Decades later, ‘Vietnam syndrome’ still casts doubts on military action

This article was posted on December 12, 2014 on John Podlaski’s blog Cherries-A Vietnam War Novel. Podlaski’s site asks the question “Ever wonder why young soldiers return home “changed” or “different” after their deployment to a war zone?”. The following article by was written by Eric Slavin and originally published in Stars and Stripes. It is an excellent legacy post that illustrates how the past can help and haunt.

By Erik_Slavin Article originally publishes in Stars and Stripes, November 12, 2014

The Vietnam War’s lasting impact on America’s foreign policy is largely characterized

Near Tay Ninh, Vietnam, November 4, 1966: A soldier stands amid swirling dust from a helicopter arriving to evacuate the wounded after the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division came under heavy Viet Cong fire during Operation Attleboro.   KIM KI SAM/STARS AND STRIPES

Near Tay Ninh, Vietnam, November 4, 1966: A soldier stands amid swirling dust from a helicopter arriving to evacuate the wounded after the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division came under heavy Viet Cong fire during Operation Attleboro. KIM KI SAM/STARS AND STRIPES

by doubt, in the opinions of many analysts.

Doubt that the United States, despite possessing the most powerful military on earth, will win a war against a determined enemy.

Doubt among presidential administrations that the public would support a conflict, once television showed them pictures of dead soldiers being dragged through the streets of countries most Americans knew little or nothing about.

Mostly, doubt — with some notable outliers — that the United States can impose its will through force, no matter the situation.

Vietnam at 50Driving those doubts is the desire to avoid another open-ended commitment with an uncertain endgame, where U.S. troops spend years on the ground in a foreign country, fighting against an enemy that can blend back into the civilian population far too easily.

That desire is part of what some have defined as “Vietnam syndrome,” a concept declared dead and reborn several times in the decades since the last American combat troops left Southeast Asia.

“Getting involved and not being able to get up, like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians suffering constant blows, that’s the concern,” said Carlyle Thayer, an American professor and Vietnam analyst who taught a course on the Vietnam War at Australia’s National Defense University.

That concern endures — buffeted by experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan — as River PatrolAmericans debate today’s military actions.

Americans support fighting the Islamic State group by a 60 percent to 31 percent margin — unless that action turns to ground troops, according to a September Gallup poll. Only 40 percent approve of that, according to the poll.

President Barack Obama went so far as to rule out U.S. ground troops before the latest round of air and naval strikes on Iraq and Syria began.

Before the end of the Vietnam War, presidents didn’t speak in such measured, cautious ways about how they would wage war. However, Obama made it clear during a May speech at the U.S. Military Academy that caution would be a cornerstone of his foreign policy agenda.

“Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences,” Obama said.

The U.S. would act unilaterally when it was directly threatened and would otherwise explore other options, he said.

Inder fireObama, 53, is too young to have served in Vietnam — yet his words that day mirror the definition of Vietnam syndrome offered by journalist and Vietnam War author Marvin Kalb, who called it “a fundamental reluctance to commit American military power anywhere in the world, unless it is absolutely necessary to protect the national interests of the country.”

The term Vietnam syndrome first reached prominence when presidential candidate Ronald Reagan used it during an August 1980 campaign speech. Reagan said the syndrome was created by the “North Vietnamese aggressors” aiming to “win in the field of propaganda here in America what they could not win on the field of battle in Vietnam.”

In Reagan’s view, America failed to secure Vietnam because it lacked the means and the will to do so from the home front.

Nevertheless, fear of another Vietnam “quagmire” became the lens through which military action was viewed in the post-war 1980s.

Although Reagan’s budgets dramatically increased defense spending, his military actions were generally small, covert or obtained by proxy.

Then came the first Gulf War. It was civilian America’s first look at the reconstituted, all-volunteer force in a very large-scale action.

Victory came swiftly and at the cost of relatively few casualties. President George H.W. Bush avoided the quagmire by pulling troops out of Iraq quickly and leaving Saddam Hussein in power — moves that drew little criticism at the time.

Basking in the afterglow of military triumph, Bush ended a speech in 1991 with the

Black Hawk Down Mogadishu, Somalia

Black Hawk Down Mogadishu, Somalia

proclamation that, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

About two years later, the doubts that Vietnam brought about returned, this time in the Horn of Africa.

