Joe Galloway, Vietnam War Correspondent
“Joseph Lee “Joe” Galloway (born November 13, 1941), is an American newspaper correspondent and columnist. Galloway is a native of Refugio, Texas.
He is the former Military Affairs consultant for the Knight-Ridder chain of newspapers and was a columnist with McClatchy Newspapers. During the Vietnam War, he often worked alongside the troops he covered and was awarded a Bronze Star for carrying wounded men to safety.
During the Vietnam War, Galloway worked as a reporter for UPI, beginning in early 1965. Thirty-five years later, he was decorated with the Bronze Star for helping to rescue wounded American soldiers under fire during the battle at Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley.
Galloway retired as a weekly columnist for McClatchy Newspapers in January 2010, writing, “I have loved being a reporter; loved it when we got it right; understood it when we got it wrong…In the end, it all comes down to the people, both those you cover and those you work for, with or alongside during 50 years.
Along with Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, Galloway co-authored a detailed account of those experiences in the best-selling 1992 book, “We Were Soldiers Once… And Young.” A sequel was released in 2008: “We Are Soldiers Still: A Journey Back to the Battlefields of Vietnam.”
Lillie: Joe, you‘ve covered more than the Vietnam War. You’ve covered a lot of them. How did you start as a journalist? Did you take training or is this something you just jumped into?
Galloway: Oh, no. I think I must have been born one. I worked on the school newspaper in high school. I helped start a competition weekly in my hometown the summer I got out of high school and went off briefly to college. I was driven out by a mayday in class in the German language taught by a portly lady with badly fitting dentures. I was on my way to join the Army, I was 17, I had to browbeat my mother into agreeing to sign for me. We were two blocks from the recruiting office in Victoria, Texas when we passed the local newspaper. Mom said “Joe, what about your journalism?” I said “Good call, Mom, stop the car.” I had been their campus stringer for those few weeks and I walked in and asked if the editor had a job, and he did, and he hired me on the spot for $35 per week and a free subscription to the paper. I was on my way.
Lillie: You volunteered for Vietnam. In fact you sent a letter a week. I was doing the same thing at a station in California. I was hounding the personnel office to get any orders to a battalion going to Vietnam. So, you were a journalist elsewhere but you did hound to get over to Vietnam and finally got your wish and ended up in Vietnam. Give us a little bit of history on your first 48 or 72 hours in the country.
Galloway: I landed about two weeks after the Marines. The 1st Battalion 9th Marines landed in Da Nang in March 1965. I landed in April coming from Tokyo. I sort of made a stop there for six months. I got to Saigon on a flight where my seatmate was a little Buddhist monk in an orange robe. The closer we got to Saigon, the more he was talking about sticking to me like glue. I wondered what the heck was going on. We landed and they told everyone to remain in their seats and a squad of white mice (the Saigon Police) got aboard and yanked that Buddhist monk out of his seat and dragged him down the aisle and down the stairs and he was one of those exiles who was trying to slip back in the country and he failed utterly. They put him on the next plane back out. That was my arrival in Vietnam.
I reported in to the old United Press International Bureau and had a day or two in Saigon to get my press card from MACV. Then I got on the mail run, C123 flight that ran from Saigon.
Lillie: Is the Caribou the 123?
Galloway: No, the 123 is a bit bigger than the Caribou. The Caribou was operated by the Army. The 123 was the workhorse, the pre C130. They carried the mail and carried people around. They ran two or three of these flights a day. It took forever to get there but eventually I made it to Da Nang and by then the Marines had taken over a former Merchant Marine brothel on the banks of Da Nang river and turned it into a press center. I had a rented jeep and I lived in Da Nang for six or seven months. I would be up there for two or three months at a time before I would even get back to Saigon. I went on every operation the Marines would let me.
Lillie: You weren’t one of those correspondents that recorded the war by sitting back in an air conditioned building and listening to news releases. You were out in the field with the grunts.
Galloway: When I was younger, I had read the collected works of Ernie Pyle and WWII and I decided then, if there was a war during my generation, I wanted to cover it. And if I covered it, I wanted to cover it like Pyle covered his generation. That’s up front with the troops and that is precisely what I did. I didn’t like Saigon and I didn’t like the politics of the situation. I would get to Saigon once in a while and most of the 500+ accredited correspondents spent their time in Saigon. They went to the daily briefings, we called them the “5 o’clock follies”, and they would complain to me that they were lying to us. My answer was always the same, no one lies to you within the sound of the guns. You come out with me and people tell you the truth.
Lillie: Tell us about your first time you went out with the troops.
