The scene is a familiar one. A column of American GIs, hunched over from the weight of 80 pound rucksacks, warily works its way through a miasma of dense green foliage, rifles at the ready. Their frightened eyes peer from masks of dust and sweat. They watch and listen for that telltale sign that will give them just enough warning to avoid the mine, booby trap or hidden ambush that could mean instant death or dismemberment for them or their comrades.
This patrol, however, was different from the thousands that preceded it. It was April 6, 1970, 1,853 days since the first American ground troops landed in Vietnam. Accompanying these GIs into harm’s way were veteran CBS Correspondent John Laurence and a two-man sound and camera crew, the 1970 equivalent of embedded correspondents. Their reports would later become a documentary on a soldier’s-eye view of life on the ground in the war. They had heard that this unit, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment (2-7th Cav), was one of Army’s best.
Laurence’s crew had already filed a story about Charlie Company’s respect and affection for its previous commanding officer, Captain Robert Jackson. But Jackson’s heart condition had required his evacuation from the field. He was replaced by Captain Al Rice, whom the men did not know well.
Suddenly everything stopped. The unit was ordered by higher headquarters to change direction and move down a dirt road. Sergeant Gene Dunnuck, the company’s point man, told his platoon leader that walking down the road was no good. Dense foliage crept right to the edge of the narrow trail, making it the perfect location for an enemy ambush. Fresh tracks indicated the possible presence of North Vietnamese infantry— a lot of them.
“I ain’t gonna walk down there,” he said. The word was passed back to Captain Rice, who told the platoon leader to get his men back on the trail and get moving. Dunnuck refused. So did the rest of the platoon.
Correspondent Laurence asked the men to describe on camera what was going on. They explained that their previous company commander told them never to walk down a road or trail, because that’s what the enemy expected. Instead, they moved by cutting their own trail. In that way Charlie Company had achieved the best combat record in the battalion.
Captain Rice, who had taken over the company from Captain Jackson only four days earlier, worked his way to the front of the column. Rice was no stranger to Vietnam. He’d served in long range reconnaissance patrol units. He was in no mood to dally. Rice called his three platoon leaders aside. Once again, while the camera was there, Rice said: “Now either move out, or else I move out and they sit on their butts right here. It’s that simple.”
Rice took point, accompanied by his command group of six men. He headed down the road. No one else followed. The radio crackled with new orders. Instead of going 1,300 yards to the east as originally ordered, they were to go 300 yards to the west, cut out a landing zone for three helicopters and get lifted out as soon as possible.
Another squad took the lead. “The longer we sit here, the worse it gets,” Rice told his men, “Everybody going? Okay, let’s go.” Sergeant Dunnuck and the second squad followed reluctantly.
“This is crazy, senseless, walking down a road,” one trooper told Laurence’s camera. “You’re like a duck in a shooting gallery,” said another.
They finally reached a small clearing without making contact with the enemy, and the helicopters came to lift them out. Once they were back in the relative safety of a forward base camp, the members of 2nd Squad, 2nd Platoon took the opportunity to tell the CBS News crew how they felt. Tired, frustrated and angry, they unloaded.
Private first class Gordy Lee of San Diego, Calif., said: “Back in the world we call it a rebellion. Here it’s just downright refusal….the CO says, ‘Okay we’re going to walk through it’; the whole company says, ‘No, negative.’ We’ve heard of too many companies, too many battalions want to walk the road, and that’s why they aren’t what they are now. They just got blown away.”
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Spc. 4 John Schultz of Lynwood, Calif. “It doesn’t really make any difference. We’re just going to refuse to do it. You may be in jail, but you won’t be dead.”
And from Pfc Carlton Dudley of Newberns, Fla.: “If he told me to do it again, and I was walking point, I’d just flat refuse. They can send me to LBJ [Long Binh Jail] and that’s all there would be to it. They’d bust me of course, but that don’t mean nothing either. I’m just in the Army to spend my time and get out. I ain’t got no use for the Army.”
That night, Laurence returned to Saigon and cabled his superiors in New York. He told them he had a “unique story of a minor rebellion.” It was the beginning of an escalating controversy that worked its way up to the highest levels of CBS News and the Pentagon. The incident would come to serve as a favorite example to journalists and historians of the collapse of discipline and morale among U.S. troops in Vietnam. But was this interpretation justified by events on the ground? The evidence that has emerged over 35 years suggests otherwise.
