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In 1965, in response to the near collapse of South Vietnam's army, the United States began commiting ground combat troops to the war. By 1967, nearly 400,000 troops were in-country, with more to follow.
The American military consumed prodigious amounts of supplies. Added to the normal needs for ammunition, food, clothing and fuel were the luxuries considered necessary to keep the citizen-soldiers happy. Beer, ice cream, goodies from the military exchange, air conditioning, building supplies–everything had to be brought in, stored, guarded and distributed. Huge supply bases sprang up in South Vietnam's brush and scrub. Da Nang, in the north of the country, grew from a few warehouses to hundreds of acres of supply yards and buildings. Cam Ranh Bay, in the ARVN II Corps area, became one of the largest ports in the world. And just north of Saigon, near Bien Hoa, was the largest base of them all. Long Binh, the entry point and replacement center for most of the Army, was packed to the bursting point with supplies and troops.
It was to a still-growing Long Binh that 2nd Lt. John M. 'Jack' Throckmorton, Ordnance Corps, was assigned in October 1966. Throckmorton was a volunteer–no waiting around for the draft for him. His father was a Regular Army colonel, and a distant relative served as the commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps. Throckmorton's family had a tradition of service.
After a tour as an enlisted field artilleryman, Jack Throckmorton volunteered for Officer Candidate School. His first choice was the infantry, but poor eyesight precluded him from the combat arms as an officer. In the Ordnance Corps, however, you did not need 20-20 correctable vision. After receiving his commission and attending some very special schools, he finally achieved his wish–orders for Vietnam.
Most people think of the Vietnam War as a terrifying experience: rocket attacks, sappers coming through the wire, snipers waiting behind every tree. Such things happened, of course, but the worst enemy the troops in Long Binh had to face was boredom. The war might be going on just a few miles from the camp (sometimes Throckmorton could see gunships hosing down the surrounding area with long streams of tracers), but inside the wire you would hardly know it. In the heat and dust there, life was a long and dreary drill of work–with occasional trips to the club to break the monotony.
Lieutenant Throckmorton, due to the particular nature of his job, had even less to do than most. Sometimes he felt he was sitting out the war. Like the good officer he aspired to be, Throckmorton sought to do more. And his second-in-command and friend, Chief Warrant Officer Jerry Johnson, provided the opportunity.
Special Forces troops had long regarded the logistical depots as 'Christmas out of season.' You didn't get many supplies out in the A-team camps scattered along the border, or in the regional Mobile Strike Force (Mike Force) commands. The Green Berets were always 'Tail-End Charlie' when it came to logistics distribution, the assumption being that they were largely self-sufficient.
And self-sufficient they were, though not in the ways envisioned by MACV. Each team had an unofficial scrounger, a glib and resourceful entrepreneur who spent most of his time trading for, or perhaps stealing, needed supplies. Barbed wire for steaks, ammunition for beer–anything could be had for a price. Captured enemy weapons were always good swap items, but VC flags were even better, particularly if they had a bullet hole or two, and were stained with blood. More than one chicken was sacrificed to provide the necessary verisimilitude.
Warrant Officer Johnson had struck up a relationship with the men of a Mobile Strike Force stationed in nearby Bien Hoa. He took the newly assigned Throckmorton along with him on a visit.
It was a heady atmosphere for a young, gung-ho lieutenant. The Special Forces soldiers adopted the young man, ceremoniously inducted him into the team house bar, fed him drinks and told him war stories. There were plenty of those, since they had just come off the patrol that kicked off Operation Attleboro, running into and being chewed up by a Main Force VC division. The team, known as the 'China Boys,' had always been a hard-luck outfit. Five men out of the 15-man detachment had been killed, wounded or were missing after that initial patrol during Operation Attleboro.
Throckmorton and Johnson decided to do what they could to help the China Boys, who were armed with the outdated castoffs of the U.S. Army, including M1919-A6 .30-caliber machine guns, Browning Automatic Rifles and the ubiquitous .30-caliber carbine. The indigenous troops in the unit liked the carbine, underpowered though it was, because it was small and controllable under full-automatic fire. But when the Army declared it obsolete, the ammunition assembly lines were shut down. Stocks of ammunition were running extremely low, and the Mike Force had been going on operations with less than the authorized combat load.
Johnson and Throckmorton took it upon themselves to remedy this situation. They pushed a special requisition through channels, then made calls to the States to get the right people interested. The two men eventually succeeded in getting the Red River Army Depot to reopen an assembly line, easing the shortage. For that, if for nothing else, they would have had the undying gratitude of the Americans on the Mike Force. But while Throckmorton appreciated their gratitude, it did not give the young lieutenant what he really wanted, the chance to accompany the Mike Force on a combat operation.
Allowing non-Special Forces types on patrols was not unheard of. The year before, Air Force pilot Captain Mark Berent had gone along on several missions. He had wanted to see what it was like on the ground so that he could better support the troops from the air. Even civilians had gone, including Sean Flynn, a would-be journalist and the son of actor Errol Flynn.
But Special Forces headquarters in Nha Trang frowned on the practice, particularly if not authorized in advance. One might justify Captain Berent's presence, but not that of a young Ordnance Corps lieutenant, no matter how helpful he had been.
That was the situation until the events of March 21, 1967. The Mike Force was out on yet another patrol. A small combat action ensued. It was not much of a fight, really. Several VC were killed, and one was captured. The captive was lightly bound and guarded by a couple of Nung soldiers (indigenous mercenaries). Master Sergeant Charles E. 'Snake' Hosking, Jr., stood idly by while the commander of the detachment, Captain Angelo Canali, conferred with several of the other Americans. Hosking, a veteran of World War II, Korea, the Congo and Laos, had a habit of carrying grenades, pins removed, taped to his web gear. That way, he said, all you have to do is give it a swift tug, the spoon comes off and you throw. It was not a safe way of doing things, but Snake had never been too interested in safety. After all, people said, he had seen more combat than almost anyone around and was still alive, so he must be doing something right.
Unnoticed, the VC had slipped his bonds. Seeing his chance, he sprung at Hosking and, before the sergeant could stop him, tore one of the grenades loose and ran toward the command group.
The grenade had a 5-meter bursting radius, and everyone in the command group was standing within that distance. Hosking took the only course of action available, leaping on the VC and smothering the grenade with his and the enemy's body. Hosking was killed instantly. The team commander took several fragments and had to be evacuated. Staff Sergeant Roger Hallberg was left standing, shaken but unhurt. Hosking was later posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his sacrifice.
After this shocking event, the Mike Force was down to only five Americans. But the missions did not stop. The team leader was quickly replaced by Captain Jack Stewart.
The day of the memorial service for Hosking, which was attended by General William Westmoreland and officiated at by a very nervous Army chaplain, another mission came down. The strike force from Camp Bu Dop, an isolated outpost barely two kilometers from the Cambodian border, had been ambushed and forced to leave a number of bodies behind as they retreated. The China Boys were tapped to recover the bodies.
Captain Stewart had a problem. The team medic was so shaken by recent events that Stewart felt it would be better to leave him behind. The only man left who had any real experience, Sergeant 1st Class J.W. 'Silver Fox' Edgell, would need to go with the heavy weapons section of the company, such as it was. This section, armed with .30-caliber machine guns and 60mm mortars, was the only fire support the company could depend on if it got into trouble, and as such was critically important. That left Captain Stewart with two platoons of infantry and only one other American, Sergeant Hallberg. While the Nungs in the unit were seasoned troops, few of them spoke English, creating huge communication problems. The team needed another American.
Lieutenant Throckmorton was at the memorial service. Of all the men on the Mike Force, Hosking had been the one to whom he had been the closest. Throckmorton had been the only 'leg' (non-Airborne, non-Special Forces) troop invited to the services, and he took that as an honor, which it was.
'We need help. Want to go for a little walk in the woods?' Captain Stewart said to Throckmorton. 'We just need to go out for a couple of hours and recover some bodies.' Eager to be getting into the action at last, Throckmorton volunteered.
The remainder of that afternoon was spent getting him kitted out. New tiger stripe camouflage fatigues, borrowed web gear with numerous loaded magazines, pen flares, smoke grenades, two canteens, an indigenous rucksack with yet more ammo, the M-16 rifle of the medic who was staying behind–all these and more were thrust at him, giving him just enough time to put it all together before everyone met at the club to salute the fallen Hosking. Drinks were quickly downed, taxing the ability of the bartenders to keep up with demand. It was a loose, relaxed group.
