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During the period of direct United States involvement in the Vietnam War, from August 5, 1964, to January 27, 1973, 8,744,000 people served on active duty with U.S. military forces. Of these, 3,403,100 served in the Southeast Asia theater, which included personnel in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, airmen in Thailand, and naval crews in the South China Sea. Two million five hundred ninety-four thousand Americans served within the borders of Vietnam. Three hundred three thousand were wounded and 58,156 were killed.
Some have likened military service during the Vietnam era to a series of concentric circles. Those on the outer rings did not serve in the war zone. In the war zone, some heard the shots fired in anger and some did not. In the inner circles of heavy combat, those who were injured and those who were lost become the major focus of attention. In the center circle are the 58,156 who paid most heavily for the nation's involvement in Southeast Asia. Arguments about the chance and circumstance that brought them to the center circle have raged since the war started and show no signs of abating. But within that circle, four men who attended Colby are known. Their names are included among those on the panels of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
Their four lives and our remembrances of them should cause reflection on the enormity of the war and what it took from us.
For most of January 1968, Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, was engaged in aggressive patrolling in Quang Nam Province, saturating the area from which 122 and 140 mm rocket attacks were being launched on the US. installation at Da Nang. Daily patrols and security at the Nam O Bridge and in the flatlands along Quan Long (Highway) One in Hoi An Pass were the routine. As the month progressed, contact with hostile forces intensified. On the 18th, a firefight erupted when a squad from the 1st Platoon encountered an enemy unit of similar size while searching for a rice cache. The squad killed two and sustained three wounded of their own. Two contacts on the 26th resulted in two enemy killed in action and some captured Soviet-made weapons.
No one from the 2nd of the 7th appeared to know what they were in for as the month drew to a close. The Vietnamese holiday "Tet," signifying the lunar New Year, fell on the 30th. In years past, Tet had meant an increase in enemy activity. Tet '68 would take on a whole new meaning, however, when practically every major city in Vietnam's 44 provinces would be hit along with every American installation of any size.
On the day Tet began, a squad-size unit from Golf Company, under the command of 2d Lt. Leslie A. Dickinson, Jr. '67, a 22-year-old from Patten, Maine, was on a sweep near Highway One. Dickinson had been in the marines a little less than two years and in-country about a month and a half. The patrol made contact with an enemy unit apparently setting an ambush for traffic on Highway One. In the fight that followed, five marines were wounded, as were two Vietnamese civilians. Two other civilians died. The marines killed three of those setting the ambush and wounded and captured two others. Les Dickinson, one of the marines hit, sustained multiple shrapnel wounds from an antipersonnel mine that exploded during the contact.
Following medical evacuation, Dickinson was taken aboard the U.S.S. Repose, a hospital ship anchored in the South China Sea. Two days later, on his 23rd birthday, Dickinson's parents received at their home a Marine Corps sergeant who informed them that their son had been seriously wounded. The following morning, a confirming telegram from the commandant of the Marine Corps read: "He sustained missile wounds to the left flank and the abdomen with multiple shrapnel wounds to the left leg and lacerations to both legs with a spinal cord injury ... He was placed on the serious list ... with his prognosis poor"
The day he was hit would prove to be the watershed date of the Vietnam War. As Americans witnessed the boldness of the Tet Offensive, public support for the war, fragile as it was, shattered.
On February 3, 1968, with the Tet Offensive raging on the mainland, Les Dickinson died off the coast of Vietnam. When word reached Colby, where Dickinson had attended for two and a half years, the shock reverberated across t
he campus. Les Dickinson was the first man of Colby to die in Vietnam combat.
He had withdrawn early in 1966 "to gain a new perspective" a young man from northern Maine wrestling with his growing belief that it was impossible for him to finish college without first dealing with certain questions that had been raised in the course of his life. These questions had to be approached, he believed, in a non-academic context. An American civilization major, his academic pursuits had led him toward creative writing and a writing workshop course. A classmate from that course remembers a nice guy "who recognized the artificial environment he was in and felt that in order to write about reality, be had to be somewhere else."
Dickinson was born in Boston on February 1, 1945, the son of Leslie A. and Dorothy Dickinson. He lived in Patten, Maine, most of his life and graduated from Patten Academy in 1963. He was co-editor of the academy's Mirror, a member of Maine Boy's State, and a National Honor Society member. He was active in dramatics and public speaking and participated in school sports.
At Colby he was a basketball team member, fraternity secretary and second vice president, and outdoorsman as well as creative writer. A member of Kappa Delta Rho, his maturity and interests were such that he was readily accepted by those older than he. A fraternity brother remembers him as an unlikely marine; not one of the brotherhood most likely to seek out Parris Island, the Marine Corps' training camp for recruits. Nevertheless, upon enlistment in February 1966, that is where he went. He took further training at El Toro Air Station in California and was later ordered to report to Quantico, Va., for officer training. In late May 1967, he was commissioned a second lieutenant (and returned to Colby in uniform to witness the awarding of the creative writing prizes at the recognition assembly). Following additional training at Quantico, he received the orders he had requested for Vietnam. On December 17, 1967, he arrived and was assigned to the 2nd Batallion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division, headquartered at Da Nang, where the action reports for his unit show increased hostility during the two months that he served as an infantry platoon leader.
Les Dickinson's death was marked by an outpouring of emotion on campus. The Colby Echo of February 16, 1968, contained a full page on his loss. A combined chorus of Colby students attended and sang at memorial services held in Patten on Wednesday, February 14. On the day that the Echo told of his death, 2d Lt. Leslie A. Dickinson, Jr., was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
His grave is located on the hill below the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. When the leaves are off the trees, the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial are plainly visible across the Potomac River. Up the rise, closer to the sound of the guard's cadence in front of the tombs, are buried other people whose roles in the Vietnam War were more noted by Dickinson's countrymen. A few rows away rests Gen. Lewis Blaine Hershey, head of the Selective Service during the war. Further on rests Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam in the war's early years.
But lying close is Army 1st Lt. Robert Kellas, another 23-year-old soldier lost in Vietnam five days before Les Dickinson.
Some of the heaviest main force fighting of the Vietnam War took place in Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces in the northern-most sector of South Vietnam during February, March, and April of 1968. For a little more than two months of that time, David Thomas Barnes '68 was in the center of that fighting.
After training assignments in the continental United States, Dave Barnes was assigned to Vietnam and ordered to join the Third Brigade of the First Cavalry Division (Airmobile) fighting in the area west of Hue in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive.
The Third Brigade, known as the "Gary Owens," traced its military roots to the days of George Armstrong Custer. In late February and early March, it was up against the 325th North Vietnamese Army Division, which had been laying siege to the embattled U.S. marine base at Khe Sanh. The base had become a symbol of American military resolve against the onslaught of North Vietnamese infiltration down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. During more than two months of siege in late 1967, the American public had been made well aware of the high stakes that the siege was exacting. In an operation the brass called "Operation Pegasus" after the flying horse, two brigades of the First Cavalry were ordered to relieve the marines. The operation was also intended to show the viability of airmobile infantry operations in highly contested territory. Through most of March, the Third Brigade, including the 2nd Batallion, 7th Cavalry, engaged in the fight, and on April 7, 1968, men from Company C of the 2nd of the 7th linked up with marines on the perimeter of Khe Sanh. One of the members of C Company was David Barnes.
No sooner had they finished at Khe Sanh than they were thrust back into action in a second major operationthis time in Operation Delawarein which the same units were inserted into the remote A Shau Valley a short distance from the Laotian border. The forbidding terrain of the A Shau coupled with terrible weather conditions made it one of the most difficult that could have been attempted. The 2nd of the 7th occupied Landing Zone Pepper and began operations south and east of the Laotian border. (The intensity of the fighting was such that during the 10 days between April 25 and May 4 alone, two Third Brigade soldiers took actions that resulted in Medal of Honor decorations. In the entire war, the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award, was bestowed only 155 times.)
