Operations Pike and Cochise, 1–18 August 1967: Bit Parts in Grand Strategy


I own only three things I carried with me in Vietnam in 1967: a pair of well-worn, scuffed combat boots–today they are hard as cardboard; a precious poncho liner–a symbol of safety (and for emergency use) I keep in my car at all times; and two map sheets (taped together in 1967) I used during visits to a forbidding place, a place in which many–military men of both sides and civilians–died, were hurt, and suffered. The map will help with this two-part episode, as will Bud’s remembrance of it from his January 2015 visit.
(photo above courtesy of Ltc. Joe Gibbs, USMC-Ret)

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Part I: Introduction

Of the many books written about the Vietnam War—30,000 by one, probably iffy, estimate—and in particular of the books written about Marines in that war, I dare say the majority have dealt with the bloody, conventional war-like fights in the northern tier of I Corps, the combat zone abutting the “Demilitarized” Zone separating the two Vietnams.  First Platoon, Lima Company, would find itself there in December 1967.

Until then, as I’d noted before, Lima patrolled territory just below Danang, serving as part of the shield protecting our major facilities in Danang, which was located along the South China Sea about in the middle of I Corps.

The units then assigned to that part of Danang’s shield,  Lima and the other three companies of the 3rd Battalion, First Regiment of the First Marine Division, were regularly pulled out to participate in large regimental or even division-sized operations in areas thought or known to be occupied by major North Vietnamese units. For the First Marine Regiment, most of these operations took place well south and somewhat west of this patrol area. It was territory usually patrolled by the Fifth Regiment of the First Division. (Don’t ask about the numbering system—the explanation is historical.)

At least twice during Bud’s and my tours, Lima was brought into such operations. In each case the territory was in and around the Que Son Valley (also the name of a village in it), which, more or less, is thought of as the space between and above two communities almost worthy to be called cities, Hiep Duc and Tam Ky (see my combined two sheets, “Map 1,” below [give it time to load; it is a large file, and once opened it can be enlarged and scrolled around. And forgive the wrinkles of the folds; it hasn’t been opened in some decades before now.]).

Map 1: The Que Son Region. Hiep Duc on left; Que Son in upper left; Tam Ky right; South China Sea far right.
Map 1: The Que Son Region. Hiep Duc on left; Que Son in upper left; Tam Ky right; South China Sea far right.

Both the territory—mountains, foothills, and paddies—and the enemy were unfamiliar to us, putting us in something of a disadvantage on each visit—at least at a greater disadvantage than the 5th Marines, who had worked the region, painfully, for months.

We were also at a bit of a disadvantage because the full strategic picture wasn’t totally clear to us, at least it wasn’t in my memory of those days. Perhaps I knew better then, but for years I wondered many times about the larger meaning of our, Lima’s, relatively brief operational efforts in the Que Son region. These were efforts that felt different, very much more important than the toings and froings in the mortar and rocket belts around Danang.  We were really part of something much bigger. Still, even though we experienced a notable, even newsworthy, win, I have felt for years that in the case of Operation Cochise, we really missed a big opportunity to damage beyond repair one of the NVA’s best fighting units, its Second Division. And although Operation Pike is hardly worth talking about—only legal trouble would follow me from it months later—Cochise was memorable.

The more memorable to follow in the next installment (together with some references for further reading).

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On the Idealistic Young and Heroism

The recently reported killing in Syria of Kayla Mueller by the despicable ISIS (ISIL in official US government parlance) murderers brings me back to distant memories of undergraduate and later days at the University of Rochester and the Vietnam War era.

The love of my last two years of life at the University of Rochester (1964-66) was a smart, beautiful, redheaded, English major named Sandra Lee Taplin.  She was from Clarence, a town near Buffalo, New York.  That she cared for me at all is, in retrospect, a little hard to understand. She took her studies seriously (a straight A student, while I scrapped along at a few hundredths of a percentage point above a passing C), didn’t drink much (I was a fairly typical frat bozo who kept too many empty beer bottles on display to prove manliness), and spent much time in Rush Rhees Library (where I regularly joined her in studying–most likely the only reason I possessed those few hundredths of a percentage points noted above).

Your blogger and Sandy (left) together at a University of Rochester NROTC event in 1965.  On the right are Dick Hulsander and his wife-to-be Carol. We both entered the Marine Corps. Carol and Dick are together to this day--a great couple!
Your blogger and Sandy (left) together at a University of Rochester NROTC event in 1965. On the right are Dick Hulsander and his wife-to-be Carol. We both entered the Marine Corps. Carol and Dick are together to this day–a great couple!

As my first posts noted, I was destined for the Marine Corps— provided  I graduated (thank you, Sandy.) At some point during the five months of training after my commissioning to be an officer in Quantico, Virginia, Sandy wrote to tell me that our relationship was over. I don’t possess her “Dear John” letter any longer, but my memory of it ties her decision to my impending  involvement in the war in Vietnam and her inability to support it. I could be wrong in remembering it that way, and even if that is what she said, there may have been other reasons of her own, but it doesn’t matter. I accepted it. Anger toward her was simply not possible for me. I did love her.  Love is not “ownership” and love allows for parting.

I did look Sandy up after my tour ended  in February 1968. She was a senior then. I recall meeting her, with others, in Todd Student Union on campus and talking about the war. Knowing she had come to oppose it, I remember defending it. I told her of the acts of the Viet Cong–stealing the harvests of the peasants and forcing young men to join their forces and of their atrocities on the battlefields. It was our last conversation. I can’t say it ended badly or well. It just ended.

I suppose we all think back on past relationships and wonder where those acquaintances, friends, and loves have gotten to. A couple I have had the good fortune to reconnect with–and I am happy for reconnections.

This would not happen with Sandy. Somewhere along the line I learned she went into the Peace Corps after graduating and on her first assignment (I wrongly thought in El Salvador) she had died. I had details wrong—the location and the reason. But she had died for a serious cause in Bolivia, a seriously good cause. One source: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1298&dat=19690920&id=RfRNAAAAIBAJ&sjid=sYoDAAAAIBAJ&pg=5994,2267724

I recount this story here because I want to make plain that sacrifice for a greater good takes many forms—not all of them having to do with warfare and arms. English-major Sandra Lee Taplin turned to the Peace Corps, and she made the “ultimate sacrifice.”

I often wonder if a conversation Sandy and I had about the study of English (English literature, actually) had anything to do with her decision. We shared the major. She majored in the subject because it was her passion. I majored in it because I couldn’t succeed in (or like) biology, psychology, or math. I had told her the major was pointless. What effect could one ever have on anything by studying that field? It was a tearful exchange for her. It was easy for me (hatefully so in repeated, involuntary recollection). English mattered little to me as a field. I managed a BA and a commission in the Marine Corps and–it turned out–a living. The major mattered almost nothing in that equation.

Did Sandy’s decision to go into the Peace Corps in any way grow out of that conversation? I’ll never know.

But I admire and hold her in great esteem for having made the decision.

These days the talk of “ultimate sacrifice” comes easy and has become kind of trite sounding when applied to those who have died bearing arms.

In Sandra Lee Taplin’s case, her dying in Bolivia is not at all so. I was and continue to be awed.


A Brief Return to the Subject of Displaced Persons

Down time during this past weekend in New York and on the train back to Washington  led me back to the period of my early life in Europe as a displaced person. (Remember? I promised I would bounce around–And to Vietnam and other things I will return.)

Yesterday’s New York Times carried an article by journalist Eric Lichtblau, who is researching the period. He stumbled on some pretty unfortunate findings about the state of Displaced Persons (DPs), especially the state of Jewish survivors of death camps (who were lumped into the DP category). The story, entitled “Surviving the Nazis Only to Be Jailed by America” included a description of a 1945 investigation into George Patton’s management of DP camps immediately after the conclusion of hostilities. The report indicted the American war hero for his callous and prejudicial views of Jewish and other refugees of the war–at points quoting his horrific views of people forced to live in utter squalor and degradation.

It is a depressing read. And like so many stories of the day it reflects certain truths and not others–the others being the relatively good treatment many of us (non-Jewish refugees) did receive in many places. Those who follow the link above to the story, might want to read some of the comments–more than 70 as I write this–which refer to the many personal realities of those days, each somewhat different and many somewhat like my own family’s and the families of Estonian and other immigrant friends.  Collectively they serve as humbling reminders about the breadth of suffering and the range of individual heroism of people of the day–for those of my generation, mainly parents now mostly gone, who hardly ever complained of the days.

The common good news, I’m thinking, was that so many survived and went on to decent lives–so often in the United States where the White House and Congress could find room in their hearts and in the land for displaced persons through the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, mentioned earlier.

But still saddening is the continuing unfortunate truth that more and more displaced persons (refugees) are being created daily. And so I give credit to Angelina Jolie, a special envoy of the UN High Commission for Refugees, who wrote of the problem in Syria and Iraq  in a January 27th article, “A New Level of Suffering.” In one paragraph she describes the scale of the problem today:

“When the United Nations refugee agency was created after World War II, it was intended to help people return to their homes after conflict. It wasn’t created to feed, year after year, people who may never go home, whose children will be born stateless, and whose countries may never see peace. But that is the situation today, with 51 million refugees, asylum-seekers or displaced people worldwide, more than at any time in the organization’s history.”

I’m certain not enough is being done by those who possess the power and money to  help in big ways, but I also wonder if I am doing enough to help in small ways. The answer is certainly, “No.”  Perhaps by the time I return to this I will have found some way.