Hollywood Heroes – Mel Gibson in “We Were Soldiers”

On July 8, 2013

Hollywood Heroes – Mel Gibson as LTG Hal Moore in “We Were Soldiers”

The Ia Drang Battle took place from November 14-18,1965 in the central highlands of South Vietnam. It was the first major battle between the U.S. Army and the NVA in that war.  The battle was also significant because it established the helicopter airmobile doctrine that the Army would use throughout the Vietnam War.

Snapshot of the LZ in the battle of Ia Drang

Snapshot of the LZ in the battle of Ia Drang

In 1992, Lt. General Hal Moore, commanding officer of 1/7 CAV, and Joe Galloway, a war journalist, wrote a book titled “We Were Soldiers Once…And Young.”  The book focused on 1st and 2nd BN, 7th Cav during the battle.  In 2002, the book was made into a movie starring Mel Gibson as Lt. Colonel Hal Moore.

As is usually the case, Hollywood didn’t get the awards quite right. In a scene where Gibson is addressing his officers after taking command of his new unit, we get a look at his awards:

Mel-Gibson-we-were-soldiers

He is wearing two personal decorations; the Bronze Star with “V” device and 1 bronze oak leaf cluster. He also has several campaign awards placing him in both World War II and the Korean War. He has the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Master Parachutist Badge, the Army Presidential Unit Citation, and the Korean Presidential Unit Citation.

Here is a photo of Lt. General Moore after his retirement. In comparing the two photos, it appears that most of the awards for Mel Gibson’s character seem to jive with General Moore’s pre-Vietnam service.

Hal-Moore

Obviously, General Moore earned quite a few awards during the Vietnam War, including the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Army Distinguished Service Medal.  There is one award that you may notice present on Mel Gibson’s character, but not in Hal Moore’s actual awards. Just after the Army Commendation Medal and just before the American Campaign Medal, Hollywood added the American Defense Service Medal.  This award shouldn’t be present.  Hal Moore was commissioned a 2nd Lt. in 1945.  As per Army Regulation 600-8-22, “Military Awards”:

The American Defense Service Medal (ADSM) was established by Executive Order 8808, announced in War Department Bulletin 17, 1941. It is awarded for service between 8 September 1939 and 7 December 1941 under orders to active duty for a period of 12 months or longer.

In General Moore’s actual picture, you’ll see that he’s not wearing the award, while in Hollywood’s depiction of Lt. Col. Moore, he obviously is.

Here’s how the awards should look on Lt. Col. Moore’s character, from the MyServicePride.com rackbuilder:

Hal-moore-rack

Lt General Moore’s Pre-Vietnam Awards from the MyServicePride.com rackbuilder

This mistake is relatively minor compared to some of the other mistakes we’ve seen so far. Moreover, the value of the book, movie and Hal Moore’s story make me not even care that much.  That fact that this story was told to such a wide audience is, in my mind, much more important.  During this one battle, 3 men earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, 2 earned the Distinguished Service Cross and Joe Galloway received the only Bronze Star for Valor given to a civilian in Vietnam.  Additionally, in Hal Moore writes in his book,

“We had problems on the awards… Too many men had died bravely and heroically, while the men who had witnessed their deeds had also been killed… Acts of valor that, on other fields, on other days, would have been rewarded with the Medal of Honor or Distinguished Service Cross or a Silver Star were recognized only with a telegram saying, ‘The Secretary of the Army regrets…’ The same was true of our sister battalion, the 2nd of the 7th.”

I personally prefer the book over the movie. If you have never read the book OR seen the movie, I strongly encourage it. It’s an amazing story and an important part of American Military history.

12 thoughts on “Hollywood Heroes – Mel Gibson in “We Were Soldiers”

  1. Scott A. Baker

    I saw and own the movie and will now go buy the book . Thought it was an outstanding movie. Watched it with my two sons and today they are both serving this great nation. As a retired USAF MSgt, to one of this countries true heroes of his day, General, I salute you and all your men.

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  2. James Little

    I wrote about General Moore and Reporter Joe Gallaway in my book “Brotherhood of Doom: Memoirs of a Navy Nuclear Weaponsman” published in 2007. I was off the coast of Vietnam onboard the USS Ticonderoga. Our planes supported the battle in Ia Drang. I corresponded with Joe for a number of years before his death…two great patriots!

