A year ago I wrote about one of the most controversial episodes of the Vietnam War – the reported mutiny of Americal Division troops in 1969, a story that ran at the top of Page 1 in The New York Times.
Now I have something to add to it, a fresh voice, a man who was among the “mutineers.”
The soldiers belonged to Company A, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. Their commander was Bobby Bacon, a lieutenant colonel who figures in the book I’m writing about my cousin Nicky Venditti.
Nicky was an Americal helicopter pilot who died 11 days into his tour of duty as a result of a training accident just off the division’s base at Chu Lai. That was in July 1969. Bobby’s name is on a condolence letter sent to Nicky’s dad. Here’s why: Before the colonel took command of the 3rd Battalion, he was briefly commandant of the 23rd Adjutant General Replacement Company, the unit that oversaw the training of new arrivals at Chu Lai.
Back in the 1990s, when I first got in touch with Bobby about Nicky’s fate, he told me about the so-called mutiny. He had taken command of 3rd Battalion because its previous commander, Lt. Col. Eli Howard, was killed Aug. 19, 1969, when his helicopter was shot down southwest of Da Nang.
Bobby was in charge when 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.
James Dieli, who read my September 2012 blog, wrote to me recently and said that he had been with Company A when the alleged mutiny happened. I asked him to give me details. The following is an excerpt of his account:
“I arrived in South Vietnam Aug. 1, 1969, and after the usual orientation I was flown to the Americal Division headquarters in Chu Lai. After additional orientation I was assigned to Company A 3/21st Infantry of the 196th LIB, and flown out to LZ Center in the Central Highlands.
“After more orientation I was instructed to draw weapons and gear from the ammo bunker and wait for transport out to the company.
“Company A had come under heavy ground fire which you could observe from Center. The battle was very close just beyond the valley. If my sense of direction is correct, the action was on the west side of Center. This lasted for several days and I observed tons of bombs being dropped by our fighter jets and artillery from neighboring support elements.
“I then observed a chopper leave our base and hover over the battle for a brief moment and then fall from the sky in a ball of flames. I then learned that aboard were our sergeant major, one of our officers, [AP photographer] Oliver Noonan, and some enlisted men. I really could not understand the magnitude of this as it all seemed surreal to me at the time.
“I don’t remember the timeline exactly of the events, but a day or two later they finally were able to fly us out to the company. It was a very short trip to the mountain where Company A had pulled back to. While getting there, the chopper took light ground fire and then I realized for the first time this was the real thing.
“After spending a couple of nights in a foxhole, it was very apparent the enemy had not left the area because there were constant incoming rounds all night long, and during the day there was sporadic mortar firing at us.
“On the morning in question I was standing speaking to some of the men trying to learn and understand what to do and what to expect for the next year, when an officer approached and said, “Men, they want us to go back down and recover the bodies.”
“The response was that there was still enemy activity, and with half of our company either dead or wounded it would be nothing short of suicide. The officer then told us that the enemy activity had ceased and the area was clear. The response was that they didn’t believe that, and they would have no problem going back down as soon as they had some reinforcements.
“The officer then asked the men one by one if they all felt the same, and they all agreed that based on the last few days it would be nothing short of suicide. The officer then asked me, and my response was: I just arrived here. Some of these men are ready to go home and I will not disagree with them, after all I’m only here a few days and know absolutely nothing. What right do I have going against them?
“After another communication the officer approached the men again and said Command this time ordered us to move out, otherwise there would be no supply of food or ammo, and if we made our way back to the coast we would all be court-martialed.
“The men did not disobey because the second communication was the order, the first was not. We moved down the knoll with no resistance and recovered the bodies.
“Morale was very low within the ranks, but on the second day, Col. Bacon actually came out to the field and spent a couple of nights with us in foxholes and that brought moral up. These men went through hell and I believe all they wanted was a regrouping, food, and reinforcements. They did not disobey a direct order!”
Bobby Bacon had told me the same: The men of Company A did not disobey an order, because no order had been given. When it was, the entire unit moved out, he said.
Faas and Arnett stood by their story. They wrote to Bobby the day it ran and said it was “absolutely fair.” But as I blogged before, newspapers and news magazines did their own reporting and challenged the AP reporters’ version of events.