Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Peter Kama's Vietnam
I Don't Regret Anything
As told to
In 1972, in June and early July, I was a major in the U.S. Army and I as an adviser to the Second Vietnamese Airborne Division. At that time we were on an offensive, a coordinated offensive, to retake Quang Tri Province, which had been over run in the spring by the North Vietnamese Army in their Easter Offensive. The people who had lived in Quang Tri city had been driven out. There were few American advisers remaining in Vietnam at that time. In our offensive the Airborne unit was inland and the Vietnamese Marines were along the sea. We planned a coordinated attack to move back and reestablish the borderline at the DMZ. And in our trek northward, we crossed a river that was about 40 miles from Hue on the way the north. The North Vietnamese had destroyed a bridge there because they didn't want people moving South. The people that remained in Quang Tri City and in the surrounding villages had tried to flee aouth. Old women, children, old men and wounded veterans. That is who remained . But since the North Vietnamese had overrun and taken control of Quang Tri, they didn't want that local population to evacuate. Because if they did, then the American and Vietnamese Air Forces would be able to bomb and strafe and fire at will. With civilians present they would have to undertake controlled and measured responses.
When that invasion began, all available vehicles, all the older men and women and children and people loaded up and headed south. And before they got to the bridge, it was blown up.
But the convoy of all of these people and vehicles were headed south. And the North Vietnamese intercepted them and stopped the convoy and told them to go back. But the people wouldn't go back. So they were all slaughtered. They were all killed. More than 25,000 people. Remember that! More than 25,000. Every vehicle in that long convoy was destroyed and burned. They were shot up and burned right where they were stopped, bumper to bumper.
They shot them all with small arms and set fire to them and killed everybody. When we came by there, we couldn't proceed any more. We had to stop and bury these people. I called and reported it, on the radio. And I said, "Hey, I've got news for you. Get somebody from the news up here to cover it." And the newsmen who were in the area, oh, hell, they didn't want to be bothered with it. The AP people didn't want to be bothered. This was news, damn it! This was news. It took four days for us to bury 25,000 people. And not a single newsman showed up during that.
The picture that will never leave my mind that makes war so terrible is this. I found a little baby shoe, with a remaining foot in it. It had a tiny tassel on the end. A white baby shoe. And the foot was still in it. And you ask yourself, "Why did they have to do this?" I think that was the saddest moment I experienced in Vietnam, being sad when somebody I had never known or never seen, wasn't close to me, just that shoe, that image. And no reporters ever showed up. They wouldn't come. They said they had other stories to cover. They said it wasn't news.
It was an awesome sight. Terrible. Hellish. We had to call up tanks with blades to clear the road. But the stench was horrible. Just horrible.
So we just graded out the drainage on the side of the road and bulldozed all those vehicles off the road, buried the people and covered them up.
My Airborne troops were recruited nationwide. They were the best of the best in the country. We were going to continue north but we had to stop there at the river. It was a national disaster. Twenty-five thousand dead -- men, women and children --and it took four days to bury them and we didn't move on those days.
We estimated 25,000 plus, counting what we could. The convoy was over a mile long and there wasn't a single survivor. They were all surrounded, torched, grenaded and shot. That simple. It was pretty horrible. The stench was horrible. It was really hot at that time.
We were on the offense moving out after that. This was not Highway One, this was in land and climbing through the mountains, in an area where it was difficult to travel.
My last days there I had a Lt. Griswold, a second lieutenant of mine, with a Navy ensign and a Navy radioman, and they went with a reconnaissance platoon. And they sneaked into Quang Tri city, which was still occupied by the North Vietnamese. And they took the highest tower in the city and became a forward observer for Navy gunships and aircraft. I was pulled out just before we took back Quang Tri.
Having been General Fred Weyand's aide previously, I had extended my tour. And I couldn't extend any longer. General Weyand told me, "Pete, you did your job. And the chance of making it out, now, of survival, the percentage, is very low now. Let somebody else have a chance. He promoted me to Lt. Col. and sent me on my way."
I got reassigned to California.
It all happened quite fast since we were in combat. We had a little custom, we passed a little golden turtle, you always gave your turtle to whoever replaced you. And we passed that on. The guy who took my place, he was really more qualified in administration than in combat. I reluctantly gave him my turtle and my buck knife. And the Vietnamese Airborne, before I left I gave them six bottles of Hennessey Cognac. And I told my Vietnamese counterpart before I left that after the war we were going to make little ceramics elephants and he was going to make them and I was going to distribute them world wide. That was my last conversation with him. Planning for the future.