On April 28, during a combat sweep, Sp 4 Dave Barnes spotted an enemy ambush force. A squad leader, he exposed himself to the hostile fire as he led his platoon to foil the ambush. While advancing, Barnes was wounded but continued on. He was hit a second time but still continued to engage the enemy force until he was wounded a third time, this time mortally. He was one of 86 brigade members killed during the operation.
Word of his death came as his family was preparing for the wedding of his older sister, Mary Patricia, a graduate of Mt. Holyoke College, the same school attended by Barnes's twin sister, Nancy.
At the time of his death, Dave Barnes had been in Vietnam only a short while. Although he had not been able to provide much information to his family about his situation, probably because of the intense action that surrounded him, what he was willing to share in his letters had no bitter tone. The letters belied the danger around him. He wrote of the countryside, of lush greenery, of seeing animal tracks in the jungle. Still, a few of the moments of intense fear, such as waiting in the dark for hours for a signal to move forward to conduct a combat operation, found their way into his letters home.
Following his death, more information filtered back to his family that showed what he went through in Vietnam. On August 6, 1968, the adjutant general of the army wrote his parents informing them that he had been posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the third highest military decoration for valor in action, for the engagement during which he was killed. That decoration had followed two other decorations for valor and several for service and achievement under fire. In just over two months of Vietnam combat, David Barnes had taken part in more than 50 aerial assaults and been decorated five times.
The military personnel who served as liaison with his family knew of his actions at the time of his death and attempted to comfort his family in the knowledge that he had served so bravely in combat. The family, however, preferred to remember a handsome young man who was gentle in nature and whose real love was quiet woods and fields. One Colby schoolmate who lived a few doors down on the second floor of Johnson Hall recalls "a young-looking guy with a handsome face. He was quiet. Just a nice guy."
David Barnes entered Colby in the fall of 1964 at the age of 17. A graduate of William Allen High School in Allentown, Pa., he had chosen Colby over Bates and St. Lawrence in part because of the physical beauty of the campus. His love for the out-of-doors was well expressed by his roamings in the South Mountain area around Allentown on the acreage owned by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Harold S. Barnes. In high school, he was a member of the wrestling team, and during his years at Colby he organized the Pickwick Club, a literary group, and was a member of the debating society.
Following his sophomore year, he enlisted in the army, the first of the steps that led him to Vietnam.
Robert Crawford "Mike" Ransom, Jr. '66 became one of the most noted casualties of the Vietnam War. On July 27, 1968, two and a half months after his death as a result of wounds received in a mine explosion while he was on patrol in Quang Ngai Province, the New Yorker magazine published some of his letters from Vietnam to his family. Because of their graphic, intelligent, and clear statements about the attitudes of a young soldier thrust into a difficult situation, the letters had a pronounced impact on many comfortable, safe Americans. Anyone who reads the letters inspects the bottom drawer of parents who have lost a son in war. In the aftermath of his death, Mike Ransom's parents became activists of the first order in trying to bring the Vietnam War to a close.
Ransom was the oldest of six brothers from the New York City suburb of Bronxville. His father, an attorney with IBM Corporation, was a World War II veteran. His mother, a graduate of Vassar, was engaged with his five siblings when Ransom entered Colby in 1962.
A roommate remembers that freshman year as one of carefree enjoyment. Many young men moved easily into fraternity life. Mike Ransom pledged Alpha Tau Omega and became a typical 'happy-go-lucky" member with the desire for a gentleman's "C" and a good time. That time took its toll on him, as it did on a number of his classmates. In 1964, after his sophomore year, he left Colby and entered New York University. He returned in the fall of 1965, but in spring 1966 he left school again.
Even as he entered the army in September 1966, Ransom and his parents were seriously questioning the conduct of the war. He told a friend to engage in every anti-war demonstration she could in order to end the war. Nevertheless, he attended Officer Candidate School and was commissioned a second lieutenant of infantry. Like so many others with those credentials, he received orders for Vietnam, arriving in-country on March 7, 1968, at Cam Ranh Bay.
