February 18, 1977 Plain of Jars

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

Yonaguni Island, the westernmost inhabited island of the Japanese archipelago, lies about 60 miles across the straits of Taiwan.  The place is a popular dive destination, due to (or possibly despite) a large population of hammerhead sharks.


In 1987, divers discovered an enormous stone formation, with angles and straight lines seemingly too perfect to have been formed by nature.   If this “Yonaguni Monument” is in fact a prehistoric stone megalith, it would have to have been carved 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when the area was last dry,  radically changing current ideas about prehistoric construction.

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.


Deep in the heart of the Indochinese peninsula of mainland Southeast Asia lies the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, (LPDR), informally known as Muang Lao or just Laos.  To the north of the country lies the Xiangkhouang Plateau, known in French as Plateau du Tran-Ninh, situated between the Luang Prabang mountain range separating Laos from Thailand, and the Annamite Range along the Vietnamese border.

Twenty-five hundred to fifteen-hundred years ago, a now-vanished race of bronze and iron age craftsmen carved stone jars out of solid rock, ranging in size from 3 ft. to 9 ft. or more.  There are thousands of these jars, located at 90 separate sites and containing between one and four hundred apiece.


Most of these jars have carved rims but few have lids, leading researchers to speculate that lids were formed from organic material such as wood or leather.

Lao legend has it that the jars belonged to a race of giants, who chiseled them out of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia to hold “lau hai”, or rice beer.  More likely they were part of some ancient funerary rite, where the dead and the about-to-die were inserted along with personal goods and ornaments such as beads made of glass and carnelian, cowrie shells and bronze bracelets and bells.  There the deceased were “distilled” in a sitting position, later to be removed and cremated, their remains then going through secondary burial.

Map of Laos showing Xieng Khouang province, location of the Plain of Jars

These “Plain of Jars” sites might be some of the oldest burial grounds in the world, but be careful if you go there.  The place is the most dangerous archaeological site, on earth.

With the final French stand at Dien Bien Phu a short five months in the future, France signed the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association in 1953, establishing Laos as an independent member of the French Union. The Laotian Civil War broke out that same year between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government, becoming a “proxy war” where both sides received heavy support from the global Cold War superpowers.

Concerned about a “domino effect” in Southeast Asia, US direct foreign aid to Laos began as early as 1950.  Five years later the country suffered a catastrophic rice crop failure.  The CIA-operated Civil Air Transport (CAT) flew over 200 missions to 25 drop zones, delivering 1,000 tons of emergency food.  By 1959, the CIA “air proprietary” was operating fixed and rotary wing aircraft in Laos, under the renamed “Air America”.

220px-Plainofjars_1The Geneva Convention of 1954 partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, and guaranteed Laotian neutrality.  North Vietnamese communists had no intention of withdrawing from the country or abandoning their Laotian communist allies, any more than they were going to abandon the drive for military reunification, with the south.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke warned the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we lose Laos, we will probably lose Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. We will have demonstrated to the world that we cannot or will not stand when challenged”.

As the American war ramped up in Vietnam, the CIA fought a “Secret War” in Laos, in support of a growing force of Laotian highland tribesmen called the Hmong, fighting the leftist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists.

Primitive footpaths had existed for centuries along the Laotian border with Vietnam, facilitating trade and travel.  In 1959, Hanoi established the 559th Transportation Group under Colonel Võ Bẩm, improving these trails into a logistical system connecting the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, to the Republic of Vietnam in the south.  At first just a means of infiltrating manpower, this “Hồ Chí Minh trail” through Laos and Cambodia soon morphed into a major logistical supply line.

In the last months of his life, President John F. Kennedy authorized the CIA to increase the size of the Hmong army.  As many as 20,000 Highlanders took arms against far larger communist forces, acting as guerrillas, blowing up NVA supply depots, ambushing trucks and mining roads.  The response was genocidal.  As many as 18,000 – 20,000 Hmong tribesman were hunted down and murdered by Vietnamese and Laotian communists.

Air America helicopter pilot Dick Casterlin wrote to his parents that November, “The war is going great guns now. Don’t be misled [by reports] that I am only carrying rice on my missions as wars aren’t won by rice.”


The proxy war in Laos reached a new high in 1964, in what the agency itself calls “the largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA.”  In the period 1964-’73, the US flew some 580,344 bombing missions over the Hồ Chí Minh trail and Plain of Jars, dropping an estimated 262 million bomb.  Two million tons, equivalent to a B-52 bomber full of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.  More bombs than US Army Air Forces dropped in all of WW2, making Laos the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.

Most were “cluster munitions”, bomb shells designed to open in flight, showering the earth with hundreds of “bomblets” intended to kill people and destroy vehicles.  It’s been estimated that 30% of these munitions failed to explode, 80 million of them, (the locals call them “bombies”), set to go off with the weight of a foot, or a wheel, or the touch of a garden hoe.

Unexploded cluster sub-munition, probably a BLU-26 type. Plain of Jars, Laos

Since the end of the war, some 20,000 civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance, called “UXO”.  Four in ten of those, are children.

Removal of such vast quantities of UXO is an effort requiring considerable time and money and no small amount of personal risk.  The American Mennonite community became pioneers in the effort in the years following the war, one of the few international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) trusted by the habitually suspicious communist leadership of the LPDR.

urnOn February 18, 1977, Murray Hiebert, now senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  summed up the situation in a letter to the Mennonite Central Committee, US:  “…a formerly prosperous people still stunned and demoralized by the destruction of their villages, the annihilation of their livestock, the cratering of their fields, and the realization that every stroke of their hoes is potentially fatal.”

Years later, Unesco archaeologists worked to unlock the secrets of the Plain of Jars, working side by side with ordnance removal teams.

In 1996, United States Special Forces began a “train the trainer” program in UXO removal, at the invitation of the LPDR government. Even so, Western Embassy officials in the Laotian capitol of Vientiane believed that, at the current pace, total removal will take “several hundred years”.

In 2004, bomb metal fetched 7.5 Pence Sterling, per kilogram.  That’s eleven cents, for just over two pounds.  Unexploded ordnance brought in 50 Pence per kilogram in the communist state, inviting young and old alike to attempt the dismantling of an endless supply of BLU-26 cluster bomblets.  For seventy cents apiece.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.


February 1, 1968 A Moment in Time

Eddie Adams won his Pulitzer in 1969, but came to regret that he had ever taken the picture. Years later he wrote in Time Magazine. ‘The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths”.

During WW2, the average infantry soldier saw 40 days of combat, in 4 years.  In Vietnam, the average combat infantryman saw 240 days of combat, in a year.

Gallup poll, 1965 – 1971

By 1967, the Johnson administration was coming under increasing criticism, for what many of the American public saw as an endless and pointless stalemate in Vietnam.

Opinion polls revealed an increasing percentage believed it was a mistake to send more troops into Vietnam, their number rising from 25% in 1965, to 45% by December, 1967.

The Johnson administration responded with a “success offensive”, emphasizing “kill ratios” and “body counts” of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters.  Vice President Hubert Humphrey stated on NBC’s Today show that November, that “We are on the offensive. Territory is being gained. We are making steady progress.”

download (9)In Communist North Vietnam, the massive battlefield losses of 1966-’67 combined with the economic devastation wrought by US Aerial bombing, causing moderate factions to push for peaceful coexistence with the south.  More radical factions favoring military reunification on the Indochina peninsula, needed to throw a “hail Mary” pass.  Plans for a winter/spring offensive began, in early 1967.  By the New Year, some 80,000 Communist fighters had quietly infiltrated the length and breadth of South Vietnam.

One of the largest military operations of the war launched on January 30, 1968, coinciding with the Tết holiday, the Vietnamese New Year.  In the first wave of attacks, North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong Guerillas struck over 100 cities and towns, including Saigon, the South Vietnamese capitol.

TetMapInitially taken off-guard, US and South Vietnamese forces regrouped and beat back the attacks, inflicting heavy losses on North Vietnamese forces.  The month-long battle for Huế (“Hway”) uncovered the massacre of as many as 6,000 South Vietnamese by Communist forces, 5-10% of the entire city.  Fighting continued for over two months at the US combat base at Khe Sanh.

While the Tết offensive was a military defeat for the forces of North Vietnam, the political effects on the American public, were profound.  Support for the war effort plummeted, leading to demonstrations.  Jeers could be heard in the streets.  “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?

Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency, was finished.  The following month, Johnson appeared before the nation in a televised address, saying “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

In the early morning darkness of February 1, 1968, Nguyễn Văn Lém led a Viet Cong sabotage unit in an assault on the Armor base in Go Vap.  After taking control of the camp, Nguyễn arrested Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Tuan with his family, demanding that the officer show his guerillas how to drive tanks.  The officer refused, and the Viet Cong slit his throat, along with those of his wife and six children, and his 80-year-old mother.

The only survivor was a grievously injured 10-year-old boy.

Nguyễn was captured later that morning, near the mass grave of 34 civilians.  He said he was “proud” to have carried out orders to kill them.

AP photographer Eddie Adams was out on the street with NBC News television cameraman Võ Sửu, looking for something interesting.  The pair saw a group of South Vietnamese soldiers dragging what appeared to be an ordinary man into the road, and filmed the event.

