Operation Homecoming, Stella's Game, and Tideline

The war was over; the last American combat casualties were months before; the POWs were coming home.

It was 1973, and the last negotiations had scheduled the return of some 500-plus American prisoners of war from North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, Laotian, and Chinese captivity. As the men were flown to the Philippines to be debriefed and treated, the medics were surprised at how resilient they were, how mentally healthy despite debilitating injuries and malnutrition.

Burst of Joy

LTC Robert L. Stirm, left, greeted his family at Travis AFB 17 March 1973, after six years of captivity. This photo Burst of Joy by Slava “Sal” Veder, won a Pulitzer Prize, and did more to encapsulate the end of America’s “Vietnam experience” than any other image. The cameras were more than happy to record every heartfelt greeting, every fragile survivor, every dash across the hardstand into the eager arms of fathers barely known; of husbands weak and tired; of sons and brothers who had experienced isolation that few could appreciate…

And not a protester in sight…

And frankly, THAT was weird as I recall. Though most of the protests had sputtered out after 1970 and the Kent State shootings, we seriously expected to see protesters outside the air bases and hospitals…but nothing. Maybe because we were tired, all of us in America were; tired of the division, of the shouting, the screaming, the whiffs of smoke and tear gas for no end other than to protest a draft that sent less than 30% of its inductees to a conflict that would see no victory because it wasn’t supposed to…

And there were those bracelets again…

The POW bracelets that many people wore, starting in 1970, nickel plated or copper, they were engraved with the name of a POW or a missing American; some five million of them were sold by Voices in Vital America (VIVA). They vanished from most wrists for unknown reasons in about ’72, but during Operation Homecoming, out they came again. Those who had bracelets engraved with men who came back celebrated; some sent their bracelets to “their” PWs. Those with bracelets engraved with names that didn’t come back got blue star stickers…and by July those bracelets were back in the drawers.

But there were still more than five hundred men missing…

“Missing” in war means a lot of different things, and in the mid-20th century it could mean burned up in their aircraft; suspended bleeding in a parachute harness until death overtook them and they were consumed by the jungle; blown to smithereens and unidentifiable by any means at the time, or even just took off, making a life elsewhere.

But some were still held captive…

In his book, Henry Kissinger stated that he knew there were still Americans captive in Southeast Asia, but the North Vietnamese could wait; Kissinger, Nixon and the whole Western world needed an end to the carnage. So, he signed the best treaty he could get for himself, Nixon, and the whole Western world…and for Vietnam, for that matter. But as a result of that treaty, the Saigon government almost certainly saw the writing on the proverbial wall. Most sources say that the Saigon regime gave itself no more than three years to live after January 1973. They were right.

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

In Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, watching the POW’s come back is a family matter, hearing the commentators mention that this guy’s mother died while he was in a cage; that one’s family was so excited about his return that they took out a two-page ad in the local paper; that one’s wife didn’t want to wait and divorced him. These were teenagers–high school seniors–glad that the draft was ending but unsure about their own futures. Both the girls and the boys would watch the joyous reunions, be happy for the bracelet-owners whose men came home, and try to feel for those who did not. But it was hard: they had nothing to compare that agony to.

Tideline..Ever Rising

Footprints in the sand along the Tideline

Guess where this beach is for an autographed copy of Tideline: Friendship Abides. The kids grow up, as happens when you keep feeding ’em. But they have lives of their own, and they write letters to friends and loved ones wherever they are.

They write lots of letters…

They write because between 1974 and 1986, the Internet was still called DARPANET, there was no World Wide Web (hypertext wouldn’t come along until a decade later), no cell phones in general use, no blogs (I know; ancient history), so no e-mails. “Social media” was, well, sitting around and shooting the bull. But they still had fun, fell in love, fell out of love, went to war, and worked for success in their chosen professions: three of them in the Army; one in the Navy. And they wrote letters.

Tideline: Friendship Abides is the second part of the Stella’s Game Trilogy, and should be available at you favorite booksellers by mid-April.

My Lai, Stella’s Game, and Tideline

By 1968, the conflict in Vietnam had lost any popular support that it had had in the US…and in Vietnam.