The following morning, March 24, the soldiers rose early, brushed off their hangovers, grabbed a quick breakfast and loaded onto Caribou cargo planes for the first leg of the journey. Bien Hoa to the camp at Bu Dop was a short flight, less than an hour. Upon arrival, Captain Stewart entered the command bunker for a classified briefing. When he emerged, he was clearly distressed. It was Throckmorton's first intimation that this might not exactly be the easy 'walk in the woods' everyone expected. Still, he was not too worried. This was, after all, a Mike Force–a highly trained unit. The 40 or so Nung troopers around him looked tough, competent. They relaxed on the ground, using their rucksacks for pillows.
Then came the order, 'Saddle up!' With shouts and curses, the Nung NCOs got their soldiers up and organized into eight-man groups, ready to load into the choppers. There was the high-pitched whine of turbines as the Hueys started up, then the characteristic 'whop-whop' of the two-bladed rotors. Throckmorton and an interpreter joined their element. On the ride to the LZ the wind whipped through the open sides of the chopper, dispelling the heat of the jungle.
It was over all too soon, since the LZ was scarcely five miles from Bu Dop. Throckmorton watched the birds ahead of him disgorging their loads, and the well-trained troopers rushing toward the tree line to set up a perimeter. Sergeant Hallberg, taller than the Nungs, was conspicuous. On the LZ itself was the burned-out hulk of another Huey, belying the seeming tranquility below.
Then it was Throckmorton's turn. Off the chopper quickly (the Huey pilots did not wait around), he ran toward the tree line, joining Hallberg. Captain Stewart joined them a moment later.
As yet there had been no sign of the enemy. The helicopters would be back in a few minutes with the vital heavy weapons platoon. It was time to strike out, extend the perimeter in case the enemy was trying to suck the whole force in before they struck.
Hallberg's platoon had the point. They moved out, with Throckmorton and his platoon 15 meters to the left of the command element. They were walking through old-growth timber, with little undergrowth and good visibility. Throckmorton later recalled that the first indication of anything being wrong was the sight of field telephone wire running along the ground and into the trees. The wire could only mean one thing–the presence of an enemy regimental or higher command post. Moments later, two Nungs broke and sprinted back toward the LZ. Then the firing began.
You have to experience an ambush to know what it is really like. Words cannot describe the roar of gunfire, the snapping of bullets, the explosions, the screams of the wounded and dying, the gut-felt terror. People react differently. Some freeze in place, others huddle to the ground, still others rush either into the ambush or away from it.
If the ambush is set up properly, few individuals survive the first three minutes. Jack Throckmorton, who had found shelter behind a large fallen tree, remembered seeing dozens of muzzle flashes from the other side and little fire being returned from his own. 'The enemy was so close,' he said, 'I could hear the shells sliding down the mortar tubes.' Soldiers all around him were being hit with multiple rounds to the head. His borrowed M-16 jammed after only a few rounds, and he was left trying to clear it as the bullets came closer and closer. At this point a more seasoned soldier might have realized just how serious the situation was. Throckmorton kept his head. He later said he had been 'too scared to panic.'
In the middle of all this, Sergeant Hallberg came rushing back, telling him that they had run into what he estimated to be a reinforced platoon. 'Tell the captain,' he said. Then Hallberg rushed forward once again, never to be seen again.
By some miracle, or so he thought then, Throckmorton was totally untouched by the firestorm. Unsure of what to do, and with most of the men around him already dead or seriously wounded, the young lieutenant thought it would be best to crawl to the command group and get orders. As he started to do so he noticed that the many small bushes surrounding them seemed to be moving in his direction. He also heard shouts in Vietnamese.
Throckmorton managed to get back to Captain Stewart, who had been wounded through the shoulder and looked dazed. He was clutching the handset for the PRC-25 radio he carried, the cord of which had been shot away. 'Do you have another handset?' he asked Throckmorton. But the lieutenant could see that the radio itself had taken several hits and was obviously out of action.
