A Freedom Fighter

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One of the most controversial wars in which Americans have ever fought was the war in Vietnam. The United States first became involved when it offered military assistance to the South Vietnamese who were fighting the North Vietnamese communists. Initially America only provided South Vietnam with weapons and military advisors. One of those early advisors was a young Army captain from New Jersey who understood the threat communism posed to the values held by citizens of a free republic. He dedicated himself to fighting for those ideals in Southeast Asia, though most Americans know him only as the general in command of Operation Desert Storm twenty-five years later. His name was H. Norman Schwarzkopf. This is the story of his service as a military advisor during the early part of the Vietnam War.

H. Norman Schwarzkopf dedicated his early military career to fighting communism. He was born in August 1934 in Lawrenceville, New Jersey to an Army officer father. As a young boy he travelled with his father to Iran and Germany where tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were high. Like his father, Norman developed strong anticommunist views. He entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in July 1952 and graduated four years later in 1956. As a young second lieutenant, he served with the famed 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky before being transferred to Berlin in 1959. His assigned duty there was to patrol the highly militarized border with the Soviets, even performing reconnaissance missions against them and their East German allies. During these missions he saw firsthand how dismal life in the Soviet-occupied territory was when compared to the vibrant culture flourishing in the free territory administered by the U.S. He knew tensions could erupt at any moment, and he was proven right when the Berlin Wall went up immediately after he left the city. He returned to the U.S. in 1961 just as America was becoming involved in a small Southeast Asian country called Vietnam.

As the fighting in Vietnam intensified, H. Norman Schwarzkopf decided he had to be a part of the struggle for freedom. He read how U.S. soldiers aided their counterparts in the free republic of South Vietnam against the communists in North Vietnam. His readings convinced him the war was a test of ideals — freedom versus tyranny. As the months passed, newspapers began to detail the deaths of American “advisors” who fell victim to North Vietnamese attacks. One of these casualties was a former West Point classmate of Norman’s. This death brought the war home to Norman, and he came to the conclusion that he could no longer stay out of the fight. He had to help the citizens of South Vietnam win their freedom. He was currently serving as an instructor at West Point, but with the help of a senior instructor, he received orders to report to Southeast Asia.

Norman arrived in Saigon in early 1965 and was immediately attached to the Vietnamese Airborne Brigade as an “advisor.” His responsibility was to call in airstrikes against enemy forces and keep the aircraft from dropping bombs on friendly forces. Unlike other American advisors who remained in Saigon for long periods of time, Norman spent most of his time out in the field hunting communists. This was just what he had wanted when he left West Point. The Vietnamese officers welcomed his assistance in helping them repel the communist invaders, but they made it clear this was their home and their war. They would fight on regardless if America helped them or not. One officer told Norman his devotion was so great he would rather have his children killed than allow them to live under communist rule. Norman was inspired to follow their example and to force out the communists at all costs.

He quickly learned that life as a military advisor required hard work. He accompanied the brigade when it marched out into the field. Sometimes he would be away for almost three weeks at a time. During the marches he would push through the dense jungle vegetation while carrying the large radio he used to call for air support. Not being used to the rugged terrain, he would often struggle to keep up with his fellow soldiers as they kept a watch out for the Vietcong guerrillas who liked to hide in the deep ravines. He consumed so much water his Vietnamese aide gave him the nickname of “water buffalo.” Still, he prided himself on eating the same meal of rice mixed with pork, beef or poultry that his fellow soldiers consumed. He even participated in one of their customs and drank a mix of scotch and blood. Throwing himself wholeheartedly into his role, he forged ironclad bonds with his brother warriors — the officers and men of the brigade. He soon proved himself just as willing to face the fire of combat as he was the rigors of the march.

Not long after he settled into the Vietnamese Airborne Brigade, Norman was promoted to major and ordered into combat for the first time. He and the brigade were ordered to drive out a Vietcong force that threatened a South Vietnamese Special Forces camp at Duc Co. The camp lay close to a vital North Vietnamese supply route that passed through Cambodia. Senior U.S. and Vietnamese officers were determined the camp would not fall into North Vietnamese hands. After rounding up air support, Norman and eleven soldiers climbed into one of the helicopters bound for Duc Co. As the helicopter took off though, it clipped a tree and crashed. No one was hurt, and the crew climbed on board another helicopter. Norman recalled how the brigade came under fire when they landed outside Duc Co, and they had to dodge mortar fire as they ran from the landing zone into the camp. Once inside, Norman and his Vietnamese counterpart reported to the camp commander. They then directed their troops to move out toward the Cambodian border. The objective was to get behind the Vietcong force and cut them off from the supply route. Unbeknownst to them, the Vietcong force was actually two regiments of North Vietnamese regulars. The regulars attacked the brigade and Norman was forced to call in air support from a group of helicopter gunships. At last the enemy was dispersed, and the brigade continued its march. The battle had just begun though.

The next day the brigade found itself surrounded and bombarded by another force of North Vietnamese. All Norman could do was attempt to coordinate air strikes against the enemy and lead parts of the brigade back into the Duc Co camp. The North Vietnamese followed and pinned Norman and his compatriots down for several days. They put up a valiant resistance and kept the enemy out of the camp. Norman told how he slept with one eye open in case he needed to dive into a foxhole. Finally the brigade was relieved by a detachment of marines. Word of Norman’s conduct in the battle, especially his bravery in evacuating the wounded, earned him the respect of his South Vietnamese comrades and superiors. Soon after Duc Co though, he watched as American “advisors” were replaced with American soldiers.

As the war escalated, Norman watched as the method of fighting changed. He saw that most of the fighting was now being done by the Americans. Many American officers did not have a high opinion of South Vietnamese soldiers. Norman vehemently defended the heroism of South Vietnamese soldiers to anyone who dared to criticize them. He respected his comrades and loved the Vietnamese culture. Vietnamese officers trusted him so much that he was chosen as the advisor during the mopping-up phase of the Ia Drang Valley campaign — the battle that was the subject of the book and movie We Were Soldiers Once and Young. He watched the South Vietnamese kill hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers and capture hundreds of weapons the South Vietnamese could use against their opponents. As a task force commander, he continued to see combat more often than many American officers. He led pursuits through the tropical jungle and eventually fell ill from malaria. Once he had recovered enough, he reported back to his superiors that he was fit for duty. He was sent to join in the assault on Qui Nhon where the Vietcong were hiding on the edge of town. Ordered to attack across open rice paddies, Norman and his unit pushed the Vietcong back through the town and then pursued the remnants into the An Lao Valley. In the ensuing Battle of Bong Son he was wounded in the left arm and received superficial wounds to his face. He was soon transferred back to Saigon before being sent back to the U.S. Despite being awarded two Silver Stars and three Bronze Stars for bravery in battle, he was about to discover that the spirit of American civilians contrasted sharply with the spirit of those in South Vietnam.

Returning to the United States, Major Norman Schwarzkopf realized many young Americans did not have the same desire he did to serve in South Vietnam. In Newark, New Jersey he saw reminders of the war in the news, but it was obvious the American public was not as invested in the Vietnam War as they had been in World War II. He quickly travelled up the Hudson River to West Point in hopes he would regain some form of moral clarity. Even there, however, an instructor asked him if he thought America should even be involved in the struggle. He learned it was difficult for West Point administrators to enlist enough cadets. In an attempt to inspire and encourage, Norman addressed a group of cadets about what it was like to fight in Southeast Asia. He dressed in his battle uniform and showed slides of the country. The next day he was told five cadets had left the academy. They did not want to fight in Vietnam. He was also asked to give speeches to several civic organizations. He told his audiences that the South Vietnamese were not cowards, as portrayed by the American press, but were bravely fighting to protect their country from being overrun. His best efforts seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Feeling an obligation to his comrades, he returned to South Vietnam in 1969. He was placed in command of a battalion and pursued the Vietcong, who he saw as opportunists who bullied innocent peasants. He wanted to fight them, but he realized the war had shifted into a series of piecemeal attacks. He remained in South Vietnam for a year before coming home. He discovered that the massive antiwar protests were worse than when he left. He felt despair at his fellow Americans’ rejection. It was a bitter pill to accept the reality that much of the country rejected both the brave men and women of the U.S. who fought in South Vietnam and the cause they fought for. He finally realized he would have to accept the way things were, but he would always honor those who served and apply the lessons learned.

H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s dedicated and honorable service in Vietnam gives testimony that the Vietnam War was as much a struggle against tyranny and oppression as any other American war. This young American did not go to Vietnam for personal glory or for the thrill of the fight. He went simply so South Vietnamese citizens could live their lives in freedom. The communists who inhabited the northern half of the country and who had invaded were a direct and imminent threat to that freedom. Many people after the war have tried to dissect the war in Southeast Asia in complex analyses. For Norman Schwarzkopf it was simple — freedom is always worth fighting for. It was the same basic philosophy that served him so well as coalition commander in the liberation of Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. His service, and the faithful service of thousands like him, especially in an unpopular war, should never be ignored. There will always be threats to freedom, and there must always be those who are willing to stand as guardians of that freedom. Every generation must answer the call.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A Freedom Fighter

  1. Congratulations on your 1st year anniversary Jake!
    Your story was extremely interesting, but it was your final paragraph which gave me pause. I believe that paragraph was your best writing to date! Well done. “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things… ” is one of my favorite poems and I feel that Gen Schwarzkopf would agree with the sentiments it contains. Thank you for bringing the young “Stormin’ Norman” to us.

  2. Susan Barnes

    Jake, thank you for this wonderful piece of history. It was so enlightening and informative.

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