"A Turning Point of Vietname War Coming Home to Audiences"

by Bruce Newman, San Jose Mercury News, 27 May 2001

It is June 15, 1965, the second day of the battle at Ia Drang Valley, a place the Vietnamese will still refer to years later as "the valley of screaming souls." What they are screaming now, echoing eerily off the nearby hills, is "Kill!"

There is a muffled explosion, then muzzle flashes erupt from the bushes. Mel Gibson stands in the open, firing bursts from an M-16 set to full auto. A North Vietnamese Army regular — actually a real estate broker from Salinas — topples forward from the brush, his gun roaring fire until bullets tear through his chest. Then he gets up and does it again. And again.

Finally, Gibson retreats to a tent, where he smokes a cigarette and watches the battle replayed on a television monitor. Gibson is playing Harold G. Moore, the American lieutenant colonel whose battalion was nearly massacred at Ia Drang. That battle, which was the first major engagement between the two sides and served as a prelude to the massive American buildup in Vietnam, is the subject of "We Were Soldiers Once... And Young," a movie in production at Fort Hunter Liggett in Monterey County.

When the three days of savage fighting were over at Ia Drang, both sides claimed victory. But it was the lessons learned there, about the ferocity and determination of the North Vietnamese forces, that really mattered. The battle may have been the most politically significant of the war for the American military, for it sowed the first seeds of doubt that anything meaningful ever could be won in Vietnam.

Moore and Joe Galloway, who was then a 23-year-old reporter for United Press International, wrote a bestselling account of the battle and its impact, from which the film is being adapted. The two had turned down all attempts to make their book into a movie because, as they said in the take-no-prisoners prologue of the book, "Hollywood got it wrong every damned time" it had tried to make a movie about Vietnam, "whetting twisted political knives on the bones of our dead brothers."

But when writer-director Randall Wallace, who had written Gibson's Academy Award-winning battle epic "Braveheart," promised Moore and Galloway that he would make a film honoring the dead while recreating their hell on earth, they entrusted him to tell their story.

Before a foot of film was shot, Wallace gathered many of the survivors together with the movie's cast and crew for a memorial service in the base chapel at Fort Benning, Ga. One of the veterans who got up to speak was Maj. Bruce Crandall, who flew his helicopter into countless firefights during the assault at Ia Drang.

Crandall told the hushed gathering about breaking his back in Vietnam, then being sent back to a hospital just 10 minutes from where he grew up. During the five months of his recovery, he had no visitors except his family. "He talked about his children being told at school that their teacher would not teach them because their father was a murderer in Vietnam," Wallace says, his eyes welling with tears, until finally he becomes too choked with emotion to speak.

If the American soldiers in the film are portrayed differently from the pot-smoking, frag-happy conscripts in such earlier Vietnam pictures as "Apocalypse Now" and "Platoon," the enemy also is being given a more human face for the first time.

"In all these other movies, the Vietnamese are just the enemy, running through the jungle killing GIs," says Rod Tokubo, who plays one of the North Vietnamese regulars. "But they were human, just like us. And they had the same feelings as us."

Tokubo was in ROTC at San Jose State and served as a first lieutenant in Vietnam, but because he is Asian-American he was cast as one of the North Vietnamese Army soldiers he once fought against.

"After I read the book, I didn't think that I could be an NVA," Tokubo says. "But that's all they would accept me as. I thought, 'Maybe I can get my foot in the door, and then later become a GI.' But now that I'm there and I've bonded with all these guys, I've really been able to humanize the NVA."

The Vietnamese soldiers in the film are never referred to by ethnic slurs, and while that may be more politically correct than factual, it is part of Wallace's plan to honor the men who fought on both sides.

"I don't pretend that at the end of this battle what they wanted to do was join hands and sing 'Kumbaya,'" the director says, standing on the fringe of the potted-plant jungle the production has built. "But in the course of the battle, Col. Moore and his men came to respect the courage of the North Vietnamese. And he came to understand that we were in their home."

The most surprising thing Moore and Galloway learned while researching the book was that the North Vietnamese generals, accustomed to fighting the French, had been eager for the battle, hoping to learn as much as they could about their new adversary. Moore's was the first American cavalry force to ride into battle aboard Huey helicopters, and that mobility initially terrified the North Vietnamese generals.

"They told us, 'We lost 5,000 men in the Ia Drang Valley campaign,'" Galloway says, "'and we would have cheerfully lost three times that number for the lessons we learned.'" The filmmakers sought extras in San Jose's Vietnamese community, but many were unwilling to play North Vietnamese soldiers. "Vietnamese people are living in America now because of the war," says Danny Boyer, the movie's North Vietnamese background director, who owns a bounty hunting service in San Jose. "For them to explain to their families that they were going to portray these NVA soldiers, that was a big barrier to overcome. A lot of the families wouldn't let them do it.

"I went into some people's homes and explained what we were up against," Boyer says. "It was the grandparents who were most resistant to it."

But for Tokubo, working on the film was a chance to put to rest the nightmares from which he has suffered for 30 years.

When he returned from the war, there had been no parade. "I actually kind of snuck back home," he says. "You didn't want people to know that you came back from Vietnam. There was always kind of a shame attached to it. But I can say now that I'm proud to be a Vietnam vet, and I never felt that way before. Being on the set brought a lot of stuff up. That's what this movie's about."

On his way to the set one day a few weeks ago, Tokubo ran into some soldiers from the 184th Assault Group at Hunter Liggett, and one of them asked him about his military service.

"When they found out I was a 'Nam vet..." he says, then he stops. He's quiet for long time, until he is done weeping. "They came up to me and said, "Welcome home.' And they thanked me for serving my country. It was the first time anybody had done that."

©2001 San Jose Mercury News

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