"We Were Soldiers," a Mel Gibson movie about that battle, is now in U.S. theaters, telling the story of a colonel who took his men into what seemed an impossible situation and managed to lead them to a victory -- a victory he now believes led to the false impression that the U.S. could win the war in Vietnam.
The colonel -– now Gen. Hal Moore -- coached Gibson in the making of the movie. As a result, he and his men are experiencing what most Vietnam veterans never got: Appreciation for their heroic actions during battle.
Moore’s mission in November of 1965 was to carry out a new U.S. military strategy: using helicopters to transport hundreds of his Army Rangers to find the enemy. The battle was one of the most savage of the entire war. Later, the Americans renamed the valley the Valley of Death. You can see why in the movie, in which Moore is played by Gibson.
A few months after that bloody battle, Moore told CBS News' Dan Rather, "We hope to clean out this entire valley, get the VCs out of here and let the people come back here and live a normal life."
Moore, now a retired general just turned 80, has lost little of that bravado. And he remembers Ia Drang as if it were yesterday.
Just as his battalion was about to be over-run, Moore called in close air support, all of it depicted in vivid, scorched-earth detail in the movie. The bombs and the napalm and Moore’s men killed hundreds of Vietnamese soldiers.
Moore lost 79 men and had 121 wounded. None were missing.
"In two wars, proudest thing that I have accomplished, I brought back all my dead," Moore tells Rather. "Korea, Vietnam. And I promised my men that they’d come home. And if I went down, bring me home. And that was the pact between us."
Moore saw that as the duty of a commander.
Mel Gibson sees his duty as giving a different portrayal to Vietnam veterans that he believed "had suffered at the hands of Hollywood."
"Most of those [other novies] had focused on the very cynical view of that war," Gibson tells Rather. "And this, you know, I think, was not that, you know. It wasn't the drug-popping, baby-killing Lt. Fragging Whacko, you know."
Whatever one may think of that war, Gibson says, "it doesn’t change the fact that ordinary men and women had to go over there and deal with it. And had to sacrifice. Sometimes the ultimate sacrifice, just limbs, maybe, but all of them, for sure, have heart wounds and they haven’t been healed."
Moore honors his dead heroes every year in a ceremony at the Vietnam Wall with reporter Joe Galloway, who wrote a book with him about that battle in the Ia Drang Valley. The movie is based on their book.
"I was not a green kid," says Galloway, "but I never saw anything to match this battle during four tours in Vietnam, during a dozen other wars." He said he thought everyone there would die.
Galloway and Moore served as consultants on the film, made by Paramount, a sister company to CBS. They both say the battle scenes are realistic. Gibson, who never served in the military, received training from Army Rangers at Fort Benning.
Gibson says he remembers as a child watching his father, a veteran of World War II, shaking his head over U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Gibson says he asked the same thing of Moore. "He said, 'You know, when you’re there,' he said, 'you’re not there for the flag. You’re not there for Mom or apple pie. You know, you’re primarily there for each other.' So it's a very personal thing, and it's a spiritual thing."
And, Gibson learned, a family thing.
"He’s a guy who regarded all his troopers as his children. Now, those were his sons he was out there with. And that he loved his boys and that’s why his guys loved him. And they would've jumped off a cliff for him. And, but the other thing is that he is a bad ass. And that’s who you want there."
But this tough-talking general admits he became very emotional during filming. "Brings back so many grim memories, memories of those great troopers," he says.
Gibson, who says he spent a lot of time with Moore, recalls one day when they went for a drive: "He took me to the graveyard in Fort Benning. And we'd stop at a stone. And this was one of his boys. This was like one of his sons, and I’m telling you, he stopped at a lot of stones."
The general, a Roman Catholic (as is Gibson), talks to his men. He says their spirit is still alive.
"I’m telling you, I was glad I had shades on, because I was like blubbering like a baby under there," Gibson recalls. "But it was -- he gave me a pretty good sense of the grave responsibility that he was laying on my feet. And it was kind of a charitable order to say, 'Don’t you mess, don’t you ever dishonor, my boys.'"
Before "We Were Soldiers" opened in theaters, Moore traveled to West Point, his alma mater, for a special screening. With him was Galloway, Gibson, co-stars Sam Elliott, Barry Pepper, and Chris Klein; Moore’s wife, Julie, and actress Madeleine Stowe, who plays her in the movie.
At least 2,000 cadets showed up to greet them. The general seemed pleased and honored, but about halfway through the film, he got up and walked away in the dark. Only the applause from the cadets after the movie coaxed him back to his chair, too moved to speak.
Moore was asked what younger Americans, who know very little about the Vietnam war, should know about this battle.
His reply: "The most important thing that Americans should know about this battle is, 'Hate war. Love the American warrior.' Got that?"