USS Carl Vinson and My Lai
The first substantial deployment of US combat forces in Vietnam was in March 1965, when some 2,000 Marines of the ninth US expeditionary force landed at Da Nang, wading ashore to be greeted by smiling Vietnamese girls distributing garlands of flowers. By the end of the war, over half-a-million troops would be involved in the conflict. Aside from the United States, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand would send combat troops to assist South Vietnam in the fight against the North.
The Philippines provided civic action groups under Republic Act No. 4664 authorizing the president, in answer to a request from the government of South Vietnam, to send “engineer construction, medical and rural community development teams to undertake socioeconomic projects mutually agreed upon by both governments.” Under a military working agreement signed by Gen. Ernesto Mata, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff, and Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of the US Forces during the Vietnam War, the 2,000-man civic action group consisted of an engineer construction battalion, a security battalion, field artillery battalion, medical teams, and other support elements. In return for Philippine support in the Vietnam War, the United States provided river patrol crafts for antismuggling operations, assault rifles and machine guns for battalion combat teams, and equipment for three engineer construction battalions. (There are reports that some of the construction equipment delivered for use of the AFP under this arrangement were diverted to private construction companies.)
Two Philippine Civic Action Groups (Philcag) were eventually deployed. The first in 1966 was commanded by Brig. Gen. Gaudencio Tobias, while the second was led by Brig. Gen. Ceferino Carreon. The groups were assigned an area of operation located in Tây Ninh province. The biggest engineering project of Philcag was the Thanh Dien refugee resettlement program. It involved clearing Thanh Dien forest, a dense tropical jungle of about 4,500 hectares, and converting it into agricultural land for homeless families dislocated by the war.
But even before the arrival of Philcag in Vietnam, we already had contingents of doctors, nurses and medical assistants in the country (Philcon I, II, III and IV). We should also remember that Philcon and Philcag came after an earlier private initiative known worldwide as “Operation Brotherhood,” organized by Oscar Arellano. In 1958, Operation Brotherhood won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding for its work in Vietnam.
Perhaps, the best tribute on Philcag work in Vietnam were the remarks of Tây Ninh province chief, Ho Duc Truong, at a luncheon he hosted for General Tobias and his staff. In a quiet moment during the lunch, he said to General Tobias: “You know, General, for the first time in 20 years, the people in the hamlets around us have begun to enjoy family life.”
In March 1968, exactly 50 years ago, US forces committed one of the worst war crimes during the conflict in a hamlet called My Lai. The killing was directed by 2nd Lt. William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in the 23rd Infantry Division (Americal). Subsequent investigation by the military police indicated that 347 people were murdered at My Lai, while another 90 were killed in a nearby hamlet.
In his book, “A Bright Shining Lie,” Neil Sheehan describes the incident: “Some of the troops refused to participate in the massacre; their refusal did not restrain their fellows. The American soldiers and junior officers shot old men, women, boys, girls, and babies. One soldier missed a baby lying on the ground twice with a .45 pistol, as his comrades laughed at his marksmanship … The soldiers beat women with rifle butts, and raped some and sodomized others before shooting them. They shot the water buffalos, the pigs, and the chickens, and threw the dead animals into the wells to poison the water. All of the houses were put to the torch.”
Lieutenant Calley would be convicted of premeditated murder of at least 22 Vietnamese, including babies and sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labor. After three years of confinement, President Richard Nixon intervened and set him free.
My thoughts go back over a century ago, to the small town of Balangiga in Samar. After an attack on a US detachment in the town, resulting in the killing of more than 50 soldiers, Gen. Jacob Smith issued the following orders: “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you kill and burn, the better you will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in hostilities against the United States. (His age limit was 10 years.) In another order, he directed that Samar “must be made a howling wilderness.” Several officers were eventually court-martialed for their actions. The church bells of Balangiga have not been
Fifty years after the My Lai massacre, the nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, arrived at Da Nang, Vietnam, for an official visit. It is the first US aircraft carrier to visit the country since the end of the war. American leaders called it “a historic day” reflecting new heights in the relationship between the two countries. Sailors participated in community service projects, sports competitions, and Navy musicians from the US Seventh Fleet band performed concerts for the public.
The saying goes, “There are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.”
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