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ANNALS OF VIETNAM
Welcome to the Annals of Vietnam, a collection of articles, reviews, and
images dealing with America's misadventures south and north of the 17th
parallel. I have a particular interest in the early years, because that's
when I was there as a reporter for the left-liberal magazine, The
Nation, which was so financially strapped that it would even publish
reports even from a Republican like me.
A spellbinding book about a bloody battle
Bait: The Battle of Kham Duc
is an unforgettable account of a bloodbath in May 1968 when two regiments of North Vietnamese
troops beseiged a Special Forces outpost defended by an unlikely combination of Green Berets,
indigenous mercenaries, U.S. Marines, Special Operations Group (SOG) commandos and their fierce
Nung bodyguards, American infantry, and other odd lots to a total of about 900 Americans,
3 Australians, and 500 indigenous troops, along with 272 civilians. Among them was a Special
Forces lieutenant, James McElroy, the lead author of this book, which he wrote with Gregory
Sanders, himself a Vietnam vet; each has a master's degree in history, and their account is
carefully sourced even as it is intensely personal. One American officer endangered the
defenders' lives through his "tactical incompetence"; another "considered himself a non-combatant
and refused to carry a weapon." As for the indigenous troops, a majority were criminals given
the choice of prison or the military, and predictable deserted their posts, while others --
especially the Nung -- fought and died heroically. I was continual astonished, reading this book,
at the bravery of men fighting against hopeless odds, and likewise impressed by the terrible
weight of American airpower. "Most readers," the authors justly say, "including most Vietnam battle
veterans, have no concept of the magnitude of destructive power inflicted on the massed [North
Vietamese] troops at Kham Duc on May 12, 1968." They estimate 2,000 enemy dead -- far more than
the official total -- as against 45 Americans, 207 indigeneous troops, and about 150 civilians
killed, captured, or missing in action. (Most of the civilians died in the crash of a transport
plane taking them to safety, along with some of the CIDG deserters who'd crowded in with them.)
The rather odd title, "Bait," refers to what the North Vietnamese hoped to accomplish at
Kham Duc, for another Dien Bien Phu, and also to the post-battle spin put on the battle by
the U.S. military in Saigon. Altogether, the book is a powerful counterpoint to the Ken Burns
/ PBS version of the Vietnam War. Even General Westmoreland comes out looking good. Of special
interest to Vietnam buffs are the authors' introductory chapters about the nature of the war
and of U.S. media coverage, and a concluding critque
Note that the
Kindle ebook is only $2.99 -- the price of a cup of coffee!
The Medal for a Green Beret
There weren't many draftees or black soldiers in Vietnam in 1964 -- indeed, I met only one
African-American in the months I was there, a sergeant-advisor to the ARVN 21st Infantry
Regiment. That changed the following year as Lyndon Johnson sent American ground forces
to fight the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese reinforcements. Among them was Captain
Paris Davis, shown above (center) as he escorted General Westmoreland on an inspection
of the Bong Son Special Forces camp northeast of Saigon. Davis disarmed prejudiced
soldiers by telling them: "You can call me Captain, but you can't call me a nigger."
On June 18, 1965, he and his team sergeant and two other NCOs led a force of South
Vietnamese "Puffs" on a patrol that was ambushed by a reinforced company of Viet Cong. The
Popular Forces militia were poorly trained and poorly equipped, and they seldom did well
in a firefight. But Davis pressed the fight, "keeping the VC off balance and providing
lucrative targets for RVNAF and USAF aircraft," according to a Special Forces website.
"Approximately 200 VC were killed by the combined ground/air action."
Davis was wounded by a grenade and by rifle fire, and Master Sergeant Billy Waugh was
badly hit, as was Spec-4 Robert Brown. "I could actually see his brain pulsating," Davis
now says of his team sergeant's head injury. "He said, 'Am I gonna die?' And I said, 'Not
before me.'" Indeed, the captain was twice ordered to leave, but he stayed on the field
through the eighteen-hour battle. He was later awarded the Silver Star for heroism, and
apparently nominated for the Medal of Honor, only to have the nomination lost, as often
happened to injured men in Vietnam, hurriedly evacuated to Saigon or Japan for treatment.
Now the MOH award is alive again, and awaiting action by the Biden administration.
Altogether, 261 Medals of Honor were awarded for heroism in Vietnam, the first going to
another Special Forces captain, Roger Donlon, one year before Captain Davis's fight.
One account says that eight percent of those medals went to African-Americans.
Now 89, Davis retired as a colonel, and of course he encountered racism during his
military service. But "when you're out there fighting," he recalls, "and things are going
on like that, everybody's your friend, and you're everybody's friend ... the bullets have no
color, no names." Blue skies! — Daniel Ford