Latest read: They Marched into Sunlight

This book has been very difficult to finish. Not for the number of pages nor a wandering eye. They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967 has change my understanding about the war in Vietnam in the same way Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War due to the release of the Pentagon Papers.  This book brings home the war to the campus of UW-Madison and the south side of Milwaukee.  Half the book is about the campus antiwar movement and the Dow Chemical riot on the same weekend two sons from Milwaukee Wisconsin died in an ambush at Ong Thanh.
Our country is approaching the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. Enough time has passed to acknowledge tragic mistakes. What makes this very sensitive is the number of Americans who died in a war we know was ‘lost’ even before US soldiers first stepped foot at Da Nang in 1965.

The worst part is that we learned of tremendous loss of life due to poor intelligence and leadership.

Our country has never been able to wrap this around the bigger issue of our long standing efforts in Vietnam that began at the close of World War II.

Must admit I feel a bit numb after reading half of the Pentagon Papers.  Reading They Marched Into Sunlight is truly disheartening.  I am now more determined than ever to finish all 7,000+ pages of the Pentagon Papers before the end of the year.

The focus at UW-Madison as described in my earlier post showed our nation was in public turmoil well before the Tet Offensive. Can you imagine today a selected minority (of privileged students) who could avoid serving by going to college while those poor middle class sons went to fight and die in Vietnam?

The closing chapters of They Marched Into Sunlight leave me (again) frustrated by 40 years of reflection. Why on earth did the military approach the enemy around Lai Khe in the same way after three consecutive skirmishes? And why –– why after bombing the area the night before Alpha and Delta companies headed out, did the military refuse to provide mortar fire when requested?  The ambush was well underway. The Silver Star awarded to Major General John H. Hay, payment to the Michelin tire and rubber company for every tree damaged on their plantations and finally the burial of Danny Sikorski at St. Adelbert’s Cemetery in Milwaukee.

Maraniss describes what I cannot imagine, the horror of American soldiers learning their call for fire support were denied.  After the battle one American solider was determined to have shot himself in the head with his M16.  Would the withheld mortar fire have saved his life?

And yet an absolute insult to every American killed at Ong Thanh was the awarding (page 484) of the Silver Star to Major General John H. Hay. Maraniss is able to construct that Hay was actually in Saigon when notified of the ambush. By the time he departed for Lai Khe the majority of the Black Lions  in both Alpha and Delta companies were already dead. The citation’s text (pages 484-85) also reveals a false description. It is very upsetting to see Hay accept the award and Westmoreland for issuing the lie.

The only thing worse almost 50 years later?  The US classified the battle report until 1991.

How would Americans react today learning that during battles around Lai Khe any American confrontation that resulted in damaged rubber trees on plantations owned by Michelin (the French multinational tire and rubber company) required the US Government to pay Michelin an agreed upon amount of  ~$300/tree as compensation.  The amount paid per tree was roughly same amount the US military paid to have an dead American solider buried back home in America. Danny Sikorski’s father made that so painfully clear (page 479) “They say my son is worth three hundred dollars” as he learned the military’s financial burial limit for his only son.

Is it no wonder the Vietnamese’ rebelled against the French for almost 30 years following World War I?  French colonial rule turned over all of Vietnam’s natural resources to their own multinationals and installed slave plantations.  I can only imaging how the Vietnamese reacted in learning France would (again) attempt to re-institute colonial rule after World War II.  The Phu Rieng Do revolt against Michelin was a sign of the coming First Indo China War.

In the closing chapter Maraniss reveals Danny Sikorski, killed early in the ambush is buried at the same Milwaukee cemetery as my father-in-law.  Small world.

Upon my next visit I may seek the location of Danny’s headstone. Not sure I will walk to his grave site.  After reading this book and watching video clips of his sister’s interview on PBS I am not sure that I should seek his final resting place. Feel that I would be intruding on the Sikorski family.

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