From West Point, perched on the Hudson River in upstate New York, the war in Vietnam was half a world away — except for a bulletin board at the entrance rotunda of Thayer Hall, the U.S. Military Academy’s cavernous main academic building and former horseback riding hall. One prominent display there began, ‘Dear Gloria, Well I imagine by the time you receive this letter you will have received the news via the newspapers and I thought I would write and let you know I made it through.’ Lieutenant Charles ‘Chuck’ Campanella’s letter went on to recount the terrifying moments at LZ Bird on Christmas Day 1966, when the small artillery compound had been assaulted by a wave of more than 800 North Vietnamese infantry. The battle of LZ Bird was later chronicled by the famous war historian S.L.A. Marshall in his book Bird: The Christmastide Battle. Campanella’s personal account of the desperate fight, and how his letter came to be posted on an academy bulletin board, are part of a remarkable and little-known story.
The fortifications at West Point were originally built to guard the upper Hudson from a British invasion. Although the grounds of the present-day academy have not been splashed with a drop of blood from battle since the American Revolution, this place has never been far from war. Every generation of West Pointers has served in the nation’s military conflicts. From its inception in 1802, academy graduates have received second lieutenants’ commissions in the Army. Prolonged wars have had an especially profound effect on the academy as seniors, or ‘firsties,’ anticipated the day they would join the ranks of other graduates leading men in combat. During the world wars, in fact, the course of academic instruction was shortened to speed the flow of young officers to the field. As the United States’ participation in the Vietnam War expanded rapidly, with more ground forces deploying to the country every day, West Point cadets — like their predecessors in previous conflicts — expected their postgraduate education to be in battle. Everyone knew someone who was serving in Vietnam.
Colonel Thomas Griess, head of military history instruction in the Military Art and Engineering Department (which at one time included the academy’s military history faculty), and later chairman of West Point’s newly formed History Department, supervised the Vietnam project. His goal was to acquaint cadets with the world they would face outside the academy’s cloistered corridors after graduation. Department officers wrote to friends and recent graduates asking them to pen letters on the experiences of junior officers that could be shared with cadets. Letters were posted on what became known as the ‘Adventure Board.’
‘Our effort,’ Griess recalled, ‘was aimed at showing the cadets that a military career was challenging and exciting and that it carried great responsibilities for a commander. In other words, it was a `great adventure.’ You must remember that during part of this time we had a bit of a motivational problem with cadets, who were frustrated with growing national attitudes about the war in Vietnam. They also came under fire from their fellow students on the civilian [campuses], including Vassar. Their morale was not as high as was desirable.’
Griess intended to draw letters from across the Army, covering all aspects of the life of junior officers, but not surprisingly most letters came from Vietnam. How they showed up in the History Department mailbox was often a matter of chance. Some commanders asked their junior officers to write the academy. Graduates wrote to old professors. Sometimes personal correspondence found its way into the collection. That was the case with the letter from Chuck Campanella, who had studied at West Texas State University. How the letter written to his wife came to find a place on the Adventure Board at West Point is unknown.
The board’s first project officer was a bright and energetic young major, James E. Torrence. He was a dedicated steward, writing friends to ask them to contribute and penning personal replies to each letter that was received. One of the most poignant letters Torrence received was from a young lieutenant, Ed Menninger. Menninger’s writing ran on for several pages, recounting his story from the day he was commissioned as a shavetail second lieutenant to a combat assignment in Vietnam. Ed had married straight out of the academy, and his first assignments, including a stint of airborne training, indeed seemed like an exciting new adventure. Shortly after their son’s birth, Menninger’s wife died suddenly from illness, but Ed remained determined to continue with his military career and to answer the call of duty. Menninger’s letter from his first combat assignment closed with the thoughts that despite his own tragic loss and leaving behind his infant son, he was truly happy to be doing the job he’d been trained to do, and he thought it was important.
Torrence penned a thankful reply for the young lieutenant’s frank and thoughtful words. Torrence’s letter is still with the collection, marked ‘Returned to Sender.’ Shortly after writing, Menninger had been killed in a helicopter crash. Appended to the file is a copy of another letter written to Torrence by one of Ed’s classmates who had heard about Menninger’s contribution to the Adventure Board. ‘I would ask,’ he wrote, ‘that you send me a copy of that letter for use in a eulogy for him. I feel that this was the way Ed would have wanted it, and at last he is at peace.’ Torrence dutifully complied.
Major Torrence later deployed to Vietnam, where he earned a reputation as a savvy and fearless fighter. He promised to add his own contributions to the Adventure Board when the pace slowed down enough to permit him a chance to pen something thoughtful. Among his acquaintances was the legendary John Paul Vann. Torrence is even mentioned by Neil Sheehan in his biography of Vann, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam.
