It was eerie - I could actually hear the VC talking to one another. As I slammed my hand against the bottom of the flare to send it skyward, the unpredictable wind carried the projectile straight towards the VC. The ambush was sprung-everyone fired on full automatic. I shot another flare and it repeated the path of the first. On the third attempt, I aimed the projectile behind me and achieved a perfect launch. On command, we advanced toward the dike firing from the hip. Screaming seemed to help.
November 22, 1963
As a member of the first-year football team known as the Twenty-One Jewels, I was delighted when our daily practice sessions against the varsity finally ended. An assistant first-year coach named Bob Canevari (Col '60, Grad '64) kept us in our traces. I celebrated the occasion by taking a long-overdue afternoon nap in the comfort of my Emmet House dorm room. My solace was disturbed by someone in the hall shouting, "The President has been shot." Several of us gathered outside to ponder the reality of what had happened in Dallas. The impact was immediate. The varsity's scheduled game with Maryland was delayed until the next weekend. The Twenty-One Jewels were called back into action for another week as scrimmage fodder for the varsity.
We thought we had seen some difficult times, but our perspectives were soon to change. By year-end, 16,300 American advisors and support troops went to a place called Vietnam.
The Journey Begins
In January 1968, I finished my academic requirements and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Thirty days later I reported to Ft. Eustis, Virginia, where my father had trained in 1941 and my brother in 1965.
While there, I ran into Al Groh (Com '66). We compared notes on our assignments. Al was headed to the United States Military Academy at West Point to coach football; I had orders for an artillery unit at Ft. Benning, Georgia, home of the Infantry School. It was then that I remembered our head football trainer, Dr. Joe Gieck (Educ '65, '75) had been on the football staff at West Point before coming to UVA. A fortuitous career move; Al wears a Super Bowl ring today.
During my stint at Ft. Eustis, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. All 2nd lieutenants were notified to stay near the base for possible civil disobedience duty in Washington, D.C. After moving on and training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, I reported to my unit at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Shortly thereafter, Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. At the time, I was serving a shift as battalion duty officer. Outside battalion headquarters, a large mob of angry soldiers gathered to vent its frustration at the news of Kennedy's death. It was an unwritten rule that no one walked on the battalion sergeant major's grass or messed with his pristine white-painted rock lawn border. Though issued .45 caliber pistols with four rounds each, my staff duty NCO (noncommissioned officer) and I pondered what show of force to exert against any trespassers. Our problem was solved by the timely arrival of the MPs, who dispersed the soldiers in their own gentle way.
Receiving my UVA diploma by mail made me genuinely regret not being able to participate in the pomp and circumstance of graduation on the Lawn. This disappointment was compounded by the indifference my BOQ (bachelor officers quarters) brethren showed when given an opportunity to see and touch a real sheepskin diploma. (Twenty-six years later, watching my oldest daughter, Sudie Croft Pasco (Col '94), march down the lawn erased my regrets.)
Three weeks after bringing Susan, my new bride, to Columbus, Georgia, I received orders to obtain another MOS (military occupational specialty) at Ft. Holabird, Maryland, and proceed therefrom directly to Vietnam for assignment. Two months in the Dundalk section of Baltimore, and I was ready for Vietnam. Before leaving, I attended the Richmond New Year's Eve party of fraternity brother and teammate Pete Gray (Col '68). Pete was one highly focused marine officer candidate. This was not surprising. In school, his exuberance, dedication and "can do" spirit left an unparalleled legacy of student leadership. That was the last time I saw Pete.
Welcome to Vietnam
On February 1, 1969 in Atlanta, I said goodbye to my wife and family and began the 10,000-mile trek to Vietnam. From Oakland, California, transportation for approximately 200 troops was provided by a chartered World Airway DC 8 stretch jet. Though only age 22, I was several years older than most of the enlisted troops on board. After stops at Hawaii and Wake Island, we touched down in the Philippines where my father had fought the Japanese some 25 years earlier.
During the last 1,000-mile leg of the flight, the mood on the aircraft among the first timers could be described as anxious. At dusk the coastline of Vietnam came into view dotted by the flames of countless cooking fires. Seconds before our wheels touched the darkened tarmac, the runway lights at Bien Hoa Airbase came to life. Twenty hours on the plane left everyone ill prepared for the stifling heat and unfamiliar surroundings. Someone in authority herded us to a bunkered area and delivered a short thank-you-for-coming speech. We were loaded onto military busses with wire meshed windows and transported to the sprawling army base at Long Binh.
After a weekend stay, those of us on orders for MACV Advisory Assignments boarded a bus for Saigon. Within days, Long Binh was infiltrated by one of its worst Sapper attacks of the war. At MACV headquarters, sharing a barracks with lieutenants who had finished their tours was not good for morale. Their war stories prepared all cherry 2nd lieutenants to anticipate the worst.
The sights, sounds and smells of downtown Saigon provided a carnival like atmosphere. All types of horn honking vehicles, both motorized and non-motorized, clogged the streets and narrow alleys. Exhaust fumes, combined with the smoke from hundreds of cooking pots, formed a permanent irritating smog over the city. Once-beautiful French colonial buildings bore the signs of neglect and disrepair. Curbs served as convenient trash receptacles. Sixty thousand barmaids beckoned you to come inside their establishments to buy them a "Saigon tea." High-pitched whiney-sounding music blared from unseen speakers. Recognizing the Americans' penchant for cleanliness, steam baths were conveniently located on every block.
Destination: Go Cong Province
I received verbal orders to proceed to Can Tho, the major city in the Mekong Delta or the IV Corps Military Region. Though the departing veterans in Saigon had conditioned me to expect the worst, my C-130 aircraft touched down unscathed on the perforated steel-plate runway outside Can Tho.
At the airfield, a IV Corps representative presented me with orders to serve as a Phoenix Advisor on Advisory Team 92 in Go Cong Province. The last paragraph of the orders caught my attention: Primary duties include performance of duties as tactical advisor to ARVN/GVN Infantry type military or paramilitary units in the district area of responsibility to include frequent participation in ground combat operations. A quick inspection revealed the absence of infantry crossed rifles on my collar. I was one of many advisors to learn the meaning of the term "branch immaterial." You well might be placed in a slot for which you had no previous training.
Can Tho was not nearly the size of Saigon, but it shared many of its same charms. In meandering through the city, I attracted a large swarm of street kids who wanted to touch the new American soldier. At first it was flattering; then it became downright annoying. Once in the safety of an American compound, I discovered the little thieves had shredded my pants pockets with razor blades held between their fingers. Noticing my plight, an Army lieutenant came over and suggested a few Vietnamese invectives that were guaranteed to scatter hordes of miscreant children. This sage advice came from Neal Cohen (Com '67) a fellow UVA ROTC member.
Neal also made sure I did not miss my C-123 flight for Dong Tam, the home base of the 9th Infantry Division and the next leg of my journey.
Dong Tam resembled a large dust pile surrounded by barbed wire and mud flats.
I felt the need to keep moving. Unfortunately, my orders did not spell out how I was to complete my trek to Go Cong province. The friendly folks in the 9th Division transportation depot suggested I hitch a ride with either a Navy PBR or a Vietnamese sampan. Perhaps the dry-season heat and choking dust had clouded my senses, but neither choice seemed particularly attractive. My luck was holding. Americans on a scrounging mission from Go Cong were in the area. I would ride the final 40 kilometers by jeep.
Once leaving Dong Tam, the road became a narrow, unpaved ribbon through thick jungle vegetation. As I admired the local flora and fauna, the driver reminded me to lock and load my M-16. Riding shotgun took on a whole new meaning in Vietnam.
Along the journey, we ferried a number of canals and narrow rivers on small homemade rafts. The wakes from strange heavily armored watercraft, resembling Civil War ironclads, churned up the muddy riverbanks. At sunset, we entered the province of Go Cong and passed a sign to Vinh Binh, a village in the district of Hoa Dong. My driver said in his own special way that Hoa Dong was infested with VC and should be avoided.
The District Team
When we reached the provincial city of Go Cong, the streets were dark and empty. The next morning I was taken to a special villa in town where I met my Phoenix contact.
The American's flowery short-sleeve shirt, cut-off shorts and flip-flop sandals caught me off guard. For some reason, I expected CIA operatives to wear suits. My mentor said he was assigning me to the district team in Hoa Dong for a little seasoning before sending me to the Phoenix school in Vung Tau. By that afternoon, I joined an eight-man advisory team in Vinh Binh village.
The team house (a.k.a. hooch), which was built of plywood, tin and screen, reminded me of a summer camp cabin. The only protected area was a very small bunker on the side of the hooch occupied at night by the team medic and our PRC-25 radio. Everyone else slept on canvas cots or bunks in an open room. A hundred competing roosters provided the morning wake-up call. The compound's pigs and ducks would soon chime in with their melodious barnyard sounds. I was not in Atlanta anymore.
Luxuries were minimal: an outdoor latrine, an elevated water-filled 55-gallon drum for cold showers, mosquito netting for the cots, a small generator to provide power for four hours a night and a Vietnamese houseboy to wash, cook and clean. Team members consisted of a major (district senior advisor), a captain (deputy district senior advisor), a lieutenant (Phoenix advisor), one NCO and four enlistees, of whom one was a medic.
