The true story of Michael Mullen, a soldier killed in Vietnam, and his parents’ quest for the truth from the US government: “Brilliantly done” (The Boston Globe).
Drafted into the US Army, Michael Mullen left his family’s Iowa farm in September 1969 to fight for his country in Vietnam. Six months later, he returned home in a casket. Michael wasn’t killed by the North Vietnamese, but by artillery fire from friendly forces. With the government failing to provide the precise circumstances of his death, Mullen’s devastated parents, Peg and Gene, demanded to know the truth. A year later, Peg Mullen was under FBI surveillance.
In a riveting narrative that moves from the American heartland to the jungles of Vietnam to the Vietnam Veterans Against the War march in Washington, DC, to an interview with Mullen’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, author C. D. B. Bryan brings to life with brilliant clarity a military mission gone horrifically wrong, a patriotic family’s explosive confrontation with their government, and the tragedy of a nation at war with itself.
Originally intended to be an interview for the New Yorker, the story Bryan uncovered proved to be bigger than he expected, and it was serialized in three consecutive issues during February and March 1976, and was eventually published as a book that May. In 1979, Friendly Fire was made into an Emmy Award–winning TV movie, starring Carol Burnett, Ned Beatty, and Sam Waterston.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of C. D. B. Bryan, including rare images from the author’s estate.
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By C. D. B. Bryan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1976 Courtlandt Dixon Barnes Bryan
All rights reserved.
September 3, 1969, his last night of leave, Michael Eugene Mullen worked until ten o'clock on his family's 120-acre farm five miles west of La Porte City in Black Hawk County, Iowa. He remained down in the lower 80 acres upon his father's old plum-red Farmall H-series tractor ripping out brush and dead trees, bulldozing the trash into the dry streambed of Miller's Creek, clearing and filling in the land so it could be used as pasture again.
By midnight, when his father, Gene Mullen, had returned from working the late shift at the huge John Deere tractor plant in Waterloo, Michael had completed his packing and was still awake talking to his younger brother, John, behind the closed door of the bedroom they shared. Peg Mullen, Michael's mother, and Mary and Patricia, his two younger sisters, were asleep, so Gene made himself a cup of instant coffee and sat alone at the kitchen table. From where he sat Gene could see Michael's Vietnam orders resting on the same little corner table in the living room where they had stayed during his older son's entire twenty-three-day advance leave. One morning, when Michael had picked up the thick sheaf of duplicate orders and riffled through them absently, Gene had said, "Mikey?"
Michael put the orders down. "Yes, Dad?"
"Mikey, what are you going to do?"
Michael met his father's look with a thin, uneasy smile. "I guess, Dad," he said, "I guess I'm going to do what they taught me to do."
Gene started to ask, "How?" Michael, as a boy, could not bear to be present when livestock were slaughtered. Gene wondered how the Army had been able to teach Michael to kill. He had started to tell his son that he believed the force that makes people kill is the greatest evil on earth. But Gene hadn't said anything, and Michael did not speak either.
And so that last night of Michael's leave, Gene sat cradling the mug of coffee in his hands, listening to the muted voices of his sons. Then he stood up and knocked on their bedroom door. Michael opened it. Gene could see beyond his son the closed barracks bags, the Army uniform and shined black shoes set out for the morning.
"Would you like anything from the kitchen, Michael? A beer?"
Michael finished locking up his metal tackle box. It held his arrowhead collection, special letters, snapshots, the corporal stripes he'd earned at Fort Benning, addresses, insurance papers.
"No, no thanks, Dad," Michael said. He carefully taped the key to the lid and slid the tackle box onto the top shelf of his closet.
Gene, still standing in the doorway, could not look away from Michael's uniform hanging on the back of the open closet door.
Michael smiled at his father. "I will, Dad. I will."
The next morning was warm and sunny. John got up early and caught the bus to school. Michael was all packed and in his uniform. Breakfast was over, the dishes done. Gene kept looking at the electric clock over the oven. "What time did you say your plane left?" he asked.
"Ten," Michael said. "I have to check in by nine thirty."