On Oct. 3, 1993, the “Black Hawk Down” incident kicked off the Battle of Mogadishu, leaving 18 U.S. servicemembers dead. Americans recoiled at images of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland’s body being dragged through the Somali capital’s streets.

21somalia.lDays later, Clinton ordered U.S. troops to begin preparing for withdrawal.

A year later, the genocide in Rwanda began, and Clinton sent no military force. He would later describe not intervening in the genocide, which claimed about 1 million Rwandans, as one of his biggest regrets.

“If we’d gone in sooner, I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost. … It had an enduring impact on me,” Clinton said on CNBC in 2013.

Rawandan Genocide

Rawandan Genocide

American overseas involvement remained somewhat restrained up until the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

After that, eight out of 10 Americans supported a ground war in Afghanistan.

If President George W. Bush had any worries about Vietnam syndrome, he didn’t share them publicly.

Defense analysts once again declared Vietnam syndrome kicked, at least, until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grew protracted, and opinion polls turned against the conflicts.

“Getting involved and not being able to get up, like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians suffering constant blows, that’s the concern.”– Carlyle Thayer

In 2009, conservative scholar Max Boot said that George H.W. Bush got it wrong with his 1991 proclamation — Vietnam syndrome was alive and well in the Obama era.

Boot noted several examples of lawmakers and analysts questioning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the prism of Vietnam.

Boot dismissed their doubts as defeatist. He saw no reason to make the Vietnam comparison, unless it was to compare administrations “more interested in ending than in winning the war.”

Boot’s view led him to agree on one point with Obama’s assessment: “You never step into the same river twice. And so Afghanistan is not Vietnam.”

slavin.erik@stripes.com Twitter: @eslavin_stripes

The November Assassinations That Rocked The World

Part II – John F. Kennedy: Sinner or Saint?

Author: John Malch

John F. Kennedy: Sinner or Saint?

John F. Kennedy: Sinner or Saint?

Way back in 1960, when Nixon faced off with Kennedy for the U.S. presidency, I asked my father who he would be voting for.  He answered: “While in confession last Sunday, my penance was I must vote for Kennedy or suffer mortal sin.”[1] I thought he was joking because after becoming an American citizen in 1914, he had always voted Republican. Dad gave me a brief history lesson about the Kennedy dynasty.[2] It began with Joseph P. Kennedy’s premeditated agreements with Distillers to become the sole American importer of three of its most valuable brands of liquor one month prior to the repeal of the 36th amendment which ended Prohibition. This transaction may be the reason he was infamously called ‘Joe-

Joseph A. Malch & son, John, circa 1960

Joseph A. Malch & son, John, circa 1960

the-bootlegger’.  I remembered my dad calling senior Kennedy, ‘Joe-the-bootlegger’ because he was supplying spiritual wine to Catholic parishes, which was legal during Probation via government bonded warehouses.  Surely, some of those spirits spilled over to old Joe’s cronies although no hard evidence has ever proved Joe was a rum-runner during Prohibition.[3]  Also, Joe Kennedy’s ‘nefarious escapades’ during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ are well documented. His business ventures included banking, manipulation of the stock market through insider trading and some slick ‘selling short’ moves when he got out of the stock market before the crash of 1929.[4]

In early 1938, Joseph P. Kennedy was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James in London.  His fierce

In 1938, Joseph P. Kennedy appointed Ambassador to Great Britain

In 1938, Joseph P. Kennedy appointed Ambassador to Great Britain

anti-Communist and anti-Semitic position are well documented and well known.  Not as widely known is that he favored Adolph Hitler’s solution to both these ideologies as “world problems”.[5]

Joe Kennedy’s dream was to see his first born son, Joseph Jr., inaugurated as the first Roman Catholic President of The United States, but Joe Jr. was killed in World War II.  The dream did not vanish with Joe Jr.’s death and Joseph Sr. was not deterred: he

 Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.

Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.

wanted a Kennedy in the Whitehouse. The second son, Jack, picked up the baton, ran the races and grabbed the brass ring for the Kennedy family-John F. Kennedy (Jack) became the 35th President of the United States on January 20, 1961.

The 1960 Democratic National Convention was held in Los Angeles and I remembered two new challengers, Adlai Stevenson II and Lyndon B. Johnson, tossed their hats in the ring just one week before the convention opened. Continue reading

The November Assassinations That Rocked The World

Author: John Malch

Editor’s Note: Jealousy, political or religious ideology, contract killing, revenge, geopolitical manipulation and nation building are all motives for assassination: the murder of an individual who is usually a famous celebrity, politician, religious figure or royal. John Malch’s post addresses the brutal assassinations of South Vietnam’s Ngô Ðình Diem and his brother on November 2, 1963. The assassinations haunted U.S. President Kennedy, but by November 22, 1963, less than three weeks later Kennedy, himself, would die from an assassin’s bullet(s).

Part I Friendly Dictators

The United States has a dark history of poor choices for ‘Puppets of State’. Especially in

Prime Minister Ngô Ðình Diem casting his ballot in 1955 State of Vietnam referendum (Cuoc trung cau dân ý mien Nam Viet Nam 1955)  https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=osu1091210764&disposition=inline

Prime Minister Ngô Ðình Diem casting his ballot in 1955 State of Vietnam referendum (Cuoc trung cau dân ý mien Nam Viet Nam 1955)
https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=osu1091210764&disposition=inline

Latin America, South East Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. One of the most controversial and disturbing choices the United States’ made was in 1956, when, backed by the “American Plan”, Ngô Ðình Diem proclaimed the formation of the Republic of Vietnam, naming himself President.

I have often wondered whether Diem was ever vetted for this position. Ngô Ðình Diem was born in Phú Cam, Quong Binh Province,‘North Vietnam’. Diem was christened Jean-Baptiste in the Roman Catholic cathedral in Hue in 1907. His primary education started at a French Catholic school. He later entered a private school started by his father. At the end of his secondary schooling, his examination results were sufficiently impressive at the French lycée in Hue, he was offered a scholarship to Paris. Diem declined. Instead, He moved to Hanoi to study at the School of Public Administration and Law, a French school that trained Vietnamese bureaucrats. It was there that he had the only romantic relationship of his life when he fell in love with one of his teacher’s daughters. After she persisted with her vocation, entering a convent, he remained celibate.

Why would the United States select a Roman Catholic, with a formal French education

Buddhism in Vietnam

Buddhism in Vietnam

and very little knowledge of Anman and especially Cochin-china where the population in 1956 was over 92% non-Christian, i.e., Animism, Buddhism (70% of the population), Cao Dai, Confucianism, Hinduism, Hinduism, Hoa Hao, and Islam, as president of newly formed Republic of Vietnam?

Vietnamese elders I know, claimed it may have been necessary for the United States to appease France in softening the blow for their loss of their Colony, French Indo-China. Tongue-in-cheek they said it was better for the new president to speak fluent French rather than English.

The United States had rushed headlong into supporting Diem, seemingly without consideration of the culture. South Vietnam was a U.S. government construct, a nation-building exercise illuminated by the Pentagon Papers.

“The United States moved quickly to prevent the unification and to establish South Vietnam as an American sphere. It set up in Saigon as head of the government a former Vietnamese official named Ngo Dinh Diem, who had recently been living in New Jersey, and encouraged him not to hold the scheduled elections for unification. A memo in early 1954 of the joint Chiefs of Staff said that intelligence estimates showed “a settlement based on free elections would be attended by almost certain loss of the Associated States [Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam-the three parts of Indochina created by the Geneva Conference] to Communist control.” Diem again and again blocked the elections requested by the Vietminh, and with American money and arms his government became more and more firmly established. As the Pentagon Papers put it: “South Viet Nam was essentially the creation of the United States.”[1] Continue reading

Memorial Day – A Time to Remember

Standing GuardToday is a day to remember the price paid by so many in wars and conflicts. “Regardless of the exact date or location of its origins, one thing is clear – Memorial Day was borne out of the Civil War and a desire to honor our dead. It was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed. The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.”

To all who gave their lives in wars and conflicts around the globe, SALUTE!

Click Here for the history of Memorial Day. It is an interesting read.

Transition

Author: Steve Traywick

I’ve written about some of the men I served with, now I have to talk about the hardware: Tanks.

By 1917, the British Army had lost nearly a million men on the bloody killing fields of the

Order of Battle of Cambrai. November 21-December7 1917 (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Order of Battle of Cambrai. November 21-December7 1917 (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Western Front in France. The Brits (and French) had squandered hundreds of thousands of lives making headlong infantry attacks against a German trench system protected by artillery, machine-guns, barbed-wire and of course tough infantry to gain mere yards of ground. They were getting desperate.

On the morning of 20 November 1917, German troops in front of the town of Cambrai, in northern France on the Escaut river, were stunned to see what appeared to be prehistoric monsters crawling at them out of the fog and smoke. The tank was making its battlefield debut.

