More on an American Hero
Here’s a little more about Donald Koelper, who was mentioned in the piece by Sally Bush Lynch (“Perspectives,” April). Captain Koelper, a U.S. Marine Corps adviser to the South Vietnamese military, was killed while saving lives at the Kinh Do Movie Theatre on April 16, 1964, when a National Liberation Front terrorist threw a bomb into the auditorium. The attack on the Kinh Do was part of a concerted campaign by the NLF directed against U.S. targets within Saigon, with the intention of killing or maiming as many American civilians and servicemen as possible.
A special screening of a movie called The List of Adrian Messenger had been arranged for U.S. servicemen and their guests. Koelper saw one terrorist shoot and fatally wound the military policeman who was guarding the door as another terrorist ran into the theater. Koelper and U.S. Navy Lieutenant William Greeves ran across the street and into the theater in an attempt to tackle the second terrorist. When it was clear it was too late, they shouted a warning to those in the theater, giving them vital moments to get down on the floor. When the device detonated, Koelper was hit by debris and buried under a collapsed balcony. He was rushed to a hospital, but died on the operating table.
Because of his swift actions, only three Americans were killed: Koelper, Pfc Peter Feierabend (the MP shot twice by the attackers) and Spc. 5 William Reid, who was in the theater. Fifty-one other Americans were injured, and at least one Vietnamese passerby was killed along with an unknown number of Vietnamese injured. Koelper was posthumously promoted to major and awarded the Navy Cross—the first approved for the Vietnam War.
Scotland, Great Britain
One-Year Tour of Duty
This is in reply to a letter to the editor from Robert J. Wilensky, M.D., Ph.D. (Letters, June). Dr. Wilensky was making a point of the requirement of a “one-year tour” of duty in Vietnam. I fully agree with Dr. Wilensky’s assessment that the one-year tour was not a good program and for the reasons he points out in his letter. The only question I have about Dr. Wilensky’s letter is where he says officers only spent six months in-country because General William Westmoreland wanted as many officers as possible to get combat experience.
What officers were these? I served a full “one-year tour” twice in Vietnam, as did all the other officers in my unit. My second tour was as a helicopter pilot in an air cavalry unit with C-Troop 2-17th Cavalry of the 101st Airborne Division. The majority of the men in this unit were officers, both commissioned and warrant, and they all served a minimum one-year tour of duty, including the field grade officers. Maybe General Westmoreland made the six-month tour a requirement of the immediate officers working in his headquarters.
I can definitely tell you that if the “six month” rule applied only to officers, I would have extended my tour to equal the one-year tour the enlisted and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) had to serve. And I know that all the other officers I served with would have done the same thing. I spent 39 years associated with the United States Army: 19 years as an Army brat, five years as an enlisted/NCO and the remaining active duty time of 15 years as a commissioned officer. Add to that 27 years in Retired Army status, for an overall total of 66 years, I am pretty well in tune to the heartbeat of the military. Officers lead by example and by taking care of the men and women assigned to them. I cannot think of a more destructive morale issue than to have officers serve only six months and all non-officers serve 12 months. In fact, officers served a minimum of one year, as did all the other military men and women in Vietnam.
President, Condors Association
Thank you for the article on Operation Dewey Canyon (August). I was with D/1/9 during that operation, and the article brought back some vivid memories. One was from when we arrived at the location where A Company had been ambushed: The area was in utter chaos, littered with evidence of a fierce battle, which included the dead and wounded. We literally flew down the mountain to assist, but it was hell coming back up. In many locations the grade was at least 60-70 degrees, making it especially difficult to carry the dead back. It took at least four Marines for each body; each time we moved up the mountain we would grab a root or branch with one hand and a part of the body with the other, and at the count of three we would move the body 3 to 4 feet uphill. This went on for almost the entire night.
Another memory was of the discovery of the arms caches at the summit of Hill 1044. When we arrived there, it was the only time I remember attacking on-line with fire-teams, just as we were taught at Pendleton. As we were attacking, I remember a fuel dump or small munitions area exploding by the side of the road, which tore up a part of the mountain with one of the loudest explosions I experienced in?Vietnam. After that, uncovering the cache of arms and munitions was just staggering. We all grabbed SKS rifles that were still packed in water-resistant grease.
Finally, I must give due respect to the North Vietnamese Army soldiers who died there. During the attack on 1044, I saw an NVA soldier calmly rise from behind fallen logs to fire on us; he stayed in that position even though he knew he was outnumbered. When he arose for the third time, I shot him.
We lost many good people there, such as William O’Shea II, killed February 19, 1969. God bless you, Bill. Semper fi.
Randolfo V. Lopez
I so loved reading the story about Dickey Chapelle in the August issue!?Forty-seven years ago, when I was a sophomore at Cloquet High School in Minnesota, she spoke at a student assembly there. I was mesmerized; few people have influenced me more: Two years later, I edited the school paper. In 1964 (at 20) I went to Alaska, alone, and stayed for 35 years. In 1966 I got a pilot’s license. In 1968 I took up photography. I’ve climbed two mountains, driven a dog team, wrecked a snowmobile, owned two horses and driven a team; and for the past 25 years, I’ve stayed surrounded by combat veterans. There’s a soft spot in my heart for Marines.
I’ve forgotten what Dickey told us that day so long ago, but it must have been amazing. I never forgot her name, and it was the very first thing I searched for the first time I used the Internet. I wish I could have thanked her personally for teaching me how to…live!
Dealing the Ace of Spades
I read with interest the article on the Ace of Spades (“Perspectives,” October). In 1967 the death cards carried by some frontline units such as the 25th Infantry, 1st Cavalry, and the 173rd Airborne Brigade, had their unit insignias on the back to identify to Charlie who was responsible for their demise.
Your article stated that the Ace of Spades originated in 1966 with the 25th Infantry. I was with the 34th Engineers; we shared base camp with the 173rd Airborne at Bien Hoa in 1967. Some of the 173rd were using the Death Card as early as 1965. Ironically, Jimi Hendrix was said to have placed a few on his tour of duty. (I don’t know whether this can be proven.) Regardless, great article, great magazine.
As a longtime subscriber to your magazine, I read with great interest about the attack of the MiG-17s on American ships (“Arsenal,” June). In April of 1972, I was stationed aboard the aircraft carrier Coral Sea at Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin, as a communications technician “R” brancher (Morse code intercept). I had intercepted communications between Dong Hoi (Gat airfield) and the surface tracking station noted in the article, sending ship locations and times.
I also intercepted communications between Hanoi and Dong Hoi concerning the MiG-17s and the pilots. Later messages contained dates and times involved. Through additional intercepts I tracked an An-2 aircraft carrying the pilots from Hanoi to Dong Hoi. I made this information known to my division OIC on board Coral Sea, and said that I thought an attack on one of our ships was imminent. I was told that after checking with other Naval and Air Force stations, they had no corroboration for my intercept and unfortunately decided not to follow up on it.
On April 19, I intercepted a message from Dong Hoi to Hanoi that two MiG-17s had taken off. I can confirm that one MiG was shot down by the destroyer Sterrett’s missiles and that the other made it back over land and was then dropped by the North Vietnamese tracking radar. I had no intercept showing that the MiG had landed, and assumed that the aircraft had crashed.
Afterward, of course, the intelligence community wanted all the information I had on the attack. Could this have been prevented? We’ll never know, but I gave it my best.
Lloyd A. Gill Jr.
M-16s in 1965
In response to the letter by David W. Truesdale (“Letters,” June), I served with the 173rd Airborne from May 1964 until May 1966. In April 1965 our M-14s were taken and we were issued M-16s before we went to Vietnam. We were told not to put any oil on them.
We were deployed to Vietnam from Okinawa on May 5, 1965. In our first firefight with the Viet Cong, many of our M-16s jammed, causing many casualties among our men. From that point on we put a light coat of oil on them, and they worked fine! The M-16 was first manufactured in 1959.
Mark D. Mitchell
Brotherly Love in the Face of War
Aside from being a superb writer, John McBride (“Perspectives,” August) has somehow managed to capture the essence of why those of us who served in Vietnam are drawn back to that brutal watershed experience in our lives. As with Mr. McBride, a day never goes by that I do not vividly recall the weary but hopeful faces of my men, a 1/9 Marine machine gun squad. These include Tony Derkowski and Jim Anthony, two deadeye gunners, the first a Texas farmer and the second a polished Chicago African-American—both inseparable friends to each other—who still reside warmly as dear brothers in my memory. While I personally think back on Vietnam as a bad war fought by good Americans and their allies, I still believe, like John McBride, that I remain deeply privileged to have served with men whom I adore unflinchingly to this day.
Clark (Bud) Hall
I am a longtime subscriber to Vietnam. The October 2007 issue was, in my opinion, one of the best in recent memory. I served in 1966-67 and 1970-71, at Cam Ranh Bay and Tuy Hoa air bases. I especially enjoyed the story about Sergeant Billy Walkabout. I look forward to reading many more issues of this fine publication.
William F. Foster Jr.
T/Sgt., U.S. Air Force (ret.)
In the Letters column of your June issue, James Cool wrote about draftees being “volunteered” into the Marines. I remember such an incident. In Las Vegas, a graduating high school senior got a tattoo on the lower edge of his right hand, perfect for viewing every time he saluted. It said “F—k the Army.” Well, it certainly kept him out of the Army!
Thank you for a quality magazine.
Send letters to: Vietnam Editor, World History Group, 741 Miller Drive SE, Suite D-2, Leesburg, VA 20175; or e-mail to Vietnam@weiderhistorygroup.com. Please include your name, address and daytime telephone number. Letters may be edited.