March 29, 1973 National Vietnam War Veterans Day

Begun on November 1, 1955, the conflict lasted 19 years, 5 months and a day. On March 29, 1973, two months after signing the Paris Peace accords, the last US combat troops left South Vietnam as Hanoi freed the remaining POWs held in North Vietnam.

Since the late 19th century, the area now known as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam was governed as a French Colonial territory.  “French Indo-China” came to be occupied by the Imperial Japanese after the fall of France, at the onset of WWII.  There arose a nationalist-communist army during this period, dedicated to throwing out the Japanese occupier.  It called itself the “League for the Independence of Vietnam”, or “Viet Minh”.

images (40)France re-occupied the region following the Japanese defeat which ended World War 2, but soon faced the same opposition from the  army of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap.

What began as a low level rural insurgency, later became a full-scale modern war when Communist China entered the fray in 1949.

The disastrous defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1953 led to French withdrawal from Vietnam, the Geneva Convention partitioning the country into the communist “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” in the north, and the State of Vietnam in the south led by Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem.

Communist forces of the north continued to terrorize Vietnamese patriots in north and south alike, with aid and support from communist China and the Soviet Union.

The student of history understands that nothing happens in a vacuum.  US foreign policy is no exception. International Communism had attempted to assert itself since the Paris Commune rebellion of 1871, and found its first major success with the collapse of czarist Russia in 1917.

download (39)US policy makers feared a “domino” effect, and with good cause. The 15 core nations of the Soviet bloc were soon followed by Eastern Europe, as Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia fell each in their turn, into the Soviet sphere of influence. Germany was partitioned into Communist and free-enterprise spheres after WWII, followed by China, North Korea and on across Southeast Asia.

Communism is no benign ideology, morally equivalent to the free market west.  Current estimates of citizens murdered by Communist party ideology in the Soviet Union alone, range from 8 to 61 million during the Stalinist period.

Agree or disagree with policy makers of the time that’s your business, but theirs was a logical thought process. US aid and support for South Vietnam increased as a way to “stem the tide” of international communism, at the same time that French support was pulling back. By the late 1950s, 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.  JFK responded by sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam, in 1961.download (38)The war in Vietnam pitted as many as 1.8 million allied forces from South Vietnam, the United States, Thailand, Australia, the Philippines, Spain, South Korea and New Zealand, against about a half million from North Vietnam, China, the Soviet Union and North Korea. Begun on November 1, 1955, the conflict lasted 19 years, 5 months and a day. On March 29, 1973, two months after signing the Paris Peace accords, the last US combat troops left South Vietnam as Hanoi freed the remaining POWs held in North Vietnam.

images (38)Even then it wasn’t over. Communist forces violated cease-fire agreements before they were even signed. Some 7,000 US civilian Department of Defense employees stayed behind to aid South Vietnam in conducting an ongoing and ultimately futile war against communist North Vietnam.

The last, humiliating scenes of the war played themselves out on the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon on April 29 – 30, 1975, as those able to escape boarded helicopters, while communist forces closed around the South Vietnamese capital.

The “Killing Fields” of Cambodia followed between 1975 – ‘79, when the “Khmer Rouge”, self-described as “The one authentic people capable of building true communism”, murdered or caused the deaths of an estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million of their own people, out of a population of 7 million. All to build the perfect, agrarian, “Worker’s Paradise”.

images (39)Imagine feeling so desperate, so fearful of the alien ideology invading your country, that you convert all your worldly possessions and those of your family into a single diamond, and bite down on that stone so hard it embeds in your shattered teeth.  Forced to flee for your life and those of your young ones, you take to the open ocean in a small boat.  All in the faint and desperate hope, of getting out of that place.

That is but one story among more than three million “boat people”.  Three million from a combined population of 56 million, fleeing the Communist onslaught in hopes of temporary asylum in other countries in Southeast Asia or China.

They were the Sino-Vietnamese Hoa, and Cambodians fleeing the Khmer Rouge.  Ethnic Laotians, Iu Mien, Hmong and other highland peoples of Laos.  The 30 or so Degar (Montagnard) tribes of the Central Highlands, so many of whom had been our steadfast allies in the late war.  Over 2.5 million of them were resettled, more than half to the United States.  The other half went mostly to Canada, Europe and South Pacific nations.

A half-million were repatriated, voluntarily or involuntarily.  Hundreds of thousands vanished in the attempt to flee, never to be seen again.The humanitarian disaster that was the Indochina refugee crisis was particularly acute between 1979 – ’80, but reverberations continued into the 21st century.

