David's contribution then created a new problem: Too much information.
What shall I now write about?
All bloggers love getting comments on their postings. I'm no exception. It proves that we're not just whistling in the dark.
Some of my favorites come from others who served in Vietnam and share their experiences. Recently I received one from a Vietnam Vet who responded to my posting about French Fort. It seems that the French built many forts in Vietnam that Americans universally named “French Fort”. Thus, my attempts to research the one in my experience returned information about all but that one. However, my complaint about the confusion elicited a response from David Hagen who was there and had photos to prove it. (David is the tall skinny lieutenant, front row, second from the right)
David's contribution then created a new problem: Too much information.
What shall I now write about?
MY TOUR OF DUTY in the rear echelons of the 9th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War began in May of 1967. I had spent a year in Infantry School, as told in my previously published memoir – Infantry School: A Soldier's Journal – preparing for combat. The Army chose then to commission me in the Adjutant Generals Corps. Although I have ranted against my fate, I must admit that it gave me a peculiar vantage point from which to observe the war. With the training of an infantry officer and the education of a lawyer as well as the vantage point of an infantry division headquarters, I am, I suppose, better qualified than most to comment on the histories that are being written of America's most unpopular war.
Vietnam wasn't an unpopular war when I enlisted on March 3rd, 1966. We were still riled up at the audacity of the communists. How dare they fire on American warships in international waters. Sure, they were spying on the North Vietnamese. However, backed by the Soviet Union and Communist China, they were invading a peaceful nation to the south. Well, that's what we believed then and, as it turns out, that is just what was happening.
I was motivated to write my memoir because of the nonsense that my children, nieces, and nephews were learning in school. Fed by the lies perpetrated by the anti-war activists of the Vietnam War era, now teaching in our colleges and universities, a perverted version of history has become the “official” story of the conflict. I decided that someone has to stand up for the truth.
My story is not politically correct, but it is all true. I hope that it will find its way into the hands of future scholars, and that it will at least inspire them to question the propaganda to which they are being exposed.
I SAT ON THE STEPS of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., looking in the direction of the Vietnam War Memorial. I wanted to go, but couldn't. My wife frequently encourages me to join a veteran's group. I refuse. I feel that I'm not worthy. I know it's not reasonable. So what?
I was trained to be an infantry officer. I received six months of infantry officer training in addition to Basic Combat Training and Advanced Infantry Training, eight weeks each. However, towards the end of it all I was asked to volunteer for the Adjutant General's Corps, to be a commissioned officer in charge of a clerical staff, and, I still don't know why, but I did. It's obvious why they asked. I was several years older than my classmates and had a post graduate degree. There was at least one other officer candidate who encouraged me to take the branch transfer because he didn't think I could kill. Sadly, I knew I could.
That decision has haunted me ever since. Many of the young men I trained with died. I didn't. No one succeeds and graduates from Infantry Officer Candidate School without bonding with the other candidates in their class. We supported one another, we bore the same tests and harassment, we struggled, sweat, and hurt side-by-side. Less than half of us who started, completed the course, and those who graduated and commissioned shared a peculiar bond meant to bear us throughout the crucible of war. We would never fail or abandon a comrade. But, I feel that I did. As they marched to the front, I marched to a division headquarters. They wore the crossed rifles, the insignia of infantryman and I wore the “Shield of Shame.” They had one MOS, 1542, Infantry Platoon Leader. I had two, 1542 and 2210, Administrative Officer.
I could have avoided all that strain and pain and taken a direct commission. I was offered one, to be a commissioned officer in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, the Army lawyers. I voluntarily enlisted in the Army after graduating from Law School in 1965. I would have been a captain, but would have been obligated to serve on active duty for four years. I graduated from OCS as a lieutenant with just a two-year obligation. The funny thing is that I ended up serving for more than five years and even tried to become a “lifer” (one who serves until retirement after 20 or more years).
The error of my decision began to press on me just a few weeks into my tour of duty in Vietnam. I had arrived in-country shortly after being commissioned. My classmates arrived several months later inasmuch as they had been given short term assignments stateside before being deployed. I suppose this policy was created in recognition of the fact that infantry lieutenants had a life expectancy in combat just short of the common housefly. They were very expendable. I met one at the Post Exchange (PX) at our division headquarters shortly after he arrived in-country. He was on his way to take command of a combat platoon. I can't remember his name, but I remember meeting his young wife at our graduation ceremony. That memory would later haunt me as I wrote her of her husband's death in combat. I was in charge of casualty reporting at that time.
As I processed casualty reports and later, recommendations for awards, I wondered, what would I do? Could I do that? Could I have saved that man? In one recommendation for the Medal of Honor, men took chances because a platoon leader couldn't find his location on a map to direct artillery. I was a champion navigator. I had excelled at land navigation. They even wanted me to remain at the Infantry School to teach it, but I was commissioned in the Adjutant General Corps. No place for a personnel officer at the Infantry School.
My guilt drove me to embark on many adventures that were outside the scope of my duties in the rear with the gear. I suppose that I exposed myself to some unnecessary risks in a vain attempt to expunge the regret. Here I am, more than 40 years later, still trying to reconcile myself to that decision.
However, my age and education, as well as my vantage point serving at an infantry division headquarters, provided me with insight into aspects of the war that were not available to those fighting for their lives. Their vision was often limited to the view through their gun sights, and their attention was riveted solely on survival. I, on the other hand, could indulge my curiosity.
I was also given many opportunities to travel around our division’s tactical area of operations, to investigate and report on acts of heroism. My law degree attracted the attention of the division’s Judge Advocate General, and I was assigned to serve as defense counsel at courts martial. The Provost Marshall, commander of the division’s military police, engaged me in hearings on the status of prisoners of war and criminal investigations.
History has been a passion of mine all my life, especially military history, and this has helped broaden my perspective. Whereas most of this book is based on personal observations and experience, the last chapters include information that I could not have possibly learned in Vietnam. However, my experience there inspired questions that I was compelled to study and answer in later years. Why were we there? Why did our nation revile us when we returned? Did we accomplish anything worthwhile even though our government abandoned the South Vietnamese? Why does the tragedy of Vietnam continue to influence our foreign policy and make us timid in prosecuting war against our enemies?
