possible service had been rendered to the Infantry battalion. His actions provided critical resupply of ammunition and evacuation of the wounded. Major Crandall’s daring acts of bravery and courage in the face of an overwhelming and determined enemy are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army”

But here’s the rest of the story…Major Bruce Crandall distinguished himself, not just at Ia Drange, but throughout his military career, having flown some 900 combat missions. To those who do not know the hazards of being a chopper pilot, the average life expectancy was rumored to have been just three missions without being downed by enemy fire. During his 24 years in service he receieved the Distinguished Service Cross (upgraded to Medal of Honor); Distinguished Flying Cross with one oak leaf cluster; Bronze Star Medal; Meritorious Service Medal; Air Medal (24 awards); Army Commendation Medal; Purple Heart; National Defense Service Medal with one oak leaf cluster; Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; Vietnam Service Medal (four campaigns); Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 60 device; Presidential Unit Citation; Meritorious Unit Citation; Master Army Aviator Badge; Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Gold Star (three awards) and the Armed Forces Reserve Medal.

He also was inducted into the United States Air Force’s “Gathering of Eagles” in 1994, one of only seven Army aviators so honored, and the Army Aviation Hall of Fame in 2004, and for his bravery during Operation Masher Crandall received the Aviation & Space Writers Helicopter Heroism Award for 1966. At the 20th annual award ceremony, his rescue flights were ranked highest over the first 20 years of the award. And, not the least of those awards that will market Lt. Col. Crandall in the history books is his home Olympia High School Baseball Field was named after him in a ceremony prior to the 2007 season. Crandall was a High School All-American baseball player for Olympia High School.

That brings us down to Jack Geoghegan, played by actor Chris Klein, who was killed in action while his platoon was defending a section of the LZ X-Ray perimeter from a North Vietnamese attack. The movie was not accurate in just how Lt. Geoghegan died, and there was no mention of his heroic actions being worthy of recognition by being awarded a medal. The portrayal of him in the movie was a composite character that some say included the actions of Medal of Honor recipient Walter Marm and many  soldiers who were killed in action. The real story is that one of his men, PFC Willie Godboldt, had been badly wounded and was calling for help, and rather than allowing another platoon member to risk his life, Geoghegan left his foxhole and went to Godboldt’s aid himself. He was fatally shot doing so. Godboldt died of his wounds shortly afterward. In the movies Geoghegan was shot in the back loading Godboldt onto a helicopter for evacuation. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and the Air Medal.

Another key character portrayed in the movie was war correspondent Joseph Lee “Joe” Galloway who was an American newspaper correspondent. He is the former Military Affairs consultant for the Knight-Ridder Newspaper syndicate and is presently a columnist with McClatchy Newspapers. He was the co-author of We Were Soldiers Once and portrayed in the movie by Barry Pepper. During the Vietnam War, he could be found “in the thick of it” alongside the troops. In the battle of Ia Drang Valley he was actually forced into action to save his own life when the position at LZ X-Ray was overrun by the enemy. He was awarded a Bronze Star with a “V” for valor for his actions which included carrying wounded men to safety. He was the only civilian to receive such an award by the United States Army during the Vietnam War.

Among his life’s achievements, Galloway received a National Magazine Award for a U.S. News cover article on the Ia Drang battles in Vietnam in 1991, and the New Media Award of the National VFW for his coverage of the Persian Gulf War for U.S. News in 1992.  Galloway also received the Robert Denig Award for Exceptional Service of the U.S. Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association and the Tex McCrary Award of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

General Ulysses Grant, when addressing the graduating class of the Michigan Military Academy on 19 June 1879, uttered this most prolific and vivid observation about war… “I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that someday you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!”

Someday may there be peace on earth so we no longer have to write about war heroes.

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