On May 28, 1970, Lt. Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf was orbiting in his UH-1 Huey command-and-control helicopter as troops on the ground conducted a sweep. He was commanding an operation in Batagan peninsula south of Chu Lai, Vietnam. It was where the My Lai incident had occurred more than two years earlier and still had a number of hard-core Viet Cong units.
The radio suddenly crackled with the word that members of Bravo Company had blundered into a mine field. Two officers had been wounded, and soldiers were unable to move for fear of triggering mines. Although a medevac helicopter was on the way, Schwarzkopf ordered his pilot to land and pick up the wounded. Then he began to thread his way on foot into the mine field, telling his frightened troops to leave the way they had come, keeping a distance from each other and stepping only in each other's tracks.As they moved gingerly toward safety, a GI stepped on a mine. It hurled him in the air, breaking a leg. Shrapnel sprayed Schwarzkopf and his artillery officer, Capt. Bob Trabbert.The soldier panicked and began screaming. Schwarzkopf feared he would touch off yet another mine, and moved slowly toward him, his knees buckling. As he reached the wounded man, he called back to Trabbert to find something to splint the leg. Trabbert handed his knife to another soldier to cut a branch from a nearby tree. In moving toward the tree, the man stepped on another mine. The explosion killed him and two others.
Trabbert lost a leg and an arm but survived.
Schwarzkopf has said numerous times since that he saw himself as having had "no choice" but to risk his own life. The action earned him his third Silver Star and a second Purple Heart for combat in Vietnam.
But those medals were small consolation for the pain of what had occurred, and when he left Vietnam two months later, it was with a bitter taste - made worse by his discovery that back home, the country had turned against the war.
He found returning servicemen vilified as murderers and "baby burners," and he resented it. He even got into an argument with one of his sisters, who had been a peace marcher, though he later apologized.
The experience made Schwarzkopf wary.
In 1971, a year after his return, he told "Friendly Fire" author D.C.B. Bryan:
"Now this is going to make me think long and hard before I go to war again. Nobody is more anti-war than an intelligent person who's been to war. Probably the most anti-war people I know are Army officers. And when they get ready to send me again, I'm going to have to stop and ask myself: `Is it worth it?' That's a very dangerous place for the nation to be when your own army is going to stop and question."
Schwarzkopf has characterized the Vietnam War as a "cesspool." His final two tours began in the spring of 1965 when as a captain, Schwarzkopf was assigned as an adviser to the South Vietnamese Army's Airborne Division.
It was a dark time. The buildup of American force was in its early stages.
He was fresh from a year of teaching at West Point, two months shy of his 31st birthday.
Within a month of arriving, Schwarzkopf pinned on his major's gold leaves. But even before that, he had his first taste of the war. It was not what he had expected, and it brought his name immediately to the attention of superiors.
"We were getting ready to go into a military operation during the Ia Drang Valley campaign and had been given this wonderful operations order written in total Fort Leavenworth style by the senior Vietnamese headquarters," Schwarzkopf recalled in a 1990 interview. "Then I discovered that, contrary to the order, we had no fire support or any advance air strikes.
"So I went back and advised my Vietnamese counterpart not to go. Three or four hours later, I was hauled in before an array of colonels. `Captain' one of them said, `How dare you say not go? Who are you to decide what adequate air support is?'
" `Sir, with all due respect,' I answered, `When I'm the senior man on the ground, and it's my ass hanging out, adequate air support is about a hundred sorties of B-52s, all in direct support of me. I may be willing to accept something less, but that's just barely adequate when it's my butt is on the line.'
"Of course, he got furious. But that's my approach to military operations. You're talking human lives, and my responsibility is to accomplish the objective with a minimum loss of the troops."
Schwarzkopf survived the colonels' ire. But he would find repeatedly that Vietnam was not a war in which a field officer could depend on any kind of support from the rear. After completing his first tour, Schwarzkopf was sent back to West Point where he taught in the department of mechanics.
From there he went to the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., for another year, completing the course in June 1969.
It was during this time, too, that Schwarzkopf met his wife-to-be, Brenda Holsinger, who at the time was a Trans World Airlines flight attendant. They were introduced at a West Point football game in 1967 and married the next year, before he got new orders - back to Vietnam.
From the book SCHWARZKOPF: THE MAN, THE MISSION AND THE TRIUMPH
Copyright 1991 Richard Pyle
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Penguin Books U.S.A. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate