Friday, July 27, 2018
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.
Thursday, July 19, 2018
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:
AN EVENING LIKE NO OTHER
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.”
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