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)

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Bob Maheu First Wednesday Luncheon
August 1, 2018  

Joseph W. Brown

ROTUNDA ROOM - 11:45 am-1:00 pm

Michael Archer, Soldier/Author/Historian, Will Give Us an Overview of His New Book: “The Gunpowder Prince”

Michael Archer was born in Oakland, California and served as a U.S. Marine in South Vietnam in 1967-68, where he was among 6,000 Americans who withstood the harrowing and costly siege of Khe Sanh by over 30,000 of North Vietnam’s finest assault forces—equipped with tanks and heavy artillery.

Michael moved to Nevada in 1978, and after a career in federal service and raising a family, pursued his lifelong dream of writing. His books include A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered, which VIETNAM magazine called “The best first-hand account of the battle of Khe Sanh;” and The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited, chronicling his search for answers to a friend’s mysterious death at Khe Sanh and the grim aftermath of war. The Long Goodbye received FOREWORD Reviews “INDIES Book of the Year Award” for 2016, chosen from among hundreds of independent publishers and university presses across the nation.  

His most recent book (2018), The Gunpowder Prince: How Marine Corps Captain Mirza Munir Baig Saved Khe Sanh, reveals a little known aspect of that infamous battle, in which a 36-year-old Cambridge-educated, immigrant from India used his unique combination of brilliant deductive skills, expertise in artillery, and years of secretive counterintelligence work, including the development of spy networks extending deep into the enemy’s military organizations, to "get into the heads" of his adversary and—like a chess grand master—anticipate their every move on the battlefield.

The author also enjoys writing about the history of his adoptive state, and in 2011 published the sweeping biography A Man of His Word: The Life & Times of Nevada’s Senator William J. Raggio.  Michael’s articles and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Nevada Review and the Political History of Nevada—2016. In addition to writing, Michael enjoys participating in each session of the Nevada Legislature as a staff member with the Senate Committee on Finance.

He has three children and lives in Reno with his wife Becky.


Or Contact Lynn Warren
702-362-7800 (office)

Please remember to RSVP.

Payment at the door in cash (correct change is appreciated) or check payable to: JOE BROWN.


Friday, July 6, 2018


Today we honor the memory of Tom Mahoney. On this this date fifty ago, July 6, 1968, as the infamous Khe Sanh Combat Base, site of the longest and bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War, was being abandoned by the Americans, Tom Mahoney inexplicably walked away from his platoon, unarmed, and was shot to death by enemy soldiers hiding nearby. His fellow Marines made several desperate attempts to recover their well-liked comrade but were finally forced to leave him behind―though never forgotten.

Tom and I were high school friends who had joined the Marines together in the spring of 1967.  My efforts to understand what led up to his mysterious death, and locate his remains, are described in my book The Long Good bye: Khe Sanh Revisited. The following is an excerpt:


On the evening of January 24, 2011, Allen Williams, Aloalo Maumausolo and I met with Tom's sister, Claudia, and her husband Bill, at their home in Lake Forest, California. Much of Lake Forest is built over what had once been the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, the place from which all our flights to Vietnam in 1967, including Tom's, had originated, giving our presence together there the unmistakable feeling of a circle being completed—a journey's end.

Allen brought along his daughter Carrie Williams, and Aloalo his daughter Trish Malimali, which could not have been more fitting. Without the persistence of these two young women, searching for answers that might provide emotional healing for the fathers they so loved and admired, this gathering would not have happened. After Doc Topmiller's death in August 2008, I'd lost my motivation to pursue the search any further. However, Trish and Carrie, contacting me just a few weeks apart in 2010, reignited my desire to see this quest through for as long as I can.

All phases of Tom's life and death were represented that night. Claudia and I knew him in his early years. Allen, a close friend in Vietnam, struggled mightily to recover him, and lived the rest of his life with undeserved guilt that he had let Tom down. Aloalo never knew Tom, but likely held the answer to what happened to his remains after his death.

Claudia's genuine warmth and directness put us at ease within minutes of our arrival. Her devoted husband Bill, who had been a Marine in Vietnam, understandably worried that our presence might stir up too many emotionally painful memories for her but was quickly supportive after seeing how moved she was by the remarkable nature of our meeting.

None of us knew what to expect, but soon experienced a sense of comfort and intimacy, despite being virtual strangers; a peculiar kinship of people who had encountered the unthinkable and endured. We had come that evening to learn more about Tom, the kind of person he was, and, perhaps, get relief from the sorrow and guilt, or in Aloalo's case, the unanticipated horror, that changed all our lives in that summer of 1968. It was as if we each held a piece of a puzzle and by just working them around a bit, might bring this tragic story to an end.

Even if Tom's physical remains are never located, what I learned about human dignity and loyalty had already made this long personal quest worthwhile. To have found so many of those along the way, like Frank Ahearn and others in Bravo, as well as our former Vietnamese adversaries, whose humanity was strengthened rather than diminished by the horror and pain of war, seemed impossibly fanciful, and yet it was true. I now recognized that the world might be full of such extraordinarily compassionate people, heroically carrying terrible burdens of needless remorse.

I thought of that June evening in 1966 when I listened to Tom’s high school graduating class sing The Impossible Dream with its starry-eyed stanza:  

And I know if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest.

Just nine days before Tom arrived in South Vietnam the following year, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey had visited the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, exclaiming in a speech to the staff there that the war was “our great adventure and a wonderful one it is,” and that American sacrifices in Vietnam would contribute “to the everlasting glory of this Nation.”

It all reminded me of how bitter and angry I'd become, particularly in the years after Tom’s death, blaming the institutions of our youth for filling our heads with such nonsense, then sending us off in a quest that was anything but “glorious.” Before it was over, more than 210,000 young Americans had bled, died or gone missing and many others, like me, returned deep in the throes of what historian William Manchester once described as: "The supreme indifference of young men who have lost their youth and will never recover it."

Yet, as I looked around the room that evening, a sense of Tom’s presence, denied me years before at the psychic gatherings in Vietnam, was now palpable and calming. I felt privileged to be in the company of such courageous and resilient individuals and recalled how Tom’s platoon mates so warmly remembered his fretful concern for their safety, anxiously counting heads as the platoon drifted back into camp after each skirmish. Tom, Ken Fernandes once said, "always had a lot on his mind, because he was constantly concerned about the safety of those with him in the squad." 

Others told of his reliability and unselfishness, his delightful personality and a perpetual optimism which the heinousness of combat was unable to steal from him until one July day when an ill-timed letter crushed his spirit.

The room fell silent as we reflected on the ways this young man had so profoundly affected our lives and I allowed myself to slip into a callowness I'd not felt since before the war, before Khe Sanh. Now, home at last, I savored a tender bit of Irish verse:

"For he gave all his heart and lost.”

Friday, June 8, 2018

I was saddened to learn that photojournalist David Douglas Duncan passed away yesterday, June 7, 2018, at the age of 102. He had lived life with such gusto, as only one who takes the risks he took can do, in the thick of combat covering wars for over thirty years, on almost every continent. No photojournalist, before or since, has consistently captured the grimness and despair of battle like David did. Between these wars, he showed us the great joy and beauty in life. His opus, Photo Nomad, is a stunning photographic chronicle of the twentieth century.

In early June 2004, as I was preparing my first book, A Patch of Ground, for publication, I wanted permission to use a photograph that he had taken of Captain Baig, and the other “brain trust” officers, together in the Khe Sanh command bunker during the 1968 siege.  I initially contacted a person at his publisher, HarperCollins-NYC, who advised me that Duncan still owned the rights to all his photos and provided me with his address in France. I wrote to him immediately, and eleven days later he called. When I picked up the phone, the first thing I heard was David’s ninety-year-old, curmudgeonly tone that sounded like a question, but was actually a statement of fact: “Mike, so you didn’t get your ass shot off at Khe Sanh, huh.” I have included in The Gunpowder Prince part of our conversation with regard to Captain Baig, and so will not replicate it here. David then asked me what Baig had done after Khe Sanh, and whether he was still alive.  I filled him in on that tragic scenario and later that day mailed him a copy of Ray Stubbe’s monograph on Baig, The Mongol Prince (I had no idea at the time that I would be writing Baig’s story twelve years later).

David, a Marine officer in World War II, who had covered American troops fighting in that war, and the war in Korea, ended his thirty-year career as a combat photographer at Khe Sanh. That decision was not based entirely on his now being in his fifties and the grueling physical strain of battle that was beginning to take its toll on him. The fact was that, while David had seen countless dead and wounded American soldiers in his decades of reporting, his sobering, iconic February 1968 photo of body bags lined up beside the fog-shrouded Khe Sanh runway waiting for evacuation to some distant morgue, seemed to have been the last straw in reining in his anger and disappointment at what America was doing in Indochina. Soon after leaving Khe Sanh, David would produce two books, War Without Heroes and I Protest!, condemning the Johnson administration for, what David said was, their having changed the criteria for going war from the traditional, unfortunate, last-resort decision to preserve national security, to a lucrative business practice.

Fifteen years earlier in 1953, nine months before the French defeat at the hands of the Viet Minh Army at Dien Bien Phu, David produced a prophetic piece for Life magazine, titled “Indochina All But Lost.” As such, he was enormously frustrated to still be photographing war in that land, so many  years later at Khe Sanh.  Yet, he was unflinching in his admiration for the troops who served, as many a Khe Sanh vet who benefited from his kindness over the years can attest. 

While David’s reputation would have permitted him into the inner circles of world power, he preferred being out among common people, among common soldiers and artists like himself. What saddens me the most is not just that the world has lost such a rare talent, but a person who possessed the honesty and intellectual courage to state the truths he’d learned from his vast experience, irrespective of the bleating of more fearful, insulated and devious souls. Because of that, later in his life more doors closed for him, than opened. 

David thanked me for requesting permission to use his photos, because, he said, many people used them without extending him that courtesy. I then heard his wife call him for dinner. He said they were “having a chicken and rice dish with a very good sauce on the chicken” (considering he lived another twelve years, to age 102, this recipe might be the elixir of life😉).

Before we said our goodbyes, David said, “I suppose you would like something [about the permission] in writing?” I said I would appreciate that. I’m attaching below a link( "Duncan Reply")  to that wonderful message, handwritten boldly on the second page of my original request letter.  As you can imagine, it has warmed my heart each time I’ve come across it in my files over the years (NOTE: To clarify two things in the text of my letter, the working title of my book at the time was “Murmurs,” which was promptly rejected by my publisher a few weeks later as being too “artsy-fartsy” [a decision for which I am eternally indebted to him]. Also, I subsequently learned how to properly spell Lieutenant Colonel Hennelly’s last name).

One last item, actually a confession that I need to make; one I did not tell David about, though I’m sure he’d have found it amusing:

Earlier on a February 1968 evening, just before David shot the photograph I was requesting to use, he had been standing outside at the entrance to the command bunker chatting with Gunnery Sergeant Leon Risch, a salty Korean War veteran, about David’s age. Coincidentally, I was just then reporting for my radio shift and before I left my own bunker I had too-hurriedly put on my web gear, including my utility belt, which held sundry items like bayonet scabbard, ammo magazines, bandages, etc. The belt was buckled in the front by inserting a metal hook into an eyelet. In my haste, I had not secured the hook all the way in, and, as I arrived at the edge of the cement steps that descended into the command bunker entrance, the belt suddenly unlatched and all the gear attached to it slid down to my ankles causing me to trip and tumble head-first down the stairs. I landed at the feet of Duncan and Gunny Risch, and, as gunnies are traditionally known to do, he immediately unleashed a torrent of profanity chastising me for my clumsiness.   The commanding presence of the famous David Douglas Duncan loomed above me in silence; but his eyes eloquent in the unmistakable squint of  “Old Corps” disdain.

I’m relieved to finally get that one off my chest.       

Rest in peace Mr. Duncan. Thank you for allowing us see the world through your eyes.

Duncan reply 

Image result for david douglas duncan

Friday, May 18, 2018

Post-publication Reflections on The Gunpowder Prince: How Marine Corps Captain Mirza Munir Baig Saved Khe Sanh.

For all sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these, 'It might have been'.
- John Greenleaf Whittier

I have gone over in my mind countless times the thought of what Captain Mirza Munir “Harry” Baig might have accomplished had he survived all his dangerous counterintelligence missions in Southeast Asia, and the tragic circumstances of his death in 1971 at age thirty-nine. Harry’s short life and career included him honing his remarkable intellect while obtaining a law degree from Trinity College in Cambridge, England, and an MBA from McGill University in Montréal, Canada, before entering the U.S. Marine Corps in 1958—as a lowly private. Given the rapid and lofty trajectory of his accomplishments, there is a good chance Baig would have risen to positions of great responsibly within the U.S. intelligence community.

His mother, Juliette Jamil, was a member of a well-connected Anatolian family and had studied at the American University in Beirut under special patronage of King Faud of Egypt. Her brother, Selim Jamil, had gained notoriety for his assistance to the American army during the First World War, and later conducted highly sensitive missions working with the U.S. State Department and Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) during the Second World War. Harry’s father, General Osman Baig, was the son of British colonial knight Sir Abbas Ali Baig, who was a personal friend of King George V. Osman had commanded an Indian Colonial Army division guarding the strategic Khyber Pass during the Second World War, and later became a versatile and highly respected Pakistani diplomat. Osman’s brother (Harry’s uncle), Mirza Rashid Ali Baig, was an Indian soldier, scholar and diplomat, who had, among his many later duties, served as India’s ambassador to The Philippines and Iran. Rashid authored several influential books under the name M. R. A. Baig, including The Muslim Dilemma in India, Viking House, 1974.

Harry’s father-in-law, Count Nicholas de Rochefort, appears to have recruited him into the intelligence business.  As a member of one of France's oldest families, with ancestor Guy de Rochefort earning fame during the First Crusade in 1095, Nicholas served as a captain in the French Army during the Second World War. He was captured by German forces and later escaped and rejoined Allied forces. After the war, de Rochefort, who spoke five languages, edited a periodical in Morocco before beginning a lecture tour in the United States in 1949. Five years later, he renounced his French citizenship and title and became a U.S. citizen. Now, an expert on psychological warfare, Nicholas served on the faculty of the American University, and as a research analyst at the Library of Congress for the Agency for International Development (USAID) which maintained a close working relationship with the CIA. Harry’s brother, Taimur, would graduate from Harvard and become an executive with the World Bank.

In addition to these several unique, widespread and highly placed connections, by the early 1970’s, Harry had developed a stellar reputation within the world of counterintelligence, as well as a close connection to the then-Deputy Director of the CIA, General Robert Cushman. Combined, it is easy to conjecture how effective a player Harry might have been in helping detangle the religious, cultural and political mechanisms causing widespread volatility in the Middle East and South Asia during the latter half of the twentieth century.

More similar to John le Carré’s fictional character, the eccentric George Smiley, than he was to Ian Fleming’s macho James Bond; Mirza Munir Baig would have, as he had in South Vietnam, particularly at Khe Sanh in 1968, continued to employ his matchless genius, cunning and self-discipline in the world’s most dangerous locales to protect his adopted country from harm until the day his luck ran out—which, as Fate would have it, was far too soon.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

New work of fiction by author Caleb S. Cage

In Desert Mementos, author Caleb Cage seamlessly draws together several poignant, evocative, and grimly humorous literary sketches into a truly remarkable interpretation of the foibles of the human heart—and the dark, endless moral predicament of soldiers who have faced mortal combat.  Candid and captivating.   Once I began reading, I could not put it down.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Vietnam War documentary

A thought on the Burns/Novick documentary (which, like many others of my generation, I'm having a hard time getting through):

The CIA had long tried to convince the White House that the VC/NVA not only had far more troops committed in the field than LBJ, McNamara and Westmoreland wanted to believe, but also possessed the will and staying power to see it through. In his 1978 book, “Sub Rosa: The CIA and the Uses of Intelligence,” Peer DeSilva, a frustrated former CIA chief-of-station in South Vietnam, succinctly describes LBJ and his minions, in light of their doomed course of action, as having been "arrogant, prideful, and dumb."

On a somewhat related, one of the tragic absurdities I came across while researching “The Long Goodbye” was that McNamara had grown up in Oakland, CA, about a 15-minute walk from Tom Mahoney’s family home, and died on July 6, 2009 at the age of ninety-three—exactly forty-one years TO THE DAY that 20-year-old Tommy Mahoney fell on Hill 881 South. The fact that Mr. McNamara’s cynical and self-serving policy to keep his misgivings about the war hidden and continue escalating the effort earned him 73 years more of life than his neighbor Tommy—and thousands of other 20-year-old boys—is a disgraceful epilogue to this national tragedy.

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 ...