One More for the Corps
I will not be the first American president to lose a war.
--Richard M. Nixon, 1969
By the mid-1960s it was clear that political stability did not exist and was unlikely ever to be achieved . . . the South Vietnamese, even with our training assistance and logistical support, were incapable of defending themselves. . . . I deeply regret that I did not force a probing debate about whether it would ever be possible to forge a winning military effort on a foundation of political quicksand. It became clear then, and I believe it is clear today, that military force--especially when wielded by an outside power--cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself.
--Robert McNamara, April 1995
September 27, 1968. We were ten Marine second lieutenants in a commercial airliner jammed full of Marine and navy personnel, all headed from Okinawa to Da Nang. Since 1961 the war in Vietnam had grown from something approximating a civil defense drill using American advisers to a full-blown American war in Asia. By this date, five hundred thousand American troops were involved, and the fighting was raging. My twenty-fourth birthday was less than a month away.
In December 1966, I was a senior at the University of Oklahoma when I signed on for Marine Corps OCS (officer candidate school). The war then was still relatively small. American forces were suffering about fifty killed per week. At that time, three hundred thousand Americans were in Vietnam. I knew that going there would be dangerous, but the danger seemed to make this grand adventure even more alluring.
I joined the Marines with my eyes open. Growing up right after World War II and during the Korean War, I had read war novels and chronicles. After participating in ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) for three years in high school, I knew what I was getting into. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, I still wanted to be in a firefight. I wanted to see how I would respond. The war in Vietnam seemed like an opportunity to fight communism and have a great story to tell my grandchildren. Along the way, however, something went terribly wrong.
In January 1968, while I was still training at Quantico, Virginia, completing my officer's basic training, the communists launched their Tet Offensive. The number of Americans killed each week jumped from fifty to five hundred. Although the Tet Offensive turned into a military defeat for the communists, the shock of the event shattered American resolve. Mike Thomas, a fraternity brother of mine, died in the fighting around Hue during the first week of Tet. Mike had "caught one between the running lights" (between the eyes), I was told. The war was turning into a giant meat grinder. As the war raged in Southeast Asia, the antiwar movement was also raging back in the States.
The year 1968 was big for shocking events. In February, Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, and in June, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in California. In August, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, antiwar demonstrators gathered from around the country, and Mayor Richard Daly's police force waged a running, screaming, club-swinging battle that was broadcast nationwide on television. The spectacle divided the country like no event had since the Civil War.
As a result, the nation turned its collective back on Vietnam. You can go into the magazine stacks in the library and look up the old Time magazines. In 1961, Vietnam was an occasionally mentioned subject in the Foreign Affairs box. By Christmas 1967 through March 1968, Vietnam almost dominated the magazine. Nine months later, by Christmas 1968, the subject had returned to the Foreign Affairs box. Yet the fighting continued for another four years. Only the events at Kent State would shock the nation enough to refocus on the war. From 1969 through 1972, 20,400 Americans died in the war. Thousands upon thousands of young Americans were maimed, physically or emotionally, for life.
I suppose no one in the chain of command had stopped to consider what it would mean, in a democracy, to use American draftees to fight a war of attrition in Asia.
Even as our airliner descended toward the beginning of our thirteen-month-long tours, Richard Nixon was successfully campaigning across the country with his "secret plan" to end the fighting and bring the troops home. Everyone on the plane expected our tours to be cut short; no one wanted to be the last American killed in Vietnam. But during that Cold War time, Americans were having to choose. If my country was in a fight, I wanted to be there, so I signed up.
Our class of 240 new second lieutenants graduated from the Basic School (TBS) in May 1968. After a twenty-day leave, the eighty infantry officers (military occupational specialty 0300) had gone directly to Vietnam. The rest of us broke up to attend different schools in other specialties. Fifty of us reported to artillery school for three months at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, in order to become artillery officers, or "cannon-cockers" (MOS 0800).
Word came almost immediately that two of our classmates had been killed in combat. One had graduated second-in-class. Both were blown in half by enemy land mines made from American artillery rounds. Neither man survived his first week.
The news hit Fort Sill like a bomb. For the next three months we would periodically hear the name of another classmate dead or wounded. It had the feel of a real war. The day we graduated from artillery school, ten of us were diverted one more time. We were assigned to Coronado Naval Air Station, south of San Diego, for four weeks. There we were crosstrained as forward air controllers (FACs) in a Marine Corps experiment to see if artillery officers could do the combat air controller's job, thereby eliminating the need to risk expensively trained pilots. It gave me a warm feeling to know where I fell on the Defense Department's list of expendables.
As we headed toward Da Nang, the mood and temperament in America were changing. We had no way of knowing this at the time (and would receive precious little real news for the next thirteen months), but all through 1968 and 1969, this was the case. As we began our tours, the rules and even reality itself were changing back in "the World." We would all go home to a different nation.
In Okinawa, Vietnam was referred to as "down south." The words were spoken with a certain reverence that expressed both excitement and dread, and they sounded ominous to me. In 1968, down south was a bad place to be.
We were new Marines, and although we were anxious and afraid, we were itching to fight. We had been in training for a full year, and now we were headed to war. I must admit that the spike in violence brought on by the Tet Offensive had scared all of us. We were aware that the war was growing more unpopular, but this was an idea that I rejected. I think the ten of us really believed America could win, that somehow America would win.
In Okinawa the dominant theme was, "It's not a very big war, but it's the only war we have." The ten of us were headed, one step at a time, toward the war. Each of us was going to discover how bad it could be down south.
Vietnam is beautiful; there is no other way to describe it. As we flew in, we peered down at the crystal water, bleached white beaches, the flat plains, and the thickly overgrown green mountain ranges below--simply beautiful. While our airliner descended into the airspace over Vietnam, we watched through the windows as two fighter aircraft made looping dives down through the atmosphere at an unseen target. Somewhere on the ground, amidst all the foliage, a FAC was watching from a very different perspective. It was both exciting and frightening.
Soon after we landed, five of us were assigned to 1st Marine Division, headquartered in Da Nang. The other five were flown north to 3d Marine Division. Of us five remaining in Da Nang, I knew John Juracek and Jim Harvey the best. The three of us had been together since OCS. Now, as the five of us were about to split up for new assignments, we wondered aloud if we would meet here again on our way back home. Back in the World it had been a crazy year, perhaps a direct result of the even crazier world we were entering.
At the time I was fully in favor of the war. I believed in the Domino Theory--that if Vietnam fell, then Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand would fall to the communists. Therefore, under the Hegemony Theory, all of Asia would fall into the hands of Mao Tse-tung and the communist Chinese. On the other hand, we had the "MAD theory"--mutual assured destruction. The Cold War generated a lot of mad theories. It turned out that all we had to do to defeat communism was to let it succeed. It just took another twenty years for that to happen.
1st Marine Division headquarters was built into the backside (ocean side) of the mountains overlooking Da Nang. That configuration kept HQ from being hit directly by rockets. But being in the shade of the mountain also gave me a strange sensation. That first night, several of us sat on the deck outside the officers club and watched a small firefight. It was to our north, perhaps fifteen hundred meters away, but because it happened on the mountainside directly in front of us, the flashes, crackling rifle fire, and sharp explosions had a thrilling, chilling effect.
Some officers in our group who knew the company commander involved in the fight laughed at his luck. He was nearing the end of his tour and had been brought back to perimeter defense in Da Nang because it was quiet and safe. As it turned out, this was the third night of the last five that his company had been in contact. As I sat on that deck watching and listening to a real firefight, reality seemed to take on a sharper focus.
The war seemed immense. It was happening in the air, on the ground, and all around. It created its own atmosphere in which extreme violence was normal. It seemed to me that we were at the edge of that atmosphere and looking in. Tomorrow the five of us would begin our separate journeys, and although I was not feeling especially fatalistic, I could not escape feeling the enormity of the war; it seemed so awesome.
The Marine Corps and indeed every Marine has one primary responsibility: accomplish the mission. In Vietnam, the Corps' mission was "to close with and kill the enemy." Tomorrow we would begin living in a very different world, and I was excited and more than a little anxious.
The next morning, just before noon, we were summoned to the division commander's office. It was a metal shell covered with sandbags. Fifteen or so NCOs (noncommissioned officers) and field-grade officers also met the general. His office was a big room with a low ceiling. On one side was a large desk with battle flags behind it. The other side was an open area for gatherings such as this. The general, gray and balding, was a kindly man whose attitude toward us was more like a grandfather's than a Marine division commander's.
The general welcomed us to 1st Marine Division and used a large map to give us a brief update on the action around the division's tactical area of responsibility (TAOR). We all stood in a circle with the general in the middle as he chatted briefly with a major and first sergeant he knew. Then he turned in our direction and said, "You are headed to 11th Marines to become forward observers. Right now the Marine Corps has a desperate shortage of platoon commanders. We have many platoons being led by staff sergeants and sergeants. This is an opportunity for some of you, or all of you, to step forward and take a platoon. The Marine Corps is counting on you."
Suddenly the room fell breathless. Each of us wanted a platoon, but we also knew the terrible reason behind the Marine Corps' "desperate shortage" of platoon commanders. America was about to pull out of Vietnam. I, for one, had made my pact. I would obey every order and do my job to the best of my ability. If that got me killed, so be it. Otherwise, I would keep my head down and try to get myself and every other American home alive. The general's offer was a real surprise, but as the room waited and the war grew older, five gold bars stood frozen in place. My breath was trapped in my throat, and the only sound in the room was the ticking clock on the general's desk. My eyes were straight ahead, staring at a spot on the far wall.
After a long ten seconds the general spoke again, "Well, then. I want to welcome each of you again to 1st Division, and best of luck to each of you on your tours. That is all." The other officers and NCOs at the gathering, all "lifers" on their second or third tours, filed casually out of the office with bemused smiles on their faces. The five second lieutenants marched stone-faced from the general's office, still without breathing. This is not a hero's story.
From 1st Division headquarters we rode down the hill two hundred meters to 11th Marines headquarters. The 11th Marine Regiment provided artillery support for all of 1st Marine Division. Each of us was assigned to a 105mm howitzer battery (six cannons) in support of a rifle battalion (four infantry companies). From there, each battery would attach us to one of its rifle companies as a forward observer (FO) for the guns. My job would be to provide my infantry company with close artillery support. I was assigned to India Battery, 3/11 (3d Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment), in support of 3d Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. I was issued jungle utilities (trousers and a long-sleeved shirt), jungle boots, a steel helmet, a flak jacket, a .45-caliber service automatic with holster, two magazines, and a cartridge belt. The supply clerk then told me where to catch the next armored convoy to India Battery.
Armored convoys usually had one tank at the front and another at the rear. Between them would be anywhere from ten or fifteen to forty or fifty trucks, jeeps, weapons, and pieces of equipment. Except during Tet, when they shot at everything, the enemy seldom messed with these convoys. I would soon discover that going anywhere in a convoy was a real pain. Convoys were dirty, hot, and for the most part boring, but that morning it did not matter. I was "in-country" and headed out to "Indian country," and I was very excited. I was ready bright and early. Wearing my brand-new jungle fatigues and boots, I almost skipped over to the truck rendezvous point. We covered the twenty-five miles to Hill 37 and India Battery in about six hours.
Excerpted from Down South by William H. Hardwick. Copyright © 2004 by William H. Hardwick. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.