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Fear of Losing: The Force That Drove LBJ, Nixon Policy

BREAKOUT ROLE Candice Bergen stars in 1966 Sand Pebbles

Shooting Gallery

Marines roll over surprised enemy troops

Lights, Camera, Bravo!

Khe Sanh survivor turns filmmaker

Did Doc Really Die?

A soldier tries to find out what happened to his friend December 2016

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December 2016

On the Cover:

Lance Cpl. T.J. Gladhill, 4th Marines, dashes to pass out ammunition to his men during an NVA attack near the DMZ in 1968. PHOTO: PHOTOQUEST/GETTY IMAGES; PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: BRIAN WALKER; INSET: BERT STERN/CONDE NAST VIA GETTY IMAGES



Operation Lam Son 250, a dawn attack sprung against the North Vietnamese on Aug. 15, 1968, by U.S. Marine tankers and South Vietnamese infantrymen turned into a “wild melee” that routed the enemy. By James P. Coan



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6 Feedback 8 Today In the News 16 Voices Jim Roberts 20 Homefront November-December 1966

21 Battlefront 50 Years Ago in the War 22 Arsenal The NVA’s General Purpose Machine Gun 58 Media Digest 64 Rewind Author Ron Kovic


Photographs that capture U.S. troops all over South Vietnam taking a break from the war.



A Khe Sanh veteran and his wife tell the story of Bravo Company, 26th Marines, in a documentary film. By Pamela Kleibrink Thompson




A Vietnam War historian examines how the mantra “Never lose a war” hounded Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon like a recurring nightmare. By Christian G. Appy



What happens when you think your only friend in Vietnam gets killed, but you can’t find his name on the Wall? By William Leslie


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December 2016 VOL. 29, NO. 4


The military vehicle most often associated with the Vietnam War is the helicopter, especially the Huey, but tanks also played a prominent role. One of the Marines’ tank units is featured in this issue’s “DMZ Turkey Shoot.” To read more about tank use in the war, visit and search “tanks and Vietnam.” Through firsthand accounts and stunning photos, our website puts you in the field with the troops who fought in one of America’s most controversial wars. Let’s connect Vietnam magazine Go digital Vietnam magazine is available on Zinio, Kindle and Nook. 4

ADVERTISING COURTNEY FORTUNE Advertising Services TERRY JENKINS Regional Sales Manager RICK GOWER Regional Sales Manager RICHARD VINCENT Regional Sales Manager JOSH SCIORTINO Web Sales DIRECT RESPONSE ADVERTISING RUSSELL JOHNS ASSOCIATES 800-649-9800 SUBSCRIPTION INFORMATION 800-435-0715 or Yearly subscriptions in U.S.: $39.95. List Rental Inquiries: Belkys Reyes, Lake Group Media, Inc. 914-925-2406; Vietnam (ISSN 1046-2902) is published bimonthly by HistoryNet, LLC. 1919 Gallows Road, Suite 400, Vienna, Va., 22182-4038, 703-771-9400 Periodical postage paid at Vienna, Va., and additional mailing offices Postmaster, send address changes to Vietnam, P.O. Box 422224, Palm Coast, FL 32142-2224 Canada Publications Mail Agreement No. 41342519 Canadian GST No. 821371408RT0001 © 2016 HistoryNet, LLC The contents of this magazine may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the written consent of HistoryNet LLC. PROUDLY MADE IN THE USA




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Ia Drang and 9/11 Hero

Profound thanks to the magazine and Robert Bateman for the story on Rick Rescorla, “Head for the Storm” (October 2016). It was very moving. When I was an Army first sergeant, I made the book We Were Soldiers Once...and Young and the movie We Were Soldiers part of my unit’s noncommissioned officer development program that I included for all ranks, from E-1 privates to my officers. It was wellreceived by all. Wayne E. Long, Chester, Md.

Natural leader Rick Rescorla’s heroics at Ia Drang were recounted in We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, which had this photo on the original cover.

More on Dong Ha Bridge

I enjoyed the article by David Sears about Captain Ripley. The article portrayed a very heroic and cognitive combat leader who led from the front. However, Sears did not mention if Ripley received a valorous award. Carl McAfee Chambersburg, Pa. 6

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ripley was awarded the Navy Cross for destroying the Dong Ha bridge. He served two tours in Vietnam and also received the Silver Star, two Bronze Star medals and a Purple Heart.

Couldn’t Put Book Down

I saw the book The Price They Paid in the Media Digest section (October 2016) and ordered it. I glanced through it as I was coming back from the mailbox and thought I might complete reading it in two to three days. I finished it before I went to bed that night! I could relate to it. I started out as an 18-year-old door gunner on Hueys in spring 1970. Shortly thereafter, we were going into Cambodia in May-June 1970. The Price They Paid is the best book I’ve read. Thanks to the author and your magazine. Robert E. Bunney Lake Wylie, S.C.

and U.S. advisers. General John Howard’s article is excellent. However, I find there is a broad generalization of facts and some inaccuracies in regards to South Vietnamese commanders and their advisers. Through the March 1972-January 1973 battles, U.S. Marine advisers never left their units nor experienced a breakdown with their counterparts. On the contrary, nearly 18 years of continuous service together solidified their bond. Indeed the South Vietnamese marines considered their epic combat success in recapturing the Citadel as their own “Mount Suribachi” test. As a U.S. assistant senior adviser, I was present and recorded the South Vietnam marines’ combat successes until Jan. 27, 1973, when the cease-fire agreements went into effect. Gerry Turley Bluffton, S.C.

Solid, Not Ragged Bonds

The story “Ragged Edge of Vietnamization” (June 2016) alludes to a breakdown in trust and cooperation between South Vietnamese army commanders

Send letters and email: Vietnam Editor 1919 Gallows Road, Suite 400, Vienna, Va., 22182-4038; or


David Sears’ otherwise excellent article, “Somehow Blow the Bridge” (October 2016), omits one vital fact: Had it not been for Vietnamese marine Sergeant Huynh Van Luom, Captain John Ripley could not have blown the Dong Ha Bridge. Prior to Ripley’s heroics, a column of NVA tanks had moved onto the bridge and was about to cross it. If the column crossed the Dong Ha River, there was nothing to stop further advance. Luom climbed on the bridge, faced down the lead NVA tank and disabled it with a LAW (light anti-tank weapon). Ripley himself praised Luom for “single-handedly stopping momentum of the entire attack.” Unfortunately, Luom was killed in action several weeks later. He deserves credit and a place in history for his resolute defiance. Bill Lawrence Mesa, Ariz.


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*United States Marine Corps patch provided by Sgt. Grit Marine Specialties.

© ICM 2016


8/26/16 12:40 PM

Australia remembers Vietnam The Australian army commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan with ceremonies that included the dedication of a cross in South Australia that is a full-size replica of a cross erected at the battle site. Below: Aussie veterans travel by bus in groups of 100 to Long Tan on August 18.

About 1,500 Australian and New Zealand veterans and accompanying journalists were arriving in Vietnam to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Aug. 18, 1966, Battle of Long Tan when they found their path barred by Vietnamese policemen. Australia’s veterans affairs minister, Dan Tehan, said the Vietnamese government informed him the night of August 16 that the gathering had been canceled due to “sensitivities in the country.” Tehan protested. “For us to be given such short notice cancellation is, to put it in very frank terms, a kick in the guts,” he said, as reported by Australian Broadcasting Corp. The Long Tan battle, waged near a rubber plantation 68 miles east of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), was the largest engagement fought by Australian forces in Vietnam and the most costly: 18 killed and 24 wounded. About 100 Aussies and three New Zealanders prevailed against 20-to-1 odds as they held off a Viet Cong assault until reinforcements arrived. They killed an estimated 245 of the enemy, wounded some 350 and took three prisoners. The anniversary of the battle has been annually commemorated in Australia as Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Day. The Viet Cong defeat at Long Tan has been an irksome subject in Vietnamese circles, but the Hanoi government has allowed Australian visitors to hold memorial events


at a commemorative cross on the battle site since 1989. Although they were not allowed to wear uniforms or medals or sing songs, the Australians have been permitted to play Last Post (last bugle call of the day) there since 2006. Harry Smith, who commanded the Australians at Long Tan, noted that the Vietnamese had expected a smaller crowd than the estimated 3,000 who wanted to go to the site this year and weren’t prepared to handle the larger number. After an appeal from Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, announced August 17 that the veterans would be allowed to visit the battle site in groups of 100 throughout the day on August 18. Displays of banners, flags, uniforms and medals were still prohibited. Some 60,000 Australian troops served tours in Vietnam, with 521 killed and about 3,000 wounded. New Zealand sent 3,000 troops and had casualties of 37 killed and 187 wounded. —Jon Guttman




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Real Huey Landing at the Outdoor Play Miss Saigon When the musical Miss Saigon played in Atlanta this summer, it wasn’t your typical production or your typical playhouse. The stage was out in the forest—and the props included a real UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopter, which flew in for the performance. Grasses swirled. Light beams sliced the night air. The production was hosted by Serenbe Playhouse in Chattahoochee Hills Country, a 1,000-acre community, one of the most unusual settings for the play, written by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil and produced on Broadway from 1991 to 2001. The story, similar to the opera Madame Butterfly, centers on the romance between an American GI and a Vietnamese bar girl he leaves behind during the Saigon evacuation on April 30, 1975, when U.S. helicopters airlifted the last Marines and selected South Vietnamese personnel. In the Georgia production, the helicopter, flown by actual war veterans, landed 250 feet from actors and the audience. Brian Clowdus, the director, was determined to have a real helicopter in the production and discovered that the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, which specializes in restoring Vietnam War copters, was just 40 minutes from Serenbe in Hampton, Georgia, and it provided the show’s chopper, he told Playbill. 10

The 2016 Veterans Charity Ride embarked from Los Angeles on July 30 with 16 wounded and amputee veterans on a nine-day ride to the annual Sturgis Bike Rally in South Dakota, a weeklong gathering held August 7-13 this year. The 1,776-mile ride passed through Bryce Canyon National Park and Moab, Utah; Craig and Denver, Colorado; and Hot Springs, South Dakota, before arriving in Sturgis. The nonprofit Veterans Charity Ride USA provides wounded and amputee vets with the motorcycles, sidecars and trikes they need. The organization also takes wounded and amputee veterans on motorcycle therapy excursions. The project was created by Army paratrooper Dave Frey while riding to the Sturgis Rally in 2014. Along the way, he met a paratrooper from his unit, and they shared a concern for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were having a difficult time adjusting to civilian life. Frey, born into the family’s motorcycle business, contacted his

Comedian Jay Leno, a motorcycle enthusiast, is honorary chairman of Veterans Charity Ride. This was Leno’s second year supporting the ride.“I’ve already learned so much from interacting with these courageous men and women,” he said in a press release.

business partner, Robert Manciero, an Emmy-awardwinning director, and they came up with the concept of a “motorcycle therapy” ride that would be filmed to encourage wounded and amputee veterans to get outdoors and enjoy life again. They received bikes from Indian Motorcycle and got Champion Sidecars Inc. onboard to accommodate amputees. In 2015, the ride organizers took eight veterans to Sturgis, and this year twice as many went. To view photos and videos of the ride or make a donation, visit



MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENT INJURED ON ROAD TO STURGIS Vietnam War Army veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Gary Wetzel was severely injured August 7 in a motorcycle crash in Wisconsin on his way to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, where he was to be inducted into the Sturgis Motorcycle Hall of Fame. Wetzel has undergone surgery and is recovering from multiple injuries. Wetzel received the Medal of Honor for actions in 1968 when he was a door gunner in the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company and his helicopter was shot down. Severely wounded, with no use of his left arm, he continued firing his weapon in the battle and destroyed an enemy position that was causing heavy American casualties. His left arm was later amputated.


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© ICM 2016


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8/26/16 12:41 PM

Vet Bicycles to Capitol for Shipmates In August, Del Francis finished a 1,550mile bike ride to get 74 crewman of the ill-fated USS Frank E. Evans added to the Wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “I turned 74 in May, and out of frustration with years of delay by politicians and defense secretaries, I decided to ride my bicycle from my home in Texas to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness to the plight of my 74 shipmates lost off the coast of Vietnam,” he told Vietnam magazine. He left his Sulphur Springs house on June 3, the 47th anniversary of the ship’s sinking. Francis was aboard the destroyer Evans when it left Long Beach, California, on March 29, 1969, bound for Vietnam. The warship was on the “gun line”


Navy veteran Del Francis conducts an interview after biking from Texas to Washington to increase awareness of a campaign to engrave on the Wall the names of 74 crewmen lost when a destroyer sank in the South China Sea in 1969. Riding with him at the end was U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, of California, with his bicycle behind Francis.

May 5-20, providing gunfire support for Operation Daring Rebel, an amphibious landing on an island south of Hoi An, a town in northern South Vietnam. On June 3, at 3 a.m., the Evans, with a crew of 278, was performing an exercise in the South China Sea with the Australian carrier HMAS Melbourne when a miscommunication caused a collision and the American ship was cut in half. The front half went down in two to three minutes. “I was on the front half,” Francis said. The back half swung around the starboard side of the Melbourne, and an Aussie sailor jumped down and moored it with ropes, keeping the Evans afloat. When the Wall was completed in 1982, Francis learned that the Evans casualties were not on it because the ship was outside the official “combat zone,” according to Since then, Francis, former shipmates and families of the Lost 74 have been lobbying to get the fallen sailors included. “We have been through Congress a couple of times, only to be tabled,” Francis said. “Petition drives, letters to presidents, secretaries of defense, just about everything imaginable.” During his ride, Francis did 23 newspaper interviews, 12 TV interviews and three calls with radio stations. “The widow of one of the lost saw me on TV and came to wish us well,” he said. “Her son who was born a month after his dad died has been following us on Facebook.” The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund invited Francis to its office in Washington to discuss the addition of the names. Francis said he would not visit the Wall until the 74 names are on it.

5th Marines Memorial Designed for Pendleton

Flag sold for $55,000 With its bright colors and gold fringe, a 52-by-34-inch American flag removed from Da Nang on March 29, 1973, was auctioned for $55,000 in May. It received the highest bid of 1,300 historical items up for auction. A North Vietnam “victory” flag went for $200. The U.S. flag’s history held considerable appeal to an undisclosed bidder. The man who preserved the flag, Army Colonel Chester Bailey McCoid, was the last American ground soldier outside of Saigon to leave Vietnam.


