November 8, 1965 Operation Hump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September  26, 1965 Rocky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t meant to be.

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

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

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POW Rocky Vesace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

vietnam-memorial

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

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

Cmoh_army

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

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

versace_humbert

July 29, 1967 USS Forrestal

With trained firefighters now dead or incapacitated, hundreds of sailors and marines fought for hours to bring the fire under control.   Flare-ups would continue inside the ship until 4:00 the next morning.

The Super Carrier USS Forrestal departed Norfolk, Virginia in June 1967, with a crew of 552 officers and 4,988 enlisted men. Sailing around the horn of Africa, Forrestal stopped briefly at Leyte Pier in the Philippines, before sailing on to “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin, arriving on July 25.

Before the cruise, damage control firefighting teams were shown training films of navy ordnance tests, demonstrating how a 1,000lb bomb could be directly exposed to a jet fuel fire for a full 10 minutes. These tests were conducted using the new Mark 83 bomb, featuring a thicker, heat resistant wall, and “H6” explosive, designed to burn off at high temperatures.  Like a huge sparkler.

A-7E_VA-25_dropping_bombs_over_Vietnam_c1970
US Navy A-7 Corsair drops a load of Mark 83 bombs; Photograph by USN – Official U.S. Navy photograph from the USS Ranger (CVA-61) 1970-71 Cruise Book., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18491727

Along with the Mark 83s, the ordnance resupply had included 16 AN-M65A1 “fat boy” bombs, WWII surplus intended to be used on the second bombing runs of the 29th.  These were thinner skinned than the newer ordnance, armed with 20+ year-old “Composition B” explosive.  Already far more sensitive to heat and shock than newer ordnance, composition B becomes more so as the explosive ages.  The stuff becomes more powerful as well, up to 50%, by weight.

These older bombs were way past their “sell-by” date, having spent the better part of the last 30 years in the heat and humidity of the Philippine jungle.  Ordnance officers wanted nothing to do with the Fat Boys.  They were rusting and leaking paraffin, their packaging rotted.  Some had production dates as early as 1935.

Handlers were wary of these old weapons, fearing they might go off spontaneously during catapult launch. Someone suggested that they be immediately jettisoned. Captain John Beling was informed of these concerns, and demanded that Diamond Head, their supply ship, take them back and exchange them for newer ordnance.  The reply was that there were no more.   Combat operations were using Mark 83s up faster than new ones could be procured. Fat boys were all that was available.

At 10:50am local time, July 29, preparations were underway for the second strike of the day.

Today, John McCain’s diagnosis of brain cancer has brought the Senator from Arizona to prominence in the evening news.  Fifty years ago today, Lieutenant Commander John McCain was in the cockpit of an A-4 Skyhawk. Next to him was Lieutenant Commander Fred D. White in his own A-4.

An electrical malfunction fired a 5″ Zuni rocket across the flight deck and into White’s fuel tank. The rocket’s safety mechanism prevented it from exploding, but the A-4’s torn fuel tank was spewing flaming jet fuel onto the deck. Other fuel tanks soon overheated and exploded, adding to the conflagration as McCain scrambled down the nose of the aircraft and across the refueling probe.

USS_Forrestal_fire_RA-5Cs_burning_1967

Damage Control Team #8 sprang into action immediately, as Chief Gerald Farrier spotted one of the Fat Boys turning cherry red in the flames. Without benefit of protective clothing, Farrier held his PKP fire extinguisher on the 1,000lb bomb, hoping to keep it cool enough to prevent its cooking off as his team brought the conflagration under control.

Firefighters were confident that their ten-minute window would hold as they fought the flames, but composition B explosives proved as unstable as the ordnance people had feared.  The bomb went off in just over a minute, killing Farrier instantly and virtually the entire firefighting team, along with Fred White, who was a split second behind McCain.

USS_Forrestal_explosion_29_July_1967
By Official U.S. Navy Photograph – This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID USN 1124794

The Mark 83 bombs performed as designed, but eight of the old thousand-pounders went off in the next few seconds, triggering the sympathetic detonation of at least one 500 pounder. The port quarter of the Forrestal ceased to exist as huge holes were torn in the flight deck, flaming jet fuel draining into the aircraft hangar and the living quarters below.

Gary Childs, my uncle, was in his cabin when the fire broke out, leaving just before his quarters were engulfed in flames.  With trained firefighters now dead or incapacitated, he and hundreds of sailors and marines fought for hours to bring the fire under control.   Flare-ups continued inside the ship until 4:00am on the 30th.

vietnam-memorial

Panel 24E of the Vietnam Memorial contains the names of 134 crewmen who died in the  conflagration. Eighteen of those found their final rest at Arlington National Cemetery.  Another 161 were seriously wounded. Not including the aircraft, damage to the USS Forrestal exceeded $72 million.  Equivalent to over $415 million today.

May 20, 1942 Sniper Duel

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

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. They 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

Carlos 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 in the US’ 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.

In some circles, a white feather is seen as a symbol of cowardice.  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.

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

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

One day he was tracking an NVA patrol, when he spotted her 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 the typical NVA bounty for American snipers ranged from $8 to $2,000, the NVA set a $30,000 bounty 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 stalked each other for days when the Marine fired on a glint of light in the jungle 300 yards away. 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.

Here, the man tells his story in his own words.

Such a shot is supposed to have taken place during the siege of Stalingrad, between Russian sniper Vasily Zaytsev and the Wehrmacht sniper school director sent to kill him, Major Erwin König.

The story was adapted for the Hollywood movie “Enemy At The Gates,” but there is some controversy as to whether such a shot took place.  It may be nothing more than Soviet propaganda.

A 2006 episode of Mythbusters “proved” that such a shot is impossible.  I enthusiastically disagree. The War of the Rats’ (Rattenkrieg) through-the-scope shot at Stalingrad may be apocryphal, but the Hathcock shot is very believable. Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman & Co. used a multiple lensed scope for their tests, while the Soviet made scope used by the Vietnamese sniper had only one or two internal lenses.LVT-5

History.com and Marine Corps sniper Steve Reichert, USMC Retired, conducted a more realistic test, in my opinion settling the matter conclusively. The “through the scope” shot not only Can happen under the right conditions, but that it Did.

Hathcock’s sniper career came to a violent end on September 16, 1969, when he and seven other Marines were traveling along Route 1, north of landing zone “Baldy”.  Striking an anti-tank mine and with their LVT-5 engulfed in flames, Hathcock assisted his fellow Marines out of the vehicle, sustaining second and third degree burns over most of his body.

carlos-hathcock, medalsHathcock 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 treasure most, was that of having a rifle named after him, a variant of the Springfield Armory M21 called the M25 “White Feather”.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and like it, never really care for anything else thereafter.” Carlos Hathcock copied the words onto a piece of paper. “He got that right,” he said. “It was the hunt, not the killing.” Hathcock himself later wrote: “I like shooting, and I love hunting. But I never did enjoy killing anybody. It’s my job. If I don’t get those bastards, then they’re gonna kill a lot of these kids dressed up like Marines. That’s the way I look at it.”

M-25White Feather
M25 White Feather

A subsequent Mythbusters re-do confirmed what the first experiment could not.  The “myth” of the through-the-lens sniper shot, is 100%, “plausible”.

March 29, 1973 Vietnam

This is no benign ideology we’re talking about, current estimates of citizens murdered by their own government in the Soviet Union alone, range from 8 to 61 million during the Stalinist period.

French Indo-China, the area now known as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, was governed as a French Colonial territory since the late 19th century. The region 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”.

France re-occupied the region following the Japanese defeat in 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 dien_bien_phu-resupplyfrom 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 the north and south, 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.

Domino effectUS 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 so on across Southeast Asia.

This is no benign ideology we’re talking about, current estimates of citizens murdered by their own government in the Soviet Union alone, range from 8 to 61 million during the Stalinist period.Paddy

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.

Vietnam War CiviliansThe 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.

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.Three_soldiers

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

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 feeling horrified at the way some of my fellow Americans conducted themselves. I came to feel at that time 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 a member of the military,

.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 their perfect, agrarian, “Worker’s Paradise”.

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 to a single diamond, bite down on that stone until 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 the 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.Vietnamese_boat_people

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.

The humanitarian disaster that was the Indochina refugee crisis was particularly acute between 1979-’80, but reverberations continued into the 21st century.  The last boat people were repatriated from Malaysia in 2005.  Thailand deported 4,000 Hmong refugees in 2009.

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.

Things they carried

March 13, 1942 US Canine Corps

It’s K-9 Veteran’s Day. March 13, 2017. I could tell you no other story today, half as fitting as this.

The history of war dogs is as old as history itself.  The war-dogdogs of King Alyattes of Lydia killed some of his Cimmerian adversaries and routed the rest around 600BC, permanently driving the invader from Asia Minor in the earliest known use of war dogs in battle.

King Molossus of Epirus, grandson of the mighty Achilles, used a large, powerfully built breed specifically trained for battle. Today, “molosser” describes a body type more than any specific breed.  Modern molossers include the Mastiff, Bernese Mountain Dog, Newfoundland and Saint Bernard.

Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians often used dogs as sentries or on patrol. In late antiquity, Xerxes I, the Persian King who faced the Spartan King Leonidas across the pass at Thermopylae, was accompanied by a pack of Indian hounds.

Attila the Hun went to war with a pack of hounds, as did the Spanish Conquistadors of the 1500s.

