The Military College of South Carolina Dare to Lead

Info Academics Admissions Alumni Cadet Life Graduate College Evening Undergrad Athletics Connect Giving
Close this window

Giving to The Citadel

  • The Citadel Foundation
  • Blueprint
  • The Citadel Brigadier Foundation

Citadel News Service

This article was featured in the Winter/Spring 2002 issue of The Citadel Magazine.

Tom Metsker, 61

          The March 1 debut of the movie We Were Soldiers, based on the New York Times bestseller by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (USA, ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway, highlights the life of one of The Citadels own graduates. Tom Metsker, class of '61, a physical education major and a four-year track athlete, proudly went to Vietnam to serve his country, leaving behind his young wife and a 17-month-old daughter.

November 1960, Charleston

          A lifetime ago in a less complicated time: crew cuts and bouffant hairdos are the rage, and minimum wage is a dollar. Cassius Clay wins the Olympic gold in boxing and John F. Kennedy narrowly defeats Vice President Richard Nixon in the presidential election. The first weather satellite is launched and the felt-tip pen is introduced. Chubby Checker is popular and cadets might be found doing the twist at the Seaside on the Isle of Palms. Tony Lackey, Ben Legare, and John River* are cadets, and the homecoming game against Presbyterian College (PC) is Saturday.

          The football team is on a roll and the senior class is restless. At Wednesday gymnastics practice Tom Metsker, Bill Snyder, and a few others decide to cook up a little spirit in the Corps.

          After all, they were no strangers to stirring up trouble. A year earlier at the state track meet, all of the events were over except Metskers competition, the pole vault. The championship was in his hands. A fierce competitor and a true athlete, Metsker reveled in the pressure. He placed and The Citadel won the championship. On the way back to campus, the bus had stopped at a roadside gas station next to a firework stand. The team arrived back on campus late that night and stayed in Thompson Hall instead of the barracks. In the early hours of the morning, Metsker slipped out of Thompson Hall into the quiet night and headed over to 2nd Battalion where he placed a five-shot aerial bomb underneath the regimental commander's window. To give himself time to return, he lit a cigarette and placed it beside the firecracker fuse. Back in Thompson Hall, the track team watched as the sleepy campus suddenly awoke to the firecracker bombs and mayhem with lights flickering on and cadets running out of their rooms. It was the perfect ruse.

          At 7:30 that evening after the plot to raid PC is made at gymnastics practice, 16 cadets pile into three cars. Up until now, it has just been talk and no one is sure they are really going to go through with it. They drive by Gen. Mark Clarks** house honking their horns and waving. Bill Snyder is leading in his 57 Plymouth.

          Lets do it, Bill says, racing past the night watchmen out of Lesesne Gate. Minutes later the three cars pull over at the Piggy Park drive-in restaurant on Rutledge Avenue to formulate a plan for the 200-mile trip to Clinton, S.C., home of PC.

          Four hours later, including a stop for supplies, the three cars turn off their lights as they pull into the horseshoe drive of the small college campus. Quietly they divide up, one team headed for the stadium, the other, for the trophy room.

          At the stadium, they work quickly, painting in big yellow letters, PC got no guts, on the press box. And on the field they use lime to spell out, Citadel-77 PC-0. Across the way at the field house, cadets are loading up boxes of trophies to cart back to Charleston.

          Their mission complete, the cadets are ready to return to The Citadel. Before they leave, Metsker spies a sign on an L-shaped pole that reads, Welcome to Presbyterian. A great athlete, he nimbly shimmies up the pole and unlatches one side of the sign. Reaching over to unlatch the other side of the sign, he loses his balance for a second. The sign slips through his fingers clattering to the pavement. Lights start coming on as the campus comes to life.

          The cadets panic and scramble to get in their cars. Metsker turns the ignition, but the engine won't catch. He tries again and again and finally decides to abandon the car. Metsker's group piles into the two remaining cars. Snyder is so nervous that he punches his push button ignition through the dashboard. With the Plymouth stuck in second gear, Snyder drives off in the night at 25-miles-per-hour without his lights down the newly built, but unopened, Interstate 26.

          Its 6:00 oclock in the morning. Reveille has not yet sounded. The two cars follow the milk trucks in to 4th Battalion. The gate on the 3rd Battalion side has been left open. They make a run for it. The officer in charge, Alpha Company Tac Officer Lt. Floyd Brown, yells for them to stop. As they shut the gate behind them, it locks.

          I know who you are! Im going to get you! Brown yells. The whole battalion is on the gallery, cheering.

          Metsker, whose abandoned car has been traced, is the only cadet punished. He walks 40 tours for displaying gross poor judgement. Two days later at Johnson Hagood Stadium during the half-time ceremony, the cadets return the trophies to the Presbyterian team.

November 14, five years later, the Central Highlands of South Vietnam

          Now a husband and the father of a 17-month-old daughter, Metsker is an Army captain and the battalion intelligence officer aboard the lead helicopter with Lt. Col. Moore, part of the first surge of men from the 1st Battalion, 7th Calvary. They are bound for a clearing in the Ia Drang Valley, code named Landing Zone X-Ray, on the first search and destroy mission ever to be conducted using airmobile (helicopter) warfare tactics.

          At the town of An Khe, the base camp for the 1st Calvary Division, Moore had begun losing men to expiring enlistments and malaria. In October, Metsker was one of a handful of replacement officers sent from other units.

          "I was favorably impressed with him," Moore would remember later. "He was a qualified paratrooper, very fit, very handsome. Over the few weeks he was there, I got to know him. He joined me on my morning runs. He was very enthusiastic, knowledgeable young officer. I had decided to give him one of my companies when one became available."

          Moore lands at the clearing unaware of the enemys numbers. His 450-man battalion is enveloped by a North Vietnamese regiment that numbers more than 2,000. They are in the battle for three days and two nights before they are relieved by another battalion.

          Metsker hops off the helicopter immediately confident and courageous. In the heat, noise, and savagery, Moore loses track of him. It is not until some time later that he realizes Metsker has been wounded.

          Seventy-nine Americans are killed and 121 wounded. Despite being understaffed, Moores battalion kills an estimated 1,300 North Vietnamese. Metsker, wounded in the shoulder, is giving up his seat on a chopper for another officer more wounded than he when he is shot again and killed.

          "I was grieved to learn of his death later on," said Moore. "Captain Metsker had great promise as did the thousands of others who died in Vietnam."

          Joseph L. Galloway, a United Press International war correspondent, who managed to join Moore and his men in the Ia Drang battle was overwhelmed by what he witnessed at Ia Drang, The 1,000 words I was allowed as a wire service guy was not enough to tell all I had seen.

          The Vietnam War would last until May 1, 1975, when Saigon fell to the Communists. More than 58,000 American lives would be lost. The soldiers who did return home, returned to a country that misunderstood the war. There were no heroes' welcomes with color guards and parades for the survivors who had fought bravely for their country.

November 1990, 25 years later

          Karen Metsker has always felt deeply the loss of a father she so desperately wanted to have and know. Now with three children of her own, Karen struggles to put the pieces of her father's life together. A U.S. News & World Report cover story about the Ia Drang Battle by Moore and Galloway starts the healing process.

          In Washington at an Ia Drang survivors' reunion, she meets the men who served with her father and she begins to understand better the man Tom Metsker really was. Second Lt. Dennis Deal who had traded a submachine gun to get Metsker's rucksack is finally able to hand it over to its rightful owner. It becomes one of Karen's most valued possessions.

          Meeting Joe Galloway for the first time, she asks, "What took you so long to write this story?"

          "The country wasn't ready for it," Galloway tells her.

March 13, 2002

          Out of the fateful reunion in Washington, Karen finally began to accept her father's death. The response to the U.S. News story was so great that Random House accepted Galloway's and Moore's book proposal without an outline. Together they spent 10 years researching and writing the book that is now changing how America sees the Vietnam War.

          Karen Metsker and Joe Galloway married on October 24, 1998. They now live happily together in Virginia with her three children.

Charleston

          After the newly released movie plays at a theater on a Wednesday night, the crowd sits for a long minute profoundly affected before getting up to go home. And one man, who served long ago in the war nobody understood, stays behind, his head buried in his hands, weeping.

 

*61, Assistant Commandant of Cadets; '63, Director of Governmental and Community Affairs; 61, 1st Battalion Tac Officer.

**General Mark W. Clark was president of The Citadel from 1954 to 1965.