He and fellow junior officers had heard that they would all be assigned to the First Cavalry Division. Instead, he was diverted a little further south to Chu Lai. Ransom's letters traced his journey through the army system to his final destination Company A, 4th Batallion, 3rd Infantry, 11th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division.
The timing could not have been worse. Nine days after Ransom arrived in Vietnam, another unit of the 11th Brigade, Company C, First Batallion, 20th Infantry, was operating in an area known as Song My. Villages in Vietnam sometimes had two names. Song My was also known as My Lai. A massacre there on March 16 would be branded indelibly into the history of the war.
Mike Ransom's letters, while typical of those written by soldiers whose senses were alert to all around them, are striking in their completeness. He provided clear descriptions with phonetic spellings of his movement to Chu Lai, Qui Nhon, and Duc Pho. He chronicled his progressive acceptance by the veterans of his unit. He showed the self-doubt and growth that the responsibility of command thrusts on an individual. Finally, his reactions to his baptism of fire, the loss of some of his men, and his own slight wound in April completed his transition from easy-going college student to infantry platoon leader.
On May 3, 1968, Company A was moving into a night ambush position near Landing Zone Sue when a mine detonated. Mike Ransom was hit. Despite severe wounds, he urged his men to remain calm, organizing them into a tight defensive perimeter until they could receive assistance. He refused medical attention until other injured men had been treated.
Subsequently, he was evacuated to a field hospital where his condition deteriorated. He died on Mother's Day, May 11, 1968, his death officially attributed to pneumonia and peritonitis resulting from his wounds.
News of his death came back to a tight circle of friends. In the busy time of final examinations and graduation facing the Class of 1968, some on campus did not find out until later that summer.
At Ransom's funeral in Bronxville, where the more than 700 people in attendance included Colby friends, the anti-war tone of the ceremony was unmistakable. Excerpts from his letters were read and a folk singer rendered, among other ballads, Pete Seeger's "Where Have All The Flowers Gone."
A final Vietnam letter from a nurse who had treated Ransom while he lay gravely wounded was read to those assembled. Capt. Connie Schlosser wrote, "Mike fought hard, terribly hard, to overcome his body's wounded condition. But, strong as he was, his body could only endure so much. Mike was never afraid and although I'm sure he realized what was happening, he never, never lost his smile or his courage. I guess I really wanted you to know that Mike did not die alone, with no one caring. I cared, we all cared we all share your sorrow. Be ever so proud of Mike!"
Louise Ransom later published her son's letters in a book titled Letters From Vietnam. She actively opposed the war in demonstrations, including one at the Whitehall Induction Center in New York in the summer of 1968.
In time, she and her husband moved to Vermont. In 1992, during the dedication of the Vermont Vietnam Veterans Memorial off Interstate 89, Louise Ransom had not wavered in her belief that the Vietnam War was wrong. A Vietnam veteran remembers her comparison of the burden borne by her family to that of members of Congress and other high officials. If the war had been so important, she reasoned, why had none of their sons perished in its wake.
In 1984, Washington Post reporter Myra McPherson published an extensive book on experiences associated with the Vietnam War. The title, Long Time Passing, was drawn from the song heard at Mike Ransom's funeral. One chapter chronicles Ransom's journey from Colby and ATO to the jungles of Vietnam.
In 1985, the City of New York dedicated a massive Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the Battery at the base of Manhattan. The day of the dedication, 25,000 Vietnam veterans marched through the "Valley of Heroes" along Broadway. Etched in the heavy glass panels of the memorial they came to consecrate are phrases from the letters of 2nd Lt. Robert Crawford Ransom, Jr., Colby College Class of 1966.
James Hunter Shotwell '62 never intended to graduate from Colby. The son of Edward and Charlotte Drum Shotwell, he entered in the fall of 1958 from St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., after taking the entrance examination for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He had passed the examination but could not enter with the class of 1962 because he had not reached age 18. His decision to enter West Point, made shortly after the death of his father, was influenced by his family's long military tradition. His great-great-grandfather, Capt. John Drum, was killed during the Spanish American War in the Battle at San Juan Hill. His great uncle, Lt. Gen. Hugh A. Drum, served in both world wars, and his uncle and namesake, Col. James Hunter Drum, graduated from West Point in 1937 and was wounded in World War II. All were career officers.