My timing could not have been better; I arrived for movie night.
The team had a 16-mm projector that was an olive drab clone of the ones we used after football practice to watch our opponents' game films. The movie that evening was The Graduate, starring Anne Bancroft and a young Dustin Hoffman. The previous day's warning from the jeep driver was obviously bad information.
Twenty minutes into the movie, as Miss Bancroft was preparing for her soul-baring scene with young Hoffman, the team members abruptly left their seats. My fixation on Anne Bancroft was interrupted only by the sounds of exploding mortar rounds bracketing the hooch. I hit the floor and crawled instinctively towards the already full in-house bunker. I had every confidence that my 240-pound bulk could squeeze in with my new teammates. Once the initial rounds impacted, the major and captain ran for the district chief's bunker. Someone handed me the radio mike and said to inform province what was happening.
It's not easy to talk when your heart is pressing against your vocal cords. Somehow, I managed to form enough words to describe our situation.
The next day the major suggested that in any future attacks, I should find shelter outside in one of the protective holes next to the wall surrounding the compound. During an attack two nights later, I grabbed my helmet and flak jacket, ran out the back door and was clothes-lined in the dark by commo wire strung as a laundry line. The incoming rounds prompted a furious search for cover. The first two holes near the wall were fully occupied by Vietnamese soldiers. The third did not seem big enough to hold me, but I drew my knees up under my chin and struggled to close my ill-fitting flak jacket. A round landed next to my position, showering me with all manner of debris.
After the shelling, when I went back into the team house, I respectfully told the major that this was my first and last time groping for a place outside. From then on the house bunker rules changed to "first come first served."
The next morning I went around the compound with the captain to assess the damage. We were led to the body of a Vietnamese soldier's young daughter. She had never made it out of her bed. Inwardly, you question why this has to happen. Outwardly, you consider it one more reason to hate the Communists.
To further confuse the emotions, had this been a farmer's work oxen rather than a child, reparations would have been paid.
The Coconut Grove
On my first operation in the grove, I learned to be totally aware of my surroundings.
A freshly dug punji pit filled with sharpened bamboo spikes marked our route into the thick vegetation of the grove. As we crossed a number of irrigation streams and canals, each step in the Mekong Delta mud was an exhausting struggle. The slightly built Vietnamese soldiers could do little to free me from the mud's persistent grip. Five hours into the operation my canteen was drained, my fatigues were soaked in sweat and mud, and I was ready for a much-needed time out.
A popping noise from the front of the column took my mind off my personal problems. Our point men had tripped a booby trap. I made a concentrated effort to put my size-12 shoes directly in the footsteps of the Vietnamese in front of me.
My second operation in the grove mirrored the first until around noon, when we received small-arms fire from somewhere off to our right. The column assumed the prone position to assess the threat. Word was passed back to move on. A few minutes later the Vietnamese soldier next to me started frantically yelling and pointing.
In the wink of an eye, an explosion knocked me down, and AK-47 rounds snapped over my head. My M-16 was nowhere to be found. At ROTC summer camp, I had tied the course record for the fastest low crawl; that day in the grove I set the world record. I made it to the protection of a drainage ditch. The firefight ended about as quickly as it began. I never saw the VC who threw the American M-26 grenade or fired on us.
This encounter cost the VC one KIA and two prisoners, a woman and a young boy. We had six WIA, including three advisors. The woman prisoner would not talk; however, the trembling young boy led his determined interrogators to a cache containing a mortar tube with 16 rounds.
I never found out whether the Vietnamese soldier beside me survived; we went to separate MASH units. The frag clinic gave me antibiotics for the shrapnel wounds and a sling to support my broken hand. My district teammates welcomed me back. For awhile, I was a little slower getting to the bunker during mortar attacks.
John Paul Vann, the highest ranking civilian in IV Corps and topic of Neil Sheehan's novel A Bright Shining Lie required all advisory teams to conduct a minimum of three night operations a week. He had been an advocate of Vietnamizing the war since the earliest American involvement. When he arrived by chopper late one afternoon to spot-check our ambush map overlays, we knew his orders were not to be taken lightly. My first overnight was spent in a small, circular, mud-walled outpost five klicks (kilometers) from the village. Seemed like a good opportunity to rack out. Except for the Ruff Puffs dusting the perimeter with mortar fire at 0200, the evening was a yawn.
The next morning newly placed VC flags hung tauntingly from the only tree within 30 meters of the outpost.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2000 edition of Virginia Magazine.