Ian Gardner on Sign Here for Sacrifice

Ian Gardner

The author of a new book following an elite unit discusses their time during the Vietnam War.
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Ian Gardner, congratulations on Sign Here for Sacrifice. What sort of unit was the 506th and what was their history?

The 506th Airborne Infantry Regiment was a Regular Army organisation of which the Third Battalion (subject of this latest work) was born in early 67 to fulfil a bespoke parachute assault role in Southern Vietnam. Like it’s sister battalions, 3/506 had a historic synergy dating back to the early days of WW2 and the airborne spearhead into Europe on D-Day. Back in 1944, the then commander, Bob Wolverton, was identical on so many levels to his Vietnam counterpart Lieutenant Colonel John Geraci. This synergy between both men and these premiership outfits compelled me to record the rebirth and new journey of this post-war generation of volunteers. The Battalion was part brainchild of Brigadier General Salve Matheson who strove to put together a facsimile of its 44 counterpart, trained, shaped and imbued with the same passion, professionalism, aggression and will to win. Matheson had been a highly valued member of legendary Colonel Robert F. Sink’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment’s senior staff during World War Two. Salve had jumped into Normandy and Holland with many of the men who now served in his current airborne army…First Brigade of the famous 101st Airborne Division…and he was expecting Geraci’s new phoenix battalion to have his back and make a huge impact when they hit the ground – which they certainly did.

What was it about this unit that made them distinct from other US Airborne Regiments?

 The faithful of ’67 who appear in my book could not wait to get into the fight and 3/506 became their conduit and saviour. Senior soldiers such as Geraci and Captain Tom Gaffney (who passed away on December 30) were already highly experienced and expert human weapons of war. Well motivated and drawn from the two seemingly stagnating 101st Brigades at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, John’s enthusiastic multi-ethnic volunteers were something of an anomaly for the time. Geraci and Matheson’s original plan was to take over business in Vietnam’s south-central region inside the Tactical Zone operated by II Corps around Phan Rang to free up First Brigade who had been in country for quite some time. Within three months, now reformed into a Task Force, the new mission morphed into something much larger and more demanding calling for flexibility coupled with a “can do” attitude that ultimately led to a number of highly significant successes across the region.

The book is filled with first hand accounts from veterans. Many have not spoken before – what range of feelings did your interviews stir up?

Relief, regret, validation, recognition…the interview process was a revelation on many levels. A number of the guys have now become close friends and no doubt will continue to be so for many years to come. Many expressed feelings of frustration and relief and were proud that their very own “Band of Brothers” story was after more than fifty-years finally being offered up to the world. Everyone to a man still mourned lost friends and wished perhaps that they could have done something more to save them. There was still so much love and respect floating around between the survivors whom are a rare breed and getting rarer year on year.

Their arrival in December ’67 was a baptism of fire – what was the situation for US Forces when their boots hit the ground?

At the time many American units were moving north where the enemy were now believed to be massing. 3/506 was destined for a zone that included crucial supply hubs at Qui Nhon and Cam Ranh Bay. Both of which had taken far longer than expected to roll out. Ironically, these crucial delays only served to provide North Vietnam with more time to plan and execute its next big move.

Ultimately top four-star leader, General William Westmoreland wanted American forces to search out the enemy while South Vietnamese Government troops took on counter insurgency duties in the villages. This combination of US military might and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) pacification had been designed to force the NVA out into the open or perhaps even a withdrawal, but in 1967 neither seemed to be working properly. Westmoreland requested and was given more troops and that year would see the largest commitment so far – 449,000 men. However out of this number only around 15 percent were destined to physically engage with the enemy, with 3/506 among their number.

Vietnam’s coastal climate was wet, warm and unbearably humid and took several months to fully adjust. Malaria infected mosquitoes were constant threat with other hazards like dysentery, cholera, hepatitis and typhoid found in local food and water. The enormous physical efforts of patrolling brought on stomach wrenching body cramps and chronic Diarrhoea but along with a strong will to get involved, 3/506 quickly upped their game in violent night ambush technique and learned to never break contact until whoever was opposing had been completely neutralised.

They faced a determined enemy, but the jungle was also a challenge – just how difficult was it to fight and live in this environment?

Hydration – Hydration – Hydration…was the name of the game but nobody could physically carry enough water. Heat exhaustion and crutch rot coupled with the tough mountain jungle terrain contradicted arid coastal deserts and concrete hard rice paddies. One hundred percent humidity with all manner of poisonous spiders, snakes and leeches lurking around every corner to stifling daytime heat and freezing cold nights. Mud, clothing and boots falling to pieces, rifles and grenade pins constantly rusting were only the tip of the iceberg. Carrying heavy equipment and enough ammo and food to last five days – although it rarely did. It was perhaps one of the most inhospitable places to wage war but the VC and NVA forces were not exempt and they too often found themselves under the same environmental and operational pressures as the American and other allied forces.

 The VC and NVA though sustaining heavy losses formed a formidable foe against US Forces. Was there a respect for the enemy or is that too simplistic?

You bet the guys respected their opposition. The insurgents were robust, fanatical and dedicated fighters and ironically in many ways not dissimilar to 3/506. Everyone was aware of the incredible efforts Ho Chi Minh had gone through to defeat the French fifteen years earlier at Dien Bien Phu. Vietnam was ideal for guerrilla warfare, with its spine of mountains stretching hundreds of miles south from the DMZ down to Saigon. Here is one example of how resourceful the enemy could be especially during the build up to the Tet Offensive. After a fierce battle in early January 1968, elements of 3/506 captured a field hospital and training camp belonging to 186th Main Force VC Battalion. Nestled high in a mountain valley this incredible encampment was built underneath dense jungle canopy entirely from bamboo and included a network of natural pipes that ingeniously channelled stream water around the site.

How much was the TET Offensive a shock for the 506th?

Viet Cong troops at the TET offensive.

 It occurs to me that the siege at Khe San was in reality a distraction to draw American air and ground assets north, leaving 3/506 to ultimately hold and very successfully defend a massive area around Phan Thiet. Tet was not necessarily a shock or surprise for Colonel Geraci and his newly formed Task Force. Before Khe San, Senior US Commander, General William Westmoreland had personally warned the colonel, Congress and President Johnson of a potential countrywide change in enemy tactics, infiltration and troop build up. But his rhetoric “things would get worse before they got better” fell on confused ears back in Washington.

However, the offensive did ultimately turn out to be a shock for the VC who never fully recovered from the losses they incurred during January/February of 1968. For 3/506, the fierce battle of Phan Thiet lasted for nearly a month, almost four times longer than most of the other Tet clashes that took place across Southern Vietnam. Heavily indoctrinated, many of those insurgent fighters taking part were naïve teenagers who sacrificed themselves for no perceivable battlefield gain.

Ironically the “failed” countrywide assaults also delivered a shattering psychological blow to the American home front that ultimately triggered President Johnson to announce his resignation although it was more like an “abdication.” After Tet, the Saigon Government grew weaker as corruption and the refugee situation unravelled into catastrophe. But as a complex, underpaid and class conscious ally, the ARVN could never be fully relied upon to continue to fight without American involvement. I personally believe that this period should have been a turning point for US success but instead it span into failure massaged by an over reporting American Media. As direct consequence Defense Secretary Clark Clifford began to advocate complete withdrawal. Clifford was a powerful and respected voice and had previously given up a lucrative law practice to pursue his passion for politics. Conversely President Johnson felt stampeded on all sides as to what was the right or wrong thing to do…remain or leave? Secretary of State Dean Rusk and his colleagues knew the aftermath was a severe military setback for the NVA and VC but he was unable to fathom just how it had been translated into such a brilliant “political success” by the American media…that collectively nudged the war into the abyss of US Military defeat.

 How many tours did veterans generally serve and what were the losses?

Of the eight hundred or so volunteers who went on that first tour – approximately ten percent were killed in action. Typically a trooper would do one twelve-month duty then maybe elect for a second or sometimes even a third with Special Forces. Towards the end of the deployment some members of 3/506 were sent up north to bolster elements of First Brigade. This process was called “infusion” and it was not popular amongst the originals. Others went out with skin conditions and other natural afflictions. By April ’68, most of the rifle companies had lost 60% of their original number and some guys when they came back from hospital found a sea of new faces most of which had been drafted and were no longer the elite parachute trained “Band of Brothers” they had left behind. That being said over the next three-years, the battalion continued to bleed as another 75 lost their lives and many more were wounded before eventual disbandment in May 1971.

One of the most moving images of the VN War is the Don McCullin’s and the so called “Thousand Yard Stare.” How much was combat stress a factor for the unit?

No doubt Sir Don McCullin is a true legend but I much prefer the more vivid visceral colour that Tim Page provided for big international news agencies and magazines such as Time-Life. Tim took his art to a new level that ultimately saw him badly wounded in 1969. Tim recently passed away from cancer in August 2022. The stress of combat is and was always there but the original volunteers for 3/506 were professional men who understood what was at stake and actually relished the job they were being trained to do…but that was over half a century ago. Nowadays, many of “my veterans” are on 100% disability pensions from the US Government. These “healing” awards are hard to obtain and for the most part came far too late but they do form a compensation process that recognises physical wounds and other issues including PTSD.