The controversy began to unfold early the next morning when Laurence got a call from Colonel William V. Ochs, the 1st Brigade commander who, coincidentally, was related to the owners of the New York Times. Ochs had heard about what happened the day before. He wanted Laurence to meet him to talk about “the larger picture.”
Laurence was reluctant. Standard operating procedure for journalists was not to discuss stories before completing them. But, since he was with Charlie Company as an invited guest, he felt an obligation to hear what Ochs had to say. The conversation is reported in Laurence’s 2002 book The Cat From Hue, and in J.D. Coleman’s 1991 book Incursion.
Ochs asked what CBS was going to report about the incident. Laurence said he was calling it “a rebellion.” Major J.D. Coleman, the 1st Cavalry Division’s public information officer (PAO) and the person who secured clearance for Laurence to go out in the field, asked him to read them the text of the story. Laurence reluctantly agreed, and ended by reading his conclusion:
“If there is another dimension to the minor rebellion of Charlie Company, it is that a hundred experienced soldiers—most of whom believe in the biggest picture of all, the political reasons for the Vietnam War—veteran soldiers who are not afraid of combat, normally brave and obedient men—would not walk down a road that, to them, was symbolic of the way 40,000 other GIs had gone before.”
Ochs spoke up, “I’m not sure I would characterize what happened as a rebellion…rebellion has a connotation to it that implies an insurrection, an uprising.”
“Well, I did tone it down in the final paragraph by calling it a minor rebellion,” Laurence responded.
Major Coleman jumped in: “God damn it Jack [Laurence], we don’t think it’s fair to use the word rebellion at all. You make it sound like a God-damned revolt.”
“Well, J.D.,” said Laurence, “it stands by itself. When people see the film of what happened, they can make up their own minds whether it was a rebellion or a mutiny or a temporary reluctance to obey orders.”
“You know damn well it depends on how you set it up in your narration,” Coleman shot back. “People are going to react to what you say on the film and how it’s edited. That’s what matters.”
Laurence refused to yield: “Well, we think it was a rebellion. So do the troops.”
At that point, Ochs provided some news of his own: “Mr. Laurence, there were other factors bearing on the situation. The reason for the order to move along the road to the pickup zone is that a B-52 strike was about to be delivered to that area and we had to get the company out of there in a hurry.”
Laurence was caught completely by surprise. Ochs went on to explain that the mission was ordered at the last minute by higher headquarters based on intelligence reports that the North Vietnamese were assembling there to launch an attack on Fire Support Base Blonden, a nearby 1st Cavalry Division position.
This was before the days of smart bombs, so standard procedures were to keep a margin of safety of at least 1,500 meters. Charlie Company was too close to the target and therefore in danger. Because of a series of delays in finally extracting Charlie Company, the strike was called off at the last minute. When CBS cameraman Keith Kay asked why Captain Rice wasn’t told this, Ochs replied: “I’ll have to admit it, we fouled up at this end. There was a definite breakdown in passing information down to lower levels.”
The commanding officer of the 2-7th Cav, Lt. Col. Robert Hannus, had been severely wounded in an attack on the battalion’s forward headquarters at Firebase Jay on March 30. [See sidebar.] In the ensuing confusion, according to Laurence and Coleman, Charlie Company did not receive its usual secure radio, which would have allowed it to send and receive encrypted messages. Division policy prohibited sending B-52 target information in the clear because the North Vietnamese Army monitored these transmissions and could take evasive action. Hence, there was no way to pass on this information to Captain Rice or his men.
This explanation sounded plausible to Laurence and he promised to check it out. What Laurence did not know was that General Creighton Abrams, the senior U.S. commander in Vietnam, was so upset about canceled B-52 strikes that he required a written explanation from his division commanders whenever a strike was canceled or diverted. According to Laurence, the Pentagon confirmed that the strike was canceled.
Laurence shipped the film to New York and sent an accompanying cable describing his meeting, the canceled B-52 strike and warning of possible “heavy flak” from the Pentagon. The story ran on both the CBS morning and evening news shows on April 9. Harry Reasoner, filling in for anchorman Walter Cronkite, ended the story:
“Later, high-ranking 1st Cavalry officers told Laurence that Charlie Company was ordered to go down the road in order to move quickly out of the way of an impending B-52 strike. The officers added there was no time to explain why to the soldiers, because of the urgency of the mission.”
