Saturday, January 11, 2020

Under Two Flags: The Deadly Duality of South Vietnam

Flags of the co-belligerents fighting for control of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War on display among other artifacts and educational guides in the Intelligence section of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's newest exhibit, The Ten-Thousand-Day War at Sea. (M.C. Farrington)
By M.C. Farrington
HRNM Historian

The defining historical event consistently highlighted by the Hampton Roads Naval Museum throughout its 40-year history has been the American Civil War.  Artifacts from that conflict, including naval flags from both sides, bring to remembrance the bitter four-year struggle that took place throughout the United States, particularly in the Hampton Roads area.

Although it is not stated explicitly, the newest exhibit at the museum, The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea, delves into the U.S. Navy’s role in a massive American effort to influence the outcome of a much longer civil war over 9,000 miles away.

Two flags on display in the exhibit symbolize two primary contestants of that civil war, which began in the wake of the decolonization of French Indochina after World War II and ultimately lasted until 1975. One is large, about 55 by 65 inches, of golden silk and bordered with gold fringes. It is bisected by three red lines representing the three areas that constitute modern Vietnam: Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina.
The large flag of the Republic of Vietnam (right) contrasts with the much smaller flag of the National Liberation Front (left) on display in the Intelligence section of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's new exhibit The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea. (M.C. Farrington)
Its design dates from the late-1800s and it is regarded by many as the first truly national flag of Vietnam.  It was officially adopted as the flag of the State of Vietnam in 1949 and after the 1954 partition of the country became the flag of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).  Americans soon arrived to help keep the flag flying.

By January 1961, 875 American military personnel were training and advising the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF), and the Republic of Vietnam Navy (VNN).  When Vice President Lyndon Johnson became president in November 1963, more than 16,000 American advisors were in the country to help the Republic of Vietnam Military Forces withstand continuous infiltration and assaults from the forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) to the north and their proxies based within the borders of the Republic.  Thousands of the nearly two million American Sailors who were deployed to South Vietnam throughout the conflict wore unit patches that incorporated the design of the RVN flag.
American Advisors to the Republic of Vietnam Navy wore berets such as the one displayed in the Beginnings section of The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea exhibit. (HRNM 2013.007.059/ M.C. Farrington
The other Vietnamese flag in the gallery is much smaller (about 15.5 by 21 inches), comprising of a gold star upon a blue-and-white background.  It is somewhat faded and threadbare, and looks handmade. It is the flag of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, which also went by the name National Liberation Front (NLF), or, among the South Vietnamese and Americans who fought them, as the Viet Cong.  It represented the Communist shadow government and guerrilla force trying to overthrow the Republic of Vietnam. 
The NLF flag on loan from the Naval History and Heritage Command display in The Ten-Thousand-Day War at Sea exhibit. (NHHC 2015.033.002/ M.C. Farrington)
While flags like the RVN flag in the gallery once flew over large military installations and were sometimes presented to senior American officers as tokens of appreciation, examples of the NLF flag like the one in the gallery were usually taken by the Americans and South Vietnamese as trophies after successful operations against the Viet Cong hiding in villages or remote jungle encampments.   

Despite the shadowy nature of the NLF, the massive effort to provision and equip them on the part of the DRV and their allies in the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union made them an existential threat to the Republic of Vietnam, prompting the Johnson Administration to send more and more American military forces and material.  After the second year of Johnson's presidency, 187,000 Americans were serving in South Vietnam.
This oil on canvas painted in 1968 by Apollo Dorian depicts a South Vietnamese Regional Force or Popular Force militia commander presenting a NVA flag to one Captain Patella (no specific name, date, or command appears in the accession information).  Such scenes were common in South Vietnam after a successful counterinsurgency operation. (88-161-MT/ Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection)
By 1968, nearly a half-million American service members (as well as thousands from South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and The Philippines) were fighting to keep the RVN flag flying over South Vietnam.  

"By sending these forces to the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the Johnson administration prevented an immediate victory of the Communists," wrote political science professor Anthony James Joes in his book America and Guerrilla Warfare (University Press of Kentucky, 2000), "but it also opened up a fissure in American society that it did not know how to close or even contain."  

Plenty of NLF flags were taken out of circulation in South Vietnam after the Viet Cong were resoundingly defeated during their Tet Offensive of early 1968.  Despite this, NLF flags began waving over cities across America during some of the largest and most violent protests against the Vietnam War later that year, which continued sporadically until the last American combat troops were withdrawn in 1973.   
A painting by Nancy Werlich on display in the Georgetown Neighborhood Library depicts confrontations in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC between local residents and protestors on October 2, 1970.  The protestors were celebrating the decision of South Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky to cancel his appearance at a March for Victory rally in support of the war.  More than 300 of them were arrested.  The next day, around 5,000 pro-Vietnam War marchers were opposed by approximately 500 counter-demonstrators, many of them waving NLF flags. (Courtesy of the DC Public Library
After the Communist victory and reunification of Vietnam in 1975, untold thousands of RVN flags were destroyed and its display is still banned in that country. Meanwhile the NLF flag, much like the shadowy government and armed force that it represented, was subsumed with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam the following year into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. 