This is a big question but what is your view on the conduct of the war by senior US commanders?

Wow Oliver, that can only be followed by a plethora of very big possible answers but I am going to try and keep it short! Whether the Vietnam War was worth fighting is a discussion that I do not enter into with this book. Although politics is occasionally touched upon, SHFS is first and foremost a story of service and duty. However, in my opinion, historically, the West for the most part paid little heed to the incredible human effort shown by Ho Chi Minh’s ill-equipped revolutionary forces in the 1950s. Later, this turned out to be an inexcusable oversight for America, who after the Korean War dared to believe that is was possible to broker a successful balance between two opposing regions.

In 1964 the VC were undoubtedly winning their insurgent war but back home in the US things were different. From 65 to 68 the conflict was fought under Westmoreland as an American War, a war of attrition and statistics that was much favoured and supported by the then US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Costs had reached $30 billion a year and casualties were mounting. Dissent was increasing and emotional and political costs rising. While NVA and VC casualties were much higher, this was not such a problem for Ho’s totalitarian state. But despite what I may have said previously, the point was also fast approaching where the NVA and VC were imposing “unacceptable costs” on the United States…now back to your initial question…

Many experienced Deputies with more than two decades in the Army had stepped into top command roles. This may surprise you but in January 1966, William Westmoreland was also Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year.” He was a fabulous military tactician who had cut his teeth on the battlefields of Europe in WW2. When Westy took over from the more pessimistic Paul Harkins, he was sceptical about America getting involved but loyalty and code always came first. In ’67 as head of Military Assistance Command Vietnam or MACV, Westmoreland was subordinate only to the brilliant US Ambassador Ellsworth F. Bunker, the State Department, and C in C of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp Jr, based over 6,000 miles away in Honolulu. Officially it was Westmoreland’s job to control and coordinate operations in Southern VN. However, the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force ultimately answered to Admiral Sharp who along with President Johnson also determined America’s aerial bombing policy against the North.

Westmoreland had been working on a tactical timetable for victory and planned to be out of Vietnam by 1970 but this could only be successful on assumption that he would have unrestricted access to fresh American troops and logistical bases large enough to support them…and there in lies the problem.

Most if not all of the senior Division, Brigade, Zone, Support Commanders and their assistants had served in WW2 and Korea and were no fools. These front line commanders were backed up by a serious array of military talent who sat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Pentagon. Arguably when another of the best military commanders of the 20th Century, General Creighton Abrams took over MACV in July 68 he rightly or wrongly went on to propose and push through a clandestine aerial bombing campaign in Southern Cambodia to destroy the NVAs regional HQ. 1968 was to be a bloody year and at this point the US undoubtedly had its best and most experienced team in Saigon under Ambassador Bunker.

Westmoreland was removed and made Army Chief of Staff while his previously successful big unit Search & Destroy strategy recklessly torn down. Abrams’ new mission in Cambodia only served to deliver horrific results for the surrounding civilian population and marked the beginning of a cycle of escalating violence that would leave Cambodia and American policy in ruins. When Nixon eventually took over from Johnson, the entire emphasis was switched from an American War aiming at military victory to a longer haul, lower cost strategy allowing the Vietnamese to continue on with minimal US help while the new administration focused on withdrawal and continuation of negotiations with Hanoi.

But even with any withdrawal agreement, the situation in Southern Vietnam seemed to be improving so the NVA changed strategy and officially invaded on March 30, 1972. Secret ceasefire talks led by Henry Kissinger always foundered on Hanoi’s demand for America to completely abandon the South Vietnamese Government. The invasion kick started a full scale American bombing of Hanoi that ultimately destroyed most of the north’s valuable air defence assets. This was a severe blow to Ho Chi Minh and to get the American’s out of the war, he reluctantly signed the ceasefire that of course now with the Americans “out of the picture” gave him a freehand against the South. During those last years, the North, against all previous agreements, completely restored its offensive capability and the ARVN collapsed. Militarily, North Vietnam lost over one million killed, the South around 400K and US a little over 58K. But perhaps the real cost to the United States was to ultimately fail and abandon the people of South Vietnam – two million of whom died in the war. Given all the things said during this interview, I do believe that if Westmoreland had not been so undermined by the US Government, he could have delivered his plan for a successful conclusion/handover to the South Vietnamese Military and the history might now be viewed from a slightly different perspective.

 What’s next for you?

Currently there are no plans beyond a mini-series on Netflix…yeah right but I can still dream eh?

Ian Gardner is the author of Sign Here for Sacrifice: The Untold Story of the 3rd Bn 506th Airborne, Vietnam 1968  and is published by Osprey.

Aspects of History Issue 12 is out now.