Story of a Lifetime: Documenting the Vietnam War

The story of how Joe Galloway became the only American civilian decorated for combat actions. He continues to document the war by interviewing veterans for the 50th War Anniversary Commemoration.

Joseph Galloway in a military Stetson, the designated headgear of the Air Cavalry, with military insignia including his ribbon for the Bronze Star with Valor, the only American to be awarded that honor. Photo courtesy of Joseph Galloway. 

By Cody Mann

February 21, 2021 
“I’d been looking for that story for six months,” Joseph Galloway said. “And now it was within my grasp.”

Galloway, a United Press International correspondent, was flying into the Ia Drang Valley. It was Nov. 14, 1965, and the first significant battle of the Vietnam War was unfolding.

Circling over a smoky battlefield in a command helicopter, Galloway knew on the ground, Lt. Col. Hal Moore, didn’t want the boss watching over his shoulder as he fought for survival. So, when the request to land in the antennae-laden chopper was waived off as too big a target, Galloway plotted his next move.

He spent the rest of the day arranging a ride to the landing zone that the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment had carved out while under fire and increasingly outnumbered. With other journalists sniffing around, he quietly connected with one of Moore’s men, who got him permission to fly in with an ammo run.

“If he’s crazy enough to want to come in here, and you’ve got room, bring him,” Galloway remembers Moore’s voice crackling on the radio over the sounds of battle.

Galloway made it in that night. In the morning, just as the troops were saddling up to rescue a group that was cut off, a lead sheet of enemy fire flattened Galloway to his belly. Feeling a thump to his ribs, he thought he was hit, but it was the senior enlisted man standing tall, joking that Galloway couldn’t take any pictures down there.

Following Sgt. Major Basil Plumley, rallying men to repel a breakthrough, Galloway packed up his cameras and shouldered his M-16 rifle. From behind a massive termite hill, Moore realized he was in danger of being overrun, and called for support from every aircraft in Vietnam.

“All of a sudden, I hear Moore screaming at Charlie Hastings, the Air Force lieutenant, saying ‘Charlie, get that son of a bitch off us,’” Galloway said. “Get him off us now!”

Amid the furious gunfight, Galloway glanced up and saw an American fighter-bomber kick loose two napalm bombs, flinging them his way. Hastings just barely called off a second plane before two more bombs dropped.

“But those two that are coming, we have to eat,” Galloway said. “And they come right over our heads, not 15 feet over, and impact — thank God — going away from us.”

The heat of the firebombs warmed his face. Galloway saw two soldiers engulfed, dancing in the flames. He and a medic rushed toward the fire, but the medic was immediately shot and killed. With help from another soldier, Galloway carried one of the wounded to medical aid. Mortally burned, the men screamed for hours, no matter how much morphine they were given.

“Somebody yelled at me to grab the feet of one of the charred soldiers. When I got them, the boots crumbled and the flesh came off and I could feel the bare bones of his ankles in the palms of my hands,” Galloway wrote in his 1992 book, We Were Soldiers Once… And Young. “I can still hear their screams.”

In 1998, Galloway became the only American civilian to receive a Bronze Star Medal with Valor in recognition of his actions three decades earlier in the Battle of Ia Drang.

The citation for Galloway’s award credits his heroism and valorous actions under enemy fire, noting that his “determination to get accurate, factual reports to the American people reflect[s] great credit upon himself and American War Correspondents.” He stayed in the fight through the grueling three-day battle until relief forces arrived.

“The ones who died chasing the truth are the ones I wear that medal for,” Galloway said. “They were the friends of my younger days. By the time I was 30 years old, I had more friends underground than above.”

Troops of the 1/7th Cavalry Regiment carry a wounded man to a chopper during the battle at LZ X-Ray in the la Drang Valley on Nov. 16, 1965. Photo by Joseph Galloway. 

Galloway is 79 now. Since 2013, he’s traveled to interview veterans as a special consultant to the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemorationproject, continuing to document the war. The coronavirus pandemic halted the work, but with 800 interviews already in the can, Galloway is eager to get back on the road and make it 1,000.

A close friend to this day, photojournalist Steve Northup first met Galloway at the Saigon UPI bureau in 1965. Northup said Galloway looked like a kindred spirit, a fellow good ol’ boy from Texas. Both of them were living the dream, working the biggest story anywhere as wire service journalists. Northup said the troops loved Galloway — they could tell he was the real thing.

“He was as dirty as they were, he smelled like they did, he talked like they did,” Northup said. “He knew what he was doing and they bonded with him. And that’s why they’d sit and tell him things.”

A handful of correspondents shared a house in Saigon, known as “Frankie’s House” after a Vietnamese houseboy. After the battle in the Ia Drang, Northup found Galloway there, looking like he was in terrible shape. He had gone into the field looking for a story, and he had paid a price for finding it.

“You could see he’d really been through hell,” Northup said. “And we all sympathized with him.”

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey is also a close friend of Galloway. Sent personally by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Galloway rode in McCaffrey’s command helicopter during key parts of Desert Storm as he followed the action for the four-day campaign.

McCaffrey described Galloway as a great storyteller, an extremely accurate and quick writer. He said Galloway is pure of heart, but he has a hardened exterior because “he’s seen everything in life, and that ain’t good.” He said most of all, Galloway loves those who serve in the military, and he is relentless when he sees failures in caring for them.

“There is probably no single figure in the media ever, except some of the World War II correspondents, who is more widely known and admired than Joe Galloway,” McCaffrey said. “He is the best journalist covering combat operations in modern times.”

Joseph Galloway with the statue of WWII combat correspondent Ernie Pyle at the Indiana University campus in 2018 for National Ernie Pyle Day. Galloway received a standing ovation for his speech about what Pyle means to the journalism community. Photo courtesy of Joseph Galloway.

About the Vietnam War Anniversary Commemoration

In 2007, Congress authorized the Secretary of Defense to conduct a national commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. President George W. Bush signed off on the bill, the National Defense Authorization Act for the fiscal year, in 2008.

The Vietnam War Commemoration began under President Barack Obamain 2012. It has five objectives established by Congress: thanking and honoring Vietnam veterans, highlighting the service of the armed forces and supporting agencies during the war, paying tribute to the contributions made on the home front, highlighting technological, scientific and medical advances related to military research during the period, and recognizing contributions and sacrifices made by U.S. allies.

The project has drawn support from more than 12,000 commemorative partners, according to its website, which notes there are 6.2 million Vietnam veterans living at home and abroad, and 9 million families of those who served. As part of the project, thousands of commemorative events are being held to present veterans with Vietnam Veteran Lapel Pin, created as “a lasting memento of the nation’s thanks.”

Documenting veterans’ stories is crucial, providing context to the war’s complex history. The project is doing its part by collecting oral histories, conducting video interviews with veterans and their families. The unedited collection will be shared with the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. It’s anticipated that the interviews will also be available on the commemoration’s website in the future. More than 700 interviews had been completed by January 2020.

“As we interview these Vietnam veterans, we are able to leverage their vast network of fellow veterans to interview and capture a wide breadth of experiences — all ranks, services, specialties and viewpoints — that reflect personal thoughts and opinions about all aspects of the war,” the website states.

Much like the war itself, the commemoration is a prolonged engagement, scheduled to continue through Veterans Day 2025, marking the 50th anniversary across a 13-year span of time. Although military advising in Vietnam began in the mid-50s, the combat operations period is generally seen as 1962–1975.

Lapel pins are presented to Vietnam War veterans and their spouses at commemorative events. Photo by Cody Mann.