Chapter 16: Bong Son

Darkness comes and the clouds turn black with threatening rain. An eerie feeling creeps into your whole being as the beautiful trees of daytime turn into laughing demons from the cold night wind.   A Pawn in the Game: A Vietnam Diary. Sgt. Bruce F. Anello,  Killed in Action, May 31, 1968.

The mid-afternoon sun bore down on me, radiating heat-hotter than a Mississippi farm — in the peak of summer — on this late March day* as I eased toward the small compound at Bong Son.  I stepped it up a bit as I forged ahead on the shadeless, dusty-red dirt path, trying to keep up with the others — as best I could, lugging 50 lbs in the stifling heat and humidity — wondering where those Special Forces guys were headed. I had no clue where I was going, either, after I found the PIO tent.

As I got closer, I picked-up the bustle of what sounded like a large wilderness camp: jeeps, generators, a bulldozer or two and people moving about. I vacated that fantasy immediately when 155 mm (penny nickel-nickel) cannons began popping in quick succession and gunships in the distance letting loose with M-60s, 7.62 miniguns, and 2.75-in. rocket artillery.

Near the edge of the outpost, I raised the flap on the GP medium (18′ x 36′ tent) next to a sign shaped like a cross, stuck in the dirt, with the horizontal strip artlessly printed in black lettering: “Bong Son PIO.”

Inside stood a few soldiers with no rank insignia, their uniforms already soaked-through-wet in the usual places with sweat. They were gathered in front of a map showing the Central Highlands and on a board to the right grease pencil markings on acetate read: “CBS SF, WTOP,  ABC Net, Baltimore Sun, and Stringers.” It looked like they could use some help.

TA 312 crank field phones rested on expended ammo crates, wires were strung on the dirt floor, A single light bulb hung from the apex of the tent.

A few men in casual attire that I assumed to be reporters were sitting, feet propped on makeshift desks, and chatting.  Several were puffing on filterless cigarettes.

Despite the sides rolled up on the OD tent it radiated heat, lots of it, a breeze hardly about. I felt a bit awkward with my heavy load and tape recorder competing for a natural resting spot, with my gas mask. I hunched down and dropped my butt onto a stack of empty ammo crates.

I stood quickly when I saw a tall-thin-man in his mid-twenties, sidewall haircut,** in jungle fatigues with a 1st Cav patch on the shoulder of his left sleeve, coming my way.  He might be the Officer In Charge (OIC) of the 1st Cav’s small PIO detachment here in Bong Son. Yes, he was the man I’d be reporting to, 1st Lt. Blankenship (pseudonym).

Nestled about 113 kilometers northeast of An Khe in the Binh Dinh Province near the South China Sea, in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, was the Village of Bong Son. Nearby, the forward operating outpost for the 1st Air Cav rested on a plateau of about ten acres. An artillery battery was based here, and a substantial line of defense surrounded the small tent city.  Some of the Cav’s most lethal helicopters were on standby here, and the outpost was busy with hundreds of troops coming and going, all using it as a strategic base to launch combat operations closer to the enemy.

No formal mess halls, no KP, no formal shitters, no burning shit, at least for me. Although I had a full-time job here with PIO, I was subject to details like helping set-up tents, assisting the engineers in building bunkers, filling sandbags, digging slit latrines, and pounding spent ARA (aerial rocket artillery) tubes into the dirt for us to piss in. For me, a 14-16 hour day was typical, seven days a week, of course.

I’d rather be out in the bush with the infantry, and I volunteered for those assignments.

The mission in and around Bong Son was straightforward: Search out the enemy, kill him, and destroy his matériel. Now that’s more like it, that is, until you actually do — encounter the enemy.

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Until you’re actually in the bush, like this unidentified soldier.  The towel around his neck is designed for cooling and keeping insects from his collar. (U.S. Army-Charlie Haughty)

In Vietnam, there were no front-lines per se, but if there were a firefight, ambush, a specific operation with likely enemy contact, that could be considered a front-line, while it lasted.  Even the Base Camp back at An Khe could be a front-line if the enemy were to gain access in significant numbers. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that the Binh Dinh Province, in and around Bong Son, was one of the Cav’s — if the the war’s — most active areas of operation during the time I covered it, Jan. 67-Jan. 68.

My first field assignment would be my most significant, considering the eventual publicity and culminating at the highest level: The White House.***

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It wasn’t all killing. (Dang Van Phuoc)

Lt. Blankenship, my OIC, knew me from nothing, I was a Private First Class with no experience in the field, no record of anything actually, and had been In-Country all of two months. He, no doubt, saw me as just another soul sent from HQ (at the member’s request) he’d be somewhat responsible for.


It was mid-morning, Monday, March 20, 1967, AFVN was playing Happy Together by the Turtles.  Back in D.C., fourteen hours behind us, LBJ wouldn’t be briefed on the situation in Vietnam for several hours.

I was in the PIO tent answering phones, rereading, and taking in the scent of a letter from Marty when I got a message from G-2. One of our Cav companies several clicks (kilometers) farther north was in jeopardy of being overrun by a superior enemy force. Requests for reinforcements had just been flash messaged Z.

I raced to my tent, gathered my gear, returned, and volunteered to go to the scene and cover it for AFVN radio news. I would try to chopper-in with some of the reinforcements.

My Lieutenant — no doubt, thinking I couldn’t get a lift — approved it. Within the hour, I was Airmobile and cruising at 120 knots barely above the palm trees, in a UH-1H 1st Cav Slick. (Unarmed logistics ship, although some had door gunners.)

I made my case over the fluttering chopper blades and rotor-wash to the pilot in the right seat (usually occupied by the Pilot in Command) why I needed a lift. Halfway through my appeal, he pointed toward an open door.

With one foot on the runner, I hopped aboard, pivoted backward, grasped a cargo tie-down ring, slid my butt on the floor to the open port door, and sat next to another trooper. Then, with our legs suspended just outside the chopper, we pointed our M-16s straight ahead.  The pilot pulled power on 6,500 lb. Huey flared and lifted us above the palms in less than three seconds.

The pilots were on ass-and-trash duty (non-combat passengers & supplies) when they were diverted to Bong Son to pick up some troopers that were needed to assist the Cav company farther north. Onboard was a squad of six infantrymen laden with M-16s, M-79s fragmentation grenades, an M-60 with several bandoliers of ammo (about 45lbs alone), several canteens of water and a bunch of other stuff, a huge load for sure.

The men appeared anxious. A half-hour ago, one of these soldiers was probably catching up on some sleep, folding a good hand of poker, listening to a tape from home, or about to get off alert and scrounge a lukewarm can of Schiltz® when notified they were shipping out immediately.

To the West, hues of green flickered from the picturesque Annamite mountain range (2,819 meters) and to our right, waves from the South China Sea crawling gently onto the sugar white beaches, made our flight seem more like a sightseeing expedition than a military operation. Upon closer observation, the landscape below was dotted with bomb craters, some fresh, while others reflected water in the bright sunshine. The air at our altitude was cool, and we were ready for what awaited us — I thought.

One of the older-looking soldiers (like 21), sitting atop his helmet, raised his voice, over the din of our vibrating, amped-up bird, and said to no one in particular “If a Cav company is in trouble, there must be beaucoup gooks out there,” and then looked my way and said, “Who do f— are you, you been out there, out there in the shit?”  “Yes, No, I mean, No,” I stuttered.  He shook his head and started tapping his fingers on the barrel of his sixty. I would have felt even more out of place, had my jungle fatigues and boots not been broken in, a quick tip-off for being a FNG (f—ing new guy).

Another trooper dangled a Pall Mall® from his lips, unsure if he was allowed to smoke, or if he could light it, even with his Zippo,® at this altitude with the doors open.

Our unarmed chopper would not fly near a suspected VC battalion with 51 caliber anti-aircraft guns just to insert the seven of us. But it would get us closer.

My first flight in a Huey was exhilarating and a bit uneasy, especially when the pilots banked a sudden hard-left, straining our bodies with about 2 Gs (gravity); I realized, I was just along for the ride.

A first-timer like me inadvertently tumbling from one of the wide open doors where I was sitting, at thirty-five-hundred feet would be a detriment to the mission, and the battalion commander would, no doubt, have some tough questions for the pilots.  Finally, an unlucky clerk would be tasked to diplomatically explain my “non-combat death” — for the commander’s signature — in a letter to my next of kin. 

After about twenty-minutes in flight, I felt the chopper bleeding off speed and losing altitude as the pilots lowered the collective, assumed a slight nose up attitude, and decreased RPM. The pilots settled into a hover, over a grassy knoll, about 10 feet above ground, swaying the vegetation. The Slick hovered scarcely low enough and barely long enough for us to leap from the skids. I landed awkwardly, shoulder-high in Elephant Grass.

Now 1,700 lbs. lighter, the pilots pulled power on the Lycoming L-13 turboshaft, ingested all 1,400 horsepower, belched JP-4 fumes and swiftly reached altitude and 120 knots.  They disappeared way too soon for my comfort.

I thought about the popular and prudent military truism, “Never Volunteer for Anything.”

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Long Jump: With no LZ, troopers dismount from hovering UH-1H of the 1st Squadron/9th Cav.  Similar to our actions, as we were dropped into danger zone, in Binh Dinh area of Vietnam, March 20, 1967. Print on the nose of chopper: “HEADHUNTERS”  (U.S. Army photo-Charlie Haughty)

The seven of us had just been inserted in the Plains, about 50 clicks North-Northeast of Bong Son and alone. It was quiet except for the whir and buzz of swarming insects, and a monkey or two sounding off in the distance. Now we were getting a taste of what it must be like for the elite Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP), who are dropped off in small numbers and on their own for several days at a time. We weren’t expecting to be out that long. But, still.

There were no known friendlies except for the Cav platoon we were to reconnoiter with. Where? We didn’t know exactly. Our best intel from G-2 and the chopper pilots indicated about ten clicks farther northeast.  We had maps, a prick twenty-five (PRC-25 radio), impressive armament, first aid kits, several canteens of water, C-rations, and a buck sergeant to lead us safely to our destination. The standing joke was, don’t worry about the bullet with your name on it so much as the one with: “To whom it may concern.”  Some  would say, “There’s nothing more exhilarating than being shot at and missed.”

If we met enemy resistance, larger than a platoon, well, I tried not to think like that. I had no input, nor should I, in planning our route or tactics. My responsibility would entail scanning the terrain, remain in the prescribed formation, take orders from the squad leader, and do nothing stupid. Sounds easy enough.

The monsoons had pretty much rained out this far north, and in the sparse vegetation, we had little protection from the early afternoon sun; chalky-white residue bordered the wettest spots on our uniforms, already soaked from the heat and humidity.

I had already lathered my exposed skin with army-issue bug spray, 100% DEET, marginally effective, but it was good for removing the dreaded leeches. I was told to be careful of swatting insects, as the enemy knew only GI’s did that. (I would also learn that when insects are slapped, especially the mosquito, the injection stem, often, remains embedded in the skin.)

During a brief break as we feasted on C-rats, I got affirmation of what I’d been hearing all along; few GIs are fond of the ham and lima beans entrée. I loved them. I could trade most anything (even crackers, salt or sugar) for a can of that nourishing mix. Had a Snickers® bar been available, I’d smack down 20 MPC dollars (military pay currency) without hesitation, and savor for 20 minutes. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

After burying our trash, we hydrated and moved out proceeding in a wedge formation, as much a squad can, or we maintained a squad column. When the terrain began closing on us, we moved in a trail formation. Our squad leader kept reminding us not to bunch-up. When we encountered thick canopy, the squad leader put one of the men on point, his M-16 on “semi [auto],” with a round in the chamber. Most of the grunts had their magazines taped together, one up and one down for a quick change.

By the time we had covered a couple of clicks, we heard sporadic clack, clack, clack, in the distance, indicative of AK-47 small arms fire. Our RTO employed his radio but was unable to raise the 1st Cav platoon, we believed to be near our location.  During a brief respite, our squad leader reiterated our responsibilities.  We took a few sips of water and moved out in the direction of the gunfire.

With each step, the top of my snug jungle boots pressed down and pierced the soft skin in and around my inflamed, and sweat-soaked ingrown toenails of both feet. I’d already found open blisters at our last break. Here I was trying to keep up with foot soldiers, and I was having foot trouble. Of course, I wouldn’t tell or complain to the men in the squad. Soon enough, I’d see pain from a different perspective.

After advancing for another half-hour, we spotted unidentified troops at about 500 meters from our elevated location and quickly moved into a concealed position. Unfortunately, no one had field glasses, and our RTO was still unable to reach any friendlies.

We became whisper-quiet, communicating with hand signals. No cigarettes from here on, recheck weapons, determine if any equipment was making noise as we walked. (Dog tags were already taped together or secured in the tops of our boots) We proceeded slowly and strategically, hot and tired, not swatting insects.

When we were within about 100 meters of the troops we had spotted earlier, our squad leader determined they were friendlies. We spread out, crouched in the vegetation, and began to high crawl when finally our RTO made contact. Our squad leader popped smoke (asking them to identify the color) to be sure they knew our location and the direction we were coming. We found the haggard infantrymen in a sandy field lined with palms trees and dotted with local grave mounds.

Hot and tired, I backed away from the group of soldiers and stood alone watching — wondering if I would have a story to file, or how and when I would get back to Bong Son — when a scourge of mosquitoes swarmed overhead and descended upon me with their unmistakable high-pitched whining. The winged warriors punctured my sweat-soaked skin, injected saliva, and sucked blood, leaving itchy red welts from their painful bites. I resisted the urge (from previous advice) to slap the parasites attacking me, hoping I was up-to-date on my primaquine. I squirted the last of my army-issue bug juice around my collar and down the back of my neck.

We had made it to our first objective; find some 1st Cav troopers and join them in search for the Cav Company. The soldiers were from 1st platoon (1st of the 5th) down to 20 men, and far from being fresh troops. They weren’t horsing around, cursing or harassing each other, an indication they were bushed. The seven of us gave up one canteen each, enough for a few sips for each man.

