The following text is adapted from An Loc by Elisabeth Lewis Corley and is taken from interviews with Robert Joseph Corley, Col. U.S. Army, Retired, who served as the Province Senior Advisor in An Loc from June 1971 to June 1972. Copyright 2005. All rights reserved. Elisabeth Lewis Corley. Used with permission of the author.
All who served in Vietnam, and especially those of us who were in An Loc, owe a great debt of gratitude to Bill Carruthers, whose passion and dedication have made this website possible. He has also been quietly responsible for encouraging many of us to be in touch with each other and our memories and to write about our experiences. More than ten years ago, when my daughter approached me about writing about An Loc I was extremely reluctant. My experiences in Korea and Vietnam taught me many things, one of which was to do my job, steer clear of the press and let my actions speak for themselves.
Bob Corley receiving the Silver Star from BG McGiffert
And for a long time, I have been silent, all through the long unhealthy silence about the history of the Vietnam War in the United States. It is no accident that old warriors tend to be the most passionate advocates of peace. Anyone who has experienced battle understands war is a diabolical madness. And no one comes through that experience unchanged.
All officers were and presumably still are required to read Clauswitz On War and I believe it is he who said “war is the extension of politics by other means.” If you cannot solve your differences diplomatically and peacefully and politically, then you start killing people. I would like for our leaders to know what that feels like. I was disturbed that President Clinton had never served in the military, Schroeder in Germany had never served in the military and Tony Blair in England has never served in the military. None of them has any personal experience of the horrors of war. So I believe in the importance of military history and in the gradual accumulation of accounts that can, perhaps, in the end, triangulate on something like truth.
It is very difficult to go through an experience like the siege of An Loc and then feel that the world would prefer to forget that it happened. I went on with my life and tried to make a difference in small ways, first in the remainder of my military career, then in my local community, in education, in housing. I used the same skills I honed in the Army, logistics, engineering, communications, tactics, to serve public education and later public housing in South Carolina. I am proud of both my military and civilian careers.
When Dale Andradé’s 1995 book, Trial by Fire: The 1972 Easter Offensive appeared I was pleased to see some of the history of the siege of An Loc being told. Now, ten years later, James H. Willbanks has contributed his magnificently researched The Battle of An Loc, which devotes an entire scholarly volume to the battle. It is only natural that these accounts focus on the conduct of the battle, the combat strategies, the American advisors with combat units, like Col. Bill Miller and later his successor, Col. Walt Ulmer, and follow the trajectory of troops and aircraft and command decisions.
I was the Province Senior Advisor for Binh Long province, headquartered in An Loc, from June 1971 through June 1972. I was in that position during the build up to the Easter Invasion and was in An Loc from the beginning of the battle in April 1972 through June 1972. Because my work with Province Advisory Team 47 was devoted to the Vietnamization and pacification program, my involvement in Binh Long province was nuts and bolts, on the ground, with the people who lived there. I was concerned with survival issues – food, shelter, economic development, medical care, sanitation. To a lesser degree I was involved in supporting and shining a bright light on the political and military leadership of my counterpart, the Province Chief, then-Colonel and later General Tran Van Nhut. So my perspective on the war and on the events in An Loc is necessarily different. Our team had been responsible for introducing more efficient means of production for the rubber plantations and rice paddies and pig farms around An Loc and we celebrated effects of increased productivity we could see resulting in food on the tables of people living at a subsistence level. Then I participated in the direction of the air strikes that destroyed much of what had been so painstakingly built up, including, ultimately, An Loc itself.
During the siege of An Loc I shared a bunker with members of Team 47 and advisors to the Airborne Ranger Battalion for more than two months. Some of what I did was unknown to others some of what they did was unknown to me. Even though everything that happened in An Loc, from the perspective of the American operation of the war, happened within a tiny perimeter – we were within a two and a half kilometer enclosure – many worlds existed within that wire.
So, my part of it, my contribution to the story, is the work of Team 47 and the contributions during the battle of An Loc of my team and of the Regional Forces/Provisional Forces, which were under the command of my counterpart.
In The Battle of An Loc James Willbanks talks about the recent access to records of the North Vietnamese and accepts as a given that those accounts are valuable to the story but necessarily politicized. He does not attach the same caveat to his references to our own after action reports and other official records of battle. Perhaps he should. We told a kind of truth in those documents. But all individual accounts are told from an individual’s unique perspective and that perspective is inevitably shaped by political forces. Political considerations range from the desire to say what one’s superiors want to hear as a way of advancing one’s own career to specific and personal political bias. And I do not believe any of us is without the need to create a record that supports our belief that what we were doing meant something. We tried to get the facts right. Number of killed, number of wounded, weapons captured, weapons lost. No one deliberately falsified records of that kind, at least not on my watch. But it was my mission in all of the official accounts that I sent out of my province to highlight pacification efforts and to give credit to the South Vietnamese. So that is what we did.
I have not talked about the use of illegal drugs or corruption, both of which were ever present on the South Vietnamese side and on the American side. Much of my time was spent just trying to hold my troops together so that we could function as a team and put forth an effective unit effort for the benefit of Binh Long Province.
What follows is an excerpt from my anecdotal and highly personal memories of the battle of An Loc, as told to my daughter, based on interviews done in the summer of 1999. If you asked, and I hope someone has or will, Tran Van Nhut, Walt Ulmer, Tom Davidson, or my bunker companions, Chuck Hall, Don Hensley or Jeff Gaynor, for their accounts, each would be different. This is not intended to be scholarship or journalism or military history. This is just my story.
More to come…
Bob Corley receiving the Silver Star from BG McGiffert