On April 12, Laurence and his crew were back out in the field with Charlie Company. Captain Rice greeted them warmly. Apparently the controversy had blown over. The GIs of the 2nd Squad told Laurence that Rice relieved the platoon leader, 1st Lt. Rey Martinez, who had sided with them the day of the refusal. Later that day, Charlie Company made its fifth helicopter assault in 19 days, to a place less than a mile from the Cambodian border. The landing was unopposed. Laurence used a quiet moment after the company had settled in to talk to Sergeant Dunnuck, the squad leader who had sparked the refusal. He hardly sounded like the point man for a rebellion.
Both Dunnuck and Laurence had heard the stories circulating through the battalion that because Charlie Company had “gone soft, scared to obey an order,” it had lost its reputation as the best rifle company in the division. Laurence described Dunnuck as “determined to get [that reputation] back.”
Laurence asked Dunnuck what he thought they were accomplishing. “I guess we got to be here to help these people get their freedom, you know,” he said. “And I think that Communism—I wouldn’t want to live under Communism, you know. I think they don’t want to live under it either. So, we’re here to help them out,” replied Dunnuck.
Laurence asked him how he got his nickname, “Killer.” Dunnuck explained that he blew a series of claymores over a group of North Vietnamese soldiers taking a bath in a bomb crater, “then fired M-60 rounds into the crater to make sure they were dead.”
Laurence asked Dunnuck how he felt about killing. Dunnuck said he respected the tenacity of the North Vietnamese, but killing “Don’t mean nothin’…I guess you could say it was a job to do, that’s all. Either you get killed or you kill him.”
The 26-year-old Dunnuck had been out in the field for several months. He hoped to be in line for an open supply sergeant position, but feared his association with the road incident might have ended that possibility.
On April 16, the Army finally made its first official statement about the incident. It ran as part of an Associated Press story in the Pacific Edition of the Stars and Stripes under a full-page headline that read: “Troops Praised for Balking at CO’s Order.” It quoted the 1st Brigade’s deputy commander, Lt. Col. Robert Drudick, as saying: “Thank God we’ve got young men who question. The young men in the Army today aren’t dummies, they are not automatons. They think.”
The story went on to confirm the impending B-52 strike and the inability to transmit the target coordinates in the clear. An Army spokesman concluded that the men would not be punished because “it was not the order itself they questioned, it was its execution. There hasn’t been a war in which the troops didn’t question certain judgments. It happens time and again—it’s nothing new.”
The honeymoon proved to be a short one. Newsweek, in its April 20 edition, carried a brief story about the incident, titled “Just Downright Refusal.” It rehashed the more contentious elements of Laurence’s story, including the now-famous exchange between Laurence and Private Gordy Lee:
Laurence: “Was there a rebellion today?”
Lee: “You might call it that. Back in the world they call it rebellion. Here it’s just a downright refusal.”
The Newsweek story also quoted an unnamed Army colonel who said: “The troops had a discussion and they finally carried out their mission. I don’t consider this even near rebellion.”
“Perhaps,” Newsweek concluded, “but it demonstrated— as did an incident last year in which a U.S. unit refused to go into battle—that extreme caution, even to the point of disobedience, may become the watchword in a war that the U.S. says it no longer seeks to win.”
The 300-word article was unsigned and included nothing about the impending B-52 strike, the recent change of command or Charlie Company’s fine record prior to this incident. Other than CBS and Newsweek, no other major news organizations reported the story.
Laurence was summoned to another meeting with Colonel Ochs. The brigade commander told Laurence that the Newsweek article was being passed around by the troops and that it was in the best interests of Charlie Company to let them go about their business without the distraction of a TV news camera. His tour with Charlie Company was over.
Laurence argued, but without success. CBS News president Richard Salant eventually wrote a letter of protest to the Pentagon, but other events soon overshadowed the story. On May 1, 1970, American units officially entered Cambodia in force for the first time. Not one to miss one of the biggest stories of the war, John Laurence and his crew hitched a helicopter ride into the Fishhook region of Cambodia, where the first American troops had air assaulted just minutes earlier.
