Category Archives: Memories-USMC

Memorial Day 2017: Remembering A Solemn Duty

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.***

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* 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.

** David Nelson would go on to write about his friendship with Lee Roy (“In my experience, never has a photograph captured the spirituality of men at war as well as this one. That Lee should last be photographed in that way speaks more about him than I could possibly offer.”  In 2015, he wrote about the photo for the Saturday Evening Post. In it, he quoted me as saying, ““In my experience, never has a photograph captured the spirituality of men at war as well as this one. That Lee should last be photographed in that way speaks more about him than I could possibly offer.” I believe it still.

*** Family members of all of B Company’s deceased that Bob was able to reach will receive gift copies of the Cruise Book when it is printed in June.

Memorial Day 2017–Paying Homage to Marine Classmates of 50 Years Ago

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.

Semper Fi

 

Thinking About Lyndon Johnson Inauguration, January 1965

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?)

And then there was James Reston’s commentary on the speech.  I have attached it. JamesRestononJohnsonInauguralSpeech.

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.

 

 

 

 

Reflections on Marine Corps Time and Leadership

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.

 

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Reflecting on Super Bowl I: January 15, 1967

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.

On the 40th Anniversary of the Takeover of Saigon—April 1975

Note from Cessna pilot.

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.

Note from Cessna pilot.
Note from Cessna pilot.

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.

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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.

EPILOGUE

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.

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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. — Signature

 

 

Reflections on Vietnamese Voices and the Novel “The Sympathizer”

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.

Vietnamese VoicesThe 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.

SignaturePostscript (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.

Remembering with Sgt. Mike, II

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.

Cochise-TheHotLZ 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.

 

Cochise-VC-and-People

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.

Cochise-CreepingCrudeCleanliness 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.

Cochise-SkuzzyWelcomeHomeSmallerPut 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.)

Remembering With Sgt. Mike

I generally thought of the Pacific Stars and Stripes as an official military voice of US forces in Vietnam and in the Pacific theater generally.  I have made no attempt to confirm this–today’s official-sounding papers like the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps Times are commercial enterprises.

Stars and Stripes somehow appeared at our compounds in regular intervals. The most pleasurable aspect of the paper—beyond the occasional kind report on our operations (see earlier post on Cochise) —was the series of cartoons entitled “With Sgt. Mike.” Drawn by former Marine Corps Sergeant Michael T. Horsnby,  the series  featured the slovenly “Sledge,” the fresh brown bar “Lieutenant Frisby,” and the relatively seasoned “Sgt. Mike.” The cartoons, according to Amazon.com originally appeared in the Army, Navy and Air Force Times, Saigon Press, Okinawa Morning Star, San Francisco Examiner, and other newspapers. (Amazon forgot Stars and Stripes, which is where I clipped the examples you will see in this and the next posts.)

Horsnby’s cartoons spoke to my experience–and, I’m sure to many, many others–so very, very well. This and another post or two will feature a number of Hornsby’s drawings that spoke most directly to me.

NewLt-1The “Boot Loootenant” In the beginning of his memoir, Bud Eckert alluded to the new platoon commander (me) who seemed so remote. This first image on the left speaks to a “first impression” one supposes a new platoon commander is obliged to make.   I went in with plenty of uncertainties. A couple I did have included the belief that I would have to care for my Marines in every way possible, but I could not grow so close to them that I could not bear to send them on missions that might cost them their lives. I may have been obliged to look tough—and remote—as this cartoon implies. But I also knew that others had been there longer than I, and I was obligated to learn from them.

NewLt-2“Don’t be Stupid, Loootenant!”  I have no doubt Hornsby would have sketched this scene differently had he been with me and my First Platoon on my first major operation in January 1967, Operation Stone. Captain Gibbs had put Lima 1 on the point of a regimental (or so I imagine today–let’s say it was more than just Lima Company) walk to a position we had to occupy to block enemy forces being pushed into an anvil (us) by other units in the region. It was important we got to the right place at the right time, and so, in a moment of doubt, I pulled out a map to check our location. So what if I was out in the middle of an open rice paddy? Who would think to spot me (with map spread out before him) as anybody worth shooting at? Duh.

So, wrong. Gunfire erupted from our right. An AK-47 round clipped my right eyebrow—resulting in a very bloodied map; a Marine on the right flank of our formation took a round through his neck; a corpsman collapsed unable to help, going down to the ground in fear—shouting a basic truth (straight out of Catch-22), “They’re trying to kill me!.” Irrefutable. Still, a cause for medical evacuation.

Maybe none of that would have happened had I kept my map in my pocket.

More with Sgt. Mike in a day or two. It’s almost midnight here.

 

 

 

Operations Pike and Cochise, 1–18 August 1967: Bit Part 3—Reflections (cont.)

Having closed Operation Cochise on the high note that we did on 17 August, who would have denied us the right to feel a bit triumphant? We hadn’t exactly taken Mount Suribachi, but it was a rare moment for us. Given the obligation of reporting on the outcome of engagements–with due regard for our own and enemy casualties—Cochise gave us a good number of bodies to count. The day stood in stark contrast to our mortar and rocket belt experience, in which we might have had one, two, or three bodies to report along with innumerable (real or imagined) blood stains.

But over the years, the triumphant feeling I felt in August 1967 turned into something less, and I began to question the importance of that day’s accomplishment. Instead, I came to wonder, over and over, if we had abandoned the opportunity to engage on our terms in a bigger and more important fight, one that might have precluded much more bloodshed later. Essentially, I came to believe—given the number of uniformed North Vietnamese troops we saw on the way to that mountain, the rice caches we spotted hidden in the hillsides, the troops we saw and fired on in the valley below, and the amount of fire we took as we moved through the region, that on top of that “boulder strewn” mountain we were looking down on the command center of the 2nd NVA , and we were on the edge of a much greater fight, had we only realized it and taken the opportunity. Instead, as Bud described it in our previous post, tired, thirsty, and somewhat depleted, and perhaps to meet another challenge perceived by higher headquarters, we abandoned that high ground.

Yes, we force-marched our way to a triumph, but, as Otto Lehrack described in his book, it was not long after we (Lima) left that the Fifth Marines we had been sent to help were again in fierce fights with units of the Second NVA Division. In what came to be known as Operation Swift, both sides suffered severe casualties, and I learned after Swift ended that Father Capodanno had been killed and  LtCol. Webster had been relieved of command, apparently for something he did or failed to do during the operation. I’ve never heard a satisfactory explanation of the reasons.

One story had him refusing an order from the regiment–he’d had two of his four companies of 3/5 placed under the operational control of another battalion, 1/5–not a happy situation for a commander at that level.  Perhaps he protested to his cost; perhaps he was ordered to give up another one; perhaps he had been told to move units into untenable situations; perhaps some tactical decision he made was deemed to be a mistake. An alternative explanation suggested that he was held responsible for the death of Father Capodanno by giving him permission to accompany a company into combat. (Though I think a very much higher authority was responsible for that one.) I’ve talked to Col. Webster three times since seeing him during Operation Cochise. He has declined to address the topic.

Over the years I’d come to wonder if our departure from that mountaintop denied us the opportunity to prevent the events that followed in Operation Swift. I can’t confirm it today, of course, but the gnawing has persisted for a very long time, even with the knowledge we have gained in retrospect about the operational habits of the NVA in this region.

One source of such information many years later is an officer who went to Basic School with me, Andrew (“Andy”) Finlayson. On leaving Basic School and arriving in Vietnam, he became a special kind of grunt, a leader of so-called Force Recon Marines. As such, he and a handful of Marines were regularly flown into distant places to spot major enemy forces and either call in artillery or air strikes on them or simply report their movements for strategic and tactical planning. Andy would serve a second tour as an officer in the CIA-managed program to capture VC leaders known as the Phoenix Program. He would serve a full career in the Marines and retire as a full colonel.

I had wondered what Andy might have known about the events of Cochise and then Swift and the relief of Colonel Webster. Andy offered the following, which points to another kind of frustration that those of us in contact with the enemy would experience, an unwillingness or inability of higher headquarters to respond to information received from troops below:

I do not know why Lt. Col. Webster was relieved. In fact, I was unaware of his relief until you sent your email to me. I will try to go back an look at my participation in Operation Cochise, since it is in my OQR and I am sure I was patrolling during that operation. In fact, I think I may have confused it with Union II in my book Killer Kane since I was on a hill overlooking the area where both Capt Graham and Father Capodanno (both MOH winners) were killed. My team observed large groups of NVA moving towards the village where the incident took place and I tried to call in arty on them but the clearance was denied because of “friendlies nearby.” In the hours before the fire fight we observed groups of five or ten moving east, as I recall, all NVA with most having brush attached to their packs to make them hard to see. What was so frustrating to me was the fact that our reporting did not get down to the 5th Marines in time to warn them. If I had had their company frequencies, I could have called them and warned them. Instead, I relied on 1st Recon Battalion and the Division G-2 to relay our Salute reports to them. Never happened for some reason.

“Some reasons,” I’ve concluded are the stock answers to questions veterans of combat inevitably carry with them. The “what ifs,” the counterfactuals, and the unknown pieces prowl endlessly in their imaginations, offering explanations they will rarely, if ever, be able to substantiate.  The questions need not be–indeed seldom would be–about grand strategy, the sort of thing generals and military historians ponder endlessly to endlessly varying conclusions. The hardest questions are the ones veterans direct at themselves and those immediately above them, “what if I had (or had not) done X?” or “Why wasn’t the sergeant or the lieutenant there when I needed him?” or “Why didn’t someone tell me that?” or “Why did I choose that route instead of the other?” and on and on and on.  Post-traumatic stress—a game of Post-Traumatic 20, 30, 40, ∞  Questions.

But I would have little time for that game after Cochise. Lima returned to its 3/1 compound below Marble Mountain, where after some local patrol activity with First Platoon I was ordered to Okinawa to attend a one- or two-week course on planning and managing the combat loading of Marines and their heavy equipment onto amphibious landing ships–Embarkation School.

The Marines of Third Battalion, First Marines, a battery of 105mm howitzer cannons, a platoon of tanks and another of amphibious tracked vehicles and more–numbering about 1,100 Marines was going to get “special.” As Special Landing Force (SLF) 3/1, we were going to do what Marines did during World War II, launch attacks on the enemy from the sea.

And so, I was given a two-way ticket on military transport to Okinawa to learn how to put SLF 3/1, in fighting shape, onto the five ships that we would board, first for training in the Philippines and then back to war, this time in the north, by the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Vietnams.

I don’t remember the date I left, but it was surely in late September, not long after Operation Swift ended,  that in Danang I boarded an Air Force transport with about 60 passengers. Apart from the flight crew, I was the only living person on board. The others lay in repose in aluminum caskets, with one-way orders home.  Perhaps Father Capodanno was among them. Perhaps a Marine I knew. Perhaps a friend or two.

Again, no knowing.

* * *