The briefing I gave for General Abrams got off to an unpromising start. He was extremely busy in late June 1968, the month in which he replaced General Westmoreland as the Commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV). His staff officers had been annoyed by my repeatedly telling several of them that Leonard Sullivan and other influential officials in the Pentagon expected me to show General Abrams improved personal equipment for South Vietnamese soldiers. Such equipment, if made available in adequate quantities, would contribute to Vietnam’s ability to defend itself with its own troops. Later, the development of that capability was officially called Vietnamization, a principal component of the strategy for phased withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Vietnam without causing the defeat of our ally. Vietnamization became General Abrams’ most difficult objective.
Most of General Abrams’ staff officers had served on General Westmoreland’s staff and should have been more actively concerned with getting our inefficient ally better equipped. Unfortunately, typical staff officers know little about the needs of jungle infantrymen for better personal equipment. They were reluctant to have a civilian show their new commander needed items of combat equipment that they had not advocated. A mitigating circumstance: unlike in World War II and the Korean War, during the Vietnam War Natick and most other Army laboratories did not have equipment specialists observing combat units in action, determining what new equipment was needed and advising higher commanders and their staffs how they could go about getting new and improved items.
Only four days before I left Vietnam for Malaysia on my final return trip to Washington, a staff Brigadier told me to come to General Abrams’ office the next day and lay out on a long table the items of personal equipment then being issued to South Vietnamese soldiers, and the contrasting improved ones. My briefing was to begin on the hour General Abrams planned to be back from an inspection trip. To my surprise, before the appointed time about 10 staff and supply officers came into the general’s office to await his return and the start of my briefing. They were not as concerned as I was when we still were waiting half an hour after the designated time for the start of my briefing had passed.
General Abrams entered his office looking grim, with an unlit cigar clamped in his mouth. His stern eyes seemed to say to me: “Who are you, civilian, using your Washington connections to barge in on me, wasting my time?”
Realizing I was on the spot, during almost all of my briefing I looked only at General Abrams. In turn I showed him samples of the unsatisfactory boots, uniforms, ponchos, packs, ammunition-carrying equipment, etc. then being issued to Vietnamese soldiers, each contrasted with a superior, lighter item they needed.
Real things are more convincing than mere words. General Abrams became increasingly interested in my display. ARVN boots — high-topped impermeable sneakers that kept feet wet and caused crippling fungus infections, made on Japanese lasts sized for narrow Japanese feet — obviously were inferior to well drained, properly sized U.S. Jungle Boots with mud-shedding, traction-improving Panama Soles. ARVN and other South Vietnamese packs, rucksacks, and web gear were made of heavy, water-absorbent, rot-prone cotton duck; nylon packs designed like the U.S. Army’s World War II cotton-duck Jungle Packs, frameless and with waterproof, durable Packliner Bags, were much lighter and better, and would provide buoyancy when soldiers slipped into deep water or were swimming across streams and canals. Small waterproof food bags, similar to the food bags in which American jungle infantrymen carried their dry, ready-to-eat World War II Jungle Ration, would help Vietnamese infantrymen carry their rice, and, hopefully, the dry, ready-to-eat, inexpensive combat rations they needed.
General Abrams appeared to agree that the nylon bandoleers and nylon ammo bags (of improved designs compared to the cotton-cloth bandoleers and Claymore mine bags used by many Americans) were superior to and much lighter than the heavy, often rotted cotton ammo pouches and cartridge belts being issued to Vietnamese soldiers.
I showed General Abrams that the standard issue American poncho is so long that a typically short Vietnamese soldier had difficulty walking when wearing one. Also that very light jungle hammocks, as good as the captured one-pound open hammock I displayed, were needed if elite South Vietnamese foot soldiers were to be trained to live and maneuver in the jungle as well as their enemies did. The captured North Vietnamese hammock was made of very lightweight, permeable nylon dress material, with an attached, mosquito-protective false bottom of parachute cloth. I also advocated nylon headnets and nylon sandfly nets.
My chart of comparative weights proved that, if the recommended equipment were supplied, a typical ARVN infantryman’s dry load would be lightened by at least five pounds, and by considerably more when wet. His improved equipment would help him keep healthy and become a more mobile and effective fighting man.
There was no need for me to mention that the expense of hundreds of thousands of these simple items, many of which could be fabricated in Vietnam, would be only a very small fraction of the cost of a few helicopters or tanks. (Like all Americans I knew in Vietnam, I did not anticipate that before the Russian-equipped mechanized North Vietnamese Army attacked and won the war essentially all American forces would be withdrawn and the U.S. Congress would refuse to appropriate even the funds needed to buy spare parts for aircraft and shells for the guns we had given to our Vietnamese ally.)
At the conclusion of my 30-minute briefing General Abrams ordered his supply officers to determine, in conjunction with their South Vietnamese counterparts, how to obtain the items most needed by our allies. Then he thanked me for having done practical work, and departed.
General Abrams’ most difficult responsibility was to accelerate Vietnamization, our belated attempt to equip, help organize, and train the anti-communist Vietnamese so that they could better defend themselves against both the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese invaders. The initial, least expensive, least time-consuming phase of Vietnamization was to improve the arms, equipment, and training of infantrymen in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and in the long-neglected Regional Forces (RF), Popular Forces (PF), and Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG). The continuing killing and wounding of Americans, mostly in ground combat, was demoralizing the American public and Congress. If South Vietnamese troops were better equipped and trained they could do more of the fighting, Americans would suffer fewer casualties, and residual American support for the war might continue until victory was won.
I left General Abrams’ office feeling that at least I had tried to help the generally poorly led, equipped and trained, yet enduring South Vietnamese foot soldiers. But I knew enough about the basic inefficiency and corruption of many Vietnamese officers and civilian officials and their emphasis on sophisticated heavy weapons not to be hopeful of major improvements in their infantrymen’s equipment. My pessimism proved justified, for reasons including one attributed to Major General John H. Cushman in a U.S. Army official account of part of the Vietnam war. (Advice and Support, The Final Years, The U.S. Army in Vietnam, by Jeffrey J. Clarke, was published in 1988 by the Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C.) Clarke stated that General Cushman concluded in 1970 that too much of the Vietnamization program was devoted to sophisticated equipment and that it was “increasingly evident” that this emphasis tended to “inhibit the [South] Vietnamese from responding with more primitive means available to them to cope with infiltration and the problem of locating the enemy (such means as night ambushes and patrols).”
Today one of the continuing problems that Americans face when helping an underdeveloped nation defend itself against internal or external aggressions is how to persuade its typical generals to buy or request, for example, tens of thousands of pairs of improved boots and lightweight nylon packs needed by their infantrymen, rather than one additional modern gunship helicopter costing as much.
My first favorable impression of General Abrams was indirect, and was formed shortly before my briefing. A few days after he assumed command of all American forces in Vietnam I was walking down one of the long, air-conditioned corridors of his MACV headquarters. Through the open door of a general’s office I saw carpenters tearing the decorative mahogany panelling off the walls. Curious, I asked the foreman what was going on. He told me that under General Abrams’ orders the panelling was being removed from all walls, which were to be merely painted. Encouraging! General Abrams obviously was trying to impress his generals with the fact that they were in a serious war, not a business-as-usual operation. Too many ranking officers in our armed services inappropriately adopt civilian values and status symbols, including the panelled offices of corporation executives. Civilian-oriented officers do not realize that if they lived more Spartan lives they would be more likely to gain the respect of American fighting men and American taxpayers.
Vietnamization was undertaken too late, years after our Vietnamese allies had assumed they always would be protected by the United States. It failed despite the logical planning and hard work of General Abrams and thousands of other Americans. His superiors treated General Abrams fairly and did not blame him for not succeeding; they promoted him to Army Chief of Staff.