A foreign correspondent and a veteran reminisce about the brotherhood and raw courage that characterized the 1968 battle of KheSanh.
Journalist, foreign correspondent, and author Gregg Jones devoted his third book to the story of the iconic battle at KheSanh. The search to unearth details of the bloody six-month encounter in the northwestern corner of South Vietnam tested Jones’ mettle. Tom Glenn, himself a Vietnam vet with long experience in-country, asks Jones how he did it.
Your previous books have been about Teddy Roosevelt and the Philippines. What prompted you to write about the Vietnam War and Khe Sanh in particular?
My interest in the Vietnam War goes back to my childhood in Missouri. I had a deep interest in military history from an early age and read books on the Civil War and World War II. By the late 1960s, I was aware of the war in Vietnam, especially the rising casualties and political protests at home. I was also attuned to the impact of wars on the families of combat casualties. My mother’s oldest brother had died with his B-24 bomber crewmates when they were shot down over Austria in 1943, and we had visited his grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis several times during the Vietnam years. It made a deep impression on me.
In college and the years immediately afterward, I read everything I could about the Vietnam War.I moved to Southeast Asia in 1984 to work as a freelance journalist, and spent 10 years in Asia over three decades. I made several trips to Vietnam and interviewed people about their experiences on all sides of the conflict. I knew I wanted to write a book about the war someday. The time seemed right in 2011 when I finished Honor in the Dust.
From the beginning, I was drawn to the year 1968. I had read about Khe Sanh in Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and after some preliminary research and conversations with a few Khe Sanh veterans, I knew this was the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to take readers into the trenches and bunkers and tell the story of the lowly grunts—the American teenagers who had enlisted or had been drafted, and found themselves at the center of this horrific confrontation.
What was it like interviewing ninety men who had fought at Khe Sanh?
It was an experience I’ll never forget. Sometimes men were overcome by their emotions during the interviews, and it became a very affecting experience for me as well. I was hesitant to have men recall some of the most painful and terrifying memories of their lives, so I let them know that they could stop the interview or skip ahead at any point. I was very mindful of balancing my objectives as a journalist and historian against the mental and emotional health of the men I was interviewing. Most of the men had received treatment for post-traumatic stress, or were still in therapy. I didn’t want to put them back in the dark place they had spent years trying to escape. But in nearly every case, the men who agreed to be interviewed wanted to tell me about the tragic and heartbreaking events they had witnessed. I found we had a common goal: to keep alive the memory of the Americans who died at Khe Sanh.
Did you travel to Vietnam as part of your research? What was your impression of that country?
I made several trips to Vietnam in the 1990s and early 2000s as a foreign correspondent based in Bangkok, Thailand. I had traveled widely through Vietnam, and I had driven up Route 9 to the Khe Sanh area when I was working on a newspaper story about the deaths of Vietnamese civilians from unexploded ordnance left from the war. My trips to Vietnam were incredibly poignant. For all the death and destruction the country had sustained during the war, most Vietnamese people I met held warm feelings toward Americans.
After beginning work on Last Stand at Khe Sanh, I had planned to return to Vietnam to interview North Vietnamese Army veterans who fought in the campaign. But it quickly became clear to me that I faced a monumental task in tracking down and interviewing enough American survivors of Khe Sanh to do justice to their story. I had to keep reminding myself that the focus of this book, and its primary contribution to the literature of Khe Sanh, would be to bring alive the gritty trench-level experience of the American fighting men. So that became the focal point of my time and energy. I ended up drawing on POW interrogation reports, intelligence documents, and North Vietnamese Army histories to weave in pieces of the communist story at Khe Sanh.I hope that future books will better inform us on the experiences of the NVA soldiers and the assorted South Vietnamese forces at Khe Sanh.
Reading Last Stand at Khe Sanh was an emotional roller coaster for me. What was it like to write it?
