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Interview with Charles A. Krohn, Author of The Lost Battalion

By David T. Zabecki and Claudia Gary
7/25/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

In 1993 retired Lt. Col. Charles A. Krohn shocked the U.S. Army with his brutally frank book, The Lost Battalion: Controversy and Casualties in the Battle of Hue. Although some in the Army condemned Krohn’s account of one of the major American disasters of the war, others, such as Generals Max Thurman and Donn Starry supported the book. In recent years it has come to be regarded as one of the classic books about the Vietnam War. Krohn continued to collect more information about the battle in the intervening years and has updated the book in a second edition. The Lost Battalion of Tet: Breakout of the 2-12th Cavalry at Hue will be published by the U.S. Naval Institute Press, under the sponsorship of the Association of the U.S. Army. Krohn recently spoke with Vietnam magazine about the new edition and the desperate battle at Hue 40 years ago.

VIETNAM MAGAZINE: The Lost Battalion received critical acclaim— and was controversial—when it was first published. What’s new in this second edition?

CHARLES A. KROHN: There’s a lot new in this edition. After the book was published I tried to incorporate what I learned from soldiers who were there and had experiences that I hadn’t captured in the first edition, as well as the rather moving responses of family members who were just learning what had happened. Two years ago I got word from the Center of Military History that my book was being used as the basis for the official Army history of this period— which puts the book in a completely different context in this revised edition. There was a lot of speculation before that I had loaded some of these issues to my benefit, or to our benefit and credit and discredited others. The fact that the book is now being used in large measure for the official military history has changed that. I now have official recognition validating much of what I wrote.

On the issue of crediting or discrediting certain people, how does the Army take that into consideration when they are establishing the official story?

I don’t know. I can tell you that after I wrote the book, General Max Thurman, the vice chief of staff of the Army, told me to use his name and get on the platform at Fort Leavenworth and Carlisle Barracks and Fort Benning. But I was rejected by all three institutions. Whether or not I’ll be invited back to lecture or talk, now that there’s some official acknowledgment, I don’t know.

What was your path into the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment?

I was commissioned in ROTC from the University of Michigan in 1959. I had a two-year commitment that I fulfilled in Korea in 1961 and 1962 as a Transportation Corps officer. I got out and wanted to become a military writer. When the Vietnam War started heating up, I responded to a request from the Army to return to active duty as the public affairs officer of the 1st Air Cavalry Division. I originally had planned to do just another two years and then pursue my writing interests, but I found the Army so intriguing and the officers I was dealing with so professional and so interesting, that I ended up doing 20 years, and retired in 1984.

Besides your service with the 2-12 Cavalry, did you serve in any other units in Vietnam?

Yes, in my second tour I was a district senior adviser in Tay Ninh province in Go Dau Ha district. That was a 12-month tour, 1970-71.

Why did you make the transfer from the Trans portation Corps to the Infantry?

I was the public affairs officer of the 1st Cavalry Division, which was a branch-immaterial slot. When I became the intelligence officer of the 2-12, I had to serve six months in an infantry assignment in order to qualify for a Combat Infantryman Badge. So I made the branch switch for what I thought would be a six-month period. It turned out to be a lot longer than that. I was told that the reason I was invited to join the battalion was because my work as a public affairs officer was so admired, based upon my curiosity and what I was writing and my response to the battle environment. What I later found out was that they couldn’t get anybody to fill the job, and they wanted to have an intelligence officer. So I was, in fact, just invited in as another warm body.

Before your book, the term “Lost Battalion” was widely associated with the 308th Infantry Reg iment in World War I. Why did you use this title, and were you concerned about possible confusion?

Last month I visited where the 308th was lost in France—as part of my current job with the American Battle Monuments Commission. The 308th, like the 2-12, was not lost physically. They were lost in the sense of being surrounded and cut off and being unsupportable. So it wasn’t a geographic issue, either with them or with us. It was a tactical issue. We in the 2-12 were cut off, surrounded, no resupply, no artillery support, no air support, and we were told to do the best we could, but nobody would accept responsibility for any actions we took. We were isolated not only physically, but also intellectually, philosophically and tactically.

Whom were you fighting at Hue?

As I describe in the book, we walked into the Hue City Front guarded by the 29th Regiment of the 325C PAVN Division. We had no idea there was any enemy at all north of Hue. Our mission was to go to the walls of Hue as quickly as we could, and relieve the Marines who were surrounded. We thought that would take a day. We didn’t want to walk down Route 1— the infamous “Street Without Joy”— because we thought it would be mined. So we walked inland. But in so doing we walked into the front headquarters controlling the attack on Hue. That, of course, was a very hotly contested fight, because their success in holding Hue depended upon protecting that regimental headquarters.

Could you put 2-12’s actions into the broader context of the operation to relieve the attack on Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive?

As far as I knew, there was a small enemy force in Hue, and it was believed that the commitment of one battalion—our battalion in particular—would be sufficient to dislodge the NVA that had occupied the city. But clearly, one battalion was insufficient. In the new edition of the book, I describe how General Tolson, when ordered to send a battalion to relieve the Marines at Hue, wanted to airlift the entire unit to the walls of the city, and then we would walk in through one of the portals. That plan was rejected after vigorous objections from the brigade commander. But it does reflect the fact that we thought this would be a much easier exercise than it turned out to be. And of course, one battalion in the end was not sufficient to dislodge the NVA, who occupied the city of Hue for a month.

What caused the leadership of the 1st Cavalry Division to commit the 2-12 with what seemed so clearly, in hindsight, to be inadequate artillery and air support?

The story behind why the 2-12 was picked to assault Hue was that we were the only battalion in the division to have ammunition. When the battalion was ordered to move from LZ Ross to Camp Evans, we were ordered to leave our ammunition be – hind. The plan was to resupply us later from pre-positioned stocks elsewhere. We had just finished fighting the NVA at LZ Ross, and we saw this as an absurd order. So we took a double basic load of ammunition. When Tet broke unexpectedly and the division was ordered to send a battalion to Hue, we were the only battalion to have ammunition. In hindsight, it was anticipated that artillery could be thrown in to support us before we began our move toward Hue. But the weather closed in, making it impossible to fly in the artillery tubes. There also was a severe shortage of artillery ammunition, because the stocks at Phu Bai had not yet been transferred to Camp Evans. There was a shortage of aviation fuel as well.

If there was one thing that the U.S. Army has a reputation for always doing right, it is logistical support. Why was it bungled so badly, and what went wrong?

I ended up much later meeting Colonel Norbert Grabowski, who had been the transportation officer of the 1st Cav at the time. I was rather rude to him; I accused him of not having a plan, and said that that had resulted in the death of so many fine soldiers because it was such a helter-skelter move of the division. To my surprise, he agreed with me and he related the story that he had wanted to build a plan to move the division from Bong San in the III Corps area to other places in Vietnam. General Tolson, however, had said [according to Grabowski], “We’re not ever going to move this goddamn division.” So when the division was ordered to move on a day or two notice, there was no plan on the shelf. Basically, the division materiel was just loaded helter-skelter into LSTs and any other means they could find to move us north into I Corps.

This is reminiscent of the disastrous attack the 28th Infantry Division made against the town of Schmidt in the Hürtgen Forest in November 1944. The terrain overwhelmingly favored the defenders, and higher headquarters bungled things badly by underestimating the enemy. Was the same thing happening outside of Hue in 1968?

Yes, it happened outside of Hue in 1968, and it happened in Iraq in 2003. The fact of the matter is, the enemy always gets a vote in warfare. Much of our planning is based upon how we see the battle unfolding to fit our notions, and ignores the fact that the enemy also has means to counter our plans. That is something that we have to learn to live with. The lesson is that any war plan deserves as much treatment from the red team as the blue team. Again, I think it’s tempting to assume that we can predict what will happen based upon our equipment, our training, our technology, our courage and our history of having won most if not all of the wars that we’ve fought, which is still part of the national ethos. I think it takes a very professional soldier or politician to sit down and say, “What are the enemy’s options, and could we lose this whole thing?”

How badly were you outnumbered?

We were outnumbered three-to-one when we attacked the regimental headquarters in Thon La Chu.

Did Lt. Col. Richard S. Sweet make the right decision when he decided to break out of the encircled position?

It was the right decision based upon the options that I describe. We could have stayed and fought until we were annihilated or surrendered. We could have tried to return to Camp Evans. Or we could seek higher ground by exfiltrating through the force surrounding us. We thought that returning to Camp Evans would be cowardly. We had no intention of fighting to the last man. So we made the decision—Colonel Sweet made the decision—to escape and evade to the mountains to the west. Even that decision had a lot of us worried, because we were escaping basically single file, and we knew that if our escape was detected we could have been annihilated.

Why do you call Pfc Hector Camacho the “ultimate point man”?

I can only tell you what I learned from Captain Robert Helvey, who was Camacho’s commander in Company A. Anybody can decide to be a point man, but he is the guy out in front 10-20 yards or meters, whose job it is to give advance warning of an ambush. That guy has to operate like radar. There is no good motion or bad motion; there is just motion, and he must destroy the cause of that motion. So it’s not an exercise in morality. It’s an exercise in coordination. Camacho had that ability to sense what was happening around him and respond immediately and effectively—a very unusual and rare skill.

What happened to Colonel Sweet, who received the Distinguished Service Cross?

Sweet did make general officer, but he had a tough time after that. He suffered from PTSD, manifested by sleep walking and depression. These were not symptoms that he exhibited be fore February 1968. He was a close friend of mine, a personal friend. He died very young, at the age of 65.

Who were the other “good guys” in this action?

The good guys in this action were every soldier who fought with the 2- 12 during this period. It kind of became rank-immaterial. Everybody contributed the best he could to the extent of his ability. I appreciate and respect the work of all, from Colonel Sweet down to Private Camacho.

How many casualties did 2-12 suffer?

During the two battles I described, the one at LZ Ross and the battle outside Hue, the battalion had 81 killed and 250 wounded—a casualty rate of about 65 percent. Eleven Distinguished Service Crosses were awarded to members of the 2- 12 during this period. Over the course of its entire history the regiment has received only 31 DSCs.

Is your book’s most controversial aspect your account of the division commander’s actions?

Much of my book describes decisions that were made by General John J. Tolson that I think were subject to dispute. General Tolson ended up as the commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, and he has quite a following. Many saw my book as an attack on his abilities, and therefore looked upon the book with disfavor. One of the questions I didn’t really work on was why, when General Tolson had his nervous breakdown when we were surrounded, the next senior officer did not assume command. The story that I relate is that everyone who was in the tactical operations center when he started talking in tongues, was sworn to secrecy. Some broke that oath to tell me the story. I pledged confidentiality to all three sources, but the one source who is now deceased is Lt. Col. Collier Ross, who was the operations officer, and later rose to three stars. General Ross acknowledged that my accounting of General Tolson’s nervous breakdown was accurate. Recently I’ve had some discussions with then-Colonel, now retired Maj. Gen. George Putnam, who challenges my whole interpretation of the event. I’ll just leave it at that.

Did General Tolson weigh in on the controversy over the book?

He stayed out of it. I do mention one incident in the book where I met him at an Association of the U.S. Army meeting and he asked me what I had done in Vietnam. I said I was part of the 2-12 that was surrounded north of Hue. He just turned around and walked away without any acknowledgment. Of course, the incident involving 2-12 is not mentioned in his book about the Vietnam War, Air Mobility. He just said, “…and there was a lot of brave fighting north of Hue.” Some of the things I say about Tolson are rather harsh. I don’t demonize him, however, because I know he had a distinguished career during WWII and made important contributions developing the concept of airmobility.

With the U.S. military now stretched to the breaking point in another muddled and unconventional war, what lessons from the Lost Battalion experience can be applied to the battlefield today?

The first lesson is that light infantry cannot survive contact with the enemy without artillery support. And yet, when the 10th Mountain Division was deployed to Afghanistan, they were prevented from taking their organic artillery, to make the point that precision weapons launched from the air made area weapons, such as artillery, obsolete. A high price was paid for that decision. I don’t understand how General Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander at the time, could possibly have agreed to any plan that allowed one of his subordinate divisions to deploy without organic artillery, not to mention antipersonnel rockets for the helicopters. My reaction to that was immediate and violent, and I reached out to as many people around Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as I could. The fact that it happened at all shows that very little of what we learned in Vietnam and other wars was applied to Afghanistan or Iraq. I discuss these points in this new edition.

Would that rule also apply to the North Vietnamese, who were basically a light infantry army, but who on occasion operated without artillery?

Yes, but that was a conscious decision on their part. They knew their casualties would be heavy. We have never been willing to accept casualties on that basis, because we believe steel is cheaper than blood. We try to use artillery and other means as best we can, to reduce the burden on the soldier.

Can you see yourself getting together with veterans from the other side?

It is not something that I find instantly appealing. The problem I have is that there were 2,800 civilians in Hue massacred by the North Vietnamese during their occupation of the city—very brutally murdered, buried alive, executed. They had lists of the civilian leadership of Hue, teachers and priests, and so on. They just massacred 2,800. Whether this was a function of the North Vietnamese Army, or a political cadre operating separately, I don’t know. It would be an awkward moment for me to deal with anyone who I thought participated in the massacre of civilians. When you visit Vietnam now, they take you to My Lai, which of course was a massacre, but it also was an aberration. It certainly was not an orchestrated act of policy by the United States Army or the United States government. That is not true in Hue, where 2,800 were massacred as a deliberate act of policy.

How would you best describe your “Lost Battalion” comrades?

I would draw a comparison to the Battle of the Bulge, where survival of the force was a function of the individual courage and commitment of soldiers, anxious to do their jobs and willing to do it. We didn’t have to force anybody to fight as valiantly and ably as they did. I think it is a great commentary on the army of the period. These were Americans fighting for what they believed to be our vital national interest, and they did it very, very well.

 

David T. Zabecki and Claudia Gary are the editor and senior editor, respectively, of Vietnam Magazine. Charles A. Krohn spent the last five years of his 20-year military career working in the Pentagon, and re – turned as a civilian in 2001-04 as the Army’s deputy chief of public affairs. The second edition of The Lost Bat talion will be released in February 2008.

Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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