Captain – U.S. Army Infantry
101st Airborne Division, 2nd Battalion
502nd Parachute Infantry
Vietnam War (1965 – 1968)
Thomas H. Taylor was a Captain in the U.S. Army Infantry during the Vietnam War. He was awarded the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for Valor as well as a Purple Heart. His military career began when he graduated from West Point in 1960. His father was a career army officer and Tom wanted to continue the family tradition by entering the101st Airborne Division of the Army Infantry, which his father had commanded during World War II.
Tom went to Fort Benning, Georgia for officer training and Ranger School. He also went to the airborne school, or jump school, where he learned to be a paratrooper. He said that jump school was quite easy and very brief, consisting mainly of instruction on how to put on a parachute, what to do when you jump out of the plane, and how to land. He said that Ranger school, in sharp contrast, was the toughest training he ever had and that it was excellent preparation for real warfare. Ranger training taught him how to operate in rough terrain, like swamps and mountains, and on very little sleep. “That’s very important because that’s what’s going to happen in combat.” He said that in Ranger School you show yourself that you can do things that you never thought you could do.
After his first assignment, where he trained in Germany as mechanized infantry, Tom volunteered for the special forces, the Green Berets. He stayed with them for a few years, and was assigned to a company of Green Berets that was headquartered in Bavaria. The two-hundred-man company was responsible for unconventional warfare throughout the middle east, from Pakistan to Morocco. He says that his twelve man A-Team was responsible for all of Iran. To make his job there easier, he was taught Farsi, the language of Iran.
Tom was among the first units to go to Vietnam for a combat role in 1965. He was with the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division that landed at Cam Ranh Bay. From there they went north toward An Khe, where they had their first big battle. Prior to the battle, an American fighter pilot reported that he had taken fire from a .51 caliber gun that was on the top of a valley near An Khe. Tom was the assistant intelligence officer at the time, and part of his job was to understand the enemy’s organization. He realized that enemy fire from a .51 caliber machine gun probably meant that there was an enemy battalion at the top of the valley, since .51 caliber was only found at the battalion level. The American forces had not had contact with any enemy forces in about three months, so the force commander jumped at the chance to engage the enemy. A plan was immediately drawn up to send troops to the area where the enemy force was thought to be, and since the troops needed a flat, open area to land their helicopters, they chose a supposedly abandoned village, An Ninh, as their landing zone. Since they were required to share all their operational plans with the South Vietnamese forces in order to coordinate properly, they reported their plan of attack to the South Vietnamese province chief. Unfortunately, there was a Vietcong spy in the province chief’s headquarters, and the VC forces on the top of the valley immediately knew the details of the American plan. However, the American forces changed their plan slightly and decided to go in a day early. When they arrived in An Ninh, the Vietcong troops were having a rehearsal for the attack they expected the next day. The Vietcong were shocked to find American forces landing on them so unexpectedly, and the American forces were surprised to find any enemy troops in the area at all. The two sides quickly began to engage each other, and this encounter became the first big battle of American forces in the Vietnam War. Two American commanders were lost during the battle, and Tom was designated to succeed one of them as a company commander.
Tom’s unit was then moved to 3rd Corps near Saigon for Operation Checkerboard. “It was a new tactic where we’d put small units out, kind of like a mine field and if the Vietcong wanted to move through, they would bump into one of them, at which point we would have reinforcements going and attack them.” That was in late 1965. Early in 1966, the unit moved up to the Tuy Hoa Valley, the second largest rice-growing area in Vietnam. It was an important area for the North Vietnamese because they needed the rice to feed their troops. The North Vietnamese Army had troops up in the hills surrounding the valley in an effort to protect it and hold it, so those hills were the locations of the division’s next few major operations and engagements. Tom earned his Silver Star during one of these operations in a place called Con Thien, where the division encircled the North Vietnamese troops. Part of the citation for the Silver Star involved an incident where one of the soldiers in Tom’s unit was killed and they couldn’t carry his body back to base by land. There was a small river nearby that ran back toward the base, and Tom was a good swimmer, so he volunteered to swim the soldier’s body back. “And I did that and then, back up the river, they must have seen me because they started shooting, so that was exciting.” The citation also included an event during the final assault in which Tom threw a grenade which may have killed a few Vietcong defenders.
Tom’s company was known as the ‘Fire Brigade.’ Wherever there was a problem, they’d send the Fire Brigade and their helicopters to take care of it. They were in one of the most famous battles of the war, at Dak To, which occurred near the Cambodian border. It was part of General Westmoreland’s strategy, wherein the American forces attacked and repelled the North Vietnamese troops as they came across the border. That way, the NVA couldn’t get far enough into the country to begin recruiting or dominating South Vietnamese civilians.
