Wednesday, May 23, 2012

GIs Have a Say on Monterey Bay

Monterey Bay, south of San Francisco, was long the site of two dramatically different military worlds. High on a hill overlooking the bay sat the Army Language School (ALS),* while across the water, along miles of prime California beachfront, Fort Ord spread over the landscape.  Separating the two bases was the long-defunct Cannery Row, which lent its name to a John Steinbeck novel, and the then-sleepy fishing port of Monterey.

ALS was designed much like a small college specializing in foreign languages. Most of the student-soldiers were either college grads or at least had a few years under the belt. Instead of dorms, there were barracks. What at a college would be described as a dining hall was called the Mess Hall at ALS. The food was not so different, maybe even a bit better. We even had lawns and flower beds.

I studied Czech at ALS in the ’50s; brother Jeff Sharlet was there in the ‘60s for Vietnamese; and, not long after, our cousin John Sharlet went through the 11-month Russian program. All three of us were in the Army Security Agency (ASA), a communications intelligence outfit, although other branches of the military also sent their people to ALS for intensive training in one of the nearly two dozen languages taught by native speakers.

Military duties were held to a minimum, and everyone was free at the end of the class day as well as on weekends when some of us headed across the peninsula to Carmel-by-the-Sea with its beaches and upscale pubs, while others took off up Highway 101 to the San Francisco Bay Area. As military life went, it was great duty.

Well they're out there a'havin' fun
In that warm California sun**

If a guy landed across the bay however, he was in for a very different military experience. Fort Ord, a sprawling 28,000 acre site the size of a large city like Boston, was Sixth Army headquarters and home to the 6th Infantry Division (later the 7th). During the Vietnam War, Ord was the country’s major Army Basic Training Center where tens of thousands of young men inducted into the Army underwent an 8-week infantry course in the fort’s sprawling facilities.

Drills, obstacle courses, and rifle practice were the routine. Trainees were also familiarized with a mock-up of a Vietnamese village and the kinds of booby traps used by the Viet Cong.  Back at the barracks after long, hard training sessions, spit & polish was the order of the day. Upon graduation from the Basic course, those not shunted off to armor or artillery bases received Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) followed by a short leave, then invariably were shipped to Vietnam via Travis Air Force Base north of the Bay Area.

 Basic training graduation parade, Ft. Ord, '60’s; new trainees look on.  
Photo:  Jim Vestal

During my time up on the hill at ALS, most of the Ord troops were sent to US garrisons in either South Korea or West Germany – neither posting placing them in harm’s way during the Cold War ‘50s. However, when our cousin John arrived at the language school for intensive Russian, Ord was training large numbers of infantry for the escalating Vietnam War. The sign over the Close Combat Course said it all: If you fail here – you fail in combat. If you fail in combat, you die.

By the late ‘60s the tally of men killed in Vietnam had passed 25,000, the war had become increasingly unpopular with the public, and opposition to it had begun to spread among the GIs themselves. In January ’68 after Jeff launched Vietnam GI (VGI), the first GI-led underground antiwar paper addressed to active-duty troops, the extent of unrest among the those fighting the war soon became apparent in numerous letters-to-the-editor published monthly.

Meanwhile, a lot was happening on the homefront – In late March President Johnson dropped out of the ’68 presidential race, leaving the Democratic nomination contest to his pro-war vice president and two popular antiwar senators, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Opposition to the war was in the air, and dissent in the ranks wasn’t confined to troops in Vietnam. It was growing as well among those training to deploy. A report from a GI which Jeff ran in the April VGI, reflected the mood at Ford Ord.
It is hard to actually describe the antiwar feeling that exists here at Fort Ord, for much of the activity is confined to the minds of men.  A common reply to the statement 'I'm opposed to this war' is the simple but inclusive answer 'Who isn't?' There is little enthusiasm toward the policy of the war in Vietnam.  It shows in the disgruntled attitude of most of the men on their jobs. ... It's not as if the men were apathetic toward their country or its people, nor are they unwilling to sacrifice personal comfort, safety, and ambition, it is simply the fact they don't believe in what we're doing in Vietnam. ...
                        ♫ Ain’t gonna fight, fight war no more
                                 We’re giving it up, we’re gonna let it go
                                 We’re giving it up, we’re gonna let it go**
 There has been some open expressions of  antiwar sentiments, a few people have gone to jail, some have distributed leaflets, and many have openly discussed their feelings with other people.  The future is sure to bring an increase in open antiwar expression.  Many CO [Conscientious Objector] applications will be refused, and many of these people will go to jail.  More leaflets written by GIs are appearing, and antiwar graffiti is to be found everywhere around the fort. ... One thing is certain, the troops are getting restless and disillusioned with this war.  Some are vehemently opposed, while others are beginning to experience doubts, and this is sure to manifest itself in some way.  There are many here who realize what's going on in Vietnam, and they don't like it.

While Fort Ord was one of the largest bases in the country, it was just one of many turning out soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airment for Vietnam, and, as similar reports in other issues of Vietnam GI indicated, GI protest at Ord was not unique. 

*Renamed the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in the '70's.
**California Sun, by Henry Glover and Morris Levy, 1961
***(Ain't Gonna) Study War No More, by Willie Dixon and Alex Dixon, 1988,

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

On the Trail With the NVA

As the Vietnam War intensified, a major US objective was to stop the infiltration of men and materiel by the People’s Army of Vietnam, otherwise known as the formidable North Vietnam Army (NVA) into the Republic of Vietnam or, more familiarly, South Vietnam (SVN). General Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition against the black pajama-clad guerrilla forces fighting in the jungles and mountains of SVN known to GIs as the Viet Cong, or VC, was not working. Although US forces brought immense firepower to bear causing heavy casualties, it was to no avail.  Decimated VC battalions refitted and reappeared along with increasing numbers of North Vietnamese regulars.

NVA units and supplies were continuously coming down what was dubbed the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ (HCM trail), a complex, semi-concealed network of roads, trails, waterways, and mountain paths originating in North Vietnam, looping through the border areas of neutral Laos and Cambodia, and crossing into SVN at various points. These were well-trained, well-equipped, uniformed units that entered the fray alongside the VC. For the North Vietnamese troops, coming down the trail was a long, arduous journey, all the more so given steady US bombing the length of the route. Still they came, and, since the NVA and VC traveled light, only modest amounts of materiel had to make it through the gauntlet to supply them in the battle zone. 

Ho Chi Minh Trail infiltration routes

Vietnam GI (VGI), Jeff Sharlet’s underground antiwar paper for GIs, regularly ran interviews with enlisted men—combat veterans back from the Nam as they called in-country or, in military parlance, simply ‘grunts’— but occasionally a maverick officer turned up in its pages. In the September ’68 issue, an Army captain sat for an interview. He had five and a half years in and was headed for a career, but had grown disgusted with senior officers he worked with in Vietnam, had lost faith in the US mission, and resigned his commission. The captain had served at brigade headquarters of the 173rd Airborne and had stories to tell, including an account of a typical NVA unit gleaned from interrogations of prisoners captured by the 173rd.

For the next three months, the 174th underwent unit training with special emphasis on squad, platoon, and company tactics. The training was very thorough and included mock-ups of American planes and tanks. They ‘war-gamed’ with some of the regiment’s units taking the role of US troops and using the same tactics as American commanders. The 174th gradually learned how their adversaries operated and developed counter-tactics.

Finally ready for combat, the unit began infiltrating down the HCM trail in early ’67, crossing into Laos where it engaged the Royal Laotian Army in what a captured NVA lieutenant characterized as a kind of shakedown battle exercise. As the Laotians were no match, the encounter served to sharpen the 174th’s combat tactics and techniques. Enroute along the trail, the 174th came under American bombing raids. However, they had been trained to expect such attacks, minimum damage was sustained, and they continued their trek south.

By May of ’67, the 174th had made it into SVN, arriving at the Central Highlands in the area of Dak To. They were soon in heavy combat with South Vietnamese forces formally referred to as the ARVN, as well as elements of the US 173rd Airborne. The NVA decimated an elite ARVN unit, inflicting heavy casualties and overrunning their position. Not long after they made contact with two companies of the 173rd and chewed up Alpha Company thanks to their earlier training in US combat tactics.

The NVA commander knew that upon first contact with the enemy, American infantry units pulled back about 200 yards, formed a temporary defensive line, and called in superior firepower on their adversary’s presumed position.  After heavy shelling and air strikes, the US unit would then attack. Predictably, the US commander was about to fall back, at which point the 174th deployed the new counter-tactic it had practiced. As the maverick captain told VGI, Instead of holding their position and withstanding the inevitable shells and bombs, the NVA
began assaulting as soon as contact was made....They immediately made physical contact with us and stay[ed] as close as possible, even between our that we couldn't use [our] artillery or air strikes.

NVA Assault Troops
The counter-tactic worked so well for the 174th Regiment that word went out to all NVA commands in SVN to use it. As the war ground on, US commanders changed and adapted their tactics accordingly, but of course it was too late for the men of Company A of the 173rd Airborne.