A 5th Marine Regiment memorial to honor members killed in Vietnam is planned for Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California. The Fighting 5th Marine Regiment was heavily involved in the battles for Hue and the fighting in areas west of Da Nang. The design features six granite panels with 2,705 names of Marines, sailors and chaplains who died while serving with the 5th Marines. The target date for completion is Memorial Day 2017, and the estimated cost is $400,000. The monument’s supporters are seeking donations. For more information:


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Sydney Hillel Schanberg, a journalist who stayed in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, died July 9 in Poughkeepsie, New York. He was 82. Reporting for the New York Times throughout the Vietnam War, Schanberg stuck things out in Phnom Penh until Khmer Rouge threats compelled him to take shelter in the French embassy. He won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, and his 1980 account of the early Khmer Rouge years, The Life and Death of Dith Pran, was the basis for the Academy Award-winning film The Killing Fields.


Michael Cimino, who shot to prominence among Hollywood auteurs with his 1978 Vietnam War film The Deer Hunter only to nose dive two years later, died in Los Angeles on July 2, at age 77. After writing TV commercials and Hollywood scripts, Cimino was asked by Clint Eastwood to direct Thunderbolt and Lightfoot in 1974. Its success led to his co-writing, producing and directing The Deer Hunter, which follows the lives of working-class Pennsylvanians before, during and after the war. The film got five Academy Awards, including best director and best picture. Cimino’s next film, the western Heaven’s Gate, was a spectacular failure, almost bankrupting United Artists and plunging him into obscurity.

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The lack of assistance for the South Vietnamese is a terrible black mark on our reputation By the time Jim Roberts left the Navy in 1971, after two cruises to Vietnam aboard a destroyer, most Americans had turned against the war, but he still considered it a noble cause. Roberts became political director of the American Conservative Union in January 1974, a year after U.S. troops departed Vietnam, and that fall led congressional aides and journalists on a trip to review the situation in South Vietnam. Roberts wrote a report warning that an invasion from the North was imminent. When the attack came in 1975, he helped set up the Emergency Committee to Save South Vietnam, which pushed for increased U.S. assistance but didn’t get it. Roberts was ACU executive director from 1975 to 1977, wrote The Conservative Decade: Emerging Leaders of the 1980s, published in May 1980 with a forward by Ronald Reagan, and served as director of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships from 1981 to 1984. The next year Roberts created Radio America, a conservative talk-radio network. In 1995 he founded the American Veterans Center to “preserve the legacy” of service members. Its projects include oral histories and the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington. Roberts reflected on the Vietnam War’s legacy and lessons in an interview with Editor Chuck Springston. 16

What were the responsibilities of destroyers stationed off Vietnam’s coast during the war? Planeguard duty with aircraft carriers and gunfire support for our forces inland. If a plane missed on a landing or a takeoff and went into the water, we were charged with rescuing the survivors. In the gunfire support, we would be a mile or so offshore, and spotters on the ground would send coordinates for targets 10 to 12 miles inland. The coordinates would be put in the ship’s gunfire computer system, and we would fire shells. We never saw what we were firing at. The spotters would periodically come to the ship, and they said our gunfire was quite effective. We were providing gunfire support almost every day. Many times all day long and all night long. We would run out of ammunition and have to go out to sea for replenishment at a supply ship. When you returned to Vietnam in 1974, what did you see? We were there two weeks and all over South Vietnam. We just didn’t stay in Saigon. We visited a lot of the cities. We were down in the [Mekong River] delta a lot. What struck me was that the South Vietnamese military was falling apart for lack of spare parts. There were row upon row of planes, fighters and bombers that couldn’t fly because they didn’t have spare parts or fuel.



Born: Aug. 9, 1946, Chicago Residence: Great Falls, Virginia Education: Miami University in Ohio, bachelor’s degree in English Military service: Naval ROTC graduate 1968; discharged August 1971, as a lieutenant Vietnam deployments: November 1969-May 1970 and February-July 1971, anti-submarine warfare officer and naval gunfire director officer, aboard destroyer USS Henderson, Seventh Fleet Today: President, American Studies Center in Arlington, Virginia, parent foundation of Radio America and the American Veterans Center


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9/1/16 1:48 PM


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Do you think South Vietnam could have held off the Communists if the U.S. government had not reduced funding? Absolutely, I do. At the time of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, something like 90 percent of the population of South Vietnam was under government control—by choice, so the vast majority did support the South Vietnamese government, given the faults it clearly had, and there were many. We saw the fighting capabilities of the South Vietnamese in 1972 during the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. We gave significant air power, but they did most of the fighting on the ground and prevailed. That’s what should have happened the next time around. But it didn’t. With proper assistance the South Vietnamese could have prevailed. The lack of that assistance is a terrible black mark on our reputation. 18

Is there a political or military leader that you especially admire? Winston Churchill is my greatest hero. Churchill persuaded Parliament not to negotiate with Hitler—and saved the world. Had Britain sued for peace, the Germans would have eventually taken possession of the Royal Navy. There would have been no platform for getting back at Hitler. There would have been no platform for Normandy. The Russians would have been defeated. Churchill himself stopped that. During the Vietnam era, what music did you listen to? I liked the music of the ’50s. Buddy Holly and Elvis and all the rest. Then I became seriously involved in the folk movement. I played a guitar and knew the popular folks songs by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary and others. The rock era of the ’60s is the greatest in pop music. It was just one great song after another. At Miami we had a band called the Lemon Pipers. They played at our fraternity house. Their “Green Tambourine” got to No. 1. Are there any books about the Vietnam War you think are particularly insightful? One is The Big Story, by Peter Braestrup, which came out in the ’70s. He was a journalist and showed how distorted coverage in the media played a real role in our losing the war. Mark Moyar has written two excellent books, including one titled Triumph Forsaken. He says, yes we could have won the war, and I’m persuaded by that. V


Ditto for the army of South On deployment Vietnam, badly under-equipped. Jim Roberts is officer We were not living up to our of the deck on the agreement with the South Viet- Henderson during plane-guard duties. In namese after the Paris accords the background is the [which ended the U.S. combat carrier Constellation. role in January 1973] that we would supply them with the means for their self-defense. When I got back, I wrote a fairly lengthy monograph predicting that there would be a new offensive early in the next year. It didn’t take any particular powers of clairvoyance to predict that. It was obvious it was going to happen. In the spring of ’75 you had the horrible scenes of rescuing people from the U.S. Embassy roof and the hundreds of thousands who died at sea and the millions who were put into re-education camps and all the horrors that came out of that war because we defaulted on our duties. After the North Vietnamese invasion started, the ACU formed the Emergency Committee to Save South Vietnam. It was composed of conservatives, of course, but we also got liberals who believed in the cause of South Vietnam. The contributions flowed in. We were able to do ads in the New York Times and the Washington Post. And we did demonstrations outside the Capitol. It was really a wonderful effort, but it was too little, too late.

What do you see as the lessons of the Vietnam War? Colin Powell [as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman under President George H.W. Bush] and Cap Weinberger [as Reagan’s defense secretary] came up with doctrines, based on lessons learned, which state that if you’re going to get into a war, go in with overwhelming force, crush the enemy, complete the job and get out. We never did that in Vietnam. We had a succession of incremental increases until we had 500,000 men and women stationed in South Vietnam and were taking horrendous casualties. If you are going to get into an operation with casualties of that magnitude, you need to be in total war, short of nuclear weapons. The bombing runs were very restrictive in terms of targets. And the planes had to fly down predetermined alleys, where they were sitting ducks for groundfire from the North Vietnamese. President Johnson himself was selecting targets, personally. It’s just nuts for a president to be doing that. In ’72, President Nixon asked Admiral [Thomas] Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, “How long would it take you to mine the harbors of North Vietnam?” He said: “About one day. The plan’s on the shelf.” We mined the harbors. We stopped all inflow of materiel from the Soviet Union and China. We bombed relentlessly and bombed targets that should have been bombed years before. We brought the North Vietnamese to the peace table. That’s the kind of war that should have been conducted from the very beginning.


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9/2/16 9:17 AM


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Nov. 16 Cleveland doctor Sam Sheppard is acquitted, with a sterling defense by F. Lee Bailey, in a retrial after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 1954 conviction in the murder of his wife.



Nov. 11 The last of 10 NASA flights with two-astronaut crews, Gemini 12 blasts off from Florida with Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell, who do additional testing of procedures crucial for the next space program, the Apollo moon landing.

Nov. 27 The Washington Redskins, playing at home, overpower the New York Giants 72-41 in what remains the highest total score for an NFL game. The two teams had a combined 16 touchdowns. Dec. 10 The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” reaches No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100. Rolling Stone has ranked it No. 6 on the magazine’s list of the “500 greatest songs of all time.” 20


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9/1/16 11:53 AM

Dec. 15 Animation pioneer Walt Disney dies in Burbank, California, at age 65, from cardiac arrest related to lung cancer. At the time of his death, Disney was personally supervising production of The Jungle Book, released in 1967.

Nov. 5 In a rare occurrence of two

members of the same unit receiving Medals of Honor in the same action, Captain Robert F. Foley and Pfc. John F. Baker Jr. of A Company, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, are awarded medals for a battle near Quan Dau Tieng, close to the Cambodian border—Foley for leading a charge on Viet Cong forces in the face of heavy fire and Baker for saving the lives of comrades and destroying enemy positions.

Nov. 29 U.S. Marines establish a

combat base at Khe Sanh in the far northwest corner of South Vietnam near an Army Special Forces camp at Lang Vei formed in 1962. Initially fortified with only one battalion, Khe Sanh would be expanded into a major base occupied by the Marines until July 1968.

Dec. 20 The Sand Pebbles, the story of U.S. Navy gunboat patrolling the Yangtze River in turbulent 1920s China, premieres with Steve McQueen in the lead role as Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Jake Holman. Candice Bergen also stars.

Dec. 18 CBS broadcasts the first showing of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Boris Karloff voices the Grinch, who eventually gets into the Christmas spirit.

Dec. 14 The U.S. Air Force loses its first plane to an enemy air-to-air missile, fired by a MiG-21 over North Vietnam. Dec. 16 The 9th Infantry Division completes its deployment to Vietnam, taking over an area south and east of Saigon. Dec. 23 The destroyer USS O’Brien becomes the first American ship to be struck by shells fired from North Vietnamese shore batteries. Two crewmen are killed and four are wounded by coastal artillery in Quang Binh, North Vietnam’s southernmost province. Dec. 30 U.S. and South Vietnamese

Dec. 26 Maulana Karenga, a leader of a black community organization in Los Angeles, and friends celebrate the first Kwanzaa, a seven-day holiday centered on African harvest festivals, family and community.

troops enter Cambodia in hot pursuit of Viet Cong retreating into the enemy’s long-established sanctuary across the Vietnamese border. After a ground assault supported by 40 helicopters and airstrikes, the U.S.South Vietnamese force withdraws.



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9/2/16 9:16 AM

Got it handled The PK has a changeable barrel, and the carrying handle helps gunners to swap barrels rapidly.

At the front The open post front sight could be adjusted in the field for elevation.

To the rear The rear sight could be adjusted for windage and range.

Belt in a box A detachable box held a 100-round link belt. The gunners could also use external linked belts totaling up to 250 rounds.

Dual-purpose bipod The bipod stand offered more than support to stabilize the gun. The right leg also contained cleaning rods.



Crew: 2-3 Rounds: 7.62x53mm rimmed ball, armorpiercing, tracer Weight: 19.84 pounds (bipod); 36.3 pounds (tripod) Overall length: 47.4 inches Barrel length: 25.9 inches Rate of fire: 650 rounds per minute Muzzle velocity: 285 meters per second Maximum range: 1,000 meters


The Soviet-made PK general purpose machine gun—never as widely employed as the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rife and RPD light machine gun—began to replace the Soviets’ DP light machine gun in the North Vietnamese Army in late 1965. The gun’s open-bolt, gas-operated firing mechanism, which facilitated cooling and prevented “cooking off” during extended engagements, was based on the AK-47 design. The PK’s rear sight has one difference: The windage adjustment is at the forward end. Cheap to manufacture, easy to maintain and extremely robust and reliable, the PK (short for Pulemyot Kalashnikova, or “Kalashnikov’s machine gun”) has little recoil or barrel climb when firing. The belt feed and ejection ports have spring-loaded dust covers so the openings are exposed only when required. The gun also features a “quick change” barrel with a carrying handle that enables gunners to swap barrels rapidly. At 20 pounds with its bipod legs, the PK is slightly lighter than the American M60 machine gun. However, its looser construction, which reduces sensitivity to debris, makes the PK less accurate. It can also be used with a 17-pound tripod or mounted on vehicles and small riverine craft. The ammunition comes in 25-round belts that can be linked together using the attached coiling wires to provide additional rounds. The ammo belt can also be drawn from a 100round rectangular box attached under the gun. The PK fired a more powerful cartridge than the AK-47 or RPD did. The North Vietnamese used it in situations where the infantry’s AK-47/RPD firepower needed reinforcement. For most combat missions, however, the combination of AK-47/RPD guns and rocket-propelled grenades was considered sufficient. The PK was often employed to cover a unit’s withdrawal or teamed with RPGs and light mortars against enemy strong points or small-unit concentrations. It saw widespread use in the NVA’s final offensives in South Vietnam and in its subsequent wars with Cambodia and China. It remains in frontline service to this day. V VIETNAM

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9/1/16 10:12 AM

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DMZ TURKEY SHOOT U.S. Marine tanks and ARVN troops unload on a North Vietnamese battalion By James P. Coan



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Downtime Marines repair a broken track on one of their tanks. In August 1968, Marine tankers discovered hundreds of enemy troops on the banks of the Ben Hai River.


ne of the most devastating defeats inf licted upon the North Vietnamese Army by U. S. Marines and their South Vietnamese allies occurred on Aug. 15, 1968, in the coastal sand dunes northeast of Gio Linh and on the south bank of the Ben Hai River separating North and South Vietnam. Ten Marine M-48A3 Patton tanks from 3rd Tank Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, surprised a North Vietnamese battalion at dawn. The tankers, with elements of the 2nd Regiment, Army of the Republic of Vietnam, opened fire and attacked, overrunning the NVA and destroying a frogman training facility at the Ben Hai River. The Marines, who described the day’s action as a “turkey shoot,” also destroyed several trucks and sank two enemy boats in the river. There were no Marine casualties. But that remarkably successful joint Marine Corps–ARVN operation, called Lam Son 250 by the ARVN, was largely ignored by American press, for reasons that aren’t clear. Perhaps it was because the battle was primarily an ARVN operation.

