[What follows is a brief summary of Episode Eight 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]
Episode Eight: “The History of the World” (April 1969 – May 1970), Tuesday, Sept. 26:
Between May 10 and 20, 1969, troops of the 101st Airborne, 9th Marine Regiment, 5th Cavalry Regiment, and the 3rd ARVN Regiment fought a battle against the 29th NVA Regiment to take heavily fortified Hill 937, “Hamburger Hill,” near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. U.S. losses during the ten-day battle totaled 72 KIA and 372 WIA, and there was no good count of NVA losses as they ran off the hill, but 89 individual weapons and 22 crew‑served weapons were captured. A week later, caring only about kill ratios, we abandoned the hill.
The efficacy of Vietnamization – placing the South Vietnam Government in charge of the war – was hotly debated. But if the U.S. was to leave, the South would have to pick up the load. And with soldiers’ morale plummeting in Vietnam, President Nixon began withdrawing American troops. We also began pouring weaponry into Vietnam to arm the ARVN, which had between 850,000 and one million soldiers, and 90,000 KIA. There was rampant corruption in the ARVN. “Ghost soldiers” would sign up, pay their commanding officer their salary, and then continue to work their civilian job.
I wrote a song about a Black soldier who volunteered to take point, the most dangerous position in a patrol, for an entire year (see lyrics and hear a bit of the tune). He also has a heroic role in Cologne No. 10 For Men, albeit with a different name.
5. The Ballad Of John Wesley
© Richard A. Morris 1968
[Pvt. E-1 John Wesley was a black point man in C Co. 2nd of the 5th Cavalry whose heroic feats were widely told. Those in this song may or may not be true.]
An old NVA belt on his steel pot
Gave warning: Charlie mess with me and death will be your lot.
And a boyish grin showed a golden tooth with a white enamel star.
On his pump shotgun ‘neath a brass Cav patch
he’d eleven notches carved.
It was five a.m. in foggy 506.
For him though, that old High Noon clock was counting deadly ticks.
As around the bend five NVA with their bad AKs did come.
And a woman’s voice ordered him “Lai dai” as she chambered up a round.
John Wesley, did he drop his gun and try to run away.
No he opened up and he turned them all to clay.
It was New Year’s day and a truce had been decreed.
In defense, he patrolled around his company FOB,
When he came upon three well-armed Cong, all comfortable and nice.
When they saw him there they boldly smiled and kept on munching rice.
John Wesley, did he blow his cool and fill the fools with lead?
No he opened up some Cs and dined instead.
John Wesley, John Wesley, John Wesley
Relations between troops and their commanding officers was often strained. There were 800 cases of suspected “fragging” of superior officers in Vietnam–tossing a grenade in his hooch–especially those officers who volunteered for dangerous missions. (These were not especially attributed to racial tensions.)
Ho Chi Minh died on September 2nd, 1969, after struggling for independence against the French, Japanese, ARVN, and U.S. Le Duan continued to be the top decision-maker in North Vietnam.
Back home, there continued to be peaceful moratoriums, but the Weathermen of the Students for Democratic Society held four days of rage in Chicago, in which 200 were arrested. The moratorium on October 15, 1969 was the largest outpouring of dissent in the country’s history, and was on-the-whole peaceful and middle class. On November 3rd, Nixon appeared on TV calling for patience.
In Quang Ngai province south of Da Nang, seventy percent of the villages had been destroyed by off-shore guns and forty percent of the people had been sent into refugee camps. The Americal Division was operating there with “no sense of purpose,” according to author and veteran Tim O’Brien.
On March 16, 1968, the My Lai Massacre occurred in the hamlet of My Lai. It was the worst mass killing of the war. Between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians – under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, Jr., a platoon leader, and his commanding officer, Captain Ernest Medina, were killed. Victims included men, women–some of whom were gang-raped–children, and infants. Twenty-six soldiers were charged with criminal offenses, but only Lieutenant Calley was convicted.
Calley was found guilty of killing 22 villagers, was originally given a life sentence, but served only three and a half years under house arrest. To see more about atrocities in Vietnam, see my blog post “Fact or Fiction in Vietnam.”
On November 15, 1969, half a million people demonstrated against the war in cities across the U.S. Vietnam War veterans were now being called “baby-killers.”
The Cambodian incursion took place between April 29th and July 22nd by the ARVN and by U.S. forces between May 1 and June 30. The objective was to defeat the approximately 40,000 troops of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong who were ensconced in the eastern border regions of Cambodia.
Protests continued on college campuses. And on May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded nine others on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. As a result, hundreds of universities, colleges, and high schools closed throughout the United States due to a student strike of four million students. Four hundred forty-eight campuses were closed, and the National Guard was called out in sixteen states.
At about that time, protests were held at Harvard Business School. I was still a hawk then, and I remember taking the mic and defending Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia.