A Vietnam Grunt’s “Guardian Angel”
The street sounds to the soldiers’ tread,
And out we troop to see:
A single redcoat turns his head,
He turns and looks at me.
My man, from sky to sky’s so far,
We never crossed before;
Such leagues apart the world’s ends are,
We’re like to meet no more;
What thoughts at heart have you and I
We cannot stop to tell;
But dead or living, drunk or dry,
Soldier, I wish you well.
A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad
It was the late summer of 1970. My wife and I were returning from a first-anniversary trip to Canada. My “single redcoat” appeared on the side of the road in northwestern New York State in the person of an exceptionally well-uniformed soldier hitchhiking south. He could have passed any inspection that I had ever been in in my two-year Army tour, which had ended a little more than two years previously.
Possible “thoughts at heart” rushed into my brain as I applied the brakes. Somehow I think Housman would have done the same, having missed the earlier opportunity. I also thought the spiffy soldier might be interesting company, making the long miles back to Chapel Hill, NC, where my wife and I were in graduate school, go a little more quickly. That certainly proved to be the case.
As it turned out, our new traveling companion was as eager to talk as I was to listen. Maybe he was the king of all bull shooters and we can throw it all out the window as such, but he certainly looked and sounded like the real thing.
He was, as I had suspected, a combat veteran of Vietnam, and he was having a heck of a time getting adjusted to the relative comforts of home and not living the life of a wild animal with people trying to kill him. Just tuning his senses back down to the level we take for granted was proving to be difficult, he said. Just the other day, he told me, he had heard a car backfire, and he instinctively hit the ground, which was actually a sidewalk in this case. As many veterans before and since have complained, he was also bothered by how people were just going on with their lives as if there weren’t a major war going on, a war that he had so recently been a part of.
From my position in the driver’s seat, he made me feel a little like his psychiatrist—or at least his bartender—listening to him unload. He also wanted me to know that he wasn’t just your average run-of-the-mill infantryman. He came from a military family, he said, and General William Westmoreland, who was the commander of all our forces in Vietnam when he had happened to encounter him there, had been a family friend. His own father had been a field-grade officer.
Instantly recognizing him, Westmoreland had addressed him by his first name, “Rich, what are you doing here?” The general had expressed surprise that he was a mere enlisted man, but Rich had told him that he was a “grunt” by choice, wanting to experience what the guys who do the dirty work experience. Then he proceeded to tell me about the otherworldly experience that he could have never anticipated.
The Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol
He was on a particularly dangerous LRRP, or “lurp” as he called it, in the jungle deep in enemy territory with three other men. Night had fallen, and while the other guys bedded down, it had been his lot to do guard duty.
What he recounted next sounds a lot like he might have unconsciously dozed off and been dreaming without realizing it, except for the consequences of the “dream.” The usual sounds of the jungle night were suddenly joined by what sounded like someone walking toward him. Then, in the darkness, the figure of a man began to take shape. He raised his rifle and took aim, at which point the barely visible figure raised his hand to the universally recognized “stop” position and said very clearly, “Rich, no!”
Completely disarmed by being addressed in clear English by name, he listened intently to the stream of words that followed from the unlikely visitor: “You’ve got to get out of here,” the visitor said. “There’s going to be an arclight here within the hour.” (He was using the U.S. military term for a massive B-52 carpet-bombing.) “This whole valley is going to blow up.”
Then the strange visitor just seemed to melt back into the jungle.
He knew instantly what he had to do. The figure who had come to him in the night, he realized just as his eyes in the darkness caught up with what his ears were hearing, was his father, who had been dead for several years. He quickly woke up his mates and told them what had transpired. He met some initial resistance to the abandonment of their position, but he quickly overcame it. No one was willing to risk his life in the face of such an omen. They quickly retraced their route back to their base camp and no sooner had they done it than, sure enough, the whole valley blew up. It really looked like no living thing could have survived there.
That was the first time the ghost of his father had come to his aid in Vietnam, he said, but it was not the last. He began to be known as the man with the guardian angel, and he became popular as a patrol mate. Others wanted to get under the blanket of protection with him.
About Those B-52s
No doubt Rich and his team would have been blown away—along with a lot of wildlife—had they stayed put. In spite of their spectacular destructiveness, though, these B-52 raids in South Vietnam were not all that militarily effective, at least against North Vietnamese troops. When I later told Rich’s story to a combat veteran in our North Carolina Veterans for Peace organization, he said there was nothing he dreaded like “mopping up” after a B-52 raid. “We almost always got hostile fire,” he said, which suggests that the target might have been well chosen, but, amazingly, the target had not been destroyed. I was later to learn why.
All of the B-52 attacks originated on the U.S. island territory of Guam. North Vietnam’s allies, the Soviet Union, had spy boats masquerading as fishing boats near Guam. When the B-52s took off, they radioed the news back to Moscow, who sent it to Hanoi, from whence it was sent to the field in the south. At their end, the North Vietnamese soldiers all carried simple, lightweight, straight one-piece entrenching tools, and they were well trained in how to use them. Wherever they were in the south, news of an impending arclight somewhere in the south meant that all of them began digging. By the time the bombers arrived they would be far enough down into the ground that they were not vulnerable to the bombs’ massive shock waves, and it would take a virtual direct hit to kill or immobilize them.
The great irony, then, in this amazing episode is that it is likely that Rich’s adversaries in the jungle had the necessary information to survive the impending attack that he and his patrol lacked, absent the intervention of the “guardian angel.” At the very least there was a breakdown of communication within the U.S. military that would have cost the lives of four valuable soldiers. If that was the case, it would not surprise me at all in light of my own experience as I recounted three Veterans Days ago in “A Condensation of Military Incompetence.”
Now, as I said, there is a chance that Rich Stowe was just putting me on (His last name was on the nameplate on his chest.), although it certainly sounded like he spoke from his heart. If anyone reading this knows him or might have had any association with the guardian angel episodes in Vietnam of which he spoke I would appreciate it if they would email me and we can perhaps have a sequel to this article.
Outlandish War Stories
Just because what Rich told me seemed too strange to be true doesn’t mean that it wasn’t true. A couple of really crazy sounding stories I heard, one from the beginning of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict and one from the end give the lie to that. The first came from a graduate school classmate, a West Pointer, who had been with a small adviser outfit out in the “boonies” as was the common expression, and there was just no military action at all where they were. Then one night they became the surprise recipients of a Viet Cong mortar attack. So quiet had things been before that they didn’t carry their weapons around with them; they were all stacked, as in peacetime, in their small armory. So everyone rushed down to the armory, only to encounter a lock on the armory door that wasn’t supposed to be there.
“Who has the key to that lock?” the cry went up. Someone knew. It was the special services officer, the guy in charge of recreation. He put the volleyball equipment in the armory and put the lock on to keep it safe. “So where is the special services officer?”
They knew generally where he was, but not specifically. He was in the local village, where he regularly spent the night with his Vietnamese girlfriend. Fortunately, their Viet Cong attackers lacked this crucial bit of intelligence. The mortar shelling had ended quickly and the unarmed U. S. Army post was not overrun.
The second story came from one of my students when I was teaching my own economic principles class in 1971-72. His outfit had had the job of removing mines from around one of our major airbases as we were leaving Vietnam. I believe it was Bien Hoa, but I could be wrong in my recollection. At any rate, he told me, at one point their metal detectors “just went wild,” sounding off over a wide area. They began digging, encountering first the tail section and then unearthing an entire fighter jet. My recollection was that it was an F-104, although my memory or my informant’s identification could be faulty.
What had happened was easy to piece together. Getting spare parts through the normal requisition process was slow, bureaucratic, and cumbersome. These Air Force guys had done what, no doubt, others in a similar position had done. This buried F-104 had been reported as a combat loss so it could be used for its parts as the need arose. When the order came for the entire unit to abandon Vietnam, they were stuck with an airplane that they weren’t supposed to have. This could have been a career killer for the commanding officer. There was nothing left for him to do, as he saw it, but to dispose of the $1.4 million plane by burying it. He must have envied his Navy counterparts caught in a similar situation, who could simply dump the surplus airplane into the ocean.
Tragic War Stories
The Vietnam War, as all wars are, was a lot more tragedy than it was farce. The tragedy had certainly left its mark on perhaps my closest friend in the North Carolina Veterans for Peace. He was a former Navy medical corpsman who had been a member of the graves registration team at Khe Sanh during the shelling there. His was the thankless job of preparing the bodies of those killed, for shipment back to the States for burial. As tough as that experience was to live with, though, it was not the really big weight that he still carried around in his heart. That came from the time he cared for Vietnamese children at the Marine hospital at Dong Ha. While he was away on another assignment the hospital experienced a Viet Cong mortar attack and several of the children he had become close to had been killed. His survivor’s guilt over that was much stronger than anything he felt over Khe Sanh, as one might well imagine.
The second experience that really sticks with me came from a former Marine lieutenant in our antiwar organization who had previously impressed me with his story of his flat refusal of a suicidal attack order from a commanding officer flying safely in a helicopter well above him. I was studying at a table in the large open space one night at UNC’s undergraduate library. He had found a copy of the June 27, 1969, issue of Life magazine that had the photographs of each of the 242 soldiers who had been killed in one week in Vietnam. He began to pick out one Marine after another and describe to me in intimate and gory detail how each of them had died. They had all been close associates of his…and this was just one week.
Fortunately for me, my closest scrape with Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam madness came when I was on mid-tour leave from my safe office job in Korea in late January of 1968. I don’t know if it still works that way, but members of the military could fly almost anywhere for free on military aircraft as long as there was space available. I had already spent a very memorable week in Japan that way. My next goal was to see Taipei, Taiwan. Nothing was available to that destination out of Tachikawa Air Base outside Tokyo, so I caught a flight in that direction to Kadena Airbase in Okinawa. I spent a rainy day touring there, taking the military bus down to Naha and back to Kadena, where the only flight available was to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. I signed up for it and waited for it to be called.
As I was standing in the terminal, I slowly became surrounded by a growing number of young Marines. I was 25 years old at the time, but I felt like I was almost a lifetime older than those young men around me. They all looked to me like they were right out of high school and really clueless. They weren’t so clueless as to effect the sort of rah rah, gung ho attitude that soldiers had in the early days of, say, World War I. The bloom was well off the Vietnam War for Americans by that time.
The call for their flight came before mine did. At that point I heard the guy next to me say with bitter mock enthusiasm, “Oh boy, Vietnam,” as they lined up to board the plane. Years later, reflecting upon what my Marine and Army friends had told me about their Vietnam experiences and much else that I had read, I tried to capture the moment with the following poem:
"Now boarding...for Danang, Vietnam,"
A shudder went through the hall
Among the young men around me
--Many names there bound for a wall.
As they left the island terminal,
Refreshed by a brief overnight,
Their mood was deep resignation:
Time to get into the fight.
For their return to "the world,"
Many forever would wait.
'Twas the time of the big offensive,
Midwinter of sixty-eight.
November 5, 2015
See also “Martial Machismo, at What Cost?”