Walking back into the comcenter, Joe and Ernie were still standing in the same spot I left them in an hour ago. Holding Cokes in their hands, the smiles on their faces indicated they were still making jokes, and still wasting time. Noticing me return, Joe waved for me to come over.
"Well brother Phill, that place is really boring out there isn't it?"
"Yeah," Ernie teased. "He probably found one of Jones' girlie mags and got himself otherwise occupied."
Not yet up to joking, I just nodded my head.
"You don't look too good, dude. You just see a UFO or something?" Joe asked.
"Naw, just some heavy radio traffic."
"Then take a swig of this. It'll put those nasty memories to sleep.
Reaching out his hand, he extended a small, 2-inch long glass ampoule. Taking it from him, I rolled it around in my hand. Shaped like an M-16 round, it had a semi-pointed head, perforated neck, and flat bottom. Inside, a transparent fluid filled it just below the perforation mark. "What is it?" I asked, looking back up.
"Speed, dude." Ernie laughed, handing me an unopened can of Coke. "It's kind of bitter so you should pour it in Coke to dilute it."
"You mean this is dope?"
"It's not dope, dude. It's speed. It'll make the night go by faster."
Handing the ampoule back, I shook my head. "No thanks man, I'll pass on that but I'll keep the Coke.
"What d'you got against speed?" he asked, accepting it.
"Too many things to list."
"Then tell me one of them."
"One, huh? Okay, how about this. I think 'Nam is the last place in the world to get loaded."
"But ain't you heard, "Speed Thrills!" Ernie laughed.
"Yeah, I heard that. I also heard the one about "War Kills". What happens if Charlie comes busting over the wire while you guys are stoned? You won't even be able to pull a trigger, let alone aim straight."
"Dope has never screwed up my trigger finger, man." Ernie defended, sticking out his chest.
"That's easy for you to say. You haven't had to use it yet."
Dropping his smile, Ernie looked over at Joe. His sudden frown showed his confusion and irritation at my lack of humor.
"Whoa! Phill's getting serious," Joe smiled, placing a hand on Ernie's shoulder. "We better wait until he chills out before we try corrupting his conservative soul."
"Look," I told them. "If you guys want to burn your brains up over here go right the hell on!" Raising both hands in the air in a hopeless gesture, I walked off.
Glancing back to see if they were still looking at me, Joe was measuring off his share of the ampoule then poured it in his Coke. Then looking up, he noticed me watching them. Putting his arm around Ernie again, he whispered something in Ernie's ear. A moment later, after nodding to each other, they raised their Cokes toward me and sang, "Things Go Better With Coke!" Immediately after, they both broke out laughing. Shaking my head again, I walked back to the RTT bunker and laid down on the cot.
Since my arrival, the amount of drugs used on campus had quadrupled. Close to being an epidemic, the guys habitually hooked on dope no longer made any attempt to conceal their growing occupation with it. Empty syringes were carelessly left on bunks and footlockers. Hash pipes were openly carried sticking out of pockets. Marijuana roaches could be found in any and every place imaginable. The hiding places for the user's "good stash" were known only to the GI's who used drugs, and the hootch maids who couldn't help but run over a ton of speed, weed, coke, hash, and heroin every day. For dope that came in small containers, hiding it was no problem. But for marijuana "jays" that came in regular looking cigarette packs (more on that later), finding the perfect hiding place was frustrating to say the least. The Orderly Room staff, who when bored frequently conducted their self-initiated vigilante searches while the crews were at work But they weren't the dope smokers greatest threat, that came from the ever-present, ever-searching hordes of giant cockroaches. Marijuana was enjoyed by insects more than by GI's.
A comspec desperately in need of a jay would show more anger in discovering his cardboard box of stash had been drilled into and consumed by a cockroach than if he received a Dear John letter from home. Some comspecs were so angry finding their weed eaten they would get up in the middle of the night, flashlight in hand, and search the hootch hoping to find an unsuspecting cockroach out for an evening stroll. Its sudden demise resulting from a hundred boot whacks would wake up half the campus and be bragged about for the next week. The sport of catching a cockroach on a midnight stroll eventually became so involved a body count chart was kept up to date on the wall near the front door of each hootch.
On one occasion, the night after a horde of cockroaches launched a massive ground attack on someone's box of hidden stash, the entire hootch stayed awake all night to search and destroy them. The following morning a gold star was painted on the body count chart and a funeral given for the "Unknown Cockroach" who's death represented the 112 of his comrades killed or captured that night.
Waking up that morning I was surprised to discover I was the only one in the hootch. Thinking I may have overslept and everyone had left for chow, I looked at my watch. But at 5:35, it was a half hour too early for breakfast. Concerned, I jumped up and looked outside the windows. The campus looked deserted from one end to the other. The silence was unnatural.
At that point I began to get really worried. Fearing the worst, that maybe everyone had been rushed to the perimeter to fight off an attack, I felt a wave of anger that no one had the decency to wake me up. Running back to my cot, I jumped into my clothes. Pulling my pants up I grabbed the .45 I kept hidden inside my footlocker and shoved it into my belt. Hopping to the front door, I pulled my boots on. Losing my balance, I fell through the door, catching myself on the sandbarrels just outside. After pausing to finish stuffing one of my feet into my boots, I started for the Orderly Room, my eyes looking in all directions at once.
I hadn't gotten 10 feet when the silence around me was broken by what sounded like faint laughter coming from behind me. Unsure whether it was the wind or my feet sliding across the sand, I turned around and froze in my steps.
Listening intently, the same sound occurred again several seconds later. This time I was sure it was laughter. Turning around, it seemed to be coming from behind bunker number 2 near the road.
Immediately, I ran over. Rounding the bunker in a full sprint, I stopped just short of tripping over a pair of legs kneeling in front of me.
"What the ----!" I yelled.
"Shhh!" Robert hissed, crossing his lips with a forefinger.
Surprised, I stared at him. Realizing my confusion, he pointed to another comspec kneeling several feet in front of him. I looked up. There were more than 30 people kneeling on the ground in front of me. All of them were pressing their palms together as if they were praying.
Just in front of them were all 10 of the guys from my hootch. Also kneeling, they were lined-up in 2 rows facing each other. At the head of the column was Rome. Kneeling with a Bible in his hands, his shoulders were draped with a purple sash. 2 small charcoal-drawn crucifixes were scratched on both ends.
On a small flat rock in front of Rome were the remains of a pulverized cockroach. The only recognizable features were a pair of broken antenna. Pretending to read from the Bible, Rome began to pray.
"Oh dear Lord, Holy Ghost,
Here lies the cockroach, we think ate the most.
Please be merciful, sympathetic and kind,
even though we whacked-off his legs and behind.
Let him in heaven, with a place by your side.
We'll soon send his cousins when we find where they hide."
"What's the hell's going on here?" I asked Robert again.
"Shhh!" he whispered back. "We're in the middle of a funeral.
"For what, a ------- cockroach???"
Reaching up, he tugged my shirt pulling me to my knees. "Wait a minute," he whispered again. "This is a solemn occasion."
"Shhhhh!" another comspec next to us hissed.
Distracted by our whispering, Rome looked up from his bible.
Pretending to be annoyed, he yelled to me.
"------- it Phill. Can't you see when the Lord's work is being performed?"
"Sorry dude. Nobody told me this was planned for today."
"Well shut the ---- up so we can get on with this ceremony."
"Sure man, sure."
Lowering his head again, he resumed. "Now let's all bow our heads in respect to the dead."
Smiling, everyone lowered their heads.
"Having savored the bittersweet taste of stolen contraband, and allowed the evils of mary-jew-wanna to ravage and destroy the moral fiber of his soul, this little black mother----er has met with a terrible and atrocious end. He is about to be received by Our Lord and Holy Father."
Pulling a spoon from his shirt pocket, Rome began digging a small hole beside the rock while everyone hummed "Happy Trails To You". Taking a full jay out of his pocket he tore it in half, sprinkling one of the halves into the hole. Then placing the cockroach in the hole, he sprinkled the other half of the jay on top of it. Speaking again, he continued.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we commend this poor spirit upon thee O'Lord. Please accept him. For in pursuit of a life filled with euphoric delusions of grandeur, brought on by the shallow sensations of killer weed, this poor soul has dearly paid his price. God rest his soul!"
Following him, everyone repeated, "God rest his soul!"
Saying "Amen", Rome used the spoon to fill the tiny hole with the dirt he'd taken out. After a final prayer, everyone stood up. Then, completely by surprise, Rome jumped on top of the tiny mound and stamped his heel into it a dozen times. Crossing his heart again, he calmly walked away. Following him, the other 10 men took their turns jumping up and down on the tiny grave until it looked more like a crater than a spoon hole.
