Saturday, December 15, 2018

A Christmas Call to Remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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