Childhood Friends Reunited — In The Middle Of The Vietnam War

Mar 3, 2018
Originally published on March 4, 2018 10:36 am

Vince Cantu and Joe Galloway, both aged 76, have been friends since they met as third graders in the tiny town of Refugio, Texas.

After their high school graduation in 1959, Joe left town to become a journalist. Vince stuck around Refugio where he fronted a local band, until he was drafted into the Army in 1963. Naturally, the two lost track of each other over the years.

But the two reunited in a most unexpected place: in South Vietnam, where the U.S. was ratcheting up its involvement in the war. Joe and Vince recounted the moment during a StoryCorps interview.

"The next time you and I saw each other was in the middle of the Vietnam War in the Ia Drang Valley," says Joe, who was there as a journalist photographing the battlefield. "You were running full speed across this landing zone under fire to pick up a body of one of your comrades."

And there's a famous picture to prove it. Without realizing he'd caught his childhood friend on film at the time, a picture Joe took of Vince during the Battle of Ia Drang would eventually end up printed in several magazines, illustrating the cost of war.

It took Vince a minute to recognize Joe, too. "I saw you come out from behind a termite hill and I thought you were going to shoot me. So, I hit the ground," Vince says. "But I kept looking and I said, 'I wonder why he is taking pictures instead of having a weapon.' And I looked back and I said, 'I know that guy.' And that's when I said 'Joe!' "

But photos aren't necessary for Joe to recall the tragic scenes. "After three days in that place, we probably killed 1,500 of the enemy all around this little clearing in the jungle," Joe says. "It is very hard explaining war and combat to civilians. The smell of blood in large quantities. The smell of napalm. People burning in front of your eyes."

"The worst smell in the world," Vince adds. After his service, Vince says he didn't pick up a rifle again for 15 years. "I'm glad I went and I'm glad I did what I did, but every night when I go to bed I pray," he says. "I even pray for the ones I put down."

Years after the war, Joe was decorated with a Bronze Star Medal for rescuing soldiers during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley — the only medal the U.S. Army awarded to a civilian for actions in combat during the Vietnam War.

Joe and Vince remain friends today. "I'm awfully proud to know you, Vince Cantu," Joe says.

"Thank you, Joe," Vince says. "My brother."

"My brother," Joe replies.

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Kelly Moffitt.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We'll now hear from the Military Voices Initiative from StoryCorps, interviews between veterans and their loved ones. Today, a story of childhood friends who reunite in a place they didn't expect.

Vince Cantu and Joe Galloway first met as third-graders in the tiny town of Refugio, Texas. Their high school class had just 55 students. When they graduated in 1959, Joe left town to become a journalist, and the two lost track of each other over the years. Joe starts the conversation.

JOE GALLOWAY: The next time you and I saw each other was in the middle of the Vietnam War in Ia Drang Valley. You were running full speed across this landing zone under fire to pick up a body of one of your comrades.

VINCE CANTU: And then I saw you come out from behind a termite hill, and I thought you were going to shoot me. So I hit the ground, but I kept looking. And then I said, I wonder why he's taking pictures instead of having a weapon. And I look back, and I said, I know that guy. And that's when I said, Joe.

GALLOWAY: I was shooting pictures of the battlefield. And after three days in that place, we probably killed 1,500 of the enemy all around this little clearing in the jungle. It's very hard explaining war and combat to civilians, the smell of blood in large quantities, the smell of napalm, people burning in front of your eyes.

CANTU: Worst smell in the world.

GALLOWAY: Yeah.

CANTU: I came home, and it was 15 years before I picked up a rifle. I'm glad I went, and I'm glad I did what I did. But every night when I go to bed, I pray. I even pray for the ones that I put down.

GALLOWAY: I'm awfully proud to know you, Vince Cantu.

CANTU: Thank you, Joe, my brother.

GALLOWAY: My brother.

SIMON: That's Joe Galloway and Vince Cantu, remembering the battle of the Ia Drang Valley. A picture Joe took of Vince during the battle would eventually end up printed in several magazines. You can see that photo on our website, at npr.org. Their conversation will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. You can hear more stories from veterans on the StoryCorps podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.