Saturday, December 15, 2018

A Christmas Call to Remember


Twelve years ago, this Christmas Eve, I arrived home from a holiday gathering to find a phone message, one that remains very special to me to this day. It was from retired Marine Corps Colonel David E. Lownds, who had been the commanding officer of the 26th Marines during the siege of Khe Sanh, ultimately responsible for the lives of six thousand heavily outnumbered American troops.

I had mailed Colonel Lownds a copy of my first book, A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered, to his home in Naples, Florida. just nine days before. In researching the battle, I’d grown to admire Colonel Lownds, but that had not always been the case. On January 21-22 1968, I was trapped with a small group of Marines in a compound in Khe Sanh village battling several hundred North Vietnamese soldier’s intent on overrunning us. Colonel Lownds initially ordered a relief force to march from the base to reinforce us, as our ammunition was dwindling fast. However, when a local villager told them an enemy ambush was waiting, Lownds called them back, leaving us to get through the night, which we did.

In my cover letter to the Colonel with the book, I mentioned this, saying: “As the radio operator temporarily assigned to CAC-O in the ville at that time, I would be lying if I said I wasn't furious when D/1/26 returned to the base. However great my distress that afternoon, it does not change the fact that you made the right call. I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for your exceptional leadership.”

I was concerned how he might react to that comment, and also about how he would take a, somewhat inflammatory, event I had witnessed after returning to the combat base from the village, and included in the book. On February 27, 1968, as thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers along with tanks assembled in the nearby Khe Sanh village preparing to overrun the combat base, our target intelligence officer, Captain Baig (the subject of my most recent book, The Gunpowder Prince: How Marine Captain Mirza Munir Baig Saved Khe Sanh), ordered a massive bombing which ultimately spared us from this human wave attack. In doing so, those bombers killed hundreds of innocent villagers, essentially being used as human shields. I described what happened next in this excerpt from A Patch of Ground:
 
Surprisingly to me, Colonel Lownds seemed to have been unaware that Baig had targeted the village area. Just two weeks earlier, Lownds told a New York Times correspondent that he had experienced some misgivings about sending so many civilians back to the village after they had come to the combat base for refuge, concluding: “This thing can come back to haunt me—all of us.”

Upon being advised of the Arc Light on Khe Sanh village, Lownds stormed into the FSCC room. I had never seen him so angry. “Harry,” he shouted. “I understand that you bombed the ville?” Captain Baig courteously replied, “Yes, Sir.” Lownds reminded him that he had forbidden it. Baig calmly explained the necessity of having to do it as the only way to spare the combat base from an enormous assault, and then stood stoically silent.

I will never forget the look on the colonel’s face. It was part anger at the insubordination, and part resignation to the fact that it was done, and there was nothing he could now do about it. He stared silently at Baig for several moments and then said, quite seriously: “Harry, I wouldn’t want to be you when the war crimes trials start.” The colonel then turned and left the room.

As such, it was with some trepidation that I began listening to that Christmas Eve phone message, but immediately relieved and delighted to hear Colonel Lownds say: “I’m very pleased with your comments about me.”  Listen:

I called him back after Christmas and we had a great conversation. A down-to-earth person, and knowing I lived in Nevada, he preferred to talk about a time when he worked at the Nuclear Test Site, rather than his impressive military career, which included receiving the Marine Corps' second-highest medal, the Navy Cross, for his defense of Khe Sanh. As a lieutenant with the 24th Marines, he’d   fought, and been wounded, fighting on Saipan and Iwo Jima.  He then served during the Korean War and eventually earned a Bronze Star fighting in the 1963 Dominican Republic civil war.

When the siege of Khe Sanh ended in April 1968, no one fully understood what had happened. Some believed that the North Vietnamese Army was engaged there merely as a decoy to keep US troops tied up and away from the countrywide Tet Offensive. In general, journalists and historians favored the idea. As a result, Colonel Lownds’ leadership and contributions were diminished by the belief that he had been duped by North Vietnamese military strategists.

In The Gunpowder Prince, I make, what I believe to be, a persuasive case, based on declassified US documents, and surprisingly candid and self-critical Vietnamese military records pertaining to the battle, that their intent was to capture the Khe Sanh Combat Base, and it inhabitants, much as they had 14 years earlier against the French at Dien Bien Phu, compelling a quick resolution to the war. 

Gifted with a keen intellect, Captain Munir Baig’s classical education in England, exacting study of world military history, and specialized training in counterintelligence, all combined to give him an uncanny knack for “getting into the heads” of enemy unit commanders and anticipating what they were going to do next.  He especially understood the mind of Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap, architect of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, now engaged in using similarly successful, though antiquated, tactics to take Khe Sanh. Baig’s broad understanding of the situation there created serious and unanticipated consequences for the 30,000 strong North Vietnamese assault force. 

Initially, it had not been easy for Lownds to overlook Captain Baig’s brashness and eccentricities or offer his total confidence in his judgment. Baig recognized this. Credit for saving the combat base, he later said, must go to Colonel Lownds who had the final word on all decisions. Lownds had fought  as a junior officer during the Second World War, but was a progressive-enough thinker to trust in Captain Baig’s theory that traditional Marine Corps tactics and doctrines, so effective earlier in the twentieth century, must be tweaked at Khe Sanh to fight against an enemy “who chose to put his faith and fortune in the usages of the eighteenth [century].”