Ultimately, over 57,000 American military personnel lost their lives in the fight to preserve the Republic of Vietnam and its flag against the NLF and the DRV.  Among the American Sailors who served there, 1,631 were killed and 4,178 were wounded.  Although a very large number of Americans died, the human cost of the civil war in Vietnam among the Vietnamese themselves was truly staggering by comparison. 

"If American military fatalities had been in the same proportion to the population of the United States as the ARVN's were to the population of South Vietnam," wrote Dr. Joes, "they would have numbered not 57,000 but 2.6 million."

"In the long struggle against an armed Communist takeover," he continued, "the ARVN alone (excluding the militia, whose casualty rates were higher) suffered, relative to the South Vietnam population, more than forty times as many fatalities as the Americans."

Reminders of the RVN flag can be found on the dress uniforms of the war's American veterans.  Towards the end of The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea exhibit is an example of the Vietnam Service Medal, which was originally established in 1965 during the Johnson administration but was retroactively awarded to veterans who served in the geographical area or in direct support of military operations in Vietnam as far back as 1958.  It was last awarded to American military personnel who aided in the evacuation of South Vietnam in April 1975.
An example of the Vietnam Service Medal on display in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's new exhibit, The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea. (HRNM 2017.030.001. Gift of Bob Ponton)
The late Benedict Anderson, the influential scholar of Southeast Asia, called flags "emblems of nation-ness."  No longer symbolizing a nation-state, what is now known generally as the "Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag," still waves above houses, businesses, and temples in Hampton Roads and across America as a symbol of what Anderson called the “imagined community” of the Vietnamese diaspora that settled around the world after the conclusion of the war.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Right Tools for the Job: SEAL Firearms of the Vietnam War

Seen from the boat he just jumped from, a Navy SEAL (Sea Air Land Team Member) hoists his  Mk 23 (Stoner 63) high as he makes his way ashore through deep mud during a combat operation in South Vietnam in May 1970.  Although it only fired 5.56 mm rounds, at about 13 pounds, the Stoner in its light machine gun (LMG) configuration weighed roughly half of what a comparable M60 machine gun (firing 7.62 mm rounds) weighed, making it much more portable. (Chief Photographer's Mate A. Hill/ US Navy photo K-84315/ National Archives and Records Administration via Naval History and Heritage Command
By A.J. Orlikoff
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

On October 31, 1972, Engineman 2nd Class Mike Thornton, a member of SEAL Team One, was thrown to the ground by the explosion of an enemy grenade. With shrapnel in his back, Thornton scrambled to his feet to join his fellow SEAL, Lieutenant Thomas R. Norris, and three South Vietnamese Lien Doi Nguoi Nhai (LDNN, Vietnam Navy Special Forces) members. Behind enemy lines, the five men engaged a force of 150 North Vietnamese soldiers for nearly four hours. With fire support from nearby Navy destroyers unable to reach them, Thornton and his comrades contacted the heavy cruiser USS Newport News (CA 148) to provide covering fire and they prepared to retreat into the surf of the Gulf of Tonkin. Norris, while covering their retreat, was severely wounded in the head by an enemy round. Thornton fought his way back to Norris’ position, put the wounded man across his shoulders, and retreated in the face of heavy enemy fire. With covering fire from Newport News so close that one shell burst lifted the two 20 feet into the air, the five men swam to Newport News with Thornton carrying the wounded Norris while helping a wounded LDNN member. Thanks to the courage and valor of Thornton, Norris miraculously survived and the two were awarded the Medal of Honor. It stands as the only instance of two Medal of Honor recipients involved in the same combat operation.

Engineman 2nd Class Mike Thornton poses for a photograph with a Stoner 63 in the LMG configuration while deployed in Vietnam. Thornton enlisted in the Navy in 1967 and served as a gunner’s mate apprentice until he attended SEAL training in Coronado, CaliforniaAfter graduating Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) school, Thornton joined SEAL Team 1 where he served in Vietnam from 1969-1972. After his service in Vietnam, Thornton continued to serve in the Navy as a BUD/S instructor and as a founding member of SEAL Team 6, the first SEAL unit dedicated to counter-terrorism efforts. Thornton retired as a lieutenant in 1992. (Defense Media Network)
The story of Thornton and Norris stands as an example of the dedication, bravery, and combat prowess that Navy SEAL members displayed in the Vietnam War. Fulfilling the vital missions of intelligence gathering, counter-intelligence efforts, and long-range patrols, Navy SEALs were a devastatingly effective fighting force that consistently stymied enemy efforts throughout South Vietnam and undoubtedly saved the lives of hundreds if not thousands of Americans and South Vietnamese. Though small in number, they were feared by their enemies, admired by their allies, and were an integral component of the Navy’s largely successful combat operations in Vietnam.
Uniforms and weapons used by SEALs in Vietnam are seen here among uniforms and weapons used by their Viet Cong adversaries in the Intelligence section of the new HRNM exhibit The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea. (M.C. Farrington)
Several SEAL artifacts are currently on display in the gallery of Hampton Roads Naval Museum as a part of the new exhibit The 10,000 Day War at Sea: The U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War.  Foremost among these are the specialized firearms Navy SEALs used in Vietnam. These firearms allowed Navy SEALs to operate as an elite cadre of extraordinary warriors.
The Stoner 63 (Mk 23 Mod 0) in its commando (15.7-inch barrel) LMG configuration on display in the Intelligence section of the new HRNM exhibit The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea. (NHHC 1991-58K/ NHHC 1991-58-AZ/ M.C. Farrington)
The Stoner 63, officially known as the Mk 23 Mod 0 Machine Gun, was a powerful and versatile weapon used by Navy SEALs in Vietnam. Designed by Eugene Stoner and manufactured by Cadillac Gage in the early 1960s, the Stoner 63 used the 5.56 x 45 NATO round (though initially designed with the 7.62 round in mind) and was capable of firing 700 to 1000 rounds per minute. Despite some initial problems in manufacturing and weapon trials, the Stoner 63 was hurried into service as one of the primary firearms of Navy SEAL Teams in 1966. Deemed too unreliable for general issue, Navy SEALs nonetheless quickly proved the Stoner 63 to be an effective and efficient weapon.
Armed with a Stoner 63 in the light machine gun configuration in October 1968, this well-camouflaged SEAL could easily lay down a wall of fire against enemy positions. (US Navy photo K-74900/ National Archives and Records Administration via Naval History and Heritage Command)
The Stoner 63 was particularly suited to the needs of Navy SEAL teams due to its unparalleled versatility.  The modular design of the weapon featuring interchangeable parts around a common receiver allowed several configurations of the firearm such as assault rifle, carbine, and light machine gun (LMG). This outstanding versatility allowed SEAL Teams to tailor their weapon to their often-clandestine missions.  SEALs were particularly enamored with the LMG variant as their 75 to 150-round magazines gave them a mobile high rate of fire weapon capable of suppressing enemy forces.  SEALs continued to successfully use variants of the Stoner 63 through 1980, although it was never widely produced for American forces. 

Petty Officer 1st Class Sam Fournier, a member of SEAL Team One, still wears his grease paint as he keeps a sharp lookout from a Navy landing craft which picked up other SEAL team members following an operation along the Bassac River in November 1967.  In addition to their standard modified firearms, SEALs often made further customizations to their gear in the field such as the straps on this M16. Indeed, many SEALs would use non-standard firearms on missions such as the Chinese Type 56 or commercially available shotguns such as the Remington Model 870. Essentially, SEALs made all the modifications to firearms, gear, and uniforms they deemed necessary to accomplish their often difficult and dangerous missions. (US Navy Photo K-42770/ National Archives and Records Administration)
Navy SEALs used their own specialized variant of the M16A1 Assault Rifle, the Mk4 Mod 0.  Like the Stoner 63, the M16 was designed by Eugene Stoner and, unlike the Stoner 63, became one of the most widely produced firearms in world history. After extensive testing and debate in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Air Force and Army officially adopted the M16 as a jungle warfare weapon. Using the 5.56 NATO round, the M16 was an impressive and innovative lightweight weapon capable of accurately delivering high velocity rounds at a relatively high rate of fire. Unfortunately, the M16A1 was a notoriously unreliable weapon in the jungles of Vietnam early on in the war due to it’s propensity to jam when dirt, water, or grim fouled the complicated and intricate internal components of the firearm. Later and improved models of the weapon proved far more reliable and the M16 stands as one of the most effective rifles in modern history.
An M16A1 assault rifle equipped with a Mk 2 suppressor on display in the Intelligence section of the new HRNM exhibit The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea. (NHHC 1991 58-N/ NHHC 1995-96-I/ NHHC 1996 156-L/ M.C. Farrington)
The Mk 4 Mod 0 was optimized for the amphibious and maritime operations of the SEALs. Most of the operating components of the weapon were coated in Kal-Gard and a small quarter inch hole was drilled in the buffer assembly to allow water drainage out of the weapon’s stock. This allowed the Mk 4 Mod 0 to survive depths of approximately 200 feet of water. The weapon also mounted a Mk 2 Mod blast suppressor as a standard component of the firearm. Based on the HEL (Human Engineering Lab) Mk4 suppressor, the Mk 2 Mod 0 suppressor, in addition to dampening the weapon’s noise, drained water faster than other suppressors while still allowing automatic and semi-automatic fire. These modifications armed SEALs with a powerful and specialized standard firearm in which to conduct their covert missions.
The Smith and Wesson Model 39 equipped with a Mk 3 suppressor on display in the Intelligence section of the new HRNM exhibit The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea. (NHHC 1996 18-R/ NHHC 1996 18-AA/ M.C. Farrington)
The side arm of choice for Navy SEALs in Vietnam was another modified firearm, the Mk 22 Mod 0 “Hushpuppy” pistol. The Hushpuppy was a variant of the Smith and Wesson Model 39 semi-automatic 9mm pistol, entering the market in 1955. Designed as a replacement for the legendary M1911 and utilizing design features of the German Walther P38, the Model 39 was a conventional double-action pistol with an 8-round magazine. The Model 39 would not see use in the U.S. military until a modified variant equipped with a Mk 3 suppressor and raised iron sights was used by Navy SEALs in Vietnam. The Hushpuppy’s lightweight, relatively small size, and effective suppressor allowed SEALs to quietly engage sentries or guard dogs during covert intelligence gathering raids.

