I like to think I was paying attention on March 8, 1965 when the first U.S. Marines from the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade landed at Da Nang, South Vietnam. Their amphibious arrival 50 years ago marked the “official” beginning of the U.S. ground war in Vietnam.
But the truth is that I, like millions of my fellow Americans, was naïve and distracted back then. Being 17 and a senior in high school at the time, I was particularly preoccupied by girls, cars, music, grades, Dr. Richard Kimble (I was a big fan of TV’s The Fugitive) and my pending fall matriculation at Bethany College. In short, I was doing anything but paying attention to what was going on 9,000 miles away from my Pittsburgh, Pa., home in a country I couldn’t even find on a map.
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Little did I know that not much more than five years later I would set foot on that very same Southeast Asian soil and experience much of the same fear, ambivalence and confusion those first combatants did.
While I’ve never spoken with Corporal Gary Powers (the first Marine to traverse the wet Vietnamese sand) or any of the other 3,500 Marines who landed near Da Nang that fateful day, I’ve read the histories and looked at the photographs and watched the videos.
I’m struck most by a sense of bewilderment, so apparent on the faces of Marines in full battle gear as they were greeted by young, attractive Vietnamese women who placed leis of yellow dahlias and red gladioli around their necks. A look that seemed to ask: “Where in the world am I?” “What the hell am I doing here? And “Who are these people?”
Whom Could We Trust?
We really didn’t know who those people were, why they acted the way they did and whom we could and couldn’t trust. Maybe that’s why we were all given a copy of A Pocket Guide to Vietnam when we arrived in country.
This handy-dandy Reader’s Digest-like guide to “everything a member of the U.S. military needed to know about Vietnam but was afraid to ask” was first published in 1962 (my edition had a date of 1966). The Pocket Guide was 75 pages of maps, illustrations, photographs and fabricated history that posed such earth-shattering questions as: “Is nuoc mam something to wear, something to eat or the name of an organization?” and “Who is Ho Chi Minh?”
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But by far the most fascinating section contained the Nine Rules for Personnel of U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.
The Nine Rules section opened with jingoistic jargon that announced, “We military men are in Vietnam now because their government has asked us to help its soldiers and people in winning their struggle … You can defeat them (Viet Cong) at every turn by the strength, understanding and generosity you display with the people.”
My favorites among the nine simple rules included:
- Remember we are special guests here; we make no demands and seek no special treatment.
- Join with the people! Understand their life, use phrases from their language and honor their customs and laws.
- Always give the Vietnamese the right of way.
- Don’t attract attention by loud, rude or unusual behavior.
We never really followed the Nine Rules in Vietnam, or any rules for that matter. That long, hot, ugly, dangerous, horrific — and sometimes boring — guerilla war didn’t adhere to any rules that I knew.
Escalation and Protest Both Begin
Still, we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and just a few weeks after the Da Nang landings, military leaders were urging President Johnson to “take the next step,” namely to deploy more U.S. forces and change the military mission from one of defense to one of offense. Like the aerial bombardment that had begun earlier that March, the ground war in Vietnam was now on full throttle.
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Later that same month, professors at the University of Michigan, Harvard and California would stage “teach-ins” on their campuses to educate students and faculty about Washington’s “war policies” in Vietnam. The war at home was underway as well.
I never found any answers as to why that was in A Pocket Guide to Vietnam. Rather, I hearken back to the words of General Frederick Karch, commander of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade that landed at Da Nang on March 8. It took Karch and his men several days to eventually land, prompting him to comment, “You get damn tired floating around in circles.” Talk about a metaphor for the Vietnam War!
But perhaps most telling of all was the remark Karch uttered as he departed Vietnam later in 1965: “I thought that once they (Viet Cong) ran up against our first team they wouldn’t stand and fight, but they did. I made a miscalculation.”
Vietnam was a series of miscalculations, misunderstandings and missed opportunities. Seasoned military men prior to Karch — Col. John Paul Vann among them — had been trying to tell our political leaders that we were waging the wrong war in Vietnam. Their warnings fell on deaf ears.
You can see that on the faces of the Marines that landed at Da Nang on March 8, 1965, too.
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