I really didn't want to leave. I really wanted to take Quang Tri City with them,. But they did it without me. I had a direct order and I had to get out of there.
At departure I gave up the turtle, the buck knife, the cognac and I left. When I got back to headquarters, in Saigon a General made me his house guest and then I was promoted. He then organized a promotion party. From the Vietnamese Airborne I received a plaque with the Airborne emblems on it. Go home, get promoted, have a party, get a plaque and leave. So I was about four days in Saigon and I came home.
I was really pissed off at General Weyand at that point for making me leave Vietnam. He put somebody else in my job and I didn't really think he was capable. The Vietnamese wouldn't have confidence in him, I thought,. They wouldn't communicate well with him. They would be going along with a lead weight rather than someone who could help them. If they didn't have confidence they would tell him nothing. And if they told him nothing, they couldn't get the assistance that he would be able to give them. He could get naval gunfire, he could get tac air, he could get B52s, he could get a communication system with other advisers in the area, added mobility. He was new and it takes a while to develop a rapport with the staff of the brigade. It just doesn't happen overnight. I spoke Vietnamese. And so if we had a misunderstanding we at least spoke the same language and soon we could clear it up in Vietnamese. Language was never a problem in communicating. I was very patient, and I am mission oriented, and I had dealt with the Vietnamese over a long period and through several combat operations. I had developed an atmosphere here of trust and understanding with my men and their Vietnamese commanders.
When I was the IG(inspector general) of the 7th division, it was an advantage being a non white or a non black[Kama is Hawaiian]. All the whites would come in and tell me all the problems about the blacks and all the blacks would come in and tell me all the problems about the whites. And so I took care of all the problems. Ninety-nine percent of the problem was always not racial prejudice but lack of leadership in conjunction with poor communications.
And I think most the Vietnamese who dealt with whites wanted to get along with them and trust them and develop a rapport. Myself, I had an advantage. They felt that I was on their level. So they would try to con you, but after a while they discovered they couldn't con you and then they would share with you their problems. They didn't hide anything from me because I was helpful.
Because we native Hawaiians were nonwhite, we welcomed other ethnic groups and blended with them more gracefully than other groups. Even the Vietnamese didn't blend as well as the Hawaiians. A stranger is a stranger, to them. It's funny you tell people you’re from Hawaii and then think about the dancing and music and that opens the door, and then they find out you’re pleasant and you’re intelligent and that you have the knowledge and the tools that they need, and you can get them what they need, and in a short time you have built a working relationship. Having been the aid to General Weyand before I got there, they felt that I had a good deal of influence that would be helpful to them.
So when I left I was optimistic about t the chances of Vietnam because I knew what the Vietnamese Airborne could do. We were successful in every operation.
My estimate of the NVA was that they had two advantages. One, they had time on their hands. And two, they had the element of surprise. But other than that, they were not any better than the ARVN. I never had any fear, ever, that my organization could not defend itself and could offensively defeat anything the NA sent against us. None whatsoever. And even when we didn't have all the support we felt we needed, just with the infantry available, with our weapons, training and leadership that we had in the ARVN, we could do the job. We could do it with 3 to one against us, I felt that we could do it. The discipline of the Airborne Division was such that I never had any doubts that they couldn't whip the NVA. They were very brave, very experienced and very professional.
I recall that the prisoners that we took from the NVA were all young. Between 14 and 22 years old. They were just kids. I remember one young kid we captured, and he thought he was going to die, his imagination was much bigger than the reality he confronted. We fed him and that shocked him. We gave him food and he looked around and saw our communication system and our living conditions in combat. His were so austere and rudimentary. Their engineer company consisted of one guy with a compass and we captured these guys, and treated them well.
We tied them up and got all the information we could and then sent them to the rear.
We never, or it was never reported to me and I never saw any prisoners who were killed. The VN Airborne were too well trained and they understood the value of prisoners was what they could tell you. Most of all they were professionals. But that doesn't mean that in any unit you might have a guy whose friends were killed or whose family was killed and who might then kill a prisoner. But that was uncommon. It was a common practice for the ARVN to try to force information out of prisoner. And the fastest way was to use an electric shock to jolt it out of them.
There were extraordinary and uncalled for ways of getting information. My worst experience was with a Ranger Company when I first got there, and this captain had been trained by the French and he would always shoot a prisoner to scare the others. And he deemed that what he did was required to get information. This guy of course was Nguyen Van Toan, who was later a General. I knew him too well.
