The Viet Nam War Through the Lens of a Rear Admiral
Profilers: Teresa Tran, Tommy Brown, Abby DelliGatti, Trent Knapp
Part 1: Background & Life Before the War
Can you describe your life and career aspirations before joining the Marines and commissioning through the Naval Academy?
I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and I was raised there and went to high school. In my senior year, I enlisted in the Marine Corps. A couple of days after graduation, I left for Parris Island and was in the military for another 25 years. So most of my background, as an adult, anyway, was either preparing for the military or actually in the military. I retired in around 1990 and went into business and ran a company that made critical components for the space program and for implantable medical devices. So that’s a summary of what I’ve been doing for most of my adult life anyway.
Why did you choose to commission through the Naval Academy rather than pursue a career as an NCO?
As a junior enlisted man, I admired some officers, both senior Junior and Middle-grade officers in the Marine Corps who were Naval Academy graduates. I admired them greatly and wanted to be like them. I entered the Naval Academy thinking that I would go into the Marine Corps or get commissioned into the Marine Corps naval service after I graduated. What changed my mind was that I, as a first-class or a senior Midshipman, went to a destroyer. I became a division officer on a destroyer, which is pretty much like a Navy’s version of a platoon leader/platoon commander. And I decided to go into the sea – I like ships. I saw just enough of Marines and my career as a Surface Warfare Officer to satisfy my origins anyway.
It is well known that many Americans had mixed feelings about the Vietnam War, with some being vocally against it at the time. What did your own family have to say about you going to fight in Vietnam? Were they supportive?
The Navy had a personnel system for officers in Washington – Bureau personnel in Washington at that time. I became what the Navy calls a detailer – I’m not sure what the Army calls it, but it’s a guy who has done a lot of different things as a division officer. The Navy sent them back to Washington to assign young officers to their duties. And so I did that and was a lieutenant commander at the time in the Navy when I was this detailer. I felt obligated to, having sent so many young lieutenants to Vietnam (Shore duty in Vietnam), I felt obligated to volunteer myself and go. So up until that time, before I went to Washington in that position, I had been commissioned commanding officer of a small patrol ship, and I operated in the coastal waters of Vietnam. We were intercepting and boarding and checking out the junks and small coastal freighters for contraband. I also was a division/department head on a destroyer operating in the Gulf of Tonkin in the height of the war, the air war against Saigon or against North Vietnam, and so I just felt like I had been there, and I wanted to go back and do my duty, particularly because I had been assigning guys about my age to go and spend a year in Vietnam. So that’s why I went to Vietnam.
You asked about my family’s response to that. Your family, in most of our situations of career officers and enlisted men in the Navy, is really reduced to what your spouse thinks. If your spouse doesn’t like you to do something, chances are, you’ll either make her very upset or him very upset. She or he will come around and say, “take care of yourself.” That’s kind of what my wife did. We had 22 weeks of training before I went to Vietnam. My wife was supportive all the way through the training and everything else. I left the day after Christmas in 1971. As you can imagine, it wasn’t a very Merry Christmas. And if there was a low point in her support for me, it was my taking off from San Francisco on the 26th of December in ’71. So I guess the short answer is that she and my children too are very supportive of my going to Vietnam.
Part 2: Duties, Leadership, and Life During The War
Can you tell us exactly what your role was in Vietnam and what you generally did in terms of missions, and what your overall tasking was?
I was assigned out of the slot after I volunteered to be what the Navy called and the army called it too – an advisor to the Vietnamese Riverine Force. We were living in Monterey, California at the time I was in graduate school – Air Navy graduate school. So I went up to a place called Vallejo in Susun Bay up north of San Francisco for 22 weeks of training. In the morning, when we’re nice and fresh mentally, we had about four or five hours of Vietnamese language training. In the afternoon, we’d go out into the field or on the sluice out there in the boats, to prepare for the warlike part of the trip. I spoke very basic Vietnamese, I think after 22 weeks of training and I did have trouble understanding it. First of all, there are dialects in Vietnamese. And so it sounds a little bit different depending on who you’re talking to. But I could communicate one way fairly effectively with my counterpart in basic Vietnamese. Fortunately, my counterpart spoke very good English. So that saved me in a lot of ways, including an embarrassment of trying to say the wrong thing. And I kind of limited my Vietnamese to basic communications – Good morning, how are you? Good to see you – things like that. But it wasn’t a problem because my counterpart spoke such good English.
You mentioned that within the base, you’re dependent on the South Vietnamese for sustenance and protection. Can you expand on the relationship and the general feeling with the South Vietnamese within the base?
Yes, without a doubt. There were 1700 Vietnamese Navy personnel there. I had an advisor group of about 25 or 30 Americans that reported directly to me. We supported not only the Vietnamese base commander (my counterpart), but also another American group who operated on the boats with the Vietnamese. I supported them too. So it was very much a support role. I never pretended to be an expert on anything that they’d been doing for the past 50 years. It was unusual at that part of the war, in particular, because it was in the process that we were getting out as a country. I thought one of my roles was just to say, hey, we’re still with you, we’re not going to, we’re not going to pull out of here, and, and abandon you all. And so I’m here to convince you of that.
You stated that in terms of what you and LT Commander Deng Vu Loi were fighting for was a “Lost Cause.” Can you expand on what you meant by that and why?
I had nothing to do with the strategy of the war and what was going on, but I could read, and I could see that there was a lot of war weariness in the United States with Vietnam. The politicians were looking for ways to get us out of it. They got us out of it through the Paris Accords, and I think the Vietnamese, our Vietnamese allies, could see that. We promised a lot of different things about support; we’re not gonna let you get overrun, we’re pulling out, but we’re not gonna let you get overrun. That’s kind of a hollow promise. We never talked about it being a lost cause. But I can see what my direction was. It was “don’t take any, don’t do anything risky. It’s just you’re there for a year, and you’re there to help them and you’re exposed, but I want you to keep your people safe and get everybody out of there”. So this was the point that I went in. And that’s what I meant by that (Lost Cause).
Did you see any good examples from American leadership or Vietnamese leadership that inspired you while you were there?
We were pretty well isolated from the bigger war that was going on in Vietnam at the time. I don’t like to criticize people above me who make decisions, and I don’t know why they made them. I don’t think it’s fitting for me to say that. You see examples of outstanding leadership and not so outstanding leadership everywhere in the Navy and everywhere in the army. That wasn’t very different. You mixed the culture change in there with Vietnamese culture that I tried to accommodate and tried to work myself into. There were obviously some of Loi’s senior officers I liked and some I didn’t like that much. I sent a couple of pictures with him. He was a Đại tá – a captain in like a colonel in the Vietnamese navy. But I couldn’t give you any examples of bad leadership or anything like that. As I say, it’s not for me to sit back and say, “Oh, well, if I had been in charge, what I would have done differently?”. In my humble opinion (unpolitical opinion), they were running the war from Washington. What the heck can somebody in Washington know what’s going on the Cửa Việt River? On the Cà Mau Peninsula? We were worrying about what was happening in that little strip that C7 would come into. And so I was just in charge of what I had there. I wish I could give you something else. I’m not a historian. My son, Rob, is an admiral too. He would have a better answer for that than I and he wasn’t even there.
Are there any particular memories or thoughts that we haven’t discussed that come to mind when thinking about your time in Vietnam?
Talking about Vietnam itself is that I could probably write a book about it, but nothing sticks out as something that’s worth your time. But I came to very much respect and like the Vietnamese people that I met. And Loi, we were in that very southern part of Vietnam. And it was a deployment for him. It was a long deployment. They were a long way from Saigon (where his family was). About once a quarter, he would take me to Saigon. I sent a picture of me holding two kids – two little girls. Then I saw those same two little girls in Paris a long time later and I sent their picture to those two sisters. It was a winnable war that I think we gave up on. It has nothing to do with the Americans that way, all the services fought that war. We did our best, but we didn’t have the political support that we needed to win.
Part 3: Building a Long-Lasting Friendship
You mentioned that during your time in Vietnam, you had a counterpart by the name of Lt Commander Deng Vu Loi. Can you explain what his role was and what kind of partnership did you share during and after the war?
Yeah, I sent you some pictures. And in one of the pictures that I sent was kind of an aerial picture of the place called Năm Cam in the very southern part of Vietnam, and there there is a river that runs from the South China Sea to the Gulf of Thailand. This base was established by the United States Navy in the timeframe of about five years at the beginning of the war before I got there. It has since been turned over to the Vietnamese as a part of the Vietnamization program. it’s codenamed that we’re turning everything over to Vietnam and we’re getting out of the direct involvement in it. There’s a long story that goes with that Paris Accords and things like that. So I was a part of the Vietnamization program and I knew when I went over there, and, Loi, my counterpart knew that we were phasing out. It didn’t put much of a strain on our relationship, but that was a key for us in our relationship. His job was commanding officer at this base that I have a picture there. There were about 1500 Vietnamese Navy personnel there. It was on this river, the Cua Viet River that runs from South China Sea to the Gulf of Thailand. And the Vietcong owned the river. So the only way in, even though it was navigable from either South China Sea or Gulf of Thailand, was helicopter or the army had a transport plane, C-7 caribou that we could get in and out on, but we’re pretty well stuck here, when we were, We were dependent upon the Vietnamese for our sustenance and protection.
My counterpart, Loi, was the base commander, there was another title for it, but he was kind of the base commander. We hosted some Vietnamese Navy riverine craft – some of which were leftover from when the French were there. Interesting boats that were armored and had howitzers on them and things like that. One of the things that my advice was not exactly useless, but my support was critical to making the operation run down there because of a variety of different things if we needed something that they didn’t have; most of our equipment was US equipment. I could have a good chance of getting it in, where Loi couldn’t do it by himself. The other thing was in my advisor program, I had a navy doctor, and he was there for emergencies. He had a fairly limited amount of things that he could do, depending on how bad the injury or the wound was. I think one of the things that they depended on me to do was if we needed a dust off helicopter to come in, and pick somebody up that I couldn’t get to, I could get the helicopter. But Loi was the base commander responsible for everything from base defense to sustenance to the base and support of the boats and things like that. It was very much like a base commander in the Navy somewhere, you just had a lot of housekeeping stuff, as well as base defense. We had a regional force, they call it an RFP at rough puffs. They were Army Reserve 105 howitzer battalion, which went into the base. We had cats and dogs and things like that, that reported to him. Not that I had to use my prior experiences and marine artillerymen to advise them and I felt that that was his job, so I didn’t get involved with them. That’s kind of a broad brush of what his job was and what my role was.
How did you stay in touch with Commander Loi and when you reunited with later on?
Yeah, I sent you that note. I don’t know who sent it. It came to me through a navy chain. And when I got it, I was on an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean in 1975. I was flag secretary or aide to an admiral on the carrier, and this note shows up. So apparently, I’m not sure whether it was the navy or DOD or who but there was a sizable resettlement operation on Guam. Apparently, whoever sent that, to me, was an active duty person assigned there to kind of help take care of things. Their job was to try to help these people get their families together that had been separated, and prepare them and help them find places to go. So I went back through the American Red Cross, after I got that note, to the resettlement camp in Guam. I was on a carrier in the Mediterranean at the time but my wife and our children were living in Mayport, Florida. This was 1975 and I last saw him in 1972. I had no idea what had happened to him or where he was or how I could get in touch. But he got in touch with me, which helped a lot. So we said to him (Loi) that “we’re going to be your sponsor. I’m going to invite you officially, to come to the United States with your family. And my wife and I are going to be your sponsors”. I said, “we’ll take care of everything, housing, get your job, things like that to whatever my navy duty would provide and my wife would do the rest”. So I never heard back from that. In that note, he said he was going back into Vietnam, that he had family there. That’s what I got out of it. And then I lost track of him from 1975 until 1990. I didn’t know whether he’d come out again, or what his status was. But then he got in touch with me through a mutual Vietnamese friend in the United States. He got in touch with me to let me know he was there with his family. He invited me and my wife to come visit. He was living in Paris. So we flew over there in 1990. That was the first time we’ve seen each other in a long time.
Do you still stay in contact with Loi’s family today?
I do. In a matter of fact, I will say he’s much better at communicating than I am. We just got a picture of him and his wife’s Christmas picture.
Part 4: Post-War Experience and Reflection
Can you describe how you felt when the war ended and the outcome of it?
I didn’t think a lot about it because I was very busy. It’s a busy part of my Navy career. I could see it coming. It didn’t happen overnight. So it wasn’t like, oh, what’s going on? I guess I got conditioned to accepting it. Then my only concern became about Loi and his family, or whether or not they got out. And I didn’t know that for a long time. But I never called it a lost cause. I certainly wouldn’t suggest anything like that to him. Because he very much depended upon, not me necessarily, but upon the Americans to help them fight a good fight. We lost a lot of good Vietnamese warriors in the fight, but we lost a lot of good American warriors in the fight too. So I thought overall it was an honorable war that we went in there for good reason to fight. Once we’re there, I think many of us in the career officers said, “Look, we’re in here to win,” and we didn’t do that. So that’s a broad thing. I’ve crammed into a short period of time here to explain.
Many veterans of the Vietnam War share negative experiences about returning home. How was your experience coming back home?
My experience was that I’m really glad to be back. I’m glad I went, but I’m glad to be back. I came back to continue my graduate education. So that kind of took my mind off the Vietnam. I did it for a year. And then I got assigned to become an executive officer on a destroyer in Mayport, Florida, which was just as busy. So I didn’t think much about it to tell the truth.
If you could change your experience or anything that happened in Vietnam, would you change anything?
I would like to change a lot of things, but I had no power. I was an O4 in the Navy and that didn’t give you much power to change anything. I went over there and arrived in Saigon. And I said, “Where do I go?”, and they said, “Here’s a big bag of stuff for you, an M-16, and a helmet, and all this other stuff”. And here’s when your helo takes off. So I don’t believe I had an opportunity to change much of anything, really, if anything that I would do differently. I guess I would be more supportive of my counterpart, Loi, and his troops. When I say more supportive, I guess you might say, just more gung ho and things like that. We had a job to do, and we were all doing it. And I didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm because I knew that I could see what was coming. But at the same time, what I tried to do was leave them in the best position, possibly the tiny little bit that I had responsibility for.
Is there anything in particular that you would like people to be more aware of or know about the Vietnam War?
Well, as I say, it was a just cause. I know there’s not a lot of agreement with that at the time that most people put the Vietnam War behind them and your generation knows nothing about it, except what you study, like you do. But as I said, I acquired a real fondness for the Vietnamese people and Vietnamese culture. I’d do anything for Loi and then I’m sure he would do anything for me too.
Did you see any good examples from American leadership or Vietnamese leadership that inspired you while you were there?
Are there any other final thoughts or experiences you would like to share?
I’m glad that somebody is trying to put the Vietnam thing together because I think there’s been a lot of misinformation about it and disinformation. I spent about seven years of my career, either preparing to go to Vietnam or their coastal waters, Gulf of Tonkin.Then I spent a year in the country down there and a pretty ratty place. We were in the U Minh force and had been heavily defoliated. We drank rainwater, and I’m sure I drank a lot of Agent Orange over that period of time. So I’m still here.