Lownds would make other tough decisions similar to the one that personally affected me in the village. In February, he made the tough call not to send reinforcements overland to the US Army Special Forces camp at Lang Vei, which was subsequently overrun by North Vietnamese Army assault forces and tanks. Later that month, he would decide it was too costly to continue the search for wounded Marines who had been ambushed, as part of the, later-named, Ghost Patrol, not far from the combat base. He was subsequently vilified by some for both of these decisions. In The Gunpowder Prince, I hoped to help restore to Colonel David Lownds the full credit he deserved for making crucial decisions in circumstances that few front-line commanders in modern American warfare have had to face.

Shortly before his death in 2011, at age 90, I mailed him an 8 x 10, black-and-white photo taken by a journalist during the siege of Khe Sanh, the colonel's helmeted head partially obscured in a swirl of exhaled cigar smoke, and asked if he would sign it. He did, with a Sharpie across the right side of his flak vest, opposite where he had, nearly 43 years before, carefully printed his name “LOWNDS” with another marking pen.
    

It now hangs in a frame on the wall above my writing desk, a constant, humbling reminder of how truly tough some of these men of The Greatest Generation were; like Lownds, perpetually risking their lives and spilling their blood over the course three major wars—and then, in the end,  preferring talk about other things.       

Sunday, December 2, 2018

President George H.W. Bush and some "larceny" on Air Force One.


President George H.W. Bush is known to have been a decent, witty and down-to-earth person. Thanks to the late Senator Bill Raggio, I was able to record one of the more amusing, and lesser-known, Nevada connections the President made while in office, as described here in an excerpt from my 2011 book  A Man of Word: The Life & Times of Nevada’s Senator William J Raggio.  

*****

On August 6, 1992, President Bush addressed the nearly two thousand American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) members in attendance at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. After thanking outgoing National Chair, Fred Noye for the introduction, the President said,

“You have done a great chairman’s job and I know that your shoes will be ably filled by Bill Raggio, over here, from the state of Nevada. Bill flew in with us last night from Reno on Air Force One, and all the White House stationery and matchboxes from the plane are missing.  But he swears there’s no correlation whatsoever.”

In a 2008 interview, Bill Raggio described that flight:

“I met the President here in Reno and, as National Chair, I was invited to leave with him and fly to Colorado Springs for the ALEC national meeting. It was an interesting flight.  After getting a tour of the airplane’s interior, the President invited me to sit with him in his private compartment. A pair of bedroom slippers with the Presidential Seal on them caught my eye. I thought, at the time, how unique it would be to own them. Later, when President Bush accused me in his speech of petty larceny for taking everything I could find bearing a Presidential Seal, I was almost sorry I hadn’t taken those slippers, too.”

In November 1992, after President Bush’s term of office ended, Bill Raggio, still the National Chair of ALEC, nominated the former President to receive the organization's highest honor, the Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award.

As Raggio recalled later:

“There was some feeling, some resistance, in ALEC that Bush had not been conservative enough when he was President. They held that against him and did not think he should receive the Jefferson Award. I felt very strongly that he should be honored and that he had been an outstanding President in difficult times and so should be given the Award.”

Bill swayed a majority to his point of view, and joined several other ALEC board members in going to Houston and personally presenting the award to the former President.

Bill was delighted by the reception they received:

“He took time with us, at least an hour, and showed us around the office and the memorabilia that he had been given when he was President. We had a good general discussion about ALEC, and ALEC principles and where the country was going.  He was cordial and very gracious and pleased to have received it.”




Friday, November 30, 2018

Thousands of miles and three hundred years later...



I’ve finally gotten around to dealing with something that’s been on my bucket list for decades—returning to its rightful owners, a rare, 350-year-old, book that came into my possession over 60 years ago.

De Monarchia Hispanica, by Tommaso Campanella, published in Amsterdam in 1653, was once in the personal library of Thomas Barlow, famed 17th century English clergyman and Provost of Queens College, Oxford.  Not really my kind of guy, Barlow enjoyed a long career in public life largely because he was, as some of his contemporaries alleged, a “trimmer.” This was a pejorative term for someone who conformed politically for the sake of career advancement, aka, a sycophant; or, for those of you in my generation who watched a certain television show when we were kids, an “Eddie Haskell.”

However, I’m reluctant to be too judgmental, considering the tumultuous period of English history in which he lived, where many notables often, and literally, lost their heads. Yet, Barlow was, as trimmers go, a virtuoso. His Machiavellian nature paired nicely with his quibbling, evasive, casuistic philosophical writings devaluing virtues like duty, honor and morality. 

But back to the present.

Despite its age, this copy of De Monarchia has very little dollar value in the rare book market, just couple hundred bucks, at best.  I attribute this to the fact that neither Campanella nor Barlow are historical headliners, and also because, around 1960 my then-five-year-old brother Brian, took a Crayola (I’m guessing “Forest Green” or “Shamrock”) to a couple of pages, scribbling what might be (giving the tyke benefit of the doubt) the professional proofreader mark to “Transpose” a word or phrase 😉.    



I recently contacted Amanda Saville, librarian at Queens College, Oxford, who confirmed Barlow’s handwriting, and was curious how the book had gotten to the U.S., saying: “Upon Barlow’s death the Bodleian Library [another Oxford library and one of the oldest in Europe] chose which of his books they wanted and the remainder came here to Queen’s, but it was not an exact science and it is highly probable that a portion of Barlow’s library went elsewhere.” Consequently, she was excited to learn about it, even more so, because neither library has this particular 1653 edition. She was also extremely appreciative to learn that I’m donating the book to the Queens College Library.  

As someone who writes history books, I’m tickled that this three-century-long, circular journey, beginning sometime after Barlow’s death in 1691, through all the never-to-be-known places and lives it passed, is now nearly complete. That, after traveling thousands of miles, it will soon reside in a modern library just a few minutes’ walk from the spot where Barlow, one day in 1654, took up a feathered quill pen and, after sharpening its nib to the finest point, and carefully dipping it in an inkwell, scribbled a page full of notes in Latin on the flyleaf with such extraordinary precision.



I apologize for sounding so sappy in bidding goodbye to de Monarchia, but in such a chaotic and increasingly cynical world, I like to savor these small victories for fate and harmonious endings.  

Thursday, November 22, 2018

A Thanksgiving Story





I’d forgotten to defrost the turkey and so have it in the clothes dryer early this morning on the “Wrinkle Free” setting. As an added bonus, all that tumbling should tenderize the bird nicely, though the constant banging around in there is so loud,  I can barely hear myself think.  OK, I may be exaggerating here just a bit… the dryer is actually on the “Sheets” setting.

But joking aside, I do have a real Thanksgiving story to tell:

My sister Sue, the genealogist in our family, spent years researching our history, and found that we  go back to the first Thanksgiving. She subsequently had her work certified by the Mayflower Society as showing us to be, on our father’s side, a 13th generation blood relative of Mayflower voyager William Brewster. Upon arrival, William was immediately elected senior elder and religious leader of the Plymouth Colony, and thus presided over, and blessed, the very first Thanksgiving feast in 1621.

Regrettably, being a compulsive historian, I could not leave it at just that, and so began to research further back—I didn’t have to go far. It turns out that William Brewster’s father had been a bit of a lecher. Despite holding important civic positions as the bailiff and postmaster of Scrooby, England, he was widely known as “William the Fornicator” (Nick Bunker, Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History, First Vintage Books, 2011, p. 125).  

And so, the moral of this inspiring holiday story is:

“Family historians, like gamblers, should quit when they’re ahead.” 

 Happy Thanksgiving to all! 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Farewell Governor Sandoval



Last Friday, November 9, I attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the state capitol grounds for a monument dedicated to military members from Nevada who lost their lives in war, and the Gold Star families they left behind.

Afterwards, I was pleased to have a chance to thank the keynote speaker, outgoing Governor Brian Sandoval, for the honorable and dignified manner in which he has led our State over the past eight years.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him and his family for years, throughout his numerous public service positions, which included state assembly member, Nevada Attorney General and federal district court judge. As Governor, Brian Sandoval honored his late mentors, Governor Kenny Guinn and State Senator Bill Raggio, by always trying to do what was right, and in the best interests of all Nevadans. In doing so, he consistently ranked among the most popular governors in the United States.

His wise and compassionate leadership will be missed. Best of luck, Governor, in whatever your future holds.    

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Remembering Senator Bill Raggio on His Birthday

Travelers arriving at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport invariably pass by the bronze bust of Senator William J. Raggio, smiling back at them from a pedestal behind a velvet cord.  Raised lettering on the wall behind the bust proclaims him to be “Father of the Airport Authority.” Raggio’s success in establishing that governmental entity, which broke the stranglehold of longtime, local monopolies, revolutionized the tourist industry in northern Nevada, but was just one of his many significant accomplishments in shaping the State.     

William John Raggio, Jr. was born in Reno, then the picturesque “City of Trembling Leaves,” in a small Vine Street maternity cottage on October 30, 1926—just a few hours short of Nevada Day.  He was a fourth-generation Nevadan and descendant of immigrants from northern Italy who had arrived penniless; but, by hard work and thrift, saved enough to become successful landowners. These values, along with an abiding respect for the country that provided them such a golden opportunity, were passed along and instilled in Bill, whetted through the Great Depression and a World War that encompassed his early life.

By the 1960’s, Raggio was nationally recognized as a brilliant and gutsy district attorney, fighting endemic corruption in the local city government and police department, and personally prosecuting some of the most heinous crimes ever committed in Nevada.   But all of this came at a personal cost, with the lives of Bill and his family disrupted by threats of violence to the point where trusted police sentries kept watch, often for weeks at a time, on the Raggio home each night and often escorted his three children to school for their protection. 

After an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate, Bill Raggio was elected to the Nevada State Senate in 1972.  Once there, he spent long hours learning his job, impressing colleagues with his dedication and work ethic, and was soon chosen as Senate Minority Floor Leader. As a member of the Senate Committee on Finance, Bill carefully studied the intricacies of the state budget and became widely admired for his prodigious intellect and extraordinary retention, even among those who did not share his conservative political views. 

In 1987, when Republicans won a majority in the Senate, Bill became Floor Leader and Chair of the Finance Committee, guiding that governing body over most of the next two decades with a willingness to listen and consider the needs and opinions of others. His charisma, patience and sense of fairness—balanced, when he felt it necessary, with an intimidating presence and an occasional calculated fit of temper—steered colleagues to acceptable compromises and kept the Legislature functioning. 

Bill’s longevity in these legislative posts was all the more remarkable because of the dramatic political power shift during his tenure to Clark County. Despite southern Nevada legislators comprising a significant majority of seats in the Senate, northerner Bill kept his leadership position largely due to his cleverness and experience, which allowed him to play the political game like an accomplished chess master—always several moves ahead of his rivals. During this time, he often was referred to, by both admirers and critics alike, as "Nevada's Shadow Governor."

Of all Senator Raggio’s accomplishments, he was most proud of his prominent role in the creation and passage of the Nevada Education Reform Act, one of the most complex and controversial pieces of legislation ever to challenge state lawmakers. Yet, he was able to lead them though that maze with his encyclopedic knowledge and talent for synthesizing a discussion down to its essence.

He was also an ardent supporter of Nevada’s colleges and universities. Students at the University of Nevada, Reno, campus are reminded of this daily by the looming presence of the William J. Raggio College of Education Building.  In Clark County, his contribution as an outstanding role model for those entering the legal profession is seen in his name on the largest classroom facility at the Boyd School of Law. 

As a life-long Republican, Senator Raggio was dedicated to maintaining low taxes, but understood that circumstances change and increases were sometimes necessary. During the 2003 legislative session, he was challenged by, what he termed, “far right” conservatives within the Senate’s Republican caucus. This split was largely the result of his decision to join Republican Governor Kenny Guinn, and over two-thirds of the Legislature, in voting for a tax increase to keep Nevada schools open. It was a tough choice, Bill later said, but necessary because Nevada’s children deserved teachers, books, and decent classrooms “like those of us who had come before.”

This internal political rift widened and, during the 2008 Republican primary election, the Tea Party faction ran their own candidate in a heated, but ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to oust the incumbent Raggio. Rather than discounting these challenges, Senator Raggio embraced them as an opportunity to remind his fellow lawmakers that they were elected “not just to serve Republican or Democrat constituents, but in the best interest of all the people of Nevada,” and that inflexible political positions, pledges, and narrow, overly-simplistic answers for solving the broad and complex issues facing the State, were an abdication of their duty to thoughtfully vet information, and make informed decisions.      

During the 2010 election for Nevada’s U.S. Senate seat, Bill was among more than two hundred prominent Nevada Republicans to endorse Democratic Senator Harry Reid against his Tea Party opponent. Nevertheless, Bill became the lightning rod for ire when Reid won reelection. Two weeks later, the Republican Senate Caucus stripped Raggio of his leadership position. On January 5, 2011, Senator Raggio announced the end of his 56-year-long career in public service.

From presidents and other luminaries in the political, legal and business world, to sports figures and entertainers, including his warm personal friendship with Frank Sinatra, Bill Raggio seemed larger than life. And no legislator in the annals of Nevada history left a larger footprint on the political landscape.  A product of the old school of Nevada politics, Bill was never an ideologue; but rather a pragmatist who recognized early on in his political life that compromise was not an act of betrayal or surrender, but the only way to achieve results in the legislative process. For Bill Raggio, integrity, courage and compassion were not merely worthy and attainable virtues, but essential to the healthy governance of Nevada and our nation.  

On New Year’s Day 2011, just a year before his death from a respiratory illness, eighty-four-year-old Raggio reflected on his life: “There are very few things I would have done differently, even now knowing the consequences, but I have always tried to keep my word on things that I believed. I am honored and privileged to have had the sustained support of my constituents, and must acknowledge that it’s been a great ride.” 

Happy 92nd birthday, Senator. It was a great ride for us, too.
              

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Two Blasts (literally) From the Past



I have recently been in touch with a Gunpowder Prince reader, former Marine Sergeant Steve McCullough, who was an intelligence analyst  in the Khe Sanh COC (Combat Operations Center) bunker after I left there on April 18, 1968.  

Twenty-year-old Steve arrived at Khe Sanh on April 30, from the 3rd Marine Division HQ in Dong Ha, and occupied the main map room where Colonel Lownds and his regimental staff had spent their nights and days plotting defensive strategy during the siege, as described in The Long Goodbye. When he first walked into the room, Steve was surprised to see a large hole in the far-right corner of the wall on which the map hung. He described it as about six feet in diameter and loosely covered with a large tarp on the outside to keep the rain out. He soon watched as a fellow Marine, who evidently did not want to go down to the exit at the end of the main bunker's corridor, walk up through the hole on a fairly gradual incline of loose debris from the explosion that had created it,  then lift the tarp and walk outside.

Steve was told that a large enemy artillery shell struck the bunker roof at that spot a few days before he arrived, but never learned if there were casualties. Steve would work in the bunker each day for about a month, and later found The Gunpowder Prince particularly interesting because he had already known about Captain Baig by reputation before going to Khe Sanh, and was now thrilled to be using Baig’s exact same target intelligence map.

In that book I set out several reasons why a numerically superior force that the North Vietnamese (NVA) had surrounding us, armed with such sophisticated weaponry, was unable to capture the Khe Sanh Combat Base, despite repeated efforts. One salient fact was their failure to knock out our command bunker. The NVA knew the exact location of the command bunker as soon as it had been completed in January 1966, and had tried to knock it out hundreds of times over the next two years with an array of guns, large mortars and rockets. In fact, just a few moments into the 1968 battle, on the morning of January 21, NVA gunners inflicted significant damage on the bunker when a shell blew off a corner of the roof and cracked some exterior walls.

Conversely, in his strategy against the NVA, Marine target intelligence officer Captain Harry Baig understood how crucial it was, early on, to use concentrated artillery fire and bombs to eliminate high-level officers and their staffs, crippling their chains-of-command and leaving their forces disorganized and ineffective.