My conclusions are not popular. They are contrary to the lessons being taught in our schools and propounded in our popular media. I won’t ask your forgiveness if you are offended. I will simply be offended if you dismiss me as wrong without empirical evidence.
I propose to correct history. Maybe I can better serve the veterans by making sure their story is well told. I will begin next week.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE four decades can make. Congregants of the Westboro Methodist Church who protest at the funerals of servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are treated as pariahs by most members of polite society. Reputable organizations classify them as a hate group. The news media report their activities with obvious scorn. However, the same depredations committed by anti-war protesters during the Vietnam War era were often celebrated in the press and on American campuses with the same gusto as in enemy camps.
The members of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era were treated as righteous revolutionaries fighting the good fight against war mongering politicians and the military establishment. The dissenters argued that our political leaders would not be able to wage war if we all simply refused to fight.
It did not matter if a veteran had served in another theater. Anyone in uniform during this period suffered the same indignities. The sight of a uniform, any uniform, during the Vietnam War, justified any insult or assault. Servicemen had to disguise anything that might betray their identity so that they could move freely in the civilian community. Unfortunately, their haircuts, their farmer's tans, their very bearing gave them away, even when they were out of uniform. They had to wear their uniform on occasion, such as when traveling by air to enjoy discounted fares. They could not pay full fares on their meager pay. Thus, dissenters often congregated at air terminals where they found a target-rich environment. There were some who would attempt to defend them, but doing so made these good Samaritans equally targets.
Even the Boy Scouts suffered during this period and membership declined. Scouting leaders during this period downplayed the traditional uniform in an effort to stem the exodus.
Families of servicemen and women during World War II proudly displayed Service Flags on their homes to honor sons and daughters fighting for their nation. Few would dare to announce their involvement in the Vietnam War. Protesters would harass relatives of servicemen and women going so far as to send counterfeit death notices.
Why did this change come about? The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are probably no more popular than the one in Vietnam. Pundits argue that the justifications of all three were equally contrived. The Gulf of Tonkin incident that served as the basis for the Congressional approval to escalate the war in Vietnam is dismissed just as fervently as the WMD's in Iraq.
Is it partisan politics? The Democrats own the beginnings of the war in Vietnam and the wars in the Middle East, at least their initiation, fell on a Republican watch. Thus, it does not appear that either party is immune to criticism. Unfortunately, there are many extant instances of politicians of both parties abusing their positions and authority for personal gain – money, sexual favors, personal advancement, etc – and all politicians are tarred with the same brush when these few are caught. It is also true that we can find historical periods wherein political corruption becomes all too common as when Mark Twain was prompted to write, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” Thus, the press has had an audience willing to believe the worst in their political leadership when both the wars in Vietnam and the Iraq were instituted.
It is not my intention to enter the debate as to the justification for either of these wars, not in this posting. However, I am deeply concerned with the fallout of that debate inasmuch as it affects the service men and women who fought them, and I fear that the support being voiced for those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan today is not sincere. I fear that they will be reviled one day, just as we who fought in Vietnam were.
“Reviled” may seem too strong a word to those who did not experience the era as an adult. It is not. Indeed, I would offer “despised,” “vilified,” and “abused,” without any qualms. I know that teachers regularly expose their students to evidence of war crimes committed by U.S. personnel in Vietnam. Simply Google “Vietnam war crimes” and you will be supplied with thousands of links. I would never suggest that there were none. The incidents at My Lai and others were heinous crimes, and the perpetrators justly punished. There were other incidents that were either successfully covered up by commanders or simply went unreported. The perpetrators of these too should be held accountable as well as any who helped them avoid prosecution. However, is it fair to tar all service men and women with the crimes of a few?
Amazingly, despite the fact that the enemy employed the civilian population as cover, that they often attacked from the homes of non-belligerents, and that they placed American soldiers, sailors, and airmen at great risk and forced them to make impossible decisions, there were relatively few incidents of war crimes. Of the 2.5 million Americans who served in Vietnam, few were guilty of war crimes while, on the other hand, the Communists murdered tens of thousands intentionally and with impunity.
Had there been no war crimes, would the dissenters of the Vietnam War still have been active? Were they really protesting the injustice of the war or were they simply protesting their own potential involvement? Considering that dissent began long before any reported war crime, I suspect that the latter is closer to the truth. It appears that the level of dissent was closely related to the rate at which people were being ordered to register for the draft. Thus, it may be assumed that the primary motivation for their dissent was their unwillingness to serve or to have those they love – sons, brothers, cousins, friends – serve. Interestingly, this has been true in every war. The fairly leap to mind.
Some may argue that the dissenters were willing to fight for their country, but unwilling to fight an unpopular war. Really? Why then were almost three-quarters of those who served in Vietnam volunteers while almost three-quarters who served in World War II, a popular war, draftees. Whereas those who do not support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not at risk of being drafted, the lack of overt attacks on veterans of these unpopular wars seems to support the contention that most dissenters during the Vietnam era were responding solely to the fact that they might be called to serve.
You may point to returning servicemen who joined the ranks of the dissenters as proof of the legitimacy of their protests. However, it may also be argued that they were possibly seeking cover. They lost themselves in the confusion of dissent to escape persecution. If they joined the dissenters because of guilt for things they did during their service, then we should investigate the grounds of that guilt.
However, all the foregoing sidesteps my ultimate concern – the treatment of the men and women who serve in wars. Most veterans up to and including those who fought in World War II have received the thanks of their nation, but little actual support. The wounded and disabled especially are treated in substandard facilities. Those who are discharged face a job market glutted and exploited by those who stayed behind. Beyond this, the veterans of certain wars – Vietnam and Korea – have received neither the nation's thanks nor their support. And, Vietnam veterans have received their nation's enmity. Despite protestations to the contrary, they have not yet seen those who assailed and assaulted them prosecuted or even chided. Celebrities who instigated much of the assaults on Vietnam veterans continue to enjoy great popularity and success. News people who fabricated false stories continue to bask in the respect of their peers.