Then Stewart seemed to gather his wits, and he asked, 'Have you seen Hallberg?' Throckmorton told him about Hallberg's going forward, and the captain shook his head. It was obvious that they'd run up against far more than a reinforced platoon. (Intelligence later determined that two battalions of the VC 9th Division–between 500 and 700 men–had mounted the ambush.) Stewart told him that he had tried to get the heavy weapons platoon put in to support them but that heavy fire on the LZ had driven them off. They would have to fight it out on their own. His radio had been shot up before he had been able to call in any airstrikes.
By that time the shouting in Vietnamese was much closer, easily heard even over the din of battle. Stewart turned to Hoa, the interpreter, and demanded, 'What the hell are they saying?' The interpreter responded, 'Dai uy (Captain), they say catch the tall one with white hair. Do not hurt him. Take him alive. He's the one we want.'
Stewart looked at Throckmorton, at 6 foot 2 inches with white-blond hair, clearly the man to whom they were referring. 'And why is it they'd want you?' he asked. 'Hell, I don't know,' Throckmorton replied. 'No way they could know that I'm a nuclear weapons officer.'
It took Captain Stewart only a few seconds to make a decision. As a Special Forces officer, he was probably more acutely aware of Throckmorton's value to the enemy than a conventional officer would have been. The Green Berets knew the small atomic demolitions munition (SADM) well. One or two teams in each Special Forces group were trained in its emplacement. All the Special Forces troops knew how to do was get it into the target area, turn it on and then run like hell, and even their somewhat limited knowledge was critically sensitive. How much more so, then, for an officer such as this, specially trained on all the Army's nuclear weapons.
'Hoa, take these people,' Stewart said, motioning toward five of the surviving Nungs, 'and get the trung ui (lieutenant) out of here. Go that way. We'll try to hold them off until you get clear.' Throckmorton started to protest, but was quickly cut off. 'Get out of here!' the captain said. 'Now!'
Stewart and the few remaining soldiers with him set up a base of fire, expending magazine after magazine into the advancing bushes while Hoa tugged at Throckmorton, moving him into a dense stand of bamboo that represented the only possible escape route. Jack Throckmorton looked back one last time when he heard the characteristic thump of bullets hitting a body. He saw a sight that haunted him for years: Captain Stewart was slumped over his rifle, not moving.
After that, there was time for nothing but getting away. He could hear footsteps close behind, more yelling in Vietnamese. There suddenly came the shrieking roar of low-flying jets, followed by the explosion of bombs on the nearby LZ, where hundreds of VC swarmed. How, he wondered, had they known to mount an airstrike? Later it was determined that one of the Nung sergeants, using Hallberg's radio, had called in the strike. Of course, the strike was equally dangerous to both sides, but since there were very few friendlies left alive by that time, the Nung obviously thought it worthwhile to at least take a few of the enemy with him.
A jet roared directly toward him. Throckmorton had only enough time to drop behind a large tree when the aircraft's 20mm automatic cannon ripped up another tree not 50 meters ahead. Splinters and pieces of flesh decorated the ground. The footsteps behind stopped for a moment.
Within seconds the jet was back for a second pass, this time eating up the ground about 10 to 15 meters closer. Again and again the jet flew over, a total of four or five passes. Caught between the jet strikes in front and the VC behind, Throckmorton could only hold his ground and pray. 'One more pass on that track,' he later said, 'and we would have been obliterated.'
Perhaps the VC had been. By the time the last strike was over, the enemy troops had abandoned their pursuit, which undoubtedly saved Throckmorton from capture or death. The Nungs asked him what to do next. His best idea was to organize them, move farther out of the killing zone, put out perimeter security and hide the group in a small thicket. It was by now about 3 in the afternoon.
Throughout the long afternoon and into the night they listened as the VC finished off the few survivors and beat the bush looking for Throckmorton. Expecting discovery at any second, he had already vowed to kill himself rather than be taken alive.
When, at midnight, they were still undiscovered, the lieutenant thought it might be safe to start trying to move toward Camp Bu Dop, the closest place to get help. He had only the vaguest sense of where it might be, from memories of the helicopter ride, but he felt sure that to stay where they were was to invite disaster.
They had to move slowly–move, stop, listen, hide as searchers passed by, change directions when it appeared there was someone ahead. They passed freshly dug enemy positions and more communications wire. By early morning they were tormented by thirst, their canteens long since emptied.
