The war in Vietnam was a strange war, indeed. It was a conflict that should not have been lost. But the men who ran that war were politicians and bureaucrats, not military professionals. Men like Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara and President Lyndon Baines Johnson, along with Department of Defense bureaucrats, civilian and military, called all the shots.
America lost her first war ever because bureaucrats 10,000 miles away from the fighting played a kind of ‘war monopoly’ game, in which the stakes were not play money but the lives of men sent out to die in the rice paddies and skies of Vietnam. Called to testify in a civil suit after the war, McNamara said under oath that he had decided as early as December 1965 that ‘the war could not be won militarily.’
During the war, President Johnson would talk by telephone to then Air Force Major John Keeler about what to say during the ‘Five O’Clock Follies,’ the daily press briefing held every afternoon in Saigon. As Keeler put it, Johnson called so that the press officer could ‘get the party line.’ The political agenda in America was obviously more important than the bloodshed on the hills around Khe Sanh. Johnson often bragged, ‘Those boys can’t hit an outhouse without my permission.’
Among the individuals affected by that type of bureaucratic thinking were a pair of Jacks, Air Force Colonel Jacksel ‘Jack’ Broughton (who 20 years later would serve on the original editorial review board for Vietnam Magazine) and Air Force General John D. ‘Jack’ Lavelle.
Jack Broughton’s story is well-known. While he was serving as vice commander of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base in 1967, he destroyed gun camera film to save his pilots from certain conviction at a court-martial. Two of his ‘Thud’ (Republic F-105D Thunderchief) fighter jocks had been sent out to bomb a rail line near Cam Pha Harbor in North Vietnam. The harbor itself was designated as one of McNamara’s’sanctuaries,’ areas that were supposed to be off-limits for American missions. When AAA (anti-aircraft artillery) opened up on his aircraft, the pilot of the lead Thud, Major Ted Tolman, quickly decided that he did not want to become a POW resident of the Hanoi Hilton. When shot at, he decided to shoot back. In bringing his Vulcan 20mm cannon to bear on the AAA gun emplacements on the shore, Tolman’s gun camera caught the Soviet cargo ship Turkestan dead center in his sights.
There is no evidence to this day–no real proof–that any 20mm rounds hit Turkestan. But it was widely understood that such a violation of McNamara’s sanctuary policy would lead to an automatic court-martial for Major Tolman and his wingman, Major Lonnie Ferguson. For Jack Broughton, then acting as commander of the 355th TFW in the temporary absence of its commander, the answer to the problem was obvious: destroy the only incriminating evidence, the gun camera film, thus ensuring that the ‘wheels’–the Air Force military bureaucrats in Honolulu, the Philippines and Guam–would not see it.
Pacific Air Force (PACAF) commander General John D. Ryan, who would later become Air Force chief of staff, initiated court-martial proceedings against Broughton, Tolman and Ferguson for conspiracy against the U.S. government. By accepting responsibility for his pilots, Broughton ensured a ‘not guilty’ finding for them, but he was convicted on the much lesser charge of destruction of government property–i.e., the gun camera cassette, which was worth $5.
Broughton appealed his conviction, and the court-martial was voided. One observer on the Board for the Correction of Military Records called the court-martial ‘the grossest example of injustice in history.’ As Broughton himself wrote in his book, Going Downtown: The War Against Hanoi and Washington, ‘I found it interesting that in the entire history of the United States flying forces, only one other officer had ever had a general court-martial set aside and voided. His name was Billy Mitchell.’
Brigadier General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell, a World War I hero and an outspoken advocate of air power, was court-martialed in 1925 for publicly condemning the Navy and War departments for ‘almost treasonable’ neglect of the Army Air Service. He subsequently resigned from the service and died in 1936. Ten years later he was rehabilitated in the eyes of the military when, after World War II, Congress voted him a posthumous medal for his ‘outstanding pioneer service…in the field of American military aviation.’ Today, Mitchell is honored as one of the founding fathers of the U.S. Air Force.
Broughton, too, left the Air Force after his court-martial. During his retirement, he wrote Thud Ridge and Going Downtown, both books about his experiences as a Thud pilot in Vietnam. While his rehabilitation was not nearly so dramatic as Billy Mitchell’s, Broughton was returned to Air Force favor. In 1997, three decades after the Turkestan incident, Air Force Chief of Staff General Ronald R. Fogleman directed the Air Force to buy 10,000 copies of Thud Ridge, which, along with 12 other books on the Air Force’s basic suggested reading list, were provided free of charge to all Air Force officers upon their promotion to captain.
General Jack Lavelle was not so fortunate. Lavelle, who was serving as the commander of the Seventh Air Force in 1972, told his troops that they were fighting in a war and were to act and react accordingly. He urged them to shoot first, ask questions later, and destroy enemy military targets.
