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Sunday, March 3, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movies

He was a soldier, and 'We Were Soldiers' tells his story

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Bruce Crandall finds it hard to watch the new movie "We Were Soldiers," which takes some of the worst days of his life and turns them into a 140-minute Hollywood war film.

It's not that he thinks the movie is bad.

In fact, the 69-year-old Army veteran, who lives in Manchester on the Olympic Peninsula, says he considers "We Were Soldiers" valuable because he expects it will "bring back to the mind of the American people how bad combat really is — and remind the American people that in Vietnam we didn't do it right."

What Crandall finds hard about watching "We Were Soldiers," which stars Mel Gibson and opened Friday, is the stress of being transported back to Nov. 14, 1965, when, during the first major battle of the Vietnam War, he flew a helicopter in and out of the Ia Drang Valley 22 times, attempting to resupply and evacuate troops involved in a furious firefight with North Vietnamese soldiers.

It is this battle that "We Were Soldiers" re-creates, and in the movie, Crandall's role is played by Greg Kinnear ("Nurse Betty," "The Gift"). Gibson plays courageous Lt. Col. Harold Moore, who led American troops in the bloody fight, promising to be the first on the battlefield and to leave no man behind.

The movie is based on the book, "We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young," written by the real-life Moore and former reporter Joseph L. Galloway. Director Randall Wallace, who wrote the screenplay for "Braveheart," wrote this movie.

Crandall served as a consultant to the film, visiting the sets and giving advice on matters such as which Army insignias to use. But, he said, there are still quite a few Hollywood embellishments in "We Were Soldiers." For example, his character gets a slightly glammed-up nickname as well as some combat action that Crandall never actually saw.

In Vietnam, Crandall went by "Snake," he explained during an interview last week as he prepared to head for Washington, D.C., for a screening of the film with President Bush. But, he said, some people involved in making the movie (whom he describes as "humorous characters") decided to have a little fun with his radio call sign, adding an expletive to it in order to create a combination of words that provides the gory action film with one of its few moments of comic relief.

As for the invented combat action, during the movie's climactic battle sequence Crandall's character is shown using a helicopter gunship to knock out North Vietnamese troops as Gibson's character charges toward them on the ground.

"That's not correct," Crandall said. "That was a surprise to me when it came on — I was John Wayne to the rescue. The truth is, the gunships were another unit."

Also, Crandall said, Gibson's character gets credit for some things that were actually done by others. "He did a lot of shooting and leading and firing," Crandall said. "Some of that was done by infantry company commanders who were leading that stuff."

All this stretching of the truth is understandable, Crandall feels — part of what it takes to make a long, complicated battle fit into a relatively short Hollywood film. And generally, he said, the movie is "very realistic. Anyone who sees it is going to see the horrors of war."

Some of the most wrenching scenes in "We Were Soldiers" come when the wounded are shown being loaded onto helicopters that are frantically trying to evacuate them amid waves of hostile fire. Both the wounded and the helicopter crews were targets.

"By the fifth lift in, I had four people shot off my aircraft," Crandall recalled. "They shot my crew chief in the throat on one lift in. They shot my radio operator in the head — I don't think I've ever seen anything more graphic than that. My strongest memory of Vietnam was when we got back to Plei Me with that load."

That moment is recounted in the film, when buckets of water are used to wash bits of brain, blood and other ghastly detritus of war from a helicopter's cargo bay as it is prepared to fly again.

In another horrific moment, a wounded soldier is shown getting out of an evacuation helicopter to help load a more severely wounded man. As the still-mobile wounded soldier is lowering his immobile comrade into the helicopter, he is shot from behind.

"That was a young captain named Metzger," Crandall said. "He was helping the wounded guy get in, he was standing on the skid and they killed him."

Crandall still thinks about Vietnam and the soldiers in the helicopter company he commanded who have not come back.

"I still have a helicopter missing over there," he said. "The four guys who were in that helicopter have not been found. I think of them every day, probably will think about them for the rest of my life. I think of them every time I hear a helicopter. "

If there's a lesson to be learned from the movie, Crandall said, it's the same lesson most Americans associate with Vietnam: Don't send troops to fight an impossible war.

"It was a battle that we could not possibly win, and it just kept going and going and going," Crandall said. "We learned a lesson. And that lesson's in that movie, if people have forgotten it."

Eli Sanders: 206-748-5815 or esanders@seattletimes.com.

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