Vietnam War Era: Vietnam Military Personnel

Carol Reardon. Vietnam War Era: People and Perspectives. Editor: Mitchell K Hall. ABC-CLIO, 2009.

A few iconic images of military service in Vietnam command a place in national memory: patrols of hollow-eyed “grunts” inching forward through triple-canopy jungle or rice paddies seeking an unseen enemy, helicopters dropping troopers into hot landing zones, and the spectacular destructive effect of bombs and napalm. But these few scenes shed little meaningful light on what historian Christian R. Appy (1993) has called “the irreducible complexity of each life the war touched and the multiplicity of experiences the war comprised” (20). During America’s longest war, from 1950 until 1975, no single set of shared motivations, expectations, and experiences frames the “soldier’s story” of Vietnam. Only a mosaic of nearly 3 million tiles, each representing one individual’s story, can do that.

The Advisory Stage

In September 1950, overshadowed by the Korean War, President Harry Truman sent the Military Assistance and Advisory Group-Indochina—a small number of American technical and logistical specialists—to French Indochina. The men served exclusively as inspectors, observing the distribution of American military equipment and supplies intended to help the French crush Vietnamese efforts to overthrow colonial rule. In October 1954, several months after Vietnamese insurgents—known as the Vietminh—defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu, the United States quietly changed its mission to training the new Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). This new Military Assistance and Advisory Group-Vietnam (MAAG-Vietnam) soon numbered more than 300 trainers, mostly career officers or veteran noncommissioned officers (NCOs) with combat service in World War II or Korea. In two- or three-man teams, they attempted to organize the new 150,000-man ARVN into the kind of army they understood best: a conventional force that could repel any North Vietnamese attack across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that had come to serve as a border between North and South Vietnam. Strict rules of engagement severely proscribed when and where advisers could wear uniforms, carry arms, or accompany ARVN troops on exercises outside training areas. Trainers gave only scant attention to counterinsurgency training. In 1957, as opponents of Ngo Dinh Diem’s South Vietnamese government organized an armed resistance, the U.S. Army’s 1st Special Forces Group trained only 58 ARVN soldiers in counterinsurgency tactics. A small number of advisers died—including, in 1959, Maj. Dale R. Buis and Master Sgt. Chester M. Ovnand, both U.S. Army, the first two names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, or “the Wall”—but their loss forced no reconsideration of the advisory mission, because MAAG-Vietnam represented a miniscule portion of American armed forces posted overseas during the Eisenhower era.

The American military mission expanded further during the John F. Kennedy administration, fueled by concern about the ARVN’s slow progress and the strengthening opposition to Diem’s government within South Vietnam. In 1960, anti-Diemists organized the National Liberation Front, and its armed fighters—dubbed by Diem as “Vietcong,” or Vietnamese communists—launched increasingly more frequent attacks on ARVN forces throughout the countryside. An advocate of counterinsurgency warfare, Kennedy now supported a dramatically increased role for the U.S. Army’s Special Forces. In 1961, six- to twelve-man teams of these Green Berets began to train South Vietnam’s ethnic minorities to resist attacks on their villages and to organize mobile strike forces to take the fight to the Vietcong. The U.S. Air Force’s 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron initiated Operation Farm Gate in November 1961 to train pilots for the South Vietnamese Air Force. In January 1962, Air Force crews flew the first Operation Ranch Hand missions in southern South Vietnam, spraying chemical defoliants on crops and dense vegetation to deny the Vietcong food and cover. Entire U.S. Army communications, medical, intelligence, aviation, and transportation companies of 100 men or more—no longer merely individual specialists in these fields—deployed to provide direct support to ARVN field operations. In 1962, the Pentagon replaced MAAG-Vietnam with a new headquarters—Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV)—to coordinate the growing American presence, which jumped from 1,000 American advisers in Vietnam when Kennedy took office in January 1961 to more than 16,000 when he was assassinated in November 1963 (Appy 1993).

To some, the “brushfire war” presaged no long-term concern. In 1963, an Army radio technician recalled that, “If we wanted to go out and chase people around and shoot at them and get them to shoot back at us, we had a war going on. If we didn’t do that, they let us alone…. There was no war after four-thirty. On Saturdays, no war. On Sundays, no war. On holidays, no war” (Santoli 1981, 5-6). But advisers who worked directly with the ARVN viewed affairs quite differently. Three American advisers died on January 2, 1963, when ARVN forces blundered into a Vietcong ambush at Ap Bac, a clash that raised troubling concerns about the capability—and even the loyalty—of the entire South Vietnamese military establishment. Green Beret captain Roger Donlon, the first winner of the Medal of Honor in Southeast Asia, realized as early as 1963 that he could count on only two-thirds of his Vietnamese strike force; when an attack started, he explained, the first thing the one-third who were “traitors did … was to slit the throat or break the neck of the person next to them” (Appy 2003, 14-15). By the end of 1963, the advisory mission in Vietnam had cost 120 American lives.

After the assassinations of Diem and Kennedy in November 1963, Lyndon Johnson understood little about the insurgency in Vietnam but, viewing the conflict in Cold War terms, was committed to denying a victory to communists there. In June 1964, he appointed Gen. William C. Westmoreland, a West Point-trained South Carolinian comfortable with conventional World War II-style warfare, to command MACV. After the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident—an attack (then believed to be two separate attacks) by North Vietnamese patrol boats on American naval vessels in international waters—Johnson approved a limited number of airstrikes against specific North Vietnamese targets. He made no substantial increases in troop strength, however, until after the 1964 presidential election. Then, in early 1965, in the face of continuing political turmoil in Saigon and a substantial increase in Vietcong attacks, Johnson began to “Americanize” the fighting in Vietnam.

