Vet Returns to Stardom

While on trip, Washington man, wife escape quake

Staff Writer

This was supposed to have been a week of nothing but fun for Bruce and Arlene Crandall.

They'd driven cross-country from their home in Washington state, their green Saturn hitched up to their Kountry Star RV.

Bruce Crandall knew the way. He had served at Fort Benning from 1963-65, training for the day he and his helicopter pilot pals would be shipped off to Vietnam.

He'd come back, for the first time in almost 36 years, to meet actor Greg Kinnear, who will play Crandall in the movie "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young."

"Personally, I would have picked Madonna to play me," he laughed.

Arlene Crandall slid her elbow into her husband's ribs.

"He's kidding you," she said.

Later, when asked if he approved of the cast that was introduced earlier that day to the media, he appeared puzzled.

"I'm still not sure exactly who Mel Gibson is," he whispered.

This time, Arlene's elbow dug a bit deeper into Crandall's side.

That the Crandalls, who attended Thursday's press conference at the National Infantry Museum, could laugh at all was somewhat surprising.

For on Wednesday, their home in Manchester, Wash., had been rocked by a devastating earthquake.

"There's damage," said Arlene Crandall, who had spent much of Thursday working her cell phone, checking on family and friends back home. "But we were lucky. I just got off the phone with my son and he told me we lost only a clock and a mug."

Certainly not enough to send the Crandalls back home.

"We hope to stay here for as long as they're filming," said Crandall, who was wearing a Vietnam-era ballcap, complete with unit insignia.

Production on the movie, which is scheduled for a spring 2002 release, begins Monday and will continue through the end of the month.

"All of the filming locally will be done on post," said the movie's director Randall Wallace. They had considered several off-post locations, but finally decided to use existing Fort Benning facilities, many of which date back to the mid-'60s.

Film sites will include Doughboy Stadium, the main post chapel, the main post housing area and several Ranger training facilities.

"Almost all of the shooting will be closed to the public," said the production company's publicist, Rachel Aberly.

The "public" doesn't include such real life heroes as Crandall, retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore, then-UPI reporter Joe Galloway, retired Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley and other former members of the 1st Cavalry and other units which fought in the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965.

"We get special treatment," said Crandall, 67, who, during a second tour in Vietnam in 1968, suffered a broken back when his Huey helicopter was blown out of the sky by an air strike while searching for a downed air crew.

"It was my wife's idea for me to go back a second time," he chuckled.

Crandall, who retired from the Army in 1977 as a lieutenant colonel, commanded the helicopters during the Ia Drang Valley battle. His two daring nighttime landings under fire to rescue 12 wounded troopers in a January 1966 operation earned him the first Helicopter Heroism Award from the Aviation/Space Writers Association.

But Crandall doesn't make a big deal of his heroism, though he's a hero in his wife's book. But he has enjoyed his week here so far, including a dinner with Moore and his wife, Julie, and Galloway.

"He can't wait to visit with his other friends later this week," said Arlene Crandall. "This is a very special time for both of us."

Kinnear, who met Crandall earlier in the week, pointed him out during the press conference. "He's the real hero," he said. "I'm just an actor."

But guess who spent several minutes after Friday's retreat ceremony at the post where Crandall, two other Ia Drang Valley survivors and the entire cast of the film were introduced to an excited gathering of post personnel and their families?

"Can you give me a minute," Crandall asked a reporter. "I've got another book to sign."

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