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Old G.I.s and Sleeping Dragons

By Doug Francescon

Author Biography



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Copyright Doug Francescon 2004


In Honor of:

Waylen Powell

Joe McCurry

Arnold Palmer

And all the guys who left a piece of themselves in Vietnam


Chapter 6


There is nothing more destructive, nothing more wasteful, nothing that causes more human suffering than modern warfare. Even the greatest natural disasters pale in comparison to the devastation caused by human conflict. Man spends generations building great civilizations, and then tears them to pieces. My dragon is only one of millions that wait for a chance to take control.


I understand where mine came from, and why I released him. I have learned that the only way to control the dragon is to control the situation.


I will always have a breaking point. There will always be a situation that will push me over the edge. I must use whatever is necessary to make my environment a place where the dragon doesn’t fit. If enough of us don’t make the effort, and recognize the potential for destruction; then even the most natural chain of events can lead to disaster.


It’s natural for groups to form, made up of those with common interests. These groups can grow into powerful organizations with significant influence. Influential organizations with similar goals form coalitions with even more power. Eventually mighty nations are born. When mighty nations find themselves at odds with one another, then the stage is set for destruction.


There was a time in the late 1930’s when World War II became inevitable. After John Kennedy was killed there was no way to stop the Vietnam War from running its full course. There have been times throughout recorded history when mankind reached a point when war couldn’t be stopped. The trick is to avoid that point, but mankind still isn’t able to do it.


Man is not ready to trust his fellow man; and, with good reason. In the past one hundred years alone the world has seen monsters coming to power, men like Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Maummar Gaddafi, Sadam Hussein, and Osama Ben Laden. Once men like these took control, and began to promote their objectives, there was no choice but to counter their actions with massive military force.


It therefor falls to each man and woman to watch their leadership carefully. Pay attention to the policies that your government enacts. Ask yourself if all those under its influence are being treated fairly. Ask yourself if the wealth is being distributed evenly. Find out if neighboring nations are being treated with respect. Check your home as well as your federal government, your work place as well as your state legislature, your neighborhood as well as your city hall. If things don’t feel right then they’re probably not.


Keep in mind that there is always a way to make the situation better and less volatile. Most of the time it won’t be possible to solve problems immediately. They’re too complex. It takes time, courage, perseverance, and sacrifice. Understand that the costs will be high. Powerful organizations don’t like opposition, and they don’t play fair.


Above all be honest with yourself. Don’t let your own selfish motives make you part of the problem rather than an aid to a solution. Ask the same questions of yourself as you ask of those who govern:


Do I treat my fellow man fairly?


Do I take advantage of those who are vulnerable in order to enhance my own position without regard for their condition?


Do I help when I can without the promise of future benefits?


My earlier list of monsters didn’t include any Americans. Throughout our relatively short history we’ve had our share. Every minority and native American group, including immigrants of all races and nationalities, have suffered because of them. Their influence has been generally limited, but has briefly found its way to the national level. If, for example, you believe that a single maniac with a cheap rifle killed John Kennedy, then you’re not being honest with yourself. Why was the full content of the report from the Warren Commission kept under wraps for so long? Why was the investigation handled so poorly? How was it possible for the man with the most first hand information to be killed while he was surrounded by police officers? These are the types of questions that a truly civilized nation cannot allow to go unanswered.


This isn’t about the Kennedy assassination. I only use it as an example of what can happen in a country that we assume is moral and civilized. We, naturally, want to believe the best about ourselves and those who we allow to lead us. But, each one of us is only human with all of the weaknesses and shortcomings that stand in the way of life as it should be lived.


These human flaws can cause leaders to make bad decisions. If bad decisions lead to poor leadership, then there must be checks and balances to either change leaderships’ course, or change the leadership. We have such checks and balances in this country, and they work well when used properly. But, they can’t work unless enough of the population is involved. A very wise man once said “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”


Unfortunately, people allow themselves to be led when they see what they want to see. Hitler led Germany into ruin because the Germans wanted to be fooled.


Once war begins it will always run its course. Neither side will back down until there is no choice. In the mean time thousands suffer.


We find ourselves on this road to destruction for various reasons. Dangerous men gain control and must be stopped, nations with limited resources attack their neighbors and take what they need, those with strong ideals or convictions attack those who have different views, to mention just a few. However, only when people's survival is threatened can they justify making war on their fellow man.


Once war begins there is only one way to fight it, with complete commitment to destroying the enemy. As terrible as it is, it's the only thing that can shorten the horror. It's also what makes nations avoid conflict in the first place. This country failed in Vietnam because it lacked resolve. It sent its young men and women to suffer and die without being committed to swift and complete victory. Thousands died on both sides because we tried to fight a limited war when there is no such thing. The immediate task in any war is to kill as many of the enemy as quickly as possible, thereby preventing your allies and comrades from being killed. The long-term task is to damage the enemy's resources and infrastructure so that he can no longer wage war.


We had the ability to crush the V.C. and North Vietnamese and didn't use it. We controlled the air, the sea, and whatever piece of land we decided to take. They threw everything that they had at us in 1968, and failed militarily, not being able to hold or control anything long-term. Here's my personal account of how we limited ourselves.


My first assignment was to take a search light section to an outpost between DaNang and the Laotian boarder. It was located on a hilltop overlooking a river valley and village. It was an excellent place to control the entire area below. There was an adjoining valley that ran from the river toward the border. The river ran to the coast, and emptied into the sea just outside DaNang.


The valley that connected the river with the area adjoining Laos was called Antenna Valley because of the number of marine radio operators that had been killed or wounded there. It was classified as an N.V.A. regimental assembly area although I doubt that there was ever a full regiment there. None-the-less, it was a natural highway from Laos to a number of areas in South Vietnam. I'm certain that the N.V.A. used it extensively. Lt. Mike Litwin, a platoon leader involved in an operation through nearly the full length of the valley said that he and his unit found a huge rice cash there, enough to feed a regiment. That amount of food was of great value, and would only be left in an area where there would be large troop concentrations.


Minh Hoa village just down river from our position was called "V.C. Ville." because of the regular Viet Cong activity there. The Marines had occupied it countless times only to have the N.V.A. and V.C. move back in as soon as they left. We'd have saved lives on both sides by moving the civilians out and leveling it.


The tactical importance of hill 300, my first outpost, was tremendous. It was at the crossroads of the natural highways that lead from the north. It overlooked an integral part of the supply lines that fed the N.V.A. and V.C.. We had a chance to choke it off, or even cut it entirely, and didn't.


We were set up to hit Antenna Valley, any point on or along the river, or the village with artillery or air strikes any time we needed. The whole area was within range of the artillery base at An Hoe that had 105, 155, and 8" howitzers. In addition, we had 4.2" mortars and a 106 recoilless riffle on top of the hill. Our firepower potential was tremendous.


Furthermore, we had artillery experts in the unit. I was one of them. Before being transferred to a searchlight section in the 29th artillery, I taught classes on all aspects of fire direction at the army's artillery school at Ft. Sill Oklahoma for a full year. In addition to teaching I participated in live firing exercises twice each month. I knew how to precisely hit targets, and could have done so at any time during our stay on the hill. This was our advantage, tremendous firepower, and the ability to use it effectively.


"Charlie" (the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong) countered this advantage by operating at night. That was his time to rule. Our answer could have been and should have been strategies and technologies designed for night fighting like the searchlights. They were not only powerful enough to light up any part of the valley, but also had infrared capabilities. That meant that in most cases, we could see them, but they couldn't see us. We had snipers equipped with Starlight rifles scopes designed to pick up targets on the darkest of nights.


The only thing missing was practice. We should have conducted massive nighttime operations. Only then could we fine tune the skills, and develop the coordination necessary to take control of the nighttime. Instead, we only took defensive action at night. We never used the unit's offensive capabilities because we weren't allowed to try. So, during the day, we kicked Charlie's ass, and at night, he kicked ours. The stalemate went on year after bloody year.


The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were “a one trick pony”, only capable of a single style of fighting. Their success depended on being able to move troops and equipment without being seen. We allowed them to bring the fight to us after dark. They picked the times, the places, and the circumstances, which put us at a tremendous disadvantage.


We were badly outnumbered the night we were overrun, and taken completely by surprise. We never should have allowed that to happen. We had the capability to stop it, but didn’t. I blame the losses on leadership’s mistakes, and include myself because I was in charge of the searchlight section.


We should have taken an aggressive approach to our defense on Nong Son. In fact, we shouldn’t have considered it a defensive position in the first place. It should have been a base for offensive action. If we’d have been active around the hilltop that night we wouldn’t have been surprised. We could have brought our firepower to bear early enough to keep them off of us.


I won't argue whether or not we should have been in Vietnam in the first place. That argument will never be settled. My point is this, once committed to war, there is no choice but to make the commitment total. It's a very messy business. It's about killing, and there's no way to make it anything but brutal. It's not about pins in a map or numbers on sheets of paper. It's about blowing a hole in someone large enough so that the bleeding can't be stopped and that person dies. If that sickens you, then maybe you understand war a little better.


If not I’ll explain it further. Civilians are crippled and killed, including children. The best of a nation’s youth die before their lives truly start. They will never know the joy of watching their own children grow up, or have the pleasure of reading a story to their grandchildren. Resources that could be spent on medicine and education are used to produce tools that maim and destroy. Mothers and fathers receive word that the sons and daughters who have been such a great part of their lives won’t be coming home, and they will never see them again.


The decision to make war is the gravest and most difficult that any leader must make. Religious beliefs, political ideologies, or the desire for wealth or power can’t justify it. It must be a last resort, only appropriate when the lives and well being of a nation’s citizens are threatened.

Continued next week


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