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Haggard Trooper, (unidentified) in Binh Dinh area, near ambush site in March 1967.                            (licensed from Almay)

*March and April were the hottest months in the Central Highlands.

**Army lingo for hair shaved from sides of the head, similar to Kim Jong-un.

***After my initial foray with a Cav infantry platoon, there would still be plenty of time for action and adventure in attacks from an enemy, that many times, we never saw.

Chapter 17: The Bravest of Them All

Now we have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam is the place. — President John F. Kennedy, June 1961.

Half an hour before sunset, 20 March 1967, near the village of Tan An, Bong Son Plain, Bind Dinh Province, Central Highlands, South Vietnam.

The late afternoon sun was nearing the horizon directly ahead, but it was still plenty hot. Soon, I would realize the true meaning of heat. Exhausted and anxious, I eased around athills and grave mounds to join the platoon, followed by swarms of insects that buzzed overhead with their unmistakable whine.

Today I’d already choppered from Bong Son on my first aerial sortie and marched about five kilometers through enemy territory with an infantry squad. We had finally caught up with the platoon we’d been searching for; it was down to half-strength, leaving just 20 men.

Some of the soldiers sat on their steel pot’s field stripping their weapons, with both hands busy, smokers squinted as their cigarettes burned short. Others stirred on the sandy field, complaining about and trading C-rations. But none were horsing around, joking, cursing, or name-calling as GIs typically do. A few, wearing sleeveless flack jackets, were posted around the perimeter, M-16s at the ready. 

No salutes were exchanged when our squad leader reported to the tall-slim, 2nd lieutenant, who was commander of 1st Platoon. His weathered face belied his age of 23. An army issue Benrus™ hack-capable-watch hung from the left pocket of his jungle fatigues. On his right hip, a shiny-black leather holster encased his standard issue M-1911A1 .45 caliber pistol. He held a folded-up map.

The Lieutenant (whose life was about to change for the worst) met with his platoon sergeant and squad leaders. The plan was simple; his depleted platoon would move out and consolidate with other troopers thought to be close by. But, for now, we would proceed a few meters, look for a suitable area to dig in and establish a night defensive permitter. Then, just before first light, we would saddle up and head NE toward the village of Troung Son on our way to assist the Cav Company.

In the group of soldiers, unknown and unnoticed to me at the time, was the platoon’s medic, a young man from the Midwest, the youngest of four children and the only boy. His mother struggled to take care of the family of five after his father died when he was just four.  After a year at the University of Nebraska, he ran out of funds and was working at a warehouse in his hometown of Lincoln when the local draft board took an interest in him. Soon, Uncle Sam came calling and welcomed him into the fold of the US Army on May 19, 1966. His Expert rating on the rifle range during his basic training at Ft. Polk, Louisiana, would serve him well in the near future.

The medic would not remain anonymous.  Soon, there would be a calamity that gave cause for me to remember him — forever.


In our society today, many are quick to describe natural disasters and scenes where there were mass murders as war zones — looking like war zones. I will concede living in California as I do, our menacing fires sometimes leave devastation similar to Hiroshima after the A-bomb. Likewise, some scenes of mass shootings resemble remnants of a small-scale battle.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for those (not in a war zone, not expecting terror) who, in 2017, were in the line of fire, gunned down by the coward they couldn’t see, shooting from an elevated position in Las Vegas.

But don’t ever say: “It was like being in a war zone,” unless you have. A well-executed ambush from an entrenched enemy, in my experience, is the worst. It is pure Terror. The Noise: is unimaginable, impossible to overstate. The Speed, the Shock, the Carnage, the Pandemonium, again impossible to delineate. Then there’s the Smell: of sulfur, burning flesh and hair, and the copper scent of blood.


And in store for us, this pleasant and serene Monday afternoon were two companies from the 18th NVA regiment, estimated at 300, lying in wait for our undermanned platoon, now all of 27 men compliments of our arrival.

Shadows grew longer on the mostly open field ahead as the late afternoon sun touched the horizon. A row of tall palm trees, just to our right, stood about twenty feet apart; head-high vegetation grew between them.  We moved out around waist-high grave mounds and anthills in a column formation.

We had advanced no more than two-hundred meters when our point man yelled, “Ambu—!” In a split second, he was face down — dead.

Blinding muzzle flashes from dozens of enemy guns illuminated the impending darkness spitting out tongues of fire on full automatic and shattering our senses with their dreaded and deadly BRRRRRT, BRRRRRT, DUT, DUT, DUT. White hot lead mushroomed into muscle fiber, tearing into the men faster than the speed of sound.  

At close range, hell was instantly unleashed on the entire platoon from our right flank. We were in the cross-hairs of an L-shape ambush, the most efficient and deadly.

KA-KA-KA, RATA-TAT-TAT, PAP-PAP rang out in a deadly rhythm as 7.62 caliber bullets from Soviet PKM machine guns, and projectiles from recoilless rifles blindsided us from concealed, dug-in concrete bunkers, ripping and tearing into the men — spitting out death at 2,350 feet per second. 

KUNG, KUNG, KUNG echoed as snipers in trees aimed their K-44s with deadly accuracy, thumping and slapping bullets into the heads and necks of the platoon’s leadership. Eighty-one-mm mortars with the force of small artillery hailed from above, ssss-WHOM, ssss-BLAMM, SPLAT. 

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Unidentified 1st Cav trooper in ambush at Binh Dinh.  Note the boot of a fallen soldier to the left and the hand of another trooper down in foreground. (U.S. Army Photo Robert Hodierne)

Shock waves generated an ominous snap as Russian RGD fragmentation grenades exploded BWOOM, unleashing shards of searing metal in a ruthless ring of fire.  Deafening cracks of man-made thunder tormented us. Our senses were overpowered by the smell of sulfurous dioxide from the ordinance, the dreaded copper-metallic scent of blood, the despicable fetor of burning skin, and the sight of eviscerated internal organs. No one in attendance will likely forget this day. Not the Smell, not the Racket, certainly not the loud, deep, slapping Sound of a bullet hitting flesh and smacking into bone. None of it.

Only the dead are out of war.

For us, Hell had become a place on Earth. It felt like the entire war was being fought right here, that all the NVA in Vietnam was out for us and not relenting until no American invader remained. We would be overrun, our throats cut, our weapons seized, our body’s stripped and desecrated — our blood used to enrich the red on their NVA flag.  

Some of our soldiers made cover behind grave mounds, small palms, anything. The not-so-fortunate screamed and scattered as blood squirted, bones splintered, abdomens exploded, body parts disintegrated, skin burned, and the pink mist of pulverized brain matter sprayed from skulls — all in the blink of an eye. Ricocheting bullets and whining lead snapped all around and ripped at my sanity.

Before I could react or grasp the melee and chaos that overwhelmed us, a concussion blast launched me into the air — separating me from my M-16 and helmet — and landed me hard, flat on my back, in a slight depression on the sandy field. The upper part of my chest was stinging like a nest of pissed-off hornets was trapped under my fatigue jacket.  

My ears rang incessantly, smoke overwhelmed my nostrils, and I smelled burning flesh from a blistering sting just below my neck where specks of hot metal had pitted through my jungle fatigues. I brushed and patted out the smoke; lucky to be alive, I reasoned. 

Elapsed time since Ambushed: Approximately 12 seconds. 

After sweeping sand from my eyelashes and checking my body parts, I spotted an M-16 and helmet at two or three meters to my right. I rolled toward them, hugging the earth, clutched the weapon to my chest, and lay dead-still but observant. 

For a brief moment — struck by fear — I couldn’t move. I was overcome with the emotional rupture of impending death. My heart pounded in my throat.

Combat is nothing if not a chaotic multiplicity of impending disaster.

I was lucid enough to observe the tangerine tint of the late afternoon sky but drawn to the carnage that surrounded me.

My mortality was in grave danger, and I thought — death was imminent. What I was seeing and hearing erased any doubt. The sound of men yelling-screaming-crying-dying and the thunder from the weapons were irrepressible. Soldiers were down all around me, most with obliterated viscera that no one could survive. A blood-covered pack of Pall-Mall’s lay alongside one of the men, probably the trooper who was on the chopper with me on the way in.

The quickness of the bullet is sometimes slower than the quickness of thought. In a nanosecond,* I recalled special memories like Momma's apple turnovers, Daddy's peanut brittle, my brother teaching me to ride on his new bike, catching my first fish, my first ride in Tommie's Tri-Power GTO, dedicating a song, on my radio show, to my girlfriend, and my first date with Marty would all melt away — disappear forever. Although just nineteen, I'd already aged far beyond that. Those memories seemed to be a lifetime ago.

I raised my chin toward the heavens, observed the darkening sky, and tried to take in more oxygen, only to inhale more acrid smoke.

As the smoke and haze of the ambush floated about, movement toward any cover or remaining still seemed hopeless. There was nowhere to hide. No one was coming to our rescue. There was no way out except to shoot it out. 

I can describe how fear feels, but not courage; for that, I needed a hero. I didn’t have to wait long. He was tall and slim, with a handsome-oval face and dark, closely cropped hair, and he was our medic.

Medics are expected to save the lives of the wounded; our medic did more, he prevented men from being wounded.

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Doctor William Shucrat (battalion surgeon) treats a wounded soldier from the 1st Cav Division (notice his wedding ring) during intense combat in Binh Dinh, similar to the heroics of our Medic, Spc. 4 Hagemeister, who was awarded the Medal of Honor, for his superhuman bravery, near this site, March 20, 1967. (Photo by Kyoichi Sawada who was killed about a year later while photographing the war.)

The Spc. 4 reacted instantly as his men were cut down. First, he grabbed an M-16 from a severely wounded comrade; without hesitation, he single-handedly took out an enemy sniper in a tree, employed an M-79 grenade launcher, and smoked a machine gun position! Then, as the enemy tried to outflank the platoon, he commandeered another M-16 and aggressively took down three or four more NVA soldiers along the width of the seemingly endless ambush site! Dying enemy screamed, blood squirted, and pith helmets bounced in the rubble next to AK-47s. (Shooting Expert on the rifle range at Ft. Polk was no fluke.)

He grabbed an M-60 from a dead gunner, gave it to a rifleman for more firepower, and lobbed hand grenades into enemy positions.

To aid his wounded comrades — every move drawing enemy fire — he dashed, sometimes crawled, totally exposed through the withering enemy fire, repeatedly refusing cover. Bullets struck his poncho; streaking lead cracked all around him.

Finding his Platoon Leader with a gunshot wound to the head, he gave him a shot of morphine while lying atop the officer for his protection. Then, when he saw who was firing at them, he pivoted, took aim, and eliminated the shooter, then found his lieutenant — near death.

One of his two machine gunners was KIA, and his Platoon Sergeant, like many others, was badly wounded. 

The Spc. 4 was now platoon leader!

Finding the RTO wounded, he pulled him to a safer spot, provided aid, then grabbed the PRC-25 handset and succeeded in reaching his Company Commander. Although they were in the shit too, the Captain said when he heard the din of battle (the ambush), he’d sent third platoon, but they couldn’t find him. “All hell is breaking loose, the ‘Ville’ is burning all around us, we have dead and wounded, we need help now, and they can’t find us!?” Astounded, Hagemeister shouted, “I’ll find them!” His face showed fierce determination. 

Our medic dropped the handset, wiped blood on his fatigues, took a breath, flexed his jaw muscles, rolled his neck, pulled his hands down his face, then promptly got back to the business at hand.

In war, death leaves no room for rest. 

After reassuring his wounded radio operator that he’d be OK and help was on the way, he secured his medical satchel over his shoulder, shoved a fresh clip of 5.56 ammo in his M-16, and high crawled with it cradled in his arms. Then the medic pulled himself up on one knee, secured a foothold, covered his advance with suppressing fire, ran a distance weathering a storm of bullets, and returned with men from third platoon to help us repel the ambush!

Hot, scared, and thirsty, I was nevertheless encouraged by our superhero. I had slithered a few feet from the fallen, hugging the earth, steel pot on, M-16 at the ready.  

I had no advanced infantry training or a squad leader anymore; what could I do? Lie still, keep my head down. No!

With the additional infantrymen on site, there seemed to be adequate firepower on the enemy emplacements to our right, which left our eastern flank unprotected. If the NVA encircled us from that direction, we would surely be overrun. Perhaps I could delay any such intent.

After quickly getting the go-ahead from an infantryman, I chambered a round, switched to auto, aimed my M-16 to the east, and gently squeezed the trigger. Recoil pounded my shoulder, and a reverberating BRRRRRT, BRRRRRT, BRRRRRT rumbled as I unleashed three 5-round bursts of suppressing fire. 

With the ejection port on the right and me shooting left-handed hot brass flew into my face like confetti but stung like Mississippi fire ants.      

I loaded another clip and disgorged 18 more rounds of 5.56. Fortunately, the M-16 I’d found had an XM-203 attached; I cocked and popped a 40-mm grenade into the blooper. Shss-Dook-Thump echoed as I triggered it. I continued firing both weapons. It felt good.

Combat is utterly astonishing, terrifying, and intoxicating.

In a piercing but comforting clatter, an M-60 pig just a few meters to my right sprayed 600 rounds per minute into the swarming NVA.  Another on full-automatic blasted 7.62 cartridge’s from its red hot barrel into the dozen or more fortified bunkers with cement casting and overhead cover. Reinforcements brought from other platoons were blasting M-79s, thumping in quick succession — wreaking havoc on everything within 60 meters — and employing lethal crew-served weapons.  Could the cataclysm be turning in our favor? 

Then I heard that beautiful sound: Huey’s in the distance, Dustoffs hopefully, gunships maybe.

Our incredible soldier, Spc. 4 Hagemeister, still too young to vote, saved at least seven of his fellow Skytroopers, killed at least 10 of the enemy, encouraged and directed his men, treated the wounded, called in the Medevacs, and supervised the evacuation!

Most of the dead and seriously wounded fell within the first minutes. Yet, the twenty-year-old draftee from Lincoln, Nebraska, held together for six more hours what was left of 1st Platoon as the darkness fell upon the fields of fire.  

Six of the 27 soldiers in our platoon targeted in the initial ambush were killed straightaway. Just seven escaped death or serious injury. I was one of those.

As the intermittent battle continued into the evening, reinforcements from other platoons, brought in by Hagemeister, also suffered casualties.

I interviewed Hagemeister as soon as there was a respite in the battle in case we didn’t make it through the night; my recording might be found by friendly forces who would learn of the unselfish bravery and courage of our medic.

As I questioned Hagemeister, he echoed what many brave fighting men have said after superhuman feats on the battlefield: “You take care of what you’re supposed to do. You’re there to take care of your men; I was just doing my job, didn’t have time to be scared. But I’ve never seen so much fire in my life.” Then he added that the ambush had really pissed him off.  Few things are more lethal than an Air Cav trooper with sufficient weaponry who is motivated into action against an enemy who is slaughtering his fellow soldiers. Hagemeister had charged and decimated the NVA like he was possessed — possessed in a good way. 

Hagemeister was not about to let his guard down after the incredible feats he’d mustered to save us. He assumed the NVA would hit us again. Artillery support would be an effective deterrent to keep them distracted had we not been too close to the enemy. But we were the Air Cavalry, and he was bound to get us some air support.

Huey-29 

1st Air Cav Huey gunship spraying lethal 30-mm cannon fire from XM-140, similar to the one used to destroy ambush fortifications in Binh Dinh March 20, 1967. (US Army photos

Despite other friendly troops requesting assistance, Hagemeister, nevertheless, contacted air support and convinced them to provide all available gunships to rendezvous near our location and prepare for an assault on our ambush site.

Not so far away, the sing-song of the g**ks, was louder than usual, if that were possible, and in a panicked timbre I’d never heard. I may have been hearing something that wasn’t real; it had been a rough day.

Soon, a beautiful noise sounded from the east, a sound I was sure of, as seven gunships from the Air Cav Armada, led by the faster ACH-47, bolted toward us just above the palms at 130 knots on one of the first helicopter only, night-assault mission of the Vietnam War.

These bad boys, members of the formidable 227th, 228th, and 229th Attack Helicopter Battalions, were about to exact some payback on the enemy that remained in and around the ambush site.**

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Early Firefly system, with M-134 rotary machine gun in the background, on UH-1M in Vietnam. (US Army   

Helicopter over trees

Observe the top left of the photo as 2.75-inch rockets streak toward enemy concentrations near Binh Dinh from an ACH-47 Guns-a-Go-Go chopper, similar to the one used to destroy ambush fortifications. These Gunships were a 1st Air Cav exclusive. (U.S. Army PIO photo)

Suddenly, two recently activated Firefly choppers broke formation, approached opposite ends of the ambush site, and flooded the fortifications with an estimated 64 million candlepower. Simultaneously, a pair of UH-1B gunships swept in fast and low over the targets, disgorging 30-mm cannons at 60 rounds per second.

In formation facing the target, the gunships, including the recently introduced ACH-47 Guns-A-Go-Go with 1.5 tons of armament (above & below),  adjusted pitch attitude decreased RPM and settled in a nose-down hover. Simultaneously four attack helicopters unleashed a torrent of deadly firepower, spewing four-foot-long 2.75-inch rockets from their pods, thumping M-79s from their launchers, flashing fire and red tracers from 7.62 cal. and the loud burp of twin mini guns firing 6,000 rounds per minute — directly into the enemy bunkers. 

Founds, knobby stems, and sharp spines flew from swaying palms as we retreated a few feet from the reverberating-ear-splitting thunder and intense heat generated by the ordinance. As other gunships took turns, the ACH-47 remained, flaunting another half-ton of munitions, decimating and annihilating enemy redoubts and bunkers. Blasts raised huge chunks of earth and shook the littered field. Hellish flames triggered small fires. Finally, just small pieces of concrete and smoking rubble remained. During the two-minute bombardment, no enemy resistance was observed.

The display of firepower lighting the night and thundering the sky was a sight to behold.  For those on the receiving end, it was a decidedly different kind of awe. What remained of our platoon roared with gratitude. But, as uplifting as the display had been, we hadn’t forgotten the six dead and the wounded taken away by the medevac choppers.

Despite the havoc wreaked by the gunships, they were gone, and we would have been foolish to assume that no enemy remained, like those who may have escaped deep into tunnels or blended into what was left of the village. But, unfortunately, we had scarcely enough troops to set up or maintain a night defensive perimeter and just three claymores to repress an attack.  With one soldier always on full alert in each foxhole, the occasional AK-47 fire in the distance, and ominous sounds we couldn’t identify, sleep was sporadic. It was a long night.

As the first rays of sunlight filtered through the tattered palms, the enormity of the ambush and ensuing battle revealed a hellscape where many of our men were cut down before they could fire a single shot. 

Yet, the sun rose, insects still buzzed, mother nature still called, distant guns still sounded, the aroma of rice cooking still permeated the air, and all the misery that is Vietnam began a new day.

After such devastation, it was impossible to verify enemy deaths precisely; their losses were believed to be twice what we suffered. This favorable ratio provided no solace for our dead or us. Another unit was later tasked with the cleanup operation.  

Helicopter with Ammo


Armament of ACH-47 Gunship Guns-A-Go-Go specially modified for 1st Air Cav. Missions, on standby in An Khe. Skull is painted in the center just below the front rotor. (U.S. Army PIO)

Just after dawn, another helicopter came calling with Maj. Gen. (former enlisted) John Norton, the 49-year-old commander of the 1st Air Cavalry Division and Army aviator, to pay respects to the fallen. A heroic airborne trooper himself in WW II, Gen Norton was an early proponent of the air assault concept. He stood six-foot in a slender frame, with a ruggedly handsome face, a slightly bulbous nose, and closely cropped graying hair. He holstered a Colt Commander .45 APC on his right hip, and his customary slender cigar hung loosely between the index and middle finger of his left hand.

Our memorial was on the battlefield where it went down, where our brothers in arms — our friends — had fought and fallen beside us.

riflebootshelmetfield_3848

Memorial similar to ours, the morning after the Ambush of March 20, 1967. (US Army)

As the battle-weary soldiers stood at rigid attention, some choked up as bayoneted weapons were spiked into the soil, helmets atop, boots in front. Heart in the throat raw with solicitude and emotion — a ceremony that no one in attendance would likely forget.

The dead are out of war; the survivors never leave it.

The commemoration continued with the 1st Cavalry Division Commander pining the Silver Star (third-highest award for valor) on the left pocket of Spc. 4 Charles C. Hagemeister’s shoddy blood-stained uniform for his heroics the previous evening while serving as a medic with A Company, 1st Battalion of the 5th Cavalry Regiment (Black Knights).

After at-ease was called, and just as I was feeling a bit like an intruder, a couple of the foot soldiers approached and patted me on my back. These honorable soldiers, I would not see again nor remember their names.

After a respectful pause at the end of the ceremony, I taped a quick interview with Gen. Norton and saluted. 

I approached Hagemeister once more — his oval-shaped face finally relaxed — gestured to his Silver Star, and rubbed it between my index finger and thumb. We laughed nervously as we examined bullet holes in his rolled-up poncho in the small of his back. Hagemeister had not been wounded during the battle!  He had danced with death and never missed a step. A simple thank you for saving our lives didn’t seem nearly enough. But for now, that and a Silver Star were good enough for the man from Lincoln.

Thankfully, I was interrupted by Gen. Norton. He shook Hagemeister’s hand once more, saluted him, and said: “I’m about to rotate back to the states, and I’m gonna’ put you in for the Medal of Honor, boy.”    Smoke ’em if you got ’em, indeed.


In cities and towns across the United States, about 14 hours behind us, East coast time, a casualty officer and chaplain were getting notifications of the KIA last night.  

When teams were formed near the hometowns of the fallen, they were triple-checking addresses before ringing the doorbells where next of kin Mothers, Fathers, Wives, and others were about to get the worst news possible. “The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deepest regrets  . . .” That’s about all the next of kin would remember.  Outside of yesterday’s ambush — these officers were tasked with the worst duty in all of the U.S. Army.

It is sometimes said military service is the least “individual” undertaking. The individual must, of necessity, always remain “expendable,” to be sacrificed, if necessary, for the greater good — the mission must be accomplished for the nation to survive. Over time, that principle of supreme sacrifice by the individual has been turned on its head. The Vietnam War greatly precipitated that reversal. (Partiality from What Remains by Sarah E. Wagner.)

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Swan interviewing Major General John Norton, 1st Cav, Commander the day after the ambush, near the village of Tan An. Note M-16 below elbow. (1st Cav PIO, Swan archives)[/caption]

The whine of the turbine from the general’s helicopter brought me back to the reality of my job. It was time for me to move on to another story about the (quickly becoming) famous 1st Cav. So, I bummed a ride back to An Khe with the biggest scoop I’d get during my 12-month tour.  After the pilot pulled the starter switch, twisted the throttle to 6,600 rpm, pivoted, and lifted us from the erstwhile battlefield at 2-Gs, an olive drab poncho liner fluttered among the dust and debris above the hallowed ground. 

I kept my eyes on the men — what remained of 1st Platoon — until they shrank, then disappeared in the distance. To the brave soldiers who fought and died there, I will revere and cherish them for all time.

When the battles of the Vietnam War were written, this ambush would hardly merit a mention, it had no name, and no hill was conquered.

We never reached the Cav company that was in trouble; however, they received reinforcements from other units and made it out with fewer causalities than expected.

My adventure in the field with a 1st Cav Infantry platoon when scores of NVA were intent on killing us all doesn’t make me a foot soldier by a long shot. Next time, though, I won’t stutter when an infantryman asks me, “You been out there, out there in the shit?” I won’t feel like an interloper, not like an intruder at all.

*There’s really no time to think, but in extreme peril, thoughts can be processed and recalled in a second. Wonder what my old drill sergeant (Staff Sgt Hicks) would do or where he was, for that matter, on a second tour in this Hellhole, maybe? What had I learned in BCT at Ft. Gordon to prepare me for such a moment, the dilemma of a deadly ambush? Not a damned thing, is the short answer. I believe it’s more of an individual thing, a reaction no one can be sure of until the bullets are blazing toward you. I was just hoping any training and discipline I retained would kick in as advertised — automatically and immediately.  Of course, an argument could be made that it did because I made it out alive without cowering in the face of death (though I may have pissed myself).

**Those who escaped into tunnels or blended back into the villages would live to fight another day, as so many did throughout the war.

Official records indicate that the 2nd Battalion, 20th Aerial Artillery, and 1st Battalion, 77th Artillery, also assisted after the Ambush.

With my book classified as Historical Fiction, I am allowed to and have taken, a few liberties in the sequencing of some events, including their operations and movements for continuity, dramatic effect, clarity, transition, and people’s privacy.  So, not every detail, exact time and place, type of weapon, or conveyance would necessarily withstand archival scrutiny.

However, my narrative is based on actual events as remember them from some fifty-five years ago. All people, places, and battles are real unless otherwise noted. There will probably be troopers who won’t remember the fights as I do. It is not uncommon that soldiers’ experiences are different, especially in the heat of battle, even in the same battle. To be sure, this is not an after-action report or an official record. It is Historical Fiction. (Not written by a lawyer.) 

Chapter 18: Saved By The Stream

Given the choice between the experience of Pain and Nothing, I would choose Pain. — The Wild Palms

After the carnage, killing, and courage at the Ambush, Medal of Honor nominee Hagemeister was promoted to Specialist 5, reassigned to Headquarters Company in An Khe, and never returned to the field.

I was also back in An Khe for a debriefing at PIO with the Chief, Maj Witters, where I received kudos for my reporting from the Ambush and interviews with Maj. Gen. Norton and Hagemeister. Yet, I remained a PFC for five more months — nine in all — a lot longer than my peers. Later, I was told that it was a “clerical oversight.”

My infected, ingrown toenails were removed, and my previously unreported minor shrapnel burns from the Ambush were noted/treated at the dispensary in An Khe. Most painful were the toenails, or the lack thereof, which dogged me throughout my wet, hot, and humid tour. (Military-issue jungle boots were known to be a bit uncomfortable, even when one could find the proper size.)

After a few days of respite in An Khe, I imagined my first field trip since the Ambush would be uneventful. My rendezvous was with a platoon from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry. On a “search and destroy” mission somewhere north of Bong Son, they discovered a dispensary recently occupied by the VC or NVA.

It was still March barely, in the early afternoon of Friday the 31st* when I arrived at the enemy aid station. I taped an interview with one of the troopers who had discovered it. I don’t remember much about it (except an empty vial of penicillin labeled: “North Korea”) or the nearest village, but I clearly remember the rest of the day.

One of our own here in the field needed medical treatment, a trooper down with a high fever, headache, and vomiting, all symptomatic of malaria. The platoon leader called for any Medevac that was not engaged or on standby for expected casualties. It was a low-priority request, although a person with malaria is really ill. In addition to combat wounds, heat strokes, accidental injuries, jungle-related disease, and other disorders often resulted in requests for Medevac.

Since I already had my story, the platoon leader suggested that I might accompany the sick soldier on a flight to An Khe. He reckoned that I would replace a medic that might be needed more urgently elsewhere.  I don’t think that was plausible; a Medevac probably was not allowed to fly a mission without a medic unless it was an exceptional circumstance. That was the plan, nonetheless.

It’s possible he just wanted me out of his way. Reporters were not usually a welcome sight until the commanders heard of the positive stories we generated.

