The Secret Bombing of Laos and Cambodia

By Jake Pesko

Courtesy of Crime Magazine

Frank Letteri was a member of the US Navy Intelligence Services and he recalls being drafted into the Vietnam War in 1969. Mr. Letteri remembers his sentiments after being drafted to serve in one of the most controversial wars in history; he states, “I understood the implications. I have never been a person with much fear. The uncertainty of what we were to accomplish was the most bothersome factor to me.” [1] In the same year President Nixon implemented the policy of Vietnamization to slowly remove United States troops from the battlefront. Yet simultaneously Nixon was pushing the war into Laos and Cambodia through a bombing offensive. Frances FitzGerald shows the magnitude of this strategy by stating “extensive bombing campaigns wreaked more destruction on the Indochinese than had been visited upon them in all preceding years of war.” [2] Mr. Letteri’s company played a significant role in these campaigns.

The escalation of war did not come without criticism from the home front, particularly on college campuses. Although Vietnam War Protests were not a novel event in the early 1970’s, President Nixon’s escalation of war efforts sparked more organized and frequent protests. In the book American Dreams the author H.W. Brands describes how the bombings drove the country into protest, he writes, “Whether or not these efforts conveyed to the communists the message Nixon intended, they got the attention of the antiwar movement in America.” [3] The experiences of Mr. Letteri enhance this statement by Brands as he not only had a significant role in these war efforts that were a catalyst for protest, but he can also recall his own reaction to the antiwar movement while still being stationed in Vietnam.

Mr. Letteri’s experience in the war cannot be explained without understanding the policies of the Nixon Doctrine and Vietnamization. Furthermore the events surrounding these policies are what inflamed the antiwar culture in the United States. The goal of Vietnamization was to slowly remove American troops while training and supporting the Southern Vietnamese troops and government; this reflected the need to maintain the anticommunist regime in Saigon. [4] Yet, this is not what happened and as Jeffrey Kimball said “These customary understandings of the Nixon Doctrine are erroneous in whole or substantial part.” [5] Instead of pursuing the policies of the Nixon Doctrine, the President initiated one of the largest offensives in history by secretly bombing the Northern Vietnamese and National Liberation Front forces in Cambodia. [6] Cambodia was not previously a participant in the war and acted as a safe haven for the aforementioned groups. [7] This was followed by ground operations in Cambodia by United States troops; they proved to be deadly for the United States as 20,000 causalities were recorded. [8] This is where Mr. Letteri’s story fits into the historical context. The bombings did limit the effectiveness of the National Liberation Front as a military power but they also created the instability that led to the rise of the bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. [9] The acts of war also caused a great deal of skepticism on the home front where the ideals of the Nixon Doctrine were being preached but not executed leading to discontent and protest. [10}

Courtesy of UPI

These actions also reflect Nixon’s personal sentiments during the time period. Kimball argues that Nixon placed “the value of threat and force over negotiations”. [11] Furthermore Kimball argued that the main purpose of Vietnamization was to buy more time on the home front so these bombings and other strategy such as the “China Card” could unfold. [12] This was the complex strategy to play China and the Soviets against each other to end Vietnam. Yet this façade didn’t last for long, and Nixon’s opposition began to use the contradictions between policy and action against Nixon especially after the events in Cambodia. [13]

Mr. Letteri provides stories that directly support the claims by many such as Kimball and FitzGerald that Nixon was in fact escalating a war during the time of Vietnamization. Mr. Letteri’s job was inherently risky, as a member of the Naval Intelligence Services he had to set up listening stations for Long Range Patrols; these stations provided communications for the patrols operations. [14] The job of Long Range Patrols was to get intelligence from deep behind enemy lines and then these groups helped locate the areas where bombs should be dropped. [15] Although he was not a member of these dangerous patrol groups, Mr. Letteri still exposed himself to the high risk that comes from being behind enemy lines. This description of his job alone shows that United States troops were still working at high frequency even after the implementation of the Nixon Doctrine.

