PeerenboomCrest2


VOICES of VIETNAM

This page is a report of the Oral History Project undertaken by Professor David Winkler and his Class of the Spring of 2020. The below image shows the thrust of the project and the players, Class and Midshipmen. The Preface below that provides an excellent explanation of the project and its results.

Oral History

Preface

By David F. Winkler, Ph.D.
Twelfth Distinguished Professor
Class of 1957 Chair of Naval Heritage


The genesis for this project came with a phone call from a faculty member of the Naval Academy’s History Department in December 2018 suggesting that I ought to apply for the Class of 1957 Chair of Naval Heritage for the upcoming year. Looking at the requirements posted on the History Department s webpage, I noted requirements for extensive publication, which I have, and experience teaching at a university level, which I had not, having spent nearly a quarter century as a public historian with the Naval Historical Foundation (NHF) organizing conferences, conducting research and writing monographs, and running an oral history program. “That’s why we’d like for you to apply—you possess skill sets that previous Class of ’57 chairs have not had in their tool kits.”

Obviously, one of the two upper-level courses I would teach during my one-year tenure at the Naval Academy would be oral history methodology. Because a class project would take some planning, I deferred the course to the spring semester. During the fall I taught a course on U.S. operations in the Middle East post–World War II that was grounded in a study I had completed during a reserve recall to Fifth Fleet on the history of the U.S. Navy presence in Bahrain. One of the elements I brought into the class was a number of guest presenters who had in-theater experience, ranging from a corpsman who was in Lebanon during the 1983 Marine barracks bombing to the commanding officers of both the Samuel B. Roberts and Cole, which were respectively damaged by a mine and suicide attack, to Superintendent Vice Adm. Sean Buck, who once ran maritime patrol operations in the region. One common variable for all of these presentations was a tremendous enthusiasm of the speakers to engage with midshipmen. I determined this was a template that needed to be carried over into the spring semester.

As for the subject of the class oral history project, it seemed quite obvious from the start. Since the Class of ’57 had been so generous to endow the chair that I was being offered, I thought they deserved some direct return on investment. Noting that the class had reached mid-grade by the time America was involved in the war in Vietnam, I decided to focus the project to document the experiences of the Class of ’57 in Vietnam. Of course, not everyone in the Class of ’57 served in the Vietnam War, including my former boss at the NHF, Adm. Bruce DeMars, who had a distinguished career with the submarine service before becoming the Director of Naval Reactors. Unfortunately, a broader history of the Class of ’57 would simply be too large in scope to complete in a semester.

Another reason to target the Class of ‘57 for an oral history project was that I liked these guys. I had known Capt. Bill Peerenboom for two decades. Having been deputy director of Naval History , Captain Peerenboom volunteered to conduct oral histories with the NHF, and so we had collaborated on capturing the recollections of Vice Adm. Hank Mustin, and he independently interviewed the legendary Rear Adm. Ming Chang. In addition, Capt. Peter Boyne, along with his wife Eleanor, had worked with the NHF to transfer the “Fast Attacks and Boomers” exhibit that premiered in the Smithsonian in 2000 to the Navy Museum’s Cold War Gallery that he helped to design. Another member of the class who served on our board of directors and helped raise money for that exhibit was Capt. Dave Cooper. Finally, the other class member whom I held in great esteem was Cdr. Bob Rositzke. Upon retiring from the Navy, he founded Empire Video and in 1995 produced To Lead and Serve, a moving film about his alma mater. I worked with him on a documentary underwritten by the Navy League titled Our Navy Story, which would be distributed to the fleet. Subsequently we worked on producing some 20 Navy Heritage Mini-Series videos that were distributed to the fleet for general military training. Sadly, Bob passed away in the fall due to cancer. He would have been a wonderful guest speaker.

Perhaps other classes may have produced more admirals and Medal of Honor awardees, but it is hard to imagine any class that has done more individually and collectively to preserve our naval history and heritage than the U.S. Naval Academy Class of ’57.
Back in September I had made my intentions known at a class luncheon held at Ft. Myer. With the fall semester closing out, my next task was to recruit interview volunteers to be paired up with 15 midshipmen who had looked at this course offering and for some reason decided to give it a go. That opportunity occurred at the 2019 class Christmas luncheon where I pitched the idea to a packed room at the ArmyNavy Country Club. It turned out to be a most worthwhile endeavor because during the Q&A session Gin Behrends asked, “What about the wives?” Quickly realizing that “who cares about the wives?” would be a very wrong answer, I said, “We can do that!” In retrospect, that was an excellent recommendation to reach out to the spouses where we could, as the chapter written by Midn. Sidney Credle ‘22 on the war on the home front is one of the finer reads and earned him a nomination for a history department essay prize.

Thankfully 18 members of the Class of’57 volunteered to be interviewed. Provided with biographical information, weheld a draft whereby the midshipmen had the opportunity to select individuals who might align with their career interests. The 15 individuals selected had diverse backgrounds. Remember, the Class of’57 commissioned officers not only for the Navy and Marine Corps but also for the U.S. Air Force as that service continued to construct its academy at Colorado Springs.

The first session of what would become a historic semester at the Naval Academy began with an overview class on January 9 with special guest Captain Bill Peerenboom, who captured the attention of the class through descriptions of some of the antics that occurred during his tenure here. Other members of the Class of’57 who would later visit with the class included Col. Bill Hamel, who gave a general overview of the class, and Col. George Robillard, who addressed Marine actions in I Corps during the later stages of the conflict.

As the semester proceeded, the game plan called for practitioners of naval oral history to meet with the class to discuss their craft and experiences followed by a combination of historians and veterans who had knowledge of specific aspects of the war that would benefit the class as they prepared for their interviews and subsequent writing projects that would eventually be folded into this book. To grill these visitors, the class was divided into five interview teams, with each team in turn being assigned to prepare questions beforehand for the day’s guest.

Our first practitioner, retired Navy Reserve Cdr. Paul Stillwell, had been recognized in 2017 with the NHF’s Commo. Dudley Knox Medal for lifetime achievement in the field of naval history. A Vietnam veteran himself, Stillwell discussed his two decades of work running the U.S. Naval Institute’s (USNI’s) oral history program. At USNI, Stillwell had the opportunity to sit down with some of the Navy’s top personalities of the 20th century to reflect on their careers. The 75-minute class period went by quickly because Stillwell had captured the recollections of the Navy’s first African American naval officers. He later returned to join with Dr. Regina Akers of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) for a class session on interviewing minorities and women.

For that early February joint appearance, Dr. Akers’ arrival came with some notoriety as she had just appeared on the CBS News Sunday Morning program to discuss the naming of the next Ford class aircraft carrier for Dorie Miller, who had earned a Navy Cross for his actions aboard West Virginia during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Little did we realize it at the time but both Stillwell and Akers would later be selected to receive the Forest Pogue Award for lifetime excellence in the field of oral history by Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region (OHMAR). Unfortunately, the annual OHMAR spring conference, at which the awards would be bestowed (and midshipmen class members were to provide an overview of the class project), was shelved due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The support of the NHHC historians throughout the semester is appreciated. Besides Dr. Akers, Dr. Richard Hulver joined with Nimitz librarian Michael Macan to brief the class on the history of oral history in the Navy and naval oral history resources in Washington and Annapolis. Dr. John Sherwood, author of the prize-winning book War in the Shallows, came to Annapolis to brief the class on Game Warden and Market Time operations in the interior and coastal waters of South Vietnam. Lara Orr traveled up from the NHHC’s Hampton Roads Naval Museum to discuss a recently opened exhibit titled “Voices of Vietnam: Capturing the Memories of the Ten Thousand Day War at Sea: The U.S. Navy in Vietnam 1950–1975.” Orr played excerpts of interviews with Vietnam veterans and discussed the challenges of working them into themed displays. Finally, for the last class, the Director of Naval History, retired Rear Adm. Sam Cox, met with the class online to discuss how oral history is currently being collected in the fleet.

To discuss how the Marine Corps conducts oral history, former Marine Corps Chief Historian Charles D. (Chuck) Melson and recently retired oral historian Fred Allison discussed how memory changes over time. During the Vietnam War the Marines had an aggressive after-action collection effort, and Allison listened to recordings made hours after a firefight and compared them to recordings made with veterans of that same action decades later. Later in the semester, the Class of ’57 post-doc fellow, Dr. Mark Folse, gave his overview of the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

Military medicine evolved during the Vietnam conflict, and the former chief historian of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Jan Herman, spent a session in February discussing how he parleyed being the editor of Navy Medicine magazine into a historian job by featuring oral history interviews with noted physicians and corpsmen. In conducting research for a monograph on Navy medicine in Vietnam, he learned of the exploits of the USS Kirk, which led a convoy of South Vietnamese naval vessels crammed with refugees away from Vietnam as North Vietnamese forces moved into Saigon in April 1975. Herman would return for an encore presentation to discuss the documentary film on that evacuation, The Lucky Few, which would later be published as a Naval Institute Press book.
Because some members of the Class of’57 served in Vietnam wearing an Air Force uniform, the class received a detailed briefing of Air Force operations from Col. Darrel Whitcomb, who spent quite a bit of time during the war in Laos working for another government agency.

Veterans of the war who joined the class included Lt. Cdr. Tom Cutler and Capt. Richard (Dick) Krulis, the aforementioned Col. George Robillard, Vice Adm. Robert F. Dunn, Maj. Gen. Joseph Anderson, Col. J. “Larry” Adkinson, Capt. Charles T. (Todd) Creekman, Cdr. Lawrence (Skid) Heyworth, Capt. Richard (Dick) Branum, and Cdr. Peter (Pete) G. Lawson II.

Of this group Krulis and Cutler would be the last to meet with the class on the grounds of the Naval Academy. Just before the break, Tom Cutler, another Knox Medal recipient for his publishing efforts at the USNI, spoke to the class and fielded questions about his service in the coastal waters of Vietnam. Critical to the success of those serving in shallow waters was the support received from the Navy’s Light Attack Helicopter Squadron that “Krulo” served with during the war. Known as the “Seawolves,” the squadron would become one of the most highly decorated air units in history.

Whereas Cutler and Krulis discussed small-craft and rotary-wing aircraft operations in person, the Dunn, Anderson, and Adkinson trio had to join the class online thanks to the impact of COVID-19 leading to the superintendent’s decision to direct the brigade not to return to the ard after spring break. The three retired naval aviators discussed A-4 Skyhawk operations from carriers serving in the Gulf of Tonkin and from airbases ashore in South Vietnam and Thailand. Both Dunn and Anderson gave detailed briefings about how the A-4 was used by the Navy and Marine Corps and then fielded questions from the class.

In contrast, the Creekman, Heyworth, Branum, and Lawson quartet discussed dropping ordnance on the enemy by means of naval gunfire support. Having graduated from the Naval Academy at the height of the war, the four retired surface warfare officers also offered the class the perspective of looking at the war through the prism of a junior officer, in contrast to their more senior Class of’57 interview subjects.

Cdr. Doug Burns and Capt. Leo Hyatt of the Class of’57 spent time as prisoners of war in North Vietnam. The Vice Adm James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the Naval Academy is currently recording and assembling interviews of Naval Academy graduates who spent time in the Hanoi Hilton. Dr. Jeffrey Macris and Shaun Baker held a good give-and-take with the class after a showing of excerpts from the project, and the class gained an appreciation for what Burns and Hyatt had to endure.

As the midshipmen in the class completed their interviews and began writing their chapters, I took advantage of some targets of opportunity to provide the class with additional perspectives. First we landed Joe Galloway after the NHF received a review copy of his latest book that featured interviews with Vietnam war veterans who subsequently made great contributions to society. Responding to a request through his publicist, the former UPI reporter who gained fame with Col. Hal Moore for their book and subsequent movie We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young talked at length about covering the war as a correspondent. He also discussed military–media relationships and his concerns about the future of journalism as mainstream news organizations are contracting and shedding workforce.

Following Galloway’s online discussion, the class gained an appreciation of the war though the words of the now adult children whose fathers were killed in action through the 2 Sides Project. I learned of this PBS documentary by chance when I joined with Nora Kubach on a call-in program following the airing of a documentary on the Alexandria Torpedo Factory where I had been featured as the talking head on the history of torpedoes. When Nora discussed the 2 Sides Project in response to a call-in query about which documentary she was most proud of working on, I followed up with her and was introduced to Margot Carson Delogne, who lost her Air Force father when she was five, and Anthony Istrico, who produced the documentary. After viewing the film as a homework assignment, the class received a fascinating presentation on how the whole production came together and how the project took the adult children to Vietnam to locate the sites of their fathers’ demise and in doing so came into contact with Vietnamese who had lost their fathers and sometimes mothers during the war. For the class it seemed a fitting closure for a class that had the primary purpose of teaching oral history methodology but a secondary objective of providing a solid understanding of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia.

The following chapters were completed following interviews conducted in the February–March timeframe. Unfortunately, face-to-face interviews suddenly became a health risk with the outbreak of COVID-19 and with the scattering of the class from coast to coast and beyond. That said, Oscar Parmenter did travel to West Virginia for a session with Charles Hall, Sidney Credle met with Jerome Dunn in his home state of North Carolina, Kelly Alksninis met up with James Hower and his wife back at Dahlgren Hall, and Joe Koch met with Bill Peerenboom a few times before having to conduct the actual interview online due to the outbreak of the pandemic. The interview transcripts acquired have been placed with the Nimitz Library. The chapter drafts were due the last day of class, graded, and sent back with comments and suggestions. As exams progressed, the class then read other chapters to improve the flow and eliminate duplicative materials.

For the production of this book, we thank the Class of ’57 for their support. In addition to their time, the class was generous in providing other source materials that were used to flesh out the content. In addition, words of appreciation go out to History Department Chair Rick Ruth; his deputy, Cdr. Andy Moulis; and their successors, Dr. Thomas McCarthy and Cdr. B. J. Armstrong, for the moral and logistical support for the class. A shout-out goes to Ms. Catherine Malo who performed copyediting on the manuscript.

Finally, I salute the section leader, now Ens. Joe Koch, who coordinated with the “Dudes and Dudettes” to complete the mission and, of course, the class itself for putting in a tremendous effort to honor alums of their Naval Academy who sat at their desks some six-plus decades earlier.