My rank was not displayed, but, of course, I wore my uniform and Cav patch. Some Army correspondents wore “U.S.” insignia on their collar instead of grade (should officers attempt to intimidate reporters, who, to my knowledge, were all enlisted). Sometimes civilian reporters wore military-type uniforms, and they could be confused with military correspondents, even though there was no media censorship in the Vietnam War.

The platoon leader lieutenant had not bothered to see if there was a suitable Landing Zone (LZ). So, the platoon sergeant and about five others volunteered to find the best spot to make one. They choose a location several meters away, across a small stream. I was near the site where they were clearing, awaiting the Dustoff, with the man to be evacuated.

The men made good progress with their machetes, but it wasn’t enough. With a small fire already burning, they molded C-4 around the base of saplings, fused, lit, and detonated the explosives. The fire spread quickly.

All around us, bamboo was popping in an eerie symphony as flames raced up their stalks. We were feeling the heat literally

Other than the fire, the problem was the threat of explosions from the packs and pistol belts (flares, grenades, and ammo) the crew ditched as they entered the small opening toward the clearing.  It was not a safe escape route.

The Medevac, now on-scene, hovering above the LZ, realized his rotors were stirring the fire out of control. The pilot increased rpm, pulled up on the collective, and cleared the area safely.

The fire surrounded us on three sides; our only escape was 10 meters away. We had to get to and then through the triple jungle canopy behind us. 

 

I’d lost sight of my patient through the haze of the smoke and fireThen, just as I turned to pursue, and sooner than I could process the explosion that thundered behind me — flaming shrapnel struck me with a piercing sting, spiking the soft skin of my upper left shoulder. Immediately another slashed into my lower back, impaling me and slapping me to the ground! The pain was intense, like nothing before, from white hot-burning fragments. The ordinance was cooking off with deafening explosions.

Flat and face-first on the jungle floor, I thought my skin was afire, burning from the inside. My ears were ringing. I felt my heart racing on the sandy soil where I’d landed. My mouth dried, and I smelled burning skin and hair.

 

A scene similar to action near the stream with my patient and me scrambling to safety in March 1967. Actual soldiers are unknown. (Photo Courtesy Task & Purpose)

 

Once again, I found myself in the throes of plausible death — doomed by fire? There was no time to revisit special memories like Momma’s fried chicken; pinned in my seat when cousin Jackie floored his Biscayne 409; the first time I heard Elvis sing Are You Lonesome Tonight; when  my inaugural shift at WAMY or my most recent letter from Marty. No time for any; they would vanish, evaporate, and be extinguished forever.

Pain be damned, I needed to get up, remain lucid, and escape this chaos. Get up hell; I needed to stay flat, make myself as small as possible, and hug the earth.

With my heart pounding in my ears, I low crawled a few feet through the smoke, found my patient on the ground near me (apparently uninjured), and screamed, “G–dammit, move with me,” hoping to startle him into action from his fever and confusion. I low crawled with him in tow, fast as we could, toward the jungle’s triple canopy.

We had to get through the web that surrounded us if we were to escape the fire. Should I ditch my explosives so that we could move faster? Are we going to die in a fire our fellow soldiers started? Not exactly the heroic battlefield death I had imagined.

 

Triple canopy, similar one we had to surmount escaping the fire. (Wiki Commons)

 

 

Banyan tree roots in Vietnam similar to those we had to bypass before reaching the stream. (123RF Stock)

On our knees with the flames licking dangerously close behind us; together we broke through with bare hands and bayonets the triple canopy of wait-a-minute vines, thickets, brambles of prickly pear cactus, and anthills into a maze of banyan tree roots while struggling to maintain my M-16 that tangled with every conceivable obstacle.

Helmets, canteens, grenades, clips of 5.56 ammo, and C-rations gave way as we lost our footing in the soft-sandy dirt, stumbled, fell, and rolled 15 meters until we landed into precious water.

My patient and I were in the comfort and safety of cool water, awesome h2o, liquid gold — our savior. I wallowed like a pig in mud, reveling in a foot of cool water, nursing my pain. My tape recorder lay submerged in the stream’s bed, and I didn’t care.

Sooner than I could fathom, LZ fire under control came the most beautiful sound. Finer than an Elvis ballad, sweeter than Marty’s voice, more soothing than Momma humming a gospel tune; the unmistakable thumping of a Huey — a Dustoff chopping through dense air over the jungle, rushing to relieve me and my patient from pain.

The medics retrieved my munitions, cut off our wet uniforms, inspected my shrapnel wounds, documented his malarial symptoms, validated our dog tags, covered us with blankets, and secured us for flight.

As the frequent flyer I had become, I knew what was happening in the cockpit. One of the pilots twisted the throttle to 6,600 rpm, pushed the cyclic slightly forward, pulled up on the collective, dipped her nose, and bolted us north toward An Khe.

Under the care of those 1st Cav medics, we were in cool air at altitude — rotors rushing the air in that beautiful bird at 110 knots — on the way to medical aid for my (erstwhile) patient and me.**

 

After a Lidocaine injection, shell fragments were removed (from my upper back shoulder wound), cleaned, and disinfected. My puncture wounds (approximately) 40-mm wide and 30-mm deep were stitched at the 17th Field Hospital in An Khe, and I was given antibiotics and a tetanus booster. However, I overheard the doctor tell a medic that some of the shrapnel (in my lower back wound) entered dangerously close to my lower spine, and they elected not to remove the fragments. Instead, the doctor placed me on light detail status for 48 hours, “duty permitting,” gave me care instructions, and told me when to return for follow-up care. After two days of light duty with the PIO in An Khe, I was ready and anxious for more field duty.

Two decades later, x-rays showed shell fragments in my lower back had migrated dangerously close to the base of my spine. Finally, in 1986, they were removed in a meticulous surgical procedure along with more shrapnel from my shoulder wound.

*Another thing burning that day was Jim Hendrix’s guitar; he set it afire in London.

**I never learned the name of the soldier with malaria that I assisted that day, and I do not take credit for saving his life — helping a bit, maybe?  I’m no Chuck Hagemeister. But we both arrived in An Khe for prompt treatment, and that’s all that really mattered

With my book classified as Historical Fiction, I am allowed to and have taken, a few liberties in the sequencing of some events, including their operations and movements for continuity, dramatic effect, clarity, transition, and people’s privacy.  However, not every detail, exact time and place, type of weapon, or conveyance would necessarily withstand archival scrutiny.

 

However, my narrative is based on actual events as remember them from some fifty-five years ago. All people, places, and battles are real unless otherwise noted. There will probably be troopers who won’t remember the fights as I do. It is not uncommon that soldiers’ experiences are different, especially in the heat of battle, even in the same battle. To be sure, this is not an after-action report or an official record. It is Historical Fiction. (Not written by a lawyer.) 

Chapter 19: AFVN, An Khe

 

“I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.”  Newly inaugurated President Lyndon Johnson, November 24, 1963.

 

It must to have been 100 degrees. It was weeping humidity, a steam bath with no turn-off valve upon my return to Bong Son. My ass was chafing, and it was about to get worse with an unexpected ass-chewing, especially surprising since I was naively expecting a welcome back. Good thing I didn’t waste time worrying about someone patting me on my back (where I had been injured).

“I don’t know what kind of shit you pulled in, An Khe, but I’m still your boss. Did you get the interview?” Lt. Blankenship greeted me upon my return to Bong Son.

“Yes, but my tape recorder was KIA, sir, though I may have saved somebody’s life,” I answered. He countered, “Yeah, yeah, ok, so you didn’t get the story, and you destroyed government property. Is that about right, Swan?” I didn’t answer.

“Alright, get outta here, get back to work, and be sure to take care of your wounds,”  he snapped sarcastically. This is what awaited me upon my return from the scare at the Stream.

After my reporting on the Ambush, I had noticed that Lt. Blankenship was treating me differently and not in a good way. I could not fathom why. Now I felt it getting worse (like his condescending greeting above). So, understandably, my morale was low.

 Trained Killer: Swan dispatches his M-16 somewhere in the Binh Dinh Province, Vietnam, in 1967. (U.S. Army PIO photo)

Little did I know someone was looking out for me during this challenging period. I would come to believe it was none other than the two-star general who happened to run the 1st Cavalry.

I had the occasion to interact with Maj. Gen. John Norton, not long after, my lieutenant had dressed me down. He was giving his last interview as commanding general with a reporter where I was present hosting the newsman.

He remembered me from the field where he presented the Silver Star to Hagemeister shortly after the Ambush (Chapter 17) when I interviewed him. The General seemed sincere when he asked me how everything was going.  I stuttered with my response without anything specific. I believed he sensed something was amiss.

Within a couple of weeks, I was promoted to Spc. 4 and called back to Camp Radcliff with a new assignment. I was to be a DJ on the recently reactivated AFVN in An Khe!

No Shock Jock: Pfc. Don Swan, standing in front of the barricaded studio of AFVN AM & FM, An Khe, in 1967. (U.S. Army PIO photo)

I suspect the General had an aide call Major Witters, head of PIO, and ask to speak with him presently or pronto with a return call. The difference in rank from a major to a major general is considerable.

I thrived at AFVN, An Khe. I dedicated songs to choppers pilots, artillery, engineers, infantry, and men like the ones I had met in the field,  the soldiers who were doing the real work.

Of course, men who were in the shit would not be listening to AFVN. But in the field, somehow, the troopers found a way to listen to the hits emanating from An Khe.

There were reports from GIs in the field; their transistor radio was second only to their M-16. Chopper and other pilots could pick up my broadcasts on their FM frequencies.

It was good for morale; songs they had listened to with their wives and sweethearts like (You’re) My Soul and Inspiration by the Righteous Brothers, When A Man Loves a Woman by Percy Sledge, and Cherish by the Association. But, most importantly, they were reminded of what awaited them “Back in the World.”

 Swan on air at AFVN An Khe, in front of an improvised control board in this very dark picture. (Swan archives) A member of our PIO staff was an artist who advertised newscasts that I usually reported. (Swan archives)

Occasionally, I got fan mail from women who lived in nearby villages. One, in particular, asked me to play songs for GIs she’d met, I can only surmise, while they were in the village of An Khe, aka Sin City (probably when they were picking up their laundry). I didn’t dedicate the personal — “From Kim to Larsen and Knelly”— but I did play the songs she requested, doing my part for “Winning the hearts of minds of the people.”

There were no Arbitron ratings in the combat zone. But among the 25,000 or so GIs who had access to my show, it was estimated (tongue in cheek) that I had almost as many listeners as Hanoi Hannah.

As for the over-hyped “Good Morning Vietnam” thing made famous in a movie of the same name by the late Robin Williams, many GIs detested the “greeting.” In some rare cases, grunts after hearing “Goooooo-o-o-o-o-od Morning Vietnam” one too many times, promptly shut down their radios courtesy of an M-16. Obviously, these men found no “Good” in their morning and didn’t need some smug DJ sitting in the comfort of an air-conditioned studio in Saigon telling them it was.

As for our little station in An Khe, my only real friend in Vietnam, John Bagwell (1st Cav PIO), was enthusiastic about our operation and did many things to improve it. He got current hit records and some oldies sent to us from Seattle’s KJR rock station. And unbelievably, by just writing a few letters, he convinced a popular production company (in the US) into recording professional jingles for 1330 AM & FM AFVN, An Khe (valued at $2,000 in 1967 money).

He was a true radio guy and did a lot for the station and made our operation better for the troops we served. Late in his tour, he saved a cameraman’s life working with an NBC reporter he was hosting near Khe Sanh,* and Bagwell almost lost a foot in the engagement and nearly became a POW like three of his fellow AFVN members.  He received the Bronze Star for Valor and Purple Heart. “John, I will never forget you and the good you did in Vietnam. You never got the credit you deserved for your deeds in An Khe and other efforts. I hardly made any friends because I traveled so much. But, with so few, thank goodness, I had a friend in you.”

Although I didn’t get to know many of the men — remembering what my 1st Sgt. said about not making too many friends — here are some who were with PIO, An Khe: Maj. Witters, Capt. Coleman and Master Sgt. Bradley. Others whose ranks I don’t remember: are Larsen, Grizzle, Knelly, Basile, Ferrel, McGrath, and Jim Pruitt. (Not sure of all spelling.)

I was proud to be recognized for my efforts at PIO and AFVN, An Khe.  Here’s a clipping that ran in the 1st Cav’s official newspaper in 1967, The Cavalier.

 Note my British Mk V .455 sidearm and skull (representing Guns-A-Go-Go) on the soldier’s pocket. (Right) Dustoff attempts landing similar to the one at “Saved by Stream” near Bong Son.  (US Army 1st Cav PIO)

Songs that stand out from my time as a DJ in Vietnam are Happy Together by The Turtles, Strawberry Fields Forever by the Beatles, 96 Tears by ? and The Mystreians, and naturally, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place by the Animals.

Although I had an easier job now (and no interference from Blankenship), I was anxious to get home to Marty. Unfortunately, I still had a long eight months remaining. I used to pinch myself—yeah, I’m really in Vietnam.

*I was back in the states when I received a letter from Bagwell, who was still in Vietnam, telling me that my replacement was killed shortly after their move to Khe Sanh (I had missed Khe Sanh and Tet by just a couple of weeks).

 

Chapter 20: Back To The World

We do this [escalating U. S. military involvement in Vietnam] in order to slow down aggression . . . We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw either openly or under a cloak of a  meaningless agreement.”  President Johnson, April 7, 1965.

On the subject of Vietnam, one can find an argument for just about anything.  But her beauty is not one of them. From tropical lowlands to densely forested highlands, the Annamite mountain range, the Mekong Delta, Coastal lowlands, 12 great rivers, and beautiful beaches on the 1,650 kilometers of coastline, Vietnam is beautiful indeed.

I stand corrected; there is an argument. Some foot soldiers and Marines disagreed. All they remembered was dirt and mud, the jungle and rice paddies, squalid villages, ancient men and women, naked-dirty-hungry children, bomb craters, barbed wire, sandbags, impenetrable jungles, soldiers burning shit, natives crapping in public, a lot of ugly things.

My purpose was not to enjoy her beauty or the ugliness of war but to work seven days a week in the monsoons with mud sucking at my jungle boots in oppressive heat where insects, booby traps, and snipers were plentiful.

I was still doing a few field assignments that occasionally included some blood and battle,* but nothing approaching the Ambush in Binh Dinh.

When I was in the field, I was in the same danger as the cavalrymen, except maybe the point man. I got hot, hungry, and scared, just like the foot soldiers, and I had no advanced training in tactics, special weapons, or a friend to look out for me; I was most likely a distraction. Moreover, they didn’t know who I was and if I’d met any, it just briefly, and likely just a few minutes ago. 

However, I was out with the infantry or chopper pilots on just a few occasions, and I saw a tiny fraction of what the food soldier bore, lived with, and died with 24 hours every day for weeks, if not months, without respite from the rot of the jungle.

I got to leave the jungle and return to base camp. My job was not even in the same hemisphere as that of the foot soldier or the helicopter crew.

 

Although I was assigned to AFVN, An Khe, I still had assignments like recording Hometown News Interviews. “This is Specialist 4 Don Swan near Bong Son, Vietnam, and today I’m talking with Sgt. John Gilliam of Columbia, South Carolina. John is a squad leader with A Company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). Sergeant, what do you have to say to the folks back home and the work you’re doing for the people of Vietnam?”

After a dozen or so interviews, they were packaged and sent to the Hometown News Center in Kansas City (where I would later be assigned) for distribution to the radio stations in the soldier’s hometown. Although not my favorite job in Vietnam, it was a good program. Citizens of the community got to hear from a soldier, perhaps one they knew, serving in Vietnam. For family and friends, no doubt, it was good for their morale, maybe even a source of pride.

I got some plum assignments as well, like Masters of Ceremony gigs at Bob Hope’s USO shows throughout Vietnam.

I interviewed the icon after one of his shows for AFVN. It was to be a greeting from Mr. Hope for those unable to attend the show (which was almost everyone). Unfortunately, I failed to get that message across in the interview. I still remember the producer’s words: “You got nothing here [fit to air].” One of my easiest assignments in Vietnam, and I blew it.

Nevertheless, just before my tour was up, I was promoted to Specialist Five, perhaps as a reward for staying a PFC much longer than usual. Or maybe the U.S. Army thought my ingenuity and diligence with the Ambush scoop, Stream deed, AFVN talent, and so forth merited another promotion. (Nobody ever said the Army was perfect.)

December had finally arrived, and I was officially Short with just thirty-six days (and a wake-up). I began to believe I was going home and would make it. But maybe I shouldn’t have been so optimistic after hearing the story of one man’s last night in Vietnam.

A soldier who had already “processed out” would be heading “Back to the World” on a “Freedom Bird” early the next morning. He had only a wake-up remaining.

Tonight he sat on his bunk, reading the most recent letter from his wife and gently rubbing his index finger over the picture of the daughter he had never met.

He tried to stay cool and get comfortable with the feel of his OD boxers.**  His jungle fatigues had already been traded in for khakis. Ribbons — the medals he’d earned here — were precisely mounted, then pinned above his left front pocket, and his unit patch hung under the other. He had neatly folded his khakis, which lay atop his tightly packed duffle bag. His shiny-black low quarters sat nearby.

Late that evening, he had shaved and showered, one less detail for tomorrow morning. AFVN was playing Strawberry Fields Forever.  When the call came, he would be ready in an instant.

VC launching a 60-mm mortar. (Courtesy alabamava.org)

Soon after he fell asleep, no doubt dreaming about his small family that awaited him and unnecessarily rehearsing his first moves, like kissing his wife while caressing the soft skin of his baby. His mind most likely wandered to some of the worst times in the field, but somehow he overrode that vision. Instead, he continued with the good dream that in a few hours, he was leaving Vietnam forever.

On the same overcast evening, somewhere in the darkness, less than a mile outside the perimeter of the airstrip, a small team of VC was setting up a tripod and adjusting distance and direction. At 0200, a 60-mm mortar burst from its tube with an ssss.

In less than two seconds, a 12-inch rocket flying at 336 mph arced toward the tent of the man scheduled to leave in just hours. The mortar impacted near his cot — exploded in a ball of fire — shattering his dreams, charring his body, and extinguishing his life evermore.

VC mortar exploding in a tent, similar to the scene where a man perished on his last night in Vietnam. (Courtesy C. Lee & Pinterest)

He would still be returning home. Just not in the cheering section of the jet with pretty, good-smelling, round-eyed female flight attendants. He died in this stinking, godforsaken country with just a wake-up up remaining!

Incredibly, like the man above, 1,448 servicemen died on their last scheduled day in Vietnam, and 997 were killed on their first day In-Country.

“We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view  . . .  I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing.” General William Westmoreland, November 21, 1967.

It was an unseasonably cool 70 degrees under a high cloud ceiling when I boarded my 707 out of Tan Son Nhut on Jan. 7, 1968. Ecstatic passengers and a happy crew; all seats were filled with cheering GIs for the roughly 17-hour flight  “Back to the World.”

A couple of hours before we were to touch down at SFO — in our country, the land we had fought for, dreamt of, and yearned for more than a year — the pilot told us not to expect “Thank You For Your Service,” but to be prepared for organized protests in San Francisco against returning soldiers.

*Thankfully, the majority of my assignments did not include blood and battle.

**Most GIs who were in the field for extended periods wore no underwear.

Chapter 21: Home & Marriage​; Ft. McArthur & Tight On Money

There were no bunkers, no sound of canons or weapons, no booby traps to defeat.

No snipers in trees taking a peek.

Didn’t see any bodies without arms, legs, or feet.

No helmeted men with AK-47s jumping from the heat.  

No smell of sulfur in the air, none in the street.

(Some words above from: It’s A Pretty Good Day So Far.)

I had made it back to the Promised Land. Finally, I was on United States soil!

Judy In Disguise (With Glasses) played as I rushed through the corridors at SFO for a commercial jet that would get me soonest to Wilmington, North Carolina. With the unpleasant reception I got at the airport, I’m not sure I would have worn my uniform on the flight had it not been required to get the substantial military discount.

When I called Marty from the airport, she didn’t recognize my voice; she hadn’t heard it in more than a year.


Knowing the date and scheduled time of my arrival, Marty’s family and local citizens (remembering I’d worked in Wilmington) assembled a group of one hundred or more at the airport, where they gave me a hero’s welcome. 


I awoke from that dream not long after I touched down. It was just Marty at the airport, and that was good enough for me, the girl I’d been dreaming of my entire time in Vietnam.

After more than a year apart, the girl who had waited for me was now standing in front of me, even more, beautiful than I had remembered. Marty was tall and thin with sparkling blue-green eyes, short bleached blond hair, and was in love with me. She was 18. I was 20.

We were wed the next afternoon, one day after my arrival. The ceremony was conducted in a spare bedroom of the preacher’s house who married us. There had been no bridal or wedding shower, no gifts of any kind, just advice.

No shower or wedding gifts in Mississippi either, just advice. But we were given the use of Aunt Dara’s unoccupied house, sans indoor toilet. It was quite a way to make an impression on a new bride, but it was a decent and free place to extend our honeymoon.


Seven days after leaving North Carolina, we had gone through Marty’s small amount and the $200 or so I had brought. For my one year in Vietnam (where my income was less than $3,000), I spent money on my R & R, paying off  Marty’s engagement ring, savings bond debit, a small allotment sent to my folks back home, and to Marty;  still, I managed to save $300.00 which the bank sent me before our cross-country trip continued.

img_5104Newlyweds, Don & Marty, at Cabrillo Beach, San Pedro, California, in early 1968. (Swan Archives)

We extended our honeymoon, enjoying the benefits of sleeping together as husband and wife and resting in cheap motels along the 1,958.3-mile route to California for my next assignment.

We’d already driven 900 miles from North Carolina in Marty’s Springtime Yellow 1967 Mustang GT hardtop, with little room for all our worldly belongings, no A/C, threadbare tires, and a broken gas gauge (we ran out somewhere in Oklahoma).

It was a nice car, but somehow she had managed to get saddled with a monthly payment of $105 (about $864 in 2022 money) on a car costing less than $3,000.

Angel Of The Morning, Young Girl, played as we motored through Arkansas, Kind Of A Drag, Magic Carpet Ride rang out in Oklahoma, Green Tambourine, I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight in Texas. Itchycoo Park, Bend Me-Shape Me, Spooky, in New Mexico and Arizona, and all the hits of January 1968 played as we searched for stations on the long trip west.

Much of our travel West on I-40 ran parallel to Route 66 in many places. We went through cities like Tulsa, Amarillo, and Albuquerque and towns like Shamrock, Tucumcari, and Needles.  Our one tourist stop was just a 12-mile detour down old Route 66 to see the three-quarter mile-wide Barringer meteor crater near Winslow, Arizona. Impressive.

Early in the evening, after three days of travel, we rolled into big LA. A spectacular site, Los Angeles; by far more lights than Marty had ever seen and, certainly, as many as I’d seen in large cities.

I’m surprised we found our way through the more than four-thousand square mile city that incorporated some 80 municipalities. As soon as we hit city limits, now a passenger, I began celebrating with a 40oz can of cold Colt-45.™ We had to traverse most of LA — Marty not infrequently stopping at service station restrooms for me — to get to our destination in San Pedro, near the Port of Los Angeles.


We settled into a “furnished” one-bedroom apartment across the street from the hospital at Ft. McArthur in San Pedro, California. We bought new tires, California coverage for the Mustang, some Melmac® dinnerware, and a 23″ B&W Emerson® TV that came in a wheeled cart.

After getting my travel pay, we decided to celebrate a bit. After all, we had made it across the country and me from Vietnam. And, oh yes, marriage.  Peppy’s was a San Pedro restaurant with a reputation for excellent food. Although we had a great dinner there, including a good bottle of wine and dessert, it was $20, including the tip (over $168 in 2022 money).

There would be no more outings like that because, on day one, we were underwater financially.  My base pay was $226.20 monthly, plus a $105 housing allowance. (Average income for civilians was around $750.) So, after rent, car payment, insurance, and so forth, we had just over $100 on which to subsist for 30 days.

The $300.00 we had left Mississippi with was almost gone. I procured toilet paper from work. We made love as Love Is Blue played on KHJ. An hour later, we agonized over money.


At Ft. Mac Arthur, a few weeks after I reported for duty at the 37th Command Information Detachment, the officer in charge handed me a tattered box. He smiled and said: “They must have really liked you.”  Inside were a Purple Heart, Air Medal (unexpected), and Army Commendation Medal. (Maybe someone put me in for those medals, knowing what happened with the Bronze Star below.)

I was, of course, honored and also a bit disappointed. I’d heard from a friend in Vietnam that Lt. Blankenship, before his DEROS,* had told the sergeant responsible for enlisted awards, “No Bronze Star** for Swan.” I have no ill feelings for the man; Blankenship will self-destruct all by himself if he doesn’t get his insecurities under control.  But, as for myself, I’m disappointed for even sharing this story. Why?

5ab91c34b5dd5.imageSoldiers who were doing the real work in Vietnam, like these men carrying wounded on a stretcher. (U.S. Army Paul Halverson, National archives)tumblr_mm1cl7KJ9K1qivon6o1_1280Soldier in sharp-bladed elephant grass, M-16 at the ready. (Courtesy Wikipedia Commons)

Soldiers doing the real work were the men in the bush, grunts walking point, pulling Listening Post duty in the middle of the night, under constant threat from snipers, ambushes, booby traps, and punji stakes.

Infantrymen in extreme heat or monsoons, in the on-again and off-again rain, men who were lugging 90 lbs or more in rice paddies, through elephant grass, mountainous terrain, and fording rivers and streams; this was their life day in and day out.

Snakes, spiders, leeches, wild monkeys, tigers, and poisonous creatures by the dozen harassed the ground pounders. Frequently thirsty, not enough food, jungle rot (infected sores, ulcers, lesions, blisters, etc., on the feet, legs, underarms, and groin from prolonged exposure to dampness) — men who saw their friends injured and killed.

1_1stCavunderfireUnder fire, a 1st Cav trooper slithers in a rice patty (fertilized with human waste), trying to keep his weapon dry. (Henri Huet photo from G. Jacobson post)

Most of the soldiers who did the actual work — the men I honor above —  didn’t get a recommendation for a medal at all;*** and most were sent home as E-4s, a rank lower than I achieved.

And I carp about not getting my Bronze Star!


A 1st Cavalry trooper stationed in Vietnam with the 7th Cav wrote about a common refrain used by many GIs, “Don’t mean Nothin’.”

We said it every miserable day of our miserable lives. It became our mantra. We said it in all kinds of situations for all sorts of reasons, and we said it a great deal, most often when we were miserable, which was pretty damn often . . . .  We said it when it rained, and when it didn’t rain and when it was really hot and when it was even hotter. ‘It Don’t Mean Nothin’ was said a lot.’

We said it to keep from crying, we said it when we stopped moving and when the bloodsucking insects attacked in swarms, and our faces swelled and our hands swelled, and our lips swelled, and our ears swelled and when we thought we were getting malaria, (should we quit taking our pills?) and we thought about how good that would be because you got out of the boonies if you got malaria unless you died from it. Dying from malaria sucked . . . but the prospect of staying inside the wire, sleeping on a cot off the ground, under a dry tent at the hospital, with hot chow, clean sheets, and nobody shooting at you made the risk of a slow, agonizing death from a deadly tropical disease seemed totally worth it. How bad could it be? We were kids. What did we know?  ‘It don’t mean nothin.’

Something just don’t feel right. So shout up and saddle up Trooper. Your night on LP, your turn on point, but ‘It don’t mean nothin.’      Jack “Boz” Parente.

