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Note from the Editor

Greetings -I hope you enjoy this month's issue of Dispatches which contains little known stories from World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. Email me your comments and suggestions to So much is happening on your website Login today and check out the new members and latest posts.

LtCol Mike Christy, US Army (Ret)


The Incredible Rescue of LtCol Gene Hambleton

On April 2, 1972, the third day of the Easter Offensive, the largest combined arms operation of the entire Vietnam War, 53-year-old Air Force Lt. Col. Iceal 'Gene' Hambleton was a navigator aboard one of two United States Air Force EB-66 aircraft escorting three B-52s. Bat 21, call sign for Hambleton's aircraft, was configured to gather signals intelligence including identifying North Vietnamese anti-aircraft radar installations to enable jamming. (Photo is Bat 21 in Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand.)

Midway through the operation, Bat 21 was destroyed by a SA-2 surface-to-air missile and Hambleton was the only survivor, parachuting behind the front lines into a battlefield filled with thousands of North Vietnamese Army soldiers. The bodies of the aircrew were never found.

Because of Hambleton's knowledge of Top Secret Strategic Air Command operations and an expert in surface-to-air missile countermeasures, his rescue was crucial. If he was to fall in the hands of the North Vietnamese and then turned over to the Russians, it could result it irreparable damage to American national defense. Thus, it became the "largest, longest, and most complex search-and-rescue" operation during the Vietnam War. It was also one of the costliest. Five additional aircraft were shot down during rescue attempts, directly resulting in the deaths of 11 airmen, the capture of two others, and another airman, Lt. Mark Clark, trying to evade capture. Further air rescue attempts were called off and the two airmen, travelling separately, were then told that the next attempt would be a land rescue by Navy SEALS up the monsoon-swollen Cam Lo River.  

On the night of April 10, 1972, more than a week since Hambleton had been evading enemy capture, Navy SEAL Lt. Thomas R. Norris, leading a handpicked team of five South Vietnamese Lien Doc Nguoi Nhia (LDNN), similar to Navy SEALs, set off down the Cam Lo River in a sampan to get Clark.

Clark's trip to the pick-up point was a harrowing one. Twice he was almost spotted by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) patrols. At around dawn on the morning of April 11, Clark and Norris linked up and the sampan sped back down the Cam Lo River to their Forward Operating Base (FOB) and safety.

Shortly after Norris's sampan returned, the FOB came under attack by a resilient, well-armed NVA unit that was only repulsed after numerous air strikes were called in. The attack caused several casualties, including the killing of two of the South Vietnamese LDNNs. Two other LDNNs refused to go on any more missions.

On April 13, a Forward Air Controller received a message from Hambleton that he was at the Cam Lo River pickup point. That night Norris and LDNN Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet, dressed as local fishermen, got into a sampan and headed upriver.

After several harrowing close calls with NVA troops, they found Hambleton; weak and delirious but still alive. Quickly they got him into the sampan and hid him under some bamboo. Now it was a race against time to get back before dawn. Twice they were discovered by North Vietnamese troops. The first time they managed to escape downriver before the patrol could fire at them. The second time they found themselves cut off by an enemy unit with a heavy machine gun. Norris radioed for an air strike. Soon seven aircraft from the USS Hancock arrived on target, killed a number of North Vietnamese troops and provided cover for Norris and Kiet, allowing them to continue their downriver journey with their high value cargo.

With the sun high overhead, Norris and Kiet returned Bat-2 (Hambleton's radio call sight) to the FOB.

Hambleton's ordeal was finally over.

In photo Norris is in the center looking on as Hambleton is carried away.

Lt. Norris was recommended for the Medal of Honor. Petty Officer Nguyen Van Kiet received a Navy Cross - the only one ever given to a Vietnamese.

Four months later, in late October 1972, Lt. Thomas R. Norris was on another mission deep behind enemy lines. This time he was leading a team that included SEAL Petty Officer Second Class Michael E. Thornton (left in photo) and three South Vietnamese commandos on a high risk/high reward reconnaissance mission near the Cua Viet River military base that had been captured earlier by the NVA.  

Launched in a rubber boat at dusk by a Vietnamese junk, the SEAL patrol silently paddled toward the beach in the gathering darkness. About a mile offshore, the men left their small boat and swam to shore. Then they moved inland, passing silently beside numerous enemy encampments.

They patrolled all through the night, gathering important intelligence. As daybreak approached, seeing no identifiable landmarks, they realized that they had come ashore too far north; in fact, they were in North Vietnam. As they moved back toward the beach, Lieutenant Norris established radio contact with the fleet. Moving further toward their pickup point, they were discovered by the enemy and began to take heavy fire. More than fifty enemy soldiers attacked, closing to within five yards. Norris and Thornton knew were in a fight for their lives in a tactical situation that could only be described as "a disaster about to get worse."