Getting to Vietnam

The most detailed studies of American military personnel who served in the Vietnam conflict slight the advisory period and stress the years from 1964 to the end of active combat operations in 1973. In raw numbers, of nearly 26.8 million American draft-eligible men during these years, 10.9 million ultimately entered military service. Only 2.1 million, however—less than 10 percent of the men in the war generation—actually served in Vietnam. With the inclusion of older veterans already in uniform, enlistees younger than 19, and an undetermined number of servicewomen, the total number of Americans who served in Vietnam reached nearly 3 million (Baskir and Strauss 1978).

Those whose paths led to Vietnam owed much of their fate to the vagaries of the Selective Service process. Even though the draft had operated continuously since the Korean War, a decade of comparative peace and low monthly quotas had lulled many young men into viewing it benignly. That changed in early 1965 when Johnson decided to “Americanize” the combat effort in Vietnam through dramatically increasing monthly draft calls rather than by activating Reserve or National Guard units. As a consequence, the Vietnam-era draft “cast the entire generation into a contest for survival” (Baskir and Strauss 1978, 6).

The men who served in Vietnam entered the armed forces for all kinds of reasons. Recruiters preferred true volunteers. In 1964, for instance, these include the 11.2 percent of Army enlistees who cited “patriotism”—to stop communism, to continue family tradition, or to accept Kennedy’s challenge to action—as prime motivators. They also welcomed the 22.3 percent who joined that same year for “personal advancement,” and the 28.8 percent who enlisted for “personal reasons” from peer pressure to escaping unhappy family situations. Standard enlistment periods varied. The Army required a three-year commitment—one year longer than a draftee served—but the Marine Corps offered a two-year option for volunteers; the Navy and the Air Force both required four-year enlistments. Recruiters also won recruits with promises of specialized training, specific duty stations, or a “buddy program” that allowed friends to go through basic training together.

The remaining 37.6 percent of 1964’s Army recruits, however, fell into the category of “draft-motivated” volunteers, who enlisted to control the terms of their military service in ways that might be denied them if they waited for a Selective Service call-up. Some willingly joined for the same perceived guarantees to noncombat specialties used to lure true volunteers. Some decided not to enlist in the Army at all, opting instead for the Air Force or the Navy specifically to eliminate all possibility of being sent to Vietnam as riflemen. Still others sought slots in National Guard or Reserve units; indeed, a 1966 study showed that 71 percent of National Guard enlistees considered the draft to be their primary motivation for volunteering (Appy 1993, 29).

To meet unfilled personnel requirements, Selective Service ultimately drafted 2.2 million men during 1964-1972 for two years of service. Like those who enlisted voluntarily, each man made his own way through the system. Some simply waited for their summons. Others tried to evade service, failed, and made the best of it. Still others, resenting their fate, resisted from the day they reported for induction.

Whether volunteer or draftee, however, the transformation from civilian to military life began with a sharp, confusing, and frightening break from the past: recruit training. The arrival of John Rhodes (1996) at Parris Island was typical: “I’ve been here five seconds and I’ve already been kicked, yelled at and told I didn’t have what it takes to be a Marine, great start. Get me out of here” (15). Eighty-nine percent of all American military personnel in Vietnam served in the enlisted ranks, and this eight- to twelve-week training cycle represented their single common experience. Most possessed no more than a high school education, had traveled little, and knew little about Vietnam. Nearly 80 percent of enlisted recruits came from working-class or poor families, separated by education and life experience from the overwhelmingly middle-class officer corps that led them (Appy 1993).

Recruit training stressed physical conditioning and weapons proficiency, working toward the goal of producing “general-service” personnel who had mastered appropriate basic military skills. Just before graduation, each received his MOS—his military occupational specialty. Recruits could submit personal preferences—the Army alone offered more than 300 MOSs—but service needs always came first. Army recruits assigned to the 11-B MOS, or “11-Bravo”—sometimes called “11-Bang-Bang” or even “11-Bulletstopper”—became infantrymen, highly likely to go to Vietnam. Future Marine infantrymen received a 0-3 designation. In some Army and Marine recruit classes from 1965 through 1968, nearly all graduates—even those who believed they had been promised other occupational training—received 11-B assignments. Appeals for a change rarely succeeded without an agreement to extend one’s original enlistment for an additional year or more.

MOS instruction occurred during advanced individual training (AIT) after graduation from basic training. The common bonds forged in sweat during recruit training broke, as each individual mastered a specialty. Those assigned to the infantry or combat arms now practiced skills needed in Vietnam, even though they still did not know if their follow-on assignment would take them there. Not all training made sense. Army and Marine AIT infantry instruction did not include exercises in clearing villages until late 1965. At Fort Dix, New Jersey, some green-clad soldiers practiced jungle ambush tactics on snow-covered fields and forests in midwinter. Few AIT curricula included even basic instruction about Vietnamese culture, history, politics, and society.

