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Remembering Lt. Gen. Harold Moore, Heroic Vietnam War Commander


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to remember Lieutenant General Harold Moore, who died Friday at the age of 94. He was a hero in the first major land battle in Vietnam between American and North Vietnamese troops. It was also the bloodiest. Both sides claimed victory. Both sides suffered tremendous losses. That was in 1965. Moore, who was then a lieutenant colonel, 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 as many as 3,000 North Vietnamese dead. The story of that battle and Moore's role in it was told in the book "We Were Soldiers Once...And Young," written by Moore and Joseph Galloway, who was a 23-year-old reporter at the time of the battle and covered it for UPI.

The book became a bestseller and was adapted into a 2002 film starring Mel Gibson as General Moore. In Moore's New York Times obituary, Sam Roberts wrote that the battle shaped Moore's heroic reputation and his view that America's combat role in Vietnam was futile. I spoke with Moore and Galloway in 1992 when the book was published. General Moore had retired. Joseph Galloway was then a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.

General Moore said the worst-case scenario happened early on in the battle when one of his platoons was cut off from the rest of the battalion.


GROSS: What's your responsibility when that happens?

HAROLD MOORE: Quite simple. My responsibility was to try to get them back and get to them and keep them from being overrun. As it turned out, the platoon leader was killed within minutes. The next in command, the platoon sergeant, was - was killed. And command came down to a buck sergeant, three stripes, who took command of the platoon. And he formed them into a perimeter, brought in fire support, artillery and air. And we held them off - we held this enemy off as we tried to attack to get to them. It took us over 24 hours to get to them. But when we got to them and rescued them, they still had ammunition with which to fight.

GROSS: General, you weren't prepared for the size of the Vietnamese force that you faced. What were you prepared to find, and how many men were actually there against you?

MOORE: OK. About 10 minutes before we took off for the Ia Drang Valley in the initial assault, I received information that there were three battalions of enemy - and a battalion of North Vietnamese is around 500 men - that there were three battalions of the enemy within two miles of our landing zone. And so I sifted this through my head and immediately realized that we could be into a fight almost immediately upon landing and which, indeed, we were. Within 45 minutes, we were in the first major battle of the war between a large American force and North Vietnamese forces. I say large because eventually I got, three or four hours later, the rest of my battalion on the ground. But at first, we only had 80 to a hundred. And it was a very, very sporty occasion, let me assure you.

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.

JOSEPH GALLOWAY: This - 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 it up and looked. And it was the battalion sergeant major, a man 6 foot 3 inches 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 M-16 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?

MOORE: I didn't get any sleep. Along about the, oh, early morning of the third day, my mind was still functioning clearly and cleanly and quickly, due that on adrenaline or just on training and stamina. But the curious thing that happened was that I had to think every word before I would say it into the radio or to people around me. It was like translating English into English, if you can understand what I'm trying to say.

GROSS: Mm-hm, mm-hm.

General, let me ask you if you ever made any bargains with God when you were thinking that this might be the end.

MOORE: No. You got to remember now that I was a West Point graduate, professional army officer trained in all the army schools. I'd been through battle in the Korean War as an infantry company commander of two infantry companies. And I'd seen battle before. And in that war and in the Vietnam War, I never did any bargaining with God. Candidly, I never thought about my wife and five kids back in America.

The thing I thought about was my troopers on the ground and accomplishing my mission. And I never gave a thought, in any fight I've ever been in, in two wars, whether or not I'd get hit. If I got hit, I got hit. That's it. My job was to lead troops. And to lead them, you got to be on the battlefield, and you cannot be fearful. You got to keep your cool. And I never knelt down.

And never in my head - it never crossed my mind that we would go down in that fight against great odds. I knew in my heart that we would prevail. We had massive fire support. We had disciplined troops. And we were tough. And we were good. It never entered my mind to make a personal bargain with God for me or for my men. I knew we'd win.

GROSS: General, when bombs are falling and there's artillery fire all around and you're under attack, this is a - you know, the question of somebody who's never served or been in battle, but how do you think clearly? I mean, this is the time when you are most required to think clearly but when it must be most difficult to do so.

MOORE: I really have never had any problem thinking clearly in a tough time, critical situation. I think I kind of go into a sort of a (unintelligible) zone (ph) and blank out all the horrible brutality which is going on around me, being aware of it nevertheless but realizing that I was a commander - I am a commander - and I am responsible for preserving as many American lives as I can and killing as many enemy as I can.

Now, in the smoke and the dust, which limits visibility and the terrible heat - that compounds the situation. The men screaming and yelling, giving orders in three languages - English, Spanish, Vietnamese; wounded men screaming for medics and for their mother, about to die - I've never found it difficult to keep my head in situations like that. I'm a paratrooper. I've had a couple malfunctions. Once, I was eight seconds from hitting the ground, but I knew I'd make it in on my reserve if I could get it open. So I've never really been concerned when I've been tough situations. Just do the job.

GROSS: I guess you can't allow yourself to get too emotional about your men dying in the middle of a fight.

MOORE: No, you cannot. And furthermore, you cannot impart, by your very manner and your voice on the radio, any possible sign or word or tone of voice that would indicate to any listener or any of your men looking at you that you were rattled. You had to look cool and be cool. And it's something you can't put on.

GROSS: What about when the battle's over and you don't have to be cool and you don't have to be unemotional, does it get you in a different way then?

MOORE: Yep. That's when it's always hit me. In this battle, I looked around on the ground and saw some of my - many of my precious men in their ponchos, lying dead, men whom I have trained for 18 months - knew their wives, children, many of them - knew them very closely. And I knew a terrible truth that, 24 hours later, would shatter the hearts of their families back home in America. And that got to me. Darn right, it did.

And I - never a day goes by, in the 27 years since that battle, that I don't refight it in my mind and think about those great Americans who never backed off, many of them who had only 7 to 10 days left in the service. And they went home in coffins. And I'm forever grateful for their service, and I grieve for them forever. And for years, I felt guilty that I was not killed. I guess that's a normal reaction from a commander who loves his men.

GROSS: You don't feel that way anymore?

MOORE: I've kind of gotten over it a little bit. A few years back, several of my troopers told me at one of these reunions, they said Colonel - and they still call me Colonel, which is fine - Colonel, you got to stop feeling that way because if you died in that place, none of us would have got out of there.

Well, I don't know if that's true or false, but that made me feel better.

GROSS: My interview with Lieutenant General Harold Moore and journalist Joseph Galloway was recorded in 1992 after the publication of their book "We Were Soldiers Once... And Young." General Moore died Friday at the age of 94. After we take a short break, John Powers will review a new documentary about street cats. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BUDOS BAND'S "INTO THE FOG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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