American industry did not have the time to develop a tank of their own. Between the world wars, the US half-heartedly played with tank designs. The Great Depression and isolationism, however, kept America’s military on a shoestring budget. Meanwhile, Germany developed and built tanks of their own and more importantly, based on the

Heinz Guderian

Heinz Guderian

theories of a genius named Heinz Guderian developed the tactics to use them en mass.

When Germany invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and France in 1940, France had a larger, better armored and better armed fleet of tanks. French military wisdom of the time taught that tanks were simply mobile pillboxes and slaved them to infantry units. Guderian’s theory on the use of tanks called for them to be used in masses with infantry in support, an iron fist in an iron glove. Strong points would be bypassed with follow on infantry taking them out. Germany used these ideas and tactics to do to France what she had failed to do in WWI; the French army and British Expeditionary Force were taken out and France was overrun. Continue reading

Cold War Reality

“People don’t really understand and know that the Cold War was a real war with real casualties. Real people died.”- Lorna Bourg, sister of a 1958 KIA, Fort Myers, Va.,Military Post Chapel, April 2, 1997

In a graveyard in the Texas town of Corsicana lies a simple flat granite marker to

Major John M. Davis

Major John M. Davis

commemorate the life and death of Major John MacArthur Davis. His mother, Mrs. C.J. Davis, made application for the stone for an unmarked veteran’s grave on August 19th 1953 and on November 2nd 1953 the request was approved by the government. Corsicana makes no mention of Major Davis as one of their notables, but he is. The official Corsicana list of notables includes rappers, artists, saxophonists, writers, historians, and even a former governor, Beaufort Jester (how appropriate is that name?), but no military men or women. Yet in their midst lies a man who died on April 24, 1953 testing technology that might have saved their bacon had the Cold War gone hot.

John M. Davis was not just a pilot he was a son, husband and father. That was the man who was and is mourned after six decades. What Major Davis the pilot did provides him with simple, short passages in a couple of books about the accident that killed him. In those books he is little more that another instrument in the cockpit but there is so much beyond that. Major Davis was a Cold War Warrior and a WWII warrior. His adult life was about those callings. Continue reading

Flying High – Smooth Landing

Author: Frank Maio

Returning to Italy after nearly a month in Turkey was great. The only work to be done at this

The Italian Marxist-Leninist terrorist group Brigate Rosse or Red Brigades officially disbanded in the 1980s

The Italian Marxist-Leninist terrorist group Brigate Rosse or Red Brigades officially disbanded in the 1980s

point was picking up the pieces.  At the end of the day, it was off to the old “watering holes” and good food. One had to be careful, of course.  The Red Brigade was very much in evidence at that time and there was a very active Communist Party.

The Italian Communist Party in the mountain region used to meet in a Bar and Restaurant called Moretti’s in Udine, an ancient town in northeastern Italy.  I recall being on town patrol one night and getting a call that a drunk airman had wandered into the bar was causing mayhem where one such meeting was taking place and. Jack, an Apache Indian, had been in the Air Force for a few years when he got to our base but he had NO stripes, so when payday came he would get into a few crap games win a good bit of money and hit the town.  By

Moretti's Beer House & Restaurant Udine Italy

Moretti’s Beer House & Restaurant Udine Italy

the time we got to Moretti’s in our Jeep, the restaurant’s front window had been broken out and locals were lying all over the place, Jack coming out the door with the Hammer and sickle in his hands.

Northern Italy was as close as you would get in that area to Communism, and Boris was our enemy at that time; Hungary a few hundred miles to the Northwest and Yugoslavia about 65 miles to the Northwest and the locals, so it was interesting at times.

You never could tell what might happen in Udine.  For example, a movie company showed up inFOX_D2227288D Udine.  It seemed that Rock Hudson, Jennifer Jones, Vittorio De Sica, Kurt Kaszner came to make “A Farewell to Arms”,   Hemingway’s epic.  A friend of mine, Roger Dabbert and I went up to the set one day to see what was going on.  While walking around the movie trailers out came Rock Hudson and we introduced ourselves.  He was surprised that there were Americans locally.  We explained how we got there and he invited us into his trailer for a box lunch.  During the conversation he asked if we had a BX and of course we did, he was dying for some good old American Peanut Butter.  We delivered same and got front row seating during most of the filming when we could be there.

