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)

* * *

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).

* * *

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.


A Month Patrolling from Hill 41

So, in June 1967, from 3/1’s base area on the beach–where “Circumference’s” companies had patrolled an area within range of mortars (inside the “Mortar Belt”)–Lima was detached and assigned westward to a more distant protection zone, the “Rocket Belt.”  Our new, company-sized base area, Hill 41,  was located on a piece of high ground just east of a mountain range that provided safe haven for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units.

Capt. Joe Gibbs III, USMC, on Hill 41, overlooking the flatlands east of Hill 41.
Capt. Joe Gibbs III, USMC, on Hill 41, overlooking the flatlands east of Hill 41.

We were now well-removed from the beach and sand that defined the topography of our lives during the late “winter” and early “spring” of 1967.  We were done with a period of experimentation with a new weapon–the Stoner weapon system, another story entirely–but we were still in a life of patrolling.  Here, at the edge of territory owned by main force enemy units, we tended to patrol in larger, platoon-sized units. Our goal: stumble on (that is, in more formal language, “engage”) enemy units looking to infiltrate Danang’s defenses and attack, directly or through mortar or longer-range rocket fire, the major installations of the city.

Indeed, we patrolled, and we patrolled, and we patrolled. And much of that patrolling took place at night. What sleep we managed was most often achieved during the hot days of June–to say it was fitful and unsatisfying sleep is an understatement. At night, we moved, we watched, we stopped, we listened, we moved, and hoped we were alert enough to the other dangers, the booby traps, the mines, the ambush, etc. And as Bud will recall below, we took casualties.

Each meant a helicopter medevac, usually with me in the middle of a rice paddy guiding a Huey helicopter to a night-landing, as a corpsman and Marines prepared to rush the wounded to the bird—always anticipating sniper fire from a nearby tree line. Somehow, this impossible scenario always worked out. Those pilots were heroic wonders!

Of course, Lima wasn’t alone in this defensive mission inside the “rocket belt,” and at least once Lima 1 came within a hair of taking under fire a nearby patrolling Marine platoon from another zone within the belt. (I remember some very fiercely spoken four letter words in a radio exchange with a platoon leader of another unit that had strayed into our territory, and which we were poised to wipe out on my command.)  It was a period of extraordinarily high tension and great fatigue.

And, even though I had come to believe that, as fighting units, Lima Company and Lima 1 really worked and moved magnificently well together, by mid-month, one could argue we had failed our mission, as Bud’s remembrance of the period will show:

Woke up early this morning [January 2015] and travelled about twenty miles to the vicinity of Hill 41 where Lima spent the month of June. Memories from that month:

SSgt Dean lost his foot to a booby trap and insisted on trying to walk on his own power to the helicopter. SSgt Dean was hard Corps. He had captured the last Japanese soldier on Guam in 1964.

Don Lappegaard was wounded by a booby trap and had about 100 shrapnel wounds including the loss of part of his foot

USMC had run out of M26 grenades and issued us old pineapple grenades which had shorter fuses than the grenades we were accustomed to. One night I was in a foxhole with Harry Gross, he pulled a pin on the grenade and let the spoon fly. He held the grenade too long before he threw it. The grenade exploded too close and Harry got a good-sized hunk of shrapnel into the bridge of his eye. It was pitch black and no one had a flashlight. Harry spent the rest of the night moaning and did not appreciate my muffled laughter.

My squad was detached to a CAC Unit [these were small Marine entities assigned to villages that were important to perimeter defenses to help prevent   takeovers of them] which Intel said was supposed to get hit by an attack. Sure enough the next night the V.C. started pushing about 100 civilians carrying lanterns in front of them as cover for the attack. I put some M79 rounds around the flanks of the crowd which resulted in the people dispersing and the V.C. calling it a night.

On June 18th the platoon was set up in the jungle. About 2000 , I took four Marines out to set up listening posts. About 50 meters outside of our position I saw three or four figures moving toward us. We ended up having a running gunfight. We had just returned to our platoon night time position when the ground started vibrating. It turned out that an NVA rocket position was less than a click away. Their first salvos hit the bomb storage area at the airbase in Da Nang. It was pure bedlam and probably the most costly attack on an airfield during the history of the Vietnam conflict. More than twenty aircraft were destroyed and the runways were shut down for days. As we rushed towards the NVA position our own aircraft nearly got us. I had a smoking pipe I had picked up on R and R and never saw it again. It was my only creature comfort.

Bud is right. That night defined “bedlam.”  World War II seemed to have erupted again: the rockets, the mass of artillery fire from Danang directed toward the not too distant rocket firing place (but seemingly toward us!!)  — the rocket shooters were tucked in a draw at the foot of the mountain range to our west. Then came “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” a C-47 equipped with machine guns that exploded onto the scene.  No July 4th scene has ever surpassed the power of what we witnessed, and heard, that night.

I know we ended that night frustrated beyond words. Even though we had a fix on the origins of the rockets, we were not allowed to run them down. A big disappointment, as I remember it.

And, as to Bud’s reference to creature comforts, yes, they were few, amounting only to whatever precious things one might have carried. In my mind, it was a matter of basics: field rations, cigarettes included, a poncho and a nylon poncho liner–a most precious piece of my gear that I possess and treasure, for symbolic reasons, to this day.  It is wrapped up and fixed to my belt, behind me, in the below image.  Now, I carry it with me in my car, wherever I go,

About to head out on a patrol. Checking routes.
About to head out on a patrol. Checking routes.

Enough for now. More reflections next time.

(And as usual, these are my and Bud’s memories so many years later. Corrections, different perspectives, and different interpretations from Lima 3/1 Marines are most welcome. –Lima One Actual sends)


A Tearful Pause

Forgive this pause en route Hill 41.

Was caught up short this morning listening to public radio’s “Story Corps.”  These recordings are gemstones of American life. Today’s was a remembrance of a meeting between former Marine Corps Sergeant Kevin Powell and the mother of a member of his platoon in Iraq, Brian Parrello.  Brian was killed (by an IED) in Iraq 10 years ago. (Here is the url: http://storycorps.org/listen/kevin-powell-and-shirley-parrello/)

Sgt. Powell and 19 members of the platoon did what we could not do during the Vietnam War. Together, after their unit returned to the United States, they paid a visit to Brian’s mother to express their sorrow and their support to Brian’s family.  As a unit, we had no way of doing the same thing for the families of CPL Alexander, LCPL Zagerac, LCPL Ottey, and LCPL Hahn. Captain Gibbs wrote letters to family—he was supremely devoted to this task—but the policy of rotating troops out of country as tours expired, rather than rotating whole units in and out as was done in Iraq and Afghanistan, made it virtually impossible for us together to create such moments with the families of those we had lost, or even to connect with those whose wounds sent them home.  Once gone, generally, these Marines  were out of our lives–though seldom out of mind.

In the traditional Marine Corps sense, Alexander, Zagerac, Ottey, and Hahn were “my” First Platoon Marines, as were those who were wounded and sent home. Their families were “mine,” as well. And yet, as I listened to Sgt Powell and Mrs. Parrello  this morning, I could only cry.  Not only for young Brian, lost in Iraq, and his mother, but also for Alexander, Zagerac, Ottey, Hahn, and the many others later for whom and for whose families I was not “there” as Sgt. Powell could be for Mrs. Parrello.  If only I knew how to make amends.

* * *

In Time, a Parallax View–Then and Now Near Marble Mountain, Vietnam

In August 1966, analysts at the CIA produced an extraordinary, 315-page document entitled the “Vietnamese Communist’s Will to Persist.” It contained the following paragraph:

“The Lessons of the Franco-Viet Minh War: Present Vietnamese Communist strategy is appreciably influenced by the 1946–1954 struggle in which the Communist-controlled Viet Minh forced the French to withdraw from Vietnam. In Communist eyes, probably the most significant feature of this earlier successful campaign was the fact it was won without inflicting a strategic defeat on the French military forces. During their nine-year struggle, the Communists successfully used military pressure as a political abrasive. They worked more on French will than on French strategic capabilities and eventually succeeded in making the struggle a politically unsaleable commodity in metropolitan France. Communist strategy, in short, succeeded in creating a climate in which the government in Paris lost its will to fight even though the French Expeditionary Corps remained effective and largely intact as a military force. The Communists suffered horrendous casualties and went through periods of severe setback, but their persistence eventually paid off.”

http://www.foia.cia.gov/sites/default/files/document_conversions/89801/DOC_0001169545.pdf (paragraph 17 on page 8)

That passage was written as Bud Eckert and I and many more Marines, including my classmates at The Basic School [for Marine second lieutenants], in Quantico, trained on opposite coasts for our assignments. Of course, none of us knew about that assessment, which was intended for Secretary of Defense McNamara and which would not be made public until about thirty years had passed.

