SUNDAY FOCUS: VIETNAM WAR A war they couldn’t win Veterans recall frustrations overseas and back home over a mission seemed doomed from the get-go
Larry Slessler was a young Air Force intelligence officer in August 1964 when the Tonkin Gulf Crisis escalated a regional civil war on the far side of the planet into front-page news for the next decade.
The following March he was on the ground in Vietnam, playing his role in “winning the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people.
But in doing so, Slessler found himself in another conflict — the intra-service rivalry for appropriation funds, one that took him from the equivalent of a desk job to the front lines. Coupled with subsequent events in the war, he still grapples with the many haunting memories of the era.
“We didn’t have a strategic goal, winning the hearts and minds, KIAs, domino theory, and containment are like the phrase ‘war on drugs,’ what does that mean,” Slessler said. “All those unresolved issues we had in Vietnam are with us today. The distrust we have today stems from that.”
The first televised war that spanned parts of three decades left a generation of soldiers wondering how their efforts would be remembered. For many years, the answer wasn’t pleasant.
Slowly, however, the nation recognized the need for healing, leading to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., where the names of the fallen are chiseled into black granite.
An annual observance honoring Vietnam War veterans, first proclaimed by President Barak Obama, and set permanently for March 29 by President Donald Trump in 2017, takes place this week. A 1 p.m. Thursday ceremony at the Eagle Point National Cemetery is one of 3,000 gatherings scheduled nationwide.
For some Americans, the war in Vietnam began shortly after the French pulled out after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. The first American killed, June 8, 1956, was an Air Force sergeant. By 1961, there were 3,205 U.S. troops advising the South Vietnamese military. Following the August 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution, troop deployment swelled to more than half a million.
By the time Master Sgt. Max Beilke — the designated last combat solider — left Saigon on March 29, 1973, a total of 58,220 Americans had been killed.
A half century later, many of the teenagers and 20-somethings shipped off to a humid corner of the Pacific Rim admittedly still struggle in defining a period bathed in angst, rancor and blood.
Slessler was called in by his commanding officer one day and told he had an important mission for him at the military advisory command headquarters in Saigon.
“I go in there and meet with a two- or three-star general who says, ‘Son, those Army bastards are stealing our kills, they’re taking credit for our kills,’ ” Slessler recalled. “‘We can’t have that. I’m assigning you to an Army unit on a sweep and destroy to document the fact they’re screwing our casualty count. That we’re killing them with Air Force ordnance.’”
Slessler was perplexed, primarily because he wasn’t trained as an infantryman. But the 1957 Medford High School graduate was athletic, having played football for Fred Spiegelberg and competed for track coach Bob Newland in high school.
“It wasn’t physically impossible, but it was stupid,” Slessler said. “I’m out there putting my neck on the line for some fricking appropriation somewhere, which was just insane. It wasn’t like a bolt of lightning that changed everything, but that event was certainly a catalyst.”
He earned a Bronze Star for his efforts in pulling a fellow serviceman from a battlefield.
Years later, he discussed the process in a conversation at a veterans hospital with a convalescing buddy.
“They drag their dead off and you can’t find them,” Slessler said. “If you get one and you report two, and the next guy up the line says if they found two it must have been four. And pretty soon you get a KIA count that somebody says that’s about right, we lost one and we got 22 of them. It was a game.”
Ultimately, there was no goal in mind, said Slessler, who rose to captain.
“What was our strategic goal?” Slessler said. “Winning the hearts and minds? That doesn’t mean anything. What’s the tactics, what’s the strategy?”
In the summer of 1967, four service branches, plus the CIA, initiated what is known as a “stay-behind operation,” indicating that military leaders weren’t confident in long-term success.
“I’m still in my late 20s and I’m being told really that we’re going to lose this damn thing and our job is to recruit people who won’t be offed by the regime. Hopefully, you recruit an engineer or civil engineer who will survive the purge.”
All this was prior to the pivotal Tet Offensive that began in January 1968.
“As I reflected back years after, all that time we had leaders — somewhere way up the chain — in my mind who are saying we’re going to lose this place. I very quickly became cynical about our role over there.”
Even those who served in Vietnam before it became a quagmire wonder why.
Bob Fleischman had just graduated from high school in Sacramento when he joined the Navy in July 1961. He was a yeoman on the aircraft carrier Hornet — the vessel that later greeted Neil Armstrong and his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts on their return from the moon. In 1962 and 1963, the Hornet and its carrier group patrolled the waters off Vietnam, usually 100 to 200 miles offshore. Prior to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the primary task was tracking Soviet Union submarines.
“It was all behind-the-scenes stuff, because we were just advisers,” Fleischman said.
“We were told we were there to stop communism,” Fleischman said. “What we are actually there to do? I’m not sure. We were up against Russian equipment. We could have won, but that wasn’t the object.”
More than 700 Oregonians perished in Vietnam.
Bob Dhone was one of five boys in his family — scattered among the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy — who served. They all came back alive.
After graduating from Corbett High School, east of Portland, he enlisted in the Army and headed to boot camp at Fort Lewis in December 1967. He was in the 588 Maintenance Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Division.
“It was the way it was, you didn’t turn away from it,” Dhone said. “You enlist, and that’s what they give you. We were there to do a job. But politically, they didn’t let us do our job. I’m not politically oriented, but if the generals hadn’t handcuffed us, we would have won.”
Returning to Oregon in 1969, Dhone attended a few college classes, recapped a few tires and then went to work for Albertsons. He moved to Southern Oregon after his retirement, but like many of his buddies will never totally move beyond the war in Southeast Asia.
“We all have our ups and downs,” Dhone said. “You bury it inside and go to work. You get a little angry and upset at things, but you don’t talk about it too much.”
The welcome home from Vietnam was anything but appreciative.
“We didn’t get treated all that well, because people didn’t understand what was going on,” Dhone said. “The attitude of American people in the 1960s was have a joint, enjoy life — peace, love, and no war. Well, we thought: Wake up to reality, people.”
Some Vietnam veterans took on the role to counsel others who needed help.
Bob Huff, who will speak at Thursday’s gathering, joined the Army out of high school in 1958 and was stationed in Korea before going to Vietnam. He was discharged in 1967. He was later a senior manufacturing and engineering manager for Boeing.
Huff long has been a veterans advocate, oversees Southern Oregon Stand Down and is on the local Selective Service Commission. He is also very aware of Vietnam’s legacy.
“I volunteered for it, I wanted to do my job, and I knew where I was going and what I was going to do,” Huff said. “I support our country, but I’ve read enough books and had enough conversations with people who have issues to understand what happened back then.”
The more the war became politicized, the harder it was on troops.
He said his remarks regarding Congress and politicians of that era will be less than favorable.
“When you were told you can’t shoot until you have permission, and you had to radio in first, that’s really tough,” Huff said.
For many, permission to shoot came too late.
Duane Desaute, who moved to the Rogue Valley in 1985, followed in the steps of his father who fought at Guadalcanal during World War II.
Desaute’s role was to deliver supplies — water, ammunition, artillery shells, and the like — to forward infantry units along the Cambodian border.
“We got shot at more than the infantry we were supporting,” Desaute said. “They loved to shoot the hell out of our trucks so they could stop the supplies.”
Three soldiers riding with him died in separate attacks, once the driver and twice another man in the cab.
“Once we hit Vietnam we didn’t think we were going to come back,” Desaute said. “Once you got over the fear that ‘I’m going to die,’ you relaxed because you never expected to leave the country. That’s the way most of the guys felt.”
That fatalistic mentality led to widespread marijuana use, he said.
“We never used hard drugs, just marijuana as a relaxative,” Desaute said.
Newcomers not only dealt with the harsh environment, but were kept at a distance. Why get to know a fellow who may die a few hours later?
“When replacements came in, they were known as newbies,” Desaute said. “The first six months you were a newbie, you didn’t want to know their names or anything about them, which made it tough.”
One thing Desaute discovered was that the Vietnamese really didn’t care much about political systems.
“They just wanted to live in peace,” he said.
Back home, there was little peace.
“People spit on us and called us baby killers, and that bothered me a lot,” Desaute said. “We were told to go over and fight for our country and then the politicians wouldn’t let us fight the way we needed to. It came down basically to, you were fighting to keep the man next to you alive.”
Alcohol gripped him after his return in 1971.
“I did a lot of drinking,” he said. “The only reason I stopped was that I made my dad a death-bed promise 40 years ago to give up alcohol.”
While he willingly followed his father’s path into the military, the next generation didn’t.
“I had two boys and a daughter,” Desaute said. “I left it up to them and that’s the way it worked out. But if they had gone into the Army and got killed, I couldn’t have lived with myself.”
Vietnam vets who fought for the buddies next to them often came to their aid stateside in the decades that followed. Slessler wound up working with many veterans during his tenure at the Job Council before retiring in 2011.
He admits he naively followed President John Kennedy’s admonition of “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country,” when he joined the Air Force after completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Oregon. In 1964 he went to Fort Holabird, outside of Baltimore, for intelligence gathering training. He was first deployed to Vietnam in 1965.
“Many times we had good intelligence that we sent up the line,” Slessler said. “If it didn’t fit what the powers that be wanted, they either ignored it or cherry-picked. Then later when it blows up in their face, they blame the intelligence.”
In late 1969, he was stationed as an ROTC instructor at the University of Washington. Among his duties was notifying families of casualties. One morning he was sent out alone to notify a family in Seattle.
“I’m hoping first of all, I’m going to talk to a wife, because wives handle it better. If I can’t talk to a wife, I hope it’s a father, the last person I want to talk to is a mother. I knew this guy wasn’t married, so I’m down to two. It turns out he’s the only kid and I get there about 7 in the morning and the father had gone out to 7-Eleven to get a donut and paper.”
He knocked on the door and he began reading from his typed statement.
“She completely lost it, screaming at me that I’m lying to her, hammering on my chest, and crying that her son isn’t dead,” Slessler recalled. “About that time the father comes home and walks up. She sees him, and she says, ‘Here he comes now, I told you, you were lying,’ transposing husband into son. It was just a horrible, horrible thing.”
In the end, the question Slessler and others wrestled with was the ability to serve honorably in what they consider a dishonorable cause.
“I have veteran friends who say you can’t serve morally in an immoral cause,” he said. “Maybe it’s for my own sanity, but I believe I served as honorably as I could. I did my job, but not believing it was for a just cause.”
— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.