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Was it mutiny, or did common sense prevail at Fire Support Base?

In early March 1971, a Harris Poll found a  majority of Americans believed the war in Vietnam to be “morally wrong.” Later that month an Americal Division armored cavalry unit refused orders to secure a downed helicopter, and shortly thereafter accusations of carelessness and drug use swirled around one of the Army’s most embarrassing defeats of the war at Firebase Mary Ann. Meanwhile, 2nd Lt. William Calley was convicted for his role in the My Lai massacre, the Pentagon reported an alarming increase in the incidence of fragging and estimated that some 30,000 GIs in Vietnam were drug addicts, Vietnam veterans famously threw their decorations over the White House fence in antiwar protests, and the Pentagon Papers rocked the nation. In a June Armed Forces Journal article, retired Marine Colonel Robert Heinl wrote about an army in “a state approaching collapse.” It was in this context that an isolated garrison along the Cambodian border, Fire Support Base Pace, came under siege in October 1971. The events that transpired at Pace immediately became an international sensation, emblematic of a force that conservative columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak claimed many officers believed constituted “nothing less than a national disgrace.”

In an excerpt from his new book, Soldiering on in a Dying War, Ohio State University professor of public policy William Shkurti, a Vietnam veteran who had served at Firebase Lanyard (a mile from Firebase Pace) nine months before the famous events there, digs deeper into the actual motivations and performance of the units and men involved at Pace.

In the 1970 movie Kelly’s Heroes, Donald Sutherland plays a lethargic, unkempt GI named Oddball, somewhere in France in 1944. When asked by another GI, played by Telly Savalas, why he and his tank had avoided combat for four months while his comrades fought their way from the Normandy beachhead, Oddball smirks,“We see our mission as essentially defensive in nature . . . we are holding ourselves in reserve in case the Krauts mount a counteroffensive which threatens Paris…or maybe even New York.” It is often said that movies say more about the time they were made than anything else. Add a reefer and a peace medallion and Oddball would have easily fit the image many Americans had of the 1970–1971 American GI in Vietnam—dirty, undisciplined, hippiefied and combat averse.

This kind of soldier (or nonsoldier) is what retired Marine Colonel Robert Heinl wrote about in his June 1971 Armed Forces Journal article. “By every conceivable indicator, our Army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous,” Heinl charged. This point of view was shared by some still on active duty in the Army. Brigadier General Theodore Mataxis, who had led troops both in Vietnam and Korea, declared:“It’s been the opposite of Korea. There we went in with a bad army and came out with a good one. In Vietnam we went in with a good army and came out with a bad one.”

As combat draws to a close, soldiers turn skittish about risking their lives in what appears to be a foregone conclusion. This was true in Vietnam, but not only in Vietnam. One such case occurred in February 1945 about 90 days before the end of the war in Europe. In Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose chronicles the story of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, one of the best and most highly decorated group of soldiers in World War II. But, when ordered to run a risky night reconnaissance patrol across the Moder River near Haguenau, a patrol the company commander considered suicidal, they elected to fake the patrol (what would be later called “ghosting” in Vietnam). Afterward some of the men got drunk and got into a fight. No reporters were around, so the excellent reputation of the unit remained intact.

The lingering stalemate in Korea provides an even better example. Peace talks dragged on for two years before an armistice was signed, a process that cynical GIs dubbed “die for a tie.” But Heinl and other critics claimed the problem was worse in Vietnam, “by several orders of magnitude,” as Heinl put it. Not everyone agreed. An unnamed Army officer interviewed by Washington Post reporter Peter Jay in the aftermath of the refusals of troops at Firebase Pace to go on patrols explained it this way: “Obviously, no one wants to be the last man killed here,” he said. “No one wants to take risks in a cause the country’s given up on. Of course there are incidents. But the jobs are still being done.”

Job still being done or Army on the verge of collapse? Which of these two alternate realities better describes what was happening on the ground at Firebase Pace in September and October 1971? And what does it tell us about the state of the ground forces in Vietnam at the time, and about why soldiers fight or don’t? Myra MacPherson attempted to address those questions in her 1984 book, Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation. After referring to Firebase Pace as an “insurrection,” she laid out the following statistics in support of her description of a military in “disarray.” She argued that a 1971 random group of Army soldiers would produce: seven acts of desertion; 17 AWOL incidents; 20 frequent marijuana smokers; 10 regular narcotics users; two discipline charges; 18 lesser punishments; and 12 complaints to Congressmen.

MacPherson cites as her source David Cortright’s 1975 book, Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War. Cortright draws his information from a series of congressional hearings, much from Pentagon testimony, and uses it to conclude that as many as one-fourth of all enlisted men “engaged in some form of rebellion against military authority.”While the presentation of information in this way might be an eye-catching way of making a point, it can also be extremely misleading. What Cortright makes clear, but MacPherson does not, is that these figures are Army-wide averages. They include not only GIs serving in Vietnam but also soldiers in Europe and the United States—and trainees who are likely to have higher incidences of AWOL and discipline failure.

What averages of this nature also do is mask important differences between units or groups of units. Combat in Vietnam was often on the small unit (company or platoon) level,where unit leadership and the unique circumstances of that time and place were much more meaningful than Army-wide averages. For example, the 23rd Artillery Group Operational Report/Lessons Learned for the period ending October 31,1971,lists 37 men wounded between April and October, or an annualized loss of about 1.5 per 100. So, an average 23rd Group Artillery Battery would face one or two soldiers wounded a year due to enemy action in this period.What these averages don’t show is that 30 of these 37 losses occurred in Charlie Battery 2-32nd over 27 days in September and October at Firebase Pace, or an annualized rate 270 times higher, at 406 per 100.

The profile of units still in harm’s way in Vietnam presents a very different picture from MacPherson’s or Cortright’s Armywide averages, in part because they were more experienced soldiers, and in part because they faced a tangible enemy. Frontline soldiers in Vietnam had a powerful incentive to stay focused on the job at hand and be protective of each other, regardless of the political context.

This evidence strongly suggests that the grunts at Pace, and in the rest of the 3d Brigade, were not at war with themselves anywhere near the degree Heinl, MacPherson and Cortright suggest. Looked at in isolation, these figures do not tell us what these soldiers were doing (or not doing) in terms of accomplishing their mission of protecting American units and installations while the withdrawal continued.

The first place to look for this information are the records the Army kept on the activities of the infantry units assigned to protect Fire Support Base Pace. Those documents provide almost a day-by-day, hour-by-hour record of what went on. The infantry’s mission in protecting Pace can best be described as follows:

  • Defending the perimeter in the event of a ground attack. Fortunately, this never occurred, so it is not known how they would have responded.
  • Defending the base with indirect fire from the companys’ mortars. A two-mortar section from E Company stayed at Pace for the entire period, firing both high explosive and illuminating rounds as needed. The crews working the 4.2-inch mortars at Pace operated in an open pit with no overhead cover, thus exposing themselves to enemy incoming fire, much like the artillery crews. This part of the mission was clearly fulfilled.
  • Conducting reconnaissance patrols outside the perimeter wire in order to detect possible enemy movement and enemy intentions. These important patrols allowed the garrison to prepare for whatever came their way. They also caused the most controversy.

All four line companies of the 1-12th Cavalry spent time at Pace from September 24 to October 22, 1971. Charlie Company arrived first but spent only one day at Pace before being sent to FSB Katum. The other three companies spent significant time at Pace and left a verifiable record of what they did or did not do.

Alpha Company defended Pace for 14 days, from September 24 through October 7, when some of the most intense enemy activity took place. Alpha ran at least three patrols outside the perimeter wire over this period. Differences between Alpha Company’s leadership and the artillery commanders at Pace surfaced over the frequency and aggressiveness of these patrols, but at least some patrols were conducted. There were no refusals, and at least eight members of the company suffered wounds from shrapnel during their stay at Pace.

Alpha rotated out on October 7, replaced by Bravo Company. On October 9, six members of Bravo Company refused to go out on a night ambush. Aggressive reconnaissance is a standard expectation of defenders of any fixed position like a firebase. It keeps potential attackers off guard and provides defenders advance warning of possible enemy activity. The members of Bravo Company did not object to reconnaissance for defensive purposes, but to this particular mission, which they saw as needlessly risky.

In addition, bad weather conditions that night made it chancy, at best, to count on helicopters for fire support, delivery of supplies or medical evacuation. More important, the men had legitimate concerns about the wisdom of the mission. The 1-12th was a veteran unit that instinctively knew what made sense and what didn’t. Going out at night in small numbers with 1,500 enemy troops in the area, over unfamiliar terrain littered with unmarked booby traps and without adequate support, was unusually risky. In fact, Maj. Gen. Jack Wagstaff, talking about the incident, seemed somewhat sympathetic. Speaking with a reporter two days after Pace was evacuated, he said:“They were trained in air mobile tactics in which when a unit gets in trouble there are always reinforcements available. Their reinforcements at Pace were the Vietnamese, who fought damn well there. But it took them some time to get used to operating away from their own battalions.”

Three of the individuals directly involved in the temporary refusal on October 9—Sergeant Nick Demas, Sergeant Walter Wernli and Spc. 4 Ernest French—were veteran soldiers with good records. They all raised the issue of the unmarked Claymore mines as a major concern. Staff Sergeant Paul Cibolski, who was an experienced soldier, confirmed their existence prior to the patrol being sent out. Cibolski’s warning turned out to be justified when the patrol came across a string of Claymores the next day. Captain Robert Cronin realized this and wisely canceled the mission. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the concerns raised prior to the mission came from veteran soldiers wary of unnecessary risks, not mutineers interested in shirking their duty.

What Bravo Company did before and after its appearance at Pace is informative as well. Presumably, if this were a collection of slackers and malcontents, some signs would have surfaced before the refusal. Even more likely, once these soldiers had crossed the line, disobeyed an order and not been punished, the shirkers should have the upper hand and more refusals would follow. The record indicates the opposite. From May through September 1971, Bravo Company was out in the field regularly. Its troops operated from seven major firebases and a host of mini bases in Long Khanh Province and uncovered 20 tons of flour in a four-day period. In the first week of September, Bravo Company clashed with enemy soldiers on three occasions, with five members of the company wounded by enemy fire.

Another perspective on the status of the grunts at Pace comes from the October 12 report from Major William Tozer, inspector general of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 3d Brigade.After visiting Pace on October 11, and talking with the soldiers involved, Major Tozer concluded there was no combat refusal on October 9 or 10.

Tozer went on to make some other helpful observations. He noted that the soldiers involved were“intelligent, concerned and willing to discuss the matter openly,” which is not the mark of a gang of conspirators or heavy drug users. Also, because of poor weather on October 9, a soldier who had been lightly wounded with a head injury was not medevaced until the next day, which some of the troops misinterpreted as a lack of support.

The men of Bravo were not of one mind as to how far they would have gone had they received a direct order to go. Some clearly would have gone; some were more reluctant. This observation is consistent with the recollection of 1st Lt. Richard Coreno, the leader of 2d Platoon, whose members initiated the letter to Senator Edward Kennedy. Coreno, who disagreed with Captain Cronin on the merits of this particular mission, felt some of the discussion among the enlisted men was “just talk.” Griping is a longtime soldier prerogative, especially among the infantry. According to Tozer,“When I talked with them collectively, they were considerably more defiant than when I had private conversations with them.”

Finally, Tozer pointed out that approximately 85 of the GIs in Bravo Company were scheduled to rotate back to the States within 60 days. If one-year tours were distributed evenly during the year, a company-sized unit would expect only 15 to 20 men to be short 60 days or less. Although Major Tozer didn’t say it in so many words, short-timers fever had to be at play here. Soldiers who have endured a lot and have the end of their peril in sight are much less likely to take risks.

After leaving Pace on October 12, Bravo Company was back out in the field on a night ambush north of Xuan Loc. There were no reports of combat refusals or other disciplinary issues. It is probably more than coincidence that although both Bravo and Delta Companies ran patrols in their 13 days at Pace, no effort was made to resurrect a night ambush, which implies that their commanders recognized this was not a good idea in the first place.

Then there is the issue of the letter/petition to Senator Kennedy. An open letter to an elected official from a line combat unit questioning strategy is very unusual, even in the contentious political environment of the Vietnam War. Sixty-six members of Bravo Company signed the letter, including many of the company’s junior NCOs.

The reference to“defensive role”in the letter was not a creation of the petition’s authors. At least some of the troops were aware of the public relations offensive President Richard Nixon and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird began in January 1971 about how America’s combat role would be ending by May 1. “I don’t want to mislead anyone,” Secretary Laird said in a January press conference in Bangkok.“There will still be United States combat forces there (in South Vietnam) but their assignment will not be a combat responsibility as such (emphasis added). It will be primarily a security responsibility.”It came up again in August, just two months before events at Pace reached a boiling point. On August 6, the Pacific Edition of Stars and Stripes carried an Associated Press story with Laird elaborating on a Nixon statement the day before, in which the president said that U.S. troops“are frankly just defending areas which we occupy.”

“Phase I of the Vietnamization program has been virtually completed with the President’s announcement that U.S. ground forces had moved into defensive positions,”Laird explained, under the headline:“GI Combat Role in Vietnam Nearly Ended—Laird.” This had to raise the level of cynicism among those soldiers, including the ones at Pace, who were still being shot at on a daily basis when their combat role was supposed to be nearly ended.

The letter to Senator Kennedy initiated with Grana and members of 2d Platoon, but the refusal itself began with French and members of the 3d Platoon. Although members of 3d Platoon did sign the letter, these men maintain they did not object to going out on patrol per se but to the specifics of this patrol, particularly the unmarked Claymores. Their platoon leader seemed to agree. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if an order came down they would have gone,” Lieutenant Shuler later told Stars and Stripes. The fact that men from 3d Platoon, including French, Demas and Wernli, did go out on patrol the next day (although reluctantly) also supports Shuler’s interpretation. Members of 2d Platoon were more outspoken about the mission in general, did not volunteer to go out on patrol the next day, and some maintain they were unwilling to go under any circumstances, but they did participate in future missions.

Concerns over a disconnect between what administration officials were describing to the people back home and what the GIs saw happening to them and to their comrades was not limited to Bravo Company. Specialist 4 Paul White, a draftee and a May 1970 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro joined Delta Company, 1-12th Cavalry in May 1971. He was the battalion’s chief radio telephone operator by the time he arrived at Pace along with Delta Company in October. White was so incensed by Secretary Laird’s September 3 statements regarding the diminished combat role of U.S. ground troops that he wrote the secretary a personal letter. He did receive a reply from Maj. Gen. Donnelly P. Bolton, director of operations. However, he did not find the letter persuasive. “It was really disgusting to me,” he wrote his parents on September 25.

General Bolton’s reply did correctly emphasize that the overall level of combat activity had declined for U.S. troops, but also acknowledged that the statement that Americans had relinquished all combat roles to the South Vietnamese was incorrect. Even though the actions of Bravo Company generated support from other GIs at Pace and elsewhere, not everyone in Bravo Company, or in any of the other units, were all of one mind regarding the wisdom of the war, or the strategy to fight it. With the American public split over conduct of the Vietnam War, it should not be surprising that its soldiers possessed differing views as well. But one thing soldiers inVietnam and civilians at home shared in common, whether they supported the war or not, was a belief that the country’s politicians and senior leaders had mismanaged the war.

Looking back, Grana wonders if their letter escalated what would have been a family disagreement into more than it needed to be. “We were willing to take on Cronin, but not the whole Army,”he recalls.“Without the letter it could have been resolved.”

Delta Company, the unit flown in to replace Bravo Company on October 12, soon found itself part of a similar controversy. Delta had been out in the field regularly since June. Just two days earlier, they had uncovered 3,000 pounds of flour stored near FSB Round Rock in Binh Duong Province. Delta participated in a temporary combat refusal of its own on October 13 after rescuing two helicopter pilots the day before. This time it involved a daylight mission to secure a tree line just east of the base so that resupply helicopters could take off and land safely—a much more straightforward defensive mission than a night ambush. The soldiers involved acknowledged that they had heard about Bravo’s refusal four days earlier.