Michael looked at his watch, and Gene glanced again at the electric clock over the wall oven door.
Peg was moving back and forth across the kitchen, dabbing at counters with a sponge. "Would anyone like some more coffee?"
"No thanks," Gene said.
"No thanks, Mom."
"What time is it?" Patricia asked him.
And before Michael could tell her, he had to look at his wristwatch once more.
Gene stood up, tucked in his shirt and walked over to the kitchen window. He bumped into Peg turning around and apologized.
The Mullens decided to leave for the Waterloo Airport early. Gene drove with Michael sitting up front next to him. Peg, Patricia and Mary sat in the back. The family hardly spoke.
The center of Waterloo is about fifteen miles northwest of the Mullens' farm, and the airport is another few miles beyond that on the other side of town. They drove past the big new shopping center on Route 218 with the Hy-Vee Market, the Sears and J.C. Penney stores. Gene said something about how fast all that area was changing, and Michael agreed.
They passed the Robo-Wash and Burger King, Donutland and the Cadillac Bowling Lanes, and soon they were caught up in Waterloo traffic. They cleared the city, and beyond were the flatlands and railroad tracks they had to cross before reaching the airport.
Michael wouldn't let his father help him with the barracks bags, insisting it would be easier for him to carry them both himself. The Mullens entered the terminal building a little after nine. They took seats in the small, near-empty waiting room and stared out the large window at the vacant airfield.
Michael kept wiping his palms on his knees.
"Do you need a magazine?" Peg asked. "Something to read?"
Michael stood up abruptly. "Maybe I can check in anyway," he said.
"It's still early yet," his father said.
"I know. But maybe I can check in."
"I'll go with you," Mary said.
"No, don't." Michael smiled at her. "I'll be right back."
Peg worriedly followed her son with her eyes.
"He looks scared," Patricia said.
"He's fine!" Gene said gruffly.
A few minutes later Michael returned waving his tickets. He sat back down next to his mother. "I'm all checked in."
"Did you get a magazine?" she asked.
"I'll read something on the plane."
"Do you have everything?"
"I'm fine, Mom. Really."
Peg looked away from her son and out the window.
When Michael's plane landed, he stood up and his family rose with him.
"Look," Michael told them, "don't stick around for the plane to leave. You don't have to wait."
"We'll wait," his mother announced firmly.
"No, please," Michael insisted, "I'll be all right." He went to Mary and Patricia and told them goodbye, that they shouldn't wait around, that they should tell John there'd be a lot more work now that he was going. And Patricia and Mary each had a moment to themselves with Michael, a chance to tell him to take care of himself, to be careful, that they would pray for him, miss him, that they loved him and would write letters all the time and would send him things, anything, all he had to do was tell them what he needed. Michael kissed them each, and they moved away because it was their parents' turn.
Gene fingered a small bronze medallion the size of a twenty-five-cent piece that hung from a chain around his neck. The medal, depicting the Virgin Mary, had been struck in commemoration of the first Catholic missionaries who went into China. The inscription around it was in Chinese. The medallion had been given Gene thirty-five years earlier by a Chinese student he had befriended when they were undergraduates together at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Gene had worn it ever since. He lifted its chain from around his neck and handed it to his son, saying, "Mikey, I've tried to give you everything. ..." Gene's voice broke, and he took a deep breath and began again: "Tried to do everything that a father could do. ..."
Michael was looking down at the medallion now chestnut-colored with age.
"I wore this medal through the Second World War," Gene was saying. "It protected me, and so I give you this ... I give you. ..." He could say no more. Gene looked at his son, half in pride, half in agony, his throat too tight to speak.
"I'll wear it," Michael said. He loosened his black Army tie and unbuttoned the collar button of his khaki shirt. He draped the medal and chain around his neck, carefully centered it with the dog tags on his chest and buttoned his shirt back over it. Michael then turned to his mother and hugged her.
