On February 12th the New York Times cancelled its “Vietnam ’67” newsletter for the week . Naturally, as Marine veteran of the war during that year and into 1968, I have followed the series, edited by Clay Risen, pretty closely since it began last year. Its most recent entries have focused on Tet and the battle of Hue–an event at the center of an emotional, for me, commemoration that I attended last week of a Marine killed in Hue. Therefore, I think I was ready for this break–and the opportunity to use it to create a kind of summation.
The series has included materials by a wide range of contributors. Many are vets, some are family members, and many are Vietnamese. The series has included work by academics and other careful observers of the war. (The archive of previous newsletters can be found at this URL: https://www.nytimes.com/column/vietnam-67?emc=edit_vm_20180212&nl=&nlid=53613712&te=1). I have read far fewer of the contributions than perhaps I should have, and in scanning the archive today I found myself pausing time and again as a story caught my attention. A few, very few, examples:
“Blood Road,” by Rebecca Rusch, about Rebecca’s bicycling the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos to find her father’s burial site. He was weapons systems officer on an F-4 shot down early in March 1972. She made the trip in 2015. My Marine cohort from Basic School in 1966 has a similar experience as the widow of one of our lost flyers reflected on the search for the remains of her husband in the Marine Corps Gazette. I mention Rusch’s article because it speaks to the lives of those who lived to bear the suffering and other burdens of losing loved ones in war. We are fond of saying our lost should never be forgotten. Neither should we forget the families of those who died.
“What I Saw During the Tet Offensive” is by Joseph Zengerle, who served on Westmoreland’s staff as the Tet offensive unfolded. Who among us serving in Vietnam when Tet broke out could not be curious about the view from the top. Though having read Zengerle’s insights, it proved a bit disappointing. I’d hoped for something that we in the field could never have discern through our comings and goings. In my experience as a Rifle Platoon commander, I came eventually to feel as though the call sign–CIRCUMFERENCE–of my unit, Third Battalion, First Marines, captured the strategy of the top leadership. It seemed we turned one circle after another in our operations.
“Hue Prepared for a Holiday, Then the War Came,” by Nguyen Diu-Huong, a post doctoral instructor at the University of Washington. The memorial event I referred to above was the dedication of a painting of Captain Robert Hubbard at Auburn University, a Marine officer leading civilian programs in Thua Thien Province, who died heroically in the first week of the battle for Hue. His story and the story of his comrades was told in December by a surviving member of his team in Studies in Intelligence, the Intelligence Community’s professional journal.
“The First Time I Met Americans,” by Bao Ninh, a veteran of the North Vietnamese Army, who wrote one of the most affecting novels of the war I have read, “The Sorrow of War.” After the seizure of Saigon in April 1975, his unit backtracked through its movements to recover the bodies of its dead. When I read that in his novel, I couldn’t help but say to myself, “who knew. And we Americans thought they only recovered bodies to conceal body counts.” Also, he provides the striking reminder that no US veteran of that war can claim to have served six continuous years in combat in Vietnam.
“A Little Piece of Hell (Con Thien, July 1967),” by Don North, a television correspondent. This story describes the place and situation near the DMZ where University of Rochester classmates, Dick Hulslander and Tom King, fought. Tom died in the ambush, which was said to have resulted in the worst single loss of life for the Marine Corps in a day since WW II. I had been Dick and Carol’s best man at this wedding in 1966. Dick has forever after carried heavily the weight of the battle and Tom’s loss, of which he was keenly aware at the time. Perhaps we would be the friends we are without the shared Vietnam experience or our shared caring for Tom. What else can explain our endless texting to one another. Second youths?
“The Body Escort,” by George Masters, who describes orders to escort the body of a dead Marine to its family, funeral, and burial. An experience I had described in a post last year. One, at least this one, will never shed the emotions of such an experience.
“At Quang Nam, a Raid and a Reckoning,” by Marsh Carter, whose experience bears a resemblance to mine (as a rifle platoon commander) with the First Marines, south of Danang (though we hardly thought of ourselves as near the border with Vietnam and my own company probably never had more than 160 men as that year wore on in that part of the country). My battalion eventually went afloat as a Special (Amphibious) Landing Force, reinforced by tanks, artillery, and more. BLT 3/1 would learn very quickly how different the war was in places truly “near the border.” We still turned circles, but the price of each circumference was vastly higher.
The stories I most appreciate do little to take on the “big” questions. I listen/read to the arguments, sometimes with interest, but mostly politely. The questions will never be answered. Instead, my favored stories address individual experiences and feelings and thus approach describing, pixel by pixel, the full complexity of that experience–pixels I can’t even organize entirely for myself–the above being a feeble attempt to do so.