Not that it would have mattered to us. We did have Bernard Fall’s cautionary classic Street Without Joy, which I did read (and would come to understand the meaning of that title in time), but we were Marines and Americans, and we could do anything. (Bernard Fall was himself killed by a mine near that street in late February 1967—word of which somehow travelled to 3/1.)

So, after the preliminaries at division and regimental headquarters, and introductions to Lima Company’s great leaders, it was on to command of Lima One, but only after an orientation patrol with my predecessor, Lt. Gran Moulder. (He was an effective commander, and I had substantial boots to fill.) Largely uneventful, the patrol did take some harmless evening sniper fire, my introduction to bullets that would have been happy to find me or any of my Marines. Such evening visits became a kind of routine–later, it seems to me, made fun of in an episode of Mash. (Actually, I remember reading of such sniper “visits” in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the classic novel of World War I.)

Our beachfront headquarters was not at all sumptuous or elegant–a wall of sand surrounded by sand and scrub brush with simple buildings as shown in the previous post. Still that was home of a kind. In short order, the prospect of leaving it always filled me (and I’m sure others) with butterflies (if not grim foreboding). We had our orders (always the five paragraph order famous in military units), all details of movement were nailed down: Situations in our planned operating areas clarified as best as possible (though intelligence always seemed sketchy); missions and objectives identified; routes and movements drawn; loads of ammunition and rations clarified; and communications and passwords defined. Everything in perfect order.

For the many years since then, the feeling of walking or riding out of the security of that base camp, has defined my sense of dealing with something big and new. Yes, everything has been thought through, but the first step out of the gate….

Time and again we passed through that gate. Maybe only a platoon, maybe the entire company–though more often the latter. We’d sweep through an area to disrupt any VC movements, set up ambushes of our own on trails thought to be used by VC infiltrators, or respond to some intelligence report concerning an enemy movement.

Booby traps (sorry, IEDs) were big worries, as were the snipers we inevitably would hear from. “Move out,” “spread out,” “down,” “dig in,” “go go!” the watchwords of daily life.  Days and days in motion. Nights of fitful sleep in shallow fighting holes, fighting anticipation and red ants. In this environment, there were no historic battles or even newsworthy events.

But, although the stories of wars are most often told on the basis of the actions of large units (and large arrows drawn on large maps), they are lived one Marine, soldier, sailor, or airman at a time. Tens of thousands of “pixels” of individual experience in a massive, moving image.

For the following pixels, as Bud Eckert has recalled them, I am grateful. I’m doubly grateful that he has been able to juxtapose his memories of the day with his visions of this day in Vietnam, an amazing parallax view in time. So, with thanks to Bud for giving me permission to this, I will let him describe our common experience (in italics), with my occasional notes inserted in brackets.


“Today [January 4, 2015] was an incredible experience. Early this morning I rented a Yamaha motorcycle and headed for the battalion’s old area of operations [south of Danang and Marble Mountain, in the so-called Mortar Belt]. Initially I thought I had crossed some type of time warp as everything was so different. Major highways crisscrossed our AOR along with major luxury resorts. There are no longer any hooches [bamboo structures with thatched roofs or worse]. Instead, big buildings everywhere. In Nui Kim Son (the village nearest our base camp–it is now about twenty times larger than it was in our time), I hired a guide named Tuoi, who could speak minimal English.

Marble Mountain from the sea. 3/1's operating area was to the south (left) of the mountain. Photo by groundpounder1.
Marble Mountain from the sea. 3/1’s operating area was to the south (left) of the mountain. Photo by groundpounder1


“I found the spot where Ottey was killed on August 23rd. Today, that spot is adjacent to a major golf course. Another golf course lies next to the area in which we walked into a terrible ambush. Eight of the 11 squad members were hit, and Zagerac was killed. I then found the spot where I was wounded and Hahn was killed.  It lies not far from a large cemetery for thousands of dead Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army soldiers. [A search of GoogleEarth reveals the amazing extent of development since the war.]

[It fell to me days later to formally identify Hahn at the morgue of the naval hospital in Danang. In some ways, Mash, had it pegged. In thinking about the fortunes of many of my Marine comrades, I can say I was blessed not to be required to do this as often as they might have been. Still, it is duty that never leaves the memory.]

