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These men, Americans and Vietnamese of every military branch, were a genuinely disparate bunch. … As spent as he now was, he continued to gaze at these young men who looked older than they were, who collectively carried the weight of the world on their tired frames, and simply smiled to himself. God alone knew how proud Turley was of those men.
– “Ride the Thunder” by Richard Botkin
Everything Americans know about the end of the Vietnam War is wrong, contends Richard Botkin, author of “Ride the Thunder” and former Marine infantry officer. He reveals the heroic, untold story of how Vietnamese Marines and their U.S. advisers fought valiantly, turning the tide of an unpopular war and actually winning – while Americans 8,000 miles away were being fed only one version of the story.
“From the American side, I think most people have a completely uninformed or misinformed opinion of the Vietnam War,” Botkin told WND. “Most Americans, including people who served in Vietnam, didn’t appreciate the level of sacrifice of the South Vietnamese. These people love freedom.”
Botkin toured former battlefields in Vietnam and chronicled accounts of the Vietnamese Marines, or TQLC, and their American Marine advisers, an extraordinary “band of brothers” who fought, bled, endured and triumphed against the growing cancer of communism.
The Viet Cong, a band of communist guerrillas in South Vietnam, blended in with the civilian population and even posed as police officers. Known for their stealth and deception, they often poisoned wells and intimidated civilians into silence, forcing them to endure classes of communist propaganda and indoctrination.
Soldiers of the communist North Vietnamese Army, or NVA, routinely attacked thousands of helpless civilian refugees – including young women, elderly citizens and crying children – with intentional and indiscriminate artillery fire. In 1968, communists murdered between 3,000 and 6,000 innocent civilians and buried them in mass graves. Families endured pain, suffering, and indignities that many Americans might never imagine while communists released propaganda readily consumed by Western critics of the Vietnam War.
“The communists were masters at using propaganda against us,” Botkin said. “They would even place high-value targets near civilian centers.”
To further distort U.S. perception of the war tally, the NVA tied jungle vines to soldiers’ ankles so their comrades could quickly drag them from the battlefield and prevent Americans from obtaining accurate body counts.
Up against a determined and numerically superior communist foe with Soviet-supplied tanks, the South Vietnamese and their U.S. advisers maintained a doggedness and undiminished fighting spirit that would remain a well-kept secret – one Botkin would later chronicle in his book, “Ride the Thunder.”
See WND’s exclusive video interview with “Ride the Thunder” author Richard Botkin:
Meanwhile, only the weaknesses and faults of the South Vietnamese warriors were highlighted by Western media. U.S. Marine Capt. John Ripley, future adviser for the Vietnamese TQLC, became disillusioned with American reporting early in the war.
Skipper John Ripley and "Ripley Raider" Sgt. Chuck Goggin, Ca Lu, 1967
The routine terrorizing of Vietnamese villagers by Viet Cong and NVA forces was regularly deemed not newsworthy. When the American press refused to cover the story of how several Marines had been captured and then, nearly like Christ, staked alive with bridging spikes to trees just outside friendly positions near Con Thien for their comrades to listen to their cries of pain and ultimate death, it soured him completely on reporters.
Botkin said media demonization of U.S. and South Vietnamese efforts played a role in turning the tide of American support for the war. Many times, correspondents conveyed the idea that the enemy had networks of tunnels and hideouts, with Viet Cong fighters running rampant in jungles and lurking in villages. While the press gave many Americans a feeling that Marines and soldiers were always in harm's way, the Republic of Vietnam's fledgling democracy was beginning, by 1966, to show progress and promise.
Botkin wrote that by 1968 the ongoing struggle to win American hearts and minds through television in the country's living rooms was not going well.
Reporting on the Khe Sanh battles, scores of reporters would fly into the combat base just long enough to film Marines being shelled and ducking for cover before flying out again to nightly post their stories and sip beer in safe rear areas. … Seeing the nation's most storied warriors on the receiving end of punishment, night after night, left a distorted impression at home as to how the war was being prosecuted.
He said the enemy used the Western media's depressing war coverage to their advantage.
"The communists were way more willing to invest lives because the center of gravity was not the battlefield," he said. "It was American public opinion."
Lt. Col. Le Ba Binh stands in Quang Tri prior to being wounded for the 9th time, 1972
Botkin noted that American media and movies often still portray the Vietnamese as corrupt, weak, effete and treasonous rather than people who were fighting for their freedom. But he said "Ride the Thunder" reveals the untold inspirational story the media neglected – one of friendship, bravery, patriotism and courage.
He tells the account of Gerry Turley, member of an all-star American team of advisers, who must find the moral courage to persevere when he is forced into one of the highest positions of leadership in the midst of a brutal and bloody confrontation.
"Here's a guy who went to the northern part of South Vietnam on a milk run, and unbeknownst to him, he's put into the leadership challenge of his life," Botkin said. "I liken him to a Job-like figure. For five days, he's not only having to focus on fighting the communists, but he's got a military bureaucracy that doesn't believe him and is sniping at him from all sides. He has to have the courage and the strength to carry on. No one affirms him, and yet he presses on."
Botkin said American adviser Capt. John Ripley shows exceptional physical courage when he takes on the superhuman task of detonating a steel bridge at Dong Ha on Easter Sunday, 1972 – before the enemy can cross with its tanks and 20,000 invaders.
Ripley had not slept or eaten a solid meal in four days when he shimmied up and down the I-beams of the bridge for nearly four hours, rigging them for detonation. His legs dangled like moving targets, inviting enemy fire.
"The story of John Ripley's physical courage is obvious," Botkin said. "Most people can't comprehend how hard it was to do what he did."
While most people might never have dared attempt the monstrous feat, Ripley never backed down, purchasing critical time for allied forces.
"John Ripley was not at all interested in failing while doing greatly," Botkin wrote.
Roberto Clemente and Chuck Goggin, Sept. 30, 1972
He said Vietnamese TQLC commander Le Ba Binh was a prime example of enduring courage in a battle of David and Goliath proportions as his battalion of only 700 men held 20,000 communist invaders in Dong Ha.
Binh, a man with few equals in the war-fighting profession, served 13 years in heavy combat and another 11 years in prison camps. Despite numerous battle wounds and lost comrades, he showed unwavering courage in the face of extreme hardship.
Botkin went to Saigon with Binh while conducting research for his book. Binh explained war strategies and walked him through many of the areas in which he fought.
In his book, Botkin profiles numerous other American and Vietnamese warriors such as George Philip, Ngyuen Luong, Bob Sheridan, Chuck Goggin and the unparalleled sacrifices of their families – all in the pursuit of freedom. Many paid the ultimate price in the effort to keep their country free of communism.
The NVA had unleashed its most massive invasion of the entire war during the Easter Offensive in 1972. But in the first two weeks of battle in Quang Tri Province, the out-manned and out-gunned South Vietnamese Marines held the advance, never allowing the communists to go even a full 20 miles into their country.
As American advisers were returning home, many left with the feeling that the South Vietnamese might win the war.
And even though the ground situation had not been completely stabilized in Quang Tri Province, the Vietnamese were now aggressively moving over to the offensive. Ripley could see the momentum and leadership beginning to move in the right direction. … [H]e believed down to his very core that the good guys were winning; and would win their fight for freedom as long as they continued to receive the material support of the Americans.
Capt. George Philip, 1972
Capt. George Philip had a great deal of respect for the resolve and the resilience of the Vietnamese, and he, too, was certain the communist invaders would be expelled.
Major Bob Sheridan, a seasoned American adviser, noted that most of the dead and prisoners of war who belonged to the NVA were young boys who appeared to be only 16 and old men who appeared to be grandfathers.
"He was certain the NVA had used up the cream of its youth and was close to spent entirely," Botkin wrote. "When he followed Captain Philip home about a month later, he too was convinced the good guys had the necessary momentum going."
Nonetheless, the war had already been lost in many American hearts and minds. The unraveling of Richard Nixon's presidency from 1973 and into 1974 further hampered the U.S. commitment of support to President Nguyen Van Thieu.
America was looking for an honorable exit with a treaty that would protect the South's sovereignty and bring POWs home, Botkin said. President Nguyen Van Thieu was not eager to negotiate a treaty that called for complete withdrawal of U.S. troops and allowed communist forces to remain in South Vietnam.
President Nixon gives his "V" for victory sign on campaign trail, 1972
On Jan. 23, 1973, President Nixon proclaimed "Peace with Honor" in his televised speech to the world.
"We used that as a cover to disengage," Botkin said. "History is replete with examples of communists only abiding by treaties that are to their advantage and shrugging them off every other time. It was the honorable exit, or 'Peace with Honor' – even though there was no honor and no peace."
NVA treaty violations began immediately as communists prepared for their next invasion of the South. On July 1, 1973, Congress passed the Fulbright-Aiken Amendment, stating:
Notwithstanding any other provision of the law, on or after August 15, 1973, no funds herein or heretofore appropriated may be obligated or expended to finance directly or indirectly combat activities by the United States military forces in or over or from off the shores of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia.
"We cut their aid so that effectively they were getting less," Botkin said. "The Soviets and Chinese had no restrictions on aid to the NVA, and they didn't face public scrutiny. So, it was just a matter of time."
He wrote, "[T]he communists in the North were essentially given a free pass for another invasion. It was already under way."
Millions of displaced Vietnamese citizens fled the communist invasion. Hopeless citizens faced imprisonment and execution. On the morning of April 30, 1975, the Vietnamese Marine Corps ceased to exist after 21 years of combat.
Communist forces gained control of all media without delay, and citizens were forced to exchange only limited amounts of their savings for Northern currency.
Meanwhile, soldiers and Marines were sent to "re-education" camps where they were starved, forced to endure communist propaganda and separated from their families for many years.
"You wonder, if you were put in a re-education camp for 10 and a half years, would you survive?" Botkin asked. "One Marine said he wondered if his wife would have waited for him. That's tough. Those are tough emotions."
But the story doesn't end there.
2nd Lt. Nguyen Luong (right) with comrades in Saigon, fall 1971
Botkin challenges some of the greatest misconceptions of how the Vietnam War ended and offers a glimpse of history the media still refuse to tell. He appeared on Hugh Hewitt Show July 2 to announce his book and tell the stories of these American and South Vietnamese warriors. Amazon ranks "Ride the Thunder" No. 1 in books on Vietnam and the Vietnam War. It currently ranks No. 2 in the U.S. veterans category.
Rather than ending his groundbreaking book with the disbanding of the TQLC, the fall of Saigon and imprisonment of the South Vietnamese, Botkin concludes the story with an uplifting turn of events for two unlikely brothers in arms.
In his book, he explains that it is difficult for many Americans to fully comprehend the Vietnamese sacrifice because freedom is so often taken for granted in the United States.
"[I]t is true that the protected are blessed in many, many ways they are unable to even fathom," Botkin wrote. "For the Vietnamese men, women and children who constituted the second diaspora, the blessings of American liberty were very obvious, very tangible, and extremely sweet."