May 28, 1919 From SS to Green Beret

So it is that the name of the elite warrior who had served under three flags, a man who once wore the uniform of the Nazi SS, is engraved on that stone in Arlington, along with those of the South Vietnamese warriors with whom he once served.

There is a surprise or two, hidden among the 400,000+ grave sites, at Arlington National Cemetery.  Did you know, for instance, that 4,000 former slaves went to their final rest there?  Arlington is the only cemetery in the world, to hold American servicemen from every war in US history.  Three graves contain the remains of enemy combatants, from WW2.  Among them all there may no greater curiosity, than the grave of a Green Beret, interred with the remains of three South Vietnamese soldiers.  Unless it’s to learn that that same guy, once wore the uniform of the Nazi SS.

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In May 1941, the geopolitical map of the Eurasian continent could be drawn in two colors, the spheres of influence of governments headed by two of the great monsters of the 20th century:  Josef  Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the Nazi Germany of Adolf Hitler.

The Republic of Finland, the 8th largest nation on the European landmass with a population equal to that of Minnesota, suffered military defeat during the “Winter War” of a year earlier, a 105-days long David vs. Goliath contest fought against the Soviet Union.

The two dictators were allies at this time according to the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, signed two years earlier.  That state of affairs ceased the following month, with ‘Operation Barbarossa’, Hitler’s surprise attack on his erstwhile ally.

Finland never signed the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and stated that it would fight the Soviets only insofar as to redress territorial losses suffered during the Winter War. Adolf Hitler saw the distinction as irrelevant and regarded the Nordic republic as an ally.  To Hitler, Finland would become just another part of the war on the Eastern Front.  To Finnish patriots, the uneasy alliance with Nazi Germany and the continued struggle with the Soviet Union, would be known as the “Continuation War’.

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Lauri Törni (center) stands among other soldiers near Lake Tolvajärvi in Russia, date unknown

Lauri Alan Törni was such a patriot, born this day in 1919 in Finland’s Viipuri Province. Törni fought the Soviet Union during the Winter War and the Continuation War, rising to the rank of Captain and earning the Mannerheim Cross, Finland’s equivalent to the British Victoria Cross, or the American Medal of Honor. An elite and highly effective guerrilla fighter, Törni trained with the Nazi SS in Austria. Such a menace was this man to Stalin’s war effort, that the Soviets placed a bounty on his head of three million Finnish marks, equivalent to $650,000. There is no record of such a bounty on any other Finnish soldier.

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Törni in Waffen-SS uniform, 1941

The Continuation War came to an end in September 1944, but Törni still had scores to settle with the Communists.  He joined forces with a German unit fighting Soviet troops near Schwerin, Germany, and surrendered to British and American forces in the last stages of WW2.

Törni escaped the British POW camp and returned to Finland, only to be arrested on charges of treason for having joined the German army.  There would be a six-year prison sentence and one more escape, before the Presidential pardon in 1948.

Traveling under alias as a Swedish seaman, Törni jumped overboard in the Gulf of Mexico, swimming ashore near Mobile, Alabama and claiming political asylum. He was granted citizenship in 1953 by special act of congress, and adopted the more “Americanized” name of Larry Thorne, joining the United States Army the following year.

thorne1Thorne was soon headed to Special Forces, the elite warrior becoming an instructor of skiing, mountaineering, survival and guerrilla tactics.

Thorne attended airborne school and earned the silver wings of a Green Beret. He went through Officer Candidate School and received his commission as a 1st Lieutenant, rising to the rank of Captain in just three years.

Larry Thorne had a reputation for physical toughness, even amidst such an elite organization as the Green Berets. Now in his mid-forties, he could physically out-perform many men half his age.

images3UCTLQOHAs part of the 10th Special Forces Group, Thorne served in a search-and-rescue capacity in West Germany, earning a reputation for courage in operations to recover bodies and classified documents, following a plane in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

Captain Thorne was sent to Vietnam in 1963, assigned to operate Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) camps at Châu Lăng and later Tịnh Biên. Thorne earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for valor during one particularly ferocious attack on Tịnh Biên, an episode author Robin Moore wrote about in his best-selling paperback, The Green Berets.

On October 18, 1965, Larry Thorne was leading a covert mission against a Viet Cong stronghold in Laos when his helicopter crashed, killing all on board.  He was 46.  Captain Thorne was posthumously promoted to the rank of major and awarded the Legion of Merit and Distinguished Flying Cross.  Let the citation tell his story:

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If the patrol were immediately confronted by a superior force, Major Thorne would land and extricate the patrol under fire. This was done with total disregard for the inherent dangers and with selfless concern for the ground forces. In so doing, he exposed himself to extreme personal danger which ultimately led to his disappearance and the loss of his aircraft. He had, however, guaranteed the safe introduction of the patrol into the area, the successful accomplishment of this mission and had positioned himself to react to any immediate calls for assistance from the patrol“.

The crash site of the Republic of Vietnam Air Force CH-34 helicopter was discovered in 1999.   Thorne’s remains were found, intermingled with those of Lieutenant Bao Tung Nguyen, First Lieutenant The Long Phan, and Sergeant Vam Lanh Bui.  Major Thorne was identified by dental records.

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Thorne’s family in Finland said let him be buried in America, because that was the choice that he made.  The four were buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, the way they had died. Together.

So it is that the name of the elite warrior who had served under three flags, a man who once wore the uniform of the Nazi SS, is engraved on that stone in Arlington, along with those of the South Vietnamese warriors with whom he once served.

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.
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May 20, 1942 White Feather Sniper

The elite sniper must be able to bear heat and insects and rain and a thousand other torments, all while hiding in plain sight from people who want more than life itself, to kill them.

The world of the elite sniper is different from anything most of us will ever experience. Able marksmanship (“one shot, one kill”) is only the beginning. The sniper must be expert at camouflage, field craft, infiltration, reconnaissance, ex-filtration and observation. He or she must be skilled in urban, desert and/or jungle warfare. They must be able to bear heat and insects and rain and a thousand other torments, all while hiding in plain sight from people who want more than life itself, to kill them.

carlos-hathcockCarlos Norman Hathcock, born this day in Little Rock in 1942, was a Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant and sniper with a record of 93 confirmed and greater than 300 unconfirmed kills during the American war in Vietnam.

The Viet Cong and NVA called him “du kich Lông Trắng,” translating as “White Feather Sniper”, after the object he wore in his bush hat.

At another time and place, a white feather was bestowed as a symbol of cowardice, an often misplaced emblem of feminine patriotic zeal. Not with this guy.  Hathcock once took four days and three nights to cross 1,500 yards of open ground, stalking and killing a North Vietnamese General before withdrawing without detection. He was almost stepped on by NVA soldiers who were frantically searching for him, and nearly bitten by a deadly Bamboo Viper. It was the only time he ever removed that white feather from his bush hat.

Hathcock once took out an enemy soldier at a distance so great, the man couldn’t be seen with the naked eye. One shot, one kill.

9fa4afc0e7019de60f36f410659f4caaThe sniper’s choice of target could at times be intensely personal. One female Vietcong sniper, the platoon leader and interrogator called ‘Apache’ due to her interrogation techniques, would torture Marines and ARVN soldiers until they bled to death. Her signature was to cut the eyelids off her victims. After she skinned one Marine alive and left him emasculated within earshot of his base, Hatchcock spent weeks hunting this one sniper.

One day, Hathcock was tracking an NVA patrol, when he spotted the enemy sniper from the length of seven football fields. “We were in the midst of switching rifles,” he said. “We saw them. I saw a group coming, five of them. I saw her squat to pee, that’s how I knew it was her. They tried to get her to stop, but she didn’t stop. I stopped her. I put one extra in her for good measure.”

At a time when a typical NVA bounty for American snipers ranged from $8 to $2,000, the North Vietnamese set a  bounty of $30,000 on Hathcock’s head, so great was the damage he had done to their numbers. Whole platoons of counter snipers were sent to kill him. Marines in the area began to wear white feathers of their own, preferring to draw enemy fire on themselves rather than lose such a valuable asset.