So, it is hard to understand why the NVA didn’t better exploit this opportunity; not finding the mark again, after the January 21st near-direct hit, until an inexplicable thirteen weeks later---well after the siege had ended---with a large, ground-penetrating artillery shell that blasted a huge hole right through part of the big tactical map used by Colonel Lownds and his staff— now too late to make a difference. 




Photo Caption: This is a photo  of Colonel Lownds during the siege, sitting in a lawn chair facing the big map about ten feet directly in front of him. If the artillery round that blew through the map wall in late April, had, instead, struck in late January or early February on a night he was sitting there, Lownds would almost certainly have been killed. An NVA attack in conjunction with the disorganization caused by this sudden  disruption in the chain of command at Khe Sanh (which they would have noticed by the immediate radio silence coming from that bunker), would have appreciably increased their chances of success in capturing the place. Timing, as they say, being everything.  



The other “Blast from the past” 
(that you might find amusing):
I suffered an attack of vertigo a couple of weeks ago, and was hospitalized overnight for tests, as kind of a stroke protocol. They gave me a chest x-ray, heart/liver sonogram, CAT scan, EKG, MRI, etc. Everything came out okay, so they finally determined it to be a fairly common inner-ear problem that I can control by doing certain exercises each morning to keep those pesky calcium crystals floating properly in my ear canals.

Anyway, when I came out of the tube after an MRI of my brain, the technician showed me something on his screen that was pretty interesting. Apparently, I have a small piece of shrapnel embedded in my skull, up on the left side of my forehead. Don’t recall ever being hit by anything at Khe Sanh, but evidently I was, and so must’ve had a really nice adrenaline rush going on at that moment not to feel it.  


Photo Caption:
I noticed in this picture that I seem to have liked tilting my helmet back on my head (I was evidently a fashion pioneer in the “strapless” [as in chin strap] look 😉), the effect being that I exposed my forehead just where the MRI tech said that bit of shrapnel is located.  


*****

NOTE: In late May, Steve McCullough was bitten by a rat while sleeping and medevaced out of Khe Sanh for precautionary rabies inoculations. I found Steve's later work with the 11th ITT (Interrogation Translation Team) in Vietnam  to be quite interesting and am including here, with his permission, some observations about the POWs he interrogated:

"On the subject of interrogations, as you know, we were all trained that, if captured by the enemy, we were to give name, rank, and serial number. I do not believe that NVA were given this training because they willingly gave up information during interrogations. I did not keep count but I probably interrogated close to 100 NVA and Viet Cong PW’s at the Combined Interrogation Center in Da Nang and in field operations and, not once did I ever use coercive measures to get the information I needed. PW’s had an average age of about 16 (younger for Viet Cong) and most had a very limited education, which I also believe contributed to their willingness to talk. Many were not fighting willingly. And, for the record, I never witnessed PW abuse by any American interrogators. I did witness water boarding of a PW one time but that was conducted by ARVN interrogators – not Americans. I was attached to the 26th Marines several times and received the Navy Unit Commendation Medal for one of the operations with the 26th Marines. Being able to provide intelligence information gained from interrogations was critical during the course of an ongoing operation and many times PW’s provided this information willingly. I also received the Bronze Star with “V” for information I was able to obtain which, ultimately, saved many Marines’ lives. Not saying that to brag just to illustrate how critical it was that the enemy gave up important information so readily. In fact, very few people know this but the NVA had planned another attack in Quang Tri province for Tet 1969, a year after the Tet offensive that you experienced first-hand at Khe Sanh. However, a Chieu Hoi defector, who was a Political Officer for one of the NVA divisions which was to participate in the attack, gave us most of the operational details before the attack took place. I sat in on the interrogation conducted by ARVN interrogators and they believed that the attack was called off because the NVA knew that the defector had provided this information to us. I conducted several other interesting interrogations but those stories are for another day. Bottom line is it was rather easy to get information from enemy PW’s." 







  

Friday, August 31, 2018

Robert "Doc" Topmiller




 This week, marks the 10th anniversary of the tragic death of my close friend, and fellow Khe Sanh veteran, Robert “Doc” Topmiller. The constant incoming artillery fire during the Khe Sanh siege created unique problems for our corpsmen. They had been trained primarily to treat in-and-out bullet wounds, but most of the injuries there were from jagged shrapnel and burns, which would almost always become grossly infected. Concussion injuries on the brain from the force of exploding shells were frequent, as were psychological casualties from the stress of combat. Exotic diseases, including rat-borne rabies, were constant. Filthy living conditions and inadequate supplies of clean water contributed to dehydration, which increased susceptibility to these and other health problems. On occasion, 19-year-old Doc would be given the gruesome task of collecting, in a single bag, body parts of several Marines literally blown to bits by incoming artillery. These memories would come back and haunt him in later years, leaving him in the unrelenting grip of severe PTSD.

Doc’s later humanitarian work in helping the Vietnamese people, and his fellow veterans, cope with their problems from the war, left countless of us with fond memories of his life. One of my favorites happened in 2007, after Doc persuaded me, and our mutual friend and Khe Sanh vet, Steve Orr, to return to Vietnam and try to locate the remains of my high school friend, Thomas Patrick Mahoney III. Doc, who was then a practicing Buddhist, asked that we allow a telepath to join us on our journey to find Tom.

 Belief in the afterlife and the care of deceased souls are deeply rooted in the Vietnamese culture and, for a grieving family, retrieving the mortal remains of a missing relative is of the greatest importance. This is not only to ensure the soul’s safe transition to the "otherworld," but until their physical remains were found and "honored," often by reburial in an ancestral cemetery, unhappy, wandering souls were a problem for the living—responsible, many believed, for almost every misfortune that befell a family. Thus, for centuries, mediums have been used to communicate the wishes of the dead to the living.

On December 20, 2007, we hiked up the hill where Tom was last seen, accompanied by the telepath, Nguyen Buu Thuan, and several other Vietnamese, including an interpreter and, surprisingly to us, a former North Vietnamese Army soldier, who had fought against the Americans, and who had asked if he could come along with us and honor my fallen friend. After Mr. Thuan located the spot he believed Tom’s remains were, and communicated with Tom’s unhappy wandering soul, they held a prayer ceremony, that included burning incense sticks and setting out gifts to entice Tom's soul, including food, fragrant flowers and a bottle Vietnamese vodka. I then placed a commemorative plaque alongside those offerings. After the little service was concluded, and our translator leaned down to remove the bottle, our former NVA foe shouted sternly in Vietnamese "Leave it for the soldier!" 

The soldier's simple and spontaneous outburst of respect was profoundly moving to we three Khe Sanh veterans. The image of us standing alongside a uniformed former enemy from a nearly forgotten war, amid waving elephant grass and swirling smoke, in the midst of an Asian jungle, drawn there by a 20-year-old kid's apparent mistake decades before, will always seem to me like some preposterous dream.

Just as our Montagnard guide began covering the plaque and bottle with dirt, Doc’s cap, with a Marine Corps globe and anchor on the peak, blew off his head in a gust of wind and landed upright in the middle of the little hole. As he reflexively leaned down to pick it up, several of the Vietnamese cried out for him to leave it there. The telepath then explained to us that it was common for wandering souls to be "playful." Mahoney, he continued, was happy we had come for him and knocked the hat off Doc's head as a sort of a prank (an act definitely in keeping with Tom's impish nature). As such, the cap stayed and was buried along with the plaque and vodka. 

As we descended the hill and arrived on flat land, Doc suddenly slipped off a small dike and landed on his back in a foot of rice paddy muck, but not before dragging ten feet of bramble fence line along with him in a futile effort to right himself. We all chuckled the rest of the way to the hamlet where our vehicles were parked. We then returned to Hué, while Doc tended to some thorn punctures in the hand that had grasped the brambles, and waited for us to begin teasing him about the fall.  He did not have to wait long.

 Despite all the astonishing things I witnessed that day having been the result of Doc's expertise, connections and tireless efforts, I could not pass up the opportunity later that evening, over beers in the courtyard of the Morin Hotel, to drolly mention his pratfall into the paddy. Doc seemed to have been waiting for this and offered an immediate excuse: As with the loss of his cap, Tom Mahoney's mischievous soul was responsible for bumping him into that muddy rice paddy.

While I don’t believe in ghosts, I must say that after what I saw that day, including the coincidence of Doc's two strange mishaps, I was left feeling a little uneasy at that moment, and I think Doc picked up on that vibe, nodding his head with a slightly self-contented smirk on his face that seemed to convey: “See, I told you so.”

So, our thoughts are with you today Doc. You did so much wandering throughout your life trying to relieve the pain of war, I hope your anguished soul is now at rest.




(Me, Steve and Doc in Hanoi, December 2007)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful)


What an extraordinary week I had in Washington, D.C. at the Khe Sanh Veterans Association Reunion marking the 50th anniversary of the siege of Khe Sanh.

It never ceases to amaze me how the bond we made with one another remains so strong after all this time. The minute I’m back together with my old radio buddies, Steve Orr, Michael Reath, Raul “Oz” Orozco, and Cliff "Meatball" Braisted, we begin cutting up and heckling one another as we did when we were 19-year-old Marines trying to cope with our own imminent mortality, and, often worse, that of our friends. We toasted Tom Mahoney, Doc Topmiller and others--now gone--who had been so special to us; putting aside the tragedies of their deaths in order to dwell on the joy they once added to our existence. At this phase in our lives, we have few pretensions, which is comfortable; yet, the lyrics of that old Toby Keith song kept playing in my head all week: “I ain’t as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”

There were many others I was delighted to see again. My friends Gary Foster and Dan Moore, who have been so helpful in the research for my books, treated me to breakfast; the former, at the  venerable Willard Hotel, and the latter at Pho 75, for some of  the tastiest Vietnamese chow I've ever had.  

I was fortunate enough to finally  meet several of those from Tom Mahoney’s battalion, such as his old squad leader Jim Anderson,  and Tom “Tugboat” Northrop, who was there during the effort to recover his body that bad July afternoon in 1968, and later returned with the DPAA in 2016, along with Mahoney's former platoon leader, Frank Ahearn, to locate the site where he was last seen. Tugboat still possesses the moral courage that won him the Silver Star at Khe Sanh during one of the worst battles his company was ever engaged in. Morbidly ironic, it happened on Memorial Day 1968.

In addition, it was great to spend time with  a group of Marines, and a corpsman, from Delta Company, First Battalion, First Marines, who were in some extremely dangerous situations during the war, including the final major Marine battle at Khe Sanh (more of a "last stand") on Hill 689 the night of July 7, 1968. 

One of them, Jim Velcheck, snapped the attached photo capturing the moment I presented the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert Neller,  with my book The Long Goodbye.  Retired Marine Colonel Tom Czech (center) introduced me to him at the reunion banquet on Saturday evening, providing him with a bit of background on my work, before asking if he would accept a copy of the book. As he shook my hand, the Commandant said, “General Bedard called me and told me you’d be coming.” He then leafed through the pages for a few moments and humorously quipped: “You should be giving this [upcoming] speech, instead of me.”

As you may recall from my prior blog posting, I first met retired Lieutenant General Buck Bedard and Colonel Czech a mere two weeks earlier at my speech about The Gunpowder Prince in the Las Vegas Country Club during a luncheon hosted by attorney Joe W. Brown.  As such, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the swiftness of the trajectory, from that day at the podium in Vegas, to handing the Commandant my book on Saturday night—all resulting from the generous spirit of  General Bedard and Colonel Czech, who saw some value to the Marine Corps in my books, and wanted to do something to advance that. It doesn’t get more personally rewarding!




***

Also, this week, I learned that the DPAA had come across a Marine Corps (school type) ring in the vicinity of where Tom Mahoney was last seen. Tugboat Northrop, and others who were with Tom,  could not clearly recall if he wore a ring. However, we zoomed-in, and more closely examined the photograph (attached) of Tom, that I used for the cover of The Long Goodbye (taken about three months before his death), and it seems to show something on the middle finger of his left hand. I passed this info along to DPAA. Perhaps the sophisticated equipment in their lab in Honolulu can better define what it is; and, if a ring, whether it matches the one they now have in their possession. It may turn out to be something other than a ring (you may want to zoom-in on his left hand and see what you think).

All this is so typical of the convolutions and surprises that have dogged our search for his remains for years. It’s frustrating, but it also lends a strange feel that we are, somehow, inching our way to a conclusion.  Ray Kern, Mahoney's case officer at DPAA, said yesterday that, while they are currently searching for others in another quadrant of the country (18-4VN), and despite the Mahoney case being "a difficult one"--- they "would soon be returning to it."






Saturday, August 4, 2018

A Matter of Mutual Respect


An amusing quip that has been kicking around for years has it that: If a person is from Texas, attended Harvard, or was in the Marine Corps, you will learn about it in the first five minutes of a conversation with them.

As with most jokes, there might be an element of truth in this, since these associations do seem to have a profound effect on how a person defines themselves throughout the rest of their lives. Being from California and having received my degree from an undistinguished state university there (which, coincidentally, we self-mockingly referred to as: “Harvard West”), I am unqualified to lend an informed opinion on the first two. However, an experience I had this week with several fellow, former U.S. Marines, reminded me of why we are different than Texans and Harvarders.   

Last Wednesday, I spoke about my latest book, The Gunpowder Prince, to a luncheon audience of around one hundred at the Las Vegas Country Club, hosted by renowned Las Vegas attorney, and former Marine, Joe W. Brown. The group consisted of business, professional and civic leaders, including a former governor of Nevada. Due to the announced subject of my address, there was also a good number of those with military backgrounds present, including a dozen, or so, former Marines.  Among the latter, was retired Lieutenant General E.R. “Buck” Bedard, who had served in Vietnam as a rifle platoon commander.  Years later, as a colonel, he participated in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and commanded the 7th Marine Regiment when it deployed to Somalia with the difficult assignment of protecting humanitarian efforts there. As a lieutenant general, Bedard would serve as a Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps before retiring.

Also present was retired Marine Colonel Thomas Czech.  Our conversation was particularly moving for me. As an enlisted man, he had served in Alpha Company, First Battalion, Ninth Marines, during the siege of Khe Sanh. His platoon had been overrun by a North Vietnamese Army battalion while defending an area west of the combat base on the night of February 8, 1968. Of the sixty-four Marines and corpsmen, roughly half were killed and all, but a few, of the others were wounded. Czech was among those wounded, left for dead by his attackers as they swarmed past him over the hilltop. He would survive, do additional time in Vietnam, and go on to make a career of the Marine Corps. I was pleased to learn that he will be attending the Khe Sanh Veterans Association reunion in Washington, DC. later this month, so we will have a chance to resume our discussion.  

I was honored to have Lieutenant General Bedard, who prefers to be called “Buck,” introduce me as the keynote speaker, and equally pleased to have Colonel Czech, who prefers “Tom,” follow my talk with his own, very personal, recollections of Khe Sanh. Buck then joined me during the, at times quite emotional, Q&A period that followed. Like Captain Mirza Munir “Harry” Baig, in The Gunpowder Prince, Buck had extensive training in counterintelligence (at one point in his career serving as an instructor at the U.S. Army Intelligence School), and so his input was both pertinent and insightful. It was one of those perfect, spontaneous moments when, as host Joe Brown later described: “You could hear a pin drop in the room.”  Witnessing this, I was once again overcome with awe at the egalitarian tradition in which we are bonded by the Corps for the rest of our lives. I never cease to marvel—especially in this world of endless hype and spin—at the genuineness of it all!  

I had been part of  this dynamic before, when I came to know another retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, Martin Brandtner. Marty, as he insisted on being called, lived in Reno and served as Development Director for the Roman Catholic Diocese. Like Buck Bedard, Marty had served as a rifle platoon and company commander in Vietnam and had also risen to the highest rank in the Marine Corps—save for Commandant.

