NEW YORK — Night had fallen as US and North Vietnamese soldiers exchanged sheets of gunfire during Operation Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. Illumination flares attached to parachutes floated down from American aircraft.
One parachute failed to open, and the flare plummeted into stacks of ammunition crates near the command post of the First Battalion, Seventh Cavalry Regiment, one of several US units engaged in the Vietnam War’s first major battle with North Vietnamese regulars.
Sergeant Major Basil L. Plumley jumped to his feet, reached into the pile, grabbed the burning flare, and tossed it into a clearing. For that unhesitating action, he earned the Silver Star. It was one of more than 30 decorations he would receive; among the others were the rare honor of a Combat Infantryman’s Badge with two stars, signifying that he had fought in three wars.
‘‘It’s very rare for someone to have served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam,’’ said retired Colonel Greg Camp, executive vice president of the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Ga. Only 325 soldiers have ever received what is known as the Triple CIB.
Sergeant Major Plumley, who died at 92 on Oct. 10 at a hospice in Columbus, Ga., also has the distinction of having received the Master Combat Parachutist Badge with a gold star, indicating that he had leaped into battle five times during his 32-year military career.
‘‘In World War II, he made four combat jumps into hostile fire: at Sicily, Salerno, on D-day in Normandy, and in Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands,’’ Camp said. ‘‘To have then made a fifth jump in Korea would make him one of a very few to have earned a gold star on his jump wings.’’
Sergeant Major Plumley received wider prestige after the 1992 publication of ‘‘We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young,’’ an account of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, and the 2002 release of the movie based on the book, ‘‘We Were Soldiers.’’ The book was written by Joseph L. Galloway and Lieutenant General Harold G. Moore, who as a lieutenant colonel at the time was commander of the First Battalion, Seventh Cavalry. The movie starred Mel Gibson as the colonel and Sam Elliott as Mr. Plumley.
At 6-foot-2, Sergeant Major Plumley was a no-nonsense, almost monosyllabic leader, Galloway said, even to a civilian. On Day 2, he recalled: ‘‘This battle blew up and I hit the ground. I’m laying as flat as I can and Plumley walks up, kicks me in the ribs, and hollers, ‘Can’t take no pictures laying there on the ground, sonny!’’’
To the troops, he was Iron Jaw.
Basil Leonard Plumley was born in Blue Jay, W.Va., on Jan. 1, 1920, one of six children. He enlisted in the US Army in 1942.
His daughter, Debbie Kimble, said he died within two weeks of being told that he had colon cancer, and four months after his wife of 62 years, the former Deurice Dillon, died. Besides his daughter, he leaves a granddaughter and two great-grandsons.
After retiring from the Army in 1974, Sergeant Major Plumley worked for 15 years as an administrative assistant at the Martin Army Community Hospital at Fort Benning.