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Column: An honest, tragic recollection of a dreadful war

  • Steve Nelson

  • (Jeff Danziger illustration)

For the Valley News
Published: 5/22/2021 10:20:16 PM
Modified: 5/22/2021 10:20:12 PM

Brilliant political cartoonist Jeff Danziger has written a crackerjack new book titled Lieutenant Dangerous: A Vietnam War Memoir. It will be available July 6, but I was fortunate to read an advance copy. The book is a rollicking, honest, cynical and, at times, tragic recollection of that dreadful and deceitful war.

The Vermont-born and -raised Danziger, whose award-winning cartoons have appeared in newspapers around the world, captures the sustained futility of the war effort and the profound ambivalence of those who were sent on the fool’s errand. “Draftees hated those who escaped the draft; escapees hated anyone who reminded them of their cowardly good luck,” he writes. “And of course blacks and whites, even those who could get along in civilian life, hated each other. I suppose some Protestants hated some Catholics, and somebody had to hate the Jews.

“In general, everyone in the army hated the army, and thus by the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s the army came slowly to realize that the real damage was being done not to the enemy, but to the army itself, by itself.”

My time as an Army officer roughly coincided with Danziger’s, and his book brought back vivid memories. Much of his tour in Vietnam, where he served as an intelligence officer and earned a Bronze Star and the Air Medal, overlapped with my time in Thailand.

Being curious and irreverent, I sought to understand why we were in Thailand. After all, the war was in Vietnam and, unlike Danziger, neither I nor my fellow soldiers ever lifted a finger in direct support of that war. At peak, about 50,000 U.S. military personnel were in Thailand.

‘Whispering Death’

U-Tapao Royal Thai Airbase was home to a large fleet of B-52 bombers, growing from a dozen in 1967 to 54 by 1972. The U.S. had negotiated an agreement with the Thai government to lengthen existing runways to accommodate bombing missions over Vietnam. U-Tapao was close enough to Vietnam that the missions required no midair refueling, a major logistical improvement.

The planes leaving U-Tapao delivered deadly payloads week after week, devastating the Vietnamese countryside and killing hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops and innocent women, men and children.

While precise statistics are elusive, the bombing offensive known as Operation Rolling Thunder may have killed as many as 182,000 civilians. Bombing in Cambodia may have killed as many as 150,000 others. B-52s were not the only aircraft in these operations, but these huge planes were — and still are — a major part of our deadly arsenal.

My friends and I sometimes sat on a quiet hillside near U-Tapao at twilight and watched as B-52 after B-52, pregnant with as much as 35 tons of ordinance, would groan off the runway, bound for Vietnam, where they would pummel the landscape with relative impunity from 30,000-40,000 feet. We knew what they were about to do, and I felt mildly nauseous and complicit as we watched the grotesque birds fly toward the horizon. It is a grim coincidence that I almost certainly watched the same aircraft that dropped the bombs that shook the ground on which Danziger stood.

In his book Vietnam: A War Lost and Won, prolific British author Nigel Cawthorne wrote: “But what the Viet Cong and NVA feared most was the B-52 strikes. They called them the ‘whispering death’ because the first they knew of the presence of the bombers high above the jungle canopy and the clouds was the whistling of the bomb.

“Aerial bombardments could go on for days or weeks at a time. Even the most battle-hardened veterans lost control of their bodily functions, soiling their pants and shaking uncontrollably. Some went mad and no one who survived could ever be cured of the abject terror a B-52 strike inspired. ...

“Tran Thi Truyen, a sixteen year-old nurse who served in a field hospital in southern Laos, recalled how intense American bombing denuded the jungle and there was no place to hide. During her month-long march down the (Ho Chi Min) trail, she carried a rifle, a sixty-pound knapsack, and a shovel. When American planes came overhead, her group would disperse and dig foxholes. After the bombing had stopped, she said she could not focus her eyes and her head ached for hours. Wounded Vietnamese soldiers were brought up the trail for her to treat in her underground hospital. Most were so badly wounded, nothing could be done for them.”

There is no proper way to fight a war, but American cruelty over the years has been sanitized by technological advantage. Our inclination toward easy violence is because we don’t have to look at it.

Whether the appalling pragmatism of Nagasaki and Hiroshima or the B-52s leaving U-Tapao, those who pull the trigger don’t have to recoil from shattered bodies or frozen screams of terror on the faces of dead women and children. The American military used napalm in Vietnam, and those who dropped it never smelled the acrid fumes of burning flesh.

Operation Holly

Danziger writes of a Bob Hope USO show that he and others avoided. I should have avoided it too.

Hope brought the tour, called Operation Holly, to U-Tapao at Christmastime in 1968. The sight was surreal. With a backdrop of B-52 bombers, Hope, a trampoline artist, the Goldiggers, Les Brown and His Band of Renown, the Honey Ltd. singing act, Miss World Penelope Plummer, actress Ann Margaret, and football star Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier “entertained” the troops.

The show was, to put it bluntly, awful. Ann Margaret, a mediocre actress but ubiquitous and voluptuous pin-up, pranced around for a minute or two. I was never a Bob Hope fan and always suspected that his well-publicized shows were more for his career than for the troops. He was never an interesting comic or actor. He was just Bob Hope.

Every word he uttered was read from large cardboard cue cards held up by an assistant right next to where I was sitting. Quips that may have seemed ad-libbed and clever on television were tired, formulaic and scripted.

The information age serves up some mighty interesting tidbits. During recent research I found a grainy, out-of-focus, 22-minute Army film of the 1968 Operation Holly tour, including the stop at U-Tapao. Operation Holly did not gain luster with the passage of time.

Death was delivered straight from these runways, night after night after night. Ann Margaret strutting and Bob Hope reading from cue cards seemed like desecration of a site where the Verdi Requiem would have been more appropriate.

Bomb-delivery boondoggle

The Army’s contribution to this horrible mission was logistical support. Camp Vayama, where I was stationed, was very near U-Tapao and adjacent to the deep-water port where bombs and other ordinance arrived on cargo ships. Army transportation units were deployed to carry bombs from the port to the airbase, where they would be loaded on B-52s and dropped on the killing fields of Vietnam.

During the latter part of my deployment, I observed with curiosity that there were no longer any Army trucks on the highways leading to and from U-Tapao. All the bomb-laden trucks I saw in convoys were commercial Thai trucks.

The boondoggle that observation represented is an apt addendum to Danziger’s wry reports of military ineptitude.

The Army transportation units needed logistical support, so a maintenance unit accompanied the transportation unit to maintain and repair the flatbed trucks that moved the bombs. The transportation and maintenance personnel needed to be fed, paid and housed, so the needed support units were deployed. The support units required supplies and the supplies needed more trucks to deliver them. The added trucks needed maintenance and their drivers and maintainers required food and pay, as well as recreation and other amenities. Those who provided those amenities required feeding and housing, thus necessitating more trucks and payroll.

By the time I sat watching the Thai convoys delivering the bombs, the rest of us were driving, feeding, repairing, paying, recreating and supplying — ourselves; an absurd circle of frenetic activity that kept the Army too busy to transport any bombs.

No one questioned this, of course, because most of the senior officers in charge of this meaningless activity were hell-bent on getting good efficiency reports, which do not accrue to those who question the mission. This too, dovetails with Danziger’s account.

When relating this tale in later years, I have expressed cynical gratitude that we were, in our own small way, detracting from the war effort by diverting resources from the killing fields to our circular military farce.

I think Danziger would appreciate that.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at

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