Specific missions described in great detail further this claim. For example he describes an operation called Sanctuary Counter offensive conducted by the 1st cavalry as well as the 4th and 25th infantry divisions of the Army. [16] He set up the listening stations for this campaign and he describes firefights as the troops pushed into Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh. [17] Out of the 14 members in his company they lost 2 men in 3 days. [18] He also describes Operation Rockcrusher. During this operation he was part of a task force called Shoemaker in which the United States sought to raid Northern Vietnamese bases in Cambodia, he set up the landing zones for United States air forces. [19] Mr. Letteri describes the danger of this task and ends this story with an extremely personal example that is hard to preface, he says, “We did incur quite a few injuries myself included. I was hit by a 60-mortar attack that hit a troop carrier and pinned me between them. I than took 2 rounds, one to the chest and one in the back, not a good day. My right leg was badly damaged and I was medevac’d out to a MASH unit.” [20] This is one significant example that demonstrates how the United States troops were still in harms way throughout much of this time period. Those are just two isolated examples of American involvement in the area but these are the types of events that fueled protest on the home front.

As the war in Vietnam followed the opposite trend proposed by Nixon the American public grew more polarized on wartime policy then ever before. [21] College campuses were the setting for protest. The shooting of protestors during a demonstration at Kent State University thrust these problems to the forefront of national news. [22] Jackson State in Missouri saw eerily similar events unfold on their campus. [23] It is also important to note that not all protests were violent and many remained peaceful such as on the campus of North Carolina State, which was a historically conservative institution. [24] Nixon maintained that the “silent majority” still supported the war and a 1970 poll served him right as a majority of the population supported the Cambodian effort. [25] Nonetheless the news of these major events had an impact on the members of the armed forces still stationed in Vietnam such as Mr. Letteri.

Courtesy of CNN

His responses to questions about protest indicate that there was a strong knowledge of the major protests at home by United States soldiers abroad. When questioned broadly about what was one of the most significant events of his entire experience he cited the Kent State protest. [26] He blamed mass media for dividing the nation and hurting the backing for troops abroad. [27] He claimed “This event stirred a lot emotion in guys like me that were willing to go to war.” Followed by this had “a significant impact on us.” [28] Of interest is also the confusion he felt, receiving limited news caused him to be unsure who was to blame. [29] Furthermore he said “you always saw the bad days on TV” which shows how he was not able to get the full grasp of the climate at home. [30] Looking retrospectively on the events and getting the full picture when returning home he formulated a more focused opinion. He said that “those kids have every right to voice their opinion peacefully” and that he sees “this as a senseless act of violence by the US on its own people.” [31] He was much more critical of those who went to college to avoid the draft, which is logical considering his situation. [32]

Mr. Letteri’s experiences in Vietnam strengthen Brand’s claim that growing the war was the backdrop for protest in a way that the scope of his book did not allow for. His description of the events that unfolded show that the Nixon Doctrine and Vietnamization did not do all that they promised. This is also reiterated in Kimball’s critical analysis, and his story fits directly into FitzGerald’s summary of the events in unfolding in Cambodia. The encounters he endured are examples of events that stirred domestic emotions towards the war and created an antiwar movement. Hearing first hand the impact and mixed emotions of soldiers towards the movement provide an additional lens that none of the authors consider but does reinforce a connection between escalation and protest. His injury is an example that specifically highlights why the public was becoming more frustrated. Mr. Letteri now works in communications at Montefiore hospital using a lot of the skills he learned setting up listening stations to create a successful communications career for himself. [33]


[1] Email Interview with Frank Letteri, November 9, 2017

[2] Frances FitzGerald, “Dissent.” Symposium: Getting Out, no. 158-080 (2009): 53, accessed November 9, 2017, http://eds.a.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=6&sid=5337f9bc-6c7c-4f80-bf38-bda13a2a8a4e%40sessionmgr4009

[3] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York:Penguin Books, 2010), 170.

