Friday, April 04, 2008

Another War Story

Saw a story today about four photographers killed when their chopper went down in Laos during the February 1971 incursion by the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN)into that country to attack North Vietnamese bases there. The operation, Lam Son 719, was intended to showcase South Vietnamese military prowess. It turned into a rout, complete with photos of ARVNs hanging on to the sides of a chopper fleeing the scene. This is four years before the iconic photos of the rooftop evacuation in Saigon but it has much the same feel. It was pretty much a "defining moment" (to borrow a contemporary usage) for the South Vietnamese; it told me that they could never defeat the North.

I haven't found that 1971 photo but I came across a site by American chopper pilots who flew much of the support for the operation. Their comments and photos will tell you how fucked up it was. I have always thanked my lucky stars that I did not take the Army up on its offer of flight school--I would have been a 23 year old cherry pilot arriving just in time for this clusterfuck:
The whole thing was chaos. The ONLY reason there was ONLY 106 aircraft lost and 65 crewmen killed from 08 Feb 71 to 20 Mar 71 was because of the determination of the teenagers flying the aircraft who decided THEY were not going to let their friends down. Had NOTHING to do with getting the mission done. Had everything to do with NOT letting your buddy down.

The story triggered some memories. As it was I was involved with Lam Son 719 even though I passed on flight school. Indirectly involved, I guess I should say. Like really, really indirectly involved. Affected more than involved. I was a grunt in the mountains north and east of Bien Hoa, a member of the air mobile 1st Cavalry Division. We made combat assaults by helicopter. By mid February 1971 I had made maybe a half dozen "assaults", all of which were uneventful, no hostile fire. Flying was nerve-wracking but also strangely exhilarating, if for no other reason than the cool air blowing through the open cabin and the forever view of a lush countryside. Somehow, war could almost seem far away even flying into it. I never felt comfortable in a chopper but recognized it for the luxury it was--a distance that I did not have to walk. You can get a bit of the feel of "rotary wing" aircraft operations here.

But suddenly, no choppers were to be had. They were all up in Laos with the ARVNs in some big operation, we were told. So we went out by truck to some drop off and began walking. I'm pretty sure we had only two trucks, a deuce and a half and a 3/4 ton Jeep pick up truck. The latter was the truck we used for hauling garbage on the firebase, on this day became "combat assault by garbage truck". I thought the term was fully appropriate for the war I was fighting.

Later we heard the news about the fiasco. No one was surprised. Most of us had little regard for ARVNs and absolutely no trust in them. We knew that the future of the war would depend on them because we were all going home within a year and even more significant, so was the US Army. The 101st Airborne pulled out in March 1971. By May, the First Cavalry Division went home to Fort Hood, leaving behind a separate brigade that of four infantry battalions, including my own. All the guys in the 101st and other Cav units who weren't short were transferred to the remaining brigade and left to fight on.

By this time I knew the other side would win. Hell, they hid their food under rocks in the woods and we--the most powerful military in the world--could not defeat them. They What I saw and knew of the South Vietnamese Army was pathetic compared to what I saw and new about the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. who were disciplined, dedicated and motivated. It was only a matter of time and the clock finally ran out in April 1975.



Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

my own "we are so fucked here" moment came at the end of my term in the secure hamlets program. it ended because my team and i faced down a provincial ARVN commander (and his US 'advisors' whose sensitivity and good negotiations were what prevented a bloodbath that day) who was there to 'tax' (read: loot) our village. there were 12 of my team, each of them with a squad of 'minutemen' locals, who were mostly in concealed firing positions. we would have cut them down like wheat. i knew, seeing the corruption and dissolution on the face of that local commander that we were backing the wrong horses.

oddly enough, that was also when i decided to back off and be nice to the marvins. i figured they had just as much right to find a way out of that shit alive as anyone else. if it was running, then marvin should run. if it was fighting for his buddies, he was welcome to do that. if it was tossing his weapon and joining the NVA, who could blame him?

9:00 AM  

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