It was an awkward embrace, shorter in duration than either of them wished. When Michael stepped back, he was startled to see his mother's eyes were damp. He could not remember ever having seen her cry before. Michael put his hand out to comfort his mother, and she took it. When Peg looked up at her son, she, too, was unable to speak.
"Mom?" Michael said. "Don't worry yourself now, okay?" He squeezed her hand lightly and repeated, "Okay?"
His mother just looked at him, shaking her head sadly.
"Come on now, Mom, please?" Michael pleaded. "It'll ... it will all be over March first, okay?"
He gently pulled his hand from hers, picked up his barracks bags and turned away. Peg unconsciously pressed the hand he'd been holding to her lips. She watched her son walk past the cafeteria toward the doors that would lead to his plane. Michael stopped in the narrow passageway, dropped his barracks bags and turned back for one last look at his family. But as they started toward him, he quickly lifted his bags and hurried out the door.
Michael's family moved closer to the big picture window and stood silently staring at the airplane. They saw Michael again when he took a seat at a window on the near side just behind the wing. He did not wave. He did not move. He simply sat there framed by the silver airplane's window, looking out at them as they looked back in at him.
Mary and Patricia cried quietly on the drive back to the farm. Peg could see that Gene was gripping the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles were white. When they were once again on the other side of Waterloo, back on Route 218 past the Robo-Wash and Burger King heading toward their farm, Peg resolved to cheer everybody up by telling them what Michael had said just before boarding the plane.
"Why March first?" Gene asked her.
"I don't know," Peg said. "He just told me not to worry. That it would all be over then."
On March 1, 1970, Michael Eugene Mullen, age twenty-five, was returned to the Waterloo Airport in a U.S. Army issue twenty-gauge silver-gray casket.
And one year after that, his mother was under surveillance by the FBI.CHAPTER 2
Long before the sacrifice of their oldest son the Mullens had earned their place upon that prairie land. Michael was to have been the fifth generation of his family to work their same Iowa fields and the most recent link in an unbroken family chain reaching back through more than two-thirds of our history as a nation to John Dobshire, his paternal great -great-grandfather, who, seeking a better life in the new land, emigrated from Ireland in 1833, leaving behind his wife, Ellen, and their then nine -month-old daughter, Mary Ann.
The America John Dobshire arrived in, the America of the 1830s, was still a nation of rural people living for the most part on farms or in country villages. And even though at the start of that decade the number of persons living west of the Allegheny Mountains — west, in other words, of central Pennsylvania — was beginning to approach the population to their east, vast tracts of land across the Mississippi River did not belong to the United States, and still greater areas, though they "belonged," had not yet been explored.
Iowa had not become a part of the United States until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Although the state was named after the Iowa (also, Ioway) Indians who were part of the Winnebago people originally living north by the Great Lakes, in 1804, when the explorers Lewis and Clark first came upon the Iowa, the tribe had been so decimated by smallpox that there were fewer than 800 left. They were living not in "Iowa" but where the Platte River joins the Missouri in what is now Nebraska.
The Indians who dominated Iowa at the start of the nineteenth century were the Sioux in the west and north, the Potawatami (also, Pottawatami) in the north-central part of the state, and the Sauk (also, Sac) and Fox, (in their language, the Mesquakie), whose vast domain centered on the Mississippi River and extended north to the Wisconsin River, east to the Illinois River, south into what is now Missouri and west across the gently rolling plains of east-central Iowa into what would become the Mullens' land. Saukenuk, the chief Sauk village, lay just north of where the Rock River flows into the Mississippi at what is now Rock Island — one of the "Quad Cities" of Rock Island, Davenport and East Moline. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase the Sauk and Fox had already been planting their corn at Saukenuk for more than 100 years. Black Hawk, the Sauk warrior chief after whom the Mullens' Black Hawk County in Iowa is named, was born in Saukenuk in 1767. He was forty-five years old in 1812 when the British and Americans returned to war. Black Hawk stood about five feet four inches, had a high, sloping forehead, ruddy, angular features and shaved his head clean except for the scalp lock to which eagle feathers, the mark of his warrior status, were tied. With very little urging, British agents won Black Hawk and others of the Sauk-Fox Confederation over to their side; Black Hawk was given the rank of colonel and fought next to Tecumseh and the British against the Americans, wearing a British "red coat" and war paint.