For many in combat specialties, the end of AIT brought orders to Vietnam. Brief visits home ended with difficult leave-takings. The length of their tours represented their only real certainty now. Army troops—and most Air Force and Navy personnel stationed in country—calculated one calendar year from their date of arrival to determine their date of return from overseas (DEROS). Marines served 13-month tours. Air Force cockpit crews could rotate out of the combat zone after 100 missions, and sailors on aircraft carriers usually stayed for the varying length of an entire combat cruise.

Early on, some entire units sailed to Vietnam on old World War II and Korean War troopships, but most American military personnel subsequently flew as individuals by commercial airliner. As flight attendant Helen Tennant Hegelheimer noted, “At the top of the ramp was the world, at the bottom of the ramp was the war” (Appy 2003, 108). As the troop buildup of 1965 continued into 1966, newly arriving soldiers crossed paths at the bottom of the ramp with combat veterans returning home. Their gaunt look and haunted eyes invariably unnerved the new arrivals.

The haggard veterans presented only one shock. New arrivals quickly noted Vietnam’s extreme heat and unique smells. The pungent fermented fish sauce called nuoc mam, rice paddies fertilized with water buffalo excrement, human waste, and the gasoline used to burn it all mixed to create a startling odor that rarely escaped remark. It disquieted many to learn that the wire grills on the windows of the buses taking them around the base kept out hand grenades tossed by Vietcong who blended in with noncombatants, their introduction to a war with no front lines.

For a brief period, sometimes up to a week, each new arrival awaited assignment to a unit. From this point on, four factors shaped his individual experience, but the most important was the timeframe of his in-country service. The war of 1965 differed from the war of 1968, which differed from the war of 1972. Branch of service, in-country duty station, and the requirements and duties of his MOS also mattered. It astounded many to learn that, although the most vivid Vietnam news stories back home centered on “grunts” who “humped the boonies”—infantrymen who patrolled through South Vietnam’s jungle-covered mountains—only about 20 percent of new arrivals went to front-line combat units. Even at the height of the Americanization phase of the war—from 1965 through 1968—nearly 80 percent of all newly arrived troops worked in rear-area assignments (Appy 1993).

The American Buildup

The first large deployment of combat troops to arrive in Vietnam in 1965 enjoyed an important benefit denied to those who followed them. They trained in peacetime, and the presence of substantial numbers of “lifers”—World War II and Korean War combat veterans—among the senior NCOs had produced cohesive, professional units. The Marines who landed in Da Nang in March 1965 had trained together in Okinawa for months before they deployed to Vietnam. Much the same could be said for the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade and 1st Cavalry Division, which arrived during the summer of 1965. Additionally, General William Westmoreland divided South Vietnam into four military regions, designated as I, II, III, and IV Corps, and assigned these skilled troops—as units—to specific areas of responsibility. Most Marines went to the five northernmost provinces just south of the DMZ designated I Corps, a rugged region that rose quickly from sandy beaches to jungle-covered mountains. Moving southward, II Corps included the central highlands, a mixture of grasslands and mountains crossed by valuable road networks; the 1st Cavalry Division served there. Still farther south, III Corps embraced the provinces north and west of Saigon, including areas long known for insurgent activity and tunnel complexes; as they arrived in country, the Army’s 1st and 25th Infantry Divisions were assigned here. IV Corps included the southernmost reaches of South Vietnam, including the Mekong Delta, which required both the Army’s 9th Infantry division and a significant naval patrol boat presence on the waterways.

The landing of ground combat troops occurred nearly simultaneously with the start of an ambitious and controversial air offensive. The air war of the 1965-1968 Americanization phase included several distinct elements. Fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters alike participated in the close-air-support mission to assist U.S. or ARVN troops in contact with enemy forces throughout South Vietnam. Beginning in June 1965, Air Force B-52s based in Guam and Thailand launched “arc light” missions against enemy troop concentrations in South Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, each aircraft capable of dropping 30 tons of ordnance. The early air war’s most well-known effort, Operation Rolling Thunder, began in March 1965 as an interdiction effort against military targets just north of the DMZ. From the start, the White House and the Pentagon micromanaged target selection, expanding the list or calling for bombing halts as a means to apply diplomatic pressure. By 1966, with North Vietnam carved into seven “route packages,” Air Force and Naval aviators—all volunteers—hit targets throughout the entire country. Still, concerns about communist bloc reaction shaped strict rules of engagement that put off-limits many important military targets, and frustrated aircrews repeatedly flew through increasing antiaircraft and surface-to-air missile batteries to hit unimportant points. “There’s an incredible over-estimation on the damage we do. It’s mostly imagination or propaganda,” wrote Lt. Frank Elkins (1991, 55), a naval aviator. Resolving the fates of airmen downed on Rolling Thunder missions—and Elkins joined them in October 1966—became one of the war’s most emotional issues.

As the air war opened, ground combat operations in 1965 began with MACV headquarters establishing a defensively minded “enclave strategy” to protect American airstrips, supply depots, and other properties. The Marines in I Corps rejected this approach; it ran entirely counter to their offensively oriented doctrine. Thus, by summer 1965—with MACV approval—American ground troops adopted a more proactive strategy. Initially called “sweep and clear,” but generally understood as “search and destroy,” this attrition strategy required American troops to “find, fix, and finish” the enemy or to draw them out of concealment to be destroyed by supporting artillery or air power.

