A Combat Reporter Remembers the Siege at Plei Me
by Joseph L. Galloway
(Note: The following story was written
by Joseph L. Galloway, Co-Author of “We Were Soldiers Once, and Young”. It
is used here with his permission. Joe is the only civilian who was
decorated for valor in combat (BSM-V) during the entire Vietnam War by the
1965, the word passed that trouble was brewing up in Pleiku
Province. The Special Forces Camp at Plei Me had come under siege.
We headed that way in a hurry. By the time we arrived the airspace
over the camp had been shut down. The enemy, this time a regiment of
North Vietnamese Army regulars, had ringed the camp with
Chinese-made 12.7mm antiaircraft machine guns and they had shot down
two Air Force fighter-bombers and one Army Huey helicopter. The Army
dispatched a team of Special Forces B-52 Detachment fighters
commanded by Maj. Charlie Beckwith to land a mile or two outside the
camp and infiltrate to stiffen the resistance.
Top Row (L
to R): CPT "Bo" Baker, (1LT Berry - A Det XO), (Dr /Cpt Hunter Group
Surgeon - Came in by med evac flight), SSG Terry "Rolex" Morrone,
SFC then, SFC Shaw. Note: Non-Delta members are identified in
Bottom Row (L to R): SSG McGlaughlin
(spelling), MSG Hollaway, Maj "Chargin" Charlie Beckwith (CO), Maj
DELTA MEMBERS NOT PICTURED: CPT Pusser (KIA),
SGT Billy Pool (WIA), SGT "Robby" Robinson (WIA), SGM Desota (WIA),
SSG Redmon (?) CPT Euell T. White (not from Delta but also came in on initial insertion
with us was Group CSM Pioletti).
A few reporters and photographers, and one
very unlucky UPI television camera stringer, had gone in with Beckwith. On
the final dash into Plei Me Camp the UPITN stringer raised up to shoot
some film and was shot through the head by an enemy machine gun round. He
had literally been killed before he shot a foot of film. If he had gotten
a story UPITN would have paid him $100. UPI, in its inimitable cheap
fashion, later refused to accept any responsibility for paying to send his
body back to the U.S. for burial.
I had missed that jump and was furiously stalking up and down the flight
line at Camp Holloway outside Pleiku. Who should suddenly appear but Capt.
Ray Burns of Ganado, Texas. He like many of the pilots of the 119th
Aviation Company at Holloway was a Texas Aggie. A homeboy. I had played
poker and drunk copious quantities of Jim Beam with them all. Ray inquired
as to my distress. I explained that I wanted to get into Plei Me Camp and
couldn't find a ride. He said hang on; went and checked the clipboard at
Flight Ops. Came back and told me what I already knew: the airspace was
closed. Then he grinned and said he would like to see the place himself
and if I wanted a ride he would take me. Just like that.
I have a photo I snapped from the
helicopter door. The camp, a triangular shaped affair carved out of the
red dirt of the Highlands, fills that doorway, puffs of smoke from
impacting mortar rounds visible in several places. Ray dropped the Huey in
rather precipitously to avoid the machine guns. I bailed out, the camp
defenders flung some wounded aboard, and Ray was gone, shooting me the
bird through the plexi-glass. A sergeant ran up and said, "I don't know who
you are, Sir, but Maj. Beckwith wants to see you right now." I inquired as
to which one was the good major. "He is that big guy over there jumping up
and down on his hat," the sergeant replied. In short order I was standing
before a man who would become a legend in Special Operations Warfare as
the founder of the Delta Forces anti-terrorist teams.
The dialogue went something like this: Him: Who the hell are you? Me: A
reporter, Sir. Him: I need everything in the goddam world; I need
reinforcements; I need medical evacuation helicopters; I need ammunition;
I need food; I would love a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey and some cigars.
And what has the Army in its wisdom sent me? A reporter. Well, son, I got
news for you. I have no vacancy for a reporter but I do have one for a
corner machine gunner---and YOU ARE IT! Me: Yes, Sir.
Beckwith took me to a sandbagged corner
of a trench and gave me a short lesson in the care and loading and
firing of the .30 caliber air-cooled machine gun which sat there,
dark, ugly and menacing. He showed me how to un-jam it in case of
need. How to arm it. His instructions then were simple and direct:
You can shoot the little brown men outside the wire; they are the
enemy. You may not shoot the little brown men inside the wire; they
are mine. For the next two or three days and nights I lived in that
corner of the trench, beside the gun. What sleep there was was
caught in lulls during the day. One day the Air Force finally
managed to air-
Re-supply at Plei Me
drop supplies in the right place; in fact right on top of the right
place. Huge pallets of crates of ammo and c-rations drifted right down
onto the camp, demolishing at least one tin-roofed building and smashing
other defensive emplacements. I reached out and grabbed a Newsweek
reporter, Bill Cook, and yanked him into my trench right before he was
about to be squished by a descending pallet. The snaps of the parachutes
billowing all over the camp were pretty good, even if I say so myself.
Finally a South Vietnamese armored column arrived to the rescue. Bob Poos
of AP and another old friend, Jack Laurence of CBS, were riding atop the
Armored Personnel Carriers. I waved at Poos and asked him where the hell
he had been. He gave me the one-finger salute. The North Vietnamese had
left by then and the hills were silent for the first time in a week. The
air stank with that never-to-be-forgotten smell of rotting human flesh.
The hills were ripped apart by the airstrikes brought down on the machine
gunners, a stark, shattered landscape. We spent one more night in the
camp. Poos was assigned to my machine gun. The next morning the sky filled
with helicopters, U.S. Army helicopters, as a battalion of the 1st Air Cav
arrived to sweep those hills.
1st Cav sweep outside Plei Me
I went to Maj. Beckwith to say my
goodbyes. He allowed as how I had "done good" as a machine gunners
and he thanked me for the help. Then he said: You have no weapon. I
said that, despite the use he had made of me these last days, I was
still technically speaking a non-combatant. He had a sergeant bring
an M-16 rifle and a sack full of loaded magazines. Beckwith said: "Ain't
no such thing in these mountains, boy. Take the rifle." I took it,
slung it over my back, and marched out to hook up with the Cav on
their sweep through the hills. There we found more than a shattered
landscape. We found shattered machine guns---
some of them with the remains of their
gunners still chained to the weapons they manned. But the North Vietnamese
had gone as suddenly as they had arrived. Only the dead remained.