After his discharge from the US Navy in 1971, Dave Lange set out on a hitchhiking excursion across the country, through the Rocky Mountains and on to California. He is pictured here with his own “hippie van,” purchased in 1974.
The following excerpt describes Lange’s return home, in 1970, between deployments in the Brown Water Navy’s riverine forces of Vietnam and on the USS Forrestal.
Welcome Home, Baby Killer
Whoops, cheers and vigorous applause resounded through the fuselage of the jet plane on Feb. 3, 1970, as the wheels left the pavement. The runways and hangars of Tan Son Nhut Air Base shrank below our glazing eyes. We were going back to the world.
More than 11,000 of my fellow Americans went home in body bags during the year I spent in Vietnam. That was about eight times the number of Americans killed during the deadliest years of the 21st-century wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined. Mine was the second-deadliest year of the Vietnam War. Nearly 16,600 Americans died there in 1968. Yet, in 2010, I found myself countering false information spread by the federal government and regurgitated in public addresses on patriotic holidays that those latter-day conflicts were far more hazardous than mine.
During the deadliest year in Iraq, 2007, 965 Americans lost their lives there, 5.7 per each 1,000 troops in country. During my year in Vietnam, 1969, 24.4 of my brothers were killed per each 1,000 troops in country, more than four times the death rate at the height of the Iraq War. The Vietnam death rate was even higher at 31 per each 1,000 troops in 1968.
These facts do not diminish the sacrifices of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, after four long decades, the government’s continuing effort to sweep Vietnam veterans under the rug really does get tiring.
For the final time, I looked over the bomb-pocked earth of South Vietnam stretching as far as the eye could see toward the Central Highlands. In North Vietnam, where our pilots and bombardiers put their lives, limbs and tortured captures on the line, more tons of bombs were dropped during our war than the totals dropped on Japan, Germany and Italy in World War II.
Yet, nearly a half century later, with the self-imposed encumbrance of 20/200 vision, revisionists insist that victory was in sight, if only we had continued our bombardment. Sure, we could have kept bombing Hanoi, even though 600,000 of the city’s 800,000 civilians had been resiliently evacuated to the surrounding countryside and mountains. Hell, we had only dropped $6 billion worth of bombs on North Vietnam.
Prior to his election as leader of the free world, Richard M. Nixon was convinced after the 1968 Tet Offensive that the killing was futile. As revealed in John A. Farrell’s enlightening 2017 book, “Richard Nixon: The Life,” he said so in no uncertain terms to speechwriter Richard Whalen. “I’ve come to the conclusion there’s no way to win the war,” Nixon said. “We can’t say that, of course. In fact, we have to seem to say the opposite, just to keep some degree of bargaining leverage. But the war can’t be brought to a successful military conclusion.”
So the killing continued for seven more years. One-and-a-half years after Nixon reached his conclusion, Ben Linnen, the son of my parents’ neighbors, became one of his dead bargaining chips. Two-and-a-half years after Nixon reached his conclusion, my buddy Rick Morgan perished with no successful conclusion in sight. More than 21,000 Americans died in Vietnam during Nixon’s presidency. What a bargain!
The point often has been made that we won every major battle of the Vietnam War. Then-President Barack Obama reiterated that contention in a 2011 speech to the American Legion. Noting that Vietnam veterans did not receive the respect they deserved, he said, “But let it be remembered that you won every major battle of that war. Every single one.”
What constituted a major battle in Vietnam probably defies specifications from earlier wars, certainly the ones that engulfed the world earlier in the 20th century. Among the personal accounts relayed to me by the riverine men I knew, it was smaller hit-and-run battles that dominated our war. Based on body counts and who most often ran for their lives, we won those battles too.
By any means, ours was not “The Great War,” the volumetric title bestowed on World War I. We did not become known as the “Greatest Generation,” the accolade associated with World War II. Nor did we fight “The Forgotten War,” the term so often mentioned with the Korean War, which could be re-engaged at any unforgettable moment.
For most of us, forgotten would have been better than “losers.” As for body counts, our side, including the South Vietnamese military and civilians, suffered about 672,000 losses in the war, while we inflicted about 1.06 million losses upon our communist enemies. Somehow, though, we were the “losers,” according to many who distinguished themselves as winners.
As our commercial plane full of relieved Vietnam veterans jetted northeast across the South China Sea toward Okinawa, there were no losers among us.
We didn’t just face off against the communists of North Vietnam and their surrogate Viet Cong in the South. Mostly forgotten about our mercilessly unforgotten war is the fact that we persevered against the largest and most powerful communist collaborators in the world, Red China and the Soviet Union.
Where did the moviemakers and baby-killer accusers think all those state-of-the-art AK-47s came from? What about the thousands of surface-to-air missiles that were used to blast our bombers and helicopters out of the sky? And hundreds of North Vietnamese tanks, aircraft and naval vessels?
