Vietnam and the West Point Class of 1955

By Richard Fontaine

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Date sent: Fri, 7 JAN 2000 20:00:48,0500
From: "Dick Fontaine"
To: "McCarthy, Bernice"
Subject: usma1955: Tom McCarthy

To Berenice and young Tom McCarthy, and to the Class of '55.

I have completed a first draft of "Vietnam and the West Point Class of 1955" that includes the first four chapters, up through Tom McCarthy.

To Berenice and young Tom, and to Those who knew Tom well, or served with him, I ask that you carefully review what I have written about Tom. Please recommend additions, changes and deletions.

To all of '55, please review and critique the format And the approach. The first three chapters here Are extracts of what I have written but you should Be able to see where I am going.

I hope that those of you who served in Vietnam, will E-Mail me some material about where and when, decorations, etc.


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Vietnam and the West Point Class of 1955

By Richard Fontaine


This is the story of our five Classmates, members of the West Point Class of 1955 who fought in the Vietnam War. These were called to make the highest sacrifices that soldiers can make. Four of them died on foreign soil in the service of our country. A fifth lost his youth and his health in a harsh enemy prison.

We especially honor our Class Heroes with words, plaques, and ceremony that do not begin to express the awe and admiration that we feel for their sacrifice.

To them and other Classmates, Our Country said, “Go to South Vietnam and help those people in their struggle to remain free.” They left their young wives behind to raise their young children alone while they went to war. They did not flinch from the dangers that were inherent to the situation. They obeyed their orders, not blindly, but with compassion for the people of South Vietnam, respect for military traditions, and devotion to their own Country.

It has been said, “War is Hell.” Certainly, those who die, or suffer great trauma in their lives, would agree, if they could. Each of our Heroes knew that he might be called upon to make an enormous sacrifice, on order to perform his Duty. And he was pledged to performing it with Honor.

Tom McCarthy, Dave Burroughs, Chris Miller, Greg Barras, Jim Torrence, we salute you. Be at peace. We will forever honor you. We will never forget your sacrifice.


Berenice McCarthy

Connie Burroughs

Maggie Miller

Marylu Barras

Bert Torrence

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1963 – Vietnam War
1964 – Vietnam War
Tom McCarthy Killed in Action
1965 – Vietnam War
1966 – Vietnam War
Dave Burroughs Captured
Chris Miller Killed in Action
1967 – Vietnam War
1968 – Vietnam War
Greg Barras Killed in Action
1969 – Vietnam War
1970 – Vietnam War
1971 – Vietnam War
Jim Torrence Killed in Action
1972 – Vietnam War
1973 – Vietnam War
Dave Burroughs Released





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On November 26, 1953, the French took control of the village of Dien Bien Phu in the north of Vietnam, wresting control of the village and its fortified defenses from the Vietminh, and thereby controlling he road from Hanoi to Laos. Four months later, 49,000 Vietminh combat troops surround 7,000 French and Vietnamese defenders. The original French assessment of Vietminh artillery rounds gave them only enough capacity for 5 or 6 days. When it became clear that the North would bombard Dien Bien Phu indefinitely, Colonel de Castries told his men that he expected every man to die in his position, and not retreat an inch. (Gilbert 68-70)

As early as January 1956, having beaten his adversaries in Saigon, Ngo Dinh Diem launched a drive against Vieminh remnants in the countryside, his offensive a mirror imge of the repression then going on in the north. Diem’s police frequently shot prisoners—reporting that they hdd been killed attempting to escape. By 1956, Diem had smashed most of the former Vietminh cells. Diem’s severity did not enhance his popularity. (Karnow 242-243).

In 1956, Ho Chi Minh, the President of North Vietnam, embarked on a Land Reform Program to Give land to the peasants and to establish Communist control over the countryside. Those who opposed the program were ruthlessly treated. Wealthy peasants and landowners were, as in the Soviet Union 25 years earlier, arrested and executed. 100,000 peasants were executed. Agricultural output fell. Within six months the Land Reform Program was history. (Gilbert 139)

In 1956, the dictator of Cuba fled to save hi life. A small group of Communist revolutionaries under the leadership of charismatic orator Fidel Castro assumed control of Cuba. The Harvard student body regarded Castro as a 20th century Robin Hood and welcomed him for a visit. Vice President interviewed Castro for 3 hours and admitted to being charmed while expressing disbelief about Castro’s immaturity concerning how to govern Cuba. Nixon reported his findings to President Eisenhower who directed the CIA to train Cuban exiles for the military overthrow of the Castro regime. (Gilbert 196-197)

Classmate Larry Stockett requested a transfer to the Ordnance Corps in 1958. He was sent to Vietnam as an Ordnance Corps Officer, and served as a Military Advisor from 1958 to 1959. When he returned to the US, he transferred back to Artillery.

After the election, the Soviet Union accelerated the pace of the Cold War. The Communists repeatedly tested the new President. Kennedy made a grievous error in deciding to improperly execute a Cuban invasion that had been poorly planned before he became president. The "Bay of Pigs" embarrassed the US, entrenched Castro, and encouraged the Russians. (Gilbert 243-257)

Kennedy lost confidence in his military advisors, even though it was a CIA operation. President Kennedy urged retired Army General Maxwell Taylor to serve as his White House Military Representative, thus diminishing the role of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs who are directed by law to advise the Nation on defense matters. Later, in 1962, President Kennedy appointed General Taylor to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (McMaster 21-23)

After the Bay of Pigs Kennedy was persuaded that the U.S. needed to make its power credible. "Vietnam," Kennedy concluded, "is the place." (Karnow 264) (McMaster 23)

In November 1961, Kennedy decided to send in military advisors, beyond the limit established by the Geneva Accord. But he refused to send in combat troops. For 20 months the U.S. presence in South Vietnam increased without an open debate of objectives and options. In October 1962 the State Department announced that 46 American Military Advisers had been killed in the previous nine months while serving in South Vietnam. (Gilbert 277)

Each Service Chief seemed primarily concerned with obtaining more funds for his Service. General Taylor and Secretary McNamara agreed that in the Nuclear Age, the purpose of military force was to “communicate intention” to the enemy, not to destroy the enemy. Air Force General Curtis LeMay advocated quite a different view, and was considered a “loose cannon.”

“McNamara was anxious to dominate not only the JCS, but also civilian officials planning for Vietnam. The military Chiefs were denied access to the White House,” while civilian appointees, particularly systems analysts “had such confidence in the power of their own intellects, they felt qualified to give military advice.” (McMaster 41-43)

Karnow writes on page 271, “There was no way to calibrate the motivation of Vietcong guerillas. Nor could computers be programmed to simulate the hopes and fears of Vietnamese peasants.”

Krushchev moved offensive missiles to Cuba. The Joint Chiefs recommended a massive retaliation response. McNamara, no military strategist, nevertheless saw the desirability of a less confrontational response, and proposed the Cuban Blockade to reverse the flow of offensive weapons from incoming Russian ships. Kennedy adopted McNamara’s recommendation and succeeded in staring down Krushchev.

The Russians returned home with their missiles. Kennedy told the West Point Graduating Class of 1962, "We need a new strategy, a different kind of force." McNamara was ecstatic.

1963 – Vietnam War

US aid was essential to the war waged by South Vietnam against the Vietcong and North Vietnam. The autocratic Ngo Dinh Diem alienated the Buddhist majority, and took harsh measures to control the Buddhist monks, a few of whom made the six o’clock news every night by setting themselves on fire.

President Kennedy was very concerned about the political fallout. The U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, interpreted the President's concern to mean that Vietnam's President Diem and his brother should be deposed. No one thought of asking the South Vietnamese what they wanted. After engineering a coup d’etat in a foreign country, U.S. leaders discovered that there was no South Vietnamese leader who was capable of running South Vietnam. As Robert McNamara wrote in his book, In Retrospect, page 108, "Eager to get moving, we never stopped to explore whether there were other routes to our destination."

