The Associated Press
Ga. — Basil L. Plumley, a renowned career soldier whose exploits as an
Army infantryman were portrayed in a book and the movie “We Were
Soldiers,” has died at 92 — an age his friends are amazed that he lived
Plumley fought in World War II, the Korean
War and Vietnam and was awarded a medal for making five parachute jumps
into combat. The retired command sergeant major died Wednesday.
said Plumley, who died in hospice care in west Georgia, 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 Plumley in the film.
didn’t need a Hollywood portrayal to be revered among soldiers, said
Greg Camp, a retired Army colonel and former chief of staff at
neighboring Fort Benning who befriended Plumley in his later years.
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.”
Kimble, Plumley’s daughter, said her father died from cancer after
spending about nine days at Columbus Hospice. Although the illness
seemed to strike suddenly, Kimble said Plumley’s health had been
declining since his wife of 63 years, Deurice Plumley, died last May on
A native of Shady Spring, W.Va.,
Plumley enlisted in the Army in 1942 and 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, Plumley served as
sergeant major — the highest enlisted rank — in the 1st Battalion, 7th
“That puts him in the rarest of
clubs,” said journalist Joseph L. Galloway, who met 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
It was during Vietnam in November 1965
that Plumley served in the Battle of la Drang, 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 Lt. Gen. Hal
G. Moore, who had been Plumley’s battalion commander in Vietnam.
the 2002 film version, Mel Gibson played Moore and Elliott played
Plumley. Galloway said several of Elliott’s gruff one-liners in the
movie were things Plumley actually said, such as the scene in which a
soldier tells the sergeant major good morning and is told: “Who made you
the (expletive) weather man?”
underplayed him. He was actually tougher than that,” Galloway said. “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.”
retired with the rank command sergeant major in 1974 at Fort Benning,
his last duty station. He then took a civilian job doing administrative
work for the next 15 years at Martin Army Community Hospital.
said Plumley remained strong until just a few weeks before his death.
He helped open the Army’s National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning in
2009. Camp, who now works for the museum’s fundraising foundation, said
Plumley helped him get Elliott to come narrate a ceremony dedicating the
parade ground outside the museum. When Camp mentioned the actor’s name,
Plumley handed him Elliott’s cellphone number.
Plumley became ill, Galloway mentioned his worsening condition on
Facebook. Fans of the retired sergeant major responded with a flood of
cards and letters. The day before he died in hospice, Camp said, Plumley
received about 160 pieces of mail.
“He was dad to
me when I was growing up,” said Kimble, Plumley’s daughter. “We are
learning every day about him. He was an inspiration to so many. He was a
great person, and will always be remembered.”