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Danger 79er and the Big Red One

By James H. Willbanks
February 2019 • Vietnam Magazine

“Central casting’s version of a fighting general,” James Hollingsworth relished being in the thick of the battle.

James F. Hollingsworth, a 1940 graduate of Texas A&M University, made his early reputation in World War II as he fought across two continents and six countries with the 2nd Armored Division and 3rd Army of Gen. George S. Patton Jr. Always leading from the front, he was wounded five times. After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, “Holly,” as he was known, remained in the Army and served in positions of increasing responsibility. In December 1965, Hollingsworth was promoted to brigadier general and subsequently assigned to Vietnam as assistant division commander of the 1st Infantry Division, known as the Big Red One after the design of its shoulder patch. Vietnam War historian James H. Willbanks, in a new biography of Hollingsworth, shows how the general’s inspiring leadership in that assignment helped make him one of the Army’s  legendary commanders.

Brig. Gen. James F. Hollingsworth joined the 1st Infantry Division’s Vietnam headquarters near Di An, about 10 miles north of Saigon, in March 1966. A new division commander, Maj. Gen. William E. DePuy, arrived on April 1 to replace a commander who had been promoted. DePuy had been the chief of operations at Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, under Gen. William Westmoreland, the top commander for U.S. combat forces in South Vietnam.

De Puy graduated from the ROTC program at South Dakota State University in 1941 and served in World War II with the 90th Infantry Division. He took command of 1st Battalion, 357th Infantry Regiment, at age 24 and led it from Normandy’s Utah Beach through the Battle of the Bulge. DePuy saw firsthand how poor senior leadership resulted in extremely high casualties and was unflinching in his assessment of military leaders. He had no patience for those found wanting.

Under the personnel system in Vietnam in 1966, division commanders had little say in the assignment of their assistant division commanders, and DePuy did not know Hollingsworth, except by reputation. When he met Holly, DePuy said: “General, I want only the best officers for my division. I don’t want any softies, or behind-the-lines listeners, on my staff.  If you can’t hack it out here, just pack your bags and go back home.” Hollingsworth, undaunted, grinned and replied: “I’ll let you know if I can’t handle the job, but don’t bother looking for a replacement. You won’t need one.” DePuy stared at him in silence and then said, “Okay, we’ll find out.”

From that somewhat testy beginning, Hollingsworth and DePuy developed a close personal and professional relationship that made the 1st Infantry Division one of the most potent fighting forces in Vietnam. On the surface, the two men were an unlikely pair. DePuy did not waste a lot of words. Holly was, as retired Special Forces officer Henry Gole wrote in his biography of DePuy, “a character right out of Hollywood’s central casting version of a fighting general….profane, bombastic, brave, and the antithesis of a diplomat.” Lt. Gen. Phillip Davidson, who served as Westmoreland’s chief of intelligence, described Holly as a “big, brash, tough, loud-mouthed Texan, given to excessive braggadocio,” whose every utterance was “dogmatically delivered with supreme self-confidence to an accompaniment of profanity.”    

There was no middle ground in views about Holly. People either admired and liked him immensely or disliked him just as intensely. Hollingsworth’s detractors accused him of consciously modeling himself after Patton, Davidson pointed out, but noted that “what separated ‘Holly’ from most of the rest of the Patton imitators…is that when the bullets start to whine and the shells fall, ‘Holly’ always made good on his boasts.”

Nguyen Cao Ky, prime minister of South Vietnam, pins decorations on Maj. Gen. William DePuy and Hollingsworth for their leadership during Operation Attleboro in November 1966. (Douglas Pike Photograph Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University)

The Big Red One was to see that firsthand. As the division’s 1st Brigade prepared for an operation along the Cambodian border in an area known as the Parrot’s Beak, Hollingsworth, who adopted the radio call sign “Danger 79er,” sat in on a briefing for battalion commanders. When the briefer was finished, Hollingsworth stepped to the front of the tent and launched into an animated lecture on what he expected from his commanders. Urging speed and firepower, he said: “We gotta keep going, like a good fighter, we keep going. These sonsa’bitches are going to be surprised all to hell. We don’t get ’em like that often. We will be in control, and goddamit I want to think we’re pushing a mean pointed stick out there against those sonsa’bitches. Get your men ready, get ’em mean. There are times to go slowly, and there are times to lock and load— kick ass. This is that time. Gotta get in there fast and move fast. Kill fast.” This was vintage Hollingsworth. In war there was only one way to go—as hard and as fast as possible.

DePuy tended to be less dramatic, but he was no less driven than Hollingsworth and found a kindred soul in his assistant division commander. Only a few months after Holly arrived, DePuy told Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett, “I have 1,000 per cent confidence in Hollingsworth. He is completely fearless [and] extremely aggressive.”

Hollingsworth’s tactical philosophy was much like that of DePuy—find the enemy and pile on. After the war, Hollingsworth elaborated on this approach: “It’s always been my view that if one little patrol gets in trouble out there, we ought to give him the whole division, or we’ll never get a patrol to go out 100 yards at night. The only way you’re going to get patrols to go out is [to let them] know that they’re going to be supported.” And the only way top commanders could know what the troops needed was to be on the spot. “The general’s got to be there at the time of crisis, always,” Hollingsworth was fond of saying. “And if you are there, and you’re talking to the little guys, and they know you’re there, boy they will stick with you.” That approach won Holly the undying loyalty of his soldiers, who knew he would do everything in his power to provide the combat support they needed when in trouble.

The division’s first big operation under DePuy and Hollingsworth was Operation Abilene, a search-and-destroy mission that began on March 30 in Phuoc Tuy province, east of Saigon. On April 11, as the two generals monitored the situation, the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, found a Viet Cong base camp. Late in the afternoon, Company C, isolated in the thick jungle undergrowth, came under a heavy mortar barrage followed by a strong enemy ground attack.

The hastily dug-in infantrymen beat back several attacks throughout the night. Early the next morning, two companies of reinforcements made their way through the jungle to Company C’s position. By the time they arrived, however, the VC had withdrawn, leaving 41 dead on the field, but 35 Americans also died, primarily because close-quarter fighting limited the type of firepower that could be used, according to the official account.

When Operation Abilene ended on April 15, the division had recorded 48 killed and 135 wounded. DePuy and Hollingsworth lamented the casualties, but from their point of view the operation was a success. The enemy had been brought to battle and experienced serious casualties. “Operation ABILENE demonstrated conclusively that the 1st Infantry Division can move—and move rapidly—by airmobile operations,” DePuy stated. “The Vietcong have suffered a tremendous loss of prestige in Phuoc Tuy Province.”

Not everyone agreed with DePuy’s assessment of Operation Abilene. Gen. Harold K. Johnson, the Army chief of staff, came to Vietnam shortly after the operation and chastised DePuy for the heavy losses in Company C’s battle. “The American people won’t support this war if we keep having the kind of casualties suffered by Charlie Company,” Johnson warned. DePuy agreed to make changes to hold down casualties, but this was just the first incident in a series of things that would poison the relationship between the Army chief of staff and the senior leadership in the Big Red One.

DePuy followed Operation Abilene with other operations designed to find enemy forces and bring them to battle. The next large one, Birmingham, was launched on April 24 northwest of Saigon in Tay Ninh province. It brought Hollingsworth his first scrutiny from the press. When his troops were being hit by enemy gunners from the other side of the Vietnam-Cambodian border, he directed artillery units to fire across the border, a violation of rules of engagement that forbade attacks in supposedly neutral Cambodia. Later, a reporter asked Hollingsworth if it was true that he had called in artillery on targets in Cambodia. Holly replied, “Sure, I am the guy that fired into Cambodia, but I’m going to protect our soldiers,” implying that he would do it again if necessary to save American lives. Holly was brutally candid with the press, a tendency that did not always serve him well.

After Operation Birmingham ended on May 16, DePuy considered it a success and initiated ever-larger search-and-destroy operations. Holly, as DePuy biographer Gole observed, was “intimately engaged at battalion level and in frequent direct contact with soldiers on the ground in squads and platoons.” However, unlike some senior officers, he did not try to take over the squads and platoons. He thought generals should be with the troops in the middle of the battle, where they could see him providing inspiration and encouragement and making sure the necessary support arrived on time. Mostly, though, he just relished being in the thick of the fighting.

Hollingsworth’s colorful ways were the subject of several news stories, and he was featured in a report by CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite on May 5, 1966. The report summed up Hollingsworth this way: “Clearly, this is no armchair general.”

He didn’t fare as well in a story a month later in a London paper, The Sunday Times. Reporter Nicholas Tomalin spent a day with Hollingsworth as he oversaw a search-and-destroy mission in the “Iron Triangle,” an area northwest of Saigon with a heavy concentration of Viet Cong. Tomalin’s article, “The General Goes Zapping Charlie Cong,” portrayed Hollingsworth as a Texas redneck whose primary pleasure was shooting up the countryside from his personal helicopter, nonchalantly and indiscriminately “killing Cong.” Hollingsworth thought he was treated unfairly and later insisted he was only doing “what I have done throughout my military career—saving as many lives as possible while destroying the enemy.” In a letter to his wife, Nickie, he wrote that “the article was lousy as hell and full of misquotes,” adding presciently, “If General Johnson sees that, my ass is out a mile.”

Shortly thereafter, DePuy received a letter from the Army’s chief of public affairs suggesting Hollingsworth had been less than judicious in his comments to The Sunday Times. DePuy wrote back that “Holly is the best soldier in Vietnam” and, effectively, could say or do what he wanted as far as DePuy was concerned.

The Army chief of staff himself also wrote to DePuy, requesting a comment on a news story that said DePuy and Hollingsworth had been chasing Viet Cong in their helicopters. “If I had wanted a lead scout in command of the 1st Division,” Johnson wrote, “you would not have gotten the job. Your value and Holly’s is proportional to the responsibility that you have for something over 15,000 men. Your job is not to shoot VC. Your job is to see that other people shoot VC. At least, that is the way I look at it.”

DePuy and Hollingsworth continued to push forward with their aggressive approach to fighting the war.
William J. Mullen III, one of their company commanders, said after the war: “Morale in the division was very high. We knew we were in a well-led, aggressive, fighting outfit….We were in the Army’s premier unit.” 

Not everyone’s morale was high. Gole’s book describes the “Byzantine atmosphere” that pervaded DePuy’s command as officers on the division staff jockeyed for attention and favor, as well as the “personal discomfort and fear” felt by staff officers in such a command climate. However, one staff officer who later became a general recalled that Holly often provided an irreverent antidote to DePuy’s intensity. He said Hollingsworth was a task master, but did not bully the staff officers and always had a humorous way to look at every situation, lightening the mood in briefings.

The headquarters staff officers were not the only ones treated mercilessly. DePuy and Hollingsworth had especially high expectations for the officers and senior noncommissioned officers in the field.

They were“ruthless in cutting loose commanders who were not worthy of the soldiers they commanded,” according to Gole. They fired seven battalion commanders and many majors, captains and sergeants major, for a total of 56 during DePuy’s tenure in command. The dismissals piling up in the Big Red One contributed to the broadening gap between the division’s senior leadership and Johnson.

Although Hollingsworth was brutally demanding of company, battalion and brigade commanders, he loved the troops he called the “little fellers”— soldiers down in the mud fighting nose to nose with the enemy. Holly went out of his way to recognize their bravery. On his command helicopter, he carried a box of Purple Hearts, Army Commendation Medals, Soldier’s Medals and Bronze Stars. His aide-de-camp kept the box filled and made sure the follow-up paperwork was sent to the division personnel office. After one of  Holly’s favorite company commanders was gunned down while charging a Viet Cong machine gun, Hollingsworth put the captain in for the Distinguished Service Cross and personally wrote to the man’s wife and parents to express his condolences.

Such losses seemed to motivate Hollingsworth even more. In July 1966, he landed with the first troop lift of 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, in a big battle between An Loc and Minh Thanh, near the Cambodian border. The troops immediately came under intense fire. Moving forward with the infantry assault element, Holly came upon an 18-year-old soldier from Company A who was clearly frightened. Holly told the young soldier, “Son, you come with me and we’ll kill every son of a bitch that we see.” He later reported that the soldier “stuck to me like a leech.” When a firefight broke out to the general’s right, he moved through the 5-foot-tall elephant grass to get closer to the fight. The young soldier followed right behind him. During the battle, three VC were killed in the immediate vicinity of their position. When the firing died down, the general and the soldier went forward. The soldier approached one of the dead VC, touched the body with his boot, and said: “General, he is a dead son of a bitch. I would like to rejoin my squad and I am not afraid anymore.” Holly, replied, “I am not afraid either when I am with soldiers like you.” 

John Lesko, as a young lieutenant with the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, went into a particularly hot landing zone being hit with Viet Cong crossfire. He remembers seeing an “old man” get out of a helicopter that had landed As the chopper departed, the figure began walking across the landing zone like he was “out for a stroll,” despite enemy tracers and mortars falling all around. He flopped beside Lesko on the ground and asked the lieutenant what he needed.

Lesko, without looking up, excitedly uttered an obscenity and said he needed some artillery. Then he turned and saw the single black star on Holly’s helmet and thought that he had just cussed out the assistant division commander. Hollingsworth put an arm on his shoulder and said: “Son, calm down. I’ll get you some artillery.” Nearly 50 years later, Lesko still marveled at the general’s calmness under fire. Retired Gen. Dick Cavazos, who worked for Danger 79er as a lieutenant colonel commanding a battalion in the Big Red One, once observed that Hollingsworth was “the only soldier he had ever met that really had no fear.”

In early December 1966, it was announced that Army chief Johnson would visit Vietnam. He had already expressed his unhappiness with DePuy and Hollingsworth over the heavy casualties, their style of forward command in battle and the division’s elaborate use of firepower. The issue this time was the growing number of officers being relieved of their command. Sometime before the trip was scheduled, Johnson complained to subordinates, “If every division commander relieved people like DePuy, I’d soon be out of lieutenant colonels and majors….He just eats them up like peanuts.” Johnson wrote DePuy a letter admonishing him to slow down on the dismissals and give people a second chance.

On a Christmas Day trip to Vietnam in 1966, the Army chief met with DePuy at the division’s headquarters near Di An to address the issue in person. Johnson, DePuy and Hollingsworth went to DePuy’s quarters for a private meeting. Some 40 years later, Hollingsworth recalled what happened.

“Johnson looked at me and said, ‘You are relieving too many battalion commanders. You are supposed to train them.’ A heated exchange ensued.” The fallout from the confrontation soon became apparent.

DePuy wanted to be reassigned as the commandant of the U.S. Army Infantry Center at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he thought he could make his greatest contribution to the Army. Johnson, apparently did not want him at Fort Benning because DePuy was reassigned to a position assisting the Joint Chiefs of Staff. DePuy turned over command of the 1st Infantry Division to Maj. Gen. John H. Hay on Feb. 10, 1967. The partnership between DePuy and Hollingsworth, which had forged the division into a very effective combat unit, had come to an end.

Hollingsworth secretly hoped he would get command of the 9th Infantry Division but was instead named deputy commanding general, Test and Evaluation Command, at Aberdeen, Maryland, with orders to report there on June 15.

Westmoreland had wanted Holly to remain in Vietnam for another year, but Johnson decided Hollingsworth would not get the opportunity to command a division in combat. It is likely Hollingsworth suffered both from the unflattering news reports that plagued him during his tour and the often contentious relationship between the Army chief of staff  and the Big Red One’s leadership.

During his 15 months with the 1st Infantry Division, Hollingsworth achieved almost legendary status among the troops. He became known as a “soldier’s soldier,” fearless in combat and compassionate about his troops. He and DePuy mentored a long list of officers who would go on to lead the Army in the years after Vietnam.

Although Hollingsworth continued his career and eventually became a lieutenant general, the Big Red One occupied a special place in Holly’s heart for the rest of his life.

Jim Willbanks is a decorated Vietnam veteran, retired lieutenant colonel and former General of the Army George C. Marshall Chair of Military History at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is the author or editor of 19 books.

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