At first, search-and-destroy missions caused American deaths in ones and twos, too little to destroy unit morale or cohesion. By late summer 1965, however, Marine units in Operation Starlite in I Corps suffered more than 60 killed over a two-week period. The very nature of the war changed significantly in mid-November when elements of the 1st Cavalry Division clashed with North Vietnamese regulars in the Ia Drang Valley in the central highlands, the first large-unit action to pit U.S. ground troops against Hanoi’s army. More than 300 American soldiers died in less than one week. Thomas Bird, an enlisted man, explained the battle’s impact on his unit: “It took a long time to put the Cav back together again. It hit us extra hard because most of the units were stateside together…. We were friends of each other’s families, dined together, entertained together, argued together” (Santoli 1981, 42). Deaths, illness, wounds, reassignments, and the one-year rotation system worked against reproducing the strong unit cohesion of 1965. No matter how badly a unit needed them, from 1965 until the end of armed hostilities, most new men arrived to cold receptions until they convinced veterans they were “shooters” and not “shakers.”

By the end of December, the active combat operations of 1965 had cost at least 1,369 American lives, but those who fought still found it easy to rely on Cold War rhetoric to justify the cost (Appy 1993, 29). As Marine lance corp. Jack Swender wrote his family in September 1965: “I would rather fight to stop communism in South Vietnam than in Kincaid, Humboldt, Blue Mound, or Kansas City…. Last year alone 4,700 teachers and priests in South Vietnam were killed. This we are trying to stop—this is our objective” (Edelman 1985, 213).

Swender himself fell in December 1965 in a firefight that illustrated the style of ground combat that accounted for 83 percent of all American fatalities in Vietnam. By one estimate, an infantryman serving a typical 12-month tour during 1965-1970 stood a 3 percent chance of dying, a 10 percent chance of receiving a wound that required evacuation to a hospital, and a 25 percent chance of sustaining a wound that merited a Purple Heart (Vietnam Veterans Memorial n.d.; National Archives 2007). As Army veteran Billy Walkabout recalled, “A firefight is instant insanity…. They say war is hell, but contact is a sonofabitch” (Beesley 1987, 6).

To survive those firefights, the combatants mastered the tools and technology of their trade. In 1965, the Army and the Marine Corps adopted the new M-16 rifle. The new weapon was lighter than the M-14 it replaced, but troops carried 600 rounds instead of the standard 200 to compensate for the bullet’s lack of penetrating power. The new weapon also jammed easily, and infantrymen died as they tried to clear a round stuck in the chamber. Indeed, many Americans preferred the AK-47 used by their enemy. For increased firepower, both Army and Marine patrols usually included troopers carrying the reliable M-79 grenade launcher and the unwieldy but indispensable M-60 machine gun.

Additional support required only a radio call. As Army first lieutenant Vincent Okamoto explained, “With that radio I was like God. I could call down from the heavens destruction on a massive scale. The radio connects you to eighteen howitzers that can fire shells from seven miles away. You got helicopter gunships with miniguns that could fire six thousand rounds per minute. And you got … air force fighter bombers who break in on the net and go, ‘Bravo Six, I’m at your location and I’ve got eighteen thousand rounds of twenty-millimeter cannon and four five-hundred pound bombs. Where do you want ‘em, over?’ For a twenty-four-year-old lieutenant, it was really incredible” (Appy 2003, 359). This firepower came with an unfortunate downside, however. In firefights at close range, short rounds from artillery and bombs that skewed off target caused many friendly fire casualties.

During 1966 and 1967, military planners expanded the ground war by assigning larger units and more complex maneuvers to individual search-and-destroy operations. In the fall of 1966, entire battalions from both the 1st and 25th Divisions and the 196th Light Infantry Brigade took part in Operation Attleboro against enemy concentrations in War Zone C. In the same area in January 1967, Operation Cedar Falls began with 60 helicopters landing an infantry battalion in the town of Ben Suc and required five infantry battalions, two cavalry squadrons, and an artillery battalion—several thousand men in all—to complete the sweep. In February 1967, Operation Junction City included an airborne assault by the paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Despite their best efforts, however, Vietcong or North Vietnamese troops invariably returned as soon as the Americans left, leading many American military personnel to question the effectiveness of these missions. Army historian S. L. A. Marshall described a typical sweep in 1966 as “incredibly boring, wasteful, and exhausting” (Appy 1993, 161). Soldiers sweated so much that their uniforms turned white from the salt leached out of their bodies. To ward off dehydration in the tropical heat, they drank any water they could find, often without using iodine tablets for purification. They suffered from ringworm, trench foot, plantar warts, jungle rot, malaria, and hepatitis. Leeches plagued them, but Sgt. Jerry Liucci found a solution: “The cocktail sauce they gave us for food wasn’t edible but was great for leeches—you just squirt it on them, and they would drop off you” (Bergerud 1993, 19). Exhaustion took its toll. Marine PFC Raymond Griffiths wrote home in June 1966, “I tell you truthful I doubt if I’ll come out of this alive. In my original squad I’m the only one left unharmed…. It seems every day another young guy 18 and 19 years old like myself is killed in action.” Griffiths fell in combat on the Fourth of July (Edelman 1985, 118). He became just one of at least 5,008 Americans who died in 1966, and in 1967 the number jumped to 9,378 (Appy 1993).

The arbitrariness and violence of each individual death wore on survivors. Marine Warren E. Howe recalled a few brief seconds on June 26, 1967: “Jim Blakely never saw the mine he stepped on that morning. Nor did he live long enough to feel the wounds he would soon die from. The concussion of the mine’s explosion detonated a 60mm mortar round carried on the back of Angel Correa. Angel never heard it. A piece of shrapnel caught Teddy (Doc) Hart in the chest. Doc was gone before his knees buckled. An instant in time for some, an eternity for others” (Palmer 1987, 205). Snipers took their toll. Soldiers and Marines found clever booby traps everywhere, some made from discarded cans of C-ration peanut butter. Some Marines learned the lethality of letting down their guard, when, after swimming in a pond, they returned the next day and watched as one man “dove in and ran a punji stick right through his chest” (Ebert 1993, 193).

Experiences such as this slowly eroded both troop morale and their moral fabric. The body count, the controversial measure adopted early on to assess progress, challenged common sense and institutional integrity. Capt. Howard Boone’s commanding officer “used to ask me every day, as a measure of our effectiveness, ‘How many gooks did you kill this morning?’” (Prashker 1988, 27). Common practice called for counting four Vietnamese body parts—even if they belonged to a single person who may or may not have been an enemy combatant—as four kills. More troubling, frustrated survivors found it increasingly easy to take revenge for comrades’ deaths, with few qualms about crossing a moral or legal line. Soldiers and Marines cut off trigger fingers, scalps, and ears from enemy dead. As early as March 1966, Army sergeant George Barnett wrote home, “This war isn’t by the Geneva Convention. Charlie doesn’t take any prisoners nor do we. Only when the CO sees them first. We shoot the wounded.” After he and his patrol found two of their missing comrades mutilated and hanging by their ankles from a tree, they decapitated enemy dead until officers took their hatchets away (Adler 2003, 28).

Additional frustration stemmed from the increasing inability of American military personnel to separate friend from foe, many coming to openly distrust the South Vietnamese they were sent to aid and protect. It stunned Marines who cleared a tunnel complex near Chu Lai to learn that the mayor of Da Nang was on a list of Vietcong double agents they found. American military personnel training or operating with ARVN units also grew increasingly frustrated. Advisers discovered early on that families of ARVN soldiers often followed them into the field, frequently bribing Vietcong patrols with information to get past them. Officers from all services in the South Vietnamese military establishment drew equipment for their men, and then sold it on the black market or abandoned it for the Vietcong to retrieve. To accomplish even small tasks, Karl Phaler concluded after his tour with the South Vietnamese Navy in 1966-1967, “You don’t lead, you con” (Santoli 1981, 51).

By 1967, the absence of a clearly understood objective and an effective strategy to obtain it increasingly bothered American military personnel in Vietnam and stateside. Some, such as the Fort Hood Three, had already refused orders to deploy. Rants against senior military and political leadership became more common. As Marine captain Rodney Chastant wrote home in September 1967, “Johnson is trying to fight this war the way he fights his domestic wars—he chooses an almost unattainable goal with a scope so large it is virtually undefinable, and he attacks this goal with poorly allocated funds, minimum manpower, limited time, and few new ideas” (Edelman 1985, 219). Nonetheless, two months later, General Westmoreland addressed Congress and announced that he saw “a light at the end of the tunnel.”

He could not have erred more. The North Vietnamese and Vietcong had already launched the opening phases of a highly organized operation that became known as the Tet Offensive. They hoped to draw American troops to South Vietnam’s northern and western border areas to facilitate their own operations in urban centers. Thus, along the DMZ, when not out patrolling, Marines at Con Thien lived in underground bunkers to protect themselves from North Vietnamese artillery. At Khe Sanh, in the northwest corner of South Vietnam, Marines fortified and reinforced against a significant buildup of North Vietnamese regulars. In mid-November in the central highlands, troops from the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade near Dak To lost heavily in a series of bloody battles.

American planners missed the significance of these actions. The Tet Offensive, which began on January 31, 1968, came as a surprise. Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops attacked nearly all of South Vietnam’s province capitals and major military installations, and Vietcong sappers even breached the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon. As American and ARVN troops fought to regain lost territory from I Corps to the Mekong Delta over the first five months of 1968, U.S. casualties neared—and then exceeded—500 dead each week, the war’s highest toll.

The early war’s firefights now seemed to pale in comparison with fighting during Tet. The bodies of Marines in plain green utilities appeared in I Corps grave registration units; they had not even been in country long enough to be issued their camouflage gear before they died. Reinforcements from the 101st Airborne came to the Marines’ assistance in Hue, but the North Vietnamese pressure intensified so much, one trooper reported, “we had to get the hell out of there…. So we stacked all the weapons we couldn’t carry in the middle of our perimeter and booby-trapped them. Then we buried the dead right there. We’d never done this before and never did it again—we buried our own men right there on the spot” (Appy 2003, 300).

Tet’s high casualty rates shocked the nation and the servicemen who watched their brothers in arms die in greater numbers—and for no clear purpose—than ever before. As Spec. 4 Doug Johnson explained, “a lot of guys were leaving Vietnam with a CMH—no, not the Congressional Medal of Honor, but rather a casket with metal handles” (Grzyb 2000, 206). As casualty rates grew, officers pressed hard to exert their authority over their frustrated soldiers. Some failed. In March, 2nd Lt. William L. Calley Jr. commanded a platoon in the Americal Division on a sweep through My Lai; in the process, he gave the command that resulted in the deaths of an uncounted number of civilians. Other officers did all they could to exert a degree of moral leadership over their men. In June, Marine captain Rodney Chastant explained to his family why he extended his tour: “There are moral decisions made almost every day. My experience is invaluable. This job requires a man of conscience. The group of men that do this job must have a leader with a conscience. In the last three weeks we killed more than 1,500 men on a single operation. That reflects a lot of responsibility. I am needed here, Mom” (Edelman 1985, 130). Chastant stayed—and paid with his life.

Vietnamization and the Changing War

The year 1968 proved to be the costliest year of American military operations in Vietnam. The sense of loss, however, went much deeper than the loss of lives. The senior political leadership offered no workable plan to end the war. In late March, when President Johnson announced his decisions to end Operation Rolling Thunder, open negotiations, and pull out of the presidential race, many troops felt betrayed. As the 1968 primary season and the nominating conventions neared, Sgt. Edward Murphy cautioned restraint in effecting change: “In our country there are many ways to make ourselves heard. I hope that the legitimate means afforded us through the democratic process will be used. If the swifter and more dramatic means of violence are used, then history will have that much more reason to condemn us” (Edelman 1985, 145). By the end of the year, Johnson was out, Richard Nixon was in—and the war had claimed another 14,592 American lives (Appy 1993).

Before Johnson left office, however, General Westmoreland handed over command of MACV to Gen. Creighton Abrams. The general oversaw a new strategy designed, ultimately, to facilitate the withdrawal of American troops. As 1968 ended, the United States began backing away from large-scale field operations, returning to an advisory, training, and support role that would prepare the South Vietnamese armed forces to take full responsibility for their defense.

This process—called “Vietnamization”—began at a time when all branches of the American armed services felt the institutional effects of long-term deployment, political disaffection, and social disruptions on the home front. Combat units felt the stresses most directly. Because Johnson had refused to activate Reserves and National Guardsmen and built troop strength on draftees, the number of experienced soldiers in essential combat MOSs ran short. Without warning or retraining, thousands of individuals with noncombat MOSs received reclassification as infantrymen. To fill some needs, at least 15,000 National Guardsmen were activated in 1968 and 1969 and sent to Vietnam, triggering at least one court case that challenged the legality of the deployment. In 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had initiated Project 100,000, a social betterment program for men who scored too low on the Armed Forces Qualifications Test for military service but would be accepted for occupational training they could use in civilian life. When these soldiers began arriving in country in 1968, however, detailers discovered nearly 40 percent of them had combat MOSs that would send them to front-line units (Appy 1993). A series of Selective Service reforms in the late 1960s—including the end of most education deferments and the start of the lottery system—brought into the Army a significantly higher percentage of new soldiers who ardently and openly opposed the war. By the end of 1968, the percentage of true volunteers citing “patriotism” as their primary reason for enlisting shrank to only 6.1 percent (Appy 1993).

Complicating matters further, racial concerns caused increasingly contentious confrontations in all the armed services. Studies of African American participation in Vietnam had produced troubling statistics. Although African Americans made up 12 percent of the U.S. population, estimates of black combat deaths in 1965 ranged between 22.4 and 25.0 percent. Additionally, draft boards accepted 30.2 percent of qualified African American men, but only 18.8 percent of qualified whites. Racial conflict rarely flared on the front lines, but in rear areas African Americans and whites clashed openly. Black soldiers clashed with officers over hair regulations and protocol issues, from saluting to the use of the “dap,” an elaborate handshake ritual popular among black power advocates. African American service personnel filled a disproportionately low number of technical MOS slots and a disproportionately high number of cells in the military prison at Long Binh. Revisions to the personnel system resulted in a drop in African American combat casualties in 1966 to 16 percent, in 1968 to 13 percent, and in 1970 to 9 percent, but it had little effect in softening racial discord in the ranks (Appy 1993). Complicating the racial dialogue, military personnel of Hispanic background brought their own rising ethnic awareness into the ranks. As Army PFC Charley Trujillo explained, “Out in the bush I never felt such affinity and togetherness with men of other cultures and races as I did in Vietnam.” But that sense of brotherhood did not extend to the rear area, where some members of his unit threatened him with “‘Hey, man, you better watch out because from behind you look like a gook” (Appy 2003, 368). Although no study has produced comprehensive statistics about the participation of Hispanic service personnel in Vietnam, at least 48,000 Puerto Ricans served in Vietnam, and 345 died (Appy 1993).

Drug use also rose dramatically after 1968. Soldiers and pilots took Benzedrine, Dexedrine, and other pharmaceuticals to remain alert. Far more turned to illegal drugs. A wartime study showed that marijuana use among American soldiers returning home in 1967 stood at 29 percent; by 1969 it had jumped to 50 percent and by 1970 to nearly 60 percent (Appy 1993). Most Vietnam veterans claim that they limited their marijuana use to camp, never in the field, but Army sergeant Bill McCollum admitted, “We’d go out on patrol just so we could smoke!” If they suffered a casualty, “we’d check to make sure no marijuana was found on him” (Grzyb 2000, 136). Efforts to curtail drug use produced few positive results. Soldiers sent to field hospitals for overdoses might be locked in large metal supply boxes for a few days, after which they would be rehydrated and sent back to their units. The availability of cheap heroin exploded in 1970, and by 1971 service personnel returning home underwent urinalysis—dubbed the “piss test”—to be cleared to get on their “freedom bird.” A black market in clean urine samples flourished.

As the war continued, combat troops grew more vocal in their resentment of unfair personnel assignments. A unit of Army infantrymen complained directly to Nixon in April 1969 that “basically there are two different wars here in Vietnam. While we are out in the field living like animals, putting our lives on the line 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the guy in the rear’s biggest problem is that he can receive only one television station” (Edelman 1985, 139). Enlisted “grunts,” who usually spent their entire tours at the front, increasingly resented their officers, who usually served only six months in the field and then rotated to the rear to fill a staff billet with far less exposure to death, disease, and dismemberment.

Combat troops’ concerns about their officers went far deeper than duty assignments, however. Even the Pentagon worried about a decline in the quality of their leadership. By 1967, Army Officer Candidate School programs lowered standards and commissioned men who would have been rejected earlier in the war. In 1968, for the first time, the Naval Academy’s graduating class did not fill its quota for Marine second lieutenants. West Point accepted every eligible applicant to fill its plebe class that same summer. Some universities terminated their Army, Navy, and Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs, while others struggled to fill their ranks. The results could have been predicted. As one soldier in 1969 explained, his unit “had a gung-ho greenhorn ROTC platoon leader and nobody trusted his orders. It wasn’t that they were refusing to fight, just to take orders from him. Eventually a PFC with more experience took over. The authority was given to him by the other men” (Appy 2003, 258). An Army War College study in 1970 deplored the pervasiveness of concern over personal advancement—so-called “ticket-punching”—among officers of all ranks. Just as troubling, increasing numbers of officers—including graduates from service academies—sought conscientious objector status while still serving in uniform; indeed, requests from all ranks jumped from 829 in 1967 to 4,381 in 1971 (Appy 1993).

These institutional weaknesses festered without resolution as the Vietnamization phase accelerated. Part of the new strategy called for an increased—and belated—effort by American military forces to help rally the South Vietnamese people’s “hearts and minds” behind the Saigon government. American troops had attempted to train local defense forces since the advisory period, and in 1965 the Marines who served in I Corps began an aggressive program of civic action platoons (CAPs) that accompanied doctors and dentists into local hamlets to offer both protection and useful medical, educational, and occupational assistance. Although dangerous, CAPs attracted soldiers and Marines who, even late in the war, sought a constructive outlet. Jonathan Polansky of the 101st Airborne Division set up a school in 1969, feeling as though “I was a Peace Corps worker in this country, dealing with the classroom.” After three months, however, he returned to find the village completely destroyed because the residents had accepted American help (Santoli 1981, 61).

Another element of the Vietnamization policy called for improving the South Vietnamese military’s chances of defending its country by eliminating long-standing bastions of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) strength while American ground troops still remained in significant—if declining—numbers. At Ap Bia Mountain in the A Shau Valley in mid-May 1969, the NVA broke from its usual practice of avoiding extended contact to fight from bunkers and trenches for nine days, much of it in torrential rain. The 101st Airborne and other U.S. and ARVN troops finally took the hill—and, then, as happened so often before—abandoned it. The North Vietnamese immediately retook it. Heavy media coverage and congressional attention given to the fight—soon dubbed “Hamburger Hill” for the way the fighting ground down American troop strength—exaggerated the battle’s importance, but it also illustrated a growing dissonance between the political promises of a reduced mission and the continuing loss of soldier lives.

In late April 1970, President Nixon approved a joint incursion by 30,000 U.S. troops and 50,000 ARVN soldiers into Cambodia’s Fishhook region to eliminate a suspected North Vietnamese command center there and to test the progress of South Vietnamese military readiness. The action polarized popular opinion at home and compromised troop morale on the battlefront, but not always in predictable ways. Army specialist 4 Gregory Lusco, mourning lost comrades, objected to memorials for the students killed at Kent State University in protests spawned by the incursion: “So why don’t your hearts cry out and shed a tear for the 40-plus thousand red-blooded Americans and brave, fearless, loyal men who have given their lives so a bunch of bloody bastard radicals can protest, dissent, and generally bitch about our private and personal war in Vietnam and now Cambodia?” He concluded, “I am coming home soon. Don’t shout and preach your nothingness to me. I am ashamed to be fighting to keep you safe, the rest of the loyal Americans” (Edelman 1985, 240-241).

Not all servicemen shared Lusco’s opinion, of course. Army medic Keith R. Franklin, killed in Cambodia on May 12, left a last letter with his family that read in part: “The war that has taken my life and many thousands before me is immoral, unlawful and an atrocity unlike any misfit of good sense and judgment known to man” (Emerson 1985, 101). Antiwar sentiment in the ranks increasingly affected field operations. Individual soldiers “ghosted”—faked illnesses or injuries to stay out of the field. Patrols “sandbagged” by only pretending to complete risky missions, even supplying fabricated reports and faked coordinates marking their position. In some units, soldiers overtly refused orders for missions they deemed useless or excessively dangerous. The once reliable 1st Cavalry division experienced 35 cases of combat refusal in 1970 alone. Officers and senior sergeants found little incentive to interfere. In 1969, military courts considered 129 cases of alleged fragging—murder of officers or senior NCOs by one’s own troops, often by fragmentation grenade—and the numbers jumped to 270 cases in 1970 and 333 in 1971 (Appy 1993). Few cases resulted in a conviction. As marine James Hebron recalled, “A friend of mine put sixteen rounds in a staff sergeant’s back…. The staff sergeant received a Purple Heart, was put in a green bag and packed home. No autopsy or anything else” (Santoli 1981, 95).

By mid-1971, military journalist Robert Heinl offered this assessment: “By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state of approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near-mutinous” (Appy 1993, 247). It did not help that the Lam Son 719 campaign into Laos in February 1971, designed once again to test the readiness of the ARVN troops, ended in abject failure. Although no American ground units took part, Air Force, Marine, and Navy aircraft attempted to provide air support. At least 253 Americans died in the effort, which exposed the continued incapacity, even unwillingness, of the ARVN to fight. As Bill Poffenberger, an adviser with the South Vietnamese riverine force in 1971 complained: “My closest friends were the Cambodians” who “were wanting to win the damned war.” By contrast, the South Vietnamese “who were supposed to be with us would run the other way. It really pissed me off” (Beesley 1987, 58).

By March 1972, most American ground combat troops had left South Vietnam. Only advisers and support personnel remained when the several prongs of the North Vietnamese Army’s Easter Offensive swept across the DMZ, into the central highlands, and toward Saigon. Unwilling to risk his reelection by increasing American ground troops but still committed to helping South Vietnam, Nixon turned to “the air weapon.” Air Force units withdrawn at the end of Operation Rolling Thunder in March 1968 redeployed to Guam and Thailand, and A-6 Intruders and A-7 Corsairs launched from Yankee Station initiated Operation Linebacker in early May by mining Haiphong Harbor. With an intensity absent from the air war since 1968, the interdiction campaign targeted North Vietnamese bridges, warehouses, and other logistical targets. The air strikes helped stop the North Vietnamese offensive by midsummer, but diplomacy did not result in a negotiated settlement despite a premature announcement in October 1972 that “peace is at hand.” Nixon ordered Linebacker II, often called “the Christmas bombings,” to begin on December 18. For 11 days, Air Force and Navy missions hammered military targets near Hanoi and Haiphong long off limits to American airmen. For the first time, the Air Force’s B-52s hit military targets near North Vietnam’s biggest cities, losing at least 15 of the big bombers and their crews in the process. Although global and domestic protest exploded—and a few Air Force air crews refused missions—other aviators took professional satisfaction in challenging one of the strongest air defense systems in the world to hit difficult targets. One naval aviator even wrote home, “you have to respect” Nixon “for the courage and ability to make a decision and stick to it, even if he is endangering my own neck!!” (Reardon 2005, 330).

The Paris Peace Accords that followed called for a ceasefire on January 27, 1973. As part of the agreements, all remaining American service personnel had 60 days to leave South Vietnam. From the war’s beginning, soldiers could not wait for their departure. Each man knew his DEROS and counted the days. As one bit of soldier doggerel went: “Eighty days have September, April, June, and November. All the rest have ninety-three except the last month which has one hundred and forty” (Ebert 1993, 214). In February and March, the North Vietnamese repatriated 591 American prisoners of war in Operation Homecoming but did not follow through with the required accounting for at least 2,500 other Americans listed as missing in action. Over the course of America’s longest war, some career military personnel went through the process of deploying to Vietnam and returning home after second, third, and even fourth tours. Some even deployed after the Paris Peace Accords, returning in civilian clothes as part of military materiel missions to transfer equipment and supplies to the South Vietnamese and Cambodian armed forces. The last American military personnel officially left in late April 1975, when Saigon finally fell to the North Vietnamese.

Not all sevicemen returned safely to their families, of course. Statistical studies reveal casualty rates by branch, race, religion, home state, marriage, rank, age, and more. At least 58,193 American military personnel died in Vietnam. At least 38,502 were killed in combat and another 5,264 died of wounds. At least 3,524 servicemen “died while missing,” many of them members of Air Force and Navy aircrews. Nonhostile causes—from vehicle accidents to malaria—accounted for more than 10,700 deaths. The Army lost 38,209 soldiers, but the 14,838 Marine Corps dead represented a much higher percentage of that service’s wartime strength. Officers made up 13.2 percent of the dead; eight were Army or Air Force nurses. Project 100,000 casualties accounted for 4.1 percent of the dead. But statistical tables reveal little about the human bonds broken with each death. Beallsville, Ohio—population 475—lost six young men in Vietnam. Thomas Edison High School of Philadelphia lost at least 54 of its former students. Dan Bullock lied about his age to enlist in the Marine Corps and died in Vietnam at age 15. At least 29 sets of brothers died in Vietnam; two families lost both a father and a son (Vietnam Veterans Memorial n.d.; National Archives 2007).

As he contemplated his return home in 1971, Army captain James Gabbe wrote, “my sojourn here has been a very personal, very complicated experience for me” (Edelman 1985, 283). The staccato sentiments of Army veteran Billy Walkabout cast light on the complexity of individual experience: “I volunteered to serve. I saw a lot. Men died. Friends died. I got hurt. It was shit. It was awesome” (Beesley 1987, 122). In the end, each Vietnam veteran—regardless of rank, date of tour, branch of service, MOS, or in-country location—had to decide for himself the most important personal legacy of his service. Even before he rotated home in early 1966, Army PFC George Robinson wrote his family, “Any combat GI that comes here doesn’t leave the same…. Don’t ask any questions. When I come home, if I feel like talking about it I will, but otherwise don’t ask” (Beesley 1987, 122-123). For many, closure still remains elusive.