Adams “…followed the three of them as they walked towards us, making an occasional picture. When they were close – maybe five feet away – the soldiers stopped and backed away. I saw a man walk into my camera viewfinder from the left. He took a pistol out of his holster and raised it. I had no idea he would shoot. It was common to hold a pistol to the head of prisoners during questioning. So I prepared to make that picture – the threat, the interrogation. But it didn’t happen. The man just pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it to the VC’s head and shot him in the temple. I made a picture at the same time.”


The man with the pistol was Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, Chief of the national police.  Loan had personally witnessed the murder of one of his officers, along with the man’s wife and three small children.

Nguyễn Văn Lém was guilty of major war crimes.  He was out of uniform and not involved in combat, when he murdered the General’s own subordinates and their families.  The man was a war criminal and terrorist with no protections under the Geneva Conventions, legally eligible for summary execution.

Loan drew his .38 Special Smith & Wesson “Bodyguard” revolver and fired.  The execution was barely a blip on his radar screen.


General Nguyễn was a devoted Patriot and South Vietnamese Nationalist.  An accomplished pilot who led an airstrike on Việt Cộng forces at Bo Duc in 1967, Loan was loved and admired by his soldiers.

In February 1968, hard fighting yet remained to retake the capitol.  As always, Nguyễn Ngọc Loan was leading from the front, when a machine gun burst tore into his leg.

Meanwhile, Adams’ “Saigon Execution” photograph and Võ’s footage made their way into countless papers and news broadcasts.  Stripped of context, General Nguyễn came to be seen as a “bloodthirsty sadist”, the Viet Cong terrorist his “innocent victim”.

Composite sequence published by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History of the University of Texas, at Austin.

Adams was well on his way to winning a Pulitzer prize for that photograph, while an already impassioned anti-war movement, lost the power of reason.

The political outcry reached all the way to Australia, where General Nguyễn was recuperating from his amputation.  An Australian hospital refused him treatment, and he traveled to America, to recover.

American politics looked inward in the years to come, as the Nixon administration sought the “Vietnamization” of the war. By January 1973, direct US involvement in the war, had come to an end.

Military aid to South Vietnam was $2.8 billion in fiscal year 1973. The US Congress placed a Billion dollar ceiling on the number the following year, cutting that to $300 million, in 1975.  The Republic of Vietnam collapsed, some fifty-five days later.

Scenes from the final evacuation of Saigon, April, 1975

General Nguyễn was forced to flee the country he had served.  American immigration authorities sought deportation on his arrival, in part because of Eddie Adams’ picture.  The photographer was recruited to testify against the General, but Adams spoke on his behalf.

Nguyễn was permitted to stay.  He and his wife opened a pizza shop in the Rolling Valley Mall of Virginia, “Les Trois Continents”.  The restaurant was a success for a time, until word got out about the owner’s identity.  Knowing nothing about Nguyễn except for that image, locals began to make trouble.  Business plummeted as the owner was assaulted in his own restaurant, his life threatened.

The last time Adams visited Nguyễn’s pizza parlor, the words “We know who you are, fucker“, were scrawled across a toilet wall.


The couple was forced to close the restaurant in 1991.  Nguyễn Ngọc Loan died of cancer, seven years later.

Eddie Adams won his Pulitzer in 1969, but came to regret that he had ever taken the picture. Years later he wrote in Time Magazine. ‘The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, “What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?”‘

Before Nguyễn died, Adams apologized to the General and his family, for what that image had done to the man’s reputation. “The guy was a hero”, he said, after his death. “America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him.”

December 4, 1966  War Dogs of Vietnam

A Military Working Dog (MWD) is anything but a “disposable” asset.  It is a highly trained, specialized soldier who complements and adds to the abilities of his human partner, as that two legged soldier complements those of the dog.

There are times when two highly trained individuals are able to function at a level higher than the sum of their parts.  Professional athletes like NFL linemen and NHL forwards are two examples.  Another is often the partnership formed between law enforcement officers.

On the battlefield, few assets are more powerful than a well equipped and highly trained soldier. Unless we’re pairing that soldier with a Military Working Dog.

A Military Working Dog (MWD) is anything but a “disposable” asset.  It is a highly trained, specialized soldier who complements and adds to the abilities of his human partner, as that two legged soldier complements those of the dog.


“Nemo”, born in October 1962, entered the United States Air Force as a sentry dog in 1964, at the age of 1½ years.  After an 8-week training course at Lackland AFB Sentry Dog Training School in San Antonio, Texas, the 85-pound German Shepard was assigned to Airman Leonard Bryant Jr., and sent to Fairchild Air Base in Washington for duty with Strategic Air Command.

