Commentary: Tragedy sprung from Westmoreland's arrogance

While clicking through the TV channels one afternoon not long ago, I happened by pure accident upon a lecture by military historian Lewis Sorley, author of a book titled “Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam.”

And having a particular interest in what Sorley, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, had to say, I stayed with the program to its end.

In summary, his thesis was that while other prominent players were in part culpable — President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara among them — it was Westmoreland’s arrogance, self-celebration and willful misstatement of fact that disillusioned the public, cost support for the war and led in the end to a thinly disguised defeat.

I have no standing to evaluate that conclusion. My military service was as an infantry lieutenant, hardly qualified to make grand pronouncements.

But what I can say is that when, in 1964, Westmoreland was given command of all U.S. forces in the conflict, I was among a fair number of former soldiers who had cause to question his fitness for the job.

Those doubts dated from a mid-April day six years earlier when he made an unforgivable decision that cost five young men their lives.

Promoted in 1956 at age 42 to the rank of major general — the youngest two-star officer in the Army — Westmoreland in 1958 was given leadership of one of the country’s two elite parachute divisions, the 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles.”

Shortly after arriving at Fort Campbell, Ky., he ordered a mass jump by some 1,400 troopers of the division’s 502nd Battle Group.

Writers and photographers from all the major national media were invited to cover the event, which was seen by many as a Westmoreland celebration of himself and his new command.

That spring I was in the final months of my service with the 101st’s counterpart unit, the 82nd Airborne Division, based in Fayetteville, N.C. So what I know of the ill-fated jump I learned from press accounts and from a fellow officer who went to Kentucky as an observer.

Peacetime parachute duty is not as dangerous as a layperson might expect. The chutes are packed by qualified riggers. Intensive training prepares troopers to deal with a possible malfunction.

The one ungovernable element is the weather, and wind speed is the critical variable.

According to Army Field Manual Regulation No. 3-21.220, a jump is not permissible if the ground wind exceeds 13 knots, or 14.96 miles per hour.

A support team is responsible for measuring the velocity with an anemometer and, by use of colored-smoke grenades, signaling to the commander aloft conditions on the drop zone below: green smoke for a “go” or red smoke for “no drop.”

That tragic April day, on the first pass over the drop zone by the formation of troop carriers, the ground support team released red smoke to signal unacceptable wind.

The planes did a fly-around to make a second approach. Again, red smoke.

On the third and final pass, the signal was the same: No drop.

But Westmoreland had not staged the mass jump and invited the nation’s press only to be humiliated by a bit of bad luck with the weather.

Jump them! he commanded.

Five troopers were dragged to death on the ground by their wind-driven parachutes and 137 others were hospitalized.

The general’s decision was not only an abandonment of good sense but a clear violation of a published regulation.

Asked later for comment, the best he could say was: “That’s what they’re paid to do.”

He also alleged that wind speeds were under 10 knots at the time of the jump — an assertion at odds with measurements by the ground party and the testimony of others at the event.

Any junior officer who erred so egregiously would have been severely disciplined. But not Westmoreland.

His career continued unaffected, first as superintendent of West Point and then as leader of what ultimately would be a U.S. force of more than 530,000 troops in Vietnam.

Westmoreland’s blunder on that day, and his misstatements afterward, caused me to hope I would never have to follow such a man into a combat situation.

And happily by the time he was given the Vietnam command, I’d long finished my military service and was safely back in civilian life again.

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