As the crowd began dispersing Robert and I started back to the hootch. He was laughing so hard we had to stop several times during the short walk.
"You should have seen how big that sucker was last night when we caught him heading for our stash," he told me.
"How come you dudes didn't wake me up?"
"Wake you up? Man, you were snoring so loud you should've woke yourself up!"
"You guys are all crazy. What if the CO walked by and saw that. Everyone of you suckers would've been transferred to a psycho ward."
"Naw," he shook his head. "He would've just checked us out and kept on going. Besides, that cockroach has done us out of a lot of weed. The little mother----er deserved everything he got."
"How do you know it was him?" I smiled. "Suppose it was one of his relatives that got into your stash. You jerks may have killed an innocent cockroach."
"We figured that too, But we decided that we've just got to treat the cockroaches the same way we treat the gooks. We've just gotta kill'em all."
Laughing, he staggered into the hootch. Pausing for a moment, I shook my head wondering, "What the ---- am I doing here?"
Limited only by a GI's budget, any variety, quality, or quantity of dope could be obtained from almost everywhere. Although the village was placed off-limits by the base commander, getting there was easier than walking across the road to the microwave tower.
Emergency (or "dry") drug pickups were made in the ville during the daily truck ride to the comcenter. Although dry periods were few, there were occasions when normal buys dried up because the comspecs 2 usual sources were unavailable. One source were the ARVN guards working near the comcenter, who may have been away on a mission. The other were AWOL GI's from the 1st Cav or the 11th, who may have gotten apprehended. For AWOL's, the leisurely lifestyle of Co A44 was known throughout III CTZ as being the "paradise capital" of Bien Hoa because our hootches were never subject to personnel counts. AWOL's were known to hide-out on campus for weeks before the Orderly Room staff became suspicious.
One of the ARVN guards the comspecs frequently did business with was a 42 year old private named Kim. Kim's only job was to stand guard at the entrance to the chopper pad next to the comcenter. It was Kim's responsibility to alert the staff at General Tri's headquarters when the General or another dignitary arrived unannounced. In order to reduce the chances of the VC launching a successful assassination attempt, dignitary schedules were kept highly confidential. In their fight against the Japanese during WWII, the Vietnamese, like the rest of the world, learned the importance of maintaining dignitary security. The week after an American Army Air Force crew under the command of Admiral William F. Halsey shot down the plane carrying Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, 3 Japanese Generals were assassinated by resistance fighters in Hanoi.
Standing watch inside his shanty, 4-postered shack which consisted of a plywood ceiling and open-walled sides, Kim's guard station was loosely erected over a 4-foot deep foxhole. His rice and fish meals were brought to him in a faded-blue Tupperware bowl. His toilet was a rusted 2-pound Ritz Cracker can. The only time he was allowed to leave his shack during his 18-hour work shift was to stand in front of the chopper pad gate to salute an arriving dignitary.
Kim, like most ARVN's, was short, thin, and whenever around Americans, always smiling. Had he been born in America he probably would have made his home in Las Vegas. A little wheeler-dealer, the war meant no more to Kim than the money it brought him from selling American cigarettes and booze to his fellow ARVN comrades. Purchasing his wares from the comspecs, Kim would peel-off $20 MPC bills from a huge 3-inch roll he carried constantly. and to guarantee his perpetual supply of American goods he also carried a large block of newly-printed blank ration cards so comspecs never used up their limits at the PX. We learned Kim's MPC source was a network of ARVN officers who fronted for ARVN Generals. The Generals got their money from selling tons of brass bullet casings their troops recovered after a massive American-VC/NVA firefight.
Although GI drug use in V'nam was probably an inevitable situation because of the environmental, geographic, and social factors contributing to it, the military's failure to recognize the seriousness of its growth early in the game, and make constructive moves to arrest and eliminate it, did more to further drug usage than MACV officers were willing to accept. The list of elements that contributed to widespread drug use were, Vietnam's climate, its people's centuries-old drug dependency, enormous quantities were produced locally, some GI's were working with American organized crime families, the tremendous amount of potential wealth to be gained, and the fact there was very little the military could do even if a GI was caught using, buying, or selling.
The Army couldn't prosecute its grunts because if only one was taken out of the field for trial, the precedent would have encouraged a 1,000 other grunts to light up their jays right in front of their CO's. On campus, the lack of off-duty recreation probably contributed more to the steady increase in Co A44's drug use than any other factor. and with most of the men in their prime sex years, chasing women in the ville was the only real recreation they looked forward to. Although the MP's in the ville tended to look the other way when seeing a GI jumping off a truck and dashing into a brothel, most GI's couldn't afford to make the trip on a daily basis. That left being stuck on campus with only the boring options of playing ping-pong, sunbathing, or sleeping. Getting loaded, compared to those options, naturally became the preferred sport.
To limit the amount of time company personnel had available to develop chronic habits like doing drugs during the day or sneaking-off to the village at night, which later developed into its own set of problems, the CO ordered that work shifts at the comcenter rotate between 2 weeks day duty then 2 weeks night duty. "Exceptions," he ruled, "would be permitted in carefully screened cases, but never were shift changes to exceed 3 weeks." Although everyone knew that drugs were the real reason for his instituting the new rules, the CO's citing an increase in the number of personnel requesting marriage permits was given by the Orderly Room as the official reason. For him to have used drugs as the reason would only have provoked resisters into getting deeper into their habits.
The use of marriage permits was an excellent excuse because most everyone knew that for any of us to spend too much time in the ville exposed us to getting "----- whipped". It didn't take too long for a GI who spent a lot of time with one prostitute to fall in love with her then want to get married.
For most people, the best shift to work depended on the season of the year. During the monsoon season it was better to work at night, the rain cooled the air making it easier to sleep during the day. During the dry season, however, the comcenter's 72 degree air conditioners made day work preferable because the nights were almost as cool.
For those who were "heavy into the herbs of the earth", a third season was created. Called the "Stone Trek Brigade" season, it occurred every 2 weeks when the hard-core marijuana smokers in the comcenter shifted to day duty.
Consisting of about a dozen and-a-half members, the Stone Trek Brigade was led by a 19-year old from the Bronx who strongly resembled comedian Flip Wilson, hence, he was given the nickname Flip. His 2nd-in-command, a 20-year old from Compton, California was given the name Jay-Jay because of his promise to himself to stay stoned 24 hours a day.
Congregating in an old, abandoned, unlit warehouse that stood alone on an empty field a 100 yards from the microwave tower, every evening after night chow the brigade would stagger and sway in a single file to the warehouse to smoke marijuana. Sitting in the dark on makeshift stools or on the ground, they would remain there for the next 2 or 3 hours until they'd either run out of stash or got so loaded they were afraid they wouldn't be able to make it back to campus. From a distance the tiny orange pinpoints of light coming from their jays being passed from one smoker to another appeared like a nest of weaving fireflys swarming around and around. When returning to campus the brigade came back as they left, in a single file. Looking like a column of elephants linked together trunk-to-tail, some of them were so stoned they had to grab the shirt tail of the man in front of him in order to make sure he didn't drift off and walk in another direction. Upon reaching the compound, they would disperse, each man filing into his hootch to sleep it off.
On one occasion I asked one of them why they walked in a single file instead of in a group. I was given 2 answers. One, they "didn't want the path made by their footprints to look like a crowd had used it." and 2, they were all "pretty stoned before they got there, and even more stoned when they came back." They felt all they had the capacity for was to watch the feet of the man in front of them.
I then asked, "What happens if the guy in the lead was so stoned he started heading toward the perimeter and led you guys right into a nest of Charlie's?"
His reply was, "Well if that mother----er can't be trusted, he ain't coming with us no more!"
Even though everyone on campus knew about the nightly Stone Trek, it took almost 2 months before the CO found out and another month before he made a move to end it. Afraid to upset the comcenter's delicate balance of morale, the CO was aware that the comspecs who participated in Stone Trek were also some of the best communication specialists on campus. Sober, they held the country-wide record for processing the greatest number of messages in the shortest amount of time. Watching them work was like watching a well-oiled machine. Often not even needing to speak to each other, they all knew each others strong and weak points. Without supervision, each man automatically assumed the job he knew best. The only times things went awry were when a new OIC would come in, pull rank, then re-shift job responsibilities according to his "trained judgment." After working with them myself, I realized this was why the previous CO discontinued the comcenter OIC position just before I arrived. These men worked better by themselves than with supervision.
And even though the CO was aware the comspecs sensitive state of morale had to exceed job proficiency, it wasn't until drugs started to effect comcenter productivity that he decided to put an end to the nightly Stone Trek. Using well-thought out diplomacy, he assigned Dormally and another clerk to blow up the warehouse one afternoon while the trekkers were all at work. Using the excuse that they had to "get rid of a couple of aging grenades", 2 birds were killed with one stone. Morale was saved and the only secluded area within walking distance was no longer accessible.
