Doniphan “Don” Carter was a lieutenant with the famed 10th Mountain Division in Italy during World War II, a major and 179th Infantry regimental operations staff officer in Korea, and a colonel with the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam. Interspersed with tours in three war zones were two NATO assignments and four stints at the Pentagon.
Carter, whose father also was an Army infantry colonel, has a perspective on the great conflicts of the mid-20th century that few can match.
It all began on D-Day—but not on the shores of Normandy, France. On June 6, 1944, the day American troops landed on Utah and Omaha beaches, Carter graduated from West Point.
What was it like to graduate on D-Day?
I entered West Point on the first day of July 1941 with the class of 1945. Six months later Pearl Harbor happened, and the academy shortened the course of instruction to three years. When we went to graduation, the speaker was Lt. Gen. Brehon Somervell, the chief of Army Service Forces. The first thing he said was that the landings had taken place in Normandy earlier that day.
After a month’s leave, we all reported to our branch schools. I had chosen infantry, so I went to Fort Benning [Georgia], as did my roommate, and we were to be there for a four-month basic course, and then they cut that back to three months.
Where did you go next?
I was assigned to the 10th Light Division at Camp Swift, Texas, in October. It turned out to be the 10th Mountain Division eventually. I was there for two months, and then we were told to pack up. The next morning we got on trains. We wound up down in Hampton Roads [Virginia], at Camp Patrick Henry.
On Jan. 4, 1945, they put us on the SS America, renamed the USS West Point. We didn’t know where we were going. I woke up the next morning, and we were out of sight of land, all by ourselves. Then they told us where we were going, and that’s the first time we knew. When we arrived in Naples, my unit was loaded on a freighter, and we went up the coast to Livorno.
When did you first experience combat?
We were dug in on the side of a mountain, north of Florence, up in the Appenines. We went on hikes to get rid of our sea legs and then eventually into combat—little minor skirmishes, nothing major until the 23rd of February, when the whole division made an attack on Mount Belvedere. We took the mountain. The Germans had been kicked off it twice by the 92nd Division. And they’d taken it back each time. They didn’t kick us off. We stayed.
There was a German observation post that could direct artillery fire onto it. It was in a place the Germans didn’t think we could get to, but some mountain climbers from the division scaled a rocky face and got up there and surprised the Germans. That was the end of that observation post, and so we didn’t get any trouble from them. We had a few casualties, nothing serious. We stayed up there about a week.
From there we went to some other place to take terrain that would be favorable for our final attack to wind up the war in Italy.
On the 15th of April, the other two rifle companies in the battalion were on line. We were behind them, just sitting there waiting for the order to go. We were going to pass through them. We would be the lead company, and we were going to hit this place the Germans had fortified. It was a bunch of small buildings, but they were all stone. The Air Force dropped bombs on them. The artillery put preparatory fire on them. We had weapons sited on every cave we could find, and off we went. It was pretty bloody. We lost 22 men that day out of a company of 196 men. Now they weren’t all killed, but we had two minefields to go through. I walked past a couple of men who had a foot blown off.
The 10th Mountain Division did itself proud in Italy, and eventually we got to the Po River.
What happened there?
The next day we were informed we would be making an assault crossing at 12 o’clock. When it was getting close to 12, the company commander called me on the radio and said, “Organize the boat groups.” We didn’t have enough boats for the whole company, so we had to have two waves. The engineers who had delivered the assault boats [and would have ferried the first troops across, then rowed back for others] had disappeared, so the question was how to get the boats back for the second wave.
I made a major decision: When the boats in the first wave get to the far side, use captured Germans to paddle the boats back across the river for the Americans in the second wave. Germans take orders pretty well. If they take off their helmets and put on a soft cap, they’ve surrendered.
The company commander went in the first wave. They captured Germans on the far shore, sent them back. I went in the second wave. We went across, and as we’re running up the bank, the medic took a bullet in the thigh. We got his equipment, stopped the bleeding and bandaged him up. We captured three Germans, put them in the boat and told them to take the medic back to an aid station. He made it back OK. It worked well. That was kind of a fascinating event for me.
We proceeded north, and the division was supposed to plug Brenner Pass [on the border between Italy and Austria] so the Germans couldn’t get out and defend up around Berchtesgaden, where Hitler had a redoubt. We were there on May 8 when the war in Europe ended.
Seven years later you were in Korea. How did you wind up there?
There was a war on, and I wanted to be in it. So I volunteered for Korea. I went to Korea in September of ’52 and had my year there in an infantry regiment.
What did your unit do in Korea?
