Remembering Vietnam on Anniversary of War’s End

Vietnamese people worldwide last week marked the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, in many different ways. The Vietnamese government in Hanoi celebrated the victory of April 29, 1975, in what it now calls “the American War.” At the same time, thousands of Vietnamese families who fled South Vietnam in the following months, celebrated their success in America.

Ten years after the war ended, I came face-to-face with the suffering of some South Vietnamese families, living in poverty and squalor outside of Hong Kong. Worldwide media flippantly called them “Vietnamese Boat People”.

They deserved a better outcome. Many had held important positions supporting the American Military during the Vietnam War. Fearing for their lives and those of their families, they fled Vietnam on dangerously overcrowded freighters and fishing boats. Though hundreds of these boats eventually entered Kowloon Harbor, the Hong Kong government could only absorb a few of the refugees per month. Many of the rest remained on the boats which were eventually lashed together with crude carpentry to form a kind of floating village of poverty within the outer limits of the harbor.

During a trip to Hong Kong in 1985, I joined a few friends aboard a colorful tourist boat called a “Chinese junk”, a motorized version of an ancient Chinese vessel. Our on-water tour included a detailed close-up view of the lives of the so-called boat-people in their floating village. Though they lived under the poorest possible conditions, the village retained a sense of order. One or more of the boats actually served as a school. We watched as a group of well-behaved school kids traveled to “school” aboard an old wooden dinghy rowed by an older child.

Our tourist junk rode several feet higher than the crude decking of the boat-village, meeting regulations of Hong Kong officials. This ensured that we could safely view the village without the possibility of village residents boarding our small vessel. As we approached a woman on the village decking saw us, disappeared for a few seconds and returned with what looked like a fisherman’s landing net with a very long handle. On closer inspection, I realized that it wasn’t a net. It was a “begging basket” secured to a long homemade pole.

As our boat came close enough, I somehow made eye-contact with the woman, and she trust her basket within a foot or two of me. Without thinking, I reached into my pocket, found a $1-Hong Kong coin, and dropped it into the basket. Within a few seconds at least 10-12 anguished women appeared, all crying out, and thrusting similar baskets at me. Our boat captain quickly accelerated away from them, admonishing me to never give money again. Nevertheless, the hopeless expressions of the refugees stayed with me for days after.

How did this all happen? When the US withdrew its last military units from Vietnam in 1973, it left behind tens of thousands of Vietnamese civilian employees who provided the support infrastructure for the vast US presence during the war. Most of them understood that the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) would easily defeat the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet Nam). They also understood that the Hanoi government would punish as collaborators, all people who had worked for the US military, and all South Vietnamese military and government members.

As the NVA advanced, the abandoned people feared for their lives and the lives of their families. Those with financial resources or US connections took steps to leave the country as soon as possible. Many others left but were stranded in camps on tiny South Pacific islands, waiting months or even years for sponsorship by US relief organizations. Even when they finally arrived in the US, suffering continued. Many families were broken up to find spaces in welcoming foster homes where they lived temporarily.

Yet somehow, most of the Vietnamese eventually prospered. They found ways to support their families, educated their children, and emerged as successful Americans. Those left behind in Vietnam were not as fortunate. Many were punished or killed by the advancing NVA. Though 40 years have passed, the surviving families still in Vietnam remain as an impoverished underclass—sad remnants of a war that ended many years ago.

Few of us remember much of this story. By 1975—two years after the US pullout—the American press paid little attention. The Vietnam War was an old story. Media people were satisfied that they had prevailed since most were openly against America’s role in Vietnam. Besides, the Watergate story—with much juicier villains—had grabbed their attention.

Though 40 years have passed, we can see that America could have made a more humane exit from Vietnam. President Gerald Ford understood what would happen when he addressed Congress and asked for funding to evacuate South Vietnamese families in danger. Funding would have provided a series of fixed-wing airplane flights to evacuate large numbers of people in a few weeks of the steady airlift. But politics intervened. Congress refused to allocate funds. The handful of people evacuated had space only on a few American choppers from the roof of the US Embassy.

My book “The Victory that Wasn’t” offers a fictional alternate history of the final Vietnam war years, with much better outcomes for all Americans, including the endangered South Vietnamese families. It’s available on Amazon at http://amzn.to/1GUL8oX 

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Harriet’s Last Project

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Many of our online friends know that my sister, Harriet Vachss Harris, passed away in late March. Along with being a great sister and friend, she was also my editor. In the months before her brief illness, Harriet’s last project was editing the book I recently published, The Victory That Wasn’t.

Harriet helped me in ways that no other editor could have. Most editors simply make changes to MS Word pages, with deletions and added words identified in red, so that the originating author can accept or reject changes. Harriet didn’t work that way.

She never changed my writing. Instead, she sent me long lists of comments. Most of her comments identified a page number and a few introductory words. For example she might say “Page 206-‘In the program’s second month’–that doesn’t agree with the previous paragraph.”

Writing notes like that is much more laborious than simply changing the text. But Harriet always insisted that I make every change myself. She didn’t believe that editors should push their writing style into an author’s own wording. With that principle in mind, she ensured that every word would be my own. “I’m not the starting shortstop,” she would say, using a baseball metaphor. “I’m your first base coach.”

Harriet and I worked in different time zones, and were three hours apart. I often worked in the evening in California, while the East Coast was sleeping. That turned out to be a perfect arrangement for us. I emailed chapters late at night, and by the time I started work the next day, I would have Harriet’s exhaustive list of comments.

Many of her comments were about the nuts and bolts of punctuation, syntax, or usage. But many other comments referenced parts of the book that are based things I personally experienced in my Army years. While I was away on Army assignment, my sister and I exchanged letters regularly, keeping each other current on what we were doing.

Harriet’s incredible memory therefore held many recollections of things that I had experienced, but forgotten. From time to time her comments would prompt me with these forgotten episodes, and I would use some of them to refine the narrative of my story. She also offered clear memories of news stories for the time period covered in the book. These often suggested ways I could make my “alternate history” mesh with real world events.

I’ll soon begin another book…I already have a mental outline of it. And I’ll find another editor. Nevertheless I know that I’ll never find another Harriet.

 

 

Why I Wrote “The Victory That Wasn’t”

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Following a short assignment at Ft. Irwin, CA, I boarded a plane to Honolulu, and reported to Schofield Barracks. Schofield was the home of USARHAW–U.S. Army, Hawaii–and the Hawaii Army Weekly. Assigned to the Public Information Office, my first job was writer-reporter for the Weekly.

Along with headquarters operations, Schofield was the home of the 11th Infantry Brigade, then training for deployment to Vietnam. The brigade would later play a major role in the war, in a story that might have brought the war to a premature end.

During my first year writing for the Army’s newspaper I covered the brigade during training, and spoke to hundreds of its soldiers. Most of them were exceptional and later served bravely in Vietnam combat. Nevertheless I met a few draftees that seemed unfit for battle, and might have had a negative effect on the brigade’s overall fitness.

After the brigade deployed to Vietnam, the media referred to it as the Americal Division, to which it was attached. Soldiers in one of its many infantry companies became famous as perpetrators of the infamous My Lai Massacre.

Over the following years I thought about several things that happened during the brigade’s troubled days in Hawaii. Though no one could have predicted the future, these events–known only to a few people–may have foreshadowed the My Lai tragedy. And since My Lai had such a negative impact on the American people, it apparently spurred the country’s leaders to negotiate an end to American involvement.

Thinking about the overall impact of the war on America, I have long wondered how history might have been different, if some events during the Brigade’s formation in Hawaii had been different. That became the basis for the alternate history of my novel, “The Victory That Wasn’t.”

 

College Journalism on Steroids in Indiana

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When I arrived at Ft. Benjamin Harrison to enter DINFOS–the Defense Information School–I didn’t know what to expect. Just a few weeks past Army basic training, I was just happy to be in a place where there were no screaming drill instructors, no marching, running, or weapons training. Realizing that it was a genuine academic institution was icing on the cake.

The difference between DINFOS and an ordinary college curriculum was that students worked as much as 12 hours a day, six days a week, and occasionally on Sundays. The six-month course therefore included more lecture and writing assignments than four-year journalism students received at the state’s most renowned university.

My fellow students included members of the four major services as well as the US Coast Guard and a few Defense Department civilians. Along with standard journalism, the course provided an insider’s understanding of the military, as well as discussions on US strategies in international affairs. Many of us, including me, had worked on newspapers or radio stations before entering the military. Yet we all learned a great deal and sharpened our skills, as we experienced the military’s “immersion journalism training.”

We graduated with confidence that we were capable military journalists who needed no hand-holding. And we worked within the DINFOS slogan, “Maximum Disclosure, Minimum Delay.” Although my DINFOS days were many years ago, I still count some of the lessons learned there as the best skills training I ever received…far more valuable than regular college courses or grad school that I later attended.

One Single Action that Changed Everything

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Many of us recall a single action, seemingly insignificant, that changed everything that followed for us thereafter. World history has often been similarly affected by simple events, triggering actions that changed everything that followed.

On a personal level, I can recall several such events. One of the most significant events occurred during Army basic training at Ft. Dix, NJ. During a training session, the drill instructor in charge received a hand-delivered message. Looking at me with an appropriate level of disdain, he growled my name, and ordered me to fall out and report to the office of the First Sergeant. Following his order I ran back to the barracks admin area and to the office, dreading an unknown problem that would result in some kind of punishment.

Tentatively entering the First Sergeant’s office, I was relieved to meet a man in civilian clothes, who had the casual manner of a college professor. I learned that he was a DOD (Department of Defense) civilian employee assigned to an organization called DINFOS. His organization was responsible for training military journalists and broadcasters to serve in each branch of the services.

Introducing himself as Mr. Mathews, he read from a file folder that contained my personal information. Because of my education, civilian experience, and testing results, he said that I qualified for DINFOS training at the DOD campus of Ft. Benjamin Harrison, IN. The training there would be six months long, six days a week, and often as long as 12 hours daily. It was immersion training in journalism, and would cover the equivalent of a four-year major at a neighboring university. After graduation, I could be a writer, an editor, or information coordinator working with civilian media.

As with most Army opportunities, there were strings attached. I was a two-year draftee and would have to extend my Army obligation to three years. All I needed to do was sign a few forms, and Army bureaucracy would handle the rest. Just sign, add a year to my active service, go back to my basic training company, and trust that I would be assigned to journalism training after basic training.

In my mind, I imagined that “Mr. Mathews” might actually be the Devil, and was offering the classical “Deal With the Devil.” I imagined being mired in a Vietnam rice paddy, explaining to the Viet Cong that I didn’t really belong there, that I was supposed to be a journalist.  I had heard many scary stories of recruits who had encountered bureaucratic surprises. I could only hope that there would be no such snags to derail me.

After quickly weighing potential scenarios, I realized that there were two possible answers for Mr. Mathews. One was to say “No Thanks, sir.” That might get me into the war as an ammo-bearer or infantryman. The alternative response was, “Thank you sir, where do I sign?” That could produce a series of results, ranging from bad to good to great.

So I signed. I went back to the rigors of basic training, marching, running, and learning to handle various weapons. I had little time to think of Mathews, DINFOS or journalism. But when I graduated from basic training, I received written orders to fly to Indiana, and report to Ft. Benjamin Harrison for training. I was happily surprised, and never looked back. Following my six months at DINFOS, I spent a short stint at a post in the Mojave Desert, and then went to Hawaii as a newspaper writer and editor.

But that one moment of decision in an Army office had changed my life forever.
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It All Began With The War in Vietnam

I wasn’t at Woodstock between August 15 and August 18, 1969. And unlike many young guys of my generation, I never wore a tie-dyed shirt. Instead, I was one of the other guys, wearing US Army fatigues, courtesy of my local draft board.

But I was one of the lucky ones. In fact I was among the luckiest. Thanks to some early experience in journalism and broadcasting, the Army sent me to its Defense Information School, declared me to be a military journalist, and eventually posted me in Hawaii for the remainder of my short Army career.

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Though I never heard a “shot fired in anger,” I was nevertheless connected to the Vietnam War in ways I would never have expected. In my journalism job at US Army Hawaii, I touched people and events that eventually affected the war, and may have actually changed history. As I re-entered the civilian world and pursued a very different career, memories and questions about those Army years have stayed with me.

Until very recently, I never shared that story.  And instead of telling it now, I decided to write a novel combining real life and fiction. The result is a book that’s nearing completion. It’s called “The Victory That Wasn’t.”

Drafted! Feb 7, So Many Years Ago

Feb. 7, was the anniversary of my first day in the Army. My memory of that day is indelibly branded in my brain, in great detail.

On the morning of Feb. 7, I was home alone in our house on Glenbrook Rd. I had said goodbye to my dad the night before, since I knew he left for work at 6:30 AM and I wanted to sleep later to prepare for a very long day. None of our family has ever been good at saying goodbye, but I knew that my dad, a flag-waving patriot, was proud of me. My mom left for work a bit later that morning. A typical stoic Scott—raised in Glasgow—she would never shed a tear, but mumbled something like, “Don’t forget to write.”

So home alone for the last time, I left my house and car keys on the kitchen table, called a taxi for the short ride to the Stamford, CT railroad station,  and headed for the train to New haven.

Once I boarded the train, the situation began to feel real. Though I had feared and resented the notion of being drafted, I began to see the experience as an exciting adventure. As we arrived in New Haven, uniformed Army people met the train, as stipulated in my draft instructions. I suddenly realized that there had been many other young guys on that train, and that we were all headed to the same destination. At this point, the Army people were relatively polite. We were still civilians. They guided us to Army buses that brought us to the Army induction center. Once we arrived at the center, our uniformed guides were far less courteous.

The induction center was a scene of organized chaos. We each received pre-numbered forms that already had our names and basic information. Since we had all previously reported for our physical exams, we were ready to be sworn in. We all robotically raised our right hands, and swore allegiance to the United States, repeating the words of a young lieutenant who conducted the two-minute ceremony.

The uniformed guys telling us where to go were now MUCH less polite. They brusquely lined us up in groups of 50, for blood-typing, the last piece of data to be stamped into our dog tags. Each of us had a temporary number, and a medical tech guy carried a series of blood-typing modules with corresponding numbers. He simply matched each number, used the module’s tiny, sharp lancet to draw a drop of blood, and stowed each module into a container. Within an hour or so, we each received our two dog-tags on a neck chain, and could read our blood types stamped into them. For the next 30 years I always wrote my type, A+ onto medical forms, as stamped into my two dog tags. Having my type checked again after all of those years, I learned that the Army techs had it wrong. I am one of only 3.4% of the population with blood type AB+.

Leaving the New Haven Induction Center, we boarded buses for the three-hour drive to Ft. Dix, NJ. We arrived after dark, and were chased off of the buses by sergeants who loudly affirmed their control. Though exhausted at the late hour, we took written tests that measured our IQ’s and ultimately indicated the kind of jobs we might have after basic training. We were then organized roughly as a company called Yankee Company, with four platoons of 50. The platoons were created more or less in alphabetical order. For example, all of the guys in Platoon One had names beginning with the letters A through G. Since my name begins with the letter V, I was in the last platoon—Platoon Four. Each platoon had four squads of 12 or 13 members, still organized alphabetically.

It seemed odd to me that my name, beginning with V would be one of the three last names in a company of 200. But then I learned that our platoon was different from the other three. Our first squad was NOT composed alphabetically. Instead it began with names of 12 convicted criminals.

Judges of that era offered certain felons a choice between prison and the Army. When the would-be convicts chose the training they would receive, their choices were limited to combat roles. Typically macho kids under these circumstances chose Airborne, the most dangerous, yet glamorous part of the Army. In a foolish experiment, Army brass decided to keep newly recruited Airborne volunteers together as discrete units through all phases of their training—from basic through Infantry and then Airborne schools. As a result 25 percent of our platoon members were hardened gang-bangers, several of whom committed anti-social acts from Day 1. What could go wrong with this plan?

And that’s how and why I have privately remembered Feb. 7, every year since that first day of my Army career.