A Life in Pictures
Magnum Books, Maple Grove, Minnesota, 2018, 194 pages
Book Review published on: June 10, 2022
This is not a book in the conventional sense, but, more accurately, a picture album or homage to the man by a friend who idolized him. Mike Guardia describes Hal Moore: A Life in Pictures as a “photographic biography.” What we get is a folksy collage of photos with ample descriptions that attempt to capture the whole of retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore’s life, before, during, and after his military service.
Many know of Moore and his exploits in Vietnam thanks to the acclaimed best-seller Moore coauthored with Joseph Galloway titled We Were Soldiers Once … and Young, or the movie that followed years later, in which Moore is portrayed by Hollywood icon Mel Gibson. Beyond that, though, most people probably don’t know much about him. Guardia has tried to rectify that by writing a more traditional biography of Moore titled Hal Moore: A Soldier Once … and Always, but he must have felt this anthology was needed to flesh out elements of the story not captured elsewhere.
Born in 1922, Moore grew up in rural Kentucky as the eldest of four brothers. During his upbringing, money was always tight. Neither of his parents even finished high school, yet all four of the children would go on to complete college and craft successful careers. Not surprisingly, living in a rustic setting, he developed a passion for the outdoors, to include a lifelong obsession with fishing. For some reason, he also became deeply fascinated with all things military. By the age of fifteen, he had made it his goal to attend West Point, which his father supported. But his father believed that being from the backwoods of Kentucky made his son’s chances of getting into West Point slim to none. With that in mind, the elder Moore secured his son a job at the Senate Book Warehouse in Washington, D.C.1 The thinking was, by being in and around the politicians who gave out the nominations to the military academies, Moore would have a better shot at getting into one of them, though his heart was set on West Point.
It would take nearly two years to secure an appointment. The arrival of the Second World War on America’s doorstep aided his efforts as Congress increased the size of the incoming classes. Moore’s offer, an appointment to the Naval Academy, was accepted; however, he then asked the congressman if he could trade it for an appointment to West Point. The bewildered congressman arranged the swap.2 In what remains a mystery to this reader, Moore received from his Kentucky congressman an appointment to attend West Point but would somehow represent the state of Georgia, which he had never visited. No doubt the swap had something to do with it.
With the war raging, he entered the academy in July 1942, which would normally have meant he would graduate in 1946. However, in need of officers, West Point shortened its curriculum and he finished in three years, as part of the Class of 1945. Moore thoroughly enjoyed the military training and camaraderie but described his tenure there as an “academic trip from Hell.”3 He did well in subjects like history and English but struggled mightily with science and mathematics. As such, Moore jokingly explained, “I graduated at the top … of the bottom fifteen percent of my class.”4
With the war coming to a close, Moore was sent to the Philippines. His stay there was fairly dull, but thankfully short. Indeed, it may have motivated him to volunteer for duty in the 11th Airborne Division in Japan. The extra $100 per month in hazard pay was a real enticement, since he often sent money home. In one interesting aside, Guardia mentions the Japanese civilians, watching the airborne jumps from their fields, would point to the sky and shout “Rakkasans” which meant “falling umbrellas,” apparently. Over time, the term “Rakkasans” would become the motto of the 187th Regiment.5 Moore was astounded by the reception he got from the Japanese, in the wake of the war. He expected their wrath but was pleasantly surprised by their warmth and hospitality.
From Japan, Moore returned to the United States and, among other duties, took up testing experimental parachutes. One day, he suffered a complete malfunction and barely escaped with his life, the reserve chute opening just seconds before he hit the ground.
In 1948, he met a gal named Julie who would forever change his life. They married the following year. She was the daughter of a seasoned Army officer, Col. Louis Compton. Compton, an artilleryman, after recovering from the shock of his daughter marrying an infantryman, embraced Moore as his own son.6 This was important given Moore’s own father passed away at fifty-two years of age in 1951, forcing Moore’s mother—heretofore a homemaker—into the workforce to support the family. And in no small way, it was quite likely that Julie’s own experience growing up in a military household prepared her for the myriad challenges she would face during all of Moore’s subsequent command tenures. In many ways, she and Moore forged an impeccable team that facilitated his rise through the ranks, and he would be the first to admit it.
By the time Moore arrived in Korea, the major offensives had concluded, and the war morphed into a World War I-style conflict, typified by trench warfare and only minor advances by either side. Moore would admit to being stupefied by the Chinese tactics he witnessed at times. The enemy was “notorious for sending their infantry formations through their own artillery screen”7 leading to mass fratricide instances. But it was not just the enemy actions that shocked him. In one letter home, he reflected on the horror of how casually American troops were thrown against objectives of dubious value. “All I can say is that General Smith [Division Commander] has a lot of blood on his head.” Confiding to his wife, he said, “I also have some small idea of the terrible, heartbreaking experiences you are going through now with their families. It tore me up to help carry my fine NCOs and men out in ponchos and put them on the helicopters.”8 But amidst the tragedies of combat and his own internal struggles, Moore’s caliber as an officer was noted and he was selected for early promotion to major. He left Korea with a firm conviction the United States had sabotaged its own success. As he saw it, the rules of engagement tended to discourage initiative rather than promote it. But as an optimist, he remained confident the next conflict would be fought on better terms.9
Moore would be reassigned to West Point to teach. After that, he moved on, in 1956, to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. From there, he would go on to several staff and school assignments until receiving the call to command the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry (Custer’s unit roughly a century earlier).10
As heliborne infantry was a new operating concept, Moore and his men experimented with different approaches to try and make it a success. The tactics they would develop and incorporate would figure into Moore’s later mission in the Ia Drang Valley, Vietnam—the first contact between American soldiers and the North Vietnamese Army—in November 1965, memorably captured in the book and movie We Were Soldiers Once … and Young.
Given the hoopla surrounding publication of the book and production of the movie, it’s hardly surprising Guardia spends significant time discussing events and scenes captured therein. For instance, it was disheartening to learn that contrary to what was depicted in the film, families were not allowed to live on post while husbands were deployed overseas. Shockingly, families were given thirty days to vacate on-post housing and live wherever they could find housing. As such, many families left for hometowns; the Moore household, though, opted to move into a small home located in a bad neighborhood near Fort Benning, Georgia. That the Army could have thought such a policy was good, on any level, is mindboggling.
Thanks to all of his in-depth interviews with Moore, Guardia is able to paint compelling images in the reader’s mind with regard to what it was like to weather a deployment from the perspective of the home front. In one sobering instance, Julie (Moore’s wife) receives a notice without many specifics saying her husband has been wounded. Not sure what to do, she gathered the family to say the rosary for his recovery. Only later did she realize she’d made a mistake and vowed to insulate the children from the reality of the risks their father was taking. Glimpses into these typical, but nevertheless traumatic, instances goes far to demonstrate the sacrifices military families were expected to endure in a bygone era. As it turned out, Moore’s wound wasn’t serious. He even tried to return the Purple Heart he was awarded. “I cannot keep [the Purple Heart issued] as I feel that a minor … wound … is no reason. … I have my own self-respect to live with. I intend to turn [it] back. Although it was properly earned, I cannot wear it or keep it on conscience.”11 But as he was to learn, after trying to return it, once awarded by the Army, no medal can be returned. However, Moore never wore the ribbon or the medal on his uniform.
It was during the battle of Ia Drang that Moore became acquainted with United Press International reporter Joe Galloway. They would become lifelong friends. In the firefight that ensued over three days, seventy-nine American soldiers were killed. Although outnumbered 3 to 1, the American soldiers stood firm in the face of a determined enemy, killing more than 1,200 enemy troops before the North Vietnamese retreated. The battle was significant for more than just the heroics on display there. In its aftermath, the Johnson administration decided to increase the American presence in Vietnam.
Upon promotion to colonel, Moore relinquished command of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry (1-7 Cavalry), after eighteen months in charge, which he acknowledged was among the most bittersweet moments of his career. He was instead given command of 1-7 Cavalry’s higher headquarters, 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. Even as a brigade commander, Moore did not shy away from frontline fighting with his troops.
The caliber of Moore’s leadership is well-captured in a quote from his commander in Vietnam, Maj. Gen. Jack Norton. “He has mastered far better than most the problems of fighting the VC. The performance of this officer in combat has been so much above that of other commanders of high caliber as to be in a class by itself. I would entrust command of a division to him today.”12 Later, when slated to turn over command of 3rd Brigade, he refused to do so while his troops were in a heavy fight. Trying to explain his commitment to his wife, who had expected him home after the scheduled turn over, he said,
I would forever be plagued with my conscience if I left in the middle of a fight and turned over these men to a new commander strange to this war—too deadly a game. … Please try and understand. I have fought with these men now too long to take the easy way out. I could never face one of them again, and above all, I would think of myself as lacking integrity and loyalty. I could not comfortably live with that on my mind.13
On the last day of August 1968, Moore was promoted to brigadier general, the first member of his West Point class to be promoted to one-star general. The same would be true when he got the nod for two- and three-star rank too. Suffice to say that Moore had a way with leading others. He often would take on big challenges and somehow turn things around, leaving the unit the envy of other commands. During the 1970s, when racial tensions and drug usage, in addition to the loss in Vietnam, were threatening to completely decimate the military as an institution, Moore reversed many experimental programs he believed undermined the Army’s traditions for building good discipline and cohesion.