“I then drove all the way to An Hoa looking for the areas we had worked so many years ago. I had a wonderful seafood lunch on the beach and toured a number of ancient temples and counting houses before heading back to Nui Kim Son. I then spent over an hour climbing to the top of Marble Mountain, exploring a variety of caves containing among other things the statue of the sleeping Buddha. [Marble Mountain loomed over our positions. Sometimes it held snipers, and we were sure its caves held much more.]

“What happened next was amazing. I headed out to the Tu Cau area to the village where Alexander was killed in February. The area was largely like it was in our time with the exception of regular houses and electricity. Still, there was a lot of jungle and rice paddies. I was driving down a small trail when I spotted a large family gathering. I saw an old man who looked about my age. I walked up to the gathering and was invited in. It was a multi-generational family and the 71-year old man turned out to be a senior Viet Cong commander during the war. He was able to speak chapter and verse, through the interpreter, regarding a variety of major events he planned. One was the January attack on the desert position that resulted in over 20 Marine KIAs as well as over 80 dead VC.-It seemed that every event I brought up, he knew about … we spoke for over an hour and ended the meeting by toasting our dead brothers.”

Wish I had been there, Bud. Semper fi, Andy

The brothers Bud toasted from this period are: CPL Charles Alexander, LCPL Daniel Zagerac, LCPL Carl Ottey, LCPL Paul Hahn.

Next: Hill 41.


A Road to “Good Morning, Vietnam!”

Well,  Bud and I travelled to Vietnam in different ways from the points in our lives at which one might say it was preordained that we would go. For Bud, that moment came with his decision in the United Kingdom to join the war and sail and hitchhike his way into enlistment into the Corps–though Bud might say it came sooner.

I think of my route as beginning from the moment I could explain myself in English (six, seven, or eight years old). Perhaps it was when I stood at the base of the sliding pond (that’s what I remember we called it in Bronx, NY), explaining my world view to another eleven-year old. The point I repeated over and over in different ways was that socialism and communism (at least in the developing brain I then possessed) was a great evil (there was no distinction in my head between them).

AV with best friend Jimmy in the callout.
AV with best friend Jimmy in the callout.

Marx and his Soviet bodies were out to rule the world and make us do everything by command, I would tell Jimmy. We would have no choice but to obey.  So what if I wanted to draw pictures, maybe illustrate a book, or design a grand building, I’d be made to drive rivets or Ladas (forgive the anachronism). They had to be stopped, said this budding Cold War fighter.

I had to work especially hard at this because I had other explaining to do–mainly justifying my father’s service in the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe.  In the Bronx, we lived in a predominantly Irish/Jewish neighborhood and linkages with the Nazis were things in need of explanation.  (In those days the question of what “your dad” did during the War was still a live one.) My response–and it was (and is) true: Estonia’s primary enemy was the Soviet Union and the “enemy of my enemy” bit usually brought sympathetic nods of understanding.

So naturally, for that and other reasons,  it was easy to gravitate toward a military career, first with a full Navy ROTC scholarship to the University of Rochester and then into the Marine Corps, as I described in my earliest “Rummaging” post. From there, after graduation, commissioning, and months of training in Quantico, Virginia, to become a Marine leader in 1966, it was off to Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base north of San Diego, California. With a Quantico classmate—Jim Williams—I drove my 1962 Chevrolet four-door, column-shifting sedan (hot stuff!) across country right after Christmas ’66. (My mother had bought it for me for $500! A nice Estonian blue in color.)

We had both been ordered, for a bit of additional preliminary  training, to a so-called replacement battalion. I don’t know about Jim, but I was given a platoon of raw Marines to command through a series of exercises in Vietnam-like settings–as though we were all going to go together. That was not to be, of course, because we soon found ourselves delivered via Okinawa to Danang in the Republic of Vietnam and dispersed throughout the two Marine divisions deployed across the northern-most military region of the country. I can remember seeing again only one Marine of that group. (Happily, the Marine Corps does it much differently now.)

My first order of business on arrival at the sprawling set of US military facilities in and around Danang was a perfunctory visit, with one or two other officers,  to the Commanding General of the First Marine Division—he took a few minutes to admonish us never, ever to allow the Marines we would lead to accidentally fire their weapons and hurt themselves or other Marines. So with that, aboard a southbound six-by (military-talk for a truck with six wheels, all powered), I pondered what seemed, from the general’s point of view, at least as big a problem , if not a larger one, than the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese we were expect to deal with.  The general’s priorities were made harder to digest by the discovery that same day that a classmate from Quantico, who had arrived in Vietnam (and joined the Fifth Marines) a short while before me was already dead, killed in a fusillade of enemy fire as he led a hopeless charge against an entrenched force in an operation well south of Danang .

After visits to the First Marine Regiment headquarters, where I and other replacement officers, actually watched briefings on the situation in the regiment’s area of responsibility (AOR), I was plunked into 3/1 and Lima Company–and first platoon, with Bud and some 30-35 Marines of that (my) generation.

Three-one’s headquarters occupied South China Sea beachfront property, as the following images show. And, being a relatively short distance from center Danang, we’d have opportunities to go urban–even visit a post exchange as large as any I had ever seen or would see (or so it seems in retrospect).


3/1 Base Helo Pad-early 1967
3/1 Base Helo Pad-early 1967

What was 3/1 doing there at the time? And what explains Lima Company’s wanderings, the wanderings Bud’s travelogue will highlight in coming posts? Three-one was one of several battalions that ringed Danang.

Lima Hqs—source of news, good and bad.
Lima Hqs—source of news, good and bad.

Our mission, was three-fold:

  • Through constant patrolling in small units, we were to prevent mortar and rocket attacks on Danang and its facilities, including the Marine airfield on the city’s south edge.  This meant units, platoon- or squad-sized, were constantly in motion and constantly passing through villages occupied by uneasy or hostile citizens, some of whom were likely to have been hiding our enemies. Constant motion also meant Marines were always exposed to sniper fire and unending series of booby traps that were a defining feature of the insurgency we were trying to defeat.
  • In the process, we were to disrupt and destroy any VC individuals or main force units that came into our AOR–whether they directly threatened Danang or not.
  • Approximate areas in which 3/1 operated in during 1967–68.
    Approximate areas in which 3/1 operated in during 1967–68.

    And, finally, 3/1  provided a strategic reserve force for the First Marine Division, a mission that had Lima Company moving from one relatively distant place to another and back again, as the map of areas in which the battalion operated suggests.

With that orientation for readers not familiar with Lima’s situation, I say, “Enough for now;  Please, patiently stay tuned.”

Waiting patiently, Vietnamese style.
Waiting patiently, Vietnamese style.

Andy V.


A Vietnam Journey, Thanks to a Marine Comrade of 1967

Should anyone have noticed the long interlude since the last exploration of this shack,  my apologies.  Holidays, press of work, and existential angst are my excuses. To those I’ve promised to bring in more material related to my immigration and University of Rochester experiences, I have not forgotten, and I will keep my pledges.  It is a New Year, after all, and I wish readers good luck in keeping their resolutions in 2015.

Now,  I am urgently drawn back to rummaging by a Marine comrade, a member of my platoon in Vietnam, a man I have not seen in decades, but with whom I have corresponded and talked–especially during the past few months. His name is Bud Eckert. He was wounded twice during his Vietnam tour, the second occurring not long before he was due to return home. The wound, in a way, hastened that return, as it was serious and would result in the amputation of his left leg below the knee. He was evacuated, hospitalized and returned to his home.

With Bud’s permission, in this and follow-up postings, I will tell a bit of his story. In particular, I will write of the journey he is on at this moment in Vietnam. Actually, I will mostly let Bud speak for himself about the his  visits to the battle grounds of his squad of Marines, the Third Squad of the First Platoon of Lima Company of the Third Battalion,  First Marine Regiment in 1967. (In Marine Corps parlance, we were Marines of Lima Three One or L/3/1 or Lima Company of the First Marines. )

I asked Bud’s permission to share his story–as he is writing it even now–because in many respects it is also mine–and I know it will be so for many others. I wasn’t wounded and I didn’t spend as much time with First Platoon as Bud did, but for many pieces that he describes I was there or nearby and doing the things, I like to think and pray, Marine platoon leaders were supposed to be doing.  Bud also has an extraordinary memory–it is vastly superior to mine.  So in talking to him and reading his emerging memoir, I am rediscovering very dusty and moldy boxes and their contents heretofore lost in my miserable memory shack.

As the leader of the First Platoon, I knew Bud as a genuinely fine rifleman.  Bud was also a fine point man, often serving as the Marine who was first in line when his squad, platoon, or company moved on patrol in column, one man at some distance behind another.

The point was an unenviable position. He might be the first to draw  enemy fire or the first to encounter a booby trap, explosive mine, or some other device. (In those days, 1967, our language was much simpler it seemed. Nowadays such things have more professional sounding names, such as the infamous “improvised explosive device” (IED), e.g., as a substitute for “booby trap,” which I suppose implied to some that only an idiot or fool would trigger it.)

Another thing Bud is (and has been since he was a teenager) is a wanderer, an explorer.  I think in retrospect that quality may be one of the attributes that made Bud a good point man.  The Marine walking point has to be able to move comfortably in unfamiliar environments, be observant, and, in the guerrilla war environment in which much of our time was spent,  go almost unnoticed or invisible to those looking to harm us or warn others of our approach.

Until Bud and I resumed our communications, I knew nothing of the explorer in him. In the memoir he is writing, which he shared with me, he tells of leaving home at 17 and hitchhiking across country and then sailing as a merchant marine to Europe, where he hitched more rides into the (for him) unknown. While exploring the United Kingdom, he learned the war in Southeast Asia was intensifying and decided he needed to join it. He sailed back to the United States, and enlisted in the Marine Corps–probably at nearly the same time I was commissioned a second lieutenant, in June 1966.

We would both arrive in Vietnam and join Lima 3/1 in January of 1967. Our company commander, the “Skipper,” was Captain Joseph Gibbs III.

Capt. Joe Gibbs III, USMC
Capt. Joe Gibbs III, USMC

Long since retired as a Lieutenant Colonel, Joe remains, for all intents and purposes, our Skipper. He has followed our fortunes and still writes regularly to us these decades later.

Enough for now.  I invite you to board this vehicle, on a journey through parts of Vietnam, with Bud observing the “today,” and remembering 1967—with occasional interjections and illustrations  (I hope) from me, including, eventually, a picture of Bud from that time.

A word of warning,  this journey is unlikely to accord chronologically with the actual sequence of events  we all experienced.  In a way that is appropriate. Three-one’s radio call sign was “Circumference.” First platoon’s was “Circumference Lima One.” We did, indeed, turn many circles, as may these stories.

No reservations (and no packing) needed to board this vehicle.

Getting Around the AOR
Getting Around the AOR-photographer unknown




Reflections on Father, Albert Vaart

In thinking more about yesterday’s post, it struck me there might be a reader or two who would like to learn more about the experience of my father during those fraught years of the 1930s and 1940s.

Perhaps the easiest way to do it would be to simply adopt the obituary I prepared on his death. Since tomorrow would have been his 97th birthday, I’ll think of it as both a birthday and farewell reflection. Same continuum, no?


Albert Vaart, World War II Pilot, Civil and Computer Engineer–A Life Lived Long and Fortunately

 Born, 5 November 1917, Tartu, Estonia

Died 26 October 2013, Jay, Vermont

 Albert Vaart passed away on 26 October 2013, just short of 96 years of age. He had been a resident of the Northeast Kingdom in Northern Vermont since 1989, arriving from New Jersey soon after his retirement.

Albert was a World War II veteran, having flown as a fighter pilot for the Estonian Air Force and with the German Air Force on its Russian front. Albert Vaart’s shooting war ended, on his 250th combat mission, in February 1945 when Russian gunners brought down his plane. He parachuted out of his crippled airplane and luckily landed safely, although badly hurt, behind friendly German lines. He was rescued, taken to a hospital near Munich and over many months restored to health. But he was separated from his native Estonia and his family, his wife Hedvig and infant son Andres (me).


More good fortune intervened in 1948, when the US Congress passed an immigration law permitting refugees like him (and my mother and I) to come to the United States. It didn’t happen quickly, though. We remained separated until 1951, when we were reunited at a pier on the Hudson River in New York City.

At the risk of embarrassment, I’ll admit that my father and I (inching up on seven years old) first met (at least in my memory) in a Men’s Room at the pier, where I’d gone to the bathroom, unable to hold out until his arrival. Having done my duty, I was on my way out, when a man gently, but firmly, suggested (in what language I don’t remember–it could have been Estonian, German, or English) that I needed to wash my hands. I took the hint as he waited, and then he asked me to take him to “your mother.”

From his arrival, Albert began—along with my mother—to rebuild lives. My building project started from pretty close to my life’s foundation. Theirs was a different matter, but it was then a common project, lived by many millions, including some ten thousand or more Estonians displaced by war (See previous post). Our project was to restore broken or lost families and reconstruct dreams or follow new ones. Few of the old dreams were ever fully brought back. And so it was with Albert, who, before the war, hoped to become a conductor and make music his profession. But sidelined by war, music took a distant second place to making a living, although it remained a lifelong avocation and source of joy until his death. Instead, Albert’s profession would become engineering and computer science in an era when computing was fresh and pioneering.


