In 2002 actor Sam Elliot played Sgt. Major Basil Plumley in the brutal and affecting Vietnam War film “We Were Soldiers.” Earlier this week, Elliott paid his respects to Sgt. Major Plumley who passed away at the age of 92.
Based on the best-selling book by correspondent Joe Galloway and Lt. General Hal Moore. “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young” told the courageous story of the Ia Drang Valley fight in 1965; the first major battle between regular U.S. Army troops and North Vietnamese regulars in which more than 300 American soldiers lost their lives.
Outnumbered almost two to one; the specter of another bloody route like the original 7th Cavalry suffered at the Little Bighorn in 1876 was certainly on these modern cavalry trooper’s minds. Two days later after some of the most intense fighting of the war the 7th Air Cavalry accounted for more than 2,000 enemy dead and wounded.
Like the top enlisted man he was, Sgt. Major Plumley was always in the thickest of the fighting.
Elliot gave an incredible and gritty performance that proved to be one of the highlights of the film. According to the Columbus Star Ledger, during filming the revered western actor and Plumley developed a deep, almost father-son friendship that carried through until the Sgt. Major’s death last week.
Elliot would often steal into town unannounced to visit him and his family. On Oct. 16, Elliot was proud to quietly show up in Fort Benning, Ga. where he accompanied Plumley’s family during the funeral services.
Correspondent Galloway, the only civilian to win a Bronze Star in Vietnam for his actions during the Ia Drang battle said of Plumley, “He was the very essence of a command sergeant major. They stand at the right hand of God and sometimes they speak with more authority than God.”
That’s just the way that Elliot portrayed the Sgt. Major, too.
I worked with Elliot on John Milius’ “Rough Riders” back in 1997. I can tell you he loves American history and real American heroes. His close friendship with Sgt. Major Plumley reflects those kinds of traditional values.
“I’ve played many historic figures, but Sergeant Plumley wasn’t just a great man. He was there….”
“That’s the difference,” he says. “I pretend to be, but Sergeant Plumley was real. He lived it.”
Photo credit: Robin Trimarchi