“Hey, Mistah Reporter,” the tall, muscular Specialist Four shouted out to me in the spring of 1968 as he hoisted up his gear from the A Shau Valley floor in northernmost South Vietnam. He was preparing to move up the steep mountain trail to shoot dead or chase away any North Vietnamese troopers who had infiltrated through our lines on the mountainside during our first night. The bad guys might be lying in an ambush position at the top of the mountain.
“Does your newspaper say you have to go with us?”
“No,” I answered.
“You’re going with us anyway?”
“Where’s your weapon?”
“There’ll be plenty of weapons lying around if we get in trouble,” I answered.
“So, you’re going with us even though you don’t have to go, and you don’t even have a weapon?”
“Well, Mistah Reporter, all I can say is that you’ve got shit for brains.”
With that, the trooper turned away disgustedly and followed his platoon up the trail. I brought up the rear of the single file column. I had learned from humping around with troopers on previous patrols as a combat correspondent for The Washington Post that a firefight, especially an ambush from North Vietnamese infantrymen crouched into tiny spider holes dug on either side of a woodsy trail, could break out, without warning. The North Vietnamese standard tactic was to let the American troopers at the head of the column pass right by. They would try to kill or wound the platoon lieutenant and his radio man in the middle of the column before they could radio in the dreaded helicopter gunships with machine gunners standing in their side doors or fighter bombers laden with jellied gasoline called napalm. Once the ambushers opened up, previous ambushes had taught me, the lieutenant and his radioman became frantically busy as they tried to save their own lives and those of their men. The last thing they needed in those moments was a reporter asking them questions. So, I usually stayed at the tail end of the column with the medic.
A few days earlier, when I had joined a company of Army troopers trying to reach the Marines in Khe Sanh from Fire Base Stud, we got ambushed enroute by North Vietnamese hiding in spider holes on either side of the trail. The medic and I could hear the firing at the middle of the long column but could not see anything as we lay in the tall grass on the left side of the trail threading through dense woods.
“Hey George,” the medic lying beside me in the grass had said. “If anybody in our column up there gets hit, you take my bag and do what you can for him. I’ve only got four days to go in country.” He had drawn a calendar on his helmet cover X-ing out each day of his year-long tour in Vietnam. I looked at his helmet and saw he was telling the truth. He really did have only a few days to go in-country.
“We’ll see,” I answered noncommittally.
Luckily for the medic, myself and the soldiers in our column, nobody got hit despite the closeness of the spider holes to our advancing column. The company commander, obviously after radioing his battalion commander, reversed course, and backed out of the ambush. Tomorrow was another day, somebody on high must have reasoned. I thought to myself that if I had been with a Marine company that day, its commander would have ordered a few of his troopers to go after the would-be ambushers, The Marines approached the Vietnam War as kill or be killed. The Army approach, I had discovered on many patrols, was less militaristic and more civilianized. Why not live to fight another day? That was the Army rationale. My unscientific analysis based on my humping experience in South Vietnam so far in 1968 was that this was why the Marine Corps proudly suffered more casualties per 100 troops than did the Army on the up close and dirty small unit patrols in the jungle that the Pentagon did not track.
On this particular spring morning in April,1968, l hurried after the Spec 4 who said I had shit for brains. Thinking back on it, he was probably right. l had my wife Joan at home caring for our two young children, Kathy, 9, and Jimmy, 8, still in grammar school. My rationale was that I could not in good conscience write about the Vietnam War as the defense correspondent of The Washington Post without seeing it up close and personal by humping around with the troops rather than just covering the safe Pentagon. Besides, I loved the adventure of combat and never thought I would be killed in Vietnam. I wanted to see how I would react under fire. So far, I had reacted calmly when I heard enemy bullets flying through the air close to me.
I had only walked about 500 yards up the mountain trail when I saw a North Vietnamese soldier lying on his back in the woods off to the left of the narrow trail. His wide-open eyes stared up into the morning sun. I studied his smooth brown skin and freshly combed black hair. He was a handsome young man of about 19. I could tell from his wounds, which included a right wrist which was almost severed, that the machine guns on an Anny helicopter gunship had killed him during the heavy bombardment of the upper part of the mountain earlier this morning. I marveled as I stared down on him at how he had managed to keep himself so clean and neat in the field. What would he have become if he had been allowed to live rather than be killed by a fellow teenager, he never met firing from a helicopter door? His fingers were long and slender. He could have become a musician or a sculptor, I thought to myself.
Like the American teenagers in Army jungle fatigues all around me, the North Vietnamese trooper I was studying from head to toe as he lay dead in the grass probably had no idea why he risked his life this morning. The Geneva Accords old men had drafted in Geneva, Switzerland, called for a “general election” to be held by July, 1956, to let the Vietnamese people vote on whether they wanted to be under the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh of North Vietnam or under former Emperor Bao Dai of South Vietnam. American government leaders knew full well that Ho Chi Minh had won the hearts and minds of most Vietnamese and would win any election whenever it was held. His Vietminh Communist troops had defeated the French troopers holed up on the bottom of a bowl in a base called Dien Bien Phu. As the great columnist Walter Lippmann wrote in the Post on April 20, 1965: “While our government endorsed the Geneva Agreements, and especially the provision for free elections, it opposed free elections when it realized Ho Chi Minh would win them .... Since that time, we have insisted that South Vietnam is an independent nation.” So, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara not only went to war in 1964 to avenge a North Vietnamese torpedo attack that never happened – the attack turned out to be an outright lie as McNamara eventually admitted – but the United States government reversed itself and ended up opposing the very free elections it had originally endorsed.
McNamara, a Presidential jock sniffer if there ever was one, had lied shamelessly to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee behind closed doors on August 6, 1964, even though he must have known there were growing doubts swirling around his own Pentagon office whether the North Vietnamese attack on American destroyers had taken place at all. Here is some of McNamara’s no-doubt-about-it testimony which he would take 31 years to retract:
“At 9:30 pm [in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, 1964] additional unidentified vessels were observed on the Maddox radar, and these vessels began to close rapidly on the destroyer patrol at speeds in excess of 40 knots. The attacking craft continued to close rapidly from the west and south and the Maddox reported that their intentions were evaluated as hostile. The destroyers reported at 9:52 p.m. that they were under continuous torpedo attack and were engaged in defensive counter-fire.
“Within the next hour the destroyers relayed messages stating that they had avoided a number of torpedoes, that they had been under repeated attack and that they had sunk two of the attacking craft. By midnight local time the destroyers reported that even though many torpedoes had been fired at them, they had suffered no hits nor casualties ... The Turner Joy reported that during the engagement, in addition to the torpedo attack, she was fired upon by automatic weapons while being illuminated by searchlights. Finally, after more than two hours under attack, the destroyers reported at 1:30 a.m. that the attacking craft had apparently broken off the engagement.
“The deliberate and unprovoked nature of the attacks at locations that were indisputably in international waters compelled the President and his principal advisers to conclude that a prompt and firm military response was required. Accordingly, the President decided that air action, in reply to the unprovoked attacks, should be taken against gunboats and certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam which had been used in hostile operations. On Tuesday evening, after consulting with Congressional leadership, he so informed the American people ...”
Congress obviously believed McNamara’s testimony when he said North Vietnamese gunboats had attacked the American destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy without any provocation by the United States. The Senate passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution by a vote of 88 to 2 on August 7, 1964 – only one day after McNamara had testified while the House the same day passed the measure by a vote of 414 to 0. Democratic Senators Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska were the lone dissenters. While Fulbright and others in Congress believed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution represented only Congressional approval of the retaliatory bombing Johnson had ordered against North Vietnamese gunboat facilities and an oil storage depot at Vinh, President Johnson used it like a stretch sock to escalate the Vietnam War whenever he saw fit. His administration leaned heavily on the part of the resolution which said, as enacted, “the Congress approves and supports the determination of the President, as commander-in-chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”
On August 4, 1964, Daniel Ellsberg was serving his first day at the Pentagon as a top aide to Assistant Defense Secretary John McNaughton, who went in and out of McNamara’s office at will. Ellsberg wrote on page nine of his book Secrets that he was sitting at his Pentagon desk when a courier handed him another flash message from Navy Captain John J. Herrick, commander of the Maddox – Turner Joy two destroyer task force. In the new flash message, Herrick took back the alarming cables he had sent earlier about the alleged North Vietnamese gunboat attack on his destroyers: “Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and over-eager sonar man may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.” “As negative evidence accumulated,” Ellsberg wrote in his book, “within a few days it came to seem less likely that any attack had occurred on August 4, [ 1964].”
But McNamara did not seem to feel under any moral obligation to share the Pentagon’s deepening doubts with Congress. He must have known about them even though Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution gave Congress, not President Johnson, the power to declare war and provide for the common defense. McNamara saw himself as working for the President, not the Constitution, as President Johnson pushed the Vietnam War beyond the point of no return with the defense secretary’s full blessing.
My overly long study of the dead North Vietnamese soldier this lovely April morning of 1968 had allowed a long gap to open up between me and the main body of the platoon belonging to the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Regiment within the 1st Airmobile Division. I realized this when I heard shots ring out farther up the steep mountain trail. I could tell they came from a North Vietnamese AK-47. The AK-47 sounded lower than the ping-ping of our M-16 rifles. Was somebody in our column hit by the burst? I asked myself. I hurried to close the gap I had allowed to open up.
Late the previous day Lieutenant Colonel Roscoe Robinson, battalion commander, had OK’d my climbing into a Huey helicopter with several of his infantry troopers to assault suspected North Vietnamese units going from north to south down the A Shau Valley floor. We had taken off late in the afternoon from a flat expanse of ground at Fire Base Stud near Khe Sanh. We had flown over the mountains and through the clouds hanging on their peaks. The helicopter pilot, once he was above the clouds and flying through the blue sky, knew he would see any mountaintops before he hit them. He looked for holes in the clouds below his chopper once he knew he was over the flat of the A Shau Valley. The clouds obscured the valley floor so often and so thoroughly that North Vietnamese trucks felt safe from our helicopter gunships and bombers on most days. The North Vietnamese drove north to south on the hard A Shau Valley floor as if they were on a highway, ending up in the Imperial capital of Hue.
Our pilot found a hole in the clouds. He followed the blue shaft down toward the valley’s flatness. Seven Army troopers and I sat on the floor in back of the stripped-down Huey helicopter. Seats in the chopper’s rear cabin had been removed so we would not trip over them when we jumped out the open side doors. We knew the pilot would not land on the valley floor. He would hover for a few seconds to give us time to jump out the side doors. Then the pilot would climb into the safety of the clouds. We felt the fast descent of the Huey in our gut. The valley floor seemed to rise up to greet us. We locked arms. I felt the nervous vibrations radiating out of the arm of the trooper on each side of me. We sat arm in arm on the metal floor of the helicopter. We worried about sliding out one of the wide-open side doors every time the pilot tilted the chopper to dodge ground fire. Luckily, there was hardly any of it this twilight. The pilot hovered a few feet above the valley floor. We unlocked our arms and jumped out of the side doors of the Huey. Each man ran into the woods at the edge of the valley floor and lay there listening for the sound of North Vietnamese AK-47 rifles. We heard only a few shots coming from the dense woods on the mountainside. One enemy bullet went clear through the soup pot our cook was carrying. He wiggled into a crevasse on the mountainside and stayed there. No hot food would come from him on this first night in the A Shau Valley.
In the middle of that first night a junior soldier on watch thought he heard bushes rustling nearby. He woke up his sergeant. The sergeant said it was just wild animals feeding. The sergeant went back to sleep. The noise was actually from North Vietnamese infantrymen sneaking past the edge of our encampment and setting up mortars above us on the mountain. At first light this morning the North Vietnamese had lobbed mortars on our encampment, I was sleeping on the open ground, not in a foxhole, when they exploded nearby. No mortar shrapnel hit me. Our battalion officers called in helicopter gunships and fighter bombers. The choppers raked the upper part of our mountain with rockets and machine gun fire. Next came the fast movers, the fighter bombers, which dropped napalm and bomb after bomb on the heights above us. Not to be outdone, our battalion’s own 105-millimeter canon sitting on the valley floor turned their muzzles toward the middle of the mountain and fired away. l thought the top of the mountain would be blown off by this Fort Benning moment.
The job of the platoon I had just joined late this morning was to make sure no North Vietnamese soldiers had survived the aerial and artillery bombardment. I had learned that the North Vietnamese typically left behind a small rear guard of infantry to slow down the American pursuers so their main force could escape into the jungle. I suspected it was the North Vietnamese rear guard opening up an AK-47 on the middle of our single file column which I could hear but not see because of the dense woods, I broke into a trot and rounded the next bend in the trail. I saw Robert Woods, the platoon’s machine gunner, sitting on the ground. Blood gushed from his neck. A North Vietnamese bullet had gone clear through his neck and out the other side. Hopefully the bullet had missed his jugular vein on the way through his neck. The medic attending him smeared a Vaseline-like substance on a gauze bandage. He pressed the greasy patch into the wound and then tied a bandage around Woods’ neck. He hoped to slow or stop the bleeding and get the tall trooper medevacked by helicopter. The chopper would have to come from Camp Evans, fly over the high mountains, find a blue hole in the clouds hanging over the A Shau Valley and follow it down to the valley floor. Hopefully the rescue helicopter would land near where the platoon I was with had started from late this morning.
More AK-47 fire was coining out the woods but nobody else got hit. At least not yet. I figured the lone platoon medic would have other wounded to tend to soon. I told the medic something like this: “Hey, look. You’re going to be busy with other wounded, I’m not doing anything. Why not let me take Woods back down the trail to the valley. He can walk with a little assistance. We’ll find a flat spot where a Medevac can land on the valley floor. We’ve got to get Woods to the hospital at Camp Evans in a hurry or lose him.”
The medic agreed.
Woods was young and strong. He left his M-60 machine gun with his platoon and pretty much walked on his own down the trail. I worried as I watched Woods. I occasionally helped him clear obstacles on the trail. l knew someone in command would have already radioed for a Medevac helicopter to fly from Camp Evans to rescue him. I worried as we walked down the trail together about those damn clouds obscuring our battalion’s landing pad. Would those clouds cause Woods to wait and wait for the chopper even if I got him to the pad on the valley floor in a few minutes? Would he bleed to death while waiting for the Medevac? I’m not a religious man. But I prayed for God to help the helicopter pilot find Woods and for the wounded trooper to survive the hit in his neck. I also promised God not to exploit Woods’ wounding by writing about it for the Washington Post even though my newspaper had paid to fly me to South Vietnam. My desire to have Woods live through his wounding was that intense. I was determined to have him survive.
We reached the helicopter landing pad without any of the bad guys firing at us. I sat in the sun with Woods near the pad trying to make light chit-chat. I asked the usual dumb reporter questions: Where are you from? What did you do before you were drafted into the Army? What do you want to do when you get home?
I learned from Woods that he was from [TBD]; had worked in a lumberyard there. He told me he had already been wounded once. The Army sent him back to his old outfit. I asked him what he was going to do when he got back home if this neck wound ended up being his ticket out of Vietnam. His answer still burns bright in my mind: “Live in peace,” the young and brave soldier said softly.
Woods looked whiter and more peaked. He was not crying or moaning. We waited together at the edge of the landing zone for the Medevac. It seemed to take forever. We ran out of chit-chat. We heard and then saw the Medevac coining down to the pad on the valley floor. The chopper landed. I climbed in back of the chopper with Woods. He began to shiver. I peeled off my flak jacket and fatigues and wrapped them roughly around the young soldier. I saw he was going into shock. I tried to keep him warm by wrapping my clothes more tightly around him. I was down to my boots and skivvies. The pilot in the left seat up front took off, went through the low hanging clouds. He tried to find a hole in the clouds so he could land on the valley floor again to rescue another wounded trooper.
Woods continued to shiver and shake despite my clothes wrapped around him. I couldn’t stand to lose him.
To see him die right in front of me. Not now. I got on the intercom radio which went into the earphones the pilot wore. “Look! We’ve got one wounded kid back here we can save for sure if we get him to the hospital at Camp Evans in time. If we keep searching for the other guy we may lose both of them.”
The pilot did not respond. But he must have agreed with me. He pulled up, went through the clouds, over the mountains and soon landed at Camp Evans.
I pulled Woods out of the helicopter cabin; flagged down a jeep; told the driver we would lose this trooper if we did not get him into the hospital in a hurry. I helped Woods into the hospital tent and found a chair for him. In my emotional state I rushed up to a surgeon in his blood-spattered green operating coveralls and pointed to Woods:
“You’ve got to save this kid!” I shouted out.
“Look around, Buddy!” he shouted back.
I did. The surgeon was right. There were wounded GIs who looked far worse off than Woods, I failed to get Woods to the head of the line. I had tears in my eyes as I took my fatigues and flak jacket from Woods. It was plenty hot in the tent. He was not likely to go back into shock there. I could not think of anything else I could do for him. I think we said an awkward goodbye. I don’t remember. I slowly put my fatigues back on beside the hospital tent at Camp Evans and wondered what to do next. I decided to go back over the mountains and rejoin the platoon I had left. I knew from experience where supply helicopters took off from. Relations between the helicopter crews and reporters were good as long as they saw you, like them, were paying your dues. I told crews I wanted to rejoin the 2nd of the 7th battalion. I waited a long time for a supply chopper going there. It was sunset before I was back with the battalion. Word must have spread through the platoon I had been with on the mountain that this reporter guy from The Washington Post had helped their fellow soldier Woods. The kids during my absence had dug me a deep foxhole. They hung a crude but heartfelt sign on its entrance: “Washington Post.”
I slept soundly and safely in that deep foxhole the kids had dug me. The next morning some troopers told me we were leaving the mountain. “But we just got here,” I protested. I sought out Lieutenant Colonel Roscoe Robinson, the battalion commander, to fill me in. He laughed and then replied, “Some general thinks we’re in Laos, so we’ve got to pack up.” I never learned whether he was kidding me or not. But his battalion did leave the mountain we were on. Robinson’s troopers returned to Camp Evans. Woods took a bullet in the neck for no good reason and that dead North Vietnamese trooper I had studied might have thought he was safe from the Americans because his officers kept him in Laos. Laos was off limits to regular American forces but not irregular ones.
Thanks to the abundance of helicopters and light CIA planes in 1968, a reporter like me could spend a few days covering a shooting battle near the demilitarized zone separating South and North Vietnam in the morning; then hitch an airplane ride to Saigon, eat fresh artichokes in a fine French restaurant upon arriving in Saigon at dusk, file his story on the battle in plenty of time to make the first edition of his newspaper because South Vietnam was 11 hours ahead of Washington, DC; have a nightcap in the hotel bar or sit on an open porch and see the romantic streaks of light from flares shot off over some distant battlefield; crawl between white sheets and get a good, safe sleep. No wonder the old Asian newspaper hands who seldom risked their lives by covering battles loved their work. Not only did their editors back in New York, London and Paris pay these men a pittance and thus seldom bothered them for stories, but the old hands subsidized their meager salaries by paying their teletypers with black market money but charged their newspapers back home at the official exchange rate, which was always much lower. I was told that editors as well as accountants winked at this practice long before I arrived in Vietnam.
Khe Sanh https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Khe_Sanh
Dien Bien Phu https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Dien_Bien_Phu
A Shau Valley https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Sầu_Valley
Reconciliation: A Meeting of Hearts and Minds (GCW, Washington Post, 8/26/1990)