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“We Were Soldiers, Once...”: An Interview with Joe Galloway on His Experience with the Black Rifle

By Christopher R. Bartocci

The M16, or in the early days of the Vietnam War, the XM16E1, had very mixed reviews with the troops. In the early part of the war around 1965 the Black Rifle first went to war with the 7th Cavalry in the battle of the Ia Drang Valley. The rifles were in-country prior to this battle with advisors but this is the first time the rifle would be used by a US military unit in direct combat with North
Vietnamese regular troops.

Joe Galloway was born in Refugio, Texas and is a journalist by profession. He is best known as a United Press International (UPI) combat correspondent who covered the early days of the Vietnam War. He covered the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley where he and now-retired General Hal Moore would eventually write a book titled “We Were Soldiers Once, and Young”. That book would be made into one of the finest war films of all time, “We Were Soldiers.” On 14 November, 1965 approximately 450 soldiers from the 7th Cavalry Air Mobile Division landed in Landing Zone X-ray located west of Plei Me in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam (precisely at the foot step of the Chu Pong massif). They unknowingly landed under a base camp of an entire North Vietnamese Army Regiment (nearly 4000 men). Joe Galloway flew in on a helicopter the 1st night of the attack. Joe Galloway is in a position to give SAR readers his first impression of the rifle, tell from his first hand experience how the rifle performed during the battle as well as the soldier’s perception of the rifle- being this was the first battle not only between US and NVA regular Army forces but also the US forces’ first major battle using the new rifles.

SAR: When did you arrive in South Vietnam?

Galloway: I arrived in South Vietnam early in April 1965 after the 1st Battalion of 9th Marines landed at Da Nang, and was immediately sent to Da Nang to cover the Marines. (Editor’s Note: 1st Battalion, 9th Marines are the fabled “Walking Dead).

SAR: Do you recall what weapons the Marines were carrying at that time? When did you first see the M16/XM16E1?

Galloway: They all carried M14 rifles and continued to do so for much of 1965 and into early 1966. My first close look at the new M16 rifles came in encounters with/coverage of Special Forces troops and 173rd Airborne troops in the Summer of 1965. I don’t recall any specific complaints about the weapon from those units at the time. My first thoughts were that it was light, easy to carry and easier to carry a whole lot more loaded magazines than the M14.

SAR: What was your first close encounter with the new rifle?

Galloway: My close acquaintance with the M16 came in October 1965 when I wangled a chopper ride into Plei Me Special Forces Camp in the Highlands as it was under siege by a Regiment of NV Regulars. Maj. Charlie Beckwith (Creator of Delta Force) was temporary camp commander. He ordered me to man a .30 cal. Air-cooled machine gun, saying he had “No vacancy for a goddam reporter.” After the siege was lifted and I was about to join a 1st Cavalry battalion sweeping the hills around the camp I went to say my goodbyes to Maj. Beckwith. He said: “You ain’t carrying a piece, Son.” I said: “Technically speaking, in spite of the use you made of me these last days and nights, I am a civilian non-combatant.” He said: “Ain’t no such thing in these mountains. Sergeant, go get this guy a rifle and a sack of magazines.” The sergeant came back with an M16 and 20 loaded magazines. I slung the rifle and marched off with the Cav.

SAR: Do you recall any conversations with then Lt Col Hal Moore and SGM Basil Plumley about their thoughts of this new weapon they were taking into battle?

Galloway: LTC Hal Moore liked and carried an M16 and I never heard him say anything but good things about it. SGM Basil Plumley thought it was a “plastic toy” and wouldn’t carry one. He wore a Colt 1911 .45 pistol throughout his first year in RVN.

In 2007 while working on a project for Picatinny Arsenal this author had an opportunity to interview Retired General Hal Moore regarding his thoughts of the new rifle. He had stated that he was fond of the rifle. He felt that most of the weapons that malfunctioned during the battle were from excessive operation. They were in constant battle for three days and two nights with little let up. He said he was not a weapons expert but he believed that the new rifle was superior to the M14 particularly in the close quarter fighting of the battle in the Ia Drang Valley.

SAR: Upon your arrival to the battlefield, did you notice- either see or hear of anyone complaining of malfunctioning weapons, or worse did you see anyone laying dead next to a jammed rifle?

Galloway: On arrival in LZ XRAY in the Ia Drang on 14 November, 1965 I saw a lot of Americans dead from the afternoon of bitter combat. I heard no one say that any of them had died due to failure of their rifles, then or later. LTC Moore credited his brave soldiers “and this rifle” in comments to reporters after the fight ended. Later I would hear from LT Rick Rescorla (B Co. 2nd Btn 7th Cav) say that his troops suffered a number of jammed M16s—so many that he assigned three men to each foxhole; two shooting and one with a steel rod clearing jams and reloading for the shooters. His was the only complaint about that rifle that I heard about.

At the time of this battle the XM16E1 rifles were fairly new. They did not have chrome plated barrels. The ammunition they had would have been the original IMR propellant the rifle was designed around. Ball propellant and the problems it caused would be after this battle. General Moore also stated that there was an issue with the supply of the ammunition for the rifles. He said they should have dropped in loaded magazines instead of ammo that had to be removed from a box and loaded into magazines. They had few lulls in combat for weapons maintenance as well as reloading magazines.

SAR: I am sure this is really difficult to remember but can you recall seeing riflemen holding the trigger down and spraying ammunition and then running out of ammo in battle? This question comes from the 1980’s M16A2 program where the Marines wanted to remove the AUTO position in favor of a 3-round Burst mode. They claimed it would help conserve ammunition so a Marine would not shoot up all his ammo at once and be left with empty magazines unable to fight. Also similar to World War II with the adoption of the M1 Garand with the 8 shot stripper clip instead of a box magazine. Detractors from this theory felt ammunition expenditure was a matter of troop firing discipline.

Galloway: I do not recall any of what I would call wild automatic firing. Those troops were disciplined and acutely aware that if they ran out of ammo they would end up dead. The chopper that brought me in at dark on first day of the battle contained ammo and grenade resupply in cases, as well as 5 gal plastic water jugs. The choppers would keep us well supplied with ammo as the battle went on. When it was all over the choppers had to haul out excess supplies of ammo that had gone unused. Ammo resupply was in cases of boxed loose rounds, not preloaded magazines. The troops had to reload their magazines during the lulls.

SAR: Do you recall anyone complaining about the stopping power of the 5.56mm round during the battle. As you may or may not know the rifle was given the nickname “poodle shooter” due to its .224 diameter projectile.

Galloway: No one complained in my hearing that the M16 had less stopping power vs. AK47. The troops were killing the enemy all around us.

SAR: During your time in-country or at any time covering the war, do you recall hearing of the rifles having serious malfunction issues and If so what do you recall they were?

Galloway: Referring to late 1966 early 1967 and complaints of M16s jamming? I heard this from the Marines primarily; that they hated the M16 and wanted their M14s back. I also heard that the primary problem was the M16s were handed out with little or no instruction on cleaning the weapon. Therefore the Marines cleaned and oiled the M16 exactly as they had done with the M14: Lots of oil, which in turn led to lots of jammed rifles. Once they learned to use dry graphite lube in place of gun oil the rifles worked better. And once the rifle was redesigned around 1968 the complaints faded away.

SAR: You had said that you had carried a M16 and that you had used it during the battle of Ia Drang. What were your personal experience with the rifle you carried?

Galloway: I carried the M16 that Maj. Beckwith gave me throughout the rest of my first tour in Vietnam. I made very sparing use of it because that was not my primary job. I did use it in the Ia Drang when things got very hairy the 2nd day of battle. Mine worked fine. Near the end of my tour I traded the M16 to a Marine PAO lieutenant who later complained that it jammed on him during a firefight. Possibly a cleaning or oiling problem.

Author’s Notes and opinion in closing: Over the past 50 years the M16 has been loved by some and hated by others. In those early days, the Army felt the end would justify the means and the Army would just stay with their home-grown M14. Even though their “means” was basically sabotaging the rifle and putting a rifle that did not work properly into the hands of American soldiers in a foreign land, and they knew it. You do not conduct engineering trials in the field, period. Army tradition and keeping the government arsenals pumping out M14 rifles and protecting all those jobs and high ranking officers clouded the judgment of what was in the best interest for the American soldier; which is what should have been their top priority and a solemn duty. The rifle as presented by ArmaLite was an excellent weapon but it was not fully developed. It is the job of the Ordnance Corps to get it in order to issue to the troops. After the Congressional hearing in 1968 and the Army being determined to be “borderline criminally negligent” the Army corrected the issues and those serving after 1968 had little trouble. The M16A1 proved to be the ideal rifle for the War in Vietnam. It has gone on to evolve to the M16A2 and now to the M16A4 serving n both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Vietnam era XM177-series of carbines has evolved to the M4 carbine which has become general issue throughout the US military. Controversy still follows the rifle today. The M16/M4 series has been attempted to be replaced with the Advanced Combat Rifle Program as well as the more recent Individual Carbine competition. According to the Army there is nothing after more than 50 years that offers a “significant leap in technology” over Gene Stoners design. The Army has just ordered a significant number of M4A1 carbines from FN and Colt. The M16A4 demand is dwindling as the M4A1 is the weapon of choice.

SAR would like to thank Joe Galloway for this interview. In this author’s opinion Joe is one of the finest combat correspondents ever. His character and credibility are top rate. His life has been dedicated to honoring the Vietnam soldiers and keeping the memory alive of the men who fought and died in that valley of death. Joes work along with Hal More have forever immortalized the men of the 7th cavalry into the hearts of the American public with the book and movie “We Were Soldiers.” Joe’s point of view is very credible and reliable on the early days of the M16. Joe has no dog in the fight. He is not an arms expert nor an army ordnance officer. He was there with the men and saw from unbiased eyes what happened from the soldier’s perspective. For the soldiers who experienced fatal stoppages and the ones who witnessed them, they will not care what mechanically went wrong and why. All they know is the rifle failed and it cost lives. The story does not end there. There were causes both political and economic that went into those fateful decisions. Once investigated and the Congressional hearing calling out and getting the Army to fix the rifle, the family of weapons has served with distinction for more than 50 years and is in no danger of being replaced any time soon.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V20N9 (November 2016)
and was posted online on September 23, 2016

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