Sports were also an integral part of Hunter Shotwell's life. At St. Paul's, he played energetically on the hockey team, and though never first string, he received the school's Campbell Hockey Medal for doing the most for the sport. At Colby in the winter of 1958-59, a heady time for hockey because of the abundance of talent, newcomers with skill were plentiful on the freshman team. A team member recalls that people didn't come looking for Hunter Shotwell to see ice time, but his teammates nevertheless remember him as an essential part of an excellent unit. Despite his intention to leave at the end of his freshman year, Shotwell pledged Delta Kappa Epsilon, his father's fraternity at Cornell University.
In July 1959, he joined the Long Gray Line at West Point. His strong drive soon became more apparent, and his achievements resulted in the following summary in the 1963 edition of the Corps of Cadets' yearbook: "Out of Boston came the 'dapper' J. Hunter Shotwell to enter with the class of '63. In one hand he had a hockey stick, the other a lacrosse stick, and with these he left his mark on the athletic field at West Point" The mediocre player at Colby had emerged to win major hockey letters at the academy.
Commissioned a second lieutenant of infantry on June 5, 1963, Shotwell continued his drive toward excellence. He received his first assignment to the Fifth Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colo. He became a parachutist and graduated from the Army's Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga. After serving with two Fifth Division infantry batallions, he received his first orders for Vietnam on August 14, 1965, only six months after he had married Jean Barker of Fairfield, Conn., sister of Bruce Barker '66.
While in Vietnam with the Military Assistance Command, Shotwell served as an advisor in the III Corps area of South Vietnam, where he assisted the 34th Ranger Batallion of the 25th ARVN Infantry Division. His tour ended in May, following his promotion to the rank of captain and decoration for valor for actions associated with a medical evacuation of wounded South Vietnamese troops. While he was in Vietnam, his first son, James Hunter Shotwell, Jr., was born.
His next assignment was with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. For 15 months, he served with the division's 3rd Brigade. The irony of his assignments in the states was that Hunter Shotwell served only with units that subsequently were shipped to Vietnam. According to family members, Shotwell had decided to leave the army after the obligation required by his service academy appointment had been satisfied. Despite that decision, however, he believed that it was his duty as a professional officer to return to Vietnam when ordered for a second tour.
Captain Shotwell received those orders and arrived in February 6, 1968. While a batallion staff job was reportedly available, he chose to seek command of an infantry line company and was assigned to Company D, First Batallion, 52nd Infantry, 198th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, based at Chu Lai.
On May 25, 1968, three and a half months into his tour, Shotwell was leading his company into a blocking position near the village of Chien Son in preparation for combat sweep. As the company occupied its position, lead elements came under heavy automatic weapons fire from an enemy force of undetermined size. Hunter Shotwell moved forward with his command group to try to determine the situation and relieve pressure on the men. Despite the intensity of the hostile assault, he pressed forward to direct the first elements of his company, but when he reached the beleaguered line, his group came under direct fire from enemy soldiers in a hedgerow. During the resulting contact, Capt. J. Hunter Shotwell and three of his command group were mortally wounded.
A professional soldier who was often decorated, Shotwell apparently eschewed the listing of his achievements. His obituary in Assembly, the quarterly publication of the Association of Graduates, USMA, states, "He would not want his decorations listed here. He said, 'every soldier who performs his duty in the face of the enemy deserves a medal. They are all brave men and I do not believe in singling out a few."'
Robert M. Lloyd served in Vietnam from April 1969 to April 1970. For their help in obtaining information about military assignments, the author acknowledges Brig. Gen. Joe Rigby, US. Army, Office of the joint Chiefs of Staff and Col. (ret.) Morris Herbert, Association of Graduates, US. Military Academy.
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