Now, here's the dirty little fact that teachers and news writers like to avoid – crimes were committed by dissenters and they were committed with impunity. Indeed, the celebrities and political agitators who instigated these crimes also avoided prosecution. What crimes am I referring to? Assault and battery for starters.
Assault is an act that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent, harmful, or offensive contact. The act consists of a threat of harm accompanied by an apparent, present ability to carry out the threat. Many returning Vietnam veterans were met by hostile crowds demonstrating great temper and potential to cause harm. Obviously, a mass of protesters had the ability to inflict great harm to individual servicemen as they arrived home, and the vitriol of their "attacks" is unquestionable.
Battery is a harmful or offensive touching of another. Throwing paint and pig's blood on returning veterans is just about as offensive as it gets. How many punches were thrown? How many homes and vehicles were pelted?
The truth of these crimes committed by dissenters is long forgotten in today's classrooms, but the veterans are slandered with crimes they never committed. I do not believe that Vietnam veterans will ever be vindicated unless these persons are called to answer for their acts.
Obviously, protests by the Westboro Church pale in comparison to those during the Vietnam War. Still, to this day, the truth of the Vietnam protests is lost in propaganda. If you watched the video above, you saw a strange brew of fact, fiction, and mistakes. Among my favorites:
Did the excess of war protesters during the Vietnam era shame today's protesters? Despite the popular support for our troops, the virulence of today's anti-war protests is just as strong as during the Vietnam era, possibly stronger. However, except for a few fanatics such as the Westboro congregants, its expression is directed solely at the politicians who support the wars and that portion of the population who support them. If the treatment we received is in any way responsible for the protected status of today's servicemen and women, then we suffered it for good cause.
I OCCASIONALLY TREATED MYSELF in my old age to a manicure and pedicure. Yes, it was an indulgence. In Orange County, California, most providing these services are of Vietnamese extraction, many boat people or the children of boat people. Invariably, as I share memories of their homeland, I am asked, “Did you leave any children behind?” No.
Unfortunately, many American servicemen did, and the Amerasian children they left behind, taunted as the Children of the Dust by their peers, suffered ostracism by their own kind as well as the woes of poverty. Most were left to fend for themselves when the Americans withdrew in 1975. Thus, I can easily understand their questions, some accusatory.
Okay, let me get this out of the way up front. It’s a confession, one that I made to another man years ago who said, “I can’t believe that a man would admit to that!” (The exclamation point indicates that he made the statement with great emphasis.)
The truth is that my first wife married a 26-year old virgin. (I’ve said it before. I’m a writer and honesty is a job requirement.) Don’t worry, the lack of practice didn’t keep me from fathering four children, two each by two wives. (I figure that’s my limit for this lifetime.)
My virginity wasn’t for want of interest. I was, I suppose, simply too busy. My adventures, intellectual, virtual, and real began as a prepubescent boy and continued through Sea Scouts, Infantry School, and Vietnam. I married less than a year after returning from Vietnam and, of course, lost my virginity. In hindsight, even that was too soon. One of the children of that first wife is lost to me and the other is dead. (But, that’s another story.) Also, sex wasn’t as casual in those ancient times.
However, that brings me back to my story - the Amerasian children fathered by American servicemen. Suffice it to say that I didn’t father any.
There seems to be something about war that inspires lust. I’m not just talking about the teenaged soldiers. Sure, they were exercising their newly won manhood before it could be shot off. There were also the geographical bachelors - married men who took advantage of the adage, “What happens in Vietnam, stays in Vietnam.” (Sorry Las Vegas, you were second, maybe tenth to employ that slogan.) Had I served in direct combat, I might have been humping it for the nearest village to dissipate my fear in the comfort of some pretty Vietnamese girl. There were plenty available. [Note: “Hump” is army slang for hike.]
Sure there were plenty of prostitutes and Red Cross donut dollies to satisfy these baser instincts. But, there were also plenty of instances of American/Vietnamese couples pairing off and experimenting with the joys of premarital sex as championed in the pages of the Playboy Adviser. (Do I have to mention that openly practicing premarital sex was a novel concept in those days?) Maybe some Vietnamese girls conspired to use pregnancy as an opportunity to escape Southeast Asia, or it may have been love. However, it just may be that the vulnerability one feels in a combat zone lent immediacy to the instinct to propagate.
In any event, I was an observer (though not a voyeur) of this process, and was not surprised when various charitable organizations working in Vietnam following the war began to reveal that there were thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of Amerasian children suffering poverty and unspeakable privations.
Many of these children were abandoned as children in the streets and garbage cans principally around Saigon. Some found temporary refuge in orphanages but were soon driven to the streets when the government was unwilling or unable to support them, and charities in America simply weren’t aware of the need.
When the plight of these children became known, the U.S. Department of Defense disavowed any responsibility for them. Indeed, their case seems reasonable though heartless. But, what were they to do. Congress had already set the tenor of the debate when they withheld all foreign aid from South Vietnam following the treaty that ended the war and virtually insured the fall of the South Vietnamese government.
For their part, the North Vietnamese had no sympathy for these children whom they considered defective, “among the worst elements of society.” They considered them as insignificant as a speck of dust, to be brushed aside.” Thus, the communists were all too happy to cooperate with President Gerald Ford’s request, and allow American transports to land in Saigon following its fall to gather up as many of these children as they could and carry them away to foster homes in the United States.
Tragically, the first transport of Operation Babylift crashed in a rice paddy outside Saigon killing all 144 persons on board. Local citizens rushed to the crash site to loot the plane and its passengers. There was little concern for the dead. However, the operation continued and approximately 2,000 orphans were evacuated. Countless thousands were left behind. There was no way of knowing how many. Birth records were not kept for them.
Although the official airlift ended prematurely, thousands more were able to escape. Some found their way to the Philippines where bureaucrats allowed them to languish until foster homes could be found in the United States. Ultimately, less than three percent were able to locate their fathers. Their mothers, of course, hadn’t come with them.
Vietnam is a traditional society that values premarital virginity and ethnic homogeneity. Those mothers who attempted to keep their half-breed children were ostracized and soon persuaded to abandon them. Thus, the abuse of these children is one crime (probably the only one) that cannot be laid at the feet of the communists in Vietnam.