One of the first faces he saw when he landed on Cambodian soil was that of Sergeant Dunnuck. It hadn’t been planned, but in one of those ironies in the fast-moving assault, Laurence was reunited with C Company at a place called LZ X-ray. The unit the Army picked to take the lead in one of the most important missions of the war—the assault on the suspected location of COSVN, the headquarters for all Communist forces in South Vietnam—was Captain Al Rice’s Charlie Company, 2-7th Cavalry.
The assault turned out to be unopposed, and COSVN turned out to be more elusive than American planners had hoped. Laurence did use the opportunity to file an exclusive report back home, titled “Charlie Company in Cambodia.” It was the lead story that night on the CBS Evening News. “Captain Rice, the company commander, was efficient, confident, and completely in command,” reported Laurence.
On May 27, Laurence got back out to Charlie Company, which had since pulled out of Cambodia and been assigned to the relatively easy duty of maintaining perimeter security for the divisional headquarters at Phuoc Vinh. Laurence found tensions over the rebellion “diminished but not gone.” No one had seen his TV reports, but reaction to the Newsweek story was still strong. Several members of the company outside of the 2nd Platoon let him know they were “angry that the men of C Company might have been portrayed as cowards.”
Laurence took a quiet moment out in the field on May 7, 1970, to write his conclusions about the episode. As he later recorded in his book and remarked in the documentary’s narrative, the lives of the line infantrymen after five years of war were still very much the same, but there was a different attitude in the spring of 1970: “A certain sense of independence, a reluctance to behave according to the military’s insistence on obedience, like pawns or puppets. Sometimes there was open rebelliousness. The grunts were determined to survive. Since they were forced to endure the most extreme physical hardships, they insisted on having something to say about the making of decisions that determined whether they might live or die. It happened, among other units, in Charlie Company.”
Laurence himself ended up in the hospital in June 1970 suffering from dehydration, malnutrition, fatigue and fever. Diagnosed with some undetermined tropical disease, he left Vietnam and returned to the United States. CBS packaged Laurence’s stories into a one-hour documentary titled “The World of Charlie Company.” It first aired on July 14, 1970, and went on to win a number of broadcasting awards.
Sergeant Dunnuck and his squad completed their tours of duty and returned home without further incident. Soldiers of the 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) remained in Vietnam for another year, serving as part of the fire brigade for the military region around Saigon. The unit’s colors returned to Fort Hood on March 1, 1971, as part of the planned withdrawal of U.S. ground forces.
Laurence’s April 9 film report about the refusal to walk the road became one of the favorite examples in what became a barrage of news stories about the collapse of morale and fighting spirit of American GIs in the early 1970s. While the escalating tensions involving drug abuse, racial friction and declining morale in some units were well documented, there was absolutely no evidence in Laurence’s stories, or elsewhere, linking this behavior to the men of Charlie Company.
Taken as a whole, “The World of Charlie Company” is a balanced picture of good soldiers coping with unusual circumstances in a dangerous environment. With not too much left to fight for in this late stage of the war, they fought for what most good soldiers do: for each other.
John Laurence himself seemed to understand this better years later. In 2002, in an interview with C-Span’s Brian Lamb, he said he was probably wrong to have labeled the refusal to walk the road as a “rebellion” in the first place.
Time has also softened the views of Laurence’s sometime friend, sometime adversary, J.D. Coleman, the 1st Cavalry Division’s PAO. In his 1991 book, Coleman said of Laurence’s work: “Anyone willing to get a realistic look at the war waged by the grunts of the 1st Air Cavalry Division in April and May of 1970 shouldn’t waste time with the propaganda films produced by Hollywood that masquerade as the real story. Obtain, instead, a videotape of ‘The World of Charlie Company.’”
Sergeant Dunnuck lost his battle with cancer in 1990. J.D. Coleman died in 2005. Eventually none of the participants in “The World of Charlie Company” will be here to speak for themselves. Perhaps the ultimate irony is the same film gathered by John Laurence and his crew that caused so much controversy while these men were alive, will speak for them to future generations—not as an indictment, but as a tribute to these soldiers who served their country honorably when serving their country was not an easy thing to do.
William J. Shkurti is the senior vice president for Business and Finance at The Ohio State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1968 and a master’s degree in public administration in 1974. In 1970-71 he served as a lieutenant with B Battery, 2nd Battalion, 35th Field Artillery, in northwest Tay Ninh Province. He lives in Columbus, Ohio. For additional reading, see: The Cat from Hue, by John Laurence; and Incursion, by J.D. Coleman.
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.