Sallie statue
Sallie’s likeness rests at the foot of a statue in Gettysburg, looking out for the spirits of “her boys” for all eternity

A Staffordshire Bull Terrier named Sallie “joined up” in 1861, serving the rest of the Civil War with the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.  At Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Spotsylvania, Sallie would take her position alongside the colors, barking ferociously at the adversary.

Abraham Lincoln spotted Sallie from a reviewing stand in 1863, and tipped his hat.

Sallie was killed at Hatcher’s Run in February 1865.  Several of “her” men laid down their arms then and there to bury her, despite being under Confederate fire.

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WWI Messenger Dog

Dogs performed a variety of roles in WWI, from ratters in the trenches, to sentries, scouts and runners. “Mercy” dogs were trained to seek out the wounded on the battlefield, carrying medical supplies with which the stricken could treat themselves.

Sometimes, these dogs simply provided the comfort of another living soul, so that the gravely wounded should not die alone.

By the end of the “Great War”, France, Great Britain and Belgium had at least 20,000 dogs on the battlefield, Imperial Germany over 30,000. Some sources report that over a million dogs served over the course of the war.

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Lee Duncan & Rin Tin Tin

The famous Rin Tin Tin canine movie star of the 1920s was rescued as a puppy, from the bombed out remains of a German Army kennel, in 1917. (Read more about him, Here).

GHQ of the American Expeditionary Force recommended using dogs as sentries, messengers and draft animals in the spring of 1918, however the war was over before US forces put together any kind of a War Dog program.

America’s first war dog, “Sgt. Stubby”, went “Over There” by accident, serving 18 months on the Western Front before coming home to a well-earned retirement.

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Sgt. Stubby

On March 13, 1942, the Quartermaster Corps began training dogs for the US Army “K-9 Corps.” In the beginning, the owners of healthy dogs were encouraged to “loan” their dogs to the Quartermaster Corps, where they were trained for service with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

The program initially accepted over 30 breeds of dog, but the list soon narrowed to German Shepherds, Belgian Sheep Dogs, Doberman Pinschers, Collies, Siberian Huskies, Malamutes and Eskimo Dogs.

WWII-era Military Working Dogs (MWDs) served on sentry, scout and patrol missions, in addition to performing messenger and mine-detection work. The keen senses of scout dogs saved countless lives, by alerting to the approach of enemy forces, incoming fire, and hidden booby traps & mines.

ChipsThe most famous MWD of WWII was “Chips”, a German Shepherd assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division in Italy. Trained as a sentry dog, Chips broke away from his handler and attacked an enemy machine gun nest. Wounded in the process, his singed fur demonstrated the point-blank fire with which the enemy fought back.  To no avail.  Chips single-handedly forced the surrender of the entire gun crew.

Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and Purple Heart, the honors later revoked due to an Army policy against the commendation of animals. It makes me wonder if the author of such a policy ever saw service beyond his own desk.

Of the 549 dogs who returned from service in WWII, all but four were able to return to civilian life.

Over 500 dogs died on the battlefields of Vietnam, of injuries, illnesses, and combat wounds. 10,000 servicemen served as dog handlers during the war, with an estimated 4,000 Military Working Dogs.  261 handlers paid the ultimate price.  K9 units are estimated to have saved over 10,000 human lives.

War dog memorial Univ. Tenn.
War dog memorial, University of Tennessee

It’s only a guess, but, having an MWD handler in the family, I believe I’m right:  hell would freeze before any handler walked away from his dog. The military bureaucracy, is another matter. The vast majority of MWDs were left behind during the Vietnam era. Only about 200 dogs survived the war to be assigned to other bases. The remaining dogs were either euthanized or left behind as “surplus equipment”.

In 2011, a Belgian Malinois named “Cairo” accompanied the Navy SEAL “Neptune Spear” operation that took out Osama bin Laden.

Today there are about 2,500 dogs in active service.  Approximately 700 deployed overseas. The American Humane Association estimates that each MWD saves an average 150-200 human lives over the course of its career.

Nate & Zino
Nate & Zino

NPR’s “Here & Now” broadcast an excellent segment out of their Boston affiliate WBUR in 2014, when our son-in-law Nate was reunited with “Zino”, the Tactical Explosives Detection Dog (TEDD) with whom he served in Afghanistan.

Their story ends well, but that isn’t always the case. Many have been left behind, no longer qualified to travel on military transport after being “retired” on foreign soil.

In 2015, Congressman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced language in their respective bodies, mandating that MWDs be returned to American soil upon retirement, and that their handlers and/or handlers’ families be given first right of adoption.

LoBiondo’s & McCaskill’s language became law on November 25, when the President signed the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It’s a small step in recognizing what we owe to those who have stepped up in defense of our nation, both two legged and four.

Boston’s NPR Station WBUR broadcast a segment on Nate & Zino’s reunion, if you’re interested in listening to it.  It’s a great story.

 http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2014/03/21/soldier-dog-reunion 

January 12, 1968 The Strangest Dogfight

Theirs was a secret war, waged in the mists of the Annamite Mountains. Two months later, North Vietnamese commandos attacked and destroyed Site 85, inflicting the largest loss of US Air Force personnel of the war in Vietnam

To the extent that most of us think about aerial combat, at least the non-pilots among us, I think we envision some variation of the dog fights between Snoopy and the Red Baron. Two aircraft, bobbing and weaving through the sky, each attempting to get the other in his sights.

red-baron
Manfred von Richtofen

In the real world, Manfred von Richthofen, the most prolific ace of WWI with 80 confirmed kills, was killed by a single bullet fired from the ground, while pursuing Canadian pilot Wilfred May behind Allied lines. The Red Baron landed his red Fokker tri-plane in a beet field and died moments later, and was buried with full military honors, by his enemies.

Possibly the strangest dogfight of WWII took place on August 17, 1943, between two German long-range “Condor” maritime patrol bombers, and an American B-24D Liberator bomber in the skies over the Atlantic Ocean.

Twenty-eight ton, four-engine bombers were never meant for diving attacks and multiple-G banking turns. It must have looked like a motocross race between cement mixers.

Stripped of armor to increase range and carrying a full load of depth charges, the American anti-submarine bomber with its 10-man crew dove out of the clouds at 1,000 feet, throttles open and machine guns firing. The first Condor never came out of that diving turn, while machine gun fire from the second tore into the American bomber. Rear-gunners returned fire, as Liberator pilot Hugh Maxwell Jr. crash landed in the water, his aircraft breaking into three pieces.the-ark

Maxwell had named his B-24 “The Ark”, explaining that “it had a lot of strange animals aboard, and I hoped it would bring us through the deluge”. It must have worked, seven out of ten crew members lived to be plucked from the water. The second Condor made it back to Bordeaux, where it crashed and burned on landing.

Surviving Liberator crew members were rescued by the British destroyer Highlander, along with three Germans from that first Condor. It was all the Highlander crew could do, to keep the soaking wet combatants apart on the decks of the destroyer.

On the first night of the Gulf War in 1991, an Iraqi Mirage fighter intercepted an American EF-111, an unarmed F-111 bomber modified for radar-jamming patrol. Flying at 200′ and equipped with sophisticated terrain-following radar, the bomber was able to climb up and over hilltops, while the French-made Mirage fighter had no such systems. The last that was seen of that Iraqi fighter, was when he plowed his aircraft into that same hillside.

f-15eLater in the same conflict, an Iraqi Hughes 500 helicopter was taken out by bombs dropped from an American Air Force F-15E bomber. At least one Iraqi PC-7 Turboprop pilot got spooked, bailing out of a perfectly good aircraft before a shot was fired in his direction.

The strangest dogfight in history took place on January 12, 1968, when four Soviet-made Antonov AN-2 Colt biplanes took off from their base in North Vietnam, headed west toward Laos.

Only 125 nautical miles from Hanoi, Phou Pha Thi mountain had long been used as a staging base for CIA directed Hmong guerilla fighters and Thai security forces. Lima Site 85 was the American radar facility, perched atop the 5,800′ mountain.

CIA-operated “Air America” captain Ted Moore was flying a UH-1D Huey helicopter at the

phou_pha_thi
Lima site 85, atop 5,800 Phou Pha Thi Mountain

time, carrying a load of ammunition to Phou Pha Thi. Moore arrived to see two North Vietnamese biplanes, dropping 122mm mortar shells through holes in the floor and strafing the mountaintop with 57mm rockets. “It looked like WWI,” he later recalled. Moore gave chase, positioning his helicopter above one biplane, as flight mechanic Glenn Woods fired an AK-47 rifle down from above.

Moore and Woods dropped back to the second biplane, as the first crashed into a ridge west of the North Vietnamese border. Moments later, the second crashed into a mountainside, as the other two slipped back into North Vietnamese air space. The entire chase had taken about 20 minutes.

Theirs was a secret war, waged in the mists of the Annamite Mountains. Two months later, North Vietnamese commandos attacked and destroyed Site 85, inflicting the largest loss of US Air Force personnel of the war in Vietnam.

On July 27, 2007, Air America veterans Marius Burke and Boyd Mesecher presented the CIA with “An Air Combat First”, an oil on canvas painting by Keith Woodcock, depicting the shoot-down. The event was attended by members of the Air America Board, pilot Ted Moore, wife of flight mechanic Glenn Woods Sawang Reed, CIA paramilitary veteran Bill Lair; and the painting’s donors. Presumably, the painting hangs at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. A testament to the only time in the history of the Vietnam war, that an enemy fixed-wing aircraft was shot down, by a helicopter.

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