It was one of the most emotionally wrenching projects I’ve undertaken as a journalist or author. The interviews were very intense. Piecing together various accounts to create a cohesive narrative of what was happening during a particular attack, ambush or bombardment took me to another level of emotion and intensity. I had witnessed death as a foreign correspondent, but I typically didn’t have a personal relationship with the victims. With Last Stand at Khe Sanh, I had gotten to know the men who were describing these events to me, and they painted vivid portraits of the comrades whose deaths or wounding they had witnessed. Writing about combat carnage is never a pleasant experience, and I didn’t want this book to devolve into war pornography. But I had to describe some of the gore and bloodshed to accurately convey the horror experienced by the defenders of Khe Sanh on a daily basis.
Was post-traumatic stress injury common among the men you researched and interviewed? How were they coping?
Yes. As I mentioned earlier, nearly every Khe Sanh veteran I interviewed had experienced post-traumatic stress injuries. Some were still deep into their struggles to overcome this disorder. Some had worked for years to reach a place of equilibrium.It was a sobering experience to see and hear what the war had done to these eager young men who headed to Vietnam in 1967 or early 1968.
If you had to pick out a single incident at Khe Sanh among the hundreds you wrote about, what moved you the most?
So many moments of heartbreaking loss are burned into my memory.January 20, 1968 was a gut-wrenching day that offered a preview of what was to come. The triggering event was the “reconnaissance in force” to Hill 881 North by the Marines of India Company 3/26. Point man Jim Collinswas packed and ready to go home at the time. He could have skipped the patrol, but he didn’t want to leave his brothers with a battle looming. As a result, he was in his familiar place—at the head of the column — when he walked into the North Vietnamese soldiers dug into the tall grass of the 881 North and became the first to die. That was followed by the deaths of two fine young lieutenants, Thomas Brindley and Mike Thomas, and a young recon Marine, Bill Bryan.
I think about the death of Gunnery Sergeant Melvin Rimel, a great Marine who was killed in the opening NVA assault on Hill 861 on the morning of January 21. I think about the death of grenadier Tommy Denning on a patrol off the northwest slope of Hill 861 on January 26.I think about the death of Joe Molettiere of South Philly, an excited father-to-be, killed in the early morning NVA attack on Hill 861 Alpha. There were many poignant moments on February 7 and 8. On the 7th, seven U.S. Army Special Forces operators were killed during the attack on Lang Vei; the following day the Marines lost twenty-seven men in the defense of the Alpha 1/9 outpost known as Hill 64. I was very moved as I wrote about the ambush of the Bravo 1/26 patrol on February 25 and the crash of the C-123 transport plane on March 6. There were terrible losses in both instances, and I had come to know the personal stories of many of the men.
By far the most emotional day for me personally was when I wrote the epilogue. In the final section, I recounted my visit to the Vietnam Memorial with Hill 861 veteran Dennis Mannion during the Khe Sanh Veterans Association annual meeting in 2011. When I visited the wall with Dennis, I knew the personal stories of many of the men who fell at Khe Sanh, andsuddenly I was able to touch their names on the wall and recall the dates and circumstances of their deaths. It was a very powerful and poignant experience for me, and writing that scene and briefly recalling how this person or that person had died reduced me to tears.
Of all the men you interviewed, which one gave you the strongest feel for what it was like at Khe Sanh?
Dennis Mannion was an exquisite guide on my virtual Khe Sanh journey. He was an artillery forward observer on Hill 861, and he wrote a lot of letters and has terrific recall. Our interviews stretched over many months, and we wound up talking well over thirty hours. He really brought to life for me the experience of the men on the hill outposts. I had other wonderful guides who helped me recreate the days at Khe Sanh Combat Base, including Bravo 1/26 Marines Michael O’Hara, Tom Quigley and Steve Wiese. I learned something from every interview, and the sum of these conversations transported me to Khe Sanh. To the extent that I have succeeded in capturing what it was like to be at Khe Sanh in 1968, these extraordinary men deserve the credit.
In the book, you avoid expressing any judgments about the Vietnam War and its justification. Why?
I wanted to write a book that focused on the experience of the fighting men, and not the political debate that divided Americans. Virtually all the men I interviewed believed in the propriety and good intentions of the American war effort in Vietnam.That was their heartfelt perspective. My opinions about the war weren’t relevant to telling their stories.