The elite Vietcong sniper known as “The Cobra” had already taken the lives of several Marines, when he was sent specifically to kill Hathcock. The two elite snipers stalked each other for days when the Marine fired on a glint of light in the jungle, 300 yards distant. They found the enemy sniper dead, the round having traveled up the man’s scope and into his eye.

Such a shot is only possible if the two snipers were zeroed in on each other at the precise instant of the shot.  Let the man tell the story in his own words.

A through-the-scope shot is supposed to have taken place during the “War of the Rats” (“Rattenkrieg”) phase of the siege of Stalingrad, between Russian sniper Vasily Zaytsev and the Wehrmacht sniper school director sent to kill him, Major Erwin König.  There is some controversy as to whether such a shot ever took place.

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Vasily Zaytsev, left, and soviet snipers equipped with Mosin-Nagant M1891/30 with PE scope in Stalingrad, December 1942.

A 2006 episode of Mythbusters “proved” that the shot is impossible, but I enthusiastically disagree.   Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman et.al. used a multiple-lensed scope for their test, while the Soviet made scope used by the Vietnamese sniper had only one or two internal lenses.

History.com and Marine Corps sniper Staff Seregeant Steve Reichert, USMC Retired, conducted a more realistic test at the at the T1G tactical training facility in Memphis, TN, with assistance from the appropriately-named mannequin, “Dead Fred”.  Reichert’s test (below) demonstrates that the “through the scope” shot not only Can happen under the right conditions, but that, in all probability,  it Did.

Carlos Hathcock developed Multiple Sclerosis in his later years, and passed away on February 23, 1999. He was decorated with the Silver Star, the Purple Heart and Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal. The honor he would perhaps have treasured most, was that of having a rifle named after him, a variant of the Springfield Armory M21 called the M25 “White Feather”.

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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.

May 12, 1975  The Mayaguez Incident

For a century, French colonial rulers had looted the mineral wealth of Cambodia, leaving a countryside riddled with mines.  After four years of Communist rule, those mines were filled with bones.

Between AD790 and 1431, the Khmere Empire founded by Prince Jayavarman II occupied much of what today includes Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam.  Now extinct, this powerful civilization was in its day, 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 a million people.  Even today, the Hindu temple complex of Angkor Wat, built circa 1122, remains the largest religious monument 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 them formed a student group of Marxist-Leninist intellectuals, dreaming of an agrarian utopia on the Indo-Chinese peninsula.

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Flag of Democratic Kampuchea

What began as a small leftist insurgency in Cambodia, grew in power thanks to support from Communist China and North Vietnam.  From only a few hundred individuals in 1960, these “Red Khmeres” (Khmere Rouge) grew into an effective insurgency against the Khmere Republic government of Norodom Sihanouk and Lon Nol.

By early 1975, the Khmere Rouge had overwhelmed Khmer National Armed Forces.  The Khmere Rouge captured the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, overthrowing the government and executing its officers.

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Pol Pot

Unlike the cult of personality grown up around the Kim family of North Korea or that of the Stalinist USSR or Maoist China, the Communist Party of (the newly re-christened) “Kampuchea” (CPK) was led by a secretive, eight-member group of those same leftist intellectuals from the Paris student days, calling itself the the “Angkar”, (pronounced ahng-kah, translating as ‘The Organization’).

The Khmere Rouge and the Angkar, led by Communist General Secretary Saloth Sar (better known as ‘Pol Pot’), set to work creating an agrarian peasant’s utopia by exterminating political opponents in “Democratic Kampuchea”, including monks, teachers and business owners.  Anyone possessing so much as a whiff of an education, a pair of eyeglasses even, was deemed an “enemy of the people” and clubbed to death on the spot.

For a century, French colonial rulers had looted the mineral wealth of Cambodia, leaving a countryside riddled with mines.  After four years of Communist rule, those mines were filled with bones.

p1140644At the height of its depravity, the Khmere Rouge smashed the heads of infants and children against Chankiri (Killing) Trees so that they “wouldn’t grow up and take revenge for their parents’ deaths”. Soldiers laughed as they carried out these grim executions.  Failure to do so would have shown sympathy, making the killer him/herself, a target.

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As the war in neighboring Vietnam drew a close, the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia remained part of an unknown and terrible future.   Representatives of the United States, North & South Vietnam, and the Vietcong signed the Paris Peace Treaty in January, 1973. The last Americans airlifted out of Saigon on April 30, 1975 as the capital fell to Communist forces.

9820114_origOn May 12, the American flagged container ship SS Mayaguez passed the coast of Cambodia bound for Sattahip, in southwest Thailand.  At 2:18pm, two fast patrol craft of the Khmere Rouge approached the vessel, firing machine guns and then rocket-propelled grenades across its bows.

Captain Charles Miller ordered Mayaguez to a stop, but not before broadcasting SOS and Mayday messages.   39 Americans were now hostages of the Khmere Rouge.  Some of the most savage killers, of the 20th century.

time - mayaguezThe cargo vessel was being towed to Kompong Som on the Cambodian mainland, as word of the incident reached the White House.  A government made to look weak and indecisive by what President Ford himself called the “humiliating withdrawal” of only days earlier, could ill afford another drawn-out hostage drama, similar to that of the USS Pueblo.  Massive force would be brought to bear against the Khmere Rouge, and time was of the essence.

Two destroyers and an aircraft carrier were ordered to proceed at full speed to the Gulf of Thailand, along with a contingent of Air Force fighters, bombers, and helicopters. A Navy P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft located Mayaguez anchored off Kho-Tang Island, 40 miles from the Cambodian mainland.

At least some of the Mayaguez crew were (mistakenly)  believed to be held on the island. Air force units air lifted a battalion-sized Marine rescue team to rescue the crew.  Meanwhile, the destroyer USS Holt was ordered to seize the Mayaguez, as the aircraft carrier Coral Sea launched bombing strikes against military targets in Cambodia.

usmckohtangExpecting only light resistance, US forces were met with savage force on May 15, from a heavily armed contingent of some 150-200 Khmere Rouge. Three of the nine helicopters participating in the operation were shot down, and another four too heavily heavily damaged to continue

US bombing raids accomplished their purpose on the Cambodian mainland. A fishing boat soon approached the destroyer USS Wilson under flag of truce.  Onboard were the 39 crewmen of the Mayaguez.

The situation was different on Kho-Tang Island. US forces were ordered to withdraw, as Khmere Rouge commanders pressed the attack. Air Force helicopter crews and Marine riflemen moved through heavy fire throughout the 15th, their defensive perimeter becoming smaller with the departure of every over-loaded chopper.

mayagtowThe cost of the Mayaguez Incident, officially the last battle of the Vietnam war, was heavy.  Eighteen Marines, Airmen and Navy corpsmen were killed or missing in the assault and evacuation of Kho-Tang Island.  Another twenty-three were killed in a helicopter crash.  The last of 230 Marines would not get out until well after dark.

No United States Marine would leave one of their own behind, either dead or alive. Not intentionally, but such discipline was impossible in the chaos of that night.  LCpl Joseph Hargrove, Pfc Gary Hall and Pvt Danny Marshall formed a machine gun team, guarding the right flank of the evacuation as darkness fell.

The team was last seen by Sgt. Carl Anderson Jr.. Later reports described the three as being out of ammunition and “scared”.  Anderson ordered the three to evacuate and they were preparing to do so, when last seen. Navy SEALs and Marines asked permission to go back and attempt a rescue, but permission was denied.

The government in Washington, touted the operation as a victory.