DMZ in name only The Ben Hai River ran through the center of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam, and the land on its southern side was a much-contested battleground. DOMINIC BYRNE/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO; TOP: ROBERT PEAVEY

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In July 1954, the Big Four (United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and France), along with representatives of the People’s Republic of China, met in Geneva to finally resolve the Korean War stalemate, but the focus shifted to Indochina after the French army’s disaster at Dien Bien Phu in May brought an end to France’s colonial rule. The Geneva Accords, issued on July 21, called for temporarily dividing Vietnam at the 17th parallel (referred to as a “provisional military demarcation line”), with a Demilitarized Zone as a buffer. American and South Vietnamese troops would fight the North Vietnamese in the strategically important region throughout the war. The DMZ generally followed the broad, winding Ben Hai River west from its mouth at the South China Sea for 30 miles until the river’s source in the mountains and then straight to the Laotian border. Where the Ben Hai empties into the sea is a barren expanse of sand dunes and occasional swamps. Inland a dozen miles from the coast, the lowland terrain becomes increasingly verdant and alive with rice fields, orchards and occasional hamlets bordering the river. The DMZ eventually evolved into anything but “demilitarized” as the North Vietnamese moved their forces in, using both sides of the Ben Hai River as staging areas for attacks and infiltration routes into D EOCCETM OBER 2016

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South Vietnam. The South Vietnamese and their American allies observed the rules of the Geneva agreement for many years and kept their ground forces out of the DMZ, but in May 1966, after the NVA 324B Division attacked two ARVN outposts just below the zone at Con Thien and Gio Linh, that policy changed. Four Marine battalions and a sizable South Vietnamese infantry unit invaded the southern part of the DMZ for the first time when the Marines’ Operation Hastings was coordinated with the ARVN’s Operation Lam Son 289. In May 1967, after a massive NVA attack that nearly overran the Marine firebase at Con Thien, the Marines launched Operation Hickory to clear the North Vietnamese out of the southern DMZ. The operation was definitely a setback for the NVA, but only temporarily. In early July 1968, the entire 9th Marine Regiment, accompanied by three platoons from 3rd Tank Battalion, invaded the DMZ on Operation Thor. Once again, a highly successful operation supposedly cleared the North Vietnamese out of the southern half of the DMZ “permanently”…but again, it was not for long. In August 1968, after a week of bloody clashes with the 1st Battalion, 138th NVA Regiment, around the firebase at Gio Linh, the commander of the 2nd ARVN Regiment, Lt. Col. Vu Van Giai, asked permission to launch another attack into the southern half of the DMZ. Final approval was granted by Marine Maj. Gen. Ray Davis when intelligence reports indicated that the NVA was building up its forces in the zone for an autumn offensive. After several B-52 bombing runs that blasted known and suspected enemy locations in the DMZ, a diversionary attack was launched before dawn on August 15 by 26




9 elements of the Marines’ Amphibian Tractor Battalion—15 tracked landing vehicles (Amtracs) and two tanks. Rolling noisily out of Marine outpost C-4, the Amtracs and tanks halted about a half-mile south of the DMZ’s southern boundary, then reversed course back to C-4. This diversion set the stage for the joint MarineARVN attack into the DMZ later that morning. Five tanks from 1st Platoon of Alpha Company, 3rd Tank Battalion, were led by 2nd Lt. Frank Blakemore, who had been with the platoon for only a month. Captain R.J. Patterson, the new commanding officer of Alpha Company, was the overall detachment leader and rode aboard tank A-15. That tank (with its name, “StinkFinger,” painted on the main gun barrel) was normally commanded by Corporal Virgil Melton Jr., a lanky, combat-wise Marine from Canton, Texas. The lieutenant told Melton, “The captain will have to ride on your tank, so you’ll have to move over into the loader’s spot.” Melton remembers that the move gave him few anxious moments. “I’d never seen the new CO, so I could only hope that this captain had his act together,” he said. The other five Marine tanks participating in the operation, based at Camp Carroll, were the 3rd Platoon of Bravo Company (also in the 3rd Tank Battalion), led by Gunnery Sgt. Kent Baldwin. That detachment of 10 “iron monsters” was a force to be reckoned with. All of its M48A3s were the latest model in the Patton medium tank series, boasting several improvements over the Army’s M48A2—probably the first time in modern military history that the Marine Corps had better equipment than the Army. The major improvement in the A3 series was replacing the gasoline


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1 Ready, or not Left: A Marine tank platoon is parked, awaiting orders for its next mission. Inset: A tank crewman takes a look at mine damage.



engine with a Continental V-12 supercharged 750 horsepower diesel engine, which greatly reduced the risk of fire. Other enhancements were a 360-degree vision ring on the tank commander’s cupola and a Xenon searchlight with infrared capability for night operations. The M48A3’s armament included a 90mm (3.54-inch) main gun, a .30-caliber co-axially mounted machine gun and a .50-caliber machine gun in the commander’s cupola. A fully loaded tank weighed 52 tons and had a top speed of 30 mph. The four-man crew consisted of a tank commander, a gunner, a loader and a driver. The gunner had a ballistic computer that could automatically set the main gun tube’s elevation to hit a target by direct fire up to 3,000 meters distant. Hitting anything farther away would necessitate employing “Kentucky windage”—aiming without using the barrel sights and instead estimating the elevation and wind with educated guessing, as shooters did with the Kentucky long rifle of American pioneers in the 1700s. At 4 a.m. on August 15, the Marine-ARVN detachment moved north from its overnight location east of Gio Linh. In addition to the 10 Marine tanks was a tank retriever (C-43) commanded by Captain Dan McQueary, commanding officer of the 3rd Tank Battalion, Headquarters and Supply Company. Five ARVN infantrymen rode atop each tank. The rest of the force was carried in accompanying armored personnel carriers, or APCs, from the ARVN 11th Armored Cavalry. Moving single file to minimize exposure to mine damage, the allied attacking force, its path illuminated by predawn moonlight and periodic artillery flares, continued slowly north. At first light, the vehicles turned

northwest, coming to a halt atop an extended sand dune ridge running east to west. To the troops’ complete astonishment, directly downslope in front of them were an estimated 600 to 700 unsuspecting NVA cooking breakfast among the dunes. Corporal Melton recalled, “We were so close to them we could smell their food.” The ARVN soldiers dismounted from the 10 Marine tanks, which then pulled up abreast. In response to the “Open Fire!” command from Captain Patterson, the detachment leader aboard A-15, they blasted away with their 90mm cannons and machine guns. Some NVA stalwarts fired back wildly with the weapons they had at hand, but tank armor was impervious to bullets. Despite the deafening blasts of adjacent tank cannons, Patterson was able to contact the ARVN commander on the radio and instruct him to flank the enemy on the west. Once that f lanking movement was completed, the ARVN soldiers dismounted their APCs and attacked east toward the coast. The boxed-in, panicked enemy soldiers began a hasty, disorganized retreat north on foot toward the Ben Hai River.

Firepower Below top, middle: Marines make a dash for foxholes as the North Vietnamese respond with mortar attacks after the Marines begin Operation Hastings in July 1966. Below bottom: A Marine M48 Patton tank fires on the enemy south of the DMZ in September 1966.


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Bound for battle A column of Marine tanks heads for the Demilitarized Zone.


Under the Sav-a-Plane policy that top U.S. military commanders put in place the previous year, the Marines could not call for artillery fire to neutralize the enemy’s guns north of the Ben Hai as long as friendly aircraft were in the attack area. This rule was imposed after two incidents at Con Thien when Marine Corps helicopters were shot down by “friendly fire.” The first incident occurred on Sept. 25, 1966. A UH-34D helicopter from Medium Helicopter Squadron HMM-161, Marine Air Group16, which had just picked up a casualty, was climbing for altitude when an American artillery shell blasted it out of the sky, killing all five men aboard. A second incident occurred on May 12, 1967, as a UH-34D from squadron HMM-363, the “Red Lions,” was lifting off from the landing zone at Con Thien. It was about 100 feet in the air when a mortar shell fired from Con Thien struck the pilot’s side of the craft, instantly killing him and his crew chief. The helicopter crashed about 900 yards south of the Con Thien perimeter. Miraculously, the co-pilot and door gunner survived. Once the Huey called in by Patterson had expended its ammo and left the DMZ attack area, the artillery firebases immediately below the eastern DMZ were free to train their guns on the known and suspected enemy positions north of the Ben Hai. “The results were almost


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turned over to South Vietnamese authorities at Gio Linh later that evening; it turned out he had valuable information for his South Vietnamese captors. Patterson made radio contact with a Marine Corps UH-1D helicopter in the area and brought it into the fray. The awesome firepower of a heavily armed Huey was something to behold. It was equipped with 14 2.75-inch folding-fin air-to-ground rockets, and four 7.62mm M60 machine guns were mounted for forward firing. Two door gunners, one on each side of the copter, manned M60 machine guns. The Huey swooped down and unloaded its deadly ordnance upon the fleeing NVA soldiers. As the morning wore on, an increasing number of mortars, rockets and other artillery was fired at the tankers from enemy positions north of the Ben Hai. Soto experienced a near miss by a 122mm rocket that rocked his tank. None of the tanks was disabled. “A few of our tanks suffered damage to their searchlights, vision blocks and antennas from flying shrapnel, but we didn’t lose anybody,” Melton said.


The tanks soon outdistanced the ARVN foot soldiers, and from then on it was indeed a turkey shoot. The shock-and-awe factor of 10 Marine tanks bearing down on the NVA troops overwhelmed them. “It was a wild melee,” said Corporal Claude “Chris” Vargo, the gunner on B-34. “The NVA broke ranks and scattered. Many ran off, leaving their weapons behind. As we were all roaring down on them, firing point-blank with our canister and beehive rounds [steel darts], I lost count of how many dead NVA we passed.” Sergeant Sal Soto, B-34’s tank commander, saw the effects of the beehive ammunition. “They practically vaporized the NVA caught in the open,” he said. “When we fired that round and it detonated, hundreds of inch-long steel darts exploded out in all directions. Sometimes, all that remained of an enemy soldier were a few body parts enveloped in a pink mist cloud.” From his perspective aboard the tank retriever, Captain McQueary witnessed several Alpha Company tanks, led by gung-ho platoon Staff Sgt. (first name unavailable) Waggle, roar into the NVA’s battalion command center with their machine guns chattering. “Our tanks crushed every bunker they rolled over, then shot down the fleeing bunker occupants,” McQueary said. “Several bunkers had secondary explosions when the tanks fired HE [high explosive] into them.” At one point, despite all the smoke and dust swirling around him, Corporal Melton spotted a two-man rocketpropelled-grenade team rise up from behind a nearby bush, attempting to fire at Waggle’s tank. Melton pulled out an M14 rifle stowed inside his turret and squeezed off several well-placed rounds, taking out both enemy soldiers. Corporal Eddie Miers, the soft-spoken but hardcharging tank commander of A-14, with “The Believer” lettered on his main gun barrel, spotted an NVA soldier hiding in some bushes atop a sand dune. He directed his driver, Pfc. Harold Schossow, to steer their tank in the enemy’s direction. As Schossow pulled the bow of his tank up into the bushes, he saw the terrified look on the man’s face. “He knew he had two choices: surrender or die,” Schossow said. “Fortunately for him, he jumped out and ran toward our tank with his hands up.” Miers dismounted, tied up and blindfolded his compliant prisoner, and then loaded him aboard the tank. The enemy soldier was



instantaneous,” recalled Gunnery Sgt. Baldwin, the Bravo Company 3rd Platoon leader. “That friendly artillery fire support drastically reduced the amount of enemy incoming we were taking.” An aerial observer spotted a camouflaged enemy encampment on the north bank of the Ben Hai River. Three Bravo Company tanks led by Baldwin ranged in with their cannons and destroyed the camp, subsequently determined to be a training site for frogman commando teams. The Bravo tankers also fired at several large boats circling in the river, sinking two. Later that afternoon, Patterson ordered the Marine and ARVN units, which had expended nearly all of their 90mm and machine gun ammunition, to leave the DMZ and return to the assembly area south of Gio Linh. As the units departed, they ran into a few NVA diehards attempting to ambush them from the west. Fortunately, Corporal Melton in the lead tank still had three 90mm high-explosive rounds in the turret. He ordered his gunner, Lance Cpl. Ronald Floyd, to open fire, and that helped clear the way for the others. McQueary’s tank retriever crew spotted an abandoned U.S. Army tank retriever. An American armored unit had been operating in northernmost Quang Tri province and the eastern DMZ earlier that spring, but it had suffered heavy losses trying to go it alone, without sufficient infantry, air and artillery support. The Army pulled out, leaving the DMZ for the Marines to handle. The tank retriever had suffered serious mine damage—several road wheels were blown off and one track was broken loose. The Army crewmen had abandoned their vehicle with all of its weapons, communications equipment and everything else still intact. That was a shocking revelation to the Marines, who would never abandon one of their armored vehicles on the battlefield in that condition. After conferring with his executive officer, 1st Lt. Jim Spalsbury, McQueary determined that the retriever was not salvageable. “We did some selective interchange [McQueary’s preferred term for scavenging parts] and then blew the Army retriever in place.” As they continued on, the Marine and ARVN tracked vehicles traveled through an area where Marine and Navy jet fighters had unloaded excess ordnance before returning to their aircraft carriers, but all of them made it through that hazardous area unscathed. Farther south, however, they made a wrong turn and entered an unmarked minefield outside of Gio Linh. The Marines

there frantically signaled the tanks to stop, but it was too late. Waggle’s tank ran over and detonated an anti-tank mine. “When Waggle’s tank hit that first mine, I saw a set of road wheels go flying up in the air,” recalled Soto. “I knew we were in for it after that.” The damage was sufficiently repaired with the aid of the tank retriever crew, and the “short-tracked” tank could be driven under its own power. Shortly after that incident, Blakemore’s tank and McQueary’s tank retriever also detonated anti-tank mines. Despite having to duck sporadic enemy mortar and artillery fire, the crewmen on those armored vehicles were able to make the temporary repairs necessary to move out of that minefield and head for the assembly area south of Gio Linh. After the Marine attack, there was no longer any threat of an autumn offensive by the NVA’s 1st Battalion, 138th Regiment. The regiment’s shell-shocked survivors were pulled back north across the Ben Hai River to regroup and refit. U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Richard G. Stilwell, the XXIV Corps commander, reported to General Creighton Abrams, the top U.S. combat commander in Vietnam: “The 1st Battalion, 138th NVA Regiment, was to have attacked south across the DMZ last night; it will do no attacking for some time to come!” Operation Lam Son 250 was a tanker’s dream. Participants at Vietnam veteran reunions still refer to it as the “DMZ turkey shoot.” U.S. Marine tanks were credited with 189 enemy killed and 70 “probables” out of a total of 421 reported. All tank and retriever crewmen and attached personnel were authorized to wear the Meritorious Unit Comm e n d a t i o n r i b b o n . T h e r e m a r k a b ly successful Marine-ARVN operation on Aug. 15, 1968, may not have received coverage in the American press, but the actions of those who fought there won’t ever be forgotten by the participants. V

Casualties Top: A wounded Marine is helped off Hill 861 near the DMZ after a battle in April 1967. Above: An evacuation helicopter is ready for a Marine being carried across the sand at the mouth of the Ben Hai River during Operation Hickory in May 1967.

James P. Coan was the platoon leader of 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 3rd Tank Battalion, for nine months during 1967-68. He had just become the executive officer of Alpha Company when Lam Son 250 occurred. Coan is the author of Con Thien: The Hill of Angels, University of Alabama Press, 2004. DECEMBER 2016

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Common Men, Uncommon Valor A documentary salutes the men of Bravo Company, 26th Marines, who withstood the siege of Khe Sanh


By Pamela Kleibrink Thompson



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“Everything around you is just riddled with shrapnel. You see that right away. There isn’t anything that isn’t torn open; sandbags are ripped open, buildings are just shredded.” That’s how former Marine Ron Rees describes the scene inside the base at Khe Sanh during the monthslong siege by the North Vietnamese Army in 1968. Rees recalled the battle in an interview for Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, a documentary that tells the stories of 15 survivors of the siege and reveals the long-term costs that the war had on their lives. First-time filmmakers Ken Rodgers, a lance corporal at Khe Sanh, and his wife, Betty, produced the documentary about Ken’s outfit, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division, attached to the 3rd Marine Division, one of the units assigned to defend the remote Marine base in the northwestern corner of South Vietnam.

A heavy toll Dead Marines are loaded onto a chopper at Khe Sanh airstrip.


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he setting was just 14 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam and only 6 miles east of the Laotian border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the primary route the North Vietnamese used to send supplies to Communist forces in the South. The Khe Sanh base, established in 1962 as an Army Special Forces camp and assigned to the Marines in 1966, was at the far end of a tenuous American supply line on Route 9, the northernmost east-west highway in South Vietnam. In the words of General William Westmoreland, overall commander of American forces, Khe Sanh was “the cork in the bottle” of the most likely enemy approaches to South Vietnam. The base, covering 2 square miles, was tough to defend. Much of the high ground overlooking the base was under enemy control, the base’s water supply flowed through hostile territory and Khe Sanh was often fogged in during the early months of the year. By December 1967, at least two North Vietnamese Army divisions had positioned heavy artillery in the area around Khe Sanh. Some 20,000 enemy troops were poised to attack. The Marines and a small contingent of South Vietnamese


army rangers defending the base totaled about 6,000. Westmoreland ordered the Marine commander at Khe Sanh, Colonel David E. Lownds, to “hold at all costs.” The NVA began its assault on Jan. 21, 1968. After heavy fighting, the Marines threw back that initial attack, but the enemy controlled all land approaches to Khe Sanh, including the crucial Route 9. The siege began. Ten days later Khe Sanh was bumped off the nightly newscasts by the Tet Offensive, a nearly simultaneous series of attacks on cities, towns, villages and bases throughout South Vietnam during the country’s celebration of the lunar New Year. Meanwhile, North Vietnamese artillery, from longrange Soviet 152mm and 130mm guns to closer-in mortars and rockets, bombarded Khe Sanh day and night. The Marines dug deeper trenches, fortified their positions, strengthened their shelters and moved underground. Resupply and evacuation were possible only by helicopter or cargo plane, and the Marines were always short of supplies. But American airstrikes by fighters and bombers changed the odds of survival. Because the siege necessarily concentrated large numbers of enemy troops near


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Defensive squad Bravo Company Corporal Steve Wiese, far right, and his squad are entrenched at Khe Sanh. Wiese and Pfc. Mike McCauley, far left, were interviewed for the film.



Khe Sanh, American aircraft were able to inflict heavy casualties. The NVA losses mounted, and in March the artillery bombardment eased, though it remained a constant threat. The enemy continued to extend its trench lines toward the Marine camp. But by early April, a steady decrease in NVA activity made it clear that the North Vietnamese were withdrawing. On April 11, U.S. Army engineers declared Route 9 open to vehicular traffic. The siege of Khe Sanh was lifted. Although intense combat around Khe Sanh continued for three more months, American commanders decided the base had served its purpose, and by July 5 the Marines had evacuated all usable equipment, destroyed anything of value to the enemy and abandoned the base. The precise casualty count is still uncertain, but several hundred American lives were lost in and around Khe Sanh, while the NVA lost thousands. “When I left Khe Sanh for good in early April 1968, I flew on a CH-46 to Dong Ha,” recalls Ken Rodgers, who now lives in Boise, Idaho. “When I deplaned I looked back to the west at the mountains where Khe Sanh sat, and I said to myself, ‘That’s a hell of a story.’ I’ve been wanting to tell that story ever since.” For decades the story lingered in Ken’s mind. Then in 2009, during one of the annual reunions of the Khe Sanh Veterans Association, Betty Rodgers was listening to the guys as they sat around telling their stories. “It really sank in at that time that we somehow needed to preserve this, their history, their story,” she said. And the best way to do that, Ken thought, was to let the men tell their own stories in a documentary film. Before the Rodgers undertook the project, Betty spoke with Bravo Company commander, Captain Ken Pipes, who retired from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel, to get his blessing. Although new to filmmaking, the husbandand-wife team had acquired related skills that were a big help. Ken, with a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of San Francisco, already understood the structure of storytelling, and Betty was a longtime photographer. Both had been watching and analyzing films for years. But, admittedly, they still had a lot to learn. “We knew we would need to surround ourselves with talented and passionate people who could help,” Betty said. The couple joined Idaho Media Professionals, an organization that promotes the creative arts and provides networking opportunities for people involved

in those fields. “They assured us we could do it,” Betty said, “and they gave us much sage advice along the way.” The Rodgers funded the film with initial grants from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation and one anonymous donor. They got additional financing from private donations and three rounds of crowdfunding managed by associate producer Carol Caldwell-Ewart. One of the largest sources was their retirement savings, Ken said. The Rodgers hired a cinematographer, Mark Spear (who has since died), and the interviews began in mid-2010. “We invited every member of the Khe Sanh Veterans Association who had been in Bravo Company during the siege,” Betty said. “Out of those, 14 agreed to an interview. We also tried to find others who had never joined the organization, but had very little luck with that.” Ken’s interview in Idaho was filmed first. The next Bravo Company interviews were conducted at the July 2010 Khe Sanh veterans reunion in San Antonio with Captain Pipes and Corporal Steve Wiese from California, 2nd Lt. Peter Weiss from New York, Pfc. Ron Rees and Pfc. Lloyd Scudder from Oregon, Pfc. Frank McCauley from Texas, Pfc. Mike McCauley from Washington, Lance

Khe Sanh snapshots From top: Lance Cpl. Ken Rodgers, 1st. Lt. Ben Long, Pfc. Dan Horton

Aerial attack A KC-130F tanker from Marine Aerial Refueler Squadron 152 is ablaze after being hit while landing at Khe Sanh.


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“Making Bravo! was cathartic to me on a number of levels,” Ken said. “I discovered, while conducting the interviews, that I wasn’t the only one who had survived the horrors of Khe Sanh. I knew it intellectually but not emotionally. Hearing the men tell their stories helped me understand that we shared the terrible memories.” Later, while working with the film editor, Ken watched those interviews over and over again. “Initially, I would end a screening session feeling like someone had abraded my soul on my grandmother’s washboard,” he said. “But as time went on, the trauma lessened, and I think the constant viewing of the film has helped me put my Khe Sanh experiences in their proper place. I don’t think someone who endures what we lived 34

through at Khe Sanh will ever get over the event, but we can learn how to place those memories in a mental spot that allows us to keep our lives in balance. Vietnam veterans didn’t talk about the war for over 40 years, and now we can. Bravo! often starts the dialogue, and that is cathartic in itself.” In the film, Wiese opened up about an ambush of his platoon while on a patrol outside the Khe Sanh base. He was walking through a bomb crater when the enemy struck. Wiese hunkered down in the crater and made his way back to the base by jumping from bomb crater to bomb crater. It took the corporal all day to cover about 400 yards. “The only reason I survived was I just happened to be standing in a bomb crater where it was like 2½ feet deep,” he says in the film. “I just happened to be walking through that at the time the ambush opened up.” “You don’t know what war is until you face it,” said Dan Horton in his interview. “And it’s not John Wayne. John Wayne has never been to war.” Frank McCauley revealed that because of his Roman Catholic faith he did not want to kill anyone. “I was hoping I could get through this experience without ever using my weapon,” he said. Nicholas Warr, a Marine lieutenant who described his Vietnam experiences in his book Phase Line Green: The Battle for Hue, 1968, said that the Rodgers’ film “captures the essence and the humanity of warfare, the physical and mental pain, the fear, the elation upon survival that instantly turns into guilt, and the suffering and sorrow of war as it was experienced by the young Marines of Bravo 1/26 who fought at Khe Sanh combat base in early 1968.”

Bravo! won Best Feature Documentary at the 2015 GI Film Festival in San Diego, and the Major Norman Hatch Award for Best Feature Documentary from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. Filmmaker Ben Shedd, whose The Flight of the Gossamer Condor won the 1979 Oscar for best short documentary, has praised Bravo! for its look and feel. “The pacing is superb, deliberate, delicate, harsh, real.” The National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution honored Ken for his film by presenting him with its highest award, the Ellen Hardin Walworth Founders Medal for Patriotism, given to a person “who has displayed outstanding patriotism in the promotion of our country’s ideals of God, home, and country through faithful and meritorious service to our community, state and nation.” Betty received the DAR’s award for Excellence in Community Service for her part in producing the film. The Rodgers have traveled all across the country for screenings of Bravo! They have been invited to diverse places, Betty said, “from San Quentin, to the Boston VA; from Brownwood and Dallas, Texas, to Moscow, Idaho; from the SS Jeremiah O’Brien [World War II merchant marine museum ship] at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, to universities and military bases; from Washington, D.C., to Chicago, Illinois; in private homes,


Cpl. Michael O’Hara from Indiana and Petty Officer 3rd Class John “Doc” Cicala, a hospital corpsman, from Michigan. After the reunion, the Rodgers went on the road to talk with other members of Bravo Company who agreed to be interviewed. They traveled to Michigan to film Pfc. Dan Horton and Pfc. Cal Bright, to Nebraska for Corporal Ken Korkow, to Illinois for Corporal Tom Quigley and to Iowa for 1st Lt. Ben Long. Horton and Scudder have since died. The filmmakers gathered additional information at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the Marine Corps History Division at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. Back in Idaho, they collected more photos and information, and Ken began transcribing the 22 hours of interviews. “In January of 2011, we received a phone call from longtime sound and film editor John Nutt asking if we needed some help with the film,” Ken said. “He had read an AP article about our project while visiting his daughter in Tucson.” Nutt is a Vietnam veteran whose work on the movie Amadeus earned him an award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. His credits also include the Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now. The final sound mix was done with four-time Academy Award winner Mark Berger at George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound facility in California. Bravo! features never-before-heard audio—a gift from Wiese, who had recorded the people and sounds of Khe Sanh during the siege and sent the audio tapes home to his parents in California. “He assumed his mother had taped over them years ago,” Betty said. “Sometime after she passed away, Steve was going through his mother’s belongings, found the tapes and realized the originals were still intact.” Wiese called the Rodgers to see if they might be interested in the recordings. “Of course we were thrilled,” Betty said. “We were in the middle of editing, so the timing couldn’t have been better. John Nutt expertly wove the sounds and voices into the soundtrack.” The basic work on the film was completed in 2012, “but then we had issues regarding some of the future music rights,” Ken said. “We replaced that music and completed the final version of Bravo! in 2014.”


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On the line Ken Rodgers, left, poses for a photo in January 1968 with fellow Bravo Marines Quiles R. Jacobs, center, and Michael Carwile.

Fire when ready Corporal R.J. Strik shoots his flamethrower during the battle of Khe Sanh.

Dug in As enemy gunfire pours into Khe Sanh, Marines take cover in a trench at the base. DECEMBER 2016

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said to Betty, “You know, you wives are Vietnam veterans too, because you’ve had to live with us and the impact our combat experience had on us.” That comment spawned the new film, I Married the War. The Rodgers received a grant for the project from the Idaho Humanities Council and have filmed an interview with Terri Topmiller, the widow of Robert “Doc” Topmiller, who was a medic at Khe Sanh during his time as a Navy corpsman. The couple are seeking additional grants and corporate sponsors to fund the production. V

Pamela Kleibrink Thompson, a career coach, speaker, writer and recruiter, has written for more than 100 publications. You can reach her at Her husband, Lance Thompson, a screenwriter who has written magazine articles for Air & Space Smithsonian and other publications, contributed to this article. You can reach him at


and many, many more locations.” The documentary was shown at the 2016 Justice for Vets Conference in Anaheim, California, on June 1. Ken said that viewers will come up afterward and say, “Now I understand my dad,” or “I understand my brother” or “I understand people who had this happen to them and now they can’t function like the rest of us; now I understand why they were the way they were.” Although the film focuses on one unit, it honors the service of other Vietnam veterans as well, Ken and Betty say. The word “bravo” was put in the title not only to represent Ken’s Bravo Company but also to applaud all of those who served in Vietnam. Ken and Betty, both now 69, are producing another documentary. This one is about the wives of combat veterans. Ken Korkow, one of the Marines in Bravo!, once

Looking back John “Doc” Cicala, left, and Ken Korkow recalled their Khe Sanh experiences in interviews for the film.

More on Bravo! To schedule a screening of Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor in your community, contact Ken Rodgers at or call 208-340-8889. DVDs of Bravo! are available at Bravo! is on Facebook at The website is For information on the new project, go to 36


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Cinematographer Mark Spear; Ken Rodgers at the National Archives; Ken and Betty Rodgers with a Khe Sanh map.

Reflections at the Wall Ken Rodgers looks for members of Bravo Company on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.



Bravo’s Battle at Khe Sanh On Jan. 20, 1968, a Marine advance on one of Khe Sanh’s nearby hills met unexpectedly strong resistance. As the hill battle was raging, a lone North Vietnamese Army officer approached the camp at Khe Sanh and surrendered to Captain Ken Pipes, commanding officer of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division, attached to the 3rd Marine Division. The enemy officer confirmed not only that two NVA divisions—20,000 enemy soldiers—had surrounded the camp but also said they planned to attack the very next day. As the NVA prisoner had warned, the opening artillery bombardment hit the Marine base on January 21, and it signaled the beginning of the siege. The barrage struck a hard blow when one round hit an ammunition dump at the east end of Khe Sanh’s airstrip. The explosion detonated more than 1,500 tons of stored ammunition, multiplying the effect of the bombardment and killing 18 Marines while wounding many others. The unit at Khe Sanh closest to the exploding ammo dump was Pipes’ Bravo Company, which would play a critical role in the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh. During the siege, Marines still patrolled regularly, although never more than 500 yards from the base perimeter. On February 25, the Marine commander at Khe Sanh, Colonel David E. Lownds, needed fresh intelligence, the kind that could only be obtained from prisoners. Bravo Company was told to patrol outside the southeast perimeter, and Pipes assigned the job to Lieutenant Don Jacques, leader of Bravo’s 3rd Platoon. Fog was just beginning to lift as 3rd Platoon moved out beyond the protection of the wire and mines. At 9 a.m., three enemy soldiers leapt from their hiding places and ran into the open, directly in front of the surprised Marines. As soon as the Marines opened fire, the enemy soldiers disappeared into a tree line. Jacques received permission to pursue them, but Pipes warned him not to get into anything he couldn’t handle. It was possible that the three NVA were trying to lure the Marines into a trap. Jacques led his entire 3rd Platoon in pursuit, and it was ambushed from two sides by NVA heavy

machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. The lieutenant called for artillery support, but he had strayed so far from his original course that artillery crews couldn’t fire for fear of hitting the platoon. Marines of Bravo’s 1st Platoon went out to relieve 3rd Platoon and also were ambushed. Jacques and 26 other Marines from the two platoons were killed, while few others escaped without wounds. Survivors trickled back to base in small groups or individually, leaving dead comrades on the field. On March 30, Colonel Lownds issued aggressive orders to Pipes: “Movement to contact.” In other words, leave the safety of the base perimeter and go looking for a fight. All three Bravo Company platoons would deploy to the same area where 3rd Platoon was ambushed a month before. One objective was to retrieve the Marines who had been killed in the ambush. The Marines of Bravo Company were ready for a fight. They had been pounded for over two months by the largely unseen enemy’s artillery and mortars. Their buddies had been ambushed. They wanted to avenge their deaths. If any man had doubts about what was coming, an order that passed through the ranks erased them: “Fix bayonets.” Captain Pipes led Bravo into the fight. The Marines assaulted the enemy trenches and bunkers aggressively and met strong resistance. North Vietnamese soldiers fought fiercely but could not turn back the tide. Bravo surged forward, taking casualties but never faltering. The enemy soldiers finally broke and abandoned their positions. Twelve Marines were killed on the patrol. A hundred more were wounded, including Pipes, who stayed in the fight despite serious wounds from a mortar round. The Bravo Company attack did not end the siege, but on April 6 a U.S.–South Vietnamese relief force reached Khe Sanh via Route 9, breaking the NVA stranglehold on the base. Even with the siege lifted, however, fighting continued in the surrounding area until Marine forces were permanently withdrawn from Khe Sanh and the combat base was abandoned in July. —Lance Thompson DECEMBER 2016

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At Ease


U.S. troops take a break from the war



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Incursion timeout A soldier of the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, relaxes before pulling out of Firebase Speer, 6 miles inside the Cambodian border, June 24, 1970. AP

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Southwest of Saigon A gunner grabs a nap near his 155mm howitzer on Nov. 16, 1968. The weapon was brought in for an operation that lasted a week but never fired because the Viet Cong avoided contact.

Binh Long GIs with the 1st Infantry Division play a hand of cards on Sept. 7, 1966, at their base camp as they wait for transport to their next operation.



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Bunker during a moon launch Soldiers of the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta listen to a radio broadcast of the Apollo 11 launch on July 16, 1969. From left, Pfc. Earl C. Hollingsworth III, Sgt. Stephen C. Dionne and Spc. 4 Rodney D. Sparks.


Jungle northeast of Saigon After a day’s patrol as part of a two-week operation against the Viet Cong, Pfc. Everado Torres of the 1st Cavalry Division writes a letter home while his comrades set up an area in the bush, Feb. 12, 1972.

Khe Sanh Marine base Mounded dirt walls and stacked timbers help protect these players from enemy machine gunners and snipers, Feb. 11, 1968.

Flooded base camp at Ben Loc Part of his daily routine, a 25th Infantry Division soldier washes his soiled fatigues after patrols in the Mekong Delta’s rice paddies and canals, Dec. 10, 1969.

Surfside Organizers of a USOsponsored surfing contest chat with unidentified winners on Sept. 25, 1966.



Laotian border An American artillery crew, who provided covering fire for South Vietnamese troops inside Laos during Operation Lam Son 719, takes a break under a crudely made peace flag, February 1971.


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Field and stream Members of the 9th Infantry Division, above, look over the sports pages of Stars & Stripes after finding Viet Cong weapons in tunnels near Saigon on Oct. 15, 1967. A Marine relaxes in a cool mountain stream, 1968.

Firebase Pace northwest of Saigon An American cavalryman enjoys the comfort of a shower at the base near the Cambodian border shortly before 150 troops departed on Oct. 23, 1971, leaving Firebase Pace to the South Vietnamese.



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The baths of Vietnam Soldiers pulled back from the front take their first baths in 10 days in a Vietnamese crock. Spc. 4 Mack A. Hassier douses Pfc. Lee A. Bilbrey on March 7, 1966.


China Beach By 1971, more and more troops were getting time off for visits to places like China Beach, an official R & R area in South Vietnam. It was usually jammed with Americans on weekends.


Foxholes and shelters Above and inside their sandbagged bunker, troopers of the 25th Infantry Division catch up on their reading at a camp in a jungle clearing west of Pleiku, near the Cambodian border, Nov. 28, 1966.



Mail call Inhaling his letter’s fragrance, a private opens mail sent from his girlfriend in Jay, Oklahoma, April 12, 1966.

Firebase “North Pole” A soldier gets some holiday cheer reading a Christmas card from his wife on Dec. 22, 1966. That year there were 385,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam.


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Smile! Gary Obrist took this picture of his friend, Tom “Doc” Cameron, right, with another soldier, Ken Jarman, when their infantry unit was at Lai Khe. VIETNAM

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Don’t make friends in a combat unit What happens when you think your only friend in Vietnam was killed, but you can’t find his name on the Wall? By William Leslie



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n the years following the initial deployment of major U.S. units to Vietnam in 1965, the formation of many troop units was random. This wasn’t the Band of Brothers. You didn’t ordinarily serve with men you had trained with. Instead, you were dropped into units filled with strangers. Some were “newbies” who had arrived a week before, and others were “short-timers” who would rotate out in a few days at the end of their one-year tours. That was the way it was in the 1st Infantry Division in 1967. Much of the Big Red One was scattered in and around Lai Khe along Route 13 northwest of Saigon. The division faced frequent moderate to heavy Viet Cong attacks. Gary Obrist, a skinny 21-yearold from Gresham, Oregon, was a radio telephone operator in C Company, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment. He had arrived in-country in August 1967 and was unceremoniously promoted in early December from a grunt carrying an M16 to an RTO when his squad’s radio operator caught a round. Gary’s squad leader had pointed to the radio: “Put that on. You’re my new RTO.” Although Gary knew nothing about radios, he could learn anything, he kept his cool in combat and he could keep up with the lieutenant on patrols. That was qualification enough. A few weeks after Gary picked up the radio, he was promoted to corporal. He hadn’t been in Vietnam for very long, but if you could do the job, you got the rank. DECEMBER 2016


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Vietnam album Tom Cameron took a picture of Gary Obrist on patrol. Insets below: Gary’s other new friend and Gary with actress and singer Chris Noel. Tom Cameron dressed up his letters with cartoons of a soldier’s life in Vietnam. One is shown lower right.



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Gary had arrived weighing 135 pounds. Four months later, at 128 pounds, he could carry a 100-pound load— an M16, eight clips of ammo, four flares, a PRC-25 radio in its backpack carrier, rations, two canteens, an entrenching tool and a knife—for 12 miles without stopping. Stopping to rest could be bad for your health: The more time you spent in the field, the more time the enemy had to shoot at you. Gary was serious about Vietnam and about what he did. He didn’t screw around because he didn’t want to go home to his wife, Kathy, in a box. People who got drunk or stoned were likely to get killed—and they often took others with them. Besides acquiring the survival skills to keep from becoming a statistic, Gary had learned not to get too close to anyone. It hurt too much when someone you knew too well was killed in action. More often, if you made a friend, he would get rotated home. Either way, it wasn’t worth the pain. Gary was friendly with everyone in his squad, but he wasn’t close to anyone. Nevertheless, one man stood out in his mind. Tom “Doc” Cameron, a draftee. Tom wouldn’t carry a gun, so Uncle Sam made him a medic. In the fiercest firefight, while Gary was trying to disappear into the dirt, Tom would scurry to the side of a wounded man. After a quick patch, he would move on to the next. “Damn, he’s brave,” Gary wrote his wife. “And he won’t even carry a gun.” Why does someone become a conscientious objector? Doc had played out every scenario in his mind and in letters home. He tossed around his thoughts with Gary. “Could I shoot to save myself? To save the man next to me?” Blame it on his two years in Bible college education or on his parents. Tom firmly believed that every man was special in God’s eyes. He just didn’t think he had it in him to kill someone, even to save a wounded GI. Shortly after he was placed in an infantry unit, he wrote home: “The Army could care less about my conscientious objector status. We have one objective, kill VC. But generally the only thing anyone wants to do is go home.” Tom tried not to go to Vietnam. In early 1967 the Army wasn’t drafting fathers, so he and his fiancée, Nancy, had moved up their wedding date in hopes of becoming parents. No such luck, he told Gary. A month after the wedding, he received the dreaded letter from Uncle Sam that began “Greetings!” Because Tom didn’t think he could shoot anyone, that left two options: running away to Canada or taking his chances as a conscientious objector. He couldn’t explain it to his folks, but Canada was never really an option. A year out of Bible college he, along with other objectors, was a trained medic on his way to Vietnam. Uniform or no uniform, Tom Cameron was a committed Christian. He wrote home about his faith: “Whatever God does is fine with me, but I sure hope he lets me live through Vietnam long enough to make some dent, somewhere, in somebody (spiritually).” He felt out of place in the Army. “They all swear, four-letter adjectives are the major part of their language...and now those words are

part of my vocabulary,” he wrote. “I don’t use them, but they are there anyway.” The daily ration was one can of pop and one cold beer. Doc didn’t drink alcohol, so he always took two cans of pop. The Army issued Doc a pistol, and he wore it for a while, but never fired it in battle. Soon after he got the weapon, the squad spent a couple of nights with an artillery group and someone swiped it, according to one of his letters home. When Doc reported the theft, he was threatened with disciplinary action for losing his weapon. The punishment could include a rank reduction by as much as three grades, a pay cut amounting to onehalf of his base pay for two months and 45 days of extra duty. Instead, Doc was “invited” to pay $57—the cost to replace the gun. He agreed to pay for a pistol that he hadn’t signed for and hadn’t wanted in the first place. Fortunately, the Army lost the paperwork. Medics usually hung around with medics, but often didn’t have a hooch of their own. They slept anywhere they could, based on availability. When Gary’s hooch mate rotated home, Doc and Gary began sharing a hooch in the early fall of 1967, and by November they were friends. Gary often talked about his pregnant wife, Kathy, his sweetheart since junior high school. Gary wrote Kathy telling her about the medic who had moved into his hooch. Gary didn’t make friends easily, so Doc stood out to Kathy. Doc even wrote Kathy several times to say that he was looking after Gary and that he wouldn’t let him make stupid mistakes. Doc had a natural flair for drawing and decorated his letters home with cartoons of GIs, palm trees and coconuts. He sent drawings of .30-caliber machine guns, explained fields of fire and sketched out the proper way to make a night defensive position. He was very frank about how hairy it got sometimes and about a few guys who bought it. It was probably more than his parents and his young wife needed to know. He prayed a lot, for his wife, for Gary, for himself and for an end to the war. Doc had a funny reaction to Vietnam, partially motivated by his faith. He wrote home, “I’ve an unfair advantage with all the prayer you guys minister to me.” He didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about getting killed. “I’ve been laughing all day,” he wrote, “clowning around, had a great patrol and am now in quite an elated mood. I have this stupid ability to adapt, ya know, and as a result I really have a lot of good times. We look forward to patrols, we had a fun one this morning. We looked like a patrol on the way out, a safari on the way in. Four bunches of bananas and all the grapefruit we could carry.” He wrote home that FTA stands for “Fun, Travel, Adventure,” which was better than explaining its real, more profane meaning: F−−− the Army. When Gary or Doc received a letter, the other got to read it. And when a coffee can full of cookies arrived, they shared the treats. In photos Kathy sent when she was pregnant, Gary and Doc followed her progress as she got bigger with Gary’s unborn son. It helped Gary to know that Doc was around. “I knew that if I ever got hit, Tom would come running. No matter what, he’d be there for me. It didn’t make me braver DECEMBER 2016

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but it allowed me to focus. He was sort of like an insurance policy.” They salvaged a periscope from an armored vehicle and mounted it in their hooch so that they could look around during mortar attacks. Sometime after May 1968, Gary spent three days of leave in Vung Tau, a port city about 80 miles south of Saigon where troops went to relax. When he returned to Lai Khe, Tom’s gear was gone, and so was Tom. Gary sought out another grunt. “What happened to Doc?” “He caught a round in the head. He didn’t make it.” And that was that. One day Doc was there; the next day he was gone. Dwelling on someone who didn’t make it was a distraction that you couldn’t afford. In Vietnam, the answer was to keep your head down, focus on what you were doing and count the days until your tour was up. Mourning could get you killed. In August 1968, Gary completed his tour with barely a scratch and rotated home to his wife and 5-month-old son in Oregon. Like many vets, he didn’t talk much about combat or about Tom. It was just too raw. But Gary remembered one thing in particular: He had never told Tom what he thought of him, how brave he was. In November 1982 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The memorial was a shiny granite wall engraved with the names of American troops who died in the war: 57,939 names at the time of the dedication, arranged in chronological order according to the date of casualty. People who paid their respects at the memorial frequently made rubbings of the names, and the Wall became a place of healing and a source of closure. In 2002 the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a three-fifths-scale replica of the Wall, arrived in Gresham, just a few miles from where Gary and Kathy lived. Gary had been busy running an excavation and demolition business, and raising two children with Kathy. He told Kathy that they had to go see replica. If he could do nothing else, at least he could touch the letters of Tom Cameron’s name. Maybe they could make a rubbing as a remembrance. Gary began to talk more about Vietnam. He had to find a way to mark Doc’s sacrifice. But when they got to the traveling Wall, Tom’s name wasn’t on it. Maybe his middle name was Thomas, and his first name was something else. Nope. Was their spelling of Tom’s last name wrong? No, they had it right. He just wasn’t there. But how could this be? Doc had died in Vietnam, and Gary knew the date. He had written home after Doc disappeared and had confirmed the dates on his letters. They discussed the possibilities. Perhaps Tom’s name had been overlooked. Perhaps Doc had only been wounded and died at home. Did you have to die in Vietnam to have your name on the Wall? Or worse yet, maybe he was lying in a nursing home someplace, forgotten. Kathy took on her husband’s search. If Tom was bur-

ied in the States, she would find him. Together she and Gary would travel to his grave site. By then, Gary, too, was a Christian. He figured Tom would like that—Gary praying at his grave. They would find Doc’s parents and his wife and tell them what a brave man he had been, and what a good friend. If Doc was alive, well, they would find out what he needed. If they had to drive across the country, it would be worth it. Kathy began to write to everyone she could think of: her congressmen, the U.S. Army, the Society of the 1st Infantry Division. Every letter came back with no news of Doc. Kathy didn’t give up. She continued her search through the first decade of the new millennium. When the traveling Wall passed through town every few years, it reminded them both of their unfinished business. They made the trek to the real Wall in Washington, but Tom’s name wasn’t there either. In 2009 Kathy called her brother, Bill, and asked him to help her find out where Tom was buried and whether any of his family members were still alive. For Bill, the problem was simple. Although some names had been added to the Wall, either because of an initial oversight or because of a reclassification of a death, he thought that if Tom Cameron wasn’t on the Wall by 2010, he hadn’t died in Southeast Asia. Maybe he was alive, maybe he was dead, but he hadn’t died in Vietnam. Bill spent four hours surfing the internet. He tried the names Tom, Thomas and Tommy. He changed the spelling of Tom’s last name. He tried Cameran, Cameroon and everything else he could think of, without luck. He checked out the 1st Infantry Division websites. It wasn’t an easy search because Gary didn’t remember the names of anyone in Tom’s family or even where he was from. Bill finally set the search aside, but he flagged his calendar to remind him to look for Tom Cameron, a conscientious objector medic who had served in Vietnam with the 1st Infantry Division in 1967-68. Once a year, on New Year’s Day, Bill’s computer would remind him to spend an hour looking for Tom.


On New Year’s Day 2012, Bill called Kathy. “Happy New Year. I found him! I found Tom Cameron! He’s alive.” Kathy burst into tears. Bill had stumbled across an internet article about Vietnam veteran Tom Cameron who had participated in a motorcycle rally called The Run for the Wall. Each May, biker vets gathered in Rancho Cucamonga, California, for a 3,000-mile ride to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, timed so that they would arrive during the Rolling Thunder event in Washington on Memorial Day. Tom had even designed the patch for the back of some of the riders’ jackets. It read, “Home of the Free, Because of the Brave.” Before he passed the information on to Gary, Bill wanted to make sure that he had found the right Tom


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When Gary returned, Tom’s gear was gone, and so was Tom


Old friends Gary Obrist welcomes Tom Cameron to his home in Oregon in June 2014. Tom rode up from California on his motorcycle, below.

Cameron. Bill picked up the phone, and within a few minutes he had this Tom on the line. Yes, he had served in Vietnam in 1967-68 in the 1st Infantry Division. Yes, he had been a conscientious objector and a medic. But he had never been hit in the head. In the spring of 1968, Doc had been reassigned. Instead of humping through the jungle, he would spend the rest of his time in a large field hospital. Bill asked him whether he remembered a guy named Gary Obrist. He really didn’t remember. Tom’s memories of Vietnam were fuzzy, but he said he would dig out his photo albums and see whether he could find someone named Gary. He called Bill back a few hours later. His wife had kept all of his letters. Gary featured prominently in letters home for the several months that they lived together. Later, Tom told Gary that he was struck by how dumb he had been to be so open about combat. “I probably made my wife and my mom watch the driveway for the black government car every day! So weird to see this from my more mature years! On the other hand, it sure made them pray. Maybe that’s why I made it.” Gary and Tom spoke on the phone several times and tried to puzzle out what had happened. Perhaps another

medic had been hit. After all, every medic was called Doc. Maybe Gary had just misunderstood. Their memories were a little hazy; Vietnam was a long time ago. Gary and Kathy made plans to visit San Diego, where the vets could renew their friendship while the two wives began one. Several visits to each other’s homes have followed. In their first call, Gary finally delivered the message to Tom that had been on his mind for more than 40 years. “Man, I can’t believe how brave you were. Bravest man in the squad.” Tom replied, “I just had a job to do, and the guys were depending on me.” V

William Leslie is a writer and a consultant specializing in family-owned businesses. He lives in Sandy, Oregon. He is Kathy Obrist’s brother. DECEMBER 2016

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paper Johnson, Nixon and the fear of being the first president to lose a war


cGeorge Bundy, the president’s national security adviser, didn’t need to see the burnedout barracks in Pleiku to realize it was time to begin the systematic bombing of North Vietnam. Bundy was as tough-minded as any of the president’s men. It’s just that no one had seen him so emotional, so fired up. General William Westmoreland, who commanded American forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, said he thought Bundy, a civilian staff man, sounded like a field marshal as he barked instructions at U.S. military headquarters in Saigon. It was Feb. 7, 1965, just a few days into Bundy’s first trip to Vietnam. Since John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, “Mac” had been one of the three or four most important architects of U.S. policy in Vietnam, but he had never been “out there,” the quaint phrase American officials often used for that faraway land. President Lyndon B. Johnson thought it was high time for Mac to get out there and take a fresh, hard look—make sure it was really necessary to commence the daily bombing of the North that insiders had been seriously considering for the past year. So there was “Field Marshal” Bundy in a tense, early-morning meeting at the operations center of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, the organization in charge of U.S. combat forces. Alarming reports were coming in from Pleiku. Up on the red clay plateau of South Vietnam’s Central Highlands, the military had built an airstrip and barracks, Camp Holloway, for one of its aviation battalions, a unit that supplied helicopter transportation to South Vietnamese ground troops and their American advisers. A few hours earlier, at 2 a.m., Viet Cong commandos had cut through a double apron of barbed wire, slipped past inattentive South Vietnamese guards and blown up parked helicopters and light reconnaissance planes. At the same time, from a nearby hamlet, another VC squad launched a 50


by Christian G. Appy


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r tiger


Grim news National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy and General William Westmoreland, at right, are briefed by Lt. Col. John Hughes on Feb. 7, 1965, after an attack on U.S. forces at Pleiku. DECEMBER 2016

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A bad dream Johnson, shown here in the White House on July 17, 1965, had nightmares about losing Vietnam and being called a “coward” and “weakling.” 52

barrage of 81mm mortar shells at the barracks using ammo they had captured from the Americans. Nine Americans were killed. Most of the 137 wounded were evacuated to a field hospital in Nha Trang, where five surgeons worked around the clock to keep them alive. Twenty-two American aircraft were destroyed or badly damaged. The Viet Cong had few, if any, casualties. Back in Washington, Johnson convened a nighttime meeting of the National Security Council and two congressional leaders. Bundy was on the phone from Saigon recommending a retaliatory bombing strike against North Vietnam. Only Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, a Montana Democrat, spoke in opposition. Why escalate a war on behalf of an unpopular and unstable regime? Just a few days ago there had been yet another coup, bringing in the seventh regime since the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. The fact that the Viet Cong had pulled off the sneak attack at Camp Holloway suggested that they were getting lots of information and support from local villagers. And what if bombing North Vietnam prompted China to intervene? It could be worse than Korea. All good points, but no one sided with Mansfield. Even George Ball, an undersecretary of state who usually played the role of designated dissenter, challenged


Three of the president’s men From left, McGeorge Bundy, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and State Department official George Ball are ready to brief reporters after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s April 7, 1965, speech on Vietnam.


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can empire than by deep and persistent anxiety that its failures might tarnish all his achievements. The greatest failure Johnson could imagine would be to lose a country to communism, especially one he had pledged to protect. Johnson remembered the political blows Democrats had suffered when Mao Zedong’s revolutionary forces took control of China and drove Chiang Kai-shek off the mainland. Republicans holding President Harry S. Truman and the Democrats accountable kept banging the drum: “Who lost China?” By the early 1960s, one lesson that might have been drawn from the loss of China was that many valuable experts had been unjustly scapegoated and that now, more than ever, it was time to draw upon just such people to help formulate policies in Southeast Asia—time to listen to people who had lived in the region and understood its languages, history and culture. But Johnson and his advisers drew an entirely different lesson: Any sign of weakness in the Cold War struggle with communism would be politically fatal. Bundy did his best to reinforce the lesson. Most Almost a year earlier, on May 27, 1964, Johnson got Americans, he advised Johnson in 1964, believed we Bundy on the phone. The president sounded like a man could and should have done more to prevent the fall of China in 1949. Vietnam, he said, was ripe for a repeat. on the way to his own funeral: “That is exactly what would happen now if we should Looks like to me that we’re getting into another seem to be the first to quit in Saigon.” Notice Bundy’s hedging. He does not say that withKorea. It just worries the hell out of me. I don’t see what we can ever hope to get out of there with drawal from Vietnam would doom Johnson’s political fuonce we’re committed….I don’t think we can fight ture, only that he should not “seem to be the first to quit.” them 10,000 miles away from home and ever get The justice or effectiveness of the policy is secondary. On the plane home from Pleiku, Bundy completed the anywhere….I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out and it’s just the biggest draft of a 13-page memo. When he landed in Washington, damn mess that I ever saw….what in the hell am he went directly to the White House and delivered it to I ordering [those kids] out there for? What the hell the president at 11 p.m., the end of a 36-hour day. “The is Vietnam worth to me?....What is it worth to this situation in Vietnam is deteriorating and without new country?....It’s damned easy to get in a war, but it’s U.S. action defeat appears inevitable.” The South Vietgoing to be awfully hard to ever extricate yourself namese government displayed a “distressing absence of positive commitment to any serious social and political if you get in. purpose.” By contrast, the Viet Cong demonstrated an But then Johnson reversed himself, as he often did “energy and persistence” that was “astonishing….They when talking about Vietnam. “If you start running have accepted extraordinary losses and they come back for more.” from the Communists, they may just chase Excerpted from American The United States must act quickly and you right into your own kitchen.” At that Reckoning: The Vietnam do so with force. A negotiated withdrawal point, he could always count on Bundy—or War and Our National would only lead to “surrender on the installDefense Secretary Robert McNamara or Identity, by Christian G. ment plan,” Bundy said. Thus, as the next Secretary of State Dean Rusk or Walt RosAppy, published by Viking, step, the United States should begin the tow, who succeed Bundy as national secuan imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division continual bombing of North Vietnam. Bundy rity adviser—to jump in and agree, echoing of Penguin Random House called it “a policy of sustained reprisal”—a the reassurance the president wanted and LLC. Copyright 2015 classic example of the kind of icy, sterile, sometimes demanded. by Christian G. Appy. technocratic euphemism that characterWith domestic policy, Johnson had far ized so much of the language of American greater confidence. In the same years he war-making in Vietnam. “Sustained reprimade his tortured decisions to escalate the sal” suggested that the systematic bombing war, he presided with great assurance and of North Vietnam was merely a form of onsingle-mindedness over the greatest tidal going retaliation, as if the Vietnamese had wave of domestic legislation in U.S. history. always been, and would continue to be, the His vision of the Great Society at home hostile provocateur, despite the fact that the seemed almost limitless. United States initiated aggression against By contrast, Johnson’s foreign policy North Vietnam. was guided less by a grand vision of Ameri-


the senator. Ball’s only concern was that some citizens might ask why we were bombing North Vietnam when it was the Viet Cong in South Vietnam who initiated the attack on U.S. forces. Therefore, the public announcement should clearly state that North Vietnam was responsible for the attack at Pleiku. (There was no evidence to uphold the claim.) The president, of course, had the final word. “We have kept our gun over the mantel and our shells in the cupboard for a long time now,” he said, “and what was the result? They are killing our men while they sleep in the night. I can’t ask our American soldiers out there to continue to fight with one hand tied behind their backs.” Johnson ordered 132 carrier-based planes to bomb North Vietnamese military barracks. The Pentagon estimated that the attack would produce 4,500 Vietnamese casualties. Now Bundy was on board, and Johnson needed his advisers to assure him that his military escalations were absolutely necessary and unavoidable.


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Bundy advised the president to “execute our reprisal policy with as low a level of public noise as possible.” Johnson followed the advice. As the massive, daily bombing of North Vietnam began—Operation Rolling Thunder—the president told the media that it did not represent a change in U.S. policy. Johnson had as little hope as Bundy that the bombing would break the will of Ho Chi Minh and his followers. At best, Bundy believed it might be a “stimulant” that would “encourage” the South Vietnamese to build a “more effective government.” In other words, the United States was bombing the North to buck up the South. But, even more shocking, Bundy said the outcome of bombing didn’t matter: “What we can say is that even if it fails, the policy will be worth it. At a minimum it will damp down the charge that we did not do all that we could have done, and this charge will be important in many countries, including our own.” We hear the dead language of the accountant, offering a cost-benefit analysis of America’s reputation: “Measured against the cost of defeat in Vietnam, this program [war] seems cheap. Even if it fails to turn the tide—and it may—the value of the effort seems to us to exceed its 54

cost.” The unstated, but implicit, bottom line was this: Mr. President, you need to bomb to win the next election. Bombing failed on every count. Far from weakening the will of the North and the Viet Cong in the South, it deepened their resolve and incited others to join the antiAmerican cause. It did not “stimulate” the Saigon regime; it made the regime all the more dependent on the United States. It did not protect America’s reputation or that of the administration; it led to bitter opposition to the war at home and abroad. Even in the narrowest political terms, it was a colossal failure. Johnson’s war had made him so unpopular that, far from being re-elected in 1968, he—the master politician—dropped out of the presidential race before it even began in earnest. Why was Bundy so sure that the “cost” of bombing was “cheap” even if it failed? The best answer comes from some personal notes he made on March 21, 1965, in which he addresses his own reservations about the U.S. interest in Vietnam. “Is our interest economic?” he asks himself. “Is our interest military?” He does not even mention helping South Vietnam, but, as always, returns to what he regarded as the “cardinal” principle of U.S. policy: “Not to be a Paper Tiger. Not to have


A show of strength President Richard Nixon points out Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia as he announces on April 30, 1970, plans for an invasion of the country.


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it thought that when we commit ourselves we really mean no major risk.” “Which is better,” he asks himself, “to ‘lose��� now or to ‘lose’ after committing 100,000 men?” His “tentative answer” is that it would be better to lose after waging a significant war. Realities within Vietnam were never enough to justify our presence, even to those who supported the war. The justification was always linked to America’s global power and prestige and an ongoing effort to redeem perceived failures from other times and places: the failure to stand up to Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938, the failure to prevent the loss of China in 1949, the failure of France to crush Ho Chi Minh’s forces in 1954 and the failure to overthrow Fidel Castro in 1961. If we aren’t willing to spill blood in places like Vietnam, the Cold Warriors argued, Communist nations will judge us a paper tiger, a weak bluffer. And so they will become bolder, take greater risks, expand their power, encourage and support Communist revolution in more and more places, until eventually the United States might be faced not with a limited war in Southeast Asia but a far greater war, perhaps one that would challenge its very existence. One of the most popular, but mistaken, ideas about the Vietnam War is that American leaders were lured deeper and deeper into the Vietnam “quagmire” because they didn’t know what they were getting into or because they had a naive and arrogant faith in U.S. power and technology. The quagmire metaphor allowed Americans to believe their nation had fallen victim of a deadly foreign trap. Vietnam had called out for help, and Uncle Sam got sucked into the swamp. Our innocence was savaged by alien and hostile forces we could neither understand nor defeat. The historical record does not support that story. American war planners were not lured unwittingly into Vietnam; they moved in deliberately and without an invitation. The United States played the essential role in creating South Vietnam and blocking the democratic elections to reunify Vietnam in 1956. The Vietnam War grew out of years of unilateral and aggressive U.S. policymaking. When the first battalions of U.S. Marines arrived in March 1965, the new leader of South Vietnam, Phan Huy Quat, had not requested the troops; he had not even been consulted.

The key war managers expanded and prolonged the war with full knowledge that the prospects for success were, as Bundy put it, impossible to estimate “with any accuracy.” They eventually ordered 3 million American troops to fight in it. Many believed what they had been told—that they were there to save the South Vietnamese from Communist aggression and help them be free and independent. What would those soldiers have thought if they were privy to a classified memo written in March 1965 by Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton? While outlining the “course of action” in Vietnam, McNaughton includes a brief, haunting breakdown of American objectives in Vietnam: U.S. aims: 70 percent—To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor). 20 percent—To keep SV N (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands. 10 percent—To permit the people of SV N to enjoy a better, freer way of life. Here at the beginning of 1965, when there were still fewer than 30,000 American troops in Vietnam and fewer than 500 American fatalities, key officials believed the primary goal in Vietnam was to prevent a blow to America’s “reputation.” Withdrawal was unthinkable only because policymakers believed it would be an intolerable blow to America’s image, and their own. The few internal dissenters were easily dismissed. One reasonably high-ranking insider to recommend withdrawal was Undersecretary of State George Ball. His opportunity came in July 1965 when Johnson convened key figures to discuss a request by Westmoreland to raise the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam to 125,000 immediately, with another 75,000 by year’s end. “We cannot win, Mr. President,” Ball began. “This war will be long and protracted. The most we can hope for is a messy conclusion….The enemy cannot even be seen in Vietnam. He is indigenous to the country. I truly have serious doubt that an army of Westerners can successfully fight Orientals in an Asian jungle.” Ball suggested that the United States find a way to get Saigon—the allies—to demand a U.S. withdrawal. “But George,” the president responded, “wouldn’t all these countries say that Uncle Sam was a paper tiger, wouldn’t we lose credibility breaking the word of three presidents, if we did as you have proposed?” “No, sir,” Ball said. “The worse blow would be that the mightiest power on earth is unable to defeat a handful of guerrillas.” If others had rallied to Ball’s position it might have made a difference. But no one did. By 1966 McNaughton concluded that avoiding humiliation had moved from 70 percent of America’s goal in Vietnam to 100 percent. “The reasons why we went into Vietnam to the present depth are varied; but they are now largely academic. Why we have not withdrawn DECEMBER 2016

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Truck tractors are parked in an open field at Fort Bragg, Everything I knew about history told me that if I the got homeout base the 64th ofofVietnam…I’d be doing exactly what Transportation Company. [Neville] Chamberlain did in World War II [at

Munich]. I’d be giving a big fat reward to aggression. And I knew that…Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had lost their effectiveness from the day that the Communists took over in China. If we lost Vietnam… there would be Robert Kennedy out in front leading the fight against me, telling everyone that I had betrayed John Kennedy’s commitment to South Vietnam. That I had let a democracy fall into the hands of the Communists. That I was a coward. An unmanly man. A man without a spine. Oh, I could see it coming all right. Every night when I fell asleep I would see myself tied to the ground in the middle of a long, open space. In the distance, I could hear the voices of thousands of people. They were all shouting at me and running toward me: “Coward! Traitor! Weakling!” They began throwing stones. At exactly that moment I would generally wake up.


The term “credibility gap” emerged as a signature expression in the mid-1960s to describe the gulf between Johnson’s claim that U.S. escalation in Vietnam was limited and defensive and the growing evidence that it was massive, open-ended and aggressive. But public trust did not explode overnight. It took years to develop and widen. In Richard Nixon’s presidency, the credibility gap took on Grand Canyon–like proportions. Nixon was elected in 1968 with a vague pledge to bring an honorable end to the war. Instead, the nation got four more years of it. But Nixon understood that the American public would no longer tolerate the presence of 540,000 U.S. troops in South Vietnam and weekly death tolls in the hundreds. Early in his first term Nixon announced that he would gradually withdraw U.S. combat troops and turn over more and more of the fighting to the South Vietnamese—a program he called Vietnamization. But how could Nixon convince the American public he was winding down the war while also convincing the Communist leaders in Vietnam that he had every intention of preventing a takeover in South Vietnam? He knew it would take something more provocative than idle threats. Just two months into office, Nixon initiated the secret bombing of Cambodia, which, as it turned out, only intensified the Communists’ resolve. Though Nixon was determined to keep South Vietnam non-Communist, he talked more of peace than victory. In his famous 1969 speech calling upon “the great silent majority” to support his Vietnam policies, he included these lines: “Let us be united for peace. Let us also be united against de-


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is, by all odds, one reason: to preserve our reputation…. We have not hung on to save a friend, or to deny the Communists the added acres and heads.” To preserve an image of strength, Johnson systematically escalated the war. After leaving the presidency in 1969, he asked writer Doris Kearns Goodwin to help him with his memoirs. At Johnson’s ranch, Goodwin took Waiting to deploy notes while Johnson talked:


Flag-draped coffins Caskets with casualties from the Pleiku attack of Feb. 7, 1965, are ready for transport from Saigon to the United States.

feat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.” Then, on April 30, 1970, Nixon announced that the United States would invade Cambodia. Explaining his decision on TV, Nixon pointed to a map of Cambodia where red blobs along the border with South Vietnam indicated the presence of North Vietnamese “military sanctuaries.” For five years, Nixon claimed, the United States had not attacked those sanctuaries “because we did not wish to violate the territory of a neutral nation”—a blatant lie given Nixon’s heavy secret bombing of Cambodia and the many secret cross-border operations since the early 1960s. To protect U.S. forces, Nixon claimed, and to “guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamization programs,” it was necessary to “clean out” the sanctuaries. But there was something much greater at stake, Nixon continued, putting away the pointer. “It is not our power but our will and character that is being tested tonight.” If the United States did nothing about the Communist sanctuaries but to offer “plaintive diplomatic protests,” then “the credibility of the United States would be destroyed,” he said. In his most hyperbolic passage, Nixon claimed that the war in Cambodia was a test of civilization itself and necessary to prevent a final descent into chaos or dictatorship: My fellow Americans, we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home. We see mindless attacks on all the great institutions which have been created by free civilizations in the last 500 years.

If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world. “Pitiful, helpless giant.” The fear of impotence and loss was as primal with Nixon as it was with Johnson To bolster his confidence in the days just before and after the invasion of Cambodia, Nixon repeatedly watched Patton, the 1970 blockbuster in which George C. Scott plays the famous World War II commander. It begins with the swaggering General George Patton exhorting his troops in front of a gigantic American flag. Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung. Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle…. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser….That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. Because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans. Never lose a war, never lose a war—that injunction hounded Johnson and Nixon like a relentless, recurring nightmare. It had come down to that. V

Christian G. Appy is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of two other Vietnam War books, including Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides.



Flag-draped general Before Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia, he watched George C. Scott portray General George Patton saying that Americans “will never lose a war.”


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Lowering the Standards to Fill the Ranks McNamara’s Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War plus the Induction of Unfit Men, Criminals, and Misfits by Hamilton Gregory, Infinity Publishing, 2015 Books and articles about the Vietnam War tend to focus on “the best and brightest,” whether to praise them for superior performance or to criticize them for failures in judgment and not measuring up to their promise. Author and Vietnam veteran Hamilton Gregory, however, examines servicemen at the opposite end of the ability and intelligence spectrum—the men inducted under the Pentagon’s “Project 100,000,” which began in October 1966. 58

The project extended eligibility for enlistment and the draft to previously ineligible low-IQ men—those in the bottom tiers of the Armed Forces Qualification Test—and to some men who earlier would have been deemed medically unfit. The continuing program was planned to bring in 100,000 men each year. The brainchild of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, and thus inevitably called “McNamara’s 100,000,” the project was a way to meet the manpower demands of an escalating war. Unwilling to fill the ranks through politically risky policies such as drafting college students or deploying large numbers of National Guard and Reserve personnel to Vietnam, the Johnson administration turned to the pool of men the president privately termed “secondclass fellows.” The book also addresses a separate but related issue: lower standards that led to recruiting or drafting men with criminal records, medical defects, social maladjustments and psychiatric disorders. By the time McNamara’s project ended in December 1971, 354,000 formerly ineligible men had been inducted into the Army (which had 71 percent of the total), Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force. Overwhelmingly, they were sent to Vietnam. Of course, terms like “substan-


Demand and supply Defense Secretary Robert McNamara meets with Maj. Gen. John Norton on a visit to Vietnam in October 1966, when the expanding war required more troops.

dard” or “mentally unfit” were never used by the Johnson administration to describe McNamara’s 100,000, officially referred to as “New Standards Men.” The program was part of the Great Society/War on Poverty initiatives to provide education, training and opportunity to a disadvantaged class of American society. In fairness, as Gregory acknowledges, the idea for Project 100,000 was proposed as a social betterment program in 1964, two years before the war’s manpower crunch. But opposition by senior military leaders and Congress prevented implementation until that resistance was overcome by the growing need to fill the burgeoning ranks in 1966. Gregory, instead of merely launching into a dry account propelled by a blizzard of numbers and statistics, uses the first 80 pages of the book to clearly demonstrate the profound unfitness for military service of many of McNamara’s 100,000 by describing his personal experience with some of them during Army basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1967. Pressure from higher headquarters to ensure the New Standards Men graduated from basic training (making them qualified to serve in Vietnam) caused training company cadres to frequently manipulate and subvert the standards so that woefully unfit Project 100,000 men “passed” basic training. But Gregory writes of the unfit men with compassion and understanding. He agrees with a claim that the worst abuses the policy inflicted on the least intelligent of these men constituted “a crime against the mentally disabled.” Gregory reveals the disproportionate price paid by the New Standard Men for Johnson and McNamara’s disastrous policy: “A total of 5,478 low-IQ men died while in the service, most of them in combat. Their fatality rate was three times as high as that of other GIs. An estimated 20,270 were wounded, and some were permanently disabled (including an estimated 500 amputees).” How many of their comrades the “McNamara’s Folly” men caused to be killed or wounded is not known. —Jerry D. Morelock


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North-South discord over war and peace—particularly on decisions about going to war and war strategy—has been with us since the country’s founding. Even before things boiled over in 1861, Southerners and Northerners frequently held sharply opposing views on the subject. Based largely on economic issues and social concerns (primarily slavery before 1861 and civil rights after the Civil War), leaders of what would become the 11 Confederate states, generally, wanted to declare war on England in 1812, on Mexico in 1846 and on Spain in 1898—times when pro-war sentiment in the North was tepid. The South strongly supported Woodrow Wilson’s decision to take the United States into World War I in 1917 while substantial isolationist sentiment prevailed elsewhere. (After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the country was all but united in a declaration of war.) The United States has had “a long history of responding to U.S. foreign relations from a distinctly regional perspective,” historian Joseph Fry says in The American South and the Vietnam

South Carolina. That reflects “the region’s military tradition, prowar proclivities, devotion to honor and demonstrative patriotism,” Fry says. Southerners also were generally hawkish because of evangelical Christianity’s antipathy to “godless communism” and “an insular suspicion of outsiders.” Fry takes note of Southern “dissenters” during the war, including Sens. William Fulbright of Arkansas, Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee and John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, along with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Those leaders and their Southern followers “helped make dissent respectable while formulating and propounding powerful antiwar arguments that filtered down over time” to a growing minority of the American public, including Southerners. The student antiwar movement, Fry notes, was weakest in the South. Protests “began later, were less numerous, and attracted fewer participants than those in other regions.” Antiwar students, “were a distinct minority on all American campuses, but their status was even more pronounced in the South” where they faced “active hostility” from Southern political leaders, college administrators, the press and their communities. Fry provides much food for thought about the nation’s past—and present—North-South divisions. —Marc Leepson Protests against protesters At the University of South Carolina in Columbia, supporters of President Richard Nixon’s war policies march through an antiwar protest on Oct. 16, 1969.


The American South and the Vietnam War: Belligerence, Protest, and Agony in Dixie by Joseph A. Fry. University Press of Kentucky, 2015

War. Fry has produced a deeply researched, well-written and generally persuasive book that puts the South’s role in Vietnam War policymaking under an illuminating microscope. Throughout the conflict the “South remained the region most supportive of the war, least inclined to believe that intervention in Vietnam had been a mistake and most convinced that the war had been winnable,” writes Fry, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada, and the author of Debating Vietnam: Fulbright, Stennis, and Their Senate Hearings Powerful Southern Democrats led by Sens. Richard Russell of Georgia, John Stennis of Mississippi, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Harry Byrd of Virginia and John Tower of Texas, along with Reps. L. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina and George Mahon of Texas, used seniority and committee chairmanships to “shepherd essential [war] funding bills through Congress,” Fry states. Additionally, Southern congressmen “relentlessly” pushed “for more aggressive prosecution of the conflict and helped prolong the war,” Fry writes. He notes that Southerners also served (and died) “in disproportionate numbers” in Vietnam. The military was replete with Southern soldiers and leaders, including top commander General William Westmoreland of


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It has been over 50 years since the 173rd Airborne and the US Marines began combat operations in Vietnam. Return with us to historic battlefields, villages and famous cities where you spent part of your youth. Bring your family, your friends and buddies. Consider a reunion in Vietnam! We have a variety of tour programs to suit your interests. Check them out on our website today!

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First experience with the antiwar movement: In Massapequa I saw the polarization [after his first tour]. Resistance to the war offended me. Here we are, risking our lives the way our fathers did in World War II, and these people are saying that we’re in the wrong. It made me so mad that I wanted to go back to Vietnam. I volunteered 11 times before they finally let me go. And I was wounded, which sent me into some dark places. I received the last rites. I wrote Born on the Fourth of July as my last will and testament. The goal of his writings: I have tried in my books to show that combat doesn’t happen the way John Wayne movies or Rambo movies portray it. My uncles had been Marines in the Second World War and Korea. When I was 9 or 10, I was reading the Marine Corps manual. I remember being on my first tour of duty. We were in a Huey over Chu Lai, heading into the landing zone, and I was humming the Marines’ Hymn.

Ron Kovic, born July 4, 1946, in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, joined the Marines in September 1964, after high school in Massapequa, New York. He

served a tour in Vietnam, returned home and volunteered to go back. On Jan. 20, 1968, a bullet smashed his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the chest down. Kovic became a vocal war protester and advocate for veterans. His memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, published in 1976, became a New York Times bestseller. The book was made into a 1989 movie starring Tom Cruise. Kovic and director Oliver Stone won a Golden Globe Award for best screenplay and were nominated for an Oscar. A second book, Hurricane Street, published this year, covers a 1974 hunger strike that Kovic and other veterans staged to protest poor care at veterans’ hospitals. Early influences: I always liked history, and I could tell a story, but otherwise I wasn’t much of a student. After I came home from the war, I enrolled at Hofstra University. I was ready to study. My first experience with political activism was a group on campus called PUSH, which organized to support people with physical challenges. 64

Type of war he could support: I went to jail 11 times protesting the Vietnam War, and I opposed the Iraq and Afghan wars. It’s very difficult for me to conceive of a war that I’d support. We are too quick to drop bombs, to pull triggers, to jump into conflicts. I am living with the emotional and physical consequences of combat that result from those kinds of decisions. I am proud to have served my country, but I’m equally proud to have been committed to peace and nonviolence. Would he have turned against the war if he had not been severely wounded: I think I would have. My Catholic moral upbringing would have caught up with me. But I wouldn’t have been a leader or had the same passion. I always respected my fellow soldiers, and I hoped that they would understand. Advice to young severely wounded veterans: Never, ever give up. You have to fight this thing through, in case a day comes when you can say to yourself, Thank goodness I didn’t give in. I was wounded on Jan. 20, 1968. That was a really difficult date for me—until 1990. On Jan. 20, 1990, I accepted a Golden Globe for best screenplay for the script to Born on the Fourth of July. I keep that Golden Globe by my fireplace to remind myself that a day of dread eventually turned into a day of triumph. —Interview by Michael Dolanw



How Marine friends reacted to his antiwar activities: I wasn’t in touch with my buddies from Vietnam. In Massapequa a friend who was a holder of the Silver Star was very upset with me for speaking out at the Republican convention in August 1972. Neighbors of my parents told their children to keep away from me. People called me a Communist, a traitor.


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Show Them What It Was Really Like Videos For Vietnam Veterans SCENES FROM IN-COUNTRY BASES:

• Dong Ha Base & Airfield 1966-68, 50 min. • Assault on Long Binh Tet 1969, 60 min. • Takhli AB 1964-1970, 110 min. • Bien Hoa AB 1964-69, 80 min. Some DVDs • Tuy Hoa AB 1966-1968, 75 min. are narrated, • Phan Rang AB 1965-70, 60 min. some are not. • Cu Chi 1967-70, 50 min. • Phu Bai 1968-71, 60 min. Most are in color, • Tan Son Nhut AB 1965-1968, 60 min. some are in • Tet Attack on Tan Son Nhut AB, 60 min. black and white. • An Khe, 1965-67, 75 min. • Long Binh 1967-72, 60 min. Each one is different! • Chu Lai AB 1965-68, 75 min. Call or visit the • Camp Eagle 1971, 35 min. website for details. • Phu Cat AB 1966-68, 70 min. • Cam Ranh Bay AB 1966-68, 70 min. • Dong Tam Base 1967-1969, 45 min. • Nakhon Phanom AB 1966-70, 60 min. NSA Da Nang, Camp Tien Sha 1966-71, 60 min.

Hard To Find Video Titles!

• Marine Tankers Vietnam: M-43A3 and M-50A1 Ontos, 60 min. • Road Warriors: Truckers Vietnam, 60 min. • American POWs in Vietnam, 60 min. • USMC Camp Reasoner, Hill 510, 3rd MAF, 45 min. • Da Nang Outer Limits: Dog Patch, Danang 500, 60 min. • 1st Air Cav. Div. Battle For Ia Drang Valley, 70 min. • 25th Inf. Div. Search & Destroy Missions, 45 min. • 4th Infantry Division Search & Destroy Missions, 45 min. • 11th Armored Cavalry, Black Horse Regiment, 80 min. • Army Engineers In Vietnam: Construction & Combat, 110 min. • Operation Pegasus: Khe Sanh Rescue 1968, 45 min. • Andersen AFB, Guam 1965-75, 70 min. • 9th Inf. Division Search & Destroy Missions, 50 min. • 11th Light Infantry Brigade Vietnam, 60 min. • Combat Trackers & Their Dogs 45 min. • Combat Infantry Soldier: Life In Field, 60 min. • Dogs of the Vietnam War: Scout, Sentry, Patrol, 100 min. • 23rd Infantry Div. “Americal” In Vietnam, 80 min. • NVA Easter Offensive Of 1972, 60 min. • Special Forces With Montagnard Training, 100 min. • Special Forces in Vietnam: Early Years, 60 min.

Navy In Vietnam

• Small Boat Warfare With PBRs, 90 minutes • USS Oriskany Fire Off Vietnam 1966, 60 min. • USS Oriskany Off Coast of Vietnam, 40 min. • USS Forrestal 1967 Fire Off Vietnam, 70 min. • USS Forrestal (CV-59) 1950s-60s, 90 min. • USS Enterprise Fire Off Hawaii, 1969, 45 min. • USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) 1960-70, 90 min. • USS America (CVA-66) 1965-68, 60 min. • USS Midway (CVA-41) 1945-70, 60 min. • USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) 1961-79, 75 min. • USS Constellation (CVA-64) 1964-70, 45 min. • USS Independence (CVA-62) 1960s, 90 min. • USS Princeton (CV-37) 1950s-60s, 80 min. • USS Shangri-La (CV-38) 1944-1968, 45 min. • USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) 1965-70, 50 min. • USS Intrepid (CV-11) Off Vietnam, 60 min. • USS Yorktown (CV-10) Vietnam, 45 min. • USS Bon Homme Richard 1950s-60s, 45 min. • USS Franklin D. Roosevelt 1960s, 85 min. • USS Repose & Corpsmen, 60 min. • USS Ticonderoga, 60 min. • Coast Guard in Vietnam, 60 min. • LST Operations in Vietnam, 40 min.

• 101st Airborne Div: Search/Destroy Missions, 50 min. • 173rd Airborne Div: Search/Destroy Missions, 55 min. • Bangkok, Thailand R&R In The 1960s, 50 min. • National Route 9, A Journey along Route 9 near the DMZ., 60 min. • “Rocket City”: Attacks On Da Nang AB, 70 min. • 1st Aviation Brigade In Vietnam with Delta Devils, Innkeepers, 60 min. • Op. Pershing, 1st Air Cav., May 1967, 60 min. • Destroyers In Vietnam with Firing Guns, Engine Room, Sonar, 65 min. • 3rd Brigade 82nd Airborne Vietnam in Combat, 60 min. • 5th Special Forces Group Vietnam, 55 min. Marines In Vietnam • African Americans In Vietnam Plus Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr., 60 min. • Marines 1965/ Ops Starlite/Harvest Moon, 90 min. • Op. MacArthur, 4th Inf. Div. in the Battle Of Dak To 1967, 60 min. • Marines 1966, Ops Macon/Hastings/Prairie, 70 min. • 1st Air Cavalry, 1965-1967: Fort Benning to An Khe to Combat, 60 min. • Marines 1967 with Op Independence, 90 min. • Southern Man: The Road To Vietnam Training at Forts Jackson, • Marines 1968, Op. Baxter Gardens, 80 min. Campbell, & Gordon in the 1960s, 70 min. • San Diego Boot Camp ‘69 & 73, 45 min. • Parris Island Boot Camp 1960s, 45 min. Sammy Davis Jr. • Marine Staging Battalion, Camp Pendleton, 30 min. • Khe Sanh Base with 1st Marines, 45 min. Tour of Vietnam • Con Thien & Op. Buffalo, 60 min. • Battle for Hue City, 45 min. Were you at Long Binh, • Marine Aviation: 1st MAW, 90 min. Can Tho, FS Base or • Siege Khe Sanh & USAF, 45 min.

Aboard USS Hancock when he toured in 1972? See it all again in the original documentary plus outtakes and photos! This DVD brings back the film that never saw wide release and faded into obscurity plus you’ll experience a behind-the-scenes perspective from a combat cameraman who accompanied Sammy from Los Angeles to Vietnam to Hawaii. 60 Min. Color.

Air Force In Vietnam

• F-4 Phantom In Combat, 60 min. • B-57 Canberra at Phan Rang, Bien Hoa, Danang, 60 min. • C-130 Operations In Vietnam, 81 min. • C-7 Caribou In Vietnam, 70 min. • Jolly & Super Jolly Green Giants, 85 min. • Tactical Air Recon With RF-4, RF-101, 90 min.

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• Camp Evans & Op. Delaware 1968, 60 min. • Nha Trang/Camp McDermott 1965-69, 60 min. • U-Tapao, Thailand 1967-72, 60 min. • Korat AB, Thailand 1965-1970, 70 min. • Camp Carroll & Rock Pile 1967-1970, 30 min.• Binh Thuy Naval Base 1968-69, 50 min. • Lai Khe, Di An & Phu Loi 1966-1970, 80 min. • Da Nang AB/USMC 1965-1970, 100 min. • Camp Enari (Dragon Mtn) 1968-1969, 30 min. • Ubon & Udorn, Thailand 1966-69, 60 min. • Dau Tieng Base & Airfield 1965-70, 45 min.

Newer Releases

• 101st Airborne A Shau Valley 1969-71, 60 min. • 101st Airborne Div. In Vietnam, 90 min. A r m y • 5th Infantry Div. Vietnam 1968-70, 45 min. • 1st Inf. Div: Vietnam & Germany, 102 min. In • 196th Light Infantry Brigade, 52 min. Vietnam • 198th Light Infantry Brigade, 60 min. • 173rd Airborne Battle for Dak To, 50 min. • Military Police (MPs) Vietnam, 70 min. • 9th Infantry Division In Vietnam, 60 min. • Huey UH-1: Training to Vietnam, 115 min. • Army Helicopter Units Vietnam, 90 min. • 1st Infantry Div. Search/Destroy Missions, 60 min. • 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam, 60 min. • Army Artillerymen in Vietnam: Fire Support & FBS, 80 min. • Army Basic at Fort Ord & Advanced Training 1960s, 90 minutes • 199th Light Infantry Brigade 1967-70, 60 min. Questions? Call Us Because All Sales Are Final

First DVD $29.95 Additional DVDs In The Same Order Are $19.95 ea. FREE SHIPPING USA

• C-47, EC-47 & AC-47 Vietnam, 80 min. • Close Air Support & Forward Air Controllers, 100 min. Call • F-105 Wild Weasel at Korat AB 1966, 20 min. • F-105 Thunderchief In Combat, 75 min. • AC-119 Gunships: Shadows, Stingers, 100 min. • B-52 at Utapao Airbase, 70 min.

$15 International

1-760-765-1283 With Credit Card Send Check/MO To:

Traditions Military Videos Dept V PO Box 656 Julian CA 92036

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Vietnam December 2016