For the Ia Drang Valley survivors, October 10, 2012 will be a day they will remember for the rest of their days. At 4:00 AM this morning, Command Sergeant Major Basil L. Plumley of the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, died. He was 92 years old.
“Old Iron Jaw,” as he was affectionately called, was a soldier’s soldier, a veteran of WW II, Korea and Vietnam. He retired twice. First as a Command Sergeant Major on December 31, 1974, and in 1990 as a civilian from the Martin Army Community Hospital.
When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and had to be transferred to a hospice, word got around and the mail began to arrive, piling up more and more with each day the Sergeant Major survived. From all around the world, not just the men who served under him, but their families and friends, and strangers who had heard or read about him, poured out their prayers and well wishes to the quietly suffering, noble man.
I did not know the man. In fact, whenever I heard his name, I immediately envisioned Sam Elliott, who played the role of Plumley in the movie, “We Were Soldiers Once..and Young” by (Ret.) General Hal Moore and Joe Galloway. Galloway described his first meeting with Sergeant Major Plumley during the Ia Drang Battle ambush:
“A hail of bullets cracked and snapped all around us. I was flat on my belly, wishing I had spent the night digging a hole in that rock-hard ground. Wishing I could get even lower. About then I felt a thump in my ribs and carefully turned my head to see what it was. What it was was a size 12 combat boot on the foot of Sgt. Maj. Basil L. Plumley, a bear of a man who hailed from West Virginia. The sergeant major bent at the waist and shouted over the incredible din of battle, “You can’t take no pictures laying down there on the ground, Sonny.” I thought to myself he’s right. I also thought fleetingly that we might all die here in this place—and if I am going to die I would just as soon take mine standing up beside a man like this.”
Then Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, whose 7th Cavalry was the very same that rode with Custer, asked Plumley at the start of the battle for the Ia Drang Valley, “I wonder what was going through Custer’s mind when he realized that he’d led his men into a slaughter?” To which Plumley replied, “Sir, Custer was a pussy. You ain’t.”
Plumley was nobody’s fool. He knew what was coming for the men of the 7th Cav in that Central Highland valley of Vietnam, and he preferred his pistol to the M-16, which he thought felt like plastic. Lt. Col Moore disagreed. He told Plumley, “I think you oughta get yourself an M-16.” To which Plumley replied, “Sir, if the time comes I need one, there’ll be plenty lying on the ground.”
Freddie Owens was a Sergeant in A Company, 1st of the Fifth, when he fought with Plumley in the Ia Drang Valley. But he had known Plumley before that battle of November 1965. A week before Plumley’s death, Freddie sadly remarked, “I know he will find peace in passing, but it will be hard to say good-bye to someone you have known for over fifty years. He and I go back a long way.”
That so many people who met Plumley in the worst possible conditions a human could endure, would be inspired to find calm, pride and love in their hearts for this solid leader, speaks volumes of the strength, wisdom, integrity, compassion, and spirit of this son of a coal miner from West Virginia.
No, I did not know the man. But through men like Hal Moore, Joe Galloway and Freddie Owens, and the survivors of the Ia Drang Valley Ambush of 1965, I got a glimpse of the soul of this revered man. And I can say with completely sincerity, “I salute you, Command Sergeant Major Basil Plumley. You will be sorely missed. May you rest in peace.”
My condolences to his loved ones and family, and the family of soldiers and civilians who had the privilege to know this gentle giant.
Garry Owen, Sergeant Major!