Learn From Ia Drang, Please
Your story on Ia Drang in the December issue offers some lessons that I think may apply to our current war in Afghanistan. I was a rifleman, sradioman and fire team leader with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1965-66. I naturally wanted to believe in what I was doing, and I suspect our current military personnel also want to believe they can help improve the lives of the people of Afghanistan. I think, though, that just as the Vietnamese Communists knew they were part of the whole population, that the Taliban in Afghanistan know that they, too, will be there forever and have nothing else to do but fight foreign forces. Our best intentions to build a nation with a central, democratic government have even less chance of success than they did in Vietnam.
Joseph Galloway’s Ia Drang story reminds me of a few of problems that are being revisited in Afghanistan. Allowing the North Vietnamese to have sanctuaries in Cambodia where we could not pursue them gave them the initiative. They chose when, where and how long a fight would last before they returned to Cambodia to rest, stockpile weapons and reinforce before returning to fight where they chose to fight. After nine years of our war in Afghanistan, it’s evident we can’t count on Pakistan to eliminate the sanctuaries the Taliban and Al Qaida have found in that country, and we’re not going to send our troops there to do it. I regret supporting our policies in Vietnam long after our secretary of defense told President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 that we could not win there. Of course, we didn’t know that advice at the time. I wonder when we will learn this time that our current military leaders have already informed our presidents that we cannot rebuild a nation that has never existed.
Roger E. Harris
Uncanny Reunion at Ia Drang
I shot the image appearing on the cover of the December issue during the battle of Ia Drang. Miraculously, the GI running at me as I took the photo turned out to be Vincent Cantu, whom I had gone to school with from the first grade all the way through Refugio High School in Texas, where we graduated together in the 55-member Class of 1959. I was absolutely stunned when I ran into him on the battlefield. I described that in the book We Were Soldiers Once, and at that time Vince was a bus driver for Houston Metro. His bosses realized that they had a war hero working for them and promoted him to supervisor. Vince is a fine, fine man, and we are still best friends. By the way, I got 10 bucks for that photo, and another photo I took at LZ X-ray was a finalist in the 1966 World Photo Contest.
Editor’s note: When we selected the cover photo for the December issue, the agency supplying it did not identify the photographer. It wasn’t until after publication that Joe Galloway, who authored the Ia Drang cover story, informed us it was his picture, and that the GI was his lifetime friend. We contacted Vince Cantu, and he kindly sent the accompanying recent photo of himself.
Soldiers’ Best Friends Thank you for the article on the Vietnam War dogs in the August issue. My dad was an Air Force Vietnam vet, doing a tour of duty as a medic at the Da Nang dispensary from 1965 to 1966. I am a retired U.S. Army veterinary technician who spent much of my 25-year military career with military working dogs and their handlers in the United States, Germany and Okinawa. Although my service was long after Vietnam, one thing is constant: the loyalty and devotion of these hard-working military dogs, whether they be patrol, drug detector or bomb detector. They are truly amazing in their abilities. I am proud to say that I also worked the system—sometimes under the table—to get orders cut to assign mascots to units when it wasn’t authorized!
Dog Tag Trifecta
I was a sergeant in the 3rd Platoon, 1st Squadron, 1st Armored Cavalry, from August 1968 to April 1970. We conducted combat operations in northern I Corps against NVA regulars and Viet Cong. I was decorated with three Bronze Star Medals, the Combat Infantry Badge and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm. I still stay in contact with more than 400 men I served with in Vietnam. For a bunch of young men mostly between the ages of 18 and 24, we did one hell of a great job.
In 2005 a woman firefighter who had traveled to Vietnam and backpacked up Highway 1 came across a bunch of U.S. dog tags and purchased as many as she could. She published all the names on the dog tags on her website, vietnamdogtags.com. My name and that of another sergeant who served in my platoon were on the list. I didn’t think much of this until the day I received the dog tag, but I felt a real feeling of closure come over me that I didn’t even know I was looking for.
The next year I found another website with lost and found dog tags, firstname.lastname@example.org, and was shortly reunited with another of my lost dog tags. Just weeks later, I found yet another website listing found tags, topvietnamveterans.org. Sure enough, they had another one of my dog tags from Vietnam. I am so grateful to have gotten three of my lost dog tags back. One was possibly lost when my tank was destroyed in a March 1969 firefight. The others were probably taken from boots I left behind on my two tours. We were instructed to lace our tags in our boots because if we were blown up, more than likely a boot with your foot would be recovered.
Eagle Point, Ore.
Smarter Soldiers Today?
General Charles Campbell, the last Vietnam general to retire from the Army (October, News), is quoted as saying “Our soldiers today are more expert, better educated…than at any time, certainly, in the 40 years I have served in the ranks.” I take issue with his remark.
In my unit in Vietnam, about half of the men were drafted upon graduation after four years of college, and the others were assorted high school graduate and partial college class work enlistees. Now, with the all-volunteer outfit, they have lowered standards and raised recruiting incentives. I say today’s soldiers are not better educated, and neither is the leadership at the top, as Afghanistan and Iraq are becoming America’s longest wars without resolution. With apologies to Pete Seeger: When will they ever learn….when will they ever learn?
Old Prof Still Teaches
I read with great interest Rod Paschall’s article “Prescient at the Creation” in your December 2010 issue. As a young officer, I learned much from Colonel Paschall when I was at the Army War College at Carlisle, Pa. Now, 16 years retired, I’m still learning from Colonel Paschall, whose understanding of the Vietnam War is profound.
Flat Rock, N.C.
Tall Tiger Tales
I am questioning Karl Marlantes’ statement in his October interview that he “saw a guy in our battalion get eaten by a tiger.” I served in India Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, in 1968-69, and never heard of an incident like this. I have also researched any tigers killing any soldiers in Vietnam and have come up with only one possibility. A tiger may have killed an Army corporal in 1969, but he was not eaten! I found one other claim that I think is bogus, as the individual is not listed on the Wall as being killed in Vietnam.
In the August interview, James G. Zumwalt says that the Vietnamese defeated the Japanese in 1945, the French in 1954 and then the Americans in 1975. What is this guy smoking? America was not defeated by the Vietnamese! The only ones to defeat the American soldiers and Marines has been our own politicians and the news media, neither of which have any shame.
Send letters to: Vietnam Editor, 19300 Promenade Drive, Leesburg, VA 20176; or e-mail: Vietnam@weiderhistorygroup.com