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The Women Who Fought for Hanoi
Thirty-six years after she last took aim with her AK-47 assault rifle, Ngo Thi Thuong’s phone rang.
Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, who had led the North Vietnamese military during the Vietnam War, was looking for the woman who had shot down an American bomber in June 1968. In the nearly four decades that had passed, she had worked many jobs and raised three children. Few people outside her family had heard her wartime stories.
Heroines and striking female figures are not new in Vietnam — they have played an integral role in Vietnamese history for millenniums. In the 1st century A.D., the Trung sisters, often called Vietnam’s earliest national patriots, led a three-year rebellion against the Chinese Han dynasty, which ruled their country. The female legacy persists in the modern era in all of Vietnam’s recent conflicts, women have been crucial. They fought alongside men and carried heavy loads down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Yet as the historian Karen G. Turner notes in her book “Even the Women Must Fight,” “Women warriors, so essential to Vietnam’s long history and so important in the most photographed war in history, have remained invisible.”
The following are stories from women who were all soldiers for the North Vietnamese Army in the war against the United States. Most were young when they joined — teenagers, barely out of school or too poor to attend in the first place. Some had seen war already, yet still had no idea what they would find this time around. For a few, motherhood came before they fought, while for others, it was not until after they returned home.
Their experiences shaped the rest of their lives and those of their children — those children they cared for and raised to become the next generation of Vietnamese, who were to define the nation in its postwar years. It is through the stories of these women that it is possible to catch a glimpse into how a nation torn by conflict for decades has rebuilt itself, a glimpse into the memories of those who have worked to nurture this nation — and themselves — to try to become whole again.
Le Thi My Le
I was born in 1946, about 150 kilometers from Hue by the Nhat Le River. That’s why I am named My Le. It means “Beautiful.”
In July 1965, I heard the appeal from the government, saying that because the war was so fierce they needed volunteers to help. I really wanted to become a youth volunteer, but I was still too young. But because they needed people, they took me anyway.
We had about 200 people in the youth brigade, about two-thirds of them women. I was in charge of a unit with 10 people. I was the only woman. In 1968 during the cease-fire, I got married. Then I went back to fighting in the war.
I had my first child in 1971. Having a child during the war was hard — my feelings changed after I had my daughter. I wasn’t scared before I was a mother, but after I had my daughter, I was. I was afraid of death. I had two more children, one boy in 1973 and another in 1975. When I had my youngest, I said to my husband, “The war is finished now, honey, so you’re not going to die,” and I named my son “Great Victory.” But because my husband was a professional soldier, he stayed at Con Co Island even after the war, living far away until he retired in 1988.
Raising my children myself was so hard, I cannot even say it. You know, it was very dangerous when I was fighting in the war. You could die anytime. But raising my kids alone was much harder. Sometimes, I would just sit by myself and cry.
I still dream about the war sometimes. I dream about when a bomb is about to explode, and I shout to my unit to lie down. I have seen so many things, saw eight out of 10 people in my unit become wounded or die at once. War is cruel. Cruel. When you have a war, people and families are divided — between husband and wife, parent and child. Now my wish is that there is no war in the world, that we can help each other lead our lives instead of fighting. That is my message. I want peace.
Nguyen Thi Hoa
The war was tough — especially because of how cruel the American soldiers were. For example, once they came to the village and saw a pregnant woman who they thought was somehow having a relationship with a Vietnamese Communist. So they poured detergent and hot chili water into her mouth, and stood on her belly until they forced the baby out.
At that time, I was only 15. I knew that the war had nothing to do with that woman and her baby. When I heard stories and witnessed the cruelty of the American soldiers, I felt great hatred toward the enemy. Because I was single and only 15 I thought, “If I sacrifice myself, if I die, that would be easier than if I were married and had children.” So I joined the war.
One woman’s sacrifice is nothing — only like a grain of sand. But many women, many grains, can contribute a lot, and those contributions can help the country. According to traditional Vietnamese culture, the woman is dependent on three things. First, she is dependent on her father. Then when she gets married, she is dependent on her husband’s family. Whatever they say, she has to follow, even though sometimes she gets mistreated and is beaten. If her husband dies, then she has to follow her sons. As a woman, she is totally dependent on others.
When I was young, I knew we had to figure out how to escape from this oppression. And the only way to do it was to follow the revolution. The war did change the position of women in society. After the war ended in 1975, the country tried to set a new standard for women. We called this the Woman of the New Life they are faithful to the family, but they also have a chance to study and to be successful. Now, we can contribute to building society and also take care of raising our children. The war made me a better mother, taught me a new way to raise my children — as a liberated woman.
Ngo Thi Thuong
I worked as a militant for the North, which was very important work. We had to bring rice, weapons and ammunition to the soldiers in the South. One day, in June 1968, when we were transporting goods, three U.S. airplanes discovered us and began to shoot at us. So we took our guns and fired back. When I shot the first time, I didn’t hit the plane. So I lay down and placed the rifle against a tree and aimed. When I shot the second time, I shot right at the gas tank, and the whole airplane exploded, and crashed into the next hill.
Then I saw something falling from the sky — I thought it was a bomb, but actually, it was the pilot parachuting down. So I ran, followed the parachute. When the pilot landed, he had already untied one side of his parachute, but I came and put my gun right to the guy’s neck, and said, “Stay still.” He raised his hands, and I told my friends that they should cut up the parachute rope, so we had something to tie him with.
Thirty-six years later, a man from a government office called. He asked, “What did you do during the war, did you achieve anything?” After I told him the story, he told me that General Giap had been looking for me for 36 years. When I met with him, General Giap asked me, “Why are you so good?” and I said, “It’s probably also luck, but I just followed the words I was taught.”
Of course no one wants war. The life of the human being is sacred. You don’t want the war, you don’t want to fight, but when the enemy comes you have no choice. We had to protect our country, had to protect the life of our people.
Hoang Thi No
I was born in 1949 in the countryside outside Hue, where I lived with my parents. I joined the war when I was about 15 years old. At that age, I could understand, could see that the Americans had come and were trying to control and take my country. At that moment every woman and man joined the war, and I wanted to as well.
When I joined the war, I joined the group that gathered information. We would go around and see what the Americans were doing, and then we would send that information to the leader. A bit later, I joined the group that rounded up other women to join the war. At the time, all the women and I were very young, and we didn’t know really about the war and its plan. We just had to believe in the government, that everything would be O.K. If we had any problems, even though we didn’t really know the grand plan or the next step, we were always happy to be fighting for our country. We were ready to die.
There were many difficulties. Everyone was very poor, but everyone loved each other and tried to trust each other. Now, we have freedom, maybe life is easier, but money controls many things. So when I talk to my daughters about the war, I tell them how to love and trust other people. I tell them how people followed the laws, the rules of the government.
Nguyen Thi Hiep
I grew up in Hue. My parents passed away when I was 3 years old, and I had to live with my grandparents. At that time, my family was a rural family and we were very poor, so when my parents got sick they couldn’t get medicine.
In 1946, when the war with France began, I was living in the small village. Many in the village wanted to fight in the war, and so I joined, too. I was 14. I didn’t go to school, but when I joined the war, in the evening they taught me. You see, that time in Vietnam was very difficult because France was there, and Vietnam’s government was terrible, and the people were very poor. Many people had lost their children, and I had lost my parents when I was 3, so I wanted to join the war.
During the French war, I made mines and planted them. After that, I worked to organize other women to join the war, too. The women had anger, had pride, had their health, and so they wanted to join with the soldiers to fight.
When I was 19, I got married and had my son. And when I was 20 — my son was just 6 months old — my husband died. When my son was 15, he joined in the American war with me. One day, the soldiers were taking their guns to go out to Hue, and the American soldiers surrounded my son and shot him. I lost my son. And my husband was dead, too. Everything that I loved was gone.
Many people who fought in the war, maybe they could never forgive America. But when I joined the war, I knew everything had two sides. And the sides had the same hurt together. In Vietnam, maybe we lost our country, lost our family, had a lot of people die — but in America it is the same. All the soldiers are the sons of parents, and they lost their children, too. It is all the same, the same hurt.
This series is part of A Woman’s War, a project that documents the stories of women who have served in recent conflicts. The interviews were conducted in Hue, Vietnam, in July 2010 through a translator and have been edited for clarity.
The Hard Truth About Fragging
(National Archives Image)
“In all the lexicon of war there is not a more tragic word than ‘fragging’ with all that it implies of total failure….”
— Charles Mathias (R-Md.), April 1971.
On the evening of October 22, 1970, Company L of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment was engaged in anti-infiltration operations in the “Rocket Belt,” an area of more than 500 square kilometers ringing the Da Nang Airbase. The company was set up in bunkers at an outpost on Hill 190, to the west of Da Nang. Assigned to guard duty that night, Private Gary A. Hendricks settled into his position on the perimeter and made himself comfortable. Too comfortable, it turned out. A bit later, when Sergeant Richard L. Tate, the sergeant of the guard, discovered Hendricks sleeping on post, he gave the private a tongue lashing, but took no further action. Shortly after midnight the next day, Hendricks tossed a fragmentation grenade into the air vent of Sergeant Tate’s bunker. The grenade landed on Tate’s stomach and the subsequent blast blew his legs off, killing the father of three from Asheville, North Carolina, who had only three weeks left on his tour of duty. The explosion injured two other sergeants who were in the bunker.
Hendricks was charged with murder. He confessed and was convicted by general court-martial. His death sentence was reduced to life in prison.
The manner in which Hendricks murdered Tate, using a fragmentation grenade in the dark of night, will be forever linked to Vietnam as an iconic symbolization of an unpopular war gone horribly awry. Ironically, perhaps the first use of the word “fragging” in a prominent newspaper appeared in a January 1971 Washington Post opinion piece about troop withdrawals and the winding down of the war by columnist Chalmers Roberts. “U.S. forces, now knowing they are on the way out but not knowing just when, have developed an enclave mentality and a philosophy of ‘Why take the risks in a war that’s winding down?’ Recent reports from Vietnam talk of demoralization and of draftees ‘fragging’ gung-ho officers that is tossing hand grenades at them to put a stop to aggressiveness.”
In 1970, in addition to Tate’s murder, the U.S. Army reported 209 cases of fragging.
Although grenades in various forms have been used in warfare for more than 1,000 years, modern-style small-percussion hand grenades were first employed on a large scale by European armies at the beginning of the 20th century. While the term “fragging” may have been coined during the Vietnam War, there were reported instances of American soldiers assaulting their superiors using grenades in World War I, World War II and the Korean War, although the number of occurrences were miniscule when compared to the Vietnam War.
The practice in Vietnam was named after the weapon of choice: the M26, M61 or M67 fragmentation hand grenade, standard issue to U.S. forces. Aside from the effectiveness of these weapons to kill and maim, unlike rifles and pistols, grenades were not assigned to individuals by serial number. Once exploded, they leave no traceable ballistic evidence that may be used to identify a perpetrator.
In America’s earlier 20th-century wars, fraggings and homicides by other means typically occurred during combat situations when officers who were deemed incompetent, overly aggressive or otherwise considered a danger, would be killed by enlisted men under their command. Fragging of this sort also occurred in Vietnam.
Journalist Eugene Linden, in a 1972 Saturday Review article, described the practice of “bounty hunting” whereby enlisted men pooled their money to be paid out to a soldier who killed an officer or sergeant they considered dangerous. One well-known example of bounty hunting came out of the infamous Battle of Dong Ap Bai, aka Hamburger Hill, in May 1969. After suffering more than 400 casualties over 10 merciless days of attacks to take the hill, the 101st Airborne Division soldiers were ordered to withdraw about a week later. Shortly thereafter, the army underground newspaper in Vietnam, GI Says, reportedly offered a $10,000 bounty on the very aggressive officer who led the attacks, Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt. Several unsuccessful attempts were reported to have been made on the colonel’s life. After Hamburger Hill, an Army major was quoted as saying another hard-fought, high-casualty infantry assault like Hamburger Hill, “is definitely out.”
Not Wanting to be the Last Soldier to Die in a War That Would Not be Won
There are no official Pentagon fragging statistics before 1969, the year U.S. troop strength in Vietnam both hit its peak and significant combat troop pullouts began. When it became widely evident that the United States was no longer pursuing a military victory in Vietnam, many soldiers became less aggressive, not wanting to be the last to die in a war that would not be won. With this heightened sense of fruitlessness, fragging and the threat of fragging were seen by many enlisted men as the most effective way to discourage their superiors from showing enthusiasm for combat.
Marine Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr., in his seminal article “The Collapse of the Armed Forces” published in the June 1971 Armed Forces Journal, claimed the morale, discipline and battle worthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces in Vietnam were probably worse during this period than at any time in the 20th century—possibly in the history of the United States. An unnamed officer was quoted in a January 1971 Newsweek article as saying, “Vietnam has become a poison in the veins of the U.S. Army.”
