Lt. General Harold (Hal) Moore passed away recently. He was the author of We Were Soldiers Once—and Young. Back when he was a lieutenant colonel, he was in command of the 7th Airborne Cavalry during the Vietnam War. On November 4, 1965, they engaged the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). This was the first major battle between the U.S. Army and the NVA, and they thought they were outnumbered three to one. Now that the government of Vietnam has released many of their records, I believe it was more like four or five to one. They were completely surrounded.
The book describes the battle in bloody detail. Artillery shells blew the bodies of the NVA soldiers to pieces when they launched human wave attacks. Rocket-propelled grenades were used to deadly effect. The main action was with rifle fire. But as the ammo ran out, the fighting could be hand-to-hand.
I have read ten books on the Vietnam War, and this one was by far the best. Do you dislike guns or have never read a gritty account of modern warfare? Read this book. (Just as in a previous post, I advised readers who think psychology is bunk to read an issue of Psychology Today.)
Some standout scenes:
-The cutoff platoon: In rapid succession, the lieutenant was killed, the platoon sergeant was killed, another sergeant was killed. Where were the maps? Where were the call signs to use over the radio? And the medic was killed.
-Modern artillery: The artillery was five miles away. But from highly precise instructions from the front of the battle, the artillery shells could land as close as thirty yards to the American troops. High explosive, napalm, white phosphorus. Some were timed to explode in mid-air.
-Crazy pilots: Some would fly less than a hundred feet off the ground, releasing their bombs on the North Vietnamese.
-The home front: This was the first battle in which telegrams notifying family members of soldiers’ deaths arrived while the battle still raged. The Army sent cab drivers—cab drivers!—to deliver them. When one particular officer found out, he insisted that an officer and a chaplain deliver any further ones.
The co-author was Joseph Galloway. He became a real combat reporter. When he arrived at the battle, he tripped and fell on his face in the dirt, along with his cameras, amusing Hal Moore.
When the movie version, We Were Soldiers, came out, Galloway had to excuse himself from a friendly fire scene he knew was coming up. His attempt to save a horribly burned soldier is portrayed with brutal accuracy.
I remember a scholar once saying that Alexander the Great was the first of his soldiers to step over the wall of a city to attack it, and that cannot occur in modern warfare. But it did. Hal Moore was the first to step off a helicopter into the unfriendly landing zone. He was the last to leave, stepping onto a helicopter after what had become a battlefield was cleared of American bodies.