A hired killer, a grunt, an infantryman, my father calls himself. After thirty years of military service, he can lay claim to other titles as well: ranger, paratrooper, company commander, battalion commander, and G-something-or-other. Of course, these days he is primarily known as Grandpa, having retired from the Army many years ago.
Commemorating his experiences are numerous plaques and citations which line the staircase at home, everything from the Silver Beaver to the Silver Star; there is even a picture of him meeting the president. And somewhere in the attic, there is a rifle and bayonet, a trophy captured from a Viet Cong soldier, along with a piece of shrapnel that just barely missed its mark.
And, of course, there are many accompanying stories because, during those thirty years, he found himself in many “hairy situations”, including a firefight or two, gave a few thousand orders, carried out a few thousand more, met all kinds of people, famous and not-so-famous, and slept in foxholes all over the world, including far away places like Korea, Germany, Viet Nam, and Indian Town Gap.
He has stories for all his experiences, although these days he is not always precise. The gist of the stories do not change between recountings, but his numbers and dates may change slightly, and he does not always begin or end in the same place. Sometimes there is a new detail or perspective to a story I have heard many times before. And I never know when to expect a story. I might go ages without hearing any and then one weekend there are a slough of them. His stories are usually fairly short; they are self-contained, but if you piece them together you can often get a more complete picture of his experiences. I wonder sometimes how many more there are; at times, it seems like I have heard them all, but I imagine there are still a few golden nuggets yet to be revealed.
Chronologically, Viet Nam fell in the middle of his career, but it seems a logical place to begin this chronicle as there are more stories of it than of any other place.
Unlike many, my father has no problem talking about his war experiences. In fact, he sometimes talks of his desire to return to the scene of the crime. “There are only two places I’d like to see again,” he says. “Naples is one and Viet Nam is the other. I’d like to see what’s become of them, to see how they have changed.”
I don’t remember if he was able to talk about the war experience right away. I was only six when he returned from his first tour. I was twelve when he returned from the second tour, but by that time I didn’t want to be bothered with my parents. Perhaps there was a period–an incubation period, a cooling off period, an adjustment period, what have you–before the stories could be recounted; I simply cannot remember. But in subsequent years, during many late nights of reminiscing at the kitchen table, I have never seen him break down, never seen him dwell on the dying, the fear, the loss; he’ll tell you post-traumatic stress is a bunch of bull, and not something a soldier should succumb to anyway.
The only times I remember him even talking about fear were always in conjunction with something else. “The most scared I ever was,” he said, “was on the jump tower at Fort Benning. The tower was 250 feet high; they had copied the exhibition at the World’s Fair . . . At the fair you could ride down on a clothesline; it would take you down nice and slow. But at jump school, they would inflate the parachute and then let you go; there was no clothesline on our tower.”
Moments like these he may have questioned what he had gotten himself into, may have wondered if there was not an easier way to advance his career and provide for his family. There were countless other slings and arrows that he had to endure on a regular basis as well: long working hours, separations from his family, nights spent in foxholes. All these too surely took their toll during the years. But when he got the call for Viet Nam, any lingering fears, doubts, or second thoughts he might have had, didn’t factor into the equation at all.
I am certain there were moments of apprehension, but there was also opportunity associated with war, the most significant being the opportunity to command, to lead men into battle. He knew what he was getting into, but still looked forward to it. “And when the opportunity to command finally presented itself, I grabbed it. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
I don’t think that meant he was looking for glory; he certainly hasn’t romanticized the experiences, and he hasn’t modified the stories as the experiences have become more distant. Nor was he fighting an ideological battle; he didn’t hate the enemy, didn’t hate the Communists. And he wasn’t so intent as to ignore the risks. He felt fear; he just didn’t dwell on it. Maybe he was trying to block it out, but I think he’d thought things through well in advance; now was simply a time for action. Fighting a war was his job, he told me once; it was thing he had trained for his whole career. If he wasn’t ready for it when the time came, he was in the wrong business.
Nevertheless, I think the war affected him more than he cares to admit. After a while, you begin to notice some things are never mentioned at all (although it takes a long while since he talks so freely about the rest). I’ve noticed, for instance, he doesn’t talk about the classmates and the friends killed in action: in Korea, in Viet Nam. And he started drinking more after the war; maybe he just picked up the habit while there–like every army in the field, they had lots of time to fill–but then maybe it was a means to help him forget. Some experiences will forever be associated with the war, sleeping for one. Although he has no trouble falling asleep, thirty years later, he will still bolt upright when you wake him, as if he just realized there are incoming. It makes me think there is something that lingers in the back of his mind, something which cannot be forgotten, yet cannot be consciously remembered either.
My father was in his prime when the war began in earnest. He had enough experience–fifteen years or so–to be given a large command; however, at first it looked like that opportunity might elude him. He would go to war as the Brigade Executive Officer, and although fairly high up, Brigade Exec is still second-in-command, and from what I gather, both a behind-the-lines and a behind-the-scenes kind of job.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t exactly a cushy desk job. “When I got to the division at Fort Riley, it was only at half strength. We had something like four months to get ready to fight. We were getting people from all over, a lot of them draftees, most of them totally unprepared to fight. I was working eighteen-hour days the whole time . . . “
“I was with the Ninth Division, the Old Reliables they were called. The Ninth had been deactivated a few years earlier, but was reactivated again in ‘66. The war was really gearing up at that time. There was a real big push on to get bodies into combat. We had four brigades in the division and they were activated in stages, one per month. Ours was the last to be activated . . . ”
Per the official line, it was the first division organized from scratch for deployment directly into combat, a grand experiment of sorts. “What it really meant,” he clarifies, “was that shortcuts were taken in order to get troops into combat more expeditiously.”
By 1966, General Westmoreland was calling for troops with increasing frequency, and while President Johnson complied with his requests for troops, he did not call up the reserves or national guard to fill in the ranks of the units transferred overseas. Typically, during times of war, the reserves are activated, and the military advocated such a call up during the Viet Nam war, but for political reasons the president refused. So, instead the Army relied upon the draft, filling the ranks with inexperienced and often not-so-willing soldiers. The crunch was just beginning to be felt when the Ninth Division was activated; consequently, it went to war with fewer experienced personnel and less prepared than the units that preceded it to the Viet Nam.
Months later, after their deployment, the division commander declared the grand experiment to have been a resounding success. However, according to my father, when he arrived in August, just four months prior to deployment, “it was a hell of a mess.”
Dad pauses and shakes his head, which generally indicates a prelude to a story. He’ll often begin talking in general terms, and then he’ll stop; there’ll be a look or a gesture: a smile, a frown, a laugh, before the story. I’ve always wondered if he has a whole story in mind from the start or if it comes to him while he speaks.
“I remember a month or so before we were scheduled to ship out,” he begins this time, “the Secretary of the Army announced he was going to visit Fort Riley. The Division Commander really got worked up over it. ‘Oh my God! The Secretary of the Army is coming; we have to make the place presentable,’ he said. I told him: ‘We don’t have time to make a big fuss. We have too much to do.’ I practically pleaded with him. But he kept going on about it; he didn’t listen to me. And you know what that dumb sonofabitch did?”
He turns his gaze toward me, his eyes now a bright blue. “He had every soldier on the base raking leaves. Pulled guys out of training, so they could rake leaves! Here we are getting ready to go to war in a few weeks! And guys are raking leaves! Unbelievable!” It was more than thirty years ago, but he is still furious about it. “I tried to reason with him. I tried to talk him out of it . . .” He shakes his head and appears ready to resume, but doesn’t. No further explanation can clarify; anybody with a lick of sense ought to have seen the foolishness in it all.
“We got to Fort Riley in August,” he resumes finally. “We got organized, trained everyone ourselves, and we left for Viet Nam on December first-–and everyone had a thirty-day pass before we left . . . that is, everyone except me. I had one lousy weekend in Kansas City. Even the Brigade Commander got his thirty days . . . left me in charge while he took his thirty days . . . And then we sailed to Viet Nam.“
He frowns and shakes his head. “I was the first guy on the ship and the last guy off. It was a three week journey by ship . . . bad idea to go that way,” he adds summarily, without explaining why. But then one really need not elaborate to imagine the rigors of such a trip. The division traveled first by train from Kansas to California, and from there they sailed the long, slow journey across the Pacific, several thousand troops aboard each ship.
“I tell you, I never worked so hard in my life as I did those five months. It was a relief to finally get to Viet Nam. That’s how bad it was.”
“No fun,” I say, summarizing my thoughts.
“No fun,” he agrees.
During my father’s time in Viet Nam, the Ninth Division was assigned to the Mekong delta, in the Southern-most region of the country, about 100 miles south of Saigon. Specifically, he referred to his battalion’s location as the An Loc province near the village of Bien Phuc.
They arrived “in country” December 1966. That was the year, according to General Westmoreland, of the allied offensive. The United States had been inextricably involved in Viet Nam politics and military affairs since the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, but eleven years after that watershed, there were still relatively few U.S. military personnel and advisors in Viet Nam. It wasn’t until 1965 that U.S. combat troops were even sent to Viet Nam. Our focus shifted quickly after the first combat troops arrived, and by the end of 1966, there were about 400,000 U.S. military personnel in Viet Nam.
The period of the troop buildup was a still a time of optimism on our side. General Westmoreland was very sanguine and talked of expanding the war (into Cambodia, Laos, and northern Viet Nam). And he had reasons to be positive: the enemy was being bloodied and beaten at every turn, and we only needed more troops to meet our remaining goals. The home front was relatively quiet as well; the political turmoil and war protests emblematic of the 60’s were only in their incipient stages. The country as a whole was still indifferent to the war, still in a wait and see mode.
On the other hand, the people of Viet Nam had suffered through war and political turmoil for more than 25 years. In the years since the Americans had become the government’s advisors, there had been numerous changes of government, mostly through coups and counter-coups. On occasion, there had been unrest among the populace as well, including massive national outcries following the self-immolations of Buddhist monks in the early 60’s. The National Liberation Front, also known as the Viet Cong, the Communists, the VC my dad called them, had been infiltrating and proselytizing the villages of the South, competing with the government of South Viet Nam at winning the “hearts and minds” of its own villages. By 1965, the VC were, in fact, a significant military and political threat. The North Viet Namese army as well was beginning to move its troops into the South. The U.S. felt compelled to respond to these two serious threats.
The U.S. had long sought a stable government to help in the fight against the Communists and had lent its weight to propping up whatever government was able to establish itself, but there had relatively little stability. In fact, in 1965, Viet Nam was gripped in what Pulitzer Prize winning author Francis Fitzgerald termed: “a civil war wrapped inside a revolution.“. The U.S. Ambassador at the time, Maxwell Taylor, said, “the fighting is going on in four fronts: the government versus the generals, the Buddhists versus the government, the generals versus the ambassador, and I hope the government versus the VC.”
Still, at the time, many believed that the U.S. as well as Viet Nam was on a threshold; a new era was beginning and no one yet knew how things would unfold. Arguably, the sheer numbers of U.S. forces had lent the long-sought (political) stability to the country. We had become the de facto power, the power behind the throne. The political instability of the prior years was quickly becoming a thing of the past, and with the seemingly invincible force now being put in place, leaders, both in the U.S. and South Viet Nam, did indeed have many reasons to be optimistic about the future.
My father remained the Brigade Exec until a month or so after arriving in Viet Nam, and then the spot for battalion commander came open. The rest, as they say, is history. He would remain battalion commander for the remainder of his tour; it was to become the defining event of his career. “I went from one of the worst jobs you could have–an Exec gets blamed for everything and by everyone–to one of the best . . . to command an army in the field. That’s what it is all about.”
Although a battalion commander and responsible for almost a thousand men, it has always impressed me that he still lived and followed the same routines as the regular soldier. He carried the same weapon–“an AR-15, which is a modified M—16 with a pistol grip and a fold-up stock,” he tells me, trudged through the same rice paddies, ate the same lousy rations, traveled to and fro in the same vehicle (the armored personnel carrier, the APC, the Army’s fighting vehicle in those days) he even slept in the same open fields as the rest of his guys.
“Actually, I used to sleep on the tailgate of an APC, especially during the rainy season. It wasn’t all that comfortable, and it didn’t have a lot of clearance, a couple of feet maybe, but it kept you dry and out of the weather . . . But I only did that for a while . . .” He stops and then smiles before continuing. “I remember this one night I had a feeling something was going to happen, so I decided I better sleep inside–in an APC, that is. Well, sure enough, I heard something in the middle of the night . . . don’t even remember what it was anymore . . . Anyway, when I heard it, I jumped right up–and banged my head on the roof of the APC.” He chuckles and then adds after a moment: “That was the last time I ever slept inside an APC.”
As the battalion commander, he was not always on the front lines when they got into a firefight, still it seems he was in harm’s way as much as anybody. “I remember a young lieutenant who had just arrived to take over one of our companies. I was taking him out to his company. I walked down one rice paddy and he walked down another. And then: boom! He steps on a land mine. Never even made it to his company . . .” He shakes his head, but doesn’t comment further.
“Another time I was riding down the road in an APC. The APC in front of us hits a land mine, and the APC behind us hits one. How our APC missed getting hit, I’ll never know . . . And the guy next to me in my APC gets a piece of shrapnel stuck in his helmet; it didn’t hurt him too badly, just a concussion, kind of funny though, a piece of shrapnel sticking up out of his helmet like that . . . Another good sized piece lands about six inches from my foot, but not a scratch on me . . .
“I could tell you a dozen stories like that. Why didn’t I get hurt? I used to wonder a lot. I thought I lived a charmed existence. You know, everyone on my battalion staff, except me, was hit at least once, some pretty bad . . . really made me wonder.”
Despite his apparent immunity, others weren’t interested in trying their luck in his sector. “We were near Saigon, so guys would come see us occasionally. They would always come in by helo. Outside of our battalion, nobody above the rank of E-6 would travel down our road . . . . It was maybe a fifteen mile road, and we would have a mine incident about once a week . . . I used to ride up and down it all the time, but when we had visitors, they would usually take a helo in and a helo out.
“And they didn’t want to be there at night–that’s when we used to fight. As soon as the sun started to go down, these guys would look at their watches. ‘It’s getting kind of late, Colonel. Where’s that chopper?’
I’d say to them: ‘What are you worried about? Stay a little while longer. Nothing’s gonna happen.'” His smile seems to say they didn’t quite believe him.
“But then, most guys didn’t really understand what the war was like for us,” he says, still not defining who he means by ‘guys’. “The war against the VC was a totally different war than the rest of the army fought. It wasn’t at all like the war in the north against the North Viet regulars . . .
“You know, we used to serve beer in the morning. I had senior officers who would come in and say: ‘You can’t serve beer at ten a.m.!’ But we were generally up all night; we slept during the afternoon. When else were we going to serve beer? We certainly couldn’t serve it at night . . . Still, I had a hard time convincing some of them.”
But then, I believe it was a difficult adjustment for him as well. This war was nothing like the great battles of the Civil War or the campaigns of Napoleon and Alexander he studied at West Point. There were no campaigns to speak of, and battles were not about seeking the high ground, flanking the enemy, or capturing territory.
“In fact,” he says, “we pretty much stayed and fought in one place. We didn’t even carry our packs when we went out; we would leave them at the base camp because we knew we were coming back to the same place. The entire time I was there, we basically stayed in the same area . . .
“In the North, they fought against a regular army; it was a more like a traditional war for them, but for us there was no front. The VC were primarily peasant farmers who lived a double-life, farmers by day and fighters by night. They knew they couldn’t win in a head to head confrontation . . .
“The VC were heavily supported by the North Viet government: food, weapons, the like. Supplies came down the Ho chi Minh trail. But still they sometimes they had to make do with whatever they had on hand. The VC might even use a bow and arrow, and occasionally, you came across a punji stick, a bamboo stick sharpened and concealed in the ground. It wouldn’t kill you, but it could hurt like hell if you stepped on one. . .
“It’s a different kind of war when you don’t know who you are fighting. During the day, you couldn’t strike at them, couldn’t track them, yet you knew they surrounded you. We had CIA over there to figure out who were VC. Every once in a while they had us go into a village and round up a bunch of guys. They would point out guys. This one and that one, they would say. I don’t know if they really were VC or not, but then these guys would be back in the village after a month or two.” His half-smile doesn’t reveal how he felt about this. It was just one of many problems he had to overcome, I suppose.
He ends the discussion on this for the night on this note. As we both head off to bed, I think without these stories our relationship would be very different. We wouldn’t be as close; his world and mine wouldn’t overlap as much. Although I will probably never experience anything remotely similar, I believe there is much he intends for me in these stories. There is much he wants to tell me; there is much he believes I can learn from his experiences.
“One of the problems we had was that our guys would get bogged down in the rice paddies,” he starts the next evening, picking up where he left off the night before.
His reminiscing begins as we sit together at the kitchen table, our evening meal finished. Like tonight, these sessions often begin suddenly, without warning. Something on TV, a current event perhaps, may trigger a story, and before I realize it, we are talking about the war. There is no prelude, nothing like “I’m going to tell you about something about Viet Nam now. ” However, there are certain words and catch phrases that are instant clues to me, but if you haven’t heard as many of his stories as I have, it might take you several moments or a clarifying question before you even realize the topic has changed. We might have been talking about the ball game or the weather just a moment ago. Other times, it is hard to know what, if anything, triggers the discussion.
“We often got bogged down in the rice paddies,” he repeats. “I remember the leeches. We were always peeling off the leeches. Some guys took bets on who would have the biggest leech. They get pretty big after an hour attached to your forearm.”
“Yikes,” is all I can muster.
“The big problem was that we had on combat boots and were loaded down with equipment. The VC would go barefoot, or if they wore anything on their feet, it might be sandals. They would carry a rifle and ammunition and a small bag of rice; that was it. Plus, most of them weighed only about 120 pounds to start with. We just couldn’t follow them.
“But then, we could outsmart them . . . The VC would wait until we moved out of an area. Americans are real noisy; we were a mechanized battalion, so we had all this equipment and heavy machinery. The VC could hear us a mile away, and they knew when we were gone–or they thought we were gone. But what we used to do was pull out and then stop about five minutes up the road. We would leave somebody behind to wait for them . . .
“I remember one time we did that . . . I left a squad behind . . . it had been maybe thirty minutes . . . I remember this kid got on the radio and told me they were walking down the road, pretty as you please . . . smoking cigarettes, joking with each other . . . about forty or fifty VC. I’ll never forget that kid on the radio. ‘Colonel, I can’t believe what I’m seeing’ . . .” The story stops for a moment. He shakes his head and looks up at me, as if this is so incredible, I might want to challenge his facts.
“I told him to ‘take ’em out’,” he continues after I ask for the rest of the story. “And they got into a hell of a firefight . . . The rest of the battalion was only five minutes away, but it was a long five minutes for them. That kid directed us in while they were under heavy fire. I gave him a Silver Star for that . . . ” He pauses, the emotion catching up to him all at once. He was always very proud of his “kids” that did well.
“And you know, we did that several times. It took them a while to figure out the trick . . . That’s the thing about war. Sometimes it is pretty simple.
“Take away the night, that was really the key,” he tries putting it all in perspective. “They tried to use the night to their advantage. They used it to hide . . . They couldn’t win fighting us during the day . . .
“I figured out pretty quickly that we needed to move at night . . . Not long after we arrived in Viet Nam, the VC began hitting our camp at night. They knew exactly where we were, even though we’d not had any encounters with them. So, I decided we’d set up our camp during the day and move just before it got dark . . . And when they hit our camp, nobody was there . . . but we knew where they were.” He stops and smiles for a moment.
“We had better night vision, more firepower,” he continues. “We controlled the air . . . We had lots of advantages.” I thought he would go on to tell more, make clear how it all went wrong. But it’s a difficult topic to broach–the failure of the army he is so proud of.
It seems the thread is lost now, and once it is gone, it is difficult to coax anything more out of him. Maybe the next day, he will pick up the thread again, probably with another unexpected comment out of the blue.
It has taken him years to tell me the whole story of Viet Nam, to talk about the failures as well as the rest, to talk of and what wrong and why. But his stories wouldn’t be complete without his acknowledgment of the problems. I wonder how long he has pondered these things, what reflection it took to get just to the point where he could talk about the problems. I suspect he needed quite a long time to complete the story, time to work out the details himself, time to understand it all in his own mind.
There are certainly no shortage of critics of the U.S. role in Viet Nam, people who will say we didn’t know what we were doing there, say there was no justification for the war, or say we had no reason to be involved in the first place. My father didn’t waste his time trying to justify the war (then or later). Instead, he just tried to make sense of his own mission. And so, he looked for ways to outsmart the enemy, continually adapting his tactics to the situation and the environment.
He also tried to take control of his sector, to restore order there. “People don’t want to believe it, but we did some good in Viet Nam, too. When I first went over there, no natives lived in our area, but by the time I left people were coming back, starting to farm the land again. I was proud of that . . .
“The problem was that the VC used to hide out on these little islands. Practically had their own enclaves. So we would build a bridge and go in after them. Of course, we had to go through a lot of bullshit just to do that. We had to get approval for building a bridge, and we had follow this and that regulation, and we could only keep it up for a month for some reason I’ll never know. But we eventually went in there then and rooted them out . . . and then the people–the farmers, the villagers–started coming back. I felt good about that.”
On a strategic level, the U.S. goal in Viet Nam was ostensibly about stemming the tide of Communism, but on a more basic level it was about winning the freedom of the Viet Namese people, protecting them from oppressive government, and on an even more basic level, allowing them to live their lives as their ancestors had for generations, farming and living together in small, isolated villages. From our initial involvement right up to the end of the war, the U.S. focused on winning hearts and minds of these peasant farmers. We wanted desperately to demonstrate to the Viet Namese the myriad benefits of democratic government and how it is vastly superior to communism. But we didn’t quite know how to go about doing this.
“We had all these programs, plans, whatever you want to call them,” Dad tells me. “Everyone had a plan which was gonna win the war in two months. There had been mostly failures to this point, but the new plan was always the one that was gonna do the trick . . . Eventually, they argued, with enough tweaking, we would hit on the right formula. We just needed some minor adjustments to the old plan and then things would all fall in place.
“But that was the problem; there were too many plans. Some new plan came along, but they never got rid of the old plans. They just kept adding more. Of course that’s the problem with the government bureaucracy still. You can’t ever get rid of anything, even if it doesn’t make sense anymore. Someone is gonna fight to keep whatever you wanna get rid of; they gotta hold on to whatever they have. The bureaucrat always thinks his job do is the most important one in the big scheme of things; it is his grasp at power. So instead of getting rid of him and his program, you just add something new: a new department, a new program, a new plan, and government gets a little bigger. Nobody loses anything. It makes everyone happy.”
Looking through the history books, one can find a multitude of Viet Nam programs such as the “Strategic Hamlet Program” and the “Revolutionary Development Program”, among others, all designed to spread the word and beat the Viet Cong at their own game. MACV (Military Assistance Command, Viet Nam), the U.S. military command headquarters in Saigon, created the Revolutionary Development Support Directorate (RSRD) to coordinate all these programs. Through the RSRD, the U.S. would flood Viet Nam with all manner of material and expert advice; we believed we could, through our generosity and modern technology, substantially improve the life of the peasant, and thus bring them over to our side. We created teams of specialists (agronomists, economists, doctors, engineers, etc.) to go about the countryside, proselytizing, and dispensing this largesse. The Viet Cong in comparison had so little to offer.
“Nobody could keep up with all the names or departments. It just got out of control. Crazy! There were all sorts of grandiose plans to accomplish our goals . . . plans that only government dare conceive, plans that only government dare believe in. We were too cute for our own good.” He sounds disgusted now. After all, what did all this have to with fighting the war?
In addition to helping the hard-working peasant farmers, the U.S. also had programs to root out the VC. As my father had said, CIA and intelligence agents scoured the country for the VC (“find the enemy” was their credo), and at MACV there were various alphabet soup agencies created: the Combined Intelligence Center, Combined Documentation Exploitation Center, Combined Material Exploitation Center, and the Combined Military Interrogation Center, were all put into place.
While not a proponent of these grandiose plans, my father did see his part in achieving the overall goal. His contribution was on a small scale certainly, but still perhaps more effective than any of those grandiose plans. If the worst that could be said of the bureaucrats’ influence was that they were largely ineffective in achieving their primary goals, then things might have turned out differently in the end. But their schemes grew tentacles and their scope went far beyond what was necessary. The devil, as they say, is in the details, and the details were left to men like my father to implement, or in many cases to work around.
“During my second tour in Viet Nam I saw the problem very clearly, especially since I was part of all that mess at MACV. But you know, even at that late date, after all we’d been through, we still we had our chances. We still could have won the war.” He shakes his head, but doesn’t elaborate further.
After listening to my father’s many stories, it is clear to me that he believes much of his own success came from cutting through the bureaucracy that surrounded the war. There were far too many regulations and restrictions. All the bureaucrats who populated the departments and directorates had to do something. So, they made themselves useful by devising rules and regulations that were supposed to help us win the war. However, from my father’s perspective, they did more to hamper our war effort more than the enemy itself. He had been trained to do a job, and now there were a bunch of new regulations that were not part of the original equation. Regulations like the ones on building and tearing down bridges kept him from pursuing the enemy, or even worse yet, from protecting his own guys.
“I’ll give you the prime example,” he starts, animated again. “When I took over the battalion, all my guys were afraid to shoot. They had all these rules about when to shoot and when not to shoot, kind of like the police are burdened with these days. You can get too cute . . . making guys stop and think in a situation when they need to react quickly. I wasn’t going to get my guys killed for a bunch of silly rules. I didn’t want them to ask: ‘Are you a bad guy?’ every time they heard a noise. I told them if it moved after curfew, then it was probably a bad guy. Don’t ask questions, just shoot. If they weren’t sure, if they hesitated, they might wind up getting killed themselves . . .” They were his charges, and he had to make sure they could protect themselves. It is another of his fundamentals of war: keep your guys alive by killing more of them than they killed of you.
“And I told them if anyone asked questions later, I would take responsibility. I gave them the order, so I should take the responsibility. It boosted the morale of the troops about a hundred percent.”
Looking back, he sees it as a defining action, a statement of who he was as a leader. “Luckily, we didn’t have any problems . . . but if we had . . .” The thought is left unspoken, but then he becomes firm again. “You have to be willing to stand up and take responsibility. That’s leadership. That’s what it’s all about.”
“A guy knew he wasn’t going to be a fall guy if something went wrong,” I say to show I’ve learned the lesson. Leadership is a recurring theme in our discussions, and although I haven’t had as many opportunities to apply his principles, I have tried to listen and learn.
One leadership story, one of his most often repeated, will always stick out in my mind; it’s one I use to gauge how well others stand up under the pressure. I don’t recall if it was actually from Viet Nam or some place else, but I remember he gave an order to a lieutenant, and when the order wasn’t carried out, he “had a chat” with the young man.
“He said he had done what he was told and had given the order to his sergeant. It was the sergeant, not he, who failed to carry out the order . . . So I asked this lieutenant how much he earned a month–in dollars and cents. It was something like $521.98. I told him the army pays you 98 cents a month to give orders and 521 dollars a month to ensure that they are carried out.
“Any fool can give an order,” he adds for my benefit. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of smarts to give orders. A dummy can give orders all day long, but leadership is much more than giving orders. Leadership is making sure things get done . . .
“Another part of leadership is being able to admit when you make a mistake,” he adds a moment later, and then launches right into another story. “There was a general coming in to our area one morning–coming in by helo. Well, when a helo comes into a landing area, it kicks up a lot of dust. You don’t want a general to have to put up with all that. So I told my sergeant: ‘First thing in the morning, I want you to get the water buffalo up to the landing area and water the area. I don’t want all that dust kicking up when the general arrives.’ I made him repeat it back to me, just to make sure he had it right. I wanted to make sure he was up there first thing in the morning–before the general came in.
“Well, overnight it rained, rained pretty hard actually, so there was no need to water the landing area. Only, the next morning I see this sergeant and a group of guys pushing the water buffalo up to the landing area. I thought what the hell are they doing? As I was walking over towards them, I was getting even more irritated . . . they were struggling to get it up the hill since the ground muddy as hell from the rain. But just as I was about to chew out the sergeant, I realized he was doing exactly what I told him to do. I was the one who made the mistake. So, I said: ‘Sergeant, you’re doing a great job. Why don’t you get the water buffalo back down the hill, now?’ . . . Of course, he must have thought I was an idiot, but that’s the price you pay.”
My father bristled at the rules and restrictions he was subjected to in Viet Nam, but he was certainly not alone in his views; many in the military blame the civilian leadership for unnecessarily tying the hands of the military during the war, both on a small and large scale.
President Johnson’s refusal to call up the reserves during the years of the buildup of American forces between 1965 and 1968 was a huge factor, one that should not be underestimated. General Westmoreland never received the number of troops he ultimately wanted and the army could not have provided them anyway because of this limitation. Because the reserves were off limits, the Army was forced to pull in inexperienced, mostly unwilling, draftees instead of more experienced reservists, something my father dealt with first-hand at Fort Riley and later in Viet Nam. But this decision had an even larger scale impact according to General Douglas Kinnard, who, in his book the War Managers, said: “this threw the Army into turmoil, in time wrecking the United States Army in Europe and the strategic reserve in the United States.”
In addition, the civilian leadership made too many strategic decisions, decisions that many believe ought to have been left to the military. The military’s hands were tied by placing limits on border crossings as well as the bombing of North Viet Nam and the mining of its harbors. By confining our military to South Viet Nam, and preventing them from crossing into North Viet Nam, Laos, or Cambodia, our government allowed the North Viet Namese (who were under no such restrictions) havens and staging areas from which to launch attacks or re-supply their comrades in the South. The limitations placed upon bombing and the mining of harbors, allowed a freer flow of war material from China and the Soviet Union, much of which eventually made its way to the Viet Cong in the South (via the Ho Chi Minh trail which was often just outside the border).
Limitations on border crossing and bombing of North Viet Nam were lifted at times, but there was no consistency to our policy. For example, bombings were supposed to “teach the North Viet Namese a lesson”. There would be bombing pauses, and if the lesson was not learned, there would be more intense bombing to follow. The threat of more was supposed to bring the enemy into line. The policy swayed back and forth, limitations temporarily imposed or lifted, often not because of military reasons but because of political expediencies. It is doubtful the enemy learned anything from these “lessons”. Instead, they simply took advantage of the respites to grow stronger and recoup their losses.
Finally, at the soldier’s level, in the jungle and rice paddies where my father’s unit operated, there were constraints placed upon the use of artillery and the firing of weapons. Often permission was needed before a response could be provided to an enemy provocation. When minutes, sometimes seconds count, these could hamper a unit’s efforts considerably. There were in fact more than forty directives which came down from General Westmoreland himself, which, according to Kinnard, “contained explicit guidance on proper treatment of civilians and their property as well as on a discriminating use of firepower.” Perhaps some of these rules were appropriate or maybe they made sense in some instances, but to a man of action like my father, they were mostly “just a bunch of silly rules”.
Somehow, despite all the frustration, my father was able to find the humor in difficult situations, an attribute which makes his war stories all the more appealing and real. They are not the horror stories we often associate with war, but they are nevertheless still provocative, a microcosm of the overall picture, providing some idea of how things might have gotten out-of-whack.
One amusing story involved hand-grenades. “In Viet Nam we used these new lighter models. I don’t know if they were made out of plastic or some new light metal or what. But you could throw them like you would a baseball. Those old cast iron ones they used during World War II were so damned heavy; you couldn’t really throw them far.
“Anyway, this major–not the smartest guy in the world–he’s riding in a helo and they’re getting shot at from the ground. So this Major starts throwing grenades at the guys who are shooting at ’em. Well, one of the grenades gets caught in an updraft and blows the damn tail rotor off. It wouldn’t have been a problem with an old cast iron one; it would have fallen like a rock . . . but this new kind . . .” He pauses and then chuckles, as if he remembers something more about that major. “They got the thing landed okay, but that major never lived down that story.”
Even the enemy provided a light moment. “I remember one time we spotted two rafts trying to cross the river . . . VC . . . these guys were paddling like crazy ’cause they knew they’d been spotted. Anyway, someone called in the helicopter gunships. The gunships, of course, come in with guns blazing. They always came in with guns blazing. The bullets are kicking up all kinds of spray. They’re hovering just over the surface, so there’s water everywhere. You couldn’t see a thing on the water. Well, when they stopped shooting and cleared away, these two guys are still paddling like crazy . . . They made it across, too.”
After we chuckle over this one, he goes into teaching mode again–because this story has a moral. “That shows you the gunships really weren’t that effective. Guys thought the gunships could do anything, but most of the time they were just wasting ammunition.
“My kids were like that too. They liked to shoot their rifles fully automatic. They’d get scared and spray an area . . . use up a whole clip in no time. I used to tell them all the time: short bursts were the most effective; three or four rounds at most was all you wanted to use . . . don’t wanna use all your ammunition in one burst. But I had a hard time convincing them.” He looks at me and pauses, as if this is a lesson I may need someday.
“I remember the Coast Guard too was the same way,” he resumes. “You know, they used to patrol the rivers–they would come round a bend with the fifty calibers blazing; they wouldn’t even wait to see who was there. They were running scared all the time . . . If you knew they were coming, you got the hell out of the way.” And then he chuckles, as if this too were amusing. And I suppose it is.
But, of all his stories, the medals story is my favorite. “One time MACV called up and said Westmoreland would be coming to visit us . . . They wanted us to have some medals for him to give out while he was there. They asked us to write up a bunch of requests, so they could process them before he got there. They had to have the requests turned in right away . . . Well, we were out in the boonies; we didn’t have any forms, but they said it didn’t matter, just make do with what you have. They said they’d take whatever we could give them. So, we’re writing requests on napkins . . . on the backs of match boxes, whatever we could find . . . We wrote a whole bunch of these, as many as we could . . . stayed up half the night working on ’em.
“Anyway, a couple of days later the trip was cancelled. I didn’t think anything of it. But then a couple of weeks after that, I called MACV and asked: ‘Hey, what about our medals?’ . . . ‘What medals?’ they said. I said: ‘The ones we requested before Westy’s trip was cancelled.’ . . . ‘Oh, those medals.’ . . . ‘Yeah, those medals. What happened to them?’ And you know what they said? ‘You’re gonna have to re-submit the requests, and use the proper forms this time’ . . . in triplicate, of course.
“We had lots of bullshit to put up with in Viet Nam,” he re-iterates. “We had lots of regulations and most of them didn’t make a lot of sense . . .
“That reminds me of this one officer in the transportation corps assigned to my battalion,” he starts again after a pause. “Every officer in the transportation corps had to do a tour with an infantry unit. This guy should have been in the infantry to start with; he was a great soldier, one of the best I ever knew! He’d march ten miles at night and always knew where he was . . . Anyway, he didn’t have a combat infantry badge. This guy had three silver stars . . . a great soldier . . . but no combat infantry badge. I figured he deserved one as much as anyone, so I went to bat for him. I must have called a dozen people. I went through all kinds of gyrations just to get him a CIB. But there was some crazy regulation that made him ineligible . . . because he was in the transportation corps or something like that . . . wouldn’t make an exception in his case . . . just another silly rule . . . Even after I left Viet Nam, I wrote letters on his behalf. He may have finally got one. I don’t know.
“I remember later he wrote me to say he wanted out of the transportation corps. I think the transportation corps may have had a total of about five silver stars among them . . . and he had three of them . . . But they weren’t gonna let him go. Of course, I can’t blame them. He was a regular hero . . .”
My father’s first tour in Viet Nam lasted ten months, the last seven or so as a battalion commander; the tour was cut short because of the death of his brother (also a Colonel in the army) in a helicopter accident.
While in Viet Nam, he earned a silver star, two bronze stars, a legion of merit, and several Viet Namese medals, although he doesn’t talk about these accomplishments, his only acknowledgment of these awards are the framed plaques that line the walls at home. He rarely talks about the role he himself played in any specific battle, instead preferring to talk about tactics or strategy. Instead, the battles he participated in are listed on a single plaque now displayed in the den. The only reminders of them now are the operation names (Birthday, Coronado, Hermes, among others) and dates along with a few statistics: the numbers of prisoners taken and enemy killed. But of course, there is much more to his experiences than can ever be captured on such a plaque.
Only recently I found in papers buried in the attic, his superior’s words about some of his actions, words that I believe clearly speak for themselves. In the citation for the Silver Star, it says “Lieutenant Colonel Flynn distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous actions on 10 April 1967 while serving as Battalion Commander.” Specifically, he “led his men in the Armored Personnel Carriers in a daring blocking position against an estimated Viet Cong battalion . . . led his men through the dangerous mined area into battle. By combining all modes of fire support, and employing his Armored Personnel Carriers as a strike force, Lieutenant Colonel Flynn successfully destroyed the enemy. Exposing himself to withering fire as he directed the battle both from Armored Personnel Carrier and helicopter, he repeatedly moved forward with his troops in order to maintain close control . . . His bravery and superb control of the battle resulted in an overwhelming defeat of the Viet Cong.”
He received the Legion of Merit not for a specific incident, but for the entire year spent with the Ninth Division at Fort Riley and in Viet Nam. This corresponding citation states, “. . . during the period of organization, training, and deployment to the combat zone, Colonel Flynn consistently achieved outstanding results despite a critical shortage of trained staff officers and a seasoned cadre. Through the application of dynamic staff supervision, tremendous energy and sound principles of operation and training, he assisted in overcoming a multitude of complex problems in preparing the unit for combat. Upon arrival in country, Colonel Flynn assumed command of the 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry. Under his command, the battalion enjoyed the highest kill ratio in the division for over five months. He implemented well conceived programs in support of Regional Forces and Popular Force units to improve their capability for operations. These programs have proven so dynamic that they have since been adopted as a pattern by the entire division. Due to his success in tactical situations, Colonel Flynn was chosen to serve as Asst. Chief of Staff, Vietnamese Regional Forces, Popular Forces Upgrading and Army, Republic of Vietnam Training . . . His entire tour of duty has contributed immeasurably to the counterinsurgency effort in the Republic of Viet Nam.”
Shortly after returning from Viet Nam, my father was nominated for the position of Province Senior Advisor, one of a select group of officers. A letter from the Army Chief of Staff, Harold Johnson, contains the following words of praise: “The fact that you have been nominated for this assignment is a salute to your professional competence and outstanding record of past performance, and I congratulate you for such achievement.”
My father later declined this assignment (as was his option). I am not sure why because it is something he never discussed. It wasn’t important to him that his outstanding record got him noticed; he didn’t accept the offer, so there was no real achievement, and nothing for us to talk about. The tour was to last 18 to 24 months, so I suspect he wanted to avoid the hardship another extended separation would have caused our family. Looking back, I wonder how things might have turned out if he had taken this job. Perhaps he never would have made it back home. I can only assume it was the right decision for us all.