In 1976, as the new deputy chief of staff for personnel, Moore was traveling to observe, up close, Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) training events. One day, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he boarded a UH-1 helicopter. Moments later, the helicopter crashed. Luckily, as it happened only one hundred feet off the ground, nobody was killed, but there were several injuries. Moore recovered from the crash but was plagued by painful back problems for the rest of his life.
Life did not slow down upon retirement from active duty. Moore accepted the position of vice president of the Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado, where he could leverage the leadership principles he had honed in the military while also indulging his passion for skiing.
In the early 1990s, after finishing his acclaimed book with Galloway, the two wanted to revisit Vietnam, albeit under markedly different circumstances. Vietnamese authorities granted them access but were deeply suspicious of Moore’s return. Moore’s request to return to the Ia Drang Valley and visit the old battlefield was denied during their first two trips back. But by 1993, Moore’s persistence paid off and he was allowed to visit Landing Zone X-Ray, the site of his now famous battle with the North Vietnamese so long ago. Undoubtedly, Hanoi officials, by now, realized how successful the book had been and were no longer wary of Moore’s intentions.
In 2002, We Were Soldiers Once … and Young was theatrically released. It became a blockbuster, grossing over $100 million. While pleased with the end product, having been cautioned by the director ahead of time that he wasn’t making a documentary, Hal and Julie Moore were of the opinion the movie got it about 70-80 percent right.14
Sadly, Julie was diagnosed with cancer in early 2004 with a prognosis of only weeks to live. She handled it with aplomb and grace, dying just six weeks later at the age of seventy-five, leaving behind a devoted husband and large, bereft extended family. Moore would soldier on for another thirteen years, continuing to support the causes he most believed in, like mentoring and rebuilding the NCO corps destroyed by the Vietnam War. In these trials—losing loved ones, friends, and aging—the Roman Catholic Church continued to be his moral bedrock. Serendipitously, he died in 2017, just two days shy of his ninety-fifth birthday, on 10 February 10 (his wife’s birthday).
Today, Moore is recognized as one of the finest leaders in the history of the American military. Validation of Moore’s leadership bursts forth from those he led. His friend Galloway put it this way: “Hal Moore, you changed my life. You made it much stronger and better. You taught me how to build character, how to follow a moral compass, how to always stand for what is right. … and I will carry your memory and your example with me all the days I have left.”15
As stated at the outset, this is not a book in the truest sense of the word; rather, it’s a eulogy of sorts to friend and hero. Anyone interested in this picture book would most certainly have read his renowned book, or at least have seen, and been inspired by, the movie of the same name. This work is a worthy accompaniment to that earlier book, or Guardia’s own bibliography of the man, giving some glimpses into a storied life defined by selfless service and devotion to family and friends.
- Mike Guardia, Hal Moore: A Life in Pictures (Maple Grove, MN: Magnum Books, 2018), 12.
- Ibid., 13.
- Ibid., 18.
- Ibid., 19.
- Ibid., 31.
- Ibid., 53.
- Ibid., 59.
- Ibid., 63.
- Ibid., 68. Unfortunately, Vietnam, would prove to be more of the same, in many respects.
- Initially, he commanded 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry. That battalion was initially part of the 11th Air Assault Division (Test), the first airmobile division in the US Army. The 11th Air Assault Division (Test) was later re-designated the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Moore’s battalion then became the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry.
- Hal Moore, as quoted in Guardia, Hal Moore, 88.
- Maj. Gen. Jack Norton, 1st Cavalry Division commander, as quoted in Guardia, Hal Moore, 117.
- Moore, as quoted in Guardia, Hal Moore, 120.
- Ibid., 173.
- Joe Galloway, as quoted in Guardia, Hal Moore, 182.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. John H. Modinger, PhD, U.S. Air Force, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas