Basil L. Plumley, Army veteran of three wars, dies at 92

Robin Trimarchi/AP - Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Basil L. Plumley, right, with retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, served together in the 1st Cavalry Division in the Ia Drang Valley. Plumley, 92, died Wednesday morning in Columbus, Ga.

Basil L. Plumley, 92, a retired Army command sergeant major whose exploits as an infantryman were portrayed in a book and the movie “We Were Soldiers,” died Oct. 10 under hospice care in Columbus, Ga. His daughter, Debbie Kimble, said he had cancer.

Command Sgt. Maj. Plumley fought in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam and made five parachute jumps into combat.

Friends said he never told war stories and was known to hang up on people who called to interview him. Still, he was near-legendary in the Army and gained more widespread fame through a 1992 Vietnam War book that was the basis for the 2002 movie starring Mel Gibson. Actor Sam Elliott played him in the film.

Command Sgt. Maj. Plumley didn’t need a Hollywood portrayal to be revered among soldiers, said Greg Camp, a retired Army colonel and former chief of staff at Fort Benning, Ga., who befriended the officer in his later years.

“He’s iconic in military circles,” Camp said. “Among people who have been in the military, he’s beyond what a movie star would be. . . . His legend permeates three generations of soldiers.”

He was a native of Shady Spring, W.Va., and enlisted in the Army in 1942. He ended up serving 32 years in uniform.

In World War II, he fought in the Allied invasion of Italy at Salerno and the D-Day invasion at Normandy. He later fought with the 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment in Korea. In Vietnam, he served as sergeant major with the 7th Cavalry Regiment.

“That puts him in the rarest of clubs,” said journalist Joseph L. Galloway, who met Command Sgt. Maj. Plumley while covering the Vietnam War for United Press International and remained lifelong friends with him. “To be combat infantry in those three wars, in the battles he participated in, and to have survived — that is miraculous.”

In November 1965, Command Sgt. Maj. Plumley served in the Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam, the first major engagement between the U.S. Army and North Vietnamese forces.

That battle was the basis for the book “We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young,” written nearly three decades later by Galloway and retired Army Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, who had been Command Sgt. Maj. Plumley’s battalion commander in Vietnam. (Gibson portrayed Moore in the 2002 movie.)

Galloway said several of Elliott’s gruff one-liners in the movie were things Command Sgt. Maj. Plumley actually said, such as in the scene in which a soldier tells the sergeant major good morning and is told: “Who made you the [expletive] weatherman?”

“Sam Elliott underplayed him,” Galloway said. “He was actually tougher than that. He was gruff, monosyllabic, an absolute terror when it came to enforcing standards of training.”

That’s not to say he was mean or inhuman, Galloway said. “This was a man above all else who had a very big, warm heart that he concealed very well.”

He retired with the rank command sergeant major in 1974 at Fort Benning, his last duty station. He then took a civilian job at Martin Army Community Hospital, where for the next 15 years he did administrative work.

His wife of 63 years, Deurice Plumley, died in May.

In 2009, Command Sgt. Maj. Plumley helped open the Army’s National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning in 2009. Camp, who now works for the museum’s fundraising foundation, said the sergeant major helped him get Elliott to narrate a ceremony dedicating the parade ground outside the museum.

— News services