Norris was hit in the face and part of his forehead was shot off, exposing his brain. Ignoring the hail of enemy fire, Thornton raced back to the unconscious Norris, killed two enemy soldiers who were standing over his wounded commander then hoisted Norris onto his shoulders and sprinted back toward the beach for several hundred yards under heavy enemy fire.

The team retreated to the sea, where Thornton, wounded across his back and legs by a grenade, inflated Norris's life vest and the vest of one of the commandos, who also had been wounded. After inflating his own vest, Thornton began swimming the two wounded men out to sea for rendezvous with their support craft.

The trio's ordeal lasted hours. Thornton saw one support craft leave the area after having picked up the South Vietnamese commander, who had swum ahead and informed the crew that he was the only survivor. But a second support craft manned by fellow SEAL Woody Woodruff remained in the area, spotted the trio, and rescued them.

Though it would take numerous operations and years to recuperate, miraculously Norris survived.

On October 15, 1973, Michael Thornton was on his way to the White House to receive the Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon.

Lieutenant Norris, still a patient at nearby Bethesda Naval Hospital, had been forbidden by his doctors to go to the ceremony, but Thornton spirited him out the back door of the facility and took him along.

Almost three years later, Norris himself received his Medal of Honor from President Gerald Ford, with Thornton looking on, giving him the distinction of becoming the only Medal of Honor recipient to save the life of a fellow recipient.

The film Bat 21 starring Gene Hackman as Hambleton was a dramatized depiction of Hambleton's rescue, based on some of the actual events.

The Importance of Preserving Military Memories

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, every day, more than 300 Vietnam veterans, more than 450 Korean War veterans, and more than 850 WWII veterans pass away due to old age, complications from exposure to Agent Orange, and other lasting consequences of war.

If we don't capture their stories now, most of these veteran's military service will go unrecorded, resulting in a tragic loss of our military history and the records of the sacrifices made by so many. Fortunately some members are doing something about it.  

In the past couple of years a number of members have written about relatives who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. One was made into a Navy VOICES; the other an Army VOICES. Both were written by their sons who are themselves TWS members.

Army member Stephen Curlee wrote about his father, Navy officer LtJG Jack Curlee, who served aboard an LST during the invasion of Okinawa. Another was written by Air Force member Brad Crooks whose father Army 1st Sgt. Leonidas M Crooks served during many of the most important battles in Europe during World War II. Both recalled stories told them by their dads through the years and both did detailed interviews over the past few years knowing there wasn't much time left.

Following the posting of Brad Crook detailed tribute to his father's WW II service, Army TWS member, Tom Thompson send us an email on what it meant for him and wrote about his late Uncle Michael Strazanac who served in the Army during WW II.

Here is the insightful piece written by Tom Thompson to Brad Crooks

Thank you for sharing your dad's experiences in your heartfelt tribute to his wartime memory. A nation of younger people who have never served, may not appreciate the sacrifices of our brave, patriotic "citizen soldiers" who answered our nation's call of duty in the darkest days of World War II.  

One only has to read what happened to nations that the Nazi's and Imperial Japanese conquered to appreciate what could, would have happened here. Your dad, along with millions of others, quite literally saved the world for us. When they came home, many did not speak of what they saw or what they did, especially out here in the stolid, rural Midwest. You are privileged to have had him share his experiences with you. I too feel fortunate to have had Uncle Michael Strazanac share with me some of his war history before passing on.

Uncle Mike served as a sergeant under General George S. Patton from France in June 1944 to May 1945 when Nazi Germany surrendered and it was only a few years before he died in 2001 that he shared a few memories with me, also an Army veteran (1970-79). 

I had assumed he was a 'rah, rah parody' of what most Vietnam-era vets assumed WW II vets to be. He was anything but and 50 plus years later he still remembered events vividly. He was also bitter about what he considered senseless death and what he felt were screw-ups "the brass made" trying to look good.

As I read what you wrote about your father coupled with my own experience listening to Uncle Mike, I realize they, and millions of combat veterans like them, shared a common untreated wound. I heard it best described in a color WW II documentary on PBS of troops coming home: elated to make it home they nevertheless brought with them "a well of bottomless sorrow" along with their victory over the Axis. The majority of returnees suffered this sorrow in silence.

Not surprising when one considers that the Army divisions Uncle Mike served in sometimes suffered 125% casualties from D-Day (June 6, 1944) to VE day (May 8, 1945). Since combat divisions are mostly made up of support troops not actually on the front lines, you get an idea of how deadly it was for the line companies and how traumatic such heavy losses were to witness. My uncle's was hardly impervious from the experience.

My aunt said he suffered nightmares and depression for years. PTSD had not yet been discovered or labeled as such nor would he have admitted he had emotional issues. I suspect he would not have tolerated any treatment or being set out as being unusual or different - a Slavic trait my cousin has said.

I do know he considered the loss of the many American lives he witnessed as inexplicable and senseless. To appreciate the horrors and brutality of the European battlefields, I recommend the non-fiction book "Citizen Soldier" by Stephen Ambrose in which he describes the costly and fierce combat fought by the U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany - June 7, 1944 to May 7, 1945.

Uncle Mike had been in England for months in preparation for the D-Day invasion of Normandy when he got into serious trouble. As I understand it, he was a very smart aleck 18-year-old kid and had angry words with an officer in his unit. Tensions were so high between the officer and my uncle, the possibility of his being sent to the stockade over trumped up charges was likely. Luckily another more level headed officer intervened and had Uncle Mike transferred to the 728th AFA (Armored Field Artillery) Battalion of self-propelled 105 howitzers. So he missed the Normandy landing, or most of it, and the horrors that followed when our inferior armor was chopped to pieces by Panzers and 88mm AT guns in the enclosed hedge groves and shooting galleries on the tight roads leading into France's interior.

Toward the end of the war Uncle Mike was delighted to find his old unit was just down the road from where he was and excitedly hurried over to visit "the guys." Imagine his shock and anguish when less than a year after he had transferred out from the unit he had spent a year training with, he discovered only one survivor in the unit who remembered him. The entire unit was virtually wiped out in a week or so in the hedgerows of Normandy shortly after the Normandy invasion. Imagine being that one survivor.  

Unfortunately, his children, gifted, sensitive, educated professionals and academics, do not seem to understand the underlying nature of this often angry, driven, prickly man who not physically violent, just explosive and biting in his comments. (Photo is Uncle Mike with his oldest granddaughter Samantha less than a week before he died.)

When his disturbed daughter died by her own hand in the late 1970s, the tragedy tore at the heart of this devote Catholic that had already witnessed so much tragedy and devastation as a youngster. He could be very abrupt and rough. He was not a warm and fuzzy individual but I respected him and knew his heart was filled with kindness, just not milk and honey. Neither did I appreciate how deeply scared he was until shortly before he died.

I sometimes wonder if Uncle Mike considered the chance moments that let him survive the war, when the friends he trained with all died or were wounded and evacuated. He mentioned his fondness and bond with the men of his original unit. He described the training as a specialized armored commando as very rugged, "kill or be killed" and physically demanding. I suspect he really did appreciate the moment of serendipity that allowed him the opportunity to survive.  

I know he was sickened by all the loss of life, but bore a strong dislike and mistrust of the German people for the rest of his life due to the things he witnessed. He also kept a strongly embedded distrust of the military brass and politicians.  

During one of our sessions of hand digging his ponds in the middle 1990s, he gave a vivid account of how toward the end of the war an infantry regiment of war tested veterans was chopped to pieces on a worthless hill occupied by fanatical SS diehards.  

Since his Self-Propelled Battery of 105s was in close support at the base of the hill, he witness much of the carnage.

By then everyone knew the war was over and the focus was on making it home. A new colonel (or general) had just been transferred in after spending the entire war in a cushy office at the War Department in D.C. The green armchair colonel/general had this regiment charge with fixed bayonets repeatedly up the open hill. The infantry was charging in lines over open ground and getting chopped up by well emplaced machine gun fire. The smart SS gunners fired low deliberately, horribly wounding and maiming the legs and groin area of exposed veterans who had already survived much of the fierce fighting across Europe. Then they would shoot up the medics and buddies that went out to retrieve them. There were many cycles of this. This hill could have easily been bypassed or reduced by airpower.  

He did not tell me how it ended, just that the cycles of death, maiming, and charging the hill in Civil War style bloodbath seemed endless at the time. The senior officer was trying to make a name for himself as an aggressive commander before the war ended so his former stateside role would not impact his future promotions. In Uncle Mike's way of thinking, the experienced infantry soldiers had survived much of the war just to die or be permanently maimed for a hill no one needed so close to the end.

He told me how he was just talking to one of his friends, an older man, who was shot between the eyes during the battle. As he was gathering his dead friend's effects, he read a letter from the 10-yr-old daughter of this man. Mike was 19 or just 20 then. He looked at me with haunted eyes, "That letter really bothered me."  He was not a crier or emotional man at all. He carried this well of sorrow with him always.  

I tried to find out more about this "minor skirmish" on WW II vet sites or from members of his unit with no success. Just another nameless hill and Army screw up that did not scratch the sheet of history unless you were there. I wonder if that senior officer got his promotion. This type of idiocy was not confined to this campaign or battle. It is a common thread in the American military. Lives traded for promotions.  

Most combat veterans carry this type of senseless tragedy branded in their memories, searing at their souls. A couple of inches to the left, going to use the latrine just before an 88 landed in your foxhole and taking out your buddy, a heated argument with a junior officer, seeming arbitrary moments of fate were the difference between life and death. Uncle Mike always said, "When your number is up, your number is up." Hard lessons for a 19-year-old to absorb.

Reading a veteran's account of battles post-Battle of the Bulge in a sister company in his same 728th AFA (armored field artillery) Battalion, I realize that a lot of lives were lost and desperate actions were fought in the closing four months of the war. Most historical accounts don't mention this or other small battles.  

