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The Wars of the Green Berets
Amazing Stories from Vietnam to the Present
By Robin Moore, Michael Lennon
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2007 Robin Moore and Michael Lennon
All rights reserved.
To pour money, material, and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory would be dangerously futile and self-destructive.
— John Fitzgerald Kennedy
April 6, 1954 speech
Like most seventeen-year-olds, Mike Apin was consumed with his transition from the adolescent to the adult world, and in 1968 he paid scant attention to the growing conflict in Southeast Asia. His world revolved around a neat, manicured middle-class neighborhood in a suburb of Washington, DC. Football, baseball, basketball, beer (when they could get it), and girls (not necessarily in that order) commanded much of his attention. Mike drove a blue 1965 Mustang that his father had bought him, and he loved that car. With a 289 high performance engine and a Holly 4-barrel carburetor, he could really haul ass.
Friday and Saturday nights usually started at a party or the drive-in, and ended at the McDonald's in Forest Heights, Maryland. In those days, there were no indoor seats at McDonald's (300,000 hamburgers sold) so you got your food and ate in your car. The local cop, "One Bullet Barney" as they called him, was usually around to enforce the no-loitering rule so singles and couples hopped from car to car to socialize. Mike had a cute girlfriend, one of the junior varsity cheerleaders, and was a regular with several loose social groups. They had grown up with the Mickey Mouse Club, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and Mike's favorite TV show, Sea Hunt.
Mike and his best friend, Dennis, who turned eighteen within a week of Mike, went down to register for the draft at the county seat in Upper Marlboro on a cold drizzly February day, and although it should have brought the war a little closer to home, it didn't.
Mike was your average high school student; average grades, average good looks. He was five foot-eleven inches tall, a muscular 190 pounds, with sandy brown hair and green eyes. Although broody at times, like most teenagers, he was well liked by most of his peers. The dress at Oxon Hill High School in Oxon Hill, Maryland was still conservative in 1967 and varied only with your social caste, of which there were three or four. You could tell them by their uniforms: the "Blocks" (called Greasers elsewhere) wore high-top black Chuck Taylor tennis shoes, wide Mack work pants, Banlon shirts, and leather letterman jackets. The girls dressed like they were out of West Side Story. The Collegiates wore white Levis, button-down shirts, and penny loafers; the girls wore "coulottes," bright dresses, and looked like the girl next door. The Nerds looked pretty much like nerds have throughout the ages; striped ties and short-sleeve plaid shirts with pocket protectors, high-water pants, "fag bags," and uncool shoes. The Jocks sometimes crossed clothing lines, but usually wore the ubiquitous letterman's jacket. Mike was a Jock of the Collegiate variety, having just earned his jacket and varsity letter the previous fall with the football team.
Mike's parents were both immigrants of Eastern European origin who had been forcibly relocated to Germany as slave labor during WWII. His father was Polish and his mother was Lithuanian/Ukrainian. They met, fell in love, and married in a dislocated-civilian camp in Germany after the war, then immigrated to the United States in 1949. Mike was born the following year. His father had wanted to name the new baby Stanislav, after his father, but his mother insisted on an American name. He became Mike Armstrong Apin. His maternal grandparents also immigrated eventually, both of his father's parents having perished at the hands of the Nazis. Mike spent his early years growing up in an Eastern European community on the Jersey shore with his extended family. Mike's parents were fiercely proud of their new American citizenship, and after years of backbreaking work his father landed a comfortable job and a home in suburban, middle-class Maryland.
The antiwar movement, or hippy movement as his dad liked to refer to it, really had not penetrated this small-town, middleclass suburb on the edge of Washington, DC, yet. Drugs were almost unheard of and life was simple and uncomplicated. But the whole fabric of life that seemed so American in the 1950s and early 1960s was slowly changing. Mike's father, "Stash" Apin, gradually became consumed with the nightly coverage of the war and the growing divide in the country, and insisted that dinner be either before, or after, the nightly news. He could not seem to interest Mike in the events that he knew would shortly have an impact on his son's life.
Mr. Apin was torn between his hate for communism that had consumed his native Poland and his desire for peace. Those who had witnessed the horrors of the worst war in human history could hardly be expected to embrace the US intervention in Vietnam, but Mike's father had also learned that evil men must be stopped at all costs. He considered Stalin and the communists to be every bit as bad as Hitler. In many ways Stalin had been worse. He had certainly managed to kill more of his own people. Millions of peasants perished at Stalin's hands during the collectivization of the farms in the 1930s, and more than a million died during the Russian–Finnish war in 1939. Untold millions died on the battlefield and in the gulags before, during, and after WWII. Trotsky once called Stalin "Genghis Kahn with a telephone," before Stalin had him assassinated. Stalin himself used to say that if he "killed one person it was murder; if he killed a million it was a statistic." Stash had been too young to go to war in 1939, and now he was too old in 1968, but not Mike. He worried, and at the same time almost wished that Mike would volunteer or be called to serve. His mother was afraid Mike would do something foolish and enlist in the Marines, like the Murphy boy across the street.
She needn't have worried. Politics and international affairs just weren't important to him at this stage in his life. Besides, the slide into the war had been gradual and had been eclipsed by other events in the early 1960s; the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of Kennedy, just to mention a few. The average American couldn't even find Vietnam on a map and only the most politically astute could see the coming danger in the mid-1960s. Mike's father sensed it; his son did not.
It was only after the great battles during Tet that he became aware that a real war was going on. The possibility that he might have to go seemed negligible. He had no real anxiety about it; he was going to college and would be draft-exempt. Mike certainly had no interest in enlisting. It wasn't that he was unpatriotic; Mike just wasn't particularly interested in the military or world affairs. He had been accepted to the University of Maryland and he and his friend Dennis were to be roommates in the fall. He planned to study to be an engineer, like his dad wanted, and to make the most out of college life. Mike's father considered education to be of the utmost importance. He had studied nights for five long years to become an electrical engineer when they first immigrated to America. He worked two jobs to make ends meet but it had been well worth it. Education had been the salvation of the Apin family in America, the ticket of poor immigrants to the middle class. Yes, education was everything. He constantly hounded Mike to get better grades. Work, work, work was all he seemed to think about. What Mike couldn't understand, what children never understand, is that parents, especially parents with a lifetime of hardship and sorrow, live vicariously through their children. It is inevitable. They want the absolute best for their offspring.
Mike always felt vaguely embarrassed around his father. It wasn't just that he didn't feel he was living up to his father's high expectations; it was his inability to talk to him. He loved his father, but just did not know how to relate to him. He always considered his father to be a cold, unemotional, humorless man.
Then one night during his sophomore year, he had found his father sitting in the back yard at the picnic table. Mike was just about to ask him what he was doing when he suddenly realized he was wringing his hands and weeping silently. Mike retreated, confused and upset. He never saw his father show any emotion before except anger. He was profoundly disturbed by the incident, but it took him weeks to mention the subject with his mother.
It had turned out to be a letter from a long-lost cousin, an officer in the Polish army, one of the few that survived the slaughter perpetrated by the Russians when they "liberated" Poland from the Nazis at the end of the war. The relative, just released from a gulag, had returned to Poland only to discover that the entire Apin family had died. Mike wanted to ask his father about it, but he could never get up the nerve ... maybe someday.
Mike graduated high school as the last man in the top quarter of his class in ceremonies at Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, got his college draft deferment, and went on to have the best summer of his life down at Ocean City, Maryland. He and Dennis, both lifeguards, shared an apartment with two other guards and got all the sun and girls they could handle. Life was good! War, what war?CHAPTER 2
In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it — the people of Vietnam.
— President John Fitzgerald Kennedy September 3, 1963
Mike's mom yelled at him as he rushed in the door, late for a date as usual. "Mike, there's a letter for you on the kitchen table. It looks important."
He stayed home for the summer for about three weeks and was working at a local pool as a lifeguard. He and Dennis had taken Senior Life Saving down at the YMCA on 14th Street near the White House in DC and they spent that first summer at the beach, but this summer he decided to stay closer to home. The beach had been fun, but they blew all their wages, and their parents wanted them to save some money this summer. They went back to the YMCA during the spring of that year and took scuba-diving classes; they became Water Safety Instructors as well. Now they taught swimming lessons, while lifeguarding. They partied hard and were, in general, having a great time. It was merely a long continuation of the fun they had experienced at school that year.
He made himself a sandwich as he tore open the letter, without looking at the return address. He hoped it was his grades or a letter from the dean taking him off suspension. He and Dennis had shared a room their first year with a kid named Giovanni in Dorm 14, one of the new high-rise dorms on the campus of the University of Maryland. All they did was party their first semester, and the University of Maryland was the place to do it, seeing as it rated in the top ten of the nation's party schools that year. If they weren't going to frat parties, they were down to the Campus Club or the "Vous," where they could drink vast quantities of cheap beer, or they just pitched in and bought a keg. There was a girl's dorm next door and it always seemed as if there was a floor party somewhere. Their resident assistant (RA), a young graduate student, didn't really care what they did, just as long drugs were not involved.
Mike tried out for the freshman football team as a walk-on. Even though he had grown two inches and added twenty pounds of muscle, he was still small compared to most of the scholarship students. He was amazed by the size, speed, and strength of the competition. This was definitely not high school ball. He made it to the last cuts before he was told, "Coach wants to see you, bring your playbook." The head coach, always very nice, told him that he'd like to have him in the program; all he had to do was get "a little bigger, a little quicker, and a little faster." Mike wasn't as upset as he thought he'd be. He'd made a lot of friends and just trying out for the team seemed a good way to meet girls. The football team always had groupies hanging around.
The whole fabric of American life was changing around them; sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, as was the antiwar movement. It was a time of idealism and change. The nation seemed to be polarizing into diametrically different camps: hawk versus dove, conservative verses radical, old versus young, white versus black. Mike wasn't sure whether the war was justified or not. He respected the sincere protesters like Joan Baez, but he found Jane Fonda to be abhorrent. He wasn't even really sure where Vietnam was. He confused French Indochina with Dutch Indonesia (something the United States Post Office also seemed to have some problem with). Most of what he knew about Vietnam concerned the debacle of the French following WWII, the assassination of Diem and the Nhus, and the immolation of Buddhist monks. Ho Chi Minh, "Uncle Ho," was alternatively painted as a social nationalist or a vicious communist despot like Stalin. Mike's opinion of the war swayed depending on who was on the soapbox.
His father periodically railed against the Republicans and the right wing in America, the Joseph McCarthys, for eliminating some of the best minds in the state department after the "loss" of China to the communists. As a result of the purges, America went into Indochina largely blind, and without the years of experience of the so-called "old Oriental hands." We gave the French back their colonies and then compounded the error by supporting them in their suppression of Vietnamese nationalism. To compound the error we then took the whole mess over from them. It represented nothing but continued French imperialism by American proxy. It was too bad Kennedy was killed on the eve of his decision on what to do with Vietnam. Mike's father was sure Kennedy would never have committed large numbers of conventional troops, as Johnson did later. Now they were in it, for better or for worse. It was the domino theory; they had to prevent communism from sweeping over Indochina and, subsequently, the rest of the world. It was really just an extension of the Cold War, a fight against the Soviets for world domination.
All the debate on the war and civil rights was fine, but it was also the era of free love. Mike and Dennis took full advantage of that. While they were largely ambivalent to the antiwar message, the protests added to the climate of reckless excitement that many college freshmen feel when first freed of the constraints of their parents. Mike and Dennis attended all of them. During one rally, the crowd blocked Route 1 and the Maryland State Police (the Free State Porkers as they were dubbed) were called in. Both Dennis and Mike got clubbed and sprayed with tear gas, but all in all, it was just plain fun. Drugs were also plentiful, but except for the occasional puff of marijuana at a party, they pretty much stuck to beer and Boone's Farm (apple wine), or "Purple Jesus," a concoction of grain alcohol and grape juice served at the fraternity parties. The only time Mike smoked grass he was already pretty drunk and didn't like the feeling it gave him, the loss of control. As for LSD and the rest of it he had no real use for it. Mike just liked beer.
College, which Mike first approached as he had high school (by never taking a book home) was a lot harder than he expected and he failed miserably his first semester. His father was furious and only relented a little when Mike told him engineering proved too hard for him. He had not taken the right courses in high school to deal with the calculus and physics. Mike changed his major to political science, perhaps to become a lawyer. Although he tried hard that next semester, his heart wasn't in it. There was too much else going on around him. While his midterm grades were passable, finals proved to be a nightmare. Mike was deathly afraid he was in danger of flunking out. He had no idea what he would do if he flunked out. As it was, he didn't have to worry; that little problem had been solved for him.
After opening the envelope, he sat down hard as he read the "Greetings from Your Uncle Sam" letter. Mike was to report to the draft board induction center for a physical the following week. He guessed he flunked out after all.
Excerpted from The Wars of the Green Berets by Robin Moore, Michael Lennon. Copyright © 2007 Robin Moore and Michael Lennon. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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