Neil Sheehan Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Remembering the Vietnam War; Conversation with Neil Sheehan, 11/14/88 by Harry Kreisler

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John Paul Vann's Mysterious Death

He said to a Washington Post correspondent at that time, "Any time the wind is blowing from the north, where the B-52 strikes are turning the terrain into a moonscape, you can tell from the battlefield stench that strikes are effective." So he completely reversed his position, his professionalism was gone. In the end he was killed in a tragedy that was not conflict-related. That was a very extraordinary moment.

What happened in the end was he was fighting for himself. In the end, he was fighting to preserve himself. Now he wasn't plastering peasant hamlets with those B-52s, he was using them against the North Vietnamese army. But he was killing out of rage, and to preserve himself in Vietnam, and what he had become. He'd become somebody important, he was a general at that time. And he was keeping himself, and the United States, in Vietnam with that weapon of mass destruction. There was great irony in that. And then, right after winning this major battle in 1972 at Kontum in the mountains, when South Vietnam was about to collapse, in the sense that it would have collapsed in the center, the South Vietnamese were panicking and the whole center of the country would have gone -- the communists would have gained it all, and of course there would have been a different negotiation at Paris. And he stopped them at a place named Kontum, for a major battle. Destroyed two North Vietnamese divisions that attempted to take this town. And then, right after that, one night about a week later, he was flying up a road in the darkness and rain when his helicopter hit the trees.

Now, this was a man who had survived. He'd cheated death numerous times, and he'd been shot down on several occasions. He's also driven through several ambushes. And it was, to me, ironic that he would die in an accident. I wanted to see what had happened, because by the time I went there in '72 to do my first research trip for the book, I'd realized that there was always more to this man then was in official report. So I found the accident site. It was in a contested area. There was fighting going on there. I found a South Vietnamese lieutenant who said he knew that there was a helicopter crash like the one I was looking for. As we walked toward the site, it was a grove of high trees off-road about five hundred yards, and it was the only grove of high trees in the whole area -- all the others were low, second-growth trees, and I wondered, how did John's helicopter manage to find those trees in the night and fog, the one grove of trees? It was a bright, sunny day when I went there. When I got in under the trees, I was at first looking at the wreckage which was scattered around under the trees because the helicopter had flown into them at full speed and had exploded, killing him and the other two men aboard instantly. And then I noticed these strange, wooden stockade-like things under the trees. And I asked this lieutenant, "What are these?" He was a tribesman from that area and he swept his hand around and he said, "Dead men here, dead men here." And then I looked deeper into the trees and I saw these carved statues around a larger stockade-like thing and I felt very cold because I knew immediately where I was. I was in the hamlet graveyard. I had been at a tribal hamlet like that fifteen miles away ten years earlier and had seen statues like that in the graveyard. And it was absolutely uncanny. It was as if the land had somehow reached up for him in the night and taken him, because he had come up the road, he was jubilant, he thought he had won his war, he was skylarking along (it was the most dangerous route to take, he shouldn't have been taking it), and he didn't realize that these figures were waiting for him. I don't believe in the supernatural, but if I did, I would have said that this was supernatural. Vann was one of these figures of destiny, if you will. There are people like this, and their lives are governed by a different drummer, and he was one of them. It was an extraordinary experience.

So in a way, the spirits had brought down the technological machine that was trying to defeat them. Your last statement on him is, "He died believing he had won his war." I presume that you mean not only the Vietnam War, but his personal war?

Yes, he'd become somebody. He wasn't this illegitimate kid in Norfolk, Virginia, anymore. He'd briefed President Nixon, and Nixon had listened to him with great attention. Nixon had thought he was going to prevail in Vietnam too. Every time he went back to Washington, he would brief the Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, who came to his funeral. By this time, his former army patron had become the Vice Chief of Staff. He was an important man. And he had won his war to make himself somebody, and he also thought, I believe, that he had won the war. He gave this incredible briefing toward the end in which he talked about the social revolution having been brought about through the war itself, this social revolution he had earlier wanted to create. And of course it was delusion. Nothing like that had occurred. The country was going to collapse the day that John Vann, or people like John Vann, were not there. He was lucky in that he didn't live to see that. I also used a sentence saying, "He hadn't missed his exit," because, it was true, he would have been very unhappy had he lived. And some people miss their exits. He had gone out at, for him, just the right moment.

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