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Special Feature May 7th, 2009

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by lyle e davis

Those of us who follow military history are delighted to learn of a new book on the market, “Fighting To Leave,” by a local author, Colonel Robert E. Stoffey, USMC (Retired).

Colonel Stoffey retraces the final phases of the departure of US forces and the US governmental support for what was then the South Vietnamese government. He points out that this book is not a history book, nor simply a memoir, but a book of anecdotal material pulled together as a result of his personal experiences as a field grade officer on the Seventh Fleet staff, during the closing years of Vietnam, 1972 and 1973.

For those who were mere children at the time, it is well to remember, or learn, that Vietnam was our longest war; it involved troop levels originally of 350 (in 1958) to as high as 549,000 (in 1969). It was one of our most controversial wars, ever.

He documents his book beautifully and presents solid evidence that our political figures in Washington, D. C. lost the Vietnam War, not our military forces. Those lame brained politicians tied the hands of trained military commanders so that they could not respond to a clear and present danger. Repeatedly. There is no question but what the fatheads in Washington, D. C. and their action, or, more likely, inaction, caused the death, capture, or maiming of our American troops as well as those of our allies.

One example: During the winding-down period after America had withdrawn most of its ground troops, the North Vietnamese Army invaded South Vietnam with a massive military machine, hundreds of tanks, heavy artillery, SAM’s, and some 30,000 troops. The US Navy had been observing them for weeks. They could have easily begun bombarding the NVA forces and reducing their fighting capability quickly, possibly causing a cancellation of the invasion. But, no, the suits in Washington had decreed that we were not to engage in any offensive action north of the demilitarized zone. Only defensive actions were allowed. Didn’t matter that the military buildup of the NVA guaranteed death and destruction to US troops and their allies . . . Washington’s cockamamie instructions had to be followed. Commanders on the scene were begging to be allowed to do what they were trained to do . . to unleash the military might of the US to prevent a catastrophe.

Remember, this is when most of the US ground troops had been pulled out of South Vietnam. All that were left were US advisors, guiding the Vietnamese military forces; a few aircraft, some Special Forces troops, some Marines - but, basically, the Americans had been ordered out of country. We had the obligation, however, to support the Vietnamese in defending against invasion.

Another example of thickheaded thinking: General John D. Lavelle, Commander, Seventh Air Force, located at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon, decided that the SAM missiles located in the DMZ (demilitarized zone) were firing and capable of destroying our aircraft, so they should be taken out. He ordered F4 Phantoms in to take them out. Just what a logical, well-trained, commander would do. Destroy the enemy before he destroys you or your men and materiel.

General Lavelle was relieved of command and demoted. He should have been saluted and honored for doing his job.

This message was not lost on other commanders. They had to follow orders, no matter how dumb, or sacrifice their military careers.

In spite of the limited ability to take direct action against the enemey, our forces aided the Vietnamese in taking out a substantial number of troops, tanks and artillery, thanks to our naval bombardments and the occasional air strikes, when weather would permit. There were overwhelming numbers against us . . . but we made a valiant defensive effort. Had we had top military commanders, instead of grey flannel suits running the war, we would have made preemptive strikes and killed the North Vietnamese ability to invade the south.

During this invasion there were many, many heroic actions taken.

One example: An electronics warfare plane was shot down - code name Bat21. Of the crew, only one lone airman was able to eject. He survived on the ground for 11 days. In the ongoing attempts to rescue Bat 21, eleven Americans were killed, two captured, two were wounded, six aircraft were shot down, many others wounded. More than 800 strike sorties, including B-52 strikes, were flowin in direct support of the mission. And, just as in the takedown of our recent pirate incident, it took a Navy SEAL, Lt. Tom Norris, to rescue Air Force Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton. We Americans had paid a terrible price to rescue one US airman, but we got him home. We did not abandon him.

For his actions, President Gerald Ford would later award the Medal of Honor to Lt. Tom Norris, US Navy SEALs.

Colonel Stoffey has done a bang-up job of telling this story. He names names, supports the stories with names of the various operations, cites the military personnel that conducted the operations as well as those that ordered them.

Anyone who has an interest in military history should run, not walk, to the nearest book store and grab a copy of “Fighting To Leave.” It’s that good.

Military men from that era love Bob Stoffey. Why? Because he clearly points out the sacrifices made by thousands of our servicemen as America sought to extract itself from a war the politicians had lost. Fighting to Leave, $25.95 US, $28.95 Canada. Available at local book stores or amazon.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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