Tonight on PBS, Ken Burn’s new program about perpetuating the meaning of the Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address premieres. It holds personal meaning for me, because I was there, so to speak, as officer in charge of most of the 43 military funerals I participated in there from 1966 to 1968, in the new section of that National Cemetery dedicated to the Vietnam-era dead. Our funeral detachment (pallbearers, riflemen and bugler) was comprised of headquarters unit soldiers from my staff at the U.S. Army War College, down the road from Gettysburg at Carlisle, PA. Each of these services was a wrenching experience for me and my young soldiers, many of whom along with me, would be headed to war in Vietnam before too long. Learn more about Ken Burn’s meaningful program at http://www.learntheaddress.org. My own reflections on military life in the Vietnam era are below, in my essay for the Chicago Literary Club, “All That Glitters.”
By Charles Ebeling
Presented before the Chicago Literary Club
At The Cliff Dweller’s Club
November 21, 2011
Copyright 2011 Charles Ebeling (all rights reserved)
It was the fall of 1963, and I was commuting from my parent’s home in the western suburbs to the campus of the University of Chicago, where I was briefly a student at large.
Just recently, I found a folder of notes dated from that time, and on a corner of one sheet was the following hand-written bit of verse I’d doodled, which seemed to somehow presage events that would unfold over the following several years. And, I’d suppose, the spirit of my words might apply to many of us.
The verse is titled:
All is grand. All is free,
And bound by relativity –
The concept brackets fools, kings,
Not least of all, the world of things;
So, I’m most humble, yet proud to be,
Somewhere between, relatively.
It was a cold late October night, four years later, as I hopped off the back of a military truck, my M14 rifle was handed down, and I reported for guard duty, marching the muddy perimeter fence at a mysterious place, the fabled United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox.
A few months before, I’d completed my degree in journalism, at Bradley University. As I trudged shivering along the barbed wire-topped fence surrounding the dimly lit vault building, 50 yards over my shoulder, I could barely imagine how my own path had brought me to this odd place.
Absentmindedly, I wondered if the inside of the nearby vault looked anything like it had been portrayed in the newest James Bond film, Goldfinger, filmed right here at Fort Knox just the year before? And, were there still mountains of 27-pound solid gold bars, some 4,600 tons worth, stacked only yards from my humble guard path, or had those billions long since been trucked away and dissipated into the world’s coffers, as had been rumored? I wondered what was true, and what was just illusion. I was so far from any answers.
In another seven months, I’d leave Fort Knox, bringing along two very small gold bars of my own — worn on my shoulders. My little war story had begun.
Over the following two years, those shiny gold-plated bars would turn silver at the military’s highest bastion of learning, then, a world away, be painted dull black. Ultimately, a bar of each color – gold, silver and black — would be set in a frame, with a little bundle of medals and insignia. That boxed set of personal history now, some 40 years hence, rests behind the knotty pine door over my home office desk, in the woods of Wisconsin. The author of a long-term Harvard study on happiness, that included veterans of World War II, observed that, “with the passage of years, old wars become more adventurous.” That has not been my experience. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.
My military “adventure” began quietly enough, when I set the theme for a mock magazine article at the end of my junior year, as a journalism student at Bradley U., up on the Main Street hill in Peoria, Illinois. Given the fixation of the daily headlines in 1965 with reports of gathering student anti-war unrest and demonstrations on campuses across the nation, I’d decided to probe that topic in my own backyard, and so the headline for my article became, “Vietnam and the Corn Belt Campus.” I’d not taken much interest in politics up to then, and it seemed to me there had been only a little agitation on my campus in this quiet river town between Chicago and St. Louis, so I decided to reach out, and visit three additional campuses here in the heart of the Corn Belt.
As I was a reporter for our student newspaper, the Bradley Scout, I began by researching the past year of editions of the Scout, then proceeded to visit the other colleges and interview the editors of their student newspapers and a handful of students at each, to see what had been going on regarding the Vietnam situation. Running late on my assignment, I jumped into my little red VW Beatle and drove off through the seemingly endless cornfields, and visited Illinois State University at Normal, the nearby Illinois Wesleyan University, and the sprawling University Of Illinois campus at Champaign.
On my way back to Peoria, fresh from my first-hand research at those central Illinois campuses, I checked into a roadside motel, and banged out the story on my portable typewriter. My premise was that midwestern students like myself, surrounded by vast prairies of tall corn, grazing cattle and entrenched conservatism, were only modestly agitated about reports of America’s escalation of its involvement in Vietnam. Those few students who protested too loudly were characterized as left wing stooges of radical organizations like the SDS – Students for a Democratic Society. Most male Midwestern students, at least in the Corn Belt, were politically inert. They were much more nervous about how the military draft might affect their post-graduate plans, or, more often, their lack of plans. I was squarely of the latter group.
And my concern about the future had grown by the next academic year, ending with graduation in May ’66 – as the Vietnam Conflict escalated into a full-blown war. My final article in journalism school would be an analysis of the military service officer’s candidate school options available to new graduates, like myself, who had not participated in ROTC during their undergrad years. There had been no military tradition in my family, and I had never given the services a second thought.
My research for the article became a checklist for my own OCS potential. I learned from the draft board back in Riverside that I had a very low number, and would likely be called up for service within a few weeks of graduation. So I sought what the troops sardonically came to call a D.I.E. – or “draft-induced enlistment.”
I first applied to Navy OCS, as I’d always enjoyed boating on the Great Lakes with my dad and family, and was the navigator, guiding our cruiser with the help of a radio direction finder on courses from port to port, sometimes through the night and even in rough weather. I yearned to learn more about life at sea. I went through the Navy’s battery of physical and mental testing and interviews, and was almost qualified, when the service determined that my eyesight was too poor to earn a waiver, and therefore not good enough to meet officer requirements.
Then I looked into the Army, where I thought the Transportation Corps might give me added experience if I were to join my father in the trucking business. The Army responded positively, but at the time of my graduation, the closest I could get to transportation was the Armor Corps – tanks. I thought that riding in a tank might be preferable to marching. They promised me that through their College Option program at the Armor School at Fort Knox, that after training I’d serve just two more years on duty as a commissioned officer, with no active reserve obligation thereafter. Plus, and this was a key consideration, I didn’t imagine there to be much call for tanks in the wet rice fields of Vietnam.
Fort Knox was the home of the Patton Museum, preserving the history of the most famous American armor commander. The Army is thick on tradition, and Brigadier General George S. Patton IV, son of the legend, would serve as Deputy Post Commander at Knox in 1972, after serving with distinction in Vietnam.
I’d first go through eight weeks of ordinary basic training at Knox, just like any draftee, and then receive eight more weeks of advanced training in Armor, to become a member of what retired General Bruce Clark called “that elite group who are tank commanders.” We’d then immediately go on to six more months of Officer Candidate School. There was no guarantee, but if I were successful in that ten-month marathon of training, I would qualify for a Presidential commission as an Army Reserve second lieutenant of Armor. We’d be what the troops called a “Shake’n Bake officer,” in other words, a novice OCS grad without combat experience.
The same month I graduated from college, the class of ’66 was graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. They would be immortalized in Rick Atkinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Long Gray Line,” subtitled – “From West Point to Vietnam and After – the turbulent Odyssey of the Class of ’66.” That West Point class produced a little less than 600 lieutenants. I would join soon them as one of about sixteen thousand new second lieutenants commissioned in the Army reserves between 1965 and ’66. The rest of us were ROTC-ers, those who took military training while in college, and my fellow OCS, or Officer Candidate School grads, who had no military training until they entered service.
So, I signed on, and skipped my college graduation ceremony to take a last cruise on the family boat, this time up to the North Channel of Canada. Upon returning, I completed the Army swearing-in, and began what I later facetiously styled as my “military MBA,” and boarded a train from Chicago to Louisville, enroute to Fort Knox. I shared a compartment with a farm boy from mid-state, Illinois, also just out of college and also headed to OCS. We would be close friends through many months of training, until one day he unexpectedly cracked and quit, unable to any longer handle the unending pressure and harassment that OCS then shared with West Point.
I had shed 40 pounds of baby fat by the time I entered the OCS portion of training, and then began to gain muscle weight in the dawn to dark rounds of calisthenics, marching, tank maneuvers and escape and evasion training in the steaming summer hills of Kentucky. When I entered the Army I could only swing from a couple of rungs of the overhead horizontal ladder, and then I’d tear skin off my hands. By the time I graduated OCS, I was swinging through 76 bars and maxing the test. Officer training was not all about riding in tanks. OCS was calculated to be a true test of the ability to react under stress and to endure the demands of leadership. I’ll always remember the nighttime evasion course, in which each soldier had to make his way through miles of murky swamp and forest to avoid capture and reach an objective. No one made it, and every soldier captured was taken to an enemy “prison” camp to be questioned. I was surprised to learn that only one soldier in our unit had managed to escape that camp and reach the final objective – me.
Whenever I’d waver in one of the unending fitness challenges, I’d think of what my 11-year-old sister might think if I gave up. Something else that helped me get through the 6 months of OCS harassment and physical rigor, on top of the full-time classroom and field training, was the toughness, the ability to tune out discomfort, that I’d developed pledging a fraternity at Bradley. The last days of the fraternity’s five-month weaning process to become an active member was still justifiably called Hell Week. Since that time, many college fraternities have transformed this time of agony into what some now call Help Week, which involves a marathon of working to benefit some worthy cause. I’m not sure Help Week breeds the same psychological toughness as the old Hell Week, but it does show that college fraternity life can stand for something more tangibly worthwhile than eating goldfish and standing blindfolded and naked in a cold basement all night, or reciting the Greek alphabet three times on the burning of a match.
OCS was like college in at least one way – we’d often order in pizzas late at night, except we’d have them delivered to the trunk of a car outside to pick up when we took out the trash, so the tactical officers who oversaw our every move wouldn’t find out.
The grand finale of OCS was something called Military Stakes, a combined test of physical stamina and military knowledge, one that must be passed with high marks to gain graduation. The Stakes course involved running cross-country against the clock in the intense Kentucky heat for seven miles in military gear. We would stop at stations to demonstrate proficiency in weapons, ranging from the officer’s personal sidearm, the 45-caliber automatic pistol, on up to the mighty 105-millimeter main gun of a 50-ton M1A1 Main Battle Tank. The course also tested field proficiency in various leadership strategies, tactics and calculations of battle. For a kid who was overweight and under confident when I entered the service, I passed with a respectably high score. Seventy eight percent of the young men accepted to my six-month OCS marathon made the final grade; hence 91 of us received our commissions. My mother and little sister pinned on my new gold bars, while my father and grand parents looked on with pride, and apprehension.
In the West Point class of ’66, 807 cadets started the four-year training, under the command of Brigadier General William Stillwell, who I would serve under in the field several years later. He would tell them: “Men of ’66, your great adventure is underway. Now raise your hands.” Only 567 graduated with their bachelor degrees and commissions. Of them, 30 would be killed in Vietnam and 100 seriously wounded.
Before OCS graduation, I had written to the Commandant of the Department of Defense Information School, where press officers earn their credentials, asking if I might attend, given my recent degree in journalism with a specialty in public relations. But that didn’t work, at least not as I intended. Almost all of my fellow OCS graduates were assigned to Armor units headed to Vietnam or West Germany. I found myself assigned to duty as a junior staff officer at the headquarters of the Army War College in bucolic Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The War College – what an oddly oxymoronic name – is the military’s most senior strategic training institution.
I felt so lucky, and I guess in a way, I was. It was starting to look as if my hope of making the most of my military obligation was turning into a sort of golden opportunity. The War College, located at the historic site of the old Indian School, home of football legend Jim Thorpe, was now known as “The General’s School.” That’s because the students – generally with the rank of colonel — were tagged as promotable to general officer posts in the Army and other armed services. There were also students from military allies of the U.S. and civilian students marked for high-level positions in the Departments of State and Defense. The commandant was a two-star Army general and the head of the faculty was a Foreign Service Officer first class, holding the rank of Ambassador. Much of the curriculum was based on the strategic premise that communism must be contained, at all costs.
I was to spend more than a year there, first as a platoon leader at the headquarters, responsible for leading our troop of enlisted men who staffed the blue collar jobs of operating and protecting the War College campus. I also served as a VIP aide for visiting dignitaries and speakers, ranging from reserve general officers to the Russian ambassador. Though just a lieutenant, I took special pride in my uniform and training, proudly wearing the War College and Armor insignias, along with special dress “tanker” shoes, made of shiny black leather with a single strap and buckle instead of laces. I had my dress green uniforms hand tailored with pegged pants and custom gold anodized buttons, and my formal blue uniform carried golden pant stripes and traditional shoulder epaulets of rank.
Later, with the new silver bars of a first lieutenant on my shoulders, I was promoted to serve as deputy operations officer, planning and overseeing special events and functions across the War College campus, including support of General Eisenhower’s small military staff down the road at his retirement home in Gettysburg. In 1961, President Kennedy had honored the ex-President by restoring his permanent active duty 5-star rank of General of the Army. I was also responsible for crises and survival planning for the War college staff and post dependants. In the event of nuclear war or other contingencies, many of the faculty, staff and students would assume their alternative roles as back-up to the Pentagon, from a web of ancient, stockpiled underground command caves beneath the War College campus. I identified weaknesses in planning and recommended solutions. The appreciative major to whom I reported thought I deserved a Regular Army Commission, something usually reserved for West Pointers.
I would also serve as the officer in charge of 43 military funerals, most at Gettysburg National Cemetery, many for those who died fighting in Vietnam. It was a somber and maturing duty for a 24-year-old. I trained and led the squad of pallbearers, riflemen and the bugler who, with a chaplain, were part of each ceremony. And, I presented the folded flag to the next of kin, in one family at three consecutive military services over a matter of months, to the mother of two fallen soldier sons and their military father, who had died in separate incidents. I made a small tradition of taking the often shaken soldiers of our honors detail out for a relaxing ice cream at a rural drive-in on the way back to the War College in Carlisle.
My year at the military’s senior service school was one of pomp, ceremony, along with some angst, some delight and even some insight. Part of my job involved shuttling back and forth to Washington, with a driver in a real limousine of Army green, as a temporary aide, briefing, assisting and having engaging conversation with leaders of governments and the military who were to be guest lecturers and consultants to the College.
Contingency planning became a game of chess, and I was off to Virginia to be trained in surviving chemical or biological warfare, or fly out to Sandia Base, New Mexico, with our intelligence officer, somewhat ironically a Japanese-American major, to be trained as a nuclear public affairs officer for the North Eastern U.S. nuclear emergency team. We’d not yet had a major nuclear emergency in the U.S. – this was more than a decade before the Three-Mile Island incident – but part of our job was to anticipate the unthinkable. In my later business career, contingency planning was to become one of my specialties.
But we didn’t anticipate everything. One weekend, while I was off duty on an early summer evening, and while I was standing in for the Military Police Chief who was away for training, I got a call to rush to the helipad on the golf course. General William Westmoreland, Commander in Vietnam, was landing for a surprise visit to the War College. I had no time to change into a uniform, so I rushed over, still wearing a sweatshirt and my Bermuda shorts. Standing out of sight at the back of the small welcoming throng of officers, I directed my military police escort unit over a short wave radio.
Because the town where we were was home to Carlisle College, we also had to plan for the contingency of student anti-war demonstrations and attempts to illegally enter our facility. So, while I was a platoon leader, I trained our cooks and drivers and office workers on how to don their gas masks, handle their vintage World War II M1 carbines and stop anti-war activists from such transgressions. But fortunately Carlisle was as placid a campus as had been Bradley in the Midwest. We were never called to such facedown situations, to my great relief, as I might well have emotionally sided with the protestors.
I also learned to play golf on weekends on the War College course, with the handful of young officers on staff. Weekends were for occasional dating, too, like the young nurse I’d met at a military ball and developed a crush on, whose father was the White House red-phone operator with the Soviet Union. After work in the evenings, I’d unwind, riding my small Italian-built Harley over the hills and down the winding roads of Pennsylvania. A few times, we did a summer’s country outing with male and female officers of the medical center. They’d inject a watermelon with grain alcohol using a giant surgical needle, and then cool it in a mountain stream before slicing and serving it up with a picnic feast of cold fried chicken.
When I wasn’t briefing visiting lecturers, doing planning, or leading my soldiers in graduation parades or other drills and ceremonies, I was spending evenings at the bar of the officer’s club, where a colonel who wore a medal of honor around his neck led rousing sing-a-longs while his wife banged at the piano. The War College was a bastion of old school military garrison life. The commanding general had a homely daughter, and I was constantly dodging his aide-de-camp, a decorated young captain, who kept trying to invite me to escort her to military receptions. The college maintained a regular periodic tradition called ‘Dining In,” at which all officers would don their formal dress blue uniforms with the golden epaulets of rank, and dine at a grand communal table, with seemingly endless toasts in brandy to the Commander-In-Chief and those in his military chain of command. These experiences reminded me of movies of the genteel life enjoyed by some American soldiers in England in World War II, before being shipped out to meet their fate across the Channel.
Those were the golden moments.
Towards the end of 1967, I decided to try to further my civilian public relations career ambitions by applying for the officer’s career course at the Department of Defense Information School. The military called the public affairs function by the ubiquitous title of “Information.” But the profession, then as now, was much more about nurturing influence, than merely providing “information.” DINFOS, as the school is known, is the training center for military journalists and public relations people for all the armed services as well as the Pentagon public affairs staff. It is where students learn to translate military policy into print and electronic media “messages,” and to build interactive relationships with the press.
In order to be accepted to the school, to earn the Army specialty Public Information Officer, I was made aware that I could potentially be assigned to Vietnam after graduation. But I didn’t think the Army would actually send me to war, as I knew by the time I graduated, I would have less than six months of active duty commitment remaining, and the standard tour of duty in Vietnam was then one year. But, of course, the Army called my bluff and surprised me again.
I took a leave over the Christmas holiday in ’67, and trekked to Green Bay to shiver through the legendary fifteen below zero Packers’ play-off victory known as the Ice Bowl. I attended with my grandfather, then the same age I am now, who in 1923 had been a founding investor in the team.
In the summer of 1968, I learned that indeed I’d be assigned to Vietnam. I wrote to the Information Officer of the Military Assistance Command in Saigon and told him of my military and university training in PR, and asked if I might be posted as an information officer on arrival in late November.
1968 was a turbulent, defining year in America. Martin Luther King was assassinated, then Bobby Kennedy. President Johnson had beat anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, then dropped out of the race as public support for the Vietnam War began to wane following the Tet debacle. Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic candidate, but the Democratic Presidential Convention in Chicago saw Mayor Daly brutally suppress anti-war riots in the streets, perhaps scuttling Humphrey’s chances.
Republican Richard Nixon became the next president, just after his representatives, directed by Henry Kissinger, secretly motivated the South Vietnamese Thieu government to boycott the newly launched peace negotiations in Paris, suggesting they would get a better peace deal under a Nixon administration, according to recently released Presidential documents. The real motivation may have been to deny the Democrats the election advantage of ending the war on their watch. Whatever the intent, this had the unintended effect of extending the war for another four years, with 20,000 additional American deaths, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. It was the year of the My Lai massacre. And, partially due to the escalating costs of the Vietnam War, Congress began action to repeal the requirement for a gold-backed currency, leading to what came in 1971 to be called the Nixon Shock to global currency markets.
But this is my own story, and it also was anything but a golden year for me. My life had been pretty strait forward until just before I left for Vietnam, when two difficult issues arose. First was my father, who had lost his career job at age 55 due to an acquisition, descended into alcoholism and was being treated for clinical depression. Then, the girl I’d been in love with for some months told me she was pregnant. At that time I wasn’t sure how long my tour of duty would last. As I departed from my parent’s house, my father was despondent and in tears. My girlfriend and I did not have even the slightest grasp on what we wanted for the future.
Meanwhile, I arrived in Saigon shortly before Thanksgiving, 1968, traveling alone, not as part of a military unit on a chartered World Air 707 jet from Travis Air Force Base at San Francisco, via a frigid stop at Elmendorf Ari Force Base in Alaska, taking a left across the Pacific, then, after refueling at Yokota, Japan, in the hands of an empathetic pilot, making a touristic, lazy turn around Mount Fuji in Japan, before landing on the burning tarmac of Saigon’s Ton Son Nhut Air Force Base. I stepped into a world of broken concrete and hurriedly assembled rough buildings of wood and canvas. The compound for the general officers that commanded the Vietnam War was a semi-circle of gray mobile homes, with air conditioners humming behind barbed wire. I had checked into the ramshackle transient officer’s quarters and launched into a standardized two-day orientation program for new in-country officer arrivals. Off duty, I used the MACV headquarters swimming pool, and even dined with an Air Force Captain at the Vietnamese Air Force Officer’s Club on the other side of the air field – it was a still a classic French restaurant, a holdover from the old French colonial days.
I quickly painted my silver bars a flat black, as we’d been told that North Vietnamese communist snipers looked for the glint from American officer’s marks of rank.
Recently thinking back over some 67 Thanksgivings on my watch, I realized that I have little but the dimmest, non-specific memories about any, though I am overwhelmed with a generalized gamut of warm senses of turkeys being displayed and carved, of my quest to get a leg, of how the special gravy tasted on the mashed potatoes, of grandparents being present, of a series of seldom-used family dining room tables, of an uncle reciting prayers, of hovering cats and dogs, of too much wine, and then that lethargic half-sleep amidst forgotten televised football games. All my Thanksgiving memories merge into a vague, soft tumble of such feelings.
Except for one.
I vividly recall Thanksgiving 1968. It was a hot, dusty day with slivers of sun slicing through to the earth. There was the throaty roar of jets in the background. There was a jangle of dishware and muffled voices in the low, slatted wood building. A holiday menu card was at each place, and that little printed menu, with it’s greeting from the commander, and a prayer from the Chaplain, survives to hold in my hand today, and trigger ironic memories. I remember that wonderful dinner so well. Every dish seemed perfect to me, and though I was sitting among strangers, the conversation was lively, friendly and full of thoughts of family. I can recall where I sat, and the look of the plump turkey leg and colorful fixings on my plate. It was the 28th day of November, and I was so pleased that it seemed such a briefly warm and wonderful Thanksgiving respite, even for an hour, in that sanctuary mess hall at the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, or MACV headquarters, in war-torn Saigon.
I looked forward with mixed expectations. On October 31, the U.S. had announced suspension of bombing in North Vietnam. On November 2nd, just 3 days before our Presidential election, South Vietnam Premier Thieu pulled out of the Paris peace talks in which he had previously agreed to participate. Nixon then beat peace candidate Hubert Humphrey by just 500,000 votes. November 14 was National Turn in Your Draft Card Day, accompanied by acceleration in more anti-war rallies and protests at college campuses across the country. I was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it was still two years before the leak of the Pentagon Papers.
And so, here I was in Saigon, about to go to war, despite my dashed hopes that it wouldn’t come to this for me.
I would remember this Thanksgiving, not just because of the exotic location and circumstances, but because in many ways I then could not imagine, it would very soon represent a momentous turning point for me. Within a year of that time, I would ricochet onto a wholly new course that would carry me, unlike the 58,272 dead whose names are chiseled into that long, low wall in Washington, D.C., through the decades as one who survives, and even prospers, to this very day. As George Bernard Shaw said, “War is not decided by who is right, but by who is left.” Of the 3,346 OCS graduates commissioned at the Fort Knox Armor School in the two years of its existence in the late 60’s, most of those who were killed in action in Vietnam died in 1968, the year I was there.
I reported to a Colonel at the MACV Information Office, and was indeed told that I was to be assigned as the public information liaison officer on the U.S. advisory staff of a Vietnamese General, in command of one of their Army divisions. It sounded like an exotic, challenging and even frightening assignment, as I would be in the field and close to enemy action. But there was an operative, apprehensive phrase in my briefing – “WAS to be assigned.” The Colonel explained that “unfortunately,” as he put it, the Vietnamese general had a falling out with my predecessor over some unstated issue, and had personally shot and injured the officer. I sat speechless.
Our Army, in it’s wisdom, the assignment officer resumed, had decided it would be prudent not to immediately replace that officer, so therefore, my assignment was also figuratively, shot out from under me.
“Then what?” I asked, beginning to feel a new and even greater apprehension. Well, the normal procedure would be to assign me to the officer replacement pool, he said. “And?” I pressed. He said, in all likelihood, I would revert to my primary combat arms specialty and likely be assigned to command a company of 17 tanks, probably in the Delta region of South Vietnam, one of the few geographies that would support the heavy M48 and M60 main battle tanks I was trained to lead. He seemed to think this would be a good opportunity for me to qualify for rapid promotion.
Years later, I was to learn that the life expectancy in 1968 for an Armor lieutenant in the Vietnamese Delta was about 2 weeks. No wonder promotions opened up quickly. In this year of 1968, the height of the war, more than ½ million U.S. troops served in Vietnam, and more than 16,000 of them died there.
Then the Colonel paused, after I’d reiterated my public relations background and ambition to make a contribution in that field. He said, “Son, I can give you a few names and phone numbers, and you can call around country to see if some unit has an opening for an information officer like you, but you’ve only got 2 or 3 days before the repo pool grabs you.”
I asked to borrow a phone and went to work. It took anywhere from minutes to hours to even get a call through in Vietnam, and often the line went dead, or the person I needed to talk with wasn’t there. It was like ducking for apples in a barrel, blindfolded, with false teeth.
But, the second day, over a scratchy line, I reached a Major Jones at something called 24th Corps Headquarters at a place I’d never heard of called Phu Bai, and he said yes indeed, he dearly needed an added press escort officer for what he called the U.S. military’s Northern press camp, closest to the border with North Vietnam. He would dispatch orders for my assignment if I could promise to find my way in a few days. I packed my duffel, checked out of the BOQ, or bachelor’s officer quarters, strapped on a loaded 45, and stepped out to a dingy bus stop at the edge of the air base, to hitch a ride on a transport plane north – some 400 miles north. We flew, strapped into webbed slings, near the plane’s open rear ramp, and landed at a dusty field a few hundred miles away, where there would not be another plane north until the next day.
I checked into an officers quarters tent and then walked to a combination bar/mess hall that looked like what I would later come to know, in a time and theatre far, far away, as the Star Wars bar scene. Amidst the smoke, beer and whisky, I soon recognized one of the young medical officers I had befriended back at the Army War College. “Small world,” we each said over and over. I’d never see him again, and in fact to this very day, I’ve never again seen or been in touch with anyone I met in Vietnam – it’s as if everyone there had only existed in my imagination. If I hadn’t kept a few scraps of notes and crumpled orders, and some letters from my girlfriend back home, and some I’d sent to my mother back then, it would be as if none of it really happened. I took not a single photo, though I was a trained photographer, as I was saving up to buy a good Japanese 35mm camera, and left Vietnam before I had enough money to buy one.
As I was flying into Phu Bai, I found out that it was a stone’s throw from Hue. The world remembers February 1968 for the infamous Vietcong offensive on Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. First built by Emperor Gia Long early in the nineteenth century, Hue was the imperial capital of Vietnam between 1802 and 1945. It is located on Highway 1 about 420 miles south of Hanoi and 670 miles north of Saigon.
For the Vietcong and North Vietnamese, Hue was a city with tremendous historical significance. Being the former imperial capital of a united Vietnam, the center of Vietnamese cultural and religious life, and the capital of Thua Thien Province, Hue became an important symbol in the struggle for dominance of Indochina.
It was also a difficult city to defend. Isolated by the Annamese mountain chain and bordered by Laos to the west and the Demilitarized Zone to the north, Hue was without access to a major port for resupply. Still, before the Tet Offensive, Hue was considered secure for South Vietnam. That all ended on January 31, 1968.
At 3:40 a.m. that morning North Vietnamese Army (NVA) artillery began pounding the city. Elements of the NVA 6th Regiment simultaneously attacked Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) headquarters in Hue and ARVN 1st Division headquarters. Other NVA troops blockaded Highway 1 north and south of the city and attacked several hundred other sites in the city. By daylight, the Vietcong flag was flying atop the Imperial Citadel of the Nguyen emperors. Hue had fallen to the Communists.
The American and ARVN counterattack on Hue began almost immediately with huge volumes of artillery, naval bombardment, and air strikes, while forces engaged in house-to-house, hand-to-hand combat with NVA troops and Vietcong.
The Imperial Citadel was not recaptured from the Communists until February 24. Hue had been devastated. More than 50 percent of the city had been totally destroyed, and 116,000 people of a total population of 140,000 had been rendered homeless. Nearly 6,000 civilians were dead or missing, and several thousand more were assassinated outright during the Vietcong occupation. The North Vietnam Army and Vietcong suffered 5,000 dead; the United States, 216 dead and many wounded; and the allies, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, 384 dead and many more wounded.
Like the Tet Offensive in general, the battle for Hue was a tactical defeat as well as a strategic victory for the Communists. In taking control of the city, if only for several weeks, they had proven that MACV predictions of an imminent Communist collapse were totally groundless, undermining American faith in the credibility of its political and military leaders. Hue in particular, and Tet in general, was indeed the turning point in the war. Walter Cronkite, the iconic U.S. newsman of the era, growled, “We are mired in stalemate.”
To consolidate its position, MACV established a provisional corps, and then re-activated the 24th Corps of World War II fame, in Phu Bai, a small city just outside of Hue, with responsibility for pacifying the two northern provinces of South Vietnam. The Corps consisted of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, the 3rd Marine Division, the Army’s newly consolidated Americal 23rd Infantry Division, the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force based at DaNang, and an air wing.
I guess I was shocked by my first view of the Corps Headquarters, driving up in a jeep from the airfield. I saw a high-walled wooden stockade, like something right out of the old southwest, except for the steel-helmeted sentries with their rapid-fire M16 rifles and jeeps with machine guns. Inside the walls was a beehive of activity, a regular little ramshackle city. Along the dusty streets were structures large and small, usually made of wood on the bottom, with screening and canvas overhead, and piles of supplies seemingly dumped haphazardly everywhere. The commanding general’s office, a three-star Army guy, was the only all-wood building, except for the newly built, air-conditioned racket ball court next to it. The general liked racquetball.
The Press Camp, where I’d live and work, was a little compound of 17 structures. Sixteen of them were what we called “hootches,” wood and canvas huts built about 2 feet off the ground to protect them from the frequent tropical rains. Most were four-man barracks, with mosquito-netted bunks and a small Japanese refrigerator for food and drink, and often hiding small supplies of marijuana, too. One was our tiny air-conditioned office and one was for supplies. The larger structure was our press club, where there was a seating area, a briefing section and a dining room and bar furnished compliments of the Associated Press out of Saigon.
Many reporters skipped the military mess hall, and dined at the Press Club, where the menu was simple: charcoal-grilled steak and potatoes, with Coke, beer and bourbon to drink, and ice cream. Once every two weeks or so, frozen steaks from the officer’s open mess in DaNang would be trucked in by a team of Navy volunteers, who had to drive the treacherous, frequently mortared Hai Van Pass in the mountains south of Phu Bai. The driver and his guards would be honorary overnight guests at the Press Club whenever they trucked in that frozen bovine gold. We even had a drive-in movie theatre of sorts at the Press Camp — six logs lined up in front of a bed sheet suspended from two poles. I remember my first night there, when a giant of a reporter from Agency France Presse taught me how to use an Asian toilet – a wooden hole with footprints alongside it – a humbling experience.
Like every new officer, within a few days I reported personally to the Corp’s commander, Lieutenant General Richard G. Stilwell, combat hero of World War II and Korea, at his wooden office next to the racket ball court. There were 3 or 4 of us nervously doing so that day. I shuttered when he wished us well, fixing his tough blue eyes on us, saying, “I know you boys are itching to get into the fight, and I’ll get you out there as fast as I can.”
In the months before my arrival, the ever-optimistic General Stilwell, who had been commander of cadets at West Point when the class of ’66 began their studies, had responded to written questions from President Richard Nixon. Always the optimist, he reported to the President that the war was going well, writing: “Our field commanders are reporting significant strides made this year in the strength of (our allies,) the Army of Vietnam.”
I never made it into the actual fight, unless you count occasionally being mortared at night, when I’d dive into a water and rat-infested bunker next to my wood and canvas hootch. At the press camp, I was initially put in charge of registration and briefing of arriving news media people. They were required by the military to stay at the camp, and then be escorted by press officers to cover approved units and activities, as arranged by our staff. These were the days before journalists were “embedded” within military units, as began in Iraq three decades later, when they could accompany platoons and companies of soldiers into action, without press officer escorts.
By 1968, there were almost 700 accredited foreign correspondents in South Vietnam, and close to half were non-U.S. media, often highly critical of U.S. actions. Some 80 journalists were women, but I never met one at Phu Bai. Many of the reporters seldom, if ever, left Saigon. They were among the hordes that took the daily handouts of Westmoreland’s PR people, at the briefings that came to be known as “The Five O’clock Follies.” Said Michael Herr of Esquire Magazine, “Only 50 of those journalists gave journalism a better name than it deserved.”
Most reporters arrived at our Phu Bai press camp via the nearby airfield aboard military C-130s, the planes often flown with the gaping rear doors.
However, inveterate Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett arrived a novel way – riding a motor scooter with his new Vietnamese wife sitting behind him. Peter, then 34, was one of the most independent reporters in Vietnam, and had written a highly controversial story in which he quoted a U.S. officer as declaring, “We had to destroy the village to save it.” Even President Johnson and General Westmoreland tried to get the AP to remove him for that report, but the wire service refused.
Twenty-two years later, not having seen or heard him since our press camp days, I recognized Peter’s voice on television. He was reporting live for CNN, as the only reporter with a link from Baghdad as the U.S. launched the Gulf War. Peter would later get an exclusive interview with Saddam Hussein. The military would soon succeed having the intrepid reporter fired from CNN because of a perceived excess of candor of his reporting, threatening that the network would lose all access to the Pentagon unless they dismissed him. While many war correspondents seem to thrive on the acrid smoke of battle, unfortunately Peter ultimately choked on it.
The Johnson administration employed what writer Stanley Karnow in his 1991 book, “Vietnam: A History,” called a “policy of minimum candor” in its dealings with the media. At DINFOS, we had drilled into us that military media relations policy was based on the principle of “Maximum disclosure with minimum delay.” If that had once been true, things had changed. Said Karnow, “Military information officers sought to manage media coverage by emphasizing stories that portrayed progress in the war. Over time, this policy damaged the public trust in official pronouncements. As the media’s coverage of the war and that of the Pentagon diverged, a so-called credibility gap developed.”
Still, much about the press camp later reminded me of the TV series that began in 1970, MASH, about the antics and drama of a mobile surgical hospital unit in the Korean War. I was the designated “scrounger” for the press camp, patrolling the corps compound for non-authorized supplies, from cocktail glasses to seat cushions. As we had guest quarters for journalists, one of which I got to use myself, a reporter who’d stayed a few days began calling the Press Camp “Holiday Inn East.” Our real job was to keep the press comfortable and safe, not necessarily to expedite their candid news coverage of the war.
I also became the weapons officer for the press camp, which also seemed like an oxymoron of an assignment. Because I’d learned to take apart and reassemble a 45 automatic pistol and an M16 automatic rifle, while blindfolded, they seemed to think I was an expert. We did need to carry weapons when we went out to Hue with news or TV crews, or visiting others divisions of the corps, for our own protection and that of the news people, but they were almost never fired except in training exercises.
I do recall once being fired upon, riding in an open jeep with an ABC-TV camera crew, while crossing rice fields on the highway enroute to Hue. I was so nervous that day that I’d chambered a round in my 45, and was riding with only the safety on. When shots rang out from the rice patty, we stopped and all dove under the jeep. After 15 minutes or so of quiet, we drove off. That’s the closest I ever came to firing my weapon in anger. We stopped along the way to visit the press officer at the headquarters of one of our Corp’s divisions, the 101st Airborne. My counterpart there was about to leave for Japan, to supervise the printing of their divisional magazine. I was jealous of his impending escape.
That afternoon, just outside of the wreckage of Hue, on a tip, we pushed through a scrim of overgrown jungle and came upon an incredible sight – the cool, clean marble floor of a hidden Buddhist Temple. It had survived the virtual destruction of Hue, buried in the nearby jungle, and was being meticulously maintained by monks. It was a stark contrast to the ruins surrounding the city market we later visited along the pulsing Perfume River of the old imperial capitol.
Back at Phu Bai, given the steady consumption of steak, Coca-Cola and scotch at the Press Club, plus the snacks we’d bring back from the mess hall, I had to go on a diet. While it was often steaming hot, and we certainly didn’t have air-conditioning or many other creature comforts, it was a far cry from living in the jungle battlefield and carrying a heavy backpack and a rifle everywhere. Life in the Press Camp was pretty much like desk-bound administrative work anywhere, except for those occasional fieldtrips, and of course the possibility of being shelled anytime. My diet, preserved on a signed and dated scrap of paper, called for “no peanuts, a little popcorn, one slice of bread or a small potato with each meal, two meals a day, max, and two cans of sweet soda a day, max.”
The time flew by, with reporters from all over the globe coming and going. While Vietnam was the first, and probably the last outwardly uncensored war, a sort of unofficial censorship took place, observed Australian journalist Paul Ham. “Let’s just call it lies. Most facts passed around, from head counts to talk of ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’ were either bald-faced whoppers or misinformation based on misunderstanding of the complexities of the conflict.” America’s quest to contain communism in Southeast Asia was not going very well.
I was corresponding almost daily with my parents and old best friend and with my pregnant girlfriend. I’d just sent them all Vietnamese Christmas Cards. My girlfriend wrote me, explaining that her unplanned pregnancy had ended at an early stage.
I was just settling into something approaching a routine, when one night, as I sat on a log at our improvised outdoor drive-in movie theatre, in the midst of a western, a civilian from the Red Cross detachment tapped me on the shoulder. “Lieutenant Ebeling, we’ve just been advised that your father has died.” It was December 22nd, less than a month after I’d arrived in Vietnam, and only a few days before Christmas. I was stunned. It was only a matter of weeks before that my father had waved a long tearful goodbye as I’d pulled out of the driveway back in Riverside, and yet it seemed like a lifetime ago.
The Red Cross fellow said he could look into a compassionate leave for me, as my father’s death was violent; an apparent suicide. A chance to go home would enable me to assist my distraught mother and young sister. We worked through the night, getting emergency orders approved. I’ll never forget the Red Cross for that. Early the next morning, I donned a tan summer uniform, and boarded a C130 transport. As we flew over DaNang to head for the Philippines, a crewmember pointed down, and there in a ramshackle stadium, was a holiday USO show underway for thousands of GIs and sailors. I was later to learn it was Bob Hope’s 1968 Christmas tour.
At a Philippines Air Force base, I boarded a C141 Starlifter, then America’s largest airplane. It was a massive transport, with a fuselage big enough to drive tanks into. I was returning from Vietnam the way I’d arrived, alone. Swinging in a seat made of belting material, I looked out along a row of low lights that stretched from nose to tail. A member of the crew soon came down a ladder and invited me up to the flight deck. He said the only extra space was in the crew bunk, up and behind the pilots and navigator. I could look down over them and out the front windshield, getting an occasional view of Arctic ice flows below, as we flew over the top of the world.
After nearly a full day aloft, we approached our landing at a New Jersey air base. I knew we were back when, as we banked to land, I spied a familiar symbol of America along a rode near the field, a glint off the Golden Arches of McDonald’s. I got a lump in my throat at this first recognizable symbol of home, an occasion I’d remember years later when I became the chief spokesman for this quintessentially American brand.
Transferring to O’Hara and then directly to Green Bay, Wisconsin, I arrived, in my tropical short-sleeve uniform, in the snow swept winter north, just in time to join my family at my father’s funeral.
In the weeks that followed, I applied for and received a compassionate reassignment to the press office at Fort Sheridan, just outside of Chicago, so I could help out my mother. I wrote to the commander of the press camp I had left, commenting that it was, “a sort of surrealistic experience in that all-to-real war. The officers of your unique command must be not only soldiers, but nurse-maids, inn-keepers, wardens and emotional and ethical sounding boards to the transient members of the Fourth Estate.”
My best friend Jeff later told me that when I shipped out for Vietnam he had thought he might never see me again. Now I was a survivor. I was no hero, but the war did cost me three years, and did bear at least some responsibility for collateral damage within my family – likely contributing to the final despair of my troubled father, and the later realization that I’d never know the child I might have had.
I moved on with my life, and I knew how lucky I was to have a life to live. The military, which once seemed to hold out golden opportunities to me, quickly faded from my aspirations. I turned down an expedited promotion to captain, to resign my Army commission. I was later invited back to Ft. Sheridan to receive an Army Commendation Medal, personally approved by the fifth Army Commander, for outstanding public affairs work in my final posting. Soon after, I was married, if only for a few years, to the girl I’d left behind when I was shipped to Vietnam.
My civilian career in public relations began on the headquarters staff of an insurance company still known for its good hands slogan. The executive who hired me made a comment that was both ironical and yet, not at all unusual in those times of controversy about those who served in the war. He said to me, and this has stayed with me over the years, “Young man, we won’t hold your service in Vietnam against you.”
Three decades later, not long after the onset of the Gulf War, I surprised to hear, for the very first time, a quite different comment from a fellow guest at a dinner party, after something had come up in conversation about my brief service in that distant, fruitless war. She said, “Thank you.” Times were changing.
Even back in the Vietnam era of a military draft, most American men had managed, either through dumb luck, political connections, inactive reserve service, medical issues, serial educational deferments or even escape to Canada, to dodge active military service. I had embraced my bad luck, as it were, and sought to make the most of it. In some ways I’d succeeded. In other ways, my own experience was a microcosm of the futility, the waste and the lies of war. America didn’t finally end the bloodshed in Vietnam until 1975, delayed in large part due to those cynical 1968 election maneuverings by Nixon and Kissinger.
America had lost its first war. But it had lost more. I was reminded of a quotation from writer Issac Asimov I’d seen at the foundation museum in Gernika, Spain, site of Franco and Hitler’s carpet-bombing atrocity during the Spanish Civil War. Said Asimov, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” My experience suggests that the gold bars I once worked so diligently to earn, and proudly wore, were carried in the service of incompetent, if not opportunistic and even “treasonous” political maneuvering, to quote recently released tapes of a private 1968 characterization of candidate Nixon and his people by then President Lyndon Johnson.
Whatever our feelings, then or now, about U.S. militarism, young soldiers remain the blunt instruments when government leadership decides to go to war, and stay at war. Their early adulthood, if they survive it, is profoundly affected, as is that of those around them. Over 11 years of Vietnam combat, U.S. troop causalities mounted, including the youngest in the officer corps. Seventeen hundred lieutenants had been killed, versus only nine colonels and just three generals. As Rick Atkinson tells us, in the Civil War, before senior ranks migrated to the rear as combat units became smaller, the chance of a general being killed had been 50 percent greater than that of a common soldier.
By Thanksgiving Day of 1969, just a year after my arrival in Vietnam, my life was already looking up, but still a mixed bag. As I lamented at the beginning of this story, I was still, “Between.” I had completed my active duty commitment of three years, yet found myself forced to serve 16 additional months in the active reserve, including countless weekends buried in an armory basement and weeks of duty in summer encampment, before a senator’s intercession compelled the Army to live up to its original agreement. The State of Illinois paid me a generous $100 Vietnam bonus, and the GI Bill paid for a correspondence course in coastal navigation. I still keep, as a relic of that time, a classic navigational aid, a handsome boxed sextant, which the course provided to me.
Significantly, I’d benefitted from maturing leadership experiences and costly taxpayer-funded professional training while in the military. I was well launched, unlike many veterans, on a fast track to a successful business career. I was back living in Chicago’s lively Lincoln Park, biking along the lakefront on weekends, and watched in awe with the world, as a man stepped onto the surface of the Moon on July 20,1969. Later that fall, I enjoyed a sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner with my new wife, my mother and little sister at my grandparent’s home in Green Bay, and I was lucky enough, like the Thanksgiving before in Saigon, to again get a turkey leg on my plate.
Meanwhile, what ever happened with all those gold bars back at Fort Knox, which I thought I was protecting so long ago? No thorough, independent audit of the gold at Fort Knox has occurred in the 50 years since I walked that guard path. The government says some $200 billion in gold bars is still there, though no one is allowed to inspect it. Some have said there is little if any gold left at Fort Knox, at least that is pure enough to be traded internationally. Two years ago, a U.S. Congressman formally called for a new audit of the Federal Reserve, including the gold vaults in New York and Fort Knox. To date, only the emergency loan programs of the Fed have been audited, not the gold vaults. Even if all or part of the billions of dollars in gold bars remained in good order, what difference would it make to today’s economy, when the national debt is now counted in trillions? Truth and perspective still eludes us.
So, where did all my golden opportunities go? I gave up years for a lost cause; one history now teaches was never a meaningful American cause at all. This country achieved nothing, lost much, and learned that living with communism, and even doing business with communists, is apparently not at all a fatal option. And yes, our government learned that if we could conduct future wars without a mandatory draft, and with an all-volunteer Army and thousands of mercenary contractors, the general public would become less politically engaged and outraged, and students in particular, would be less likely to object. Progress indeed?
As an adult touching older age, I now see warfare for what it is: the most abominable form of wholesale natural selection. Wars are nothing less than dangerous cracks in the frail veneer of civilization. I’m bitter that the politicians and counselors who commit us to war almost universally remain exempt from real personal consequences of their decisions, besides obligatory consolation of the bereaved and contending with the next election cycle.
Instead, these “brave” leaders invariably commit new generations of excitable, under-employed youth as proxies for their own complex, super egos. They weave plots to maintain foreign loyalties, secure more and more military bases and needed oil inventories, responding to pressures from military brass and corporate Washington to sustain the military/industrial complex and protect our economy. Young warriors always lead the way, suffering death and incapacities, plus personal and family sacrifices, as their rewards. Meanwhile, the nation’s leadership continues to politic, govern, prosper and then move on to honored, gracefully reflective retirements, often discussing their “difficult” decisions in written memoirs and on endless media and lecture tours.
Let me leave you tonight, as I left my time “between” college and career, by making a simple observation. Whether wondering what happened to the gleaming, fabled treasury of real gold at Fort Knox, that once helped underwrite an economy, or reflecting on my own mix of adventures with the symbolic gold bars worn on my shoulders, I can only close with the observation that: “All that glitters, when the final measure is taken, may not after all, be gold.”
Have a happy Thanksgiving, and may you soon relish your favorite part of the bird, be it turkey or tofurky, again this year.