I WAS THE LEADER of my youngest son's Cub Scout Den. During the last of four years, I prepared them to become Boy Scouts. They had to learn the Scout Promise, Motto, and Laws. They learned the meaning of “thrifty,” “clean,” and “reverent.” My assignment to head up the Awards & Decorations Branch of the 9th Infantry Division's Adjutant General's Office during the second half of my tour of duty in Vietnam, uniquely qualified me to help them with understanding the Boy Scout admonition to be “brave.”
Like most people, including adults, they equated bravery with a lack of fear. However, after telling them a few stories they began to reach a different conclusion. I told them about Audey Murphy, the most decorated combat veteran of World War II. Some say that he listened in bewilderment as a citation of his heroism was read. It seems that he had lapsed into a fugue state on at least one occasion when he acted above and beyond the call of duty. All fear was lost, and he attacked like an automaton. After listening to several stories such as this, the boys began to see that a person may perform seemingly heroic deeds without a sense of fear. They then pondered if that was truly brave. It was a short leap from there to the conclusion that bravery or courage is “doing what is right or required in spite of the fear of the consequences.” This is the lesson that I wanted them to learn. It was the same one that I learned in Vietnam.
The commanding general of a U.S. infantry division is authorized to award any decoration up to and including the Silver Star, which ours occasionally did in the afterglow of a major battle. We would follow up with the appropriate orders and a citation to memorialize the award. In most cases, recommendations for decorations came from field commanders, and I convened a board of officers about once each week to review them on behalf of the division commander. I was given a roster of officers who had been assigned to the Awards & Decorations Review Board, and called three to sit on each week's panel. I generally selected one senior officer, lieutenant colonel or colonel, to chair the board, and two lower grade officers, captain or major, to fill it out.
Generally, I gave them the date, time, and place, and they dutifully showed up. The first time, however, I called the 9th Infantry Division Provost Marshall, a full colonel, to chair the board, he listened to my summons and asked, “Am I the senior officer on the board?” When I replied that he was, he informed me that he would tell me the date, time, and place of the meeting and hung up. I waited a few heartbeats and called him back to ask when and where he wanted to convene the board. He asked for the time and place I had called with. After I repeated the information, he said that would be fine and hung up again. We had a delightful relationship following that first encounter. I always respected officers who wore their mantel of authority well, and effectively destroyed any hope of a career in the Army by disrespecting those superior to me who I had to bully to get anything done.
The Awards & Decorations board rarely disappointed me with their decisions, however there was one that drove me to discard their votes and have them recast by another panel. A medic was cited for having rushed headlong to save a fallen comrade despite a hail of gunfire directed on him from a Viet Cong ambush. The victim was the point man of an American patrol who had sprung the ambush before his comrades entered the killing zone. As he fell, all of the Americans went to ground except for the medic. He rushed forward and covered the fallen man with his own body until the enemy was driven back, and then provided life-saving aid. He was recommended by the unit commander for an award of the Silver Star. The Awards & Decorations board were inclined to agree until I read the closing line of the recommendation; the medic was a conscientious objector. Personally, I found it noble that he served in combat even though his status could have shielded him from being drafted into the Armed Services. The panel of officers that day voted unanimously to reduce his award to a Bronze Star with “V” device signifying valor. The medic was ultimately awarded the Silver Star that he, in my opinion, deserved.
My most humbling duty was investigating and memorializing recommendations for the Medal of Honor. I was honored to work on four. Each required great care to detail and a thorough investigation to insure the validity of an award of the highest honor. I was pleased and astounded to learn years later that every one of them was awarded.
I bound each recommendation for award of the Medal of Honor in a three inch loose-leaf binder approximately three inches thick. It was divided into several sections including a detailed description of the action being cited, witness statements, intelligence assessments of enemy strengths and deployments, operational orders, weather reports, and everything else that I could provide that would help a panel of senior officers, located in a Washington, D.C. office, truly understand and appreciate the danger to which the individual had exposed himself and the significance of his accomplishment as well as the consequences of his possible failure.
Recommendations for award of the Medal of Honor often require years to process and reach a determination. Thus, I did not learn the outcome of those I investigated until after I left the Army three years after my tour of duty in Vietnam ended. I have a copy of Heroes: U.S. Army Medal of Honor Recipients by Barret Tillman, that mentions all four of the acts of valor that I investigated. Unfortunately, space limitations in his book seem to preclude complete explanations of their acts of heroism above and beyond the call of duty.
The most unusual recommendation that I investigated involved two persons acting in concert. Even more unusual is the fact that neither was killed nor wounded in the action. It is hard to imagine just how much danger was involved if the recommended recipient is not only alive, but also uninjured. However, in this instance, I was able to put my astonishment into words and the reviewing authority agreed.
In May, 1967, shortly after I arrived in Vietnam, Sergeant Leonard B. Keller and Specialist 4th Class Raymond R. Wright were pinned down behind a rice paddy dike with their platoon from the 16th Infantry operating in the Ap Bac area. The Viet Cong were firing from a series of heavily fortified bunkers at the edge of the rice paddy. Another company of Viet Cong were hidden in a tree line perpendicular to the line of bunkers. They too were firing on the Americans.
Keller and Wright became impatient with their platoon leader who was trying to provide accurate map coordinates to the supporting artillery, and Keller began crawling to the opposite end of the dike away from the Viet Cong in the treeline, taking an M60 machine gun with him. Wright followed.
The two soldiers then crawled to the flank of the line of VC bunkers. Keller handed his grenades to Wright and began laying down suppressive fire on the nearest bunker while Wright crawled up to it. Wright then tossed grenades inside. Keller joined him and the two rushed in to to find the VC dead or severely wounded.
They then began to attack the remaining bunkers in the same fashion, one at a time, Keller laying down suppressive fire with his machine gun, and Wright approaching the bunker and tossing grenades inside.
Soon, the VC in the treeline began directing all of their fire on the two soldiers racing from bunker to bunker. The American platoon watched dumbfounded at the scene as it played out. Some even stood for a better view, until they realized that they should begin firing on the VC in the treeline to support their buddies.
After destroying the last bunker, Wright and Keller rushed the treeline although both had expended all their ammunition and grenades. However, by this time, the remaining VC decided to retreat.
Wright and Keller found VC weapons discarded on the ground on the opposite side of the treeline when they burst through, and picked them up to continue their pursuit of the fleeing VC. They discarded them as these too ran out of ammunition and they continued their pursuit with other discarded weapons that they recovered. Their buddies didn’t catch up until they ran out of ammunition and discarded weapons, and let the remaining VC escape.
It was not common for the VC to flee in a disorganized retreat. They were excellent fighters who employed hit-and-run tactics effectively. However, on this occasion, they must have sensed that there was some other force at work that they couldn’t contend with.
Our Division Commanding General flew to the site of the action and pinned Silver Stars on both men. He then ordered the division Chief of Staff to have our office arrange for Keller and Wright to be reassigned to Division Headquarters to complete their tours of duty in relative safety while their recommendations for the Medal of Honor were processed. My investigation took several weeks, and was constantly interrupted by complaints that the two men were “misbehaving.” They weren’t very good garrison soldiers.
I was also glad to find in Tillman’s book, that another of the men I investigated, PFC Thomas J. Kinsman, was awarded the Medal of Honor. He dropped onto a grenade that landed in the midst of him and seven of his buddies. Miraculously, he survived severe wounds to the head and chest proving that the Viet Cong didn’t have “atomic” grenades like those depicted in movies and on television.
The fourth and final recommendation for the Medal of Honor that I investigated was approved and the honor went to PFC Sammy L. Davis. He had just celebrated his twenty-first birthday when the fire support base that his unit was defending came under attack by an enemy battalion. Fifteen hundred Viet Cong attacked an American howitzer battery of four canons and forty-two men. The Americans loaded their 105mm howitzers with “Bee Hive Rounds” that fire 18,000 tiny darts - flechettes - and waited for the order to fire while a human wave assault approached.
A swath of men disappeared from the enemy line when Davis pulled the lanyard, but the gap was filled by others. An enemy recoilless rifle (antitank weapon) fired at the muzzle flash of the howitzer striking its shield. Davis and his buddies were wounded and the gun chief disappeared in the dark with a hole in his chest.
When Davis regained consciousness, he found himself at the bottom of a foxhole with enemy soldiers swarming around his howitzer. They were attempting to turn it on the other three howitzers in the battery. One of them fired a bee hive round that swept the Viet Cong away from the gun and impaled Davis with more than thirty flechettes in his legs and buttocks. His flak vest saved him from more serious injuries.
Davis gathered up another bee hive round, powder, and primer and reloaded the weapon. Working alone, in the dark, with enemy overrunning his position, Davis had to stop frequently and lay low to avoid detection. Eventually, he was able to reload it despite the fact that its tires were on fire, and the flames licked at the breach where he was working. Not only was he in danger of being burned, but also of a premature detonation of the round.
He fired the howitzer and began reloading it when he heard cries for help from a buddy he recognized on the opposite side of the river bordering the island where his battery had set up.
To appreciate what happened next, you must understand two things. Streams in that part of the Mekong Delta are deep and wide, almost as though they had been dug out by a machine. There was no shallow water. Secondly, Davis was extremely weak from his wounds.
Despite these facts, Davis grabbed an air mattress he had in his foxhole and began paddling across the stream under enemy fire. He found his buddy and two other Americans, wounded and needing help. He made two round trips to ferry all three to relative safety.
With more than fifty separate wounds, Davis finally allowed himself to be evacuated.
You won’t find all this information in Tillman’s book. As I mentioned, although it is an excellent resource, he could not have included all of the research data on each incident. Basically, he has reproduced a portion of the citations that accompanied each award. But you can hear Davis talk about the action and its aftermath in a video on the Internet at http://vimeo.com/13075124 .
My memory of those incidents, on the other hand, remains as fresh as the day I investigated them. It was an honor to serve such men in some small way.
WE HAD VERY LITTLE contact with our combat units during the first week of the 1968 Tet Offensive. They were busy, very busy. Our work came later, processing the battle casualties and replacing them. Fortunately for the troops in the field, there was a lull in fighting following the battle. It wasn’t until later that we learned why. Like World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, the Tet Offensive was an act of desperation that went very wrong for the Viet Cong.
I know that you’ve heard it was their victory. However, it was a victory for them only in the eyes of the war correspondents who hid their ignorance in grand reports of stunning American and South Vietnamese losses. The truth is that the butcher’s bill - the list of allied casualties - was very light. Years later, the architect of the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam’s General Giap, admitted that the Viet Cong lost fully two-thirds of their forces, and the remaining communists were in disarray, their ability to fight forever broken. The war would have to be fought by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) following Tet. Inasmuch as the 9th Infantry Division was in the extreme south, we didn’t see heavy combat until the NVA could infiltrate that far until a few months after Tet. In fact, I was on my way home, sleeping in a transient barracks at Ton Son Huht Air Base in May, awaiting my “Freedom Flight,” when the first NVA rockets slammed into Saigon. I still remember dragging my mattress over me as I rolled out of the bunk and slept the remainder of the night on the floor.
If you have been following this series, you’ll know that I was in My Tho hours before the Tet Offensive began, and might have been there when the Viet Cong overran the city. The lieutenant from the Adjutant General’s office who was stationed there was injured in the attack. He donned his steel helmet and flak vest and ran from the trailer he slept in right into the sights of a Viet Cong soldier. The enemy pulled the trigger but his weapon misfired. He then walked up to the lieutenant and punched him in the gut with the butt of his weapon. Fortunately, he ran off without doing any further damage, but the lieutenant still had to spend some time in the hospital with internal injuries.
There’s an African proverb that states, “When two bulls fight, it is the grass that suffers.” In this case, the “grass” were the South Vietnamese. Although the Viet Cong inflicted relatively minor casualties on allied forces, they murdered or maimed countless Vietnamese men, women, and children. Upset that the indigenous population didn’t rise up to join them, the Viet Cong political cadre shot many in their attempt to inspire a general revolt. It was a precursor to the mayhem that would follow when the United States abandoned the South Vietnamese in response to pressures from the antiwar movement and their allies.