[4] Frances FitzGerald, “Dissent.” Symposium: Getting Out, no. 158-080 (2009): 53, accessed November 9, 2017, http://eds.a.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=6&sid=5337f9bc-6c7c-4f80-bf38-bda13a2a8a4e%40sessionmgr4009

[5] Jeffrey Kimball, “ The Nixon Doctrine: A Saga of Misunderstanding.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 1 (2006): 60, accessed November 9, 2017, http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/27552747.pdf

[6] Frances FitzGerald, “Dissent.” Symposium: Getting Out, no. 158-080 (2009): 53, accessed November 9, 2017, http://eds.a.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=6&sid=5337f9bc-6c7c-4f80-bf38-bda13a2a8a4e%40sessionmgr4009

[7] Ibid, 53.

[8] Ibid, 53.

[9] Ibid, 54.

[10] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York:      Penguin Books, 2010), 170.

[11] Jeffrey Kimball, “ The Nixon Doctrine: A Saga of Misunderstanding.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 1 (2006): 66, accessed November 9, 2017, http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/27552747.pdf

[12] Ibid, 66.

[13] Ibid, 67.

[14] Email Interview with Frank Letteri, November 9, 2017

[15] Andrew J. Birtle, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine: 1942-1976 (Washington D.C.: Defense Dept., Army, Center of Military History, 2006), Google Books edition.

[16] Email Interview with Frank Letteri, November 27. 2017

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Email Interview with Frank Letteri, November 27. 2017. Also see John (Jack) Peel, Walk Tall: With the 2nd Battalion 1st ARVN Regiment (Bloomington, Indiana: Xlibris, 2014), Google Books edition.

[20] Email Interview with Frank Letteri, November 27. 2017

[21] Frances FitzGerald, “Dissent.” Symposium: Getting Out, no. 158-080 (2009): 53, accessed November 9, 2017, http://eds.a.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=6&sid=5337f9bc-6c7c-4f80-bf38-bda13a2a8a4e%40sessionmgr4009

[22] Christopher J. Broadhurst, “We Didn’t Fire a Shot, We Didn’t Burn a Building”: The Student Reaction at North Carolina State University to the Kent State Shootings, May 1970.” The North Carolina Historical Review vol. 87 no. 3 (2010): 283, accessed November 9, 2017, http://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=4&sid=8007b651-ebdf-43f9-b1cb-270a7cfd97c9%40sessionmgr104

[23] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York:      Penguin Books, 2010), 170.

[24] Christopher J. Broadhurst, “We Didn’t Fire a Shot, We Didn’t Burn a Building”: The Student Reaction at North Carolina State University to the Kent State Shootings, May 1970.” The North Carolina Historical Review vol. 87 no. 3 (2010): 309, accessed November 9, 2017, http://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=4&sid=8007b651-ebdf-43f9-b1cb-270a7cfd97c9%40sessionmgr104

[25] Ibid, 288

[26] Email Interview with Frank Letteri, November 9, 2017

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Email Interview with Frank Letteri, November 27. 2017

[32] Ibid

[33] Background Information Received from Mr. Letteri and Joseph Pesko

Interview Conducted:

11/9/17 via email

Selected Interview Responses:

Q. What branch and position were you?

A. US Navy, Naval Intelligence Services

Q. Did you enlist or get drafted into the war?

A. I was drafted in 1969.

Q. Did that change your perspective on the war? Maybe compared to others around you?

A. I did not, I was going to enlist. I was not collage material and I needed to learn a trade. I eventually was trained on many devices you see in the market today.

Q. After being drafted what was going through mind at the time, realizing you were heading into a jungle half way across the world?

A. I understood the implications. I have never been a person with much fear. The uncertainty of what we were to accomplish was the most bothersome factor to me. I grew up in the Bronx and it was a war zone in itself. On another note I believed and still believe that this country was worth fighting for so guys like you would have a free and hopefully productive future.

Q. I am going to try and hit on the major issues of the time but are there any experiences in particular either during your time in Vietnam or at home that you think is extremely important to telling your individual story, which is the main point of the interview. I don’t want to miss something that you think needs to be noted before we get started?

A. One of the most disturbing events to me was the killing of the students at Kent State University. This was an indication of how divided the US was on the war and how much mass media (TV) hyped the events and pulled support from the troops. This event stirred a lot of emotion in guys like me that were willing to go to war.

