When Basil Plumley arrived Tuesday afternoon, the Fort Benning cemetery was decorated with peace. A rag-tag squad of Vietnam vets stood by their flags. A uniformed band played an old hymn, and an Army bugler held his instrument across his chest as an honor guard from the 7th Cavalry reverently lifted the old soldier’s flag-draped coffin from the hearse.
No one understood war better than Basil Plumley, but he was about to find peace. His Size 12 combat boots were stained with mud and blood from the three great wars of the 20th century and now he was being laid to rest among thousands of other warriors.
Plumley died last week. He didn’t die on a battlefield. He was 92, and he died surrounded by a family that knew him as a hero who doted on grandchildren and great-grandchildren and seldom talked about the service that earned him membership in a fraternity more exclusive than the Medal of Honor.
Like many of the hundreds who were there Tuesday, Joe Galloway knew him as a command sergeant major. The legendary war correspondent met Plumley in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam — a place neither thought they would survive.
“He was the very essence of a command sergeant major. They stand at the right hand of God and sometimes they speak with more authority than God,” Galloway said, before eulogizing his longtime friend.
The former UPI reporter calls himself a “scribbler.” In 1992, he recorded the heroics of Ia Drang and turned memories of that deadly battle into a best-selling book that he co-authored with Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, the commander of that outmanned Cavalry unit.
“We Were Soldiers Once and Young” was a thank-you note to every soldier that served in what Galloway refers to as an “orphaned war.”
Plumley was one of only 324 to earn the rare honor of a Combat Infantryman’s Badge with two stars, signifying his efforts in three wars. This compares to the 3,476 recipients of the Medal of Honor.
He has been called “America’s Soldier,” but Plumley’s memorial service was as low-key as the life he has lived since retiring from the Army in 1974 after more than 30 years.
There were clues to his lofty status. Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, who is the current U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs and former Chief of Staff of the Army, was in attendance. Also at the services were: retired Lt. Gen. Carmen Cavezza, executive director of Columbus State University’s Cunningham Center for Leadership Development and former Fort Benning commanding general; Gen. Ken Leuer, former Fort Benning commanding general and Ranger Hall of Fame member; Medal of Honor recipient retired Col. Bruce Crandall; Medal of Honor recipient retired Col. Joe Marm; retired Sgt. 1st Class Ernie Savage, the senior member of the “Lost Platoon” in the Battle of Ia Drang; and former Columbus mayor Bob Poydasheff, among others.
But neither the memorial at the Infantry Center Chapel nor the brief graveside service at the Main Post Cemetery veered far from the traditional military burial.
Lt. Col. Jim Murphy, a Fort Benning chaplain, officiated and reminded family and friends that God was a warrior and that God respected warriors.
Galloway described the terror Plumley could strike in the heart of rookie soldiers. Before emotions overtook him he said, “I know of no man can rest better under that flag than Basil Plumley.”
Plumley’s family invited members of the 7th Cavalry at Fort Hood, Texas, to participate and an honor guard from that unit escorted his remains from the chapel. As their journey up the center aisle began, Moore managed a final salute to his honored comrade.
At the graveside, daughter Debbie Kimble sat between Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, and actor Sam Elliott, a family friend.
From the honor guard, McMaster accepted the flag that had covered the coffin, then kneeled and presented it to Kimble. Snapping to attention, the general gave her a somber salute that in one gesture delivered a nation’s gratitude.
Elliott met the Plumleys when he portrayed the sergeant major in the movie version of Galloway and Moore’s book. Known for his cowboy demeanor and deep baritone voice, he spent weeks getting to know the colorful character he brought to life in “We Were Soldiers.”
A deep friendship developed that Elliott describes as a father-son relationship. Through the years, the popular character actor has snuck into town to visit the Plumleys. Tuesday, he sat with the family and was Kimble’s escort.
Elliott said playing Plumley was a great responsibility. “I’ve played many historic figures, but Sgt. Plumley wasn’t just a great man. He was there.”
As an actor, he often seems larger than life. But in Plumley, Elliott found a person that was truly larger than life.
“That’s the difference,” he said. “I pretend to be, but Sgt. Plumley was real. He lived it.”
As it should have been. I'm sure the CSM would have been pissed as hell if he received anything different.
Some random thoughts:
My dad was an Infantry CSM. Two CIBs, Bronze Star, Purple Heart. I remember him receiving frequent calls from his former Officers who were passing through Fort Jackson. Men for whom he was their Platoon Sergeant, First Sergeant or CSM. He would leave and come home hours later, often with a gift for me from the men these who were now Colonels and General Officers. Sometimes he would take me along. I never realized how much my dad meant to these men until I earned my commission some years later. I'm sure CSM Plumley's kids had the same experience, multiplied tenfold.
-When I was assigned to Fort Jackson a few years ago the same barber who cut my dad's hair cut mine. Often times a retired Soldier would walk in and my barber would look at him and say do you know who this Major is? The old Soldier would look at me, clueless. "This is CSM Gamecock's son." The old vets inevitably would walk over, shake my hand, and say something like "Your daddy was a damn fine Soldier."
I like to think when my dad was young he was just like the CSM portrayed so well by Sam Elliott.
seldom talked about the service
That's the way these men were. My neighbors growing up were all senior NCOs. They just went about their business. I do know they gathered at some dump of a bar every Saturday morning, just outside the fence line of the Fort. They talked about old times and drank cheap beer. And for the morning they again were referred to by the rank they wore, but now instead of rank/ last name they were rank/first name. COL Smith became COL Ed. CSM Gamecock was now CSM John. Dad started taking me there the year before I pinned on my 2LT bars. I was ragged on unmercifully by this group, including my Dad, who would often bellow "I can't believe my son is going to be a damn officer!" His friends would often tell me how proud he was though. He always wanted his son to be an officer they would tell me. He often bragged about how he was going to give me my first salute. And he did and kept the silver dollar I gave him at his bedside until the day he died.
All of that being said, I an thankful for men like Plumley, my dad, and all those who gave me what I have today.