American Heroes: “Old Iron Jaws,” CSM Plumley

Curtains of acrid smoke clouded the visibility on that day for the men of 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, who stayed low in anticipation of enemy fire that had not yet begun. The air was clogged from aerial strikes by weaponry like the Mk 4 Folding-Fin Aerial Rocket, an unguided rocket capable of massive destruction, and incoming artillery from helicopter-mounted weapons such as the M60 machine guns firing 7.62x51mm rounds from disintegrating belts. For over 30 minutes prior to their insertion, the area had been strafed relentlessly in an attempt to force the enemy back. And now these men – boys, really – turned raw nerves and largely inexperienced eyes to the protection of LZ X-RAY. They were under explicit orders not to attempt to scale 2,300-foot-tall Chu Pong Massif Mountain; their sole purpose was to maintain control of LZ X-RAY.

1/7 Cavalry landing at LZ XRAY.
1/7 Cavalry landing at LZ XRAY.

When shots rang out, there was a frenzy of activity as American soldiers reacted, but in one corner of the battlefield, one of the most famous moments incorrectly attributed to Hollywood’s flair for drama was taking place. When the M16 rifle was first designed in 1962 and began to see serious use in the U.S. military in 1963, it had fatal flaws, like a tendency for FTE’s (Failure to Extract, meaning a spent cartridge stays lodged in the rifle’s chamber after the bullet is fired, effectively jamming the weapon). Many veterans rightly blame those flaws for the wounds and deaths of countless American soldiers; young men were found on multiple occasions with their M16’s field stripped or jammed beside their dead bodies. Perhaps it was due to those terrible flaws, or not, but there was a particular Sergeant Major who chose to eschew his M16 for something else: his Colt M1911.

At the Battle of La Drang, the first major battle of the Vietnam War, November 1965, Sergeant Major Basil Plumley flew into action. According to the somewhat infamous embedded reporter Joseph Galloway, who was also the only reporter on the ground, Plumley rallied the troops in his own unique way. Galloway had been cowering on the ground, arms over his head, when Plumley approached, gave him a deserved combat-booted kick in the ribs, and yelled, “Can’t take no pictures lying down there on the ground, sonny!” He then moved on, bellowing a call to arms, and, in perhaps his most famous moment, drew his Colt M1911, proclaiming “Gentlemen, prepare to defend yourself!” Armed with his trusty .45 cal pistol rather than a 30-round mag M16, then-Sergeant Major Plumley rushed into battle.

At 6’2”, he certainly cut an imposing figure. He was portrayed in the movie We Were Soldiers by Sam Elliot, and although the actor certainly tried to do him justice, those who knew Plumley say his natural demeanor contained far more gravel and bite than Elliot could manage in his wildest dreams. Plumley was born on New Year’s Day in 1920 in Shady Spring, West Virginia, the first of six children of a coal-miner. He was described as a big, burly kid with a penchant for trouble, and he dropped out of high school after his sophomore year to become a driver. He did that for a few years before pursuing his true calling.

When you consider the timing of his enlistment, it’s easy to imagine what happened. On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was maliciously attacked by the Imperial Japanese Navy, and we were a nation at war. In West Virginia, a young Basil Plumley, most likely eager both to kick tail for a living and to serve the enemy a slice of America’s vengeance pie, enlisted in the U.S. Army on March 31, 1942. Those who believe Plumley’s part in Vietnam, charging the NVA armed with only his M1911, was his greatest moment clearly don’t know much about young Private Plumley.

Waco CG-4A USAF  Glider.
Waco CG-4A USAF Glider.

Private Plumley was assigned to the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, and he went to war teeth bared, fists clenched. But Plumley wasn’t just any paratrooper; no, he was a member of the 320th Glider Field Artillery Battalion. Men in the glider battalion didn’t jump from big, strong airplanes. They packed themselves into what was eerily similar to a large wooden box made in an airplane shape, with no engine. You may be about to lean into your monitor and call me a dirty liar, but the U.S. deployed gliders as follows: hook a too-small metal cable to the nose of the engine-less wooden glider, attach the other end to the tail-end of a far more powerful B-24 bomber, and load it with men. The bomber would take off, dragging the glider along, and hopefully reach the LZ without the cable snapping mid-flight (yes, it happened). Then, upon reaching the LZ, release the cable on purpose, hoping that same cable didn’t lash back and annihilate the winged wooden box (yes, it happened). Then it was up to the glider’s pilot, apparently crazy-talented men capable of landing floating crates full of soldiers, who would try to crash-land in whatever they called an LZ, hopefully not causing injuries or death on landing (yes, that happened, too). These gliders may as well have had gigantic bulls-eyes painted on their sides, because it was all too easy for the enemy to riddle them with bullets, killing everyone inside even before they could hit the ground. After landing, the air-landers – because that’s what they were referred to, instead of paratroopers – would deploy through one of the three doors on the wretched creation, and enter battle. There’s good reason the men called them “flying coffins” and “tow targets.” Plumley didn’t just have nerves of steel; his entire body was dipped in tungsten.

But he was also a paratrooper, and as a part of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, he made not one but four combat jumps. His first was part of Operation Husky in Sicily, a six-week assault by air and ground that eventually lead to the Allies taking control of Sicily. Plumley’s first combat jump was monumental because it was the very first regiment-size combat jump in American history. It wasn’t without its problems, though: as they prepared to jump, naval vessels in the water below mistakenly opened fire on their allies overhead, forcing many paratroopers to jump early and resulting in the deaths of 318 troops from friendly fire. His second jump was part of Operation Avalanche in Salerno, Italy, and involved the expected face-to-face fighting, explosions, and incredible bravery. And he was just getting started.

Third was with Operation Neptune, which was part of a little thing you might have heard of called Operation Overlord, which is better known as the D-Day invasion at Normandy. Things went wrong, as they are wont to do in the havoc of war, and the 505th dropped early, landing in random, unknown places, scattered all over. But that didn’t dissuade Plumley. He and his fellow 505th paratroopers, who would be labeled with the nickname “H-Minus” due to their early drop, managed to meet up and plan an attack of their own. Gathering together, the paratroopers attacked the town of St. Mere-Eglise, successfully liberating it from the enemy. Turned out H-Minus was the first group on the ground to capture a town that day (they were awarded a Presidential Citation for it). The 505th would receive another Presidential Citation for what happened after Plumley’s fourth combat jump during Operation Market Garden, which was the biggest airborne assault in history. He and the others touched down in Groesbeck, Holland, only to immediately be attacked by an entire battalion of Germans and their tanks. Somehow they held the Germans off through 3 assaults, playing an instrumental role in the capturing of the bridges at Nijmegen, and then reinforcements finally showed up. When Basil Plumley made a combat jump, he didn’t just jump; he hit the ground assaulting.

If that’s enough to impress you, he wasn’t done, not by a long shot. Plumley was also involved in the Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest battle of World War II. The Germans carried out the surprise attack in the dead of winter in the dense forests of the Ardennes region in Belgium, France, pinning down the Allies – including Plumley and the 505th – from 16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945. Surviving the bitter winter was something the Allies were horribly unprepared for, and the combination of freezing temperatures and enemy attacks resulted in the deaths of approximately 90,000 Americans. The strain and horrors of World War II convinced many good men enough was enough, but Plumley was a special breed of warrior, and he stayed in, doing heaven knows what manly, mind-blowing things until his next opportunity for showing our enemies what Americans are made of arrived in the form of the Korean War.

During the Korean War, Plumley made just one combat jump as part of the 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment. The valiant men of the 187th dropped into the battle of Pakchon in Sukchon, North Korea, with one goal in mind: freeing American prisoners and capturing members of the Korean government. Plumley took part in an unbelievable number of unspeakably brave missions, and then it was time for Vietnam, and the aforementioned Battle of la Drang.

Moore and Plumley, circa 1966.
Moore and Plumley, circa 1966.

Back to where we started this tale. In Vietnam, Plumley charged into battle with his M1911, surrounded by a unit of about 450 very young soldiers – up against 2,000 war-and-violence hardened NVA (North Vietnamese Army). Lieutenant Hal Moore had been put in charge, and as CO he chose CSM Plumley as his second-in-command, a choice many are surely grateful for today, because the presence of the unyielding CSM Plumley probably led to the survival of more than one young soldier. By that point, Plumley was a 23-year-Army-veteran known as “Old Iron Jaws,” probably due to his habit of chewing metal shavings for breakfast and spitting back nails. It wasn’t just himself that Plumley expected courage under fire from, though. Remember the reporter, Galloway, who was rousted from his hiding place by a well-placed boot to the ribs courtesy of CSM Plumley? After that incident, Plumley gave him his very own M16 and three loaded mags, and when the reporter argued he was a noncombatant, the battle-toughened CSM simply shook his head. “Ain’t no such thing, boy,” he said, and walked away to rejoin the fight.

Probably not right after that, but soon after, U.S. planes were doing supply drops, attaching lit flares to the crates so troops could spot them easily. The NVA shot down one of the parachutes attached to a crate at one point – no doubt they believed this a great victory – and the flare promptly fell into a big box of ammo. Without skipping a beat, Plumley walked over, took the flare out moments before it set the entire explosive thing on fire, chucked the flare into the woods, and went back to the battle, presumably with his M1911.

Young SoldiersThere’s more, and if you want to know it all, check out the book his CO Hal Moore wrote with that reporter, Galloway: We Were Soldiers Once…And Young. Yes, you do recognize the title.

Plumley retired from the Army in December 1974 as a Command Sergeant Major, but he wasn’t done serving his country. For 15 years, he worked at the hospital on post at Fort Benning, mentored young soldiers, and, in 2009, played a large role in opening the Army’s National Infantry Museum in Georgia.

CSM(R) Basil L. Plumley at the United States Military Academy at West Point on 10 May 2010.
CSM(R) Basil L. Plumley at the United States Military Academy at West Point on 10 May 2010.

Among Plumley’s many awards is the highly esteemed triple Combat Infantry Badge, which only 325 men have ever earned. The fact that he fought in the three wars he did – and which battles – makes his survival and courage all the more impressive. He also had a Master Combat Parachutist Badge with a gold star, indicating 5 total combat jumps. In addition to his numerous badges he was awarded 27 medals, including a Purple Heart with three oak leaf clusters and a Bronze Star with an oak leaf cluster and V-device. His awards are numerous, his courage knew no bounds, and many 1/7 Cav vets believe God must look like CSM Plumley. Of course, those who served alongside the man know the stalwart soldier was a tenacious mix of grit and determination all his own.

CSM Basil Plumley passed away on October 10, 2012 of cancer, joining his wife of 63 years, Deurice, who passed just months before. They’re survived by daughter Debbie, one granddaughter, and two great-grandchildren. He was The American Soldier and The American Hero; the spirit of the Army itself. Rest in peace, CSM Plumley.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth
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