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." 







  

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