As crazy as it may sound, those orders were in direct violation of Washington’s bureaucratic rules. As General William C. Westmoreland, the longtime U.S. military commander in Vietnam, related in his memoirs: ‘In 1965, we observed the construction of the first surface-to-air (SAM) sites in North Vietnam, and the military sought permission to attack them before they were completed to save American casualties. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs John McNaughton ridiculed the idea.
”You don’t think the North Vietnamese are going to use them!’ he scoffed [to Lavelle’s predecessor, Seventh Air Force Commander General Joseph H. Moore]. ‘Putting them in is just a political ploy by the Russians to appease Hanoi.’ It was all a matter of signals, said the clever civilian theorist in Washington. We won’t bomb the SAM sites, which signals to North Vietnam not to use them.’ But our enemies were not playing Washington’s silly games. A month later the United States lost its first aircraft to a SAM.
By 1971, when General Lavelle assumed command of the Seventh Air Force, President Johnson, McNamara and McNaughton were long gone. Johnson had been replaced by Richard Nixon; Melvin Laird was secretary of defense; and Admiral Thomas Moorer, a naval aviator and World War II combat veteran, was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McNaughton had been killed in a plane crash in 1967. Nevertheless, many of the restrictions imposed by the Johnson-McNamara ‘ROE’ (rules of engagement) were still in effect in Vietnam.
Absolutely forbidden targets included: any MiG base designated as a sanctuary, a MiG fighter that did not have its landing gear retracted, any MiG fighter not showing hostile intent (no fighter jock ever figured that one out), and any SAM site not in operation. A SAM had to be fired at a U.S. plane before the plane could fire back, a dicey situation at best. There were more restrictions, but the rules listed here were the ones that frustrated U.S. fighter pilots the most and formed the backdrop for the Lavelle affair.
Until now, the details of Lavelle’s story have not been published. Lavelle fought in three wars, rose to the rank of four-star general, served as the commander of the Seventh Air Force in Vietnam and was concurrently appointed the deputy commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), the highest military headquarters in Vietnam.
At his headquarters at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, near Saigon, Lavelle’s first order of business each morning was to study the combat losses inflicted on ‘his boys’ the day before. He sent word to every fighter unit in the Seventh Air Force that if their planes were shot at, they were to shoot back. They shouldn’t wait for the SAMs to become operational and start shooting their ‘flying telephone poles.’ The fighter pilots were told to hit transporters and SAM sites under construction.
Changes in North Vietnamese air defense tactics had made such pre-emptive actions essential. As a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee would later report: ‘In late 1971, the North Vietnamese took several actions which vastly improved and augmented their tracking capability. The most important was netting of their early warning and surveillance radar and their anti-aircraft artillery radar with SAM missiles. In that netted mode, the Fan Song (radars) which alerted U.S. pilots to the surveillance never came up, as the surveillance could all be conducted with the other radars. General Lavelle believed that, with those mutually supporting radar systems transmitting tracking data to the firing sites, the SAM missile system was activated at U.S. aircraft at any time they were over North Vietnam.’
Even though in 1972 many in Washington knew that the 4-year-old Johnson-McNamara nonsensical rules of engagement were strategically, operationally and tactically counterproductive, no one, civilian or military, made any effort to change them. Therefore, when Jack Lavelle sent that’shoot back’ order to his troops, he got in very hot water. As the official U.S. Air Force history of the war laconically states, ‘General Lavelle was recalled from his post in April 1972, charged with having authorized certain ‘protective reaction’ strikes beyond those permitted by the rules of engagement.’
While Broughton reported to military bureaucrats, Lavelle was answerable to both military and civilian officials, and it was primarily the bureaucratic politicians in the U.S. Senate, searching for a scapegoat to placate their anti-war constituents, who ultimately did him in.
Today, President William ‘Bill’ Clinton, an anti-war protester during the Vietnam era, has given the military express permission to shoot back if fired upon, the crime of which Lavelle was accused. But the mood was different in 1972. The gut-wrenching, turbulent 1960s were over, but the anti-war protests continued. Jane Fonda was back from Hanoi and would later charge, with the agreement of many fellow protesters: ‘We have no reason to believe U.S. Air Force officers tell the truth. They are professional killers.’
One of the top hits on music charts at the time was ‘Country Joe’ McDonald’s song that satirically slammed young Americans who felt honor-bound to tread the killing fields and rice paddies of Vietnam. One line of the song in particular stood out for many Americans: ‘Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box.’ Ironically, that was precisely what General Lavelle was trying to avoid with his ‘protective reaction’ strikes to safeguard American lives.
But saving American lives in far-off Vietnam was the least of the concerns for the anti-war cabal in Congress. Pleasing the voters who kept them in office had top priority. One of the leading members of this faction was Iowa Senator Harold Hughes. An ex-alcoholic preacher, he was not only anti-military and anti-Vietnam but also a close supporter of the flee-to-Canada faction and had even joined in an anti-war rally outside the Pentagon. It was Hughes who would lead the hue and cry.
The catalyst was a complaint letter to Hughes from one of his constituents, Sergeant Lonnie Franks, a disgruntled 23-year-old noncommissioned officer in Lavelle’s command. Franks, whose identity was initially concealed by Congress but was eventually leaked by the New York Times, charged that General Lavelle was covering up illegal strikes on enemy air defense positions under the guise of ‘protective reaction.’ That letter–along with the behind-the-scenes connivance of Air Force Chief of Staff General John Ryan, who had been involved in Broughton’s downfall–would bring Lavelle’s distinguished 32-year career with the Air Force to an abrupt end.
The specific accusations that brought Lavelle back from Vietnam to Washington, D.C., to face congressional hearings were that he had filed four false reports and had authorized 28 unauthorized bombing raids (out of a total 25,000 sorties flown) against enemy air defense positions. Accepting responsibility for 20 such strikes, Lavelle said, ‘Even though I did not do it and did not have any knowledge of the detail, it was my command and I should have known.’
The Lavelle hearings in the House of Representatives lasted only one day, June 12, 1972, and generally went well. In closed session as a result of security constraints, U.S. Representative Bill Dickson (R-Alabama) looked directly at Lavelle and said: ‘I am not sure why we are here today. But I think, if I had been in your position, I would have done the very same thing. And if that means stretching the rules is part of it, then good for you.’
But the Senate hearings, which lasted from September 11 to September 22, 1972, were another matter. Ostensibly, the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing was to determine what rank Lavelle should hold upon retirement. Major general and rear admiral (two stars) are the highest permanent ranks in the military. Three-star (lieutenant general and vice admiral) and four-star (general and admiral) ranks are temporary and are held only when occupying a position calling for those ranks. To carry three-star or four-star ranks into retirement requires a special dispensation that is usually routinely granted. But that would not be true for Lavelle.
The routine Senate hearing turned into an inquisition. All that was missing were torches burning in wall brackets and a torture rack in the background to make it a scene right out of a Hollywood B movie. For more than a week and a half, Senate committee members hurled questions at Lavelle; at Admiral Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs; and at Army General Creighton Abrams, the overall U.S. commander in Vietnam, who had been called home from Saigon to testify. At one point, Lavelle told an old friend: ‘I wish they’d court-martial me. Then everything would come out.’ He never explained what he meant by ‘everything.’ After his retirement, however, he did record an oral history of his tribulations, but his family has decided to indefinitely withhold the tape from public release.
As if the Senate inquisition was not bad enough, a media circus developed as well. Fed by leaks from Senator Hughes and interviews with Sergeant Franks, the media turned the matter into a cause célèbre, reflecting the passions and deep divisions in American society over the Vietnam War.
One exchange between Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, an Air Force Reserve major general, and General Lavelle was revealing. ‘You didn’t have the authority to hit a MiG because it was sitting on an airfield below the 19th parallel?’ asked Goldwater. ‘Yes, sir, that’s right,’ replied Lavelle.
‘It’s a hell of a way to run a war,’ responded Goldwater. But before he could say more he was cut off by Democratic Senator John Stennis of Mississippi, the committee chairman. The truth was evidently too painful for the senators to hear.
With a sinking feeling, Jack Lavelle realized he was about to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. A few days later, he was told that he would lose his four stars and retire as a two-star major general. For the first time in history, Congress had demoted a high-ranking Air Force officer. Old friend John Dyas later went to see General Ryan, the Air Force chief of staff, to ask his help in getting Lavelle reinstated to at least three-star level. Ryan refused.
While on the surface, Lavelle’s relief from duty and his demotion appear to be the work of a pernicious Congress (which three years later would break its solemn pledges and betray an entire country, the Republic of Vietnam, leaving it at the mercy of its enemies), the truth is far more complex. Civilian bureaucrats may have played the leading part in this sad story, but military bureaucrats and interservice rivalries played a major role as well.
To outsiders, the United States had one Air Force during the Vietnam War. But in reality there were three: the transport pilots and crews of Military Airlift Command (MAC), the fighter pilots of Tactical Air Command (TAC), and the bomber pilots of Strategic Air Command (SAC). The rivalry between TAC and SAC was particularly intense during the war, and it played a major part in the Broughton and Lavelle affairs.