The pair was transferred to the Republic of South Vietnam with a group of other dog teams, and assigned to the 377th Security Police Squadron, stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base.  Six months later, Bryant rotated back to the States, and Nemo was paired with 22-year-old Airman 2nd Class Robert Thorneburg.

Early on the morning of December 4, 60 Vietcong guerrillas emerged from the jungle, setting off a near-simultaneous alarm from several sentry dogs on perimeter patrol.


Three dogs, Rebel, Cubby and Toby, were killed with their handlers in a hail of bullets.  Several other handlers were wounded, including one who was able to maintain contact with the enemy, notifying Central Security Control of their location and direction of travel.

Thanks to the early warning, a machine gun team was ready and waiting when 13 infiltrators approached the main aircraft parking ramp.  None of them lived to tell the story.  Security forces quickly deployed around the perimeter, driving some infiltrators off and others into hiding.  Daylight patrols reported that all VC infiltrators were gone, either killed or captured, but they had made a big mistake.  They should have brought the dogs with them.


That night, Thorneburg and Nemo were out on patrol near an old Vietnamese graveyard, about ¼ mile from the air base’ runways.  Nemo alerted on something.  Before Thorneburg could radio for backup, that something started shooting.  Thorneburg released the dog and charged in shooting, killing one Vietcong before being shot in the shoulder.  Nemo was badly wounded, shot in the face, the bullet entering below his eye and exiting his mouth.  Ignoring the injury, Nemo attacked the four enemy soldiers hiding in the brush, giving his partner time to call for reinforcements.

Reichenbach, Major, 2Four additional Vietcong were discovered hiding underground, as quick reaction teams scoured the area.  They found Nemo and Thornburg, both seriously wounded, together on the ground.  Both would survive, though Thorneburg was shot a second time, while returning to base.

I’m sure that individual dog handlers were as good to their dogs as they knew how to be, during the Vietnam era.  That’s a guess, but having an MWD handler in the family, I think it’s a good one.  The Department of Defense bureaucracy was another matter.

Roughly 4,000 dogs served in Vietnam, leading patrols through the dense jungle terrain.  Overall, these animals are credited with saving close to 10,000 lives.

When Marine Corps handler Steve Reichenbach arrived in country in 1966, he was paired with a cream colored Great Dane-German Shepherd mix.  “Major”, whose previous handler had been killed only weeks before, was an excellent match for Reichenbach, both being “mellow, relaxed, even-keeled types” who bonded, almost immediately.

Reichenbach, Major
Marine dog handler Steve Reichenbach with his dog, Major, on a patrol north of Danang in late 1966. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF STEPHEN K. REICHENBACH, with a tip of the hat to National Geographic

At 90 pounds, Major’s size alone seemed to intimidate the enemy, often leading VC to trip off ambushes, too early.

A land mine exploded on the Marine’s last day in country, killing four and wounding six.  Though badly wounded, Reichenbach would survive the war.  Major was unhurt, but he wasn’t so lucky.  The last the pair saw of one another, was in the medevac chopper.  Major still had Reichenbach’s blood on his fur, when he was paired with his next handler.  The marine never saw his “battle buddy” after that, but later heard the dog had succumbed to some tropical disease.

Nemo on the PlaneThe vast majority of MWDs who served in Vietnam, were left behind as “surplus equipment”.  Left to succumb to tropical disease, to be euthanized by the South Vietnamese Army, or worse.  Nemo was one of the few lucky ones.  He came home.

MWD Nemo was officially recognized for having saved the life of his handler, and preventing further destruction of life and property.   He was given the best of veterinary care and, on June 23, 1967, USAF Headquarters directed that he be returned to the United States.  The first sentry dog officially retired from active service.

The C124 Globemaster touched down at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, on July 22, 1967.  Nemo lived out the seven years remaining to him in a permanent retirement kennel at the DoD Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base.


If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy the same. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

November 30, 1953 Dien Bien Phu

ICYMI – Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each allegedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.

If you speak of France, most of us think of the five-sided country between Spain and Germany. That would be partly correct, but “la Métropole” or “Metropolitan France” today accounts for only 82.2% of the landmass and 95.9% of the population, of la République Française. The overseas departments and territories which make up “la France d’outre-mer”, “Overseas France”, account for the rest.

That overseas percentage would have been higher in the mid-20th century, with many former colonial territories added in, among them Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Japanese occupation of southeast Asia caused the Europeans to leave French Indochina during WWII. Within a year of re-occupation, the French faced virulent opposition from the Nationalist-Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Theirs was a low level, rural insurgency at first, later becoming a full-scale modern war when Chinese Communists entered the fray in 1949.

