December 4, 1966  War Dogs of Vietnam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nemo was one of the few lucky ones.  He was officially recognized for having saved thenemo-on-the-plane life of his handler, and preventing further destruction of life and property.   MWD Nemo was given the best of veterinary care and, on June 23 1967, USAF Headquarters directed that he be returned to the United States, the first sentry dog officially retired from active service.  The C124 Globemaster touched down at Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, on July 22, 1967.  Nemo lived out the seven years remaining to him in a permanent retirement kennel at the DoD Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base.

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December 2, 1899 Filipino Thermopylae

On December 2, 60 handpicked Filipino guerillas turned to face the 300 troops of the 33rd Infantry Regiment.

After three wars for independence from Spain, the Caribbean island of Cuba found its economy increasingly intertwined with that of the United States.  It was the third of these, the “Little War”, when the US intervened directly on behalf of Cuba, and which finally won the island nation its freedom.  That intervention led to the Spanish–American War in 1898.  Before long, US attacks on Spain’s Pacific possessions led to American involvement in the Philippine Revolution.

When it was over, Filipino revolutionaries were no more excited about what they saw as American Imperialism, than they were that of the Spanish.

Emilio Famy Aguinaldo was 25 when he joined the Katipunan, a secret organization dedicated to the armed expulsion of Spain and independence for the Philippines.  By the age of 29, Aguinaldo was elected the first President of the Philippines, calling himself “Magdalo”, in honor of Mary Magdalene.

Aguinaldo accepted a substantial bribe from Spain and removed himself to Hong Kong in 1897.  By the following year, he was back.

By 1899, the United States had yet another war on their hands, variously known as the Philippine Insurrection and the Philippine–American War.
The US and Spain signed a Peace protocol on the 12th of August, in which neither party recognized the June 12 declaration of Philippine independence.  Insurgents prepared a triumphant entry into the capital city of Manila, only to be denied access by the Americans.  They were honoring their agreement with Spanish authorities, who had stipulated that they wanted to surrender to Americans, and not to the insurgents who’d been making war on them.  To the Revolutionaries, it was a de facto partnership between the former combatants, with themselves on the outside.

It was only a matter of time before Filipino-American relations took a turn for the worse.
Fighting erupted between US and Filipino revolutionary forces on February 4, 1899. Without investigation, General Arthur MacArthur ordered his troops to advance against Filipino troops the following day, beginning a full-scale battle for Manila.

By June of that year, the First Philippine Republic had officially declared war on the United States. By November, President Aguinaldo had disbanded the regular Filipino army into guerrilla units, as he fled through the mountainous terrain of Bayambang.  Reaching the strategic bottleneck of Tirad Pass (Pasong Tirad) on November 23, Aguinaldo left a rear-guard under General Gregorio del Pilar to turn and face the pursuing Americans.  The handpicked force of 60 constructed trenches and stone barricades on both sides of the pass.

On December 2, they turned to meet Major Peyton C. March’s 300 troops of the 33rd Infantry Regiment.

The position was unassailable, but for the trail which outflanked the defenders and came up behind the position.  As Efialtes betrayed Leonidas’ 300 Spartans to Xerxes almost 2,400 years earlier, an Igorot villager named Januario Galut led the attackers around to the rear of the fortified position.  When it was over, the 33rd Infantry had lost 2, the Filipino rearguard 52.tirad-pass-movie

The Philippine Insurrection formally ended on July 4, 1902, though fighting would continue as late as 1913 with several minority factions.

There is an oft repeated story concerning General “Black Jack” Pershing’s treatment of a Muslim uprising, in the south of the country, among a people called the Moro.  The story involves American forces executing 49 out of 50 Moros with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, allowing the last to go back and warn his people not to mess with these guys.  The information is contradictory.  The story may be apocryphal, but not entirely so.  The closest I could come to confirming the story comes from the diary of Rear Admiral D.P. Mannix III, who fought the Moros as a young Lieutenant.   He refers to “…the custom of wrapping the dead man in a pig’s skin and stuffing his mouth with pork. As the pig was an unclean animal, this was considered unspeakable defilement.”

Interestingly, it was John Hay, former secretary to Abraham Lincoln, whose name adheres to one of 5 known copies of the Gettysburg Address written in Lincoln’s own hand, who served as Secretary of State during this period.    President Theodore Roosevelt’s October 25, 1903 executive order set aside land in the Benguet region of the Philippines for a military reservation, named Camp John Hay in his honor.  The property was turned over to the Philippines in 1991, on the expiration of the Philippine-US Bases Agreement.  A private developer transformed the property into a world class resort in 1997.  It retains the name of Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, to this day.

December 1, 2013 Sacred Soil

The Flanders Fields Memorial Garden will open in 2014, marking the centenary of the “great War”. “The war to end all wars”.

This November 11, nineteen short days ago, marked the 98-year anniversary of the end of WWI.
At the time, it was “The Great War”.  The “War to end all wars”.  There is barely a piece of 20th or 21st century history which cannot be traced back to it.  International Communism was borne of the Great War, without which there would have been no cold war, no Korean War, nor Vietnam. The killing fields of Cambodia would have remained mere rice fields.  The spiritual descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s brand of capitalism would be running all of China, instead of only Taiwan.
The current boundaries of the Middle East arose from the Great War. While the region’s tribal alliances and religious differences are nothing new, they would have taken a very different shape if not for those boundaries.
World War II, a conflagration which left more dead, wounded or missing than any conflict in world history (WWI was only #5), was little more than the Great War, part 2. A Marshall of France, on looking at the Versailles Treaty formally ending WWI, said “This isn’t peace. This is a cease-fire that will last for 20 years”. He was off by something like 36 days.
I’ve long believed that we can’t be participating citizens of a self-governing Republic, we can’t know where we want our country to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been.  It’s one of the principle benefits of examining history.  It’s why I think something wonderful happened three years ago, and I don’t think many of us heard about it.
More than 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited 70 battlefields of the Great War in the summer of 2013.  Ypres.  Passchendaele.  Verdun.  The Somme.  All over Northern France and Belgium, the region known as “Flanders”, there they collected samples of the sacred soil of those fields.
The soil from those battlefields was placed in WWI-style burlap sandbags, each stenciled with a red poppy, where it came from, and the dates.  These seventy sandbags were transported to London, and installed with great care at Wellington Barracks, the central London home of the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards. There the soil of the Great War will nourish and support a garden.  Ready for the following year – a solemn remembrance of the centenary of that war.
That day, December 1, 2013, was for the Flanders Fields Memorial Garden, the first full day of forever.
I can’t think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and installed it at that garden. It is now for that posterity to keep our history alive, and not let it fade into some sepia toned and forgotten past.

This is what it looked like

November 30, 1953 Dien Bien Phu

“What historians call the First Indochina War, many contemporaries called ‘la sale guerre’. The ‘dirty war'”.

Speak of France, and most of us think of the five-sided country between Spain and Germany. That would be partly correct, but “la Métropole” or “Metropolitan France” today accounts for only 82.2% of the landmass of la République Française. The overseas departments and territories which make up “la France d’outre-mer”, “Overseas France”, account for the rest.
That overseas percentage would have been higher in the mid-20th century, with many former colonial territories added in, among them Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Japanese occupation of southeast Asia caused the Europeans to leave French Indochina during WWII. Within a year of re-occupation, French forces faced virulent opposition from the Nationalist-Communist Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. It was a low level, rural insurgency at first, later becoming a full-scale modern war when Chinese Communists entered the fray in 1949.
What historians call the First Indochina War, many contemporaries called “la sale guerre”.  The “dirty war”. The government forbade the use of metropolitan recruits, fearing that would make the war more unpopular than it already was. Instead, French professional soldiers and units of the French Foreign Legion were augmented with colonial troops, including Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese ethnic minorities.
The war went poorly for the French.  By 1952 they were looking for a way out. Premier René Mayer appointed Henri Navarre to take command of French Union Forces in May that year, with a single order. Navarre was to create military conditions which would lead to an “honorable political solution”.
Late in the preceding year, the French army had air lifted soldiers into a fortified position at Na San, adjacent to a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos. Superior French fire power, armor and air resources had driven Vo Nguyen Giap’s forces back with heavy losses, in what French planners called the “hérisson” or “hedgehog” strategy.
In June, Major General René Cogny proposed a “mooring point” at Dien Bien Phu:  a lightly defended point from which to launch raids. Navarre wanted to replicate the Na San strategy, and ordered that Dien Bien Phu be taken and converted into a heavily fortified base.
“Operation Castor” began on the 20th of November, with three parachute infantry battalions dropped into Dien Bien Phu. The operation was completed with minimal French casualties on November 30, as supplies, troops, and engineering equipment poured into the isolated base.
Under the command of Colonel Christian de Castries, French forces built seven fortified positions to defend the base, each reportedly named after one of his mistresses. 10,800 French troops were committed, with another 16,000 in reserve.
Vo felt that he’d made a serious mistake at Na San, rushing his troops in piecemeal against French defenses. This time, he carefully prepared his positions, moving 50,000 men into position around the valley, meticulously stockpiling ammunition and placing his anti-aircraft and heavy artillery, with which he was well supplied.
The French staff based their battle plan on the assumption that it was impossible for the Viet Minh to place enough artillery on the surrounding high ground, due to the rugged terrain. Communist forces didn’t possess enough artillery to do serious damage anyway, or so they thought.
French officers quickly learned how mistaken they had been. The first sporadic artillery fire began on January 31, around the time that patrols discovered the enemy’s presence in every direction. Heavy artillery virtually ringed the valley in which they found themselves, and air support was quickly nullified by the enemy’s well placed anti-aircraft fire.

dien_bien_phu-base
Enemy artillery virtually ringed the French position by March of 1953.

The Viet Minh assault began in earnest on March 13, when several outposts came under furious artillery barrage. Air support became next to impossible, and counter-battery fire was next to useless against Giap’s fortifications. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth commanded the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu. He was a professional soldier and no lightweight, having had his arm amputated in 1946 with no anesthesia. When it became clear how wrong his assumptions had been, he circled the camp making apologies to his officers, returned to his tent, and killed himself with a hand grenade.
“Beatrice” was the first fire base to fall, then “Gabrielle” and “Anne-Marie”. Viet Minh controlled 90% of the airfield by the 22nd of April, making even parachute drops next to impossible. On May 7, Vo ordered an all-out assault of 25,000 troops against the 3,000 remaining in garrison. By nightfall it was over.  The last words from the last radio man were “The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”

victory_in_battle_of_dien_bien_phu
Vo ordered an all-out assault of 25,000 troops against the 3,000 remaining in garrison, on May 7. By nightfall it was over.

Military historian Martin Windrow wrote that Dien Bien Phu was “the first time that a non-European colonial independence movement had evolved through all the stages from guerrilla bands to a conventionally organized and equipped army able to defeat a modern Western occupier in pitched battle”.
The Geneva conference opened the following day, resulting in a Vietnam partitioned into two parts. In the north was the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” administered by the communists, and the State of Vietnam in the south, under Emperor Bao Dai and Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The North was supported by both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, and continued to terrorize patriots in north and south alike.
US support for the south increased as France withdrew its own.  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.
The next war in Indochina, had begun.

 

November 27, 1868 George Armstrong Custer

Like many of his fellow “goats”, George Armstrong Custer would make a greater contribution to history than his academic standing might indicate.

Like Edgar Allen Poe and James Whistler (“Whistler’s Mother”) before him, George Armstrong Custer was a ‘Goat’. Dead last in his class, West Point, class of 1861. Like many of his fellow goats, he would make a greater contribution to history than his academic standing might indicate.

At 25, Custer was one of the youngest Major Generals in the Union army, when Robert E. Lee met George Gordon Meade at the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg.
He wasn’t the youngest. That honor goes to Brigadier General Galusha Pennypacker, who at 20 was the only General Officer in history too young to vote for the President who appointed him.

As with another goat, George Pickett, Custer’s contribution at Gettysburg came on the third day. In fact, it was in opposition to Pickett’s Charge that Custer makes his biggest contribution to the Union war effort, though I believe his role is overlooked.
The Battle of Gettysburg is usually described as a contest of men on foot, that cavalry did not play much of a role. On the third day, that would change.

For 19th century armies, the cavalry acted as the eyes and ears of battlefield commanders. Their superior mobility allowed them to report information back on enemy troop strength and movements in a way that otherwise would have been impossible.

For his first two days at Gettysburg, “Marse’ Robert” was out of touch with cavalry commander James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart, leaving him effectively blind. Stuart reappeared at the end of the second day.

On the third came Longstreet’s assault, better known as “Pickett’s charge”. 13,000 Confederate soldiers came out of the tree line at Seminary Ridge, 1¼ mile distant from the Federal line. Prior to pushing off, Lee ordered upwards of 3,400 Confederate horsemen and 13 guns around the Union right, in support of the infantry assault against the Union center.

The “High tide of the Confederacy” is marked at a point on Cemetery Ridge, between the corner of a stone wall and a copse of trees. The farthest that the remnants of Pickett’s charge made it, before being broken and driven back. But, what if Stuart’s cavalry had come crashing into the rear of the Union line?  The battle and possibly the Civil War may have ended differently, if not for Custer and his “Wolverines” of the 7th Michigan Cavalry.
Historians write of the 13,000 crossing that field, bayonets flashing and pennants snapping in the breeze. Of equal importance and yet off the main stage, is the drama which played out earlier, at the “east cavalry field”. 700 horsemen collided in furious, point-blank fighting with pistol and cutlass, just as the first Confederate artillery opened against the Union line.

Let the battle be described by one of its participants: “As the two columns approached each other the pace of each increased, when suddenly a crash, like the falling of timber, betokened the crisis. So sudden and violent was the collision that many of the horses were turned end over end and crushed their riders beneath them”.

east-cavalry-fieldStuart sent in reinforcements from all three of his brigades: the 9th and 13th Virginia, the 1st North Carolina, and squadrons of the 2nd Virginia. Custer himself had two horses shot out from under him, before his far smaller force was driven back. The wolverines of the 7th Michigan weren’t alone that day, but of the 254 Union casualties sustained on that part of the battlefield, 219 of them were from Custer’s brigade.

Custer’s later career as Indian fighter would be what he is best known for. On November 27, 1868, then Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry on a surprise dawn attack against the Southern Cheyenne village of Peace Chief Black Kettle, in one of a series of battles that would end, for him, eight years later on a hill in the eastern Montana territory.

“What if” counterfactual scenarios can be dangerous. We can never know how a story which never happened might have played itself out. Yet I have often wondered how Gettysburg would have ended, had 3,000 Confederate horsemen crashed into Union lines from the rear, at the same time as Pickett’s, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s men hit it from the front.

The Pennsylvania campaign had been Robert E. Lee’s gamble that he could make it hurt enough, that the Federals would allow the Confederate States of America to go its own way. On that third day at Gettysburg, the Civil War could have come to a very different ending.