4:54 | His experience in Vietnam taught him something about what it means to be an American, says Jim Lawrence. He reflects on the death of his friend, Don Cornett, and the effect it had on all the lives connected to him. Multiply those numbers by the 58,000 names on The Wall and you get an idea of the true scale of the tragedy of war.
Keywords : Jim Lawrence Vietnam Ia Drang Valley LZ Albany Vietnam Veterans Memorial The Wall Don Cornett 50th Anniversary Joe Galloway
After surviving the plebe system at The Citadel, Jim Lawrence became a platoon leader in the reformed 1st Cavalry, the Army's new air mobile division. They were the first sizable unit sent to Vietnam, but they didn't expect anything more than an "action," certainly not a war.
Jim Lawrence had intensely trained his reconnaissance platoon and had them armed and ready when they reached Vietnam, but what they found was vendors at the harbor selling boots and toys. Their first job was to carve a base camp out of the wilderness in the Central Highlands.
He was wary of the Vietnamese civilians who were workers at the unit's base camp, but Jim Lawrence was fully confident in the tightly knit group of officers and men who had bonded on the month long voyage to the country. His best friend, Don Cornett and his sergeant, Ron Benton, were two of them.
When you carve a base camp out of the wilderness, you have to have an officers club. The guitar was supplied by Jim Lawrence, who drew on a deep appreciation of folk music.
The North Vietnamese had lured the Americans into a trap by attacking a Special Forces camp and setting up an ambush. Col. Hal Moore's air mobile unit was in a fight for its life and Jim Lawrence could hear it in the distance. His unit was called in for support and, after two days of fighting they were told to move out on foot. Part 1 of 5.
There was a series of mistakes made during the ill-fated march to Landing Zone Albany. Jim Lawrence muses over the mindset, the lack of tactical movement and other problems as the column of soldiers moved through unknown territory. When company commanders were called forward, he gave the men a break. Two big mistakes. Part 2 of 5.
The battle of the Ia Drang Valley was not yet over. There was a column of men from the 7th Cavalry marching to a site called Albany for pickup, and as they neared the landing zone, the jungle erupted in vicious gunfire. North Vietnamese were waiting for them. Amazingly, as Jim Lawrence fired at the enemy who was charging his position, he was ordered to cease fire. He disobeyed that order. Part 3 of 5.
He was pinned down by enemy fire when he suddenly realized that, with his captain called to the front of the column, he was the leader of a company in the middle of an ambush. Jim Lawrence knew he had to get them moving and away from there so he stood up and at that moment, a sniper fired. Part 4 of 5.
Jim Lawrence could only watch as A-1E Skyraiders turned the tide at the battle of Landing Zone Albany. He'd been shot in the head and couldn't move his legs. After evacuation, the first doctor he saw had a bedside manner that was lacking. Part 5 of 5.
It was the most horrific, yet the most important day in his life. Jim Lawrence says the Battle of Landing Zone Albany made him the man he is today. As he sat in the hospital recovering from his wound, he read the casualty list from the battle and checked off over sixty names of men he knew personally.
As a returning Vietnam veteran, Jim Lawrence disappeared into his own life, along with all the others who were ignored or worse by the public. He is happy about the respect returning vets get today, but is disturbed by what he considers the same mistakes being made by politicians.
Jim Lawrence grew up in the segregated South with a passive acceptance of the situation. But in Vietnam, where it was life or death every minute, there was no place for racial animus. As he was being evacuated with a serious wound from the battlefield, something happened which changed his outlook forever.
His helicopter was unarmed. Ray Vaske ferried battalion commanders around and did some scout work, all the while admiring the beautiful scenery of Vietnam. His entire outlook was altered when, during a briefing, he got a lesson in the absurd rules of engagement of the time. The weather was often his most immediate problem and he describes a tense flight through the monsoon clouds.
When Galen Hoover woke up in a hospital with a bandaged head and a broken hand, he had no idea what happened or how he got there. The guys from his unit came to see him and he finally heard the tale of that fateful patrol on the canal that day.
There was little contact up by the DMZ so the 1st Air Cavalry was moved south near the Cambodian border. Plenty of action there. The first day, Jerry Gast's platoon set off on a 500 meter sweep in front of the perimeter and ran into a trail. The ambitious lieutenant decided they would follow it. Bad idea.
Living full time with his Vietnamese crew meant that Galen Hoover ate what they ate. His first night on the river, they served him a dish that was so good, he requested it regularly, even after he found out what it was. The crew knew he was really green, so the boat captain thought he would mess with the new advisor a little.
The day Jack Jeter was wounded was the third day of serious firefights. His commanding officer, Captain Barry McCaffrey, was wounded on the first day and the temporary replacement had his own ideas about how to proceed. That led the unit right into big trouble. Part 1 of 3. (Caution: strong language.)
There were occasional potshots at his helicopter, but Ray Vaske had one incident where he just missed getting knocked down by an RPG. The weather was another big problem, once causing him to dip his skids in the ocean. Back at the base, the Vietnamese barber gave him a painfully close shave. A few weeks later, they found out, maybe, he had other things on his mind.
Vietnamization was underway and, soon, Galen Hoover was sleeping away the long flight home. He landed in San Francisco and was glad to be back in the States, but as he left the plane, here came the peace protestors. What happened next haunts him still.
Coming home from Vietnam was a difficult experience. Jesse Groves was perplexed by the apathy and outright abuse. He suppressed his memories and moved on. Once later wars made service respectable again, and once he began to reconnect with his comrades, he could feel proud of his service.
The bullet barely missed wrecking his knee. Jack Jeter was in for some hospital time before he could go home. Once he did, he was amazed at the blase attitude of his friends about Vietnam. Part 3 of 3. (Caution: strong language.)
The river boats were patrolling in narrow canals and rivers, searching for infiltrating NVA troops. Galen Hoover was in the second boat, trailing a boat that was supposed to be mine sweeping. That was the last thing he remembered about that day.
His eventual destination was flight school, but the first plane Ray Vaske ever got on was the one he took to basic training. He'd been told by the recruiter not to worry about that war in Vietnam. Surely, it would be over before he was done with training.
“I was out of it for days,” recalls Dennis Haines, He had a head wound and would only regain full consciousness after he was evacuated to a hospital in Japan, where he learned the left side of his body was paralyzed.
Tony Coalson's helicopter unit flew all of II Corps, a fourth of the entire country, unlike dedicated combat units, which only flew in their little slice of Vietnam. He recalls his first combat related mission, in which he delivered an assessment team right in the middle of one of the biggest battles of the war. Part 1 of 2.
Willard Womack gives his account of the Battle of Ap Bac, a significant turning point in the Vietnam War. It begins with him hitching a flight to Saigon to pick up the pay for his outfit. Detoured on his way back to his base, he saw a group of men listening intently to a firefight on a radio. Part 1 of 3. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
When helicopter pilot Tony Coalson was on the ground during the Battle of Dak To, he was astounded at the numbers of American dead. Some of the casualties were from a terrible friendly fire incident. He remembers watching a C-130 full of wounded men just barely survive takeoff. When he returned to his base, he had a solemn observation for his roommate. Part 2 of 2.
Upon leading the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, Myron Harrington had to help conduct an attack on the citadel in Hue City, Vietnam. This is the story of how he and his men charged the tower, which took longer to accomplish than expected.
Willard Womack was nervously awaiting the news of what happened to the helicopter carrying some of his friends who had just participated in the Battle of Ap Bac, a crucial turning point early in the war. They had come though that unscathed but were now missing. Decades later, he received an email that brought the memories flooding back. Part 3 of 3. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
As the American advisor argued with his Vietnamese counterpart over the radio, Willard Womack, an Army pilot stuck in transit, could hear the frustration mounting. The battle of Ap Bac could not be won with these tactics. Eventually, the evacuation was made and, weeks later, several of the aviators involved hitched a ride to Saigon for a night of carousing. Pt 2 of 3. (This interview made possible with the support of RALPH J. TINGLE.)
After the column was devastated by an NVA ambush, wounded Americans were scattered in the darkness. After his captain heard one such group calling for help on the radio, Freddie Owens joined a patrol to find them, guided by a gunshot every few minutes. Once there, medic Daniel Torres volunteered to stay with those who couldn't move and protected them through the night with medicine and a machine gun.
There were 87 men on some high ground surrounded by Viet Cong and Marine helicopter pilot Bill Cunningham had a problem. There was only room for one ship at a time to land in the tiny landing zone they had hacked out of the bush. It would be one at a time so he spiraled down for the first load. Then he felt like a sledgehammer hit his leg.
They were hunkered down after fierce fighting when the call came from "Ghost 4-6." It was a group of wounded men who had pulled themselves together after the ill fated march to LZ Albany and were lost in the dark. George Forrest sent a patrol to find them, and in an incredible act of bravery, medic Daniel Torres stayed through the night with them and saved many men. Captain Forrest still had to write a gut-wrenching letter to the mother of a missing soldier. Part 3 of 4.
The RPG that severed Joe McDonald’s foot didn’t kill him. The machine gun fire that hit him as he still tried to help others didn’t kill him. The grenade taped to his hand might have killed him if the VC had found his hiding place.
In a letter home, Tommy Clack expressed his worry that something bad was going to happen and it did when his unit engaged the NVA near the Cambodian border. He saw the enemy soldier stand and fire the RPG that changed his life forever.
As Marine Captain Ron Christmas fought to regain the city of Hue, he found the enemy adept at concealment and surprise. Every soldier in a spider hole was armed with a rifle and a RPG launcher. He also encountered a nun with an AK-47. His action during this time earned him the Navy Cross.
At first, Ray Vaske couldn't find Dong Ha on the map. The helicopter pilot was attached to an artillery battalion up near the DMZ and when he did get there, he found out the chopper he was going to fly was different than the one he'd been flying. It was time for some on-the-job-training.