These stories focus on a uniquely southern view of Vietnam. In terms of numbers the South shouldered more than its share of human cost—31 percent of Americans who served came from one of the eleven states of the old Confederacy, and 28 percent of the dead were southerners. Southerners also brought to Vietnam certain shared cultural tastes and a particularly southern heritage of honor in military service stemming from the Civil War. For many, as their testimony reveals, a sense of patriotism was tested and questioned by the horrors of war, and for others that patriotism was a continued source of strength.
Individually and collectively, however, these oral histories make up a picture of war that prevents us from forgetting the truth as one veteran put it: “Vietnam was not one war, but a thousand little nasty wars.”
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Southern Veterans Remember Vietnam
By James R. Wilson
Duke University PressCopyright © 1900 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Edward E. Bridges
Alexandria, Virginia Army Special Forces, 1962-63
* * *
Ed Bridges and I spent the better part of a Saturday in a Chinese restaurant in Petersburg, Virginia, as we talked about the early days of the war. A polite, stocky man dressed in a gray sleeveless sweater and slacks, Ed was a member of Special Forces Detachment A-113, an Okinawa-based Green Beret unit ordered to South Vietnam late in 1961. Under the aegis of the CIA, the detachment established the first of many Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) programs, beginning at a small Montagnard village in the Central Highlands. CIDG soon spread the length of Vietnam as it sought to combine village defense with social and political measures designed to win the "hearts and minds" of the people.
Ed went to Vietnam at a time when it was no more than a name on the map to most Americans. In a sense, our meeting in an oriental restaurant in Petersburg to talk about Vietnam seemed oddly appropriate, for it was from Petersburg that Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia retreated to Appomattox in April 1865. Now Ed and I had met to talk about another divisive conflict a hundred years later that also ended as a lost cause.
As he spread a collection of Vietnam snapshots on the table, Ed told me he left college to enlist in the army in 1958. "I had finished my junior year in mechanical engineering at Mississippi State University, but I didn't go back to school in the fall because I was undecided about what I wanted to do," he said. "I thought going into the army would give me time to mature and gain a better understanding of what I wanted out of life." After earning the gold bars of a second lieutenant at officers' candidate school in 1960, a series of assignments led him into Special Forces.
"During my training at Fort Bragg," Ed said, "I went through a longer and more thorough training program than did many people who came along later. This is only speculation on my part, of course, but I think we had more time for training before Vietnam got into full swing." Among the techniques he learned was how to make explosives and chemical agents from off-the-shelf ingredients such as household bleach, agricultural fertilizer, and aluminum filings.
Today, the young Special Forces lieutenant who went to Vietnam with a sense of high adventure twenty-eight years ago is the chief executive officer of Sea Farm Group, Ltd., a shrimp aquaculture project in Guatemala. Ed Bridges's CIA-directed war had come before the big-unit, high-casualty conflict that I went into in 1966: only 246 Americans died from hostile action in South Vietnam between 1960 and 1964. The Vietnam War he knew may have been different and less lethal than the war that burst forth in 1965, but it nonetheless demanded as full a measure of courage.
I was at Fort Bragg in 1961 when President Kennedy came down to officially give Special Forces the Green Beret. One of the demonstrations we put on for him and the press during his visit included catching, cooking, and eating snakes. That's how Special Forces picked up the nickname "snake eaters." That didn't help our image with a lot of old-line army officers. They considered Special Forces types unruly and undisciplined. In their opinion, we appeared to break unit tactics and commit a host of other operational sins. Outwardly, we probably did come across that way, but in fact we exercised a lot of internal self-discipline. We were individuals who had to act in concert for the common good of our units. We were, in a way, the entrepreneurs of the army—very flexible but totally committed to our mission.
We felt we were unique in the army. During the 1961-62 era, there weren't many of us because most Special Forces groups, which were authorized 1,250 officers and men, weren't at full strength.
I had applied to be released from active duty in 1961, but was kept on extended duty after the Bay of Pigs affair in April of that year. As a result, I found myself with an assignment to the First Special Forces Group on Okinawa, which already had a B-Team in the Danang area of South Vietnam. This unit of twenty-four officers and men was providing counterinsurgency training for the Nung Chinese who lived around Danang.
I took a couple of weeks' leave at home before going to Okinawa in early November of 1961. My father, who had a cotton plantation near Greenville, Mississippi, was ill at the time, and I wanted to be with him. He told me he was very proud that I was in the army and was going to Okinawa. My mother, on the other hand, never said much about it.
A few days before Christmas, I was promoted to first lieutenant and assigned to Detachment A-113 as its executive officer. I also got my orders for Vietnam. A-113 consisted of two officers and ten enlisted men, all sergeants and above. My commanding officer, Captain Ron Shackleton, and half of the team left Okinawa for Vietnam at the end of 1961; I followed in January with the rest of the men. We knew our team would be one of two under the operational command of the Combined Studies and Observation Group, a CIA operation in Vietnam.
I looked forward to going to Vietnam. In the fall of 1961, the United States had about thirty-two hundred highly professional military people in South Vietnam, most of them in some kind of advisory role. Few of them were outside Saigon and the other big cities. I had started thinking about making the army a career, and I remembered a popular saying among young officers: "Long wars make young majors." Maybe I was both naive and gung-ho enough to think I could get the gain without the pain.
When I left Okinawa with my half of the team, we went to the Philippines for a three-day stopover that included getting visas for entry into South Vietnam. It was a fairly formal process that later seemed something of a joke, at least when you take into account what our mission was. In addition, I had already turned in most of my army-issue clothing. I walked off the airplane in Saigon in khakis that had no insignia of rank on them. I and the other members of my team spent our first few days in Vietnam at a CIA safe house near Tan Son Nhut Airport. The safe house was a two-story villa used by Special Forces people passing through Saigon. It had a yard big enough to park several vehicles and was enclosed by a high wall for security. I remember it as a comfortable place with a living room, dining room, and central stairway that spiraled up to a balconied second floor, where the bedrooms and bathrooms were located. It had belonged to a French colonial planter of some means.
We didn't have time to see much of Saigon. We spent most of our time getting briefings from the Combined Studies people and preparing to move north to link up with the rest of A-113. In early 1962, Combined Studies was pretty optimistic about the progress of the war. Our job was to "win the hearts and minds of the people," in this case the Montagnards, to keep them from going over to the Viet Cong. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese had created a lot of resentment among the "Yards" by resettling refugees from North Vietnam on tribal lands. The French, for the most part, had kept the Vietnamese out of the highlands.
On our third day in-country, we boarded an old World War II-era C-46 transport at Tan Son Nhut and flew up to Ban Me Thuot airport, which was near a small village of thatch-roof huts called Boun Enao. That's where our advance party had set up shop. Since the whole countryside was under the control of the Viet Cong, we had to move fast to arm and train the Montagnards for self-defense. We also finished the fortification of Boun Enao, work that had been started by the villagers before my team's arrival. We built elephant traps, berms, punji stake pits, and bamboo fences. We also burned or cut all the vegetation around the village to clear fields of fire. By the time we finished it, the camp resembled forts built by the army during the Indian Wars.
Boun Enao was the model for the Civilian Irregular Defense Group or "Sidgee" concept. The village got to be a popular tour stop for people like Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor, as well as some other Kennedy administration figures. McNamara, incidentally, struck me as a very headstrong, impatient man who rarely let other people get a word in edgewise.
When we first got to Boun Enao, we knew very little about Montagnard culture, and what we did know was very general. A-113 was assigned to work with the Rhade, Jarai, and Mnong tribes. Of the three, the Rhade and the Jarai were the largest tribal groups in the highlands. We soon got to know a lot about all three tribes, not only from the people themselves, but also from missionaries in the area. The missionaries, who represented most major religious denominations, helped us learn the languages and different customs of each tribe. We learned enough about the languages, in fact, to compile a dictionary for our group headquarters in Okinawa. Some of the missionaries, who had no interest in the political situation in Vietnam and wanted only to help the Montagnards, were killed by the VC. I could only admire the way the survivors went on with their work in the face of that kind of danger.
Our Combined Studies case officer was David Nuttle, an agricultural adviser from Kansas who had worked for the International Voluntary Service. He had been recruited by Combined Studies because of his impressive knowledge of the Montagnards and the Central Highlands. Nuttle made sure Combined Studies supplied us with weapons, ammunition, and money to pay the irregular troops we were training. Our weapons included German, Danish, American, and Swedish submachine guns, as well as . 30-caliber carbines and other World War II equipment. We even had some bolt-action Springfield rifles. Most of our problems were not with the weapons themselves, but in trying to hold down the types of ammunition. We had .30-caliber, .45-caliber, and 9mm, but some weapons of the same caliber used different ammunition, such as the 9mm short round. For heavy weapons, we later got some 60mm mortars and 75mm pack howitzers.
Combined Studies never told us the nuts and bolts of how to accomplish our mission. We would be told, "This is the objective in this area and we need it done within this period of time." We then got an outline of the resources the agency thought we would need to accomplish the mission. Our weapons, ammunition, money, and sometimes uniforms would be brought in by airplane or dropped to us by parachute if necessary. After a while, though, we found it easier to buy most of our supplies, except for weapons and ammunition, at the local markets. While this policy helped create good relations with the villagers, it also turned one of my NCOs into quite a supply artist. I didn't care where he got what we needed, so long as he came back with the right number of "tiger suit" uniforms or whatever he went off for.
At first, we didn't run combat operations out of Buon Enao. Our job was to train the Montagnards to fight the VC and keep an eye on infiltration along the Cambodian and Laotian borders. After four months, though, we had enough trained Montagnards to begin running patrols. We used them because we had so few Vietnamese to work with; most Special Forces camps had only one or two Vietnamese assigned to them. The Montagnards made excellent soldiers, in my opinion. Many of them had been fighting since they were eleven or twelve years old. They were very good at small unit tactics and seemed to know instinctively how to protect their flanks. In a way, combat was almost like a family situation with them: you protect your brother and your brother protects you. There were no heroes among them, either. Everybody worked together as a team. I found them very brave under fire. They wouldn't hesitate to run out and help a team member who was in trouble.
Yet, in another sense, the Montagnards were like children. They took a very simplistic approach to almost everything. For instance, they practiced an animistic religion in which the issues of life and death held a meaning quite different from our way of thinking. Life to them was a series of stages, and death was nothing more than the means of moving from one stage to another. They were also a very competitive people who basically saw the world in terms of good guys and bad guys. If you were one of the good guys, then you got their total support. If you were one of the bad guys, they wouldn't work with you. In fact, they might even work against you. The Vietnamese government learned that in 1964 during the so-called Montagnard Uprising.
On our first patrols, we carried C- and K-rations and a lot of rice. The longer we stayed in-country, the less inclined we were to carry canned rations. Their weight began to mount up on ten-day or two-week patrols, when our feet had to carry us the whole way. We finally started using improvised rice bags—two GI socks filled with rice. We supplemented our "rice diet" with powdered vegetables and dried shrimp that we bought in the markets.
We had to do a lot of improvisation. We learned how to make our own early versions of the jungle boot because regular leather boots were too heavy and promoted some nasty fungal infections. We experimented with everything from L. L. Bean moccasins in the beginning to an invention of one of my team members, who made jungle boots by putting a piece of sheet metal between the rubber sole and innersole of high-top canvas sneakers. Later, we refined his design with old tire treads sewn to the soles for better traction. The metal plate provided some protection against punji stakes.