Unlike doomed-to-repeat-history politicians and their amnesic worshipers, Vietnam veterans know about the autocratic enemies in the Kremlin who conspired to annihilate us then and would do the same now. Conveniently ensconced in the rewards of self-enrichment above duty to country, Vietnam War evaders and Moscow connivers became chosen ones in the political campaign and administration of pussy-hawk-in-chief Donald J. Trump.
Officers and just plain men
I leaned back in my cushioned airline seat, breathed easy and patted the inside breast pocket of the stylish sport jacket that I acquired from a tailor in Bangkok. The contents of the unopened pack labeled Lucky Strike were safely stashed. I pulled the opened pack of Marlboros from a flap pocket at my side, put one in my mouth and flicked my Zippo. I reread the engraving on its side: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for I am the evilest son of a bitch in the valley.”
I took a deep puff on my cigarette, closed my eyes and smiled. I thought about events of the past month.
Shortly after midnight on Jan. 1, I had led a small party of hardy celebrators out of the EM club to wish “Happy New Year” to our uppity leaders in the officers club at Nha Be. Instead of sharing a toast with us lowlifes or even reciprocal good cheer, a lieutenant junior grade from the communications staff snarled at us, “What do think you’re doing in here? Our club is off limits to you enlisted men.”
“What an arrogant asshole,” I thought of the junior officer whose acts of courage were daily treks from the BOQ to the comm office, from there to the officers dining hall for lunch and back, then back to the dining hall for dinner and on to the officers club before hitting his rack back in the BOQ.
My naval performance evaluation noted my “ability to accomplish, with dispatch, whatever task is assigned him.” But my evaluator also emphasized that I “could well be a top notch DK were it not for a few ‘chinks in his armor,’ i.e. occasional fits of rage and behavioral inconsistencies.”
“Fuck that asshole,” I thought of the lifer who never ventured out of the office to deliver paydays to our fighting men or even walk a perimeter watch. On second thought, I should have smashed my desk chair over his head instead of against the wall. Don’t give me your shit.
Just because I took a joy ride to Saigon without his consent, Lt. Jacot got pissed at me and postponed my rotation out of country from Feb. 15 to Feb. 28. It wasn’t like I ditched the damn Bronco in a rice paddy.
“Dear Mom,” I wrote after being summarily penalized. “I’m afraid I won’t be getting home in time for Vonnie’s wedding …” Obviously, Lt. Jacot didn’t know whose mom he was messing with. Two weeks later, he received a directive from the commanding officer that David Charles Lange’s transfer date was rescheduled to Feb. 3. I don’t know how my mother pulled that one off.
“Fuck the lieutenant,” I thought.
More than 9 million Americans served in uniform during the Vietnam War era — about one third of the draft-age men at that time. Fewer than 2.6 million of us actually served within the borders of Vietnam, about 8 percent of the men of my generation. An estimated 520,000 of the in-country service members regularly engaged the enemy on the ground.
The vast majority of those combatants were enlisted men, who account for more than 50,000 of the names engraved on the Wall in Washington, D.C. The names of about 7,900 officers and warrant officers are listed on the Wall. According to information compiled by Doug Sterner, curator of the Military Times Hall of Fame, and provided to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in 2014, “Vietnam’s Most Highly Decorated Servicemen” include 43 officers and just six enlisted men. So, while 13.6 percent of the Americans who died in Vietnam were officers, they accounted for 87.8 percent of the ones recognized as the most courageous heroes. There’s an inverse relationship between officers and just plain men.
Introduction to evil weed
A Congressional Quarterly article about a U.S. Senate Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee hearing in March 1970 indicated growing concerns about the wide use of drugs in Vietnam. Subcommittee chairman Thomas J. Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, said, “In Vietnam, dangerous drugs and even heroin are almost as available as candy bars. Estimates of drug abuse among Vietnam troops run as high as 80 percent, compared to 50 percent among youth in the United States. Furthermore, Vietnamese marijuana is usually more potent than that available in the United States.”
Charles West, a former Army sergeant who had participated in the 1968 infamy, told the subcommittee, “At least 60 percent of the soldiers in Charlie Company, the unit involved in the My Lai incident, had smoked marijuana at least once. Some soldiers smoked marijuana the night before they went to My Lai on the day of the alleged massacre.”
James W. Teague, a former Army psychiatrist in Vietnam, reported, “One survey of enlisted men at the end of their duty tour there revealed that 31.7 percent admitted — and I stress the word admitted — using marijuana while serving in Vietnam. Three-quarters of those said they used it experimentally, while the others admitted to being ‘heavy’ users. Of course, troops leaving Vietnam may be the most apprehensive in admitting any drug use.”
