The details of how America got itself so deeply involved in the deadly and controversial struggle in Southeast Asia will be left to historians and to political and military analysts. We can honestly say that no military action in American history, except the Civil War, has caused as much domestic turmoil. None have caused Americans to look at a war, not so much as a fight against Communism in a small foreign country, but as a class struggle here in the United States.
This is the true story of two men and of two valleys: one, a valley of life and the other a valley of death. It was there, in those two places, that life began and life ended for two young men.
Benton, Pennsylvania is a small, quiet, rural community lying north of Bloomsburg. The borough nestles in a beautiful valley formed by Big Fishing Creek, a winding and popular trout stream. One long, straight and narrow main street runs through the village passing Horace Harrison's IGA Super Market, C.A. Edison Sons Hardware and the Benton Hotel. Down at the intersection, right near the town swimming hole, is the Benton Roller Mills. Just to the east of the borough, in adjoining Luzerne County, lies Huntington Township, an area marked by forest and field.
Continuing south on State Route 487 for about two miles, a traveler comes to Stillwater, a yet smaller community with a most picturesque name. The valley becomes flatter at Stillwater and, as in other parts of Columbia County, the landscape is dominated by farms, fields, rising forested hillsides and large, architecturally significant barns. When one is driving through the borough it flashes by so quickly that the traveler does not realize exactly where the business district is, but upon consideration it must be down there close to Kline's Garage. A traveler would easily miss Stillwater completely if it were not for the blue and yellow plaques noting its corporate limits.
Stillwater. The name fits the community. It is populated by families who have made farming their lifelong careers. Many farms have stayed in the same families for generations. Raising dairy cows, horses and other farm stock is the only way of life many have ever known. Plowing the fields, planting corn, alfalfa, clover and timothy, mowing hay and reaping the harvest are seasonal rites replayed on these same fields for a hundred years or more. Too much rain, droughts that last far too long, foraging insects and plant and animal diseases are everyday concerns that breed into these families a resiliency not found in all men and women.
As it does in other parts of the country a different rite occurs every autumn in this part of Pennsylvania. After the celebration of the Labor Day holiday the days become shorter and school begins. Now the halls of the old, two-story Benton High School come alive with the sound of returning students and teachers. The Benton Tigers have already begun football practice and await the first game of the season. Students again become accustomed to the daily routine of rising early, waiting in the cool air for the school bus, attending classes, playing in the large park across the street from the school and later, returning to their homes and the waiting chores. Life was much the same for the students who attended Northwest Area High School and Bloomsburg High School in the neighboring districts. Those districts, too, drew most of their pupils from the rural environs of Columbia and Luzerne Counties.
As autumn wanes the time honored and, in these regions it can be said, hallowed tradition of hunting takes center stage. Most boys learn the use of rifles at an early age and they soon become a part of the tradition. It is here, in these hills and fields, that hunters come from near and far to hunt black bear, pheasant, grouse and small game such as rabbits and squirrels. In the weeks following Thanksgiving Day they return to the woods to hunt the elusive white-tailed deer. Deer thrive in these forests of hemlock, oak and mountain laurel and often feed on the corn planted for silage, thus becoming a quick enemy of the farmer. Here hunting is such an institution that schools are routinely closed on the first day of buck season and often for the first day of doe season. Even union labor contracts recognize the day as a "holiday." Gunfire echos through the hills around Benton and Stillwater when deer season opens and the hunters attempt to bag a trophy buck. If the hunt is successful, the antlers of the trophy are likely to be mounted on a wooden plaque and hung in the den or nailed to the side of the barn or hunting cabin.
In more peaceful times the young men and women, who grew up in small communities like Benton, Orangeville, Huntington Township and Stillwater, could be expected to pursue their dreams unaffected by the troubles in other parts of the globe. Many would be content to stay on the farm and continue the family business. Others would go on to college, perhaps enrolling at the nearby Bloomsburg State College and living at home to hold down expenses. Still others might travel to Williamsport to enter the Williamsport Technical Institute to learn a trade as did many of their fathers after returning from World War II and Korea. Bloomsburg State was a teacher's college in the years before 1975 and some high school graduates pursued a teaching career. Others would follow their fathers and find work at the Benton Foundry, the Wise Potato Chip plant in Berwick or at the Magee Carpet Company in Bloomsburg. The young women of these communities, who did not pursue a college degree, were more than likely content to marry and begin raising a family.
Nevertheless, in the 1960s things were different. After nearly ten years of escalating economic, political and military involvement in the southeast Asian country of South Vietnam the United States now found itself in a shooting war. Increasing numbers of young Americans were dying and the nation needed young men to fill the ranks of the military. For many young men the call to military service came somewhat naturally: these were the sons of men who had served their country during World War II or in Korea and, for many fathers and sons, entering the military and going to war was an accepted rite of passage. Ralph Brown's father, for example, had spent forty-four months in the South Pacific during World War II. Donald Crane's older brother Ray had just served out a three-year enlistment in the Army's Engineer Corps. For some an enlistment in the military service was perhaps their only opportunity to escape the prospect of an immediate future tied to the farm, foundry or factory. For others the call came involuntarily as in the form of that infamous "Greetings" letter from the local draft board.
The men sent to Vietnam from the United States were roughly one-third draftees, one-third draft-motivated volunteers and one-third true volunteers. In the early phase of the war most of the soldiers who went to Vietnam were enlistees or those who were making a career of the military. Following World War II and the Korean War Americans had largely grown up with, and accepted, the idea of compulsory military service and the peacetime draft. Congress had renewed the Universal Military Training and Service Act, adopted in 1951, every four years. From 1954 to 1964 draft calls averaged about 10,000 men per month. The Selective Service System was drafting all men classified as available for immediate induction (1A). In those years when called by the Selective Service young men served. As the "baby boom" generation was reaching maturity in 1964, the Department of Defense was considering the elimination of the draft. Then came Vietnam.
Donald Ellis Crane was born September 29, 1941 at Hunlock Creek, Pennsylvania. One of 15 children (seven brothers and seven sisters) Donald Crane spent most of his life in the Hunlock Creek and Huntington Township area. Donald grew up in poverty. His father, Walter, was a hard-coal miner, a lumberman and a factory worker during different times of his life. He made little money and thus the family usually lived from hand to mouth. Of course, with such a large family Donald's mother, Erma, stayed at home and with the help of the older children tended to the younger children.
After living in different areas of Luzerne County, Donald spent most of his teenage years living near the village of Waterton. The old wood-framed two-story house was situated on a small plot of ground off a dirt road. It did not have the luxuries of running water, central heat or indoor plumbing. The Cranes obtained water for use in cooking, for the laundry and for bathing from an outside pump.
Donald graduated in the class of 1960 from the Northwest Area Joint High School. In the school yearbook, "The Norwester", they remember him as "a quiet lad with a pleasing personality." In several interviews the adjective "quiet" was time and again used to describe this unassuming young man. The yearbook also mentioned that his favorite class was English, that part of his time was spent working on a farm and "to be a bachelor is his aim." He was a member of the Future Farmers of America in his sophomore and junior years. Donald continued to work on a farm and worked at farming before he went into the service. The Post family employed him on the farm across the road from his home.
According to his brother Ray, Donald's favorite things centered around a simple life: country music, fishing and a love of the outdoors. Ray remembered the family growing up listening to the "Grand Ol' Opry" and the "Country Music Jubilee" on the radio. The many streams and the Susquehanna River provided unlimited opportunities for Donald to indulge in fishing. Working on nearby farms fulfilled Donald's love of the outdoors.
The yearbook states that baseball was his ideal sport. We see a handsome, smiling young man with an athletic physique in a photograph of the "Rangers" intramural softball team. He does not appear in any pictures of the baseball team. Due to the distance he lived from the school and his other work he was probably unable to play varsity baseball.
On January 16, 1964, he entered the United States Army as a draftee. The Army sent him to basic combat training at Fort Jackson a sprawling, eighty-two square-mile training center outside Columbia, South Carolina. At Fort Jackson (and at other basic combat training centers) an eight-week metamorphosis takes place where a civilian becomes a soldier. Amid the sand and pine trees of Fort Jackson and assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade Donald and the other young recruits learned their general orders, memorized the chain of command and received indoctrination into the Universal Code of Military Justice. In the barracks area of Tank Hill they learned discipline, pulled their first days of KP, spent nighttime hours on "firewatch", conditioned their bodies with miles of running and hours of the "Daily Dozen" physical training regimen, and learned to spit shine footwear and polish belt buckles and brass. During the cool Southern winter days they marched out to the many firing ranges to learn to qualify with M-14 semi-automatic rifles, throw hand grenades, receive instruction on the "spirit of the bayonet" and learn infiltration while crawling under live machine gun fire. For several days the trainees lived "in the field" bivouacked under the tall pines of the military reservation.
Returning to the barracks the tired troops would spend hours cleaning tents, messkits, and rifles. In another old tradition these young men, under the watchful eyes of their drill sergeants, never passed inspection the first time around.
After successfully completing basic training Donald Crane received his orders for advanced individual training or AIT. As a draftee he was subject to being trained in any field or military occupational speciality (MOS) which the Army had a need to fill. Consequently, they sent Donald to Fort Gordon, Georgia for advanced infantry training. While the Army designed basic combat training to create a soldier, they designed the eight-week advanced infantry training course to create an Infantryman. Here he and others learned to become proficient in the tools of the "Queen of Battle": rifles, machine guns, pistols, mines and rocket and grenade launchers. They also learned to navigate the land using map and compass and spent long days and nights learning how to patrol, react to ambushes, set up defensive positions and become familiar with the types of communications equipment that were standard to an infantry platoon.
Ralph Wayne Brown was born in Chester, Pennsylvania on July 14, 1942. Ralph entered the old red-brick, two-story Bloomsburg High School in 1956 having transferred from Spring City, a small community northwest of Philadelphia. As a youth he attended school in Bloomsburg while living on a farm that, in 1960, became the site of the present Bloomsburg High School. The homestead was on a beautiful expanse of fertile flat land next to placid Fishing Creek. Ralph's uncle, Edward or E.J., was well known in the community and served as a school director for several years. The Brown family was fairly well known in the town having operated a dairy store at the farm for a number of years.
Unmotivated to remain in school and with an intense interest in horses Ralph dropped out of high school in April 1959 before he completed the ninth grade. An interest in horses is apparent as he appears in the Bloomsburg High School yearbook "Memorabilia" in a photograph of the school Horsemen's Club. Continuing his love of horses, he became employed as racehorse caretaker and a blacksmith. Ralph Brown spent much of his time at various racetracks in the eastern part of the United States and had been working at the Bloomsburg Fairgrounds, across the street from the Magee Carpet factory, before his entry into the Army.
Ralph's parents later owned a farm in Jackson Township, in northern Columbia County not far from the community that the Crane's called home. Ralph had two brothers: Frank, Jr. and Edward. While Donald Crane was completing his fourth week of basic combat training Ralph Brown entered the United States Army. On February 26, 1964, as a draftee, he, too, was sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina for his basic combat training and upon completion sent to Fort Lewis, Washington for advanced individual training. Fort Lewis was a large Army training center located about 45 miles south of Seattle on beautiful Puget Sound. As a draftee, like Donald Crane, he had no choice in his job assignment and was subsequently trained as a mortar crewman.
In addition to the training center at Fort Lewis was also the headquarters for the 4th Infantry Division, the "Ivy Division." After basic training Ralph would spend nearly a year at Fort Lewis, where he was assigned to Company B, 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Division. The Army had activated the 3rd of the 8th in the fall of 1963 and needed manpower. In September 1966, long after Ralph Brown's stint with the unit, they would deploy the 4th Division to Vietnam. Tiring of the routine of barracks life at Fort Lewis Ralph requested to go to airborne school and in January 1965 he was sent to the three-week jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia. Upon completion he was detailed as a radio telephone operator with the 2nd Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Benning.
On July 1, 1965, Ralph and other members of the 2nd of the 9th Infantry retired the Indian head patch of the 2nd Infantry Division and received the patch of the 1st Cavalry Division. He became a member of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment. A little over two weeks later, on July 17, he was assigned to Delta Company as a mortar crewman; two days earlier Private First Class Donald Crane had been assigned to the same company.
Ralph was married to the former Vicki Mae Boudman and had two children, a daughter, Kelley and a son, John. He had married Vicki shortly before he entered the Army.
Brown, at age twenty-one, and recently married when drafted and Crane, at age twenty-two and single, were typical of the draftees of 1964. They were much like their colleagues of the era whom Selective Service usually drafted at a later age than they did with the draftees after 1965 who were inducted shortly after turning 19 years of age. At the time married men did have a special low priority 1-A classification, however.
Although very small numbers of American troops had been in Vietnam since 1954, their strength in 1963 and early 1964 was about 16,300. In the early 1960s Vietnam was an assignment for the Army's Special Forces (the fabled Green Berets) and Army and Marine military advisors. Added to these forces were several Air Force cargo plane units and the Army helicopter companies that provided logistical support to the fledgling South Vietnamese Army. It is unlikely that the thought of being sent to Vietnam was very much on the mind of either Brown or Crane when they responded to their draft board's letters in the autumn of 1963. In 1966 a survey of high school sophomores found that only seven percent mentioned the draft or Vietnam as one of "the problems young men your age worry about most." In all likelihood Crane saw the draft as a means for securing a form of employment, perhaps training in a skill, getting his military obligation out of the way, getting away from his poverty-stricken surroundings and having an adventure. Brown may have accepted the draft as a way to provide for his growing family since work as a racehorse caretaker and as a blacksmith did not produce much of a regular income.
Since 1954 the United States had been supplying the South Vietnamese with military and economic aid. In 1961, the United States significantly increased weapons shipments and dispatched additional Special Forces counterinsurgency teams and military advisors. These measures took place after rises in guerrilla activity in the South and South Vietnamese political unrest had worsened. The conflict in South Vietnam, simmering beneath the surface since the Viet Minh had defeated the French and the 1954 Geneva agreements divided the country at the 17th Parallel, was evolving from guerrilla activities into a state of protracted warfare. The North Vietnamese were encouraging terrorist revolutionaries in the South to attack American targets and South Vietnamese government installations. United States involvement escalated dramatically in early August 1964. Two controversial incidents occurred in the Gulf of Tonkin that allegedly involved the American destroyers the USS Maddox and the USS Turner Joy and North Vietnamese gunboats. On the pretext that the North Vietnamese had attacked the American ships, President Lyndon Baines Johnson requested action and the United States Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The President, as commander in chief, now had the authority "to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent any further aggression." He reacted immediately with intense bombing of North Vietnam. Simultaneously he hoped to bolster the morale of the Vietnamese armed forces by increasing the level of American combat troops. Years later Johnson's Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, in his book In Retrospect, admitted that he had doubts that the second attack on the destroyer Maddox had actually occurred.
United States Marines from the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade based on ships in the South China Sea provided the first large combat units sent to Southeast Asia followed by the United States Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) from Okinawa; and elements of the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Initially the Pentagon had deployed the Marine units and the 173rd to provide security for airfields, such as DaNang and Bien Hoa. From bases such as these United States Air Force fighters and bombers launched their attacks against North Vietnam and both United States and South Vietnamese Air Force planes provided South Vietnamese ground forces with close air support. However, intelligence reports of large-scale infiltration of regular North Vietnamese units into the South to support the indigenous Viet Cong and increased enemy activity during May prompted General William C. Westmoreland, Commander, United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, to forward a request to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, through Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, Pacific Commander, that they should increase American and other Free World Military ground strengths in Vietnam to the equivalent of forty-four battalions. On June 7, 1965, when Westmoreland sent his request, there were in Vietnam seven Marine Battalions, two Army maneuver battalions, an Australian battalion and, temporarily assigned (for sixty days) two battalions of the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate), for a total of twelve battalions. The request to increase troops to forty-four battalions represented a dramatic escalation.
