Saturday, October 12, 2019

A Real American Hero

Each afternoon, Disney World in Orlando, Florida randomly selects a veteran from among its visitors to be guest of honor in a daily ceremony to lower the American flag and then to carry it in a parade down Main Street.

Earlier this year they saw a man with his family wearing a hat denoting him as a Vietnam veteran and asked him to be that guest of honor.  His name is Bruce Bird and, in my opinion, they could not have selected a more deserving person.

Fifty-one years ago, on July 6, 1968, during the bitter fighting in the final hours before Khe Sanh Combat Base was abandoned, ending fifteen months of horrendous battle there, Bruce volunteered to risk his life to retrieve the body of my friend Tom Mahoney from under a North Vietnamese Army ambush. Bruce was a veteran of intense combat and so knew full-well the dangers he faced.

As he crawled within a few yards of Tom's body, Bruce was shot through the neck by an enemy sniper. As he lay in the tall grass watching the blood flowing out, he later said “It was like in the movies, with my life flashing before my eyes.” Just as he lost consciousness, platoon leader Lieutenant Frank Ahearn and another Marine pulled Bruce back to safety. A corpsman quickly bandaged his neck wound and managed to get him aboard the next medevac helicopter to a hospital in a rear area.That unusually rapid (and lucky) sequence of events resulted in Bruce’s life being saved.

A few years ago, I tracked Bruce down while I was researching and writing The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited, and he provided vital information.

So, its time to finally Stand Down, Marine. Your loyalty and courage echoed across the subsequent decades and in the end--as if somehow fated--you appeared at just the right moment to help ensure that the memory of Tom’s last days will not be left behind in the shadows of history.

If Disney World was looking for a real American hero to lower the flag, they certainly found one that day.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Nevada Historical Society presents “Sinatra in Nevada, Part II” at 5 pm on Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Join Nevada historian and former director of the Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs Michael Fischer as he moderates a discussion about Frank Sinatra’s close personal relationship with Bill Raggio. As Washoe County District Attorney, and later state senator, Raggio’s integrity and reputation as a public servant was held in the highest regard by the public and his legal and legislative colleagues. But, his friendship with fellow Italian-American Sinatra, whose lifelong association with members of organized crime, eventually costing Frank his gaming license at the Cal Neva-Lake Tahoe, raised more than a few eyebrows.  

Sinatra: "Any report that I fraternized with goons or hoodlums is a vicious lie!"  
In this group are murderer-turned-FBI-informant, Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratianno,
 and New York Mafia Bosses, Carlo Gambino and "Big" Paulie Castellano.
Bill socialized with Frank often, and was the first one Sinatra called to help him organize the ransom and recovery when his son Frank Jr. was kidnapped at Lake Tahoe in 1963. In 1981, Sinatra chose Bill Raggio as his private attorney to represent him before the Nevada Gaming Commission in regaining a gaming license.  

Some of the evening’s discussion will address how Raggio walked a fine line in maintaining this friendship, and how much Bill may have known about Sinatra’s involvement with Mafia bosses, a claim Sinatra repeatedly denied throughout his lifetime; but was well-established in FBI files released after his death under the Freedom of Information Act. 

Among those participating in the discussion will be Michael Archer, author of Bill Raggio’s biography A Man of His Word; and highly respected, longtime Nevada journalist, formerly with the Nevada Gaming Control Board, Guy Farmer, who was familiar with the case against Sinatra at the Cal Neva and, at one point, listened in on an obscenity-laced telephone conversation as Sinatra threatened the Board’s director Ed Olson.

It should be a lively and interesting conversation, so come early and check out the wonderful historical exhibits the Society has to offer.

The Nevada Historical Society is located at 1650 N Virginia St, Reno (on the University of Nevada campus). Wine and cheese will be served starting at 5 PM with the discussion beginning at 5:30. A nominal admission fee may be required. For further information please call 775-688-1190.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Upcoming Literary Award for Khe Sanh Books

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be travelling next month to the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York to receive the Military Order of St. Louis medal for the Khe Sanh trilogy (A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered, The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited and The Gunpowder Prince: How Marine Corps Captain Mirza Munir Baig Saved Khe Sanh)  "in recognition of its important contribution to military literature" from the Knights Templar Hudson Valley Priory of Saint Patrick. 
Past recipients include bestselling writers Thomas Fleming, James Bradley (Flags of Our Fathers) and Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War). This year’s candidates included several best-selling writers and historians and a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. As such, I am deeply honored by the selection and looking forward to the award dinner at the West Point Club on October 17, 2019
The event is not open to the walk-in public; however, if you wish to attend as my guest, preregistration is required. For information about cost of the dinner, attire, time and directions, etc., please contact LtCol (Ret) Robert Black at Those of you who have read A Patch of Ground and/or The Long Goodbye may recall then-Captain Black was Tom Mahoney’s company commander with the First Battalion, First Marines during those final harrowing days of Khe Sanh. Signed copies of The Gunpowder Prince will be available via preorder through LtCol Black. 
I will also be speaking about the battle of Khe Sanh on October 16, 2019, 2-4 pm, at American Legion #25 hall, 4 JFK Drive, Milltown, NJ (near the Rutgers University campus).  Signed copies of all my Khe Sanh books will be available. This event is open to the public. 
Between this Military Order of St. Louis, and The Gunpowder Prince having been recipient, last April, of the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s 2019 Colonel Joseph Alexander Award for distinguished biography, it’s been a very good year for recognition of the gravity of what Americans and their adversaries on the Khe Sanh battlefield endured, accomplished, lost and now continue to live with, over fifty years after that longest and costliest pitched battle of the Vietnam War. 

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Always Faithful

Today marks the 51st anniversary of the death of Lance Corporal Thomas P. Mahoney III due to hostile fire on Hill 881 South near Khe Sanh Combat Base. It is not only fitting to remember the sacrifice Tommy made, but also of  those in his platoon who volunteered to risk their own lives to retreive him. These included Lieutenant Frank Ahearn, Privates First Class Bruce Bird, Richard Delucie, Wayne Sherwin, Richard Patten and Lance Corporal Allen V. Williams. (Bird, Delucie and Williams were wounded in the effort.)   This story of their bravery is told in The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited. Although I was not able to locate Delucie, Sherwin and Patten, I did find Ahearn, Bird and Williams (for more information about the extraordinary  life of recently deceased Allen Williams please see my previous post). It has been one of the great honors of my life to have known men of such loyalty and courage.

On another note, I recently received this link to a video of the 2019 Marine Corps Heritage Foundation Awards dinner last April.  Major General Kessler graciously introduced me (in absentia) and The Gunpowder Prince at about 15:20 in.  It was a beautiful ceremony; however, what made me regret—even more—not having been able to attend, were the back-to-back, jaw-dropping, speeches given by two former Commandants of the Marine Corps, Generals Dunford and Neller (General Dunford also having held the highest position in the U.S. military as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). Both men are in the process of retiring and so these remarks were their career swansongs. The first begins about 56 minutes in. No Marine, or former Marine, should miss listening to their incredibly poignant, stirring, yet incisive, messages. 

What I found personally touching was the way both men spoke about first coming into the Marine Corps just as the Vietnam War was ending with a victory by our adversary, and having to help rebuild that decimated and demoralized organization. Each spoke of the nucleus of battle-wise Vietnam War vets who chose to stay in the service (despite varying degrees of bitterness and disappointment at how the war had played out). Both men credited this loyal cadre of both commissioned and staff non-commissioned officers with having helped them avoid too many (what General Neller drolly referred to as) “lieutenant things,” and to grasp the enormity of  the task they faced---made particularly difficult due to  transitioning into an all-volunteer military---in order to keep alive the traditions, reputation and high standards of the Marine Corps. The significance of this “torch passing” in those dark years following the fall of Saigon has been too often overlooked. 

Listening to them reflect on their careers, and the challenges they overcame, has left me with profound gratitude that, out of the crucible of Vietnam and a shaky postwar America, these wise, evenhanded and very human leaders were there to protect us through such perilous times.


Sunday, April 14, 2019

Allen V. Williams



Allen Williams died on May 28, 2019  

after a long battle with Alzheimer’s 

Corporal Allen V, Williams, was one of the five Marines who stepped up on the afternoon of July 6, 1968  when Lieutenant  Frank Ahearn asked for volunteers to risk their lives by moving down slope into an intense enemy ambush on the already infamous Hill 881 South to recover the body of my friend Lance Corporal Tom Mahoney, killed just minutes before (the others being Privates First Class Bruce Bird, Richard Delucie, Wayne Sherwin and Richard Patten). The attempt proved unsuccessful, but not before Williams, Bird and Delucie were seriously wounded in the effort and subsequently medevac’d to a field hospital.

Allen Victor Lee Williams III was born the son of a respected New York City psychiatrist and had educational and professional opportunities beyond the reach of most young Americans. Despite this, he joined the Marines as an enlisted man in 1967 to serve his country as a rifleman.  However, Allen was not a typical “grunt.” During his time in Vietnam, he often told his fellow Marines how he was going to be actor after returning to civilian life. Because of his engaging personality and sense of humor, he was well-liked in his platoon. Due to a knack for voice impersonations, he was regularly asked to read suspenseful paperback books for the entertainment of his buddies. One told me years later how Allen’s Vincent Price imitation, while doing horror stories, sent chills down the spines of his listeners. His platoon commander, Lieutenant Ahearn, would later say of him: “Williams was a fine Marine, a good person and very good for the morale of the unit.”

I contacted Allen in 2010 while researching The Long Goodbye, and was surprised at how deeply Tom’s death had affected him. “Tom was my best friend in the Corps,” Allen said. “A day never goes by that I don’t think of him. I tried once to find his folks, but I stopped myself because I thought it would just make the pain worse. I suppose his people are gone by now. The whole experience at Khe Sanh and on the hills was awful. For a long time, I thought of trying to talk to someone about it, but for the most part, I just buried it in some deep part of my heart.”

On the day in late 1968 when he was finally discharged from Saint Albans Naval Hospital in Queens, Allen took the subway home. He was in uniform and, despite the train car being crowded at the time, he vividly recalled how “passengers literally (physically) pressed against one another to move away from me, as if I were a leper.” It was, Allen added, “due to that ridiculous ‘baby killer’ stigma now borne by all Vietnam vets.” After his discharge from the military, Allen stayed true to his dream of becoming an actor and went on to have a long, successful career in film and television, with roles in significant television shows throughout the next four decades, (see for yourself at

 He was a regular cast member in such acclaimed series’ as The Lou Grant Show, Knott’s Landing and The Client, and numerous major films, including Being There and Against All OddsIronically, in the 2012 film Project 12, Allen was cast as President Lyndon Johnson—the president who had sent us to Vietnam.  However, for many years he never mentioned his Vietnam service. “If I had,” Allen said, “I would have been blacklisted.”

His final role was in the 2018 film The LandlordYet, the curtain came very close to coming down on his “final role” fifty years earlier at age twenty while playing the very real part of a loyal and courageous friend who was willing to die rather than leave Tommy behind on that hill. It is not hard to guess why Allen Williams is one of the most extraordinary individuals I have ever had the pleasure to know. In recent years, Allen’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease has not only ended his career and destroyed a once brilliant mind, but stolen from his family and friends the pleasure of being in the company of a remarkably sincere, compassionate and interesting person.

I spoke to his daughter Carrie Williams recently and learned that Allen’s health is declining rapidly.  I reminded her of how Allen and I had so appreciated the eloquent and heartfelt message she’d sent us on Veterans Day 2010; and this, in turn, reminded me how important it is to not put off telling those you care about how you feel:

“I wish you had never had to endure the tragedy and turmoil of war, or had to grow up too fast, or lose your best friends in combat. I could never understand where you have been. I can only be grateful for the impact you both have made on my life. Thank you for your service to our country, for your love of each other, and the example you set for the next generation. The only real men I have known were Marines.”  

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.  

UPDATE:   May 15, 2019

I am pleased to report that the little book made it safely home thanks to the efforts of Londoners Auroskanda Vepari and Nidhi Mukhuty who carried it from Reno to Oxford. Here is how Auroskanda described the day it was delivered:  

“We were very warmly received by Amanda and she was delighted to see the book.  It was all timely as someone from the restoration team was visiting her in the days following our visit, so it would go immediately to receive some TLC before finding its place in the library's new secure vault.  Amanda very kindly gave us a tour of the library which was really quite amazing.  In the Upper Library stands a portrait of Barlow.  You would enjoy visiting Oxford, and if you do come to the UK, this is something we could do together!  I am sending you a link to some pictures from the afternoon - including a picture from the tower of the nearby St Mary's church of the garden behind the Queens' library building, underneath which lies the new vault and now, the Campanella book.”

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)

A Real American Hero

Each afternoon, Disney World in Orlando, Florida randomly selects a veteran from among its visitors to be guest of honor in a daily ceremo...