Nevada congressman seeks memorial for helicopter crewmen killed during Vietnam era

The Vietnam War was ended before Congressman Mark Amodei reached draft-eligible age, but nonetheless he is pressing for recognition for one special group from that conflict.

He testified before the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee recently in support of H.R. 4298, the Vietnam Helicopter Crew Memorial Act. He said he introduced the bill to honor the nearly 5,000 helicopter crew members who died while serving in Southeast Asia by placing a memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Jolly Green helicopters at Nakorn Phanom

Jolly Green helicopters at Nakorn Phanom

“I’m working a deal where the folks at Arlington National Cemetery told the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association — about 10 percent of the casualties in Vietnam were helicopter pilots, crew members, medics, other folks — told them, you can’t have five square feet for a memorial for those folks who died in the helicopter war,” Amodei said in a recent interview.

The Secretary of the Army declined the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association’s proposal for a memorial and instead granted the VHPA a tree marker, which Amodei said has never been used to honor a common sacrifice of this magnitude.

In the past 25 years there have been four memorials erected at Arlington, the congressman said, adding that he understands not everyone can have a memorial erected, but in Vietnam the helicopter was the iconic technology of the time and the crews of those helicopters suffered a disproportionate share of the deaths.

The memorial would be for all branches of the military because all employed helicopters for various purposes, from close air support to deployment to rescue. He said the association is only asking for a square foot for every 1,000 people they lost.

“Can you imagine how many names aren’t on the wall because of the work these guys did?” Amodei asked. “Not just rescue, not just medevac, but close air support, resupply … they affected all aspects of combat operations.”

During my year in Thailand working on McNamara’s Wall inside an air conditioned building on a computer the size of my house, the most danger I was ever in was the potential to fall in the Mekong after drinking too many Singha’s at Johnny’s Ice Cream Parlor in downtown Nakorn Phanom. (“Johnny” kept the beer in the ice cream freezer.)

But a couple of hooches over were the Jolly Greens — the bravest, craziest and hard drinkingest SOBs in the Air Force. Their job was to fly helicopters into Laos and beyond to rescue downed airmen from the three-tiered jungle by parajumping down a cable suspended from their hovering helicopter, often while under fire.

The Jolly Greens had several beer-filled refrigerators outside their hooch. It was the cheapest beer on base. They reportedly dipped the feet of short-timers in green paint to leave footprints on the ceiling of the officers’ club. Not being an officer I could not attest to this. Those whose time was coming to an end would boast of being short-timers: “I’m so short I can’t see over the top of my boots.”

I think they deserve a bit of recognition.

Amodei’s remarks to the House Armed Services Committee starts at about 6:00 and lasts about five minutes:

The following video was posted by a Jolly Green who was at Nakorn Phanom about the same time I was:

This video has footage of an actual rescue:

Those who don’t recall history are, well, doomed

Advisors are being sent to train foreign troops. Where have I head that before?

On June 10, 2015, Obama announces he is sending up to 450 more U.S. troops to Iraq to act as advisors and to train Iraqi troops to fight the Islamic State.

 

“This train, advise, and assist mission builds on lessons learned during the past several months and is just one aspect of our commitment to support the Iraqi Security Forces,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest was quoted as saying by USA Today.

The plan also is to stop insurgents from flowing into both Iraq and Syria.

On May 11, 1961, Kennedy announced he was sending 400 Special Forces troops to Vietnam in addition to 100 advisors.  He also ordered an infiltration of Laos to locate and disrupt supply lines. That later become known as McNamara’s Wall.

By the end of 1961 there were more than 3,000 Americans in Vietnam.

American soldier gives instructions to Iraqis. (Photo by Sgt. Shawn Miller)

How long does it take to train foreign soldiers?

 

In celebration, sort of, of Bug Out Day — April 30, 1975 — and how it changed countless lives

Bugging out of Saigon

On this day 40 years ago the United States military “bugged out” of Saigon, leaving South Vietnam to fall to its communist invaders from the north.

There are stories in many newspapers across the country today marking this anniversary, but few if any refer to the anniversary by the name most veterans actually use: Bug Out Day. Not even stories penned by Vietnam-era veterans.

I’m not sure how the event got that ignoble appellation, but perhaps it came from Henry Kissinger. Here is a clip from a HistoryNet account of White House talks:

“Declassified transcripts of the meeting reveal Kissinger’s candid assessment of the unfolding situation in Phnom Penh and Saigon: ‘We have two nutty ambassadors. Dean wants to bug out. Martin wants a new version of the Easter Rebellion. He is supporting Thieu too strongly.’

“(President Gerald) Ford asked his secretary of state, ‘Supposing Ike, Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon were president, what would they have done?’ Kissinger responded, ‘Kennedy would have ratted out. Nixon may have bombed, he was vicious in these things.’

“‘How about Johnson?’ asked Ford.

“‘He wouldn’t have bugged out,’ replied Kissinger. ‘His advisers would have tried to bug out.’

“Then Ford took a shot at President Kennedy: ‘Without appearing to do so, Kennedy probably would have bugged out, with some famous statement that would have disguised it.'”

The Vietnam police action, it never was a real war, altered the lives of millions of Baby Boomers, who were either drafted, dodged the draft in one way or another or joined the military to avoid the draft. I joined the Air Force, the branch of the military where the officers were the ones being shot at.

They told me my high test scores guaranteed me my pick of jobs. I picked journalism. No, you have to make three choices, they said, but you’ll get your top pick for sure. So I picked something else and my third pick was intelligence. Yes, I was sent to Denver to train for intelligence. I can’t tell you what planes our Air Force flies, but I can tell you what planes the Soviet Union had. We used to joke that there are three kinds of intelligence — human, animal and military, in that order.

After months of waiting for my top secret security clearance, apparently the FBI had a hard time finding anyone in the backwoods of north Texas to vouch for my character and integrity, I was shipped out to Thailand to work on McNamara’s Wall.

Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad, some histories claim it was never built, though I seem to recall spending a year with my thumb in a chink of that wall.

Robert Strange McNamara was secretary of defense in the late 1960s. In his autobiography “In Retrospect,” he said he had misgivings about the conduct of the war as early as 1967, which, coincidentally, was about when his Air Force decided to send me to Nahkon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base — Naked Fanny, as we called it, which was a short but perilous bus ride to the town of Nahkon Phanom on the banks of the Mekong River just across from Laos, where Johnny’s Ice Cream Parlor kept the Singha in the ice cream freezer — to work on his wall.

For me and thousands of others whose lives were changed, it might have been better for him to express his misgivings sooner.

My little piece of McNamara’s war deserved only a brief mention on page 246 of his book (The braces are mine, parens are his.):

“They concluded the bombing [of the Ho Chi Minh freeway, as we called it] had indeed been ineffective and recommended building a ‘barrier’ as an alternative means of checking infiltration. This concept, which had first come to my attention in the spring of 1966, would involve laying down a complex belt of mines and sensors across the Demilitarized Zone and the Laotian panhandle to the west. (the sensors would guide our attack aircraft to enemy forces on the move.) The barrier would be costly [that was the most secret aspect of the whole damned thing], but because our bombing was ineffective, I authorized it … Once it was put in place, the barrier was intended to increase infiltration losses. And it did.”

His intelligence from people with brass on their shoulders, and mine from inside a computer-filled, air-conditioned tin shed in the jungle, tended to differ.

Thomas Mitchell, next to never used bunker outside his hooch on Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base just across the Mekong River from Laos.

Each of those sensors was said to cost the same as a Volkswagen beetle, which then was about $2,000. They would drop a series of them from aircraft. Some sensed seismic motion, some sound, some smell. How a jungle dwelling Loatian smelled any different than an infiltrating Viet Cong with his heavily laden bicycle was a mystery to the enlisted men manning the computers.

In those computers we kept track of what was being bombed, secondary explosions and fires, even sightings of POWs, which the F4s were supposed to avoid. But based on the assumption the POWs were moved frequently, the sightings were to be scrubbed after five days. After a while, not being a fan of assumptions or bombing of POWs, I stopped removing them. But someone else would later.

It was all so antiseptic, so high-tech compared to what was on the ground, beneath the three-tiered canopy of jungle, in the mud and the rain, the insects and the snakes.

McNamara said the project came to be known as McNamara Line, without mentioning the derisive allusion to the Maginot Line. We just called it McNamara’s Wall.

To this day I wonder if there was not some cosmic joke in the fact that as we walked from our monsoon-soaked hooches to that tin shed the lizards in the trees would make a mocking call that distinctly sounded like: “(Expletive) you.”

Thankfully, my wife’s uncle, who was in the military police on the base while I was there, never came around when we went over to the Jolly Greens’ (the guys who dangled from helicopters to rescue downed pilots in Laos) hooches to drink beer and smoke our nickel bags. Yes, a walnut-sized wad of seeds and stems wrapped in newspaper cost one baht, a 20th of a dollar.

The fact that the whole operation and its billion-dollar-plus price tag were top secret made it clear to me who the enemy really was. Those Viet Cong on bicycles didn’t care what it cost, though perhaps the taxpayers might, but it was secret.

By the time Saigon fell, I had finished college on the G.I. Bill and was working as a city editor at a small Texas daily newspaper. After working in an outfit were information was on a need to know basis, I had chosen to work in a field where the watchword was right to know. So, I guess you could say it changed my life, as I’m sure it did many others, including the 58,000 whose lives it ended prematurely.

Forty years later, is it pointless to ask what might have been?

 

 

 

 

 

 

President says terrorists have legitimate grievances, we just have to win their hearts and minds

In an op-ed published online by the Los Angeles Times, Obama politely explains to us ignoramuses:

“Governments that deny human rights play into the hands of extremists who claim that violence is the only way to achieve change. Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies. Those efforts must be matched by economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity.”

And we thought their grievance was that they wanted to impose Sharia law.

As I pointed out before, many terrorists are quite well educated and rather well off financially.

There are people who want to kill us and impose a worldwide caliphate and Obama wants to send them foreign aid.

Then Obama dredged up this oldie: “Our campaign to prevent people around the world from being radicalized to violence is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds.”

Or as Lyndon Johnson said in a 1965 speech as I was about to graduate from high school and become eligible for the draft:

“So we must be ready to fight in Viet-Nam, but the ultimate victory will depend upon the hearts and the minds of the people who actually live out there. By helping to bring them hope and electricity you are also striking a very important blow for the cause of freedom throughout the world.”

How’d that work out? It didn’t work out. Ten years later we bugged out, even though Johnson, unlike Obama, put boots on the ground and Richard Nixon kept us there.

As a friend of mine says, those who do not remember history are condemned to quote George Santayana.

Bug out. (UPI photo)

No need to read the Sunday paper, it’s mostly online now

The Review-Journal at 10:50 a.m. posted another lengthy feature story that will probably not appear in print until Sunday or even Monday. This one is a fascinating piece by Keith Rogers about a Vietnam-era pilot and how politicians screwed up the war. It is timed for Veterans Day.

The story recounts how Dan Harten flew in the first B-52 raid in 1965. Those carpet bombing flights were called Arc Lights.

I remember sitting in Johnny’s Ice Cream parlor in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, on the banks of the Mekong River — “Johnny” had the coldest Singha in town because he kept it in the ice cream freezer — feeling the ground shake as B-52s across the river in Laos bombed the loaded bicycles on the Ho Chi Minh Freeway. Talk about killing a gnat with an anvil.

According to Rogers, Harten served five tours, flew 1,000 hours in bombers and fighter jets and survived two crashes.

The tale has harrowing aspects. It is good read, whether you were there or not. So save 3 bucks and read it online today for free.

Air force Capt. Don Harten poses for a photo taken in Thailand in 1968 next to his F-105 fighter. (Photo courtesy of Don Harten)

Check back later, the paper may give away still more. The day is young.