Read excerpts from "Tears and Triumphs: Tales of Loyalty and Betrayal from a Military Life" below.
From Chapter 6—Vietnam Entertainments:
A friend of mine, Army Warrant Officer Gary Varner, flew in an L-19 Bird Dog every day to check enemy activity. He was the first pilot I flew with on that duty. Later, after he came home, he wrote, “I never realized how much beer I drank every night.” It was often a six-pack each or more. Varnum was replaced by an Air Force captain who drank a fifth a night. His hands shook every morning, and one day that seemed to catch up with him. He went to the airfield for a flight over the province but forgot to gas up his plane, an L-19 Bird Dog.
How could a trained Air Force pilot flying in Vietnam in 1967 forget to make sure his airplane was fueled before taking off on a mission? Well, the military had given Cessna a challenge: The plane had to be capable of taking off and landing over a 50-foot obstacle in less than 600 feet at its maximum allowable gross weight. The plane that resulted from these specs, Cessna’s Model 305, became known as the L-19 Bird Dog.
During the Vietnam War it was used mostly for reconnaissance, finding targets or adjusting artillery, escorting convoys, and providing forward air control for tactical aircraft such as bombers It would later be renamed the O-1, with the O standing for observation, until the Army officially retired it in 1974.
The Bird Dog was aptly named. I flew a number of those flights over Go Cong seated in the rear observation seat. If you were flying slowly over the province, it was easier for the passenger to search for and locate enemy ground positions. When we found the enemy— we hoped that was who it was, but in free-fire zones we usually knew who it was—the passenger would radio in that position to bring in artillery fire, for example. As a result, when the VC spotted a Bird Dog flying low overhead, they might expect that something might soon happen. The plane was vulnerable to ground fire, but the VC would not always take a shot because then they’d definitely be revealing their position. A Bird Dog passenger in another province who came into the country about the time I did took a round in his seat but was able to recover.
Luckily I didn’t get in that seat one early morning with this particular Air Force pilot, who was stone cold drunk. I said, “I’m getting out here and will take your picture as you take off.” A movie clip of that takeoff would have shown a very brief taxi and takeoff but a great image of what followed. When he got to the end of the runway, the engine quit and the plane took a nosedive right into the swamp.
I helped the pilot out of the cockpit, as I recall, and when he started to walk away, I said, “What are you doing?”
“I’m going back to bed,” he told me, and he walked back to the billets. When he woke up he was told he was relieved of duty as soon as his Seagram’s hangover wore off.
From Chapter 5—My First Vietnam Operations:
As my company begin moving through a graveyard full of tombstones, all hell broke loose. We came under fire and hit the deck. My radio operator dropped behind a tombstone for cover and I dropped behind another a few feet away, stretching our radio cable to the max. I made sure we both had thick tombstones to hide behind until we figured out what the hell was going on. I immediately radioed the S3 that we had made contact and would send him a situation report (SITREP) ASAP.
To my left, RF/PF soldiers were firing grenade launchers toward targets they’d identified. While all U.S. forces had the latest weaponry, Westmoreland’s policy was not to man the RF/PF with the latest launchers to help make sure they didn’t fall into the hands of the VC. The latest launchers were M79 grenade launchers, a single-shot, shoulder-fired, break-action grenade launcher that fires a 40 x 46 mm grenade with very little recoil. It was very effective at close range; if you were good, you could drop a round onto enemy positions with enough accuracy to hit a 50-gallon barrel at 300 yards. Instead, my RF/PF soldiers were firing grenades off M1 rifles from World War II.
As their grenades went off in front of us, I was hearing some pretty raunchy Vietnamese cussing— du ma thang sau nay, or “this ugly guy.” I decided I’d better get us closer to the action.
I told Jim, “We are moving out. Follow me.” In combat situations, you prepare as much as possible for the unexpected, but I wasn’t prepared for what I came upon. The RF/PF had killed several Viet Cong. They had been under water, breathing through reeds, when we’d surprised them. They were all wasted.
I reported all killed in action, “enemy KIA.” An RF/PF soldier came up to me with a small plastic food bag, which appeared to contain pieces of meat. He offered me a piece and said in Vietnamese that it was liver; if I ate it, I would be strong. I said, “No, I will not eat it,” also in Vietnamese. The soldiers were all were excited, eating the liver and laughing at me, taunting me to eat it. In fact, they had cut open a couple of the dead Viet Cong and cut out their livers—definitely cannibalism.
This was nothing like what had happened in World War II. The most well-known example from that war must be the incident on Chichijima Island, where the Japanese flak had shot down four U.S. Navy TBM Avenger bombers. Nine pilots had parachuted out. Eight of them landed on Chichijima, where they were captured, beheaded, gutted and prepared for food, served up like sushi for the Japanese officers. The ninth, a certain Lieutenant Junior Grade G.H.W. Bush from the U.S.S. San Jacinto, drifted off to sea, where he was rescued by the submarine U.S.S. Finback.
The case I observed in Vietnam was obviously a violation of the Geneva Convention Code of Conduct. I reported the incident up my chain of command and had my counterpart do the same. In the meantime, the operation continued on toward the tree line, then we filed our after-action reports and debriefed our S3. I ended the day at the team club, glad we’d completed another successful operation. My efficiency report for this period said, “He displayed military competency and courage under enemy fire.” I thought to myself, “What was the other option? Retreat?”