By mid-1965 the Marines, the 173rd and the 101st were joined by elements of the Army's 1st Infantry Division and more Marine units from Hawaii and Okinawa. On June 16, 1965, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara announced that the Pentagon would organize the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) at Fort Benning, Georgia and it would be "combat-ready" in eight weeks. For several weeks President Johnson had been hearing from his advisors how the tactical situation was worsening for the South Vietnamese. In a midday nationwide address on June 28 President Johnson told the world that "I have today ordered to Vietnam the airmobile division. . ." He further announced that troop strength in Vietnam would increase from 75,000 to 125,000 men almost immediately.
The "First Team," as General Douglas MacArthur had dubbed it, was to become the Army's first fully airmobile infantry division. The Pentagon had been testing the airmobile idea since February 1963 with the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) stationed at Fort Benning. Although the Army had not completed testing by the time of President Johnson's announcement, the dedicated officers and men under the command of Major General Harry W.O. Kinnard were confident that the idea would work. The unit's mission was to adapt large scale use of helicopters to increase the mobility of infantry units and to strike hard and fast. Although equipped, trained and tested for its impact in a low or high intensity combat environment it appeared that the escalating conflict in Vietnam was made to order for an airmobile division where the war was being conducted without front lines; the road system was poor; and the terrain consisted of rugged mountains in the northern area and jungles, rice paddies and rivers almost everywhere. Perhaps the success of the airmobile philosophy could best be summed up in the words of Major General Kinnard: ". . . we are freed from the tyranny of terrain." As the division was originally organized the 1st Brigade, one of the three brigades making up the division, would be parachute-qualified. Due in some measure to a lack of a sufficient number of parachute-qualified soldiers, and the rare opportunity in Vietnam to insert large numbers of troops by parachute, army planners eliminated the airborne element in 1967.
Following AIT at Fort Gordon Donald Crane was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, the home of the Infantry. On June 1, 1964 he was assigned to his first permanent unit, Company D (Combat Support), 1st Battalion, 188th Infantry Regiment, 11th Air Assault Division, as an assistant machine gunner. The 11th Air Assault was only a year old at the time so Donald was present to experience training in the new concepts of heliborne warfare as they were being developed. The unit worked extremely hard during the following months to prove to the Pentagon that airmobility worked. In October of 1964 Company D was attached to the 408th Supply and Service Battalion for a dramatic joint training exercise with the Air force. With a hurricane brewing off the coast of Georgia the Air Force had grounded most of its planes. To prove his point that air cavalry operations would work General Kinnard sent three aerial reconnaissance forces aloft, probing for holes in the clouds. Despite fierce winds and rain he was able to airlift a full battalion of troops only one hour behind schedule.
After the exercise was completed Donald's MOS was changed from assistant gunner to that of ammunition bearer for a mortar crew. He kept that MOS for the remainder of his time in the service.
In actual strength the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) was no larger than a brigade in size. In a ceremony in early July 1965 at Fort Benning's Doughboy Stadium the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) was officially designated the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) when the colors of the 1st Cavalry Division were brought from Korea. On July 15 Donald Crane officially became a member of the First Team. When the orders came down to deploy to Vietnam, the Army also depleted the units of the 2nd Infantry Division, then stationed at Fort Benning, to help fill the billets. The Army raised several battalions from scratch. In his superb study, "Anatomy of a Division: The 1st Air Cav in Vietnam," Shelby L. Stanton notes that the Army authorized 15,890 men upon activation, but they assigned only 9,489. Because many of the troops were nearing the end of their service obligations more than 50 percent of this original compliment was ineligible for overseas deployment under peacetime service criteria. From the start presidential decisions plagued the division, and for that matter the entire United States war effort. The President refused to declare a state of emergency, refused to call up National Guard and Reserve forces, and refused to extend the active-duty tours of draftees and reserve officers.
Continued in Part II
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