John Paul Vann: Man and Legend

By Peter Kross
2/20/2007 • Richard Nixon, Vietnam

By 1965, as American forces increased dramatically in South Vietnam, it was obvious that the advisory mission President John F. Kennedy had begun in 1961 was now entering a new and more perilous phase. While U.S. Army and Marine units went on combat missions with South Vietnamese army (ARVN) troops, reporters on the ground began to question the conduct of the war — and so did a few U.S. Army officers.

These officers knew that such questioning of the way the war was going could lead to the end of their military careers, but decided to pursue the truth regardless. One such man was a decorated veteran of the Korean War, Lt. Col. John Paul Vann. By the time of his death in Vietnam in June 1972, Vann had taken on the highest military authorities in Washington and had earned the respect and trust of a small group of newsmen whose reporting of the war began a general public questioning of how and why the conflict was being fought.

John Paul Vann was born on July 2, 1924, in Norfolk, Va., the illegitimate son of Johnny Spry and Myrtle Lee Tripp, a reputed part-time prostitute. Tripp married Aaron Frank Vann in 1929, and young John took his new father’s name. In June 1942, Frank Vann officially adopted John.

John Vann attended public school in Roanoke, Va. In the early 1940s he was attending junior college as the United States entered World War II. Vann was eager to join the fight, and entered the Army in 1943 intending to fly. He was accepted into the Army Air Forces training program that June and took his initial training in Rochester, N.Y. Moving from one base to the next, he finally was accepted for pilot training. While in training, he met Mary Jane Allen, whom he married on October 6, 1945.

Vann received his wings and was commissioned as a lieutenant, fulfilling his boyhood ambition to become a flier. Having missed combat during World War II, he was sent to Guam, where he flew Boeing B-29 bombers to bases across the Pacific. In 1946 Vann enrolled at Rutgers University in New Jersey to earn his bachelor’s degree. He was now the father of a baby girl named Patricia. Along with almost all Army Air Forces officers of the day, Vann faced a key career decision the following year. Under newly passed legislation that reorganized the entire American defense establishment, the Army Air Forces were separated from the Army to form a new branch of the mili­tary, the U.S. Air Force. Vann decided to remain with the Army and transferred to the infantry branch. Assigned to Fort Benning, he undertook paratroop training. The Army then assigned him to Korea as a special services officer, coordinating entertainment activities for the soldiers.

From Korea, Vann was sent to Japan to supervise the procurement of supplies for the 25th Infantry Division, based in Osaka. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he deployed back to Korea with the 25th ID and was stationed near Pusan, where he oversaw the loading and unloading of the massive amount of supplies required for the military buildup. As the fighting intensified on the Korean peninsula, Vann, now a captain, assumed command of a company in the 8th Ranger Battalion and led missions behind enemy lines. One of Vann’s soldiers was a very young David Hackworth.

Vann’s second son, Jesse, was born on August 5, 1950. The child’s health problems forced Vann’s early return to the United States. In 1954 he was assigned to the 16th Infantry Regiment in Schweinfurt, West Germany, to command the regiment’s Heavy Mortar Company. An officer evaluation report he received from Colonel (later General) Bruce Palmer Jr. described Vann as “one of the few highly outstanding officers I know.”

In 1955 Vann was promoted to major and reassigned to U.S. Army Europe headquarters in Heidelberg, where he worked in logistics. He returned to the United States in 1957 to attend the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

While he was enrolled at Syracuse University in New York in May 1959, Vann was notified by the military police that he was being investigated on charges of statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl while he had been at Fort Leavenworth. The consequences if he was found guilty would be enormous. A jail term and dismissal from the Army were distinct possibilities. If that was not enough pressure on the family, Vann’s youngest son, Peter, was seriously ill and required extensive medical treatment.

Vann was informed by the MPs that the girl had told a military chaplain at Fort Leavenworth about the alleged rape. Vann denied the charges. The Criminal Investigative Division was able to verify some ele­ments of the accuser’s story. The girl took a lie detector test and passed. Right after Vann graduated from Syracuse University with a master’s in business administration, CID recommended that court-martial proceedings go forward, on charges of statutory rape and adultery.

