US Vietnamese Base Wiped Out - History

US Vietnamese Base Wiped Out - History

The Battle of the Dong Xoai Camp and the Astonishing Bravery of its Defenders

In 1965, North Vietnamese leaders planned to launch a summer offensive to destroy the regular units of the South Vietnamese military. For the first time, the newly created VC 273rd and 274th Regiments were ordered to join the 271st and 272nd Regiments to attack and establish “liberated zones” in the south.

As part of the overall plan, the VC 9th Division was ordered to attack Dong Xoai. Dong Xoai was a district town situated at a road junction that connected Inter-Provisional Road 13, National Highway 1, and Highway 14. The district was defended by 200 local Vietnamese soldiers drawn from the 327th and 328th Militia Companies, and the 111th Regional Force Company. They were supported by one armored squadron (six armored vehicles) and two 105mm howitzers.

Dong Xoai was also home to a Special Forces A-Camp, Detachment A-342, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), that housed 400 Montagnard CIDG strikers and 24 U.S. troops including Army Green Berets and Navy Seabees. The Green Berets had only been there since May 25 and the defenses were far from finished.

Marvin Shields, a Navy Seabee was awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously for his valor defending the Dong Xoai camp in June 1965.

What Is Pho?

Of course, before I go into the history of pho, we should first tackle a more fundamental question about pho, namely: What in the world is pho?

Many readers know exactly what pho is. Articles on pho that you find around the Internet define the dish simply as Vietnamese noodle soup, traditionally made with beef or chicken broth that is flavored with various spices and topped with various herbs. But this definition seems far too simplistic because it does not really capture the rich and intense essence of beef in the broth that can only be achieved by simmering marrow-rich beef bones on low heat for many hours. It does not describe the complex layers of flavor created by the herbs and spices in pho. It does not illustrate the many textures created by the square rice noodles, the tender beef slices and the crunchy bean sprouts in the soup.

At the very least, the description "noodle soup" may be a misnomer. Soup implies that the dish is a side dish, but in fact pho itself is the main course. Pho is a noodle dish, and not a soup dish. So if you catch the phrase "noodle soup" somewhere on this site then it's only because I let my guard down for a moment there. Pho should be called "Vietnamese noodle" or "soup noodle" because it is a noodle dish.

You cannot expect two bowls of pho made in two separate kitchens to ever taste the same. There are many recipes of pho existing out there, with each recipe somewhat different from each other. But those are only the published ones. There are countless others that are closely held by professional chefs running popular pho restaurants, and we'll never know what they are. So techniques in cooking and preparing pho vary from chef to chef. Variations can also depend on what type of pho is being prepared. For instance, pho bac, which is pho from the northern regions of Vietnam, is made quite differently from how pho is prepared and served in southern Vietnam.

The history of pho stretches only a hundred years back in Vietnam's recent past. But just as those hundred years have shaped Vietnam into the country it is today, so do those hundred years have shaped the way pho has become. Three events in Vietnamese history have marked the history of pho. They are

  1. The unification of Vietnam under French rule in 1887,
  2. The splitting of the country into North and South Vietnam in 1954, and
  3. The Fall of Saigon in 1975.

Editor's Note : Here's an article on "What is Vietnamese Pho: Think You Know? Think Again," which discusses what is and what is not pho.

More than two decades of violent conflict had inflicted a devastating toll on Vietnam’s population: After years of warfare, an estimated 2 million Vietnamese were killed, while 3 million were wounded and another 12 million became refugees.

These pressures forced the Johnson administration to begin peace talks with the North Vietnamese and NLF and to suspend the bombing of North Vietnam…. The anti-war movement did force the United States to sign a peace treaty, withdraw its remaining forces, and end the draft in early 1973.

Bankrupt hopes

The Tet Offensive arrived on the heels of a 1967 publicity blitz by President Lyndon Johnson's administration to convince an increasingly skeptical U.S. public that the Vietnam War was not the stalemate that it appeared to be. Defense and military officials painted a picture of a weakened enemy nearing collapse.

Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, said during a speech at the National Press Club in November 1967 that U.S. forces had reached a point where "the end begins to come into view" and that "the enemy's hopes are bankrupt."

"Through 1967, it's hard to exaggerate how much effort the White House put into -- and it even called it this -- the 'success campaign,' propaganda campaign, to convince the American people that the war was going in the right direction, even when internally they weren't at all sure," Appy said.

The campaign was perhaps too convincing, given what the North Vietnamese unleashed in January 1968, a fulsome attack that underscored how far the North was from defeat. The U.S. military deemed the heavy enemy casualties as an American victory, but the U.S. public focused on a determined enemy that inflicted unacceptable loses on fellow countrymen.

"For an American public that is increasingly persuaded by that argument, when the Tet Offensive happens, there seems to be a disconnect between what they've been told and what they're seeing on the ground," Daddis said. Communist fighters chose six strategic targets in downtown Saigon, among them the U.S. Embassy, the presidential palace and the national radio station.

Media images were plentiful and stark.

"The offices and homes of the Western press corps were clustered mainly in downtown Saigon, within walking distance of the palace and U.S Embassy," said Peter Arnett, a correspondent covering the war for The Associated Press. While the number of insurgents were too few to hold their targets for very long, the media images gave Americans a glimpse of an atrocious new breed of violence.

In Saigon on Feb. 1, Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngọc Loan, chief of the national police, publicly executed a man believed to be the head of a Viet Cong assassination squad. AP photographer Eddie Adams and an NBC television crew captured on film the moment Nguyen shot the handcuffed man through the head.

American counterattacks in the Chinese district of Cholon in Saigon are believed to have killed hundreds of civilians. Scenes of terrified refugees pouring from the district were beamed around the world.

Westmoreland decried the media coverage as too obsessed with "gloom and doom," Arnett said.

"Speaking for my colleagues working in Saigon at that time, our intention was to report and photograph the reality of what we were seeing before our eyes every day," he said. "Our coverage was as professional as we could achieve under difficult circumstances. That our coverage was said to polarize the American public's view of the war was not our intent."

Far to the north, just 30 miles below the demilitarized zone dividing north and south, the city of Hue was overrun by almost 8,000 North Vietnamese troops. The U.S.-South Vietnamese counteroffensive to retake the city was the longest, bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War.

The enemy had dug into a massive complex called the Citadel, which was surrounded by a moat and stone ramparts, some as thick as 40 feet.

More than 200 American troops died in the 25-day battle, with 1,584 wounded 452 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed.

After hearing reports of unprecedented destruction in South Vietnamese villages, Arnett joined a press trip Feb. 7 to the small provincial capital city of Ben Tre, which he'd visited only weeks earlier. There he saw the ruins of shacks, homes, businesses and restaurants badly damaged by U.S. artillery and airstrikes during the attempt to dislodge Viet Cong who had occupied it during the Tet Offensive. Hundreds of civilians had been killed.

Arnett interviewed a dozen military advisers in the town, who explained how the U.S. and South Vietnamese military compounds had been nearly overrun when they finally requested the heavy shelling.

An utterance by one of those advisers made it into the lead of Arnett's next AP dispatch, which in the 50 years since it was written has been often cited as the essence of America's quixotic involvement in Vietnam: "It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it." subhead: Strategic success

The North Vietnamese were demoralized in the wake of their failure.

"They'd convinced themselves that they had enough support in the countryside that if they raised the level of violence there, the people would rise up and join them," Willbanks said. That didn't happen. The Viet Cong suffered particularly heavy losses.

Willbanks, who was deployed to South Vietnam in 1972, never saw any Viet Cong during his tour. "They had been wiped out in '68 and hadn't been rebuilt," he said.

But the Tet Offensive did set into motion developments in the U.S. that ultimately turned a failed assault into a strategic success.

Tet had deepened an ongoing internal debate within the Johnson administration between those who wanted to intensify the war -- mainly military leaders -- and those who wanted to de-escalate, primarily civilian advisers, said Mark Moyar, author of "Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965" and director of the Military and Diplomatic History Project at the

Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Some military leaders saw a window of opportunity in the days after Tet began when there was a "rally-around-the-flag effect" among Americans, similar to what happened after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, he said.

"Once Johnson made it clear that he was not going to take more aggressive measures, then you saw public support tail off," he said.

Johnson lost what little stomach he'd had for the war after Tet, and it played a role in his decision to not seek a second term that fall, clearing the way for Richard Nixon's election.

"When Nixon came to office he realized that the American public would no longer support high levels of American troops or casualties and so announced that he would slowly withdraw troops, even, of course, as he expanded the war into Cambodia and Laos and intensified the air war," Appy said.

Meeting with South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu at Midway Island in June 1968, Nixon announced that 25,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn by the end of August and that South Vietnamese troops would eventually assume all combat responsibilities.

Before Tet, "we were there to win the war," Willbanks said. Everything after that was geared to "build the South Vietnamese forces up, turn the war over to them and depart."

"I think that weighs heavily on individual soldiers who are still being asked to fight out in the field," Daddis said. "They begin to question the rationale behind what they're being asked to do at that unit level. Why am I risking my life if we're not even going to win?"

Appy, however, is unconvinced by claims that "victory was in sight after Tet and we just didn't finish the job."

"There was never going to be a military solution to the war," he said. "My point is victory was never going to happen in South Vietnam unless and until the government in Saigon had the support of its own people necessary to sustain it without massive American military intervention," Appy said.

Daddis said Tet remains a compelling story in large part because for some it remains this one central moment in the entire Vietnam War where they ask, 'What if?'

"This is really one of the central counterfactuals that some will focus on because this seems to be the moment where the American effort really starts to unravel.

"It remains this key storyline because it seemed like victory was within our grasp, at least from a military standpoint, but was politically taken away by politicians, the media and the public that just didn't see the true victory that was there. That's a very problematic argument, but I think that's why it remains such a centerpiece of debate over what happened in Vietnam."

But war, Daddis contends, is not simply about military victories and losses.

"I'm not all that personally convinced of arguments that suggest there was a military victory but a political defeat [with Tet] because that unnaturally separates what war is," he said. "War is a much more political act than it is a military one."


The Tet offensive was devastating.

Eighty percent of Huế was destroyed, and over 2,000 civilians there, labeled as threats to the revolution, were executed by VC death squads. Thousands of civilians were also killed in the fighting. US and South Vietnamese forces suffered over 12,000 casualties, including more than 2,600 deaths.

The offensive was also a disaster for North Vietnam. Of about 84,000 combatants, up to 58,000 are believed to have been killed, wounded, or captured. The VC was particularly hard hit, losing so many guerrillas that it was effectively wiped out as a viable fighting force.

In addition, they achieved none of their objectives. There was no general uprising, no South Vietnamese units defected, and they were unable to hold any of the cities or towns they seized.

But Tet was a strategic victory for the North.

Every day, media outlets broadcast graphic images of death and destruction directly into American homes. Particularly horrifying were images of the summary execution of a VC death squad captain by a South Vietnamese general.

Moreover, the fact that the NVA and VC had conducted such a large-scale attack as Johnson and Westmoreland promised victory was near led many Americans to see the war as unwinnable.

Political opinion turned against the war, and the US mission shifted to strengthening South Vietnam's military so it could fight alone, enabling the US to withdraw, which it did in 1973. But South Vietnamese forces were quickly overwhelmed, and Saigon fell in 1975.

Soldiers On Drugs

I hated what Vietnam was doing to the United States and I hated what it was doing to our Army. — General H. Norman Schwarzkopf

When my colleague Jim Willwerth left for assignment in Vietnam earlier in 1970, a senior editor had offered him a lukewarm send-off, along with these words: “It’s still a story … I guess.”

In my first month or so it seemed perhaps that the Time editor was right. But even before the combat war heated up during the next dry season with the invasion of Laos, there was a largely unreported story unspooling before me: the near total disintegration of the armed forces of the United States. As one military historian would put it, the army during the final years of Vietnam had suffered “a collective nervous breakdown.” John Steinbeck’s claim that “Vietnam drew everyone down into the vortex” now applied to our armed forces. [Ed: John Steinbeck IV, is the son of the writer of the same name.]

Larsen on the way to a story in a Bell “Huey” helicopter. Photo credit: Jonathan Larsen

Our troops were in so deep that an external enemy was barely required. In one 79-day period there were seventy-five drug overdoses, mostly from heroin, which in Vietnam was available in such purity that injecting it uncut meant almost certain death. Drug overdoses were only part of the problem. Other self-inflicted wounds included lack of discipline, desertion, racial tensions, and moral turpitude. Not long after my arrival, I reported that American armed forces began to experience more casualties from “non-combat-related” deaths than from the enemy. Over the previous year, the mortality rate from non-hostile causes had risen by almost thirty percent.

In Chicago I had witnessed a police riot, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Here in Vietnam was another: “friendly fire.” In addition to the mistakes that attend every war, there was a relatively new curse known as “fragging,” the murder or attempted murder of a senior officer. Topping off the numbers were suicides, motor vehicle fatalities, and drug overdoses.

Over the course of the war there were more than 10,000 deaths from non-hostile causes. John Steinbeck’s estimate that as many as three out of four soldiers were on drugs now seemed conservative. Soldiers were smoking and doping not just in rear areas but on the front lines — while driving personnel carriers, firing weapons, or posted on sentry detail. One Air Force colonel, who was busted for holding pot parties in his private quarters with those under his command, said in his defense, “It allows me to understand my men and close the generation gap.”

I interviewed boys fresh from the Midwest who had never touched a drug they would tell me that they had arrived “in-country” determined to be stoned every single day of their tour. At one point I invited two soldiers up to our apartment to demonstrate their field-tested manner of ingesting heroin: They would simply tap a little of the white powder into the end of their cigarettes and smoke it in front of their officers. They claimed to prefer heroin to marijuana, as joints were easy for officers to spot and even easier to smell.

Part of the bureau’s coverage of the army’s disintegration was a story we would file at the end of 1970. A stringer by the name of Rusty Brown had learned of an area near Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airbase called “Soul Alley,” just one mile from military headquarters and home to as many as 500 AWOLs. The mostly black residents survived on falsified documents, black-market trafficking, and currency manipulations. When the army finally took its revenge Brown and I filed this joint report: “Last Sunday morning, just after civilian curfew, a bizarre collection of 300 American MPs, Vietnamese MPs, and Vietnamese uniformed police descended on ‘Soul Alley’ with two helicopters armed with floodlights, two V-100 Commando armored vehicles with .50 caliber machine guns and 100 military trucks and Jeeps.”

Soul Alley served as shelter for deserters during the war. Photo credit: Manhai / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The soldiers had sealed off the entire area and conducted a house-by-house search, as groggy GIs and hard-core deserters tumbled out of bed and tried to escape in every direction — their girlfriends, wives and prostitutes following in pursuit, some of them stark naked, many with only pajama bottoms on, running about in the glare of the spotlights. When the shakedown was over, the commando raid had netted 56 women and 110 GIs, including an estimated 30 deserters. It was the biggest operation the army had conducted in weeks.

The full extent of the unraveling of the U.S. military as an effective fighting force would not be brought home to me until the following spring. I had received a tip that an American firebase in Chu Lai had been completely overrun the previous night I grabbed my camera and notebook, caught a military cargo flight north, and then took a helicopter to the base. To my surprise I discovered I had the story to myself.

Before me were the smoldering embers left by the most destructive attack of the war upon a single American fixed position — Firebase Mary Ann. I interviewed survivors and reconstructed the event as best I could. My report ran with an internal byline and a photograph I had taken of a forlorn soldier with a shovel, surveying the blasted remains of his base:

Charlie Company, back from patrol, was ready to relax. The men filed out of the mess hall and into their bunkers, stripped to their shorts and flopped down on their cots. Some thumbed through comic books, some talked, and some, according to various reports, smoked a few joints. The guards were somewhat more alert — but not much. As the night wore on, some apparently nodded off over their M16s.

In the 13 months since Mary Ann had been bulldozed out of a 4,000 foot mountain top, it had taken very few mortars and had never even been probed on the ground. On the night of the attack, SP/4 Dennis Schulte recalled,“It was quiet, as always. I had seen nothing and expected nothing. I went over to the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) and talked with some friends until about 2:30 a.m. We talked about going home — as usual.”

Ten minutes later, after Schulte had drifted back to his bunker, the base exploded. Hundreds of mortar shells arced down out of the moonless sky with uncanny accuracy. Hunkered down in their bunkers, the GIs never even saw the 50 or so North Vietnamese sappers who slipped through the perimeter wire, wearing nothing but shorts, black grease and strings of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). One group wiped out the 155-mm howitzers, another tossed tear gas grenades and satchel charges into the TOC, killing or wounding virtually everyone inside. Methodically, the others went from bunker to bunker, blowing them with satchel charges, RPGs and, in some cases, home-made grenades fashioned from Coca-Cola cans. One GI stayed alive by playing dead a sapper came up, removed the American’s wristwatch, and then went on his way.

By 4:30, when the first gunships and Medevac helicopters arrived, the entire base was in flames. “You couldn’t see because of the smoke,” said Lieut. Mat Noonan, a Medevac pilot. “We had to circle three times just to see where the pad was.” Noonan finally set down amidst “the worst carnage I have ever seen at an American installation. There were rows and rows of bodies — some burned to charcoal, others completely disemboweled. There were nine body bags full of bits and pieces of flesh.”

Firebase Mary Ann, after a Viet Cong ambush. Photo credit: Jonathan Larsen

Of the 231 Americans on the base, almost half were casualties, with 30 dead and 82 wounded. Officials suggested to me off the record that the real counts were higher. There were two extremely disturbing aspects to the story. The first was the fact that of the 28 South Vietnamese troops stationed at the base, only one was wounded. The Vietnamese section of the firebase was not hit that night either by mortar rounds or sappers, and none of the South Vietnamese troops had made any attempt to help the GIs during the attack. Circumstantial evidence pointing to an inside job was so overwhelming that the South Vietnamese command promptly launched an investigation to head off criticism.

The second disquieting fact was that the Americans had not put up their own spirited defense. The GIs did get off some rounds — 12 enemy bodies were found, including one stark naked sapper ensnared in the perimeter wire. But there should have been so many more. It proved to be one of the most upside-down “kill ratios” of the war. An officer in the Americal Division told me: “Somebody out there screwed up. The guards were asleep and the gunners never got their guns down into the final defensive position.”

The lax security at Firebase Mary Ann, not to mention many other American bases, had become an open secret — with gaping holes left in perimeter wire, defensive mines with defective detonators, and unguarded sentry posts. The sappers from the North merely had to page through Sun Tzu’s slim volume, The Art of War, to find this hoary axiom: “If the enemy leaves a door open, you must rush in.”

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from manhai / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Marine Legend: While under fire he dangled from Dong Ha Bridge for three hours

Dong Ha, the northernmost city of South Vietnam, had once been bustling with military activity.

Home of the 4 th Marines, a major helicopter base, and surrounded by artillery firebases, it had directly supported the Marines at Con Thien and the eastern demilitarized zone (DMZ). It had provided the starting point for the relief of the besieged Khe Sahn garrison.

Dong Ha also possessed the best bridge over the Cua Viet River and the direct approach to Hue City, the ancient, ceremonial capital of Vietnam.

U.S. Marine Corps technicians examine the Wright R-1820 engine of a disabled Sikorsky UH-34D Seahorse helicopter at the NSAD Cua Viet supply center, near Dong Ha (South Vietnam), 1 October 1966.

Five years earlier, there were 50,000 Marines to protect against the North Vietnamese. On March 30, 1972, there was only one battalion of South Vietnamese Marines to stop the vicious onslaught of 30,000 North Vietnamese Regulars in conventional combat units which were reinforced by 200 main battle tanks.

Poised for the headlong assault on Dong Ha and the capture of Hue, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) did not realize that there was still one U.S. Marine in the city of Dong Ha.

An LCU transports a 3rd Tank Battalion M48 up the Dong Ha River, 6 July 1967

A Lifetime of Preparation

That lone U.S. Marine was Captain John Ripley from Radford, Virginia.

Ripley had been a daring child with a burning desire to succeed. After he graduated high school in 1957, he followed his two older brothers into the Marines at the age of 17.

His desire to succeed was transformed into an indomitable will by the drill instructors at the legendary Marine Recruit Depot of Parris Island. The young Marine’s talent and drive were recognized, and he quickly earned an appointment to the Naval Academy.

Despite being unprepared for the academic rigor at the Academy, his sheer effort and determination earned him a degree in electrical engineering and commission as a 2 nd Lieutenant of Marines in 1962.

John Ripley

At the Basic School at Quantico, Virginia he learned to lead an infantry platoon. On graduation from Quantico, he served a Sea Duty billet, as a rifle and weapons platoon commander, and also as a Force Reconnaissance platoon commander.

Ripley attended the U.S. Army Parachute, Jump Master, and Ranger Courses, and the Navy Underwater Demolitions and Scuba courses. In Marine circles he was “dual cool” with a Scuba Badge and Jump Wings.

In October 1966, Ripley became the fearless commander of “Ripley’s Raiders,” fighting in places such as Con Thien and Khe Sahn. Remarkably, he was wounded four times but refused more than one Purple Heart as policy at the time meant immediate evacuation.

Marine Corps sniper team searches for targets in the Khe Sanh Valley

After Vietnam, he was assigned a desk job until he found an unusual method of escaping: by becoming an exchange officer to the British Royal Marines.

Having completed the demanding Commando Course, he now became the third human being to have a “quad bod” (completion of Jump, Ranger, SEAL and Commando Training) and earned the Green Beret of the Royal Marines.

In command of troops in both the Royal Marines and the Special Boat Service, he served in Malaya and Norway. When he was again designated a desk job at Headquarters Marine Corps in late 1971, he volunteered to return to Vietnam.

He was one of only a few hundred U.S. Marines remaining in the country. A lifetime of preparation was soon to be put to the test.

Members of 40 Commando Royal Marines, conduct a patrol exercise.

A Marine may be outnumbered, but never outfought

Assigned to the 3 rd Battalion of the Vietnamese Marine Corps as Senior Advisor, Capt. Ripley was combat experienced and ready when the Vietnamese Army was not.

From over 500,000 troops in 1968, there were now only 27,000 U.S. troops in all Vietnam. The South Vietnamese relied on undisciplined, poorly led conscripts and they fared badly in battle against soldiers from North Vietnam who were their opposites in almost every respect.

The Vietnamese Marine Corps was the exception. These battle-hardened troops were disciplined by Vietnamese who had attended the Drill Instructor School at Parris Island. They were led by officers who had attended the Basic School at Quantico.

3rd Battalion 3rd Marines’s command group at Vandegrift Combat Base.

As a fire brigade, they faced combat for up to six months, and then returned to their home base for a month to rest before returning to action. The 3 rd Battalion had recently returned from refitting near Saigon and was at full strength.

On March 30, 1972, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attacked. Intense artillery from the north of the DMZ was followed by assaults that quickly erased the forces guarding the northern approaches. Those not overrun and wiped out were sent fleeing down Highway 1.

3rd Battalion conducts a Medevac while operating along the DMZ.

The 3 rd Battalion was shifted to protect the vital bridge that provided passage over the Cua Viet River at Dong Ha. The 304 th and 308 th NVA Infantry Divisions were rolling south with 200 main battle tanks. On April 1, the entire 3 rd ARVN Division, the major force remaining in I Corps, was ordered to retreat. The North Vietnamese bore down on Dong Ha.

As army troops streamed south, the Marines were facing an impossible task: 30,000 enemy troops. Passing hordes of refugees, the Marines moved into final positions and heard “Expect lots of tanks” over the radio. The 3 rd Battalion carried ten light anti-tank rockets, making them almost defenseless.

M72 Light assault weapon used in Vietnam, 1968.

The 20 th Tank Battalion of the South Vietnamese army arrived, and the Marines clambered aboard for the final movement to the bridge. Skirmishers were already crossing upstream, over a dilapidated, railroad bridge designed for foot-traffic.

Ripley immediately directed the tank he was in to fire, knocking back the enemy. Machine guns and mortars on the opposite bank began a furious fusillade of fire against the tanks and Marines.

The North Vietnamese infantry regrouped and reorganized behind a small rise that protected them from the tanks.

North Vietnamese T59 TANK captured by South Vietnamese 20th Tank Regiment south of Dong Ha.

The small column of Marines riding M-48 tanks continued slowly, surrounded by civilian refugees fleeing the approaching forces. A column of Soviet-supplied T-54 tanks was spotted across the river and was taken under fire by the 20 th Tank Battalion.

The T-54 outgunned the M-48s. Head on, the remaining T-54s would slaughter their smaller opponents. The Marines knew they had to get to the bridge ahead of the enemy. If their opponents got across, the battle, and maybe the war, would be lost.

US Marines riding atop an M48 tank while firing

The M-48s stopped well away from the bridge. The Marines climbed down and continued on foot. Ripley watched the lead T-54 reach the bridge and begin to cross. A Marine with a light anti-tank rocket hit the tank. The stricken vehicle pulled back to a covered position.

Marines of E Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, riding on an M48A3 tank

Under enemy fire, Ripley made a mad dash to an old bunker 100 meters from his position and 100 meters from the bridge. Accompanying him was his Vietnamese radioman, Maj. Jim Smock, advisor of the 20 th Tank Battalion.

A vicious cross-river firefight began as Ripley and Smock made the last dash to the bridge, praying there would be a way to bring it down when they arrived.

M48 Patton tank move through the dense jungle in the Central Highlands of Vietnam

The Bridge

A bundle of explosives had been delivered but had not been prepped for use.

The bridge was constructed of steel I-Beams, overlaid with steel decking and two feet of timber sitting atop six-feet-thick concrete supports. The bridge could only be brought down by demolition. Since the deck of the bridge was fully exposed to enemy fire, the only way to set the explosives was by hand and from underneath.

Captain John Ripley ( left ) Advisor to the 3th Vietnamese Marine Battalion and Major Le Ba Binh next right-battalion commander.

From underneath the bridge, Ripley would be able to slide the cases of TNT between the edges of the I-Beams to a point in the middle of the river and set satchel charges to cut the I-Beams. There were six I-Beams in total, creating five “channels” through which he would have to drag explosives.

Once he’d climbed over the fence, Ripley’s legs were shredded by the razor-sharp concertina wire protecting the south end of the bridge. Ripley went hand-over-hand under the bridge amidst enemy fire.

He finally reached the concrete support 90 meters away, and swung himself up and into the channel created by the I-Beams.

Setting charges to cut the beam, Ripley traveled back down the channel. Smock passed him the two 75 lb. TNT cases and satchel charges which Ripley dragged back again. He set the charges to cut the other beam. One channel was rigged, but there were still four more to go.

Two hours later, completely spent, all the channels were finally set for the explosion. Dropping to the ground and curling into a ball, Ripley rested for only a moment. Retrieving primer cord and crimping the blasting caps, he looped the coils over his shoulders and crawled back out, legs dangling and drawing fire.

Having set the primer cord alight with matches, Ripley crawled out once more to set a backup detonator with electrical caps.

Returning to the bunker seemed to take an eternity as Ripley’s legs woodenly refused to move quickly. He ran under fire from the other side of the river. With a gut-wrenching, earthshaking explosion, the bridge was finally destroyed.

Dong Ha Bridge burning four days after destruction, 6 April 1972. At the far right are enemy armored vehicles exposed to air attacks and unable to advance.

The Bitter Aftermath

The Marines and South Vietnamese tankers continued to hold Dong Ha. An attack from the west cut through to Highway 1 south of the city, but the Marines continued to fight, surrounded. One by one, the M-48s were destroyed or ran out of gas.

Ordered to breakout, the surviving tankers shouldered rifles and joined the Marines. Continuing the fight at Quang Tri City, the 3 rd Battalion was finally pulled out of the line. Of the 700 men who had begun the fight, only 52 remained.

A destroyed M48A3 during Vietnam war

The Easter Offensive was beaten by the North’s inability to capture Dong Ha quickly. Eventually, the Northern Troops withdrew. Three years later they would return, this time, for good.

Ripley remained in the Marine Corps, eventually commanding an infantry battalion then an infantry regiment. Always attempting to evade a desk job, he finally found one he enjoyed at the U.S. Naval Academy as an English and History instructor.

Later on, he was the commander of the Naval ROTC unit at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in his native Virginia.

Retiring as a Colonel in 1992, Ripley accepted a position first as the Dean then later as Chancellor of Southwestern Virginia College, and later on still at the Hargrave Military Academy.

Colonel John W. Ripley, USMC.Photo: mtfrazier CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Ripley returned to duty in July 1999 to lead the Marine Corps History and Museums and Historical Center. He passed away on October 28, 2008.

John Ripley earned the Navy Cross for his heroic actions on the bridge at Dong Ha. But the legacy he was most proud of was having commissioned over 500 young Marine officers between his time at the Naval Academy and VMI, a record held to this day.

March 16, 1968 | U.S. Soldiers Massacre Vietnamese Civilians at My Lai

Ronald Haeberle/U.S. Army Women and children were victims of the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968.
Historic Headlines

Learn about key events in history and their connections to today.

On March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War, United States troops under the command of Lt. William L. Calley Jr. carried out a massacre of about 500 unarmed men, women and children in the village of My Lai.

The C Company, also known as the 𠇌harlie Company,” of the 11th Brigade, Americal Division, was ordered to My Lai to eliminate the Vietcong’s 48th Battalion. On the night of March 15, Capt. Ernest Medina, the commander of Charlie Company, told his men that all civilians would leave the village by 7:00 the following morning, leaving only Vietcong soldiers and sympathizers. He ordered them to burn down the village, poison wells and wipe out the enemy.

The next day, at 8 a.m., after an aerial assault, Lieutenant Calley’s 1st Platoon of Charlie Company led the attack on My Lai. Expecting to encounter Vietcong soldiers, the platoon entered the village firing. Instead, they found mostly women and children who denied that there were Vietcong soldiers in the area. The American soldiers herded the villagers into groups and began burning the village.

The New York Times provided an account of the massacre from a survivor in its Nov. 17, 1969, edition: “The three death sites were about 200 yards apart. When the houses had been cleared, the troops dynamited those made of brick and set fire to the wooden structures. They did not speak to the villagers and were not accompanied by an interpreter who could have explained their actions. Then the Vietnamese were gunned down where they stood. About 20 soldiers performed the executions at each of the three places, using their individual weapons, presumably M-16 rifles.”

Lieutenant Calley gave explicit orders to kill and participated in the execution of unarmed villagers standing in groups and lying in ditches. There were also accounts of soldiers mutilating bodies and raping young women. Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson watched the massacre from his helicopter. Realizing that civilians were being killed, he landed his helicopter near one of the ditches and rescued some survivors.

The Army initially portrayed the events as My Lai as a military victory with a small number of civilian casualties. A year later, Ronald Ridenhour, a former soldier who had heard about the massacre from other soldiers, sent letters to leaders in Washington alerting them to the events. The Army opened an investigation and in September 1969 filed charges against Lieutenant Calley.

Two months later, in November 1969, the American public learned of the My Lai massacre as the journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story. Several publications ran in-depth reports and published photographs taken by the Army photographer Ronald Haeberle. The My Lai massacre intensified antiwar sentiment and raised questions about the quality of men being drafted into the military.

The Army charged 25 officers, including Lieutenant Calley and Captain Medina, for the massacre and its cover-up, though most would not reach court-martial. Lieutenant Calley, charged with premeditated murder, was the only man to be found guilty he was initially given a life sentence, but after a public outcry he would serve just three and a half years of house arrest.

Connect to Today:

In 2004, 35 years after he broke the My Lai story, Seymour Hersh reported on the torture and abuse of Iraqi prisoners by United States soldiers at Abu Ghraib, a prison compound west of Baghdad. The story sparked comparisons with My Lai and reignited the discussion on punitive justice for United States military atrocities committed abroad.

In November 2005, a group of American Marines killed 24 unarmed civilians, including women, children and a wheelchair-bound man, in Haditha, Iraq. As with My Lai, the military at first claimed that enemy insurgents had been killed in the attack before media reports revealed that only civilians had been targeted.

Eight Marines were charged under United States military law, but charges were eventually dropped for all but one, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, who was able to avoid jail time with a January 2012 plea deal.

In a January 2012 New York Times article. Charlie Savage and Elisabeth Bumiller reported that the case illustrated the difficulty in investigating and prosecuting crimes committed by military members, who are much more likely to be acquitted on murder and manslaughter charges than civilians charged with those crimes. Soldiers can 𠇊rgue that they feared they were still under attack and shot in self-defense,” Mr. Savage and Ms. Bumiller wrote, and the “military and its justice system have repeatedly shown an unwillingness to second-guess the decisions made by fighters who said they believed they were in danger.”

In late 2011, The Times uncovered a classified interview transcripts of United States troops discussing the Haditha massacre, which reveal the scope of civilian killings in Iraq. Marines said that they saw nothing “remarkable” about the massacre and one described it as 𠇊 cost of doing business.” Michael S. Schmidt of The Times wrote: “Troops, traumatized by the rising violence and feeling constantly under siege, grew increasingly twitchy, killing more and more civilians in accidental encounters. Others became so desensitized and inured to the killing that they fired on Iraqi civilians deliberately while their fellow soldiers snapped pictures.”

This week, a United States Army sergeant has been accused of methodically killing at least 16 civilians, 9 of them children, in a rural stretch of southern Afghanistan. Officials say he had been drinking alcohol — a violation of military rules in combat zones — and suffering from the stress related to his fourth combat tour.

What is your reaction when you hear of incidents in which United States troops explicitly target civilians? In your opinion, should soldiers be punished for their actions in the same way that civilians would be? Should wartime atrocities be viewed as unique events or as part of a bigger picture of the dehumanization of war and “history repeating itself”? Why?

The Legacy of the Vietnam War

“American imperialism has suffered a stunning defeat in Indochina. But the same forces are engaged In another war against a much less resilient enemy, the American people. Here, the prospects for success are much greater. The battleground is ideological, not military. At stake are the lessons to be drawn from the American war in Indochina the outcome will determine the course and character of new imperial ventures.”

QUESTION: When the Indochina war ended in 1975 you wrote that our nation’s “official” opinion makers would engage in distortion of the lessons to be drawn from the war so that the same basic foreign policy goals could be pursued after the war. You felt then that in order to keep the real meaning of the war from penetrating the general public they faced two major tasks: First, they would have to disguise the fact that the war “was basically an American attack on South Vietnam — a war of annihilation that spilled over to the rest of Indochina”. And secondly, they would have to obscure the fact that the military effort in Vietnam “was restrained by a mass movement of protest and resistance here at home which engaged in effective direct action outside the bounds of propriety long before established spokesmen proclaimed themselves to be its leaders”. Where do we stand now on these two issues–seven years later?

CHOMSKY: As far as the opinion makers are concerned, they have been doing exactly what it was obvious they would do. Every book that comes out, every article that comes out, talks about how — while it may have been a “mistake” or an “unwise effort” — the United States was defending South Vietnam from North Vietnamese aggression. And they portray those who opposed the war as apologists for North Vietnam. That’s standard to say.

The purpose is obvious: to obscure the fact that the United States did attack South Vietnam and the major war was fought against South Vietnam. The real invasion of South Vietnam which was directed largely against the rural society began directly in 1962 after many years of working through mercenaries and client groups. And that fact simply does not exist in official American history. There is no such event in American history as the attack on South Vietnam. That’s gone. Of course, It is a part of real history. But it’s not a part of official history.

And most of us who were opposed to the war, especially in the early 󈨀’s — the war we were opposed to was the war on South Vietnam which destroyed South Vietnam’s rural society. The South was devastated. But now anyone who opposed this atrocity is regarded as having defended North Vietnam. And that’s part of the effort to present the war as if it were a war between South Vietnam and North Vietnam with the United States helping the South. Of course it’s fabrication. But it’s “official truth” now.

QUESTION: This question of who the United States was fighting in Vietnam is pretty basic in terms of coming to any understanding of the war. But why would the U.S. attack South Vietnam, if the problem was not an attack from North Vietnam?

CHOMSKY: First of all, let’s make absolutely certain that was the fact: that the U.S. directed the war against South Vietnam. There was a political settlement in 1954. But in the late 󈧶’s the United States organized an internal repression in South Vietnam, not using its troops, but using the local apparatus it was constructing. This was a very significant and very effective campaign of violence and terrorism against the Vietminh — which was the communist-led nationalist force that fought the French. And the Vietminh at that time was adhering to the Geneva Accords, hoping that the political settlement would work out in South Vietnam. [The Geneva Accords of 1954 temporarily divided Northern and Southern Vietnam with the ultimate aim of reunification through elections. — editor’s note]

And so, not only were they not conducting any terrorism, but in fact, they were not even responding to the violence against them. It reached the point where by 1959 the Vietminh leadership — the communist party leadership — was being decimated. Cadres were being murdered extensively. Finally in May of 1959 there was an authorization to use violence in self-defense, after years of murder, with thousands of people killed in this campaign organized by the United States. As soon as they began to use violence in self-defense, the whole Saigon government apparatus fell apart at once because it was an apparatus based on nothing but a monopoly of violence. And once it lost that monopoly of violence it was finished. And that’s what led the United States to move in. There were no North Vietnamese around.

Then the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam was formed. And its founding program called for the neutralization of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. And it’s very striking that the National Liberation Front was the only group that ever called for the independence of South Vietnam. The so-called South Vietnamese government (GVN) did not, but rather, claimed to be the government of all Vietnam. The National Liberation Front was the only South Vietnamese group that ever talked about South Vietnamese independence. They called for the neutralization of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia as a kind of neutral block, working toward some type of integration of the South with North Vietnam ultimately.

Now that proposal in 1962 caused panic in American ruling circles. From 1962 to 1965 the US was dedicated to try to prevent the independence of South Vietnam, the reason was of course that Kennedy and Johnson knew that if any political solution was permitted in the south, the National Liberation Front would effectively come to power, so strong was its political support in comparison with the political support of the so-called South Vietnamese government.

And in fact Kennedy and later Johnson tried to block every attempt at neutralization, every attempt at political settlement. This is all documented. There’s just no doubt about it. I mean, it’s wiped out of history, but the documentation is just unquestionable — in the internal government sources and everywhere else.

And so there’s just no question that the United States was trying desperately to prevent the independence of South Vietnam and to prevent a political settlement inside South Vietnam. And in fact it went to war precisely to prevent that. It finally bombed the North in 1965 with the purpose of trying to get the North to use its influence to call off the insurgency in the South. There were no North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam then as far as anybody knew. And they anticipated of course when they began bombing the North from South Vietnamese bases that it would bring North Vietnamese troops into the South. And then it became possible to pretend it was aggression from the North. It was ludicrous, but that’s what they claimed.

Well, why did they do it? Why was the United States so afraid of an independent South Vietnam? Well, I think the reason again is pretty clear from the internal government documents. Precisely what they were afraid of was that the “takeover” of South Vietnam by nationalist forces would not be brutal. They feared it would be conciliatory and that there would be successful social and economic development — and that the whole region might work.

This was clearly a nationalist movement — and in fact a radical nationalist movement which would separate Vietnam from the American orbit. It would not allow Vietnam to become another Philippines. It would trade with the United States but it would not be an American semi-colony.

And suppose it worked. Suppose the country could separate itself from the American dominated global system and carry out a successful social and economic development. Then that is very dangerous because then it could be a model to other movements and groups in neighboring countries. And gradually there could be an erosion from within by indigenous forces of American domination of the region. So this was no small thing. It was assumed that the key to the problem was preventing any successful national movement from carrying out serious social and economic development inside Indochina. So the United States had to destroy it through a process which would become the war against South Vietnam. And, it should be pointed out that on a lower level we were doing the same things in Laos and Cambodia.

QUESTION: So the irony is that the very reason given in the United States for fighting the war — the independence of South Vietnam — is exactly what had to be destroyed.

QUESTION: Do you think this distortion of the war is successful?

CHOMSKY: It’s hard to say. People who lived through the period know better. But younger people who are being indoctrinated into the contemporary system of falsification — they really have to do some research to find out what is the truth. In the general population, people forget or don’t care that much. And gradually what you hear drilled into your head everyday comes to be believed. People don’t understand what you’re talking about any more if you discuss the American war on South Vietnam.

QUESTION: And the role of the anti-war movement?

CHOMSKY: The main effort has been to show that the opposition to the war was of two types. One was the serious responsible type that involved Eugene McCarthy and some senators — who turned the tide because we realized it wasn’t worthwhile or was too expensive or something. And then there were these sort of violent and irrational groups, teenagers and so on, whose behavior had little to do with the war really and whose activity was a form of lunacy. Now, anyone who lived through the period would have to laugh.

But my impression is that the effort to portray the peace movement this way is not working very well. For example, at the beginning of his administration, Reagan tried set the basis for American military intervention in El Salvador — which is about what Kennedy did when he came into office in regard to Vietnam. Well, when Kennedy tried it in Vietnam, it just worked like a dream. Virtually nobody opposed American bombing of South Vietnam in 1962. It was not an issue. But when Reagan began to talk of involving American forces in El Salvador there was a huge popular uproar. And he had to choose a much more indirect way of supporting the collection of gangsters in power there. He had to back off. And what that must indicate is a tremendous shift in public opinion over the past 20 years as a result of the participation in the real opposition to the war in Indochina — which has lasted and was resurrected when a similar circumstance began to arise.

QUESTION: So you see the inability of the government to maneuver as it would like in El Salvador as directly related to the anti-war movement?

CHOMSKY: Oh yes. They even have a name for it: “Vietnam Syndrome”. See, they make it sound like some kind of disease, a malady that has to he overcome. And the “malady” in this case is that the population is still unwilling to tolerate aggression and violence. And that’s a change that took place as a result of the popular struggle against the war in Vietnam.

QUESTION: So you feel it was the group officially defined as the “riff-raff, lunatic fringe” who really was the peace movement?

CHOMSKY: Oh, there’s no question. You can see what happened. There were very extensive grass roots efforts beginning in the mid-󈨀’s, developing quite gradually against tremendous opposition. So that in Boston it was impossible to have an outdoor public meeting against the war until about the fall of 1966. Until then, they would be broken up. And the media more or less applauded the violence and disruption that prevented people from speaking. But gradually that changed. In fact, it reached such a point that by 1967 it was impossible for the President to declare a national mobilization for war. He was restricted and forced to pretend he was conducting a small war. There were constraints. Because of public opinion which by then was considerably aroused by demonstrations and teach-ins and other types of resistance. Johnson had to fight the war with deficit spending. He had to fight a “guns and butter” war to show it was no big war.

And this policy just collapsed. And it collapsed totally with the Tet Offensive in 1968 [the National Liberation Front’s surprise temporary takeover of virtually all of South Vietnam’s cities overnight –Ed.] which led major sectors of American power — corporate power and other centers of power — to realize we could nor carry it off at this level. Either we go to war like in the Second World War, or we pull out. And that was a direct effect of the activities of the peace movement. After this decision was made, then politicians like Eugene McCarthy — whom you had never heard of before that time — came to announce themselves as the leaders of the peace movement.

But by then the basic decision to put a limit to direct American troop involvement had been made. You had to fight for a long time to get the U.S. out, but the basic decision had been made at the Tet Offensive. That’s when the programs related to Vietnamization were put in place, and we began to fight a more capital intensive war with less direct participation of American ground troops.

Incidentally, another reason for this was that the America army began to deteriorate internally because, after all, the United States was fighting a very unusual type of war. It’s very rare for a country to try to fight a colonial war with a conscript army. Usually wars like the Vietnam war are fought with mercenaries — like the French Foreign Legion. The U.S. tried to fight what amounts to a colonial war with a conscript army. And a colonial war is a very dirty kind of war. You’re not fighting armed forces. You’re fighting mostly unarmed people. And to fight that kind of war requires professional killers, which means mercenaries. The 50,000 Korean mercenaries we had in Vietnam were professional killers and just massacred people outright. And the American army did plenty of that too, but it couldn’t take it after awhile. It’s not the kind of job you can give to conscripts who are not trained to be murderers.

QUESTION: And they had also heard of the anti-war movement’s ideas against the war back home.

CHOMSKY: Exactly. It was a citizen’s army, not separated from what’s happening in American society in general. And the effect was that, very much to its credit, the American army began to crumble and deteriorate. And it became harder and harder to keep an army in the field.

QUESTION: Are you aware of any other time in history when soldiers came home from the war and organized against their government as many Vietnam veterans did through the Vietnam Veterans Against the War organization?

CHOMSKY: It’s rare. For example, it’s happening now to a certain extent in Israel with reservists who are also fighting a war against a civilian population in Lebanon. And it’s the same kind of phenomenon. If they just kept professional military men involved they could probably carry it off. But reservists are connected with the civilian population. That’s why countries like France and England used mercenary forces to carry out these kinds of wars.

Let me make one final point about the peace movement which is often forgotten. When you look back at the internal documents that we have now you can see that when the big decision was made around the Tet Offensive in 1968 — about whether or not to send a couple hundred thousand more troops — one of the factors was that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were concerned that they would not have enough troops for internal control of the domestic American population. They feared tremendous protest and disruption at home if they sent more troops to Vietnam. This means that they understood the level of internal resistance to be virtually at the level of civil war. And think they were probably right about that. That’s a good indication from inside as to how seriously they took the peace movement.

There are indications that the huge demonstrations of October and November of 1969 severely limited Nixon’s ability to carry out some of the plans for escalating the war that he had. The domestic population was not under control. And any country has to have a passive population if it is going to carry out effectively an aggressive foreign policy. And it was clear by October and November of 1969 just by the scale of opposition that the population was not passive.

So those are all important events to remember. Again, they’re sort of written out of history. But the record is there and the documentation is there, and it’s clear that that’s what happened.

QUESTION: What is the current U.S. foreign policy toward Indochina?

CHOMSKY: Well, towards Indochina I think the main policy is what’s called “bleeding Vietnam”. Even conservative business groups outside the United States are appalled at what the United States has been doing.

We fought the war to prevent Indochina from carrying out successful social and economic development. Well, I think the chances of that happening are very slight because of the devastation, because of the brutality of war. But the U.S. wants to make sure it will continue. And therefore we first of all of course refused any reparations. We refused aid. We try to block aid from other countries. We block aid from international institutions. I mean, sometimes it reaches a point of almost fanatic effort to make them suffer.

For example, there was one point when the United States prevented the government of India from sending a hundred buffalo to Vietnam. (The buffalo stock in Vietnam had been decimated by American bombing.) We prevented them by threatening to cut off Food for Peace aid.

So in every conceivable way the United States has tried to increase the harsh conditions of life in Indochina. And right now one of the main ways we’re doing it is by supporting the Khmer Rouge on the Thai-Cambodian border.