“The Vietnam War,” Episode Three: “The River Styx” (Jan. 1964 – Dec. 1965)

Thursday, September 21st is the International Day of Peace, established in 1981 by a unanimous United Nations resolution.


[What follows is a brief summary of Episode Three of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick Special “The Vietnam War” along with my personal commentaries, songs, and writings about where I was during this period. – Former 1Lt. Richard Morris, A Co. 2nd Bn 5th Cavalry, 1st Air Cavalry Division (Airmobile) 1967-68]       

In January 1964, I was a junior at Haverford, my Quaker-related college. After graduation, through December 1965, I was in graduate school at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and Vietnam was passing by me as a hazy newsreel in another world. Therefore, this post is more of a summary of Episode Three rather than an intertwining of my own experiences and/or events that may have inspired my writing in Cologne No. 10 For Men.

Movement of USS Maddox in Tonkin Gulf



I had read about coups by the military in South Vietnam, but I had not heard that Le Duan, not Ho Chi Minh, was now the leading decision maker in North Vietnam. Of course, I was aware of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, because it gave President Johnson a free hand to do whatever was necessary to assist South Vietnam. On August 2, 1964, the destroyer USS Maddox was pursued by three North Vietnamese Navy torpedo boats off the coast of North Vietnam. The Maddox fired three warning shots and the North Vietnamese boats then attacked with torpedoes and machine gun fire. The Maddox responded. One U.S. aircraft was damaged and there were no U.S. casualties. The Maddox was unscathed. Three North Vietnamese torpedo boats were damaged, four sailors killed, and six wounded. There continues to be disagreement as to what happened, but it led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, in which Congress gave President Johnson the authority, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, to do whatever was necessary to assist any member of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty. This included involving conventional armed forces.

Larger North Vietnamese units were moving south, and in response, in March, 1965, a week after President Johnson was inaugurated, he approved Rolling Thunder air strikes in North Vietnam. Formerly, retaliatory raids were permitted; now systematic bombing was approved in hopes of forcing the Vietnamese to negotiate. Johnson also approved three more Marine battalions to go to Da Nang to protect the bomber base. The government of South Vietnam was not consulted on these decisions, just as the American people were not informed when Marines were first sent into direct conflict. This decision has been described as Crossing the River Styx, our  decision to win for South Vietnam” instead of “helping South Vietnam win.

More and more troops for combat: Johnson ordered two more Marine battalions to Vietnam, but these would be for active combat, not just security–the first for combat. In May, 1965, Le Duan sent 5000 troops to the South to destroy the ARVN. Moscow was supplying their weapon systems, and China sent 300,000 troops to North Vietnam to replace NVA troops sent south. U.S. commander General Westmoreland urgently requested more troops. Johnson sent 50,000 more to be followed by an additional 50,000 by the end of 1965. This was also when napalm (jellied gasoline) and Agent Orange defoliant were introduced, napalm to burn enemy strongholds and Agent Orange to remove leaves from jungle trees that hid enemy troops and to destroy rice fields, forcing farmers to move to the cities.

In Vietnam, journalists were free to accompany troops into combat (there was not the press censorship that there was in World War II), and as a consequence, two hundred journalists were killed in Vietnam. One of the most influential stories was CBS Reporter Morley Safer‘s report on Marines burning down houses in the hamlet of Cam Ne. The report resulted in large stateside demonstrations against the war. Journalists were important characters in my novel Cologne No. 10 For Men, gutsy reporters who continually sought sensational stories that would help their stations compete for viewers on the daily news.

LZ X-Ray in Ai Drang Valley, 1965

The remainder of this episode became more personal for me as it was about my 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) a year and a half prior to my arrival in Vietnam. The division was deployed in Vietnam at Ankhe in the Central Highlands near Pleiku. It included 16,000 men and 435 helicopters. Their first major battle was in Ia Drang Valley, at LZ X-ray, on November 14-18, 1965. General Hal Moore led his troops against 3000 NVA troops, seven times the 1st Cavalry troops, which had the support of 18,000 artillery shells, 3,000 rockets, B52 strikes, and napalm. NVA troops attacked four times and left the bodies of more than 600 of their own soldiers. The 1st Cav had 79 KIA (killed in action) and 121 WIA (wounded). After that battle the NVA struck LZ Albany using new tactics–man-to-man combat so close that U.S. artillery, rockets, and air strikes would be useless. This history was made famous in the book We Were Soldiers Once and Young, by Lt. Gen. Harold (Hal) G. Moore (Ret.) and war journalist Joseph L. Galloway.

More troops: There were now twelve VC regiments and nine NVA regiments. Hanoi was escalating, and General Westmoreland was asking for 200,000 more troops.

Next: Episode Four: “Resolve” (January 1966 – June 1967), Wednesday, Sept. 20

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