Vietnam War - Memories of Pleiku

On March 11, 1982 a controversial design, created by a 21 year old architect named Maya Lin, was selected to be built as a memorial for those lost in Vietnam. On November 13, 1982 the Vietnam Memorial, otherwise known as “The Wall” was dedicated with a total of 58,195 names engraved on the shining black granite.  The names included those who were killed in action or missing in action. The design is not a traditional memorial that reaches for the heavens, but one that is buried into the earth. Lin's concept was to “create an opening or a wound in the earth to symbolize the gravity of the loss of the soldiers.” Regardless how you may feel about the design, the memorial, any memorial for that matter, is a sacred place. Every memorial or monument has a unique story to tell.  Persistent markers that edify an event, often tragic, ‘lest we forget.  Permanent structures reminding us of our sins so they are not repeated. For some, memory enticing instruments for something, or someone, that once was part of us. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2001

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2001

Memory is an odd thing. A crafty creature that lurks in our head, our heart, our soul. The memory creature will appear on demand, or not. He will be summoned by the senses; smell, sound, taste, site and touch. Or will appear at random; generally at the least opportune moment.  The strangest thing about memory, however, is that it is purely singular. No two memories are the same. I have three siblings. If you were to quiz each of us separately you would never know that we grew up in the same household, came from the same parents, or even had the same siblings. 

This is how it is, especially around memories of the Vietnam War.  As the youngest, and I refuse to cave in to the “I was the baby” line that my siblings would prefer to bestow on me, but as the youngest I was, well, very young during this period. My memories take on a rather naïve dimension. 

I have vague memories of Walter Cronkite on the nightly news. I remember telling the neighbors that my brothers number came up but I had no idea what that meant. Soon he was gone and we were baking cookies and packing them in popcorn to send overseas. Instead of letters we communicated via a tape recorder. 

Even though I was the youngest I was allowed to record my greetings in private. (I’m sure only brilliance came out of my 10 year old mouth!) Then there was the listening to the tapes coming back from the front—the only time we heard any emotion was when my brother learned his beloved dog, Mickey, had been hit by a car and did not survive the night. 

Suddenly, certainly without any warning for me, late one night I heard the other brother on the phone to someone saying, “Yes! It is true! Mom is going to pick him up now!”  What seemed like minutes later a big green man, grinning ear to ear, walked through the front door yelling, “How’s my little sister!”  I don’t know if these memories are real, or made up, or parts of stories I pieced together after the fact. What I know to be 100% true is that of all of my friends I was the only one who had a brother who went overseas to fight a war in a place called Vietnam. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2005

Many years later there was a time that my mother had to take me to the local airport. This was back in the day when you actually went into the airport and sat with people at the gate to see them off. While we were sitting there I said, “Hmmm. This seems really familiar to me. I think we stood here to say good-bye to Jim or Mike when they were leaving for the military.” Before I even finished the sentence my mother started to cry. “If it was your brother Jim, well I couldn’t say, I don’t remember. It was the worst day of my life. I couldn’t believe I was sending my son off to war.” 

Our family has a built in honor code of “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.” So it stands with this portion of our lives. We were all affected in one way or another. My older brother Jim most of all. While he was the one who had to do the heavy lifting, a family member doesn’t go off to war without some type of domino effect. With that in mind, I recently decided to toss the family honor code out the window. Having had a successful interview with a WWII vet I had built up my courage and finally asked my big brother if he would agree to an interview for my blog post on Vietnam. 

It was not an easy ask and it was a more difficult tell. After some tissue and talking, he agreed. He would answer any questions I had and he would do it only once. We sat down, me and my big brother, some forty years after he came home to find out what it was all about. It was an amazing discussion that lasted about 2 hours. Sadly, we had a tape malfunction so there is no recording. (Perhaps better that way.) The first thing he cleared up is that it was not him that we said good bye to at the airport. Mom and Dad dropped him at the bus station. (See? That memory creature is a strange and fickle being.)

As I have written many times in these posts, when discussing anything remotely war like, it is never cut and dried. It is always a big pile of messy, smelly poo. The quagmire that is “Vietnam” is probably one of the biggest. Trying to fit in a synopsis of what led to the US involvement in one little blog is a task not easily undertaken and may be better suited to an episode of Drunk History. However, I think a look at the events leading up to and including the conflict makes it easier for me to understand why it was such a mess and what the broader mess meant for me and my family.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2005

The first thing to know is that US engagement in Vietnam was not a war. Congress never declared war on Vietnam so, technically speaking, it was a conflict and not a war. (Actually, the last time America declared war was in 1942 and that was against Japan. So the US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq are also “conflicts” …technically speaking.)

