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The Only War We've Got

The Only War We've Got

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The Only War We've Got

4.5/5 (3 ratings)
240 pages
5 hours
Jan 6, 2021


It's the summer of 1964. The bush hat, and not the steel helmet, is the favored headgear of the sixteen thousand American advisors in South Vietnam. They love their work, and they're very good at it. How can they possibly fail? Covering their war are a handful of foreign reporters, including novelist Daniel Ford. Armed with a camera and a notebook, he wanders the country on foot and by military transport--helicopter, jeep, landing craft, junk, armored personnel carrier, and an Air Force flare ship--from the Mekong Delta to the Central Highlands. Once or twice a week, or whenever he is reunited with his Hermes portable, he types up an account of what he has seen and done. Here is that journal, a generation after it was written. It is a freeze-frame picture of the Vietnam War before it became a quagmire. "How good-hearted we were!" Ford says of himself and the men he met in his travels. "And how badly it all turned out." Included is the trek to an abandoned French garrison that became the site of Ford's novel Incident at Muc Wa and the acclaimed Burt Lancaster film Go Tell the Spartans. Updated with photographs, 2021.

Jan 6, 2021

About the author

Daniel Ford has spent a lifetime chronicling the wars of the twentieth century. He lives in Durham, New Hampshire, where he is a recreational pilot and writes for the Wall Street Journal.

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The Only War We've Got - Daniel Ford

1 – How the Story Began

IN APRIL 1964, Doubleday & Co. made the astonishing decision to publish my first novel, concerning a bouquet of flower children at the University of New Hampshire. As it happened, my editor lived in Woodstock, New York, which in time became the defining place and moment of the Baby Boom generation. I was four years ahead of the counter revolution. Now Comes Theodora would be published, pulped, and forgotten by the time anyone knew what I was talking about.

I was similarly ahead of time with the Vietnam War. I took the $1,250 that Doubleday sent me as an advance on Theodora’s royalties, added $26 to it, and bought a round-trip ticket to Saigon on Pan American World Airways. This wasn’t my first airplane ticket, but it was my first for a turbojet, and the first that would take me over an ocean. The cost was impressive: those were pre-Vietnam, pre-inflation dollars, each worth ten of today’s much-depreciated greenbacks.

In 1964, air fares were set by an international cartel. You took your checkbook (I didn’t know anybody who owned a credit card) and bought a ticket at the fixed price. There was no travel agency in the university town of Durham, New Hampshire, where I lived, and only two in the small city of Dover nearby. I went to Christensen & Jalbert on Central Avenue. Incredibly, the woman who entered the office ahead of me was also buying a ticket to Saigon. Even stranger, the feature film at the Strand Theater down the street was A Yank in Vietnam, and with my Pan Am ticket in my pocket I paid seventy-five cents to see what lay ahead of me. Like most of the Vietnam exploitation flicks to follow, it was made in the Philippines by people who’d never been to the country in question.

In my generation, the military draft was a part of growing up male in America. I’d served the obligatory two years at Fort Dix (infantry basic training), Fort Bragg (on-the-job-training in psychological warfare), and Coligny Caserne in Orleans, France (where I was in charge of training everyone else). From this service, I’d emerged with a set of olive green fatigues, which I meant to wear in Vietnam while I was in the field, as soldiers say. I shod myself in a pair of moccasin-style boots from L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine. I bought twenty-two rolls of film and some cans of silica gel to keep them from mildewing in the tropics. I acquired a brown canvas knapsack from the Army–Navy Store, and I still had the hard-sided suitcase with which I’d set off for my freshman year at college.

The most important items in the suitcase were a little Swiss-made Hermes typewriter that was a going-away present from my friends, along with 100 sheets of typing paper and some carbon paper. With a faith that now astonishes me, I would entrust the suitcase, which also held my city clothes and spare film, to a sympathetic Army officer or sergeant whenever I was in the field, which was most of the time. This was partly because my sympathies lay with the field soldier, and partly because I couldn’t afford to live in a hotel. Even the BOQ – Bachelor Officers’ Quarters, to be found at any large U.S. encampment outside of Saigon – was a luxury at two dollars a night.

Once or twice a week, or whenever I was reunited with my Hermes portable, I’d type up an account of the people I had met and the places I had seen. Using the Army Post Office, which treated the letter as if mailed from San Francisco, I sent the original to my editor in New York. Of course she hoped that a book would come of these dispatches, enshrining me as the Ernie Pyle of the Vietnam War. (This was my hope also. I didn’t know that Pyle had been killed by a Japanese sniper on a jungle trail.)

The carbon copy would go to a friend in New Hampshire, who promised to keep the manuscript safe, and also to mail me a $20 bill at whatever return address I put on the envelope. Usually this was the American Express office in Saigon, though sometimes the captain or sergeant who was holding my suitcase agreed to serve as my local mail drop. On the black market, I could trade the bill for 2,000 piasters, which was the monthly salary of an honest Vietnamese bureaucrat, if there were any honest ones remaining in the country. Similarly, I was generally able to replenish my C rations (meals in a can) and office supplies by cadging from the Americans I met in my travels.

I had a wonderful time in Vietnam. I loved the country and the people I met there, and I discovered a secret known only to the fortunate among veterans of war: that being shot at is a joyful high, provided you don’t get hit. I wrote half a dozen magazine articles and took hundreds of photographs, and of course I wrote those dispatches that were going to make me a latter-day Ernie Pyle.

Alas for my plans – and for both countries concerned – Lyndon Johnson was ready to escalate the war by the time I returned to New Hampshire. South Vietnamese commandos in fast gunboats raided the northern coast under the protection of U.S. warships stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin. They included the destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy, which on August 3 baited the North Vietnamese by making runs toward the shore. That night the two destroyers may or may not have been attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats, which in any event inflicted no damage.

The American response had already been scripted: U.S. Navy jets rose from the carriers Ticonderoga and Constellation and bombed the North Vietnamese patrol boat bases. The U.S. Senate passed a war-powers resolution with only two dissenting votes. Pausing only to win a landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in November (the landslide was in part attributable to fears that Goldwater would get us into war!), President Johnson continued to follow the script that was on his desk. He authorized routine bombing of North Vietnam, sent U.S. Marines to guard an airfield at Danang, and – the fatal step – committed the U.S. Army to fight the Viet Cong on the ground. For their part, North Vietnamese troops entered combat alongside the Viet Cong. One year after I left Saigon, the airmobile U.S. 1st Cavalry Division was battling three North Vietnamese divisions in the Ia Drang Valley, and what I had known as a counter insurgency had become something very like a conventional war, though one without a front or main line of resistance.

There was a similar escalation in the number of journalists covering the war. On May 15, 1964, when I trekked about Saigon to get my U.S. Army and Bo Thong Tin (Ministry of Information) credentials, there was a grand total of forty foreign reporters in the country – full-time and part-time, and of all nationalities, not just American. By September 1965, the press corps numbered 500.

So my Vietnam journal was obsolete before it could be published. Instead, I used the experience to write a cautionary novel about Vietnam, which was published as Incident at Muc Wa. It was bleaker than the journal, and the movie that was made from it – Go Tell the Spartans – was bleaker yet, reflecting the turn the war had taken after I went home.

At the turn of the century in 2000, for the first time in thirty-six years, I read the chapters I mailed home from Vietnam in the spring and summer of 1964. They were a revelation: about the country and the sort of war we were fighting in those early days, and likewise about the young reporter who’d flown to Saigon with an innocence as grassy-green as the American involvement itself. So I decided to publish it, first through Authors Choice Press and finally under my own imprint, Warbird Books.

What was the purpose of our intervention in Vietnam, which became the longest and most divisive war that the United States ever fought? John Kennedy had explained it thus: ‘‘In the final analysis, it is their war. They [the South Vietnamese] are the ones who have to win or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment; we can send our men out there as advisors, but they have to win it – the people of Vietnam against the Communists."

Of course Jack Kennedy was never as pure as we thought him at the time. He may have had his fingers crossed when he spoke those words. But that’s beside the point. What’s important is the fact that we believed him, and—more important—that if we’d followed his prescription, we would never have gone as wrong as we did. Daniel Ford, January 2021

2 – The Only War We’ve Got

DURHAM, N.H., MAY 2, 1964 – Our war in Vietnam is old enough to have given us a first generation of veterans, and serious enough to bring us hometown stories in the local daily newspaper. I read about Captain Willard Boyle in the Portsmouth Herald, and I promptly called him up and asked him to tell me about Vietnam. The Boyles – five of them when their father is home – live in half of a white frame house in Hampton, on the New Hampshire seacoast. The house is surrounded by a porch and fronts on U.S. 1, the old Boston Post Road, which runs through the center of the village.

