By John E. Billingsley
According to Federal Law, the Vietnam Era is the period beginning on February 28, 1961, and ending on May 7, 1975. On the first day of that era I was five years old. On the last day, I was nineteen years old and a member of the United States Army.
I grew up with the Vietnam War. As the last U.S. combat troops were withdrawn from the Republic of Vietnam in August 1972, I was engaged in two-a-day football practices in preparation for my senior high school season. I planned to enter the Army in the spring following graduation. Another member of that football team named David Hambrock was planning to enlist in the Marine Corps. Hambrock was a big guy and because of both his name and appearance his nickname was “Hammie”.
In January, 1973, a peace treaty was signed, ending direct United States involvement in the war. As the last American troops came home in March, 1973, President Nixon announced that the United States would continue to support the Republic of Vietnam. On July 2, 1973, I became a member of the United States Corps of Cadets at West Point and began what was to be a four-year course of training to become an officer of the United States Army.
West Point is located in the rugged country of the Hudson Highlands along the Hudson River in the State of New York. During the American Revolution, General George Washington considered West Point to be the most important strategic point in America, West Point was fortified in 1778 and became General Washington’s headquarters in 1779. West Point is the oldest continuously occupied military post in America.
In 1780, the commander of the fortress at West Point and its surrounding defenses was General Benedict Arnold. General Arnold enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest revolutionary generals. However, he felt that his talents were underappreciated and under compensated so he made covert contact with the British and negotiated his defection.
In late September, 1780, General Washington was returning to his headquarters after a meeting with a French Admiral whose Navy was supporting our war against the British. A messenger rode into headquarters with news that a British intelligence officer wearing civilian clothes had been captured by a Patriot patrol. The officer carried plans, diagrams, and instructions for the infiltration and capture of West Point and the capture of General Washington. Upon receipt of this information, Benedict Arnold made a mysterious and hasty departure.
Further investigation determined that the documents were in the handwriting of Benedict Arnold. Upon recognition of the handwriting, General Washington trembled with rage. Had Arnold’s scheme worked to perfection, not only would West Point have been lost, but General Washington and his staff been taken with it. The following day a statement was read to the entire Army. It began, “Treason of the blackest dye was yesterday discovered.”
The British never succeeded in capturing West Point. The war was won. The nation was founded upon the Constitution. In 1802 the United States Military Academy was founded at West Point. The Corps of Cadets is the oldest continuously constituted unit of the regular United States Army. I joined the Corps 171 years after its beginning.
In 1973, there were Vietnam veterans in the Corps of Cadets. The Cadet First Captain had served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division. He had a chest full of medals. A classmate and eventual friend of mine was shot by an AK47 in Vietnam in 1970. Our trainers and instructors were Vietnam Veterans. They wore the Combat Infantry Badge, jump wings, the Ranger tab, and the Purple Heart.
The officer in charge of our tactical training was Brigadier General Phillip R. Feir. General Feir was a West Point graduate and infantry officer. He had been a battalion and brigade commander in Vietnam. The older cadets told us, “You have nothing to fear but Feir himself.”
Our mission was to defend the Hudson Highlands from the “Aggressors”. The Aggressors were either members of the 101st Airborne or senior cadets. The guys from the 101st were a tough bunch. Our training was intensive. On my tenth day at West Point I flew in a helicopter for the first time. We conducted an air assault operation. We flew in Hueys from the 101st that had the Screaming Eagle painted on the nose. After insertion into the LZ, I volunteered to be the point man for our platoon. Within ten minutes I led us into an ambush. A team of soldiers from the 101st shot us up with blanks and we were all declared dead. It was my eighteenth birthday. We were then declared alive and sent onto the next battle.
Nobody realized it at the time, but during the summer of our basic training in August 1973, Congress passed a law that would prohibit the support that President Nixon had promised to South Vietnam. Another thing that nobody paid much attention to was a political scandal involving President Nixon called Watergate.
During the fall and following spring we prepared for the missions of defending West Germany and South Korea. Iran was our ally then, and there was a concern that they might be invaded by the Soviet Union. The need to defend oil supplies in the Persian Gulf was recognized, and there was discussion of the formation of a rapid deployment force to intervene in the Middle East. Wars of national liberation threatened the established order in Central and South America.
Many of the cadets who were there in 1973 went on to distinguish themselves in the wars of the next century. David Petraus, Ray Odierno, and Stanley McCrystal served as four star generals in wars not envisioned in 1973. Meanwhile, South Vietnam was holding its own as an independent country.
I had a good first year at West Point. In the spring of 1974, I had a small encounter with General Feir. He inspected me very closely and paid me a compliment. At the end of my first year, I was named to the Commandant’s List for Military Excellence. This meant that I was in the top ten percent of the class for military aptitude and leadership.
In July of 1974, we were back in the field at Camp Buckner. I was at the head of a company formation, with one man in front of me. We were moving at the double time, running in step. We were under full gear in a torrential rain. We were headed downhill on a road that was very rough and full of holes. I suddenly experienced a white hot flash of pain in the lower right leg more intense than I have very felt before or since. I immediately went down and was run over by the rest of the company. All around me were boots pounding up and down. I lay in tremendous pain as they disappeared down the road and into the rain. They left me behind. My right ankle felt and acted like it was broken. I used my M-16 as a cane to hobble back to the barracks. I had badly torn the lateral ligaments in my right ankle. After that things were never the same for me.
A few days later we were in company formation on a long morning run. Again the white hot flash of pain exploded in my leg. I passed out and went down. My comrades ran on. As I came to I was being treated by a couple of medics from the 101st Airborne detail who had been following in a jeep. They wrapped my ankle and took me back to the company area and dropped me off. I was alone as I waited for the company to return from the run.
On August 9, 1974, I was on crutches and on the sick list. My company was in the field. A couple of dozen of us injured guys were back in the barracks at Camp Buckner. I was Charge of Quarters. I heard on the radio that President Nixon was going to resign due to the Watergate affair. I left the company day room and hobbled to a recreation center where there was a television set. I figured that nobody would come around on inspection while the President was resigning on TV. I was right. Everybody was watching the TV. I watched the President’s resignation speech and crutched my way back to my post before anybody knew I was missing. So much for the commander in chief. Gerald Ford became president. After that, things were never the same for the Republic of Vietnam, although in the meantime South Vietnam continued to hold its own against North Vietnam.
One of the requirements for graduation at West Point at that time was continuous participation in a variety of contact sports. In the fall of 1974, I looked forward to a return in my role as a member of the company eight man football team. I was equipped with a fiberglass brace for my lower right leg. The brace enabled me to play with such enthusiasm that our team won the Third Regiment Championship and I smashed the end of my right clavicle bone in my shoulder. Throughout the winter and into the spring of 1975, I worked to get off the injured list and back to full duty.
In the spring of 1975 I volunteered for jump school and passed the physical fitness test, but my time for the two mile run was two minutes and twenty seconds slower than the year before. In April 1975, I volunteered for a military skills competition. It was a light infantry exercise requiring land navigation, rapid movement across rugged terrain, and rifle marksmanship as a member of a four man team. My navigation and shooting were outstanding, but my ankle greatly slowed me down, and as a result the performance of my team was impaired.
The Vietnam War escalated in the spring of 1975. During the time that I had been at West Point, South Vietnam had successfully defended itself. In March, 1975, North Vietnam launched a conventional force invasion of South Vietnam in flagrant violation of the peace treaty. The United States took no measures to enforce the treaty or to support its ally, the Republic of Vietnam. Over a period of fifty-five days the Republic of Vietnam was overrun. The capital of Saigon was captured on April 30, 1975. One week before Saigon was captured, President Ford gave a speech declaring an end to the Vietnam War and all U.S. aid.
On April 29, and 30, 1975, a remarkable thing happened at West Point. All cadets were ordered to the basement of their respective barracks to watch the evening news on television. There were televisions there for the viewing privileges of senior cadets, but cadets in the first two years were not allowed to watch television in the main barracks. For myself and at least half of us, this was our first time in this area. There, in this space carved from the granite heart of the Hudson Highlands, we were required to watch the scenes of the fall of Saigon, including the helicopters lifting people from the roof of the U.S. Embassy. Shock and disbelief permeated the rooms. Tears streamed down the faces of cadets who had been in-country.
The next day, May 1, 1975, was an academic day, but no attention was paid to subject matter. All discussion was about the war. Not since the treason of Benedict Arnold had such a mood of anger, betrayal, and disappointment engulfed West Point and the persons stationed there. I recall a lieutenant colonel, veteran of two tours, decorated, wounded and whose brother was killed there, expressing his disbelief that our country could sacrifice so many soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coast guardsman and then just allow all of our efforts and our ally to be destroyed. This was the general sentiment. It was terrible and unique day to be at West Point.
On May 7, 1975, President Ford declared that the Vietnam Era had ended. Congress later made this the official ending date. Five days later the American freighter Mayaguez was captured by Cambodian communists. A group of Marines was flown from the Philippines to Thailand to recapture the ship and rescue the crew. A force of Marines was ambushed at a place called Koh Tang Island. A desperate fight ensued over several days. The marines suffered fifteen killed, forty-one wounded, and three missing in action. It was later determined that the three missing were left behind and subsequently killed.
At this same time I was ordered to a hearing before a panel of officers who interviewed me while reviewing my medical records. The panel informed me that due to my injuries, I would not be approved for jump school. I was informed that I would need surgery to correct my injuries. I was informed that I would not be authorized this surgery until I had successfully completed Northern Warfare School in Alaska, a month as a platoon leader with the Ninth Infantry Division in Fort Lewis, Washington, and started the academic year.
I expressed a concern that without the surgery I might be more of a burden than an asset in Alaska and Fort Lewis. They agreed with my concern and one officer said, “That’s your problem.” Another officer said, “Frankly, Mr. Billingsley, it doesn’t look like you are going to be able to do much good for us.” I saluted, about faced, left the room, and resigned my appointment to the military academy.
I was honorably discharged on July 7, 1975. I had served two years and five days. I was authorized the National Defense Service Medal. After some time had gone by I received a letter from the Veterans Administration requesting my presence at an interview at the VA in Indianapolis. At the interview I was informed that due to the nature and timing of my injuries I was a Vietnam Era veteran with a service connected combat related disability and was entitled to pension, medical, and vocational rehabilitation benefits. The interviewer had a file on me. My case was well documented. I had never made a claim and I couldn’t imagine how the information came to the VA.
The vocational rehabilitation benefits allowed me to return to school and become a lawyer. Thanks to the generosity of my country I was able to become an officer of the court rather than an officer of the Army. Years later, I learned that the military skills competition in April, 1975, was a key project of General Feir which came to be known as the Sandhurst Competition and which continues today on an international basis. Today, I believe that General Feir was responsible for communicating my information through the proper channels. I believe that I owe him thanks for the career with which I have been blessed.
After I had been home awhile, I ran into a teammate from the 1972 high school football team. From him I learned that Hammie Hambrock had been one the marines at Koh Tang Island. He got shot as he exited the helicopter and spent the next three days pinned down and wounded. The battle at Koh Tang Island began on May 15, 1975. The Vietnam Era ended eight days earlier. Despite that, the names of the Marines killed there were engraved into the Wall in Washington D.C. The wounded were awarded the Purple Heart. It was the end of an era.