If you’ve ever seen the movie, “We Were Soldiers” starring Mel Gibson and based on the book by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and Joseph Galloway, you’ve seen a piece of history that was once a reality in Ray Bagby’s life. A career military man, Bagby, then a first lieutenant, was a part of the epic battle of la Drang, “the battle that changed the war in Vietnam,” according to some sources.
Everything that led up to that moment came from the intensive training Bagby received when, as a young man of 17, he entered West Point, a time in his life he calls “defining.” His father, a World War II veteran, encouraged him to go for the best, instead of what Bagby had been considering.
“I usually tell my kids I didn’t go to college, I went to West Point,” he joked.
Before he graduated in June of 1963, he had learned everything he needed to know and then some. “It’s an interesting experience,” he said. “You make such great relationships, particularly with those in your company.”
In fact, in May he went to the 50th reunion, and it was “just like it had been a couple of weeks. There’s a certain camaraderie that’s always there,” he said.
Before he graduated, he chose to attach himself to the Artillery Division.
His first assignment was in Virginia where he was sent to the Nike Missile Battery to protect it during the Cold War. He was there for 18 months before he got orders to report to Vietnam. Before he left, he received special warfare training at Fort Bragg, where he also learned to speak Vietnamese, among other languages.
When he got his orders, Bagby said there were 9,000 troops in Vietnam. When he arrived, there were about 25,000. When he left, the number was 250,000.
“That’s how fast it grew,” he said.
Transition from advisor to cavalry
He went to Vietnam alone to the Quang Nam Province to act as an advisor. He spent about three months there before being sent to the 1st Cavalry Division.
It was here that the famous battle took place, with Bagby in the thick of it. Assigned to the Artillery Division, the unit supported the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry.
The event started at about 9 a.m. Fixed around a landing zone, it was the job of U.S. troops to protect it — to deflect enemy fire and make sure the LZ, as it’s known, was clear. Then, one platoon was sent out, and it proved to be a dangerous move. Several men were killed, including a number of leaders. The platoon was on a grassy knoll, cut off from the rest of the troops.
Firing into the night, all night
Bagby’s unit (A Battery, 1st Battalion, 21st Artillery) fired all night long from about two miles away in support of the isolated men. The enemy kept trying to get closer. As they did so, Bagby said the units questioned one another to ensure whether they should keep firing least they hit their own men. The response was “keep ’em coming.”
“There were times in the night that there was continuous fire,” he said. Since at the time, no helicopters could fly at night, they fired until 6 a.m. the following morning, when it was light enough to get reinforcements.
“We were running out of ammo,” Bagby said. “We were down to about 14 rounds. It was pretty low.”
After finally being pulled out of their supportive role of protecting the troops, Bagby said the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 7th Calvary, Hal Moore, spoke to the division and said it was “because of our efforts that the men who survived being cut off . . . were saved.”
Bagby continued for some time in the war around the borders of Laos and Thailand, and later, served a number of years in the U.S. before he discharged as a major after 14-plus years of service with multiple medals, including the Legion of Merit and two Bronze Stars with Valor.
He went on to earn an MBA and a Ph.D and wound up in Waco, teaching at Baylor, where he currently holds the Rogers Chair for Entrepreneurship.
He and his wife, Janet, have three children, including a son who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2009 and received his wings in April 2012. They have one grandchild.
In 2009, Bagby was ordained an Episcopal priest, where he voluntary serves to this day as a labor of love.
“Voices of Valor,” which features stories about Central Texas veterans, runs on Sundays. To suggest a story about a Central Texas veteran, please email firstname.lastname@example.org