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In War & Peace" My Return to the Ia Drang Valley

The plane landed in Pleiku in the mist. My mind flashed back to the past few days of the journey. Three adventure-filled days in Saigon and now we are really here: this city that I left 54 years ago on a hot muggy day.

As I deplaned, I looked for something familiar but saw nothing. This had to have been the runway I boarded a Big Bird for the real world that August day. Glancing at the runway, I walked to the edge to see if there were any markers from so long ago. There were none, but I stood still and stared off at the edges of the pavement where the bodies of our fallen once had been wrapped in ponchos waiting for their last ride home. My mind caught the wafting odors as they lay in the hot sun that November day, and I quietly listened for the ghosts. My pulse raced as I expected to meet them any second. My reverie was interrupted by Timothy Davis, CEO of The Greatest Generations Foundation, as he called for me to rejoin the group.

This journey began three years ago when I was contacted by TGGF, asking if I would be willing to go back to the battlefields of the Ia Drang. I said I would consider it, but the area was off limits to Americans. “Let us work on it” was the reply, and so five of us found ourselves back in a land haunted by memories from long ago. Memories we had done our best to bury.

Bud Alley, 1965Jim Lawrence of Birmingham, Alabama, John Cahill and Bob Jones of Massachusetts, and me—a southern gypsy living in Tennessee—were on board a bus taking us to a sparkling new hotel in Pleiku. David Moore, Lt. Gen. Hal Moore’s youngest son, came with us. We were all lost in our own thoughts as the bus rolled past a monumental statue of Ho Chi Minh. We were there, where Operation Shiny Bayonet had begun for us on November 13, 1965, and we all knew the next day would take us to that jungle in our minds where it all happened.

Bud Alley, 1965Our hosts from The Greatest Generations Foundation did their best to put us at ease that night by taking us out of the city to a Jrais Montagnard village for what turned out to be a cultural experience unlike any we had known. We were treated to charcoaled chicken and bamboo-cooked rice and a communal bowl of wine, which we drank with straws. The music began, a beating of what looked like hubcaps into a melody followed by young Montagnard girls dancing barefoot on the rough pavement. In minutes, they had all of us joining them in a circle dance. Not the Arthur Murray kind of dance, but we old guys did our best. It was fun and we relaxed knowing the coming day would put us in the jungles.

Headed to the Killing Fields

It had been a testament to the TGGF personnel and their political acumen to cobble an agreement between the U.S. State Department, the Vietnamese and Australian Embassies, and the Vietnamese President and his State Department to get us permission to enter the frontier of Vietnam. We five gathered with our host on the rooftop restaurant the next morning, sipping coffee and wondering what lay ahead. It had rained the night before and was still overcast.

David Moore’s phone rang. He answered it and said, “It’s for you, Bud.” Puzzled, I took it and stared into the unshaved face of Mel Gibson, who played Gen. Moore in the movie, We Were Soldiers. He wished me well and we passed the phone around while he encouraged us as we headed to the killing fields of the Ia Drang Valley—Landing Zone X-ray and Landing Zone Albany. After the call, we went to the lobby to meet our rides. Now this was something new: SUVs, not choppers. Unknown to us, there are roads out to the wilderness these days.

“Roads,” however, is a kind word for the paths we traveled that morning. They varied from pavement to gravel to mud to potholes, then from one lane to almost no lane. Still, our drivers kept plunging ahead. We made a brief stop at the Catekta Tea Plantation, which had been the assembly point of our operation, but fog and mist obscured any sign of familiarity. Then the drivers got serious as the road seemed to dissolve into cattle paths and mud—the way it had looked 54 years ago. We passed an intersection that had a large sign saying travel was forbidden into “The Frontier,” We kept on going, slip sliding, tires spinning, and being jostled like fruit in a blender. The grass started to cover the road, but we could see large truck-tire marks when we suddenly stopped.

“Get out men. We are now at Landing Zone Columbus.” You could have fooled me, but there was a path and we trekked along it quietly, not knowing if we were going to be shot as intruders.

Along the way, we saw an old cigarette pack and a water bottle—signs civilization had been here—and then came upon the clearing. Mostly overgrown now, it was the place I had entered the Ia Drang Valley on November 16 and the place I found the dawn of November 18 as I brought five wounded men into its perimeter.

LZ X-ray

But all traces of what had been had disappeared. I stood on ground that was totally unrecognizable. We all felt a little disappointed as we trudged back to the vehicles. Then we walked to LZ X-ray.

Davis had a GPS device and led us off into the wilderness, which soon gave way to cultivated fields. It was foggy, rainy, and difficult walking as you could not see the rivulets of water. The stones and other detritus in the fields were hard and sharp. Suddenly, the clouds lifted and there it was: the Chu Pong Massif off in the distance.

Hearts went into our throats and my blood pressure pounded. We were there! We were walking toward Landing Zone X-ray. John Cahill, who had been shot in the chest there, tried to find the place where he had been hit, and he believes he got close. We searched for the Lost Platoon location at the northwestern end of the LZ and were close there, too. Cahill nearly stepped on an unexploded M-79 round covered in rust.

Suddenly, several Vietnamese soldiers in uniform showed up and ordered us to move to a road. After some negotiations, we were escorted to their compound HQ and taken inside. It was strange sitting at a table facing a large Ho Chi Minh statue amid red, green, and gold decor. We sat silent as negotiations continued until our names were called out. We were allowed to leave with the understanding that we would return the following day.

We boarded our vehicles and headed for the hotels with an ice cream stop along the way. Early the next morning, I sat in the lead car as we headed out to the site of Landing Zone Albany. I was nervous. Our group had planned a small remembrance ceremony once there. I fidgeted the entire slip-sliding way.

We turned off from the main road at the Frontier sign. We didn’t know it was a military outpost, and we pressed on, up and down muddy hills past a stuck 18-wheeler and a field under cultivation.

“What is that?” I asked the interpreter. We stopped and he pointed out black pepper drying on poles. A few miles further we passed fields of purple and pink trees that the guide identified as curry trees. Further along was another field he said was cashews. This all had been jungle 54 years ago, and now in breaks of the grass exotic spices were being grown.

A Healing Plant

Then we hit a snag that seemed insurmountable, and were able to get only one vehicle through. I was aboard with David Moore and his maps, along with Davis and a photographer. Plugging ahead another mile, we stopped. “We are there, Bud,” Davis said.

Getting out, I stared at strange plants and listened to the sound of the Ia Drang river nearby. It was quiet; warm air blew gently, a few puffy clouds overhead. It was nothing like the jungle in my mind, but I felt a peace come over me. The guide told me the plants were aloe. How comforting, I thought. Here on this ground where nearly 800 men had fought, bled, and died, a healing plant was being grown. I was the only one to see that place.

Because of the terrible road conditions, we had to walk back to LZ X-ray in the sun past cultivation that was broken in places. But I made the walk that I had made in 1965: Columbus to X-ray to Albany to Columbus. What a trip!

The Greatest Generations Foundation was established by Timothy Davis, an Australian who was told by his grandfather when he migrated to America to find a veteran from World War II and thank him for saving Australia. Originally, he wanted to teach school in America, but after finding that first veteran he dedicated himself to taking veterans back to their battlefields to help them understand where they had been, see how things turned out, and find peace.

He has taken more than 10,000 World War II veterans to Europe, a large number to Korea, and has made ten trips to Vietnam. The trips are fully funded by his foundation. They are not shopping trips, but they do keep you surprised and entertained. If you are selected to go, you’ll get the trip of a lifetime in which you will see the culture and lives that came out of the carnage of war.





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