It has been 30 years since the end of the U.S. war in Vietnam, but many American veterans are just beginning to talk about their experiences in that long, bloody conflict.
L.D. James recounts what happened to one group of soldiers in a new book called Unfortunate Sons: A True Story of Young Men and War (Cambridge Dent Publishers).
The author, an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam and a retired Voice of America correspondent, traveled across the United States and back to Vietnam to learn more about a devastating but little known ambush.
On March 2, 1968, 92 U.S. soldiers set out on a search-and-destroy mission on the outskirts of the city then known as Saigon. They were ambushed by enemy soldiers as they attempted to cross a bridge, cutting them off from the rest of the company. In just eight minutes, 49 men were dead or dying, and 28 were wounded. They were members of the historic Fourth Battalion of the Ninth Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division, nicknamed the Manchus. The group had been founded in the late 1700s, and got its nickname from the long mustaches members began wearing while serving with the American Expeditionary Force in China at the turn of the 20th century.
Larry James joined the regiment in Vietnam two months after the ambush. "The personnel clerk looked up at me and he said, 'You're going to the Manchus. Sorry about that,' Mr. James recalls. "And I wondered what in the world does he mean? And then I came to know that after this event took place, they were viewed by many people as being the 'bad luck' battalion. Some viewed the battalion as being inept or incompetent. The impact cast a very long shadow."
And yet the ambush received little public attention at the time. Larry James believes that may have been because it belied official U.S. claims that the war was turning in America's favor after the 1968 Tet offensive. He waited for someone to tell the full story of the ambush, and when no one did, he decided to write Unfortunate Sons. "I felt I owed it to the people I served with," Mr. James says, "even though it wasn't directly their story I was telling. But in a way it was their story. It was all of our stories. I tried to show what it's like to die for your country, what it really means to fight and what it really feels like."
The author tracked down survivors of the ambush with the help of the Internet and Manchu reunions. He also talked with the families of men who died, like that of Ron Slane. Unlike most of the Manchus, who were drafted into the military, Ron Slane volunteered to go to war as an army medic. He was a conscientious objector, but believed he had a duty to serve in some way. The book includes a letter he wrote to his younger brother:
This war has all of a sudden jumped right into my lap. It's not a game any more. Tomorrow night if everything goes the way they say, we're scheduled for ambush patrol. It's the real thing and I'm scared. Not of dying though. What frightens me is will I be able to care properly for those men that I am responsible for.
Ron Slane was killed after coming to the aid of a severely wounded soldier named Dan McKinney.
"Dan McKinney never knew who the medic was who had crawled up to him in the middle of this horrible ambush and given him a shot of morphine to ease his pain," Larry James says. "Dan had a collapsed lung. He couldn't breathe and he was hyperventilating and having a very hard time until this medic came along and tried to give him a few comforting words."
Dan McKinney recovered from his wounds and now lives in Illinois. He says he feels indebted to Larry James for piecing together the story of who saved his life. "I'd asked a lot of people and it was narrowed down to perhaps a couple, but [Larry] was really the one who identified the person."
Mr. McKinney says that for him, Unfortunate Sons puts into words memories he rarely discussed for decades.
"I had just put this all behind me until these last four or five years, and over time, things tend to heal. If this had been written closer to the event, it wouldn't have had nearly the impact or the feelings. Probably people wouldn't even be willing to address it the same way."
Dan McKinney says it was also important to him to learn from the book that the Manchus were outnumbered two to one on the day of the ambush. Larry James believes evidence he uncovered dispels the notion that John Henchman, the battalion's widely admired commander, was to blame for the disaster.
"There were mistakes that were committed, but it's my opinion that none of the mistakes are responsible for what happened. What happened was that a very well disciplined enemy planned and carried out an extremely effective ambush in a textbook way. The only way they could have avoided being in an ambush that day was not to have been there."
A trip back to Vietnam provided Larry James with the final chapter in his story. After encountering a series of false leads and dead ends, he tracked down two Viet Cong soldiers who'd taken part in the ambush. One had written a battalion history, and provided extensive information about how the ambush was planned and executed. He also told Larry James that for him, the war was over. He had put it behind him and hoped they could be friends.
But Larry James believes that while it is important not to dwell on the war, it is also important not to forget it. "These experiences are so powerful and play such an important role in helping to shape the rest of your life, you have to remember them. What took place on that road 38 years ago is taking place for American soldiers today in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And while the terrain is different, the experience remains pretty much the same."
Unfortunate Sons also became a personal mission for Larry James. Ron Slane's mother told Mr. James she'd always wondered how the young army medic had died, and counted on the author to do the right thing by her son and others killed in the ambush. Larry James says that was all the motivation he needed to finish his book.