There are key events that led up to the war, and to understand those it’s best to understand the players; the state of the whole wide world, religion, local and geo-politics, and insurmountable stubbornness of human beings.  Through the history of Vietnam, the history of the world actually, countries have conquered, captured, and colonized other countries. Usually under the guise of “Our, <insert way of life> is better than yours. Let us make you better.” So said the French, circa 1850, when they entered Indonesia, and Vietnam, to protect the Christians. (Keep in mind that the Chinese had a toehold in Vietnam in one way or another going back to 111 BC.)  The French held their place, for the most part, up to 1954.

Through time, the geographic area of Vietnam extended to the south and to the west increasing the area of the country. As that physical expansion happened, it did not necessarily translate to a cultural expansion. North and South Vietnam became almost two separate entities that never developed a trust for one another. 

Around 1941, activist Ho Chi Minh (born Nguyen That Thanh in Vietnam in 1890) returned to his country, specifically Northern Vietnam, after many years of travel during which he learned the secret handshake of communism and established the Viet Minh, a communist-dominated independence movement. During WWII, the U.S. military intelligence agency Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the CIA, allied with Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh guerrillas (communists) to harass Japanese troops in the jungles and to help rescue downed American pilots. (At this point we should all foresee that this is not going to end well.) In 1945, the Japanese, fearing an American invasion, got rid of the French government and installed a puppet leader by the name of Bao Dai. Soon there was famine, unrest, and revolts. Ho Chi Minh used this to his benefit to propagate his Viet Minh movement. This essentially resulted in a standoff between North Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh) and South Vietnam (Bao Dai). 

We all know what happened to Japan at the end of WWII. Clearly they were not going to be walking out of Indochina with any prizes. The French believed they were back in control through the leadership of Dai, but Ho Chi Minh proclaimed independence by quoting text from the American Declaration of Independence, given to him by the OSS. He declared himself president and reached out to Harry Truman to work out a plan. Harry didn’t respond and US Allies did not recognize Ho Chi Minh or his government. It was in this year that the first American death happened in Vietnam. An OSS member on his way to the airport was accidently killed when a Viet Minh believed him to be French. The week before he had written in a field report that America “ought to clear out of Southeast Asia.” (I wonder if anyone read it.)

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2005

Between 1945 and 1949 Vietnam was in turmoil. The Battle was between North and South, the Chinese and the French, Ho Chi Minh and Bao Dai. Everyone seemed to be jumping in. In 1950, China and the Soviet Union recognized Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The United States recognized Bao Dai’s French controlled South Vietnam Government. It was a proxy conflict.

In 1950 the era of “McCarthyism” began in the US after Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin claimed that the US State Department harbored communists. No elected official at that point wanted to appear soft on communism. Truman ordered troops into South Korea and he sent aid to the French in order to assist the US-recognized government of South Vietnam. From 1950 to 1954 the conflict continued with the US involvement increasing and President Eisenhower calling the shots. At one point the option of a nuclear attack was even put on the table, but quickly dismissed. (Let’s applaud the one who figured that was a bad idea.)

In 1954 the French finally called it quits. The Geneva Accords believed it was best to split Vietnam at the 17th parallel, much like the decision to split North and South Korea, in the name of peace. While the outside world thought it was a good idea, the Vietnamese stuck to the plan of fighting it out for a single country, single leader.

Ngo Dinh Diem was put in place to lead the South, Ho Chi Minh held his ground in the North, and the US stepped up their involvement to stop the communist takeover. It was chaos. Minh was able to infiltrate his Northern comrades into the landscape of the South (those infiltrators were known as the Viet Cong) while the new Southern Leader was attacking anything and everything that wasn’t a Catholic. (That’s not a good leadership decision when living in a primarily Buddhist country.) The conflict dragged on. Little by little US involvement ramped up. (It could be equated with the proverbial frog in the boiling water. Put him in the boiling pot and out he goes. Put him in early and turn up the heat, he never sees it coming.)

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2005

In 1960 the United States changed administrations and the gauntlet was handed to the young John F. Kennedy. (This was now US President number three holding on to the big pile of messy poo.)  Using a lot of good sound bites, mostly about fear of communists and communism, Kennedy continued to increase support to the government of South Vietnam still under the leadership of Diem. 

Diem was very unpopular in South Vietnam. For those of us that lived through the Vietnam years, or studied it after the fact, you might remember an elderly Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc who sat down in a lotus position in front of a Pagoda and was set on fire by two young monks. The incident was famously photographed by AP correspondent Malcolm “Mal” Browne. The image is titled, “The Ultimate Protest.” This act was in direct protest to Diems government. (This protest resulted in Diem sending in troops to raid Pagodas. Yet again, another poor choice in leadership). 

In November of 1963 a military coup against Diem occurred resulting in the assassination of Diem and his brother. The US could be called complicit in that event as intelligence knew of the planning and did nothing to stop it. Twenty days later, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn into office, and handed the big pile of smelly, messy poo.

The assassination of Diem left a power void that resulted in a game of “heads of South Vietnamese government musical chairs”, the US ratcheting up their presence, and the Viet Cong gaining more hold over the rural population of South Vietnam. Then, in August of 1964, the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred which gave Johnson the key to the kingdom: in other words, Congress granted Johnson the authority to do whatever necessary in order to assist “any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty.” By the years end there were 23,000 US military advisors in South Vietnam facing the threats from 170,000 VietCong / NVA Fighters. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2001

In March of 1965 the first combat troops, 3,500 marines, arrived in Vietnam. In April two more Marine battalions and up to 20,000 logistical personnel were sent. By July Johnson announced plans for an additional 44 combat battalions, which brought the US Military presence to 125,000. The American Embassy in Saigon was bombed, monthly draft calls were doubled to 35,000 and protests began on American soil. 

To say there was chaos is an understatement. By the time 1965 rolled around the entire country was fractured. There was no front line or rear line, nor any clear definition of an enemy. The US tried to halt bombings and negotiate peace but that didn’t last long. Although the polls suggested that Americans backed the war, the protests, mostly brought out by younger college students, suggested otherwise. Life in the US continued with the conflict as a distant yet growing concern. 

At home, my brother Jim was plodding along through high school. He heard the news of a classmate a few years ahead of him getting killed, but it didn’t really register. His life moved on.  Outside of his somewhat isolated world in the Mid-West, things began to change. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2001 (or 2005)

Influential people like Dr. Martin Luther King and California Governor Ronald Reagan called for an end to the war. Public opinion polls showed 46 percent of Americans believed that the US roll in Vietnam was a mistake. Even Life Magazine renounced its earlier support of the Johnson administration. A march on the Pentagon drew 55,000 protesters. At the end of 1967 Robert McNamara resigned as Secretary of Defense privately expressing doubts in the Administration’s strategy. Top aids to the Administration followed suit. By the end of the year 463,000 troops were deployed with 16,000 combat deaths.

Next, the Tet Offensive. What many call the turning point of the war. What my brother called “My first clue about what was going on.” 84,000 Viet Cong guerrillas strategically attacked a hundred cities around South Vietnam. The attack was brought back to the US for broadcast on the nightly news. (It was also during the Tet that the famous image of the execution of a Viet Cong guerrilla by police chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan was made by Eddie Adams. One more disturbing image to sway public opinion away from war.)

In November of 1968 Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election. By years end troop levels reached 495,000 with 30,000 American deaths. This was the beginning of the bitter end. 1969 opened with peace talks that were seemingly worthless as the Viet Cong attacked 110 targets through the south including Saigon. There was an investigation into the Mei Lai massacre, one of the most shocking and tragic atrocities of war, and 46 men lost their lives in a 10 day battle on “Hamburger Hill.” President Nixon ordered the withdrawal of 35,000 soldiers and the first draft lottery since WWII was held in New York City. If your birthday was pulled with a low number chances are you would get a ticket to Vietnam. (Hopefully not one way.) This is where my brother’s story begins.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

In the 1971 draft lottery Jim’s birthday came up with a low number. At this time he was in vocational school and thinking about becoming a police officer. His chances of being drafted were pretty high. If drafted he would have to serve two years of a probable unknown fate. If he enlisted, and “chose his career” he would serve for three or four, but he would have some choice in the matter. He went to the recruiting office and asked to be in the Military Police. After much effort he was denied a position as an MP because he is colorblind. (He really isn’t. He just doesn’t see pastels very well . . . so he says . . .I’ve seen how he puts his wardrobe together.)  He tells the recruiter that if he can’t be an MP he’ll become a cook. Nope. Not going to happen if he’s colorblind. (Seriously?)

After a bit of a battle he conceded, “Just take me.” Off to basic training he went. After he completed basic the Army asked what he wanted and he told them that he wanted to be in MP. “Nope, you’re colorblind.” At this point Jim stood up for himself, proved that he could see “red, white, and blue,” and off he went with two other guys from basic training to a little place called Pleiku Vietnam. This was his first ever trip overseas with no stamp in his passport to prove it.  He was to be part of the 560th MP Company and would be stationed at the 67th Evac compound. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

Before I go any further into this story, I want to make clear that I am a voyeur of history. I am not a voyeur of tragedy. My intent in interviewing Jim was never to get detailed battle stories.  My intent was to understand the mindset of a young man being shipped off to a far-a-way place to fight a war that someone else started. 

Jim was very clear that when he left the US, when he arrived in Vietnam, and all the way through the end he was pretty much kept in the dark about what was going on, politically speaking and otherwise. They kept the news away from those who were serving. He just knew he had a job to do. He took our fathers excellent advice to heart. “Keep your head down. Do what you are told.  Don’t bring home a war bride.” 

His responsibility as an MP was essentially to be the police of the army. He worked in a unit that was responsible for policing all Army personnel that lived on two different bases. For him this was Camp Holloway and the MacV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) compound. There was also a signal corps compound, engineering compound, and artillery hill. However, by the time Jim got to Pleiku the war was winding down and those three were closed. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

The schedule was loaded: 7 days a week, with 12 hours on and 12 hours off. Every 30 to 45 days they would get a day off.  The job of an MP is to be the police; solve disputes, deal with car accidents, watch for crime etc. They were to address everything that your local police officer does, but with army personnel and, when appropriate, the locals. He also said they were to protect the convoys. This is the part that is unclear to me. It was repeated often, so it was clearly a large and important part of his job but no details were offered. 

One part of an MP’s job was to go downtown to make sure all military personnel were not breaking curfew. It would be especially important to check out the local bars. Jim and his fellow MP’s may, or may not, have taken advantage of that after hours quiet time. They may, or may not, have associated with the locals. (I think there may have been hookers, but he did not confirm this . . . well, he is my brother and our mother may read this someday.)

It seems there was a lot of interaction with the locals, which, I am sure, brought some normalcy to life. He recalled going to see the “Mama-san” to get pineapple and how quickly she would core and cut it like he had never seen. There was a girlfriend for a period of time that actually saved him one night from what could have been an enemy lurking around. I would prefer to keep that story vague.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

Aside from meeting up with the locals they would occasionally head up into the mountains where the Montgnard, indigenous peoples of the central highlands, lived. There they cavorted while imbibing in homemade rice wine. (It sounds refined but I suspect it would be more like moonshine). What’s fascinating about the Montgnard is that the US military supplied them with whatever they needed to protect themselves. They weren’t North Vietnamese, they weren’t South Vietnamese, nor were they necessarily “fighting for” anyone else. 

It was very clear through his time spent with the locals that all they cared about was surviving. “Today, tomorrow, and the next day. They just wanted to know they had a bowl of rice.”  They did what they needed to do to make that happen. As one would suspect, the black market was rampant. I asked Jim how it all worked and he went into great detail. I can’t tell you what he said. It’s not that it’s a big secret. I’m just not sure I completely follow it. It starts with Tide Soap from the PX and then I was lost. 

The army took some measures to combat the black market. One of the things was to put color dye in the gasoline so it could be traced back to the American base. On a random morning it would be announced that, “Gas is blue.” When someone spotted blue gas in town they would know it originated from the base and was therefor “illegal”. Oddly, the blue gas was spotted well before the color of the day was announced. The black market, like the military, was clearly efficient.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

I asked my brother about friends. It seems to be a common perception that soldiers have war buddies. That was not the case. Like Joe, my WWII interviewee, Jim said he didn’t really make friends. It was especially difficult in his position as the police. “We were their enemy!” The MP’s were responsible for the rules and keeping order. That meant busting guys for illegal behavior. That mostly meant drugs. As we all know, there were a lot of drugs over there. Marijuana and Heroin were the drugs of choice. Mostly supplied by the locals. Drugs were so prevalent that there was one person stationed with Jim who had joined the military, to be deployed to Vietnam, simply to have better access to heroin. (I don’t believe his deployment lasted long.)

This brings up one of my bigger questions to Jim. “Why were people so seemingly screwed up when they come home?” His theory? “If you were screwed up going in you were screwed up going home.” That’s a theory and sure, I’ll buy it, but I think there’s more to it. You might be able to train a young man to shoot a gun, to kill an enemy, or drop a bomb on a village, but you can’t change their level of empathy and that has to have a lasting affect.