Now that the book is published, would you be willing to tell us your feelings about the rectitude and effectiveness of the war?
Even if you set aside America’s most egregious errors and misjudgments involving Vietnam between 1945 and 1965 — most notably our dismissal of Ho Chi Minh as a proxy for world communism and our feckless promotion of Ngo Dinh Diem as the pillar of a free and stable South Vietnam — a battlefield victory was always going to be hard to come by. It iswishful thinking to suggest that victory would have been ours in Vietnam if only America’s political leadership had shown more backbone and the military had been unleashed to prosecute an even wider war. I’ve studied and written about Southeast Asian insurgencies quite a bit over the last 30 years, and American forces in Vietnam had an especially bad hand to play. Early on, idealistic American advisors like Jonathan Frederic Ladd and John Paul Vann sounded warnings to reporters like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. And then, William Westmoreland, in my view, ran the train off the tracks. Khe Sanh might have been Westmoreland’s greatest triumph, but his general management of the war was disastrous. The strategy and tactics he promoted were flawed. Search-and-destroy placed too much emphasis on body counts and the exhausting (and rather pointless) pursuit of elusive enemy forces rather than securing populated areas so a stable government and civil society could take root from the village-level up. Ultimately, I don’t believe the American people would have accepted the levels of death and destruction required to stem North Vietnamese infiltration and secure the countryside—key objectives if America hoped to win the war in Vietnam.
After working with soldiers and Marines for the better part of thirteen years in Vietnam, I concluded that combatants don’t fight for God or country or patriotism—they fight for the guy next to them. Do you agree?
I completely agree. Nearly every Khe Sanh veteran I interviewed said the same thing.
If you had it all to do over again, what would you change about the way you researched and wrote Last Stand at Khe Sanh?
Even though I ended up with several hundred hours of interviews and more material than I could ever hope to use, I still wanted to interview more men. I also wish I could have included more men in the book. I had gotten to know most of the people I interviewed, and it was very painful to leave out their anecdotes during the writing or editing process.This work made for a faster-paced read in the finished manuscript, but I felt terrible about taking out a piece of somebody’s Khe Sanh experience.
You probably know Vietnam veterans better than any journalist now writing. How do you react to the fact that when they returned to the U.S. they were reviled, spat upon, and called “baby killers”?
Many Khe Sanh survivors experienced this treatment when they finished their tours and returned to the States. It was shameful.I accept why a significant number of Americans felt a moral imperative to oppose the war in a public fashion, and I understand the passions that accompanied those convictions. But I think it was wrong to hold everyone in uniform responsible for the war’s excesses or wrongheaded national policies. The sordid treatment of Vietnam veterans was one of the reasons I wanted to write this book. I believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us that it’s possible to oppose a war without denigrating the men and women who wear the uniform.Unfortunately, this lesson came too late for Vietnam veterans.
Has writing Last Stand at Khe Sanh changed your view of war?
No. I’ve never harbored illusions about the nature of war. It’s inhumane, cruel and capricious. As General Robert E. Lee watched the slaughter of Union troops at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, he is said to have remarked to General James Longstreet, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” We need to be reminded of that from time to time. Our elected officials need to be reminded of that all the time.
What will be the subject of your next book?
I’ve been doing preliminary research on a project that would examine the historical roots of our current political divisions in America. I had promised myself during some of the rougher patches of the Khe Sanh project that my next book would take me back to the 19th century, so I wouldn’t have to deal with live interviews and the headaches of conflicting eyewitness accounts. But that conviction is softening, and I’ve found myself in recent days considering the idea of another Vietnam book. I’m hopeful that the looming 50th anniversaries of KheSanh and the Tet Offensive in 2018 will encourage wider interest, and that Americans in larger numbers than ever will want to learn more about the war and the experiences of the men and women who served in Vietnam.
Writer and reviewer Tom Glenn has published a series
of short stories and a novel drawn from his many years as a covert intelligence
operative in Vietnam. Last summer the Baltimore Post-Examiner printed the story
of his escape under fire during the fall of Saigon. In March 2014, Apprentice
House of Baltimore brought out his latest novel, No-Accounts.