Galloway: It was on the day I arrived. I got off that plane and a fellow ran up to me and said “I am Raua, I work for UPI, there is big trouble, come with me.” I was carrying a Samsonite suitcase and still wearing chinos and loafers. I hadn’t even gotten a set of fatigues yet. I said “What about my suitcase?” and he said something rude about it and threw it in the 8th Aerial Transport Squadron hooch at Da Nang and dragged me on a C130 that was spinning up on the ramp. I didn’t know where I was going or what was going on. We made a short flight and we landed in a place called Quang Ngai City. We got off and it was like someone had stirred an ant hill.
They were under serious attack and serious pressure in that area. It was an early attempt by the Viet Cong to cut the country in half. I got off and there was confusion all around, planes and choppers coming and going, people running around. This photographer ran off to a Marine H34, an old titanium magnesium based helicopter, and he talked to the crew chief and then he waved at me and the next thing I know, I’m on this bird and we are flying out at a low level across the patties. I still don’t know where I am and I still don’t know where I’m going. This helicopter finally comes upon a hill that rises out of the rice patties and it circled around this hill. I’m trying to look out the door and I can see there are a lot of people on top of this hill. We land there and they shut down, and there is dead silence. I got out of the bird and then I was told why they were giving us this ride. They needed our help. A battalion of South Vietnamese had been overrun and killed to the last man and we were there to help them find and bring back the bodies of the two American advisors. They had only time to sort of scratch out a little body depression in the ground and every man was laying where he had made his last stand, hands out like he was holding a rifle but the rifle was gone. We went hole to hole until we found the two Americans and carried them back to the helicopter. It was a very sobering welcome to Vietnam.
Lillie: You spent so much time in war that when the troops were going into Iraq, Knight-Ridder Newspaper asked you to write a memo to the correspondents that would be traveling along with them, to give them advice. In reading your memo, it was amazing, down to the simple things, a big neckerchief. Tell us why they would want a big neckerchief.
Galloway: You need to bathe in it for one thing. It’s your towel, it’s your neck rag, but mainly in the desert, you wear it across your face like a bank robber to keep the sand out of your mouth.
Lillie: A good set of ear plugs?
Galloway: You ride helicopters a lot in the combat operation and they’re bad on your ears. I’m probably half deaf anyway, if not three quarters deaf.
Lillie: You said, if things start happening, if anyone tells you to move out, or run, or dig a hole, do so with vigor.
Galloway: Yes indeed. If stuff starts coming in and things start blowing up, and you don’t know what to do, find someone with stripes on his arm and do what he does.
Lillie: One of the things you said in combat, they may find they need a helping hand. You’ve done this a lot, carry water, or ammo or the dead if needed.
Galloway: That’s correct and I’ve done all of those things. You have to make yourself of some use besides standing around like a bump on a log.
Lillie: When you first got to Vietnam, you were also carrying a weapon. How did that happen?
Galloway: Not when I first got there, but not long after, there were battalion commanders who would tell you straight up, “Look here, I don’t have the spare bodies to give you your personal bodyguard. You have to take care of yourself. If you are not carrying a weapon, you can’t march with my outfit.” Second of all, in spite of the fact that you carried a press card and it had real fine print on the back of it that said that you were to be treated with all the privileges afforded a Major in the US Army if you were captured by enemies of the United States. I didn’t recall if they were very kind to anyone of any rank if you fell into the hands of the enemies. Besides, they were shooting at me. I felt obliged, on occasion, to shoot back.
Lillie: After getting your first weapon, you went to Plei Me Camp, a Special Forces camp, and met up with Major Beckwith and got an even more powerful weapon.
Galloway: It was the third week of October 1965 and Plei Me Camp was under siege by a regiment of the North Vietnamese and they were holding the camp hostage as dangling bait to draw the South Vietnamese armored column up the road to rescue them and they had another regiment standing by to ambush them. I wanted to get in there and the air space was closed. A couple of Huey helicopters had been shot down, a sky raider and a bomber, the place had those 51 caliber Chinese anti-aircraft machine guns on tripods and they were looking down our throats.
