Veteran Fought In World War II, Korea And Vietnam

Oct 11, 2012
Originally published on October 12, 2012 4:13 pm
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Army Command Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley died just before dawn yesterday - at 04:00, his Army friends will tell you. He was 92. Plumley fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He was a legend in the Army, and he gained wider fame through the book about Vietnam "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young," later made into a Mel Gibson movie. NPR's Tom Bowman has this remembrance.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Sgt. Maj. Plumley was a character ready-made for Hollywood. He was a son of a West Virginia coal miner, with just two years of high school. He was big and raw-boned. He believed in tough training and tough discipline, and that earned him the nickname "Old Iron Jaw." In one scene from the movie, Sgt. Maj. Plumley listens while an officer tells his troops how the Sioux tribe would call older warriors "grandfather." The commander walks away and Plumley, played by actor Sam Elliot, turns to the soldiers.


JOE GALLOWAY: (LAUGHTER) Well, Sam underplayed Plumley a little bit.

BOWMAN: That's journalist Joe Galloway, who along with Plumley's former commander, retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, wrote the Vietnam book.

GALLOWAY: Basil Plumley was an absolute terror, when it came to training standards and discipline.

BOWMAN: And there was a reason for that. Plumley knew that soldiers - and especially, young officers - had to be prepared for the horror they would face. Plumley made four combat jumps during World War II - one, during the Normandy invasion - and still another jump in Korea. And when he found himself surrounded by North Vietnamese troops years later, he pulled out his .45 and hollered to his soldiers, "Gentlemen, prepare to defend yourselves." On that day in November 1965, the sergeant major stood in the middle of the battle of the Ia Drang Valley. The movie shows reporter Galloway flat on the ground, under heavy fire. Plumley shouts at him.


BOWMAN: In the film, Plumley's character pulls Galloway to his feet and hands him a weapon.


GALLOWAY: I was shocked, at first.

BOWMAN: Again, Joe Galloway.

GALLOWAY: And then I thought, you know, he's right. And it was only later I learned that sergeants major are always right.

BOWMAN: While Galloway and Plumley survive the three-day fight, the battalion lost dozens of soldiers. It was the first major battle of the war. Years later, when he was writing the book, Galloway went to see Plumley - long retired, by then. Plumley was standing on his suburban lawn, in civilian clothes. Galloway was struck by how different Plumley seemed from Vietnam days.

GALLOWAY: He grabbed me and pulled me into a bear hug, and my jaw - literally - dropped. I - I - you know, it was like suddenly, I had been hugged by God or something.

BOWMAN: Plumley had mellowed in his later years. He was a grandfather. He helped create an infantry museum at Fort Benning. But the sergeant major in him was just below the surface. As he lay in bed in a hospice this week, according to Galloway, the doctor came in and told Plumley he was dying. The soldier, 92 years old, answered that he wasn't sure he was willing to go just yet.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.