By LtCol Mike Christy
Together We Served Dispatches
After the British evacuated Boston on March 17, 1776, Gen. George Washington guessed correctly that their next target would be New York. By mid-April, Washington had marched his 19,000 soldiers to Lower Manhattan. He strengthened the batteries that guarded the harbor and constructed forts in northern Manhattan and on Brooklyn Heights across the East River on Long Island.
On August 22, 1776, Gen. William Howe’s large fleet and 34,000 army troops landed on Long Island, hoping to capture New York City and gain control of the Hudson River, a victory that would divide the rebellious colonies in half.
Gen. Howe halted the fighting by the early afternoon and directed his men to dig trenches around the American position on the next day. Before they could be surrounded, Washington ordered his men to evacuate Long Island. From late in the evening of August 29 to dawn on the following morning, Washington watched as 9,000 Continentals were rowed back to Manhattan. As the sun came up, a fog miraculously descended on the remaining men crossing the river. According to eyewitnesses, George Washington was the last man to leave Brooklyn. At the Battle of Brooklyn, the Americans suffered 1,000 casualties to the British loss of only 400 men. Militarily, the British were now in control of New York City.
During their occupation, British forces captured or arrested thousands of soldiers and civilians, some after battles fought around New York and some for simply refusing to swear allegiance to the Crown. In addition, the Continental government had authorized a number of privately owned, armed ships to serve on behalf of the patriotic cause; some 55,000 American seamen would eventually serve as merchant marines or privateers. Whenever the British captured these privateers, they gave them the choice of joining the Royal Navy or going to prison. Most ended up in prison.
The problem was, management and treatment of prisoners of war were very different from the standards of modern warfare. Modern standards, as outlined in the Geneva Conventions of later centuries, expect captive to be held and cared for by their captors. The primary difference in the 18th century was the care and supplies for captives were expected to be provided by their own combatants or private citizens.
King George III of Great Britain had declared American forces traitor in 19775, which denied them prisoner of war status. However, British strategy during the early conflict included the pursuit of a negotiated settlement allowing officials to decline to try and/or hang them – the usual procedure for treason to avoid unnecessarily risking any public sympathy the British might have enjoyed in the Americas. Great Britain’s neglect resulted in starvation and disease. Despite the lack of formal executions, neglect achieved the same results as hanging.
American prisoners of war tended to be accumulated at large sites that the British were able to occupy for long periods of time. New York City, Philadelphia in 1777, and Charleston, South Carolina, were all major cities used to detain American prisoners of war. Facilities at these places were limited. At times, the occupying army was actually larger than the total civilian population. Other American prisoners were housed in other parts of the British Empire. Over 100 prisoners were employed as slave laborers in coal mines in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia – they later chose to join the British Navy to secure their freedom. Other American prisoners were kept in England (Portsmouth, Plymouth, Liverpool, Deal, and Weymouth), Ireland, and Antigua. By late 1782 England and Ireland housed over 1,000 American prisoners, who in 1783 were moved to France prior to their eventual release.
Space in British jails on land soon ran out, and the British began housing prisoners aboard the abandoned or decommissioned warships anchored in Wallabout Bay, the small part of Upper New York Bay located along the northwest shore of the city of Brooklyn between the present-day Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridge.
As a result, the most horrific struggle of the American Revolution occurred just 100 yards off New York, where more men and boys died aboard a rotting prison ship were lost to combat during the entirety of the war.
The first ships used by the British to hold prisoners were originally transports in which cattle and other stores were carried across the Atlantic. The first prison ship was the “Whitby.” The captives aboard were allowed to keep their clothing and bedding but received no more of such commodities while on the ship. They were given no medical attention. The rations they received were either cut or substituted with unwholesome meat by corrupt British commissaries. The men aboard the “Whitby,” seeing no hope for an exchange, set fire to their ship in October 1777, choosing death in the flames to lingering sufferings of disease and starvation. The burning of the “Whitby” and others like it did not bring the prison ships to an end.
The most infamous of the prison ships was the HMS Jersey or “Jersey” which was an old converted sixty-four-gun man-of-war, stripped of all its fittings except for the flagstaff. Every three days, rations would be given out to a six-man mess. On certain days, men were not allowed to cook fires and had to wait another twenty-four hours or consume their meat raw. Having no fruit or fresh vegetables, scurvy was naturally one of the diseases that afflicted the prisoners. The “Jersey” had on board anywhere from 400 to 1200 prisoners.
Conditions on board were beyond despicable. Meager rations of maggoty bread and rotted meat left the prisoners sick, weak, and emaciated. With no toilets to speak of, excrement piled up as thousands of men and boys were packed into the ship’s dark, dank interior. Occasionally, groups of prisoners would escape overboard, only to be recaptured on British-held Long Island. As years slipped by on the Jersey, life became unbearable: unable to wash but with salt water, their skin turned sallow and hung over their skeletal bodies like old parchment. All thought was consumed by plans for escape, when not distracted by want of food or drink. By 1780, prisoners were dying aboard the Jersey at a rate of roughly ten each day. At least, that’s how many bodies were unloaded from the ship every morning at 8 am. Corpses were brought up to the top deck as they were discovered, and left there until morning when they were piled onto a wooden plank and lowered over the ship’s side to be buried in shallow pits on the sandy banks of Wallabout Bay. Sometimes, bodies would go weeks before being discovered, so dark were the prisoners’ quarters. The air was reportedly so foul that no flame would stay lit.
And since the dead were buried in mass graves only two or so feet deep on sandy beaches, storms and tides regularly uncovered their rancid and decaying corpses, adding an increased air of death and misery to the already-gloomy bay. No records were kept of the dead, and last rites were rarely performed before they were unceremoniously dumped into their pits. Most prisoners remain nameless; their families would never have the closure of knowing what had happened to them
More than 1,000 men were kept aboard the Jersey at any one time, and about a dozen died every night from diseases such as small pox, dysentery, typhoid and yellow fever, as well as from the effects of starvation and torture. Even after the British surrender at Yorktown in late 1781, prisoners were kept aboard the Jersey and other ships until the war formally ended in 1783. At war’s end, there were only 1,400 survivors among the inmates of the entire prison ship fleet, and at least 11,000 men and boys died aboard the ships from 1776 to 1783 – more than lost to combat (6,800) during the entirety of the war. The corpses of the dead were often tossed overboard, though sometimes they were buried in shallow graves along the eroding shoreline. Many of the remains became exposed or were washed up and recovered by local residents over the years.
Throughout the colonies, the mere mention of the ship sparked fear and loathing of British troops. It also sparked a backlash of outrage as newspapers everywhere described the horrors on board the ghostly ship. This shocking event, much like the better-known Boston Massacre before it, ended up rallying public support for the war.
In the years following the Revolution’s conclusion, daily tides uncovered a seemingly countless number of skulls and bones on the shores surrounding Wallabout Bay. Skulls were said to litter the beaches as thick as a pumpkin patch, and children would kick them about like a ball. As Brooklynites collected more and more of the bones, calls began to ring out for a more respectful and honorable resting place for these most neglected of Patriots. As a result, in 1808, a crypt was constructed near the bay for the skeletal remains, almost none of which could be identified. There they would rest in relative peace for another century.
During that century, arguments waxed and waned regarding the construction of a more fitting memorial to these glorious dead. The flame of patriotism was fanned, funds were raised, and in 1908, on a hilltop overlooking the bay where so many thousands of tales of misery were played out, a monument was erected to the Prison Ship Martyrs. Beneath the 100 steps leading to the soaring memorial column was constructed a spacious crypt. Twenty slate boxes filled with the bones of the deceased thousands were placed in the crypt and sealed behind a bronze door. Twenty-thousand New Yorkers and other dignitaries turned out on a cold, rainy November day to dedicate the memorial.
But time has a way of erasing memories. As New York’s fortunes ebbed in the later decades of the 20th century, so too did the fate of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument. A staircase and elevator which once ferried visitors to the column’s pinnacle were both removed in 1945. Vandals marred its base with graffiti and in 1966, the monument’s four large bronze eagles were removed to be restored, never to return (two remain in storage and two are on display at the armory in Central Park).
As New York has gone through a bit of a renaissance in the past several years, the Martyrs Monument has not been entirely forgotten. Between 2006 and 2008, more than $5,000,000 was spent to restore the column and its surrounding plaza. Despite its restoration, however, the thousands who perished here and whose bones lie beneath our feet remain largely ignored by modern generations. In 2008, in celebration of the memorial’s centennial, only 200 people turned out in the park. Compare that to the 20,000 who flocked there in the rain a century before.
These men walked and fought alongside George Washington. They suffered and died in the name of American independence. They endured untold indignities, even in death. And this largely-forgotten memorial atop a hill in Fort Greene Park is among the most hallowed ground in this nation. We owe everything we have today to the ideals these men held so dear. And we owe them our respect and an immense debt of gratitude.
By LtCol Mike Christy – Together We Served Dispatches
Kham Duc Special Forces Camp (A-105), was located on the western fringes of Quang Tin Province, South Vietnam. In the spring of 1968, it was the only remaining border camp in Military Region I. Backup responsibility for the camp fell on the 23rd Infantry Division (Americal), based at Chu Lai on the far side of the province.
The camp had originally been built for President Diem, who enjoyed hunting in the area. The 1st Special Forces Detachment (A-727B) arrived in September 1963 and found the outpost to be an ideal border surveillance site with an existing airfield. The camp was located on a narrow grassy plain surrounded by rugged, virtually uninhabited jungle. The only village in the area, located across the airstrip, was occupied by post dependents, camp followers, and merchants. The camp and airstrip were bordered by the Ngok Peng Bum ridge to the west and Ngok Pe Xar mountain, looming over Kham Duc to the east. Steeply banked streams full of rapids and waterfalls cut through the tropical wilderness. The Dak Mi River flowed past the camp over a mile distant, under the shadow of the Ngok Pe Xar. Five miles downriver was the small forward operating base of Ngok Tavak, defended by the 113-man 11th Mobile Strike Force Company with its eight Special Forces and three Australian advisors. Since Ngok Tavak was outside friendly artillery range, 33 Marine artillerymen of Battery D, 2nd Battalion, 13th Marines, with two 105mm howitzers were located at the outpost.
Capt. Christopher J. Silva, commander of Detachment A-105 helicoptered into Ngok Tavak on May 9, 1968, in response to growing signs of NVA presence in the area. Foul weather prevented his scheduled evening departure. A Kham Duc Civilian Irregular Defense (CIDG) platoon fleeing a local ambush also arrived and was posted to the outer perimeter. It was later learned that the CIDG force contained VC infiltrators.
At 3:15 am on May 10, 1968, Ngok Tavak was attacked by an NVA infantry battalion. First, the base was pounded by mortars and direct rocket fire followed by a frontal assault. VC infiltrators dressed as Kham Duc CIDG soldiers moved toward the Marines in the fort yelling, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot! Friendly, friendly” before lobbing grenades into the Marine howitzer positions and ran into the fort, where they shot several Marines with carbines and sliced claymore mine and communication wires.
The defenders suffered heavy casualties but stopped the main assault and killed the infiltrators. The NVA dug in along the hill slopes and grenade filled trenches where the Mobile Strike Force Soldiers were pinned by machine gun and rocket fire. An NVA flame-thrower set the ammunition ablaze, banishing the murky flare-lighted darkness for the rest of the night. Sgt. 1st Class Harold M. Swicegood and the USMC platoon leader, Lt. Adams, were badly wounded and moved to the command bunker. Medic Spec 4 Blomgren reported that the CIDG mortar crews had abandoned their weapons. Silva tried to operate the main 4.2-inch mortar but was wounded. At about 5 am hours, Sgt. Glenn Miller, an A-105 communications specialist, was shot through the head as he ran over to join the Marine howitzer crews.
The NVA advanced across the eastern side of Ngok Tavak and brought forward more automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. In desperation, the defenders called on US Air Force AC-47 “Spooky” gunships to strafe the perimeter and the howitzers, despite the possible presence of friendly wounded in the gun pits. The NVA countered with tear gas, but the wind kept drifting the gas over their own lines. After three attempts, they stopped. A grenade fight between the two forces lasted until dawn.
At daybreak Australian Warrant Officers Cameron and Lucas, joined by Blomgren, led a CIDG counterattack. The North Vietnamese pulled back under covering fire, and the howitzers were retaken. The Marines fired the last nine shells and spiked the tubes. Later that morning medical evacuation helicopters supported by covering airstrikes took out the seriously wounded, including Silva and Swicegood. Two CH46’s were able to land 45 replacements from the 12th Mobile Strike Force Company, accompanied by Capt. Euge E. Makowski, but one helicopter was hit in the fuel line and forced down. Another helicopter was hit by a rocket and burst into flames, wrecking the small helipad. The remaining wounded were placed aboard a hovering helicopter. As it lifted off, two Mike Force soldiers and 1st Lt. Horace Fleming, one of the stranded aviation crewmen, grabbed the helicopter skids. All three fell to their deaths after the helicopter had reached an altitude of over one hundred feet.
The mobile strike force soldiers were exhausted and nervous. Ammunition and water were nearly exhausted, and Ngok Tavak was still being pounded by sporadic mortar fire. They asked permission to evacuate their positions, but were told to “hold on” as “reinforcements were on the way.” By noon the defenders decided that aerial reinforcement or evacuation was increasingly unlikely, and night would bring certain destruction. An hour later, they abandoned Ngok Tavak.
Sgt. Thomas Perry, a medic from C Company, arrived at the camp at 5:30 am the morning of the 10th. He cared for the wounded and was assisting to establish a defensive perimeter when the decision was made to evacuate the camp. As survivors were leaving, Perry was seen by Sgt. Cordell J. Matheney, Jr., standing 20 feet away, as Australian Army Capt. John White formed the withdrawal column at the outer perimeter wire on the eastern Ngok Tavak hillside. It was believed that Perry was going to join the end of the column.
All the weapons, equipment and munitions that could not be carried were hastily piled into the command bunker and set afire. The helicopter that had been grounded by a ruptured fuel line was destroyed with a LAW. Sgt. Miller’s body was abandoned.
After survivors had gone about 1 kilometer, it was discovered that Perry was missing. Efforts were conducted to locate both Perry and Miller, including a search by a group from Marine Battery D. They were searching along the perimeter when they were hit by enemy grenades and arms fire. Neither the men on the team nor Perry was ever found. Included in this team were Pfc. Thomas Blackman; LCpl. Joseph Cook; Pfc. Paul Czerwonka; LCpl. Thomas Fritsch; Pfc. Barry Hempel; LCpl. Raymond Heyne; Cpl. Gerald King; Pfc. Robert Lopez; Pfc. William McGonigle; LCpl. Donald Mitchell; and LCpl. James Sargent. The remaining survivors evaded through dense jungle to a helicopter pickup point midway to Kham Duc. Their extraction was completed shortly before 7 pm on the evening of May 10.
In concert with the Ngok Tavak assault, the Kham Duc was blasted by a heavy mortar and recoilless rifle attack at 2:45 that same morning. Periodic mortar barrages ripped into Kham Duc throughout the rest of the day, while the Americal Division airmobiled a reinforced battalion of the 196th Infantry Brigade into the compound. A Special Forces command party also landed, but the situation deteriorated too rapidly for their presence to have a positive effect.
The mortar attack on fog-shrouded Kham Duc resumed on the morning of May 11. The bombardment caused heavy losses among the frightened CIDG soldiers, who fled from their trenches across open ground, seeking shelter in the bunkers. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam Special Forces (LLDB) commander remained hidden. CIDG soldiers refused orders to check the rear of the camp for possible North Vietnamese intruders. That evening the 11th and 12th Mobile Strike Force companies were airlifted to Da Nang, and half of the 137th CIDG Company from Camp Ha Thanh was air landed in exchange.
The 1st VC Regiment, 2nd NVA Division, began closing the ring around Kham Duc during the early morning darkness of May 12. Between 4:15 and 4:30 am, the camp and outlying positions came under heavy enemy attack. Outpost 7 was assaulted and fell within a few minutes. Outposts 5, 1 and 3 had been reinforced by Americal troops but were in North Vietnamese hands by 9:30 am.
OP1 was manned by Pfc. Harry Coen, Pfc. Andrew Craven, Sgt. Joseph Simpson, and Spec 4 Julius Long from Company E, 2nd of the 1st Infantry. At about 4;15 am, when OP1 came under heavy enemy attack, Pfc. Coen and Spec 4 Long were seen trying to man a 106-millimeter recoilless rifle. Survivors reported that in the initial enemy fire, they were knocked off their bunker. Both men again tried to man the gun but were knocked down again by RPG-7 Rocket Launcher fire.
Pfc. Craven, along with two other men, departed the OP1 at 8:30 am on May 12. They moved out 50 yards and could hear the enemy in their last position. At about 11 AM hours, as they were withdrawing to the battalion perimeter, they encountered an enemy position. Craven was the point man and opened fire. The enemy returned fire, and Craven fell with multiple chest wounds. The other two men were unable to recover him and hastily departed the area. Craven was last seen lying on his back, wounded, near the camp.
OP2 was being manned by 1st Lt. Frederick Ransbottom, Spec 4 Maurice Moore, Pfc. Roy Williams, Pfc. Danny Widmer, Pfc. William Skivington, Pfc. Imlay Widdison, and Spec 5 John Stuller, from the 2nd of the 3rd Infantry, when it came under attack. Informal questioning of survivors of this position indicated that Pfc. Widdison and Spec 5 Stuller may have been killed in action. However, the questioning was not sufficiently thorough to produce enough evidence to confirm their deaths.
The only information available concerning 1st Lt. Ransbottom, Spec 4 Moore, Pfc. Lloyd and Pfc. Skivington that Lt. Ransbottom allegedly radioed Pfc. Winder and Pfc. Williams, who were in the third bunker, and told them that he was shooting at the enemy as they entered his bunker.
Spec 4 Juan Jimenez, a rifleman assigned to Company A, 2nd of the 1st Infantry, was occupying a defensive position when he was severely wounded in the back by enemy mortar fire. He was declared dead by the Battalion Surgeon in the early morning hours of May 12. He was then carried to the helipad for evacuation. However, due to the situation, space was available in the helicopter for only the wounded, and Jimenez’ remains were left behind.
At noon, a massive NVA attack was launched against the main compound. The charge was stopped by planes hurling napalm, cluster bomb units, and 750-pound bombs into the final wire barriers. The decision was made by the Americal Division officers to call for immediate extraction.
The evacuation was disorderly, and at times, on the verge of complete panic. One of the first extraction helicopters to land was exploded by enemy fire, blocking the airstrip. Engineers of Company A, 70th Engineer Battalion, frantically reassembled one of their dozers (previously torn apart to prevent capture) to clear the runway. Eight more aircraft were blown out of the sky.
When Pfc. Richard E. Sands, a member of Company A, 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry, 198th Light Infantry Brigade, was being extracted on a CH47 helicopter, it was hit by 50 caliber machine gun fire at an altitude of 1500-1600 feet shortly after takeoff.
Sands, who was sitting near the door gunner, was hit in the head by an incoming round. The helicopter made a controlled landing and caught fire. During the evacuation from the burning helicopter, four personnel and a medic checked Sands and indicated that he had been killed instantly. Because of the danger of incoming mortar rounds and the fire, personnel attempting to remove Sands from the helicopter were ordered to abandon their attempt. The remaining personnel were evacuated from the area later by another helicopter.
Intense antiaircraft fire from the captured outposts caused grave problems. Control over the indigenous forces was difficult. One group of CIDG soldiers had to be held in trenches at gunpoint to prevent them from blocking the runway.
As the evacuation was in progress, members of Company A, 1/46, who insisted on boarding the aircraft first, shoved Vietnamese dependents out of the way. As more Americal infantry tried to clamber into the outbound planes, the outraged Special Forces staff convinced the Air Force to start loading civilians on board a C130, then watched as the civilians pushed children and weaker adults aside.
The crew aboard the U.S. Air Force C130 aircraft were Maj. Bernard Bucher, pilot; Staff Sgt. Frank Hepler, flight engineer; Maj. John McElroy, navigator; 1Lt. Steven Moreland, co-pilot; George Long, load master; Special Forces Capt. Warren Orr and an undetermined number of Vietnamese civilians.
The aircraft reported receiving ground fire on takeoff. The Forward Air Control (FAC) in the area reported that the aircraft exploded in mid-air and crashed in a fire ball about one mile from camp. All crew and passengers were believed dead, as the plane burned quickly and was destroyed except for the tail boom. No remains were recovered from the aircraft.
Capt. Orr was not positively identified by U.S. personnel as being aboard the aircraft. He was last seen near the aircraft helping the civilians to board. However, a Vietnamese stated that he had seen Orr board the aircraft and later positively identified him from a photograph. Rescue efforts were impossible because of the hostile threat in the area.
At the time, the order was given to escape and evade, Spec 4 Julius Long was with Coen and Simpson. All three had been wounded and were trying to make their way back to the airfield about 350 yards away. As they reached the airfield, they saw the last C130 departing. Coen, who was shot in the stomach, panicked and started running and shooting his weapon at random. Long tried to catch him, but could not, and did not see Coen again. Long then carried Sgt. Simpson to a nearby hill, where they spent the night.
During the night, the airfield was strafed and bombed by U.S. aircraft. Long was hit twice in the back by fragments, and Simpson died during the night. Long left him lying on the hill near the Cam Duc airfield and started his escape and evasion toward Chu Lai, South Vietnam. Long was captured and was released in 1973 from North Vietnam.
The Special Forces Command Group was the last organized group out of the camp. As their helicopter soared into the clouds, Kham Duc was abandoned to advancing NVA infantry at 4:33 p.m. on May 12, 1968. The last Special Forces camp on the northwestern frontier of South Vietnam had been destroyed.
Two search and recovery operations were conducted near OP1 and OP2 and the Cam Duc airfield on July 18, 1970, and August 17, 1970. In these operations, remains of personnel previously reported missing from this incident were recovered and subsequently identified. They were Spec 5 Bowers, Pfc. Lloyd, Sgt. Sisk, Pfc. Guzman-Rios and Staff Sgt. Carter. Sadly, extensive search and excavation could not be completed at OP1 and OP2 because of the tactical situation.
It was assumed that all the missing at Kham Duc were killed in action until about 1983 when the father of one of the men missing discovered a Marine Corps document which indicated that four of the men had been taken, prisoner. The document listed the four by name. Until then, the families had not been advised of the possibility there were any American prisoners taken other than Julius Long. A Vietnamese rallied identified the photograph of Roy C. Williams as positively having been a POW.
Until proof is obtained that the rest of the men lost at Ngok Tavak and Kham Duc are dead, their families will always wonder if they are among those said to still be alive in Southeast Asia.
Editor’s Note: Capt. Warren Orr was from C-Team Headquarters in Da Nang and was sent to Kham Duc to assist in the evacuation of civilians. At the time, I was the XO of A-Team 102 and was at the C-Team to conduct some personal business when I ran into Orr as he was preparing to leave for Kam Duc. He was his usual friendly, high spirited self but I sensed some apprehension and fear, which is natural when you know are going to a place where heavy fighting and dying. Had I been in his shoes, I would have felt the same. When I learned later that he died on a plane loaded with Vietnamese civilians, I felt terrible about his loss.
By LtCol Michael Christy – Together We Served Dispatches
Audrey Hepburn is ranked as the third greatest female star of all time by the American Film Institute. New Women magazine called her the most beautiful woman of all time. She was among the few entertainers who had won Academy, Emmy, Grammy and Tony Awards. She is celebrated for her work in movies such as Sabrina, Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, My Fair Lady and Roman Holiday, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. She had the reputation of being a humble, kind and charming person, who lived the philosophy of putting others before herself.
She also became a part of the Dutch Resistance during World War II.
Hepburn was born on May 4, 1929 at number 48 Rue Keyenveld in Ixelles, a municipality in Brussels, Belgium. Her father was Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston, a British subject and Anglo-Irish banker. Her mother was Baroness Ella van Heemstra, a Dutch aristocrat and a descended from French and English kings. Ella’s father was Aarnoud Jan Anne Aleid, Baron van Heemstra. From 1910 to 1920, he was mayor of Arnhem and served as Governor of Dutch Suriname in northern South America from 1921 to1928. Ella’s mother was Elbrig Willemine Henriette, Baroness van Asbeck.
Hepburn’s mother and father married in the Dutch-Colonial Batavia (now Jakarta), Dutch East Indies in Sept. 1926. This was her mother’s second marriage. They moved back to Europe in 1926 and resettled in Ixelles in Belgium, where Hepburn was born in 1929, before moving to Linkebeek, a nearby Brussels municipality, in January 1932.
Because of her father’s work, she spent her childhood bouncing between Belgium, England and the Netherlands. Because of her multinational background and travelling with her family because of her father’s job, she learned to speak five languages: Dutch and English from her parents and later French, Spanish, and Italian.
She also began studying ballet when she was five years old, hoping one day to be a world-renowned ballet dancer.
In 1935, when she was six-years-old, the marriage between her parents hit a rocky bottom after her mother discovered her father in bed with the nanny of her children, resulting in her father leaving the family abruptly. Two years later in 1937, Ella and eight-year-old Audrey moved to Kent, South East England, where Hepburn was educated at a small school in Elham, run by two sisters known as the “The Mesdemoiselles Smith.” But in September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. All at once, England was no longer a safe place for a little girl, as it had declared war on Germany. At her mother’s request, Audrey’s father scooped up Audrey from her school and put her on a plane to Holland, which intended to stay neutral in the war with Germany and was considered a safe place for riding out the conflict.
It was May 9, 1940, and Audrey Kathleen Hepburn had just turned eleven-years-old. She was living in Holland with her mother, her two older half-brothers, Ian and Alex, and other relatives. Her father lived in London. Her parents were now divorced.
To celebrate Audrey’s birthday, her mother, had bought tickets for her and Audrey to see a performance by the great English dance troupe, ‘The Sadler’s Wells Ballet.’ The company was touring Holland, France, and Belgium. Audrey’s town of Arnhem was to be one of their stops.
Audrey had not seen her dad since that day at the airport. Her parents’ divorce had left an aching hole in her heart. But on this day in May, Audrey was not sad. She was looking forward to the ballet. Her mother had given her more than one reason to smile: “My mother had our little dressmaker make me a long taffeta dress. The reason she got me this, at great expense, was that I was to present a bouquet of flowers at the end of the performance to the director of the company.”
The evening finally arrived. Audrey wore her beautiful new long dress and got to see the famous Margot Fonteyn dance in “Horoscope” and “Facade” by choreographer Frederick Ashton. Afterwards, Audrey’s mother took the stage and gave a formal thanks to the troupe first in Dutch, then in English. Next was Audrey’s big moment. To her surprise, her bouquet of tulips and roses was hurriedly accepted. A quick supper followed, as the dancers hustled about afterward, gathering up their props and costumes, to get on their bus to leave Arnhem that very evening. The dancers didn’t want to get stuck in Holland if the Germans did attack and closed off the borders.
That night, as Audrey slept, the Germans invaded Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg. The Dutch were totally shocked. They never dreamed Hitler would attack them, his “Dutch cousins.” Just the night before, Hitler had made a radio broadcast, promising to all who listened that he had no plans whatsoever of attacking Holland. For five days, the Germans came down on the Dutch with the force of Hell. They never bothered issuing a formal declaration of war either.
Incendiary bombs were dropped on The Hague. Nazi troops tore through Audrey’s town of Arnhem, looting and despoiling as they pleased. The Germans threatened to bomb every Dutch city until they were demolished until Holland surrendered. The Dutch military, though terribly outnumbered, fought back anyway, but they were no match for the conquering horde, and were forced to surrender. After five days, Holland capitulated. It would be occupied by the Nazis for five very long years.
Young Audrey watched her Jewish neighbor being herded into trucks, men into one truck, women into another, babies into another. “We did not yet know that they were going to their death,” she remembered.
Over the next ten months, the van Heemstra bank accounts, securities, and jewelry would be confiscated by the Nazis. Rations were imposed on food and fuel which were soon in short supply for the suffering Dutch people. Food became completely nonexistent during the Hunger Winter of 1944 as the Germans cut off all imports of foods to punish the Dutch Resistance that fought back against the Nazis from inside Holland.
The German occupiers also spread anti-English sentiment, banning the import of British jams and biscuits and outlawing the Girl and Boy Scouts. The Germans hoped they could whip the Dutch into a hatred for the English and recruit them in the battle against Britain.
With the Nazis cracking down on the English, the Baroness was worried. Audrey Hepburn was an English name and Audrey spoke English. She carried a British passport. Quickly, Audrey’s mother gave her a new identity as a little Dutch girl. For the war years, the Baroness changed her daughter’s name to Edda van Heemstra. Audrey – now Edda – took Dutch language lessons so she could pass as Dutch and not be arrested for being English. Audrey did not risk speaking English for the rest of the war.
One early winter day, Audrey was walking along a city street when three truckloads full of German soldiers toting rifles stopped suddenly. The soldiers ordered all the girls in their sight to line up and get in the trucks. Audrey did as she was told knowing the girls were heading for military brothels. As the trucks drove off, Audrey kept saying the Lord’s Prayer to herself in Dutch. Then the convoy stopped unexpectedly. Some soldiers jumped out and began abusing some Jews. Audrey said: “I remember hearing the dull sound of a rifle butt hitting a man’s face. And I jumped down, dropped to my knees, and rolled under the truck. I then skittered out, hoping the driver would not notice me, and he didn’t.”
In 1942, Hepburn’s uncle, Otto van Limburg Stirum (husband of her mother’s older sister, Miesje), was executed in retaliation for an act of sabotage by the resistance movement, while Hepburn’s half-brother Ian was deported to Berlin to work in a German labor camp. Hepburn’s other half-brother Alex went into hiding to avoid the same fate. “We saw young men put against the wall and shot, and they’d close the street and then open it and you could pass by again. Don’t discount anything awful you hear or read about the Nazis. It’s worse than you could ever imagine,” Audrey recalled.
It was because of the sadistic and brutal way the Nazi occupiers treated the Dutch, that Audrey became determined to work with the Dutch Resistance. An accomplished ballerina by age 14, she danced in secret productions in underground places to help raise money for the resistance. To keep from being discovered, the audience did not clap. As she famously said, “The best audience I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performances.”
It was at these “black performances” where the audiences gave the young performers money and folded message to be stuffed into the children’s shoes and transported the next day to resistance workers. There was little doubt in Audrey’s mind that had she been discovered doing either of these things, a swift execution would have followed.
And where was Audrey’s father all this time? He was arrested in England and accused of peddling Nazi propaganda for the notorious leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley. He remained under house arrest for the duration of the war on the Isle of Man with other suspected Nazi sympathizers.
After the Allied landing on D-Day on June 6, 1944, living conditions grew worse. In mid-September 1944, it grew even worse during Operation Market Garden as British and American paratroopers and ground forces moved toward a heavily damaged Arnhem. Operation Market Garden was a failure and the allied forces withdrew from the city of Arnhem. The van Heemstra family was also seriously financially affected by the occupation, during which many of their properties, including their principal estate in Arnhem, were badly damaged or destroyed.
Baroness Ella, Miesje, and Hepburn left Arnhem and moved in with Baron Aarnoud van Heemstra in nearby Velp. Fifteen-year-old Audrey Hepburn had been hovering close to death for months, sick with jaundice, her legs and feet swollen from edema caused by malnutrition, so weak with hunger that she could barely climb the stairs in her grandfather’s home, just outside Arnhem.
But in April 1945 as the fighting came closer, she and her family took refuge in the cellar as the Germans and Allies fought from house to house. “Occasionally, you’d go up and see how much of your house was left, and then you’d go back under again,” she remembered.
Then on the morning of April 29, the shelling and shooting stopped. Audrey heard voices and singing, and smelt English cigarettes. She crept upstairs and opened the front door to find the house surrounded by English soldiers all aiming their guns at her. Hepburn said she screamed with happiness, seeing all these “cocky figures with dirty bright faces and shouted something in English, a cheer went up that they’d liberated an English girl.” That day, sixteen-year-old Audrey Hepburn only weighed 88 pounds.
When the Allies liberated the Netherlands in May 1945, United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration aid arrived providing much needed relief. Hepburn witnessed first-hand the transforming impact international aid agencies can have on suffering regions. As a result, she developed a life-long devotion to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Audrey served as Goodwill Ambassador for United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), from 1988 until her untimely death in January 1993. Through her work with UNICEF, she used her image and the great interest people had in her to attract world attention to her cause, but also of repaying the United Nations for rescuing her from starvation in 1945 Holland. Audrey’s movie career took a back seat to her work for UNICEF which proved more meaningful to her than restarting her acting career. Audrey represented the agency in many capacities, not only appearing at public occasions to support the good cause of UNICEF but also traveling widely to the world’s trouble spots to assess the situation of children.
Upon returning from Somalia to Switzerland in late September 1992, Hepburn began suffering from abdominal pain. While initial medical tests in Switzerland had inconclusive results, a laparoscopy performed at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles in early November revealed a rare form of abdominal cancer belonging to a group of cancers known as pseudomyxoma peritonei. Hepburn and her family returned home to Switzerland to celebrate her last Christmas. She spent her last days in hospice care at her home in Tolochenaz, Vaud and was occasionally well enough to take walks in her garden, but gradually became more confined to bedrest.
On the evening of 20 January 1993, Hepburn died in her sleep at home. She was interred at the Tolochenaz Cemetery.
Audrey Hepburn’s legacy as an actress and a personality has endured long after her death. She stands as one of few entertainers who have won an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony Awards. She won a record three BAFTA Awards for Best British Actress in a Leading Role. In her last years, she remained a visible presence in the film world. She received a tribute from the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1991 and was a frequent presenter at the Academy Awards. She received the BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992. She was the recipient of numerous posthumous awards including the 1993 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and competitive Grammy and Emmy Awards. She has been the subject of many biographies since her death and the 2000 dramatization of her life titled “The Audrey Hepburn Story” which starred Jennifer Love Hewitt and Emmy Rossum as the older and younger Hepburn respectively. The film concludes with real photos of Audrey Hepburn, shot during one of her final missions for UNICEF.
By Michael P. Walsh
The Washington, D.C., Vietnam Veterans Memorial is inscribed with 58,272 names – each a story of lost opportunity and heartache; ultimate sacrifices that, with time, are known by and intimate to fewer. The New Guy is one of those small stories, perhaps now, 48 years later, important to only me – that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be told.
Long Island’s morning fog was dense and chilly as I turned onto the drive at Pinelawn National Cemetery. Driving forward, I familiarized myself with the numbering of the stones. Donning my overcoat as I got out of the car, I crossed the roadway to walk another 50 feet over wet grass to The New Guy’s permanent address: plot 31313A in section “N.”
A stunted, winter-bare tree stood watch over his grave – it looked like it shaded him nicely in the summertime. The headstone, identical to the thousands surrounding it, is engraved with bits of personal information: born 12 days after I was, on July 14, 1947, he died March 7, 1968. Below those dates are chiseled the word “Vietnam;” farther down are the two letters “PH” confirming the Purple Heart was awarded posthumously. Exactly 40 years later, March 7, 2008, I was here for a long overdue visit. Although today I know his name, for most of the intervening years, I didn’t. In my recollections, he has always been, simply, “The New Guy.”
New guys were easy to spot. Naturally, there was the rookie’s nervousness, but that clean helmet cover was the giveaway. A seasoned Marine’s helmet might have a heavy rubber band encircling it, holding bug repellant and a well-used plastic spoon, but always printed on the fabric covering his steel “pot” was a message. Sometimes a clever or rude manipulation of a biblical phrase; other times, it was a less-nuanced “Screw You” challenge to the enemy. The brazen tempted fate with a crude calendar counting down their remaining days in country. Attesting to the helmet’s use as protection, basin and stool, the messages were written on camouflage covers stained by rain, soil and sweat. In 1968, those young Marines with helmet covers awaiting a personal signature were known to the rest of us as “New Guys.”
I was a Marine forward observer scout. My helmet cover sported a faded green shamrock, surrounded by the words “All Irish F.O.’s.” Early March found Louis, my radio operator, and me attached to “Alpha” Company, one of two line companies of First Battalion, Third Marines, providing security up a backwater of the Cua Viet River.
It was a reprieve to patrol from a fixed location, allowing us to fortify positions, improve makeshift hutches and learn the lay of the land before, not during, ambushes. The few incoming sniper rounds were erratic – minor nuisances that were quickly suppressed – and the weather improved daily. Most importantly, we were alive. There wasn’t much not to like.
Suddenly, on March 7, 1968, our Vietnamese-speaking S-2 scout reported enemy combatants moving through Phu Tai, a neighboring village, after nightfall. Since it was our job to keep bad actors out of the neighborhood, Alpha Co was ordered on top of Amtrak’s in the predawn dark for a rough ride, over dry rice paddies to give this little village the once over. Maybe we’d find trouble, maybe not. Personally, I was thinking not.
With the bellowing of our Amtrak’s dual turbocharged exhausts announcing our pending arrival, all North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars working the area would surely be long gone before we showed up. For all intents and purposes, it looked like it would be an early morning cakewalk. Map and compass were close, radio communications checked; I was alert, not anxious. Turned out I should have been.
In the glow of a false dawn, we were rolling-up on Phu Tai’s western edge when suddenly a rocket propelled grenade flew out of the tree line, blowing a hole in our lead Amtrak. With it came a stupefying volume of incoming automatic weapons fire. Screams of the wounded and shouts for corpsman were coming from all quarters as Louis and I leapt off our Amtrak and scrambled to a nearby trench. So much for nobody being home. Dawn had arrived at Phu Tai with a promise of some serious mayhem.
A vestige of the French and Viet Minh conflict of an earlier time, our trench was typical of those surrounding villages near the Demilitarized Zone. Just to the north of it, outside the village, was an abandoned, French-era church. It didn’t show on my map, but there it was – two-stories tall and roofless, it was one of the few solid masonry structures in those parts. My view of it was blocked by a clump of bushes rimming our trench’s back edge, directly behind where Louis and I made our stand.
Looking over the forward edge of the trench, I located where Marines were digging in. Our near-instant heavy casualties and the sustained volume of incoming fire indicated a large, entrenched force – a motivated enemy that might mount a counterattack. The simultaneous firing of several batteries was initiated to provide a protective curtain of shrapnel while we got a handle on things.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, the day went badly fast. To my right, just beyond Louis, a Marine I had bummed a cigarette from a few minutes earlier was dead. To my left, in sequence, was another dead Marine, our wounded platoon commander and, scattered beyond them, a dozen, perhaps 15, Marines. Some dead, some wounded; those still capable struggled to keep our recently-issued M-16’s functioning.
During all this, I received a priority radio message advising me an NVA sniper had been spotted on the second floor of the church. The reason for the high number of casualties in my immediate area was now obvious: from his perch, the shooter could target men well below the trench’s rear lip. It was inevitable that Louis and I were going to find ourselves on that deadly score card if we didn’t put him out of business. Hoping to be quick enough to avert additional causalities, another artillery mission was worked up.
It was just then that I met The New Guy – part of a Marine company sent to reinforce our precarious position. As he dropped into the trench behind me, I turned to see by his clean helmet cover; the look on his face said that today was his introduction to the terrors of the fight. Still, he never wavered. Suppressing the fear, we all knew, he spoke the last words of his life: “What do you want me to do?” In the intervening years, neither our dire circumstances nor his response to them have been forgotten.
Quickly I pointed out the sniper’s position and explained the need to keep him down while artillery was brought on target; I don’t remember the precise number, but I can’t imagine that more than 15 words were exchanged. Turning toward the church without hesitation, he took a firing position at the base of the bushes. With my back now covered, I gave the final “fire for effect” that would eliminate that menace in the loft.
Moments later, six 105 mm artillery rounds landed in the church’s upper story, abruptly and decisively ending the shooter’s reign. Unfortunately, The New Guy missed our small victory. Seconds before his demise, the sniper fired his last round. It was on target, and it was fatal. The New Guy was dead.
Although aware that he had protected me, providing time to complete the task at hand, reflection was not an option as that March 7, 1968, engagement at Phu Tai still had plenty of promised mayhem to be played out. A brutal assault, with Marines engaging in close-quarters fighting, routed the NVA forces. Afterward, in the late afternoon’s fading light, we searched for our wounded and killed. I don’t recall there being any prisoners.
As darkness enveloped the field, “Puff,” the Gatling-armed C-130 flying transport, came on station, providing covering fire as needed and dropping huge illumination flares, lighting-up the dry rice paddy for the night’s remaining work.
With our men accounted for, the Marines withdrew from the village and linked up to form a perimeter where, from freshly dug fighting holes, weary eyes and lethal intent were focused into the evening’s menacing shadows. Inbound helicopter flights soon began landing with the necessities: munitions, food, water and, oh yes, more New Guys. Following triage protocol, our corpsmen backloaded the outgoing flights with our 94 wounded. It wasn’t until the next morning, March 8, 1968, that The New Guy and his 12 companions, each now cocooned in a body bag, were finally relieved of duty. Marines gently loaded them into Hueys for their trip back across the Cua Viet to the first stop on their rotation stateside: the morgue at Dong Ha.
Curiously, though few things have had such a profound and lasting imprint on my life, many years passed before I dared replay those long-ago violent days. When I did, prominent and persistent was the question: “Who was The New Guy?” With research, I found the answer.
Three days after the battle of Phu Tai, the Department of Defense issued its weekly count of Vietnam casualties. The following day, March 12, 1968, The New York Times published the names of those who claimed New York as home. Last on their list of 22 was a young Marine from Brooklyn: Esau Whitehead Jr.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial website describes Esau at the time of his death as a 20-year-old African-American corporal from New York City. On “The Wall,” his name is found on Panel 43E, Line 49. The record states vaguely that he died from “ground, small arms fire, Quang Tri province.” Because of the chaos of battle, it is most likely I am the only person who knows the exact details. Wanting to share those, a letter was written describing Esau’s last moments; however, when unable to locate survivors, I rewrote it as the story of ‘The New Guy,’ hoping someday it would land where it belongs. Of course, after all this time, there may be no family left or, it’s also possible that no one cares.
But I do. I care. So, Esau, I’m writing your final story, hoping it will find its way to those who remember that 20-year-old kid from Brooklyn and wonder how it was for you at the end.
Cpl. Esau Whitehead Jr., you died living up to the Marine Corps motto – Semper Fidelis – while protecting a fellow Marine you knew for less than five minutes.
Thank you again, Esau. Your family should know.
The photo is left to right: Cpl Michael Walsh, Cpl James P. “Pat” Daly and PFC Roger McLain displaying the shamrocks they added to their helmet covers in Vietnam, 1968. Lt. George Norris is to the rear and between Cpl. Walsh and Cpl. Daly. He was killed in action while serving as a Company Commander.
Reprinted with permission from the Marine Corps Association & Foundation, Leatherneck Magazine, May 2017
By LtCol Mike Christy-Together We Served Dispatches
By LtCol Mike Christy-Together We Served Dispatches
On March 31, 2004, a private contractor’s convoy was traveling through Fallujah when it was ambushed by heavily armed insurgents. Safeguarding the convoy were four Blackwater USA employees – Scott Helvenston, Jerry Zovko, Wesley Batalona, and Michael Teague. The four were killed by machine gunfire and a grenade thrown through a window of their SUVs. Their charred bodies were dragged from the burning wreckage of their vehicles by a mob, mutilated, dragged through the streets, and two were hung on display from a bridge over the Euphrates river as the crowd celebrated below.
The public display of the beaten and burned bodies of the four security contractors triggered worldwide outrage. In response to the gruesome slaughter of the private security guards, a U.S.-led operation to retake Fallujah began on April 4, 2004 – only four days after the macabre incident.
Within a week, a third of the city had been retaken, but due to the considerable destruction of the city and heavy civilian deaths by U.S. airstrikes, the interim Iraqi government pressured the American forces to withdraw from the city on May 1, 2004. The U.S. then turned over military operations to 1,100-man Fallujah Brigade, led by Muhammed Latif, a former Ba’athist general, but when the brigade folded in September, American weapons and equipment fell into the hand of the insurgents, foreign fighters, and criminals. The Marine command vowed to return and establish some semblance of peacefulness in Fallujah.
The U.S. suffered 27 deaths in the campaign; some 200 insurgents were killed and approximate 600 Iraqi civilians; 300 of them believed to be women and children.
By the early fall of 2004, the chief objective of the American campaign was to eliminate burgeoning insurgency in safe havens in advance of Iraq’s first parliamentary elections after the American invasion. The legitimacy of the interim government, and the upcoming elections appeared to hang in the balance. Fallujah, a city of 250,000 less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad, was the mother of all safe havens and was among the cities to be retaken.
This metropolis on the edge of the desert had a well-earned reputation as a home for former Ba’athist party enforcers and other criminal elements. It was a squalid, unattractive place, unfriendly to strangers – a city, writes military historian Bing West, “comprised of two thousand blocks of courtyard walls, tenements, two-story concrete houses, and squalid alleyways. Half-completed houses, garbage heaps, and wrecks of old cars cluttered every neighborhood.”
The Corps couldn’t wait to assault the city and mix it up with a colorful mÃ©lange of al Qaeda, freelance Islamist extremists from across the Middle East, and several Sunni militia groups.
That chance came in November and December 2004 with the Second Battle of Fallujah – code-named Operation Al-Fajr and Operation Phantom Fury – as part of a joint American, Iraqi, and British offensive. It turned out to be the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War and is notable for being the first major engagement of the war fought solely against insurgents rather than the force of the former Ba’athist Iraqi government, which was toppled in 2003.
Unlike the recent struggle to take the city back from ISIS, the outcome of the fall 2004 encounter was never really in doubt. Superior numbers, training, and an immense advantage in firepower ensured that the Fallujah would fall to the Americans. The critical questions were, how much blood and treasure would it take to wrest the city from the enemy? Would the city have to be destroyed to be saved? And most importantly, would victory in Fallujah reverse the momentum of an insurgency steadily growing in both numbers and intensity across much of the country?
Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, the top commander of Marines in Iraq, had the luxury of several months to prepare their plan of attack, which proved to be a very successful plan. A preliminary feint from the southwest 24 hours before the main assault would draw off considerable numbers of jihadists from the northern sector of the city, the direction from which the main attack would proceed. A U.S. Army armored brigade had thrown a tight cordon around the entire city, preventing reinforcements or resupplies from reaching the enemy.
Crucially, the Iraqi government and the Americans had managed to persuade/cajole well over 90 percent of the city’s populace to evacuate their homes, so if the American infantry ran into exceedingly tough resistance, they could employ the full range of their lethal supporting arms – Abrams tanks, the steel rain of 105-mm shells from circling C-130 gunships, jet fighter-bombers, and of course, artillery fire – without fear of causing large numbers of civilian casualties.
During this time, it was clear that an assault on the city was imminent and the insurgents prepared a variety of defenses and strong points. The attack on the city was assigned to Lt. Gen. Sattler’s I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MED).
With the city cordoned off, efforts were made to suggest that the Coalition attack would come from the south and southeast as had occurred in April during the Firsts Battle of Fallujah. Instead, I MEF intended to assault the city from the north across its entire breadth. On November 6, Regimental Combat Team 1 (RCT-1), consisting of the 3rd Battalion/1st Marines, 3rd Battalion/5th Marines, and the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion/7th Cavalry, moved into position to assault the western half of Fallujah from the north.
They were joined by Regimental Combat Team 7 (RCT-7), made up of the 1st Battalion/8th Marines, 1st Battalion/3rd Marines and the U.S. Army 2nd Battalion/2nd Infantry which would attack the eastern part of the city. These units were joined by Iraqi as well.
With Fallujah sealed, operations began at 7 pm, November 7, when Task Force Wolfpack moved to take objectives on the west bank of the Euphrates River opposite Fallujah. While Iraqi commandoes captured Fallujah General Hospital, Marines secured the two bridges over the river to cut off any enemy retreat from the city.
A similar blocking mission was undertaken by the British Black Watch Regiment south and east of Fallujah.
During the cold, rainy evening of November 8, the northern rim of the city came under a thunderous and sustained bombardment from artillery and warplanes. Hundreds of 155-mm shells and 500-pound high-explosive bombs shook the earth across a three-mile front, obliterating a train station and a large apartment complex on the outskirts of the city.
An eerie silence followed. Suddenly the two Regimental Combat Teams of Marine infantry and Army armored battalions, about 8,000 men in all, crossed a railroad embankment and began to push south into the city proper. Within seconds, the American advance was met with an avalanche of small arms and mortar fire. Over the earsplitting din of simultaneous fire from thousands of weapons, loudspeakers on Marine Humvees blared Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and insurgent commanders barked orders in Arabic over their own loudspeakers, ensconced in the minarets of several of the city’s 200 mosques.
Thus, began ten straight days of brutal, close-in fighting to sweep through this labyrinth of a city, north to south, and wrest it from the insurgents’ grasp. The jihadists had spent the better part of half a year constructing bunkers, strong points, and laying out avenues of retreat, and ambush sites. Hundreds of rooms and entire houses had been expertly booby-trapped, and IEDs had been liberally planted in the streets and alleys. Road blocks of Jersey barriers and junk cars designed to funnel the attackers down lethal avenues of approach seemed to be around every other corner. As the insurgents came under fire from the advancing American battalions, they tended to react in one of two ways: they either held their ground and fought to the death, or they rapidly retreated down side streets or into alleys, hoping to lure the Marines and soldiers into prepared kill zones.
Dexter Filkins, a New York Times war correspondent who had covered half a dozen wars and was embedded with a Marine rifle company in Fallujah, described the combat there as “a qualitatively different experience, a leap into a different kind of battle.” He was hardly the only veteran reporter to register that reaction. Filkins himself narrowly escaped death at least once in the fighting and saw several of the men with whom he was embedded die as well.
Later Gen. Sattler recalled the battle “was intense, close, and personal, the likes of which have been experienced by U.S. forces on just a few occasions since the battle of Hue City in the Vietnam War. There were no real front lines, because the insurgents would get behind you constantly.”
On November 9, after 16 straight hours of fighting to take a fortified mosque being used as a command post, men in B Company, 8th Marines, saw a car pull up behind them. Out poured six insurgents wielding rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s. The Marines sprung in action, killing four in a matter of seconds before the insurgents could get off a single round of fire. The two remaining insurgents dashed for a courtyard, where they were rapidly cornered by several Marines. Suddenly, one of the insurgents pulled a cord on his suicide vest, sending himself and his brother fighter to instant martyrdom. Virtually every infantry company in Fallujah could report at least one such encounter.