My Uncle told one story that illustrates this war in the cold with ill-defined front lines. Toward the last years of his life we were working in the woods cutting wood or digging in the late fall and early winter. The smells, the sights of the season, and the smoke seemed to bring back the memories from his war experience. One stuck with me. Uncle Mike suffered terribly from trench foot during that 1944-45 winter and told my aunt that his feet hurt so badly he would often stand in the snow barefoot to ease the pain. He could not wear wool socks for the rest of his life.
Another time he told me about a time his SP 105mm battery setup an encampment that had numerous haystacks scattered around the area. Being a suspicious, cynical 19-yr-old, he thought the "haystacks" were just a little too perfect. He went up to one with his M-1 carbine and shouted "Reus Kraut!" (You can tell he had a gift for languages) and may have popped off a few rounds, most guys would in that situation. More than a squad of German troops came out of that haystack, and when they heard their comrades surrendering, an entire company popped out of the dozens of haystacks. They were actually cleverly camouflaged positions! After dark they would have probably wiped out his unit and raised considerable havoc as they ex-filtrated to their own lines.

In today's world of constant news, he would have gotten some type of medal for this action that probably saved his unit, but it was just another day in combat back then and it went unnoticed as far as I know. It was not the type of thing any unit commander would have mentioned to a superior officer; it was a screw up of major proportions.  

My Aunt Liz did say that when they saw old guys from the outfit at reunions, they treated him with unusual respect and affection, even by the officers. He was (due to his experience despite being the unit armorer) the primary recon man for the battery and would scout ahead for safe places to set up the battery or camp for the night.

My cousin passed on an interesting note about how this rough working class kid went on to college, became an industrial arts teacher and eventually earned a Master's in Education. I knew some of it, but not the rest. Another moment of serendipity.

Uncle Mike lived the rest of his live devoted to his family in his own way and to his church and career as an educator. He and my Aunt Liz devoted the last years of their lives and considerable financial resources to charity. This tiny elderly lady and slender man went into some of the roughest prisons in the State of Michigan and ministered to the inmates without fear or consideration for themselves.  

It says something about the nature of the man that these hardened inmates wept openly when they learned of his untimely death in 2001 at 78 from a heart attack in a farm field. He was enraged and trying to free an ATV stuck in the mud by prying it out with logs he pulled out of the woods. A neighbor found him dead from a massive heart attack in the field later next to the stuck ATV. It was somehow fitting if you knew the man. His "number had come up."

Uncle Mike was typical of the men and women that made up what has been called the "greatest generation", the ones that marched off to war to save the world from tyranny. He was in a word "unremarkable". He and those millions of other unremarkable men and women were the rule rather than the exception. In his case, he was a tough Michigan mill town kid, a second generation immigrant. He was nineteen. His older brother Army Corporal Emil Strazanac was KIA on New Guiana that same year he crossed the English Channel to France.

Those few tottering survivors you see at the VA or church in their wheel chairs or struggling with their walkers deserve our respect and thanks. If you have a family member or neighbor you find is a WW II combat vet, you might do what I do when I spot them in the VA. I get down on one knee if they are seated, then I look them in the eye as I shake their hand and tell them, and for their buddies, "Thanks for saving the world for us."  

I told this to a Navy veteran who was still cutting my hair in his late 80s a few years back. He had piloted small landing craft in the Pacific from 1943 to 1945 in so many landings under fire he could not remember them all. When I asked which ones, he said, "I think all of them. I don't remember all the names, one after the other." I told him my feeling about him and his generation. He stopped cutting my hair, looked over oddly at me for a few moments, realized I was serious, and replied, "Well I never thought of it that way, but I guess we did."

They did.


The Grim Fate of Korean War POWs

The fury of the Korean War raged all around Private First Class Jack Arakawa on July 16, 1950. In hastily prepared defensive positions outside the South Korean town of Taejon, his unit watched grimly as North Korean tanks raced towards them. Acrid smoke hung in the nighttime air as the sounds of war abounded. The occasional fighter plane screamed across the sky.  Death lurked everywhere.

As the enemy neared American lines at 8 PM, Arakawa's machine gun squad let out a torrent of fire that pinged ineffectually off the advancing tanks. North Korean troops poured over the beleaguered defenders' position moments later, forcing the men to flee.

In the chaos, Arakawa - a Japanese-American - found himself staring at the barrel of an enemy rifle. His heart raced as North Korean soldiers brusquely tied his hands with wire. He knew all-too-well that the enemy had executed bound American captives in prior days with a gunshot to the back of the head.

But Arakawa, able to communicate fluently with his captors in Japanese, escaped that fate. While the Korean People's Army fought its way towards Pusan over the next month and a half, he and other Americans carried their ammunition and food at gunpoint. At night, the bound captives slept next to KPA bunkers, wondering if a midnight napalm strike might send them into an eternal slumber.

When the North Korean drive towards Pusan stalled in early September, KPA authorities transferred Arakawa and his peers to a makeshift prison camp 'a former school' in Seoul. There, guards interrogated the prisoners daily, asking the same questions over and over: "do you actually admire Truman and Joe McCarthy?" a common query went.

At the same time, the POWs attended mandatory lectures on the evils of Wall Street capitalism and the righteousness of the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea). They watched Soviet propaganda films contrasting racial prejudice in the United States with the "ideal' life" of the Socialist world. ("Free Love" was apparently a common theme.)

Throughout these experiences, Arakawa acted as an interpreter for the other prisoners, imploring the North Koreans for better conditions. The guards, however, responded by demanding that the Japanese-American join the Korean People's Army since he could pass for one of their own.

If Arakawa would fight for the DPRK, they argued, he would "attain great heights" and "be part of a great machine fighting for the good of all mankind." In exchange for his service, the guards promised, he would receive a house and servants after the war and "in the immediate future" the "privilege of better food, sake, medical care, parties, better housing facilities, and a woman." Arakawa- wisely - remained noncommittal.

In the aftermath of the Incheon landing on September 15, 1950, North Korean forces began preparations to evacuate all POWs north of the 38th parallel. On September 26, 1950 as American-led forces seized control of Seoul in brutal street fighting, KPA guards led Arakawa and 375 other men on a forced march to Pyongyang.

Paraded by their captors in villages along the way, the POWs staggered towards the north - many of them with maggot-infested wounds. North Korean guards killed those who could not keep up. From the skies above, American planes frequently strafed the prisoners with gunfire, mistaking them for a retreating enemy column. By the time the Americans reached the North Korean capital, approximately 80 had perished from malnutrition, disease, summary executions, and friendly fire. 

After arriving at a schoolyard there on October 10 - with American-led forces advancing rapidly behind them - guards informed the POWs that they would depart soon for a permanent camp on the Manchurian border. Arakawa, and four of his friends, decided then and there on an escape attempt. With the rumble of artillery fire growing louder each day, and the North Koreans becoming noticeably more frantic, the men saved-up their meager rations and fashioned crude knives out of wood.

The opportunity to get away came four days later on the evening of October 14, when guards ordered the prisoners into the street to depart for the refuge of the Yalu River. As the grim POWs lined up outside, Arakawa and his four friends managed to break away and hide in a dark alley. Detection at this point meant certain death.

As the POW column marched away, Arakawa donned a North Korean Army coat and hat - left haphazardly on the ground by a retreating soldier - and proceeded to march his friends through the streets of Pyongyang as his "prisoners." His ethnic appearance and basic knowledge of Korean helped him get past numerous roadblocks on the way.

On the outskirts of the city, however, the group approached a much larger checkpoint. Arakawa, as he later told an Army investigator, decided that his "limited knowledge of Korean would never get the group past this last barrier." As a result, he explained: "I proceeded to march the men to the entrance of the main road block at a fast pace. When approximately ten feet from the main gate of the road block, I shouted 'Air Raid' in the Korean language, at the same time we charged the gate using the knives we had made, as well as broken bottles."

After fighting their way through the checkpoint, the men escaped into the night. As the sun came up early the next morning, they hid in an abandoned home. For the next six days, the group survived there on weeds and flowers until dawn on October 20. Following hours of intense mortar fire, South Korean units moved into the area and discovered Arakawa's group. Within 48 hours, the five men were in Tokyo - warm and safe.

The 180 other Americans that went north without Arakawa and his friends were not so fortunate. Within sixteen days, 70 had died from disease, malnutrition, and exposure while traveling in an open-air railroad car towards Manchuria.

The worst, however, came on October 30 outside the town of Sunchon. There, with U.S. forces just miles away, KPA guards led groups of prisoners from a railroad tunnel to a nearby ravine, where waiting soldiers opened up with gunfire. Sixty-eight men died in the slaughter. Twenty-one others were wounded but survived by playing dead in the piles of bodies.

Three years later, Jack Arakawa - wearing a silver star and the stripes of a Corporal - told his stunning story to an Army Intelligence Officer. Exceedingly aware of how fortunate he was to have survived, Arakawa knew he would never forget the so-called forgotten war in Korea.

The primary source for this article is Jack Arakawa's Army Counter Intelligence Corps File from the National Archives, Record Group 319.

The Last Days of Vietnam - The Inside Story

Several weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend a private viewing of a spectacularly documentary by Rory Kennedy, youngest daughter of Robert F. Kennedy. Before seeing the film, I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about the last days of Vietnam but I was totally wrong. Specifically, I had no idea there was no organized plan for the evacuation of Saigon of Americans or their South Vietnamese allies.

That there was no detailed plan was the fault of late U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin who refused for months to admit that Saigon would likely fall to the fast-encroaching North Vietnamese Army. It wasn't until the 11th hour before preparations for the safe transport of those who remained in the city was put into place. But by orders of the White House, only American military and civilians and their families would be evacuated.   

In the minds of many diplomats and soldiers this was the ultimate betrayal. They knew anyone who helped the Americans in even the smallest way faced execution. And that's to say nothing of the South Vietnamese military officers, the Vietnamese wives and girlfriends of Americans and all of these people's extended families. 

Faced with the reality of certain imprisonment and possible death of their South Vietnamese allies, American diplomats and soldiers confronted a moral quandary: obey White House orders to evacuate only U.S. citizens, or risk being charged with treason and save the lives of as many South Vietnamese citizens as they can. With the clock ticking and the city under fire, heroes emerged as a small handful of Americans took matters into their own hands.
The principal figure to organize the clandestine evacuation of as many South Vietnamese Army members as possible under the circumstances was then U.S. Army Capt. Stuart Herrington, the film's principal talking head. Another evidently courageous figure interviewed in the documentary is former Department of Defense official Richard Armitage, who conspired with South Vietnamese Navy Capt. Kiem Do to ship some 30,000 refugees out of the country. (We ran the heroic story of the USS Kirk in a previous Dispatches.)  

A few days ago I came across a review of the film by LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan. While his reviews of films do not always fit with mine, I read it with great care. When I finished I realized he got it right; he totally understood the message Rory Kennedy was showing us in her fascinating documentary. Below is what he wrote:

'Last Days in Vietnam' Movie review by Kenneth Turan

Sometimes the stories we think we know, the stories where we don't want to hear another word, turn out to be the most involving of all, the ones we in fact know the least about. So it is with "Last Days in Vietnam."

Not an examination of why we were in Vietnam or whether we should have been there in the first place, this altogether splendid documentary, directed by Rory Kennedy, is instead a thrilling and dramatic narrative of what happened in-country as the wheels started to fall off of America's involvement.

Filled with compelling first-person stories both heroic and heartbreaking, "Last Days" details a complete debacle that brought out the best in all kinds of people. It is also the best work yet by Kennedy, the film her entire career has pointed her toward.

Kennedy is a veteran nonfiction filmmaker with either director or producer credits on some 25 docs, and her output has gotten increasingly impressive. Her last film, "Ethel," a portrait of her mother, Ethel Kennedy, was one of her best; before that, she directed the excellent, Emmy-winning "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib."

Kennedy has put it all together with "Last Days." She has the clout to get the right people on film, from 91-year-old Henry Kissinger to Marine pilots and U.S. Embassy guards, and she has honed her instincts about what a great story is and how best to present it on-screen.

Using expertly selected newsreel footage and fine visual effects by Doug Whitney to supplement her interviews, Kennedy and screenwriters Mark Bailey & Keven McAlester tell a series of interlocking tales about resourceful people who "ignored the rules and followed their hearts" when they could - as well as what happened when they couldn't.

First to speak is U.S. Army Capt. Stuart Herrington, who foregrounds the film's theme when he explains, "As we began to contemplate evacuation, the burning question was who goes, who gets left behind." Herrington's galvanizing story of clandestinely evacuating the families of the Vietnamese who worked with him sets the intensely personal tone for what is to come.

At this point, "Last Days" steps back and fills in some of Vietnam's political history, starting with the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, which were supposed to guarantee a permanent two-state solution. But according to former CIA analyst Frank Snepp, the glue holding that treaty together was North Vietnam's belief that President Richard Nixon was a complete madman, ready to bring U.S. troops back in a heartbeat. So one of the unintended consequences of Nixon's August 1974 Watergate-related resignation was that it emboldened the north to invade, which it did in force in March 1975.

Complicating the situation as those forces swept south was the attitude of American Ambassador Graham Martin. He'd lost a son in country, and partly as a result, refused to even discuss the possibility of evacuation and told anyone who disagreed, "I won't have this negative talk." This willfulness led to various under-the-radar, black-ops-type operations like the one that Herrington detailed.

The biggest chunk of "Last Days" focuses on what was to literally be the very last day in Saigon, giving an almost hour-by-hour account of what happened to a wide variety of folks, Americans and Vietnamese, in numerous locales on April 29, 1975, that fateful final date.

Because Martin had delayed evacuation plans for so long, the situation at the American Embassy was especially chaotic. Not only did secret documents have to be destroyed but also a full eight hours was spent burning $1 million in cash. And the question of what to do with the close to 3,000 Vietnamese who had talked their way onto the embassy grounds was an especially fraught one.

Perhaps the most astonishing story of that final day is what happened on the USS Kirk, a small destroyer escort that was part of the U.S. fleet sent to facilitate the evacuation.

Much to its surprise, the Kirk, with but one tiny helipad, became the destination for a series of small helicopters carrying Vietnamese refugees. Because the landing space was so small, each chopper was literally pushed into the sea once it was emptied so the next one could land. It's a story that sounds fantastical, except that Kennedy has tracked down footage shot by a crew member at the time and has interviewed a Vietnamese who as a child had to jump out of another chopper that was too big to land.

These stranger-than-fiction tales, piled one on top of the other in the most gripping way, not only mesmerize us, they also point up another of "Last Days in Vietnam's" provocative points, that the chaos surrounding the evacuation was, in effect, the entire war in microcosm. As Herrington says, "Promises made in good faith and promises broken." And this remarkable film ensures that what happened won't be forgotten. (Photo is the last Marine helicopter out of the embassy carrying 11 Embassy Marine Guards that had almost been left behind).

Last Days in Vietnam Trailer:  

Military Facts and Legends: The Malmedy Massacre

In the last German offensive of World War II, three German Armies conducted a surprise attack along a 50 mile front in the mountainous and remote Ardennes Forest beginning on Dec. 16, 1944, and quickly overtook thin U.S. lines during what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, the deadliest battle in the European campaign.

On December 17, men from Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion were ordered to move from Schevenhutte, near Aachen, to St Vith in the Ardennes. Their route took them near to the town of Malmedy. On their journey, on the N-23 St Vith road that passed to the east of Malmedy, Battery B met up with Lt. Colonel David Pergrin of the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion.

Pergrin had heard that the Germans were along the route which the men from Battery B were taking. He advised them to take a different route to St Vith. However, the officers in charge of the battery decided that they had their orders and, ignoring Pergrin's advice, continued along their designated route.
About half-a-mile from the 'Baugnez Crossroads', the convoy was attacked by tanks of the 1st SS Panzer Division of the Leibstandarte-SS, commanded by 29-year-old SS Lt. Col. Jochen Peiper. His troops had earned the nickname "Blowtorch Battalion" after burning their way across Russia and now operating near Malmedy, reports indicated his unit had been responsible for slaughtering civilians in two separate French villages.

Upon sighting the trucks, two Panzer tanks under the command of SS Lieutenant Werner Sternebeck opened fire and destroyed the lead vehicles. This brought the convoy to a halt while the deadly accurate tank fire continued. Clearly outgunned by the Germans, the men from B Battery surrendered. The 113 American prisoners-of-war who had survived the attack were herded into a nearby field near the Cafe Bodarwe.

Peiper arrived where the American POWs were being held and ordered Sternebeck to continue moving. Peiper also left the area around Five Points and moved out with the bulk of his forces.

According to one report shortly after Peiper left, a SS tank commander then ordered a SS private to shoot into the prisoners, setting off a wild killing spree as the SS opened fire with machine guns and pistols on the unarmed, terrified POWs.

Survivors were killed by a pistol shot to the head, in some cases by English speaking SS who walked among the victims asking if anyone was injured or needed help. Those who responded were shot or clubbed to death as later autopsies showed. A total of 81 Americans were killed in the single worst atrocity against U.S. troops during World War II in Europe. Incredibly, some prisoners did get away after feigning death or by hiding in the trees surrounding the open killing fields. In all 21 Americans escaped the slaughter and reported the massacre.

News quickly spread among U.S. troops that "Germans are shooting POWs." As a result, the troops became determined to hold the lines against the German advance until reinforcements could arrive. Gen. Eisenhower was informed of the massacre. War correspondents in the area also spread the news.

By January of 1945, the combined efforts of the Allied armies drove the Germans back to their original starting positions in the Battle of the Bulge. U.S. troops then reached the sight of the massacre, now buried under two feet of winter snow. The freezing weather had done a lot to preserve the snow-covered bodies and that made the autopsies easier, especially as some had been covered in snow.

Mine detectors were used to locate the 81 bodies, which had rested undisturbed since the day of the shootings and by now had frozen into grotesque positions. Forty one of the bodies were found to have been shot in the head. As each body was uncovered it was numbered.

While the U.S. medical teams performed this grim task, columns of German POWs being led by Americans passed by, with the bodies in plain view, however, no act of vengeance was taken.

Several theories exists as to why the massacre took place. First, the men were deliberately murdered in cold blood. Another theory is that some Americans tried to escape and were fired on by a few Germans. Other Germans heard the firing and either trigger-happy or simply battle-hardened, also opened fire on the Americans in the open field.

Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, 74 former SS men, including Jochen Peiper and SS Gen. Sepp Dietrich, were tried by a U.S. Military Tribunal for War Crimes concerning the massacre.

The two month trial began May 16, 1946, in a courthouse at Dachau. But controversy soon arose. The defense team raised allegations of mistreatment including physical abuse by the U.S. Army and cited the use of mock trials in obtaining SS confessions as improper. The defense also complained that the court's legal expert, a Jew, constantly ruled in favor of the prosecution.

The trial included testimony by a survivor of the massacre who was able to point out the SS man that actually fired the first shot.

On July 11, 1946, the Judges returned a verdict after two and a half hours of deliberation. All of the SS were found guilty as charged. Forty three, including Peiper, were sentenced to death, and 22, including Dietrich, were sentenced to life imprisonment. The others got long prison terms. But that was not the end of the story.

Controversy continued, however, as various U.S. Army Boards conducted critical reviews of the trial process and methods used during pretrial interrogations. As a result, most of the death sentences were commuted and over half of the life sentences were reduced.

Political complications arose after the Soviets blockaded Berlin in May of 1948. The strategic importance of post-war Germany in the emerging Cold War became apparent to the U.S. amid public outcry in Germany against war crime trials being conducted by the U.S. Army.

In 1949, following a series of public charges and counter charges by trial participants and further investigations over whether justice had been served in the conduct of the trial, six of the remaining death sentences were commuted. A U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee then began an investigation, led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, concerning the U.S. Army's overall handling of the case. The Senate investigation heightened the controversy surrounding the trial, due in part to the aggressive behavior of Sen. McCarthy.

By the early 1950s, following years of accusations, denials, investigations, controversy, and political turmoil, the final remaining death sentences were commuted and release of all of the convicted SS men began.

Though we may never completely know the truth surrounding the Malmedy massacre - who ordered it, and whether it was at least partly an attempt to stop escaping prisoners - there is no doubt that, in the end, the deaths there stiffened U.S. resolve to destroy the Nazis, and the hated SS, wherever they found them.

In December of 1956, the last prisoner, Peiper, was released from Landsberg. He eventually settled in eastern France. On July 14, 1976, Bastille Day in France, Peiper was killed when a fire of mysterious origin destroyed his home. Firefighters responding to the blaze found their water hoses had been cut.

Book of the Month: Valentine's Day: A Marine Looks Back

In the late-nineteen sixties, the author made a life-altering journey that led him out of Texas and into the U.S. Marine Corps and eventually into the jungles of Vietnam as a machine gunner during the tumultuous year 1968.  

'Valentine's Day' (so named because Van Bidder's unit, 2nd Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, departed Camp Pendleton for Vietnam on February 14, 1968) is a very excellent read.  What makes it so is the straightforward accounting by the author on the horror, boredom, camaraderie, humor, heroism he witnessed. He also is brutally honest about his own discomfort with war in general.

However this is not just an account of Marines in combat, it's also looks at changes in participants affected by war. This is true of every war that has ever been waged. For the warriors of old and those veterans of Vietnam and the Middle East, war touched their lives forever, leaving an indelible mark in their hearts and minds. Van Bibber's book reflects this reality exquisitely.

Van Bibber wrote this book in 2013, so the narrative betrays the wisdom and perspective gained in the years since then, yet the structure of his book assure that his work is free of any revisionism: he relied on his many letters home, official declassified Marine Corps after action reports and his own memories as well as those of others in his unit.

This wonderful, well-conceived book will allow civilians' insight into what combat is all about and provides veterans the hope that not everything lost in war is gone forever.  

Reader Reviews

War is never pretty, and this book conveys the realities of combat and the day-to-day life of a front line soldier. Mr. Van Bibber provides the details of his time in Vietnam, when dangers were ever present. The book provides information of what one Marine thought on a daily basis concerning his enemy and the officers of higher rank who sent him on patrols and into battle to face that enemy. It also reveals his thoughts contained in his letters home as he looks beyond the present, hoping for the chance at a future.

.It is about living daily, often in dire conditions, and dealing with the constant threat of death. Reading the daily action reports may seem mundane at times. However, a soldier in battle cannot normally call "time-out" or "do-over". He must deal with each and every situation as it comes. Despite the seriousness of war, the book has humor interjected in places.

It is about service to one's country with a sense of duty and honor. In reading this book, each person should feel a debt of gratitude to those who serve the United States in the armed forces. To Mr. Van Bibber, and the many others, thank your for your service.

Curtis L. Horn

This is a great book for anyone that enjoys to read or even someone like me that only reads things that really grabs your interest. This is it! I must say as someone that had a father that fought for my country during this war my reading this book has allowed me and my dad to have talks we never would have had before. The stories I have spoken of with him that have come from this book, his comment to me was "you are gonna know more about Vietnam then most people ever will." If you have a family member or friend that served during this war you need to get this book and learn about what they faced and why so many of our Vietnam Veterans have a hard time talking about their time in service. This book really makes you feel like you are right with the story teller.

Again I highly recommend this book for those who have not served to have a better understanding and those that have served to support the respect of a fellow Marine and his step to help paint the true picture that was never told. Support our troops!


Van Bibber gives the reader a candid look into more than a year of his life as a combat marine in Vietnam. I was impressed by the honesty, humility and even humor that he was able to show while recalling even the worst of conditions. This book is more than a memoir: it's a history lesson, and it reminds me how much I appreciate those who gave so much in a time when so many didn't appreciate it.


About the Author

Charles A. Van Bibber is a native Texan who now calls the Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina home. He was career military having served his country first in the U.S. Marine Corps as a Corporal from 1967-1969 and U.S. Navy from 1972-1990 retiring as a Senior Chief Petty Officer.  

Charles now spends his time working at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC and enjoying the beauty of the great outdoors while hiking in the mountains. Serving as a Marine machine gunner in Vietnam, Charles recounts his experiences in his first book, Valentine's Day: A Marine Looks Back. He is currently working on a follow up account of life after combat.