A few weeks ago I wrote about a retired Army colonel who figures in the book I’m writing about my cousin Nicky Venditti, an Americal Division helicopter pilot who was killed in Vietnam in 1969.
What I didn’t tell you was that Bobby Bacon, then a lieutenant colonel, played a central role in one of the most controversial episodes of the Vietnam War – the reported mutiny of men under his command, a story that made the top of Page 1 of The New York Times and shocked the nation.
First, my connection to Bobby: Briefly in the summer of 1969, he was commandant of the 23rd Adjutant General Replacement Company, which ran the Americal Combat Center at Chu Lai, where Nicky was undergoing orientation and training. On July 10, 1969, an instructor accidentally set off a grenade that mortally wounded Nicky. He was dead within 11 days of his arrival in Vietnam.
Bobby’s name appears on a condolence letter sent the next month to Nicky’s dad. Back in the late 1990s, when I saw the letter, I called Bobby to see what he knew about the training accident. It turned out he knew hardly anything because he wasn’t at Chu Lai when it happened; he arrived days after Nicky’s death. Still, Bobby has been a good source and we’ve stayed in touch over the years. He lives in Columbia, S.C.
Early on, he told me about the “mutiny.” His story begins when he left the Americal Combat Center to command the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. Its previous commander, Lt. Col. Eli Howard, was killed Aug. 19, 1969, when his helicopter was shot down southwest of Da Nang.
When Bobby took over, the battalion was trying to reach the wreckage. On Aug. 26, Horst Faas and Peter Arnett of The Associated Press reported that Company A had refused to go on. The story began:
SONGCHANG VALLEY, South Vietnam, Aug. 25 – “I am sorry, sir, but my men refused to go – we cannot move out,” Lt. Eugene Shurtz Jr. reported to his battalion commander over a crackling field telephone.
The company had been ordered to move down a rocky slope of Nui Lon Mountain into a labyrinth of North Vietnamese bunkers and trench lines. The soldiers had been making the push for five days, but each time they had been beaten back by the enemy.
“Repeat that, please,” the story quotes Bobby as saying. “Have you told them what it means to disobey orders under fire?”
“I think they understand,” the lieutenant replied, “but some of them simply had enough – they are broken. There are boys here who have only 90 days left in Vietnam. They want to come home in one piece.”
Bobby told him to leave the men on the hill and “move to the objective,” the story says. The colonel then told his executive officer and a sergeant to fly across the valley and give Company A “a pep talk and a kick in the butt.”
They found the men exhausted in the tall, blackened elephant grass, their uniforms ripped and caked with dirt…. The soldiers told why they would not move. “It poured out of them,” the sergeant said.
They said they were sick of the endless battling in torrid heat, the constant danger of sudden firefights by day and the mortar fire and enemy probing at night. They said they had not had enough sleep and that they were being pushed too hard. They had not had any mail or hot food. They had not had any of the little comforts that make war endurable.
The story goes on to say the sergeant, Okey Blankenship, argued with them, suggesting they lacked courage, then started walking down the ridge line. He turned around and saw that they were stirring. They got into a loose formation and followed him down the slope.
Bobby relieved Lt. Shurtz as commander of Company A. The Americal Division said five enlisted men had questioned Shurtz’s orders to move out, but that all five had finally gone with the rest of the company “and the company completed its mission.” No charges were filed and there was no formal investigation.
Meanwhile, Faas and Arnett’s dispatch shot around the world. The news, hailed by the Viet Cong, created the impression that President Nixon now had to contend with a revolt by the U.S. military in Vietnam.
Except that Bobby says it didn’t happen the way Faas and Arnett reported. The story stunned him and he wanted to set the record straight.
Here’s what Bobby says happened:
— The men of Company A did not fail to obey an order. They were never given an order. When one was given, the entire unit moved out.
— The story was written as a first-hand account, but neither Faas nor Arnett was ever with Company A and did not talk with any of its soldiers. Their story was based on what they overheard on the radio and a conversation with Sgt. Blankenship.
— The soldiers’ hesitation lasted about 55 minutes and the company was still in the field doing a good job.
Faas and Arnett wrote to Bobby the day their story ran and said it was “absolutely fair.”
But over the next month, newspapers and news magazines did their own reporting and challenged the AP reporters’ version of events. Bobby cites Newsweek, which called the article “a gross injustice to all concerned,” and Time, which said the report “that nearly all the soldiers of A Company broke was plainly exaggerated.”
The whole episode is yet another example of how things are not always as they seem, especially in a war. The big problem, Bobby says, is that the Army, “for some unexplainable reason,” failed to promptly respond to the AP story, instead imposing a blackout on the news media for two critical days.