I can’t say whether 80 percent of the troops were drug abusers or 60 percent of the soldiers in Charlie Company tried marijuana or 31.7 percent of those leaving country had been toking. Again, I patted the inside breast pocket of my stylish sport coat. I was pretty sure those tenderly rolled doobies of Vietnamese ganja inside the recycled Lucky Strike pack were pretty potent, though.
Yep, my introduction to the evil weed came courtesy of the Vietnam War. I didn’t realize it at first, when, upon hearing Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” blaring on a record player, I paid a surprise visit to a neighboring barracks at Nha Be. A strange odor hung in the smoky air of the head-banging river rats’ compartment.
Surfer Boy Webb familiarized me with the odor, taste and euphoric impact of smoking pot on a back alley in Saigon six months later. For some reason, I never experienced the “psychotic episodes,” “violent criminal acts,” “feelings of persecution,” “general psychic disequilibrium” and various other adverse reactions cited in Rep. Dodd’s subcommittee hearing. It just made me feel relaxed and happy, for the wrong reason, I guess.
So I decided to take a sample home and share it with some friends. I would have packed my .38-caliber inside my sea bag to take home as well, except for the jerk at the Saigon PX who caused me to create a paper trail for the gun at the Annapolis. There were no metal detectors and intrusive pat-downs at the airports in those days.
Happy homecoming nonetheless
There were no hordes of hocker-hurling hippies waiting for returning Vietnam veterans at the San Francisco Airport either — not when I arrived.
The spitting image of veterans being splattered with spittle upon their homecoming was crystallized by actor Sylvester Stallone’s character, John Rambo, in the 1982 film “First Blood.” “It wasn’t my war,” the vengeful veteran Rambo said. “You asked me. I didn’t ask you. And I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn’t let us win. Then I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport. Protesting me. Spitting. Calling me baby killer.”
The common refrain involves returning warriors in uniform encountering hateful groups of anti-war protesters when they debarked at San Francisco International Airport. First of all, I didn’t debark at a civilian airport. Few of us did. My flight landed at Travis Air Force Base, and we traveled by bus from there to San Francisco. Secondly, most of those on my flight from Tan Son Nhut, via Okinawa, were wearing civilian clothes when we landed on the West Coast. Thirdly, if a big guy like Stinson were to spit on me, a violent clash would be sure to follow, regardless of the results. And I guarantee, if the spitter were a pissant little hippy, he or she would be well bloodied — which most likely would result in some verifiable documentation.
I suppose there are those whose response would be different. A dose of slimy saliva in the face might hurt the feelings of some Vietnam veterans and cause them to sulk away. I just don’t know them.
There were no slobbery excretions on the pungent lips of the young woman seated next to me on the flight to Cleveland, but her asinine attitude left a bad taste in my mouth. Plus it was a rude awakening. Two years earlier, I had seen pretty young things at the Hullabaloo swoon over a uniformed guy fresh out of basic training, which gave me the unenlightened idea that a genuine war veteran like me might get a modicum of courtesy. Wrong!
“Hi, my name’s Dave,” I said with my friendly smile. “Are you going to Cleveland?”
“Yes,” she said. No smile.
“Been on vacation in San Francisco?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Well, I just got back from Vietnam,” I said, “and I can’t tell you how happy I am to be going home.”
“So, how many babies did you kill?” she said with a stabbing glare.
“Babies? I didn’t kill any babies,” I stammered.
“Of course you did. All you guys who go to Vietnam participate in killing babies one way or another,” the bitch asserted.
“The fuck we did!” I concluded.
That was the end of that conversation. My good humor was spoiled. While I cannot collaborate stories about hippies spitting at returning veterans, I, for one, was called a baby killer by a well-dressed woman on an uncomfortably quiet flight to Cleveland. I didn’t mind exhaling tobacco smoke in her direction.
News of the My Lai Massacre of March 1968, when the scapegoat 2nd Lt. William Calley Jr.’s platoon murdered as many as 500 unarmed civilians, including women, children and infants, had just broken three months earlier. Explicit images of dead villagers were fresh in the minds of American newspaper and magazine readers and TV viewers, but I had been far away from the world, and the military media didn’t bother me with such distractions.
The limousine shuttle from Cleveland Hopkins Airport to Kent, where most of the other half-dozen young passengers probably had college classes the next morning, was no more conversational. My quip to the guy seated next to me that I hadn’t encountered any “round-eyed women for the past year” probably had something to do with that, although it didn’t seem racist or misogynistic to me. Hell, I liked, respected and defended Asian women.
Finally, after the limo driver dropped me off in the center of Stow and I stuck my thumb out on Darrow Road, a compassionate young woman picked me up. Not only did she welcome me back and tell me about her brother in the Marines, but she drove 5 miles out of her way to deliver me to my family’s front door on Treeside Drive.
It was a happy homecoming after all. My dad welcomed me home with a cold beer from the refrigerator. He had one with dinner every evening and then another one or two on some nights. His was the only “welcome home” I ever received from a World War II veteran. Ever.