While the Pentagon showed great reluctance to publicly discuss the problem, fragging entered the political arena when, in April 1971, Democratic leader Mike Mansfield of Montana emotionally spoke to the issue on the floor of the Senate. Mansfield related details of the death of 1st Lt. Thomas A. Dellwo, of Choteau, Mont. “He was not a victim of combat. He was not a casualty of a helicopter crash or a jeep accident. In the early morning hours of March 15, the first lieutenant from Montana was ‘fragged’ to death as he lay sleeping in his billet at Bien Hoa. He was murdered by a fellow serviceman, an American GI. ‘Fragging’ so I have been advised by the Secretary of the Army, refers to the use of a fragmentation grenade in other than a combat situation by one person against another to kill or do bodily harm.” The death of Dellwo, a 24-year-old West Point graduate who wanted to be a career soldier, was especially senseless as he was not even the intended victim.
Mansfield asked what failure of order and discipline within the armed forces produced an atmosphere that resulted in 209 cases of fragging in 1970. Answering his own question, the longtime critic of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, proclaimed that fragging was yet “another outgrowth of this mistaken and tragic conflict.” Responding in the Senate chamber, Republican Charles Mathias of Maryland noted Mansfield had made history because for the first time “he has surfaced the word ‘fragging’ on the Senate floor. In every war a new vocabulary springs up. In all the lexicon of war there is not a more tragic word than ‘fragging’ with all that it implies of total failure of discipline and the depression of morale, the complete sense of frustration and confusion, and the loss of goals and hope itself.”
Mathias vowed, “To see this evil, and all the other evils that blight the spirit of man that have sprung from the miasmic swamps and bogs of Vietnam, be terminated with an end to this tragic war.”
Despite more troop withdrawals, the number of fraggings grew, and more were taking place in secure rear areas. Of the 209 fraggings in 1970, 34 resulted in deaths. This was more than double the 96 incidents reported in 1969, which killed 37 officers.
In the first 11 months of 1971, some 215 incidents resulted in 12 more deaths. As of July 1972, when the last American soldiers were leaving Vietnam, there had been 551 reported fragging incidents, killing 86 and injuring more than 700.
The Defense Department’s fragging figures only included the incidents that involved explosive devices. Given the greater availability of firearms, the total number of assaults on commanders by enlisted men likely reached into the thousands, according to David Cortright in his 1975 book Soldiers in Revolt. Furthermore, military lawyers estimated that only about 10 percent of all fragging incidents actually ended up being adjudicated.
Army Generals Testified About Deteriorating Morale and Discipline
Senator Mansfield’s attempt to inject the fragging into the American political discourse about the war was successful. In September 1971, during House of Representatives hearings on Defense Department appropriations for 1972, Chairman of the Committee on Appropriations Congressman George Mahon of Texas called upon Army generals to testify about the problems of the deteriorating morale and discipline in the Army. Vice Chief of Staff General Bruce Palmer Jr. acknowledged that the Army’s problems, including fragging, could no longer be minimized. Palmer noted some of the Army’s then current problems had also occurred in previous wars, but that fragging and widespread drug use were new phenomena. When asked if fraggings followed any noticeable patterns, Palmer told the committee that since the number of incidents was rising while the number of deaths and injuries were decreasing, many incidents might be explained in terms of intimidation or “just plain horseplay” rather than cases of deliberate murder. He also testified that the attacks did not seem to be racially motivated but rather were attacks against “the man in authority, black or white.” When a congressman asked General Palmer about incidents of officers being shot by their own men, another congressman ended the discussion by noting, “They have been shooting second lieutenants in the back for a thousand years.”
A description of the typical fragging incident during the Vietnam War is straightforward: It was an assault by explosive devices (which excludes rifles, pistols and knives) victims were officers and noncommissioned officers who were of superior rank to their attackers and who were discharging their command responsibilities at the time of the attack and the attack was not a face-to-face assault but rather was made at a distance.
Since most fragging incidents did not end up in the court system, it is more difficult to establish a profile of the perpetrators themselves. However, a 1976 study conducted at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) at Fort Leavenworth gleaned some general characteristics of likely individuals who committed fragging. Of 850 inmates in the USDB population at the time, 28 were identified whose actions, based on their courts-martial transcripts, matched the fragging incident profile. On average, they were 20 years old and had 28 months on active duty. About 20 percent were African American, and about 7 percent were draftees. Most had enlisted in the service and supported the war. They had attained only a low level of education and were considered “loners.” Most were in support units, given jobs for which they had not been trained, and reported little job satisfaction. They felt “scapegoated” and showed little or no remorse for their crimes. Almost 90 percent of these men were intoxicated on a wide assortment of substances at the time of the fragging, which mostly occurred at night. They admitted to little planning beyond talking to others, and most did nothing to avoid capture. Consistent with the command structure at the company and battery level, captains and first sergeants were their most common targets, and 75 percent of the perpetrators had been at some time involved in a verbal or physical altercation with their victims.
In terms of motive, the victims were viewed as having somehow denied the offenders of something they desired, such as promotions or transfers. The victims were perceived as a threat to the offenders. Only two of the 28 offenders studied claimed race was a factor. According to the authors of the study, the easy access and use of drugs was an essential factor in the assaults. That conclusion was further buttressed in a 1976 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry by Thomas Bond, which claimed that illicit drug use, so much more common in Vietnam than in other wars, tended to reduce any inhibitions the offenders may have had about assaulting superiors.
Fragging had serious consequences for the U.S. military in Vietnam far beyond the number of actual victims. The most likely targets of fragging found themselves caught in a hard place between the hostility and frustration of the men they commanded and the expectations of their superior officers. Officers and noncommissioned officers were expected to inspire their men, to be aggressive and to initiate and succeed in combat. Yet to do so in Vietnam, especially in 1969 and later, was to assume the risk of being killed by their own men.
For every actual fragging incident, there was an untold number of threats of fragging. These threats were made in various forms, such as the surreptitious placement of a grenade or grenade pin, or perhaps the detonation of a nonlethal gas or smoke grenade, in the potential victim’s quarters or work areas. According to Captain Barry Steinberg, an Army judge who presided over a number of fragging courts-martial, once an officer had been threatened with fragging, he was intimidated to the point of being “useless to the military because he can no longer carry out orders essential to the functioning of the Army.” Officers who survived fragging attempts often did not discover the identity of their attackers, and as a consequence they lived in constant fear the attacks would be repeated.
In his 1972 Saturday Review article, Eugene Linden described a lieutenant who refused to obey an order from a superior officer to assault an enemy position in the Mekong Delta. The lieutenant subsequently learned his men had actually been considering killing him for being overly aggressive and hence dangerous to them, but decided to abandon their plan upon learning of the lieutenant’s refusal to attack the enemy. While this particular lieutenant was spared a possible fragging at the hands of the men under his command, he had to face the consequences of disobeying an order from his superior officer. Linden’s reporting concluded that fragging, both actual and threatened, was such a powerful influence that virtually all officers and NCOs had to take the possibility into account before giving orders to men in their command.
“The only solution is the total dissolution of our involvement in Indochina”
By May 1971, overall U.S. troop strength in Vietnam had been halved. Combat troops had been reduced by 70 percent, leaving a greater portion of the remaining forces in rear areas. Nonetheless, even as the combat role declined, fraggings, along with serious drug and heroin use, continued to climb. However, in a Washington Post report the same month on the pace of combat troop withdrawals, Army Secretary Stanley Resor said more soldiers were coming forward with evidence of fraggings, and more prospective victims were being tipped off. He added that there was also an active effort by military authorities to get away from using the word “fragging” and use “attempted murder” instead, so as not to minimize the crime.
The Army attempted to deal with the problem of fragging in other ways as well. Since, by 1971, large-scale offensive operations were being avoided, American forces were largely limited to small unit patrols protecting U.S. bases. In many of those units, personal weapons were taken from everyone except those on patrol or guard duty, and fragmentation grenades were taken from everyone.
In his 1971 comments in the Senate chambers, Sen. Mansfield had said about the problem of fragging, “I feel deeply…that the only solution is the total dissolution of our involvement in Indochina.” Mansfield proved to be essentially correct the Army solved its fragging problem only by leaving Vietnam. On August 12, 1972, the last U.S. combat battalion in Vietnam stood down.
America’s war in Afghanistan has now “officially” exceeded the Vietnam War in duration, and the war in Iraq is approaching that milestone as well. In Vietnam, fragging was both a cause and a consequence of the breakdown in morale and discipline that plagued U.S. forces in the latter part of the war. In spite of facing formidable challenges, today’s professional, all-volunteer Army has almost completely avoided these problems. In 2003 Sergeant Hasan Akbar of the 101st Airborne Division killed two officers when he threw grenades in their tents in Kuwait. In 2005 Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez killed two officers by setting off grenades and a Claymore mine in their room at one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces in Iraq.
With but two reported fragging incidents in two wars, it appears the practice as a serious military problem has been relegated to history—the history of the Vietnam War—from whence it came.
Peter Brush is a frequent contributor to Vietnam magazine. From 1967-68 he served in Marine artillery units in Quang Tri Province. He is now the history librarian at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
The Forgotten History Of A Prison Uprising In Vietnam
Prisoners on work duty, filling sandbags in the "Big Red" work area.
Paul Grossheim/Courtesy of Forsyth Library, Fort Hays State University
Jimmie Childress had been sitting in a Kansas City jail for two months, waiting to be tried for transporting stolen property across state lines. It was the spring of 1967, and Jimmie was 18 years old. When he finally walked into a courtroom for his hearing, the judge gave him an ultimatum.
"Either go into the military or go to prison. Which is it going to be?"
Childress was tired of being locked up. "So naturally, I chose going into the military."
Jimmie Childress was an inmate at Long Binh Jail in South Vietnam. Courtesy of Jimmie Childress hide caption
Jimmie Childress was an inmate at Long Binh Jail in South Vietnam.
Courtesy of Jimmie Childress
Childress was trained to be a paratrooper and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. He landed in Vietnam in November 1967. "I knew nothing about the war, I knew nothing about Vietnam," he said.
Just a year earlier, Jimmie's criminal history might have been made him ineligible for the armed forces. But in August 1966, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced "Project 100,000," an initiative that was intended to simultaneously lift men out of poverty and provide troops for the war in Vietnam. Between 1966 and 1971, Project 100,000 sent more than 400,000 men to combat units in Vietnam - 40 percent of them, like Jimmie Childress, were African American.
Protesters of the Vietnam War, led by civil rights activists Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick, marched in New York City. Courtesy of LeRoy Henderson hide caption
Protesters of the Vietnam War, led by civil rights activists Stokely Carmichael and Floyd McKissick, marched in New York City.
Courtesy of LeRoy Henderson
The Vietnam war was the first completely integrated American war. Only two decades earlier, during WWII, black and white troops were segregated. At the beginning of the Vietnam conflict, African American troops re-enlisted nearly four times more than whites. Many black people volunteered to fight in dangerous combat units, which received higher pay. But by 1967, African American leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael were speaking out against the war.
As the war dragged on and casualties piled up, the mood among troops stationed in Vietnam soured. Black reenlistment rates plunged from 66.5 percent in 1967 to 31.7 percent in 1968. Black soldiers spoke openly about the discrimination they felt within the military, and racial tensions between black and white troops.
Cover of The Black Panther in September 1969. Emory Douglas/Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University hide caption
Cover of The Black Panther in September 1969.
Emory Douglas/Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University
Wallace Terry, an African American journalist for Time magazine, recorded black GIs talking about how southern white soldiers were allowed fly the confederate flag, while black soldiers were reprimanded for displaying symbols of the black power movement.
In 1968, there were half a million troops in Vietnam, a quarter of them drafted to fight. As discontent with the war grew, discipline started to fray. More and more soldiers were rebelling by going AWOL (Absent Without Leave).
Jimmie Childress was one of them. After months of fierce combat, he got disillusioned with the war, and decided to quit fighting. He disappeared from his unit with a group of other black soldiers and lived for months underground, staying with Vietnamese peasants in the countryside and hiding out in Saigon's "Soul Alley," a neighborhood where many black GIs congregated in their off hours. "During that time, I was stealing from the military M-16s, grenade launchers, I even stole a couple jeeps," he told Radio Diaries. He then sold these items on the black market to make money.
Eventually, he was caught and sent to the army's notorious Long Binh Jail - LBJ for short - on the outskirts of Saigon. This military stockade held American soldiers who were serving short sentences before being sent back to the field, as well as soldiers who had been convicted of serious crimes who were waiting to be shipped back to jail in the United States.
The reasons soldiers were serving time at LBJ varied greatly. Some were there for serious crimes, like murder. Others were there for small infractions, such as refusing a direct order to get a haircut. By the summer of 1968, over half were being held on AWOL charges.
Guard searches prisoners at the gate to the pre-trial compound. Paul Grossheim/Courtesy of Forsyth Library, Fort Hays State University hide caption
Guard searches prisoners at the gate to the pre-trial compound.