Graduating UMass Lowell in 1972 with a degree in nuclear engineering, John Ogonowski joined the United States Air Force. During the war in Vietnam.  The pilot would ferry equipment from Charleston, SC to Southeast Asia, sometimes returning with the bodies of the fallen aboard his C-141 transport aircraft.

Today, we remember him as Senior Captain on American Airlines flight 11, one of thousands murdered by Islamist terrorists, on September 11, 2001.  When he wasn’t flying jumbo jets, John Ogonowski was a farmer.  Until he was killed in his cockpit, John mentored Cambodian refugees turned farmers on his Dracut, Massachusetts “White Gate Farm“, helping them grow familiar crops, in an unfamiliar climate.  Just as those old Yankee farmers had once mentored his Polish immigrant ancestors, generations before.

The wall

Military Working Dogs (MWDs) served with every service branch in Vietnam, mostly German Shepherds and Dobermans but many breeds were accepted into service.

It is estimated that 4,900 dogs served between 1964 and 1975. Detailed records were kept only after 1968, documenting 3,747.

A scant 204 dogs ever left during the ten-year period. Some remained in the Pacific while others returned to the United States. Not one ever returned to civil life. An estimated 350 dogs were killed in action as were 263 handlers.  Many more were wounded. As to the rest, many were euthanized, or left with ARVN units, or simply abandoned, as “surplus equipment”.

There would be no war dog adoption law until 2000 when WWII Marine War Dog Platoon Leader and Veterinarian Dr. William Putney made it happen, with assistance from Congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland.

The day it opened in 1982 there were 57,939 names inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall,  Over the years, the names of military personnel who succumbed to wounds sustained in the war, were added to the wall. As of Memorial Day 2015, there are 58,307.

 

Vietnam MemorialIn the end, US public opinion would not sustain what too many saw as an endless war in Vietnam.  We feel the political repercussions, to this day.  I was ten at the time of the Tet Offensive in 1968.  Even then I remember the searing sense of disgrace and humiliation, at the behavior of some of my fellow Americans.

Those EyesIn 2012, President Barack Obama declared a one-time occasion proclaiming March 29 National Vietnam War Veterans Day and calling on “all Americans to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.

In 2017, Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) co-sponsored a measure to declare March 29 Vietnam Veterans Day from that day forward, to honor US service members who served in the war in southeast Asia. The measure passed the United States Senate on February 3 and the House of Representatives on March 21. President Donald Trump signed the measure into law on March 28 designating the following day and every March 29 henceforward, Vietnam Veteran’s Day.

The recognition and gratitude due those who served in an unpopular war, was long overdue

Vietnam Veterans Day Tweet

February 1, 1968 Frozen in Time

Years later the photographer 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.

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.

pr070711iiBy 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, “We are on the offensive. Territory is being gained. We are making steady progress.”

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.BRANDHD2398_THC_HOSF_212783_SFM_000_2398_15_20180129_00_HDOne 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.

Initially 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.vietnam_war_tet_offensive-900x635While 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?Vietnam_War_protestors_gov_imgLyndon 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 the officer show his guerrillas how to drive tanks. The officer refused and the Viet Cong slit his throat, along with those of his wife, six children and his 80-year-old mother.

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

Nguyễn himself 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.vietnam-execution-arrestAP 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.”

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

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

Nguyễn Văn Lém was the perpetrator 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.

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Photo credit, Eddie Adams, Associated Press

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

vietnam-execution-after-shooting
Photo credit, Eddie Adams, Associated Press

Loan was a devoted Patriot and South Vietnamese Nationalist. An accomplished pilot who had 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 film footage made their way into countless papers and news broadcasts. With events thus stripped of context, General Nguyễn came to be seen as a bloodthirsty, sadistic killer, the Viet Cong terrorist his unarmed, innocent victim.

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

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

The Watergate scandal burst on the scene in 1972 as American politics looked inward.  The Nixon administration sought the “Vietnamization” of the war. By January 1973, direct US involvement in the war in Southeast Asia, had come to an end.

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

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Scenes from the final evacuation of Saigon

General Nguyễn had been forced to flee the nation 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 thrived 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 shop, the words “We know who you are, fucker“, were scrawled across a toilet wall.vietnam-execution-loan-restaurantThe 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 that picture. Years later the photographer 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.

November 30, 1953 Dirty War

US support for South Vietnam increased as the French withdrew.  By the late 1950s, 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 American war in Indochina, had begun.