At one point they passed over a large trail and a hushed argument broke out, some of the Nungs claiming this must be the road into Bu Dop while others disagreed. Three of them broke off to follow the road. They were never seen again.
Sometime after first light the depleted group came to a large clearing. Knowing that it would be extremely dangerous to cross it, they cautiously skirted the edge. Slowly they crept out, crawling more than walking, expecting at any instant to be met by enemy fire from the distant tree line. Then Throckmorton heard the 'whop' of helicopter blades. Searching through his survival kit, he found several pen flares and set off a couple–apparently to no avail.
At that point the gunship crew spotted movement on the ground and assumed a strike formation, obviously ready to fire up the area. Throckmorton took off the hat Hoa had given him to hide his blond hair and waved it at them. One of the pilots saw him and within moments they were in the air, on their way back to Bu Dop.
At the airstrip a full colonel waited. He had been sent personally by General Westmoreland to supervise the massive search and rescue operation now underway. He shook Throckmorton's hand, saying: 'The general is pleased that you've been found. We've already sent a TWX [radiotelephone message] to General Throckmorton, letting him know his son has been found. He and General Westmoreland have been terribly worried about you.'
'That's very nice of you, sir,' Throckmorton replied. 'But I'm not General Throckmorton's son. My father is Colonel Throckmorton.'
The colonel looked at him in amazement that quickly turned to disgust. 'And we stopped the war for you?' he exclaimed, then turned on his heel, got back in his shiny helicopter and flew away, leaving a thoroughly confused Throckmorton on the landing pad.
At a loss for what to do next, feeling the inevitable postcombat letdown and suffering tremendous guilt that he had left the others behind, he tried to get the reaction force to let him accompany them back into the ambush area. But that was not to be. When Lieutenant Throckmorton had not returned from the memorial service, Warrant Officer Johnson had started to worry. After all, neither he nor the lieutenant was even supposed to leave the confines of Long Binh itself, a restriction they had, of course, routinely ignored.
Johnson contented himself with the thought that the lieutenant had probably had a few too many after the memorial service and was sleeping it off at the Mike Force team house. Such things had happened before.
But when Throckmorton did not return the next day, Johnson's worry turned into full-blown panic. Nothing for it but to notify higher command authorities and let them know that a security breach of the worst magnitude had occurred.
Within an hour, two men from the Army Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC) showed up at his office. A very short time later they were on their way to Bien Hoa. Staff Sergeant J.P. Monaghan, who had left the Mike Force only days before for another classified job, was at Bien Hoa to pick up the remainder of his gear. While he was there, a call came in from Sgt. 1st Class Edgell, alerting headquarters to the action at Bu Dop and notifying them that Stewart, Hallberg and Throckmorton were MIA. Monaghan later remembered he was trying to get some Special Forces troopers from the adjacent C-team together to go and search for the missing men when Johnson and two men in civilian clothes arrived.
Johnson demanded to know Throckmorton's whereabouts, still believing that he was'shacked up somewhere.' Monaghan informed him that Throckmorton was missing on a combat action, whereupon Johnson 'turned completely white.' The CIC men refused to believe it, insisting upon searching the camp. While they were doing so, Monaghan asked Johnson what was going on. Johnson told him about Throckmorton's special job, and Monaghan said, 'I probably turned a little white, too.'
It was time to press the panic button. While Johnson and the CIC men argued about whose job it was to notify MACV, a helicopter came in from Bu Dop. On it was Lieutenant Throckmorton, who had decided to come back to the Mike Force headquarters and see if he could get them to let him go back out.
Throckmorton was quickly whisked away, not under arrest but very nearly so. Back at his own brigade headquarters he was to tell the story again and again. Upon each retelling the brass realized just how close to a disaster they had come. The brigade commander finally told him, 'I don't know whether to put you in for a medal or court-martial your young ass.'
In the end they did neither, merely restricting him to a very circumscribed existence while his military occupational specialty was being changed. His last contact with Special Forces was to testify at the board of inquiry ascertaining the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Captain Stewart and Staff Sergeant Hallberg. Their bodies were never found, adding to the legion of those still listed as MIA.
There it might have ended, were it not for a chance meeting between Jack Throckmorton and me more than 20 years later. In the intervening years Throckmorton, consumed by survivor's guilt, had drifted from one job, one marriage, one life to another. Convinced he had done the wrong thing in leaving Captain Stewart and not dying with him, it sometimes seemed as if he was dying a little at a time.
But what would have happened if Lieutenant Jack Throckmorton had stayed there that day? And what went wrong with the little 'walk in the woods?' Later events were to show that the operation had been compromised from the beginning. The bartender at the Mike Force club turned out to be an active VC agent, as were several other Mike Force members. Since they were privy to the operation's plans, it was an easy matter for the VC to set up the ambush.
But the compromise went deeper than that. It was supposed to have been a body recovery mission for members of the Bu Dop strike force, but later investigation showed that the only bodies in the area were those of a local Regional Force/Popular Force platoon that had been ambushed by the VC. Among those fallen was the brother-in-law of the Vietnamese district chief, who was himself later arrested when a photo fell into U.S. hands showing him with the commander of the VC 9th Division. The Special Forces officer who had requested the mission in the first place was later relieved of his duties when evidence showed that he was entirely too close–possibly even in business with–this double-agent district chief.
Investigations also showed that Lieutenant Throckmorton and others like him were targets of hostile intelligence services from the moment they were assigned to Sandia Base, N.M., for nuclear weapons training. Generally, the enemy attempted classic recruitment methods: money, blackmail, ideological conversion. It must have seemed a gift from heaven when Throckmorton was assigned to Vietnam. KGB and GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) residents, working with the North Vietnamese (and through them the VC), especially sought any information on any U.S. officers in sensitive positions. If one were captured, they would have been allowed to share in the intelligence bonanza. Not that the military was particularly careful to hide Throckmorton from enemy intelligence agencies. He had been assigned to Vietnam under his nuclear weapons officer MOS 1723; no attempt was made to classify his records or give him a cover military occupation specialty. Enemy agents with access to the personnel system at MACV had only to look at the rosters to locate him.
And what would have happened if Throckmorton had been captured? There is little doubt he would have resisted any interrogation to the best of his ability. But those who boast that they would never talk have never been subjected to a skillful interrogation conducted by professionals. Most everyone breaks, sooner or later.
The results could have run from the merely disastrous to the horrific. Showcasing a captured nuclear weapons officer and revealing the possible presence of such weapons in Vietnam and the contingency plans to use them in combat would have shocked our allies and delivered a propaganda victory to the Communists that they would have exploited to the maximum. At the very least, such a revelation would have constituted a diplomatic and propaganda defeat of major proportions.
But it could have been even worse. The VC had already shown their ability to penetrate Long Binh, mounting a sapper attack and blowing up thousands of tons of ammunition in November 1966. The explosion was so massive that reporters in Saigon, 40 miles away, at first believed a nuclear weapon had gone off. Remarkably, security was not improved in any major way after that event, U.S. forces believing that their campaign of attrition kept the NVA and VC from mounting such attacks. Tet 1968 was to prove the fallacy of that reasoning.
A nightmare scenario can easily be built, involving the VC again penetrating Long Binh, except this time with the intention of securing the SADM. The mere possession of such a device would have provided potent blackmail material. Even better would have been to detonate it in place. When asked specifically about whether or not he, given his training, could have bypassed the safeguards and exploded the device, Throckmorton reluctantly admits that, yes, he could. There can be no doubt that such an event could have radically altered the course of the war.
Even today Jack Throckmorton is reluctant to cast the blame for the near-disaster on anyone but himself. But let us leave aside the wisdom, or lack thereof, of policy decisions that resulted in his presence in Vietnam, and the obvious failures of counterintelligence that exposed him. Why would such an awesome responsibility have been put on the shoulders of a second lieutenant in the first place? His desire to get into the thick of things was understandable; after all, he was a product of the 'bear any burden, fight any foe' generation. Why was the job not given to some senior officer who would have been happy to serve his time in Vietnam safe from harm?
Throckmorton said, 'Maybe they figured a young lieutenant would be the only one stupid enough to set if off, if it came to that.' He is probably more right than he knows.
This article was written by retired Army Major John Mullins, who served three tours in Vietnam with Special Forces. In 1966-67 he was the executive officer of an A-team in Vinh Thanh, and in 1968-69 he served with a Special Operations Group. The article was originally published in the April 2001 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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