Paul Grossheim/Courtesy of Forsyth Library, Fort Hays State University
Originally built to house 400 inmates, in August of 1968, LBJ was crammed with 719 men. And - in a mirror of the U.S. justice system - black soldiers were greatly overrepresented in the jail. Despite representing 11% of the troops in Vietnam, more than 50% of the men incarcerated at the stockade were black. Many black soldiers felt they were more severely punished than white soldiers for similar offenses.
Conditions at LBJ were notoriously harsh. "Long Binh [Jail] was the kind of place that from the moment you walked in, you were trying to figure out a way to get out. Here you are in a war zone, in a jail, just at their mercy," remembers Scott Riley, another black soldier who sent to the stockade after getting caught with "a whole lot of marijuana."
Former inmates cite mistreatment by guards, particularly in solitary confinement. The military rehabbed shipping containers as jail cells. "The temperature in the box was 100+ degrees, the light was constantly on, 24 hours a day, and you were in there, naked," remembers Riley.
As LBJ grew more crowded, tensions along racial lines deepened. "Black and white being in Vietnam was no different than black and white being in America," said Childress. Richard Perdomo, a white inmate, remembers stark self-segregation among the inmate population. "We weren't separated by the military, we were separated by the want to be separated."
Radio Diaries spoke with the Deputy Commander of the stockade, an African American officer, who would only talk on the condition of anonymity. "There's always tension between races in a prison. You can control this with adequate staff. When you have control, the tension becomes dormant." According to him, a major problem was that the number of guards had not kept apace with the inmate population explosion. "We needed more people. None came," he said.
Prisoners on work duty, making aircraft security blocks. Paul Grossheim/Courtesy of Forsyth Library, Fort Hays State University hide caption
Prisoners on work duty, making aircraft security blocks.
Paul Grossheim/Courtesy of Forsyth Library, Fort Hays State University
Simultaneously, news was trickling into the prison about the turbulent events in 1968 in the United States. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was a turning point for many black soldiers in Vietnam. "A new burst of anger was afoot in the prison," said Riley.
Sitting in LBJ, Jimmie Childress could no longer ignore the irony of putting his life on the line for a country where African Americans still faced deep racism. "Why am I even over here? When you can't even go back to America and sit a lunch counter, you know?" He and other black soldiers felt that their real fight was in America, not Vietnam.
Frustrated about being in Vietnam, and angry about their treatment in the stockade, Childress and many other black soldiers in the prison had reached a breaking point. "We were hot, and crazy, we were fed up. So we decided, we're going to tear this M***F*** down."
Aerial shot showing destruction at Long Binh Jail after the August 1968 riot. National Archives/Courtesy of Displaced Films hide caption
Aerial shot showing destruction at Long Binh Jail after the August 1968 riot.
National Archives/Courtesy of Displaced Films
Close to midnight on August 29, 1968, a group of inmates overpowered the guards, and with homemade weapons and bare hands, started tearing down the stockade.
Childress set his sights on the administrative building, where all the records of the incarcerated soldiers were kept. He and a few other inmates kicked the door in and started lighting papers on fire. "I figured the records were the key to causing more confusion for the military," he said.
Scott Riley was locked up in solitary confinement on the night of the riot. "Out of nowhere, this black guy opens the door and says, 'come on out man.'" The man then handed Riley a piece of cake that had been liberated from the kitchen. "The euphoria of being free, that moment was a beautiful moment. Knowing all the while that this is not going to end well."
Meanwhile, the guards at the stockade were terrified. "Everything just sped up in fast motion. I saw 6-8 prisoners running toward me. They threw me to the ground, started kicking and pummeled me with fists," said Larry Kimbrough, who was on duty that night.
Larry Kimbrough was a Military Policeman assigned to the night shift at Long Binh Jail. Courtesy of Larry Kimbrough hide caption
Larry Kimbrough was a Military Policeman assigned to the night shift at Long Binh Jail.
Courtesy of Larry Kimbrough
The deputy commander, the highest ranking black officer at the stockade, entered the melee to try to diffuse the riot. "I was surrounded by about 100 inmates. I think I talked to them for a good 15-20 minutes. But then I heard two or three of them saying, 'you outta kill the Uncle Tom.' They stopped listening to what I was saying so I left. They opened the gate for me and let me out."
The riot escalated. A white inmate, Richard Perdomo, said it devolved into a frightening chaos. "Everybody went to fighting everybody. People were just knocking each other in the head, starting fights, swinging shovels and picks and stuff. It wasn't just blacks on whites, it was everybody, just lashing out," he said. "It was the only time I was ever scared the whole time I was in Vietnam."
During a riot on Aug. 29, 1968, inmates burned down the Mess Hall Building at Long Binh Jail. National Archives/Courtesy of Displaced Films hide caption
During a riot on Aug. 29, 1968, inmates burned down the Mess Hall Building at Long Binh Jail.
National Archives/Courtesy of Displaced Films
By the early morning hours of August 30, 65 soldiers were injured, and one white inmate had been killed, Edward Oday Haskett. He was struck in the head with shovel by a black inmate. Much of the stockade had been torn down, including seven buildings and 19 tents. The stockade commander, Vernon D. Johnson, had also been severely beaten.
The military told reporters that the riot had been suppressed and order was restored. But that wasn't the whole story. Three weeks later, the military revealed to reporters that 12 black soldiers still controlled a section of the stockade.
"The military was literally throwing boxes of C-rations over the fence for us to eat. So we kind of knew they weren't going to kill us. People started pulling out drugs from god only knows where, and we're literally laying in the yard in the hot sun getting high," remembers Riley.
Peter Arnett covered the story for the Associated Press. "At any point the military could have overwhelmed this group of resisting black prisoners. The decisions were made not to do it. The high command realized the story could grow much bigger. And with the resistance to the war growing, they just didn't want to start drawing even greater attention to this whole racial issue in Vietnam," Arnett concluded.
At the end of September the military sent in a company of armed Military Police with tear gas in a riot control formation. That brought a decisive end to the riot at LBJ. The military did a thorough investigation and wrote a report about the riot. They concluded that the cause lay in racial tensions, along with overcrowding and understaffing. The ringleaders were charged with a litany of charges including murder for the man who was killed, assault and arson. The stockade was rebuilt, and a new commander was brought in, Ivan Nelson, nicknamed "Ivan the Terrible," who maintained strict discipline at the stockade.
Destroyed building at long Binh Jail. National Archives/Courtesy of Displaced Films hide caption
Destroyed building at long Binh Jail.
National Archives/Courtesy of Displaced Films
"After the riot, I felt bad about it. I had regrets," said Childress. "And I felt disappointed because we didn't accomplish anything, other than tearing something up. Like a child would tear up a toy. We just blew off steam. And we only made our bed harder than it was before."
LBJ continued to house American soldiers until 1973, when American troops left Vietnam. At that point it was transferred to the Vietnamese government, which converted it into a drug treatment facility. The area where the stockade stood is now a manufacturing center.
The story of the uprising made a few headlines, but was largely overshadowed by other news in 1968. It doesn't appear in most history books about the Vietnam war. The people interviewed for this story are speaking publicly about the riot for the first time.
"It's not like describing a battle. There's nothing heroic about it. Families just don't like to think about their sons marching off to war, and instead of marching off to war, they march off into a stockade," said Perdomo.
The experience of being in jail in Vietnam continues to haunt Jimmie Childress. "I'm still angry about the way the military treated its own citizens. I still feel that something hand to be done," he said. "I guess I was just trying to prove that I was a human being. I'm over it now, but it took a long time. It took a long time."
This story was produced by Sarah Kate Kramer of Radio Diaries, with Joe Richman and Nellie Gilles. It was edited by Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. You can hear more Radio Diaries stories on their podcast. Thanks to Gerald F. Goodwin, whose New York Times op-ed led us to this story, and to historian Kimberley L. Phillips. Also thanks to David Zeiger of Displaced Films and and James Lewes of the GI Press Project for sharing their photographs with us of the LBJ. Lastly, thanks to Thomas Watson of the 720th MP Reunion Association and History Project for sharing the Military's CID Report.
Five myths about the Vietnam War
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick say their multi-part PBS documentary about the Vietnam War, which concluded this past week, was intended to unpack a complex conflict and to embark upon the process of healing and reconciliation. The series has catapulted the Vietnam War back into the national consciousness. But despite thousands of books, articles and films about this moment in our history, there remain many deeply entrenched myths.
The Viet Cong was a scrappy guerrilla force.
"Vastly superior in tools and techniques, and militarily dominant over much of the world," historian Ronald Aronson described the hegemonic United States and the impudent rebels, "the Goliath sought to impose on David a peace favourable to his vision of the world." Recode recently compared the Viet Cong to Uber: "young, scrappy and hungry troops break rules and create new norms, shocking the enemy."
In reality, the Viet Cong, the pro-North force in South Vietnam, was armed by North Vietnam — which planned, controlled and directed Viet Cong campaigns in the South — the Soviet Union and China. According to the CIA, from 1954 to 1968, those communist nations provided the North with $3.2 billion in military and economic aid, mostly coming after 1964 as the war accelerated. Other sources suggest the number was more than double that figure.
The Viet Cong had powerful and modern AK-47s, a Soviet-made automatic rifle that was the equivalent of the M-16 used by American troops. Its fighters were also equipped with submachine guns, grenades, rocket launchers and an array of other weapons. By contrast, the U.S. military gave the South Vietnamese armed forces old World War II-era castoffs, such as M-1 rifles, until late in the war.
The refugees who came to the U.S. were Vietnam’s elite.
As the Immigration Policy Center's Alicia Campi has put it, the 130,000 Vietnamese who came to the United States at the end of the conflict "were generally high-skilled and well-educated" people. Sociologist Carl Bankston described this group as "the elite of South Vietnam."
Although the group that fled in 1975, referred to as the first wave, was more educated and middle-class, many who arrived through the U.S.-sponsored evacuation efforts were also people with close ties to the Americans in Vietnam whom Washington had promised to rescue. They were not necessarily "elite." These included ordinary soldiers of South Vietnam as well as people who had worked as clerks or secretaries in the U.S. Embassy.
The second wave of refugees who left Vietnam after 1975 numbered approximately 2 million. They came from rural areas and were often less educated. Most escaped on rickety wooden boats and became known as "boat people" they deluged neighboring countries of "first asylum" — Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Indonesia — at a rate of 2,000 to 50,000 per month. More than 400,000 were admitted into the United States.
The third wave of refugees, during which an estimated 159,000 came to the United States beginning in 1989, were offspring of American fathers and Vietnamese mothers, as well as political prisoners and those who had been put in "reeducation camps."
American soldierswere mostly draftees.
Popular culture is rife with examples of poor and minority soldiers arriving in Vietnam via the draft and then dying. The idea runs through the heart of Robert Zemeckis's "Forrest Gump," Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried " and Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter," among other movies and books. Vietnam was "the most blatant class war since the Civil War," as James Fallows put it in his 1989 book, "More Like Us."
The facts show otherwise. Between 1964 and 1973, volunteers outnumbered enlisted troops by nearly four to one. Nor did the military rely primarily on disadvantaged citizens or African Americans. According to the Report of the President's Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force in February 1970, African Americans "constituted only 12.7 percent of nearly 1.7 million enlisted men serving voluntarily in 1969." A higher proportion of African Americans were drafted in the early years of the war, but they were not more likely to die in combat than other soldiers. Seventy-nine percent of troops had at least a high school education (compared with 63 percent of Korean War veterans and 45 percent of World War II veterans). And according to VFW Magazine, 50 percent were from middle-income backgrounds, and 88 percent were white (representing 86 percent of the deaths).
Enemy forces breached the U.S. Embassy in the Tet Offensive.
One of the most pivotal events of the Vietnam War was the attack by the Viet Cong on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1968. Retired ambassador David F. Lambertson, who served as a political officer there, said in one account that "it was a shock to American and world opinion. The attack on the Embassy, the single most powerful symbol [of U.S. presence] signaled that something was badly wrong in Vietnam. The Tet Offensive broke the back of American public opinion." Early reports by the Associated Press said the Viet Cong had occupied the building. United Press International claimed that the fighters had taken over five floors.
In fact, communist forces had blasted a hole through an outer wall of the compound and hunkered down in a six-hour battle against U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. The embassy was never occupied, and the Viet Cong attackers were killed. The Tet Offensive's other coordinated attacks by 60,000 enemy troops against South Vietnamese targets were repelled. Don Oberdorfer, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, observed that Tet was a military disaster for the North, yet it was "a battlefield defeat that ultimately yielded victory" for the enemy.
In part, that was because the erroneous reports about the embassy assault were searing and humiliating to Americans, and no subsequent military victories during Tet could dislodge the powerful notion that the war effort was doomed.
South Vietnamese soldiers were unwilling and unable to ﬁght.
Some contend that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the South's army, was not up to the job. Andy Walpole, formerly of Liverpool John Moores University, wrote that "they were [unwilling] to engage in combat with their guerrilla counterparts and were more interested in surviving than winning." Harry F. Noyes, who served in Vietnam, complained about this widespread belief: "Everybody 'knows' they were incompetent, treacherous and cowardly."
But those who fought alongside the ARVN tell a different story. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, adviser to the South Vietnamese Airborne Division, bemoaned that "the sacrifice and valor and commitment of the South Vietnamese Army largely disappeared from the American political and media consciousness." He wrote of the tenacious fighting spirit of those troops, particularly at the Battle of Dong Ha, where they were charged with supporting American Marine units. "In combat, the South Vietnamese refused to leave their own dead or wounded troopers on the field or abandon a weapon," he recalled .
South Vietnamese forces also fought off the surprise communist assaults on Saigon and elsewhere during the Tet Offensive of 1968. In August and September of that year, according to Gen. Creighton Abrams, commander of U.S. military operations from 1968 to 1972, "the ARVN killed more enemy than all other allied forces combined . . . [and] suffered more [killed in action], both actual and on the basis of the ratio of enemy to friendly killed in action," because it received less air and other tactical support than U.S. forces. In March 1972, during the Easter Offensive, South Vietnamese forces, with American air support, also prevailed against a conventional enemy invasion consisting of 20 divisions. And in April 1975, the 18th Division defending Xuan Loc "held off massive attacks by an entire North Vietnamese Army corps," according to one report. In the end, those soldiers had even more at stake than the Americans did.
Five myths is a weekly feature challenging everything you think you know. You can check out previous myths, read more from Outlook or follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.
War within war
At the height of the Vietnam war in 1969, John Lee Hooker recorded I Don't Want To Go To Vietnam. In the song, he moaned grimly, "We've got so much trouble at home," before adding simply, "We don't need to go to Vietnam." But the black American soldiers already in Vietnam, trudging tirelessly across that country's saturated rice fields or creeping through its elephant grass and sticky, airless jungles, were understandably more explicit in expressing themselves. Wallace Terry, the Vietnam correspondent for Time magazine between 1967 and 1969, taped black soldiers airing their anger in the summer of 1969. Throughout the recording, their rage is tangible. Speaking about his team-mates, one black soldier declares, "What they been through in the bush, plus what they have to go through back in the world [America], they can't face it. They're ready to just get down and start another civil war." Another adds, "Why should I fight for prejudice?" When Terry inquires, "Tell me what you think the white man should be called?" a chorus of "devil. beast" erupts from the group.
Although President Johnson predicted that the Vietnam war would create a political nightmare, he neglected to foresee the racial one. The ongoing domestic conflicts between black and white Americans were reflected and exacerbated over in Vietnam, principally because the very apex of this increasingly unpopular war, between 1968 and 1969, coincided explosively with the rise of the Black Power era in America. In these years, there was a surge of inter-racial violence within the US forces in Vietnam. Discrimination thrived and, as in America, a racial polarisation arose out of this tension. Black soldiers embraced their culture as well as the emerging Black Power politics and its external symbols.
In fact, the war in Vietnam was America's first racially integrated conflict. Black soldiers had fought in all of America's preceding military engagements, but in segregated units. Although President Truman put pressure on the US armed forces to integrate in 1948, some units in the Korean war were still divided by race.
Prior to 1967, racial animosity had been negligible within the US armed forces in Vietnam because the black men stationed there were professional soldiers seeking a permanent career. Generally, if there were racial slights, they were quietly ignored by these men. On his first exploratory trip to Vietnam in the spring of 1967, Terry today concedes that he sensed "democracy in the foxhole - 'same mud, same blood'." Within a year, however, his feelings had been transformed.
At the beginning of 1965, there were about 23,300 US servicemen in Vietnam. By the end of 1967, this number had jumped to a phenomenal 465,600, the result of Project 100,000, initiated by Johnson in 1966. This dramatically increased the number of US troops in Vietnam by dropping the qualification standards of the draft. Many black Americans who had received an inferior education and, consequently, had evaded the draft, discovered, like Muhammad Ali, that they were now eligible. Of the 246,000 men recruited under Project 100,000 between October 1966 and June 1969, 41% were black, although black Americans represented only 11% of the US population. With a bitter irony, the other group that Project 100,000 condemned was the poor, racially intolerant white man from the southern states of America.
In a country riddled with institutional racism, the draft boards were naturally infected. In 1967, there were no black Americans on the boards in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. In fact, Jack Helms, a member of the Louisiana draft board, was a Grand Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan. In one fatuous outburst, he described the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the highly respected and conservative black civil rights group, as "a communist-inspired, anti-Christ, sex-perverted group of tennis-short beatniks". Although a poll in 1966 established that three out of four black Americans supported the draft, by 1969 56% of the black American population opposed the Vietnam war.
In 1967 and 1968, indignation against the war accelerated among both black and white Americans. Some thought the draft was simply a covert mode of genocide instigated by the US government, while others watched aghast as monstrous sums of money that could ease the impoverished black communities such as Watts in Los Angeles, were pumped into the war machine. The Black Panther, Eldridge Cleaver, denounced these repellent contradictions, stating that black Americans "are asked to die for the system in Vietnam, in Watts they are killed by it".
The perception that the Vietnamese were parallel sufferers of white colonial racist aggression also flourished in the late 1960s and was reflected in a comment made by Muhammad Ali on the TV programme Soul! "They want me to go to Vietnam to shoot some black folks that never lynched me, never called me nigger, never assassinated my leaders." Before his murder in 1968, Martin Luther King also damned America's foreign policy. He charged the US government with being "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today", and urged those against the draft to seek the status of conscientious objectors.
Although the image of a white hippy tentatively depositing a flower in the barrel of a rifle is one of the most potent icons of anti-war sentiment from the 1960s, black Americans also fought against the draft. Groups such as the Black Panthers and the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) denounced the war, black Americans burned their draft cards in public and one man escaped to Canada, exclaiming: "I'm not a draft evader, I'm a runaway slave." Robert Holcomb, one of those interviewed in Bloods, Terry's oral history of the war by black veterans, describes how, after being hounded by the FBI, he was "sworn into the army in manacles". Like other young black Americans, he diagnosed the Vietnam war as "an attack on minority people, minority people being used to fight each other".
Robert Holcomb perhaps personified what Terry describes today as "a different breed of black soldier entering the battlefield" in the latter half of the 1960s. Terry adds that these hostile black recruits were "veterans of the civil rights movement or the urban upheavals, the riots in the streets. They were being told by judges: 'You'll either join the Marines or go to jail.' " In 1969, during a conversation with Terry, a black naval lieutenant stationed in Vietnam also characterised these black men forced to fight in southeast Asia as "a new generation". He added: "They are the ones who ain't going to take no more shit."
In the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination on April 4, 1968, black Americans rioted in more than 100 US cities. But in Vietnam many white soldiers flagrantly applauded his murder. At Cam Ranh Bay, a group of white men wore Ku Klux Klan robes and paraded around the military base. At another compound, the Confederate flag, so symbolic of racial persecution, was hoisted for three days. Don Browne, a black staff sergeant in Vietnam, overheard a white soldier protesting that King's image was always on TV. "I wish they'd take that nigger's picture off," the soldier said, a moment before Browne granted him "a lesson in when to use that word and when you should not use that word - a physical lesson". King's demise was, of course, a pivotal incident in the 1960s because it represented the switch from the nonviolent civil rights movement to the more militant and aggressive Black Power era. James Hawkins, a black soldier in Vietnam, understood this: "Dr King's death changed things, it made a lot of people angry, angry people with weapons."
At this stage, with the extraordinary increase of mostly reluctant troops - black and white - to Vietnam, covert and overt racism was now rife. The fledgling black American conscript was expected to endure the sight of the Confederate flag painted on Jeeps, tanks and helicopters, and sometimes encountered menacing graffiti, such as "I'd rather kill a nigger than a gook", scrawled on the walls in the latrines of US bases. Other grisly practices, such as cross burnings, were uprooted from Alabama and Mississippi to the war theatre of Vietnam, and some commanders tolerated Ku Klux Klan "klaverns" on their bases.
Young black soldiers also discovered that white soldiers, notably at Da Nang, repeatedly refused to pick up exhausted black soldiers in their Jeeps and that army barbers were not trained to cut black hair, although the merest hint of an Afro was penalised. In Terry's recording from 1969, one black sailor describes how, "when they caught a brother with an Afro, they just took him down to the brig and cut all his hair off and throw him in jail. All these beast motherfuckers walking around with their hair looking like goddamn girls and we can't wear our hair motherfucking three inches long." White officers were either sympathetic to or simply disregarded white soldiers who printed "Fuck the war" or "Peace" on their helmets, yet black Americans were disciplined for comparable offences. One black soldier was ordered to remove a "Black is beautiful" poster from the inside of his locker.
The post exchanges and libraries on the bases did not stock black hair products, tapes of soul music or books on black American culture and history. Magazines such as Ebony and Jet were also scarce, as one black private grumbled: "Every time a soul brother over here gets an Ebony or Jet, there is a waiting line of at least 30 to 50 soul brothers waiting to read it." Terry once stated, "If blacks can account for up to 22% of the dying, they should at least have 22% of the jukebox or the music on Armed Forces radio." Yet black American music was neglected by the Armed Forces Radio Network and in the enlisted men's clubs in preference for country music.
Today, Terry comments, laughing: "I find it amusing to see a Vietnam movie and the white guys are popping their fingers to black music. That just didn't happen. This is revisionism." In fact, Terry Whitmore, the author of Memphis-'Nam-Sweden: The Story Of A Black Deserter, witnessed a minor riot in the Freedom Hill post exchange at Da Nang after the manager of the beer garden, irritated by the number of black marines socialising there, promptly withdrew all soul music from the jukebox. But such incidents weren't confined to land. Off the coast of Vietnam, on the USS Sumpter, Captain JS Keuger also banned the music of the Last Poets, whose recordings included When The Revolution Comes. The affronted black sailors subsequently signed a petition, a fight erupted and they were charged with mutiny. Dissension over music resulted in a multitude of other brawls and Jet magazine reported that a white officer was killed in Quang Tri after ordering black soldiers to turn down their music.
Military justice in Vietnam was also rarely racially impartial. Black servicemen were frequently sentenced to longer terms than their white counterparts and, once inside a military prison, black Muslim inmates were refused copies of the Koran. During this period, one black marine pointed out, "The Corps says it treats all men just one way - as a marine. What it actually has done is treat everybody like a white marine." But, most disturbingly, black Americans were dying at a disproportionate rate and this only inflamed their indignation, as one black private remonstrated: "You should see for yourself how the black man is being treated over here and the way we are dying. When it comes to rank, we are left out. When it comes to special privileges, we are left out. When it comes to patrols, operations and so forth, we are first."
Their predicament was aggravated by a weakening in the chain of command. Many of the very young, naive white officers were incapable of diffusing the racial tension and, at times, white privates informed their superior black officers, including Allen Thomas, that they "weren't going to take orders from a nigger".
But, as the naval lieutenant informed Terry back in 1969, these black soldiers were "the ones who ain't going to take no more shit". The black Americans who were drafted from 1967 to 1970 called themselves Bloods, and many were influenced by the teachings and politics of Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panthers and Malcolm X.
Terry explains: "They would wear black amulets, they would wear black beads, black gloves to show their identity and racial pride." Some wore "slave bracelets" made out of boot laces and walked with "Black Power canes", sticks with the nub carved into a clenched fist. To offset the oppressive ubiquity of the Confederate flag, these soldiers flew black flags from their patrol boats and Jeeps. Another group of black servicemen, who were followers of Ron Karenga's US (United Slaves), created a flag that asserted in Swahili "My fear is for you". The "dap", a complicated ritualised handshake that changed from unit to unit , was also common among black personnel in Vietnam. Black privates and officers, too, acknowledged each other in public with a Black Power salute.
One black soldier, drained by the tense racial atmosphere in the enlisted men's clubs, commented: "Chuck's [euphemism for a white man] all right until he gets a beer under his belt and then it's nigger this and nigger that, and besides, to be honest, Chuck ain't too much fun, you dig?" Indeed, by the late 1960s in Vietnam, black and white soldiers were socialising in separate bars and clubs. In Saigon, the black servicemen congregated in the Khanh Hoi district and, sometimes, protected their preferred venues with signs that warned "No Rabbits [white soldiers] Allowed."
To increase their racial solidarity, some black troops also started semi-militant bodies. Blacks In Action, the Unsatisfied Black Soldier, the Ju Jus and the Mau Maus were just some of these groups that, as Terry explains, "supported each other and studied black history and talked about events in America and were willing to support each other in an enlisted club over black music. If they wanted something in the post exchange, they would collectively request it."
The tension between the races, though, was not tamed before it erupted into violence. White officers who didn't offer lifts to black marines were attacked, there was a major riot at the principal military prison, the Long Binh Stockade, in October 1968, and a critical inter-racial clash on the Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier in October 1972. At China Beach, some white soldiers started flinging rocks and abuse at black servicemen. Soon, the two racial groups were nervously facing each other with loaded weapons.
However, most assaults involved only a few participants, generally in a deserted corner of an army base at night. Such conduct was wholly advocated by members of the Black Panthers in America. Kathleen Cleaver, the wife of Eldridge Cleaver, urged black soldiers: "Right inside of the US imperialist beast's army, you are strategically placed to begin the process of destroying him from within." Huey Newton, the founder of the party, also suggested that black army personnel turn their weapons on white officers. "Fragging" was the term used to describe either wounding or killing an officer by rolling a fragmentation grenade into his tent. But both black and white soldiers were involved in this and only some of these attacks were racially motivated.
A few black soldiers chose to desert, and while some, like Terry Whitmore, were smuggled through the USSR to Sweden, most fugitives hid within Vietnam. By 1971, about 100 deserters were living furtively in a district of Saigon nicknamed "Soul Alley", beside Tan Son Nhut airport. Understandably, though, some of the young black troops cracked. Robert Holcomb recalled in Bloods: "This black soldier had taken some drugs and he just sort of went crazy. A lot of his anxieties and hostilities came out. He got an M-16 and he sprayed a sergeant, killed him and two others."
The Vietcong were quick to detect and exploit the racial conflicts within the US forces. They dropped thousands of propaganda leaflets on the battlefields. A typical one read: "If you go AWOL because you don't want to fight or because you can't put up with the army racism, the NFL will get you out of the country." But authentic images of US policemen beating black civil rights workers were also scattered across the war zones to undermine the black soldier's morale. Today, Wallace Terry recalls that, bizarrely, the Vietcong sometimes screamed, "Go home, soul man", at the black soldiers during combat and Browne, who was interviewed in Terry's Bloods, described how, "to play on the sympathy of the black soldier, the Vietcong would shoot at a white guy, then let the black guy behind him go through, then shoot at the next white guy". Other black servicemen, including the deserter Whitmore, reported identical cases. But the huge number of black soldiers killed in action and the maltreatment of black prisoners of war was ample proof that the Vietcong and the NVA were simply manipulating the racial discord within the American ranks.
Amazingly, though, it was in these very war zones that the antagonism between black and white infantrymen dissolved, as the black soldier James Hawkins admitted: "In the jungle, you don't think in terms of black and white." Another said: "When I'm out in the bush carrying a grenade launcher, no white man is going to call me nigger." Arthur Woodley, a black long-range patrolman interviewed by Terry, explained: "No matter what his ethnic background is, or his ideals, you start to depend on that person to cover your ass."
In fact, Woodley rescued a wounded member of the Ku Klux Klan in his unit who had been discarded by his white team-mates. The man was forced to re-examine his bigotry and, throughout the war, there were other examples of white men whose racial prejudices were shattered by the selfless acts of black soldiers. Although, in 1969, one black lieutenant commented somewhat cynically that the "threat of death changes many things, but comradeship doesn't last after you get back to the village", the disparity in inter-racial hatred at the rear army bases and in the war theatre itself was immense.
Initially, white army officials reacted aggressively to both the potent exhibition of black unity and to the racial turmoil within the US army in Vietnam. They ordered crowds of black servicemen to be broken up, a few symbolic gestures, such as the "dap", were banned, numerous soldiers were disciplined and the more radical militants were presented with dishonourable discharges that subsequently disqualified them from financial aid back in America.
Ultimately, however, the military authorities were compelled to confront the deepening crisis, and in 1969 General Leonard Chapman conceded: "There is no question we've got a problem." Surprisingly, and to its credit, the army responded with impressive speed and instigated myriad reforms. It investigated and addressed each field in which discrimination and prejudice had thrived, from the post exchanges to the dearth of black officers. Mandatory Watch And Action Committees were introduced into each unit, and today, Terry confirms, the US military authorities "make it clear to their top officers that racism can cost you your career". He adds: "I call it the last civil rights movement. It started in the armed forces in Vietnam, and it spread into revolts on the high seas on certain ships and then to air force bases in the States and army bases in Germany."
In fact, in 1972 Wallace Terry was hired by the US Air Force to examine parallel racial predicaments in Germany and today he is adamant that "Colin Powell would not have become chairman of the joint chiefs had it not been for those black kids protesting in Vietnam. You can draw a direct line."
But although the defiant black servicemen in Vietnam at the end of the 1960s created a robust and positive legacy for the next generation of black soldiers and sailors, it was, of course, forged at a price. If they survived their tour of duty, they returned to a frigid, indifferent America, the country for which they had risked their lives. Sadly, the extraordinary unity that Terry had witnessed among the black soldiers in Vietnam crumbled. "They didn't come home together, they went to different cities and they returned at different times." Forty per cent of black veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, compared with 20% of white veterans, and in the early 1970s Richard Nixon's policy of "benign neglect" was dismantling the progress of the civil rights movement. One black veteran with an administrative discharge said bitterly,"I've got friends who've robbed liquor stores who can get jobs easier than me."
Arthur Woodley had enlisted in the US army to "escape from my environment and get ahead in life". On his return to America, he worked sporadically in miscellaneous jobs throughout the 1970s but, when interviewed by Terry in the early 1980s, he was unemployed. He had recently met, quite by chance, a South Vietnamese man he had befriended during the war and who was, years later, residing in Baltimore. "He's got a business, good home, driving cars, and I'm still struggling," he reported angrily. "Living in America in the 1980s is a war for survival among black folks, and black veterans are being overlooked more than everybody."
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VC Overrun Fire Support Base Mary Ann
the mortar area looking generally from the north to the south. The VIP pad is in the background where the flag is visible. The tactical operations center (TOC) is in the center background with the tall antanna, to the left of the VIP pad. The ammo dump is at the right-front of the helicopter and the mess area is directly above the rotor hub. There is a wood latrine immediately between the top of the engine air intake cowling and the aft rotor. Note the bunkers at the extreme right of the photo
In March of 1971, the 25th Infantry Division was packing it up and leaving Vietnam. Those of us not having nine months in country were reassigned to other units within the country I went to the 101st Airborne Division with many of my friends, others I knew, went to the Americal Division near Chu Lai…some flew out to FSB Mary Ann temporarily until a permanent home can be determined. This deadly attack occurred on their second night there!
R unning down the hallway of the battalion tactical operations center (TOC), Captain Paul S. Spilberg charged into a cloud of tear gas just as he reached the commander’s quarters. Staggering blindly back the way he had come, Spilberg made it to the north exit, crawled up the stairs and out the door into the fresh but bullet-ridden air. Forcing his eyes to focus, the shaken captain was stunned to hear the fire of AK-47s and the crash of rocket-propelled grenades from inside the base’s perimeter. In amazement he watched as numerous small figures darted catlike among the spreading flames. Everywhere he looked he saw the scurrying silhouettes, who were enemy sappers feeding the chain of explosions devouring Fire Support Base Mary Ann on that afternoon in 1971.
Four days before the fatal attack, Spilberg had arrived at the FSB by helicopter. He was an old hand there, having previously served at Mary Ann as a company commander. Along with three assistants, he now had returned as a marksmanship instructor. His team had established a training course using targets on a crude rifle range set up on the FSB’s southwest slope. The hill was garrisoned by Company C, 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry (1-46), 196th Light Infantry Brigade, assigned to the 23rd ‘Americal’ Infantry Division.
The battalion commander, Lt. Col. William P. Doyle, was a serious professional. Along with the Company C commander, Captain Richard V. Knight, Doyle had molded this handful of reluctant draftees into one of the better combat units still in the field in 1971. Mary Ann was in a generally quiet sector, and the soldiers atop the hill had come to regard their outpost as something of a rear echelon area rather than what it actually was — the division’s most forward firebase.
Three hours later the American firebase was rocked from within by a series of powerful explosions. Spilberg was asleep deep inside the TOC. The structure was a sturdily reinforced, half-buried bunker, and from its interior Spilberg initially had a hard time recognizing the muffled crashes. Thinking the base was taking mortar fire, he rolled off his cot and began pulling on his boots and shirt.
Before leaving the bunker, he grabbed his .45-caliber pistol from under his pillow. On the afternoon of March 27, 1971, after the soldiers had completed their target practice, the three officers remained on the shooting range. They plinked with various weapons and talked awhile, and then Doyle and Knight headed for the mess tent. Spilberg remained behind to take a few more shots. He had only the base’s mascot dog for company. The mongrel suddenly bristled and began barking and growling at something downslope that Spilberg could not locate. He had never seen the amiable mutt behave like that, but try as he might he could not detect what was agitating the animal. Finally deciding the dog must have scented a tiger or cobra, Spilberg set out after the other officers. Much later he related: ‘I never said anything to Doyle about that dog being on alert, but I should have known. It bothered me for years and years. It was my second tour. I should have known.’
One of the sappers had thrown tear gas into the TOC officers’ quarters, and Colonel Doyle was trying desperately to escape his gas-filled room. As he struggled to unlatch the plywood door, a satchel charge detonated in the hallway, blowing the door from its hinges and flattening him. Picking himself up, he turned toward the door and faced a sapper wearing nothing but bush shorts, a gas mask and a full-body coating of camouflage.
When the Communist drew back to hurl another satchel charge, Doyle raised his own .45 and shot him square in the chest. As the man fell backward the bomb went off, blowing him to bits and flattening Doyle a second time. Three more charges exploded in the hall before Doyle was able to dig through the rubble and leave the bunker.
By then he was bleeding from fragmentation wounds in one leg and both arms. He was unable to hear through his blood-filled ears, and could barely see through gas-seared eyes.
For 45 minutes, the infiltrators sprinted throughout the firebase, expertly planting their charges among the frantic, befuddled Americans. As the assault concluded, the TOC was a towering pyre. Spilberg picked up a damaged M-16 he found on the ground. Wincing from three grenade fragments in his back, he made for Knight’s company command post to see if the captain had survived. The CP was a bonfire and beginning to collapse. As he reached the crumbling entrance, Spilberg could hear ammunition exploding in the flames. He peered inside but saw only a blazing vision of hell. Somewhere within that inferno, Knight lay dead.
The company CP and battalion TOC had been the primary targets for the brilliantly executed sapper assault, and Knight was one of 30 Americans killed. On the morning of March 28, Doyle and Spilberg were among the 82 wounded GIs evacuated.
The first indicator that something bad was afoot had come on the night of March 25-26. Lieutenant Scott Bell was on patrol, on what was supposed to be his last night on the hill. As he squinted into the surrounding silent, mist-cloaked jungle, he sensed an almost tangible uneasiness in the air, and felt a primordial sense of dread that motivated him to organize one last big rat kill before his departure. Maybe that would keep his men alert.
The soldiers knew the drill. They constructed ingenious rattraps from empty C-ration cans laced with cheese and blasting caps. All night the men counted miniature explosions as squirrel-sized Asian rats died in the competition between platoons. By dawn there were 130 dead rodents laid out in neat lines in front of the CP. These were the last fireworks here for Bell and Company A. The next morning they moved out and were replaced by Captain Knight and his Charlie Company, who were transferred in from Chu Lai.
Charlie Company settled into the new position and started policing the area in preparation for a visit from the brigade commander, Colonel William Hathaway , who had been unhappy with Company A on his last inspection. Knight hurriedly set his men to work disposing of dead rats, marijuana cigarette butts, empty whiskey bottles and other such junk left behind by their predecessors. When Hathaway, accompanied by Doyle and Knight, walked the perimeter that afternoon, he was delighted with the improvement over what he had seen a week earlier. Hathaway, however, did not inspect the tactical outer wire because, he later explained,’somewhere along the line you have to put the trust in the company commander.’
Additional trip flares were triggered by the prop blast of CH-47 helicopters as they landed at and took off from the FSB. The Americans did not replace the flares. In hindsight, Hathaway thought overconfidence might have been another factor contributing to the debacle. ‘Charlie Company, commanded by Captain Knight, was certainly the best company in that battalion, and probably one of the best companies in this division,’ Hathaway said later. ‘One of the problems was that they were so good they were a little contemptuous of the enemy. They were the hunters, not the hunted.’ But the outer defenses were not in order. As Lieutenant Jerry Sams, leader of C Company’s 2nd Platoon, later explained: ‘The sergeant major was on everybody’s ass about policing the area before the inspection, and they had my platoon out there picking paper off the wire. Those helicopters would come in and kick up all kinds of crap. I had to send the guys out two or three times, and it was one of those typical Army things where everybody’s bitching and raising hell. They were accidentally setting off trip flares in the wire — all our early warning devices that would have come in mighty handy later on that night.’
Another cause for the false sense of security was that there had been no signs of an impending attack. Major Alva V. Hardin, the 196th Infantry Brigade’s intelligence officer, later testified, ‘We had no intelligence to indicate there would be an attack on Mary Ann.’
The lack of listening posts outside the wire was another critical mistake. When Hathaway learned Doyle had not deployed LPs beyond the outer perimeter, he concurred. ‘Listening posts were not a policy,’ explained Hathaway. ‘I considered listening posts outside the wire a hazard. I considered the danger of people getting wounded, either by defensive fires or somebody getting excited and firing on the perimeter, to be greater than the necessity for the listening post.’
Mary Ann had been constructed on the bulldozed summit of a ridge running northwest to southeast. In profile the elevation looked like the back of a camel, with the base stretching 500 meters across both humps. It was 75 meters wide between the humps, and 125 meters broad at each end. A continuous trench that was knee- to waist-deep and had 22 bunkers formed the perimeter. Inside the perimeter were 30 buildings of various styles, giving the appearance of a shantytown. The whole thing was surrounded by two belts of concertina wire.
Two dirt roads interrupted the trench and wire line of the perimeter. Doyle had tried unsuccessfully to have chain-link fencing flown in to close the openings, but higher headquarters, noting that the base was soon to be turned over to the ARVN, decided against providing construction materials for the soldiers of South Vietnam. The road openings remained.
With the 196th Infantry Brigade already scheduled for redeployment to Da Nang, Doyle had ceased all construction projects within and around Mary Ann and had started packing for the move. By March most of the base’s mortars and artillery had been airlifted to nearby LZ Mildred to fire on enemy positions in that sector. By March 27, all of Mary Ann’s starlight scopes and ground radars had been shipped to the rear for maintenance.
On the night of the attack, the infantry under Doyle at Mary Ann consisted of 231 Americans and 21 South Vietnamese, plus the battalion training team, battalion intelligence officer, the sergeant major, an interpreter and 22 transient soldiers from Companies A, B and D. The transient troops spending the night at the base were in no mood to remain on alert. Specialist 4 Harold Wise was one of those who had just arrived. ‘Thirty percent of the guys on the hill were heads,’ he said later. ‘Marijuana, heroin, whatever you wanted. The guys in the sensor hooch next to the tactical operations center were potheads, and a lot of people congregated there to buy stuff, but unless they knew you, you didn’t come in. They had locks on the door of their hooch. Nobody did it in the open. It wasn’t brazen. If an officer saw somebody doing it, he’d bust the guy. Some of the officers and sergeants knew what was going on, but as long as you did your job, they didn’t say anything.’
The drug problem on the base, although not as pronounced as in other areas, was still sufficient to benefit the enemy. Battery C, 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery (155mm), was aligned in battery formation atop the base’s highest elevation. The infiltrators quickly destroyed both of the unit’s howitzers. Staff Sergeant Easton Rowell, the chief of the firing battery, was wounded six times. He later groused, ‘We took a screwin’ because the grunts on that hill were a bunch of potheads!’
The attackers were from the Main Force VC 409th Sapper Battalion. This unit was known for operating against the ARVN in Quang Nam province, and at that time was thought by out-of-date U.S. intelligence to be 15 to 20 kilometers east of Mary Ann, preparing for a major push against the South Vietnamese. At 0200 hours on March 28, an American searchlight crew conducted a cursory 20-minute illumination sweep of the slope outside the exit to the firing range. The hillside had been cleared of vegetation, but still was punctuated by boulders and tree stumps, all of which provided good hiding places for the small enemy. Seeing nothing unusual, the GIs shut down their light and headed for their bunker. The explosions started 10 minutes later.
The 409th sappers were experts in their trade. With AK-47s strapped to their backs, grenades in their belts and satchel charges fastened to their chests, they wore nothing but khaki shorts and soot. They crawled silently, slowly and steadily through the jungle, using their fingertips as probes.
When they detected trip flares, they used lengths of bamboo, carried in their teeth, to tie down the strikers. When they felt wires leading to Claymore mines, they used wire cutters to cut the lines. They were careful to cut only two-thirds of the way through the strands of concertina, then used their fingers to break the rest of the way through the wire silently and without shaking the large coils.
Approaching from the southwest, the infiltrators cut four big gaps through the concertina, two holes on each side of the road where it left the perimeter. They repeated the procedure 50 meters farther on, through the second barrier, although the wire there was in such a state of disrepair that many sappers simply walked across the rusty, breaking steel strands. Another 30 yards and they came to the final concertina barrier. Rather than risk having the snip of cutters heard by some alert sentry, the infiltrators simply spread a gap through the wire, tying it open with bamboo strips.
The sappers were well-rehearsed. Splitting up into three- and six-man squads in the zone between the inner wire barrier and the bunkers facing southwest, the assault teams waited until 0230 hours. Then their supporting mortars opened with accurate fire on the TOC and CP on the base’s southeast side, and on the remaining U.S. mortar and artillery positions in the northwest area.
A card game in the radio room was just breaking up when the first rounds hit. The explosion hurled Wise onto his back, knocked off his glasses, broke his left arm and sprayed the front of his body head-to-foot with fragments. Using his right arm to drag himself into his hooch, he shook awake his roommate, Pfc Peter Detlef, and then hid behind his reel-to-reel tape deck as he seated himself on the floor and tried to cover the door with his M-16. When Detlef, still half asleep, tried to go through the door, another explosion blasted the door off its frame and on top of him.
As the VC had anticipated, most defenders were immobilized by confusion. One radioman never bothered to crank up his radio to report the situation, but simply rolled off his cot onto his hut’s dirt floor and hid beneath his mattress until the shooting stopped.
Inside the TOC, Spc. 4 Stephen Gutosky grabbed his radio mike and reported: ‘Be advised, we are taking incoming at this time! Stand by and I’ll see if I can get a direction on it!’
When he realized with a start that he was still inside the TOC, he shouted into his microphone: ‘I can’t get outside to see where it’s coming from! Just fire all the counter mortars and counter rockets you got ASAP!’
By that point the south end of the TOC was burning from the inside after a satchel charge set off a case of white phosphorus grenades. Yet Doyle still refused to abandon his position. After ordering Gutosky to radio for helicopter gunships and illumination, the wounded colonel said, ‘I’m going out to see what’s going on!’
Doyle did not realize how badly he was hurt. He was almost deaf and blind from tear gas, powder burns and explosion concussions. The shrapnel wounds in his arms and legs would take months to heal. Nonetheless he made it to the top of the exit steps, raised his M-16 and started to aim at a couple of infiltrators outside the bunker — but a third, unseen enemy soldier threw a grenade at him. It landed at his feet and exploded as he turned to head back inside, blowing him down the stairs.
The entire TOC was now burning. Lieutenant Edward McKay, the TOC night duty officer, started to panic in the ovenlike bunker. ‘We gotta get outta here!’ screamed McKay.
‘We’re all going to die!’ sobbed McKay.
Summoning his last element of strength, Doyle slapped the hysterical junior officer hard across the face and snarled, ‘Shut up, lieutenant!’
It was now 0251, and radio telephone operator (RTO) David Tarnay managed to raise LZ Mildred.
Spilberg heard Tarnay shouting into his microphone, he bounded back inside the blazing TOC. Grabbing a handset, he shouted to Lieutenant Thomas Schmitz at LZ Mildred: ‘I want artillery 50 meters out, 360 degrees around our position. On my command be prepared to fire on the firebase!’
Spilberg realized that calling down fire on his own position was likely the only way to save the surviving Americans there.
Doyle next grabbed the mike and informed Schmitz they were being forced to evacuate the TOC and would temporarily lose radio contact. With Tarnay and Gutosky carrying all the radio equipment they could, and with the now-incoherent McKay slung over Tarnay’s shoulder, the handful of resolute GIs made their way to the firebase aid station, where Tarnay put McKay on a cot and then tried to get a radio working.
Doyle and Spilberg left the aid station and crossed the compound to the Charlie Company CP. When they arrived they found that it too was an inferno, its sandbagged entrance collapsed. Through out Mary Ann, unprepared Americans were shot and blown apart by the VC sappers, who seemed to know precisely where to concentrate their assault.
Later, some survivors would accuse the South Vietnamese of cooperating with the attackers. Specialist 4 Steven Webb was the only U.S. soldier who was with the base’s ARVN contingent throughout the fight. Despite later rumors that ARVN troops had fired on Americans that night, Webb said he never saw it happen.
Nevertheless, suspicion and bitterness lingered. One of Knight’s NCOs, Staff Sgt. John Calhoun, later remarked, ‘It was an inside job.’
Specialist 4 Edward L. Newton concurred. ‘That morning before the attack, an ARVN officer came up to our bunker and asked how we got out of the perimeter,’ he recalled. ‘We asked him why he wanted to know. He said because he and his men wanted to go down there fishing. We thought it was kind of peculiar. We said we did not know for sure.’
The officer, who wore the insignia of a South Vietnamese first lieutenant, persisted in his questioning of the Americans until some of them told him the easiest way in and out was the south end and on the road running past the rifle range to the water point.
Specialist 5 Carl Cullers later claimed: ‘[I saw] an ARVN going behind the rifle range. It was more or less a joke at first. One of the cooks said, `Hey Cullers, there’s an NVA down there,’ and I said, `Quit joking,’ and he said, `Wait, and I’ll point him out to you.’ I knew he was an ARVN by his size. He had gone out beyond the rifle range, and down the slope for about 20 minutes. I took it for granted he had gone down to defecate.’
Sergeant Andrew Olints of Company D was next to the helipad at dusk on the 27th when ‘an ARVN chopper came out, and fifteen of those little suckers got on,’ as he later reported. ‘They were thrilled to death, jumping on, pushing each other. I didn’t think the thing would take off, it was so overloaded. We had no idea what was coming, but in retrospect it sure looked like they did.’
Specialist 4 Gary Noller, an RTO at LZ Mildred, later wrote: ‘I remember an incident where a GI came to the TOC and said that an ARVN was signaling with a flashlight to someone outside the wire.’ He said he went to check it out. ‘[I] did encounter an ARVN with a GI flashlight near the east perimeter wire,’ Noller remembered. ‘I told him not to use it, in English, which he probably didn’t understand, and then reported this to an officer. The incident was not treated seriously by the officers, but added credence as far as the GIs were concerned that some of the ARVN were not on our side.’
In one of the most dramatic events of the night, Lieutenant Barry McGee, who had been sleeping atop bunker No. 10 when the attack started, stumbled half asleep into his platoon CP with several of his men just as the enemy targeted the position. McGee was the leader of C Company’s 3rd Platoon, which manned bunkers Nos. 9 through 13. As he and his men grabbed their weapons and prepared to return outside, two mortar rounds hit the bunker, half demolishing it and dislodging a heavy ceiling beam that fell on the lieutenant, seriously injuring his head. A medic dressed the wound, and after about 15 minutes the men in the platoon CP noted that the explosions outside seemed to be ending.
McGee had just lurched to his feet, turned to the door and said, ‘All right, let’s go!’ when a grenade sailed through the door, exploded and blew the medic, Spc. 5 Carl Patton, back into McGee. Realizing he had lost his weapon, McGee grabbed Patton’s M-16 and again headed for the door. Another satchel charge detonated on the roof, caving it in and killing 22-year-old Sergeant Warren Ritsema when a beam fell on him. The blast knocked down McGee, who again lost his weapon. He staggered to his feet and stumbled outside, incoherent with pain and frustration. When the short, stocky, powerfully built and unarmed lieutenant collided with a sapper outside the bunker, McGee wrestled him to the ground and strangled him with his bare hands. It was quite a feat for somebody already half-dead from a fractured skull. The lieutenant’s corpse was later found atop the VC he had choked lifeless. Another sapper had shot McGee in the back.
At 0320, Spilberg and Doyle were at the southern end of Mary Ann, believing the attack was almost over. But then, partly obscured by the billowing smoke, another team of sappers started back up the hill, throwing grenades in all directions.
Apparently searching for their own dead and wounded, the VC broke contact and withdrew when the first helicopter gunship finally arrived overhead.
It was commanded by Captain Norman Hayes, Troop D, 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry. Hayes radioed LZ Mildred that he had arrived at his objective and to lift and shift the artillery fire Spilberg had earlier ordered. Mildred ceased firing except for illumination rounds. When Hayes’ searchlight illuminated VC in the wire, they opened up on the gunship with small arms. As Hayes later put it, ‘We engaged, and I know that anything we fired on ceased firing on us.’
Hayes made repeated passes over the base, dropping grenades and strafing targets of opportunity, despite two of his guns becoming inoperative almost immediately after his arrival on station. He made repeated radio calls for additional gunships and medevacs, but by the time he ran low on fuel and had to return to Chu Lai, no additional aircraft had arrived. Because of the chaotic state of communications, the brigade and division were under the misconception that Mary Ann had been subjected to nothing more than mortaring. Hayes actually had time to return to Chu Lai, refuel, reload and repair his guns, and then fly all the way back to Mary Ann, before medical helicopters began arriving. Colonel Hathaway and Lt. Col. Richard Martin, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery, arrived with the medevacs. Spilberg was almost amused at their reaction to the devastation, later remarking: ‘They were in a state of shock. They had just walked into Auschwitz.’
Despite having a gutful of fragments, Spilberg at first refused to leave the base. He wanted all his wounded men taken out before him, and when Doyle told him to board a chopper he simply climbed in one door and out the other side. Not until Hathaway gave him a direct order did Spilberg finally leave. He was later awarded the Silver Star.Spilberg also recommended Doyle for a Silver Star, but Hathaway refused to endorse the nomination. He later said he was tortured by the decision, explaining, ‘I just felt that although he had conducted himself with a certain amount of valor, the situation had occurred because of shortcomings on his part.’
At 1600 the next day, the enemy hit the ruins of Mary Ann with 12.7mm machine gun fire, sweeping the enclosure from a ridgeline to the north.
One GI was wounded in the attack.Fifteen dead sappers were collected from within the base, although blood trails indicated several dead and wounded had been dragged back into the jungle. After the debacle, however, the South Vietnamese decided they did not want to garrison Mary Ann. The FSB was closed and abandoned on April 24, 1971.
General Creighton Abrams, commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, held 23rd Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. James Baldwin responsible for the disaster, and relieved him of his command. The 23rd ID’s name had been eternally tarnished three years earlier because of the My Lai massacre. Many in the U.S. Army suspected that Baldwin would not have been fired had he been in any other division.
What happened at Mary Ann was a failure at the most basic level of soldiering. The Company had been warned by its South Vietnamese Kit Carson scout that it had been infiltrated by enemy spies posing as ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers.
All electronic sensors had been pulled from the perimeter the day before the attack. Not a single ARVN soldier came to the aid of the Americans, and the enemy left their Vietnamese brothers alone throughout the assault. The Americans also took fire from the ARVN part of the compound. Mary Ann was a classic case of intelligence failure. The clues, quite simply, were never added up.
Fire Support Base Mary Ann was scheduled to be turned over to the ARVN in a matter of days. Nobody had bothered to tell the soldiers who died defending it.
Both Hathaway and Doyle received career-ending formal reprimands. Being blamed for the Mary Ann tragedy was a crushing blow to Doyle. He and his wife divorced soon after his release from the hospital. He remarried in April 1972 — just two weeks before receiving his letter of reprimand from Army chief of staff General William Westmoreland. Doyle cut his honeymoon short in order to make a personal but futile appeal to Westmoreland. Doyle developed a severe drinking problem, and he died of a heart attack in March 1984. He was 52. Hathaway and Spilberg were among those following his caisson to the gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. While delivering the funeral oration, Spilberg spoke for many when he referred to Doyle as ‘the last casualty of Firebase Mary Ann.’
This article was written by Kelly Bell and originally published in the April 2006 issue of Vietnam Magazine. Pictures provided from the internet and placed into the story line by John Podlaski
Ken Burns Never Knew How Wrong He Was About the Vietnam War
Novelist Robert Stone once likened the Vietnam War to a piece of shrapnel “embedded in our definition of who we are.” Who better to extract that shrapnel than Ken Burns, America’s preeminent documentary filmmaker? Ever since his definitive 1990 series, The Civil War, attracted a record 40 million viewers to PBS, Burns has been tackling historical topics ranging from jazz and the national parks to World War II, often in collaboration with director Lynn Novick. Ten years in the making, The Vietnam War, Burns and Novick’s 10-part journey into the most divisive of our 20th-century conflicts, premieres September 17 on PBS. (Read Klay’s interview with Novick at the bottom of this post.)
The series, which relies on the latest historical accounts, scores of participants, and a wealth of archival materials, gives voice to Vietnamese combatants and civilians in addition to the usual American experts, policymakers, veterans, and protesters. The result is a work of dramatic sweep and shocking intimacy—interspersing, for example, a US pilot’s frank description of bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail with the recollections of a Vietnamese woman who evaded a fiery death, or contrasting the last recorded words of a young draftee with snippets of private presidential conversations. The soundtrack includes classic songs of the era, plus new recordings by Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross—whose menacing theme music underscores the mayhem. As a veteran of the Iraq War who has written about the experiences of returning soldiers, I jumped at the chance to speak with Burns about his most formidable project to date.
Phil Klay: You’ve covered two wars already. Why this one?
Ken Burns: A good deal of the problems we have today had their seeds planted in the divisions it would produce. I grew up in the s I was eligible for the draft. My father was against the war, so I was against the war, but I paid attention. I watched the body count—I would be so happy [when] there were fewer [dead] Americans. I thought I knew a lot about it. And so I went in with the kind of arrogance that people with superficial knowledge always have. Lynn and I have spent 10 years shedding our feeble preconceptions. It was a daily humiliation.
PK: I was struck by what journalist Neil Sheehan told you: “It always galls me when I read or hear about the World War II generation as the greatest generation these kids were just as gallant and courageous as anybody who fought in World War II.”
KB: I think what Neil was saying is that we don’t want to sentimentalize war. World War II is smothered in sentimentality and nostalgia. What’s interesting about Vietnam is that sentimentality is just not there, so you’re given kind of a clean access to it in one way. It’s also a war that represents a failure for the United States. Many people came back feeling like they never wanted to talk about it again. And so we developed a national amnesia.
PK: The war also came at a time when racial tensions in the United States were coming to a head—for instance, the way the draft functioned.
KB: African Americans saw the military as a way out of poverty—a job and steady pay. But as the civil rights movement reached a fever pitch, there was a disproportionate number of African Americans serving in combat roles and therefore being wounded and killed. The military, to their credit, did try to address this. But the larger thing is that Vietnam represents a kind of microcosm of America in the s. One needs to go no further than Muhammad Ali: His saying “no Viet Cong ever called me ‘nigger'” is an important part of the story. And the way African Americans within units were segregated and made to feel inferior makes combat a very interesting flashpoint for racial issues. As one black soldier says, “They don’t care if you’re from Roxbury or South Boston they’re shooting at you.”
PK: Were your Vietnamese participants concerned about how they would be portrayed?
KB: Of course—in the exact same fashion as the Americans. But after a few questions, they realized what we were about. You see them beginning to cop to stuff the massacre of civilians after [the Tet Offensive battle of] Hue has never been acknowledged by the Vietnamese government, and we’ve got two of their soldiers describing it as an atrocity.
PK: The Vietnamese American author Viet Thanh Nguyen talks about how every war is fought twice, once in fact and then—
KB: —in memory.
PK: Right. So how did you set out to retell a story that’s so often reduced to one about white college-aged men and their families grappling with going to war or not going—or coming home, or protesting—when the reality is so much broader?
KB: Thank you, Phil, for being the first person who has asked that. One way is to avail ourselves of the recent scholarship and begin to craft a narrative that is accurate to the real events of that war. Then populate the illustration of that war with enough variety of human experiences, American and Vietnamese, that it permits you to realize that memory is not just fragile, sometimes fraudulent, manipulated, and self-serving—but also accurate. You begin to realize that more than one truth can coexist.
KB: There’s nobody sitting there like a villain in a B movie, saying, “Oh, good, let’s go ruin this country and sully the name of the United States.” There are jerks and idiots at various points, but most of them are acting in good faith. This was something that was begun in secrecy and ended 30 years later in failure. That was a word we spent literally a year arguing over. It wasn’t a defeat nobody took over the United States. It was not surrender. We failed.
PK: Your narrator opens by saying the war “was begun in good faith by decent people.” How do you square that with the duplicity depicted later in the documentary?
PK: Larry Heinemann once said he wrote novels about Vietnam because that’s more polite than a simple “fuck you.” Was hiring Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the soundtrack your version of a polite fuck-you?
KB: That does a disservice to their artistry. We needed music that fit the period and the mood. Trent and Atticus are able to create music that is jarring and dissonant and anxiety-producing and at the same time resolves melodically and emotionally. Then we went to Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble and said, “Here are some lullabies and folk tunes that everybody in Vietnam, North and South, would recognize.” The Vietnamese have said, “How did you know ‘Wounded Soldier,’ or this lullaby?” We had gotten into their inner hearts. Then, perhaps as importantly, we have 120 pieces from the greatest artists of that period, whether it’s Merle Haggard or the Beatles or Led Zeppelin or Otis Redding.
PK: Vietnam was carried out under five presidents. Iraq and Afghanistan are on their third. Did this series make you more hopeful about America’s ability to wrap up these conflicts—or less?
KB: Our job is just to tell the story, not to put up big neon signs saying, “Hey, isn’t this kind of like the present?” But we know historical narratives cannot help but be informed by our own fears and desires. The tactics the Viet Cong and also the North Vietnamese Army employed, as well as the Taliban and Al Qaeda and now ISIS, suggest an infinite war—and that’s why you hope that lessons of Vietnam can be distilled. Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” We have spent our lives listening to the rhymes. Now history makes me an optimist. When people say, “This is the worst time ever!” I go, “Uh-huh.”
PK: So, how are you going to tell my war?
KB: I’m going to wait until 25, maybe 30 years out, and then we’ll see how it can be synthesized into something that might be coherent, but more imporatant, helpful. I really hope somebody will walk up to me one day and say, “This saved my life.” Or maybe just—let’s not be melodramatic—”I finally was able to communicate to my grandson what I had done and what I had seen and what I had felt, and it was okay to do that.”
Below is a condensed version of Klay’s conversation with The Vietnam War co-director Lynn Novick.
Phil Klay: When you were coming into this project, I imagine you had a very different relationship with the Vietnam War than Ken did. He came of age at the war’s peak. You were born in 1962. How did the war affect you and your family at the time?
Lynn Novick: The war was ongoing for my entire childhood. I remember feeling like “It’s just never going to end,” it was a perpetual war. I don’t have any family members that were directly affected by it. My parents were too old, and they were too young to be in World War II, they slipped in between. I didn’t pay that much attention, to be honest, as a teenager, until the Hollywood movies started coming out in the late s. They certainly imprinted me with some ideas about what the war might have been like. At the same time they were very melodramatic.
PK: Your primary memory of the war was shaped by Hollywood.
LN: Well, not completely. That was my first visual experience of it I would say. As a kid, we didn’t have the TV on in the evening to watch the news. Yeah, the Hollywood movies and some fiction. Then, I started to become extremely interested and I read everything I could get my hands on from the time I was in college until we made the film. I remember the Stanley Karnow series coming out pretty soon after I graduated from college and being really blown away by it. That opened up a lot of questions in my mind that I certainly couldn’t answer.
PK: What would you say are the biggest fallacies about the Vietnam War that fictional movies have perpetuated?
LN: One blind spot in all the Hollywood movies that I remember is that the Vietnamese, if depicted at all, are completely one dimensional. I can’t think of a Hollywood film of the time that we’re discussing that really gives a dimensional representation of anything to do with what the Vietnamese were going through on both sides.
PK: Some of the interviews with Vietnamese citizens and former soldiers in your series are just remarkable. What was it like convincing them to get on board with the project?
LN: It was really the same process in Vietnam as it was here—I wouldn’t differentiate that much between people’s reluctance or enthusiasm about doing this. A lot of is just connecting with someone and doing your homework, knowing a lot about them and their experience and whatever the environment that they were living in that you’re interesting in talking about. The people that we talked to in Vietnam were not reluctant. I guess that’s the best way to say it, or they wouldn’t have talked to us. They seemed extremely open to the idea. The only reason we were surprised was because we had no idea what to expect. We were surprised to find how open people were to talk about such a painful subject: just the scale of tragedy there, how many people were killed, how small of a country it is, how everybody was affected, the real horrors of the war. If I’d gone through something like that, I’m not sure I’d be able to talk about it.
PK: I know certainly for a lot of the veterans that I know, a persistent bitterness has been America’s unwillingness to grant a sufficient number of visas for Iraqi and Afghan families. What are the lessons you drew from the stories of Vietnamese refugees who fled the war and its aftermath?
LN: To go back to the fall of Saigon, I felt it’s not the same bitterness that you and your colleagues feel about what has happened recently, but there was a sense that we abandoned our ally and we abandoned our people and left them at the mercy of the North Vietnamese. That is absolutely true. We let a pretty small number of people get out out right before the fall of Saigon compared to the numbers of people that probably wanted to leave. Then, we really weren’t welcoming people with open arms exactly. There was no kind of concerted effort to really take responsibility for the fact that we had hired people, we had promised them things. That all being said, there are over a million and a half Vietnamese-Americans living in the US today. They are extremely patriotic and loyal and just devoted Americans, that first generation. They often come from military families. There are people who got out of Vietnam who are grateful to be here for sure, but we also left behind a lot of people. We paid a heavy price.
PK: How do we achieve reconciliation?
LN: Wow, that is the $64,000 question. I don’t know. I’m optimistic that enough time has passed and that people can just reset and take a new look at this and have a different kind of conversation. We’ve seen it happen. I think there’s something extraordinarily powerful about the process of having to hear the stories of people you don’t agree with. It seems to open people up to hear each other and all I can say is we’ve seen it happen again and again in the conversations after screenings. These are informal focus groups of people who are bitterly opposed on many levels. After watching the entire film, they are willing to say “Well, maybe I didn’t understand as much where you were coming from and maybe I thought I was being patriotic, but at least I understand that you have a valid point of view and I underestimated you.”
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The Vietnam War, Part I: Early Years and Escalation
Fifty years ago, in March 1965, 3,500 U.S. Marines landed in South Vietnam. They were the first American combat troops on the ground in a conflict that had been building for decades. The communist government of North Vietnam (backed by the Soviet Union and China) was locked in a battle with South Vietnam (supported by the United States) in a Cold War proxy fight. The U.S. had been providing aid and advisors to the South since the 1950s, slowly escalating operations to include bombing runs and ground troops. By 1968, more than 500,000 U.S. troops were in the country, fighting alongside South Vietnamese soldiers as they faced both a conventional army and a guerrilla force in unforgiving terrain. Each side suffered and inflicted huge losses, with the civilian populace suffering horribly. Based on widely varying estimates, between 1.5 and 3.6 million people were killed in the war. This photo essay, part one of a three-part series, looks at the earlier stages of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, as well as the growing protest movement, between the years 1962 and 1967. Be sure to also see part 2 and part 3 . Warning: Several of these photographs are graphic in nature.
Hovering U.S. Army helicopters pour machine gun fire into a tree line to cover the advance of South Vietnamese ground troops in an attack on a Viet Cong camp 18 miles north of Tay Ninh, near the Cambodian border, in March of 1965. #
An American officer serving with the South Vietnam forces poses with group of Montagnards in front of one of their provisionary huts in a military camp in central Vietnam on November 17, 1962. They were brought in by government troops from a village where they were used as labor force by communist Viet Cong forces. The Montagnards, dark-skinned tribesmen numbering about 700,000, live in the highlands of central Vietnam. The government was trying to win their alliance in its war with the Viet Cong. #
Vietnamese airborne rangers, their two U.S. advisers, and a team of 12 U.S. Special Forces troops set out to raid a Viet Cong supply base 62 miles northwest of Saigon, on August 6, 1963. As the H-21 helicopters hovered six feet from the ground to avoid spikes and wires and under sniper fire, the troops jumped out to attack. #
A South Vietnamese Marine, severely wounded in a Viet Cong ambush, is comforted by a comrade in a sugar-cane field at Duc Hoa, about 12 miles from Saigon, on August 5, 1963. A platoon of 30 Vietnamese Marines was searching for communist guerrillas when a long burst of automatic fire killed one Marine and wounded four others. #
Napalm air strikes raise clouds into gray monsoon skies as houseboats glide down the Perfume River toward Hue in Vietnam on February 28, 1963, where a battle for control of the old Imperial City ended with a Communist defeat. Firebombs were directed against a village on the outskirts of Hue. #
Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a Saigon street on June 11, 1963, to protest alleged persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. President Ngo Dình Diem, part of the Catholic minority, had adopted policies that discriminated against Buddhists and gave high favor to Catholics. #
Flying low over the jungle, an A-1 Skyraider drops 500-pound bombs on a Viet Cong position below as smoke rises from a previous pass at the target, on December 26, 1964. #
Partially covered, a dying Viet Cong guerrilla raises his hands as South Vietnamese Marines search palm groves near Long Binh in the Mekong Delta, on February 27, 1964. The guerrilla died in a foxhole following a battle between a battalion of South Vietnamese Marines and a unit of Viet Cong. #
As U.S. "Eagle Flight" helicopters hover overhead, South Vietnamese troops wade through a rice paddy in Long An province during operations against Viet Cong guerrillas in the Mekong Delta, in December of 1964. The "Eagle Flight" choppers were loaded with Vietnamese airborne troops who were dropped in to support ground forces at the first sign of enemy contact. #
A father holds the body of his child as South Vietnamese Army Rangers look down from their armored vehicle on March 19, 1964. The child was killed as government forces pursued guerrillas into a village near the Cambodian border. #
Marines wade ashore with heavy equipment at first light at Red Beach near Da Nang in Saigon on April 10, 1965. #
With the persuasion of a Viet Cong-made spear pressed against his throat, a captured Viet Cong guerrilla decided to talk to interrogators, telling them of a cache of Chinese grenades on March 28, 1965. He was captured with 13 other guerrillas and 17 suspects when two Vietnamese battalions overran a Viet Cong camp about 15 miles southwest of Da Nang air force base. #
Thousands attend a rally on the grounds of the Washington Monument in Washington on April 17, 1965, to hear Ernest Gruening, a Democratic senator from Alaska, and other speakers discuss U.S. policy in Vietnam. The rally followed picketing of the White House by students demanding an end to Vietnam fighting. #
A nurse attempts to comfort a wounded U.S. Army soldier in a ward of the 8th army hospital at Nha Trang in South Vietnam on February 7, 1965. The soldier was one of more than 100 who were wounded during Viet Cong attacks on two U.S. military compounds at Pleiku, 240 miles north of Saigon. Seven Americans were killed in the attacks. #
Flag-draped coffins of eight American Servicemen killed in attacks on U.S. military installations in South Vietnam, on February 7, are placed in transport plane at Saigon, February 9, 1965, for return flight to the United States. Funeral services were held at the Saigon Airport with U.S. Ambassador Maxwell D. Taylor and Vietnamese officials attending. #
Injured Vietnamese receive aid as they lie on the street after a bomb explosion outside the U.S. embassy in Saigon, Vietnam, on March 30, 1965. Smoke rises from wreckage in background. At least two Americans and several Vietnamese were killed in the bombing. #
Four "Ranch Hand" C-123 aircraft spray liquid defoliant on a suspected Viet Cong position in South Vietnam in September of 1965. The four specially equipped planes covered a 1,000-foot-wide swath in each pass over the dense vegetation. #
A Vietnamese battalion commander, Captain Thach Quyen, left, interrogates a captured Viet Cong suspect on Tan Dinh Island, Mekong Delta, in 1965. #
A strategic air command B-52 bomber with externally mounted, 750-pound bombs heads toward its target about 56 miles northwest of Saigon near Tay Ninh on November 2, 1965. #
General William Westmoreland talks with troops of first battalion, 16th regiment of 2nd brigade of U.S. First Division at their positions near Bien Hoa in Vietnam, in 1965. #
Flares from planes light a field covered with the dead and wounded of the ambushed battalion of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division in the Ia Drang Valley, Vietnam, on November 18, 1965, during a fierce battle that had been raging for days. Units of the division were battling to hold their lines against what was estimated to be a regiment of North Vietnamese soldiers. Bodies of the slain soldiers were carried to this clearing with their gear to await evacuation by helicopter. #
A Viet Cong fighter in Vietnam in an undated photo #
A U.S. Marine, newly arrived in South Vietnam on April 29, 1965, drips with perspiration while on patrol in search of Viet Cong guerrillas near Da Nang air base. American troops found 100-degree temperatures a tough part of the job. General Wallace M. Greene Jr., a Marine Corps commandant, after a visit to the area, authorized light short-sleeved uniforms as aid to troops’ comfort. #
In Berkeley-Oakland City, California, demonstrators march against the war in Vietnam in December of 1965. #
A Vietnamese litter bearer wears a face mask to keep out the smell as he passes the bodies of U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers killed in fighting against the Viet Cong at the Michelin rubber plantation, about 45 miles northeast of Saigon, on November 27, 1965. #
Pedestrians cross the destroyed Hue Bridge in Hue, Vietnam, in an undated photo. #
Wounded and shocked civilian survivors of Dong Xoai crawl out of a fort bunker on June 6, 1965, where they survived murderous ground fighting and air bombardments of the previous two days. #
A U.S. Air Force Douglas A-1E Skyraider drops a white phosphorus bomb on a Viet Cong position in South Vietnam in 1966. #
A Vietnamese girl, 23 years old, was captured by an Australian patrol 30 feet below ground at the end of a maze of tunnels some 10 miles west of the headquarters of the Australian task force (40 miles southeast of Saigon). The woman was crouched over a World War II radio set. About seven male Viet Cong took off when the Australians appeared𠅋ut the woman remained and appeared to be trying to conceal the radio set. She was taken back to the Australian headquarters where she told under sharp interrogation (which included a "waterprobe" see her wet clothes after the interrogation) that she worked as a Viet Cong nurse in the village of Hoa Long and had been in the tunnel for 10 days. The Australians did not believe her because she seemed to lack any medical knowledge. They thought that she may have possibly been the leader of the political cell in Long Hoa. She was being led away after interrogation, clothes soaked from the "waterprobe" on October 29, 1966. #
Left: Pilot Leslie R. Leavoy in flight with other jets in the background above Vietnam in 1966. Right: Army nurse 2nd Lieutenant Roberta rtie” Steele in South Vietnam, on February 9, 1966. #
Women and children crouch in a muddy canal as they take cover from intense Viet Cong fire at Bao Trai, about 20 miles west of Saigon, on January 1, 1966. Paratroopers, background, of the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade escorted the South Vietnamese civilians through a series of firefights during the U.S. assault on a Viet Cong stronghold. #
A napalm strike erupts in a fireball near U.S. troops on patrol in South Vietnam in 1966. #
A Marine, top, wounded slightly when his face was creased by an enemy bullet, pours water into the mouth of a fellow Marine suffering from heat during Operation Hastings along the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam on July 21, 1966. #
Left: A Vietnamese child clings to his bound father who was rounded up as a suspected Viet Cong guerrilla during “Operation Eagle Claw” in the Bong Son area, 280 miles northeast of Saigon on February 17, 1966. The father was taken to an interrogation camp with other suspects rounded up by the U.S. 1st air cavalry division. Right: The body of an American paratrooper killed in action in the jungle near the Cambodian border is raised up to an evacuation helicopter in War Zone C, Vietnam, in 1966. #
The singing group the "Korean Kittens" appear on stage at Cu Chi, Vietnam, during the Bob Hope USO Christmas show, to entertain U.S. troops of the 25th Infantry Division. #
A grim-faced U.S. Marine fires his M60 machine gun, concealed behind logs and resting in a shallow hole, during the battle against North Vietnamese regulars for Hill 484, just south of the demilitarized zone, on October 10, 1966. After three weeks of bitter fighting, the 3rd battalion of the 4th Marines took the hill the week of October 2. #
Lieutenant Commander Donald D. Sheppard, of Coronado, California, aims a flaming arrow at a bamboo hut concealing a fortified Viet Cong bunker on the banks of the Bassac River, Vietnam, on December 8, 1967. #
A U.S. Marine CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter comes down in flames after being hit by enemy ground fire during Operation Hastings, just south of the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam, on July 15, 1966. The helicopter crashed and exploded on a hill, killing one crewman and 12 Marines. Three crewmen escaped with serious burns. #
A man brews tea while a U.S. Marine examines a pinup in Vietnam in September of 1967. #
A trooper of the U.S. 1st cavalry division aims a flamethrower at the mouth of cave in An Lao Valley in South Vietnam, on April 14, 1967, after the Viet Cong group hiding in it were warned to emerge. #
Sergeant Ronald Payne, 21, of Atlanta, Georgia, emerges from a Viet Cong tunnel holding his silencer-equipped revolver with which he fired at guerrillas fleeing ahead of him underground. Payne and others of the 196th light infantry brigade probed the massive tunnel in Hobo Woods, South Vietnam, on January 21, 1967, and found detailed maps and plans of the enemy. The infantrymen who explored the complex are known as “Tunnel Rats.” They were called out of the tunnels on January 21, and nauseating gas was pumped in. #
Military police, reinforced by Army troops, throw back anti-war demonstrators as they tried to storm a mall entrance doorway at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on October 21, 1967. #
Rick Holmes of C company, 2nd battalion, 503rd infantry, 173rd airborne brigade, sits down on January 3, 1966, in Vietnam. #
U.S. Navy Douglas A-4E Skyhawks from Attack Squadrons VA-163 Saints and VA-164 Ghost Riders attack the Phuong Dinh railroad bypass bridge, 10 kilometers north of Thanh Hoe, North Vietnam, on September 10, 1967. Note the attacking Skyhawk in the lower right and one directly left of the explosions on the bridge. #
U.S. soldiers of the 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, look on a mass grave of enemy combatants after a day-long battle against the Viet Cong 272nd Regiment, about 60 miles northwest of Saigon, in March of 1967. U.S. military command reported 423 Communist forces dead, with American losses at 30 dead, 109 wounded, and three missing. #
U.S. troops of the 7th and 9th divisions wade through marshland during a joint operation on South Vietnam's Mekong Delta, in April of 1967. #
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