Private First Class Thomas McKeon’s first day in Vietnam was nothing like what he expected. He was assigned to Company A, 720th MP Battalion, 18th MP Brigade, at Long Binh. Reaching his hooch on the sprawling military compound, the moment he hit his cot he was told to report to the unit armory. Equipped with a flak jacket, a fully loaded M-14 with unsheathed bayonet, tear gas grenades and gas mask, McKeon was soon on his way across the base to the notorious Long Binh Jail to quell an uprising by American prisoners.
The U.S. Army Vietnam Installation Stockade (USARVIS) at Long Binh was the primary incarceration center in Vietnam. Designed to house the Army’s malcontents and criminals, the Long Binh Jail suddenly erupted on August 29, 1968. Despite the magnitude of the riot, history has paid little attention to the incident.
The Long Binh Jail was established in summer 1966, when the stockade was moved from its original location at Pershing Field, the sports field by Tan Son Nhut Air Base, where the prisoner capacity had been about 140. As the U.S. military buildup continued, so did the growing demand for confinement space for American soldiers who went awry of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Those men either served their terms at the Long Binh Jail or were sent to the U.S. Army Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
By mid-1967 the entire U.S. Army, Vietnam, command had become centralized in Long Binh as part of Operation Moose. This massive logistical undertaking made Long Binh the largest military installation in the world, with 50,000 troops on base. Long Binh was a major objective of the VC during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
The stockade quickly acquired the dubious nickname of ‘Camp LBJ,’ a contemptuous reference to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. It was not long before Camp LBJ became a reflection of American society 12,000 miles away. Voluntary social segregation became the norm. Black and Hispanic inmates stayed together, as did the whites. The environment was dangerous and frustrating for inmates and guards alike, with morale a daily challenge for both groups. The guards, many of whom initially had little corrections training, were faced with the daunting daily task of controlling a restive population. According to one Judge Advocate General Corps officer who conducted investigations into allegations made by inmates, there were few incidents of overt brutality. Often, what appeared to be brutality was a lifesaving response of a guard or the physical restraint or movement of a belligerent inmate.
Under the overall command of the 18th MP Brigade, the direct supervision of LBJ fell to the 557th MP Company, 95th MP Battalion. The compound had gone through four confinement officers (wardens) by the time Lt. Col. Vernon D. Johnson took command on July 5, 1968. Johnson had an academic bent and tried to be sympathetic to the needs of the inmates, almost at the risk of eroding guard authority and credibility.
Inmates spent their days in tedious work details and mundane recreation. For those not inclined to follow the rules, there was always ‘Silver City,’ the maximum confinement area made up of converted Conex shipping containers, where temperatures could exceed 110 degrees. Some inmates considered this a form of torture, and Silver City dramatically contributed to LBJ’s reputation as the worst place to be in Vietnam.
For most of the inmates interned in the nearly eight-acre compound, the racial tension was made worse by overcrowding. Designed to hold 400, the facilities housed 719 by mid-1968 and had not been expanded to accommodate the population surge. Each prisoner had originally been allocated 70 square feet of living space, which soon dwindled to 36.5 square feet.
Blacks, who represented nearly 90 percent of LBJ’s inmate population, demonstrated their defiant identity with ‘Black Power’ signs and intricate hand gestures. All the while the predominantly white guards had to come to grips with the environment of rising black identity that was surging through the rest of American society.
LBJ had been a problem virtually since its establishment. Thanks to a public relations campaign during the war, most of what went on at LBJ remained essentially quiet, despite previous inmate uprisings in 1966 and 1967. But by August 1968, the embers of the flames from the American cities that had burned the previous two summers, exacerbated by the April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., finally ignited the smoldering environment at the Long Binh Jail. Racial tensions, combined with allegations of rampant drug use, were the primary causes of the uprising. Accusations of abuse and neglect, combined with overcrowding, frustration and drugs, served as the catalysts.
The new policy of strip-searching inmates in an effort to stem the proliferation of drugs at LBJ was perceived by the inmates as the ultimate act of degradation. On the night of August 29, 1968, the lid blew. For months the inmates had planned a prison break, but instead they switched to staging an overt act of aggression.
A group of black inmates became high on drugs, mostly marijuana and the popular quaalude Binoctal. The drugs allegedly were provided by one or two of the guards. At 2345 hours, once the inmates were comfortably stoned, they approached the administration area and attacked the fence guard. From there, total chaos erupted. The frenzied inmates began to set tents, mattresses and trash on fire. The mess hall, supply building, latrine, barber shop and administration and finance buildings followed.
Guards and many of the inmates were caught by surprise. When they realized what was happening, many other prisoners joined in the riot. A group of 200 began systematically destroying the camp, while beating white inmates and guards with any impromptu weapon they could get their hands on, including wood planks and bars from dismantled beds.
Only four verified escapes were made during the confusing early stages of the uprising. Despite the wholesale violence, the only fatality was Private Edward Haskett of St. Petersburg, Fla., who was beaten to death with a shovel.
Around midnight, Colonel Johnson and Lieutenant Ernest B. Talps entered the compound in an attempt to calm the rioters. While he was addressing the mob, Johnson was viciously attacked, sustaining severe head wounds before he and Talps escaped.
By that time the prison guards were shoring up perimeter security, with fire-trucks standing by. A significant number of both black and white inmates opted not to join in the riot. Within 30 minutes, they were escorted to a secured field adjoining the prison where they waited out the night under close guard.
It was on the next day that Pfc McKeon was told to muster with the reaction force from the 720th MPs. Under the command of Lt. Col. Baxter M. Bullock, the force walked in formation across the Long Binh base to the stockade front gate where it assembled in a V formation. According to McKeon, ‘Every time the front gate opened, we formed a barrier to follow whatever vehicle went in.’
By August 31 the mood had swung from one of racial discord to one of revolt against the Army. Black and white inmates began to throw rocks and debris at the 720th MPs, who by then had established an outer perimeter. Tom Watson, who was among the reaction force MPs standing 12-hour shifts by the front gate, recalled that there was a’strong pungent smell of burning debris from the fires and a thin layer of smoke that held close to the ground because of the humid night air.’
Once the perimeter guard was established, the waiting game began. Lieutenant Colonel Eugene Murdock had assumed command from the injured Johnson by the end of August 30. Personally selected by USARV deputy commander Lt. Gen. Frank T. Mildren, Murdock took the conservative approach of waiting out the inmates. Lieutenant Colonel Eugene Trop, another seasoned MP officer, assisted Murdock. The patient approach they had adopted undoubtedly saved many lives.
‘Throughout the entire [12-hour] shift [the prisoners] constantly cursed at us and attempted to bait us into approaching the fence,’ Watson recalled. ‘If you happened to venture too close they would try to spit or piss on us.’
During the evening of August 31, several truckloads of blankets, cots and food were brought in for the prisoners. ‘We had to form a skirmish line at bayonet point so the gates could be opened to get the trucks inside, unloaded and removed,’ said Watson. ‘It was a very strange feeling having a bayonet-tipped and loaded rifle pointed at another American, knowing you might have to kill him if he rushed you. I’m grateful it didn’t come to that.’
Once the gates were closed, some of the prisoners set fire to the new supplies. The situation then remained at a standoff for about a week, during which time the number of holdouts dwindled to 13. The steady attrition was precipitated by Trop’s announcement that anyone who didn’t give up would be charged additionally with attempted escape. Trop knew that the inmates did not want any more time added to their sentences.
The remaining stalwarts finally succumbed to boredom and isolation and merely gave up. The uprising had left 63 MPs and 52 inmates injured; Haskett was the only fatality. Following the incident, 129 courts-martial were levied against the insurrectionists for charges including murder, assault on a superior officer, aggravated assault, mutiny, aggravated arson, larceny and willful destruction of government property.
The irony of the LBJ riot is the sparse coverage the event received in the American media, despite the fact that the Army gave the story to many members of the press. The Army’s reports highlighted the fact that the riot was racially motivated and was patiently quelled. Unlike other incidents during the war, the 1968 riot at LBJ was a public relations tactical victory for the military.
Until the eventual turning over of the Long Binh base to the South Vietnamese in February 1973, conditions at LBJ improved. There were a few more minor skirmishes between inmates and guards, but nothing comparable to August 1968.
The article was written by Joe Kolb and originally published in the December 2004 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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