November 1965 in Vietnam and the first major set-piece battle between U.S. fighters and regular North Vietnamese Army units has started. A parachute flare drops from an American plane, misses its target and lands amid stacks of live ammunition. Risking his life to save the day, a quick-thinking soldier grabs the flare with his bare hands and hurls it away from danger.
That soldier was Sergeant Major Basil Plumley, and this singular act of bravery won him a Silver Star. Plumley was an extraordinary soldier in many ways. But before we come on to that part of his story, let’s learn a little about where this remarkable man came from.
Basil Leonard Plumley was born on the first day of 1920 in Blue Jay, West Virginia. He was the fifth child and second son of Clay and Georgia, both born in West Virginia themselves. Like so many in that state, Clay was a coal miner.
Plumley only stuck it out at high school for two years before he left for the world of work. However, rather than follow his father down the mines, Plumley took jobs driving tractors and trucks. After a few years doing that, he joined the U.S. Army in 1942.
In fact, Plumley had enlisted just four months after the U.S. had joined World War II. This followed the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. And it wasn’t long before Plumley was to see action across the Atlantic in the European theater of war.
Plumley was drafted in as a gliderman to take part in arguably the most pivotal moment of World War II: D-Day. Taking place on June 6, 1944, D-Day was the amphibious and airborne landing on the Normandy coast of northern France. It was the first blow to be struck against Hitler in his western European stronghold.
In the early stages of the invasion, some American troops arrived in France by air. And Plumley’s unit, the 82nd Airborne Division’s 320th Glider Field Artillery Battalion, was among them. However, poor weather conditions meant the landing did not go as planned and the gliders were widely dispersed.
Despite this, the soldiers soon consolidated their position and within two days, eight of the howitzers that had been brought in were deployed for action. Plumley’s unit continued fighting through France until mid-July when they were stood down and returned to England.
But the 320th’s respite from battle was to be brief. They were now ordered to take part in Operation Market Garden. This was a plan to land airborne troops in the Netherlands and to then cross the Dutch-German border, advancing from there into the heart of Germany’s principal industrial region, the Ruhr.
The operation called for both paratroopers and glider-borne troops to land around the Dutch cities of Arnhem, Nijmegen and Eindhoven and to seize key river crossings, including a bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem. The attacking troops would then pour across the German border. It was a highly ambitious mission, and in the end a failed one.
Plumley’s battalion set off in its gliders for the Netherlands over two days, September 18 and 19, 1944. Their role was to rid the area of German troops and to provide artillery support for British armored units. The 320th also helped an American airborne unit to take the bridge at Nijmegen. But the attackers were less successful in other sectors and the assault collapsed.
Plumley had actually been wounded on the first day that his battalion landed. He took a bullet to the hand and for that he received a Purple Heart. The 320th now fought its way across western Europe, joining up with the Soviet forces arriving from the east at the German town of Ludwigslust in May 1945.
After the end of World War II, Plumley was stationed for a time at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, and he also did a tour of duty in occupied Germany. Then in June 1950 the Korean War broke out. Plumley was sent to fight there in 1953, in the closing months of the conflict.
In Korea, Plumley saw action at the Battle of Old Baldy and the Battle of Pork Chop Hill. The Pork Chop Hill action consisted of two engagements, one in March 1953 and one in July of that year. Neither brought any real benefit to either side. Indeed, the battle took place at a time when the warring sides were actually negotiating an armistice, something that was eventually agreed in late July 1953.
Having now served in two wars, you might think that Plumley would be thinking about putting his feet up. But then along came the Vietnam War, with American ground troops extensively deployed – 200,000 of them by the end of 1965. Plumley now joined his third conflict, serving with the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment.
And it was in November 1965 in Vietnam that the incident with the flare we mentioned earlier took place. The episode happened at the Battle of la Drang, scene of the first all-out conflict between North Vietnamese regulars and American troops. The battle had two parts and it was the first of those that Plumley’s battalion was involved in.
The 1st Battalion was defending what was known as Landing Zone X-ray. American aircraft were dropping flares to light up the night, making it difficult for the North Vietnamese to approach the American position unseen. But one flare went badly astray, landing in among a large store of live ammunition.
And that was when Sergeant Major Plumley demonstrated his cool head and cast-iron courage by seizing the flare and throwing it away from the ammunition. Plumley’s bravery was later recognized by the award of a Silver Star. This was added to a tally of some 30 medals and decorations that this extraordinary soldier was awarded in his 33 years of service.
However, in one sour note to Plumley’s story, independent researcher Brian Siddall alleged in 2015 that there were discrepancies between Plumley’s military records and the decorations he had laid claim to. The U.S. Army Human Resources Command subsequently investigated the claims and concluded that there was “no substantial evidence” to show that Plumley’s decorations were incorrectly described.
Multiple medals aside, let’s not forget that this was a man who had served his country in no less than three major wars, an incredible and rare feat in itself. Indeed, such was his reputation that Plumley’s exploits were immortalized in the 2002 Hollywood movie We Were Soldiers. The real-life action man retired from active service in 1974, although he continued working for the army in a civilian role until 1990. Sergeant Major Plumley died in 2012 at the age of 92.