Review Written by Bernie Weisz Vietnam War Historian, Pembroke Pines, Florida USA May 7, 2011 E Mail: BernWei1@aol.com
Title of Review: Dewey Canyon: Remembered by the smells of sweat, human blood and gunpowder mixed in a unique way!
Some Vietnam Veterans that were there remember "Dewey Canyon" by one long uphill 1969 Marine Corps march after another in the Ashau Valley. Some will tell you the only thing that comes to mind is North Vietnamese bullets speeding through the air at 50,000 feet per second tearing indiscriminately at flesh and foliage while recalling the anguished groins of the wounded and moans of the dying. Another Veteran only can reminisce that every round fired by the NVA ended with the same wet, pulpy thud in either Marine Corps flesh or banana trees. Regardless of who you talk to, the fact is that Michael Conroy's book "Don't Tell America" is about "Operation Dewey Canyon" which was the last major offensive by the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. It took place from January 22 through March 18, 1969 and involved a sweep of the "A Shau Valley," controlled by the North Vietnamese Army. It was conducted by the 9th Marine Regiment and reinforced by elements of the 3rd Marine Division. Although a tactical success, the 56 days of combat ultimately failed to stop the overall flow of North Vietnamese men and material into South Vietnam via the "Ho Chi Minh Trail." For their actions in "Operation Dewey Canyon," the 9th Marine Regiment and attached units were awarded the Army Presidential Unit Citation. Before this operation was initiated, Marine infantry units in I Corps (the Northern region), as dictated by agreed upon "Rules of Engagement," had been tied to their combat bases along the South Vietnam border as part of the "McNamara Line." This "line" was named after the Secretary of war at the time, Robert S. McNamara. It consisted of a combination of infantry units and ground sensors devised to stop North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
When Lt. Gen. Raymond G. Davis took command of the 3rd Marine Division, he ordered Marine units to move out of their combat bases that were fixed in a defensive posture and engage the NVA. He had noted that the manning of the bases and the defensive posture they developed was contrary to the aggressive style of fighting that Marines favor. Conroy noted that the NVA units were always able to dart in and out of privileged sanctuaries in North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos unmolested. In early 1969, intelligence reports indicated that there had been a large NVA build-up in the A Shau Valley. The A Shau was just 6 miles east of the Laotian border and some 21 miles long. Col. Robert H. Barrow, commander of the 9th Marine Regiment, used this intelligence to accept orders to depart Vandegrift Combat Base some 50 miles to the east and sweep west to withhold use of the valley to the NVA. Conroy eloquently explains that Operation Dewey Canyon was divided into three parts: 1) the movement and positioning of air assets, 2) the movement of the 9th Marines south out of their main combat base, called Vandergrift, and 3) sweep the NVA out of the A Shau Valley. Moving towards the A Shau Valley, the 9th Marines established numerous firebases along the way which would provide them their artillery support once they entered it and guarded their main supply route. Because of their distance from the main combat bases and because resupply via ground was very difficult during monsoon season, all of these bases could only be resupplied by helicopter. Conroy details how the Marines encountered stiff resistance throughout the conduct of the operation, most of which was fought under horrific monsoon rain and cloud cover, triple canopy jungle and within range of NVA artillery based in Laos. Marine casualties included 130 killed in action and 932 wounded. If one believes in the accuracy of U.S. "Body Counts," the Marines claimed killing 1,617 NVA and discovered over 500 tons of arms and munitions as well as denied the Ashau Valley as an NVA staging area for the entire span of the operation. They claimed the operation was an overall success.
One of the most perplexing issues of the Vietnam War was what were called the "Rules of Engagement." Aside from American Troops being barred from perusing fleeing VC and NVA soldiers into supposedly neutral Laos and Cambodia, used as staging areas and sanctuaries on the nefarious Communist supply line into the South, e.g. the "Ho Chi Minh Trail, the restrictions tended to be one of the factors that lowered morale in the military. These restrictions seemed to force the military to fight the with one hand tied behind its back. This was interpreted by individual soldiers as if they were being asked to risk their lives more than necessary (because they couldn't fight back freely) simply for the sake of some rules imposed for political reasons. Hidden from the American public, Operation Dewey Canyon was conducted in 3 phases with raids into Laos being the third and final phase. Although all three battalions were involved with the operation, only elements of the 2nd and Third Battalion actually participated in the raid into Laos. This last phase commenced on February 11, 1969, and by February 20, the 2nd Battalion was on the Laotian border. To the reader not savvy of military language, Conroy quickly switches from one Marine company, battalion and platoon to another to the point of where the reader needs a scorecard to follow the action. However the evolution of the operation eventually concludes in a comprehending manner. The 2nd Battalion's "Hotel Company" could see from their position on the verge of entering Laos that there were numerous NVA convoys traveling along Route 922, which was a road that snaked from Laos straight into South Vietnam curving Southeast. Route 922 was also an integral part of the "Ho Chi Minh Trail." David F. Winecoff was the commanding officer of "Hotel" and knew the only way to stop the NVA's 1969 "Tet Offensive" was to take his Marines into Laos, by any means necessary, even if it put a damper on the ongoing "Paris Peace Talks." Conroy places the reader with Winecoff, as well as all the soldiers that illegally entered "Laos" without America's knowledge, effectively derailing the NVA plans for a big 1969 spring offensive in the I Corps Tactical Zone. In addition, Conroy historically reveals that Operation Dewey Canyon had effectively disrupted a major enemy logistical center in what was called "Base Area 611," including in a Marine haul totaling more than 1,000 NVA small arms, some 807,000 rounds of ammunition and about 220,000 pounds of rice.
Michael Conroy takes the reader on a day by day trip of what all three divisions of the Ninth Marines did during Operation Dewey Canyon, and the reader is treated to detailed remembrances of over 200 Marines he interviewed for over five years. A significant part of this book was written from Conroy's prison cell, of which as of this writing Michael Conroy has permanent residence, unfortunately shackled with a lifetime sentence. As for the veracity of this book, Conroy states in the introduction his method of creating this memoir: "The process was intricate. Documents, based upon observations and opinions, perceptions , and after-the-event oral histories did not always match up number for number and date for time. I have made every effort possible to resolve conflicting data, oftentimes making a choice based upon the preponderance of the evidence rather than upon the actual documentation. There are going to be differences in any story of this nature. There are going to be inexactitudes and no matter how hard you try to avoid them there are bound to be errors. I apologize for these failings and ask your tolerance of them." This book is out of print and impossible to find. I was fortunate enough to meet a gentleman from Mississippi who was in the "1/9 Marines", also known as "The Walking Dead." This man actually participated in Dewey Canyon and was amiable enough to lend this book to me. While not endorsing nor judging Conroy's character, he vouched for the accuracy of this book's realistic portrayal of "Operation Dewey Canyon," the only book that exists on this aspect of the Vietnam War. There were many operations that occurred during this war. SOG elements and Air America operations in Laos had been covertly operating since the war's inception. Conroy entitled this book as such because this was the first major organized military border incursion into a supposedly neutral country that was hidden from the public and press in the wake of the rapidly increasing unpopularity that this conflict domestically garnered. While Conroy's details of hour by hour and day by day recanting of the operation at times are tedious and trite, the significance of Dewey Canyon cannot be lost. Aside from preventing the NVA from launching another Tet Offensive in the I Corps Zone as the enemy did in 1968, 1969 was the only year in the entire war that the NVA did not launch a major spring offensive.
Needless to say, anyone can read the history books to find out what happened on Dewey Canyon. Enemy booty captured, sorties, raids and installations seized can easily be looked up. What is priceless in "Don't Tell America" are the stories individual Marines shared about this operation, some communicating recollections that had stayed dormant in their minds due to PTSD issues for over two decades. Conroy makes an interesting statement at the beginning of this book, as to what a new soldier saw and thought after being helicoptered into triple canopy jungle, experiencing his first combat assault: "The newbies generally envisioned a jungle full of roaring tigers, chattering monkeys, and various birds in bright plumage. What they found was a jungle inhabited by voracious gnats, mosquitoes that drilled for bone marrow rather than blood, and a host of similarly hostile insects. They often envisioned the combat experience to be an adventure, having read of the chivalry of medieval knights and fliers saluting the man they'd just shot down in W.W. I. There was no such thing as chivalry or fair play in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, something the newbies often had to learn the hard and tragic way. The NVA snuck through the jungles as quietly as shadows pass across leaves, as part of the jungle itself. The Marines, even when operating in small units, often paraded up and down on small trails, thrashing through the jungle with the knowledge of our superior supporting arms and the might of our great nation, the aura of our mighty and seemingly invincible Army as their shield. This attitude proved dangerously detrimental in the jungle where stealth often thwarted might. Such warfare reduces a man to the basic beastly instinct of survival. Most of the men were only just beginning to understand and be comfortable with the jungle when their tour of duty ended."
