Command Sergeant Major Basil Plumley of the United States Army passed away almost exactly one month ago today. In his 50+ years of service to the American military both in a combat and civilian role, he was decorated 40 times for bravery by at least five different countries, fought in three continent-spanning wars against global Fascism and Communism, participated in a couple dozen of the bloodiest and most vicious battles this country has ever seen, and once pulled out his .45-caliber Colt 1911 service pistol and led a bayonet charge through a bullet-strewn jungle against a force of AK-47-toting soldiers that outnumbered him 5-to-1.
I figure Veteran's Day weekend is as good a time as any to mention him on this website.
This will make him the second Basil I've posted on this site in as many months,
which it actually causing me to reconsider the badassitude of the name Basil.
So, to commemorate that, here's a pic of Basil Rathbone.
Basil Plumley was born in Blue Jay, West Virginia on New Years' Day 1920. One of six children of a hard-working WVA coal miner (Derek Zoolander-style), Plumley was a big, strong, no-bullshit kid who dropped out of high school to be a truck driver, which is about as tough a job as you can get. Luckily for America, the unholy dickishness of Adolph Hitler and his goose-stepping Fascist lackeys eventually forced Basil to reconsider his career path, and in 1942, at the height of World War II, Plumley quit his job, put his feet in a pair of size 12 combat boots, and enlisted in the United States Army, volunteering to serve as an air assault paratrooper in the elite 82nd Airborne Division.
As a Private in the 320th Glider Field Artillery Battalion, it's important to note that even though Plumley was in the 82nd Airborne his WWII combat drops didn't involve him jumping out of airplanes. Instead, he was deployed, as the name might imply, in gliders – basically gigantic, slow-moving plane-shaped wooden boxes with no engines that may as well have had bulls-eyes painted on the sides to help the German gunners shoot them down more easily. Gliders were deployed like this – you'd take a tiny little metal cable, tie one end to the front of the glider and the other end to the back of a B-24 bomber, then the bomber would just drag this thing through the sky until they got over the landing zone. If you got to the LZ without the cable snapping mid-flight (this was a fairly common occurrence), the bomber pilot would release the cable on his plane, and the glider pilot then had to hope that the metal cord didn't whip around and cut his wooden aircraft in half (this also happened). Once detached, the pilot would slowly glide to earth while anti-aircraft fire ripped up the skies around it, and then attempt to crash land it in a small field without killing everyone inside. Then the guys inside would deploy through one of three doors, hopefully without people shooting machine guns at them while doing so. You can kind of think of Gliders as being the airborne version of those landing boats from D-Day, only not bulletproof and without an engine or the ability to float and if it hit a piece of barbed wire the entire thing could flip upside down and everyone on board would be crushed by sixteen tons of field artillery.
Ah, good times.
Despite the possibility of dying in a hundred gruesome horrific ways without even getting off the aircraft, Basil Plumley did his duty, fighting in some of WWII's most brutal battles. In 1943 he deployed in Sicily, helping to capture the island from the Nazis. After that, he landed in Salerno on mainland Italy, where in support of the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment he landed 15 miles from where he was supposed to be, then climbed a 4,000-foot mountain, relieved a group of Army Rangers, then held out against a coordinated German infantry and artillery attack for a couple days. At D-Day he landed behind enemy lines in Normandy and attacked the town of St. Mere-Eglise – a critical city along the highway the Germans were going to use to counterattack the forces landing at Omaha and Utah Beaches – and smashed it with howtizers until every last Nazi was dead. After that he participated in the largest airborne combat operation in human history – Operation Market Garden – where he landed behind German lines in the Netherlands and helped the 82nd captured the bridges at Nijmegen. Later on in the war he dropped into the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge, taking on German Tiger tanks with a bazooka and a howitzer, then fought in the Rhineland and participated in the occupation of Berlin in 1945.
All of that shit combined would be enough to get someone listed as a badass on this website, but for Plumley it's like the first fucking paragraph in his obituary. After WWII, Plumley decided he really fucking loved the Army, so he decided to do it until some bastard had the balls to shoot him to death. This never happened, which explains why, despite recieving four wounds in action during his 30-year career, this hardcore bullet-proof warrior still lived to be 92 years old.
The 320th in the Ardennes, December 1944.
Sergeant Plumley's next stop was Korea, when a bunch of Chinese and North Korean assholes thought it would be awesome to charge across the 38th parallel and force-feed a heaping pile of Communism to a bunch of Democracy-loving Koreans who weren't really all that interested in choking down a fistful of Marxism. Serving in the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team, part of the 101st Airborne, Plumley received three campaign stars for blowing the shit out of anyone who deserved it. Fighting in the same unit as Ron Speirs (I couldn't find anything indicating that they knew each other), Plumley dropped behind North Korean lines during Operation Tomahawk, fought in the Yongju and Kaesong campaigns, and participated in the ultra-bloody Battle of Porkchop Hill in 1953, when he and a badly-outnumbered group of his closest friends held out against massive artillery barrages and ridiculously-gigantic human wave attacks by two full-strength divisions of Chinese and North Korean infantry, throwing the enemy back with hand-to-hand combat, bayonet charges, and .45 automatics to the dome at point-blank range while Chinese and Soviet-made 81mm mortar shells turned the sky red above them and showered soldiers on both sides with white-hot shrapnel.
But, amazingly, none of this is what Basil Plumley is famous for either.
American soldier on Porkchop Hill.
No, despite all of this amazing shit, what Basil Plumley will forever be remembered for is his actions in Ia Drang Valley during the Vietnam War, when he and a badly-outnumbered force of pinned-down American troops somehow held out despite being ambushed by two full regiments of battle-hardened enemy soldiers.
Sergeant Major Basil Plumley was a twenty-three year infantry veteran of two wars and countless battle in November 1965, when, as the senior non-commissioned officer of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Division, he was deployed by helicopter deep behind enemy lines into Vietnam's Ia Drang Valley. Known to his men as "Old Iron Jaw" thanks to his refusal to put up with bullshit from anyone (especially the men in his command) at Ia Drang Sergeant Major Plumley suddenly found himself in the middle of the first – and one of the bloodiest – battles of the Vietnam War.
The 7th Cav had been deployed to recon enemy troop movements along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. What the 450 American soldiers found shortly after landing was that they were completely fucking surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese Army regulars who had been forged into ferocious killing machines thanks to nearly a decade of combat experience kicking the shit out of the French and throwing them out of their country.
This was bad.
Plumley was one of the first American boots on the ground in Ia Drang, and when the bullets started flying at him and his troops from every direction he immediately went into hardcore badass twenty-year vet mode, pulled out his trusty .45 (he refused to use the M-16 at first because after two decades with wood-and-steel M1s and M14 he thought the M-16 was a bullshit plastic piece of crap he could have cracked in half over his knee), opened fire on the enemy, and started charging up and down the battle lines getting his men organized in a defensive perimeter. For the next four days Plumley and his men held Landing Zone X-Ray, one of the only places where guys like Bruce Crandall could land their choppers to extract wounded men, pumping up his troops, organizing defenses, and capping anyone stupid enough to be within range of his pistol.
One good example of how fearless and hardcore this guy was during Ia Drang comes from Joseph Galloway, a civilian photographer who had been attached to help document the war. During one stretch of the fighting, a shitload of mortars and AK-47 fire started ripping up the jungle all around him, so Galloway understandable dove for cover and kept his head down as automatic weapons fire zipped past him from every direction. As he was laying there, he felt a sharp kick to the ribs from a steel-toed boot. He looked up to see Basil Plumley, standing tall like Colonel Kilgore, oblivious to danger. Plumley just yelled, "You can't take no pictures lying on the ground, sonny!"
Later on in the battle Plumley found Galloway and handed him an M-16 and three mags of ammunition. Galloway said he was a photographer – a noncombatant. Plumely told him, "Ain't no such thing, boy," and walked away.
Yet another time, during a night attack, U.S. planes started dropping supplies with flares attached to the parachutes so the troops could see them. When one parachute was shot by the NVA, the flare landed in a box of spare ammunition, so Plumley just walked over there, grabbed the flare before it set off the entire box of ammo, threw it off into the forest like he didn't even give a shit, then went right back to the battle.
The men of the 7th Cavalry held out valiantly, but ultimately they were still outnumbered five-to-one, deep in enemy territory, and completely surrounded by troops with heavy weapons pointed right at them, and casualties were piling up. But Plumley didn't give a shit. He wasn't about to fucking back down. The unit's commanding officer, Hal Moore, vividly recalls in his book We Were Soldiers Once… and Young that he was standing there with Plumley, looking at the piles of wounded and the untenable position they were in, and he was like, "Jesus Christ, it's Little Bighorn all over again!"
Plumely just looked at him, no emotion at all, and said, "Custer was a pussy. You ain't."
That night, as AK-47 fire ripped up the jungle, the order went down the American battle line – fix bayonets. When some of the troops were like, "what the fuck is a bayonet?", Plumley got pissed. Screaming over the din of mortars and machine guns, Plumley drew his pistol and said something to the effect of "You sons of bitches, take that pointy fucking thing you use to open your c-rations, stick it to the end of your rifle, and follow me!"
I read an interview with Plumley where he discusses what happened next. All he says is this: "We fixed bayonets. We moved out. Killed about twenty-seven or twenty-eight. That was it."
It was in a book on interviews of soldiers. Most guys' interviews were between 4 and 10 pages. His was 3 paragraphs.
What we do know is that alongside men like Rick Rescorla, Basil Plumley and the 500 surviving members of the 7th Cavalry bayonet charged a force of over 2,000 NVA troops and drove them back in hand-to-hand combat. The attack didn't defeat the NVA, but it did buy the 7th enough time to evacuate Ia Drang, and their victory saved the lives of the entire command. Plumley was one of the last men to leave the valley.
"Sam Elliott underplayed him. He was actually tougher than that.
He was gruff, monosyllabic, an absolute terror when it came to enforcing standards of training.”
- Joseph Galloway
Plumley served through the rest of the war and retired from the Army in 1974 as a Command Sergeant Major, which is one of the highest NCO ranks in the military. He then spent the next 15 years working as a civilian at the hospital on the grounds of Fort Benning, where he mentored young soldiers, set up the Army Infantry Museum, and continued to utterly terrify grown men who hadn't served under him for 20 years. He died on October 10, 2010, at the age of 92, passing away just 4 months after his wife of 62 years. During his 32 year military career he'd fought in 3threewars and received 40 decorations, including two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, three Presidential Unit Citations, three Combat Infantryman's Badges, five Master Parachutist Badges, four Purple Hearts, eight Air Medals, the Legion of Merit, Croix de Guerres from both France and Belgium, the Dutch Order of Orange, and three Gallantry Crosses from the Republic of Vietnam.
He's one of the toughest and most decorated soldiers this country ever produced.
"To this day, there are veterans of the 1/7 CAV who are convinced that God may look like CSM Plumley,
but HE is not nearly as tough as the Sergeant Major on sins small or large."
- Excerpt from his Army Times obituary
Army Times Obit
Together We Served
The 325th Glider Regiment
Moore, Hal and Joseph Galloway. We Were Soldiers Once… And Young.. Random House, 2004.
Steinman, Ron. The Soldiers' Story. Barnes & Noble Publishing, 2000.