Individuals who wore the label ‘fighter pilot’ were very disdainful of pilots who were not flying fighter aircraft. Sometimes they were downright nasty toward their brethren of the skies. To them, a bomber pilot was a ‘SAC weenie’ and a transport pilot was a ‘trash hauler.’ Fighter pilots knew they were regarded as the elite, and they developed tremendous egos.
But when the U.S. military entered the age of ‘massive retaliation’ after World War II, SAC, charged with the nuclear weapons delivery mission, and its bomber generals like Curtis LeMay came to dominate the Air Force. The bomber generals had little faith in tactical air power. They believed that the heavy bomber could win any war–as, in their eyes, had been the case in Europe in World War II and, with the delivery of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the case in the Pacific as well. With the development of the hydrogen nuclear bomb and Boeing B-52 strategic bomber, SAC became even more powerful.
The TAC conventional-war missions of air-to-air combat and close air support of ground troops, perfected at great cost in World War II and Korea, were considered to be of little value in the nuclear age. As Jack Broughton put it, the Air Force had become ‘SACumcized.’ Even the head of TAC, General Walter C. Sweeny, was a bomber general and a SAC disciple.
But in Vietnam nuclear devices had no significance. It was an old-fashioned, conventional war. Tactical air power was reasserting itself in Vietnam. Not only were TAC aircraft like Broughton’s F-105s taking bombs to the enemy, TAC fighters were shooting down MiGs as well.
Although TAC had the major combat role in Vietnam, SAC bomber generals still ran the Air Force and were the ones–PACAF General John Ryan in particular–who brought Broughton, the consummate TAC fighter jock, to trial. The role they played in General Lavelle’s demotion is less well-known, however.
Sergeant Lonnie Franks’ complaint letter to Senator Hughes about General Lavelle finally ended up on the desk of bomber general Ryan, by then the Air Force chief of staff. (A bomber pilot in World War II, Ryan had had a finger shot off while on a mission over Germany and was known, behind his back, as ‘Three-Fingered Jack.’) Within 24 hours, Ryan had dispatched Lt. Gen. Louis J. Wilson, the Air Force inspector general, to Seventh Air Force headquarters at Tan Son Nhut.
The bomber generals had taken the first step to bring down Jack Lavelle. They believed he had committed the ultimate crime–not the unauthorized ‘protective reaction’ strikes but, in their eyes, the more heinous offense of defecting to TAC.
Jack Broughton says the first time he met Jack Lavelle was at Yokota Air Base in Japan. ‘As I recall,’ Broughton said, ‘he was a very intense individual. He was always rushing from place to place. He was really ‘Mr. SAC.” But after he assumed command of the Seventh Air Force, Lavelle had a change of heart. ‘I can only say with pride I saw him do a 180-degree turn,’ recalled Broughton, ‘and get back with the fighter pilot people.’
‘There is something about a fighter pilot,’ Broughton wrote in Thud Ridge, ‘that is both unique and hard to describe. Tell him you are going to send him to hell, and that things will be rougher than he’s ever seen, and he will fight for the chance to go.’ That’s the kind of man Jack Lavelle was. He was the antithesis of the ‘good old boy’ military bureaucrat, and the military bureaucrats then running the Air Force could never forgive him for that.
And there was another thing for which they could never forgive Lavelle. One anecdote tells the tale. In Vietnam the heavily bomb-laden B-52s of SAC were referred to as BUFFs, or ‘Big Ugly Fat F–s.’ That sobriquet so angered a bomber general on Guam, the headquarters of SAC’s Eighth Air Force, that he issued an official order, saying that B-52s would no longer be called BUFFs by Air Force personnel. Jack Lavelle called the bomber general–a man he knew well–and laughed at the nickname as well as the order. Lavelle, a former SAC leader himself, was forever after considered a turncoat. Thus, when General Lavelle later came under fire for unauthorized protective reaction strikes to safeguard the lives of his pilots, the bomber generals at the Pentagon, instead of closing ranks in his defense, betrayed him.
Of the 25 people interviewed for this article, not all liked Jack Lavelle personally. But they all agreed he was a ‘workaholic,’ a ‘perfectionist,’ a’stern, but fair, disciplinarian,’ a man who ‘lived by the book’ and who ‘never tried to outsmart the system.’ But in return, the system did him in.
Living in Oakton, Va., with his wife, Josephine, and family, Jack Lavelle tried to make the best of his military retirement. He had nothing to do for the first time in 32 years. He puttered around the house, played a lot of golf and gave some thought to writing his memoirs but then rejected the idea.
On July 11, 1979, Jack Lavelle dropped dead on a golf course in Virginia at age 62. Attending physicians gave the official reason for death as a heart attack. But the real reason was more likely a broken heart, shattered by his supposed comrades-in-arms seven years earlier.
This article was written by Joe Patrick, an Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War, and originally published in the December 1997 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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