Albert worked his way through college as a draftsman.

Through painstaking years of night-school at New York’s Cooper Union College and then through graduate programs at New York University, Albert earned MS and PhD degrees in civil engineering. The work he would find bridged engineering and computing in the manufacture of paper goods with the West Virginia Paper and Pulp Company, which remained true to its retirement programs over more than 25 years.


Albert the basso profundo singer.

Albert practiced his avocation of music throughout this rebuilding process, leading choirs in the Estonian community and in the Estonian Russian Orthodox Church in the New York City area.

From his retirement at 70 and widowed—my mother had passed away in 1980–Albert built another life in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, in the vicinity of Troy, near the state’s border with Canada. The country living and the climate reminded him of his native Estonia, and he wanted to be near an Estonian Air Force comrade living just across the border in Canada. Albert no longer worked for a living, but he tended his gardens and, wonder of wonders, he returned to flight school. Nearly on his 75th birthday, he soloed again for the first time since that day he had last flown in February 1945. Who would have thought it possible then?

Helping Albert built his third life, was a resident of Troy, VT, Clemence Leblond. Clem had sold him his first house nearby, and over time the two developed a deep friendship and love. Clem’s love and loyalty sustained him through his various illnesses and the growing weakness of his last years. They traveled together, ate together, and sang and played together at Albert’s electronic organ. She taught Andres the real meaning of caring for others for no tangible reward.



Marking A Less Noticed 60th Anniversary in a World Unhinged

This post was to begin with a note recalling the death of my father on October 26, 2013. And so it does now, but it is late because of a great deal of reflection (and research) on the migration of fellow Estonian and Baltic and other citizens out of the devastation of World War II Europe.

If there was any blessing in the closure of most US government functions in October 2013, it was that the forced time off gave me the opportunity to do my real duty that moment. That duty was to be with my father,  Albert Vaart, through the last weeks of his most challenging and rich life, which included flying as a German Air Force pilot against the Russians on the Eastern Front, recovering from severe injuries suffered when his plane was shot down in February 1945, and eventual emigration to the United States, where he joined my mother and me in New York City in 1951. The month was trying, yet enriching,  and as some of the hours stretched long, I had time to think about things I have not thought enough about.

Those things included questions that have bubbled up in this mind since it was capable of pondering subjects beyond eating, learning a new language, finding ways around a new and extremely complicated home (New York City), and adapting to becoming a latchkey kid–a kid used to being under mother’s foot for six years. through Europe. They included spiritual questions and questions about the events that had brought me to this day.

The remembrance of my father’s death coincided with the discovery of a new work on the subject of post-World War II Germany that Harvard  University published in April 2014. The work could not have been more appropriately timed as the Western Allies of the war prepared to celebrate the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Unremarked generally in the celebratory mood of that day in June, was the unfolding drama of vast numbers of people being driven from their homes by advancing Soviet armies in the East, from the Balkans to the Baltics.

The book’s author, Werner Sollors, was born in Germany in 1943 and lived those days as a boy. Sollors’s work expanded my knowledge of the times, and takes into account the travails of the displaced persons from the East. What Sollors did in his book, Temptation of Despair, Tales of the 1940s was to recover and synthesize the news reporting, photography, literature, and diaries of the period in Germany, from the winter of 1944 and the spring of 1945 through the end of the decade. Harvard described the book as follows:

Drawing on a vast array of American, German, and other sources—diaries, photographs, newspaper articles, government reports, essays, works of fiction, and film—Werner Sollors makes visceral the experiences of defeat and liberation, homelessness and repatriation, concentration camps and denazification.

In the time covered in the book, the people included German citizens, of course, surviving Jews, many German, freed from concentration camps and the many non-Germans who had fled from advancing Soviet armies, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and etc. I recommend it highly.

My own memories of the period are chiefly those my mother shared:

  • my birth in the middle of a mid-summer night, she said, during a Soviet air attack;
  • our evacuation in a ship convoy that was primarily intended to carry retreating German soldiers in September 1944 over the Baltic Sea to Germany (more below);
  • transport in a refugee train from the Baltic seacoast to the relative safety of southern Germany;
  • toted,  just over a month old,  in mother’s arms westward,  by whatever means, and away from still advancing Soviet forces;
  • mother finding early in 1945 the bodies of the German family that had sheltered us through the winter of 1944–45, a dairy farmer and his wife and daughter (victims of a family suicide pact in the face of advancing Russian forces)
  • settling somewhere in Germany, with mother working in an orphanage to support us (see images below);
  • sailing aboard a troop carrier, the General Stuart Heintzleman, from Germany to New York City, arriving on June 26, 1950.


