Choosing a topic for today’s column was a piece of cake. The headline for July 9 in the This Day in U.S. Military History calendar was “United States turns over responsibility for the DMZ.” There have been lots of DMZs in the world in the 20th century, so I had to read on to find it was the DMZ between North and South Vietnam. Since I have a bit of knowledge about that subject, my headline could be “Today was last day in 1971 for U.S. to control DMZ in Vietnam.”
Shortly after the Tet Offensive in 1968, Gen. Creighton Abrams, a tanker in WW II, checked a large map at his headquarters and saw there were no U.S. Army tanks in northern South Vietnam. The Marines had some, but did not employ them as the Army did.
My cavalry squadron had tanks in our three troops, and our infantry division was moving deep into the Delta where a cavalry unit could operate only on roads. So Abrams detached us and sent us as far north as he could. All the way to the DMZ, even though Northern I Corps as it was called was controlled by the USMC. Our squadron and a tank battalion from another division were attached to the Marines.
We became the first Army unit to fire weapons across the DMZ.
The most northern USMC post was at Dong Ha, which was the most desolate place I’d seen in Vietnam. To go in the tiny PX, which was hardly worth going into, you had to wait your turn standing in a trench. That experience might just have whetted my interest in being a volunteer at the National WW I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. Trench warfare in The Great War and all that.
During our tenure near the DMZ we had several exciting happenings. Tanks from one of our troops was in the DMZ when a tank commander spotted some antenna-looking things sticking out of the ground. He flashed word back, and since no one in operations had been briefed on such a thing, he was ordered to use the tank machine gun to destroy it.
The thought was it could be some sort of new North Vietnamese mine that might destroy or damage a tank. So destroy it, and several others, the tank did. A few days later our squadron commander was ordered to report to CIA headquarters in DaNang. There he was read the riot act by the station chief, railing that we had destroyed several million dollars worth of McNamara’s Wall, a string of electronic antennas across the DMZ to detect troop movement south.
The CIA chief said our colonel’s career was finished. When the chief finished railing, our unflappable colonel asked how we were supposed to have known the devices were McNamara’s Wall. “You weren’t,” the chief yelled. “It is top secret.” Our colonel replied, “Now it is top secret junk,” and got up and walked out. Last I heard he was a brigadier general. Hope he got higher.
I was pay officer one month, and paid a lieutenant in the squadron named Peter Gallo. He was the grandson of either Ernest or Julio of the California wine empire. Sadly it was the last pay Lt. Gallo ever got as he was killed in action before the next month.
We stayed in DMZ land several months then moved south toward DaNang. We were replaced by troops of the 5th Mechanized Division. And on July 9, 1971, the 5th Mech turned all its fire bases along the DMZ over to South Vietnamese troops. No U.S. soldier was sad to depart the DMZ, now a money-making tourist attraction for Vietnam. I would love to go check it out some day.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and Department of the Army civilian employee.