We also learned how to make stationary bazookas for the defense of Buon Enao. We could get plenty of 3.5-inch bazooka rounds, but the launchers themselves were hard to come by. They were also easy to bend or break. We made our rocket launchers by nailing two boards together at right angles and anchoring them in the ground at a thirty-degree angle. Then, after taking the rocket motors off high-explosive bazooka rounds, we attached them to a length of split bamboo big enough to hold two grenades. We took the pins out of the grenades and, with the safety handles still in place, put the bamboo around them. We bound the bamboo with rubber strips to hold the whole package together. Sure, it didn't have very good flight characteristics, but it was a nice little piece of defensive destruction out to fifty yards or so.
Homemade napalm was another specialty. We made it from GI soap and gasoline with a little Composition-4 thrown in for good measure. A little dicey to make, but very effective.
Four Special Forces people died in Vietnam during my first three months there. They didn't die while advising, nor did they die from an overdose of small talk. People can say what they will, but Combined Studies and Special Forces were basically running the tactical part of the war in early 1962. I think the MAAG people were either envious of our role or resented what we were doing—I never could decide which.
I didn't have any direct contact with the VC until March or April of 1962, when I was on a patrol that went into a village controlled by them. The villagers were being used much like slave laborers to grow food for the VC. Our job was to round up the people and move them out of the area, then burn the crops in the fields. While we were doing all this, we suddenly heard gunshots. The VC had been out of the village when we got there, but they came back in a hurry when they spotted the smoke from the burning fields. Although our main responsibility was to remove the villagers, we returned the VC fire and chased them for a short distance. They didn't seem very inclined to press the issue.
In April of 1962, Combined Studies temporarily split A-113 and I moved with several of my men to Phoc Tinh, near Cam Rahn Bay. Our objective, at least as I understood it, was to set up village defense forces in the area, start recruiting an intelligence-gathering network, and run limited patrols. We stayed there two months until an A-Team came in from Okinawa to take over what we had started.
With A-113 at full strength again in the highlands, we moved to a different area to help open Highway 14, the main north-south link between Ban Me Thuot and Loc Tien. We set up a Montagnard training camp halfway between the two towns. As we trained more and more people, we began to leapfrog our way to Loc Tien with temporary camps. Loc Tien was where Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam, had his summer palace. When we got there in August, we were confident we had accomplished something strategically important on the Darlac Plateau.
August was also the month A-113 finished its temporary duty in Vietnam. At the time, our reason for being there was still not very clear to me. But that wasn't much of an issue for me. I was in an elite outfit and saw Vietnam as more high adventure than anything else. I wasn't looking for the big picture. My team went back to Okinawa for three weeks of debriefings that also included very thorough medical examinations. We passed on whatever pearls of wisdom we had picked up about the nature of the conflict in Vietnam and then took some leave before training began for a new assignment. I was one of those fortunate enough to go down to Malaysia to attend the British Jungle Warfare School operated by the SAS, the Special Air Service. The British told us a lot about the Malaysian Communist insurgency in the 1950s, which they were successful in putting down, and we shared information about our experiences in Vietnam.
I went back to Vietnam with A-113 in January of 1963. This time, I knew a lot more about the political situation, why we were there, and what we were supposed to accomplish. The U.S. now had twenty-two thousand men in-country and a military effort that was better organized than it had been a year earlier.
Excerpted from Landing Zones by James R. Wilson. Copyright © 1900 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents
Edward E. Bridges,
Gen. William C. Westmoreland,
Richard C. Ensminger,
Col. James M. Addison, Sr.,
Manuel T. Valdez,
Allen C. LoBean,
Moses L. Best, Sr.,
Ted A. Burton,
Brenda Sue Casto,
Rev. J. Houston Matthews,
George D. Riels,
William U. Tant,
Col. Benjamin H. Purcell,
John S. Candler, Jr.,
Gayden M. Roux,
Mary Laraine Young Hines,
S. Ernest Peoples,
Charlie Earl Bodiford,
Donald L. Whitfield,
Paul L. Lieberman,
Leo Spooner, Jr.,
Garland C. "Pete" Hendricks,
Karen K. Johnson,