First_Indochina_War_COLLAGEWhat historians call the First Indochina War, many contemporaries called “la sale guerre”, or “dirty war”. The government forbade the use of metropolitan recruits, fearing that that would make the war more unpopular than it already was. Instead, French professional soldiers and units of the French Foreign Legion were augmented with colonial troops, including Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese ethnic minorities.

Na SanThe war went poorly for the French.  By 1952 they were looking for a way out. Premier René Mayer appointed Henri Navarre to take command of French Union Forces in May of that year, with a single order. Navarre was to create military conditions which would lead to an “honorable political solution”.

In November and December of the previous year, the French army had air lifted soldiers into a fortified position at Na San, adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos. Superior French fire power, armor and air resources had driven Vo Nguyen Giap’s forces back with heavy losses, in what French planners called the “hérisson” or “hedgehog” strategy.

Dien_Bien_Phu, baseIn June, Major General René Cogny proposed a “mooring point” at Dien Bien Phu, creating a lightly defended point from which to launch raids. Navarre wanted to replicate the Na San strategy, and ordered that Dien Bien Phu be taken and converted into a heavily fortified base.

“Operation Castor” began on the 20th of November, with three parachute infantry battalions dropping into Dien Bien Phu. The operation was completed with minimal French casualties on November 30, as they continued to land supplies, troops, and engineering equipment into the isolated base.

Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each allegedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.

Vo felt that he had made a serious mistake at Na San, rushing his troops in piecemeal against French defenses. This time, he carefully prepared his positions, moving 50,000 men into position around the valley, meticulously stockpiling ammunition and placing his anti-aircraft and heavy artillery, with which he was well supplied.

dien_bien_phu-resupplyThe French staff made their battle plan, based on the assumption that it was impossible for the Viet Minh to place enough artillery on the surrounding high ground, due to the rugged terrain. The communists didn’t possess enough artillery to do serious damage anyway, or so they thought.

French officers quickly learned how mistaken they had been. The first sporadic artillery fire began on January 31, around the time that patrols discovered the enemy’s presence in every direction. Heavy artillery virtually ringed the valley in which they found themselves, and air support was quickly nullified by the enemy’s well placed anti-aircraft fire.

The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on March 13, when several outposts came under furious artillery barrage. Air support became next to impossible, and counter-battery fire was next to useless against Giap’s fortifications.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth commanded the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu. He was a professional soldier and no lightweight, having had his arm amputated in 1946 with no anesthesia. When it became clear how wrong his assumptions had been, Piroth circled the camp making apologies to his officers, returned to his tent, and killed himself with a hand grenade.

Last moments
Last moments of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, 1954, as depicted by North Vietnamese artist Huy Toan

“Beatrice” was the first fire base to fall, then “Gabrielle” and “Anne-Marie”. Viet Minh controlled 90% of the airfield by the 22nd of April, making even parachute drops next to impossible. On May 7, Vo ordered an all-out assault of 25,000 troops against the 3,000 remaining in garrison. By nightfall, it was over.  The last words from the last radio man were “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”

Military historian Martin Windrow wrote that Dien Bien Phu was “the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle”.

The Geneva conference opened the following day, resulting in a Vietnam partitioned into two parts. In the north was the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” administered by the communists, and the State of Vietnam in the south, under Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The North was supported by both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, and continued to terrorize patriots in the north and south alike.

US support for the south increased as the French withdrew theirs.  By the late 50s, the US was sending technical and financial aid in expectation of social and land reform. By 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF, or “Viet Cong”) had taken to murdering Diem-supported village leaders.  President John F. Kennedy responded in 1961, sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam.

The next war in Indochina, had begun.


If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy the same. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.

Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

November 13, 1982 The Wall

The names begin at the center and travel outward, the east wing ending on May 25, 1968. The same day continues at the far end of the west wing, moving back toward the center at panel 1W. The last name on the wall, the last casualty of the war, meets the first, and the circle is closed.

A couple of years ago, my brother was working in Washington, DC.  I was passing through, and it was a great chance to spend some time together. There were a few things we needed to see while we were there.  The grave of our grandfather, at Arlington. The Tomb of the Unknown.  The Korean and WW2 memorials.  Before the day was over, we wanted to see the Vietnam Veteran’s memorial.

images (8)“The Wall” was dedicated on this day, November 13, 1982. 31 years later, we had come to pay respects to our Uncle Gary’s shipmates, their names inscribed on panel 24E, the 134 lost in the disaster aboard the Supercarrier USS Forrestal, in 1967.

We were soon absorbed in the majesty, and the solemnity, of the memorial.

It’s a black granite wall, 493’6″ long and 10’3″ high at its peak, laid out in a great wedge of stone which seems to rise from the earth and return to it. The name of every person lost in the war in Vietnam is engraved on that wall, appearing in the order in which they were lost.

Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr
Lance Cpl. Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr

Go to the highest point of the memorial, panel 1E, the very first name is that of Air Force Tech Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr., of Stoneham, Massachusetts, killed on June 8, 1956. Some distance to his right you will find the name of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, killed on Sept. 7, 1965. They are one of three Father/Son pairs who are so remembered.

The names begin at the center and travel outward, the east wing ending on May 25, 1968. The same day continues at the far end of the west wing, moving back toward the center at panel 1W. The last name on the wall, the last casualty of the war, meets the first, and the circle is closed.

There, you will find the name of Kelton Rena Turner of Los Angeles, an 18-year old Marine, killed in action on May 15, 1975, in the “Mayaguez incident”, two weeks after the evacuation of Saigon. Most sources list Gary L. Hall, Joseph N. Hargrove and Danny G. Marshall as the last to die in Vietnam, though their fate is unknown. These three were United States Marines, an M-60 machine gun squad mistakenly left behind while covering the beach evacuation of Koh Tang Island. Their names appear along with Turner’s, on panel 1W, lines 130-131.

PFC Dan Bullock
PFC Dan Bullock

There were 57,939 names when the Memorial opened in 1982. 39,996 died at the age of 22 or younger, 8,283 were 19 years old. The 18-year-olds are the largest age group, with 33,103. Twelve of them were 17 on their last day on earth.  Five were 16. There is one name on panel 23W, line 096.  That of PFC Dan Bullock, United States Marine Corps.  He was 15 years old. Eight names are those of women, killed while nursing the wounded. 997 soldiers were killed on their first day in Vietnam.  1,448 died on their last. There are 31 pairs of brothers on the Wall: 62 parents who lost two of their sons.

As of Memorial Day 2015, there are 58,307, as the names of military personnel who succumbed to wounds sustained in the war, were added to the wall.

I was nine years old in May 1968, the single deadliest month of that war, with 2,415 killed. I remember the rancid political atmosphere of the time, and the national disgrace that was the way these people were treated on returning home.

I once thanked a business associate for his service in Vietnam. It stunned me to learn that in 40 years, no one had ever said that to him.

Today, I can only hope that Vietnam veterans know and understand how many of us appreciate their service.   And I wish to advance the idea that, if anyone has an issue with our country’s war policy, they need to take it up with a politician. Not with the Armed Services member who is doing what his country asked him to do.


November 8, 1965 Operation Hump

Outnumbered in some places six to one, it was a desperate fight for survival as parts of B and C companies were isolated in the shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand battle.

Operation hump, 3Fifty-two years ago today, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was halfway through its year of service in Vietnam.  “Operation Hump”, so named in recognition of that mid-point, was a search and destroy mission inserted by helicopter on November 5.

Vietcong fighters had taken up positions on several key hills near Bien Hoa, with the objective of driving them out.

Operation hump, 2There had been little contact through the evening of the 7th, when B and C Companies of the 1/503rd took up a night defensive position in the triple canopied jungle near Hill 65.

On the morning of the 8th, the Brigade found itself locked in combat with an entire main line Vietcong Regiment, pouring out of their trenches and onto the Americans’ position.

The VC were well aware of the Americans’ superior artillery and air cover capabilities.  Their strategy was to get in so close that it nullified the advantage.  “Grab Their Belts to Fight Them”, they would say.

Operation hump, 4Outnumbered in some places six to one, it was a desperate fight for survival as parts of B and C companies were isolated in shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand fighting.

Shot through the right thigh and calf with his medical supplies depleted, Army Medic Lawrence Joel hobbled about the battlefield on a makeshift crutch, tending to the wounded.  Though wounded himself, Specialist 4 Randy Eickhoff ran ahead, providing covering fire. Eickhoff was later awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions.

