Cover image for From Vietnam to 9/11: On the Front Lines of National Security By John P. Murtha and With John Plashal

From Vietnam to 9/11

On the Front Lines of National Security

John P. Murtha, and With John Plashal

256 pages
6" × 9"
11 b&w illustrations/5 maps

From Vietnam to 9/11

On the Front Lines of National Security

John P. Murtha, and With John Plashal

“Every official serving in the Pentagon and State Department must read Jack Murtha's book. He has been a troubleshooter for President's, a critic of the brass, but always a friend to the men and women of America's Armed Forces. Jack Murtha has earned his reputation - a straight talking, hard charging, independent leader who goes straight to the front lines.  From Vietnam to 9/11 is his story, but it's pure American.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
In 1974, John P. "Jack" Murtha became the first Vietnam combat veteran elected to Congress. In the nearly three decades since then, Congressman Murtha has been intimately involved with governmental decisions about America's national security and foreign policy, adding his unique perspective to international affairs while faithfully representing Pennsylvania's twelfth district. From Vietnam to 9/11 combines personal memoir with thoughtful analysis to provide a behind-the-scenes account of the formation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy in the last quarter-century. At the same time, it tells the story of a man committed to service and community.
“Every official serving in the Pentagon and State Department must read Jack Murtha's book. He has been a troubleshooter for President's, a critic of the brass, but always a friend to the men and women of America's Armed Forces. Jack Murtha has earned his reputation - a straight talking, hard charging, independent leader who goes straight to the front lines.  From Vietnam to 9/11 is his story, but it's pure American.”
“I expected the book to be the usual ‘walks on water, leaps over tall buildings’ political puffery that such books can be. It wasn't; it is much better than that.
It is an analytical history of defense and foreign affairs matters that Murtha has been involved in from the Vietnam War through Sept. 11. He makes his comments from the informed position of longtime membership on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, the panel responsible for appropriating the money for America’s various military ventures.
Best of all, many of his observations are very relevant to what Americans are going through right now as the country appears to be headed for a major regional war in the Middle East.”
“It is a history that should be required reading for any class wanting to learn the story of the country’s dealings with the world over the past half-century.”
“He offers candid opinions and observations without being overly critical about decisions he did not support.”
“Part policy statement and part memoir, the book shows Murtha’s flair for detail and sense of humor without ever letting off the hook leaders he believed had compromised the safety of American soldiers.”
“Congressman Murtha has written an insightful and powerful account of his life of public service and of the significant events in our nation's recent history that he has witnessed. It is a first-hand account by one of the most respected members of our Congress. This is a must-read if you want to hear it straight from a savvy man of action who was there making history.”
“This is a sober, intelligent, insightful book written by a veteran of Congress who has been involved in most of the major foreign policy decisions of the last quarter century. Currently the ranking Democrat on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Murtha has had a unique vantage point on the passing scene”

John P. Murtha graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in economics and did graduate work in economics and political science at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. In 1966, Jack Murtha volunteered to serve in Vietnam, where he was twice wounded; he received the Bronze Star with Combat "V," two Purple Hearts, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. He was elected to Congress in 1974, where he still serves today. He retired from the Marine Corps Reserves in 1990.



List of Acronyms

1. Service in Vietnam: 1966–1967

2. Election to Congress-Return to Vietnam

3. Tragedy in Lebanon

4. Soviet Union’s Defeat in Afghanistan

5. High Drama Election in the Philippines

6. Stolen Election and American Intervention in Panama

7. "Operation Desert Shield" and "Operation Desert Storm"

8. Humanitarian Mission to Manhunt in Somalia

9. War in the Balkans

10. September 11, 2001

11. Reflecting on the Past/Looking to the Future




When I arrived in South Vietnam in August 1966, the importance of military

and strategic intelligence was not on my mind. I had just volunteered

to serve in the Marine Corps and I was not certain what specific duties I

would be asked to fulfill when I reported to the 1st Marine Regiment. Then

I was assigned to be an intelligence officer for the regiment. It was an education

I have never forgotten. When I returned to the States a year later, I

brought back with me a plaque given to me by Gunnery Sergeant Wolf that

read, ‘‘Victory Is Knowing Your Enemy.’’ Those few words were seared into

my memory because of my experience in Vietnam. It is a maxim that should

be front and center in the minds of every American leader—whether that

leader is a 1st sergeant in the military, a general in the Army, a secretary of

state, or a president.

History is replete with the lessons of the absolutely vital role of intelligence.

One of the major factors in the outcome of World War II was breaking

the German Enigma code. However, Stalin ignored intelligence reports

that a German attack into Russia was imminent and his country paid dearly.

Breaking the Japanese code played a central role in America’s success in the

war in the Pacific. During the Korean War, one can only guess how things

would have changed if General Douglas MacArthur had not dismissed

warnings from many of his intelligence officers of a predicted Chinese counterattack

when and if UN forces carried the war to North Korea.

It takes brains, experience, intuition, and some luck to put the pieces of

the intelligence mosaic together. When I served in South Vietnam, I found

out firsthand how difficult it was to put together a clear tactical intelligence

picture. The 1st Marine Regiment received innumerable reports about

imminent attacks and we seldom knew which were accurate. The same was

true in Beirut in the early 1980s, when so many of our soldiers were killed

in a terrorist attack. In Somalia, during the deployment of U.S. forces in the

early 1990s, the intelligence was totally inadequate. Our military arrived in

country knowing next to nothing about the warring clans, the culture, the

tradition of the people, and the reasons behind the deep hatred between

different factions. We paid a dear price for our lack of understanding. In

1999, the State Department predicted a few days of bombing would bring

down the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosþevic´. In reality it took 23,000

bombs and missiles fired by the United States and its allies and the threat

of intervention by a massive ground-force operation before Serbian forces

withdrew from Kosovo. Now, in retrospect, it seems apparent that our intelligence

agencies failed to link together the scraps of information from hundreds

of different sources that would have predicted the catastrophic attack

of 9/11.

I believe that the way we go about collecting, analyzing, and using intelligence

information is one of the most important determinants of our success

or failure in world events. Unfortunately, it is a lesson we have had to relearn

too often, at a heavy price in American blood and treasure. Throughout

this book, I return to the importance of intelligence as I describe my

involvement in and perspective on many of America’s foreign policy crises

in recent decades.


Service In Vietnam: 1966-1967

The flight from Okinawa to Vietnam was on a World War II vintage C-47 transport. I vividly remember the last few minutes of that flight. I was sitting next to a chaplain on the plane and we were looking out of the window as we flew over the sea on the approach to Da Nang. The foliage was glistening from a recent rain and the seacoast made a spectacular panorama with the waves breaking on a vast white sandy beach. Everything appeared peaceful, exotic and beautiful. I remember saying to the chaplain, "How could a war be going on in a country of such breathtaking beauty".

Congressman Jack Murtha

Since our efforts had turned up nothing, we decided to try the first lieutenant’s plan. It was a rainy night. We packed up our gear, closed down our campsites and began to leave the area. All four companies traveled a relatively short distance away from the assumed site of the enemy base camp and then suddenly rushed back. Sure enough, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese had come out of their tunnels. All hell broke loose.

Congressman Jack Murtha


Service In Vietnam: 1966-1967

Going back several generations in my family, there is a tradition of serving in the military. On my mother’s side, the Bell family, one of her ancestors, Robert Bell, fought in the Revolutionary War. His great grandson, Abraham Tidball Bell, served in the Union Army during the Civil War. In a small wooden box on my desk, where I keep important documents from my family’s past, there is a letter from him describing his duties during the Civil War. While stationed in Washington, D. C., he guarded the Capitol building – the very building I have worked in the past few decades. His widow, Mary Bell, lived to be 96. I can remember her telling me as a child "One person can make a difference".

On my father’s side, my ancestors migrated from Ireland during the potato famine of the 1850’s. The family settled in western Pennsylvania where my grandfather was involved in coal mining and banking. My father and his three brothers all fought in World War II. I was just eight years old when America entered the war. I realized that something of great significance was happening, but I had no concept of the enormity of the war.

There were a number of local civic projects to help the war effort. I remember going with my mother to fields just outside town where we would pick a plant called milkweed. The "flax" from this plant was used as buoyant material inside life jackets being made for the armed forces. Another project was collecting aluminum foil (it was called tin foil at that time) peeled from chewing gum packs and empty packs of cigarettes and wrapping the foil into large balls that became "raw material" for the war plants. I also recall that so many women who had been raising families during the Depression started working in factories producing military hardware. By the time the war effort really geared up there were over ten million women employed at plants manufacturing tanks, ships, aircraft and ammunition. Their contribution to America’s ultimate victory was enormous.

One of my father’s brothers, Regis Murtha, was in the Army Air Corps. He was shot down over Germany but survived. My father and his three brothers were overseas during the entire war but they all returned safely. Tom Brokaw is indeed right; it was "The Greatest Generation."

