Honoring the men of Ia Drang

Veterans Day: A Marylander recalls young comrades who fought and died in one of the most savage battles of the Vietnam War.

November 11, 2003|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

On the sun-dappled floor of South Vietnam's Ia Drang Valley that November afternoon, Army Capt. George G. Forrest had a fleeting thought: How nice it would be to be someplace else.

Forrest and other commanders had been summoned to the head of their long infantry column to plan for a helicopter pickup - American B-52s would soon be dropping tons of bombs close to their position.

Within seconds, the sickening "crumph" of incoming mortar rounds surrounded them. Then machine-gun fire, screams of soldiers and exploding hand grenades added to the sudden din of the North Vietnamese ambush.

Forrest took off through the scrub brush and razor-sharp elephant grass, and around trees and tall termite mounds, to reach his men, A Company, 1/5, 1st Cavalry Division. Within 20 minutes, 17 would be killed - including the two radiomen at his side - and 43 wounded.

Miraculously, Forrest, who raced 400 yards to be with his men and fight through the night, was not scratched.

"My men needed me and I went," Forrest says now, 38 years after the battle. "But if I had really thought logically, I would have found a hole. It was so loud you couldn't even think - constant firing, incoming artillery, helicopters, screaming jets."

Forrest, of Leonardtown, will join the rest of America in observing Veterans Day today. For him, it is a day made more poignant by Ia Drang, one of the most savage fights of the Vietnam War, which was later depicted in a best-selling book, We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young, and a Hollywood movie.

"You just had to cut off your emotions," he remembers. "My soldiers were only a few years younger than me. And here they are on the ground, wrapped in plastic bags or covered with ponchos."

A defining time

Military service was a defining time in Forrest's life. He had a distinguished career in the Army, earning a Silver Star for heroism, two Bronze Stars for valor, three Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry, a host of service ribbons, paratrooper's jump wings and his Combat Infantryman Badge. He retired in 1981 after 21 years of service.

Forrest spent the next several years in executive positions for national and international companies. He also has lectured at Yale University and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and has worked with at-risk teens in his hometown.

Today, at the age of 65, Forrest - the father of four sons - is chief administrator for St. Mary's County. And a proud veteran.

Like the soldiers who preceded him in America's other major wars - those who waded ashore at Normandy, fought in the dark sands of Iwo Jima or endured the frozen mountains of Korea - he speaks of Veterans Day not in terms of killing and the horror of combat. Instead, he calls the deep brotherhood formed long ago in the madness of the Ia Drang Valley "a love story."

Before the war, before playing varsity football at Morgan State University, before standing guard at the casket of the assassinated president in another dark November, there were the years growing up black in the sleepy Southern Maryland village of Leonardtown in St. Mary's County.

What he endured there, family, friends and combat mates say, shaped him into a remarkable study in courage and strength.

His parents, James, 94, and Harriett, 86, raised four sons and a daughter. Like most blacks of that era, the Forrests felt the sharp sting of racism and hatred.

"George was 9 when he decided to be an altar boy," Mrs. Forrest recalled. "Well, I took him up to church for him to practice and we got two calls at the house, one very threatening, about them not wanting a n----- to serve them Holy Communion."

Forrest became an altar boy anyway.

That was when the New Theater in the town square required black moviegoers to enter through a side door marked "Colored" and to sit in the balcony, away from white customers.

"This was not a good place to be a black kid, a boy, back in that time," Forrest said, seated at his parents' kitchen table on Hollywood Road in Leonardtown. "So what was the choice, hate like them or move on stronger? Today, I would raise my sons here because times do change and this is a great place to call home."

Forrest had strong role models in his parents. Both were active in the early civil rights movement. His father, a telephone lineman, was the first black person on the St. Mary's County school board and later received an honorary doctoral degree from St. Mary's College. A local career and technology center bears his father's name.

Forrest left his hometown to attend Morgan State, where he played football and graduated in 1960 with a degree in political science. He was in the Reserve Officers Training Corps while in school and joined the active-duty Army after graduation.

As a young lieutenant, Forrest was assigned to the Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment, the "Old Guard," which performed ceremonial duties at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

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