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January/February 2003
 
   
 

If You're A Blood, You're A Blood
Black Officers In The Vietnam War

BY WALLACE TERRY


For the black military man, the Vietnam War was a defining event. It was the first fully integrated war, black and white fighting together side by side in equality. It was a test of the courage of black troops who had been accused of "melting away" on the Italian front in World War II. It also tested the patriotism of black troops in another dimension: Could they maintain their fighting resolve during civil rights upheavals back home?

The Vietnam War ushered in many new opportunities for black officers to demonstrate their abilities. They commanded both black and white troops for the first time at significant levels. For the very first time, black Marine officers led companies and squadrons in combat. Black battalion commanders became commonplace in the Army. And a black general led Army forces into battle for the first time in American history.

As a correspondent for Time in 1968, I made a stop at the headquarters of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, which was in an old, abandoned fishnet factory three miles south of Cholon. I met Col. Frederic E. Davison, who had taken temporary command of the brigade and led it to a resounding victory over the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. The 275th Viet Cong Regiment had infiltrated Saigon and was using the Phu Tho Racetrack as a command post. In
ousting the enemy, Davison's men had to fight house to house. But his Redcatchers lost only 14 in the four-day action.


"This time they came to us," Davison told me in matter-of-fact tones. "We've killed them. We're still killing them. And we will continue to kill them."

The following May, the enemy attacked South Vietnam's cities once again in what was known as the mini-Tet. Once again, Davison's forces were called on to defend Saigon. They inflicted more than 500 casualties in another lopsided victory. On September 15, Gen. Creighton Abrams pinned a star on Davison's shoulder, making him the second black general in Army history. He became the first to lead troops in combat.

The following year I again visited the headquarters of the 199th to learn more about Davison. He grew up in modest circumstances in Washington, D.C. His father was a janitor and his mother, a domestic. He worked his way through Howard University running elevators, mopping floors in beauty shops, and clerking in cleaning establishments. He quit medical school when he ran out of
funds and then joined the Army.


Davison was quiet and reserved, tough and fair, a bit salty-tongued. He had a consummate passion for the detail of battle. The same passion flowed over to supporting every man in the 5,500-man brigade. He would use his command chopper to fly food into the field. He would not let anyone in the headquarters staff eat until the last man in the field was fed. He spent Sundays with the wounded who got hurt "following my orders." He never left a body behind on the battlefield. And he kept his door open to any man's problems.

Davison took me up in his command chopper. I watched as he guided strikes against enemy bunkers lining the southern approaches into Saigon. Who wouldn't follow him, black or white? And, back at his headquarters, I asked him just that.

"I try to play a straight down-the-line game," he told me. "I don't accept nonsense out of any subordinates of any description. If I'm pleased, I'll compliment you, reward you. If I'm displeased, I'll bawl you out. If you're incompetent, I'll fire you."

Did blacks ever expect special treatment from him?

"I've had Negroes approach me who have tried to hide their mistakes behind the smoke screen of discrimination," he answered. "The fact was, they were not worth a damn themselves. I told them they were damn lucky that I wasn't their commander."

A black trooper once complained to Davison that his white sergeant refused to let him take beer along on an ambush patrol. The trooper believed the sergeant was discriminating against him, because white troops were doing it. Davison turned to a group of the trooper's friends standing by. "You've been in the jungle," Davison said. "You've been out in pairs on ambush. Would you want a guy with you who's all beered up?" The soldiers shouted back, "Hell no, sir."

"So right in front of his friends," Davison said to me, "this trooper was discredited."

Flying Confederate flags or state flags bearing the Confederate symbol was commonplace throughout the war. It remained a constant irritant to most black soldiers. The presence of the flag created a dilemma for some commanders. Do you allow the flag as a meaningless symbol of home, or do you ban it as an affront to your black troops?

One day a native of Tennessee hoisted one over his bunker. Davison ordered the troops in his company to assemble and asked one of the black troopers how he felt seeing it. ``It makes me mad,'' the soldier answered. Davison then met with the company commander, who explained that he allowed the flag to fly because no one complained.

"This typifies the problem in many places," Davison told me. "This is not discrimination per se, but more a matter of just plain thoughtlessness. I think our biggest problem is that commanders do not have a true rapport with their troops. You must watch your unit. See whether or not you have all Negroes in this bunker; all whites in that bunker; only Negroes eating chow in this group. These are indicators that you don't have a healthy unit.

"I won't tolerate anything," he continued, "that symbolizes racial differences and antagonisms.  We make this business a part of each brigade orientation. We tell every incoming group that we don't have this black bead business. And I don't go for the bush haircut anymore than I go for the shaggy manes or the long sideburns."

Davison raised his voice. "We have a cross-section of America here. We know what the American ideal is. And we don't run a social club in the military. This is not a matter of operation by consent. It's a matter of operation by direction. We announce a policy, and we enforce that policy."

"What would you do," I asked him, "if a black soldier gave you the black power salute?"

"The first thing I would say is, 'Did you hear my orientation?' Then I would tell him, 'You are disobeying my direct orders.' My orientation says that in this brigade we recognize only the color of the uniform. No man is going to be mistreatred, nor is any man going to be given favors because of his race, religion, or anything else. And if I find anyone violating that, I intend to use all the authority that my rank carries to ensure the maximum punishment. I'm not going to
tolerate white supremacy, black power, or the Indian uprising."

During the summer of 1969, I traveled across Vietnam to gauge the attitude and performance of black troops. I met two lieutenant colonels who demonstrated remarkable leadership in handling their men under fire and in handling the racial tension that could creep in during the lulls between battles as troops relaxed in the rear. One was Lt. Col. James T. Bradley, a battalion commander. The other was Lt. Col. Frank Petersen, a Marine squadron commander. One look at either of
them, and you knew who was running the show.

"Ambush" Bradley was in charge of the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry, 25th Division, the Wolfhounds. He was the only black officer in the battalion. I met him at Fire Support Base Mahone, and he immediately offered to take me into the field. Our command LOH landed three miles to the east. There were signs of battle everywhere.

Bradley hopped out of the loach like a pole vaulter. He had this thick build. All muscle. I learned later that he had played football at Prairie View College in Texas and caught the eye of the Cleveland Browns. But he wanted the Army. Pro league pay in those days was not much to turn down.

As soon as Bradley hit the deck, two white soldiers rushed to his side. I didn't get it at first. One of them was from backwater Mississippi. The other was from San Antonio.

"Got y'all covered, Colonel," Texas whispered.

"Okay, son."


"But I was here first, ya sonavabitch," said Mississippi.

Each of these soldiers from those old Confederate states was vying to be the one who guarded the colonel.

Bradley smiled.

Texas smiled.

Several soldiers soon gathered around us, and Bradley looked directly at two of them, both black.


"We've got this gentleman from Time magazine here," he said. "We're not going to let him think we waste the taxpayers' money, now are we?"

And just like that, the two black soldiers darted off into a tree line.


After a few minutes, we heard an explosion. Then it was all silence. A few more minutes passed by, and we heard a rustling noise approaching. The two soldiers stepped from the bushes into the clearing, half dragging a body dressed in the blue uniform of a North Vietnamese soldier. They deposited their quarry right at my feet: an enemy prisoner on demand.

"Good work," Bradley said.

He turned to his left. "Medic, you take real good care of him. We want him alive."

If Ambush Bradley had a motto it was just that: "Bring 'em back alive."

Bradley acquired his sobriquet by focusing on ambush operations to interdict enemy operations in the Michelin rubber plantation, around the village of Dau Tieng and along the jungle trails leading to Saigon. He would also fake insertions to confuse the enemy by landing a helicopter with soldiers by the door of an otherwise empty craft. He spread his killing zones. He fired deep behind the enemy's point to destroy his ability to retaliate. And he told his men, "You must melt into the jungle. You must become the jungle."

He rotated his men off ambush assignments every 48 hours lest they become worn out by heat and fatigue, or careless from the boredom that comes from waiting long hours for nothing to happen. Over one stretch, his troops captured or killed 160 North Vietnamese with a loss of only one dead and five wounded.

