07 August 2005
On the long ride back from Bin Khe I rehashed the events of that day over and over wondering each time if my radio operators had done well and how my superiors would evaluate my performance in the field.
My reaction to my first time under fire surprised me. I had been raised on John Wayne war movies and daydreamed about being another Audie Murphy mowing down the enemy with a machine gun under one arm while I tossed grenades with the other.
Freezing up when the first shots were fired was not something I had planned for or expected and once I had made it to cover I couldn't see where the bullets were coming from or who to shoot at because I had become so rattled and the enemy was so well concealed.
On top of all this was the thought that my younger (by one year) brother was at that moment in the Delta flying helicopters and getting shot at on a regular basis. My first combat experience discouraged me from sharing it with him and although later experiences ended on a more positive note I didn't talk about them to anyone until many years later.
Louis Galanos in 1966
My distress over my performance that day must have been obvious to some of the other American advisors. When we got back to base SFC Felix Sisario, one of the American advisors with Advisory Team 27 took me aside and gave me one of those father/son talks on how it wasn't anything to worry about and I would do a better job next time.
I wasn't sure if I wanted another next time. Getting shot at for real was an eye opening experience and made you very aware of your mortality. This was not a movie where the worst that could happen to the hero is a bullet wound to the arm. A person could get killed in a very permanent way.
In retrospect my problem was being thrown into a combat situation with little or no preparation. Combat infantrymen assigned to field units often went through several days of orientation, weapons training, and field exercises before they saw combat. For me it was going from my Remington typewriter one day to being shot at the next.
While the officers began writing up their After Action Reports of the day's events the enlisted advisors worked with the ARVN troops getting the weapons and equipment cleaned and stored away for the night. The troops were particularly quiet during this process and I think that many were as embarrassed as I was by what happened that day.
ARVN soldiers with US officers
Much to my surprise the reports that were submitted to HQ talked about how successful our mission was. This was my first experience in how the truth of what was happening in Vietnam often got lost in the politics of putting a good face on everything we were doing.
After a couple of more days with elements of the 9th
ARVN Division I was told that my time with Advisory Team 27 was about up but I could be called back at anytime to teach a new batch of recruits. In the meantime I would have to return to HQ and my Remington typewriter.
Upon my return I found that I had been replaced by one of the legion of new guys that were flooding into Vietnam without letup. My new assignment was with the classified documents section at headquarters.
My sole responsibility was to accept and log in classified documents and hand out these same documents but only to the appropriate people. We had a list of officers and enlisted men who were authorized to pick up documents and their security clearance. Ironically I myself didn't have a security clearance when I started my job yet there I was dealing with reports and documents with Confidential and Secret classifications.
There was never a long line of people waiting to sign for documents and sometimes for hours on end I had very little to do inside the wire cage where I worked. To entertain myself I would look through some of the reports dealing with firefights and battles that had occurred throughout our area of responsibility.
I had a chance to compare these “classified” reports with the press releases put out by our Public Information Office (PIO). Sometimes the differences were striking.
In one case the PIO put out a press release stating that at Landing Zone (LZ) Mike a superior force of Viet Cong attacked the base causing casualties and heavy damage.
The “classified” report of the same incident told a different story. It seems that a perimeter guard had sent up an illumination flare to light up his area. The flare drifted back into the perimeter landing on the POL (gas & oil) storage area causing a massive blaze that spread to the ammo dump. The fire and ammo dump explosion leveled the base causing the deaths of 10 men with 23 wounded. Someone once said that the first casualty of war is the truth. The longer I worked in the classified documents section the more apparent that became.
Life as a classified documents clerk got interrupted a couple of times to do some radio instruction with the Republic of Korea (ROK) Tiger Division which was headquartered in Qui Nhon. Besides soldiers from Australia and Thailand the United States was also paying to have Korean mercenaries (my description) do some of the fighting so it didn't look like just an American war.
As far as I was concerned the South Koreans were probably the best fighters in our area. The main reason they were the best was because they didn't have to operate under the same restrictions American soldiers were saddled with. Case in point: After I returned home a buddy of mine, still in Vietnam, wrote me that during the Tet Offensive of 1968 the Viet Cong took over the city of Qui Nhon and despite having almost 50,000 American troops in the vicinity, we couldn't dislodge them.
Finally the Americans unleashed the Koreans on the Viet Cong and as they went from house to house they shot anything and everyone who threatened them. No matter that they were men, women, or children if you challenged them you died. It didn't take long for the Koreans to clean up the town. However, the casualty rate among the local populace was appalling.
Off the battlefield an American soldier was told to think twice before confronting a Korean soldier. The main reason was that they were all trained in Tae Kwon Do.
Despite these warnings there were plenty of GIs who, after having a few drinks in a local bar, would begin calling the shorter Korean soldiers names like “gooks”, “slopes”, or other crude names. When the fighting started the Koreans made short work of the Americans.
These fights usually resulted in Americans being hospitalized. The American commander was embarrassed by the conduct of his troops and he and the Korean commander decided that something had to be done.
They arranged for a local Korean combat unit to give a demonstration on Tae Kwon Do. Most of the American soldiers had heard of Karate but few if any were familiar with the modern martial art of Tae Kwon Do in 1966.
Tae Kwon Do
It amazed us to watch the Koreans in action. Most of the young Koreans soldiers they brought with them for the demonstration were the size of average Americans or taller. However their NCO/Instructor was short (5'2”), looked very old and couldn't have weighed more than 95 pounds.
During the demonstration they seemed not to pull their punches and made solid contact with fast high and sometimes spinning kicks. Some of the contact resulted in facial cuts and bloody noses. Also, a lot of the young Korean soldiers were getting pretty beat up because they were doing the demonstration outdoors on gravel and not foam mats. When one of the Koreans landed hard on the gravel an audible groan went up from the American audience.
The final act of this show was a confrontation between a tall (over 6 feet) Korean soldier and the much shorter NCO/Instructor. The instructor gave the younger soldier an unsheathed bayonet and orders to attack him.
As we watched mesmerized, it looked to us like the younger man was trying to really stab the older man but each time a thrust was made the older man would move with lightning speed with high kicks and low kicks. He literally defeated the younger man without laying a hand on him.
When it was over the younger man had many holes in his clothes from landing on the gravel and blood coming from his nose and a gash right at the hairline that bled profusely. The older man was just breathing heavily. This made quite an impression on all of us.
During the next couple of months time passed quickly as I rotated from my duty as a radio instructor with the ARVNs and Koreans and back to the classified documents section. The work was hard, combat was scary, but I was thankful that my time in the field was not extensive and our casualties were light. Being sent back to HQ was always welcome because I could catch up on my sleep, check my mail for food packages, and visit the local bars with my buddies.
While at HQ I had the opportunity to meet several celebrities who were visiting Vietnam.
They included actor Henry Fonda, singer Nancy Sinatra, actress Chris Noel and a ringside seat for the Bob Hope Christmas Show. The visits by the celebrities were always appreciated by the troops.
As the “old guard” rotated home the casual approach to getting the job done was gradually replaced by doing everything “by the book.” This led to friction between the soldiers who felt that the old way was best and the officers and NCOs fresh from the states who wanted to “whip us into shape.”
I liked the casual, friendly approach of the “old guard”. Both officers and NCO's were like family and treated all with respect and consideration. We were like family because we were all in the same boat in the early part of the big buildup when life in Vietnam seemed more dangerous.
With the influx of hundreds of new guys of all ranks at HQ that began to change in a hurry and with some sadness the last of the “old guard” rotated back to the states in early 1967.
Before they left we had an awards ceremony where everyone got a medal or two regardless of rank. Maybe some of the guys didn't fully deserve some of those medals but all of us were damn happy to get them. I was awarded the Bronze Star for my work with the 9th
ARVN and a Purple Heart for some minor wounds received in one of the battles along Route 19.
Unfortunately the old guard's casual approach to Army regulations meant that the paperwork authorizing some of those medals never made it to your permanent file. You found this out much later and by then there was little you could do about it.
To be continued…
Read part 1 - Welcome to Vietnam
Read part 2 - First Impressions
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