When my father and his brothers came home from the war I was twelve. I was very curious about what they had encountered in their many battles and adventures. However they rarely said anything about their experiences. The tendency to remain silent about their time in the service was common among World War II veterans. I was never sure if that reticence was a cultural thing of feeling you just had to carry out an obligation to serve your country and then return home, or if some of their experiences had been so painful and traumatic that they simply preferred not to talk about it.

Decision To Join The Marine Corps

I graduated from high school in 1950; the year North Korean invaded South Korea. In reaction to the invasion, President Harry S. Truman, one of the most decisive Presidents in our history, decided immediately to send American troops to counter the attack. The troops served under the flag of the United Nations. My impression at the time was it would be a short war. I considered joining the service, but my mother and grandfather insisted that I attend college. I enrolled at Washington Jefferson College, and playing football and basketball was my major commitment at the time.

There were only 28 others on the football team. The reason for the small number of players was that so many young men who would be attending college under normal conditions were in the service. At the time, I was in the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) and planned to go on active duty as an officer after graduation from college. However, I just didn’t feel comfortable with so many of my contemporaries in the service and I decided to enlist as a private in the Marine Corps. My mother was furious when I told her of my decision.

I had to wear my civilian clothes for the first two weeks of boot camp. Because of supply shortages, there were no uniforms available. At the end of boot camp, I received the American Spirit Medal award. The accompanying citation read that the award was "For the display of outstanding qualities of leadership best expressing the American Honor, Initiative, Loyalty and High Example to Comrades in Arms". Of the 16 military awards I’ve received, it is the one I am the most proud.

As my first assignment I became a Drill Instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina, molding new recruits into Marines. I took and passed a four-year college equivalency test and was offered a chance to attend the U. S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. I declined and decided to take the Officer Candidate Screening Course at the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Virginia where I had an opportunity to become an officer if I successfully completed a vigorous regimen. It was a demanding course, both physically and mentally, designed to see if the candidates could finish. The training involved long marches, weapons familiarization, being woke in the middle of the night for surprise training exercises, and constant assessing of your level of initiative under a variety of challenging circumstances. On the last day, we were called to the parade ground. When your name was called you were told to march either to a group on the right or on the left. One of the groups was graduating and the other was "washed out." As the names were called, it seemed to me that some of the most capable candidates were told to go to the left. I had been told to go to the group on the right. The presiding officer finally announced that the group on the right had passed and had become second lieutenants. We then took the Officer Basic Training Course. The course transformed civilians and enlisted marines into officers. During the course I gained increased confidence in my leadership skills. Upon graduation, I volunteered to go to Korea and received orders to do so. However, the truce ending the war was signed shortly after and my orders were cancelled.

I still had two years to serve, and during this time I was lucky to have a crusty career Marine — Major Wilson — as my mentor. I was a platoon commander and an assistant operations officer stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I was involved in a wide variety of training and operations. Major Wilson instilled in me a simple four-word credo that has stuck with me ever since – "Pay Attention To Details." It is a basic approach which has served me well over the years.

While stationed at Camp Lejeune I met Joyce Bell, who lived in the nearby town of Richlands. (She had the same surname as my maternal grandmother.) We started dating and when I was transferred to the Marine Base at Quantico, Virginia outside of Washington D. C., Joyce moved to the Washington area with two of her girlfriends. Shortly thereafter, we were married in Alexandria, Virginia. Soon we had three children, twin boys, John and Patrick and our daughter, Donna. The birth of the twins was a surprise. When Joyce was pregnant she went to the doctor every month but he never detected any sign of a second child. I remember thinking in the last two months of the pregnancy that this was going to be a big baby. After John was born and "scrubbed down", the doctor began to leave the room. He removed his surgical mask and told the nurses that he was headed for his next appointment. One of the nurses, who had just emigrated from Scotland, said to him in a deep Scottish brogue, ,"Doctor, how ‘aboot’ the other baby?"

As we began to raise our family, I attended the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown while working 40 hours a week. My father had bought a carwash and a gas station and I was working for him. Dad had a long battle with alcoholism and he began neglecting the operation of the business. Things deteriorated to the point where the business was losing money and I had to take it over and operate it. Because of my family responsibilities and the long hours I spent running the business, I dropped out of college. My mother and Joyce were very upset with my decision. Eventually, I continued to attend school part time and received my degree from the University of Pittsburgh with a major in economics.

During those years of working and attending school, I continued to study military matters and read a lot of military history. I also had an insatiable interest in foreign affairs. I recall following the news in 1954 of the defeat of the French Army in French Indo-China (now Vietnam) where France was trying to regain that portion of their colonial empire. Various articles appeared about how the Vietnamese had to haul their heavy weapons by hand up the mountains around Dien Ben Phu where the climatic battle of the war occurred. I saw on newsreels the tenacity of the Vietnamese troops and the sacrifices they made in the war. Although the U. S. provided the French with about $1 billion of aid to assist their war effort in Indo-China, President Eisenhower turned down the French request to have American aircraft provide close air support to the embattled French forces at Dien Bien Phu. The tide of history was running against colonialism. I had no idea at the time of viewing those newsreels that twelve years later I would be in Vietnam, fighting against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. The head of the North Vietnam forces while I served in Vietnam was General Giap, the very commander who defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu.

After I had finished my active duty, I joined the Marine Corps Reserve. I became the Commanding Officer of the 34th Rifle Company in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Serving in the reserves involved training one weekend a month and two weeks of active duty annually. My two weeks of active duty each year included a variety of assignments ranging from training in the jungle warfare school in Panama to a guerrilla warfare school at Camp Pendleton, California. Undergoing this type of training and becoming an expert in those areas seemed especially practical, considering the victory of Mao’s guerrilla forces over Chiang Kai Shek in mainland China, the victory of the Vietnamese in the war against the French in Indo-China and the ongoing guerrilla wars elsewhere in Asia.

In the Reserves, I was promoted steadily and attained the rank of Major at the time of the large increase of U. S. troops in South Vietnam in the mid- 1960’s. By this time the U. S. commitment to South Vietnam had been gradually escalating. At the end of President Kennedy’s first year in office, there were a 3,200 American military personnel in Vietnam.

After President Kennedy’s assassination and Lyndon Johnson’s succession to the presidency, LBJ swamped the Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, in the 1964 presidential race. President Johnson was determined that he would not be the first American President to lose a war. As our commitment to South Vietnam escalated, so did the level of our casualties. From January 1961, to July 1965, 503 Americans were killed, 2,270 wounded and 57 were missing or captured. By mid-1965 the scope and stakes of our involvement in Vietnam began to change radically. The numbers of North Vietnamese regular troops infiltrating into South Vietnam began to increase significantly, and in July 1965 President Johnson ordered the U. S. forces increased from 23,000 to 125,000. He also directed that U. S. forces be used in direct combat. Previously our forces had been used primarily as advisers.

I Return To Active Duty

I decided to volunteer to serve in Vietnam. As a thirty-three year old with three children, who had previously served on active duty and also was serving in the Reserves, I had no legal obligation to enlist. However I felt strongly that it was my duty to serve. The business was doing well by this time and the profits from it plus my Marine Corps pay ensured that my family would be taken care of during my absence. My brother Charles ran the business while I was gone. It was an emotional moment when I discussed my decision to return to active duty with Joyce, but she agreed.

When I informed the Marine Corps of my intentions, they sent me a telegram saying I could replace an officer at Camp Lejuene, North Carolina and that he would go to Vietnam. I told the Marine Corps my intention was to go to Vietnam, not to serve stateside. Soon, I received orders to serve in the "Ground Forces Vietnam" and I packed my bags. It was a damp, blustery day when I bid an emotional farewell to my family.

I flew to the Treasure Island Naval Base in San Francisco where I filled out some paperwork. From there I flew to the island of Okinawa south of Japan. The officer I reported to said, "We’ll keep you here on Okinawa, at least for awhile." I protested and showed him my orders with the phrase "Ground Forces, Vietnam". After the military and civilian bureaucrats did a "paper shuffle" for a day or two they sent me on to the war zone.

The flight from Okinawa to Vietnam was on a World War II vintage C-47 transportation aircraft. I vividly remember the last few minutes of that flight. I was sitting next to a chaplain on the plane and we were looking out of the window as we flew over the sea on the approach to the DaNang Air Base. The foliage was glistening from a recent rain and the seacoast was a spectacular panorama with the waves breaking on a vast white sandy beach. Everything appeared to be very peaceful, exotic and physically beautiful. Viewing this scene from my seat on the plane I remember saying to the chaplain, "How could a war be going on in a country of such breathtaking beauty."

South Vietnam was divided into four military regions and the large air base at DaNang, where we landed, was the most northern of the four. It was referred to as "I" Corps and, there were 41,000 Marines there in 1966. Two of South Vietnam’s largest cities were located in the I Corps – Hue and DaNang.

The officer I reported to at Division Headquarters wanted to transfer to another location within Vietnam and asked me to take over his job. He worked in the G-1 section involving administrative duties. I argued with him, pulling out my orders one more time and pointed to the phrase "Ground Forces Vietnam". I was getting the feeling that the major obstacle to my serving in the field in Vietnam was the Marine Corps itself.

Colonel Crossfield, who was the chief administrative officer, heard us arguing and came over and asked what the problem was. When we told him, he decided he did not want to train a reserve officer, who had no background in administrative work, to become his chief administrative assistant. Since I was a senior major at this time, it was difficult to place me because there were few slots for that rank in the First Marine Regiment. Colonel Crossfield decided I should be assigned as the 1st Marine Regiment’s intelligence officer. The regiment had three main missions — destroy the military and supply infrastructure of the Vietcong guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies in our Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR), protect the DaNang air base from attack and develop friendly relations with the local Vietnamese people.

I took the intelligence slot with the understanding that if a command position opened up for my rank, I would get it. Initially, I was disappointed with the assignment as an intelligence officer but within days I realized the vital importance of the position. While our forces had an overwhelming superiority in weaponry, mobility, firepower and airpower, the Viet Cong had the advantage of knowing every hill, valley, cave and trail. Clearly, a vigorous intelligence effort was needed to optimize our strengths, match the Viet Cong’s knowledge of the local terrain and attempt to exploit their weaknesses.

I immediately started my duties by going into the field every day to learn the terrain and trying to get a "feel" for the area of our regiment’s responsibility. The day-to-day existence in the field was challenging. One misstep while you were on patrol and a poisonous "punji spike" buried in the moist ground would pierce your foot, causing a debilitating injury. Anti-personnel mines, which could maim or kill, were planted by the hundreds of thousands in the ground by the Vietcong and North Vietnamese. Sniper attacks were a daily occurrence.

I studied all the incidents occurring in our regiments TAOR. There were about 700 incidents a month, ranging from casualties from anti-personnel mines and sniper attacks to large-scale ambushes by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese who had infiltrated into the country. I read all the documents available, including operations reports and after-action reports, in an attempt to detect a pattern and determine what steps we could take to operate more effectively to counter the incidents and attacks.

I told the Regiment Commander, Colonel Mallory, that I wanted a small cadre of the brightest troops who had spent time in the field to assist me in developing a vigorous and effective tactical intelligence capability for the regiment. I also argued to keep those troops in their jobs for the remainder of their tour in Vietnam. I had learned within weeks after arriving in Vietnam that the constant mid-tour transferring of personnel from one job type to another was seriously eroding combat effectiveness. Serving in many positions may have been beneficial to one’s career, but it definitely detracted from doing the job at hand. A tour for Americans in Vietnam was one year. Factoring in the time it took to learn the details of ones duties, the time granted for well-deserved R&R (rest and relaxation), and the time consumed at the end of the tour for paperwork, the total time of actual effective performance for many of our troops was probably about eight or nine months. If you add to that the switching from one job to another, it became clear that a lot of valuable time, in terms of job effectiveness, was wasted. This job rotation policy was especially unfair in that infantry enlisted personnel would often spend their entire tour in the field while their leaders frequently switched jobs. I believed strongly that the constant rotation of individuals, rather than whole units, also greatly contributed to a lack of cohesion and effectiveness of our forces. This rotation policy became especially debilitating years later when we scaled back the level of U. S. forces. Rather than rotate units back to the States, individuals were sent back, based on their time in country. The cohesion of units collapsed in many cases.

General Norman Schwarzkopf, who served two tours in Vietnam as a mid-level officer, was also alarmed about the job rotation policy. Reflecting on his second tour in 1969, he wrote: "I tried to figure out how the situation had deteriorated so far. Perhaps the answer was ticket punching. In those days all a lieutenant colonel needed to get promoted to colonel was to command a battalion ‘successfully’ – that is to come back alive with a decent efficiency report. Officers were rotated through battalion command every six months, which enabled the maximum number to punch their battalion-commander ticket, but also meant that many unqualified officers were put in charge of men’s lives…Because officers remained in command for such a brief time, they didn’t have to suffer the results of their incompetence." 1

Colonel Mallory agreed with the case I presented to him for expanding the capability of our regiment’s intelligence operation. He gave me Marines from each battalion to conduct the operation and also agreed to keep them in that function for the remainder of their tours. We began to work on a system to replace the laborious manual reproduction of incidents occurring in our TAOR. We used a data processing storage system which was a simple approach technologically, but it included the details we needed for our purposes. We divided our TAOR into grid squares and collated information about each grid. We had sixteen separate factors for events in each grid such as time of incident, date, level of lumination, number of enemy, etc.

With the technical expertise of Captain Bob Olsen (from the S-1 administrative section of the regiment), we used the data processing equipment to map out the timing, location and type of enemy attacks, ambushes and other incidents encountered by our troops. We were trying to develop recommendations to enhance the protection of our forces and develop a strategy to locate and engage the enemy more effectively. By today’s standards this approach was very elementary, however we used it to map the incidents generated by the enemy and it was a lot better than the previous method of using grease pencils and acetate covered maps. America’s tactical intelligence hardware in Vietnam eventually became more sophisticated, but we had none of the high tech intelligence systems that are now widely available – satellites providing quick information on enemy troop and equipment concentrations, UAV’s (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) providing real time videos of the enemies positions, and aircraft that could detect and locate enemy electronic emissions and quickly disseminate that information to troops on the ground. Nevertheless, at the time our modest effort was a technological step forward and it provided valuable intelligence for our unit.

Lessons From Battles

An irrefutable fact our intelligence team knew was that the Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops had no vehicles when they deployed to encounter U. S. and South Vietnamese troops. Furthermore, we knew that despite their lack of vehicles, they were able to get to the battle sites within hours and quickly return to their base afterwards. They almost always traveled during the night. Although we didn’t know where their base was, by analyzing the data we had compiled, we calculated where we thought the base would be located. After listening to our recommendation, the Colonel agreed to send a large number of Marines into that area. We deployed and scoured the surrounding area for two days. It was in a location where there was a cemetery surrounded by open fields. Despite our considerable efforts and constant searching we found nothing. There was absolutely no action in the area we were looking. We concluded that the enemy was probably hiding in a nearby tunnel complex but we couldn’t find it. Then we received agent reports from our regimental headquarters that the Vietcong base was just 500 meters to the west of the perimeter we had set up. We were still unsuccessful in finding them.

The Colonel had committed four companies to this mission and he had stated in so many words, "this had better succeed." While conducting the search we began getting reports of increased sniping and firefights in nearby areas. This put pressure on us to abandon our mission and go to where actual fighting was occurring. However, this sudden increase in activity away from our search signaled to me that we were in the right area and that the other incidents were being carried out to draw us away. Finally, after more than two days of uneventful searching, the Colonel radioed and told us to end the mission. Convinced that our intelligence analysis had been right, I asked him for one more day. He granted it. On the evening of the extra day, a young first lieutenant in our unit said to me, "Sir, the enemy must be hiding in a tunnel structure. They may very well be hurting for food and water by now. While we can’t see them, I’m pretty sure they are able to see us. Why don’t we pack up and begin to leave. Then we’ll suddenly return to see if our ‘leaving’ draws them out."

Since our efforts had turned up nothing thus far, we decided to take the first lieutenant’s advice. It was a rainy night. We packed up our gear, broke off the cordon and began to "leave the area" acting as though we were returning to our respective base camps. All four companies involved in this mission traveled a relatively short distance away from the assumed cite of the enemy base camp and then suddenly turned around and rushed back into the immediate "neighborhood.". Sure enough, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese had come out of their tunnels. All hell broke loose.

There was an intense battle, lasting for several hours. Bullets and shells were zinging all over the place. The environment of the shouting of orders, the uncertainties, the cries of the wounded, the smoke, the noise and turmoil – i.e. "the fog of war" – can be quite disconcerting. Discipline and guidelines learned in training were absolutely essential while trying to survive in the chaos of the battlefield and still attain your tactical objectives. We prevailed and the key cadre of the Vietcong operating in our Tactical Area of Responsibility was soundly defeated. After the battle, Marine "tunnel rats" went into the tunnels and did their harrowing and dangerous job of flushing out any remaining Vietcong and then destroying the tunnels.

At the time of this battle we were unaware of the enormous extent of the tunnel systems used by the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese allies. In many locations in South Vietnam the Viet Cong used these tunnels infrastructure to hide, rest, reorganize, resupply and receive medical care. The Washington Post reporter Richard Cohen went to Vietnam in April of 2000, twenty-five years after the end of the war. He went underground into the Cu Chi tunnel complex, which was north of Saigon. He wrote:

They started digging them during the war with the French and continued through what they called the American War. By the time they finished, they had three levels, a kind of subway system – miles of tunnels, a maze that led to the river in one direction and under the jungle in another. The Viet Cong had their kitchens in the tunnels, their sleeping quarters, meeting rooms, storage spaces, clinics, operating rooms and, here and there, booby traps for any GIs brave enough to come down. They had wells, a system for disposing of human waste and camouflaged entrances so that they could pop up almost anywhere, engage their enemy and then disappear into the ground. 2

After we destroyed the tunnel infrastructure and inflicted heavy casualties on the Vietcong, in addition to capturing many of them, the success of the battle near the cemetery was shown dramatically when the incidents against our troops dropped from an average of about 700 a month to 100 a month. The area had largely been pacified.

I learned two important lessons in that battle. The first was that when you have to make a major decision, it is extremely important to listen to those who have a thorough knowledge of on an issue even though they are not necessarily at or near the top of the chain-of-command. The lieutenant who made the recommendation to "act like we’re leaving and then come back" tactic, had only recently arrived in Vietnam. Yet, he had quickly developed a good perspective and realistic assessment for the tactical situation. Whenever I inspect our troops in the field and at bases around America, I always meet with junior ranking officers and enlisted personnel to get their views and concerns.

A second lesson I learned in that battle was to apply common sense and "street smarts" to solve a problem. Our technical research indicated strongly the enemy was in the area. So when we could not find them initially, logic dictated that we try something else in the same place. The lieutenant’s recommendation was elegant in simplicity and effective in implementation.

Another battle I vividly recall involved a reinforced rifle company of about 400 Marines under our Regiment’s operational control but not located at our base. The area this rifle company covered included the highest hill (it looked like a small mountain to me) in the area south of our TAOR. The hill overlooked a route used by the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong to bring in forces, ammunition, and other supplies. Unfortunately, our secure communications with the unit deployed on the hill was somewhat cumbersome. The enemy often monitored our unsecured communications, so to communicate with the rifle company we used a secure radio that, however, had a limited range. We had to call to one secure radio midway between our headquarters and the unit on the hill, and then the call would be retransmitted to its destination.

One day the commanding officer of our regiment was away at a meeting at division headquarters. The regiment’s executive officer, the S-3 Major John Andrews, was also absent so I was in charge. The Marine reinforced rifle company based on the hill had spotted a contingent of enemy troops moving through the area. They saw that one of the enemy troops was carrying a large radio backpack. A radio of this size was a strong indication that the infiltrating troops were North Vietnamese since the Viet Cong had no such equipment, at least in our area. The Marines called to our headquarters to tell us they were going to attack. I communicated back that they should wait. I was concerned that they had no reserve force and the overcast weather limited the potential use of air power to assist them. However by the time they got my message, they had already engaged the enemy and were encountering significant counter fire.

Meanwhile the colonel returned to our unit. A large contingent from our regiment went to support the unit under attack. We were led into the battle by one of the finest combat commanders in the Marine Corps, Lt. Col "Ding Dong" Bell. Because of the weather we were unable to call in air support of F-4’s or other fixed wing aircraft to bomb the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops.

I had been awake for more than 24 hours by the time we landed. A few hours into the battle (which was being fought intermittently), I was overwhelmed with an urge to fall asleep. I curled up next to a bunker and fell into a deep slumber for about an hour. Even the noise of frequently fired weapons did not wake me up. I just had to take a break. (One of my fellow officers told me the next morning that he assumed I was dead, when he did not see me for an hour or so.) In addition to our unit, a nearby South Vietnamese ground force arrived and entered the battle. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces faded into the jungle as the forces arrayed against them continued to increase.

In the aftermath of the battle the grim task of placing the dead into body bags and evacuating the wounded began. One of my responsibilities as an intelligence officer was to write part of the "after action" report. These reports provided a source of data and "lessons learned". I argued with the commanding officer about the number of enemy casualties we should include in the report. I insisted we include only bodies we could count. Body counts had become a "scorecard" in Vietnam as we tried to assess who was winning the war. General Colin Powell, who served two tours in Vietnam early in his career, wrote in his memoirs:

The Army, under Pentagon pressure to justify the country’s investment in lives and billions (of dollars), desperately needed something to measure. What military objectives could we claim in this week’s situation report? A hill? A valley? A hamlet? Rarely. Consequently, bodies became the measure. Counting bodies became a macabre statistical competition. Companies were measured against companies, battalions against battalions, brigades against brigades. The enemy actually was taking horrendous casualties. But it made little difference. As one military analyst put it, divide each side’s casualties by the economic cost of producing them. Then multiply by the political cost of sustaining them. As long as your enemy was willing to pay that price, body counts meant nothing. 3

In debriefing the survivors of this battle it became clear what had occurred. With their "gung ho" attitude, the Marine contingent violated one of the most basic tenets of tactical warfare. They had gone beyond the range where they could be protected by their mortars and artillery. Going beyond that range, combined with the bad weather, meant they were fighting a battle where none of their technological advantage– airpower, mobility and superior firepower – could be used. They were fighting on the enemy’s terms, in which each side had only the weapons they carried.

Once again, the lessons learned in that battle stayed with me. The unit’s decision violated basic doctrine. The events that day instilled in me even more strongly my long held belief that good training is the key to success on the battlefield.

A second lesson was an increased awareness of the limitations of airpower. Don’t get me wrong. Our airpower in Vietnam, from B-52’s bombing large supply depots to helicopters shuttling our troops to and from battles constituted a tremendous advantage. Fighting the war without those assets would be unthinkable. Furthermore, our airpower capability has improved dramatically in the past decade or so, with "smart" bombs, "smart" missiles, and improved aircraft. Having said that, as the reader will see in ensuing chapters, over the years I have certain reservations about an over reliance on airpower.

My one-year tour of duty in Vietnam ended in late 1967. I was proud of what the First Marine Regiment had accomplished during that year. I was proud of my contribution to that effort. On the flight back to the States, my thoughts went back to the many heroes I had served with during my tour of duty. I especially remembered a tragedy that occurred to Captain Bobby Lane from our unit. His one-year tour of duty had ended a few months before mine but he extended for a month because of his desire to be involved in a large upcoming operation that had been scheduled to attack a Vietcong stronghold. Captain Lane participated in that operation and both of his legs were blown off when he stepped on a Vietcong landmine.

My return flight to the States landed in Camp Pendleton in California where I received a physical before my discharge and flight back to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Reuniting with my family was a joyous occasion.

Washington’s Misperceptions

During these years, the "Whiz Kids"— a group of bright young men who Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara brought to the Pentagon — were key advisers to. Earlier some of them had been on his staff when he headed the Ford Motor Company. Optimistic assessments on the outcome of the war abounded. On October 2, 1963, Secretary McNamara stated: "The major part of the United States’ military task (in Vietnam) can be completed by the end of 1965." 4

One of Secretary’s McNamara’s methods of gauging progress was comparing the number of villages under the control of the Viet Cong to those under the control of the Saigon government and those in an in-between status. Given the penchant of our military to be optimistic and Washington’s desire for the best possible outcome, these projections often ended up very inaccurate. U. S. officials assessing the situation at the local level would exaggerate the pro-government attitude of a village. That appraisal would be fed into the system. Those reports were gathered and compiled at higher and higher bureaucratic levels. Secretary McNamara would then receive the reports, and advise President Johnson to inform the American people that "the tide had turned" and "there was light at the end of the tunnel." Congressman Jamie Whitten (D. Miss.), who served in Congress for over half a century, aptly described these types of computer projections as GIGO – Garbage In Garbage Out. I have learned by first hand experience that there is often a wide gap between the perceptions of Washington policy-makers as to what is occurring in an overseas crisis and the reality of what is actually occurring.

There was some opposition to the war when I returned to the States, but it was relatively low key. In Congress, for example, the 1967 Defense Appropriations Bill, which funded the war, had only 11 votes cast against it in the House of Representatives. The "doves" in Congress were arguing for a negotiated settlement. While a significant percentage of the American people did eventually turn against the war, it is important to remember just how long American citizens showed strong support for our effort in Vietnam. The massive nationwide "Tet Offensive" by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese in February 1968, is often cited as the watershed event in which the support of the American public for the war effort began to collapse. Although the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese did not win a single battle in that offensive and suffered enormous casualties, the fact that they were able to carry out such a massive effort after so many years of the war and so many optimistic statements from Washington disillusioned many, and public support for the war steadily eroded. Nevertheless, in 1972, seven years after I had served in Vietnam, four years after the Tet Offensive and years after many in the media began to write about a "lost cause", the peace candidate for president, Sen. George McGovern, won only one state and the District of Columbia.

In retrospect however, to a large extent America had conducted a "war of attrition" during its involvement – a most difficult strategy for a democratic society to carry out over an extended time. I don’t recall the name of the commentator who said it, but he perceptively commented: "The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were looking at the calendar. We were looking at the clock."


1 General Norman Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero, (New York, New York:

Bantam Books, 1992), 157.

2 Richard Cohen, Tunnel War, (Washington D. C.:, Washington Post, May 2, 2000), A26.

3 General Colin Powell, My American Journey, (New York, New York: Random

House, 1995), 146-147.

4 Bernard B. Fall, Last Reflections On A War, (New York, New York: Schocken Books, Published by arrangement with Doubleday & Co., 1972), 180.

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