Mother and me

Ema-Orphans Image of child of color in German orphanage, late 1940s

Mother with orphans


Me (left) with friends


Unknown orphan, apprehensive, going somewhere

USNS Stuart Heintzelman

The Gen. Stuart Heintzleman


Ship Manifest

The Heintzleman’s manifest on arrival in New York City in June 1950. My mother and I were the final entries on this page, Hedvig Marie Steinberg and Andres Steinberg. (Another story.)

To a number of good friends this is an extraordinary story, but, of course, it was not. Millions moved across multiple continents during those months and subsequent years. Many died. Many left behind loved ones–my mother’s mother, Bertha Rettel waved goodbye from the dock in Tallinn, my mother told me–she was unwilling and felt unable to make the perilous effort to escape. (My grandmother died in 1948, but we would not learn of it until 1953 or 1954.)

More than I had imagined before beginning this rummaging has been written on the subject of Displaced Persons, which we were classified by international refugee organizations.  To mark the 60th anniversary of the those times, following are a few observations, some contemporaneous, used to describe the times and the moods of those who passed through them. I offer these because my own memories are so sketchy–mother and father did not say all that much, and I seldom had the nerve to probe.

One of the great sagas of our time…—J. Donald Kingsley, director of the International Refugee Organization , quoted in “In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order,” by Gerard Daniel Cohen, and

Within six days [in mid-September 1944], around 50,000 troops, 20,000 civilians, 1,000 POWs and 30,000 tons of goods were removed from Estonia, 38,000 of the military personnel by sea. In the course of the evacuation from Tallinn, the following ships suffered serious damage from Soviet air army attacks: on board the “Nettelbeck” and “Vp 1611”, 8 people killed and 29 wounded; the “RO-22” hit and 100 personnel killed; the hospital ship “Moero”, with 1,155 refugees, wounded and crew on board, sunk in the middle of the Baltic sea with 637 dead. —On the sea evacuation of Germany troops and Estonian citizens in September 1944 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tallinn_Offensive)

Half a million Ukrainians, Belorussians and others were deported from Poland to the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Croats, and others, fearful of reprisals for wartime collaboration, fled westwards from all over eastern Europe, most of them hoping to get to North America.

and finally from the journal of a Lithuanian sailing to Australia from Germany in 1948:

I am travelling. On the horizon we can see the outline of the Australian continent [could as easily have been on seeing the Statue of Liberty]. That’s my future homeland. Homeland? No. Because I have a homeland. Then why am I travelling? Looking for happiness, fortune.

No. You see I’m not an ordinary traveler. I’m not paying for my passage. Also I get my food free. clothing is also unusual. Shoes from the USA, trousers from Canada, coat…who knows where that is from? I’m called DP, that is “Displaced Person, God’s bird. That’s why I neither sow nor reap.

I left my fatherland, flowering meadows, undulating grain-fields. I left my weeping mother who blessed me, wishing me a happy journey. I left my brothers, sisters, and relatives…. I left part of myself. Like one half-crazed. I departed not know where to or wherefore. I reassured my mother that I would return before long. I certainly didn’t really believe it myself. Only to pacify her. I glanced back at my beloved home as it faded into the distance. I couldn’t hold back my tears. Yes. I departed….Included in Catherine Panich, “Sanctuary? Remembering Postwar Immigration, Allen&Unwin, Sydney, 1988, 22-23.

Doubtless my mother felt these same things as the Heintzleman left Bremerhaven, Germany, in June 1950. But we prospered. My father arrived a year later, took work, went to school, earned a PhD–all with mother’s full support (and mine, though it was hard to pry $.25 from him for a visit to a local swimming pool!). Mother died relatively young, at 67, in 1980.  Father lived a full retirement life thereafter, blessed a second time by a precious companion named Clem. I am blessed, too, in many, many ways. But those blessings lie (and accumulate) in another part of the memory shack–to be pulled up in time.

And last, I can only wish, as I know countless others do, that the Lithuanian writer’s sentiments were not being expressed over and over again as a result of the wars that have been fought since 1945 into this day in November of 2014.