Q. Were you apart of any major battles or events such as Operation Rolling Thunder, or the Tet Offensive?

A. It is funny that you say that. This operation [referring to the 1970 spring bombings] was actually carried out in Laos and Cambodia, in the “BVM’s” Black Virgin mountains where I was stationed. The US until 1989 would not admit that we were carrying out missions in the area. My job was to go in and set up listening stations in areas before the ‘LRP’s” Long Range Patrols arrived. This was why we had such a high rate of injured guys. I was detached to the 2nd Marines and it was not fun. The amount of ordnance dropped during this offensive has not be duplicated, even in the current situations we are in today.

Q. Generally speaking across all sources is there anything based on your experience that is always misinterpreted or wrong?

A. The actual communications from the field troops to the support facilities is always wrong. The radios did not work. We had delays in the Sat. COMM’s from the carriers that were providing coordinates and fire control information. We relied on the chopper pilots to give us the real feedback so we could make better decisions in the field.

Q. A lot of sources cite Nixon’s plan of Vietnamization as America giving up on the war, or do you think this is a misconception?

A. Well I do, the ruling government was handpicked by the US. Once it was clear the people of Vietnam were going to support the Khmer Rouge it was all over.

Q. Do you think that your view shifted and that you felt isolated by the government?

A. I did. It was clear that a shift in policy took place and once again it was back to business a usual, no supplies, short useless missions, and tons of red tape.

Q. Did you have any knowledge of the protests going on at home and did this have any impact on you, or was the focus on getting home and obtaining whatever objective was at hand?

A. As I said earlier we were very aware and it did have a significant impact on us. It was unclear if the kids were to blame or if it was a result of the incorrect information they were feeding us, was the issue. You always saw the bad days on TV not when it was business as usual.

Q. Transitioning back to the home front can you talk about some of your experiences returning home?

A. I was in a hospital for an extended period of time having my leg rebuilt. My experience was much different than the grunts. With that said once I was back home some folks respected you while others felt you were just another “Baby Burner”. This was not what you would expect for putting yourself in harm’s way.

Follow-up Interview Conducted:

11/29/17 via email

Interview Responses:

Q. Can you elaborate on your experiences in the BVM’s providing specifics about operations and your role?

A. In May of 1970 through June of 1970 there was an operation called Sanctuary Counter offensive. This was the prelude to the carpet-bombing to follow. There were operations conducted by the 1 cav, 4th Infantry Division, and the 25 Infantry among others. My company was there in April of 1970 and we encountered many opposition points. There were 14 members of my company at this time.  The first firefight we encountered took place in Phnom Penh and the city of Kampong Cham. There was an ARVN Battalion that took the NVA base with in the border of Cambodia. My company had set up the Listening Stations and the forward perimeter for this campaign. We were there for 3 days and lost 2 men. The NVA had retaliated for the US closing down the port of Sihanoukville.

The next operation was “Rockcrusher” officially known as Operation Toan Thang 43. I was part of the task force code named “Shoemaker” and the attack was on an area called the “Parrots Beak”.  There were 10K US troops and 5K SVA regulars. My company set up the LZ for the air dales. We were there for 10 days and my company did not lose any men. We did incur quite a few injuries myself included. I was hit by a 60-mortar attack that hit a troop carrier and pinned me between them. I than took 2 rounds one to the chest and one in the back, not a good day. My right leg was badly damage and I was medevac’d out to a MASH unit.

Q. Can you give me in-depth details about your opinion on the student protests?

A. As to the Kent State issue I view this as a senseless act of violence by the US on its own people. In one of my Humanities classes we studied this in a class called ” Mans inhumanity to Man”.  This was a group of kids that had an opinion. There were allowed to voice it in a peaceful way. Yes there were a lot of participants but they had the right to be there. The National Guard was not ready for this and they were not prepared in my view. I did not agree with hiding in collage to avoid the draft but it is what it is. Some of us decided that the US was worth fighting for and we did.  Because of people like our Veterans you and your piers can attend collage if a county that is free of Communism.

 

 

 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *