Tracy treated me this weekend to a couple of days on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, spending nights in a quality hotel in Cambridge, Md. Her goal was to deliver a belated birthday present (from August) and get me out of the office and into my kayak and onto some water, where thoughts of my office would not intrude. (It seems such thoughts cannot swim.)
The panorama here (a melding of nine images over a span of about 130 degrees) suggests a fairly bland, uninteresting view, a great deal of marsh grass and this and that.
Life may feel like this in its broad sweep, looking very similar with a few objects/moments that stand out. But, each of us live our days and minutes in the details. And so a scene like this panorama, begins to take on clarity with its minute parts–or so I think.
The collection of trees, otherwise indifferent at a distance, speak to me of life, its emergence, growth, and ending.
The wildlife of the marsh. Familiar yet particular. We have all seen the dudes in this image (gulls, terns, cormorants) in many places.
The minute parts of this marsh, among it the marsh grass, in its millions of stems, speak for themselves.
The patch of growth apart from all else. Who would imagine a thistle plant here? Miracles abound.
And last, at a another level of detail, the questions remains, “Where is Charlotte?”
My mother’s (Ema’s) documents are more spare. These documents from Clem suggest an evolution in thinking about the realities of my mother’s life and what was needed to make an emigration possible and a reunion possible (eventually) with my father, who “officially” was not at all my father.
Looking at these documents now, it seems clear to me that in the time between October or November 1944, when my Ema carried her new-born (me) onto a ship in Tallinn harbor bound for Germany and the time she began to prepare for emigration to the United States some five years later, all official documents from life in Estonia were gone. She had no birth, citizenship, or travel documentation of her own. She had no certificate of birth for me.
Since Ema and I never really talked about all this–at least that I now remember–I can only guess at the reasons. My guesses follow:
-She left her documents behind in the rush to leave Tallinn in October 1944 as Soviet forces were closing in on the city.
–The documents were destroyed or confiscated by some authority.
–She purposely destroyed or disposed of them during the effort to move from the Soviet side of occupation to the west side of occupation after the war. I favor this explanation because Ema told me of having to lie about her destination so that she would be instructed to return to the West, where she said she had come from because migrants were prohibited from moving from one side of the nascent Iron Curtain to the other. Documents establishing her as a resident of the new Soviet side would have kept her there–that is, made it harder for her to lie about where she was coming from.
Without official documents of any kind to establish her identity, place of residence in Estonia, and connections in Estonia, Ema was required to depend on the testimony of others to substantiate her claims. These claims she recorded in the long document on the left in English, which was attested to by friends and sealed by a designated Estonian official of the displaced persons camp in which she was located.
There was also the matter of Ema’s marriage to August Steinberg in 1937. Before seeing these documents I knew nothing other than Steinberg’s surname–it was Ema’s and mine when we arrived in the United States, and I knew that he had been her first marriage. She told me August Steinberg disappeared early in the war, perhaps with the Soviet occupation in 1940. Several things might have explained this disappearance. The most common was Soviet practice of arresting and shipping to Siberia people who posed threats to its rule. He might also have been lost in some combat action. Or he might have left Estonia and disappeared for other, perhaps political or personal reasons.
In any event, by 1943, when Ema had entered into a romantic relationship with my father, there was almost no chance that Steinberg would reemerge and even less chance that any authority would officially declare him dead and thus terminate the marriage.
This Ema attended to by filing for and receiving a divorce in Germany in 1949. (The document to the left).
Emotionally, this cannot have been easy for Ema in an age when illegitimate children took considerable explaining or serious efforts at concealment of truth.
So, at least, Ema had attended to her identity and had officially ended her first marriage, sufficient to gain a slot for emigration to the United States in 1950 (25 June arrival), with the sponsorship of an Estonian friend who had reached the United States a couple of years before. I can’t be sure who this friend was, but two candidates come to mind. One was Helga Rohtla, who was close to us–and who I think helped us to our first apartment in New York City in the Washington Heights part of the city. The other was Magda, who lived in Long Island City. She was unmarried then, but she was would eventually marry an Estonian emigre who lost this wife and two children in the Soviet bombing of refugee ships in the Baltic in 1944. (I think we were in another ship in that convoy that was attacked.)
There remained the matter of my father. Who sponsored him (was it Ema or someone else) I do not know. My father arrived a year to the day after we arrived–25 June 1951.
In my mind, this is an extraordinary story of love and loyalty. What bond kept my father to Ema and me after my conception in 1943? How many opportunities did my father have to abandon us before he arrived in the United States nearly seven years after I was born–and as far as I knew, seldom, if ever, meeting over those years. How many excuses to ignore us could he have manufactured?
So my father came and within six months (on Ema’s 39th birthday) had formally knotted their matrimonial ties, with Magda’s signature on the church wedding certificate (above).
Looking back at this post, I realize I missed a rather large point. In addition to the reunion of 1951 and the marriage of 1952, US citizenship was an undoubted goal. There was no chance of ever returning to Estonia, and we all knew it keenly. The result, formal citizenship for Ema and Isa in 1957. (I would follow a few years later.) Ema’s certificate on the left.
What more can I say about this relationship, which lasted until February 1980, when Ema fell to a stroke?
The stories and images of the refugee crisis occasioned these days by the fighting in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East are heart wrenching. So were the scenes of refugees escaping Southeast Asia at the end of the long war there in 1975 (addressed in my last post in April of this year). Both brought to mind thoughts of the situation in Europe and Asia during and after the Second World War. One need not know too much about history to imagine, as one strolls backward down an historical timeline, the many times such scenes have been repeated in the history of mankind.
But for the moment, my passive participation as an infant, toddler, and five- and six-year old during and after WW II came to mind as my late father’s dear friend and care giver Clem mailed from Vermont a collection of aged documents she recovered from some hidden stash of my father’s belongings. Never having seen them before, they bring to mind moments in life during that period (including moments before my birth) for my father, Albert Vaart, and my mother, Hedvig Marie Steinberg, her married name from a marriage that took place in 1937 (when she was 24) to a man, August Steinberg, who was 16 years older than she.
In the next two posts, I will introduce the documents Clem sent, which, in a general sense, I believe reflect elements of wartime and refugee experience common to all times. I will offer my take on them, and invite anyone from that time more knowledgeable than I to comment.
Assuming both my mother and father did their best to preserve documents of this period and some more thorough stash doesn’t exist, this is an unsurprisingly ragtag collection. Bits are surprising, especially the survival of my father’s internal “passport” for Estonia (1936-1943) and his gymnasium (middle-high school) report card from 1930. None of my mother’s documents predate her arrival in Germany in the period 1944-45.
Presumably, my father, having moved in a relatively orderly fashion in 1943 or 1945 to join a German Luftwaffe fighter squadron in Germany, had a chance to pack some papers. Though he was shot down and hospitalized well away from his squadron’s headquarters in early 1945, he seems to have had delivered to him some of his possessions.
To state the obvious, the above no doubt describes the documentary plight of most refugees at any point in time.
My father, Albert Vaart (Born, 5 November 1917)
The documents in this package are a report on his gymnasium class of 1930; an internal travel document with notations (four of them) from 1936 to November 1943; an English-language document that affirms his discharge from the German air force, the Luftwaffe; an entirely German-language document that appears to establish the particulars of his life that would be pertinent to emigration consideration.
The gymnasium report suggests my father was a ho-hum student. That it is prepared in German is a bit puzzling. By 1930, the historical German influence on Estonia would have receded. His performance in gymnasium, only a bit more impressive than my days in college, hints at a reason he was not more angry about my relative mediocrity as a student.
The travel document, was unexpected. That my father managed to preserve it is fascinating. That it was a requirement of the day, seems a bit surprising, but, given Estonia’s security environment, perhaps it is not surprising residents were obliged to check in with travels from city or town to another location. It appears, however, that exit stamps were unnecessary. The above and following images show the entire marked content of this document.
The page after the first shows basic information–birthdate and home location.
My father’s image is from 1936.
More basic data, follows the pages with the image, apparently, though a bit hard for me to define.
The first actual, as far as I can tell, officially stamped and noted travel, in 1937 appears on the page with the red stamps.
Travel to Tallinn recorded from 1939, August 1940, and 1942 appears on the following pages, without ornamental, colorful stamps. Given the circumstances of the day, these two pages are symbolic of the endurance of bureaucratic processes in the face of upheaval. In 1939, Estonia was still independent. By August 1940, it was occupied by the Soviet Union as a result of the Ribbentrop/Molotov Pact of 1939–yet the recording of travel continued unchanged.
The last entry, a single one on the left side of the book, is, the last notation in the book. It shows an entry into Tallinn in November 1943. My father was by then, I am sure, in the Luftwaffe. He seemed to have gotten home leave and went to Tallinn, presumably to visit his romantic interest, my mother, who he had met by virtue of her employment as a secretary in an Estonian Air Force office. I materialized in August 1944. Hmmm?
Having been downed (my father said, by a gunner in a Russian tank) and fortunately been picked up badly wounded (by an unfortunate parachute escape from his FW-190) by friendly German forces, he was transported to a German military hospital near Munich.
The war’s end brought a new beginning of sorts for my father–and the creation of a new set of critical documents, two of which are included here.
The first, was an English language document, certified by an American officer, declaring my father’s discharge from the German air force. This was a necessary step in the denazification process that allowed him to play roles in the displaced persons camps of the time and to make him eligible for eventual consideration for entry into the United States.
The second was a document that would support assertions of his identity. The image to the left and the following two images appear to be efforts to fully establish his identify–a judgment dependent on a full translation, now underway.
I will stop here. The next post will show my mother’s documents.
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.)
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.
The “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.
“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.
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.
A historian whose book I edited some years ago said, “War stories are just war stories when told without any effort to explain their meaning.” True enough, I thought. But meaning can take years to emerge. Perhaps 50 years? So it seemed with that book, which marked the 50th anniversary of an organization. And so it may be with my piecemeal memoir.
I have often told myself and others that I could remember every day of my time in Vietnam, though not in any particular order—a kaleidoscope of war stories changing with every twist. I no longer believe that–at least not entirely. I now see the experiences as one might see a Chinese landscape painting, with lone figures or prominent features visible, though indistinctly, through fog and haze. Like the scene above—from a 54-foot long scroll depicting the entire length of the Yangtze River in China—strong impressions take shape, while details survive in pieces sufficient to offer, as a French artist/philosopher once wrote, clues to the “propensity of things.”
This way of looking or thinking about things is unsatisfying in some ways–for example, names and details others expect me to recognize have faded into the fog–sometimes embarrassingly–and the “facts” others proclaim may or may not ring bells with me. This feeling of inadequacy generally leaves me bereft and wishing for forgiveness, as though I have failed in a responsibility. I suppose I could challenge the “facts,” but mostly I am left to say I mean no disrespect in not seeing them and beg forgiveness for not knowing what I should.
And so I offer the peaks from my memory scroll of time as Lima One Actual, my call-sign as the commander of the First Platoon of Lima Company, Third Battalion, First Marines, from late January to September 1967, give or take.
The personal, touching, enduring moments of Operations Pike and Cochise
First, Lima’s assignment to reinforce Third Battalion Fifth Marines during Operations Pike and Cochise brought about a reunion between me and the Marine officer, Major C. B. Webster, who commissioned me as a Second Lieutenant into the Marine Corps on Major Ohanesian’s recommendation. (See my earlier posts on entering the Corps from the University of Rochester.) By August 1967, Webster had become a lieutenant colonel and had taken command of 3/5 in the Que Son Valley. Meeting him there was a special moment for me, though also a sad one. LtCol. Ohanesian had been killed, as had my good friend and classmate 2nd Lt. Tom King. Both died in bitter battles well north of us, near the DMZ, not long before this meeting. I would learn the details years later. The chance to serve with LtCol. Webster–in effect to show him that his faith in me as a potential Marine leader had been warranted–was special. That we (meaning the Marines of Lima 3/1) didn’t disappoint him made it even more so.
Second, how many of us can even imagine meeting Saints? Though I can’t know these things, I think I did meet a Saint in the person of Father Vincent Capodanno, the Jesuit Catholic chaplain of 3/5. Father Capodanno walked with Lima One, beside me, on a patrol during either Operation Pike or early in Cochise. In the months I led Lima One, no other chaplain walked through hostile territory with my platoon or any other platoon of Lima. I don’t remember our conversation precisely, but I remember the feeling, its “propensity.” Father Capodanno was warming and comforting and clearly unafraid. I am sure we talked of New York City—he was from Staten Island, I was from the Bronx–and other things. I just remember connecting. A presence I have never forgotten.
Father Capodanno would earn the Medal of Honor when he died in action during Operation Swift just a couple of weeks after he walked with Lima 1. A biography, the very aptly titled “Grunt Padre: The Service and Sacrifice of Father Vincent Capodanno, Vietnam 1966–1967,” by Fr. Daniel L. Mode, would tell his full story quite well. More about that next, but for now I will note that the glass in the beautiful chapel at the Marine Corps Heritage Museum in Quantico, VA, was dedicated by friends in his name. It is a beautiful place of reflection. You don’t have to be a Marine to visit, and Wonder.
In mid-January, during his personal tour of 3/1 operational areas, Bud Eckert recalled Operation Cochise in some detail (I reproduce it below) and concluded with the following observation:
Operation Cochise was a perfect operation for Lima Company, so unlike any other operation we had participated in. No major casualties, beautiful countryside, without mines or booby traps, and a defeated enemy.
Corporal Santos Salinas—also of my First Platoon—was quoted in Otto Lehrack’s 2010 history of the many fights in the Que Son region, “The Road of 10, 000 Pains.” He said,
It makes all the humping worthwhile when you hit them like that.
Company Commander Gibbs remembered,
We had hand-to-hand combat and killed every one of them….We only had one walking wounded and no medevacs and no KIAs.
I called it “My birthday present” in the Stars and Stripes clipping, shown above, which I mailed to my parents. (Somehow, I thought, that would keep my mother from worrying about her only son. )
Portions of what Bud recalled in the brief account he shared during his January visit appeared in Lehrack’s book. (To his great credit, Lehrack went to great pains to get the perspectives of individual Marines in the long running battle against the Second NVA Division in the Que Son Basin.) As to my memories, Bud’s account pretty much accords with them, though I think he left a few things out—the biggest being that Cochise was a followup to another operation in the region, Pike, which some regarded as pretty important, though in my memory of it—the sweeps through one village after another; one hilltop climbed after another; all through blazing heat— Operation Pike produced little but scary moments and exhaustion. Other differences between us are relatively small, accounted for by different positions and different views in long lines and by the differing (and somewhat erratic) ways in which we all process and preserve memories of such things.
So following is Bud’s account of our success, such as it was in the larger scheme of things, that August. I will turn to my reflections on the operations of that month in my next round of rummagings. They are reflections that pretty much transcend the particulars of Pike, Cochise, or any of the operations we’d engaged in up to that point.
Operation Cochise-by Bud Eckert, 12 January 2015 [with my notes in italics every now and then]
A number of major battles took place in [the Que Son] area in 1967 between the 2nd North Vietnamese Army Division and elements of the First Marine Division. As a result of these battles, the 2nd NVA was largely destroyed and was unable to fulfill its primary mission of cutting Vietnam in half during the Tet Offensive [still some five months or more away, in early 1968]. Over 900 Marines were killed in these battles. Various studies concluded that more than half of these Marines were killed as a result of malfunctioning M16s. [As Bud suggests, this is arguable, though there is no doubt malfunctioning M16s cost lives.]
When Lima Company returned to the 3/1 base in early August, we were excited to learn that we would be opconned (sent to reinforce) to the 5th Marines and that we would be involved in a major operation in the Que Son Valley. We were overjoyed to be getting out of the 3/1’s normal area of operation, which was full of booby traps, ambushes, and an ever elusive [evasive] enemy. [Most of us were also acutely aware of the fact that Lima Company had sat out two of the most substantial engagements of the war, Operations Union I and Union II that spring, while we occupied the relatively placid defensive perimeter surrounding Danang.]
[After the short-lived Operation Pike. See the map on left for a very, very rough approximation— drawn from ancient memory—of the operational areas for Lima Company of Operations Pike and Cochise. I stand ready to be corrected in a heartbeat. ] After a few days of rest we were told to saddle up and head to the area where helicopters would pick us up—it was early morning when we flew into a small clearing. It was a hot landing zone and we were taking heavy fire—I was in the lead helicopter and the crew chief started yelling “out, out, out.” The helicopter was hovering about 12 feet above the ground. I was the fourth Marine to exit the ramp when i heard the crew chief yell “stop, stop, stop.” It was too late as my momentum carried me out of the aircraft-four of us felt pretty lonely for the next 10 minutes as gun ships flew overhead trying to suppress the enemy fire. [I’m reasonably sure that Bud’s squad was in the same CH-46 helicopter I was in, and, I was actually the first one out, jumping into a flooded rice paddy, submerged up to my armpits in mud. It was a scary few minutes, as I turned over and over in my mind how I would get us out if we were, as it seemed, being abandoned] We were joined by the rest of the company a short while later and started a trek which seemed to last forever. (From left (west) to right (east) in the red ellipse on the map.] Up and down jungle-covered mountains, which were at the same time beautiful as well as foreboding.
At dusk we set up near the crest of a large mountain. A company from the 5th Marines occupied the other side of the crest. The next afternoon a fire started on the top of the hill due to incoming enemy fire. Someone yelled out to throw grenades to put the fire out. It was a pretty stupid idea as a number of men from the Fifth Marines ended up receiving small shrapnel wounds.
it was amazing what Marines were expected to carry. Besides our weapons, ammunition, grenades, water, flares, explosives , mortar and machine gun ammunition, it seemed there was always something else to carry. I remember once having to carry a 45 lb. triangular shape charge [an explosive device—very finely designed and in no way improvised—to explode on command and direct shrapnel in a specific direction] for what seemed like miles…. A Native American Marine was carrying a green box with straps, which had to have weighed 60 pounds. Nobody knew what was inside this sealed metal box, but carry it we did. The Marine fell down the side of a hill and badly wrecked his knee. I ended up carrying the metal box for the next three days until a resupply helicopter inexplicably flew it out.
For days and days we continued our trek. On one particular day we were taking heavy fire. We had been out of water for hours and were really feeling the effects of dehydration. A Marine who no one recognized,someone said he was a forward air controller, had been killed and four of us were carrying his large body up the side of a boulder strewn mountain, when machine gunner PFC Jack Atkins went down with heat exhaustion. I started dragging Atkins up the hill when i noticed an old rice paddy with a film of mud on top 40 meters to my right. I momentarily dropped Atkins and crawled under fire to the paddy and scraped mud into one of my canteens. When we finally reached the top of the craggy mountain I took a sock off and used it to strain the water from the mud. Each squad member got enough liquid to wet lips and tongue.
Napalm was exploding all around us. It sort of looked like the mother of all Fourth of July’s. Later that night, 2nd Platoon was tasked with collecting all canteens and humping a couple of clicks [kilometers] to a small stream. To this day i do not know who ended up with my dirt-encrusted canteen. [Good bits of this do not exist in my memory or exist in different order—though it is not really important any more. I do recall the climb up the boulder-strewn mountain, under fire. It fell to me to do a bit of my own hauling of a human being, this one living. Our interpreter, afraid to face the gunfire, refused to go up. Needing him, I just picked him up and threw him over my shoulder and hauled him up to the crest (In a sense he was my “brother,” and he certainly was not heavy.) Near the top, we dug in as best as we could for the night. That place, that hillside and the valley below it, haunts me still. I’ll explain later.]
[The next day, after a medevac helicopter took out the heat exhausted, and the interpreter, we were ordered to leave rapidly, and Lima was assigned to the point, First Platoon in the lead.] Lima was leading three other companies. I was point man for the whole shebang—we reached a large draw that looked spooky as hell–a decision was made [I ordered it] that my squad would sprint across the 200 meter draw, climb a hill to the point where we could lay down a base of fire for the rest of the Marines as they ran through the open area. [The trail we were following actually took us through the right edge of a small valley/gully (a couple of hundred yards deep to our left). We had high ground immediately to our right and high ground to the left beyond the little flat space–with no protection if we came under fire. It was perfect ambush territory if we were not paying attention.] Sure enough, as the rest of the column made its way across open ground, the NVA started to direct heavy fire at the crossing Marines. The squad was in a perfect position and we were able to lay it on the NVA and largely suppress the enemy fire. The only problem was we were not able to see the crossing Marines and did not know the last Marine had gotten past the draw. We felt pretty lonely as we ran for a good 20 minutes trying to find the end of the column with virtually all of our ammo expended. [That was on me. I had understood that another squad from the platoon behind us would replace Bud’s as it arrived. I also understood that we would reconnect in short order. Neither happened and the squad was furious with me–can’t say that I blamed it.]
As the operation was drawing to an end, Lima Company had its most glorious moment of the war [at least as we knew it in 1967 and early 1968]. Second platoon was out on a patrol and was about a kilometer away from the company position. A resupply helicopter flew over its position. A few hundred yards away, one stupid, stupid NVA shot at the helicopter and gave away the position of some 45 NVA hunkered down in a perfect ambush position. [I think they were spotted for other reasons, as well.] The rest of Lima company was called up. [Captain Gibbs set up an assault of two platoons on line, First Platoon on the right] I was on the extreme right flank of the company line with a Marine named Patton. We received the word to attack. We did not receive the word that the company was going to run halfway to the enemy position and lay down a base of fire. [Have to admit, I don’t remember such an order being given. My recollection is that it was a nonstop affair.] Patton and i kept running not knowing that we were alone. As we slid into the gully where the enemy were located we almost bumped into two NVA soldiers. Everyone except for me fired at once. I had the M79 grenade launcher and the round would not detonate from that distance. Without thinking, i rolled on my back,pointed the barrel straight up, gave it a little Kentucky windage, and pulled the trigger. As i watched the round fly skyward it looked like it was going straight up which meant it would be dropping right back on us. It was a long few seconds with my wondering if I was the stupidest Marine on earth. It ended up being a miracle shot. We ran past the two dead NVA and Patton was able to pour fire into the back of the enemy position while the rest of the company rushed into the gully from the front. All of the enemy were killed. Lima Company suffered only one wounded.
After the fighting was over, the resupply helicopter and a major stepped out of the aircraft and asked our skipper if he could shake hands with the two Marines who had so boldly run ahead of all the Marines to confront the enemy. While the major was commending our actions and shaking our hands neither Patton nor I ventured to explain that we thought everyone else was running right with us.
So, Bud—we all—had good reason to feel good about that day, 17 August 1967, that operation, that “present” of a one-sided firefight. We had made a contribution. I didn’t doubt it then either. Hence the smiles on our faces as we returned to our base area in the shadow of Marble Mountain just below Danang.
Eventually, I came to see it and Operation Cochise differently.