At this point, the situation at Pace came closest to unraveling into a contagion of rebellion. If Delta refused to follow orders, it left their commanders with a series of unpleasant choices—courtmartial the men and/or replace them with yet another unit and run the risk of a spreading insurrection, all under the glare of national publicity. Finally, Major Joseph Dye was called in. He talked with the men, explained why the mission was necessary for the defense of Pace, and offered to lead the patrol himself.After about an hour of deliberations, the men agreed to proceed under the leadership of their platoon leader. The patrol returned safely, and for the next 10 days Delta remained at Pace running reconnaissance patrols necessary for base defense on nearly a daily basis with no further incidents. This included two dangerous missions—one to recover equipment from a downed Cobra, the other to recover bodies from a downed Huey. Meanwhile South Vietnamese troops were able to stop the enemy offensive and break the siege of Pace. All U.S. forces were evacuated by helicopter on October 22 and the base was turned over to the ARVN. Two days after Pace was evacuated, Delta went back to Fire Support Base Round Rock and was back out in the field on patrol looking for enemy supply caches.

Looking over 1-12th Cavalry’s entire record for the second half of 1971, it clearly does not resemble an Army on the brink of collapse or rebellion. Nor is it an Army willing to blindly follow orders. So what is it? Perhaps the best explanation came from veteran CBS correspondent John Laurence, who was with another 1st Cavalry unit, Charlie Company 2-7th, 18 months earlier.

Laurence and his camera crew went out with Charlie Company on a patrol near the Cambodian border. He filmed a combat refusal by veteran GIs to walk down a road they thought was too dangerous. He later commented on what he saw in his award-winning documentary, The World of Charlie Company. He focused on the difference in attitude among the line infantry—the grunts— between his first tour in 1966–1967 and those he saw in early 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.”

And 18 months later it happened in Bravo and Delta Companies 1-12th. But to stop there and view these soldiers as a bunch of dissidents would be totally unfair. After all, the same soldiers of Delta who initially refused on October 13, had rushed out into an enemy-infested area the day before to rescue two Cobra pilots without a moment’s hesitation. These same soldiers did later agree to go out on the daylight patrol after their meeting with Major Dye. And, in the following days, they again ventured into enemy-controlled areas to recover equipment from the downed Cobra, as well as the remains of the crew from the downed Huey. Bravo Company had done the same thing on October 9 to protect the downed Cobra that crash landed near the main gate.

“These men are not cowards,” insisted Bravo Company squad leader Wernli in a subsequent ABC interview. Bravo Company’s commanding officer, Captain Cronin, who probably went through more grief than anyone for Bravo’s refusal on October 9, described the two individuals who sparked the refusal and the letter to Senator Kennedy, French and Grana, as good soldiers who had not gotten involved in any trouble before or after the incident. Lieutenant Colonel Stan Tyson, 1-12th’s commanding officer during this period, described how, after Pace was evacuated, fistfights broke out among some of his soldiers over who would be able to participate in Operation Thundering Hooves because there wasn’t enough lift capability to take everyone who wanted to go.

What could explain such apparently contradictory behavior? How do soldiers decide what’s worth fighting for and what isn’t? Military historians have been struggling to answer such questions for centuries. What seems to best explain it is that the willingness to take risks in battle has little to do with country or cause, with president or king. What holds units together under the stress of combat or impending combat is the willingness to fight for each other. In closing out his account of E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, Stephen Ambrose put it this way:“They thought the Army was boring, unfeeling, and chicken, and hated it. They found combat to be ugliness, destruction, and death, and hated it. Anything was better than the blood and carnage, the grime and filth, the impossible demands made on the body— anything, that is, except letting down their buddies.” The various infantry companies of the 1-12th Cavalry at Pace did not face the same degree of intense combat as the veterans of Normandy and Bastogne. But in the end, the similarities of their experience in Vietnam were stronger than the differences. And when those similarities were clear, they rose to the occasion.

Were the actions of the infantry units assigned to Firebase Pace further evidence of an Army in collapse or an Army that could still get the job done? The preponderance of evidence lines up on the side of getting the job done. Yes, there were signs of rebelliousness and resistance that would have been unthinkable in 1965. But this was no longer 1965.


Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.