Both gentlemen were engaging, unassuming, keenly intelligent and generous with their praise.  At one point, Marty saw to it, along with Major General Mike Myatt, that my first book, A Patch of Ground, Khe Sanh Remembered, was placed in the library of the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco—a real thrill for a new writer. To these men, I wasn’t a former corporal, I was a former Marine—and that’s all that mattered.

Until his death last year, Marty Brandtner was universally liked and admired by those in the community who knew him—and there were many! Yet, my sense was that most of them had no idea what he had accomplished in his life. It seemed only a few knew that, during the Vietnam War, he had achieved one of the most extraordinary episodes of bravery and leadership in Marine Corps history, earning two Navy Crosses (the Marine Corps’ highest recognition of valor in combat, besides the Medal of Honor)—within an eight-day period!

Marty evidently forgot to mention that in those first five minutes of his conversations with them.

On my flight back to Reno Wednesday night from Las Vegas, I reflected on what a privilege it has been, for an old corporal like me, to have received such sincere approval from extraordinary Marine officers like Buck, Marty and Tom.  And how, when we were finally able to stand down from the rank structure—so essential to the accomplishment of every mission—we were all simply Marines, bound by a special camaraderie of those who intimately appreciate what they had been willing to sacrifice for their country—and each other.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Destiny Fulfilled


Fourteen-year-old Mirza Munir Baig arrived from India to study at Clifton College in Bristol, England, where the curriculum was designed to prepare him for admission to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. His father, Osman Ali Baig, a Sandhurst graduate, and later a general in the pre-independence Indian Colonial Army, had been responsible for the defense of the vital Khyber Pass during the Second World War, and was now a high-level Pakistani diplomat. The following year, during Munir’s summer break from Clifton, he sailed aboard the Queen Mary from Southampton to New York City. Days later he joined his parents for dinner at Felix de Weldon’s Washington townhouse. Osman had met Felix, an Austrian-born artist who had served in the U.S. Navy, at a Washington society soiree while he was Pakistan’s Deputy Consul-General to the U.S., and the two quickly became friends.  DeWeldon had recently been commissioned by Congress to create a sculpture based on the famous photograph by Joe Rosenthal depicting six Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima as the centerpiece for a new Marine Corps War Memorial.

The Marine Corps Memorial sculpture was then still only a small prototype, and Munir, who had dreamt of achieving glory on the battlefield for as long as he could remember, spent much of the evening in the artist’s studio gazing at it. His mother, Juliette Jamil Baig, would later recall: “Munir was enchanted with the model."

(L-R) President Truman, Felix deWeldon and photographer Joe Rosenthal standing with the model that so "enchanted" young Munir. (White House, 1945)


However, when it came time for Munir to enroll at Sandhurst, relations between the governments of Pakistan and Great Britain were strained, and the “legacy” admission he counted on from his father’s alumnus status was now punitively voided by the British government. Munir’s spirit was nearly crushed, but he pushed on with his education, studying law at Cambridge University and then on to McGill in Montreal, where he earned an MBA. After obtaining legal status as a resident alien in the U.S., Munir was hired as a business executive at the Sears headquarters in Chicago, but soon bridled at the boredom, still yearning for excitement and life in the military.

Osman, knowing his son’s aspirations of fame on the battlefield, and how disappointed he had been at his rejection by Sandhurst, wrote to him in a letter of encouragement that, "If you still want to pursue a military career, the only real military organization left in the world is the United States Marine Corps.”  In late 1956, two years after de Weldon’s one hundred-ton bronze statue was unveiled in Arlington, Osman sought him out to assist his son Munir in becoming a Marine officer. De Weldon took Munir directly to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Randolph “Mc.C” Pate, who advised the young man that, despite his exceptional education and prestigious family background, federal law required all military officers be U.S. citizens—though this regulation did not apply to enlisted ranks.

Munir took this new setback in stride and, still focused on a greater destiny for himself, enlisted as a lowly private in “the only real military organization left in the world.” Before boarding a train at Union Station in Washington, D.C. for his trip to Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, Munir kissed his mother goodbye saying, "Don't fret, mama, I shall make you proud of me."

Munir's meteoric rise to the rank of Major, and his shadowy work in counterintelligence, are described in detail in The Gunpowder Prince, so I will fast-forward to early 1968 during the grim and costly ten-week siege of Khe Sanh, There, I found myself working beside then-Captain Baig as a radio operator—perpetually in awe of this enigmatic and eccentric Marine’s intellect and a, seemingly, “6th Sense.”  

As such, the improbable interconnections I have described—an untimely diplomatic breakdown between two nations, a fortuitous friendship struck up at a Washington party, a fifteen-year-boy’s infatuation with a small statue of Marines at war, and an improbable personal interview with the Commandant of the Marine Corps before going off to boot camp as a lowly recruit—hold a much deeper meaning for me than merely as an historical curiosity.  In doggedly pursuing his destiny, Captain Mirza Munir Baig saved me and the other Marines at Khe Sanh and, in doing, so altered the course of American history.

While his enormous contributions were recognized within the military (he had the unusual distinction of being awarded two distinguished Legion of Merit medals within the space of just three years), and more privately within the intelligence community, Baig’s contributions are barely known to the rest of the world. It is my hope that The Gunpowder Prince will help remedy that.


                             A rare photo of the enigmatic Captain Munir Baig, center ( (Khe Sanh, 1968)




A Christmas Call to Remember

Twelve years ago , this Christmas Eve, I arrived home from a holiday gathering to find a phone message, one that remains very special to m...

WELCOME!