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Captain, U.S. Army, Armored Cavalry Troop Commander

A Troop, 4th Squadron, 12th Cavalry

Quang Tri Province, 1968-69

I expect that many readers of Vietnam magazine can declare that they served more than one tour in Vietnam, or that a dad or a brother served. But in my family, we were all there, mom included.

How does a 13-year-old explain to his friends in Alexandria, Va., in 1957 that he’s going to a place called Saigon in South Vietnam? Lots of kids in the area had dads who worked at the Pentagon, and they were used to their friends suddenly departing for exotic places. But Saigon? Where was that? I showed them my map of French Indochina; it had only been a little more than two years since the French catastrophe at Dien Bien Phu, and the globes and maps had not been updated in the homes of most. My dad, Brig. Gen. Gunnar Carlson, had been there for a year, and my mom, Mabel, and I were going to join him. We had to leave my older brother behind in his plebe year at West Point.

In Saigon, my parents plunged into the diplomatic social scene, sometimes going to two or three receptions a night. Dad was deputy for logistics under the commander of the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), Lt. Gen. Samuel Williams, and he traveled often to visit the new Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), helping to develop plans for dealing with a potential conventional attack from North Vietnam.

I enrolled at the local American school, where we studied algebra and French each morning. Students had history and English lessons at home through an extension program with the University of California. In the afternoons, we would frequently meet at the Cercle Sportif, the French sports club, about two blocks from my house, to perfect our language skills by talking with the French girls in their bikinis.

Our home was a French mansion at 63 Rue Testard, inside a secured wall with glass shards on top and guarded by Vietnamese police. We had six house staff members and a full-time gardener.

As a teenager, I had a great time in Saigon, particularly since my parents were gone almost all night, every night. I later joked that I personally helped start the Vietnam War, given some of the behavior we young punks acted out. My diplomatic immunity card came in handy more than once.

In November 1958, my family left Saigon, but not before three incidents made it clear that all was not well. First, the Viet Minh, predecessors of the Viet Cong, had targeted my dad for assassination, exploding a bomb in a large planter by the building exit just when he was scheduled to leave a conference. Fortunately, he had lingered for a few minutes after the meeting and escaped injury.

Next, my olive-drab Army school bus had been attacked by a drive-by pair on a motorcycle who dropped a grenade beneath the moving bus and sped away. Most of the bus passed over the grenade before it detonated and sent broken glass flying everywhere. I had been seated up front, thankfully, and was unhurt, but my mother was frantic.

Finally, CINCPAC (commander in chief, Pacific Command) had sent a message to MAAG Vietnam requesting my dad move to Vientiane, Laos, to lead the covert operations being started there. Mom and dad stayed up all night compiling a list of reasons why that was not a good idea, and sent it back to CINCPAC in Honolulu: My brother’s isolation from his family, my education, our family’s safety and the difficulties of continuing a social schedule such as would be required in Laos. Another general was chosen for the Laos assignment.

We returned to Alexandria, and dad resumed work at the Pentagon, as the deputy chief of ordnance, industrial.

As the problems in Vietnam grew worse through the early 1960s, I was surprised to hear from my father that none of the senior American officers who had actually served in Vietnam were ever asked for their insights or opinions on what might be done to improve the situation. He and fellow advisers, who had a combined 10 to 12 years of general officer experience briefing President Ngo Dinh Diem and several ARVN generals and senior leaders, were never consulted.

My brother, who graduated from West Point in 1961 and was now Captain Gunnar Carlson Jr., went to South Vietnam in 1966 to be a staff officer, an aerial forward observer and to command an artillery battery of the 4th Infantry Division. His exploits in the Central Highlands included creative artillery raids; one time he shot a tiger that had leaped across his concertina wire, headed straight for him.

Following my own graduation from West Point in 1966, I spent a tour in Berlin and then went back to Vietnam as a brand-new captain in late October 1968.

Two days after arriving at the 90th Replacement Detachment in Long Binh, I was pulled from my assigned slot in the 11th Armored Cavalry and sent north to serve with the 1st Brigade, 5th Mechanized, under control of the 3rd Marine Division on the DMZ.

Three days later, I took an assignment to command A Troop, 4th Squadron, 12th Cavalry. As the “911 Unit” for both the brigade and the Marines, we spent lots of time racing to the scene of the next battle, and we had a kill ratio of more than 100- to-1. The courage and camaraderie of those 214 men will never leave my mind. The three soldiers killed under my command will never leave my heart.

After my six-month command, I moved to the administrative staff of brigade S-1, where, among other duties, I was charged with making the monthly payments to the Vietnamese workers. Carrying my .45 under my shirt, I flew once a month to Saigon in civilian clothes to pick up the payroll.

On one such trip to Saigon, I stopped at my old home at 63 Rue Testard. A large sign attached to the house read “TransAsia Engineering Corporation.” Once I got past the security guard at the gate, I showed my ID card at the door, but was not allowed to enter. When the company vice president came to see what I wanted, I told him that I just wanted to see the house I had lived in as a teenager. No one believed me until I described its layout in detail, where each bath and bedroom was located, and what was behind the house, well out of my vision. They welcomed me in, at last, and I had great fun pointing out where my bed used to be and describing how we placed lights in the wardrobes to keep clothes from mildewing.

In the Republic of Vietnam, the Carlson family compiled a lengthy record of combat service. Although a civilian, Mabel Carlson certainly served in country with honor, amid great fear for her family. Technically, my dad’s service in Vietnam was before the beginning of the Vietnam War, and he received no award or decoration when he left. My brother and I received more than 14 awards during the war, but we’ve always felt that Brig. Gen. Gunnar C. Carlson deserved as much recognition for his outstanding service in Vietnam as his sons did.


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