But undaunted by what most trekkers called "a damnable inconvenience," jay smoking now went on unabated in the hootches, chow hall, latrine, Day Room, and the bunkers. It even began at the comcenter. One positive by-product resulting from Flip's forming the Stone Trek Brigade was that of the dozens of small "fraternities" on campus, they were the first to socialize interracially.
But despite the average high IQ of the people quickly becoming hooked on drugs to escape their boredom, not enough of them realized that they were becoming victims to something greater than drug addiction. They were succumbing to drug warfare. and of those who were open-minded enough to accept the "theory" that the Soviets or the Chinese were behind the massive distribution network of drugs being made cheaply and readily available to American GI's, they still didn't use their intelligence to avoid drugs completely.
To those of us who never smoked, popped, shot up, or snorted, drugs were seen as a deliberate enemy tactic used against the American GI in V'nam to reduce our fighting capacity. In terms of strategy, drugs were used against us more widely than bullets. and as a weapon, drug warfare was a tool the NVA couldn't pass up for 2 reasons. One, the communists were already a very dishonorable lot. and 2, drug warfare was working.
Not only was drug availability as easy as simply opening your mouth and saying I want it, GI's rarely had to go to any work in making it ready for consumption. Hash was retailed in compact, individual, consumer-sized pellets ready for the pipe. Marijuana was not only already rolled, you could even specify filter or non-filter. Substituted and sold in regular packs of cigarettes, the only way of knowing whether you had a pack of Winstons or a pack of jays was to cut each cigarette open and examine the tobacco.
The duplication process was very meticulous. Done in large, central warehouses, using all the patient care Oriental cultures have mastered over the centuries, the original cigarette pack was carefully opened so as not to wrinkle its cellophane wrapper. The manufacturers seal adhered sideways across the top of the pack was then very carefully removed so not to tear it. After removing the outer wrapper the preservative aluminum foil was carefully opened and the filter-tipped cigarettes taken out one-by-one. (Filter tips were preferred because the filter kept the paper rolled after the contents were emptied.) Then, by gently rolling each cigarette between the palms of the hands, the original tobacco was spilled onto a dropcloth. It would be re-packaged and later sold in village shops as V'namese pipe tobacco.
The empty cigarette papers were then filled with finely crushed and sifted marijuana flakes. Seeds, of course, were extracted. When the paper was completely refilled, the tip would be "blocked" by tapping it on a tabletop. The cigarettes were then placed back into the pack, filter side up so as not to disclose their identity if a GI was stopped by an MP and searched for contraband.
Liquid drugs like speed, mentioned earlier, came in small, bullet-shaped glass ampoules that were opened by snapping the perforated neck near the top. The glass ampoule was the perfect container in Vietnam. It couldn't corrode in Vietnam's tropical climate where paper and cloth products disintegrated in a few months and metal containers rusted during the monsoons. It could be transported practically anywhere by hiding it in clothing like the roll of a sleeve or between the double-stitch of military seams. If a GI was afraid his perpetually intoxicated condition might provoke a suspicious MP to search him, the ampoule could be covered with a jacket of Vaseline and hidden for a short time in the urinary opening of the penis or for a longer time in the anus. and because it took weeks longer for sores to heal in Southeast Asia's uncontrolled bacteria environment, open wounds made excellent emergency hiding places. GI's would simply numb a wound by pouring a small amount of speed into it then slip the ampoule under the skin and cover it with a bandage.
Probably manufactured in the United States, speed ampoules were obviously the product of an industrialized nation. and information crossing the OIC desk of the comcenter indicated their intended destination was the VC and NVA by first infiltrating them into the black-market, courtesy of "Source Identity Restricted", then second, selling them to North V'namese agents.
According to the reports being sent between various intelligence agencies, the strategy and planning of making refined drugs available to the VC/NVA was very profound and well thought-out. However, the snag came when getting the drugs into the right hands. The difficulty was in the way the government in V'nam was set-up. Officially sanctioned corruption, bureaucratic red-tape, and ARVN foul-ups were as much a part of the V'namese way of life as intelligent investigation and planning was ours.
After our agencies made their pass-off to the appropriate black-market contacts the drugs invariably found their way back into American hands simply because the American GI had more money than the VC and NVA to pay for them. and in Vietnam, money was king.
During my last few months in V'nam a valiant attempt to take sweeping, decisive control of the black-market and drug industry was made by the CIA. Although an ingenious plan in its inception, its resulting failure was not the CIA's fault, but Thieu's government. Set in motion months in advance, the mistake was made in trusting a handful of V'namese liaisons with a plan to convert the current style of MPC for brand new bills of a different design and color. At zero hour on the conversion date all current MPC notes would expire and no longer be accepted in any U.S. post office, exchange, or bank. MPC was the staple unit of currency used on the black-market. Its illegal distribution in neighboring countries was also upsetting their economies.
Long before the conversion was planned MI had become increasingly aware there was more MPC in the hands of V'namese nationals than in the hands of American servicemen. Using V'namese agents, our own agents, and a few double-agents working both sides, the plan was to stimulate black-market activity and underground commodities speculation to be at its highest level during the week of the conversion date. Agents were told to make orders for arms, drugs, electronic goods, and other high-demand items sold on the black-market. High-level V'namese merchants, in turn, made commitments to other international and local dealers in their pyramid. Developing enormous anticipation, the entire South V'namese black-market network stretching as far as eastern India was looking with high anxiety to make a fast buck.
The major hope of the conversion was that thousands of illegal merchants would be catapulted out of business. For the ones who sold American war materiel to the VC and NVA, their getting murdered by angry bankrupt investors or committing suicide wouldn't be something the CIA or MI would cry about.
To prevent advance knowledge of the conversion getting out, American commanders less than Division rank were not informed about it until 4 hours prior to the date and time the conversion would take place. The messages alerting them of the conversion came through the comcenter 18 hours prior to zero hour labeled "Top Secret-Noforn". But like all our other secret campaigns, the conversion turned out to be a failure. MACV would later say that the failure or success of the conversion really depended on one's point of view.
By the time the day shift got off work at 18:00 hours the day before the conversion, the comspecs who met with Kim for their nightly black-market business transactions discovered he already had an enormous wad of new MPC bills, a full 12 hours before Co A44 and other U.S. military pay offices received their supply!
When the conversion actually took place the next morning, what turned out to be disastrous for many turned out to be a boon for others. Messages pouring into the comcenter from all over South V'nam revealed the VC pipeline into American military supply houses had suffered a serious setback. Other reports stated the black-market was damaged so severely, former wealthy merchants hostile to the Thieu regime were trying to sell their old MPC bills for a nickel on the dollar. and those whose huge drug and Army surplus inventories depended on a large daily cash flow had to desperately reduce their prices in order to bring in new currency. American agents, taking advantage of the new low prices, immediately moved in to buy back tons of our own equipment that otherwise would have been used against us.
It then became apparent why the conversion was planned. Since the V'namese economy rested on the foundation of black-market finances, American intelligence officers realized it was impossible to get rid of it entirely. But by arranging to eliminate certain illegal merchants and support or install others, the conversion planners could eliminate the ones who were too powerful to dispose of by any other means. By ripping their financial base out from under them their demise resulting from loss of credibility was a great deal easier, and strategically more acceptable, than trying to carry out an enormous number of assassinations.
But as always, the best laid plans made in V'nam received their unfair share of spoils. Along with the reports detailing the predicted positive effects of the conversion, there were a number of other reports listing negative effects. The chief of which was a number of "renegade" Americans who were cashing in on the future profits of newly established black-market merchants. Setting up their own network of merchants by alerting their V'namese friends about the upcoming MPC conversion, Americans purchased thousands of dollars of their soon-to-be invalid MPC bills for as much as 50 cents on the dollar then sold them to other GI's for a 25 cent markup. When the conversion took place GI's exchanging their illegally purchased MPC made out big. A GI with a $1,000 in old bills made a $250 profit. and it was easy for him to justify his having that much currency. He need only say he saved his monthly pay, sold a few personal possessions, or simply won it playing cards.
Frustrating to say the least, not only were our social ethics, that normally would have kept Americans from working against each other, but our military rules were invalidated also. Our Generals, our advisors, and our spies were duped and betrayed routinely.
The negligible amount of drugs that did make it into enemy hands had a different effect on VC/NVA than it did on Americans. Where drugs stimulated the VC/NVA soldier into fearless combat, it subdued the American GI into a stupefying paralysis. Almost daily, GI's were showing up at the Post Hospital either unable to come down from their high, or unconscious. It was common sight to see GI's being carried by several others or sitting alone at a table in the mess hall muttering to themselves. In the field, Americans were dying because they were loaded and unable to react quickly or think clearly under fire.
Although the drug problem in V'nam was blamed on the individual abuser, it was the failure of the DOA for not training him properly in the hazards of its misuse in combat. Instead of trying to scare veteran drug users during Basic Training into quitting the habit by showing them absurd films suggesting dope "turned semen into jelly" or made them see ogres when they looked in a mirror, the Army should have informed them of the effect drugs had on men in combat. By letting Basic Trainees know that more than 40% of the GI's who died in V'nam had been under the influence, everyone would have received a realistic and lasting reference they carried over to Vietnam.
Still, even though the responsibility of every individual's life was left to his own discretion, or indiscretion, the military's attempt to effectively deal with the rapid and widespread use of drugs fell far short of correcting the problem. More often than not, the only tools V'nam commanders used were threats and punishment. and those tools only served to challenge resistance, not encourage abstinence. At the moment threats and punishment were instituted American commanders were not only at war with an enemy they couldn't see in the jungles or tell apart in the cities, they were making war with their own men.
Uneducated, and/or insensitive officers, frustrated at not being able to directly control their troops, then went to the senior enlisted men to restore order. That, of course, led to an even greater series of communication problems. Because, as in the case of Co A44's CO encouraging the senior enlisted men on campus to conduct drug searches and report users, the natural paternal relationship between senior and junior enlisted men initiated a breakdown in communications which later evolved into a bitter hatred by junior enlisted men for senior NCO's as well as officers. This, of course, meant hatred for authority and command.
Because the 1st Sergeant was looking forward to an unblemished, problem-free retirement, he failed to assert his traditional custody of JEM affairs, fueling the frustrations of the lower enlisted men to the point of open rebellion. Having no one to turn to for support, several of the comspecs vented their anger by sabotaging equipment. In the beginning they concentrated on the teletypes, but later on, when that strategy didn't seem to be working, they went after the messages. The disruption finally came to a head on the 10th of February 1970 when someone lost a critically important Flash message.
All hell broke loose the day after the message was reported missing. Said to have been an emergency thunderstrike request that couldn't be re-sent by a unit under siege, a half-dozen American lives were reported lost. The message was never found.
Field-Grade investigators from Brigade were brought in to interview everyone who worked in the comcenter the night the message was lost but their investigation failed to determine who actually had contact with it. Of course no one could remember ever receiving it much less seeing it. and by this time it was common practice for everyone to cover-up for everyone else.
The investigators were sent up so many blind alleys that even before the investigation was terminated most of the comspecs themselves couldn't accurately remember who was on duty that night, who ran courier, who worked the delivery desk, or which people were on the teletypes. In the end the only thing the CO could do was issue more threats and make more rules that only succeeded in getting everyone on campus even more pissed-off. Several of the comspecs even got together and composed an anonymous letter informing the CO that if he promised to ship home the guy who lost the message, "a line would be waiting for him outside the Orderly Room the next morning."
Although the letter was never delivered, the CO, Battalion, and Brigade brass were instituting their own hardball tactics. 2 white "undercover" CID agents were transferred into the company to spy, assess, and correct what the CO called "the low level of military attitudes." Both agents were 1st Lieutenants posing as enlisted men and transferred in because they were supposedly "incorrigibles thrown out of their former units for unorthodox behavior."
To hide the 2 actual agents, 5 new transfers were shipped in. The 2 agents, however, were easily picked out because they were the only 2 with obvious covers. One of the 2 was said to have been thrown out of his company because he was a homosexual. The other was said to be a "pothead" with a "severe unspecified personality disorder". The CID must've figured the wide variety of non-military personalities already in Co A44 would quickly accept their agents into the inner circles of the most radical fraternities on campus.
The comspecs, organizing their "plan of attack" to expose and foil the agents selected a "homosexual" volunteer from the day shift by straw vote to approach the homosexual agent and confirm his identity. When cornered alone in the shower room the day after his arrival, he was asked to "get down to business." Quickly manufacturing a string of excuses to avoid having a spontaneous affair, his refusal was totally contrary to normal homosexual behavior. Unaware that his courtier was more nervous than he was, had he said yes the volunteer would have left so fast he might not have stopped running for a week.
The other agent's identity was confirmed during a poker game his second night on campus. Halfway through the game, the pothead agent was offered a Winston cigarette. Shortly afterwards, his attention was drawn away from the table by a pretend argument in the front of the hootch and the cigarette was switched for a "Winston" jay. Both his failure to recognize the switch, and his subsequently getting loaded, revealed he was no more a pothead than he was a comspec. He even commented after taking his 3rd or 4th drag, "Gee, this cigarette sure tastes funny."
Because of the Army's strict policy of requiring all its agents to be straight, and not having genuine homosexuals on the payroll to work assignments such as this one foiled their homosexual agents credibility. and because they required all their agents be strictly conservative, not allowing them to experiment with marijuana under controlled conditions ruined their pothead agents game.
To make it difficult for the 2 to report to Brigade, MACV, or the local CID office, the men were accompanied day and night everywhere they went. Whenever refusing an offer to have someone go along with them to the PX or other base location, they were simply followed and the tail intentionally made to appear obvious. The ultimate hope, of course, was that the agents could be turned and brought into the fold.
To encourage their assimilation they were taken for trips to the ville, Saigon, and to the Special Forces steambath. Using their assignment to fit in against them, they were gradually forced to smoke weed and try other drugs. After 2 weeks of constant pressure both agents were successfully turned. Contributing to the ease of their defection, being in V'nam probably did more to convert them than everyone on campus working to "straighten these guys out". Because the 2 were subject to whatever ---- came down the pike, like everyone else in the unit they were assigned to, their chances of getting killed were just as great as everyone elses.
After a period of time both agents became so much a part of the campus resistance they told us about their previous assignments. One revealed his last assignment was with the 173rd Infantry Brigade in Bien Hoa "trying to sniff out a stolen weapons ring."
"Traveling around with those crazy mother----ers was a real bitch." He said. "One day you'd be one place, the next day you'd be somewhere else. A stable personality in this man's Army could get real tired of that crap, extremely quick."
Asked if he ever caught anybody selling weapons, he replied, "....the ring turned out to be 2 Privates sending home AK-47 souvenirs."
The other agent revealed he was new in-country and Co A44 was his 1st assignment. For the past 2 years he was assigned to an office in the Presidio of San Francisco that did nothing but enter data about every individual entering the service into huge computers. The original mission of his office was to "catalog servicemen according to their feelings on certain subjects." He stated the purpose for the study was to "identify individuals who might later be a potential threat to America's security."
"Then things started to change. We got this new CO in from Langely who wanted things to run differently. When we isolated a person who might be a problem later on he ordered us to add information to his file. At 1st I didn't know what he meant. Then he told me to make up stuff as I go along. When I asked him "like what?" He said, "Make a note that the guy subscribed to radical newspapers or porno magazines." When I told him I wouldn't do it, he said, "No sweat, we'll just get somebody who will." Next thing I know, I get orders for Vietnam."
From that point on everyone on campus helped to submit "radical ideas" for the agents to submit in their reports. Although none of the reports were intense enough to provoke either the CID or the CO to take action, they were potent enough to require the CID to keep their agents on campus indefinitely. The relationship between the agents and the comspecs was symbiotic. The agents wanted to stay and the comspecs didn't want to have to break in 2 new replacements.
Unfortunately, despite the advantage gained by controlling the CID's 2 trump cards, conditions on campus continued to grow increasingly repressive. In the weeks that followed the 17th of February, (the night the campus was bombed), the CO came close to being assassinated. He narrowly missed the attempt on his life.
By then the peace sign and clenched fist were the unified symbol of all the enlisted men on campus. The blacks greeted everyone with a clenched fist. The whites returned salute with the peace sign. Resistance to cooperation, and even compromise, slowly glistened into a beam of strength the enlisted men began to share and draw energy from. As a by-product of the intense hostility between the "workers" and the "establishment", disparity increased between the Orderly Room and everyone else on campus.
The idea of assassinating the CO was triggered by the attempted fragging of a 1st Cav platoon officer about a half-mile away 2 days prior. News of the fragging incident spread around the III CTZ like wildfire. The fragging was related to a message received at the comcenter a week prior.
Addressed to the CO of a 1st Cav company, the message came in unclassified and routine. It was being relayed from a DOA office in the Pentagon to us, then to MACV in Long Bihn, and then on to the Cav company located near the Cambodian border. It was a request that the Cav company CO send the DOA detailed information regarding the combat death of a certain GI fatally wounded during a recent firefight.
The reason for the request had to do with a letter sent from the Department of the Army to the parents of the deceased GI. The letter stated that the $10,000 insurance check they were expecting would be short several hundred dollars. The deduction was to repay the Army for the M-16 lost by the GI during the firefight. Although the DOA did not state this to the family, the Army believed the loss of the rifle was due to an act of cowardice or unwillingness of the GI to comply with an order his platoon officer gave him to advance on an enemy position. Copies of the message were made by some of the angry comspecs and circulated both on campus and to the Cav troopers stationed at their rear headquarters.
An answer to the request came in from the field the next day. The message suggested that the request by the DOA for repayment be dropped and the family be apologized to. A reply came back from the Pentagon the following day stating it had complied with the suggestion, however, it still wanted a full report on the GI's death for its records. A reply to that request came in about 3 days later.
The reply read that the Sergeant had been in an ongoing conflict with his squad leader, a 1st Lieutenant, new in-country. On the day the Sergeant was killed the Lieutenant had ordered the squad to cross a barren field and the Sergeant, his assistant platoon leader, had refused. The Sergeant informed the Lieutenant that it would be suicide to attempt to cross an open field during daylight hours. After being threatened with a court martial, the Sergeant complied, crossing the field himself instead of sending a point man.
Two steps after leaving the bush, the Sergeant was cut down by a nest of snipers hiding on the other side of the field. 2 other enlisted men, attempting to drag the Sergeant back, were shot down also. Although they were able to scramble back into the bush.
Panicking, the Lieutenant ordered the rest of the squad to fall back. No further attempt was made to rescue the Sergeant. While retreating, the squad observed one of the VC snipers run up to the Sergeant, pick up his M-16 and fire 2 shots into the Sergeants head. The VC then ran back to the other side of the field taking the gun with him.
Afraid of being court martialed for getting his senior enlisted man killed, the Lieutenant submitted a false report of the incident blaming the Sergeants death on the Sergeant's own bad decision. The other men in the squad, however, voluntarily submitted their own reports that contradicted the Lieutenants.
Several days later, after other Cav field companies heard about the incident, the Lieutenant was transferred back to Bien Hoa until he could be transferred out of the Cav and into a new division up north in I CTZ.
The day before the Lieutenant was scheduled to transfer his room was lit up with 2 grenades. The officer escaped. He was in the mess hall at the time having breakfast. The 2 assassins, however, didn't escape. Unknown to one of the men, he snagged his pants on a nail sticking out of the wall just below the Lieutenants window. His wallet fell from a hole made by the tear. Boot prints made in the mud from other assassin led to his capture. Both were transferred back to the states for trial.
The Base Commander, learning of the fragging incident, alerted all unit commanders to report any domestic disturbances they felt might indicate fraggings on other officers. Fearing a personal attack on himself, and unwilling to discuss the tensions or initiate changes on campus, our CO ordered the M-16 firing mechanisms of "certain personnel to be removed and secured in another location." The list of those names were people he felt were capable of carrying out a hit on him. Most of the men were black.
Hearing about this, The Base Commander dispatched a black CID Staff Sergeant to the company. Informed by the Orderly Room staff that the most likely threat on the CO came from a small group of "radical blacks", the Sergeant immediately directed all of his attention toward them by using every opportunity he could to provoke them into taking a punch at him. To strike him, let alone waste him, would have meant immediate lock-up in Long Bihn Jail (LBJ).
Frequently making uninvited visits to the hootch where most of the black GI's lived, the Sergeant would sometimes pull a chair into their cubicle and silently stare at each one until they felt forced to get up and leave. Other times he would pick up an unopen letter laying on a bunk, open it, read it, then loosely toss the pages back on the bunk. Occasionally he'd ball the letter up to signify he was the one who read it.
Fortunately, the black enlisted men were more intelligent than the Sergeant. They men realized that the CO's use of the Sergeant was an ingenious attempt to direct their anger at the Sergeant and away from himself. For one of them to waste the Sergeant, the CO would be helping MACV get "rid of 2 niggers with one stone." But under-estimating his men, the CO's scheme didn't work. The men were now hardened veterans. They cooly and calmly kept their anger under control until the time came when they could act.
The opportunity came one day when 2 of the company's cooks, sitting in the hootch next door, overheard the Sergeant confront a black enlisted man. Telling him his "skin was -----colored", and the best thing he could do with it was "use it to catch a few white girls", the cooks, both of whom were white and from Georgia, found the Sergeant more offensive than the anti-war attitude of a few blacks.
Forming an alliance with the black enlisted men, the cooks lured the Sergeant into talking a little too much in the NCO club one night after getting him drunk. The following week the Sergeant was shipped out of the company after a story circulating the campus rumored he was having a homosexual affair with a white comspec. The rumors were supported by a cassette tape the cooks made recording the Sergeant stating he occasionally "liked having a young white boy once in a while." The statement was only a joke, but the way the evidence was presented, it sounded sincere.
The alliance between the cooks and the black enlisted men opened up a whole new ball game for campus interracial relations. Realizing they were brothers with rank in common, camaraderie between whites and blacks rose 90% almost overnight. Frustrated at having lost a battle, the CO issued a barrage of new restrictive rules and regulations. The effect of which unified even more fraternities. Several weeks later a small group of both black and white "vigilantes" repaid the CO's repressions by converting his jeep into a rolling Molotov cocktail.
Just moments before, the CO had stepped out of jeep to go into the Orderly Room. His driver, leaving the motor running, ran over to the latrine. Under the cover of darkness the gas cap of the jeep was silently taken off and a towel inserted into the filler tube. Using a flare tossed from behind the supply warehouse across the road, the towel was ignited, exploding the gas tank and demolishing the vehicle. Knowing the CO was in the Orderly Room, it was obvious the men had some reservations about really zapping him. If they had intended to kill him they could have done so easily.
In the ensuing investigation, dozens of people were singled out but no one was ever formally charged. However, a month or so after the incident, and just after the campus was bombed, most of the suspected individuals were gradually shipped out to other units. The large number of people shipped out gave the illusion the company was being disbanded and its operation phased out. However, in reality, the men were quickly replaced with technicians from the units Co A44 techs were transferred to. Because the CO believed the blacks on campus were responsible, since they were the only ones who consistently spoke out against Orderly Room abuses, all were shipped out. By mid-June I was the last black on campus. Although I was known to occasionally associate with the guys who were under suspect, at the time of the CO's assassination attempt I was hiding from General Tri in Xuan Loc.
Several months later, in July, a more serious assassination plan was hatched. Although it wasn't even contemplated until a Flash message came in to the comcenter indicating that in 2 days the U.S. Army Chief of Staff General William C. Westmoreland would be arriving on III CTZ compound for a meeting with General Tri. The message gave the men belonging to the most reactionary fraternity on campus an idea they thought might end the war overnight.
Led by 2 of the most respected comspecs in the company, this elite fraternity was comprised of 4 individuals, each having a deep, seething hatred for anyone or anything that represented the "machine" that kept America in Vietnam. Their plan was to frag General Westmoreland and his entourage as he walked passed the comcenter from the chopper pad on his way to General Tri's underground offices. The report stated Westmoreland was on a "fact-finding tour" for President Nixon.
For the assassins, Westmoreland's death would represent a means of expressing their deep resentment for the people keeping the war going. As Army Chief of Staff, Westmoreland's "ass-saving" support of the war was seen as a stab in the back to the men who died and those who were going to die fighting a cause even he knew was already lost when he commanded MACV 2 years prior. and because so many GI's had died before they were able to "balance their deaths" by taking a few VC with them, Westmoreland's death would have made their deaths more substantial.
Placing the blame for the wars failure on the highest in command, the assassination planners saw Westmoreland and Abrams as being "nothing more than errand boys for White House and Congressional armchair Generals." Almost everyone on campus agreed that V'nam needed a General like Patton who would take the war into his own hands and start doing some serious winning. Because the war was still going on, it was obvious Westmoreland's stewardship had failed to accomplish victory, and Abrams was doing no better.
Not afraid to admit their fear in "completing the mission", each of the 4 planners knew full well there was no possible way of escape even though the only honor guard scheduled to provide security for Westmoreland were to be 2 widely-spaced columns of ARVN troops. (Because III CTZ was technically an ARVN installation, no Americans would be in the honor guard.) Following the fragging, the assassins planned to blow their heads off with M-16's to prevent MI from torturing them. Although final decision to either surrender or commit suicide was left up to each individual after the assassination had been carried out, the primary plan was to face each other, point, and fire.
Knowing they would be whisked away in the middle of the night and disappear from the face of the earth if too many people knew about the plan, their secret discussions were restricted to only seven people. 4 who would plan and carry out the assassination and 3 "observers" who would tell their story if the Army attempted to distort the truth.
During one of the planning discussions I was allowed to hear, reference was made to Adolph Hitler's fragging. Considering the stunning effect Hitler's death would have had on the German people, who believed he was both loved and supported by all his Generals, the planners concluded the assassination of America's top General would have forced the American public to take a serious look at the anti-war feelings of GI's in Vietnam. and knowing Westmoreland's assassination was an act the Army couldn't keep out of the news, the entire world would've known the truth: The men who served in V'nam hated the war as much as their youthful counterparts in college.
To counter the Army's potential charge that Westmoreland was killed by a tiny, isolated, group of radical psycho's who hated the General personally, each man planned to a carry a letter stating the 4 had a great deal of respect for Westmoreland and it was not the man they were after, but his 4 stars and command position.
It was decided that before a firm go decision was made, all elements of the plan should be set in full readiness so that even if 3 of the team bailed out, the one man determined to complete it would have everything he needed at his fingertips. For the 2 days prior to Westmoreland's arrival grenades and several M-16's were slowly moved from their usual storage area in the rear of the comcenter to the old OIC office near the front door. Grenade pins were pulled half-way out. Magazines were loaded in the M-16's, and pistols were cocked.
As it turned out, by luck or celestial intervention, the CO abruptly readjusted the comcenter's work shifts the night before Westmoreland's visit. 3 of the planners and 2 of the observers were ordered to immediately rotate to night duty. The reason given for the change was because they were already a week beyond their 2-week shift-change. This came as a complete surprise for the comcenter, since it was the 1st time the CO pulled rank and enforced his 6-month old 2-week maximum rule. The next day everyone discovered the true reason for CO's abrupt shift-change was because a number of his Orderly Room staff wanted a chance to take pictures of the celebrated General. They were sent to the comcenter to work in the place of the guys abruptly relieved.
On the day of his visit, 14 July 1970, General William C. Westmoreland landed on the compound and was greeted with full pomp and ceremony. The day was sunny, the weather perfect, and the combat status around Bien Hoa "relatively secure."
Walking like an elder statesman with smooth, evenly-spaced steps, Westmoreland executed a perfectly angled salute and nodded a fatherly smile to the group of young Americans standing on the comcenter steps. Only 20 feet from his path, the General had no idea his death may have came today from the friendly fire of his own troops. Standing behind the RTT shack's barbwire gate, I respectfully returned his salute, eye to eye, as he passed. The previous day I had carved a hole in one of the sandbags surrounding the rig and covered it with a piece of canvas. I had planned to take pictures of his assassination, if it took place, then hide the camera inside the hole. I anticipated MI would confiscate all cameras and film.
During his short half-minute walk to General Tri's headquarters, I snapped an entire roll of 36 shot film. After Westmoreland disappeared down the stairway of Tri's bunker I unstrapped the camera from my neck and reached into my pocket for the lens cap to place on the camera. Not finding it in my pocket, I took a deep breath and looked down at the camera. I had never removed it! In my nervousness to jump away from shrapnel I wasn't sure would be coming or not, I had forgotten to take it off.
Safe and sound, Westmoreland returned to the states and reported the things both the President and Congress wanted to hear. He announced President Thieu's regime was secure and the Vietnamization Program was proceeding according to plan. Or at least that was the gist of the report publicly released.
My intervening in the plan to frag Westmoreland probably would have stopped it had I threatened to reveal it, but several reasons led me to decide not to intervene. One, by this time I was burned out. I was 2 weeks away of going home and I was up to my ears with frustration. I'd seen some of my friends die in February, I'd been to Cambodia, and camp conditions were in far worse shape than they were when I arrived.
Another reason was because I couldn't honestly say the hit was wrong. Although in retrospect I don't think public outcry would have shut down the war any sooner, at that time there weren't very many rational people on campus who could realistically assess the impact of an assassination of that magnitude. All 4 planners were draftees whose lives had been uprooted and turned over by the war. Their bitterness was greater than my frustration.
Another reason was the obvious one, my intervention may have gotten me fragged also. I'd seen so much sloppy work done by the command I couldn't trust them to get me out before I got zapped. The CO would probably have pinned a medal on me, but that medal would've looked like a neon sign to every trigger-happy draftee who read about my squealing and took it upon himself to avenge the planners who'd be sent to Leavenworth. The most compelling reason for my not squealing was one that was told me by one of the planners. He said, "This is not your fight. This is a white boy situation with white boys taking care of one of their own."
I accepted his reason not because I approved of the plan, but because I realized no blacks could be blamed. Except for me, they had all been transferred, including the black 1st Sergeant brought in to process their transfers.
Hoping to provoke young blacks to make "insubordinate" statements that would justify their being transferred, the 1st Sergeant made open statements like, "if there were ever to be a race war between blacks and whites in America, I would side with the whites." The surprise of his statement did more to reflect his complete ignorance of how younger blacks felt, it exemplified the attitude of the older whites on campus that young blacks were preparing for a race war. In truth, the possibly of something as unwanted as a racial war occurring in America was more in the mind of the black 1st Sergeant than in the minds of the young blacks who wanted social change, not social upheaval.
Although the Army tried to screen-out most controversial issues occurring back home by subduing their importance in Stars and Stripes articles and AFRTN news broadcasts, newbies just arriving were bringing information in with them. White shortimers were hearing about Black Solidarity Day, in New York (November 1969) shutting down black schools, students at the University of Colorado (November 1969) supporting the opening of a Black Student Union, and Yale University petitioning to permit the Black Panther Party to speak on campus (April 1970). The news that disturbed them the most was a statement made by Soviet Premier Aleksi Kosygin (May 1970) after he had observed TV films of blacks in Vietnam. He stated that if he had 10 divisions of black V'nam veterans he could "take over the world." White racists on campus feared blacks would defect, form their own battalions, and link-up with the VC. The idea was preposterous to blacks, but unsurprising when taken in context with the paranoia white racists had about blacks.
Although blacks dismissed white Russian propaganda as being no different than white American propaganda, black shortimers on campus helped to fuel white fears on one occasion just after the Kosygin statement by throwing a "black only" party to celebrate prosecution charges being dropped against seven Black Panthers in Chicago arrested after a shoot-out with the Chicago Police Department. After being criticized by white liberals on campus for pulling what white racists on campus called a "nigger exhibition", the blacks who attended the party pointed out that eight white Green Berets were also granted immunity from prosecution late last year (October 1969) regarding an (alleged) murder incident involving a VC spy. Blacks were also quick to point out that when it came down to who would kill innocent civilians, all the National Guardsmen involved in the Kent State shootings were white, and the 6 people killed in the Augusta, Georgia race riots on the same day were blacks killed by whites. This particular incident hit home with everyone on campus because all of us had attended USASESS at Fort Gordon, just outside Augusta.
But whites who were pre-disposed to their fears were not going to permit their prejudices to be dissuaded by any rationale contrary to their traditional beliefs, especially if those views came from blacks. Nor would they accept that blacks in V'nam were drawn together with unifying gestures like the Black Power handshake because they saw themselves socially shut out of military fraternities, and unequally treated because they were outranked on virtually every command level from platoon to division.
One black I knew put it this way when asked by a white GI from Georgia why more blacks were growing radical, "You guys run the world, you tell me! We sang the same George M. Cohan songs you dudes sang in grade school. We enlist in the military to protect this country at a faster rate than you dudes do. and more than half of the guys over here fighting the VC are black and Chicano. White people keep telling us to wait for change and be patient, but white people aren't being patient with North Vietnam. You guys are the ones who are radical, not us!"
Other GI's complained that even if whites were concerned about blacks contesting the establishment back home, they should put their concerns aside in V'nam because everyone needed to work together over here for our mutual protection, as well as for our mutual effort to resolve the war in both our country's favor.
And a unity among ourselves was desperately needed. Not just between blacks and whites, but also between the different services. Discovering that low morale and lack of enthusiasm among junior-grade troops was due to their frustration over stagnation in the war, the Commanding Generals of all 4 services were encouraging "friendly competition" between branches and intra-service organizations. Messages coming into the comcenter indicated the Generals hoped that by developing a "controlled competitive" spirit between the services, that would stimulate a vigorous competitive spirit against the VC and NVA.
In the informal program Army grunts were encouraged to compete with Marine grunts for "quicker resolutions in conflict situations." Air Force pilots were asked to compete with Naval aviators for greater bombing accuracy. Agencies like the Naval Supply Depot was asked to compete with the Army Procurement Agency for materiel availability. and Marine weather stations were asked to compete with Air Force satellite tracking stations for better pre-sortie flight information. Of course if the war somehow got in the way during the game of inter-service competition, it was simply to be integrated into it.
