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Clark Welch and the battle of Ông Thanh

"Clark Welch is a man of competence, responsibility, integrity, and courage. Few could match his strength of character and self-possession. He gave his very best. On that day and in that place, it was not enough." -- The Beast Was Out There

1st Lt Clark Welch I met Clark Welch at a high-school reunion in 1982 (he and my wife were classmates). He didn't talk about his tours in Vietnam, nor the terrible injuries he'd received there, and nobody at the reunion thought to ask. So we missed the chance to hear the story of a hero. The U.S. Army likewise forgot: Clark's records were lost when he was med-evacked to Japan, along with his efficiency reports, the Distinguished Service Cross that was pinned on him, and even the fact that he had been at Ông Thanh or served in the 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment--the "Black Lions."

The battle of Ông Thanh

In short, part of an experienced and prepared American battalion was ambushed at Ông Thanh on October 17, 1967. They were outnumbered, eight to one, and they didn't know the enemy was there until they were taking fire from three sides and from the trees overhead. By the time the sun went down, 59 of them were dead and 75 wounded--this from two half-strength companies and a headquarters section, totaling fewer than 200 men. The dead included the battalion commander, who in the over-controlling typical of Vietnam combat was in the field with his men that day--a lieutenant colonel commanding what really amounted to a single rifle company. (A brigadier general was overhead in his helicopter during the worst of the fighting, giving advice to a soldier on how to use cigarette-pack cellophane to close a sucking chest wound.)

Now two books have mended the oversight and brought Ông Thanh back into the American consciousness.

The Beast Was Out There

Beast Was Out There The first was written by General James Shelton, a major at the time. You've probably never heard of his book, and you won't see it at your local bookstore or find it on Amazon.com. But it's worth searching out. His account of the debacle at Ông Thanh is wonderfully convincing--as it should be, coming from a soldier who was near the scene, and who'd earlier served in the ambushed battalion. He comes back to the action again and again, like a man with a sore tooth (or like Norman MacLean in the magnificent Young Men and Fire).

It's rewarding reading, though not always easy. The book is backed up with detailed appendixes of how the 1st Infantry Division operated in Vietnam--an eye-opener for people like me who'd seen the war in earlier days. (Where we wore soft hats and slept on the ground, the "Black Lions" dug foxholes that resembled the sort of bunker you'd see in a stalemated battle zone.)

The Beast Was Out There: The 28th Infantry Black Lions and the Battle of Ông Thanh can be ordered from Cantigny First Division Foundation for $25 including shipping. The ISBN is 0890093122 if you want to try ordering it from a bookstore. (It's not listed at the online stores of Amazon and Barnes & Noble.) It's worth the effort: this is a fine book by a man who knows his stuff.

They Marched Into Sunlight

They Marched Into Sunlight The second book was written by a Pulitzer Prize winner, David Maraniss (who also wrote a foreword to Shelton's book). Though not a best-seller, it's doing very well indeed--No. 245 on Amazon as I write this review. You might prefer it. Maraniss tells the story as a journalist would, which makes for easier reading at the expense of the hard-nosed detail that interests a soldier. More than that, he tells another story that happened on the same day: students at the University of Wisconsin protest the presence of Dow Chemical recruiters on campus. Maraniss was among the students, so he finds the ruction of great interest, and he gives it approximately equal space with the battle of Ông Thanh.

You may find this repellent--I did. I was especially annoyed by the photos of the participants. Here's Jonathan Stielstra, "scrambling off the Bascom Hall roof after cutting the [American flag] lanyard and setting off firecrackers," as caption explains. And here's Clark Welch, briefing senior officers the evening before the Viet Cong shot off his left bicep. Whatever you think of American's misadventure in Vietnam, or how the police handled anti-war demonstrators at home, it's hard to think of these two young men as equals in anything but age.

I couldn't bring myself to read the University of Wisconsin chapters, but had to skip through them, and I think Marching Into Sunlight would have been a better book if Maraniss had omitted them. For a man who never served in the army, he does a wonderful job of evoking military life and the awful, bewildering, and random trauma of combat. There are very few malpropisms in his Vietnam chapters, and no glaring errors that I could see. I give him 5 stars for his account of the Ông Thanh debacle, but knock it down to 4 for wasting my time on the sophomoric japes in Madison.

You can buy Marching Into Sunlight at Amazon.com.

Epilog

Clark Welch had a Distinguished Service Cross pinned on him in Vietnam, but his records were lost when he was transferred to a hospital in Japan. He couldn't wear the medal--the army's second-highest honor--until he ran across James Shelton in Washington, and Shelton remedied the oversight. Welch stayed in the army, retiring as a lieutenant colonel--the same rank as his battalion commander, killed at Ông Thanh in October 1967. With Maraniss, he returned to Vietnam in 2002 and met Vo Minh Triet, who had commanded the Viet Cong regiment that ambushed the "Black Lions" 35 years earlier, and they toured their old battlefield together.