I was stomping up and down the flight line at Camp Holloway saying rude words and things and I ran across an old Texas helicopter pilot, a Huey pilot with the 119th helicopter company. He said, “What’s the matter Joe?” I said, “Well, I’m trying to get into Plei Me Camp and there is no way to go.” He said, “Let me get the clipboard.” He took a look and said, “The reason you can’t get in there, is the air space is closed.” I said, “I know that, dummy, but I still want in there.” He said, “I wouldn’t mind taking a look, so I will give you a ride.” Rayburns flew me in there. He hit the ground. I took a picture. We were corkscrewing to avoid those machine guns and dropping in as fast as he could and I shot a picture out the open doorway. You can see the triangular shaped camp filling that doorway in the picture. You can see the smoke from mortar bombs going off and that is where we were headed. He brought that thing in and I bailed out. We threw some wounded aboard and off he went. This Master Sergeant Special Forces came up to me and said, “Sir, I don’t know who the heck you are, but Major Beckwith wants to speak to you right away.” I said, “Which one is he?” He said, “It’s that big guy over there jumping up and down on his hat.” He said a lot of rude words we can’t say on this network but he said “Who are you?” I said, “I’m a reporter.” He said, “You know I need everything in the whole f*** world. I need medevac, I need food, I could use reinforcements, I need ammo. I need everything. I could use a bottle of Jim Bean and a box of cigars. And what has the Army and its wisdom sent me but a f*** reporter? I got to tell you, son, I have no vacancy for a reporter, but I’m in desperate need of a corner machine gunner, and you’re it!” My mouth was hanging open by then. He hauled me over to a position and there was air cool 34 caliber machine gun sitting there and he showed me how to load it, how to clear a jam, and he gave me my instructions which was that I should shoot all the little brown men outside the wire but not the ones inside the wire, they belong to him. He said, “While you are at, keep one eye always on that machine gun positioned all the way down in the other corner of the camp. Because it’s manned by South Vietnamese CIDG, they’re infiltrated, I don’t trust them as far as I can throw them. If you see them turn that machine gun around, take them out.”
I spent three days and three nights with that machine gun, it was what you call “sporting times.” Finally, the armored column made it through the ambush, thanks to the 1st Cav hopscotching artillery batteries which were slung beneath Chinook helicopters. This was something new in this war and the North Vietnamese didn’t know about it and when they snapped their ambush, they got hammered by precise artillery fire and they got hammered by a whole world of air.
Lillie: These were tactics that they used against the French quite successfully. Setting up a bait like Plei Me Camp, not taking it on purpose, and setting up ambushes to wipe out the column.
Galloway: The one thing that was different here was that the First Calvary Division had arrived. They had 435 helicopters and they could guarantee that South Vietnamese armor commander was refusing to leave Pla Que until the Calvary guaranteed he would be under an umbrella of artillery protection every mile of the way. They pulled in and then a battalion of the First Calvary did air soft landing and were marching off to clear the hills around the camp.
Lillie: Who was in command of that unit?
Galloway: I don’t remember which battalion it was. I went to Major Beckwith and said my goodbyes. He said, “Son, you’re not carrying a piece.” I said, “Well, you know, technically speaking, I’m a civilian non-combatant under the Geneva Conventions in spite of the use you have made of me these last three days and nights. He said, “There’s no such thing in these mountains. Master Sergeant, get the man a rifle and a bag of magazines.” I marched out of there with an M16 on my shoulder and a sack of magazines fully loaded. Three weeks later, I would thank my lucky stars and thank Major Charlie Beckwith who was a friend of mine to his last days, for that rifle.
Lillie: When you got out into the hills, what did you find?
Galloway: Incredible. The hills were stripped of vegetation. There were a few trees still standing, most of the branches gone, all of the leaves gone, but the soil looked like it had been plowed by a giant plow or something. Nothing was left unturned, untouched, and we found North Vietnamese machine gunners’ bodies with the leg chained to the tripod of their gun. Later I had occasion to interview General Ohn, who was the technical commander at X-ray and in this fight too. We interviewed him three times. I asked him about that. He tried to avoid the question, but I pushed as I tend to do, and he said, “Look, it was the 32nd regime and they were fairly green and we knew they were going to be subject to heavy, heavy air attack, and we were afraid they would run. So we just fixed it so they couldn’t.” Those guys stayed with their guns and died with their guns.
Lillie: That is something you won’t see in the American military. We covered the Battle of LZ X-ray before, but I’ve had a lot of requests. In the movie, Sergeant Major Plumbley came up to you and you were hugging the ground under fire, what did he do?
Galloway: Just as it was in the movie, I’m laying in there feathering out at the edges, staying real low, there is a world of fire coming right through the command post area and I can’t get low enough. About then, I feel this lump in my ribs and I carefully turn my head without lifting it to see what it is, and what it is, is a size 12 combat boot on the foot of Sergeant Major Plumbley. Bent over at the waist and over this den of battle, he shouted down at me and said, “Can’t take no pictures laying there on the ground sonny.”
Lillie: And that was portrayed in the movie. I wondered myself, did it really happen?
Galloway: Absolutely. I laid there and thought, well, he is right. Later on I would learn that Sergeants and Majors are always right. Like a fool, I got up and I thought maybe we are all going to die here today and if I’m going to get mine, I would rather take it standing along the side of a man like Major Plumbley.
Lillie: Joe, you’ve covered more wars and more battles. Who was it that said you have more time in combat than any infantrymen?
Galloway: That was General Barry McCaffery.
Lillie. He’s right, correct?
Galloway: I don’t know, there were a lot of guys, with a lot of time in combat now with 3 or 4 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, I don’t know if that stands or not. I’m happy to let that record go to somebody else.
Lillie: You did some more tours of Vietnam after that first tour with LZ X-ray. Were there other battles in that first tour that equaled it?
Galloway: None that ever equaled it, not in that tour or three other tours that I pulled in Vietnam, not in a half dozen other wars I’ve covered. That was a high watermark and it was the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. Right then, right there. 305 American boys killed in that campaign. Hundreds and hundreds wounded. Just a ferocious collision between the two finest light infantry outfits operating in the world. The North Vietnamese Army and the First Calvary Division.
Lillie: I’ve heard many grunts say that the North Vietnamese Army, their troops were very good at what they did. Well-trained, well-armed, well-equipped and dedicated.
Galloway: Absolutely. They weren’t afraid to die. They had to walk to work through a firestorm just to get to us. They didn’t flinch. They were superb infantry fighters and anyone who didn’t respect that enemy in Vietnam was an absolute fool or dead.
Lillie: Politics aside, when you left Vietnam for the last time, what was your impression of the American soldier?
Galloway: My impression of the American soldier in Vietnam in 1965, 71, 73, of the American Soldier in the Gulf War, in Haiti, and two tours in Iraq, I have the highest respect for American Soldiers. There is a difference between soldiers who fought in Vietnam and those who fight today in Iraq and Afghanistan, the volunteer Army. These kids are more sophisticated. They are better educated, better trained and certainly better armed. Soldiering comes down to matter of the heart. That is unchanging. I think it has never changed from the first day a guy picked up a rock to defend his cave and his wife and his kids, over 10,000 years ago. There is a sense about the soldier of selfless sacrifice. He isn’t in it for the glory. There is no glory in combat. There is no glory in war. It’s a hard, bloody task that will leave you carrying the burden of memories of things that no one should see, especially when you are 18 or 19 years old. The soldiers are the same. I’ve counted it a privilege to have been allowed to stand beside them then, to stand beside them today, and they are my brothers. What can I say?
Lillie: I hear this phrase over and over again and it messes with my mind, they say, “I was just doing my job.” I can’t process that. Is there any way that you can put it down in words that will allow me and others that I know to process that?
Galloway: What they are saying is that the training took over in the heat of battle, in the worse of combat, you’re training is what will save your life. You start doing things automatically because it is almost impossible to think. The smoke, the confusion, men dying all around you, people screaming for their mother, it is just that – the training and a modesty. I can’t tell you how many times I have interviewed soldiers, fighter pilots, they will sit there for hours and tell you what the guy on their left did, what the guy on their right did, and they don’t want to tell you what they did. They are modest heroes – our soldiers, our marines, our airmen, our sailors, our coastguard guys.
Lillie: Our own Dale Throneberry was a helicopter pilot over there and he did something that was just remarkable and I wanted to do a program on slicks, the helicopter pilots. I wanted him to tell a story about how he got his helicopter down through a triple canopy jungle, having to go from hole to hole in the canopies to get a wounded grunt off the ground. He said, “I jiggled around a little bit and went down and got this guy.” I almost dove across the table and grabbed him by the throat.
Galloway: Helicopter pilots are not necessarily the most modest of men. I’ve heard some tales from them that you have to take with a grain of salt, but they are great soldiers. They always came when you called. You call, we haul. They used to have cards with it printed on them. I hated them when they dropped me off in some God awful place where people were trying to kill me, but they would come back to get you when it was all over. I loved them when they gave me a ride out.
Lillie: They were heroes. The guys that went in there like the guy that took you into Plei Me and the guy that took you into LZ X-ray.
Galloway: Bruce Crandall earned a righteous Medal of Honor. I rode in his chopper, into X-ray and three days later, I rode in his chopper out.
Lillie: How many choppers did he go through in that first night?
Galloway: I think he went through three. Bruce and I are still best friends today. You make friends in a situation like that in a battlefield and if you can find them after the war is over, you got a friend for life. I’m so thankful that I was allowed to survive to write the stories, to tell the stories, to try to tell the truth about the American soldier. No finer, more noble creature, in my view, than just your plain, ordinary grunt existing in a hell that is combat and somehow making it through, taking care of his brothers on the right and left, never worrying about himself, willing to stand up and go to certain death trying to save a friend or buddy. A buddy he doesn’t even know.