My Lai, Tiger Force and Winning Wars

I wasn’t going to add my “two-cents” on how something like My Lai could happen but then I read Col. Wesley Fox’s comments (June Letters) and I know he would have my back. It’s not that I’m afraid to share my feelings about the war and things like My Lai with other Vietnam veterans. I’m usually greeted with hostility or, if lucky, just stunned disbelief. How could I, a Marine in 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1969- 70, buy the “myth” that events like My Lai were fairly common occurrences?

Go ahead people, stay in denial. Colonel Fox is absolutely correct that “the Tiger Force of the 327th Infantry did the My Lai routine at will for almost a year—and no one did anything about it.” An obituary of William Doyle, who led a Tiger Force, quoted him as saying: “We killed anything that moved. My only regret is that I didn’t kill more.” He also said that he shot so many civilians that he lost count. No one was punished, as there was no “political will” to do so. I think those who feel we could have won the war if only we had better support from the people back home, if only the news media was on our side, or if only we used a different strategy, are deluding themselves. What many Americans, especially the military, could not understand was that the North was willing to fight to the last man, woman and child to win; America was not.

Of course people should know Colonel Fox wasn’t just any soldier, he was awarded the Medal of Honor while serving in Vietnam. This makes him a solid witness. Semper Fi!

Richard B. Ellenberger

Normandy Park, Wash.

What Westy Didn’t Want to Count

One sentence in Charles Newcomb’s “Westy’s Regrets” (April) jerked my chain. He wrote, “And he regretted the ‘brouhaha’ with Mike Wallace and CBS, which had accused him of inflating body counts on enemy killed—a brouhaha that resulted in a lawsuit he won handily.” There are a couple of things wrong here. First, the inflating of the body counts was mostly done in the field and not MACV Headquarters. The brouhaha was not so much about those inflated body counts but about not counting the live local force and other lower echelon enemy—to keep the live enemy strength within a predetermined number in the Enemy Ground Order of Battle Report.

Second, his “handily winning” the lawsuit is a complete mistake. The afternoon before the trial ended saw the beginning of the presentation of depositions by me and more than 60 other men attesting to the fact Maj. Gen. Joseph McChristian and Colonel Gains Hawkins were not lying in the CBS show. When the general saw the depositions, he could not go on and CBS allowed a graceful ending of the trial for him. If he had “handily” won the case, I am very sure his lawyer would have asked for tons of money, and he did not.

I wrote the program that produced the report and worked almost daily with the intelligence analysts for a couple of years trying to find ways to alter the real number of enemy that we were facing, down to the number predetermined by one of Westmoreland’s staff, who I believe was Col. Daniel Graham—who was eventually rewarded with commanding the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Howard A. Daniel III, MSG (Ret.)

Dunn Loring, Va.

Why We Fought at Hamburger Hill

I read James Willbanks’ account (June) of the battle for Dong Ap Bia, what some consider the most intense confrontation of the Vietnam War. I thank Mr. Willbanks for the article and would like to make few comments and corrections.

No company commander from the 3-187th died in the battle, but three were wounded, two severely. The same U.S. rocket that severely wounded Captain Charles Littnan on May15 killed three, not one, Bravo Company GIs.

I point this out not to nitpick but to illustrate how difficult it is to come up with accurate casualty numbers for the battle. Not even Sam Zafiri, in his excellent book, Hamburger Hill, got it all right. Even 40 years later, with access to the company records, it is impossible to reconcile the different figures. One reason for this is that so many men who were charged with the task were lost: The first day’s friendly fire strike on the battalion command post sent several staff members to the rear who otherwise would have gathered the information. Even working with fellow surviving platoon leaders, we were unable to agree on numbers. Wounds or deaths among medics were underreported, since they were technically not on the company rosters.

Another comment about certain assumptions in the piece. Our orders were never about specifically taking Dong Ap Bia. We entered the A Shau Valley with the intent of finding and engaging the enemy, not taking a particular terrain feature. Dong Ap Bia itself is often described as “dominating” the A Shau. In fact it does no such thing. When I returned to Dong Ap Bia in April 2006 with Oliver North to shoot scenes for his show War Stories, I was struck by how little of the valley could be seen from the still denuded hilltop. At the time of the battle, the crests of Hill 937 and Hill 916 to the south were completely covered by a very thick mantle of triple-canopy growth, denying both visual and direct-fire coverage of the valley. There was no particular reason to suppose that Dong Ap Bia held more significance than any other terrain feature.

Also, the degree to which discontent, bitterness and outright insubordination existed among the troops is, unfortunately, greatly exaggerated. I would wager that during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, WWII or, for that matter, Iraq, comments identical to those in reporter Jay Sharbutt’s accounts could be heard among combat units. Hell, I probably made several of them myself, and for sure questioned my orders. I was not happy about assaulting the kill zone yet another time. But missing is the account of one of our troopers who, on the evening before the final assault, stood up on the perimeter facing Dong Ap Bia and shouted: “Hey! Ho Chi Minh! We’re comin’ up tomorrow and kick your gook ass offa that hill!” The operation was never about terrain. Our job was to find and engage the enemy.

One last observation: The political consequences of Hamburger Hill were as outlined, but what is interesting to me is that the NVA took exactly the other lesson from the battle—that U.S. troops would fight hard regardless of casualties.

Franco John Boccia

Crystal Lake, Ill.

Our Forgotten Hell at Hamburger Hill

In the June issue, James Willbanks did an excellent job covering the 3-187 Infantry at Hamburger Hill. During the battle a company from the 2-506 Infantry was sent to the 3-187 for support. These companies spent 10 days of hell trying to reach the summit of the hill.

When the 1-506 was dispatched to help the Rakkasans, Colonel “Blackjack” Honeycutt called our movement “glacial” and told us to get our “asses in gear.” I can’t speak for Alpha and Charlie companies, but I can speak firsthand about Bravo. We were sent up a ridge line closest to the 3-187. On May 14 we moved up and were ambushed with RPG, small arms and machine guns. We tried repeatedly to breach the NVA defenses. On May 15, during the day’s second attempt to advance, we were counterattacked and had to pull back beyond where we dropped our rucksacks. For the rest of the day, we were mortared and took sniper fire. By morning all our rucksacks were gone, leaving us with little food and water. Every day was the same thing, each platoon taking its turn to be on point, only to get shot up. We were completely dehydrated and some troops were hallucinating. Twice we were overrun from the rear.

Some nights we couldn’t get our killed and wounded out. We too got hit with friendly fire and we were bombed by an F-4. The final night we could hear the NVA shouting at us in the dark that they would kill us all that night. We had no backup companies to count on for assistance like the 3-187. The men of Bravo Company lived in their own personal hell. I counted only 26 guys of the original company walking off that hill.

After the battle, the 3-187 went to Eagle Beach for a well-deserved rest. Bravo spent almost four weeks humping in the A Shau Valley, our uniforms torn and dirty, boots falling apart and socks resembling Swiss cheese. When we finally were picked up, the chopper crews just stared at us in disbelief. At Fire Base Currahee, we showered, were checked over by doctors and given fresh uniforms and boots. We had a ceremony for our dead and went right back into the bush. Few know about the hell Bravo Company 1-506 went through. Currahee!

Bill Schulz

Bravo Co. 1-506, 101st Airborne

Menasha, Wis.

This War’s Not Behind Us

I don’t have the writing credentials of Mr. Bateman or Ms. Nelson, the author of The War Behind Me (June, Reviews) but I do have what neither one of them have. I served for 13 months in Vietnam with the 504th MP Battalion during 1967-68. My company fought in Nha Trang and was then attached to the Marines fighting in Hue during Tet. Not once did I hear about an atrocity or even the rumor of an atrocity. You would think that if there was a “My Lai a week,” even the rumors of such events would surface.

John Buckley

Herndon, Va.

After reading the review of The War Behind Me, I have to say that I have never heard more sanctimonious drivel. Comparing the Vietnam War to post-WWI Germany is ridiculous. The Nazis used the “we were stabbed in the back” tactic to stir up public resentment against the established government. We were stabbed in the back in Vietnam by the media and the war protesters.

I feel that Ms. Nelson’s book research is totally off the mark. I served four tours in Vietnam in every position from a rifleman to a platoon leader and never witnessed the unlawful killing of unarmed civilians.

R.O. Martin

Chicago, Ill.

Mr. Bateman assures us that the author of The War Behind Me was scrupulous in documenting her research of 800 incidents of potential crimes. These lacked necessary evidence to bring a conviction. I do not challenge these potential, unattractive and uncomplimentary incidents. But why were enemy atrocities underreported or ignored? The actions of the NVA and VC were also barbaric and cruel, and exceeded American crimes in quantity and maliciousness. The underreporting or the denial of these incidents by the press points to malfeasance, bias or worse.

Nathan B. Werner, U.S. Army (Ret.)

Minnetonka, Minn.

In Peter Brush’s reply to a letter (June), he claims the war was lost because we failed “to maintain an independent state in the South,” and that the role of the media and antiwar movement did not cause us to lose the war. The South was lost because the Democrats controlling Congress refused to provide more support to help them. They did that because of the media and the antiwar movement. You do not need a scholarly study to see that this was one of the reasons the war was lost.

Paul Stephanus

Cortaro, Ariz.

How a Bird Dog Pilot Saved My Life

Captain Donald Tyler’s story (My War, June) brought tears to my eyes, and my young daughter’s, as it reminded me of my experience with one of these brave pilots. I was with the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines patrolling an area near the Laotian border in 1968 one summer day when we came under attack and in short order the ground was littered with wounded. A Marine a few feet from me writhed in agony. I knelt by him as red crimson saturated the front of his shirt. I did what I could to assist him. Our two Corpsmen were knee deep in wounded. One wounded Marine a few feet in front of me hollered out “Mom!” before going motionless. I stared at him for what seemed like forever. I knew he had just died.

Feeling helpless, I turned my face to the sky pleading, “God please help us!” At that moment, the radio handset clipped to my shirt started squawking, and I pulled it to my ear. A calm voice said, “It looks like you can use some help down there.” Before I could reply, a captain strode past me, ordering me to call in airstrikes to my east. I wondered why east when I could hear the guns to our west. I shouted into the radio: “Yes sir, we need your help. Who are you?” From the radio came: “Look up son and to the east at the tiny dot.” I could make out a tiny airplane slowly getting closer. I shot back: “Yes sir! Can you check out a spot to our west?” The Piper flew overhead and to the west. Small-arms fire erupted from beneath the plane. He was drawing fire but did not vary his flight. “Wow, son they are all over the place!” he called. “Can you call in an airstrike?” I pleaded. Calmly he replied, “I’m doing it right now son.”

In minutes jets were roaring in low. The captain appeared back in front of me yelling, becoming angrier as the explosions hit to the west, not the east as he had ordered. But when the enemy fire suddenly stopped, he just turned and walked away.

Shortly, the calm voice came back over the radio: “Son, you still there? You were hit with multiple big guns and I counted 29 enemy dead.” I offered back, “Thanks for saving our butts sir.” He replied, “That’s what I get paid for, good luck Marine.” I never learned who that Piper Cub pilot was, but I’ve never forgotten him. He saved our lives that day.

Gene F. Danforth

Danbury, N.H.

Gold Star Mothers, Not Nurses at the Wall

In our June feature on Rolling Thunder, we incorrectly identified as nurses (p. 48) a trio of Gold Star Mothers at a candlelight vigil at the Wall. We regret the error.


Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.