Libya Beckons

633rdPatchNew orders arrived and we were off for the 633rd AC&W at Wheelus Field, Libya. Back in 1954 the United States and Libya had signed an agreement that the U.S. could use Wheelus and its gunnery range.  During the Cold War, there were thousands of Americans there and the U.S. Ambassador to Libya once called Wheelus “a Little America…on the sparkling shores of the Mediterranean,” although temperatures at the base frequently reached 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (43 to 50 degrees Celsius).

Our plane landed and we were quickly ushered into the base theater. Once again, I found myself in a clime totally unsuited for man nor beast.  Although dressed in khakis the heat inside the un-air conditioned theater was unbearable.  After a few short welcoming remarks from a few officers, a Sergeant takes the stage and in a booming voice begins telling us how horrible conditions were and the rules regarding them.  Rules such as, never go to town (Tripoli) alone, never go the “Old Section”, ever.  If you do go to town always travel in large numbers and if by chance you get drunk and break a local law, do not expect the State Department to assist you in getting out.  In most cases you would be accorded the same punishment that was for all.  If you steal, the hand that stole would be cut off, peeking into windows would have your eye or eyes poked out. Sitting in this HOT theater hearing all of this “it really is not a bad place, but…”, kind of made you wonder why anyone in this world would build the largest military supply base

Luxury Barracks-at last a perk.

Luxury Barracks-at last a perk.

there.  To finish off the education portion of the ‘Welcome to’…, a Sargent got up and said, “now gentlemen, here is a friendly reminder, if for some reason you decide to go AWOL, we can watch you for days if you go South, West and East from the Control Tower and if you go North, well we can watch you till your arms get tired of swimming”.  With that we were escorted to our barracks.  They were my first encounter with two man rooms and a very nice ones at that.  Those with dependents might find a nice apartment in town, but they had to have a live in servant, this afforded security, as the locals did not bother their own.

Continue reading

Flying High – Cruising Altitude

Author: Frank Maio

When last I wrote, we had just arrived in Turkey and off-loaded the C-124.  It was hot,

Nighttime at Incirlik, Turkey

Nighttime at Incirlik, Turkey

very hot, and, after we completed putting up the OPS hut, we stripped down to bathing suits and brogans, to work inside. The next phase of our lives was about to begin.

The First Night

That night, after our arrival and having unloaded the equipment, we found ourselves near the Turkish Military Fuel Supply, which was just down the road.  Having been given the

Camp at Incirlik, Turkey

Camp at Incirlik, Turkey

first watch over the equipment; that would be one guard as we were inside the perimeter of the base.  It was terribly hot that night, I knew it was night because my watch said it was, but in all reality it was almost as bright as normal daylight.  A jeep went up and down the road putting me in a ready mode, but it never stopped.  At about 10 pm the jeep came back and stopped.  This bullish Turkish Army type jumped out and introduced himself by telling me that we were sharing the area and that he had a guard at the fuel depot.  I noticed a baseball bat in the back of the jeep and I asked what it was used for, he said that if he found a guard asleep on his post or not doing what they were told, he beat them with it.  Now I am thinking that I do not want him driving by finding me asleep.

He left after that and I referred myself to checking my carbine for some reason.  Pulled the clip out and test fired it, nothing.  So looking around and seeing no one, I started field

Welcome to Turkey

Welcome to Turkey

stripping the weapon, going as fast as I could, for I knew that it would be my neck if I were found out.  Luckily, no one came and I got it back together, when I heard this voice, “Hey, Joe, Hey Joe, OK, OK”, coming up the road was the guard from the dump, flicking his fingers in a lighting a match mode.  I figured he could not smoke on his post, so I told him OK, he put a cigarette in his mouth and came towards me.  I reached for my lighter in my pants pocket at the same time setting the Carbine down on the box that I had used to field strip it on.  Had the bolt action pulled back and locked, or so I thought, the second the weapon hit the box the bolt action came out and snapped shut making this awful noise as it fell into position.  Looking up, the poor guy must have thought I was going to shoot him and he was gone in seconds.  Walked out a ways and found his cigarette there on the ground.  Did not broadcast that right away.  I laughed, but it really was not that funny.  The shift being over, I went back to the Quonset to sleep, but it was so hot, no way.