Jim’s first job as an MP was being sent to a barracks after four guys decided to play Russian roulette with a hand grenade. If you don’t know how it’s played it goes like this: You sit in a circle with a couple of guys. One of you pulls the pin out of a grenade. The grenade is passed around. If you hold on to the grenade it won’t explode. If you let go, well, it’s all over. One of the four let go and that was the end for them, and one poor innocent guy asleep in his bunk. That is how my brother was introduced to his job. 

Womens War Memorial, Washington DC 2005

Thus went the war for him. While he did not share details, and nor did I ask, it was clear the toll it took. His daily job was essentially to pick up body parts. Traffic accidents, drug overdoses, suicides, and murder. (Yes. Murder. On one occasion it was because of a cigarette.) His job was clean up. Up close and personal to the tragedy of war. He didn’t need to engage with the enemy. The US military was enough enemy to itself. Soldiers had a practice called “fragging.” To “frag” means to “deliberately kill (an unpopular senior officer) typically with a hand grenade.” Fragging was a real thing. Grenades, at that time, did not come with any type of signature so those murders were anonymous, untraceable, and more common than one would hope. 

Even though Jim was “away from enemy lines” it didn’t mean he didn’t get close to the enemy. Remember, this war never really had a front line especially when you think about the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran from the north to the south along the western border. Mortar shells would drop into the camp on occasion. At first, it was a bit unnerving, then after some time they would just hang out and watch like it was a 4th of July evening. There was one occasion that it did get scary. Jim and some of the other MP’s barely got into a bunker during an exceptionally heavy strike. It was the only time he was really terrified. It was the longest 25 minutes of his life, I guess. 

Jim was in Vietnam at the end of the war. He didn’t have TV or the news. He could only surmise what was happening. There were a few signs that the end was coming. One big clue was they started to have steak more often. (The cooks had been hoarding it to use for trades—see earlier comments about the black market—now they needed to get rid of it.)  There was also the change in beer. This went the other way. Out with the good stuff, Miller, in with the bad, Lone Star. (I’m just relaying the information I’m not making judgements). Once the Canadian Peace Keepers came in Jim and his crew knew it was the end. It was time to play cards, eat steak, and drink bad beer while they waited for their orders. When my brother left there were only two planes behind him. 

Vietnam Memorial, Washington DC 2005

I asked, a lot, during our conversation about what he knew of the “big picture” and he insisted that he just put his head down and did his job. When I pressed further he did say that when he went to the cities he would see large barracks with brand names like “Sea-Land” and “Pacific Architects and Engineers.” As Deep Throat famously said “Follow the money.”  Corporate involvement and greed in Wars goes back a long way and continues through today. (Think Halliburton.)

There was one incident, toward the end of the war, where Jim recalled being tagged to go out and watch the perimeter. This was not something that was part of his normal job. It was a bit unnerving, but he did it without incident. It was 40 years later when he just happened to be watching a documentary on PBS that he realized the night he was on patrol the NVA were marching south only a few hundred yards away. (I would have preferred to learn this information 40 years after the fact, too.)

All in all it was an interesting conversation with my big brother. My take away? He was asked by his country to do a job. Without complaint he did his job to the best of his ability. Unsolicited, he told me that if his President called him up and asked him to serve he would do it again. 

For me, the sixty thousand dollar question is this. “Why is it that you never talk about this part of your life? It’s played such a big role and it’s a huge part of history. Why so silent?” For my big brother, other than the fact that he simply does not want to wrap himself in the stars and stripes and salute all that is patriotic, it came down to this very simple thing: it’s just so sad. The whole tragic and awful series of events that was the Vietnam War was a complete and utter waste and it was just so profoundly sad.  

In 1972 a young man was sent away because it was his patriotic duty to serve his country. He was not so much a witness to history as he was a witness to human destruction. I concur. It was tragically and utterly wasteful. At its heart it was so very sad, yet that is why it is worth remembering.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2001

In 1984 I went to Washington DC for a conference. I was accompanied by some classmates as well as one of my teachers. Naturally, we went to visit the Mall and specifically the Vietnam Memorial. I walked along side my teacher who, I had learned, was a flight instructor during the war. As we walked along the path he pointed to three different names on the wall. Young men who were once his students. It shook me to my core. Those etchings were attached to real people.  

I have visited that wall many times. I have witnessed people leaving trinkets, transferring the etched name to paper, and prayers being said. One man even asked a woman to take a  photo of he and his wife as he pointed to a name saying “This is him. The guy that saved my life.” When I visit the wall I always stop, look at the names in front of me, and then take a moment to thank the Universe that my brother’s name is not among them. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009