During Operation Dewey Canyon, the Marine Corps built 16 Fire Support Bases and 30 Landing Zones. Mike Conroy gives an unforgettable and inimitable remembrance that really gives the reader a memorable description: "The fire support base in no way resembled a secure area with all the trappings of a permanent installation. As operations proceeded in Dewey Canyon, empty ammunition crates were broken down and utilized as footpaths. Garbage disposal, although a problem, was never a high priority. Plastic and cardboard wrappings, expended artillery shells, and empty C-ration cans quickly stacked up. The trash pits and bunkers were almost immediately infested with legions of mice and rats. The bunkers were dark and musty. Beds were made of whatever could be scrounged or improvised. There was no paint. There were no windows. Available electricity was reserved for communications and equipment. The new men soon learned that peanut butter made a dim candle. Inside the bunkers the men sweat like pigs, smelled like camels, and attracted hordes of greedy gnats and mosquitoes. Insect bites became ulcerated wounds constantly irritated by salty sweat. Every sore turned into jungle rot. Mail was delivered infrequently, hot meals were a thing of the past. The men found themselves eating cold C-ration spaghetti for breakfast-and being thankful to have it. There was little water for shaving and not much more for drinking, and yet a sergeant whose last distemper shot had worn off insisted that all hands dry-shave every day while replacement of clothing and other comfort items were given a low priority. During the monsoon rains a thick green, pungent mold grew everywhere. If a fire support base wasn't knee-deep in mud and shrouded by cotton-ball-thick clouds of fog, it was invariably baked by an unrelenting sun and obscured by clods of thick red dirt. In short, the fire support bases were wounds cut out of the emerald flesh of the jungle bristling with engineer and artillery stakes, communications antennae, and the long, ugly, dark snouts of artillery pieces pointing skyward, periodically snorting flames, sulfurous smoke and death. On top of that there was no respite from death." The aforementioned is "Classic Conroy," which makes this book uniquely informative in explaining the esoteric rarely related in other memoirs.
Anecdotes of Marines drinking out of water holes decorated by floating corpses of decaying NVA soldiers, friendly fire, Marine aviator cowardice, inept command and even desertion are all there in "Don't Tell America. There is the story even more bizarre than Robert Garwood's ordeal, the peculiar tale of Jon Sweeney. Claiming he collapsed on a trail from heatstroke, and was threatened by a superior officer to "get up and march or be killed," PFC Sweeney alleged that he collapsed on a trail, left by his fellow Marines for dead and consequently captured by the NVA. Conroy relates: "The absolute truth of Jon Sweeney's ordeal will probably never be known. Military records indicate that Sweeney was confirmed a POW in Hanoi on April 23, 1969. In late 1970, the 21 year old Marine surfaced in Sweden and described to United Press International an 18 month long ordeal of beatings, brainwashing sessions, and escape attempts that led to days of wandering in the jungle and eating leaves to stay alive." Conroy wrote that Sweeney, after his capture by the NVA, managed to con his North Vietnamese indoctrinators that he was on their side and be freed so he could go to Sweden and work for peace. The Marine Corps promptly arrested Sweeney and charged him with desertion and collaboration with America's enemies. Sweeney's defense was that was that he was taught by the Marines to always do the unexpected. Sweeney asserted to Conroy: "Who was going to expect someone to con his way out of North Vietnam ?...that's what I did." Sweeney, after a lengthy trial was found on August 11, 1971 not guilty of all charges. I have read many books of the Vietnam War, but this is the first time I have ever heard of this case. One of the most interesting comments Conroy made in this book was his assessment of the ultimate fate of this conflict: "The U.S. didn't lose the war on the field of battle or in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. We lost the war in Berkeley, California and Washington, D.C. One of our missions in Vietnam was to win the hearts and the minds of the local populace for a democratic South Vietnamese government. We didn't do it. We couldn't even win the hearts and the minds of the people back home. The Marines in the field, however, were not as concerned with the battle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people as they were with a high body count."
One indicator of the eventual destiny of this war was the impact our ally made on one soldier Conroy interviewed. Conroy related this tale of a Marine's first impression: "Although they were a little ways away my first glimpse of ARVN troops were that they looked like Boy Scouts! When someone told me they were elite ARVN Rangers, I really hoped he was kidding. They didn't look like much." Conroy expressed his sentiments: "For the most part, the Marines didn't like the ARVN troops, feeling that they had little discipline. The general feeling was that yes, the South Vietnamese wanted freedom and democracy but they wanted someone else to pay the price of it. And although they experienced a short round from time to time, Marines generally did not trust the training or expertise of the ARVN, an army noted more for its poor pay, corrupt officers, and extremely high desertion rate rather than for its combat prowess." Another soldier told Conroy the following about patrol in the Ashau, the "Valley of Death:" "On patrol, the company was strung out in a column like a giant armed centipede. The heat cooked a rich stew of aromas from the jungle vegetation and sapped the strength of the Marines whose concentration slipped from keenly searching for signs of the enemy to become more absorbed in putting one foot in front of the other than anything else. It was not a bad day, but one that left the men exhausted, tested, wary, and very much aware that they had taken a casualty. Unlike the Oriental, the American views each life as a very precious and every time they lost a man the Marines felt as if they'd lost a bit of themselves." Needless to say, ethnocentrism doesn't equate to victory. Patriotism was domestically lacking, especially on the home scene. One Marine, coming on an abandoned NVA listening post during a patrol related the following to Conroy: "A search turned up clothing, assorted writing gear, and a small bag containing NVA currency. The currency was 100 piasters notes. As would be expected, Ho Chi Minh's image was on one side and the other depicted a mortar assembly plant. The men divided the money up as souvenirs, finding it interesting that the North Vietnamese currency depicted a commitment to war. Their stamps likewise depicted warfare, generally the shooting down of B-52's." Nothing like this existed in the U.S. during the Vietnam War.
One theme that ran throughout Conroy's vanished book were deprivations Marines suffered in the Ashau Valley, also known as "The Valley of Death." As a result of being dependent totally dependent on helicopter resupply in remote, inaccessible areas of the NVA's backyard, due to either NVA anti aircraft artillery or inclement weather, many times helicopters could not get through. Marines had to go days without food water, or even medical evacuation of wounded or even the dead. One solder lamented to Conroy the following: "The weather was still deplorable. The Marine headquarters staff anxiously waited for the sun to shine. Even when it wasn't raining the air was so thick with humidity you could almost drown in it or reach out and grab a chunk of fog to wring out like a sponge. The lack of food began to tell on all of us, especially noticeable on patrols. Marines were listless and plain exhausted after operating for 2 to 3 hours.The period of deprivation lasted for over a week after an extremely grueling and lengthy tactical march which had beat us to the bone. Marines now attempted to "make do." That onion that had been lost in the pack now became onion soup-especially good if one had some hot sauce-and Marines attempted to cook the local vegetation if it looked even remotely edible-generally it wasn't." One Marine told Conroy this: "There were several instances where no meals were available to several units for a day or two at a time. These units were forced to drink water from streams, eat captured rice, and do without the necessities of combat for significant periods of time. This caused a stand-down situation."Operation Starvation" is what we called it. I remember boiling big hard bananas which tasted like cabbage, chewing on twigs and other stuff during this period. The last food Marines had eaten was rice captured from enemy soldiers."
Conroy's book, if available, which it isn't, would tell America about the character of the enemy, the NVA. They used elephants as transport, some spoke English, always tried to drag their dead away, tied their sniper sharpshooters in trees, engaged in suicidal charges against Marines, and after killed were found to have consumed narcotics. There were times where they were shot 4 to 5 times before they fell dead. About their stealth, one ex Marine told Conroy: "It was hard to detect the NVA units unless you walked right on top of them. In two or three instances the point man came within 2 or 3 feet of the NVA before they would spring their ambush." One Marine remembered after a battle this memory: "The poncho-covered bodies of my gun team laid in the rain on a hill for several days as a solemn reminder of the many faces of the grim reaper and the harvest of war. Twenty years later I can still remember the smells-burned matter and charcoaled human flesh mixed with the smell of burnt blood and human waste." Conroy wrote of Marines firing at their own men in the confusion of Dewey Canyon, drowning crossing monsoon-swollen streams and being killed as a result of a Marine "short round." Reflecting, Conroy told America: " On Dewey Canyon the Marines experienced one of just about every mishap you could imagine in a setting where several thousand young men kept nervous fingers on their triggers for 56 straight days. Conroy even relates a story where a Master Sergeant who newly arrived to the Ashau found a seasoned grunt in his fighting hole without his flak jacket and helmet on. The sergeant ordered the grunt to do so and when the grunt refused, the sergeant, standing eyeball to eyeball with the grunt, pulled his .45 pistol and shot the grunt point blank in the neck. Conroy wrote: An emergency medevac was requested and off went the master sergeant and the grunt. That was our company's first casualty on Dewey Canyon. That was also the only time I was ever embarrassed to be an American, or even a Marine." There are so many amazing, never before facts written in this book, that just like tragically Conroy will never be paroled, neither will this book ever be once again released. Undoubtedly, Michael Conroy, and thousands of Vietnam Vets suffer from PTSD. Some, like Mike, have ended up in maximum security prisons; others still inhabit the netherworld of their nightmares. This book tells Mike's story; it tells pieces of the stories of many like him, in whose minds the war almost 50 year later still rages on. Despite Mike Conroy's lifelong confinement, "Let's Tell America" this book! Reprint this memoir!