Stories that trouble me the most are those that demonstrate an improbable prescience about the future from those with lenses of limited focal length. As fellow veterans of the period covered in this series like to say endlessly, “When I left, we were winning the war.” Yet that was never–or rarely–said with any confidence that we were truly marching to victory in 1967. Nor were we speaking cynically about the future. For many, though I can only speak for myself, the outcome we eventually saw in 1975 was hardly preordained, and at least this Marine could speak, and I think honestly, that as difficult as the fight had become there seemed to be grounds to continue it and to keep the faith that something good could still come of it. But, by the time I got home and heard the points of view of classmates I had left behind in college, I learned that the position had become pretty indefensible in their minds. In this respect, truly saddening has been reading the poisonous comments of some readers, as though they are not only reading about 1967 and on but they are living in the period.
Looking ahead to Vietnam ’68 (will the series thus be renamed?), I see another two years of reflections on the war with personal meaning. Non-infantry members of my 1966 cohort of officers would follow after more extended training throughout 1968 and into 1969. Lives continued to be lost and those who lost them and those who were left behind must continue to be remembered.
This World Series marked the end of the Dodgers dynasty of frequent postseason appearances stretching back to 1947. Conversely, it marked the beginning of the Orioles dynasty of frequent postseason appearances that continued until 1983.
The Orioles closed out their four-game sweep on Sunday, October 9th. In Quantico, we followed the game, which began at 1400 and ended, probably, around 1630. Three of us, all members of the lowly (alphabetically speaking) fourth platoon of B Company, TBS 1-67, got it into our heads to pile into my ’62 Chevy and head north to Baltimore to take in the celebration that was surely going to take place. (And yes, we packed some beer to chug en route–true confessions.)
On arrival, we found precious little in what we thought would be the celebratory parts of Baltimore. Resigned to not much, we spotted a hotel with a bar/restaurant in downtown Baltimore, entered, found a table, ordered up more beer and studied a carbon copy of a telegraphed filing of a story to a St. Louis paper about the game and the series that had been left on the table.
Suddenly a group of cheering young people (okay, almost our age college kids, guys and girls) stormed into the bar. We watched, bemused. Then, one of the women looked our way, stopped the others, and shouted to us, “Hey, you look like Dodgers!!” One of us, maybe me, maybe Sully, said, “Yeah, we are just relaxing before our flight back to LA.”
Quickly, they joined us. One of the women said she was a reporter for her college newspaper (possibly Towson, possibly UMaryland, most unlikely Johns Hopkins), and was hoping to do a story on the Series. I handed her the carbon copy of the newspaper report and said it was from a friend of mine who had filed it and left the copy with me. Here, as I said I hoped it would be useful to her, I was also hoping for a round of free beers.
Excitedly she took it and started to grill us about who we were. I said I was Joe Moeller, the third pitcher in the Dodgers rotation behind Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, who pitched only a couple of innings in relief in the first game. The Dodgers had elected to stay with their top two, future Hall of Fame, pitchers in games three and four. I figured Moeller’s was a safe personna to adopt–who after all had really seen him? Sully decides on Jim Lefebvre, a top notch second baseman. Sully, from Los Angeles, knew what he was talking about, but it was a risky choice. The third member of our group (not at all into baseball) declared, to my horror, that he was a member of the Dodgers “taxi squad.” This went entirely unremarked upon to my amazement.
And so we chatted about the game and this and that, and, to the best of my memory, we got no beers out of the deal–just as well, in retrospect.
Fast forward to January 2016. I am schmoozing after an annual award ceremony for the journal I edit and manage (Studies in Intelligence) and chatting with an award winner. Somehow we get into baseball–I don’t know how–and she reveals that the best man in her wedding was Joe Moeller. “No kidding!!” I respond and tell the above story.
Fast forward again, to December 2017. The award winner calls and says she wants to meet with
me at work. “Sure.” We agree on a time. As promised, she materializes and hands me a little gift bag inside of which is the baseball you see in the image to the right. What a world we live in!
Thinking in retrospect the other day about my remarks to family members at Wednesday’s B Company Memorial Dedication, the below photograph came to mind. Showing Marines in a makeshift chapel service in late February 1969 at a northern firebase—C-ration and ammunition boxes serving as pews and pulpit and a CH-53 making a delivery in the background—the photograph is a powerful statement in its own right.
But something more specific caught my eye as I stared at the image in the Navy Times I had been leafing through late one afternoon that February. I was relaxing with the latest issue in my apartment after a day of language school classes at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA.
I realized that the figure nearest the camera, in the first occupied “pew,” was Lt. Lee Roy Herron, a Marine I had met at DLI. Unlike me, Lee Roy had left Basic School for six months of Vietnamese language training at Monterey before going to join the war. I’d had my 13 months in Vietnam and was enjoying the challenge of learning a new language (Chinese Mandarin) and loving the Monterey/Carmel/Big Sur territory of California.
Lee Roy (a graduate of Texas Tech in Lubbock) and his wife Danielle and I had become friends. They were a deeply religious, relatively newly wed couple. He was a determined Marine, anxious to get to Vietnam, but also eager to learn whatever this veteran of the theater might have been able to teach him.
As I marveled at the image, the telephone rang. The voice at the other end identified himself as a Marine captain calling from Texas. He said he was calling to tell me that 1st Lt. Lee Roy Herron had been killed and that Danielle had asked to have me bring him home to Lubbock from Travis Air Force Base (north of San Francisco). Awed by the timing of the call (I still am), I, of course, could only say “Yes.” But I managed to keep my composure long enough to suggest to the captain that he attempt to acquire the image for the family. This he did, and it would be present at Lee Roy’s funeral. It would again be present at a dedication of a memorial at Texas Tech for Lee Roy about 15 years later. (The photo was apparently taken by PFC C. E. Sickler, Jr., USMC, on January 26, 1969. It appeared in the Navy Times on March 5th. It now also is present at an exhibit at the National Museum of the Marine Corps dedicated to chaplains who had served Marines over the years)
Anyone who has seen the 2009 made-for-tv movie Taking Chance will understand my role in “taking” Lee Roy home. Every stage of the flight, plane change between San Francisco and Lubbock, ground transportation to a funeral home and handover of Lee Roy’s body to a funeral director was orchestrated to convey respect and honor.
And, of course, there was the family. Seeing Danielle and Lee Roy’s family was as heart wrenching as can be imagined. And yet, in the end, I think I received more comfort from them than I was able to offer.* I would see them at the dedication of Lee Roy’s Texas Tech memorial because they had thought to invite me (though they only remembered me as the “nice, young Marine who had brought Lee Roy home.”) Happily for me, Lee Roy’s best friend, another Marine officer from Tech, David Nelson, had known how to track me down. And at that ceremony I had the opportunity to tell the story of the image. And more importantly, to again understand, appreciate, and remember the families of those we have “taken” home. All the more so on Memorial Day.***
So, today, with respect to B Company, I offer my greatest admiration for the way in which Bob Lange labored to bring families into the creation of the B Company 50-year Cruise Book—a forthcoming profile of B Company and its members—and to give families opportunity to participate in the dedication of the memorial to their B Company loved ones. Those able to come were genuinely touched.***
* At least two B Company members served as Casualty Reporting Officers in their careers, Dick Hulslander (Birmingham, AL) and Rob Hill (Pittsburgh, PA). Each had to oversee the funerals and interments of more than 60 Marines who lost their lives during the war. They have each addressed more than their fair share of grief and faced the full range of emotion, from grace to anger to bitterness. In addition to me, at least two members of B Company have taken Marines home to their families.
My Memorial Day fifty years ago was spent in South Vietnam, in the company of my Marine rifle platoon—First Platoon, Lima Company, Third Battalion, First Marines. I had graduated from the Marine Corps’ Basic School for officers seven months before. The 185 members of our class—B Company, TBS 1-67—had gone their many ways just before Thanksgiving. One third of us went into the infantry and onward to units in the First or Third Marine Divisions. We almost completely lost touch with one another after our assignments to Vietnam, especially so for those who, like me, left the Corps after four years of service.
Incredibly, through the efforts of a couple of mates who, in the early 1990s, began to wonder what happened to us all, we began to meet and communicate regularly. We have met in reunion every five years since 1996, and just last October we had our most recent, marking 50 years since our experience together in The Basic School. (The story is pretty well told in a multitude of notes and bulletins in the B Company website one of those mates established years ago: TBS167.com.)
At our reunions, we had always paid homage to those we had lost during the conflict: seventeen were killed in action—including one who died of wounds years later—and four died in the line of duty. However, beyond donating commemorative bricks that line the walks of museum paths, we had never established a formal memorial in remembrance of them. Through the leadership of one of our classmates (Col. Hays Parks-Ret.), we at last did so on Wednesday, the 24th. Through the efforts of another class leader (Col. Bob Lange-Ret.), we had invited as many family members of our lost mates as we could find. A good number came, as seen above. (More about this in another post.)
It was all done the Marine Corps way, with a chaplain (Fr. John Cregan, Lt.Col. USMC, Ret.) on hand, a color guard, and a bugler to play taps. The plaque along with its dedication wreath is situated on one of several memorial walls the USMC Heritage Foundation has built along a beautiful memorial trail that winds through the grounds of the National Museum of the Marine Corps . A 30 minute video of the event (including my own brief contribution directed to family members) can be reached on the B Company website. Attached is the program with a close up o f the plaque DedicationProgram-web.
While thinking this day of those whose names appear on this plaque and on the Vietnam War Memorial and memorials around the country, I think too about the names that don’t appear. These include the names of beloved family members and friends, that I imagine to be invisibly filling the spaces surrounding the engraved names. Also absent, but in need of remembrance, are the many, many more names of those who suffered wounds, visible and invisible, many felt to this day.
One of those moments from my University of Rochester life comes to mind as we approach inauguration day 2017.
Many, if not most, members of the NROTC unit of the University of Rochester were given the opportunity to march in Lyndon Johnson’s Inauguration Day Parade on 20 January 1965. Given the passage of 50 plus years since then, my memory is hazy, perhaps even invented in some ways.
I remember our unit being among three NROTC units invited to participate in that parade. The others were, I think, Ohio State and Penn State. I think we marched near the end of the parade. It seemed we had lots of horse poop along Pennsylvania Avenue to avoid. But it was a seriously memorable event.
As I thought about it in recent days, I looked at CBS coverage of the event, posted to YouTube by the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library, but I couldn’t spot our unit, let alone me. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVCfRm-0_DM). Lots of grainy footage in black and white, with, early on, brigades of cadets from West Point and then the Naval Academy. Maybe we trailed behind the Mids from Annapolis.
The event was, in any event, a proud moment, a once in a lifetime moment. At the same time, in January 1965, the moment was unlikely to have spoken to our futures as participants in the war in Vietnam–at least for this marcher.
But the memory has led me to look at New York Times coverage of the event. The Times banner headline of the 21st read: “JOHNSON, TAKING OATH, PLEDGES EFFORTS TO BRING AN END TO TYRANNY AND MISERY; BOTH PARTIES’ LEADERS ACCLAIM ADDRESS.” (Need I say in this age that the phrase “Both Parties’ Leaders Acclaim” is unlikely to appear in print any time soon?)
I think Reston’s column was prescient and nuanced, identifying the tensions of our time–beginning with the idea that we, the United States, was a beacon and symbol for good, one that nations of the world would see as such.
It was the idea those of us in uniform took into the war zone in those years., rightly or wrongly.
Just thought I would share with my handful of readers something I might call “A Season of Marines.” It is something I shared with others at work in November.
For me, this fall has been a kind of season for Marines, which typically is highlighted only by the marking of the Marine Corps birthday on November 10th, when Marines (present and past) wish one another “Happy Birthday” as though all Marines were actually born that day. Email rings light up everywhere, and Marines look out for other Marines with whom to exchange greetings. So it was on the birthday and again during a Veteran’s Day celebration I attended a couple of days after. During that day, the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps spoke of his rebirth into the Marine Corps after having failed in college and lost a full scholarship in the bargain. Sgt Major Green expressed his gratitude for the service of those, including past and present Marines, who continue to serve the nation in other ways around the world.
In addition, I was closely involved with the reunion of Marines who together attended basic Marine officer training in 1966 in Quantico, Virginia. 184 of us attended that five-month program, which taught us to be Marine leaders and infantry officers, although the majority of us went into other assignments. Some of us, like me, would go directly into infantry assignments and service in Vietnam. Others would go to specialized schools, artillery, armor, and air–and eventually Vietnam.
Our gathering–there were about 50 attendees–were honored to have as a keynote speaker Lt. Gen. Ron Christmas, the heroic leader of a company of Marines in the battle to retake Hue in 1968 and the force behind the establishment of the Marine Corps Heritage Museum in Quantico.
General Christmas decided to tell us of how he now teaches leadership at that course we all attended 50 years ago. He offered a simple list of attributes of effective leadership, easy to capture and, in typical Marine fashion, equipped with a simple mnemonic, “The six Cs of Leadership.” One need not be a Marine leader to apply these because I think they apply in all relationships at all times and for all generations.
Competence–become the very best at your craft while understanding we all have capabilities and limitations and that some limitations we cannot overcome; we must get help with those and ensure those limitations never hurt those we are blessed to lead.
Candor–be totally honest with yourself, those we lead, our superiors, our contemporaries, and, most importantly, the American people. Marines need not be “politically correct,” but they must be correct.
Courage–two types: physical and moral. The latter is the most difficult and challenging. It comes down to integrity–doing what is right in the face of pressure to do what is wrong or to do nothing when one sees wrong being done.
Compassion–honestly caring for those you lead. Discipline is the exercise of compassion based on caring.
Consistency–be consistent in leadership style. Those you lead should not have to guess who you will be one day to the next or from one person to another.
Commitment–define in the Marine Corps by its motto, “Semper Fidelis.” Being always faithful to your God, your country, your Corps, and most especially to your fellow Marines.
These may be easy to read and easy to remember, but of course, they are not that easy to live. But the effort is well worth it. The loyalty of those one leads will be forever returned.
All the hoohah surrounding yesterday’s playing of the 50th Super Bowl game led me to think a bit about the first Super Bowl on January 15, 1967.
First, I have no memory of that game. I was six months into service as a US Marine 2nd Lieutenant after graduation in June 1966 from the University of Rochester and on my way across the Pacific to join Marines in the Vietnam War. I had been a Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship student at the U of R, en route to an AB degree in English, fully paid for by Uncle Sam in exchange for four years of service as an officer in either the Navy or the Marine Corps. I choose the latter, as earlier posts on this blog explain.
Today, en route to 50th anniversary reunions of the U of R class of 1966 and the Marine Corps officer Basic School training class I attended with nearly 200 other newly commissioned Marine Corps officers during the second half of 1966–including three from the U of R–Dick Hulslander, Tom King, and Bob Rivers–I have come to think of those days relative to yesterday’s event.
First, and most strikingly different from that day in January 1967, is the place of the military in the opening ceremony. It featured a large mixed service chorus of uniformed military personnel singing “America the Beautiful.” That was followed by Lady Gaga (I held my breath to see what ludicrous thing she wore–not as ludicrous as my worst fears offered), with her rendering of the National Anthem. She has a magnificent voice, and any objection to her performance would be quibbling, in my view. Striking, I’d say in contrast to 1967, was the tribute she offered to the military people surrounding the stage and the flag behind her–gesturing toward the chorus and other uniformed people and the flag around her stage as she closed with “home of the Brave.” No viewable video exists of the opening of Super Bowl I. Does any one remember who sang the National Anthem and who carried the flag and so forth?
So I turned to the New York TimesMachine (which reproduces issues of the paper from the past– (http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1967/01/16/issue.html)) to get a sense of the nation’s and the world’s doings the day after the game. Prescient some items were, in retrospect of course. The front page carried only a photo of Vince Lombardi accepting the winner’s trophy.
Then, I turned to a characterization of the event in the sports section by Bernard Weintraub:
“Husbands Stare—and Wives Glare (City’s Males Spend Day at TV Sets at Home, in Bars)”
“New York was gripped by a giddy fever yesterday that began rising at 4 pm, reached a peak at dusk and began dropping at nightfall.
“Before the fever finally broke, a vague madness swept the city: little boys refused to go to the movies, big boys refused to speak, girls—little and big—stormed into kitchens, slammed the door and waited. And waited.
“It’s impossible,” cried Mrs. Lucrecia Amari of Brooklyn, while her husband, Dr. S. N. Amari, stared at the Super Bowl football game on television. “He’s obsessed with watching all those big lugs on the idiot box, and I’m obsessed in the exact opposite way. Blah.”
“If the women of the city shrieked “Blah,” the men simply sat hypnotically and watched the Green Bay Packers tangle with the Kansas City Chiefs. …”
Guess that was a pretty good portent of the game’s future.
The day’s news was more telling of the times:
–-“Hanoi says it doesn’t want to annex the south.”
—“Marines kill 61 VC after defector tip.” The article begins with a comparison of the cost of the war relative to the gains that were being touted at the time (body counts): It pointed out that it was costing $250 thousand dollars to kill one Viet Cong [based on budget figures for the conduct of the war], though the 61 killed in the action referred to in the article were made possible by a “turncoat” who had been paid $44 a month.
–462 on Yale faculty urge halt to bombing of North Vietnam.
–Perhaps most telling, in the Books of the Times: Arthur Schlesinger on Vietnam By Eliot Fremont-Smith, “The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941-1966.” By Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. 128 pages. Houghton Miflin, $3.95. According to the reviewer, Schlesinger challenged the use of history to justify action in Vietnam. In particular, in Fremont-Smith’s words:
Mr. Schlesinger clearly believes that the historical analogies—principally that of Munich—invoked on behalf of our Vietnam policy are faulty and fraudulent rationalizations that have acquired a life of their own, grossly distorting our perception of the realities of our past and present involvement in Vietnam, and estranging us from our allies, from each other and, perhaps worst of all, from the future—the young, “who watch our course in Vietnam with perplexity, loathing and despair.” [emphasis added, AV]
Signs of the last sentence existed in some abundance on our campus during 1966, and we all know how that played out in years to come. I know for many who served in Vietnam, there is bitterness. For me, on reflection, there is none, only the wish that anger had not been directed at people who were doing their duty as honorably as they could.
P.S. I did not see Super Bowl II either. Along with a few hundred thousand others, I was in-country at the time, with no access to television. And the Tet Offensive of 1968 was only two weeks away–the event that completely turned attitudes about the war.
A week from tomorrow (April 30) will bring the 40th anniversary of the “Fall of Saigon” or the final takeover of the Republic of Vietnam by the forces of the People’s Liberation Army of the communist North Vietnam. The event served as the starting point of the novel The Sympathizer, which I took note of in my last post.
It was also a time of desperation, as the image to the left attests. It is a note from a South Vietnamese pilot of a Cessna, dropped onto the flight deck of the USS Midway, in effect pleading for permission to land on the aircraft carrier, which would eventually provide safety to some 3,000 people evacuated from Saigon during the last days of April 1975. (Image from http://www.midwaysailor.com/midway1970/frequentwind.html)
The events of the period, especially the displacement of thousands of Vietnamese citizens and American expatriates, have been well told in books and film, but today I encountered a US Air Force historian’s powerful 130-page account of that last month of the US engagement in the conflict in Southeast Asia: Last Flight from Saigon. (http://www.afhso.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-100928-008.pdf) The work, apparently published in 2003, takes note of the efforts of the three US armed services most involved in the operation, the Air Force, Navy and Marines—and the less armed pilots and aircraft of Air America. As a kind of tribute—and an invitation to readers to remember—those who flew the air missions, attended to the Americans pulled out of Vietnam and the refugees who came with them or followed, and especially to the refugees themselves, I offer the last chapter of the book—with my own brief comment at the end.
Chapter VIII. The Morning After: A Final Tally
The conclusion of Operation FREQUENT WIND [the sometimes ridiculed codename for the last stage of the evacuation of Americans and refugees from Vietnam] was the beginning of a much larger United States effort which involved the processing, transporting and settling of the more than 130,000 refugees in the US and other free nations in the world. The relocation effort was code-named NEW LIFE and is a story in itself.
But it was FREQUENT WIND which led to NEW LIFE, and the final dimensions of the evacuation effort deserve special attention.
Readers may recognize some variance in figures from earlier statistics, but those which follow are the most accurate that the authors could compile after the completion of the evacuation.
Over 130,000 evacuees were moved from the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) to the US. Of these, 57,507 were moved by air. (USAF-USMC-USN head counts at landing bases and on the ships.)
Over 73,000 came out by sea and were processed through Cubi Point in the Philippines, then on to Guam and Wake Islands.
Ninety-nine percent of the Americans evacuated from South Vietnam came out by air. Fixed-wing aircraft (C-I41s, C- I-OS, and civil contract flights) carried out 50,493, including 2,678 orphans. A total of 7,014 evacuees were moved on the final day by USMC, USAF, and Air America helicopters.
From the Defense Attache Office helicopter zones came 4,395 (at a ratio of ten Vietnamese for each American). A total of 2,619 were lifted from the Embassy (at a one to one ratio of Vietnamese to Americans).
Between 1 and 29 April, the Military Airlift Command flew 201
C-141 flights and 174 C-130 sorties, for a total of 375.
At least eight Military Airlift Command contract flights, carrying orphans, complete the impressive flight list.
On the final days (29-30 April), 662 military helicopter sorties were flown between the evacuation ships and Saigon. Of these, 10 USAF CHIHH-53s flew 82 missions, 61 USMC CH-46s and CH-53s completed 556 flights, and Marine Cobra Gunships (SH-1Js) flew 24 armed escort sorties.
Tactical fighters were airborne over the evacuation area during the entire operation. The Navy, operating off the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Enterprise, flew 173 sorties in A-7s, A-6s, F-14s, and various support aircraft. The USAF flew from Thailand bases and completed 127 missions in F-4s, A-7s, AC-l30s, and F-1s. In addition, USAF support aircraft (SAC KC- 135 tankers and radio, relay planes, electronic countermeasure and rescue aircraft, and C- 130 Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Centers) flew a total of 85 sorties.
When all of the final days’ activities were added up, the total equaled 1,422 sorties over Saigon, a very impressive total, marred only by the loss of one Navy A-7, one Marine AH-lJ, and one CH-46, all at sea. Only two Marine crewmen from the CH-46 were lost.
No other Americans were lost in this operation except two Marine guards, hit by a North Vietnamese Army rocket near the Defense Attache Office in Saigon.
Only God knows the numbers of sorties which Air America flew in the final month in Vietnam. The authors estimate that over 1,000 were flown, perhaps many more.
Another set of statistics tends to become lost in the frenzy of the final 30 days in Vietnam. Those statistics are the airlift sorties of Military Airlift Command and Military Airlift Command contract carriers who moved the 130,000 evacuees from their initial processing points at Clark, Cubi Point, Guam, Wake, and Hickam. Those statistics must be added to the airlift sorties which moved refugees to and from the big processing centers at Camp Pendleton, California; Fort Chaffee, Arkansas; Eglin AFB, Florida; and Indiantown Gap, Pa. When the final statistics were tallied the Military Airlift Command, and all supporting airlifters, had flown over 19,000 sorties in the world’s largest fixed wing evacuation, a combination of Operations FREQUENT WIND and NEW LIFE.
American airmen had willingly and confidently come to the aid of South Vietnam a decade before the “last flight.” For eight years they had fought a difficult and controversial war from the air against a backdrop of changing political objectives. The American military accepted the many constraints on their use of airpower in the Southeast Asian conflict and fought professionally and well. They left the battlefield undefeated. Even after US ground combat units had been withdrawn in 1972, American airpower, on cue, turned back the massive North Vietnamese invasion of 1972 and was widely acclaimed to have forced the aggressors to the conference table in December of that year.
The final collapse of the South Vietnamese government two years after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords is a subject which will probably not be fully analyzed for several years- the smoke of battle is still too fresh in our memory for a truly objective appraisal. However, one element of the Vietnam conflict does stand out unblemished—American air power. Throughout the entire Vietnam war, air power remained a potent element of US military strength providing mobility and flexibility to our forces. Because of air power, the American forces never suffered as had the French. The unique qualities of air power to destroy, to contain, or to evacuate were called upon once again during the final days of the Saigon government-this time to carry out a massive air evacuation. The evacuation of Saigon, like Dunkirk, signified a defeat. But, like Dunkirk, it is a memorable achievement unto itself, a tribute to the professionalism of American airmen and the extraordinary capability of air power to serve this nation. Airmen who flew in this largest aerial evacuation in history may well identify with these words of the ancient Talmud:
Whoever destroys a single life is as though he destroyed an entire universe; and whoever saves a single life is as though he saved an entire universe.—Sanhedrin 37
They may justifiably be proud of their achievement.
The scale of the refugee crises of 2015 in the Middle East and Africa is now routinely compared to the crisis of 1975 and the years after. In my mind, the experiences of 1975–1980 and the 1940s before then demonstrate what the United States is capable of doing to help when its people and politicians care enough. On reflection, I have no idea where my family would have landed or how it would have fared without that American caring after WW II.
And finally, I am not sure exactly what I was thinking as the events of March and April 1975 (especially April 30) unfolded. But what does stand out is the sinking feeling of loss I felt as I heard and read about the North Vietnamese takeover of I-Corps and Danang as NVA forces swept over ground I and my Marines walked and closed in on the denouement in Saigon.
And then, how to process the realization that the risks taken, the wounds suffered, and the deaths witnessed during the years of warfare had been rendered pointless except as demonstrations of loyalty to a cause and a commitment to duty.
And, in perhaps a kind of irony, recognition of this particular anniversary–an ending–portends the beginning of 10 years of Defense Department-sponsored functions marking the 50th “anniversary” of US armed engagement in Vietnam. I think I would have preferred that someone pick a single date and let us be done with it on that day. —
The Sympathizer, a first novel by Vietnamese-born associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, Viet Thanh Nguyen, is generating substantial buzz–assuming that glowing reviews in the Washington Post and the New York Times are buzz generators. The blurb on the book’s cover would have the same effect, calling it “A magnificent feat of story telling. The Sympathizer is a novel of literary, historical, and political importance.” (Maxine Hong Kingston)
The Washington Post review, “‘The Sympathizer’: A cerebral thriller about Vietnam and its aftermath,” by book editor, Ron Charles, called attention to the book’s pluperfect timing of the book’s appearance: “Forty years ago this month, after a long, deadly release of flatulence from American politicians, the United States evacuated its personnel from Saigon in an operation appropriately code-named Frequent Wind. Whether you were alive then or not, the images of those panicked Vietnamese crushing the U.S. Embassy are tattooed on our collective consciousness … In the opening pages of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s extraordinary first novel, “The Sympathizer,” that terror feels so real that you’ll mistake your beating heart for helicopter blades thumping the air.” (What veteran ever lifted into a hot landing zone hasn’t felt that sensation?-av)
Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran-turned-author Philip Caputo reviewed The Sympathizer in the April 2nd issue of the NY Times. I could not help but pay attention to this review because Caputo’s memoir about his time in Vietnam, A Rumor of War (1977), was the first such book about the war I could bring myself to read. Though I didn’t like it, many considered it important as an early entry into the genre and still do.
I quote Caputo’s opening paragraphs at length, because they drove me to return to Rummaging after an overly long absence.
The more powerful a country is, the more disposed its people will be to see it as the lead actor in the sometimes farcical, often tragic pageant of history. So it is that we, citizens of a superpower, have viewed the Vietnam War as a solely American drama in which the febrile land of tigers and elephants was mere backdrop and the Vietnamese mere extras.
That outlook is reflected in the literature — and Vietnam was a very literary war, producing an immense library of fiction and nonfiction. Among all those volumes, you’ll find only a handful (Robert Olen Butler’s “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain” comes to mind) with Vietnamese characters speaking in their own voices….
Which brings me to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s remarkable debut novel, “The Sympathizer.” Nguyen, born in Vietnam but raised in the United States, brings a distinct perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.
In any case, the highlighted paragraphs caught me up short. How, I asked myself, could Caputo have overlooked some truly important and truly Vietnamese voices that have appeared in beautiful English translations in the United States? So, other than to agree with Caputo that the opening chapters (taking place in April 1975) are powerful indeed (my Kindle tells me I am 17-percent into it), I want to call attention to a couple of those Vietnamese “voices” resident on my bookshelves, voices that have moved me intensely.
The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam, by Bao Ninh, appeared in English translation in London in 1993, two years after it appeared in Hanoi. The translation was hugely well received in Europe, winning awards and frequent comparisons to Erich Marie Remarque’s classic All Quiet on the Western Front. They were richly deserved in my view. Indeed, Bao’s opening line was, to me breathtaking; “On the banks of the Ya Crong Poco River, on the northern flank of the B3 battlefield in the Central Highlands, the Missing in Action Remains-Gathering Team awaits the dry season of 1975.” How different from us really was that enemy soldier we tended to dehumanize? Maybe not so much?
While Bao Ninh’s work was accepted and well-received in Hanoi, the work of a woman, also a combat veteran of the war in Southeast Asia, Duong Thu Huong, was not. With the exception of her first novel, Paradise of the Blind, her work was banished in Vietnam and she was jailed for a time.I have four of her books, all of which are powerful and speak in the Vietnamese voice. To me, the most affecting were Paradise of the Blind and Novel Without a Name. When published in the United States in 1993, Paradise of the Blind was said to be the first Vietnamese novel ever to be translated and published in the States. It was originally published in Vietnamese in 1988. Because the book depicts the extremely difficult and, as the title suggests, ideologically guided recovery from the war, its writing and publication in Vietnam were acts of real courage.
Duong Thu Huong’s second book, Novel Without a Name, goes to combat itself–and has also been compared to All Quiet on the Western Front. The author had led a youth brigade into the battlefields, serving and fighting in tunnels, trenches, and jungles for seven–count’em–seven years. She writes that she was one of the four (of forty) volunteers to survive the experience. (Bao Ninh above spent ten or so years in the war zone, and an equally small percentage of his comrades lived to the end.) Novel With a Name is searing reading, especially as it involves women at war. The other two novels of Duong Thu Huong’s that I have read, Memories of a Pure Spring (2000) and No Man’s Land (2005), like Paradise of the Blind, speak to life after “peace.” One other, Beyond Illusions (2002), I have missed, but I can guess its themes. The dust jackets say that four of her novels had been published in Vietnam, though they are no longer permitted. I would guess, however, they are still quietly making the rounds–as such things tend to do in tightly ruled societies.
I would add to the above the memoir of a North Vietnamese Colonel who left Vietnam and a job with a Communist Party newspaper in 1990, Bui Tin. His work, Following Ho Chi Minh, appeared in translation in 1995. Finally, on my bookshelf I have a collection of poems, Flowers from Hell, by a Vietnamese poet, Nguyen Chi Thien, who spent many years in North Vietnamese prison camps. Published in 1984 by Yale’s Center for International and Area Studies, it is grim reading into the Vietnamese communist experience.
Back to The Sympathizer and Viet Thanh Nguyen: If I were to return to commenting on Nguyen’s book, I would say that the Vietnamese voice has been out there for decades now–if one only looked around for it (and I’m sure on looking harder one would find much more than the few above that have spoken to me). But this particular voice—the voice of the Vietnamese refugee, the voice of the Vietnamese displaced—is a distinct and powerful contribution, I will say confidently even if I am only 17-percent into the work.
I will close with appreciation of Nguyen’s life story, which resonates with my own rummagings into the past. From terror (my mother’s), to uncertainty, to rebuilding, to restoration of purpose and passion.
And given the enduring power of the images noted in the Washington Post review, I guess one could say Nguyen’s story (and the stories of all refugees and displaced persons) also resonate with this weekend. Perhaps in the survival stories growing from such experiences, there is reason to hope for the futures of those millions suffering in similar ways today. Would that such suffering were not on going.
A cause to pray for, as it always has been, these Holy Days.
Postscript (added on April 5, 2015 (Easter Sunday): In Nguyen’s book, The Sympathizer, his prime characters were transported from Guam to the sprawling Marine Corps base in Camp Pendleton, California. Stationed there until June 1970, my last 18 months in the Corps , I couldn’t help but poke around the web. Indeed, Camp Pendleton took note of the 35th anniversary of the refugee resettlement in April 2010 with a photo exhibit. KPBS in California covered the story through an interview with a base historian.
I expect some of my Marine Corps friends, those who stayed in at least, may well have been part of the effort to set the place up and to support the 50,000 refugees the story said were housed there.
Today, graphical works are very much in vogue. So let me offer a bit of Lima 3/1 history in graphical mode, courtesy of Sgt. Hornsby, though I know he didn’t have us in mind. These recollections are tied to Operation Cochise and offer, at least to me, a kind of window into life in mid-1967 in the southern end of Military Region I of Vietnam.
Arrival in a hot and soggy LZ. As Bud Eckert and I described earlier, our landing into a (somewhat hot) LZ at the beginning of Cochise occasioned some worrisome moments as helicopter pilots reconsidered the wisdom of settling into the wet rice paddies chosen for our assault. We didn’t work our way down ropes to land, but the picture of uncertainty is clear enough in this cartoon. “Do we really want to put down here???” Well, we did, and we marched on.
Forced Provision of Food for NVA forces.As we moved through the mountainous terrain, we spotted signs of Viet Cong and NVA activity, some of which spoke to the suffering the VC and NVA imposed on the people of the region. Though this cartoon speaks to forced recruitment, which we did hear of, what we saw most of was forced levies of rice on farmers in the substantial stores of it we encountered along our route through 2nd NVA Division territory. These storage vats (about the size of the Pod storage containers one can rent these days) well exceeded the kind of storage farmers had for themselves. They could only have been intended for NVA troops.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness–So God Seemed Remote. The helicopter landing mentioned earlier in the Cochise story put me into a flooded rice paddy, up to my armpits in mud and rice seedlings. This was neither good for the rice nor me, as a bath and change of clothing was not in my near-term future and I doubted the seedling could be replanted. I was mud-caked and filthy. And so I would remain until my combat clothing actually began to come apart. Somehow new uniforms arrived weeks later. Still, the cartoon had my diagnosis–and that of others in Lima right. We were a pretty cruddy lot in this journey.
Put another way, I suppose we could have been said to be pretty skuzzy, witness the images left and right. But such is the way of war—not at all tidy. And so it was for many, many, many of us, Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers alike. Sgt Mike nailed it in this as in so many things. (More to follow, eventually.)