For the next twenty years Black Hawk defiantly resisted every attempt by the whites to expand into his lands. Not until 1832 was Black Hawk subdued. Abraham Lincoln, then a twenty-three-year-old captain in the Illinois Militia, rode off to take part in this "Black Hawk War" on a borrowed horse. Jefferson Davis, then a young lieutenant, escorted Black Hawk to Jefferson Barracks, where the now sixty-five-year-old warrior spent his winter shackled and chained.
Black Hawk's imprisonment removed the last formidable barrier to westward expansion into the unorganized territory of Iowa; and on June 1, 1833, the Iowa lands were officially opened. Previous to that date only a small trickle of whites had crossed the Mississippi; the Army had been ordered to turn back anyone who attempted to settle on the other side. Of course, some white men had gone among the Indians, had established trading posts, hunted, mined and prospected, intermarried. Explorers had traced the Mississippi and Missouri river valleys. But the "Iowa" that existed when John Dobshire landed in America was still considered the "Far West," a dark wasteland on the Indian frontier beyond which lay the Great American Desert. Iowa's vast prairie fields were then considered "almost unwholly fit for cultivation."
On June 1, 1838, Iowa achieved formal territorial status and included in addition to what is now the present state of Iowa, lands which would become Minnesota, and North and South Dakota as well. One of the initial problems, however, was resolving where to build the territorial capital. It was finally agreed that the proper site should be along the banks of the Iowa River, but because the location selected was still so remote and unsettled that no trail went to it, it was doubtful whether any pioneer or new territorial legislator would even be able to find the spot. A Mr. Lyman Dillard was therefore hired to plow a guide furrow 100 miles west across the prairie from the Mississippi River to the site chosen for the territorial capital to be called Iowa City.
On the Fourth of July, 1838, in celebration of Iowa's formal territorial status and the nation's sixty-second year of independence, the citizens of Fort Madison at Iowa's southeastern tip invited Black Hawk to be their Independence Day guest of honor. Black Hawk had been released from prison only four years before and placed with his family on the reservation near Fort Des Moines. A banquet table was set up on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, and the old warrior chief, now seventy-one years old, his skin parched and wrinkled, his legs needing a cane for support, sat at the table beneath the shade trees and listened to their words of friendship and unity, progress and prosperity, strength and peace. And when they called on him to speak, Black Hawk pushed himself to his feet, steadied himself and talked to them of the past.
"Rock River was a beautiful country," he told them. "I loved my villages ... my cornfields ... the home of my people. I fought for them!" He glared at the white men seated around him, and then, looking beyond the banquet table to the broad Mississippi below, Black Hawk paused lost in memories. The citizens of Fort Madison waited patiently for him again to speak.
"I was once a great warrior ... a great warrior ... now," Black Hawk said in almost a whisper, "now I am poor. ... Now I am ... old."
Three months later, on October 3, 1838, Black Hawk died and was buried sitting erect within a small log mausoleum near his home. The following year an Illinois doctor dug up Black Hawk's remains and attempted to exhibit them for profit. When Black Hawk's bones were finally recovered, they were placed on display in the Geographical & Historical Building in Burlington, Iowa.
The Mullens do not know when John Dobshire first set foot in Iowa; in fact, they aren't really sure what he did for the thirteen years following his arrival in America in 1833. They believe he came out to Iowa in 1846, looked the land over, then left to serve as a driver of supply wagons for Zachary Taylor during the Mexican War. Taylor was known to like Irishmen, and during that period of "No Mick Hired" prejudice, a teamster job with the Army meant not only an income, but the promise of a presidential land grant after the war. John Dobshire had nothing against the Mexicans; he saw military service simply as his only opportunity to help his wife and daughter escape Ireland.
Excerpted from Friendly Fire by C. D. B. Bryan. Copyright © 1976 Courtlandt Dixon Barnes Bryan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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