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From left, Lance Cpl. Joseph Hargrove, Pfc. Gary Hall and Pvt. Danny Marshall H/T Stars and Stripes, for this image

Joseph Nelson Hargrove turned twenty-four, the day he was last seen on that beach. In 2012, Khmere Rouge commander Em Son told Stars & Stripes that Hargrove was captured a week later, trying to steal food. He was shot and killed the following day, while attempting to escape. Gary Hall and Danny Marshall were captured a short time later, brought to the mainland and beaten to death by the Khmere Rouge.  Both were 18.

In 2011, Khmer Rouge platoon commander Mao Run claimed to have killed a US service man with a grenade, several days after the battle. Alone and exhausted, this may have been a fourth man left behind alive. The name of this man and the details of his final days, remain uncertain.

The last official battle of the War in Vietnam, etched the last 41 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington.

This is a long clip – about 28 minutes – but well worth watching.

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.

May 4, 1970 Kent State

For traditionally-oriented Americans, such language was alarming, to say the least.

The Cold War was at its peak in 1950, the war in Korea, just begun.   US policy makers were convinced that the conflict represented a Kremlin-backed expansion of international communism. The US began sending military advisers into French Indochina that year, in support of a colonial war which had been off and on since before the American Civil War.

download (79)France would leave the country following defeat by Viet Minh forces at Dien Bien Phu (May, 1954), while US involvement continued and escalated through the early ’60s.

US Troop levels tripled and then tripled again.  Combat units were deployed, beginning in 1965.

The American war in Vietnam began to lose public support by the late ’60s, ultimately driving an American President out of office.   In a March 31, 1968 address carried on live television,  President Lyndon Johnson stated “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

North Vietnam invaded the South that year on the Lunar New Year “Tet” holiday.  The “Tet Offensive” was a crushing military defeat for communist forces, but a public relations setback for the American side.  TV news and AP crews brought the events into living rooms, across America.

No TV news crews were on-hand in the ancient city of Huế, to record the communist murder of thousands of prisoners and civilians, including women, men, children, and infants.

download (78)Richard M. Nixon won overwhelming victory in the Presidential election of 1968, running on a platform including a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam.

US combat fatalities exceeded 3,600 in the first two months of the new administration, as Nixon secretly expanded the war effort, bombing neighboring Cambodia and sending US Marines into Laos.

US public opinion went ballistic in May 1969, as the New York Times revealed expanded military operations on the Indochinese peninsula.  The President was furious, and ordered government officials and journalists to be wiretapped, to track down the leak.

Opposition increased later that year, in response to the massacre of civilians at the village of My Lai, and the re-institution of involuntary military conscription by US Selective Service, later that year.  The First Draft Lottery was held on December 1, 1969.

Draft-age Americans didn’t want to be conscripted into a war they strongly opposed, and demonstrations erupted across the American countryside.  In Ohio, full-scale riots broke out at Kent State University, part of what Time Magazine called “a nation-wide student strike”.

Kent State University, a large, multi-campus public research university located in Northeastern Ohio, (the Kent Campus had 28,972 students in 2017), had long been a focal point for antiwar protests.  In the 1966 homecoming parade, protesters marched in military uniforms, wearing gas masks.

Kent_State_mapStudents for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other “New Left” organizations staged sit-ins in the fall of 1968. Demonstrations became violent six months later, resulting in 58 arrests. Four SDS leaders spent six months in prison.

In April 1970, “Youth International” (“Yippie”) Party leader Jerry Rubin spoke on campus, stating that “The first part of the Yippie program is to kill your parents. They are the first oppressors.” Two weeks later, SDS member Bill Anthrell distributed flyers to a campus event, in which the former student announced his intention to “napalm a dog”.

For traditionally-oriented Americans, such language was alarming, to say the least.

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“Yippie” leader, Jerry Rubin

Cambodia’s political neutrality and military weakness had long turned the eastern border regions of that country into “safe zones” for Vietnamese communist forces.

President Nixon announced a US incursion into Cambodia in late April 1970, at a time when the war seemed to be winding down.

Kent State University students held rallies on the following day, at which about 500 burned draft cards.  Some burned a copy of the United States Constitution. Another rally was planned for the fourth, but violence broke out that night. A toxic mix of approximately 120 students, bikers, and out-of-town troublemakers set fires, threw bottles at police, shouted obscenities and smashed Kent store fronts.  Mayor LeRoy Satrom declared a state of emergency and closed the bars, adding to the crowds in the streets.

Mayor Satrom requested that Governor Jim Rhodes call out the National Guard.  Satrom’s request was granted, as a large demonstration formed on the Kent State campus. The campus ROTC building was set on fire late on May 2, as over a thousand demonstrators surrounded the building and cheered as it burned.

Radical revolutionaries, agitators and other non-students had by this time infiltrated the crowd, though their numbers are uncertain.  Several Kent firemen and police officers were hit by rocks and other projectiles while attempting to put out the fire. Several fire engine companies were called in while protesters slashed hoses and hurled projectiles at fire fighters, police officers, National Guard soldiers, and Highway Patrol troopers.  The ROTC building burned to the ground.

An emotional Governor Rhodes pounded the table during a press conference, the following day.  “They’re worse than the brown shirts and the communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. Now I want to say this. They are not going to take over [the] campus. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America. This is when we’re going to use every part of the law enforcement agency of Ohio to drive them out of Kent. We are going to eradicate the problem. We’re not going to treat the symptoms“.

University authorities attempted without success to stop the May 4 demonstration, planned three days earlier.  Shortly before noon, campus patrolman Harold Rice approached demonstrators in a National Guard Jeep, and read the order to disperse.  Over 2,000 protesters responded by hurling rocks, injuring one campus police officer and forcing the Jeep into retreat.

kent-state-shooting-10Tear gas failed to break up the crowd and several canisters were thrown back, with near-constant volleys of rocks, bottles and other projectiles.  77 National Guardsmen advanced in line-abreast, as screaming protesters closed behind them.  Guardsmen briefly assumed firing positions when cornered near a chain link fence, though no one fired.

At 12:24, the Guardsmen once again assumed firing position. Witnesses later testified that a sniper opened first, but the story was never proven nor debunked. 67 rounds were fired.  13 seconds later it was over, with four dead and nine wounded. Two of the dead, Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller, had participated in the protest. The other two, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder, were walking to class at the time they died. Schroeder was a member of the Kent State ROTC battalion.

One National Guardsman was wounded severely enough to require medical treatment.

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Christine Ellen “Chrissie” Hynde, future lead singer of The Pretenders, was a KSU student at that time. She was there.  Let the words she wrote in her 2015 autobiography, finish this story:  “Then I heard the tatatatatatatatatat sound. I thought it was fireworks. An eerie sound fell over the common. The quiet felt like gravity pulling us to the ground. Then a young man’s voice: “They fucking killed somebody!” Everything slowed down and the silence got heavier… The guardsmen themselves looked stunned. We looked at them and they looked at us. They were just kids, 19 years old, like us. But in uniform. Like our boys in Vietnam”.

The arsonist(s) were never found.

 

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.

March 29, 2017 Vietnam Veteran’s Day

In the end, US public opinion would not sustain what too many saw as an endless war.

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 ending WWII, 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 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.

This is no benign ideology.  Current estimates of citizens murdered by Communist  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 they followed 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 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. JFK responded by sending 1,364 American advisers into South Vietnam, in 1961.

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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 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 who could 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 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 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 in 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 their attempt to flee.

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The humanitarian disaster that was the Indochina refugee crisis was particularly acute between 1979 – ’80, but reverberations continued into the 21st century.

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

There were 57,939 names inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, the day it opened in 1982. 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.

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In the end, US public opinion would not sustain what too many saw as an endless war.  We continue to feel the political repercussions, to this day. I was ten at the time of the Tet Offensive in 1968.  I remember the way some of my fellow Americans conducted 47e9d75dc1c766456546bb7f54a5ede3themselves, and came to feel as I do to this day, that anyone who has a problem with our country’s war policy, needs to take it up with a politician.  Not with a member of the Armed Services.

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

It’s about time.

Vietnam Veterans Day Tweet

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.”