U2 Before It Was an Irish Rock Band

Out bright and early the next morning, putting down flooring and cable in the floor for the Operations shack; the task was accomplished on the first day.  Next day it was working

inside this oven setting up the radar gear and plotting boards.  We were being pushed

Moscow Moscow broadcasts from Radio Moscow

Moscow Moscow broadcasts from Radio Moscow

because we were told that a squadron of F-84’s were to arrive very soon and they needed our setup operating on arrival.  Every hour we had to fall out for water breaks and salt tablets. The maintenance guys were busy in the hot sun putting up the antennas and radio hookups, we had accomplished our duties and were free to wait on the incoming aircraft.  Though as we sat around listening to ‘Moscow Molly’[1] that night we found our “top secret” move was already known in Russia.  Like Tokyo Rose, ‘Moscow Molly’ is pure propaganda as she welcomes us by unit number, personnel number and “we know that the U2 will be arriving soon” and she finished off by telling the base support staff that the third run way light on the left of a particular number was not working.  So much for a surprise, but we grunts really did not know anything about impacts, our job was to just do it.  Continue reading

Flying High – Takeoff

Author: Frank Maio

I enlisted in the USAF after taking my sweetie to the drive in movie that was playingstrategicaircommandBQUADs “Strategic Air Command” with James Stewart and June Allison that would be June 1955.  I knew then that the Cold War was very much in the minds of the populace at that time.  “Boris” was a bad guy and we had to stay prepared, just in case.

“Boris”, the villain in the popular 1950s cartoon series Rocky and His Friends[1] created by Jay Ward and Bill Scott, represented most American’s attitude toward the Soviet Union in those times. The memory of having to drop to the floor and cover Boris and Natashaup beside our desks was imbedded.  The ironic thing about all that was that I was attending a Parochial school three blocks from the US Capitol Building and I thought that just if they decided to drop the ‘A’- Bomb on the Capitol, we would be toast before we got to the floor.  I stated that to the Nun in the class one day and was quickly rushed to the hall and taken to the office.  It was a call to home, asking my parents to stop me from filling the class with terror.  And so, I asked no more questions about that.

Joining Up

Upon graduation from High School and not really having a direction, I did indeed join the USAF, being flown to Sampson AFB in Upstate New York to begin basic training (August 5, 1955).  For some reason I took to the military way ofduck_and_cover_fallout1 life and worked hard.  Upon graduation, I was called in and asked if I would like to become a drill instructor.  I still had that movie embedded in my brain and wiping noses of tender recruits was not on my radar (no pun intended).  So after my turning down that offer I was sent to Biloxi, Mississippi, Keesler AFB for radar ops school.  The intent being that I would watch a radar screen and detect the “Boris'” coming at the US.  There are certain training events that I am not at liberty to discuss, but part of that training was at Fort Bragg and Benning and some time at Fort Ord.

The Lost APO

I was then sent home for thirty days

Frank Maio circa late 1950s

Frank Maio circa late 1950s

and was told to report to Manhattan AFS, Coney Island, New York for travel to an APO that had NO destination.  I gave my orders to the good clerk and he scratched his head and asked me to go the big wall map and find the red bulb on the map that indicated my APO.  Nothing there, I reported and was told to find my barrack and report back in the morning.  This went on for almost three weeks, much to the concern of the young clerk.  My only duty was to report, sign out and go into New York.  Found the USO and was able to get tickets to shows such as “No Time for Sergeants”.  Then one morning the young clerk told me to pack my duffle and stand ready for shipping, so for two days I camped out at McGuire AFB waiting for orders.  After two days they put me on a C-54 for Rhein Main in Frankfurt, Germany, with the “Maybe they can find that @#&* APO.

Continue reading

Vietnam 1955 – ‘Operation Passage to Freedom’

Author: Ken Ball 

The Navy took me to Vietnam in 1955, long before the United States committed thousands of

Ken Ball, taken during his service on the USS Horace A. Bass APD 124

Ken Ball, taken during his service on the U.S.Horace A. Bass APD 124

servicemen to fight in that country.

It turned out to be a trip I am sure I’ll never forget. This was a time shortly after the Vietnamese, under Ho Chi Minh, had defeated the French forces in a key extended battle and siege of Dien Bein Phu.  As a result of this defeat the French realized that they could no longer hold Vietnam.  The Vietnamese, believing that the United States had an interest in intervening agreed to some compromises at Geneva in early summer of 1954.  Among the agreements reached was a plan to allow people above and below the 17th parallel to migrate to where they felt safest.  The people were allowed 300 days to do this.