Specialist 5 Joel received the Medal of Honor.  Let his citation, tell his part of the story:

Cmoh_armyFor conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. Specialist 5 Joel demonstrated indomitable courage, determination, and professional skill when a numerically superior and well-concealed Viet Cong element launched a vicious attack which wounded or killed nearly every man in the lead squad of the company. After treating the men wounded by the initial burst of gunfire, he bravely moved forward to assist others who were wounded while proceeding to their objective. While moving from man to man, he was struck in the right leg by machine gun fire. Although painfully wounded his desire to aid his fellow soldiers transcended all personal feeling. He bandaged his own wound and self-administered morphine to deaden the pain enabling him to continue his dangerous undertaking. Through this period of time, he constantly shouted words of encouragement to all around him. Then, completely ignoring the warnings of others, and his pain, he continued his search for wounded, exposing himself to hostile fire; and, as bullets dug up the dirt around him, he held plasma bottles high while kneeling completely engrossed in his life saving mission. Then, after being struck a second time and with a bullet lodged in his thigh, he dragged himself over the battlefield and succeeded in treating 13 more men before his medical supplies ran out. Displaying resourcefulness, he saved the life of one man by placing a plastic bag over a severe chest wound to congeal the blood. As 1 of the platoons pursued the Viet Cong, an insurgent force in concealed positions opened fire on the platoon and wounded many more soldiers. With a new stock of medical supplies, Specialist 5 Joel again shouted words of encouragement as he crawled through an intense hail of gunfire to the wounded men. After the 24 hour battle subsided and the Viet Cong dead numbered 410, snipers continued to harass the company. Throughout the long battle, Specialist 5 Joel never lost sight of his mission as a medical aid man and continued to comfort and treat the wounded until his own evacuation was ordered. His meticulous attention to duty saved a large number of Operation hump, 1lives and his unselfish, daring example under most adverse conditions was an inspiration to all. Specialist 5. Joel’s profound concern for his fellow soldiers, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country“.

48 Americans lost their lives in the battle, with many more wounded.  Two Australian paratroopers were recorded as MIA.  Their remains were discovered years later, and repatriated in 2007.

The country music duo Big and Rich did a song in tribute to that day.  It’s called the 8th of November.

September  26, 1965 Rocky

In a July 8, 2002 ceremony in the East Room of the White House, President George W. Bush awarded Captain Humbert Roque Versace the Medal of Honor, posthumously.  The first time the nation’s highest honor was bestowed on a POW, for courage in the face of captivity.

Humbert Roque Versace was born in Honolulu on July 2, 1937, the first son of Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace.  Writer Marie Teresa “Tere” Rios was his mother, author of The Fifteenth Pelican.  If you don’t recall the book, perhaps you remember the 1960s TV series, based on the story.  It was called The Flying Nun.

“Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace receives his 90-day combat infantry badge from his father, Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace”. H/T http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net, for this image

Like his father before him, Humbert, (“Rocky”), joined the armed services out of high school, graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, in 1959.

Rocky earned his Ranger tab and Parachutist badge the same year, later serving as tank commander with the 1st Armored Cavalry regiment in South Korea, then with the 3d US Infantry.  The “Old Guard”.

Versace attended the Military Assistance Institute, the Intelligence course at Fort Holabird Maryland, and the USACS Vietnamese language Course at the Presidio of Monterey, beginning his first tour of duty in Vietnam on May 12, 1962.

versacekids070302In his spare time, this Green Beret, Army Ranger and Special Forces warrior would volunteer to work in the countless orphanages of South Vietnam.

By the end of October 1963, Rocky had fewer than two weeks to the end of his second tour.  He had served a year and one-half in the Republic of Vietnam.  Now he planned to go to seminary school.

Rocky intended to become a Priest of the Roman Catholic faith, and return to Vietnam to help the nation’s orphaned children.  He’d already received his acceptance letter.

It wasn’t meant to be.

On October 29, Rocky was assisting a Civilian Irregular Defense force of South Vietnamese troops, to remove a Viet Cong command post in the Mekong Delta, when the unit was ambushed by an overwhelming force of  VC .

This was a daring mission in a dangerous place.  It was unusual for anyone to come forward for such a hazardous assignment, particularly one with his “short-timer’s stick”, but Rocky had volunteered.

POW Rocky Vesace

Under siege and all but overwhelmed, himself suffering multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds, Versace put down suppressing fire, permitting his unit to withdraw from the kill zone.

Another force of some 200 South Vietnamese arrived too late to effect the outcome.  Communist radio frequency jamming had knocked out both main and backup radio channels.

Their position overrun, Captain Versace, Lieutenant Nick Rowe and Sergeant Dan Pitzer were captured and taken to a North Vietnamese prison, deep in the jungle.

For much of the next two years, 2’x3’x6’ bamboo “Tiger” cages would be their home.  On nights when the netting was taken away, the mosquitoes were so thick on their shackled feet, that it looked like they were wearing socks.

Tiger cage
H/T United States Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC) at Carlisle Barracks, photographer John Messeder, for this image.

Years later, President George W. Bush would tell a story, about how Steve Versace described his brother.   “If he thought he was right”,  Steve said, “he was a pain in the neck.  If he knew he was right, he was absolutely atrocious.”

There in the East Wing of the White House, the line was met with great laughter.  In 1964, Vietnamese interrogators were learning what Steve Versace could have told them.  These people were not going to break his brother.

MOH_VersaceRocky attempted to escape four times, despite leg wounds which left him no option but to crawl on his belly.   Each such attempt earned him savage beatings, after which he’d only try harder.

Fluent in French and Vietnamese as well as English, Rocky could quote chapter and verse from the Geneva Convention and never quit doing so.  He would insult and ridicule his captors in three languages, even as they beat him senseless.

Incessant brutalization and repeated confinement in “isolation boxes” earned his tormentors nothing but an invitation to “Go to Hell”, in three languages.

Communist indoctrination sessions had to be brought to a halt in French and Vietnamese, because none of his interrogators could effectively argue with this guy.  They certainly didn’t want villagers to hear the man blow up their communist propaganda in their own language.

Finally, Captain Versace was separated from the rest of the prison population, and placed in an isolation box.  He responded by singing, the lyrics of popular songs replaced by messages of inspiration to his fellow POWs.  He was last heard belting out “God Bless America” at the top of his lungs.

Versace, playing ballRocky was murdered by his captors, his “execution” announced on North Vietnamese “Liberation Radio” on September 26, 1965.  He was twenty-eight.

Versace’ remains were never recovered.  His name is inscribed on panel 1E, line 33 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  The headstone bearing his name in memorial section MG-108 of Arlington National Cemetery, stands over an empty grave.

If you’re ever in Alexandria, Virginia, pay a visit to the Mount Vernon Recreation Center. There in the central plaza, a sculpture by artist Antonio Tobias Mendez, depicts a Special Forces warrior.  With hands on their shoulders, he is coaching two Vietnamese kids, how to play ball.

This American hero of Italian and Puerto Rican heritage was nominated for the medal of honor in 1969, an effort which culminated in a posthumous Silver Star.


In a July 8, 2002 ceremony in the East Room of the White House, President George W. Bush awarded Captain Humbert Roque Versace the Medal of Honor.  The first time the nation’s highest honor was bestowed on a POW, for courage in the face of captivity.

Let Rocky’s Medal of Honor citation, tell his story.


Humbert Roque Versace
Rank and organization: Captain, U.S. Army, Intelligence Advisor, Special Operations
Place:  Republic of Vietnam
Entered service at:  Norfolk, VirginiaBorn:  Honolulu, Hawaii

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while a prisoner of war during the period of October 29, 1963 to September 26, 1965 in the Republic of Vietnam. While accompanying a Civilian Irregular Defense Group patrol engaged in combat operations in Thoi Binh District, An Xuyen Province, Republic of Vietnam on October 29, 1963, Captain Versace and the CIDG assault force were caught in an ambush from intense mortar, automatic weapons, and small arms fire from elements of a reinforced enemy Main Force battalion. As the battle raged, Captain Versace fought valiantly and encouraged his CIDG patrol to return fire against overwhelming enemy forces. He provided covering fire from an exposed position to enable friendly forces to withdraw from the killing zone when it was apparent that their position would be overrun, and was severely wounded in the knee and back from automatic weapons fire and shrapnel. He stubbornly resisted capture with the last full measure of his strength and ammunition. Taken prisoner by the Viet Cong, he demonstrated exceptional leadership and resolute adherence to the tenets of the Code of Conduct from the time he entered into a prisoner of war status. Captain Versace assumed command of his fellow American prisoners, and despite being kept locked in irons in an isolation box, raised their morale by singing messages to popular songs of the day, and leaving inspiring messages at the latrine. Within three weeks of captivity, and despite the severity of his untreated wounds, he attempted the first of four escape attempts by dragging himself on his hands and knees out of the camp through dense swamp and forbidding vegetation to freedom. Crawling at a very slow pace due to his weakened condition, the guards quickly discovered him outside the camp and recaptured him. Captain Versace scorned the enemy’s exhaustive interrogation and indoctrination efforts, and inspired his fellow prisoners to resist to the best of their ability. When he used his Vietnamese language skills to protest improper treatment of the American prisoners by the guards, he was put into leg irons and gagged to keep his protestations out of earshot of the other American prisoners in the camp. The last time that any of his fellow prisoners heard from him, Captain Versace was singing God Bless America at the top of his voice from his isolation box. Unable to break his indomitable will, his faith in God, and his trust in the United States of America and his fellow prisoners, Captain Versace was executed by the Viet Cong on September 26, 1965. Captain Versaces extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice, and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life above and beyond the call of duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army, and reflect great credit to himself and the U.S. Armed Forces.


%d bloggers like this: