A veteran of the 'Lost Platoon' remembers Vietnam

Galen Bungum, 72, was a soldier in Vietnam.
Galen Bungum, 72, was a soldier in the Vietnam War and fought in the first major battle of the war, the battle of Ia Drang, on November 14, 1965.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

On this Veterans Day, survivors are commemorating the 50th anniversary of an early battle in America's war in Vietnam.

As Walter Cronkite related in a CBS News Special Report after the battle, "If the American public had not known until then, they know now. The United States is indeed at war. A full-dressed war against a formidable enemy."

Galen Bungum of Hayfield, Minn., was part of that historic battle. Bungum enlisted when he was 20, not to fight the spread of communism but mostly because his high school buddies were being drafted.

"Didn't know what we were coming into over there," he said recently. "I mean, nobody knew that, except higher-ups, I imagine."

Memorabilia sits inside a cabinet.
Memorabilia sits inside a cabinet in the home of Galen Bungum.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

Bungum, 72, flipped through pictures of the war in the basement of his home. He opened a glass case where he keeps other mementos of his time as a combat infantryman.

"Here's the CIB badge that would go on your fatigues," he said. "And here's my dog tags. We had these taped together so they wouldn't make noise. And here's my Testament I had with [me]. It's been wet a few times."

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As part of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, Bungum was ordered to the Ia Drang Valley 50 years ago this week, on Nov. 14, 1965.

"They just say, 'Saddle up and go to the helicopters,' you know," he explained. "You really don't know where you're going. You just get on and get off where they set down at."

Galen Bungum holds an old photo of himself.
Galen Bungum holds an old photo of himself from when he enlisted in the army more than 50 years ago.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

Bungum's company was the first to arrive. The men landed, set up to defend their location, and waited for helicopters to return with more U.S. troops.

They didn't know the North Vietnamese had a large base camp nearby and were preparing to attack. When the battle erupted, the U.S. forces were vastly outnumbered and outgunned. Casualties were heavy.

"I remember my platoon sergeant, he came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'I'll be 43 years old tomorrow,'" Bungum said. "But he said, 'I don't believe I'll live to see it.' And he didn't. By middle of the afternoon he was gone."

By that time, Bungum's platoon of 29 soldiers was cut off from other U.S. forces. They were later dubbed the "Lost Platoon." In a matter of hours, North Vietnamese soldiers had taken many of the platoon's weapons, including two M-60 machine guns that enemy soldiers used to attack the platoon. Bungum, a grenade specialist, quickly ran out of grenades.

"I went in there with 18 rounds and that didn't take long to burn them up," he recalled. "In a place like that, you think you're never going to make it, when you're out of ammo. You have nothing to protect yourself with, or hope to protect yourself with.

"You couldn't dig a foxhole or nothing because you couldn't get up. You had to lay flat to the ground ... It was a long night."

Bungum spent 25 hours pinned to the ground, without food or water. Today, he still doesn't talk much about the death and destruction around him, the enemy soldiers he came face to face with, the men he shot, the friends he saw die. But he remembers the sounds: bombs landing, bullets flying, friends crying out for help. Bungum said the battle still haunts him.

"I felt guilt," he said. "How come I made it out, and a lot of your buddies didn't? Because you know they wanted to get out, too."

Galen Bungum holds the bronze star he was awarded.
Galen Bungum holds the bronze star he was awarded after the battle of Ia Drang.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

In all, eight men in Bungum's platoon died; 13 were wounded. He survived, with a piece of shrapnel in his leg by the time a rescue unit arrived the next day.

A book about the battle, "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young," quotes him telling about staggering to a landing zone before being airlifted out: "I remember stumbling and falling down, ending up face to face with a dead enemy with his eyes wide open. I will never forget that."

Six months later Bungum was back in Minnesota, with a bronze star to his name. A year after that he got married, and eventually he had three sons.

Bungum's wife, Marsha, said it took him years to adjust to life as a civilian.

"You didn't talk about it when we were first married," she said. "But he was having troubles. It was difficult times."

"Your mentality is still locked over there," he explained. "That's one thing they made a mistake on, coming back from Vietnam. So I laid low for a while, but it takes a long time doing it yourself."

Galen Bungum looks at photos from his army days.
Galen Bungum, looks at old photos from his days in the army.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

Looking back, Bungum said he was following orders and didn't really understand the scope of the war.

Dartmouth College history professor Edward Miller says Ia Drang was a test for both sides, "a battle that commanders on both sides wanted."

"It was a battle that both of them were seeking as a way to validate their respective strategies," Miller said. "And in that sense, they both got the battle that they were looking for."

The war was to last another decade. It ended 40 years ago, when Saigon fell to the Communists. But over that half-century, Galen Bungum said, he's never really left that battlefield in the Ia Drang Valley.