Sunset on the Saigon River
#1 Major Gordon Livingston, AA ’56, USMA ’60, although a regimental surgeon in VN, saw quite a bit of combat before he chose to run afoul of the Army. Unusual for a medical officer, he was even decorated for valor. The major was Regimental Surgeon to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment based north of Saigon.
Colonel George Patton III was the tough, take few prisoners CO. Dr Livingston came to witness a number of things with the 11th which violated his sense of conscience, and he elected to speak out in a rare, if not unique instance, of a senior officer openly taking a position against the war in-country.
His mocking Blackhorse Prayer, which he chose to hand out to a bevy of generals at a change of command ceremony, ended his military career.
I Knew My Military Career was Over
A fellow lingy they knew in the Chinese program was also a biker on a big old Harl When I handed out the Blackhorse Prayer, I knew that my military career was over. I thought there was a fair chance they would court-martial me for ‘conduct unbecoming’. I had three small children at the time and definitely did not want to follow Howard Levy to jail. On the other hand, I felt that I could not walk away from what I had seen.
I was scared in a way that I had not been under fire. I also over-estimated the impact that my protest would have on the war. Since there was no body count and I didn’t go to jail, there was little notice of it outside the antiwar constituency.
In Vietnam I had what might be described as a flexible job. With little responsibility for direct patient care and a lot of helicopter transportation available, I tried to see as much of the war as possible.
I chose to live with the rest of the regimental staff at the ‘forward CP’ located near Bien Hoa, a city northeast of Saigon. I was also flight surgeon for the Air Cavalry Troop and flew regular missions with them in Cobras and the light observation helicopter (nicknamed Loach).
There was also a unit called the Aero-rifle Platoon (ARP) that was inserted into contacts, and I went on missions with them. I spent a week as well with a Marine squad in I Corps near the DMZ to investigate their ‘Combined Action Platoon’ program.
It all added up to a fair amount of combat experience, and one of the problems confronting the command structure of the 11th ACR when filling out my career-ending fitness report was how to account for it and still make me sound like a disgrace to the Army.
#2 Jeff’s friend in Vietnam, John Buquoi, published a volume of poems about his years there, a splendid collection about which I wrote in my brief review:
New Writing on Vietnam
The war in Vietnam has long been past, but from time to time new writing appears illuminating that dark period of our history in fresh light. So it is with John Buquoi’s Snapshots from the Edge of a War.
The poems can be read one by one, or as
in a single long narrative about a large chunk of America’s war in Vietnam.
Either way, the poet’s mastery of the myriad images of the experience as well
as his vivid, well-paced phrasing, will entrance and transport the reader back
to a forgotten time.
#3 Wars are tragic events in human affairs, but they often inspire fine writing. Gail Caldwell, a Pulitzer Prize writer, reflected on the ‘visual language’ of war. For Vietnam, the Huey with its begoggled door gunner became an iconic image.
The Peach Trees at Shiloh
Each war invents its own visual language: the peach trees at Shiloh, the trenches at Verdun, the beachheads of Normandy. The glorious mess of Vietnam, so exotic and fecund and wrong, gave us jazzed-up lexicon of mystery and carnage:
A firefight alongside the ragged refrains of ‘Riders on the Storm’. The Hueys and the lime-bleached enemy corpses, and the mordant Agent Orange slogan ‘Only you can prevent forests’.
Worse Than at Any Time in this Century
The morale, discipline, and battle-worthiness of the US Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the US.
By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and NCO’s, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous.
#5 Mark Shapiro was serving in VN before he deserted.
I remember Tet ’68. I was at Bien Hoa, a provincial capital. My transportation unit was under attack. All of us took up defensive positions. We saw a gas storage tank blow up.
I’ve forgotten details, but I was traumatized. Recently I’ve been having waking flashbacks.
#6 From a dispatch from Saigon by Homer Bigart of the NYT dated 2/24/62.
‘Until We Win’
The US is involved in a war in Vietnam.
American troops will stay until victory. That is what Attorney General Robert
Kennedy said here last week. He called it ‘war … in a very real sense of the
word’. He said that President Kennedy had pledged that the US would stand by
South Vietnam’s President Diem ‘until we win’.
Asked at a press conference what it took to defeat an insurgency, Westmoreland answered with a single word: ‘Firepower’. Big-unit war backed by firepower was Westmoreland’s strategy for beating the VC, and nothing ever altered his view.
By temperament, he was not flexible, nor was he much of a reader. His favorite book in childhood had been the Boy Scout ‘Handbook for Boys’.
Up Close and Real Personal
I saw my first combat with the Wolfhounds in an area known as ‘The Pineapple Patch’, an overgrown pineapple plantation. I was just walking along with the infantry rifle team when all hell broke loose. Two men dropped in their tracks. Then a third was hit.
We slid down into one of the water-filled irrigation ditches that ran between the weedy plant rows. Eventually, some soldiers threw a few grenades into the hidden bunker the automatic weapons fire had come from; a couple of VC, still alive, were extracted from it.
I became pretty good at my job. From June ’67 to April ’68, I spent much more time in the field than at the base camp, and most of the time I was dirty. I was often out for a week or two since there was a lot of actual war going on out there.
I was seeing it for myself – up close and real personal. I spent much of my time with the 1/27 and the 2/27 – the first and second battalions of the 27th Infantry, called ‘The Wolfhounds’. These guys were hardcore, always looking for a fight; this, of course, was their job.
#9 Joe Carey describes his experience with the atrocity foto.
I Saw the Bodies and the Heads
I was given the roll of film by a regular GI, not a photographer. He slipped it to me as soon as I arrived on the site. I brought it back to my base camp darkroom and developed it and made prints. I saw the bodies and the heads. He remained – and will remain – nameless.
The editors at Esquire wanted to buy the photo. It looked like a done deal, but it was nixed from the top. They must be the ones who put Army Intelligence on to me. I never let the negative out of my possession. Still have it. It’s the only negative I have left.
I told you about the Black guy I saw hanging around my house in Berkeley. I think he was the MI guy who finally approached me and asked me to go to Lawton OK where the guys in the photo were being court-martialed. I was also burgled around that time and thousands of negatives were stolen.
#10 Joe Carey describes the atrocity scene as he arrived on the site at the Michelin Plantation in the Ho Bo Woods.
A Sergeant Was Holding Two Heads Out to His Sides
I was somewhat garbled in my last message. I made it sound as if I saw the bodies and the heads only when I developed the film. Not so. I saw the bodies and heads when I arrived at the site. I didn’t know that’s what was on the film until I developed the roll.
The ‘ringleader’, a staff sergeant, was shown standing and holding the two heads out to his sides with outstretched arms, and there was another photo of the kneeling group from a slightly different angle.
#11 Joe Carey elaborates on how he came to obtain the atrocity film.
The Battle Had Just Ended
The battle had just ended. It had been an ugly one with lots of casualties on both sides. The reason for the atrocity was that some of the GIs’ buddies had been killed. That was the only info I got since as soon as the guy slipped me the film, I was spirited away to the company commander of the outfit.
I had no discussion with the guys in the photo. There was only one sgt, the rest pvts or pfcs. And yes, this was late in my career as a military journalist – after the Tet Offensive, probably February ’68.
When I returned to the 25th Div base camp at Cu Chi, I was going to develop the film in my own darkroom which was over near the 5th Mech HQ – maybe 500 yards from the Administrative Company (my home).
But I checked in with the Info Office before heading over there. The assignment editor had another assignment for me, so I handed the film roll to a guy I trusted and asked him to develop it in the division darkroom.
It looked to me when I saw the heads live that they used knives for the amputations. Most of the roll was innocuous. I was stunned when I looked down the negatives.
There were three photos at the end of the roll – two with guys
kneeling around the two heads and headless bodies, and one of the sgt holding a
head by the hair in each hand – out to his sides.
#12 Michael Herr (p 16) upon arrival in VN was told a story by a ‘lurp’ (LRRP) that exemplified the war in ’67, but was most likely apocryphal. The teller had seen a great deal of combat, survived a couple of horrific battles, and was considered a little off his head.
One Man Came Back
Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.
#13 W D Ehrhart was a Marine rifleman in Vietnam who became a major poet of the war. In his poem, he writes about scenes probably little different than in ’63-’64.
Viet Nam – February 1967
Air heavy with
rain and humidity,
Sky full of ominous clouds,
Dank smell of refuse,
Mosquitoes and flies like carpets on the wind.
of rice paddies
Winding rivers and swollen streams,
Water buffalo lumbering through the fields,
High mountains on the horizon.
#14 Raquel Welch was part of Bob Hope’s troupe to entertain troops in Vietnam. On the way back, she was quoted in an international paper with a realistic idea that Jeff cut out for his files.
Fighting an Aimless War in a Foreign Land
Sending girls like me to Vietnam to entertain the troops is like teasing a caged lion with a piece of raw meat. I’m not criticizing our boys’ thoughts or feelings one bit, I’m telling you that I know what is going through their minds.
There they are fighting an aimless war in a foreign land where they aren’t wanted. Deep down inside, I think it would be best if stars like me stayed home and the Government sent off troupes of prostitutes instead. After all, when you get right down to it, those boys want relief, not more frustration.