Larry James Vietnam Report

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This is the first entry in an online diary of my journey to Vietnam. It is my second trip back since my tour of duty ended in March of 1969 but unlike the trip I made with four fellow Manchus in 2000, this time I am alone. Its purpose is for research for a book I'm writing about one of the defining moments for the 4th Battalion 9th Infantry during the units service in Vietnam.
A little after 9 o'clock on the morning of March 2, 1968 ninety-two American soldiers began a patrol near the Saigon River just a few miles north of the capital of what was then known as South Vietnam. They were looking for a Viet Cong force of undetermined size that had been firing rockets into Tan Son Nhut airbase. The operation was expected to last all day. The official record of what happen suggests that in less than ten minutes, 48 of those Americans were dead, 24 were wounded (one of them would die the next day) and the American Army had suffered one of its worst defeats of the Vietnam War.

The military record of this event is sketchy at best and so remains largely unknown outside the small group directly involved in the fighting. This book is more than an attempt to answer the question of why this happened. By telling this story we are given a vivid reminder of the human cost of war, not just in general terms but at the personal level where wars are fought.

The American public is rarely exposed to such realities. In the opening phases of the Iraq War the Pentagon did allow journalists onto the battlefield but these 'embedded' reporters were under the control of the military and the picture they provided was a sanitized view of combat. Like the Vietnam War, the brutal reality of what happens in combat can only be truly conveyed through the experiences of those soldiers fighting it and the families that have lost sons and daughters.

This is the account of what happened on one day in a war that is rapidly fading from American memory. It is hoped that at the very least it will provide for those who lost loved ones that day an accounting of what happened. This account is not intended to place blame for the defeat, to glorify war, or to condemn it, but rather to learn from those who were there how it happened and, more importantly, what it was like, so that when Americans are again called upon to decide whether to go to war they will know what they are asking of their young men and women.

The account is drawn from the official military records, interviews with survivors, including the senior American officer in command on the field, the Viet Cong commander who planned and carried out the ambush, several of his men, and some of the families who lost sons, husbands and brothers that day. Until now there has been no comprehensive account of the battle. Without such a record it would be as though it never happened. It did. This book is dedicated to the men who died that day, and to the families and friends who mourn them still.

So that is the reason behind this trip. I invite you to follow me as it unfolds. Check back each day for the latest updates.

Larry James
D Company '68-'69

March30, 2004

Hello from Bangkok, an intermediate stop on this trip. It's a shame I won't have time to see much of anything. I was here a year ago on work and did get a chance to do a bit of tourism. It's an amazing place. One of what used to be called the Asian Economic Tigers. I imagine any of our Air Force friends stationed here during the war wouldn't recognize the place. Sorry I won't have more time.

The reason I stopped here is pretty simple. Since The People's Republic of Vietnam does not have an embassy in Israel where I live I had to find an alternative solution on how to apply for and pick up a visa. Turns out it was pretty easy. I simply e-mailed the Foreign Ministry in Hanoi told them I wanted a journalist visa. They got right back to me within hours, told me which hoops to jump through and three weeks later I had approval. Three weeks may seem like a long time but I've waited much longer and this was for a journalist visa. Applications for those seem to get quite a bit more scrutiny than for a tourist visa. My wife Sonja will be joining me in Saigon in a couple of weeks and since she won't be working as a reporter all she had to do was send an e-mail to the appropriate authorities. She got approval 24 hours later and instructions to pick her visa up when she arrives at the airport in Saigon. Couldn't be easier.

But I digress from the original purpose of this diary which was to have you follow along as I try to track down as much information as I can on the Viet Cong who carried out the March 2nd ambush of Charlie Company. I don't have much to go on since the best information, provided by Willy when he visited the ambush site in '98, is now more than six years old. It will be a challenge but necessary if I'm going to tell the story as completely as possible.