But unfortunately, in keeping with the military's tradition of doing too many things wrong in Vietnam, competitors often sacrificed honor by using tricks and deceit to win rather than play the game straight and win by working harder at it. As a result, when one side caught the other cheating, both intra-service and inter-service competition turned out to be counter-productive. For example, a friendly football game between Army and Marine infantry companies usually evolved into contests to see who could net the largest number of enemy body counts during an agreed upon period of time. Each side's fear of losing encouraged them to register over-inflated enemy KIA (Killed In Action) numbers. By changing numbers to fit their need, the zeal of some platoons severely damaged our ability to correctly estimate how many VC, NVA, and national militia were still actually out there to give us a fight. A friendly basketball game between Navy Shore Patrol and Army Military Police units on occasion evolved into a dueling match to see which agency could arrest and detain the greater number of GI's from the opposing service. This practice resulted in the loss of irreplaceable man-hours (or "down-time"), not to mention some GI's developing disrespect for the military justice system when they got out of jail, and local authorities when they got back to the states.
To those of us who read the daily progress reports on MACV's competitive spirit program, its failure wasn't because of the "low morale due to stagnation in the war" as the Generals thought. The problem was with the people who were both running and ruining the war.
Nixon's publicizing the Paris Peace Talks in order to quiet domestic opposition to the war was probably the military's greatest handicap when it came to trying to raise morale. GI's saw no reason to continue fighting and dying "for a war that might be called off tomorrow." By publicizing the peace talks, Nixon was, to us, no different than Jane Fonda. By allowing himself to be sucked into open meetings with North V'nam he compromised the trust and hard work of the GI's who seriously wanted to win the war and at the same time fueled the anti-war flames of those who didn't care whether we won, lost, or drew even.
Like combat operations, Nixon's diplomatic initiatives should have been kept secret. Using the excuse that Henry Kissinger wanted to embarrass Le Duc Tho by exposing him to the world press as an asshole who reneged on agreements only served to make himself appear weak. To the guys on campus who were praying for a resumption of the (B-52) bombing, their Commander-In-Chief had "a wimp factor deeply imbedded in his personality." The men who wanted to win the war would've much rather settled for victory without honor than Nixon's "peace with honor."
Even more depressing than having a President who couldn't decide whether he wanted to play General or play diplomat, was having to face the fact that the war was being engineered by Generals who weren't sure which role they wanted to play either. Ever since Dwight Eisenhower made his sweeping climb to king of the hill with a little help from his friend General George Marshall, politicians have always looked to make Generals out of creative bookkeepers who were also skilled in diplomacy. Of course every General under 4 stars looking to get another one was hoping to convince his friends in Congress, most of whom were Reserve Generals themselves, that he had both diplomatic skills and military genius. and every General already carrying 4 stars was looking to come up with an original idea as successful as the Marshall Plan that would get him a fifth star. But the Generals assigned to V'nam weren't even able to clean up "a dirty little bush war."
Up until April 1970 (only) 4 Generals had died in Vietnam, all in plane crashes. Only one, William R. Bond, Commanding General of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade had been killed by direct rifle fire. and although grunts on the ground didn't want to see their few fighting Generals like "Bad-ass Billy" killed in action, we still had to accept the fact that the age of the fighting General died with the death of George S. Patton almost 2 1/2 decades ago. Patton's death gave birth to a new age of Generals whose "combat" credentials were in finance and business administration. As their weapons, the new MBA Generals, assisted by think-tank text book combat statisticians, fought with slide rules, computers, and theories. Many battles in V'nam were led in dark, smoke-filled war rooms 2 stories underground on command bases sometimes 20 miles from the actual combat site. Occasionally overseen by high flying observation helicopters or jets monitoring what was taking place on the battlefield, ground commanders were often second guessed, over-ruled, and instructed step-by-step what to do next by war-room officers who too often limited the ground commanders responsibilities to the menial task of determining enemy coordinates or troop strength for MI and CIA analysts.
The problem with statistics and theories in V'nam was that they were always subject to being neutralized by counter-figures and alternative theories. Platoon leaders often found themselves fighting a defensive battle while trying to obtain the requested data, than an offensive battle trying to eliminate their opposition. Any field commander would agree that gathering posthumous data was much easier to collect than trying to gather it from live people who kept shooting at you.
The military MBA's and their calculators worked great in the non-hazardous areas of combat support. But when it came to the combat decisions, we felt they should have been left to the experienced instincts of fighters who would enter every battle, no matter what its size, as if it was a final contest.
MACV's General Staff were often thought of as groundhogs who came out of their holes only when the dust cleared to see how badly the war was responding to their statistics. When seeing the glum news on the battlefields we pictured them jumping back down their holes and scribbling out new figures. Half of which would be written retrospectively for Congress' sake indicating they had at least contemplated the possibility of ongoing erosion. The other half would continue to apply as unrealistically to the future as their preceding figures had in the past. Meanwhile, of course, more people would die.
We pictured the Generals sitting behind green-carpeted tables in Congressional hearing rooms with their tongues in their cheeks giving wordy explanations to cover-up their incompetence. The sad part is that our Generals were the only ones invited by Congress to have their opinions heard. Had war-experienced enlisted men and junior officers been able to say what they knew and felt about the war, changes in policy and administration would have stimulated improvement and changed the course of the war. Probably the most serious flaw in the Army's command structure was that it prohibited enlisted men with reasonably valid ideas about how we should fight the war from expressing them. Just because an enlisted man lacked the rank the Army felt was necessary to express a more productive approach didn't mean he lacked the common sense to arrive at one. It only took one battle to become knowledgeable about war.
In discovering an absence of fighting Generals in V'nam some of us concluded that the MBA's, in their rising to the command ranks of the military, had eradicated the fighters over the past few decades through calculated elimination. Whenever wars end Congress always turns the military over to accountant officers who are given the task of eliminating "unnecessary areas of expense" no longer required in peace time. and since the infantry corps is the last department needed during peace time, they are always the 1st to get their training and personnel budgets slashed. Unfortunately, by the time a new war comes along the accountants and bureaucrats are the men in policy-making positions and nine out of 10 have never had to dodge a bullet, out-run a rocket attack, or smelled the last breath of a man dying on his bayonet. The military MBA's battleground is his desktop. His only challenges have been verbal confrontations during budget meetings. His risk of surviving those are too great to calculate.
Shortly before my leaving V'nam in July, a story was broadcast over the AFRTN stating Air Force combat support officers were whining to Congress that the Air Force was "discriminating against non-pilot officers." By restricting top promotions to former combat pilots only, Air Force MBA's weren't getting any higher than Brigadier General and weren't allowed to command combat flight groups. Hearing that, a sign was painted and posted on the wall of our hootch. It read, "Let he who never faces danger never command a man who does."
Enlisted men felt V'nam needed more Field-Grade officers on the ground with them. Their orders for support assistance would have gone through channels unquestioned and without the delays Lieutenants and Captains were sometimes painfully made to endure when timing was important. The war was sometimes called "a wild locomotive desperately in need of a capable engineer." Many of us at the bottom could not have agreed more. MACV's simple act of creating a huge military bureaucracy in 'Nam was not enough to tip the scale's balance in our favor. Along with being serviceable, the bureaucracy also had to be effective.
Of course the problem with giving Generals greater authority by making their commands larger is that the people on the bottom of the totem pole got lower. Along with their needs, the issues concerning them, and their opinions, GI's on the bottom began to see themselves as small, insignificant grunions being tossed around in a raging tide. Fighting to survive the war now meant fighting to survive MACV's bureaucracy as well as fighting to survive Charlie.
Nowhere could there be found a consistent policy, direction, or even knowledgeable source about what the hell was really going on. Sure, everyone knew that the ultimate goal was to win, but no one knew where to begin in accomplishing that goal, that is, short of exterminating 8/10's of the population.
General Westmoreland's earnest attempt to show progress was a good try but fell short of being the magic bullet V'nam needed to send the NVA packing. His "invention", the Search and Destroy technique, of sending out squads of assault troops who literally went looking for a fight, was the reflex culmination of years of fighting from a defensive position rather than an offensive one. The correct interpretation of Search and Destroy was "Bait and Lure." The goal was to search out Charlie using yourself as bait then lure him into a fight.
Renamed "Search and Get Destroyed" by the GI's who had to perform the missions, the bait element worked well in bringing the VC out to fight, but the lure element (meant to chase or be chased by the VC to a pre-planned area where a larger American force was supposed to be waiting to destroy them) didn't always work out. When it came to luring Charlie to an ambush coordinate the lonely bait team was often times left holding the bag. Of course a follow-up mission would be ordered but even that was usually carried out many hours later and sometimes not until the following day.
It didn't take too long for most grunts to realize S and D's were not cutting the mustard, but very few people had the balls to tell Westmoreland that his baby should be flushed.
Although S and D's did help to relieve the frustrations of the men who, up to the time they were initiated were only allowed to defend themselves if fired at, after their time was up and they went home, their replacements, having no personal axes to grind with Charlie yet, found the technique more suicidal than offensive. The continuous replacement of personnel made it difficult for us to maintain consistent operations.
For the combat GI, S and D's were his 24 hour job. For the combat support GI, his 12-to-12 job wasn't too much different. Everyone was under relentless, day to day pressure to perform his one specific job. That was all he knew and that was all he was allowed to know. In departmentalizing our war apparatus we unfortunately over-bureaucized the war effort.
But regardless of how the machinery was set up, the role of the General was to maintain a balance sheet of these collective efforts then coordinate and guide them like an armored steamroller to a finishing point, victory. and the only real difference we saw between us and our Generals was that his decisions had to be right with greater frequency. Their only problem was that the Congress required them to be part politician, part military, but all MBA.
Coupled with being inexperienced in bush warfare, our Generals should have realized the American Army was ill-prepared to fight a bush war and anticipated no help from the ARVN before supporting our full commitment in Vietnam. (This notwithstanding the rumor that the Pentagon may have used V'nam as a bush warfare training grounds.)
Although rounding-up the most experienced combat men in its higher ranks to lead the fight in Vietnam, WWII veterans like Westmoreland cut their combat teeth in conventional theaters over 20 years ago. Unlike Vietnam, where guerrilla warfare was the order of battle, guerrilla tactics in WWII were only used when areas or situations that couldn't support an assault by a large, conventional force. Although the military insisted on maintaining conventional training, organization, and deployment in Korea, the necessity to incorporate guerrilla training and application should have been more self-evident by the rising number of challenges the Western powers were facing from 3rd world countries after Korea.
As stated earlier, it wasn't until John Kennedy's insistence upon the need for a guerrilla trained Army, and his sponsorship of the Green Berets, that an irregular fighting force was made a permanently established resident of the military community. Guerrilla training, however, then and now still falls far short of a need to apply it Army-wide. A proper beginning for making this necessary transition from conventional to non-conventioal engagements sure to be needed in the future would be to re-dress the soldier in the appearance of its toughest unit, the Green Berets. Army Rangers recognized this by casting off the steel pot and adopting its own rust-colored beret. Every soldier in the US Army needed to cast off it's baseball cap and don a beret. After all, the Army was not a baseball team, it was (or was supposed to be) and ass-kicking machine. The US Army Green Berets were ass-kickers.
North Vietnam's strategy was to win the war by, using Che Guevarra's words, "lighting more fires than the imperialist Yankee dog could put out." Oppositely, impatient Americans were hoping to engineer the one battle that would decide the final outcome. Westmoreland's belief that our holding the line against Giap during TET '68 "broke the back and will of the NVA" should have been realized as an error when we discovered most of Giap's troops during TET were newly inducted trainees.
The American army in V'nam was set-up the same way European nations have organized their armies for centuries, under one, well-organized, central command. The only problem with that arrangement is that none of its parts can ever be greater than the whole. Every unit has a supervising unit and no man could make a decision without the approval of a supervisor. However, the armies we fought in Vietnam, the NVA, the VC, the People's Militia, and a variety of other less significant groups were set-up just the opposite. Although ultimately being under one well-organized central command, the NVA's non-uniformed armies functioned as if all of its parts were greater than the whole. Its individual units were organized to act on their own. and if a unit lost a battle, the loss would have no effect on the other parts.
For example, a sharp country-wide drop in U.S. morale occurred every time news that an American unit lost a battle was communicated down the information pipeline by MACV, who adjusted its country-wide strategy to compensate for the loss. No matter where the battle was fought, its outcome psychologically affected every other American unit all over South Vietnam. The NVA, on the other hand, didn't suffer from a similar army-wide loss of morale when a defeat occurred because its subordinate groups were never told about it. The only way for a small VC unit or local NVA regiment in III CTZ, for example, to find out about one of their units in I CTZ being wiped out would have been for us to tell them. But they never believed anything coming over Radio Free Asia anyway.
Of course the logical answer would have been for us to fight the VC the way they fought us, fragment our troops into small, independent commands that only made contact with higher commands when new supplies or replacements were needed. But that would have taken a lot of special support to work effectively. Because leaving urban-oriented individuals out in the jungle to operate on their own would have made it difficult for us to bring those men back into the fold. There were already too many men with far less combat exposure having a difficult time readjusting. For the VC readjustment was easier. Life for them after the war was spent in the same place it was fought.
The only other logical answer would be simply not to allow communication of "undesired" information being passed to sensitive units whose morale may be affected by bad news. This alternative would have taken slightly more work but during WWII restricted information was the order of the day. Our trusting all Americans with all information in V'nam was permitted only because the obvious racial difference between us and the V'namese (on both sides) made it easier to know who not to talk to.
But then again, this was a ----ty war. The public and the DOA were having trouble trying to figure out why we weren't fighting the VC the way our fathers fought the Germans and Japanese in WWII. Although some Americans understood our fathers were fighting a declared enemy and realized V'nam GI's were, on the average, seven years younger than WWII GI's, there were other factors more even more applicable. When our fathers liberated a town in France they were freeing it from an enemy that was as different from the French as our fathers were. The Germans had a different culture, spoke a different language, and wore easily identifiable uniforms.
But it wasn't that way in Vietnam. Both our enemy and our ally were the same, in fact they were brothers and cousins. Charlie didn't always wear an easily identifiable uniform. He was as transparent in the cities as well as in the villages. and being a native he spoke the language. A language that was far more difficult to master than the German and French our fathers had to learn.
Also, when our fathers liberated occupied towns they usually stayed liberated. Establishing base camps where they conquered, ground was won, an accomplishment had been made, and a victory could be measured. In Vietnam, a bloody battle fought to liberate a village was handed back to the VC by the ARVN the day after they were entrusted with its safety. Americans didn't have the personnel or residential support to garrison villages ourselves, and despite our advice and warnings to the ARVN to do so, most ARVN commanders saw safety in numbers and grouped in the larger cities leaving the villages and hamlets to fend for themselves. The average ARVN cared less about the war than he did about the American Superbowl. and very few ARVN's knew about the Superbowl.
According to the results of a study passing through the comcenter, the CIA concluded that no matter what we did to suppress North Vietnam's aggression we would never be able to balance the war in V'nam as our fathers did in Korea. The study stated the North Vietnamese, whose harsh climate was similar to Korea's, made the NVA more determined fighters. For the ARVN South Vietnam's tropical climate had the opposite effect.
Thinking back to the VC jungle training film I saw in Basic, it became more apparent now that I was in V'nam than it did back then, that it was ridiculous for us to try fighting Charlie, or any enemy, in his own backyard unless our firepower was overwhelmingly superior to his. Our firepower was greater than the Germans after Normandy because we were able to gradually destroy their arms industry. In V'nam it was different. The NVA and VC's got their arms from countries we couldn't bomb. Although a lot of GI's believed we were stronger than Charlie in every combat category, that belief changed when they got to V'nam where they learned that our application of American superiority certainly was not. Chasing Charlie around South V'nam with hit-and-miss B-52 bombings, catch-if-you-can S and D's, and Harassment and Interdiction (H and I) artillery strikes were not enough to kick his ass into submission.
In reality war is won by the soldier with the greatest number of fellow soldiers, more dependable weapons, greater combat support organization, and an intelligence department with an edge on the internal disruption of the enemy's army. All of these elements help make victory obtainable. Without them, victory is accomplished either by luck or by having an enemy with an even shabbier combat organization. In the Marine battle being fought on the monitors in my Basic Training classroom, the Marines had none of those elements with them. True, they may have existed back at the Marines base camp in the Delta, on Camp Pendleton in San Diego, and in the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. But nowhere, except in their conditioned minds, did they exist on that particular field of battle. and as it was also apparent that the NVA didn't possess all of those elements either, the Marines lost because they were conditioned to believe the American GI had them with him all the time.
It would be nice to say that at least in the areas of combat support, our army was better organized when comparing those areas to what the North V'namese made available to its combat troops. But that would only be true when looking at our support apparatus from the traditional way it was conventionally applied.
For example, the Army's personnel offices in V'nam were set up to operate just as they did in the states, slowly. Like civilian government offices in America, public employees know they're the only game in town so they make people wait. But the activity of the war was so rapidly changing that even when some combat groups operated on a 24 hour basis the personnel offices operated between the normal civilian business hours of nine to 5 (with some small variations).
The fact can't be ignored that the VC and NVA did have, on a shoestring level, a sophisticated combat support apparatus. and discovering, years after the war, more about how that apparatus worked, we now know their support machine was more utilizable by their troops than ours was by us. Ours was useful only when it was available. One might even say that ours was, in many cases, utilizable by the enemy also. The American Army was saddled with corruption, waste, and disorganization. The VC and NVA nurtured and benefited from our corruption, collected and made utilizable our surplus and waste, and capitalized off our disorganization.
During my year in Vietnam, a sample of the ill effects of our shortcomings was never made more evident to me than during the 2 weeks I spent in Xuan Loc.
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