In his experience and training in running the war, he was ruthless. In the area where he operated the Viet Cong ran away. His reputation preceded him. And the Viet Cong never bothered him. He created an image something like Genghis Khan. And he had even the South Vietnamese afraid of him. In Long Anh province the Cambodians were afraid of him. He didn't care who he was against. His men followed his orders without question. But when I got there and saw the way he operated I had him stop killing prisoners. Immediately! And he did. Or at least I saw no evidence of it after that and heard nothing of it.
Corruption is a matter of perception. I understand what a guy from Ohio would describe as corruption, a guy from California would describe as business and a guy from Vietnam would describe as a custom. It is more the custom to benefit your family and the people that help get you to a position you are at in Vietnam. We call it a spoils system in America. And there was a custom that those who had position looked after those who got them positions. This was true in the military and in business in Vietnam. And once an individual was in a good position he would bring in the family members of those who got him into a position, after he took care of himself.
Every American in Vietnam was not from the Midwest or the west coast or from Hawaii. So each individual had his own concept of what the Vietnamese were doing and it went from knowing what they were doing, accepting it, or calling them crooks. I say it was custom. And that not understanding it or not accepting it by westerners was part of a misunderstanding of how things are done in Asia.
Too often Americans just didn’t get it in Vietnam. They sent down to the Mekong Delta, tractors for every farm. This was American aid. They distributed thousands of tractors, big four wheel jobs. And it was the dry season when the got them. And when the rainy season came up they just sank out of site. They couldn't use them. And then there was no gasoline available for them. The farmers are out in the middle of nowhere. And they consumed humongous amounts of gasoline. Here the farmer had a $10,000 piece of equipment on his property that he couldn't use. So it just sank out of sight and they used the water buffalo. And that's real money down the drain. Now you look at that. Is that corruption? We gave some business organization $10,000 for each of these, and we paid to ship them to Vietnam and then we give it to this country, we paid somebody to deliver it, without instructions, no follow up, no spare parts, no training no nothing. We were just the great big brother. We gave them those tractors and they just sat there until they disappeared out of sight.
And then there were the drugs. The biggest drug problem I saw in Vietnam was alcohol. A person away from home sometimes thinks he is bigger and better than he really is. So he drinks to excess and he's under stress. That's scary, when they drink too much. And a lot of guys did on a regular basis.
I think a lot of newsmen made allegations about drugs because it sold a lot of newspapers. Now some newsman is going to sell a lot of papers if he writes that some Vietnamese general is dealing in drugs. That's a lot better than real news-- opening an opium trail rather than accomplishing a mission. There were lots of allegations, none of them ever proven or prosecuted. But people believe them.
My counterpart was accused of drug trafficking, and selling goods for his own profit. I never saw any evidence of it. But I know the man and I would say that definitely it isn't true. But he was never indicted, tried or found guilty. And all those allegations, never proven, kept coming from disgruntled newsmen who need news to sell their papers. It is fortunate that a few of them were reporting what was really true. But many reported what wasn't true, and it clouded history. I never saw anything like a general involved in the drug trafficking. And seeing the conditions we fought in, I don't know how any general could do anything other than conduct the affairs of their organization in combat. It was tremendous dealing with the logistical requirements. Just to keep your organization alive. Getting involved in drug trafficking would be so time consuming. It would be easier just to skim the payroll of the troops.
Then there were flower soldiers, bogus men on payrolls. But whoever did it, it wasn't a commander in the field. They didn't get the payroll. The payroll was handled way back in the rear at the division level. The pay officers who get the money to pay for these people he came out with the cash to pay people.
When I came back to the US, I retired from the military. In January of 1975. Then I was back in civilian life and I was watching what was going on in Vietnam. But when I saw what was happening, I tried to ignore it because it was so distasteful to me. It was more distasteful because of people like Jane Fonda and Bella Abzug were mouthing off. I participated in efforts to get help for the South Vietnamese. I gave lectures to local organizations.
In 1975 I was in San Jose, California. I watched what happened on television. People cheering on the North Vietnamese. And I was afraid if I confronted these people I would punch them. It was a time I felt really bad. I thought that if I'd have known that we were going to do this, my last months in Vietnam I would have done a lot of things a lot differently. I would have taken the safe way rather than the right way to get things done. I would have been more defensive than offensive. But in combat, offense is the best defense. But when you do that, when you take the offense you are going to lose people. But if you take the defense, with good intelligence you try to do things so you won't be surprised. And the main forces then won't be surprised. I could have put out electronic devices or put out long range patrols as individuals. One guy on patrol has less chance of getting observed than a team. But a team has a good chance of survival. I would have done things like that. I would have sent planes to bomb in certain areas. , I would have conducted resupply missions differently. I would try to play it safe. And you try to do it that way so you don't give exposure to your rear end. You don't win a war that way, but you conserve lives. I was conducting combat operations in the most effective way, and when you do that you have to take some loses. And when you take small loses it helps prevent the big losses. I am speaking in generalities of course. But I exposed my men to the small loss in order to save us from the big loss. And this was Americans and Vietnamese. And we did lose men.
Hindsight is 100 percent, you know.
I don't regret anything I did. I don't regret the experience and I am not hateful now. To me, it's history. To me, however, if I have foresight and knew what was going to happen, I would have portrayed my part in history a lot differently. But since I didn't, I have to be realistic with what is ongoing. Everybody has a love/hate relationship with the past. I love the fact that I had the experience of Vietnam and I survived it. And I had the fact that so many people had to die and get injured and hurt, because had I known what was going to happen, I could have prevented much of that. I feel guilty in a sense, because of some of my people getting killed. I did things the right way and lost people. I could have done it the wrong way and people would have lived then.
I remember the day Saigon fell. Yeah, I remember it. And I thought about all the men I lost there. Friends. Good people. And look at what happened.
When I first went over that, General Charles Timmes got up on this stage, and he was wearing World War II airborne uniform, and he was walking around with his hands on his hips, saying, "This is a new world for you." He was damned right about that. When they told me I was going to Vietnam, I didn't know where Vietnam was. I didn't know where Indochina was. But I thought, "What they hell, if they need me, I'll go." And he said, "These people have been at war for hundreds of years. We've come here to help them. But the most difficult thing to find out is, who you are trying to be helping. He said, “find out who your counterpart is. Communicate with him. Get his confidence. And if, before you leave, you teach him one thing. Then you've done your job."
And that always stuck with me. Because I taught my counterpart at least one thing every day. And I thought always that I had earned the trust that was given to me by Vietnamese. I knew who I was working with, I knew I could communicate with him and I helped him every day.
I love the Vietnamese. I think they're wonderful people. They are just like any groups of people in this world. There are good and there are bad.
Instead of saying they are dishonest, I would say they are afraid to portray the real self, because they have a bad self image. So they portray the best of themselves because that is what you want to see. But they are afraid to reveal the real person, because the real person might not meet your expectations, and they don't want to disappoint you.
There was this Senator from Florida who came over, with great standing within Congress. And finally he got kicked out of Congress. They finally caught up with the bastard.
This guy came with a Congressional delegation when I was an aide to General Weyand. And I had to pick him up and take him to his hotel. And the bastard had the nerve to ask me if I could get him a woman for the night. And I said, "Sir, I am here to assist you in getting you to your quarters and to telling you about Vietnam. I'm not a pimp. If you want a pimp, you go find one yourself."
I went back and reported it to General Weyand. And Weyand said, "Good for you, Pete."
This Congressman came out, as they all did, as an observer, to see what was happening in Vietnam. And the first thing he wanted was a woman. What an asshole. And he was a Senator at the time.
I think the peace movement was one of the rights of America. We have the right to assemble, to protest, to disagree, to voice your opinion. But I think it’s bad when the law of the land protects someone like Jane Fonda who goes to North Vietnam and then participates in something that is damaging to the morale and the well being of Americans POWs and soldiers. She may have her supporters. But they certainly weren't in the service at that time. At that time, having seen what I saw the North Vietnamese do, and seeing her cuddle up to them, if I saw her I would have shot her. No doubt. Remember that she was in Hanoi only a few months after that massacre I saw in Quang Tri province. Imagine that.
Today, I still find a great distaste in her lack of taste. I enjoy her movies. She's probably a gutsy woman to have done all those things. Doesn't matter whether they were right or wrong, it takes a lot of guts to do anything when you're in public sight. I don’t think I'd shoot her today. But I'd want to spit on her. It's just lucky she's in a free country today where she can make good money on in the free enterprise system, and then use money to overturn it in other areas, use her freedom to undermine the freedom of people in other countries. That's her right, I guess.