At 12:30 on November 22, 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot through the neck by an assassin’s bullets. The entire country was in shock. Lyndon Johnson became the 36th President.

On November 24, President Johnson instructed Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to tell the South Vietnamese that “Lyndon Johnson intends to stand by our word.” In a memo to the National Security Council, stated, “the aim of the US was, as under President Kennedy, to help the South Vietnamese win their contest against externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy. (Gilbert 305)

The few Americans familiar with the Vietnamese knew them to be passionately independent and atavistically hostile toward the Chinese. Their advice was disregarded in 1950, when President Truman decided to help the French regain their sovereignty over Indochina. Secretary of State Acheson maintained that unless the French were bulwarked, Communism would engulf the region. His idea stemmed from the belief that Ho Chi Minh was a pawn of Russia and China – without examining the possibility that Ho was, like Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia, a nationalist committed more to Vietnam’s independence than to global Communism. (Karnow 58-59)

The Service Chiefs were eager to get it over with. Irascible Curtis LeMay told Johnson, “We are swatting flies when we should be going after the manure pile.” (Gilbert 306)

1964 – Vietnam War

President Johnson promised the Chiefs, “Just you get me elected, and then you can have your war.” The voters decided that Goldwater was the more dangerous “hawk.” Lyndon Johnson won a Pyrrhic victory by deceiving the American people about Vietnam in order to protect his domestic agenda.

In 1964, the Vietcong created a supply line from north to south, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It went around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) of Vietnam by running through Laos and cutting back across the Laotian border back into South Vietnam south of the DMZ. The 500-mile trail was effective for a decade. Underground barracks, workshops, hospitals, fuel and ammunition dumps, etc were built by engineers using modern Russian and Chinese equipment according to McMaster, page 310-311.

Air Force planes attacked the trucks carrying materiel to the south, especially after the 1964 election. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was the logistics train that the Communists in South Vietnam needed to fight indefinitely. Gradual response was a reactive strategy that assumed a “reasonable” enemy, yet the situation for the US was now very proactive, and the wily enemy was a revolutionary fanatic. Obsessed with the November election, the President would approve no action in Vietnam that autumn, other than to hold the line, so nothing toppled the house of cards that had been constructed out of lies and half-truths regarding Vietnam.

Colonel George “Abe” Lincoln was General George Marshall’s war planner before becoming the Head of the Social Science Department at West Point. When the Pentagon announced SIGMA II, a war game in September 1964, to test gradual response, and replicate the outcome of bombing North Vietnam, Colonel Lincoln was designated game director. The game raised the troubling question of what to do if bombing North Vietnam did not produce the desired response. SIGMA II correctly predicted the actual outcome of the Vietnam War a decade later. The recommendations that came out of SIGMA II were ignored. (McMaster 156-157)

Al Bundren reported to Vietnam in 1964 as an Advisor to a Vietnamese Infantry Battalion.

Tom McCarthy Killed in Action

“He was the bravest soldier I ever knew,” said the Vietnamese General who commanded the Vietnamese Airborne Brigade. Tom was the senior advisor to the 1st Vietnamese Airborne Battalion of the Airborne Brigade. These were the elite troops of South Vietnam, the troubleshooters who were called upon to handle difficult situations.

On the Second of March 1964, The 1st Battalion left its home base at Ton Son Nhur and headed for the Mekong River in Kien Phong Province. The previous evening, Tom had dinner with one of his West Point roommates, Hank Meetze. The Battalion, along with another Battalion of the Airborne Brigade, was 90 miles west of Saigon, and one mile from the Cambodian border, when they were attacked by entrenched Viet Cong Regulars, using automatic weapons, mortars and Recoilless Rifles. When part of a 1st Battalion Company began to falter, Tom unhesitatingly began to rally them, and urged them forward. After advancing 75 yards across open ground, Tom was felled mortally wounded. As a result of his heroic actions, the South Vietnamese Battalions continued to press forward forcing the Viet Cong to withdraw across the border into Cambodia.

Lucille “Berenice” White McCarthy was preparing to go to work at Womack Army Hospital at Fort Bragg, when she noticed a cab with no passengers pull up in front of the house. The cab driver was holding an envelope as he walked toward the front door of her house. Berenice knew without reading the contents of that telegram, that she would never see Tom again. A very strong and private person, she was grateful for a few hours to herself before others tried in vain to comfort and reassure her. She had a few moments to remember one more time how she and Tom had met in Germany only five years earlier. How the Priest tried every day to introduce them to each other at breakfast, only to have Tom fail to appear. Then when she did meet him, at a hospital party that he and his friends crashed, he climbed over a banquet table to sit next to her. They were married within a year. Now she had three small McCarthy boys to raise by herself. She knew that she would devote her life to raising Tom, Robert, and John.

Captain Charles R. Johnson, a Classmate serving with Tom in Vietnam, escorted Tom’s body to the US. At Ton Son Nhut Air Base, Tom’s Vietnamese unit and his US contemporaries paid final homage to Tom at a plane side ceremony. A grateful Vietnamese government presented its Medal of Honor, first class to Tom posthumously. It was the highest award that could be given to a foreigner.

The US government awarded Tom its second highest award for bravery, the Distinguished Service Cross. Part of the citation for the DSC reads:

“As casualties mounted rapidly and the friendly troops were thrown into confusion, Captain McCarthy displayed complete disregard for his own personal safety and unhesitatingly moved into the inferno of hostile gun fire to organize the troops and establish an effective base of operations. He then joined his counterpart with the lead element and continued his brave efforts to rally and encourage the troops until he was mortally wounded.”

The Vietnamese General who commanded the Airborne Brigade said, “If we had not charged, we would have been annihilated. McCarthy was right up there with me.”

A testimony to Tom’s leadership came from the men of Company C, 325th Battle Group, 82nd Airborne Division. Tom had been their Company Commander until he joined XVIII Airborne Corps as Secretary of the General Staff. Every one of the men from Company C attended Tom’s funeral at Arlington Cemetery.

An amphitheater at Fort Bragg and the parachute training building at Fort Benning were named in Tom’s honor. Generals and soldiers were outspoken in their praise of Tom. Major General Robert York, Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division presented the Distinguished Service Cross to Berenice with these words:

“If the measure of a man’s life can be based on the respect and esteem he has gained among his associates, seniors, subordinates, and peers. Or it can be based on the contribution he makes to his country, rather than on a span of years, then Captain McCarthy lived a full life and a rich life.”

Both Tom’s family and Berenice’s family closed ranks to help the young widow. Tom’s younger brother Mike became a surrogate father to the boys. Mike graduated from West Point in 1957. He never married and served four tours in Vietnam, earning three Purple Hearts.

Tom McCarthy would be extremely proud of his sons, and of the wonderful woman who cheerfully raised them by herself.

Thomas G, born in January 1961 is a Motivational and Financial Seminar Leader in California. He and his wife Stacy live in California with their children Kylie and Tom.

Robert W, born in February 1962 is a lawyer. He and his wife Robin live in Atlanta with their children Andrew and Charlotte.

John M, born in September 1963 after Tom left for Vietnam graduated from West Point in 1985. He is an Army Major who lives with his wife Margie at Fort Polk, LA.

Berenice plans to enjoy the new millennium by retiring, so she can spend more time with her hobbies: football, contract bridge and paper doll cut outs. The latter includes an Internet group that exchanges designs. But more than anything else, she will continue to celebrate Tom’s legacy, their children and grandchildren.

Berenice told me that, “Tom believed in what he was doing. He went over there to help those people.” Tom lived like a soldier, and he died like a soldier.

Tom McCarthy was born in an Army hospital in the Philippines on April 30, 1933. He grew up all over the US, and all over the world. He spent his High School years in Chile, attending a Spanish speaking school. At West Point, he was an outstanding gymnast, and sang in the Catholic Chapel choir. He was a pleasant Classmate, with a smile that made others want to smile. His fun-loving personality concealed his total religious commitment.

He was the bravest soldier…..

*** USMA1955 post by: FONTAINE Dick 1955 20247 D2

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