Forty-eight hours into the fight, the Marines had advanced methodically through about one-third of the city, and seized the government center, having leveled several hundred enemy strongpoints to rubble with air strikes, tank fire, and armored bulldozers that proved critical in keeping the advance moving. The insurgents were so entrenched that by the end of the fight, the Marines had been forced to level some 10,000 of 50,000 residences – most were rebuilt at American expense.
On the fourth day of the battle, November 12, both Regimental Combat Teams crossed Highway 10, the six-lane, east-west artery that divided the northern half of the city from the grimy industrial southern half. Southern Falluja had been far more heavily fortified than the north. Here the Marines came up against dozens of unyielding defensive pockets and had to fend off a series of suicidal counterattacks that left the streets littered with bloated, stinking corpses. “Almost as soon as the insurgents were dead, the dogs started gnawing on their bones,” recalled a Marine officer. Heavy rains prevented the authorities from burying these bodies for several days.
It sometimes became necessary to slip small units of Marines in behind the enemy-held pockets to clear them out. Marine Capt. Elliot Ackerman’s platoon slipped behind insurgent lines in the middle of the night, and took up residence in a four-story building.
Author Bing West, who was embedded with a company of Marines in the battle, gives this vivid account of what followed in ‘No True Glory’: “At first light, on both sides of their building, insurgents were slipping forward in bands of four and six unaware of the Marines until the M16s opened up, hitting three or four before the others ducked into the surrounding buildings.”
The insurgents scattered for cover, then converged on the platoon. Within minutes the fighting fell into a pattern. The platoon held a stout building with open ground on all sides, which made a frontal assault suicidal. Instead, enemy snipers, RPG teams, and machine-gunners were running from floor to floor and across the roofs of the adjoining buildings looking for angles to shoot down.
The Marines tried to pick out a window or a corner of a building where an insurgent was hiding and smother it with fire. The shooters on both sides were like experienced boxers, jabbing and weaving and never leaving themselves open. The Marines punched mouse holes in the walls and threw up barricades in front of their machine guns, shifting from room to room every ten minutes.
A particularly effective method for reducing stubborn enemy positions within apartment buildings or other large structures was for the American artillery to fire a “shake and bake” mission: First, a battery of cannons fired incendiary white phosphorus smoke rounds into a building to flush the insurgents outside, and then, after a short delay, they bracketed the building with high explosive rounds to kill them as they exited.
After ten days of grinding, close combat, the Americans, supported by two elite Iraqi Army battalions, had captured the city.
The heavy fighting continued for the next several days as Coalition forces went house-to-house eliminating insurgent resistance. The fighting was not as intense as it had been during the clearing phase, but it was still dangerous, exhausting work. More than 20,000 structures were searched and cleared – some as many as three times, as insurgent hangers-on re-infiltrated previously cleared dwellings. If the Marines were forced to withdraw from a house due to heavy fire from inside, they would reduce it to rubble by attaching a patch of C-4 explosive to two propane canisters and throwing them through a window.
By the time it was all over on December 23, U.S. forces had uncovered more than 450 weapons caches, three torture chambers, one of which contained a live prisoner who’d had his leg sawed off, and 24 bomb-making factories. According to a log cited in Bing West’s book, one Marine platoon cleared 70 or more buildings a day for more than a week, during which time they engaged in an average of three firefights a day, and killed 60 insurgents.
The outcome for taking Fallujah was 95 Americans killed in action, and 450 seriously wounded. According to a report from Gen. George Casey Jr., commander of all coalition forces in Iraq, of the 8,400 insurgents killed in 2004, 2,175 had fallen in the Second Battle of Fallujah. Unfortunately, hundreds of Islamist insurgents had either left Fallujah before the battle or slipped through the cordon in small groups and went on to join their brothers to spark new uprisings in Mosul, Ramadi, and East Baghdad.
Even though Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi – the mastermind behind hundreds of bombings, kidnappings and video beheadings in Iraq – was not captured during the operation, the battle severely damaged the momentum of the insurgency. Tactics that were developed in the battles of Fallujah were used on larger scales to capture Ramadi and other surrounding areas afterward. After the Second Battle of Fallujah, the insurgents avoided open battles, but the number of attacks on coalition troops began to rise more. Four years after the bitter fighting, the city was turned over to Iraqi Forces and the Iraqi Provincial Authority.
The Second Battle of Fallujah joins the ranks of Tarawa, the Chosin Reservoir, and the Battle for Hue as one of the Marine Corps’ bitter, hard-won triumphs that unfortunately had little strategic impact on the war of which it was a part.
One veteran of the battle, Col. John Toolan, was hardly the only thoughtful officer to question whether the kind of fighting that had gone on in Fallujah was counterproductive in the long run. “What’s the impact on a ten-year-old kid when he goes back and sees his neighborhood destroyed? And what is he going to do when he is 18 years old?”
Hearts and minds are not won by leveling cities, and by late 2004, the American military was finally waking up to the fact that it was in the middle of a protracted insurgency war, and hearts and minds were what it was all about.
Twelve years later, the Marines have left Iraq, the insurgents remain, and the country finds itself deeply mired in civil war. But Fallujah has at last been retaken, and the Islamic State is clearly on the defensive – at least in Iraq. And that’s good news for Iraq, for the United States, and for the American Marines and soldiers who fought the good fight for Fallujah in 2004.
Unfortunately, even today, more than a decade later, much of Iraq and the Middle East is still beset by violence.
By LtCol Mike Christy-Together We Served Dispatches
U.S. Marines are known for being hard-chargers; for never giving up and overcoming whatever obstacle they may face. Perhaps no Marine exemplified this willingness to prevail against overwhelming odds better than Guy Louis Gabaldon – “The Pied Piper of Saipan.” He earned the sobriquet in June 1944 when he was 18-years-old by capturing or persuading over two thousand Japanese Soldiers and civilians to surrender during the battles for Saipan and Tinian islands during World War II.
Gabaldon was born in Boyle Heights, California on March 22, 1926, one of seven children in a Mexican-American family. As a ten-year-old, he helped his family by shining shoes on skid row in downtown Los Angeles. Growing up in a tough Hispanic barrio, he became a member of a multi-ethnic gang known as the “Moe Gang.” Like the rest of his gang members, he had a disregard for authority and was always in some kind of trouble. That began to change, however, when he was twelve and “adopted” by the Nakano family, a loving Japanese-American family who raised him as part of their extended family. While living with the Nakano family, he attended Japanese language and culture classes with the family’s children, eventually learning to speak Japanese.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Nakano family, like most Japanese-American families living on the West Coast at the time, was sent to an internment camp at Heart Mountain Relocation Center, in Wyoming. “I wanted to go to the internment camp with them, but they wouldn’t let me,” Gabaldon would later say. Instead, he moved to Alaska to work in a cannery. On March 22, 1943, his 17th birthday, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was sent to Camp Pendleton for basic training. Gabaldon then attended the Enlisted Marine Japanese Language School at Camp Elliot and following graduation, he was then assigned to Headquarters and Service Company, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, as a Scout and Observer.
As the Marine Corps island-hopped across the Pacific and closed in on Japan, military officials were faced with the dilemma of whether or not to launch a land invasion of the Japanese home islands. Eventually, American military officials decided against invading Japan, as it would cost an estimated one million American and countless more Japanese lives. Instead, the island of Saipan, located in the Northern Mariana Islands, was chosen as a base of operations on which airfields could be built to launch B-29 Superfortress bombers against the Japanese mainland.
After two days of intense bombardment by fifteen battleships of the Armada, on June 15, 1944, more than 300 LVTs landed an initial 8,000 Marine force, including Marines from the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions, on the west coast of Saipan under covering fire from eleven support ships, including battleships cruisers and destroyers to being the invasion against a force of more than 30,000entreneched Japanese Soldiers. This was just a fraction of 71,000 American force who would eventually load on Saipan and battle the Japanese. To further complicate matters, Japanese Soldiers, under the impression that they would be immediately executed by the Americans, rarely surrendered. Even as it became apparent that the Americans would eventually take the island, the Japanese Soldiers were ordered by their commanding officers on Saipan to kill seven Americans for every Japanese soldier lost or to commit suicide rather than be captured or surrender. The term “human bullets” was coined by the Japanese to describe these suicidal forces, in their first honest reporting following the loss of the island.
It was against this fanatical force that, after arriving on Saipan, Gabaldon defied orders and left camp his first night on the island to try to capture Japanese Soldiers and brought back two prisoners using his limited Japanese. For leaving his post without permission, Gabaldon was reprimanded by his superior officers and threatened with a court-martial. Despite the threat of disciplinary action, Gabaldon left his post again the following night for the same reason. This time, he approached a cave, shot two guards, and yelled in Japanese to the Soldiers inside, “You’re surrounded and have no choice but to surrender. Come out, and you will not be killed. I assure you will be well-treated. We do not want to kill you.” The Soldiers exited the cave and the next morning Gabaldon returned to camp with 50 prisoners. As a result of his effectiveness, Gabaldon received permission from his commanding officer, Capt. John Schwabe, to act as a “lone wolf” operator. He could do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. The perfect task for a tough Hispanic kid from the East Los Angeles barrios.
On July 6, Gabaldon left on another of his evening patrols and entered an area near Saipan’s northern cliffs. It seemed fairly deserted at the time, but before daybreak, he realized that hundreds of enemy infantry were moving onto the flats and gathering for an assault. By this time he was cut off from any path of retreat and any attempt to show himself would have resulted in a quick and noisy death. He remained under cover and listened as thousands of Japanese troops and some civilians drank sake and loudly prepared for the largest banzai charge of the campaign. The island’s commanding Japanese office, Lt. Gen. Yoshitsugu Saito, had mandated that all able-bodied civilians and all mobile wounded forces join in one final suicidal attack, saying “There is no longer any distinction between civilians and troops. It would be better for them to join in the attack with bamboo spears than be captured.” In addition, Emperor Hirohito had sent our an imperial order encouraging the civilian of Saipan to commit suicide, resulting in the death of many thousands of civilian, maybe as many as 12,000. Above photo is the funeral of Yoshitsugu Saito by American military personnel, Saipan, 1944.
The following morning, July 7, 1944, the battle to secure the Japanese occupied island of Saipan peaked in one of the largest banzai charges of the Pacific War. At dawn, with a group of 12 men carrying a great red flag in the lead, the 3000 remaining able-bodied Japanese troops under Lieut. Gen. Saito, plus the civilians he had coerced into joining them, charged forward in the final attack, followed by the barely armed wounded with bandaged heads and hobbling on crutches. The charge lasted over 15 hours and brought the total Japanese losses for the island battle to over 30,000, almost the entire Japanese garrison. Two American battalions were nearly annihilated in the battle leading to 650 casualties, while their fierce resistance resulted in over 4300 Japanese killed. Three Medals of Honor were awarded posthumously for that battle.
The next morning, American Marine reconnaissance patrols edged their dangerous way forward to map out Japanese lines. As one patrol approached the seacliffs lining the north side of the island, they were greeted by an extraordinary sight. On the flats at the top of the cliff was Guy Gabaldon surrounded by hundreds of Japanese troops, many of them still with weapons. One might have thought that this Marine was experiencing his last moments on earth. But as the incredulous scouts looked on, it became apparent that the lone Marine was actually ordering his hundreds of “prisoners” into smaller groups, even as more Japanese streamed quietly up from their ocean-side caves. Eventually, over eight hundred Japanese Soldiers and civilians surrendered to Gabaldon, an astonishing number considering that the battle for Tarawa a few months earlier had produced only 146 prisoners from a total garrison of nearly 5,000. The prisoners were turned over to the U.S. military authorities.
By the time of his July 8 capture of 800 prisoners, Gabaldon had already become well known on Saipan for his capture of hundreds of other die-hard enemy troops using a brisk combination of fluent Japanese and point-blank carbine fire.
Gabaldon continued to capture more Japanese people on Tinian. While back on Saipan fighting Japanese guerrillas still on the island, he was seriously wounded in an enemy machine-gun ambush. Gabaldon was credited with the capture of approximately 1,500 Japanese Soldiers and civilians on Saipan and Tinian and was recommended for the Medal of Honor by his commanding officer, Capt. John Schwabe, who noted that Gabaldon single-handedly captured more than ten times the number of prisoners taken by legendary Medal of Honor recipient, Sgt. Alvin C. York, in World War I. Despite this recommendation, Gabaldon was awarded a Silver Star Medal.
Overall, the Americans counted over 14,500 casualties in the battle for the island, among them nearly 3000 killed in action. Future Hollywood actor Lee Marvin of “I” Company, 24th Marine Regiment, was among the many Americans wounded on Saipan, shot in the buttocks by Japanese machine gun fire. Saipan causes another unexpected result: the loss of the island and the resulting shakeup in the Imperial Japanese Navy’s war staff led to the first honest reporting to the Japanese people of the events taking place in the Pacific as their forces were defeated and territory was lost, with a devastating effect on Japanese public opinion.
Gabaldon received an Honorable Discharge from the Marine Corps as a result of his combat wounds. After returning to civilian life, he moved to Mexico and ventured into various businesses such as a furniture store, fishing, and the import-export of Mexican goods. When his first marriage to June Gabaldon ended in divorce, he met the woman who became his second wife, Ohana Suzuki. For 20 years Gabaldon and his family lived in Saipan, where he worked at various jobs, including police chief and drug abuse counselor.
Gabaldon’s World War II exploits became public when in 1957, he was the invited guest of “This is Your Life,” a popular television program aired by NBC in the 1950s. Hosted by Ralph Edwards, the show presented the life stories of entertainment personalities and “ordinary” people who had contributed in some way to society.
The fact that Gabaldon captured at least 1,500 Japanese prisoners was verified on the national program by Marines Corps intelligence officers Col. Walter Layer, Col. John Schwabe, Maj. James High, and several enlisted men from military intelligence.
Hollywood producers also became interested in Gabaldon’s story and in 1960 released the film “Hell to Eternity” where his actions on Saipan were memorialized. He was portrayed by actors Jeffrey Hunter as an adult and by Richard Eyer as a boy. Gabaldon himself served as an adviser in the filming of the movie.
John Schwabe said he had recommended Gabaldon for the Medal of Honor, but the Marine never received it and instead honored Gabaldon with a Silver Star. But his 1950s appearance on the television show “This is Your Life” led to the making of “Hell to Eternity” resulted in an upgrade to the Navy Cross, second highest award for gallantry to the Medal of Honor. The case to upgrade his Navy Cross to the Medal of Honor is currently under review by the Department of Defense.
In addition to the Hollywood movie, producer Steve Rubin made a documentary film about Gabaldon titled “East L.A. Marine: The Untold True Story of Guy Gabaldon.” Henry Godines also unveiled a commissioned portrait, titled The Pied Piper of Saipan, Guy Gabaldon.
According to Rubin, he was proud of the film. “I think that movie was very inspirational to a lot of baby boomers,” Rubin said. “It was one of the first World War II combat films to portray a sense of humanity in war. The fact of the matter is Guy ended up saving not only hundreds of Japanese lives but American lives as well with a little touch of humanity.”
Decades later in his memoir “Saipan: Suicide Island,” he wrote an expanded account of his wartime experiences.
In 1961 Gabaldon gathered a force of 1,000 Americans to travel to Cuba to wage war against Communist leader Fidel Castro. The trip was blocked by then-Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, who “called me a vigilante,” Gabaldon told a Los Angeles Times reporter in a 1978 article. Years later Gabaldon advertised for men willing to go with him to Nicaragua to “help fight the Communist take-over.”
Called ‘Gabby’ by his friends, he was an outspoken member of right-wing political organizations. In 1964, he unsuccessfully ran for US Congressman in his Southern California district.
During his lifetime, Gabaldon received many awards and recognitions, including resolutions honoring him from the City of Los Angeles, the City of Chicago, and the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas.
On November 12, 2005, he was the recipient of the Chesty Puller Award from the World War II Veterans Committee, a prominent organization which showcases the veterans of World War II and their history.
On July 7, 2006, he was honored by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles City Council. The Mayor and the City Council sent a resolution to the White House requesting the Medal of Honor for Gabaldon. That same year the World War II Veteran’s Committee in Washington, D.C., featured Gabaldon on the cover of their quarterly magazine. Also in July, Gabaldon was honored by the National Council of La Raza, a national organization, and a leading Latino civil rights advocate.
On August 31, 2006, Gabaldon died at the age of 80 of heart disease. He was survived by his second wife, Ohana; his sons Guy Jr., Ray, Tony, Yoshio, Jeffrey, and Russell; his daughters Aiko, Hanako and Manya. Two members of his “adopted” family were actor Lane Nakano and his twin Lyle. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
A short introduction to the “Hell to Eternity” can be viewed at the following site: https://www.amazon.com/Hell-Eternity-Jeffrey-Hunter/dp/B003Y5UP3K
A short PBS film interview with Guy Gabaldon can be viewed at the following site: http://www.pbs.org/video/2365053267/