Bill Boyle might have been supplied by a Hollywood casting office. He’s six feet tall, weighs 200 pounds of lean, and has a tough jaw, crewcut black hair, and those snapping black eyes that were the Spanish Armada’s gift to Ireland. He was just in from playing baseball. Hampton is a dry town (any New Hampshire community has the right to impose Prohibition upon itself) so I had brought a six-pack of beer, and was welcomed like a brother.

I told Captain Boyle that I hoped to write a book about the Americans who are fighting in Vietnam, halfway around the world. Would he tell me something about it?

He brought out a metal globe belonging to his children. There it is, he said, planting his finger upon that wasp-waisted nation, 1,200 miles from top to bottom, and pinched off in the middle by the 17th parallel, the demilitarized zone between north and south. He moved his finger down to the wedge-shaped peninsula that contains the Mekong River Delta, one of the major prizes and battlefields of this war. Look at it, he said. Like an arrowhead. North Vietnam is Communist, and Laos might as well be. Cambodia? Forget it! That leaves South Vietnam, and see what happens if the Communists take that too. First they’ll knock off Thailand, and then they’ll jump to Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and finally Australia. His finger beat this requiem upon the surface of the globe. Where are we going to stop them if we don’t stop them in Vietnam?

[Australia was a bit of a stretch, but otherwise Captain Boyle’s expression of the domino theory reflected U.S. thinking. In 1961, President Kennedy had sent General Maxwell Taylor on a two-week tour of South Vietnam, from which Taylor returned with the warning that if Vietnam goes, it will be exceedingly difficult if not impossible to hold Southeast Asia from the Communists.]

Mrs. Boyle came in with glasses for our beer, which we’d been drinking from the bottle. She was about the same age as Bill – thirtyish – and plain except when she looked at her husband, when she came up pretty because she loved him and was happy to have him home. The children were playing a Frankenstein game on the living room floor. There were three of them, two girls and a boy. The younger girl was wearing Vietnamese pajamas, a delicate floral pink, and the boy – he was the youngest of all – clattered about on wooden sandals. Every once in a while he clattered over to the table to ask his father or me what was printed on the Frankenstein cards, which seemed to be running against him. Probably he suspected his sisters of cheating.

With occasional hearty forays into this family circle, Captain Boyle told me about his war in Vietnam. He’d flown with the Delta Aviation Battalion in Can Tho, as pilot of a troop-carrying helicopter. He called this duty flying clay pigeon because these aircraft aren’t armed or armored – they’re as helpless as the targets in a skeet shoot. They get support from modified T-28 trainers, and from armed helicopters that ride shotgun with rocket launchers and fifty caliber machine guns. The war in Vietnam is contributing new chapters to military doctrine, and the heliborne assault is one of them. Two years ago, the helicopters could go in without protection. But soon the Viet Cong guerrillas discovered they could shoot down a helicopter with well-placed rifle fire, so the pilots began to protect their craft with improvised machine gun mounts. Then came helicopters outfitted especially for strafing targets on the ground. It’s been a seesaw battle for the past two years, with the Viet Cong learning new ways to destroy helicopters, and the U.S. Army learning new ways to protect them. The lessons haven’t been cheap to either side.

Captain Boyle told me that there are 16,000 American servicemen in Vietnam. Some are advisors – members of the Military Assistance Advisory Group – who work directly with the Vietnamese armed forces, right down to battalion level, providing them with a backbone of experience, know-how, and simple courage. (A battalion is the infantry’s smallest unit of maneuver. Typically it contains three or four rifle companies plus headquarters and support personnel, to a total of 600–900 men.) The others are assigned to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. MACV (pronounced mack-vee) outfits are made up entirely of Americans. They provide technical support to the Vietnamese military, performing much the same duties as they would in similar outfits back home, except that in Vietnam they’re under fire. Bill Boyle belonged to this category. He lived in an American compound, flew with an American crew, and had no contact with the Vietnamese except as passengers in his helicopter.

His outfit is stationed in Can Tho, in the heart of the Mekong Delta. This is one of the richest food-producing areas in the world. Seventeen million people live by the flow and flood of the Mekong and its tributaries, and the Delta can produce five million tons of rice in a single year of peace.

South Vietnam is divided into four military zones. The Mekong Delta is IV Corps, roughly the entire peninsula south of Saigon – that arrowhead pointing at the heart of Southeast Asia, as the United States sees it. From all that Bill Boyle says, it’s the hottest spot in Vietnam. The Viet Cong have become increasingly active in the Delta since the beginning of 1964, and now they’re operating in regimental strength for the first time since the Communist Viet Minh defeated the French, ten years ago this month. (A regiment contains three or four battalions plus headquarters and support – say 3,000 men.)

Revolutionary wars follow a three-step pattern. At first they’re limited to subversion and isolated acts of violence. Then they move into full-scale guerrilla actions, in which the rebels fight on their own terms, with ambushes and hit-and-run raids as their favorite tactics. Finally there’s the war of movement in which the rebels can battle the government troops on equal terms. That is how Michael Collins won the Irish Republic, how Mao Tse Tung won China, how Fidel Castro won Cuba, how Ho Chi Minh won North Vietnam, and how the Viet Cong plan to win South Vietnam. It also happens to be how the American colonists won the United States of America.

Slowly, this past winter and spring, the war in Vietnam has been developing from the second stage to the last, from guerrilla warfare to set-piece battles. And it’s in the Mekong Delta that the Viet Cong are fighting most boldly.

Good enough! My first goal in Vietnam will be the Delta Aviation Battalion in Can Tho. Bill Boyle agreed to write me a letter of introduction. We also discovered, after swapping names and places as Americans do, that we have a few mutual friends there in the heart of this strange war – proving, if any proof be needed, that 16,000 is a lot of men. Almost everybody knows somebody over there.

My object is to share the experiences of those Americans, not to become an instant expert on Southeast Asia – just stir and add water. Still, no war is fought in a vacuum, and especially not a revolutionary war. What follows is a thumbnail history of our surprisingly long, and not always glorious, role in Vietnam:

The Japanese Imperial Army moved into Vietnam in 1940, not long after Germany occupied northern France and set up a puppet government at Vichy in the south. The French had 50,000 soldiers in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos – Indochina, as they called it – too few to contest the Japanese invasion, but too many to be cheaply defeated. So the two armies lived side by side for the next five years. If a dispute arose, it was generally resolved by having the Germans put pressure on the Vichy government, which dutifully ordered the colonials to do whatever the Japanese wanted. The United States profited from this uneasy truce, which obliged the Japanese to station a large number of troops in Vietnam, so as to keep an eye on the French. Still, we felt that the French had let us down by not resisting the occupation, and we refused to help when the Japanese finally decided to disarm them. The beleaguered French garrisons could see American planes flying far overhead on bombing missions to Burma, but no bombs fell upon the Japanese overrunning their positions. Their only help came from British aircraft, making dangerously long supply drops from Calcutta, 1,500 miles away.

The orders to ignore the French plight came directly from President Franklin Roosevelt, who wanted to see the last traces of colonialism purged from Southeast Asia. This experience poisoned Franco-American relations in the postwar years, and it led directly to the present division of Vietnam along the 17th parallel.

Viet Minh guerrillas were already operating in Vietnam during World War II. They harassed the Japanese, rescued downed American flyers, propagandized the civilian population, and (on August 19, 1945, just four days after Japan’s surrender) seized control of the capital city of Hanoi. Our Office of Strategic Services (parent to today’s Central Intelligence Agency) was impressed by Ho Chi Minh’s achievements. The OSS flew in weapons to equip his guerrillas and to prevent a French return to power. Our policy was abetted by the Chinese army that occupied North Vietnam after the Japanese surrender. With an entirely different agenda, the British occupied the south, released the French troops imprisoned there, and thus prevented the Communists from seizing the southern half of the country.

The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) came into existence on September 2, 1945. It was the second Communist state in Asia, after Mongolia, and it was the first to have no common border with the Soviet Union.

By 1946, the British had withdrawn from South Vietnam and the Chinese from the north. The French set out to regain their old position in the country. They committed 40,000 men to the task of clearing North Vietnam, using the oil slick strategy of securing key centers, then spreading out into the countryside. It was a woefully inadequate force, and for three years the French just barely held their own.

Then the war escalated. China fell to the Communists, who provided Ho Chi Minh with safe-haven

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    This book includes the mission that become the acclaimed Burt Lancaster film, "Go Tell the Spartans"