We didn’t do anything unique. We didn’t go anywhere, except sideways, back and forth. We moved around a little bit. But we didn’t go north or south. There was a demilitarized zone. The enemy was on that side. We were on this side. We shot at each other. We ran patrols to make contact with them.
We had some encounters when they tried to get in our trenches. But we fought them off. I was back at regimental headquarters. I was the regimental operations officer. Professionally, it was a good tour of duty.
Then came Vietnam.
I got orders to take over a brigade in Vietnam in June 1967. I had the 25th Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade. We were at Cu Chi, co-located with the headquarters of the 25th Division.
I had three battalions, and each one had its own tactical area of operational interest, where they moved around and tried to do what they were supposed to be doing, which, I was told, was winning the hearts and minds of the people. Some people kept score by body count. It wasn’t the happiest experience of my life, being in Vietnam. It didn’t come out very well.
Do you see any parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan, where we also are training local forces, hoping they can hold the country together after we leave?
The only war I’ve been in that was a good war was World War II, because we took the objective, which was to defeat the Germans. We won the war there, and the enemy was defeated. And now you don’t have a political entity that you’re fighting against. It’s bunch of dissidents who don’t like what’s going on, and they’re organized well enough to create problems and the governments aren’t strong enough to hold them off.
If we back out, then it’s a tossup whether throwing money at them is going to help. What are we trying to do? We’re trying to export democracy, and I don’t think you can do that. I think that has to be developed from inside.
Earlier you mentioned your roommate at West Point. That was General Dwight Eisenhower’s son, John Eisenhower.
We were good friends. My wife, Eleanor, and I are the godparents of his oldest child, and he and his first wife were the godparents of our oldest child.
Eleanor and I got married in June of ’46, when John was stationed in Vienna. After the wedding, we went on an abbreviated honeymoon that ended at my parents’ place in Severna Park [Maryland]. I got a communication from Mamie: “I have a wedding gift for you, but you’ll have to come in to Fort Myer Quarters One [the Washington residence of the Army chief of staff].”
So on the Fourth of July, Eleanor and I sat on the front porch with Ike and Mamie and drank ice water and watched the fireworks. While we were enjoying the fireworks, he asked me, “Well, what are you up to?”
I said that on July 6 I was to report for shipment back to Europe.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’ll get in the replacement stream and somewhere I’ll get an assignment.”
“How would you like to go where John is?”
Now you’re a first lieutenant, and you’re talking to a five-star general who was chief of staff of the Army, what do you say? “Wherever you want, sir.”
So I wound up in Vienna, where John’s battalion was.
Had you met Dwight Eisenhower before?
I first met him while John and I were cadets at West Point in January of 1944. He came home from London. It was secret because if the Germans knew he was not in England they would know there was not going to be an invasion then. He and Mamie came up to West Point in a private rail car, which was dropped off at the train station. John was authorized to invite three classmates to dinner on the train. Eisenhower couldn’t get off the train. We were all in awe of him. We were cadets, and he was a four-star general. They were being nice to us, and they were just our hosts.
What’s your assessment of Eisenhower?
I think he was a great man. He’s one of the top people in this last century. He did a good job as commander of the Allies in Europe. He made a lot of good decisions. He got us out of Korea. He didn’t take us into Vietnam. John told me that World War II made a pacifist out of him. When he saw the death and destruction, the waste that war caused, he didn’t want any more to do with it. I know there are people who think he was a president who did nothing but play golf, but I don’t believe that. The country matured very well under him. You may or may not like the interstates, but he gets credit for them. I know he had a reason to want a better road network, and he had seen what the Germans did with the autobahn. He knew how to get people to work together.
From your experience serving in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, when do you think it is right to ask young men and women to go to war overseas?
I think we have to find ourselves in some level of danger that’s something we can’t put up with, like bombing Pearl Harbor. Of course, we got involved with Germany because we were helping the Brits. The Germans were no threat to us until they tried to keep us from helping Britain. Then we were endangered. I don’t think that we were endangered in Vietnam. Kennedy decided that we were going to take care of our friends. Well, the French got thrown out of Vietnam, and we tried taking it over from them and didn’t do any better than they did.
This little incident I told you about— my medic getting shot—we let the Germans take him back across the river to the aid station. We kept moving. We didn’t take the wounded back like they do now. We left them there. The medics followed behind us, so we weren’t doing the wrong thing. But now you have “no soldier left behind.” They go out and lose someone and then they come back with him. That’s because they’re not going to take the terrain.
We had an objective to take. But if you don’t have an objective other than killing people, then it’s…I’m glad I’m not involved in this war in Afghanistan. I think one reason it’s so long is because we don’t have a positive objective. You can’t say when it’s over. There’s nobody to surrender because there’s no political entity that can say, “OK, we give up.”
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.