The Story Behind 'We Were Soldiers Once...and Young'

Joe Galloway's award-winning account of a bloody Vietnam battle became a book and movie.

Galloway in 1982.

Galloway in 1982.

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Though just 24, Joe Galloway was no greenhorn when he hitched a chopper ride to the remote South Vietnamese countryside in November 1965 to check on reports of a hot battle. Galloway had started as a newspaperman in Texas when he was 17 and moved on to United Press International. By November, Galloway had been in Vietnam more than six months, but it had been a quiet tour. "I had been looking for a major battle," Galloway recalls. "I hadn't found it."

Two days later, he stood amid a hellish, seared landscape that would become one of the Vietnam War's famous battlefields. From November 14 to November 16, fewer than 500 troops of the Army's 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, fought almost nonstop against a force of North Vietnamese regulars that outnumbered them 7 to 1. The Americans fought tenaciously, and suffered dearly. The unit's casualty rate was 44 percent—79 killed and 121 wounded. As Galloway was about to fly out to file his story, he faced Lt. Col. Hal Moore, commander of the 7th Cav battalion. Tears bathed both faces. "Go tell America what these brave men did," Moore said. "Tell them how their sons died."

Return to Vietnam. Galloway did. After that he covered other battles. He went on to assignments in Asia, India, and Moscow. By the late '80s, he had joined U.S. News and was an editor in Washington, polishing foreign dispatches. But Galloway yearned to return to the field—and, above all, to go back to Vietnam with Hal Moore, who had retired as a three-star general, to reconstruct the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, as it was now known.

His bosses obliged, and on Oct. 29, 1990, U.S. News published "Vietnam Story," a 14-page cover package that explained why the Battle of the Ia Drang was a "fatal victory" for American forces. Tactically, the Americans won: The enemy melted away, leaving a felled forest of perhaps 700 corpses. Yet by validating new air-assault techniques that allowed troops to maneuver by helicopter, not just by ground transport, the battle drew the United States deeper into a war it was destined to lose. In addition to a minute-by-minute reconstruction of the battle—which was so close and bloody that at one point Moore ordered his troops to fix bayonets in preparation for hand-to-hand-combat—Galloway and Moore broke new ground by interviewing North Vietnamese commanders to get their side of the story.

Six months later, "Vietnam Story" earned U.S. News its first National Magazine Award. The story became a book, We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, which has sold about 1.3 million copies since it was published in 1992. Then came the 2002 movie, We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson as Moore and Barry Pepper as Galloway. (Moore says the film is about 60 percent accurate; Galloway, 80 percent.)

Later this year, Galloway and Moore will publish a sequel, We Are Soldiers Still, with fresh material gleaned from additional trips to Vietnam. They also apply the lessons of Vietnam to Iraq—where Galloway, now a columnist for McClatchy Newspapers, sees more fatal victories. "In almost every case," he says, "war is an admission of failure—of leadership, of diplomacy. War is not something you do pre-emptively."