Unidentified women and children just before they were killed
Ronald L. Haeberle photo, Wiki Commons

On 16 March, 1968, soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, and Bravo Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry, both of the 23rd Division (also called the Americal Division), killed somewhere between 347 and 504 people in two hamlets called My Lai and My Khe in the Son Tinh district of South Vietnam. An unknown number of women were raped, some as young as 12; children were mutilated. It was the best known of several such atrocities in the entire conflict. It took place during Operation Muscatine, which started in December 1967 and went on until June, 1968, aimed at securing Chu Lai.

Gee…don’t that sound simple?

The first time the American public knew anything about these massacres was September 1969, in a vague press release from Fort Benning about charges of murder being filed against Lieutenant William Calley. In trickles, then in floods, photos, names, dates were revealed as more people came forward with more testimony, more photos. Several reporters and photographers had been there, had seen the aftermath; one even claimed to have stopped some of the killing. There was a Pentagon Vietnam War Crimes Working Group that investigated these and several other massacres, but “war crimes” were never brought against anyone.

Over a year later…

William Calley stood trial for murder on 17 November 1970. It was hard to get eyewitnesses to testify against Calley, but one did, and Calley’s defense team couldn’t shake the testimony. On 29 March 1971, Calley was found guilty of 22 specifications of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

No one else was ever convicted of anything related to these crimes…

Despite the protest marches and the riots and flag-burning in the streets of America, the general reaction over Calley’s conviction was one of mild outrage. Within the US Army, Calley was regarded as a victim of the war’s culture of body count: the higher the better. He and his men–over a hundred would have taken part–were also victims of the nature of the conflict. While most of the victims were women and children, many of these guy’s friends had been victims of women and children bearing satchel charges and grenades, using both their youth and their sex to get close to American targets before setting off their weapons. While the protesters could use the conviction to bolster their arguments of an “unjust” war, the paltry number that Calley was actually convicted of deflated their argument somewhat.

The most common name Calley was given was “scapegoat…”

Calley spent less than two weeks in prison; President Nixon ordered him placed under house arrest at Fort Benning on 1 April 1971. After numerous appeals, Calley was released in September, 1974. The biggest reason for the successful appeals was pre-trial publicity, lack of corroborating witnesses, and the refusal of both the Department of Defense and the US Congress to make available evidence that Calley’s defense team requested. That and the general outrage over the acquittal of Captain Ernest Medina–Calley’s boss–who had planned and ordered the sweep operation that, in part, resulted in the massacres. Despite the unpopularity of the war, there was a great stink of cover-up. I distinctly recall that the popular media at the time of his conviction was nearly schizophrenic.

But by then, US troops had been out of Vietnam for two years, and no one was interested anymore.

Stella’s Game...watch her deal

In Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, the characters react to the conviction of William Calley–and the crimes he was accused of committing–in significantly different ways. While one is outraged, others are resigned; most question why not others. Scapegoat, martyr, example are names Calley is given…but not baby-killer or murderer.

But this was the 70’s, and the characters are fifteen and sixteen, looking forward to a future with a war that does not appear to have an end, and a draft that may not, either. Though Nixon campaigned on an “end the draft” platform in ’68, it was renewed for two years in September ’71–while the Calley appeals were ongoing–though everyone knew it would not be renewed again.

They know all this, but the boy’s future was still a question mark, and the girls were concerned for them.

Tideline is Rising

Where Stella’s Game leaves off, Tideline: Friendship Abides picks up. Join JJ and Mike, Ann and Leigh after they leave school on their life adventures, from 1974 to 1986. Tideline is scheduled for publication by April, 2020.

Join in the adventure!

Khe Sanh ’68 and Stella’s Game

And we woke up on 31 January to learn a new place name: Khe Sanh. That afternoon we learned that Jeff’s there. No longer was Vietnam some abstract.

White bread America was as affected by that conflict as the rest of the country.

The controversial McNamara Line of outposts and electronic monitoring systems along the 17th parallel was built starting in 1967, and was anchored by combat bases like the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB), which was a series of revetments and artillery batteries that was a most impressive sandbag fortification with an air strip and helicopter landing pads enough to maintain a Marine battalion. In January 1968, there were some 6,000 Marines based out of the Combat Base, and an unclear number of South Vietnamese and Royal Lao troops. The struggle for Khe Sanh and the I Corps area started nine days before Tet ’68, but William Westmoreland insisted that Tet was a diversion from Khe Sanh.

Was the tail wagging this dog?

The day after the Tet offensive exploded on the news, the war became very personal for some of us, even at the tender age of 12. With older sisters who had boyfriends of a certain age…yes, two of them were in-country. One mailed a letter to my oldest sister just after Christmas, saying how this Khe Sanh place was just a maze of sandbags.

Every TV newscast about Vietnam became a contest to see who could spot Jeff

While the war raged and every evening people watched at the Marines fought for the hills and villages around the base, there were times when we thought “oh, there he is!” But we never knew for sure. No one heard from Jeff…not even his family…until after the siege was lifted on 6 April by the 1st Cavalry Division. His parents received a note–brief and hurried–saying he was OK and headed for Japan. The next my sister heard was a year later, after he got back Stateside. Yeah, that kind of thing happened, too.

Letters and Friends and Stella’s Game

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships is a story of four kids growing up in these turbulent times, when things like video calls, instant messaging with a device in your pocket were the stuff of science fiction. To communicate they wrote letters, and some letters arrived with odd timing, like Jeff’s to my sister. But the kids worry because their families worry, and that worry spills over to their friends sometimes, and friends offer what comfort they can.

Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships takes place in the Detroit area from 1963 to 1974, following four children trying to fit in, to learn, to love, to laugh and for one–to stay alive. Look for it on Amazon and everywhere else. Learn what it was really like growing up without too much concern about money, but a lot about your future, and about your friend’s futures. Money doesn’t, after all, buy security for everyone.

Tet ’68 and Stella’s Game

On Tuesday, 30 January 1968, many of us awoke to a world different from the one we had slept in.

Marines outside Hue, February 1968
Getty images

There was supposed to be lines, rear areas, clean divisions between combatant and non-combatant…everybody knew that’s what war was supposed to be like. Combat was like, well, Combat and The Gallant Men. Besides, General Westmorland and Vice President Humphrey both said that the US was winning the war in Vietnam. Then…

Nứt trời; Làm rung chuyển trái đất!

Vietnamese for Crack the Sky; Shake the Earth!

But the Tet offensive, like the message above, in ’68 changed all those perceptions. The phrase was the signal sent to North Vietnamese units that the offensive to take over South Vietnam, planned for months, was on. Khe Sanh was suddenly put under siege; the US embassy in Saigon was partially captured; many provincial capitals were attacked, and the old capital of Vietnam’s empire, Hue, was captured by Viet Cong forces, which began a bloody campaign of massacre.

War didn’t have executions like the one in the New York Times for 2 February 1968–the one on top of this blog. Photographer Eddie Adams captured BG Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of South Vietnam’s national police, executing CPT Nguyen Van Lem of the Viet Cong, whose unit had just slaughtered Lem’s friend’s family. Before that photo appeared, Vietnam was just World War II in color with different weapons and uniforms, and the US Department of Defense had treated it just like that..until that day.

And Vietnam became a very different kind of war…

Wounded men, Tet ’68
Washington Post

And there were images of men hurt in the fighting delivered into your very home; in the newspapers, the magazines, on television. I was twelve, living a comfortable white-bread suburb of Detroit…and we saw this war unfold before us in living color. This kind of horror came after the riot of ’67, when the whiffs of smoke and tear gas rising on that wet and angry breeze from downtown, and the imagery of troops marching in formation down Woodward Avenue with bayonets fixed, and the news that our housekeeper was burned out of her home, reached us in the supposedly insulated suburbs that long and hot summer. Sure, I was too young to be drafted, but my older sisters had boyfriends…and one who was drafted in March of ’68; and one was going to West Point in the fall.

That war affected the affluent, too.

Public perceptions of the war changed decidedly after that. Though the battles for the capitals and the countryside ended with the US and South Vietnamese controlling most of the country and the Viet Cong were mostly destroyed, the war for public opinion was lost that winter. By spring, the demands to end the war were becoming overwhelming. Yet, Richard Nixon’s campaign theme was “Law and Order,” while Hubert Humphrey’s was “End the War.” And Nixon won in ’68 mostly, it is thought, because he promised new leadership…and he did get the US out two years before the Saigon government collapsed.

Your Author, 1967

And that damn war affected the characters in Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships. Imagine how a 12-year old–like the guy to the right here–might be affected by the knowledge that a family friend was a Marine stuck in Khe Sanh…and how his friends might be affected by that knowledge. Remember that this is Nixon country for the most part; supporters of the conflict in Vietnam.

But you don’t have to imagine it if you can read about it in Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships on Amazon or at your favorite booksellers.