*DEROS: Date Estimate for Return from Overseas.

**Most soldiers serving in a similar job as me in PIO were awarded the Bronze Star, higher than the Army Commendation Medal I received.

***There were two medals (“Vietnam Service & Vietnam Campaign”) that were automatic for those who served in Vietnam, needing no recommendation. In addition to those medals, Infantry soldiers who spent the required time in the field received the Combat Infantry Badge, not an insignificant award.

I had nightmares about Vietnam, most every night during our honeymoon and months thereafter.* And I had turned into a wimp, a side Marty had never seen, and a disposition I never had. One day, we were having a get-together with some of my buddies from the post; Marty was acting a little testy, and one of the guys turned toward her and said, “What’s the matter, you on the rag or something?” I laughed with them instead of telling him to knock it off, not to talk that way to my wife.

I was acting like a wuss (Marty called it cowardice), and she was very disappointed in me. It was a problem in our relationship. In a few years, I did an about-face, eventually to the point of wanting to rip off somebody’s face. (Marty called it backbone.)

JungleJungle scene in South Vietnam (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Just back from Vietnam, I wasn’t trying to live high, but after the mess, I’d been in over there, maybe dinner with drinks once in a while.

But that wasn’t to be. After the $20 outing when we first arrived in LA, the luxury of dinner and drinks was over. Der Wienerschnitzel™ once in a while, maybe.

By the 20th of most months, down to just a few dollar bills, we were looking for change in the sofa and between the car seats. One day while leaving our apartment, I found a five-dollar bill lying flat on one of the steps.  Nobody was around. With that five, I got four sacks of groceries at the commissary.

Then a week or two later, I was on gate guard duty (graveyard shift) at a satellite location of Ft. Mac, primarily used for Reserve training.  Listening to (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of the Bay on 93 KHJ, at about 0200, a carload of reservists, who had apparently taken advantage of being away from home, appeared at the gate.  I was about to motion them in when the driver palmed me a twenty-dollar bill.  I assume he thought I was overlooking a missed curfew or their state of inebriation, if not both. My only orders were to determine that a vehicle and its occupants were authorized on the post.

Twenty dollars; that, for me, was a lot of money, especially when you’re broke. Did I feel guilty (no) or tell anyone? No. I splurged with a fifth of Canadian Club®, Marty got her hair done at a salon, and I still had money for groceries for over a week.

We had been in California for just a few months, and Marty kept saying she’d been out with girls again and “Everybody’s Pregnant.”

I had a lovely stay-at-home Mom and no baby.  Stay tuned.

We had work duty on Saturdays at Ft. MacArthur, though sometimes we were relieved at noon. We were also on constant alert because of the incendiary nature of 1968. Think Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy assignations, the Weathermen, Black Panthers, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, SDS, and Vietnam War Protests, as is oft said, “To name a few.”

Fmpq

Ft. McArthur, San Pedro, California, my first assignment after Vietnam. (Courtesy Wiki Commons)

There was a rotating on-call system for soldiers like me. Those living off base were required to arrive at our assembly point within a half-hour of notification. Even if not on ready-alert, one could be called and told to remain in place for standby. The Army required that you be reachable at all times, unless on leave or pass; check in with the Command Post before going out to a movie.

Not for those restrictions; I had a chance (after an audition) to be an on-air DJ covering two six-hour weekend graveyard shifts at the Number 1 Rock station in LA, 93 KHJ, and a check for $48. With that gig,  I’d have had a better chance at securing a prime-time slot — although still a long shot — in the highly competitive LA market,** the third largest in the U.S.

I’d make it from AFVN An Khe to LA, just not to KHJ. It could have all ended right there.

*Still do sometimes.

**LA market became the second largest in 1984

Chapter 22: Medal Of Honor II

After Vietnam, my expectations may have been a little high. Life would not be perfect nor close to perfect. Ice cream, I’d dreamed of for a year, didn’t even taste as good as I had remembered.

Although I intend to remain faithful to my promise to write honestly and to give you the unvarnished version of how I was feeling, reacting, or coping at any given time, I believe I complained a bit much in the previous chapter.

Rather than sniveling, I should have said: “I’m out of Vietnam, back in the World with no worry of being shot by a Kalashnikov; no booby traps — no incoming. I have no field expedition requirements, and despite my on-call status, I’ve not been apart from my wife for more than 24 hours, and I sleep next to her warm body every night in a comfortable bed.”

SoCal is a Hip-Laid Back megalopolis, and we had already visited Disneyland. Ft. McArthur was a beautiful and historical post, named after one of our most famous generals. It was a great assignment.


I was working in the HQ building on the second floor in the Awards and Decoration section one day in Mid-1968 when I heard raised voices from downstairs, a slight commotion. Someone was yelling, “Where the fuck’s personnel?”

It was a young man in civilian clothes, a bit scruffy with an attitude, standing near the Sergeant Major’s office.  With no authority over someone he didn’t know to be in the military, and not in uniform, the senior NCO was in no position to dress him down, but he was doing so anyway. The man had walked into the HQ of an active army post using profanity after all; what gives?

Turns out —  I kid you not — he was looking for the personnel office, so he could pick up his Medal Of Honor!   We were astonished when we found out he was not joking. 

While the Sergeant Major hyperventilated, I began chatting with the former soldier. He wanted no ceremony, no publicity. I asked him if he had considered staying in the Army, as the Medal Of Honor (MOH) would surely be a boon to his career. “Fuck no, are you dinky dau?” he snapped, “I’m hanging drywall, making five-dollars an hour.”*

I considered telling him the story that I’d heard about President Truman, a combat veteran, who upon presenting a soldier the Medal Of Honor in the White House remarked: “I’d rather have [earned] that medal than be President.”

Oh, well.  This superhero, presumably, returned to his apartment in Downey, tossed his MOH in a drawer, got up the next morning, and went to work — hanging more drywall.

On the subject of work, I wondered what plum assignment a warrant officer in our section had. He would come into the office looking sharp is his Class-A uniform, stay a few minutes, and was gone the rest of the day.

Then I found out. He was occupied with notifying LA area next of kin of those killed in Vietnam. When a family is informed, the military member must be at least equal rank as the KIA. Most helicopter pilots in Vietnam were warrant officers. Our soldier of that rank, outside of bloody combat, was fulfilling the worst duty in the military — ringing those doorbells. This dreadful detail would not only continue, but increase. The deadliest year for US troops in Vietnam was this year, 1968, and that included lots of helicopter pilots.

I can imagine him wheeling a big olive drab ’65 Ford Custom 500 staff car, without power steering, around the streets of LA.  The yellow three-inch tall lettering on the front doors read: “U.S. Army For Official Only.”

He was a great target for citizens, who occasionally gave him the finger. It may have come from those active in protest movements, or people who just hated the U. S. Army for what it may have done to them or their families.  

With likely outdated paper maps, he crept slowly through neighborhoods looking for that address. Spotted by service member wives, daughters, sons, or parents, they pointlessly retreated to the back of their houses, trying to hide from their front doors, but listening still, for that knock and praying that it never came.


charles-hagemeister-medal-honor_1_21f3d50ca0ad98bfab8ce209dec15ae6

hagemeister_a
Medal of Honor recipient Charles C. Hagemeiester, a medic with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) earned for actions during an ambush in Binh Dinh Province March 20, 1967. (U.S. Army photos)

Back in the States, away from the war, I hadn’t thought much about General Norton’s declaration.  That was until May 1968. I was out with four or five friends from the post, TV playing in the background, when the news came on.  I saw Pres. Johnson at the White House place the Medal Of Honor around Hagemeister’s neck!

Excited and surprised, I raised my voice over the din in the club, “Hey, I know this guy, I was out there with him.  That’s Chuck Hagemeister!” The guys were twisting their faces, “OK Swan, OK, sure, all right then,” they grumbled — never looking up from their game of pool. I tried once more, “No really,” and then just gave up. (Unfortunately, Hagemeister’s father would not live to see his son receive the monumental honor, he died when his only son was just four-years-old.) 


I often think of that day in 1967, about Hagemeister, about the brave men who got no medal at all, and about those who gave it all. Now I live secluded near the ocean, count my blessings every night in a comfortable bed. I’m no longer worried about taunts from my fellow citizens — like those at the airport the day I arrived from Vietnam — or incoming from the enemy we fought for so long, so long ago, so far away.

As for those who may have said, "People who served in Vietnam were Suckers." I disagree. "No Thank you for your Service Suckers" just doesn't have the same appreciatory ring. 
Instead, it might be appropriate to say of the "leaders" who sent us there: The only domino's that fell were on the 58 thousand plus souls sacrificed and the survivors, many of whom are still suffering.

This concludes my In Country chapters on Vietnam. But it will be a source of discussion in the next two chapters: How We Could Have Won In Vietnam & The 1st Team In Vietnam.

 *($42.64 in 2022 dollars.)

Chapter 23: How We Could Have Won In Vietnam

“And Men will not understand us . . . and the war will be forgotten.”  All Quiet On The Western Front. 

Vietnam . . . let that hang in the air for a moment. What comes to mind? War, of course: The Vietnam War. And the requisite discussion begins. If you are one of those who believes We Should Have Won The War, this is your chapter.

Anyone with a scintilla of imagination knows how the United States could have most likely won the Vietnam War; tactical nukes, bombing Hanoi back to the Stone Age, allowing the military to fight the war with no restrictions, and so forth.  But at what costs?

Could we have won without acceding to those exigent measures that might have provoked China or the Soviet Union?  In this chapter, I will present my proposal on how we could have — and should have won in Vietnam.

I don’t feel the need to bloviate about the mountain of research I have conducted from scores of books, articles,* interviews, and my own Vietnam experience in reaching my verdict. This endeavor was more difficult than I had imagined, yet it is not an academic treatise on How We Could Have Won in Vietnam. There is a plethora of scholarly research and even more books concerning turning points in the Vietnam War. My conclusion — outlined in this extended chapter — is specific and straightforward.

In the succeeding paragraphs, I will first provide scenarios of strategic opportunities missed before Tet.** Then I will proffer specific battlefield conditions and circumstances during Tet that should have been a clarion call for a new strategy.

STRATEGIC OPPORTUNITIES PRIOR TO TET (Jan 30, 1968)

1) As early as 1966, General William Westmoreland (Commander of  U.S. forces in Vietnam) drew up plans for a campaign where U. S. troops would cross the border into Laos. Westmoreland’s men would blunt enemy infiltration into South Vietnam and deny the North Vietnamese Army (NVA, also known as the People’s Army of Vietnam) usage of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. President Johnson rejected his request. (Archives. Gov.history/mil)

images copy 6
Ho Chi Minh Trail (undated). (Wiki Commons)

2) In mid-1967, 5′ 0″  General Von Nguyen Giap (Commander of all communist forces) opposed an all-out offensive against American forces and cities in the South (Think: Khe Sanh, Tet, Hue, Easter Offensive). He believed such an invasion by the NVA, into the South, would spur the U.S. to attack just north of the DMZ where his main contingent congregated.  He thought it logical that Westmoreland would be “provoked to invade Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” the top-ranking NVA general reasoned. “[My] major concern is that the United States will expand the conflict beyond South Vietnam’s borders and that an American landing in North Vietnam might have disastrous consequences for the North Vietnamese regiment,” Giap rationalized.  (Vietnam Magazine, History Net.Com, Post-war NVA documents)

3) Hanoi needed to determine how the Americans would respond to a communist buildup and offensive. Giap decided to launch attacks near the DMZ. The U.S. response would help formulate and develop the offensive he was set to command. His battles along the DMZ (from March to August 1967) near Cam Lo, Khe Sanh, Con Thien, Camp Carroll, Quang Tri city; the Rockpile and Route 9 served as the test. The NVA soldiers incurred heavy losses. But when the U.S. did not send troops across the DMZ or Laos, Hanoi believed the U.S. would continue to react only defensively. Now Giap felt his chances for a successful offensive were good, and his men would continue with their charge into the South.  (Post-war NVA documents as reported in Vietnam Magazine and other sources)

images copy 4
NVA regulars with PPSh-41, Russian made sub-machine gun, during the Vietnam War. (Wikipedia)

4) Gen. Giap wanted to test America’s strategic intentions one final time before giving the green light for Tet.  He staged his buildup of forces at the juncture of Laos and North and South Vietnam. If his corps-size presence did not trigger a U.S. invasion of North Vietnam or Laos, his offensive plans would continue. Since the closest U.S. base to Laos and North Vietnam was Khe Sanh, his final test was to attack there. (Post-war NVA documents as reported in Tet, The Turning Point)

5)  On December 21, 1967, Giap’s division tangled with U.S. Marines near Khe Sanh. Westmoreland then ordered the Marines at Khe Sanh to scout assault routes for a possible Laos incursion and, on December 27, 1967, sent a Flash cable to Washington with an urgent request. His proposal outlined, in detail, the need for a strike across the border to blunt enemy infiltration. A few days later, Westmoreland received another rejection from LBJ for the Laotian strike. (The Vietnam War Almanac, Interview with Maj. Gen. John Tolson and other sources)

6) After the massive bombardment of the Marine Combat Base at Khe Sanh by the NVA on Jan. 21, 1968, the U. S. responded the same way it had during the past two years, according to Giap. The communist general was certain the U.S. would not counterattack outside the South Vietnamese borders.  (Post-war NVA documents reported on History Net.com) Hanoi’s ambition and overreach was Westmoreland’s opportunity to bury Giap’s divisions under a cascade of bombs, and a cross-border strike the NVA were dreading. Westmoreland was never given the chance; Tet was on.

7) The U.S. command did not, of course, know of Giap’s specific intentions, but U. S. intelligence knew of his presence just beyond the DMZ, and rumors of a major campaign that became Tet was no secret in Westmoreland’s command. Two weeks before the Jan 30, 1968, Tet strike, Westmoreland even asked the President of South Vietnam to cancel leave (that most of his troops would be on) for the Tet holiday. Westmoreland was rebuffed. (Vietnam Magazine, Vietnam: A History)

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES DURING TET:

1) General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Feb. 8, 1968, cabled an urgent message to Westmoreland in Vietnam.  Johnson was not prepared to accept defeat just yet, adding:  “If you need more troops, ask for them, we’ve entered a critical phase, request what you believe is required under the circumstances,” Wheeler highlighted in the Top Secret communiqué.  “Capitalize on their casualties [in Tet] to materially shorten the war,” he relayed to Westmoreland.   Johnson had already contemplated calling up the reserves. The President, he said, was ready to pursue “A winning strategy.” The Tet battles had crippled the communists, as Westmoreland knew and Johnson had proclaimed. On Feb 28, 1968, Westmoreland sent his detailed proposal to Washington for 206,756 more troops. (The History Place™ and public domain)

2) Now that we have the benefit of the Hanoi regime’s records, we know they were struggling after their losses during Tet; as many as 60,000 in the first month!  Our intelligence knew they were in peril. The Viet Cong (VC) especially could no longer fight as a cohesive force, and even the communists agreed their combat readiness was in “jeopardy.” (Postwar NVA/Hanoi documents as reported in Vietnam War Almanac and Public domain.)

3) On the Internet today, there are stories quoting Gen. Giap:  “You had us on the ropes [after Tet]. We knew it, we thought you knew it. But we were elated to notice your media was definitely helping us. They were causing more disruption in America than we could in the battlefields.”  I was unable to verify the above quote with 100% accuracy. It does, however, coincide with conditions in the field and how U. S. media were reporting on Tet. The following quote, however, is not in question: “Do not fear the enemy,  for they can only take your life. Fear the media far more, for they will destroy your honor,” Gen Giap said on more than one occasion. (Public domain, The Guardian.Com, Bookings.Com) 

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Cronkite’s broadcast of Feb. 27, 1968, was considered the death knell for LBJ’s war in Vietnam.  (Wiki Commons)

4) For a brief moment, after the Tet offensive began, Americans rallied around the flag in predictable patriotic fervor, with an upward spike in support.  A Nov. 1967 survey revealed 55 percent (of U.S.) wanted a tougher policy on Vietnam with stronger military operations. (New York Times) “Tet was a military disaster for the NVA but a political victory for them in the West,” New Yorker Magazine wrote in Feb. 1968. Even Walter Cronkite — before his famous denunciation of the war— reported on his February 13, 1968, broadcast: “First, and simplest, the VC/NVA suffered a military defeat [in Tet].  Its missions proved suicidal.” The Washington Post and New York Times made similar assessments.

Then came Cronkite’s broadcast of Feb. 27, 1968; many thought it was the death knell for LBJ’s war in Vietnam when he reported:

“To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest that we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say we are mired in a stalemate seems to be the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion.

On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations.  In the next few weeks and months we must test the enemy’s intentions . . . .”  (Author’s note: Isn’t that an opening for a surge?)

But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could. ” (CBS archives)

5) On March 23, 1968, Westmoreland learned LBJ would send only a fraction of the 206,756 men he had requested. Just 13,500 were approved. (An increase of approximately 22,600 troops were deployed in all of 1968) (Washington Post). On the same day, the Chicago Tribune ran a 72 point headline: “WESTMORELAND RECALLED.”  He would remain commander in Vietnam until June 1968. (Vietnam, A History and other sources)

6) Still in charge, Westmoreland saw an opportunity where he could “take advantage” of an enemy in peril that would not require Presidential approval. The U.S. Marines in the battle of Dia Do April 30 to May 3, 1968, were outnumbered 10 to 1, yet they cut off routes at the DMZ terminating infiltration of an NVA Division. The enemy suffered 1,568 killed, U.S. losses were 91. Two Marines earned Medals Of Honor in the campaign. (The History Place™, Vietnam Magazine) Westmoreland planned to sent fresh troops to decimate any floundering NVA in and around the DMZ, had the extra troops promised in March arrived and not for what happened next; mini-Tet. Westmoreland needed all available resources when the VC/NVA launched simultaneous attacks on 119 cities and military installations, May 5, 1968.

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Map showing U.S. bases and villages near DMZ. Dong Ha (right center at hwy. 1) is near Dai Do (about 10 miles south of the DMZ) where Marines won a decisive battle that thwarted infiltration of NVA crossing DMZ, April 30-May 3, 1968. (Wiki Commons)
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U. S. Marines from 2nd Battalion, 4th Regiment “Magnificence Bastards” charge with M-16s and  M72 LAW anti-tank weapon during the battle of Dai Do, a decisive U.S. victory in early 1968. Note camo on helmets of the two men at right. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

I have written the following speech; the speech LBJ should have given. It is my strategy on How We Could Have Won the War In Vietnam.

I have asked for this airtime tonight to make two major announcements. Firstly, I will not seek reelection as your president (pause to let that sink in) and Secondly, I have initiated an all out campaign of Surge and Strike to end and win the war in Vietnam before the expiration of my term in January.

To that end I have called up the Reserves so that our military will not be spread too thin and I have extended indefinitely, the tour of those serving in Vietnam. Although winning this war will take more than the sheer size of our force, I have already approved an increase of 50,000 more combat troops. As I speak,  several hundred are already in the air over the Pacific headed to that war zone. Presently, more than 150 U. S. aircraft are carrying out offensive operations over North Vietnam.

My commanders will have at their disposal all the might of the U.S. arsenal and I have ordered them to use all necessary force to end this conflict with a victory. I’m serious about winning and win we will. I do not wish to expand this war beyond its present borders, but noting is off the table in my determination to bring this war to an end — with a win.

The only way to stop the U. S. Surge and Strike Offensive — from the ground and air — is for the communists to withdraw immediately all of its troops from South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and the immediate closure of the Ho Chi Minh trail. All our POWs must be immediately released unharmed and with full accountability. We will not give the enemy a chance to regroup during any cease-fire until it is clear that our demands are being met.

Too much blood and treasure has been lost to give up now, and everyone agrees that this war has gone on far too long. And without having to worry about a reelection, I will devote all the time necessary to win this war for the United States, and the people of South Vietnam. Initially U.S. casualties are bound to rise, but the enemy will lose much more — the war. To the loved ones of our fighting men: My goal is to end this war before my term expires in January. In the unlikely event that our all out effort falls short of my expectations, I will begin the immediate withdraw all our forces from Vietnam before the end of my time as your president.

I will not answer any specific questions tonight about this campaign, I believe I have said it all. To reiterate, we will do what is necessary to end this war in our favor. Finally, I am convinced the majority of the American people want this war to end with a win and I, along with our brave men in Vietnam, intend to do just that.  God bless our troops and the people of South Vietnam. God bless the U.S.A.

The above speech that I wrote — the one LBJ should have given — is my strenuous but surmountable strategy for a U.S. victory in Vietnam.***

WHY THIS WOULD WORK:

1) The Commander In Chief is now committed with all the might of the U.S. Military and has ordered his commanders — who have been itching for a chance — to execute a winning strategy. The General’s would now have the green light to expel the enemy from its sanctuaries, wherever they may be. Any VC/NVA force in a one-on-one battle, especially with the likes of the U.S. Marines and the 1st Air Cavalry with its U. S. Navy and Air Force air assets — would be crushed.

2) I believe as they say in my hearts of hearts and with my head too; if the commanders began prosecuting the war to win — the men could tell. Morale would spike. Our troops would fight with a fury to get out of that stinking country and be home by Christmas as victors. Our allies the ARVN (Army Republic of Vietnam) would surely fight alongside us with more vigor. It would become obvious, the more we punished the communists — the easier it would be for the ARVN to defend themselves upon our departure.

3) The U.S. population, in general, might be more supportive of the war, knowing we were fighting for a quick resolution. Relatives at home should feel a little better, knowing their loved ones were fighting in a war that was winnable and soon to be over.

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED:

1) We let Tet, Khe Sanh, Hue, Walter Cronkite, and the anti-war movement defeat us; Well, LBJ did! Thanks, Walter. Thanks, Jane.

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President Johnson announces he will not seek another term and capitulating on Vietnam March 31, 1968. (Wiki Commons)

2) March 31, 1968, LBJ announced on National TV that he was not seeking reelection, he also declared plans to: “Limit the war [in Vietnam],” and later to cease all bombing above 17th Parallel and then announced withdrawal talks with Hanoi. (Brookings.com, Public domain sources) He capitulated and sent a message to the communists and the rest of the world: “I’m giving up, let the next President deal with it.” (Authors percipience).

3) What was LBJ thinking? “Let’s have a few more ceasefires to give the enemy time to regroup, and then [to save face], we’ll keep fighting on the communist’s terms.” (Authors elucidation)  Let someone else deal with the mess I created.

4) In case you don’t remember how it ends:  Our fighting men soldiered on for five more years-plus while our troops and our pilots were hampered by ridiculous rules of engagement. Many men in the field were also frustrated with the tepid motivation and questionable fighting ability of the ARVN, who was supposed to take charge of their own war so U.S. troops could go home. Sagging morale was inevitable as the men marked time — just trying to stay alive — realizing their fighting would not result in a victory. Even though offensive field operations in the last two years by U.S. troops were limited, men were still being castrated by landmines and losing limbs and life.

5) After LBJ failed to take advantage of the opportunities, in late 1967 and early 1968, the war would drag on five more years-plus; while our POWs suffered and more than 38,000 additional Americans were killed — and untold numbers of Vietnamese! Let that hang in the air for a moment.


“During the day on Monday, Washington time, the airport at Saigon came under persistent rocket as well as artillery fire and was effectively closed . . . . I . . . ordered the evacuation of all American personnel remaining in South Vietnam.” President Gerald Ford, April 29, 1975.

The next day the communists took Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City (Washington Post). But not before two U.S. Marines assigned to Embassy Guard were killed in a mortar attack on April 29, 1975, one day before the fall of Saigon.  They were the last U.S. servicemen to die in Vietnam proper, and if that were not enough, their bodies were left behind and not returned to the U.S.until early 1976!   Charles McMahon had been in Vietnam eleven days, Darwin Judge less than two months. (The Last Men Out)

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McMahon (left) age 22 and Judge 19, last In-Country fatalities of the Vietnam War. (Wiki Commons)
I am ending this chapter in memory of 58,220 U.S. souls who perished so far away, so long ago, for a people to be free.

“Painful as it is to remember — Least we forget.”  The Vietnam War. Donald Swan, December 21, 2018.

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Refugees storm a U. S. chopper April 29, 1975, (one day before fall of  capital) during the evacuation of Saigon (Wiki Commons)˜

*Numerous books, articles, and documents were researched in the compilation of this chapter: Wikipedia; The History Place™; New York Times; Washington PostNew Yorker; USA Today: Archives.gov; History-Army.mil; BBC.com; The Guardian.Com; Brookings.com; The Hidden History of America At War, Kenneth Davis R. Dee publisher; Vietnam War Almanac, Col Harry Summers Ballantine Books; A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan Random House Publishing; The Best And The Brightest, David Halberstam Random House; Vietnam, A History, Stanley Karnow Viking Press; After Tet, Ronald Spector Hatchet Press: The Hidden History Of The Vietnam War, John Prados Ivan R. Dee; Tet: The Turning Point, Don Oberdorfer De Capo Press; The Fallacy Of The Turning, Mark Bowden Atlantic Monthly Press; Vietnam Magazine and public domain not requiring credit. My library contains some 100 books on the subject of the war in Vietnam.

**Tet: Both sides agreed to a truce for the most important Vietnamese holiday. The communists used the occasion for a series of surprise attacks on cities, towns, villages, hamlets, and U.S. installations throughout South Vietnam Jan 30, 1968, and beyond. Considered a turning point in the Vietnam War, there were heavy fatalities on both sides, especially for the VC/NVA.


*** Other Alternatives: 1) It could be argued that LBJ simply use his speech of March 31, 1968, to declare victory and begin immediately withdrawing of all of our troops.

2) One might also make a case for withdrawal after the bloody battle of Ia Drang (the first major battle of the Vietnam War for the U.S. Nov. 1965). Although it was a clear victory for the U.S., it was very costly as well. LBJ could have said something like: “We are not quitters, and as JFK said just three years ago, ‘We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’  I, however —  after careful consideration and consultation with both houses of Congress and my conscience — have determined that the cost of this war is too high for a job the boys of South Vietnam should be doing for themselves. I will begin the immediate withdrawal of all combat troops from Vietnam. The U. S. will continue to provide some support for the government of South Vietnam in its efforts to stop the spread of communism.”

3) Finally, it could be argued the Vietnam War was not winnable, and LBJ could have begun a withdrawal at any time he chose.

Author’s Note: Every effort is made that all my writing be 100% accurate. Any misstatements or errors by the author are unintentional and should not distract from my premise on How We Could Have Won In Vietnam.   donaldswan@msn.com
About the Author: Swan is a decorated Vietnam veteran who served in the  U. S. Army as a Combat Correspondent with the elite 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). He’s authored several feature articles about veterans and their combat experience. Swan holds both BA and MA degrees from the University of Denver. He was a senior Public Affairs Officer in the U.S. Air Force, a Denver DJ, Semi-Pro race car driver and author of “My Life At The Limit,” an autobiography. He lives on the Pacific in Northern Calif. with his wife and three canines.

Chapter 24: 1st Team in Vietnam

The stereotypical image of Vietnam veteran was well established in the consciousness of the general public by 1970. We were all assumed to be incurably and permanently  traumatized by the war: Drug-addled, unemployable, homeless misfits; or soulless psychopathic killers deserving of fear. The typical villain-of-choice in Hollywood films and cop shows of that era was the “deranged Vietnam vet driven by combat experiences to commit homicidal mayhem. Years of daily bombardments by: all the Bad news that’s fit to print.” Media coverage of the war convinced the public that those who fought in Vietnam were poor, ignorant dupes who should be either pitied or feared –“no in between.”   (Jerry Morelock from article in Vietnam Magazine)

It is no surprise, then, that in my community at large, as a well-known writer and veteran, people occasionally ask me about Vietnam. Was there mutiny, drug abuse or racial hostility among U.S. forces, during the war? I saw zero such activity during the 12 months I was there in 1967 with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). I didn’t see men drunk, smoking pot, burning villages and screwing the local whores. I didn’t see any of that. I did hear of problems of excessive drinking, rowdy soldiers visiting Sin City, incidences of occasional pot smoking by soldiers who were not in a combat posture, and a couple of fragging incidents that occurred within the division. This was fairly early in the war, 1967, and there was still hope of winning, especially in the elite 1st Cav. As for race issues, it practically disappeared in the field when often time one depended on another person, black or white, to save their butt. Was everybody happy, of course not? Soldiers were anxious, more alert, and trying to get home without death or serious injury. Being in Vietnam was a major stressor, and later in the conflict, some drug and race issues materialized.

During the time I served, I observed soldiers who saw purpose in the mission in Vietnam, and their jobs typically took precedence over spit and polish.  No matter where, soldiers bitch and moan (especially lower enlisted) at just being in uniform.

Most people I hear from are more judicious in their queries and want to know about my experience in Vietnam as it relates to how well we were executing our mission, our motivation, and so forth.  I was In-Country Jan. 67 to Jan. 68, and I can speak assuredly about my unit: 1st Cavalry Division.  Although my tour in Vietnam was no easy ride, I was honored to have served; especially as a member of The First Team. 

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All Crests, Patches, and Artwork from Swan Archives. (Cheri Swan Photos)

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You will remember, from previous chapters, that I traveled extensively while in the 1st Cav and was on the ground with the troops during several operations. I had practically unfettered access from the PFC to the CG (Commanding General) and to classified information. I believe that — as an unassuming, ordinary soldier —  I was more likely to get my subjects to speak freely and give me unfiltered responses.

So, when I impart my opinion and observations, you can trust I am in a position to do so.

The overwhelming majority (about 95%) of the hundreds of soldiers I met, from cooks to colonels, were highly motivated and serious about our mission in Vietnam. How confident were we?  A group of us used to talk about how someday we would be relaxing in a condo on the beautiful beaches of the South China Sea — subsidized by the grateful people of South Vietnam — because we saved them from communism.

As for our morale and fighting spirit when I was on the ground in 1967; The 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) with its 16,000 Skytroopers, 434 choppers; Infantry, Artillery, Engineers, Scouts, Airborne, Rangers, Reconnaissance and other specially trained troopers was a motivated and lethal fighting force in Vietnam. We were The First Team, gung-ho and kicking ass.* There was a bounty on our men; the VC/NVA offered a monetary reward for the capture, dead or alive, of any 1st Air Cavalry combat soldier!

 Below is a tribute to Combat & Support Units of the fighting 1st Cavalry in Vietnam,The First Team:

1st Battalion, 5th Cav Black Knights.  The CGs ready strike force. The Cav Commander lauded these men, saying their Cambodia  campaign was one of the Cav’s most impressive operations. In addition, 1st/5th operated in Binh Dinh Province, participated in Pleiku and several other campaigns. I was in the field  with this unit when a medic from A Company, whose actions  were so heroic, that he received the Medal of Honor.

Unknown2nd Battalion, 5th Cav. Ironhorse. Relief at Ia Drang, fighting in Khe Sanh, Bong Son and DMZ. I spent time in the field with this unit.

     Fifth Cav. Fatalities about 800 men.           

6 Medals of Honor earned.**

1st Battalion, 7th Cav.  Garry Owen. The bloody battle of  Ia Drang Valley, one of the primary unit’s featured in the book and movie We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young. Sixteen campaigns, including fighting at Hue.

2nd Battalion, 7th Cav Garry Owen, battle of Ia Drang, Masher, White Wing, Masher, The Sanh  and Cambodia. I spent time with this unit.

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5th Battalion, 7th Cav, Garry Owen. Arrived a year after other units of the 1st Cav. Air assaults in Bin Dibh Province, Operation Pershing, Thayer II, and decisive battle at Hue.

Seventh Cav had about 1,000 fatalities, more than any Cav unit.       7 Medals of Honor earned.

1st Battalion (Airborne) 8th Cav.  Jumping Mustangs. Straight to Bong Son, Operation Irvin, Crazy Horse, Navy-Cavalry ops. I spent time with this unit.

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2nd Battalion (Airborne) 8th Cav. Stallions. Peli Me Campaign, Cambodia, and others.

Eighth Cav fatalities almost 700.

5  Medals of Honor earned.

1st Squadron, 9th Cav. Headhunters. Known as the Cav of the Cav.  Reconnaissance Scouts, one of the most active units in the Division. Numerous campaigns including Cambodia. Rangers and Long Range Recon. Patrols (LRRP) attached. I spent time with this unit and flew with them on combat air assaults.

Ninth Cav. Loses about 550.  4  Medals of Honor earned.

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1st Battalion (Airborne) 12th Cav. Always Ready. Operation Lincoln, LZ Bird, and several others. Made one of the largest assaults in Vietnam, I spent time with them.

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2nd Battalion, 12th Cav. Thunder Horse. An Khe Defense, Masher, Bong Son, Tet, decisive battle at Hue and other campaigns.

Twelfth Cav losses almost 750.    6 Medals of Honor earned.

227th Assault Helicopter Battalion, SpearheadBattle of Ia Drang,  Laos,  numerous campaigns.  

Nearly 700 fatalities.  1 Medal of Honor earned.

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 228th Support  Helicopter Battalion,     Warriors. Deployed ACH-47 Guns-A-Go-Go in campaigns. About 170 Fatalities.

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229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, Winged Assault. Battle of Ia Drang, Laos, numerou campaigns, spent time with this unit.      About 600 fatalities.     2  Medals of Honor earned.            

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Division Artillery, 2nd/20th ARA Blue Max. About 60 Fatalities. All artillery units about 200 Fatalities.

     

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11th Aviation Co. About 100 Fatalities.

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13th Signal Battalion. About 16 Fatalities.

 s-l640   15th Medical Battalion Angels of Mercy.                              About 35 Fatalities.

Although far from being a player in any direct combat role, my own company of record, 15th Admin. with finance, supply, casualty, legal and the like suffered 10 Fatalities, including 4 from our fifteen member PIO.*** 

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The 1st Air Cavalry fought in all (4) Corps Tactical Zones in Vietnam, including Laos and Cambodia. The prestigious Presidential Unit Citation and scores of other awards were accorded to the 1st Cav for its bravery in battleSky Troopers of the 1st Cav earned more Medals of Honor by far —  31  (20 Posthumously)! — than any other division in Vietnam.

Had the town where I was born lost as many souls as did the 1st Cav in Vietnam, it would no longer exist. The 5,621 killed in 1st Cav would more than wipe out the entire population of Amory, Miss, at the time of my birth.  

Each soul a sacrifice 5,621 times over.

A salute to all who served, especially those who can never return it.

1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) Vietnam 1965-1971 (5 yrs & 6 mo.)    The First Team. Indeed.

*This is in no way meant to glorify War.  It is not pretty, people die, including our own, of course. **Sources for Fatalities and Medals of Honor: 1st Calvary Division Assoc. Book Of Honor. The listing may not include every single unit of the 1st Cav nor all of its attached support contingents. ***Over a five-year period.

Chapter 25: Twins & Trouble

What’s a young married couple, just starting their lives together, struggling financially, and repeatedly arguing to do? Have a baby, of course.

I was awakened by our alarm clock radio playing Honey by Bobby Goldsboro. It happened to be Marty’s favorite song. I quietly eased out of bed and was in the bathroom shaving when Marty pounded on the door. Her morning sickness had begun. There was no time to comfort or contemplate. I had to make formation at the Post in half-an-hour.  I left her in our 400 sq. ft. apartment throwing-up. Marty was 19 and away from home for the first time, 2,623 miles away to be exact.


It was July ’68, I had less than a year remaining on my enlistment; too short for another tour in Vietnam but, hopefully, enough time left to see Marty through a complicated pregnancy. No civilian doctors were apt to treat her at this stage, and besides, we had no health insurance once my enlistment ended.

I would do what a year ago was unthinkable — subjecting me to another tour in Vietnam — reenlist in the U.S. Army for three more years! The good news was a re-enlistment bonus of about $1,800 and continued prenatal care.

My peers on the post thought I was a total idiot, called me a lifer (pejorative term) ridiculed me even after our top Sergeant told them to knock it off.  “Swan, I never saw you as being that stupid,” was one of the milder comments. But none had a wife pregnant with twins!

We made arrangements with the company, that financed Marty’s Mustang, for an uncontested repossession. Then with some of the reenlistment money, we bought a slightly used pale blue ’68 Chevy Impala, 4 door.


November 28, 1968, Thanksgiving Day. Twelve hours of hard labor, seven minutes between baby one: Lisa (pseudonym) 6 lb 8 oz. and the breech birth of baby two: Laura (pseudonym) 7 lb 9 oz. Fraternal twin girls — squalling and screaming.  Luckily for me, fathers to be, weren’t allowed in the birthing room.

Family leave hadn’t been invented in 1968, so I took all the regular leave I had to assist in round the clock duty for the twins. Lisa and Laura overwhelmed Marty and me. With two babies, it was always somebody’s turn.  Imagine young first-time parents, with twins, waking up at different times during the night, whimpering and wailing. For the first few months, we got little sleep. We did not have the convenience of disposable diapers, and there were no relatives within two-thousand miles. Neither of us got a break from the twins, not even a half-hour.

Now I had a pretty stay at home, miserable mom.


Not long after the twins were born, I got a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) notice, thankfully not for Vietnam. We were leaving hip SoCal for the Sacramento Army Depot. We packed all of our worldly belongings in the 327cid Impala, traveling for the first time as a family of four.

We listened mostly to 93 KHJ on the way hearing songs like Do You Know The Way To San Jose by Dionne Warrick. No, we’re headed for Sacramento, thank you. Then we picked up KYA San Francisco with Magic Carpet Ride by Steppenwolf, Spooky by the Classics IV. The twins were finally asleep, and I dared not turn up Hey Jude by the Beatles.

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Governor Reagan’s residence in Sacramento. (Lyon Realty)

In Sacramento, we would have no trouble getting around after navigating big LA for a year. We got a small furnished 2nd-floor apartment near the Capitol. I was assigned to the 317th Maintenance Co. at Sacramento Army Depot. It was a phantom unit and a cover for the classified work a small group of us were conducting around Gov. Reagan’s residence. (Reagan lived in the governor’s mansion for just four months.)

I was also an operator-technician at the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) site at the army depot. Our 24-hour facility took calls from stations overseas, which we transmitted via a commercial telephone line. The person receiving the call, say from Vietnam, would only pay the toll to Sacramento.


In less than a year, we departed the Depot for another PCS to Ft. Lewis, Washington. We headed to the Pacific Northwest in our brand new ’69 Mustang Mach 1, 351cid with rim blow steering wheel and AM/FM radio.

Why? I still had a few reenlistment dollars and traded the ’68 Impala. I figured the army was a pretty secure job, and we just did it. A smaller car and a larger car payment. It sounded fine to us.


Identical to Swan’s 1969 Mach 1.(Courtesy Barrett-Jackson)

During our drive toward Tacoma, somewhere along the Pacific coast — listening to In the Year of 2525 by Garz & Evans — I saw where the sea and the mountains converge and thought that would be an ideal place to live someday, maybe during retirement.

I might be getting a little ahead of myself. I was 21 with a wife and two infants and a career to create.

On the four-speaker Mach 1 radio, we listened to Sugar Sugar by the Archies and wow, two hits by Elvis finally; In The Ghetto and Suspicious Minds, the latter was his first top ten hit since Crying In The Chapel in 1965.


At Ft. Lewis, I was assigned to the Visitors Welcome Center, part of the Post Headquarters. The Officer in charge of our small unit said he had heard good things from visitors and others about my public relations skills; that I had represented Ft. Lewis and the U.S. Army well.

A couple of months later, I was told to report to Post Headquarters.  Major General Willard Pearson called me to attention and pinned on staff sergeant stripes.  A below the zone promotion to E-6 conducted by a general officer!  I had been in the army just over three years. Such a promotion usually took six years, or more, and certainly not in a ceremony with the Post Commander.

My monthly basic pay (in early 1970) was $372.98, and soon I began receiving tax-free Proficiency Pay of $50 a month.*  A sign over our front door read: SSG SWAN. Inside was our spacious three-bedroom duplex in base housing, no rent, no utilities. As a family of four, our income tax was minimal, and Marty had been doing some babysitting.


D. B. Cooper had recently jumped from a 727 possibly within a few hundred miles of us, but we never attempted to score any of the $200,000 that may have been scattered in the forest. We went instead to Beneficial Finance and left with a check from a high-interest loan we used to purchase household furniture, new pots and pans, and a Philco®-Ford™ Console Color TV.

          Mt. Rainier, as seen from Ft. Lewis parade grounds. (US Army)

My monthly salary was still well below the $806 median income for civilians, but “free” health care, tax advantages, and living quarters made up for some of the deficit. Finally, our finances were in decent shape, and we would not be getting any more cars that we couldn’t afford.

Marty still struggled with the twins. A  quick way to strain a friendship, we learned, was to have them watch Lisa and Laura for an hour or two. But I wasn’t on alert status at Ft. Lewis and had more time to help with the girls. The Pacific Northwest with the Puget Sound, snow capped Mt. Rainier, and rugged forests made for a magnificent year-round spectacle. Life was pretty good.

It wasn’t to last. We would be leaving the beautiful Pacific Northwest for another PCS and even farther from Marty’s family. A lot farther — 4,309 miles precisely.

*Awarded to enlisted men who scored in the top five percent on their annual exams and efficiency reports.