More than a month passed following the Tet Offensive before we allowed civilians to return to Bearcat to their jobs as clerks, janitors, and shop keepers. One in particular, the man who operated a barbershop at the officers club, had lost his home as well as several family members. We placed a five gallon water jug in his shop and began filling it with Piasters to help finance the funerals and pay for the construction of a new house.
Our greatest anguish was reserved for the fate of the Catholic orphanage near Ton Son Nuht Air Base that we supported. We had no word of them and no way of contacting them until the roads were opened and we could get permission to go see for ourselves. We were relieved to learn that the nuns who operated the place had evacuated the children to storm drains and hid there during the fighting. Fortunately, their facility hadn’t been heavily damaged and we made repairs pretty quickly.
Other villages that I had visited during my tour of duty weren’t so lucky. Many were burned to the ground. The latrine we had built in one was totally destroyed. The Viet Cong didn’t tolerate any symbol of American good will regardless of the fact that they were only harming the people they were fighting to “liberate”.
It is interesting that one of the epithets most commonly thrown by the antiwar crowd at Vietnam Veterans was “baby-killer.” It is true that Vietnamese civilians, including babies, had been caught in the crossfire. It is also true that some American criminals, such as the miscreants led by Lieutenant William Calley at My Lai, murdered civilians. Hopefully, most were prosecuted accordingly. However, the victims of their crimes could never approach even a small percentage of the crimes committed intentionally by the Viet Cong. I never heard antiwar demonstrators complain about them. Indeed, one of their most famous, Jane Fonda, visited their bastion to the North and embraced them to raise their morale and continue the slaughter. Meanwhile, Ms. Fonda is a revered icon to many of them to this day. She is certainly celebrated in the entertainment community that continues to extol the same ideology that buoyed the antiwar movement in that time.
Every time I think that I am getting a handle on my anger at the news media, another bomb drops into my lap. The most recent one came from the pages of American Heritage Magazine. I have been a long-time subscriber and learned much from its pages. However, they chose to feature The Sage of Black Rock, as Cronkite was known, in their Winter/Spring 2012 issue. I was dismayed to read that the author of this article supported Cronkite in his assessment that the War in Vietnam was unwinnable.
President Johnson, on hearing Cronkite’s assessment, was reputed to have said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost [the support of] middle America.” Some believe that he famously announced that he would “…not seek, nor would [he] accept the nomination of his party for President of the United States” after hearing Cronkite’s broadcast. However, the American Heritage article goes on to correct that impression by stating that Johnson made that decision on the basis of personal concerns, including his health.
There is no doubt that Cronkite’s assessment fueled the passion of the antiwar movement and greatly aided their cause. As a result, some hold Cronkite responsible for the many thousands of Vietnamese murdered by the communist invaders from the north after the U.S. abandoned them. I wouldn’t go that far. Nor do I hold Jane Fonda accountable for her actions. She was, in my estimation, a mere dupe. However, I cannot seem to lay aside my anger at the press corps in general. Without them, the South Vietnamese might have lived in freedom. As North Vietnamese leaders have admitted repeatedly in many interviews and writings, they were prepared to surrender the cause many times, especially after Nixon became President and prosecuted the war into their sanctuaries. But for the influence of the antiwar movement, which still influences American foreign policy to this day, so many might have lived and lived in freedom.
Of course, there were surprises. There are surprises in every war. The Battle of the Bulge is one of history’s most famous surprises. Ultimately, Tet was a surprise test, one that the Armed Forces — even the cooks and clerks — passed with flying colors. Shamefully, it was one that the American public failed. Fed by the hyperbole and hysteria manufactured by the press corps, they surrendered, and the war was, at that point, “unwinnable.” How sad. In an earlier time, Americans cheered the courage and fortitude of their sons at the Battle of the Bulge. Cronkite reported on that earlier battle. What happened to him during the intervening years?
Tet was a hundred “battles of the bulge,” and we won every one of them. When the smoke cleared, the Viet Cong did not hold one square inch of the land they had invaded and they were decimated.
THE FIRST HOURS of the Tet Offensive passed quietly at Bearcat after our armor departed the camp. I slept through the rest of the night as Duty Officer blissfully ignorant of the battles raging throughout the country, and I was able to report for duty at the Awards and Decorations Branch of the 9th Infantry Division Adjutant General’s Office early the next morning. I was seated at my desk when a blast rocked our two story wood framed building.
I walked out onto the stairs of our second story office and looked in the direction of Long Binh to the southeast to see a mushroom-shaped cloud ascending into the morning sky. There were twelve miles between Bearcat and Long Binh, and I thought for sure that someone must have exploded a tactical nuke somewhere between. No, it was the ammunition dump at United States Army, Vietnam (USARV) Headquarters, Long Binh exploding. I spoke with some of our combat soldiers who were nearby at the time, and they were surprised they had survived even though they were in Armored Personnel Carriers (APC) headed for Saigon.
One of the true surprises of the 1968 Tet Offensive was the extent to which the Viet Cong had infiltrated Widow’s Village across the road from USARV Headquarters. Widow’s Village was the enclave of the women and children of the Vietnamese serving in the Army of South Vietnam (ARVN). Although most were not technically widows, few ever saw their husbands even though they were still alive. Thus, the name “Widow’s Village” stuck.
Viet Cong had taken up residence among the widows and orphans, and tunneled extensively beneath their homes where they stored arms and ammunition to attack the main U.S. base in South Vietnam. They kept the widows silent through threats and intimidation. Some even began to work within the base as clerks and janitors. Thus, it wasn’t difficult for sappers to plant satchel charges at strategic points. Some cut holes in the roofs of homes and began lobbing mortar shells at the American base.
When the Tet Offensive was launched, American and South Vietnamese combat troops were scattered around the countryside or rushing to defend key places. Thus, when the Viet Cong charged the base, Rear Echelon Mother F***ers (REMF) took up weapons and defended themselves. Bus loads of arriving Americans disembarking from planes landing at nearby Bien Hoa were hastily issued weapons, steel helmets, and flak vests, and thrown into gaps in the berm surrounding the base. Some died there, only hours after arriving in-country.
Other than the sappers who detonated their satchel charges in the ammunition dump during the initial assault, the Viet Cong failed to do any permanent damage. Although they were entrenched within yards of the base perimeter, REMF repelled every attack until combat forces arrived.
Back at Camp Bearcat, we began to notice a significant increase in activity at our airbase and I tried to find out what was happening. Unfortunately, the Adjutant General had gotten wise to my little “field trips” and I had to send one of my men. I’m not really certain why he objected to us substituting for exhausted and wounded door gunners (although I’ve always suspected that he was intimidated by our willingness to go in harm’s way).
We later learned that most bases were under siege and aircraft couldn’t land to rearm and refuel, so they diverted to Bearcat where not a single enemy was in evidence. Apparently, the arms cache we had captured in October had been intended for an attack on us, and we had left them without sufficient war material to mount an effective assault. All day and all night, helicopters with every imaginable unit markings were landing, hastily rearming and refueling, and returning to the battle. The wounded began arriving from all over the countryside regardless of the unit they fought for.
My base camp reaction force platoon was frozen in place and we were limited in our ability to assist. We couldn’t know that we weren’t going to be attacked, and we had to remain ready to move into defensive positions. I called my sergeants together and had them visit each man in the offices where they worked to make sure they had plenty of ammunition and full canteens, and were ready to move out at a moment’s notice. Surprisingly, the attack never came, although the media announced to the world that Bearcat had been overrun.
I received a panicky letter from my mother about two weeks after the Tet Offensive began. She was desperate to know if I was still alive and well. Yes, I should have written to her sooner but I had no way of knowing that American correspondents were spreading misinformation. I became furious when I read the news clipping that she had included. No wonder she was upset. In truth, I have never forgiven the members of the Fourth Estate who put her through that. Their distortions served as a warning, and I wasn’t surprised when I returned home to find that the news media were instigating the antiwar movement there. They were like cowboys, recklessly stampeding the mob with lies and innuendo, to impose their ideology rather than disseminate truth. It is a proclivity that is recognizable in their activities to this day. Thank God, that Internet bloggers and other informal news sources are shining the light of fact and empirical data on their fabrications.
1968 Tet Offensive Part 2 of 4: Not all heroes wore uniforms & not all who didn’t wear uniforms were heroic
THE VIET CONG poured into Saigon from the west, through the Cholon district. Cholon was the enclave of the ethnic Chinese who had settled in Vietnam. The Japanese “imported” them to serve as police and petty bureaucrats during their occupation of Indochina, and the Vietnamese harbored great resentment towards them. The French admired the arrangement and continued it when they returned to reclaim their colony following World War II.
The scope of the attack on Saigon was unexpected. It didn’t make sense. Whatever success the Viet Cong had enjoyed up to that time had been accomplished in small, hit-and-run attacks and ambushes. Trapping themselves in an urban environment where they would be decimated was foolhardy at best. However, as evidenced in later testimony by General Giap, the North Vietnamese leader who architected the Tet Offensive of 1968, the population was expected to rise up against the Americans and their puppet government when the communists arrived in the city. Thus, one of the first objectives of the Viet Cong assault was to bypass the Americans and South Vietnamese government officials in their residences, and capture communications facilities in Saigon so they could rally the citizens of Saigon to their cause.
There were no combat units stationed in Saigon. Unlike the Germans in Paris, the Americans were not occupying Saigon or any part of Vietnam. We were there, not as imperialists, but to halt the invasion of the communists from North Vietnam. Thus, the defense of Saigon fell to the hands of Vietnamese police and American REMF (Rear Echelon Mother F***ers), supply clerks, typists, switchboard operators, and intelligence interpreters. They barricaded themselves in their offices and depots and fought off the enemy until the cavalry could arrive.
A small contingent of U.S. Marines and American MPs defended the American embassy against a large Viet Cong force. Logistics personnel fashioned a fortress out of food and beer in storage at the docks along the Saigon River. Clerical staff donned their flak vests and steel helmets and fought from sandbag embrasures outside the doors of their offices while their buddies sniped at Viet Cong from the windows above.
There were hundreds of American civilians in Saigon at the time: businessmen and women, consultants, liaisons, volunteers, and news people. I never heard of any tourists at that time but anything is possible. Most hunkered down where they were or escaped to a friendly fortified position. Some participated in the defense. One in particular, Bobby Keith, better known as “Bobby the Weather Girl,” pitched in. Officially, Bobby was a secretary for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) who worked at the USAID Annex at the Mondial Hotel in Cholon. She had been recruited by the Armed Forces Radio and Television Network in Saigon to host weather broadcasts on AFRTN television. She also traveled extensively around South Vietnam, braving gunfire, to visit the troops and boost morale. It’s not surprising that she braved gunfire to deliver box lunches to a group of American engineers at “front lines” defending Cholon during the Tet Offensive.
Unfortunately, the Vietnamese who couldn’t reach safe havens were gathered up by the Viet Cong and given the choice to take up arms against their government or face execution. Many were simply executed without the benefit of a choice. Few took up arms, and the Viet Cong political cadre were confused.
American war correspondents appear to have hunkered down in their hotel rooms and filed stories based on rumors and innuendo. Most proved to be false. The ones who ventured out with cameras and recorders to capture the action, weren't able to see much that made sense to them. They asked questions that no one could answer, so many resorted to fabricating their own. They didn’t realize that American and Vietnamese forces were fashioning a trap.
The First and 25th American Infantry Divisions formed a wall to the north and west of the city that began to close on the Viet Cong like a hammer. The 9th Infantry formed a barrier along the east and south. They formed the anvil. The Viet Cong were trapped between.
Urban warfare is vicious. Combatants have innumerable places of concealment and attackers must move slowly and methodically to insure that they don’t accidentally bypass any. Every building, every room, every closet, every cabinet must be cleared. Just entering a doorway is a supreme act of courage. An enemy may be waiting on the other side and you are already a target before you can bring your weapon to bear. Tossing in a grenade before entering may help, but not always. We didn’t have “atomic grenades” like those you’ve seen on television and in the movies. Ours couldn’t always be expected to kill or wound every soldier inside.
In time the Viet Cong were driven from the city towards the trap waiting at the Saigon River. There was no refuge awaiting them there. There was no Dunkirk-like fleet waiting to transport them to safety. Many took refuge in warehouses by the docks and died when tanks blew out the walls after they refused to surrender.
It took the better part of February to retake Saigon. It was a large city.
EVERYTHING I’VE WRITTEN in this journal of my tour of duty in Vietnam is based on personal experience and observation with the exception of my comments about Jane Fonda. Those were gleaned from extensive research. My recollections of the Tet Offensive of 1968 are a hybrid of the two — personal experience and research. No one could have been everywhere when all hell broke loose in the country, especially not the journalists who reported the events so badly.
I’m sure you caught the gist of my feelings about Vietnam war correspondents in that last phrase. They reported that the 1968 Tet Offensive was a surprise. That it was a major victory for the Viet Cong. That the U.S. commanders in Vietnam and at home had been lying about the conduct of the war. Walter Cronkite, the most revered news anchor on television, declared that the war was unwinnable. “Surprise?” “Victory?” “Lying?” “Unwinnable?” None of it was true and yet these reports served to inspire the antiwar movement in the United States and materially undermine its foreign policy to this day. More importantly, they emboldened the communists to continue their invasion of South Vietnam and ultimately murder and enslave its people.
In October, 1966, less than three months before Tet, elements of the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Armored Cavalry Regiment, attached to the 9th Infantry Division, and the 9th’s 1st Brigade, uncovered a massive arms cache in an extensive system of tunnels and bunkers 13 miles southeast of the division headquarters at Camp Bearcat. It was the largest cache uncovered during the war. In addition to more than a thousand rifles, the cache included tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, mortar rounds, and recoilless rifle rounds as well as four 75mm howitzers, the first found in South Vietnam. It was clear that this cache was intended to arm the civilian populace that the Viet Cong expected to join them during the Tet Offensive.
How did we know that the Viet Cong would launch an offensive during the Tet holiday celebration? Simple. They had broken every Tet cease fire in previous years. Every year they agreed to an armistice during Tet, Asia’s most celebrated holiday. And, every year, they broke it. The only surprise was the scope and intensity of the offensive planned for 1968. However, U.S. intelligence had significant grounds to suspect that it would be far greater than previous offensives and were prepared for it.
January, 1968, was relatively quiet throughout South Vietnam, especially in the Mekong Delta where we were operating. It was the quiet before the storm, and the longer it lasted, the greater the storm we expected.
I had to run to the city of My Tho (pronounced “Me Tow”) on January 30th. I hitched a ride on a helicopter from Bearcat to the headquarters of our 3rd Brigade, Dong Tam, home of the Mobile Riverine Force. From there I caught a ride to My Tho, about five miles east of Dong Tam. My business there took longer than expected and one of the battalion staff officers offered me a bunk to stay the night, however I was expected back at Bearcat. I was scheduled to be the Division’s staff duty officer that night.
A staff duty officer is the commanding general’s representative during off-duty hours. It’s not really as important as it sounds. It’s a lot like the people who sit in the seats of celebrities at the Academy Awards while they are on stage to present or accept awards. (Apparently the show’s producers don’t want empty seats to appear on screen when cameras sweep the audience.) It wasn’t much of a job, and I could have called on one of my friends to cover for me, but I didn’t want to have to pay the price they would ask for the “favor.”
There weren’t any helicopters scheduled to fly out of My Tho that late in the afternoon, and I couldn’t expect a passing one to drop down and pick me up by waving a towel as instructed in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I had to get back to the airfield at Dong Tam and that wasn’t easy or comfortable. The only vehicle headed that way was a U.S. Army Engineer’s dump truck, and I had to ride in the back. It didn’t have a load to soften the ride and there wasn’t anything to hang on to, so I bounced around like a BB in a tin can. I know that the driver, his assistant, and his gunner were enjoying themselves imagining the ride I was having.
I ran limping onto the airfield as soon as we arrived at Dong Tam and found my old friend, “Jack” Spratt, lounging by his OH-25 observation helicopter. Luckily, he was just about to take off for Bearcat and didn’t have any other passengers. (This was the flight I had mentioned in an earlier posting where he uncharacteristically flew “high” so I could take pictures of the clouds with his camera.)
As we approached Bearcat, I saw armor — tanks and armored personnel carriers (APC) — parked along the perimeter road just inside our protective berm. The line stretched almost all the way around the camp, about five miles. Their crews were camped out alongside their vehicles, relaxing, smoking, playing cards, gossiping. They were like arrows in a bow, just waiting to be sent flying at the enemy.
I barely had time to report to the division Adjutant General on my mission to My Tho, before running to the division headquarters to report for duty.
Usually, I spent the night on staff duty with my feet up on a desk, fast asleep. (You learned how to sleep anywhere, anytime you could in the Army.) However, I wasn’t going to get much sleep that night.
The telephone rang sometime after midnight and the caller began shouting a codeword at me before I could even identify myself. He was attempting to reach the Division Tactical Operations Center (DTOC) which was located in a bunker to the rear of the headquarters building. I suppose it was easy for an Army operator to confuse the two. As soon as I convinced him he had reached the wrong phone, he pleaded with me to relay the “message” to the people in the DTOC.
I wandered in to the DTOC moments later and simply asked, “Does anyone know what [codeword] means?”
The result was similar to dumping a basket of live crabs onto a picnic table where a group of wealthy dowagers were seated, busily gossiping. (I chose that image because I had seen it actually happen once when I was a Sea Scout cruising with the Baltimore Yacht Club.)
Within minutes, there was a roar of engines firing up and tracked vehicles quickly filing out of Bearcat and headed for Saigon and other pre-assigned strategic points.
As the days passed, there were surprises. That is the nature of warfare. The test of an army, its men and commanders, is how well they handle those surprises. However, the correspondents used “surprise” as a charge, as though we were incompetent or had bumbled some how, and the American public bought it. Didn’t they remember the Battle of the Bulge? That was the greatest surprise in modern warfare, and they didn’t castigate the Army for that one. Indeed, they celebrated the allied victory on that occasion. Were we less worthy? Of course, our victory wasn’t reported. In the end, the press corps would announce the Tet Offensive as our defeat, the first lie.