After being inducted into the army at Ft. Hamilton in New York City (home of the army's Chaplain school), they sent me to the rolling hills of Fort Jackson, South Carolina to learn how to stand in line, march, shoot, stand in more lines and clean floors with a toothbrush. I also learned how to yell as loud as I could, "The spirit of the bayonet is to KILL." No kidding, they really made you do that! I did real well there and was able to stand in different lines just as long as anyone else.
During our first few weeks of training, we watched in dismay at the pounding that the Marines were taking at Khe Sanh up in I Corps., northern Vietnam. Night after night we listened to the commentators and watched the scenes of the supply airdrops on the runway of that key US outpost on TV in the PX. I listened to Secretary of Prevarication, Robert MacNamara, tell the people of this country that there was a deeper meaning to our involvement in this conflict (I don't ever remember anyone on TV calling it a war!) which would keep the Communists from over running the world using Vietnam as a stepping stone. As I can recall, he was fairly good at explaining all of the really important reasons why we had to be there. People listened and believed... maybe they needed to believe in something as the steady stream of body bags returning home from that place kept growing. While the news of Khe Sanh was bad, it got worse, much worse.
On January 31st. of 1968 the world was stunned by a massive surprise attack by the NVA and the Viet Cong during a cease fire which was called due to the Vietnamese lunar new year celebration of Tet. Some 80,000 soldiers joined in an attack that targeted 136 cities in South Vietnam, including Saigon. In fact the US embassy there was briefly occupied. The Tet Offensive proved to Americans and the world that the Vietcong could strike anywhere at any time, not just in small scale confrontations but on a massive conventional scale. Tet also shattered the myth presented to congress and the American people by Gen. Westmoreland, that the U.S. was making advances in the war. The horrifying images of Tet that were sent into American living rooms each night would prove to have a disastrous effect on the Johnson administration, and would lead average Americans to question U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
At the time, one of the most respected men in the country was CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, millions tuned in each night to get their information from him. After the outbreak of Tet, Cronkite embarked on a fact finding tour of Vietnam. While in Vietnam, Cronkite got a first hand look at the devastation caused by Tet. The Battle for the city of Hue, the bullet riddled U.S. Embassy in Saigon, and the disillusioned soldiers whose job it was to contain this mess. Upon his return to New York, he delivered his shattering conclusion in a broadcast that aired on 2/27/68 entitled “Who, What, When, Where, and Why.” For the Johnson Administration these words were a bombshell:
“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds... Any negotiations must be that- negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms... it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in stalemate. For every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the north, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of evidence, the optimists that have been wrong in the past. To say we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory conclusion. It seems increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
Two days after Cronkite’s report on Vietnam, Secretary of Defense, Robert Macnama resigned. . .
Next stop for me was Jungle school on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. We spent 4-5 days of each week in training operations in the really dangerous, almost straight up and down volcanic peaks of the Kahuku mountain range. If you slipped and fell from one of the ridge lines, the lava rock would cut you up like a Bass-O-Matic. True to form, the Army somehow lost the records of all the time, effort and expense that the Army invested in my initial training as a sniper, and it was back to light infantry as a squad leader. I thought it ironic that in just 8 weeks, three of my fellow conscripts hung themselves from the third floor railings of Schofeild Barracks. I guess that the fear of the unknown was more terrible to endure then the actual experience for some of those kids. They made the decision that they just couldn't face it. I say "kids" because most of them (us) were just out of High School. Who could have known? Surely seasoned 18 and 19 year old (soon to be) combat veterans like we were, should have been tough enough to take it.
More Vietnam photos and maps - Go to Photo Gallery from main page