March 30-May 1 - The siege at Dien Bien Phu occurs as nearly 10,000 French soldiers are trapped by 45,000 Viet Minh. French troops soon run out of fresh water and medical supplies. The French urgently appeal to Washington for help. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff now consider three possible military options: sending American combat troops to the rescue; a massive conventional air strike by B-29 bombers; the use of tactical atomic weapons. The History of the Cold war: A Comparative Perspective; http://phobos.ramapo.edu/~theed/Cold_War/d_Brezhnev_Era/a_LBJ/a_Nam/aa_PreGulofTonkin.html

March 30-May 1 – The siege at Dien Bien Phu occurs as nearly 10,000 French soldiers are trapped by 45,000 Viet Minh. French troops soon run out of fresh water and medical supplies. The French urgently appeal to Washington for help. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff now consider three possible military options: sending American combat troops to the rescue; a massive conventional air strike by B-29 bombers; the use of tactical atomic weapons. The History of the Cold war: A Comparative Perspective; http://phobos.ramapo.edu/~theed/Cold_War/d_Brezhnev_Era/a_LBJ/a_Nam/aa_PreGulofTonkin.html

This is where my ship, U.S.Horace A. Bass APD 124, played a small role.  We sailed up the Red River to Haiphong where we relieved the U.S.S. Cook as a communication ship.  Our job was to keep Saigon informed as

Map of the Red River

Map of the Red River

to how many transport ships would be needed and when they would be needed to carry the thousands of endangered Vietnamese from the North to the South.  Some have estimated that over two million people went from the North to the South.  Very few went the other way.  The North wanted their people to stay in the South.

It was during this time that I met Dr. Thomas Dooley,[1] a young Navy doctor who was in charge of setting up the refugee camps that contained the people awaiting transportation.  He was quite a character and talker.  Dr. Dooley would come out to our ship for a shower and a good meal from time to time.  He was tired of the instant powdered coffee he and his two enlisted assistants had to drink. On one occasion we had some Vietnamese orphans out to the ship to give them a little ice cream and cake.  They really enjoyed that.

I was with Dr. Dooley one day in Haiphong searching for some lime to line a softball field.  We were to have a game with the officers and Chiefs playing against the enlisted crewmen. While walking along Dooley asked me, “Have you ever seen a leper”?  I said, “No”.  He pointed out that one was crossing the street to come our way to beg for money. Incidentally, the soft ball game drew a crowd of over 500 people.  The Japanese had introduced baseball during WW II to the Vietnamese.  We played volleyball and basketball with the French who were still there.  We used the same ball for both games.

Dr. Dooley told us story after story of atrocities by the Vietnamese Communists against other Vietnamese, particularly the Roman Catholic ones. (The French missionaries had done their work well) It was these stories that convinced me at this time we had a “protector” role to play in that country.  I really was not very astute in regard to international politics at that time, or even now for that matter.

I’ll retell a story that I am sure Dooley told hundreds of times:

Thomas A. Dooley, M.D. (Wikipedia)

Thomas A. Dooley, M.D. (Wikipedia)

He said that one day a young Communist guard brought a ten year-old boy to him with his hands bound behind his back.  Dooley asked, “Why do you have this young boy tied up this way?”  The guard replied, “He is tied because he is a traitor to the People’s Republic of Vietnam.” “How can a boy so young possibly be a traitor,” Dooley asked.  “I’ll show you why he is a traitor,” the guard replied.  Then he ordered the boy to recite the Lord’s Prayer.

The boy began with, “Our Father who art in Heaven”.  The guard stopped him and said, “You see, that is treason.”  “The People’s Republic knows there is no God in heaven”  Dooley reported that the guard stopped him several times during the recitation of the prayer, each time pointing out that such belief were untrue and detrimental to the People’s Republic.  The boy got to the part where he said, “Give us this day our daily bread”, and the guard stopped him for the last time to remind him that his daily bread was supplied not by God, but by the People’s Republic.  Then the terribly shocking thing happened.  Dooley said, “Quick as a wink the guard whipped out two chop sticks and thrust them into the boys ears, piercing his ear drums to deafen him.  Then he said, “Never again will this boy have to hear such lies created by evil western capitalistic warmongers.”

That story, at that time, convinced me that we should be involved in stopping such atrocities.  So when the U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated in the 1960’s, I thought weQuotation-Carl-Schurz-country-right-Meetville-Quotes-165819 were doing the right thing.  I had been conditioned to be the kind of patriot that would say, “My country: Right or Wrong.”  And I believed, at that point, that my country never did anything wrong.  Since then I have learned this is a very naïve notion.  Any, and all countries, look out for their own interests, and they do not always do the right things.

Both sides conducted brutal propaganda campaigns to win the allegiance of the Vietnamese people.  One of the leaflets distributed by the Communist to dissuade the people from going South on the U.S. Navy transports showed two white-hatted sailors squatting on the deck with a Vietnamese baby being

A North Vietnamese Armed Propaganda Team called Doi Tuyen truyen Vo trang, in the Field Photo courtesy of Mailfromthetrail@yahoo.com (General Vo Nguyen Giap, the man who would later become the hero of Dien Bien Phu in 1953 served as a Team Leader at one point in his career.)

A North Vietnamese Armed Propaganda Team called Doi Tuyen truyen Vo trang, in the Field Photo courtesy of Mailfromthetrail@yahoo.com (General Vo Nguyen Giap, the man who would later become the hero of Dien Bien Phu in 1953 served as a Team Leader at one point in his career.)

roasted on a spit over a brazier.  It was effective too.  Many balked at the gangway when they saw the sailors standing on deck.

It takes a lot of research to get to the bottom of historical events, and during the time they are happening very few people have a clue as to why things are happening.  Years later “evidence” is uncovered, such as the pentagon papers, and statements admitting mistakes in policy making.  It is terrible that we lost over 53,000 service people in a war that was never crystal clear in its purposes.  At that time we were in the midst of the “cold war” and the perceived threat of godless Communism spreading over the globe was unthinkable.  It had to be stopped.  The Domino theory held sway.  It postulated that if one country would fall to communism its neighbor would soon follow until all the world was in jeopardy.  Perhaps this was true, and all our resistance and spending finally broke the back of that movement.  We outspent and out lasted them; that part is good, but what a price for both sides to pay.

The trip up the Red River to Haiphong was exciting, perhaps educational, and will always be one of my highlighted memories.

Red River: The reddish-brown heavily silt-laden water gives the river its name. View from bridge in Hanoi, Vietnam

Red River: The reddish-brown heavily silt-laden water gives the river its name. View from bridge in Hanoi, Vietnam

[Editor’s Note:  I am grateful to Ken Bell for writing this post.  It is an honor to read first person accounts from the front lines of history.  John Malch, a truth-seeker and contributor to the Cold War Warrior, sent me this story through Bill Cotman. John writes:

Vietnam refugees. USS Montague lowers a ladder over the side to French LSM to take refugees aboard. Haiphong, August 1954. PH1 H.S. Hemphill. (Navy)

Vietnam refugees. U.S.Montague lowers a ladder over the side to French LSM to take refugees aboard. Haiphong, August 1954. PH1 H.S. Hemphill. (Navy)

My wife, Kim, evacuated North Vietnam, November 1954 during ‘Operation Passage to Freedom’ aboard U.S.Montague.  She thought it strange that an American ship had a name of French origin.  She remembered how kind and helpful the American sailors were, especially to young children. 

She thanks you (Bill Cotman) for sending Ken’s story and said it brought back many bittersweet memories from nearly sixty years ago.

Finally, in order to understand what happened in Vietnam it is important to follow the timeline of the battle at Dien Bien Phu.[2] ]



[1] John Malch adds: A little insight on Thomas Anthony Dooley III: I am sure you read about Thomas Anthony Dooley III.  In 1954 while serving on the U.S.Montague, he assisted with the evacuation of North Vietnamese refugees to the south. Dooley became involved with Lt Colonel Lansdale (CIA station manager, Saigon) and was thoroughly exploited for his experiences with Vietnamese-American relationships.  For many years Dooley was labeled a spy for the CIA.  Although, he never admitted to be a missionary, he was called one because of his affiliation with the Catholic church.  Dooley’s life has been under a microscope-analysis for many years.  His recent consideration for canonization in becoming a Saint; his background revealed  (500 CIA files) he had given the CIA information from hamlets and villages of Viet Minh troop movements near his hospitals in Laos and Vietnam.  So, he has been reclassified as a CIA informant and not a spy.
[2] The History of the Cold war: A Comparative Perspective; Pre Tonkin Gulf Incident; http://phobos.ramapo.edu/~theed/Cold_War/d_Brezhnev_Era/a_LBJ/a_Nam/aa_PreGulofTonkin.html