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