Bradley devised a competition among his platoons. He hoped to reduce carelessness in the field, get prisoners, and boost morale. A platoon would score 500 points for keeping its weapons in top condition. For capturing 100 pounds of rice, the platoon earned 10 points; a radio, 200 points; a rocket, 500 points; a prisoner 1,000 points. A KIA counted only 100 points. If a platoon member was wounded in action, the platoon lost 50 points; a fatality meant a 500-point deduction. The prize for the winning platoon would be a brief in-country R & R to the Vung Tau beaches. The competition ended after one of Bradley's men wrote home to his mother that his life was only worth 500 points.

On the day of my visit, Bradley was especially pleased with the work of one platoon. It had captured two prisoners and killed 11. Its lieutenant walked us over to a cache of captured items, including two Honda motorbikes, two life preservers, mortar rounds, uniforms, medical supplies, a first-aid book printed in San Francisco, and 1,000 pounds of rice.

"They'll do it every time for Ambush," Texas said. "Why, the colonel's a good head. He's got real military know-how. But most of all, he's got guts."

"Ah wouldn't trade Ambush Bradley," Mississippi injected, "fur mah Daddy."

Lt. Col. Frank Petersen was a pilot, not a flyboy. When he took command of Marine Squadron 314, based at Chu Lai, he was the senior black officer in the Marine Corps. He was a leader who must have raised the hairs on the backs of many generals' necks when he made his call sign "Blood Number One."

Petersen delighted in hopping out of his plane after a dangerous mission, bouncing down the flight line in a bent-kneed gait, grinning and yelling over the roars of the engines, "You know we doesn't know nothing 'bout machinery."

Col. Pete handled his multi-million dollar F-4 Phantom the way a four-year-old handles a Big Wheel. He flew like a fiend. But he had respect for his plane, too. To Petersen, an aircraft was like a sleek, sophisticated countess who, ever elegant, could still be "a damn good ride."

By Hollywood's standards, Petersen was no matinee idol. His square jaw would make Dick Tracy jealous, his eyes were tiny slits, his nose too broad and round, his mouth full and wide. His triangular torso was supported by long, spindly legs. Yet Petersen was a Marine as poster-perfect as any ad man's dream.

When I met him in the summer of 1969, Petersen was at the end of his tour. His squadron had been honored for having the best safety record in the Corps despite serving in a war. Despite, Petersen joked, his owing the American taxpayers $10 million. Just what did he mean by that? I asked him.

Petersen explained that he incurred the debt when he bailed out of his Phantom after being hit on a bombing run just above the DMZ. Unknown to him, Communist gunners were timing the positions of his pullouts, and on his last run, they sprayed the air in front of him. With his left engine in flames, he headed east to the sea, 40 miles away. He shut off that engine and switched to afterburner in the right engine to gain more power. But in seconds, that engine, too, caught
fire. He tried the left, but it was still burning. He put both engines in an idle position and radioed a mayday. He looked around for a place to eject and then ordered his navigator out. Then he followed. The sea was still miles away.


"Directly ahead of me was a village," he recalled. "There was a crowd coming out to the point of my intended landing. I pulled out my pistol. I started calling on De Lawd. I fell into a rice paddy. And that was really comical. I immediately went under water. My chute dragged me through all this mud. My pistol flew out of my hand and disappeared. I unclipped myself from the chute. Then I went under the water and found my pistol and got up and ran in the direction opposite the village.

"I jumped over a paddy dike and hid," he continued. "There were some people on the road nearby, but I knew I could outrun them. I tried to pull my seat pan with me, because it contains a lot of stuff the enemy can use. Then I heard a chopper coming in. My radio was working. This guy was setting down a CH46 in the next rice paddy over. I immediately took off running for the chopper, and one of the gunners came out and picked up my gear. As I walked in the ass-end of that thing, there was a black pilot sitting up front. He turned around and gave me the black power sign. I cracked up. I said, 'Get this damn thing in the air and forget that shit.' Man, I didn't know where I was, and he's making signs."

We laughed together, and Petersen invited me to take a ride on what would be his last combat mission of the war. Our call sign was Love Bug 265. Our ordinance was 250-pound bombs and napalm. Our target was NVA troops in contact with elements of the Americal Division just west of Duc Pho.

We swooped out of the clouds, and the Phantom jumped as the bombs released. In the pullout, I nearly gagged as the force of six Gs sent my stomach into what felt like a reverse roll.

"Pretty good," the forward air controller said. "One hundred percent on target. Forty percent coverage. Three structures destroyed. Now I want to use your delta nine near the smoking building on the edge of the ville."

We rippled off and returned, diving directly into 50-cal. machinegun fire.

The friendly voice returned. "We appreciate your good bombing. We have people moving into the area now."

I took a deep swallow of oxygen as Petersen headed home. Not a scratch on us. "That was beautiful," I said into the mike. "Beautiful flying."

"Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, John Henry," he answered. "You know we doesn't know nothin' about machinery."

Petersen grew up in Topeka. He joined the Navy while still in his teens. When he heard that Jesse Brown, the first black Navy pilot, had been killed, Petersen switched to the Marines for flight training, hoping to follow Brown's footsteps. Petersen flew in Korea, winning decoration after decoration.

I quickly learned from his men in Chu Lai how much he was admired. He was also a master at diffusing racial tensions. He chose his call sign as a salute to the black enlisted men who supported his squadron. He made the most outspoken black his flight captain and chief floor walker in the enlisted men's club. And he picked the most outspoken white to work with him at the club. That was his way of channeling their leadership into constructive roles.

When Vietnamese barbers refused to cut the hair of black troops, Petersen fired them. When the base commander became flustered over a request to hold a demonstration commemorating Martin Luther King's birthday, Petersen interceded. Some 200 black troops and some 100 of their white comrades gathered on the beach for what turned into a peaceful party.

"I don't think the higher command has any idea of what the hell's going on. Of course, in the Marine Corps you find a large proportion of officers and senior NCOs from the South, and many of them don't care to know. But there is also absolutely little or no feeling even among the so-called liberals for the problems, real or imagined, that the Negro trooper has. They say, 'Okay. You're all wearing a green uniform and we treat you all the same.' That is a very good statement, but it has nothing to do with the truth. These commanders from the top to the bottom have never had--and they need--a course in race relations. NCOs, too. In the classroom, they should be confronted with racial situations. Find out what the young black, Indian, and Mexican really feels. Why he is so sensitive, why he is so ready to swing. It's a matter of education on both sides, but if you're in a command position you have a greater responsibility to get with it."

Two years before this conversation, I had written that relations between black and white in Vietnam were harmonious. I hailed a theme of "same mud, same blood." Now, it seemed, relations, particularly in the rear areas, were strained. I asked Petersen to explain why some Bloods felt disillusioned.

"The military claims that it is one of the most democratic institutions in American society today," he answered. "This implies that everything is as it should be. That there are no separate standards. But once blacks arrive in the military, they find that this is not the case. The military is merely an extension of American society and the racism you find there. Even though rules have been written saying that opportunities exist for everyone and equality exists, you will run into one individual, or several, or even someone in a command position who doesn't believe this. Once they encounter one of these people, it takes very little to erase whatever goodwill has been established."

Petersen paused.

"I really hesitate to say it's strictly a Vietnam phenomenon. I think anytime you are subjected to different standards while fighting or defending the true cause, you tend to be infuriated in the extreme. These kids don't mean to put their lives on the line and have to take some bullshit race thing. The question of right is being re-determined. What was right yesterday is no longer right today. The kids know this. And they become more racially conscious, black-oriented. They tend
to align more and more on ethnic lines. The same thing happened to the Irish when they were persecuted as a group. Then they become more Irish. The Jew in America became more Jewish. Race for these young brothers has become more important than democracy, loyalty, or what have you.


"If you're a Blood, you're a Blood."

Davison, who retired as a major general after commanding a division in Europe, and Bradley, who left Vietnam to lead the Berlin Brigade, are now deceased. Petersen retired a lieutenant general, the highest rank ever for a black Marine. He commanded a Harrier squadron after the Vietnam War and ended his service as commanding officer of the Quantico Marine base. He was a major influence in Pentagon decisions made in the 1970s to require race relations training throughout the Armed Forces. Petersen lives in Maryland.
 

   

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