Friday, August 1, 2014

No Room in the Cemetery

Anonymous [The Afro-American]
From Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism 1959–1969

Fifty years ago, on August 2, 1964, the U.S. destroyer Maddox was on an intelligence-gathering mission off the coast of North Vietnam when it engaged in a firefight with three torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. During the ensuing battle, all three North Vietnamese boats were damaged and four sailors were killed; there were no U.S. casualties. Two days later the Maddox and another destroyer reported a second, four-hour engagement with North Vietnamese vessels. Quoting a cable sent later that day from the Maddox, a secret chronology prepared at the end of August for President Johnson concluded that a review of the second incident made the “many reported contacts and torpedoes fired ‘appear doubtful.’ ‘Freak weather effects’ on radar, and ‘over-eager’ sonarmen may have accounted for many reports.” Commander James B. Stockdale later wrote, “There was absolutely no gunfire except our own, no PT boat wakes, not a candle light let alone a burning ship.”

Immediately after the second incident, Johnson responded by ordering the first U.S. airstrikes against North Vietnam and by submitting the Tonkin Gulf Resolution to Congress, which on August 7 authorized the president to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” in Southeast Asia. (Johnson later joked that the resolution was so broadly worded it was “like grandma's nightshirt. It covered everything.”) Most historians regard this weeklong series of events as the crucial turning point in American involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

Two years later, in May 1966, nineteen-year-old Jimmy Williams was a member of one of two U.S. battalions assigned to “Operation Hardihood,” a sweep of the countryside in South Vietnam’s Phuoc Tuy province, where the Australians had a key military base. While troops were preparing for the operation, his company encountered enemy forces. Australian Captain Robert J. O'Neill recalls in his account:
They knew that they were being followed by a Viet Cong rifleman carrying a radio, but they did not know that in their path was a Viet Cong company who were being guided by the man with the radio. The Americans were caught in deadly cross fire of a box ambush to which were quickly added 60mm. mortar bombs. By the time that they had extricated themselves they had lost eight killed and twenty three wounded—a heavy blow for an infantry company to sustain.
PFC Jimmy Laverne Williams;
photo from the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial Fund’s Wall of Faces
Williams was among the eight Americans killed in the ambush. “His buddies, black and white, helped carry the wounded 173rd Airborne Brigade soldier to a medical evacuation helicopter, where he died,” reported RubĂ©n Salazar in The Los Angeles Times at the end of May. “All of Williams’s buddies killed with him were resting this Memorial Day where their survivors wanted them to be. All but Williams.” What happened to Williams’s body when it arrived back home is described in the following anonymously written article that appeared on the front page of The Afro-American [Baltimore].

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PFC Jimmy Williams's uniformed body was lowered in a grave in the piney woods of South Georgia Monday while a grieving mother pondered the fates which denied him a final resting place in his hometown. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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