He received two Bronze Stars for Valor, along with a Purple Heart. He described the air strikes of B-52s at one of the battles where he earned a Bronze Star: “…Along came the Arc Light (B-52) and my god, even though you were flat on the ground, it bounced like you were on a trampoline or something. The impact of those things is just incredible. And a great roiling, crimson, billows coming out of the ground and it was just like all of hell had just erupted out of the earth.” The rule for B-52 support was that friendly troops had to be at least a kilometer away from the designated target area. However, Tom had positioned his company in a stream bed about half a kilometer away from the bomber’s target area, so that when the bombs finished they could take the enemy by surprise and avoid having to cross an extra half-kilometer of open grassland. Fortunately, they didn’t take any casualties from the bombing, and the only enemy left when they moved up in the surprise attack was a single deafened and disoriented Vietnamese soldier, who they took prisoner.
Tom earned his Purple Heart in one of the minor actions after Con Thien, during a skirmish with enemy troops. He was in the company command group, which was always placed behind at least a platoon of riflemen. His group heard fire being exchanged up ahead, and so they moved up to find out what was happening. Suddenly, stray rounds started flying through the trees toward them, so they took cover. After the incident was over, the company medic pointed out that Tom had blood coming out of his boot. This wasn’t especially alarming because leeches would often get into the eyeholes of the soldiers’ boots and cause such bleeding. It was only later, after he was able to get back to base and take off his boots, that he found out that he had a nick on his shin that was probably caused by a ricocheting bullet. Luckily, it wasn’t a debilitating injury, so he was able to stay on the front lines.
Tom said that in jungle warfare, “the principal difficulty was the heat. Y’know you’re looking for these guys constantly, that meant moving through the jungle, following trails, being very careful not to be ambushed, and it was just very debilitating… Other than that, leeches were probably the worst aspect of it.” The leeches lived wherever cows were kept, and when the cows were moved on to graze elsewhere, the leeches remained. “So if we were unlucky enough to go through a former cattle area, they’d come out of the trees and up into your boots and other annoying things like that.”
Despite the harsh conditions, Tom said that the morale of his unit was very high. “We were all volunteers. You know you have to volunteer to be a paratrooper and we just had a real kick-ass attitude.” He told about how much he became attached to his company. “When I was leaving, they were going off on the next operation. Things don’t stop, you know, just because a company commander leaves. I just went out there and the helicopters were lifting off and just saluted them up there… a lot of them were in the door of the helicopter and they saluted back. So it’s great to know that you have the affection of the people that you love so much.”
After his service Tom attended UC Berkeley to earn a Master’s degree in sociology. It was 1968 and protests against the Vietnam War were in full swing on the university campus. “And that was like revisiting Vietnam, because at ’68 it was teeming with Viet Cong flags.” After a year, Tom became a teaching assistant in the Sociology Department. Since he had been a soldier in Vietnam, he was accused by the protesters of various war crimes and atrocities, and he became such a target for their wrath that he could no longer teach classes on the ground floor of the Sociology department. The protesters would throw rocks at the large windows on the ground floor while he was teaching there, and the university finally got tired of replacing the broken windows and had Tom move his classes up a few floors.
Tom had written and published his first book while still in the army, and his second book, A Piece of This Country, was published while he was at UC Berkeley. It was a novel about a sergeant who fought in Vietnam, and when he returned to the United States he found that he had more respect in Vietnam than he had at home. The novel received a literary prize from UC Berkeley when it came out, which was a high point of Tom’s time there.
Unfortunately, by the time Tom graduated from UC Berkeley, he realized that the main thing he had learned about sociology was that “what sociologists do is to teach other people how to be sociologists, and they’re not really making a living at it unless you want to be an academic, which I didn’t.” Since he couldn’t make a living as a sociologist, he decided to go to law school. After graduating from law school Tom became a lawyer and moved to where the money was, which at that time was Saudi Arabia. He took a job negotiating contracts for the Saudi government. Since he had a lot of free time while he was in Saudi Arabia, he wrote another book, a historical novel about a bizarre British general in World War II titled Born of War. Another one of his books, Where the Orange Blooms: One Man’s War and Escape in Vietnam, about the escape of his former interpreter from Vietnam, was published when he returned to the United States. Following that book’s release, Tom wrote The 101st Air Assault Division in the Gulf War which so impressed General Petraeus that he invited Tom to go to Iraq and cover the Iraq War. Tom accepted the invitation, but quickly got pneumonia from the dust and sand in the air there. The experience resulted in a memoir that was has not been published. After returning from Iraq, Tom was approached by a World War II veteran who wanted to tell his story before it was too late. Tom described the veteran’s story, Behind Hitler’s Lines: The True Story of the Only Soldier to Fight for Both America and the Soviet Union in World War II based on the interviews he conducted with the old soldier, who passed away in 2002.
When asked if he thinks his sacrifice during the war was justified, Tom answered, “Well, I don’t consider it a sacrifice. I consider it the most enabling period of my life. But overall we were supporting basically a corrupt government.” He went on to talk about how supporting foreign governments, which is called counterinsurgency, only works if the government is supported by the people of that country. In places like Vietnam and Iraq, where the governments were corrupt and very unpopular, the civilians had no real loyalty to the government, and so were equally or more willing to help the insurgents. This is why counterinsurgency fails in such countries. Tom’s advice for future genera- tions is, “Don’t support any government, and certainly don’t put troops in a country, where the people aren’t supporting the existing government.”
Interview by Michael Assmus on June 8, 2013.