Sunday, December 16, 2012

Al in Vietnam

 To find out more about Al, a most interesting character, indeed, I Googled him last week. The following story by Peter Arnett came up. After the battle, Al - Lt. Col. Alton Park - was flown to Saigon. "When I got there, I looked down from the stretcher and saw a shiny, black pair of shoes and a pair of white shoes. Westmoreland was in the black shoes, and I asked him about the white shoes. It was a priest who wanted to know if I wanted my last rites."

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 8, 1975

  Phuoc Binh Battle 10 Years Ago Recalled by Yanks as Bloody


   By Peter Arnett, Associated Press Special Correspondent
   A gray dawn 10 years ago.

   A dead American sergeant, Horace E. Young of Fayetteville, N.C., lays spread-eagled against a bloodied pantry door, a knife still clutched in his upraised hand.

   Inside the mess hall were four other dead Americans, among them Sgt. William Benning of Pittsburgh area’s Churchill Borough, who was treating wounded in the makeshift hospital when a Viet Cong suicide squad burst in throwing grenades.

   A dozen wounded lay near the bodies, including the commander of the 37-man US advisory group, Lt. Col. Alton Park, of Columbus, Ga., who had been shot in the back after his pockets were picked, but who survived.

   This was the American camp in the South Vietnamese provincial capital of Phuoc Binh in May 1965. It was the first Viet Cong attack against the town, then known as Song Be.

   The battle was fought at a time when many Americans thought such remote settlements as Phuoc Binh were worth fighting and dying for.

   Ten years later, with Americans gone from Viet Nam, North Vietnamese forces finally captured the provincial capital yesterday.

   That first battle in 1965, and others like it, helped convince the US government that American soldiers should be committed to the Vietnam war.

   Eventually, thousands of American troops roamed the scrubby jungle of the region. The shots fired there now must echo in many American homes, because US troops spilled their blood the length and breadth of the region.

   Those who survived that first battle did so with the help of the US Air Force.

   “It’s not often that you get the chance to pull in an air strike on both the church and hospital in the same morning,” said Capt. John Lynch, of Norfolk, Va., the Air Force ground observer at Phuoc Binh.

   He told this reporter, who walked into the capital late in the morning of the battle, Viet Cong troops had occupied both the church and hospital, and he had no choice but to direct the US Air Force B 57s to drop their bombs there.

   By that time it was too late to help Sgts. Young and Benning and the others who had died earlier.

   The Viet Cong midnight attackers had penetrated the barbed-wire barricaded American compound of modern bungalows after the South Vietnamese militia force on the left flank fled.

   “That left the VC through,” said Maj. Michell Sakey, of Boston, Mass., who said the initial attack was beaten off, but only after a large number of Americans were wounded. They were taken to the mess hall for treatment.

   When Sgt. Johnnie K. Gulbreath, of Callison, SC., later heard grenades exploding in the mess hall, he shouted to other Americans manning guns on the camp perimeter, “They’re going for the wounded.” Gulbreath rushed into the mess hall only to be shot and killed.

   Heavy bombing through the day helped drive Viet Cong units from the center of town.

   In the evening, this reporter noticed a US Army doctor with a rifle helping to man the defense perimeter and asked “what about the Geneva convention?”

   “This is preventive medicine,” the doctor answered. “I shoot them before they shoot me.”

   The Viet Cong did not resume their attack. Next day, the survivors hung a large painting of the Purple Heart Medal, awarded to wounded soldiers, over the shrapnel-scarred refrigerator.

   It remained there for several years as successive teams of Americans occupied the advisory headquarters and helped fight off annual enemy attacks.

   No reporters were present at the last days of the most recent battle for Phuoc Binh.

   More important, no Americans were at Phuoc Binh this time. And there were not American planes to blast the jungles.

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