National Guard May 2012 : Page 36
G UARD R OOTS : V IETNAM Split By Bob Haskell Apart EW VETERANS HAVE carried the torch of Vietnam service higher and longer than Wil-liam Corsair McGroarty. But don’t get him wrong. He’s not on a lifelong ego trip because he fought in Southeast Asia. Instead, he just wants the world to know how and why he and other soldiers from the Rhode Island Army National Guard’s 115th Military Police Company were ordered to Vietnam in 1968-69 because he is afraid they’re among America’s forgotten warriors. Some Guard Vietnam veterans feel cheated—not because they were sent to an unpopular war, but by the way they were sent, and how it taints their legacy 36 F | Na tional Guard
Some Guard Vietnam veterans feel cheated—not because they were sent to an unpopular war, but by the way they were sent, and how it taints their legacy<br /> <br /> FEW VETERANS HAVE carried the torch of Vietnam service higher and longer than William Corsair McGroarty. But don’t get him wrong. He’s not on a lifelong ego trip because he fought in Southeast Asia.<br /> <br /> Instead, he just wants the world to know how and why he and other soldiers from the Rhode Island Army National Guard’s 115th Military Police Company were ordered to Vietnam in 1968-69 because he is afraid they’re among America’s forgotten warriors.<br /> <br /> “The guys have not been acknowledged in over four decades. It’s like we never happened. But everybody showed up and did the right thing,” insists the man whose professional name is Bill Corsair and who, at 71, still works as an actor in Manhattan.<br /> <br /> He received a Screen Actors Guild award for his 60 seconds as a newsreel reporter in the movie Chicago, which won a 2002 Academy Award.<br /> <br /> In 1969, however, he was a staff sergeant and among 49 soldiers from the MP company from Pawtucket, R.I., who were scattered across South Vietnam, serving in other outfits with people they didn’t know due to the Army’s “levy” system.<br /> <br /> Some, including the uncompromising company commander, Joseph Del Sesto, who died in 2008, volunteered. But most were levied involuntarily and sent to war as individual replacements.<br /> <br /> They were not the only ones. Although the procedure isn’t well-known, the Army levied and sent to Vietnam a few thousand Guard soldiers in 12 units that mobilized for duty at home in 1968 (box, right), says Guard historian John Listman.<br /> <br /> “Once you’re on active duty, you belong to the Army,” he explains. “The Army can come in and take anybody they want.” <br /> <br /> And the Army did exactly that in a weekly lottery to fill personnel losses overseas.<br /> <br /> DIFFERENT RECOLLECTIONS <br /> <br /> Figures are not available for exactly how many Guard soldiers the Army levied for Vietnam, Listman says. But 2,397 citizen-soldiers from the Kansas-based 69th Infantry Brigade were levied after being sent to Fort Carson, Colo., and 39 from Kansas and Iowa lost their lives in Vietnam.<br /> <br /> No one from the Rhode Island MP company made the ultimate sacrifice, but at least two men were wounded and one received the Purple Heart.<br /> <br /> The 115th’s veterans have different memories of all that happened to them beginning 44 years ago this month. But they all agree on the basics.<br /> <br /> The 126-man company mobilized to train and serve at the U.S. Military Academy on May 13, 1968. They expected to be there for about 18 months. They passed their Army Training Test and began working with the activecomponent Mps stationed at West Point, N.Y. Then, late in the year, the Army began levying members of the 115th—one or two at a time—for duty in Vietnam.<br /> <br /> The levying continued into the spring of 1969. The 115th’s levied soldiers and volunteers served overseas for between six and 10 months. Corsair, who became a broadcast journalist under his surname McGroarty, and two of his comrades wound up with the 1st Cavalry Division.<br /> <br /> Others served with such well-known outfits as the 1st Infantry and the 101st Airborne divisions. Everyone returned to West Point in November 1969, and the entire company demobilized and returned to Rhode Island in early December.<br /> <br /> To say they were surprised about being levied would be an understatement. <br /> <br /> “The levy system? Yeah, it was over in Holland. It held back the water. They had one down in New Orleans, too. That’s all we knew about it,” recalls retired Col. Gerry Stewart, who was a platoon sergeant and who volunteered for Vietnam duty when other 115th soldiers began getting orders for Southeast Asia.<br /> <br /> For Stewart, Vietnam was where the action was. But others weren’t so eager to go. They were civilians at heart—teachers, bankers, automobile mechanics and telephone company employees. Corsair was a Providence, R.I., radio disc jockey and the voice for Hasbro’s new G.I. Joe talking doll.<br /> <br /> They had careers and families, mortgages and car pay ments. Getting drafted and going to Vietnam wasn’t in their plans.<br /> <br /> Many Guard soldiers shared similar anxieties in 1968, arguably the 20th century’s most turbulent year. The North Koreans seized and held the U.S.S. Pueblo and its crew. The Tet Offensive erupted in Vietnam. And protests and demonstrations against the most unpopular war in U.S. history broke out on college campuses nationwide.<br /> <br /> President Lyndon Johnson had long resisted advice from senior Pentagon officials to send the Guard to Vietnam, but he relented in April 1968 and called up 24,500 reservecomponent troops, including about 13,000 Army Guard soldiers from 20 states.<br /> <br /> Nearly 3,000 of those Guardsmen were in eight units that went intact to Vietnam. Among them was the107th Signal Company, the other Rhode Island Army Guard outfit mobilized May 13, 1968.<br /> <br /> On the surface, the two Rhode Island companies seem to illustrate the differences in the Guard’s deployments. Unlike the 115th, the 107th knew from the get-go that its 350 men would deploy to Vietnam, recalls Jimmy Pascetta, one of the company’s radio-teletype operators.<br /> <br /> But it was not that cut and dried. First, most members of the 107th, who first went to Fort Devens, Mass., for training, made it clear from the start that they didn’t want to go to Vietnam. Many were former artillerymen who believed they weren’t properly trained for the signal mission.<br /> <br /> More than 200 members of the 107th ended up filing a class-action lawsuit, arguing that the orders violated their constitutional rights because Congress hadn’t declared war and the president hadn’t declared a national emergency.<br /> <br /> But the suit was found to be without merit. A three-judge panel in Massachusetts denied the Rhode Islanders’ request for an injunction and the outfit deployed to Vietnam.<br /> <br /> Second, the 107th didn’t serve as a unit in Vietnam. It was attached to the 1st Signal Brigade at Long Binh, South Vietnam. Groups of soldiers were detached to numerous units in the southern part of the country to man communications centers and switchboards, to run wire or to do other jobs.<br /> <br /> “We all went and made the best of it. Nobody shirked their duty, says Pascetta. “We went as a unit. We came home as a unit. But we were not there as a unit. However, nobody went off alone.” <br /> <br /> That was not the way it worked for the 115th, which, according to retired Col. John Melia, was originally sent to West Point to respond to civil disturbances in the New York City area if military police were ever needed. They never were.<br /> <br /> So, they were sent one or two at a time to Vietnam after the levying began in late 1968.<br /> <br /> “The rationale was that the original mission was not as critical as augmenting the support troops in Vietnam,” says former Capt. Robert Bruce. No one sued because Del Sesto wouldn’t tolerate it, he and others maintain.<br /> <br /> TOUGH CALLS <br /> <br /> The last day of the workweek seems to be when the men learned their fate.<br /> <br /> “Friday was not a good day at West Point,” recalls Bruce. “If you had not gotten a call from the first sergeant by noon to report to the commander’s office, you knew you had dodged the bullet again. If you did get that call, you knew what it meant.” <br /> <br /> But that’s about all the levied soldiers did know. They flew from the Hudson River winter to the 100-degree heat and humidity of Vietnam not knowing where they would be serving, what they would be doing, or whom they would be doing it with.<br /> <br /> “We had no point of contact because we didn’t have an assignment,” says Corsair. “When you stepped off the plane, you went to a processing center, and you would look for your orders and where you were going every day. I guess they divvied you out according to the needs of any division that was there.” <br /> <br /> After getting their orders and finding their units, the 115th’s soldiers encountered the same ugly war that other Gis were fighting.<br /> <br /> Combat became an accepted way of life, says Corsair, who put in most of his time close to then Cambodia before spending his last 52 days at the Armed Forces Network in Saigon. He flew around the country in 1st Cav helicopters enough to earn an Air Medal, and he received a Bronze Star.<br /> <br /> “In my heart of hearts, I didn’t think I was going to come home. I thought I’d buy it somewhere,” Corsair says. “After you were there awhile, you weren’t afraid of dying. What you didn’t want to do was be captured or maimed.” <br /> <br /> Meanwhile, the 115th members back at West Point augmented the post’s Mps and were reinforced by Reservists from St. Louis, some of whom also were levied to Vietnam.<br /> <br /> They directed traffic, trained others to deal with civil disturbances, and worked lots of funerals for academy graduates killed in Vietnam, says Melia, who commanded the 115th toward the end of the tour.<br /> <br /> That duty didn’t sit well with some of those who were left behind.<br /> <br /> Melia says, “We had joined together, served together, and felt we should go to combat together. And that didn’t happen.” <br /> <br /> There were no funerals for the 115th’s soldiers who did deploy, although there were some close calls. <br /> <br /> Spc. 6 Edmund Michaud received a Purple Heart after being wounded in a firefight while with the 101st Airborne. Bruce was sprayed with shrapnel and lost two fingers on his right hand six weeks after arriving in country when another GI’s grenade exploded.<br /> <br /> Beyond that, eight men earned Bronze Stars, four received Air Medals, 14 got Army Commendation Medals, and the 115th returned to Pawtucket in December 1969 with a commendation for “outstanding contributions” and “exemplary performance of duty” from the superintendent of West Point.<br /> <br /> Members of the 107th also received kudos, including 11 Bronze Stars and 63 ARCOMs, for its tour of duty, during which three died in noncombat incidents.<br /> <br /> But here’s the rub. Whereas the 107th earned four battle streamers, the 115th received none because the company’s flag remained at West Point.<br /> <br /> COULD HAPPEN AGAIN <br /> <br /> That the 115th was split apart still rankles Corsair. And it doesn’t sit much better with Guard leaders.<br /> <br /> Corsair believes the 115th, whose motto was “They’ll Know We Were Here,” has never gotten the credit it deserves for Vietnam.<br /> <br /> Guard leaders are concerned more with the bigger picture of unit integrity and mission and being considered a source of spare parts.<br /> <br /> “The Guard is opposed to levying individuals because it breaks unit integrity. It does not want to be considered an Individual Ready Reserve,” says Listman. “You come in and take certain people as individuals, that unit’s broke.” <br /> <br /> “We as a National Guard organization have evolved to the point where we look at mobilizing units and keeping units together,” says Maj. Gen. Kevin McBride, the Rhode Island adjutant general. "The units are designed to do a specific mission, and picking and choosing [people] as backfills for vacancies in other organizations is probably not something I would do immediately.” <br /> <br /> However, Listman and McBride concede that levying soldiers for that purpose could happen again.<br /> <br /> “The system still exists and could be used at any time,” Listman says. “It’s whatever the Army’s needs are.”<br /> <br /> McBride adds, “The Army’s not a democracy. For the good of the nation and the good of the Army, we do what we need to do. Sometimes we don’t like it, but we just do it.” <br /> <br /> Bob Haskell is a retired Maine Army National Guard master sergeant and a freelance journalist in Falmouth, Mass. He may be contacted via email@example.com.