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.

What 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 Colonial power.  By 1952 the French 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 to a heavily fortified base.

“Operation Castor” began on 20 November with three parachute infantry battalions dropping into Dien Bien Phu. The operation was completed with minimal French casualties on November 30, as air forces 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, Colonel Piroth circled the camp making apologies to his officers, returned to his tent, and killed himself with a hand grenade.

“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 South Vietnam increased as the French withdrew.  By the late 1950s, 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 American war in Indochina, had begun.

trenches cropped-min
“The French strong-points at Dien Bien Phu in north-west Vietnam are falling again. Not, as in 1954, to Viet-Minh attacks, but rather to the bulldozers of progress”. H/T http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/

November 8, 1965 The 8th of November

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

operation-hump-1On this day in 1965, the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade was halfway through a one-year term 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 occupied positions on several key hills near Bien Hoa, with the objective of driving the Americans out.

Operation hump, 2There was 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 entrenched positions and onto the American defenses.

The Vietcong were well aware of American superiority when it came to artillery and air cover.  The VC strategy was to get in so close that it nullified the advantage.  “Grab Their Belts to Fight Them”.

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 fighting that was shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand.

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 for his actions that day, near hill 65.  Let Joel’s 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, lawrence-joel-popart-lawrence-joelSpecialist 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 lives 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.  Many more were 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 wrote a musical tribute to that day.  It’s called the 8th of November.

February 16, 1973 Cherry

“I spent 702 days in solitary confinement…At one time I was either tortured or in punishment for 93 straight days.” Fred Vann Cherry, Sr.

Fred Vann Cherry was born March 24, 1928, the child of poor Virginia dirt farmers.  Cherry had all the disadvantages of a black child growing up in the Jim Crow-era, but he stuck to his studies.  As a boy, Cherry attended racially segregated public schools in Suffolk Virginia, later attending the historically all-black Virginia Union University, and the United States Air Force Aviation Cadet Training Program.

An Air Force fighter pilot, Cherry flew 52 combat missions over North Korea, before going on to serve during the Cold War period, and the American war in Vietnam.

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Fred Vann Cherry, Sr.

On October 22, 1965, then-Major Cherry’s F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire, fifteen miles north of Hanoi.  “The plane exploded and I ejected at about 400 feet at over 600 miles an hourIn the process of ejection, I broke my left ankle, my left wrist, and crushed my left shoulder. I was captured immediately upon landing by Vietnamese militia and civilians.”

Any fool can judge a man by the color of his skin.  Most fools, do.  Fred Cherry’s North Vietnamese captors were no exception.  The first American of African ancestry to fall into the hands of these people, Cherry was told things could go easier.  If only he spoke out about racial discrimination, in the United States.

Porter Halyburton
Porter Halyburton

When that failed to produce the propaganda victory they wanted, jailers assigned Cherry a cellmate, the self-described “southern white boy”, Naval aviator Porter Halyburton.

I guess they thought if they had a Southern white boy taking care of a black man, it would be the worst place for both of us,” Halyburton told the Washington Post. “It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Halyburton looked after his injured cellmate, changing the dressings on his infected wounds, feeding him, bathing him and watching over him. “He said I saved his life, and he saved my life. . . . Taking care of my friend gave my life some meaning that it had not had before.

For eight months, the two men lived in a series of putrid, stinking cells, 10-by-10-foot compartments with nothing to sleep on but filthy straw mats, or the floor.

I was so inspired by Fred’s toughness,” Halyburton said. “He had grown up in the racial South [and] undergone a lot of discrimination and hardship. But he was such an ardent patriot. He loved this country. It inspired me, and it inspired a lot of others.”

The two cellmates were separated in 1966, in what Halyburton remembers as “one of the saddest days of my life.”   Cherry recalled “I spent 702 days in solitary confinementAt one time I was either tortured or in punishment for 93 straight days.”

Fred Cherry February 16, 1973
Fred Cherry speaks to the press on February 16, 1973, following 2,671 days in captivity

The pair didn’t see each other again until 1973, when the two met at the military hospital at Clark Air Base in the Philippines following release from captivity.

Colonel Cherry and Commander Halyburton gave a number of joint talks at military institutions and colleges, and toured in 2004 to promote a book about their story, “Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship That Saved Two POWs in Vietnam,” by James S. Hirsch.

Fred Cherry died on this day in 2016 at the age of 87, forty-three years to the day, from the news conference photographed above.  The Washington Post remembered in his obituary, what Colonel Cherry wrote in a 1999 collection of POW stories:

 “I was always taught to love and respect others and forgive those who mistreat, scorn or persecute me. . . . [This] allowed me overcome the damages of discrimination, Jim Crow, and the social and economic barriers associated with growing up a poor dirt farmer. . . . My standard for making decisions is based on doing what is right.”

It’s an inspiring message.  One worth remembering.

HOMECOMING
Former POW and U.S. Air Force Colonel Fred Vann Cherry waves to the public and press there to greet the plane load of former POWs flown in from Clark Air Base. Colonel Cherry was released by the North Vietnamese in Hanoi February 12, 1973.
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January 5, 1976 The Killing Fields of Cambodia

Imagine feeling so desperate, so fearful of this alien ideology invading your country, that you convert all your worldly possessions and those of your family to a single diamond, bite down on that stone so hard it embedded in your shattered teeth, and fled with your family to open ocean in a small boat.  All in the faint and desperate hope, of getting out of that place.  That is but one story among millions.  Those were the lucky ones.

Between the 7th and 14th centuries, the Khmer Empire occupied much of modern-day Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam.  Now extinct, this powerful civilization was once home to the largest city in the world.  Until recently overrun by Jungle, the capital city of Angkor, whose original name was Yashodharapura (“Glory-bearing city”), was nearly the size of modern day Los Angeles, and home to roughly a million people.

Even today, the Hindu temple complex of Angkor Wat, built circa 1122, remains one of the largest religious monuments in the world.

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Temple Complex at Angkor Wat

During the 1950s, a group of some 200 middle-class Cambodian kids were educated at French Universities.  The greater part of that group formed a student organization of Marxist-Leninist intellectuals, dreaming of an agrarian utopia on the Indo-Chinese peninsula.

What began as a small leftist insurgency grew in power, thanks to support from Communist China and North Vietnam.  From only a few hundred individuals in 1960, these “Red Khmers” (Khmer Rouge) grew into an effective insurgency against the Khmer Republic’s government of King Norodom Sihanouk and Prime Minister Lon Nol.  By early 1975, the Khmer Rouge had overwhelmed Khmer National Armed Forces.

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As the last, humiliating scenes of America’s war in neighboring Vietnam played themselves out in the capital of Saigon, Khmer Rouge forces captured the Cambodian capital at Phnom Penh, overthrowing the Khmer Republic and executing its officers.

This was to be “Democratic Kampuchea”, the name representing a local pronunciation of the word as it comes into English, as Cambodia.

The Kampuchean constitution, formally approved this day in 1976, theoretically vested power in a 250-member, directly elected “Kampuchean People’s Representative Assembly”.  This body met once in April, and never again.  Unlike the cult of personality grown up around the Kim family of North Korea or that of the Stalinist USSR or Maoist China, all power in the CPK (Communist Party of Kampuchea) belonged to “The Center”, a shadowy, nine-member standing committee of those same leftist intellectuals from the Paris student days, led by Prime Minister and Communist General Secretary Saloth Sar, better known as ‘Pol Pot’.

This nine-member “Angkar”, (pronounced ahng-kah), meaning ‘The Organization’, ushered in one of the great horrors of the twentieth century, a four-year genocide remembered as the “Killing Fields”, of Cambodia.

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Khmer Rouge Uniforms

The “Khmer Rouge”, self-described as “The one authentic people capable of building true communism”, murdered or caused the deaths of an estimated 1.4 to 2.2 million of their own people, out of a population of 7 million. All to build the perfect, agrarian “Worker’s Paradise”.

Imagine feeling so desperate, so fearful of this alien ideology invading your country, that you convert all your worldly possessions and those of your family to a single diamond, bite down on that stone so hard it embedded in your shattered teeth, and fled with your family to open ocean in a small boat.  All in the faint and desperate hope, of getting out of that place.  That is but one story among millions.  Those were the lucky ones.

The very embodiment of the “ivory tower intellectual”, the Angkar was detached and incapable of connection with the masses.  Theirs was a radicalized ideology, heavily influenced by French communists and the writings of Lenin and Mao, and heavily tinged with ideas of racial superiority.  Paradoxically, it was a creed altogether averse to an educated or merchant class and determined to use violence in pursuit of “class struggle”.

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The Khmer rouge set out to create a peasant’s utopia.  An agrarian, atheist state.  Among the first to go were the Buddhist monks, nearly 25,000 of them murdered, most often with a rock, or a club.  All religion was banned, repression of Christians and Muslims, extensive.

For generations, European colonists exploited the mineral resources of “French Indochina”.  Now, abandoned mine shafts filled with the bones of the slain.

Whole cities were liquidated as “parasitic” and “corrupt”.  Shop owners, business people and educators.  Police officers, government employees and ethnic minorities such as Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham.  All were driven from their homes and murdered as “class enemies”.  Anyone who so much as wore eyeglasses or owned a wristwatch, was as good as dead.

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Today, the Tuol Sleng (“Hill of Poisonous Trees”) Genocide Museum occupies the former  Chao Ponhea Yat High School, operated during the Cambodian Genocide as Security Prison 21.  In its day, “S-21” held and estimated 20,000 people at one time or another – no one knows for sure.   Between 1976 and ’79, only seven adults survived this place.

The Khmer Rouge operated at least 150 such torture and execution facilities.

There, Khmer interrogators extracted “confessions” by torture.  After two to three months, victims would eagerly agree to anything, thousand-word “confessions” weaving true stories into outlandish tales of conspiracy with Vietnamese, KGB and CIA operatives.  Friends, families and acquaintances would be identified in such narratives as they in turn, would be brought in for “interrogation”.

All were turned over to extermination centers, where squads of blank-eyed teenagers awaited with machetes, pick axes and iron bars.  Ammunition was too expensive.

The vast majority of victims were Cambodian, but not all.  488 Vietnamese passed through S-21, as did 31 Thai, one Laotian, an Arab, one Brit, four French, two Americans, a Canadian, one New Zealander, two Australians, and an Indonesian. An unknown number of Indians and Pakistanis also passed through the facility.  Not one foreigner survived.

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One among 20,000 mass grave sites, in Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge is estimated to have executed over 1.38 million people in this way, with death by starvation, torture, overwork and disease accounting for some 2½ million more.  Twenty-five per cent, of the entire nation.

The last straw came on April 18, 1978, four miles over the border into Vietnamese territory.  Khmer Rouge troops took a page out of their own playbook, murdering 3,000 Vietnamese civilians in what came to be known as the Ba Chuc Massacre.

The New York Times reported:

“The Khmer Rouge then used the same formula for execution as in Cambodia. ‘They pointed their weapons and ordered us to come to a meeting with their superiors,’ said Nga, a dignified, soft-spoken woman.

She was forced toward the border with parents, siblings, husband and six children. Suddenly, their escorts began clubbing the children. Her youngest daughter was struck violently on the head three times and cried ‘Mother, Mother.'”

Four years earlier, North Vietnam had helped the Khmer Rouge take power.  Now the Vietnamese government staged a massive invasion of its neighbor.  By January 7, 1979 it was over, the Khmer regime toppled and a new government installed in Phnom Penh.

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Cambodian journalist Dith Pran managed to escape the regime, one among millions swept up in the humanitarian disaster in the wake of the war in Vietnam, and the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia.   It was he who coined the term.

Justice was slow in coming.  Most senior Khmer officials would not be tried, until well into the twenty-first century.  Pol Pot died quietly in his bed, in 1998.

Feature image, top of page:  At least 10,000 children were bashed to death against “killing trees”, of which this is but one.

November 30, 1953 Dien Bien Phu

The French staff formulated 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. Communist forces didn’t possess enough artillery to do serious damage anyway.  Or so they thought.

When we think of the French Republic, most of us envision a five-sided nation between Spain and Germany, located between the English Channel and the Mediterranean Sea. That would be right, but “la Métropole” or “Metropolitan France” today accounts for only about 82% of the landmass 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.

9c1634a5854f89961f7694c088f61f84What 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.

The war went poorly for the French government.  By 1952 it was 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.

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In June, Major General René Cogny proposed a “mooring point” at Dien Bien Phu, creating a lightly defended base 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 installation.

“Operation Castor” began on the 20th of November, when three parachute infantry battalions dropped 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.

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Vo believed 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 anti-aircraft and heavy artillery, with which he was well supplied.

dien-bien-phu-may-7-1954The French staff formulated 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. Communist forces 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 when 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, he circled the camp making apologies to his officers, returned to his tent, and killed himself with a hand grenade.

Slag-van-Dien-Bien-Phu“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”.

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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 the south.

dien-bien-phu-battle-pictures-images-photos-009American support for the south increased as the French withdrew theirs.  By the late 1950s, the United States were 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 Fitzgerald Kennedy responded by sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam, in 1961.

The next war in Indochina, had begun.

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