Vietnam: Racism and poor judgment: deadly in a combat zone

Racism and poor judgment calls are but two dangers in a combat zone. Either one can be fatal. Photo: Mario Salazar in Vietnam

(The photo above was taken of a young Mario Salazar, the author, out in the field in Vietnam.)

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md, October 25, 2011 – There are things that one never forgets about being in war. Unfortunately many of them are the things that go wrong. I would like to tell you about two episodes that took place between the end of 1966 and the first three weeks of 1967. They demonstrate how errors in judgment, even those that are racially motivated, can cause very dangerous situations and even the loss of life.

Our commanders had arranged for an end of year cease fire and we found ourselves in our base camp in Dau Tieng northwest of Saigon. For us it was the best of all worlds, a few days of easy duty in the base camp with little possibility of combat.

At midnight that December 31, 1966, a number of people chose to celebrate by firing their weapons into the air. Later we found out that one person didn’t aim at the sky but right at Sergeant Tate’s tent, where he should have been. Fortunately, he had been alerted by someone (we never learned who) so he escaped the assassination attempt. His permanent transfer was implemented the next day.

Tanks rumbling through Vietnam

Tate was a very large African-American who used his own brand of profane, military humor to motivate his troops. However, some people only saw the color of his skin and misinterpreted his leadership style through their own lens of racism, deeming him  arrogant.

He definitely wasn’t very popular with some of my (racist) fellow soldiers. The person that tried to kill him was never identified. Such attempts became even more common as the war went on and were called fragging.

Then only two weeks later, an incident happened showing a different kind of judgment deficiency.  We in the Third Brigade, 4th ID were in the Iron Triangle participating in a blockade operation, called Operation Cedar Falls, with the 1st ID, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, and other units of the 25th Infantry Division. One particular action has been etched in my mind forever. It happened on the night of January 16 and the early morning of the next day.

I had gotten lucky and instead of going on an ambush patrol or a listening post, I was monitoring the radios in the command vehicle. Just about the time when the moon came out, the command radio, one of the ones I was monitoring came to life. Someone from the ambush patrol was reporting a lot of movement behind a rice paddy dike in front of our perimeter and about 200 yards away.

After the second call, the battalion commander came on the line and directed the caller to “stand by, keep observing.” The same conversation was repeated at least five more times that night with the same results. Over one of the other radios, I heard some traffic on getting clearance from the “Regional chief” and the “District chief.” It was apparent that these officials could not be located that night and the battalion commander decided that he wasn’t going out on a limb and order artillery. The frustration was evident in the voice of the radio operator of the ambush patrol when the decision kept being postponed.

At first light on January 17, an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) was sent out to find out what the activity the night before had been all about. Having heard the conversations the night before and the certainty of the people of the ambush patrol about the presence of the enemy so near our perimeter, we all watched nervously as the reconnaissance armored personnel carrier left the perimeter, heading for the rice paddy dike that we could clearly see.

At the dike, the APC attempted to go over it. As it reached the highest point, it rocked forward as its front went down and its back up. Then it hit a very large mine, throwing the APC into the air and rotating it clock-wise with the front of the vehicle taking the brunt of the explosion as it went up and over. As the APC was thrown about 20 feet up into the air, it was already on fire. It landed on its top and nobody got out.

We all watched for hours as the APC burned and the ammunition exploded, preventing anyone being able to rush to assistance. Four men died in this ill-conceived reconnaissance.

Thirty-six years later, in response to my inquiry about this terrible incident, my friend and fellow veteran Gary Hartt sent me the following message about the incident:

Infamous Black Mountain in Nam

“The APC you are talking about was the one my good friend, “Peanut” Yvon Hebert was KIA in along with three others. It was a recon APC and it happened on 1/17/67. I did not see it blow but was told it burned for six hours and the only way they could sort out the remains was by dog tags. Hebert was from the northern part of Vermont right on the New Hampshire border and his address of record was Stratford, New Hampshire.

“I found his 89-year-old father and we cried for 10 minutes during an hour and a half phone conversation. I also spoke with one of Hebert’s two sisters and his older brother Claude. Yvon Hebert was the first soldier to die from what they call the Northwoods area of Vermont/New Hamphire. Each year since, Tony Hebert (Peanut’s father) is the Grand Marshall in the local Memorial Day parade. Others killed in the APC were James Essary, Dale Schummer, and Edward Ralph Glenn, all draftees.”

The battalion commander who gave the orders was replaced soon after that episode. Some of us talked about informing our Congressmen of the horrible mistake made  by the brass.

But soon any thoughts of revenge and justice weresoon  forgotten in favor of our instinctive survival as the situation in Vietnam grew a lot worse in the following months.

Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a bleeding heart liberal, agnostic, exercise fanatic, Redskin fan, technophile, civil engineer, combat infantry veteran, jewelry maker, amateur computer programmer, Environmental engineer, Colombian-born, free thinker, and, not surprisingly, pacifist. You can find his articles - ranging from politics to cooking a mean brisket - in 21st Century Pacifist at The Washington Times Communities. Follow Mario on Twitter @chibcharus #TWTC and Facebook at Mario Salazar.



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Mario Salazar

Mario Salazar is a combat infantry Vietnam Vet, world traveler, renaissance reconnaissance man, pacifist, metal smith, glass artisan, computer programmer and he has a Master of Science in Civil/Environmental Engineering.  Now retired from the Environmental Protection Agency and living in Montgomery County, Mario will share with you his life, his thoughts, his musing on living in yet another century of change.  He will also try to convey his joy of being old.

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