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Life and Death in the Central Highlands

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In 1968 James T. Gillam was a poorly focused college student at Ohio University who was dismissed and then drafted into the Army. Unlike most African Americans who entered the Army then, he became a Sergeant and an instructor at the Fort McClellan Alabama School of Infantry. In September 1968 he joined the First Battalion, 22nd Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam. Within a month he transformed from an uncertain sergeant--who tried to avoid combat--to an aggressive soldier, killing his first enemy and planning and executing successful ambushes in the jungle. Gillam was a regular point man and occasional tunnel rat who fought below ground, an arena that few people knew about until after the war ended. By January 1970 he had earned a Combat Infantry Badge and been promoted to Staff Sergeant. Then Washington's politics and military strategy took his battalion to the border of Cambodia. Search-and-destroy missions became longer and deadlier. From January to May his unit hunted and killed the enemy in a series of intense firefights, some of them in close combat. In those months Gillam was shot twice and struck by shrapnel twice. He became a savage, strangling a soldier in hand-to-hand combat inside a lightless tunnel. As his mid-summer date to return home approached, Gillam became fiercely determined to come home alive. The ultimate test of that determination came during the Cambodian invasion. On his last night in Cambodia, the enemy got inside the wire of the firebase, and the killing became close range and brutal. Gillam left the Army in June 1970, and within two weeks of his last encounter with death, he was once again a college student and destined to become a university professor. The nightmares and guilt about killing are gone, and so is the callous on his soul. Life and Death in the Central Highlands is a gripping, personal account of one soldier's war in Vietnam.

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Chapter 1. The Tet Offensive: Making Space for the Draft Class of 1968

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2

Life and Death in the Central Highlands

THE TET OFFENSIVE

In every war, there are critical offensives and battles that redirect the course of the conflict.The Tet Mau Than, or Tet Offensive was one of those kinds of events during the Vietnam War. I learned a lot about Tet in January of 1991. At that time, I was back in

Vietnam as a guest of the Vietnamese Ministry of Education. I was part of a delegation of Fulbright Scholars who were invited to attend seminars in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi on postcolonial Vietnamese history. An important part of that history is what the Vietnamese call the Second Indochina War. We call it the Vietnam War. So, as expected, there was a significant focus on the Tet Offensive and its effect on the war.

Retired Gen.Tran Van Tra was the lead seminarian for our sessions on Tet, and I had the opportunity to meet him the evening before the seminar at his home. He sent his eldest daughter with a car to pick up me and Professor Keith Taylor, a faculty member at Princeton University, for dinner. Taylor and Tran knew each other personally during the war, and each man had tried to kill the other. In 1989, Tran visited Princeton on a speaking engagement and spent a week in Professor Taylor’s home. The general matched Professor Taylor’s hospitality with an open invitation to his home if Taylor ever came back to Vietnam. Taylor and I were two of the combat veterans among our delegation and we got on well. So, he invited me to go with him for dinner with the general. That evening, General Tran and I only spent a little time talking about the war. The most memorable thing he said to me about Tet was that its basic purpose was “to break your will to war.”1 Then, the conversation shifted and Tran and I did what old men often do. We bragged about our children. We both have three: a son and two daughters for each of us.

 

Chapter 2. Training the Draft Class of 1968

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2.

Training the Draft Class of 1968

MOVING TOWARD THE DRAFT CLASS OF 1968

In the winter and spring when the Tet Offensive unfolded, I was closing a very poor performance as a student at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. My poor performance was caused in part by a personal dilemma that reached all the way from Vietnam and struck me in Athens, Ohio. In December 1967, my brother

Edward was serving in Vietnam with the 3rd Marine Division, and his name appeared in the obituary list of the Marine Corps monthly magazine, Leatherneck. He was walking point when he was swept away crossing a river. His company commander never went to look for him. He wandered in the jungle, alone, unarmed, and delirious from malaria and dysentery. A week later, a unit from the 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) found him and delivered him to the hospital ship USS Repose. It was February 1968 before we found out he was alive.

In March 1968, Ed arrived at the Naval Health Clinic at the

Great Lakes Naval Station in Chicago. He had gone to Vietnam as a wiry 165-pound Marine with the stamina of a horse. I barely recognized him as the man I had shared a bedroom with for most of my life. He weighed 116 pounds and was bedridden.

 

Chapter 3. Joining the Vietnam Class of 1969-70

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Joining the Vietnam Class of 1969–70

trouble at school or broke a window playing baseball. I would just keep telling myself, “Maybe something good will happen and

I won’t have to deal with it.” In fact, during the midsummer and early fall of 1969, there were two critical news items that actually encouraged my naiveté about a last-minute reprieve. Then, at other times, I thought I would go to Vietnam but that I would not be there for very long. The sources for these flights from reality were the press coverage of the policy of Vietnamization and the announcement of Ho Chi Minh’s death.

Vietnamization was the centerpiece of Richard Nixon’s

Vietnam policy. The central idea was to transfer as much of the responsibility for combat from American forces to the ARVN as quickly as possible.1 Presidents Nixon and Nguyen Van Thieu met on the island of Midway in late May 1969 to discuss implementation of the policy. It was an important meeting because it signaled the departure from President Johnson’s policies of escalation and attrition. After their Midway meeting, President Nixon held a press conference to announce that the first stage of Vietnamization would involve the “redeployment” of 25,000 Americans. Of course, I read the word “redeployment” as “withdrawal,” and I also speculated on the possibility of those 25,000 becoming the first of a flood of troops coming home. That naïve hope was bolstered by a press conference on July 21 when President Nixon, with the new MACV commander Gen. Creighton Abrams in attendance, told the world that the troops in question would be home by the end of August 1969. The fact that Abrams specifically named an infantry unit (the 3rd Battalion, 66th Brigade of the 9th Infantry

 

Chapter 4. Operation Putnam Wildcat

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4.

Operation Putnam Wildcat

November 1, 1969, to January 18, 1970

In September 1969 when I heard of Ho Chi Minh’s death, I naively predicted that I would not go to Vietnam or, if I did go, I would be home for the holidays. Clearly, I had no understanding of the martyr effect on political movements or the barest appreciation of the strength of Vietnamese nationalism. So, I ended up in Vietnam and joined B Company, 1st Battalion of the 22nd

Infantry Regiment while it was shifted back and forth between

Operations Putnam Tiger and Putnam Panther.

When Operations Putnam Tiger and Panther ended, I had been in Vietnam for a month. It was an adjustment period during which I experienced most of the things common to infantry duty in Vietnam for the first time. I got mortared several times, and I learned to despise the random death of the explosions and the helplessness while waiting for the enemy to run out of shells.

I heard that I had lost friends with whom I trained in the States. I cleared away dead bodies after a firefight, and then I went on my first combat patrols. I survived the first of many combat assaults, and I also killed a man face to face for the first time. A few days after that, I planned and carried out an ambush that killed five more men. I was also shot for the first time.

 

Chapter 5. Operation Putnam Power

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5.

Operation Putnam Power

January 18 to February 7, 1970

The 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry was the 2nd Brigade’s reaction force, so we got pulled in from the field in mid-January for a three-week assignment called Operation Putnam Power. We were picked up by choppers from a hastily cut landing zone and flown to LZ Stinger. We got a two-day stand down, during which we bathed, changed clothes, and drank ourselves silly. Then they told us where we were going and what they expected us to do. The brigade intelligence people said they had finally confirmed the location of Base Area 226 in the Vinh Than Valley, so they were sending us back to destroy it. The English translation of Vinh

Than is Happy Valley. I had been there before, but I had no happy memories of it. The Vinh Than had been a redoubt for Vietnamese forces during their 900 years of resistance to the Chinese, so

I guess the Vietnamese would be happy with the place. In fact, from their perspective, it probably made pretty good sense for them to return to the scene of a past success.1

 

Photo page section

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Chapter 6. Operations Hines and Putnam Paragon

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6.

Operations Hines and

Putnam Paragon

February 16 to May 18, 1970

From mid-January to the first week of February 1970, B Company was assigned to Operation Putnam Power. The objective was to find and destroy the NVA’s Base Area 226. As a unit, we failed. As an individual soldier, I saw and participated in the Vietnam War on all its levels. I saw the air war carried out by B-52 aircraft of the Strategic Air Force when they performed their Arc

Light missions. I also saw the after-effect of the chemical rain of death called Operation Ranch Hand. It was the kind of warfare

America went to war in Iraq to prevent: the use of chemicals as weapons of mass destruction. The chemical agent 2,4,5-T, known as Agent Orange, defoliated thousands of acres of land and spread a poison over the Central Highlands and its people.

We polluted the environment for decades and caused cancers and birth defects for a generation.

I also continued my part in the ground war searching out enemy supply caches and hunting their troops in vicious smallunit actions, but finally, and most frighteningly, there was my part of the war that was fought in the ground. I beat and strangled an enemy to death in a tunnel. After that, I thought I had seen it all, done it all, and things would get no worse for me before I left

 

Chapter 7. Regional Politics, Diplomacy, and Military Preparations for Invasion

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7.

Regional Politics, Diplomacy, and

Military Preparations for Invasion

March 11 to May 18, 1970

DIPLOMACY AND POLITICS BEFORE

THE CAMBODIAN INVASION

In the late winter and early spring of 1970, the Vietnam War intensified dramatically for the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry

Brigade. At the same time, complications in the political and diplomatic situation in Southeast Asia set the stage for the

Cambodian invasion of 1970. Of course, they also raised the war’s intensity another notch.

In Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, Premier Lon Nol and Prince Sirik Matok were at the end of a four-year struggle to oust Prince Norodhom Sihonouk, Cambodia’s monarch, from power. A main point of contention between the two factions was

Sihonouk’s inability to force the North Vietnamese and their protégé, the Khmer Rouge, from Cambodia. The NVA were in

Cambodia because Hanoi had extended the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply line through eastern Cambodia to avoid American air and ground attacks. Hanoi also supported the Khmer Rouge communist movement to destabilize the Cambodian government as a means to help protect the supply line and extend its power in the region.

 

Chapter 8. The Cambodian Invasion

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8.

The Cambodian Invasion

May 7 to May 15, 1970

COMBAT ASSAULT INTO CAMBODIA

The 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry lifted off from LZ Jackson Hole for Cambodia in the middle of the afternoon on May 7, 1970.

Col. George Webb, the acting chief of staff for the II FORCEV, wrote a report on what we did there called, “The Commander’s

Evaluation Report—Cambodian Operations.” I read it in the summer of 2003, and I was surprised by the brevity of information about what happened to us that day. The colonel wrote,

“Immediately upon landing, 1/22 made contact with a reinforced platoon in bunkers. Killed 4 NVA. Captured 2 weapons.”1

Maybe the colonel’s terseness was because he was separated from our landing by both time and space. He wrote the report at the end of June, and as the acting chief of staff for the II

FFORCEV, he was not in Cambodia. He was in the command post in the Central Highlands Special Forces camp at New Plei

Djerang. That probably explains why his report makes it seem like the four hundred men of our battalion dropped on a clearing with thirty or forty NVA, shot four of the outnumbered enemy, and took two of their weapons home as souvenirs. It has often been said that truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

 

Chapter 9. Joining the Vietnam Veteran's Class of 1970

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9.

Joining the Vietnam Veteran’s

Class of 1970

LEAVING CAMBODIA

It was midmorning on May 15 when the helicopters began to land at LZ Jood to withdraw the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry from Cambodia. Happily for the men of B Company, the usual policy of first men in, first men out of an LZ put second platoon in the first lift to leave that miserable place. I was the acting platoon sergeant, so when the choppers got close, I popped a yellow smoke grenade on the landing pad to mark the wind direction and ground-guided the first lift of six choppers to the ground.

They clattered in and raised a huge dust storm.We waded through it, flopped down in the doorway, and they lifted off.

There was a shortage of Cobra gunships to escort the slicks back to Vietnam, so we had to circle the firebase until three lifts of six slicks were loaded up and ready to be escorted by two gunships.

When we passed over our side of the perimeter we saw the damage from the sapper attack. An obvious damage site was the base commander’s conex. They were pretty nice places to live until an attack happened. They were big steel boxes that had bunks with real mattresses. They had a gasoline generator to power electric lights and air conditioning, too. But, its high profile and the noise

 

Chapter 10. Epilogue

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10.

Epilogue

A week after I got home, Peg and Gene Mullen, the parents of

Michael Mullen, came to my family’s home. I had trained with

Mike at the NCO Academy and shared a room with him in the barracks at Fort McClellan in the summer before we went to

Vietnam. They told my parents Mike had been killed on February 18, my birthday. I missed the visit; I had already left for college. I still regret that I never had the courage to contact them, but I just didn’t know what to say. That was the period when I was trying to cope with the strange situation in which

I was losing friendships instead of friends because of the war.

My friends weren’t dying in combat anymore, but friendships

I had before I was drafted, or new ones I tried to make when

I came home, were dying. That was because of the difficulty I had making the transition from hunting and killing people to pretending to be a normal college student. I know now some of the trouble was because I got home in midsummer of 1970 while the protests over the Cambodian invasion and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State Universities were still fresh in people’s minds. Soldiers were unpopular in some quarters.

 

Appendix. 2nd Platoon, B Company, First Battalion, 22nd Infantry

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Appendix

2nd Platoon, B Company, First

Battalion, 22nd Infantry

Where Are They Now?

Most formal military histories of infantry units focus on what are known as “maneuver-sized units.” The smallest of those units are battalions, groups of roughly 400 soldiers commanded by at least a lieutenant colonel. Those histories provide the “big picture” of wars and battles. The Vietnam War, however, was fought mostly with small units: companies, platoons, and squads. A company was composed of four platoons. Normally, each platoon was supposed to have had forty three men: one officer, one platoon sergeant, and four squads of ten men. Each squad was led by a sergeant.

These were the men who lived in the “small picture” of the war.

This book is the history of how the small picture of the second platoon of B Company fit into the larger picture of the Vietnam

War in the year after the Tet Offensive.

The second platoon never fielded forty three men while I served with it. The most we managed was twenty-nine because of rotation back to America, R and R, illness, injury, and death. We fought through our small picture part of the war while our numbers grew and shrank because of those factors. The life we led was tribal. We had leaders, followers, favorites, and pariahs, but for the most part, we tried to keep ourselves and our tribe members alive.

 

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