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McChrystal Calls Vietnam War Reporter

As U.S. troops strength and commitments grow in Afghanistan, so has a chorus of comparisons to the gradual U.S. slide into the Vietnam quagmire. While there is a wide range of views regarding the applicability of the Vietnam experience to Afghanistan, the current military leadership appears open to the views of old Vietnam hands. Stanley Karnow, a longtime correspondent and author of the acclaimed book, Vietnam: A History, The First Complete Account of Vietnam at War, was surprised to receive a phone call in late July from none other than General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan. McChrystal was slated to make public his review of Afghanistan war strategy in late August. They called Karnow to discuss similarities between the Vietnam War and the war in Afghanistan. In a subsequent interview with the Associated Press, Karnow said it was the first time he had been consulted by U.S. commanders to discuss the war. He said Holbrooke—who he has known since the 1960s when Holbrooke was a junior U.S. diplomat and Karnow a Time-Life correspondent—called him and passed the phone to McChrystal. The journalist wouldn’t reveal specifics of his conversation, but did say: “What did we learn from Vietnam? We learned that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place….It now seems unthinkable that the U.S. could lose, but that’s what experts thought in Vietnam in 1967. It could be that there will be no real conclusion and that it will go on for a long time until the American public grows tired of it.” At its height, more than 500,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam.

40 Years After Story Broke, Calley Says ‘Sorry’

The first news reports that U.S. troops had massacred civilians in the village of My Lai in March 1968 didn’t emerge until November 1969, when reporter Seymour Hersh broke the first of his three-part story in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on November 13. On November 24, 1969, the U.S. Army announced that 2nd Lt. William L. Calley had been charged with premeditated murder in the My Lai massacre. For the first time, nearly 40 years later, Calley has publicly expressed regret. Calley spoke at a Columbus, Ga., Kiwanis Club event on August 19, where he offered his first public apology for the incident. “There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai,” Calley said. “I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.” A friend of Calley’s, Al Fleming, said in a press report that Calley told the group, “I did what they say I did,” but also maintained that he was following orders.

Calley was convicted on 22 counts and sentenced in 1971 to life in prison. President Richard Nixon later commuted his sentence to three years of house arrest.

Aircrews From Excavated C-130 and Huey 808 Sites Repatriated

Remains of crewmen recovered from the recently excavated Huey 808 that went missing in 1965, and the loadmaster of an Air Force C-130 that disappeared in 1968 were recently repatriated to the United States for identification and burial. In April 2009, the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) found the crash site of a Huey 808 that failed to return from a routine mission, just weeks after its crewmen had risked their lives to save others in the Battle of Ia Drang. The aircrew’s remains were flown to the military’s central identification lab at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, and in July they were positively identified as Specialist Chief Donald C. Grella, Chief Warrant Officer Jesse D. Phelps, Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth L. Stancil and Specialist Thomas Rice.

At an emotional meeting with Department of Defense officials in Washington, Grella’s only sibling, Shirley Haase of Omaha, was given the official report on what JPAC found during the excavation, including her brother’s dog tags. “Isn’t that incredible, after all these years?” said Haase.

In 2002, JPAC excavated the crash site of an Air Force C-130 Hercules, and recently Hickam’s lab identified the remains of the plane’s loadmaster, Chief Master Sgt. John Quincy “Johnny” Adam. Adam and his crew were listed as MIA in 1968 when their plane, “Blind Bat 01,” disappeared while carrying out a regularly scheduled Night Flare mission over eastern Laos. Johnny Adam’s nephew, Air Force Staff Sgt. Adam Blankenship, on active duty in Afghanistan, was granted permission to leave his post to bring Adam’s remains back home to Kansas City for burial. “I received the news while deployed to Afghanistan, and it really redefined the pride that I have in serving our country,” Blankenship said.

Fort Campbell Gives Vietnam Vets Rousing ‘Welcome Home’

Kentucky’s Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), the Army’s most-deployed contingency force, recently held a “Welcome Home” ceremony for Vietnam War GIs as part of its annual celebration for the 101st. More than 1,400 Vietnam veterans from across the country attended, with the Marines, Air Force, Navy and Army all represented.

Fort Campbell officials wanted Vietnam vets to experience what returning soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have come to expect when they step off the plane. Most Vietnam veterans returned home at the end of their one-year tours solo, many aboard commercial airliners, to a small homecoming greeting—if any. The Fort Campbell event was meant to fix that.

On August 16, buses transported the assembled Vietnam vets to the doors of Hangar 3, where family and friends were gathered inside. The veterans stood in formation and when the hangar doors opened, they marched in to be greeted by an Army band, Fort Campbell’s new commanding general, John F. Campbell, and other guests. Before releasing each formation to be “reunited” with their loved ones, Maj. Gen. Campbell acknowledged the sacrifices made by all, including those who had not returned, and thanked the veterans for the lessons that helped set today’s soldiers up for success. “Today’s service members and their families stand on the shoulders of your legacy and contributions each of you made while serving our nation in Vietnam,” said General Campbell.

Facebook and Newspaper Articles Lead to Reunions of Long-Lost Comrades

Mario Kemp, 61, had known Dave Freeman since the 1960s, when they were boyhood friends in Italy. During the Vietnam War they both served but lost track of each other. Kemp heard from a mutual friend that Freeman had been killed in the war, and 15 years later he found his buddy’s name on The Wall. He looked it up at the memorial directory, which said Freeman was from Missouri. That seemed right. He even did a rubbing of his name: “David F. Freeman.”

This past spring, Kemp’s grandchildren urged him to join Facebook, where he got in touch with another mutual friend, Lolly Dorie from Italy, who was living near Washington, D.C. When Kemp, in Sioux Falls, S.D., asked Dorie to do him a favor and lay a rose at Freeman’s name on The Wall, she responded, “Why would I do that?” She told Kemp that their friend Freeman was alive and well in Michigan. She then connected the two via Facebook.

Kemp had been looking at the wrong name on The Wall. His buddy was “David G. Freeman” from Michigan.

In another incident of long-overdue reunions, Kenneth Thompson was reading the Long Island Life special section on the Vietnam War in Newsday in July, when a picture caught his eye. It was of a former Long Island man who had been a prisoner of war, Richard Perricone—an Army buddy that Thompson had trained with and walked infantry patrols with in the Mekong Delta. “Perricone is alive!” he excitedly called out to his wife.

Even though it was early in the morning, Thompson phoned Perricone immediately. “I was shaking and crying….My wife said it’s too early to call,” he said, “but I said I’ve been wondering about this man for 42 years.”

In the summer of 1967, their unit was overrun, and Perricone and five others were captured. For days, Thompson searched for his comrades, but found nothing. Perricone was finally released in a 1973 prisoner exchange with North Vietnam and returned to New York, retiring to Florida six years ago. The same day that Thompson contacted him, Perricone received several phone calls from other readers who recognized him in the newspaper, including two Long Islanders who had worn his POW bracelet to raise awareness of his captivity.

Lt. Gen. Julian J. Ewell Launched Operation Speedy Express

A veteran of WWII, Korea and the Vietnam War, retired Army Lt. Gen. Julian J. Ewell died in July at Fort Belvoir, Va., at 93. In Vietnam, he commanded the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta, from December 1968 to May 1969, and then took charge of II Field Force, the largest Army combat command in Vietnam. Graduating from West Point in 1939, Ewell became a paratrooper and jumped into Normandy with the 101st Airborne Division on D-Day, and into the Netherlands during the Arnhem campaign, earning the Distinguished Service Cross. Ewell also commanded an infantry regiment in Korea. He was military adviser to the U.S.-Vietnam delegation at the Paris peace talks.

Navy Admiral Ralph W. Cousins Led Naval Air Operation in Vietnam

A highly decorated Navy aviator during WWII, and commander of the attack carrier strike force during some of the heaviest fighting of the Vietnam War, retired Admiral Ralph W. Cousins died in Newport News, Va., in August at the age of 94. From 1967 to 1969, Cousins commanded the attack carrier strike force and led the Gulf of Tonkin naval operations that were carried out from aircraft carriers. In 1970 he was promoted to four-star admiral and became the vice chief of naval operations. A dive bomber pilot on the Lexington during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, Cousins led bombing attacks against the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho and survived the sinking of his own ship. He was awarded the Navy Cross in WWII.


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