On May 18, 1971, James Torrence died in Vietnam, also killed in a helicopter crash. Torrence was buried in the cemetery at West Point, resting not far from many for whom the History Department’s project represented the last adventure. Among them was 2nd Lt. Frank A. Rybicki, Jr., a graduate of West Point’s class of 1966. Frank’s letter was typical of those written back to the academy, the thoughts of a young officer eager to do a good job, to prove himself. On May 9, 1967, while serving with the 9th Infantry Division, he was killed by the accidental discharge of a weapon. Frank was a popular cadet, and his death deeply affected both his fellow students and the faculty at the academy. Rick Atkinson recounted the moment in his best-selling saga of West Point and Vietnam, The Long Gray Line. Rybicki’s funeral was one of the academy’s darkest days.
Despite the increasing unpopularity of the war, the work of the Adventure Board carried on until the project was discontinued in 1971. Then the letters were boxed up and consigned to the History Department storeroom, where they were all but forgotten. In the late 1980s the department’s cartographer, Edward Krasnoborski, mentioned the Adventure Board project to a young captain on the faculty. Krasnoborski, who had served for decades as West Point’s official military map maker, often recounted stories to the junior professors, including stories about the Adventure Board, which he had helped mount, adding maps and displays to illustrate the letters. A subsequent search for the letters was unsuccessful.
Apparently in a recent frenzy of housecleaning, the boxes had been inadvertently sent to the dumpster and would have been lost if not for the efforts of a longtime member of the department, Colonel Scott Dillard. Dillard had a well-earned reputation as the faculty pack rat. His office was so cluttered with books and papers that it led to one of the junior faculty coining a new verb: to ‘dillardize,’ which meant to obscure a thing beyond all recognition. Dillard had spied the boxes in a trash heap and thought the cases wrapped in yellowing tape and marked ‘Vietnam letters’ might contain something interesting. He tossed them behind his desk. Later, in a chance conversation, he mentioned his discovery. Buried beneath a tall stack of books was the complete collection, an invaluable treasure trove of more than 100 letters, a snapshot account of officer experiences in Vietnam from 1966 to 1971.
What is most remarkable about the collection is how the story it tells diverges from the common perception of the American military officer in Vietnam. Popular culture recalls an officer corps in crisis, filled with self-serving professionals who wanted a quick combat credit to advance their careers, or inept leaders who spent their time counting the days until the end of their tours. That image hardly squares with the West Point Vietnam letters. Absent as well is any discussion of drug abuse, racism, fraggings, war crimes or other morale problems and moral conflicts.
Nor does a reading of the letters suggest that the officers were being anything less than honest and straightforward. Indeed, some came with a warning that perhaps they ought not to be shared with cadets. One letter in particular offered some lewd details of the goings on with the female cast of a USO show. On the whole, however, these were letters about young men doing a job, written with little sense of drama or self-importance.
Along with the writers’ enthusiasm for duty and responsibility, the self-doubt and insecurity that often accompany young leaders to war also come through. One officer wrote: ‘The men surprised me the other day, sir. After a class I threw open the floor to any questions. And the men started into the philosophy of the war. Why was the U.S. involved, what do we hope to gain, how [are] patriotism and freedom involved?’ Another officer wrote of his first experience leading men into battle: ‘I had only been a company commander for three weeks and this was a rude way for me to break in. As I sit here and look at the Silver Star I received for that day, I wonder if there was something I should or could have done to prevent our casualties. I’ll probably never know.’
Throughout the letters there was little bravado, nor any apparent attempt to soften the realities of war as these young leaders saw them. Among the most riveting letters are personal accounts of combat, including Campanella’s fateful day at LZ Bird. Campanella was an artillery forward observer attached to an infantry company that had been assigned to guard the perimeter of the firebase. In his book, Marshall described the young officer as ‘anything but flamboyant and almost determinedly serious.’ Marshall’s description comes as little surprise given the story Campanella recounted to his wife. The unit had expected some contact, but certainly not a full-scale assault by a human wave of NVA infantry. Startled from sleep shortly after midnight by the screams of wounded and the roar of a firefight, Campanella was stunned to discover that he was the only officer in the unit uninjured, and immediately had to assume command of the perimeter defenses.
‘The commander was seriously wounded,’ he wrote, ‘and I took charge of the company. It went through my mind what [a friend] had told me before I left for [Vietnam]. He had [seen] an article where an artillery FO had to take charge of an infantry company, and [thought] I had better study up on infantry tactics. Well I never thought it would happen to me but it did.’
Under a curtain of exploding mortar rounds, Campanella raced to the perimeter, where he was astonished to see 40 to 50 North Vietnamese hurling stick grenades and firing wildly. Campanella ordered the defenders back to the gun sections for a final stand. In the next desperate hours the lieutenant helped direct a determined defense, including firing 105mm ‘beehive’ rounds into the teeth of the charging enemy.
‘They say I am to get the Silver Star,’ Chuck Campanella wrote to his wife, ‘but they don’t need to give me anything because all I did was what the situation warranted….I came through alive and never want to see another one like that.’
Other letters offered additional harrowing examples, including an account of a young lieutenant colonel named Richard Cavasos, who later rose to become one of the Army’s most respected senior leaders. In another letter, a lieutenant described a typical day at war. ‘I had my radio back at the TOC,’ he wrote, ‘and proceeded to put it on my back and relayed messages to the 105[mm] howitzer battery. I coordinated with the air observer and instructed him to fire 175[mm gun], 8-inch [artillery], and 155[mm] defensive targets. Then I began to adjust Blue Max [Cobra gunships]. I had to continuously relay messages for both the infantry and artillery, plus coordinate the insertion and the air cover for the medevacs.’
Other accounts in the West Point letters capture equally well the ferocity of combat on the cutting edge, as experienced by the junior officers. One lieutenant described his first firefight: ‘The VC opened up with rockets, mortars, and automatic weapons fire. In the next four hours I was to witness a total of eleven APCs [armored personnel carriers] completely destroyed, two 155mm howitzers damaged, and a portion of the perimeter overrun. For some small reason the VC were not able to completely overrun the FSB. During this battle, some 1,400 rounds of artillery, numerous helicopter gunships, and two airstrikes were called for in support. A person did not have a chance to think for himself, everything he did was a natural reaction. There were many heros [sic], and well there should be. If every person in that FSB had not given his utmost, very few, if any personnel would be alive today.’
Not every letter dealt with combat, but even those that described the more mundane tasks of war reflected the pride and professionalism of the young leaders. One engineer officer wrote of working on a construction project: ‘ You cannot imagine the pride I took in this project…my one regret is that we rotated out of the DMZ before the finishing touches could be complete.’ Another lieutenant remembered, ‘While working on Bridge 19-16, myself and my platoon really got to know what it was like to have a goal and to be interested in your work.’ Not every experience described by graduates in the bush was positive. One new arrival in Vietnam confessed: ‘Being an adviser, especially to the ARVN elite, can best be described as frustrating. Most of the field grade officers have been fighting this war for 15 years or more and feel they do not need advice. Be this as it may, they definitely make mistakes. And yet, as an adviser, I have no direct control over their actions.’
While officers often found problems to complain about, many closed their letters with sentiments similar to those expressed by Captain Peter Bentson, a 1963 graduate of West Point. Before being wounded in the closing weeks of the aftermath of the 1968 Tet Offensive, Bentson wrote: ‘The pride of serving your country, the satisfaction of knowing you are doing your share in defending democracy, and the recognition of the people who work for you all add to make the military service a truly rewarding and challenging profession. I only wish I could tell each cadet how differently I view the Army since I have served in Vietnam, as compared to how I viewed the service while I was a cadet.’
Peter Bentson returned to Vietnam for a second tour, and was killed in action on July 9, 1972. Bentson’s sentiments were not unique. To many, the education of war gave the academy’s motto, ‘Duty, Honor, Country,’ a meaning that could never be found in a classroom.
Later in the conflict, however, the tone of the letters began to change. In 1971 an officer wrote: ‘I am very disturbed by the state of discipline in U.S. troops, even though they do a grand job when bound together by a common threat, the enemy. However, I worry about what will happen when the enemy is not visible or is absent, as in training areas in the U.S. or Europe. I don’t think the present state of discipline will hold up.’
That disturbing commentary signaled the nadir of the U.S. Army. The unpopularity of the war, plummeting morale, the drawdown of the force, aging equipment, disillusioned officers and the decline of the noncommissioned officer corps were taking their toll on the institution.
Together, the West Point letters offer a remarkable story. They do not fully describe the experience of the war, nor would it be reasonable to expect that they could. As historian Jeffrey Clarke wrote: ‘Throughout the conflict, different levels of enemy activity necessitated different responses from region to region and even province to province. It is almost impossible to generalize on the nature of the war based on personal experiences.’ Nevertheless, this collection of correspondence does suggest a common theme that cannot be ignored. The junior officers who penned the West Point letters were made of the same stuff as the lieutenants and captains who fought at Cantigny, Mortain, Buna and Inchon. For many, their first tour in Vietnam was indeed an adventure, albeit a demanding, trying and, on occasion, terrifying experience. But they were without question dedicated and serious professionals. The Adventure Board was a small but appropriate legacy of their service.
Rediscovered after their near rendezvous with a trash compactor, the West Point Vietnam letters were organized, catalogued and added to the academy library’s special collection. Occasionally they are read by cadets and junior faculty, still serving the purpose originally intended by Colonel Griess and Major Torrence: bringing the face of battle to the quiet banks of the Hudson River.
This article was written by Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, U.S. Army (ret.) and originally published in the October 2002 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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