As Vann took up a temporary assignment at Fort Drum, N.Y., an Article 32 investigation (the military equivalent of a civilian grand jury) proceeded. Vann maintained that he had become friends with an emotionally unstable girl, who confided in him about her terrible home life and her inability to communicate with her parents. Vann insisted that the girl was fabricating the story of an affair with him. Vann submitted a 17-page rebuttal to the charges filed against him, but he also studied ways to beat a polygraph test, and he coached his wife on how to beat the machine when she testified on his behalf. Vann took the polygraph without incriminating himself, and the Article 32 convening authority subsequently concluded that there was not enough evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to convict him. Vann had dodged a huge bullet. No court-martial proceedings were held, and all charges were dropped. Despite the shadow of the charges and the investigation, Vann was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1961.

By late 1961 and early 1962, the Kennedy administration started to focus its attention on the conflict in South Vietnam. The Communist North Vietnamese, acting through their Viet Cong proxies in the South, were wreaking havoc among the populace outside of Saigon. The corrupt South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem asked for and received American military advisers to help fight the ever-growing insurgent attacks. Soon American troops were patrolling with the ARVN regulars, and Ameri­can helicopters were providing covering fire on search-and-destroy missions in the South. Upon arriving in Saigon in March 1962, Vann reported to Colonel Daniel Porter, the senior U.S. adviser to ARVN III Corps. Vann and the rest of the influx of Americans were assigned to the newly established U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), then commanded by General Paul Harkins, who during World War II had been General George Patton’s assistant chief of staff. By 1962 Harkins commanded more than 11,300 American troops in Vietnam.

Vann’s first duty was to organize a supply system for the ARVN forces. The system was a huge success; soon supplies that had once been tied up in red tape were flowing to the proper units. Porter then assigned Vann as the American adviser to Colonel Huynh Van Cao, commander of the ARVN 7th Division, who later became a corps commander and then a South Vietnamese senator.

Vann’s key military talent was his ability to see the big picture and establish the priorities necessary to accomplish the objective. Wanting to learn the situation firsthand, he flew helicopters into and out of hostile areas, often at risk to his own life. He was an early proponent of the war, believing that American policies in South Vietnam were the main thing blocking the Communist drive to control all of Southeast Asia.

Porter gave Vann a virtual carte blanche for his travel. Accompanying ARVN helicopter missions throughout the northern Mekong Delta, Vann made contact with the local tribal chiefs and monitored the fighting progress of the ARVN troops. Vann methodi­cally learned the tactics of guerrilla warfare and methods of counterinsurgency that the Kennedy administration was then promoting so aggressively. One of his most trenchant observations was: “This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I’m afraid we can’t do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worse is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle — you know who you’re killing.”

Accompanying ARVN units to the field, Vann quickly realized to his dismay that the South Vietnamese army lacked the will to fight. In the face of enemy fire, far too many ARVN officers and soldiers opted not to engage the enemy and took flight. The disastrous battle at Ap Bac on January 2, 1963, was a turning point for Vann. Attempting to direct the battle from a light and unarmed observation aircraft, Vann was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Yet despite Vann’s best efforts and a solid tactical plan that should have succeeded, the ARVN allowed the VC to escape.

The more Vann came to understand the political situation in Saigon, the more he became disenchanted with the way President Diem was running the country. It was an open secret in Saigon and Washington that the Diem government was rife with corruption. Vann witnessed firsthand how Diem refused to implement needed political and military reforms and how his corrupt brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, rewarded friends in the military. Seeing how badly the Diem regime was responding to the ever-growing Communist threat, and the lack of military progress against the VC, Vann decided he had to tell his superior officers, and anyone else who would listen, just how badly things were going in Vietnam.

It had become obvious to some of the Americans at MACV by late 1962 that the war on the ground was not going right. Instead of learning from mistakes or correcting the situation, many of the senior officers around MACV’s General Harkins had begun to rein in any officers who were deviating from the playbook. Vann, however, publicly called the January 1963 battle of Ap Bac a defeat for American and ARVN forces and “a miserable damn performance.” Harkins almost fired him, giving him a severe tongue-lashing. From that day forward, Vann was persona non grata at MACV headquarters in Saigon.

In his reports, Vann used statistical analysis methods to show that the South Vietnamese government was grossly inflating VC body counts, further infurating his superiors. Vann also incurred the wrath of his superiors by stating openly that the ARVN troops would not risk conducting search-and-destroy missions but instead assumed defensive positions whenever possible. He further angered senior military leaders by his association and friendship with two young American reporters in Saigon, David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. Vann shared his misgivings with them, and they in turn filed news reports of alleged ARVN ineptitude. Vann was also strident in his criticisms of the Strategic Hamlet Program, which he thought was a waste of time and energy, and he was critical of the way MACV ran counterintelligence operations.

Harkins had finally had enough. In April 1963 Vann returned to America. When he arrived in Washington, he carried with him his final report as a senior adviser — a scathing critique of the way the war was being handled by the South Vietnamese armed forces. Few of the Pentagon’s senior officials wanted to read his report, however.

Vann’s new assignment in the Pentagon involved managing the financial resources allocated to the Special Forces counter­insurgency program. He also interviewed many military officers who had been in Vietnam, and he finally produced a narrative that made the Pentagon take notice.

In his report, Vann backed up with hard statistical analysis his assessment that the number of enemy troops actually killed was less than two-thirds the number claimed by MACV. Many of those counted as enemy dead were in reality civilians caught in crossfire. Vann also was highly critical of South Vietnamese tactics, noting a tendency to make excessive use of airstrikes and artillery, rather than putting ground units into VC territory.

To his surprise, Vann found one ally among the top brass in the Pentagon: Lt. Gen. Barksdale Hamlett, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for operations. General Hamlett agreed that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not getting the full truth about combat in Vietnam. Ham­lett tried to get General Maxwell Taylor, the JCS chairman, to allow Vann to brief them, but Taylor refused. Despite Taylor’s orders to the contrary, Hamlett scheduled a meeting with Vann and the chiefs. In the end, the meeting was canceled. Taylor, however, did have what was reported to be a very confrontational meeting alone with Vann.

Vann also met with the military staff of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and with presidential assistant Roswell Gil­patrick, as well as with CIA operative Maj. Gen. Edward Lansdale, who told Vann he should stick to things he knew firsthand and skip the gossip about what was going on in Saigon. But Lansdale also tried, without success, to get Vann to brief the JCS. Frustrated and seeing his career at a dead end, Vann retired from the Army in July 1963.

Two years later, he returned to Vietnam as a pacification representative for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Working in the ARVN III Corps area, where he had served his previous tour, Vann was so successful that within a year he was chief of the civilian pacification program in all the provinces around Saigon. Initially, the Office of Civilian Operations had been established to manage all U.S. government civilian agencies working in Vietnam under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Embassy. In May 1967 OCO was replaced with Civilian Operations and Revolutionary Development Support under the military chain of command. Robert Komer became the MACV civilian deputy commander for CORDS, with a rank equivalent to that of a lieutenant general.

Because of his track record in the field, Vann was the lead candidate to become CORDS deputy for the III Corps Tactical Zone (CTZ). Komer supported the appointment, but General William C. Westmoreland, now in command at MACV, was less than enthusiastic. Westmoreland, however, left the final decision to Lt. Gen. Fred Weyand, the newly appointed commander of U.S. II Field Forces, the senior American commander in the south of the country. Weyand, who had served as an intelligence officer in the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II, valued unconventional thinkers. While commander of the 25th Infantry Division, Weyand had learned that Vann was right far more often than he was wrong. Although Weyand predicted that Vann would be a “hair shirt,” he also knew that he would be worth the trouble.

Weyand’s hunch paid off. In the run-up to the Tet Offensive of 1968, Vann was one of the few Americans besides Weyand who saw and correctly interpreted the intelligence patterns that indicated a massive VC/NVA assault on the Saigon–Long Binh–Bien Hoa area. Weyand’s insistence that Westmoreland allow him to pull more U.S. maneuver battalions away from the border areas and inside the “Saigon Circle” was the key factor that turned Tet into a mili­tary disaster for the Communists.

When Maj. Gen. Ngo Dzu became the commander of ARVN IV Corps in 1970, he already had a good relationship with Vann, extending back to 1967. Dzu actually spent more time with Vann than he did with Maj. Gen. Hal McCown, who was Dzu’s official senior adviser in the IV CTZ. As U.S. forces started to draw down in Vietnam, Vann saw an opportunity to redeem his aborted military career through an alternate path, which was to replace McCown as the IV CTZ senior adviser when McCown’s tour ended in May 1971. A specific request from General Dzu was the mechanism needed to make that happen. Vann also believed he could count on support from Weyand, who was scheduled to return to Vietnam in the fall of 1970 as the deputy commanding general of MACV, which was now commanded by General Creighton Abrams.

Dzu was happy to support Vann, but the whole plan almost derailed when South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu reshuffled the ARVN’s corps commanders in August 1970. With Dzu sent to command II Corps in the central highlands, Vann now had to alter his maneuvering so that he would replace Maj. Gen. Charles P. Brown as the II CTZ senior adviser.

Weyand presented Vann’s case to Abrams in April 1971. Abrams, who had a relatively high opinion of Vann, was open to the suggestion, but there were still the institutional and legal hurdles of placing a civilian in a military command position. Weyand managed to convince Abrams that U.S. officers would respond to Vann’s unquestioned competence and natural leadership abilities, much as they had in III CTZ in 1967, when Vann first became the CORDS deputy there. Vann’s influence over Dzu was also a crucial factor in the decision.

In May 1971, Vann moved north to become the senior adviser in II CTZ. Although he was now the civilian equivalent of a major general, he legally could not be given the title of commander. The 2nd Regional Assistance Command was redesignated the 2nd Regional Assistance Group, and Vann’s title was director. Because a civilian cannot convene courts-martial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Vann was assigned a military deputy, Brig. Gen. George Wear, whose official title was commanding general, U.S. Army Forces Military Region 2. Nonetheless, Vann exercised de facto operational command over all U.S. military forces in his sector. Other civilians, such as Komer, had held general officer equivalency rank, but Vann was the first to have the authority to direct American troops in battle. Rather than large maneuver units, however, most of the U.S. combat forces remaining in Vietnam by that time were advisers and aviation units.

Vann’s major test as a field commander came during the Easter Offensive of 1972. As the North Vietnamese mounted a massive three-prong conventional attack from the north, Vann planned to defeat the thrust against II CTZ using the mobile defensive tactics he had seen Lt. Gen. Walton Walker use to defeat the North Koreans at the Pusan Perimeter in 1950. The NVA objective in II CTZ was Kontum, the northernmost key city in the Central Highlands. If Kontum fell, Pleiku would go with it. But before it could reach Kontum, the NVA had to take a series of ridges and high ground to the north, to which the outpost at Tan Canh was the key.

The headquarters of the ARVN’s 22nd Division, Tan Canh, was defended by about 10,000 South Vietnamese troops. On the morning of April 23, 1972, Tan Canh was attacked by a large NVA force that included T-54 tanks. Vann landed under heavy fire at Tan Canh with his helicopter and began evacuating civilians and the wounded. He remained on the ground and tried to rally the demoralized ARVN soldiers. As the attack continued through the following day, Tan Canh’s defenses finally collapsed. Vann again returned to the battle, where he located and extracted three American advisers. His heli­copter took several hits in the process, as he personally directed airstrikes on NVA tanks and anti-aircraft positions. Vann was credited with rescuing more than 50 wounded and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the only civilian to be so honored since World War II.

With the fall of Tan Canh, the NVA had a direct shot at Kontum, 25 miles away. The North Vietnamese, however, had no real experience with pursuit in mobile warfare and failed to follow up aggressively. Vann used the pause to good advantage. Abandoning any pretense of who was really in command of II Corps, he bypassed Dzu and began to issue orders directly to the ARVN units defending Kontum. MACV rushed reinforcements north, including the still-experimental Huey helicopters armed with TOW antitank missiles — history’s first use of helicopters to attack tanks.

In the end, however, it was air power, and specifically around-the-clock Boeing B-52 strikes, that broke the back of the offensive and destroyed the better part of two NVA divisions. Personally involved in targeting during the course of the battle, Vann directed more than 300 B-52 strikes. Ironically, the man who once said the most discriminating weapon in insurgency warfare was a knife or a rifle had now acquired the nickname of “Mr. B-52.”

By June 5, the battle for Kontum was over. The civilian general had won his major battle, but he didn’t live long to enjoy his victory. On June 9, 1972, John Paul Vann was killed when his helicopter, call sign “Rogues’ Gallery,” flying in darkness, slammed into a stand of trees and exploded. He was 47. As author Neil Sheehan described the funeral, it was “like an extraordinary class reunion. Here were all the figures from Vietnam in this chapel.” General Westmoreland was the chief pallbearer. Also in attendance were such diverse individuals as Edward Lansdale, Lucien Conein, Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Kennedy, prowar columnist Joseph Alsop, Robert Komer and William Colby. Vann was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

On June 16, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon met with members of Vann’s family at the White House to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously to the former renegade lieutenant colonel. The citation read in part, “Soldier of peace and patriot of two nations, the name of John Paul Vann will be honored as long as free men remember the struggle to preserve the independence of South Vietnam.”

Saigon fell less than three years after Vann’s victory at Kontum. As Sheehan noted: “John Vann was not meant to flee to a ship at sea, and he did not miss his exit. He died believing he had won his war.”

This article was written by Peter Kross and originally published in the April 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today.

For additional reading, see Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam,and David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest.

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