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  3. Doug Reed

    I own the movie and have watched it many times. I will now also buy the book. My only concern is that in describing the awards that were earned you said ” During this one battle, 3 men earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, 2 earned the Distinguished Service Cross and Joe Galloway received the only Bronze Star for Valor given to a civilian in Vietnam.” I submit that only General Moore got the name of the highest award for valor correct. It bothers me greatly when the Medal of Honor is called the congressional Medal of Honor. We don’t do this to other medals, my Purple Heart is not called the General Purple Heart because it was signed off on by a General Officer, and I would appreciate it if you would stop this much misguided description of the Medal of Honor.

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  4. Jim Lewis

    It is against the law for Hollywood (or any other agency) to portray an actor/member as a serviceman of the US Armed Forces – if they are not actually a member of the service. Every uniform shown on screen has a small (sometimes big) flaw in positioning or display of medals, ribbons and devices. Being a former USAF Security Policeman (charged with monitoring AFR 35-10) it is kinda fun to spot them all. Some movies do a nice job of presenting the uniform, some don’t, making the game challenging.

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  5. Joseph Bons

    I have both the book and have seen the movie. The book have been on the must read list for all soldiers for a long time. it fills in all the gaps the movie doesn’t cover.

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    1. Donnie Bowerman

      You are so right about this particular book. In fact, I can count on one hand and have a couple three fingers left over where the movie was as good as the book or maybe better. The book wins 99.99% of the time. That’s because Hollywood has never learned how to make a movie without screwing up the book version to make it bloodier, sexier, more farcical, and less truthful.

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  7. Terry Foote

    I agree with Mr. Reed. The medal is not The Congressional Medal Of Honor. It is The Medal Of Honor.

    I read the book before I saw the movie. Both the book and the movie were excellent and I own them both. Having followed the 7th Cav later in 1966 as a member of Charlie Company, 1st Bn (ABN), 12th Cav (documented as the most highly decorated company size unit in the entire Viet Nam War) I can tell you the movie is the most accurate I have seen. We were over run by the 22nd NVA regiment at the end of the 1966 Christmas truce (2 hours after the official end) I can tell you being over run is as depicted in the movie. It is utter chaos and survival really depends upon the company becoming organized ASAP after the first round hits the LZ. The 7th Cav was considered a hard luck, somewhat disorganized unit among the rest of the Cav units within the division. They always took a larger number of casualties in just about any other unit in the Cav would have taken. I submit this was due to poor leadership at the brigade level. They were only looking for body count rather then approaching a fight using good tactics to minimize American casualties. I honestly believe the 7th could have taken lighter casualties if the brigade leadership would have stepped up and thought about the men as human Americans rather then using them as warm bodies to increase the enemy body count to make themselves look good.

    Just my humble opinion.

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    1. Bernard Lyons

      To quote Wickipedia, “The Medal of Honor is the United States of America’s highest military honor, awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty. The medal is awarded by the President of the United States in the “name of Congress” to US military personnel only.”

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  8. Narciso Pulido III

    Great movie , Mel did a great job . I was with 1 st. Bn. 4 th. Marines from July 3 rd. 1965 to August 13 th. 1967 . Proud to have served my country and the Marine Corp. Wounded March 23 rd. 1967 , on a rescue mission inside the D M Z.. Mission accomplished , even though all 13 of us got wounded . We have a reunion in a different site every year . I hosted the 2010 reunion here in San Antonio , Tx. This year we will be in Charleston, South Carolina . We will be visiting the Parris Island Boot Camp and meeting some of our young Marines . That will be great . I thank you for what you are doing . Semper Fi Narciso Pulido III God Bless

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  9. Terry

    How about profiling the rack of the real life Sgt. Major played by Sam Elliot? His service went all the way back to Sicily in WW II.

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  10. Donnie Bowerman

    Referring to the ADSM which was on Mel’s uniform but not on General Moore’s uniform, I pose this concern: a movie of this historical and military magnitude had several military advisors. Other significant Hollywood movies about military events or real military members all had real military advisors. I know that they are there to advise on all things military for authenticity purposes. Why is it that ribbon racks are seemingly left to some third-string assistant costume designer???

    Now to the CMOH. It is the CMOH. It has always been the CMOH. We military people ALLOWED societal or other influences to, over several decades, cheapen our own reverence for the officially correct name for this decoration. Not to be a name dropper, but I have one very dear friend and four very close acquaintances who received the CMOH. They actually refer to it both ways, BUT they are members of The Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Look it up. The General Purple Heart comment is so beyond ludicrous, it’s laughable

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