Landing from a River Division 91 Assault Support Patrol Boat (ASPB) on the Rach Thom Rach Mo Cay canal system in Kien Hoa Province 50 miles southwest of Saigon on January 25, 1968. They raided a Viet Cong base, destroying an estimated 40 to 50 bunkers and numerous camp structures, including a propaganda center and two tax collection stations, and detained 51 Vietcong suspects.  The SEAL leaping from the bow carries a shotgun; the next two SEALs have M-16 rifles; the SEAL by tire fender has a Stoner 63A1 light machine gun with drum magazine; and the SEAL at right has an M-16 rifle with a 30-round magazine and an XM148 grenade launcher mounted under the barrel. The ASPB has a pair of Honeywell Mark 18 40mm grenade launchers mounted on deck in front of the superstructure and two 20mm cannon in turrets. (Journalist 1st Class Tom Walton/ Naval History and Heritage Command Image)
The three firearms mentioned, as well as a bevy of other firearms, weapons, and gear, gave SEALs the tools they needed to execute their missions with their trademark deadly efficiency. However, it is important to mention that tools like these firearms were only as good as the men who wielded them. The SEALs did not succeed in their missions due to their specialized firearms; They succeeded because of their qualities, valor, and skill. That proud tradition established by SEALs in Vietnam like Mike Thornton, Thomas Norris, and hundreds of others continues to this day in the Navy’s efforts to safeguard American interests around the world.

Friday, December 27, 2019

A Congressional Gold Medal for the Tragic Figure who Made America Care about Vietnam

Obverse of the Dr. Thomas A. Dooley III Medal. (NHHC 2014.001.006/ M.C. Farrington)
By M.C. Farrington
HRNM Historian

Ten years ago, the Navy chose as its slogan, “A Global Force for Good.” The much-maligned mantra met an ignominious end five years later.  Love or hate the concept of the U.S. Navy being an asset to the international community today, the U.S. Navy has a long history in being a force for good for those caught in crises around the world.

Ships of the Great White Fleet took time from circumnavigating the globe 111 years ago in response to the devastating earthquake that struck Messina, Italy, on December 28, 1908, and the United States Asiatic Fleet helped provide humanitarian support to Japan after the Great Kanto Plain Earthquake of 1923, along with myriad other natural disasters that transpired in far-flung locations around the world during its long history.

The U.S. Navy has also come to the rescue of those imperiled by man-made catastrophes.  Less than five years after the intervention of the People's Republic of China during the Korean War forced the rushed evacuation of almost 100,000 North Korean refugees by sea (with more than 14,000 on just one ship alone) from the ports of Wonsan, Songjin, and Hungnam in December 1950, a similar effort (sanctioned by international agreement this time) was mounted by the Seventh Fleet to relocate noncommunist Vietnamese from the northern part of Vietnam to the southern part during the partitioning of the country.  All told, Between August 1954 and May 1955, the U.S. Navy and the Military Sea Transportation Service would bring nearly 300,000 refugees to the south during Operation Passage to Freedom.  

For Lieutenant Colonel Edward Landsdale, an Air Force officer who had been directed by the Central Intelligence Agency to establish the Saigon Military Mission in June 1954, such a heroic effort needed a hero. While setting up shop in Saigon fresh from directing a successful psychological operations campaign against Communist insurgents in the Philippines, Landsdale became aware of such a hero.  Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Thomas A. Dooley's work among the refugees in Haiphong had caught the attention of Commander William Lederer.  The Pacific Fleet public affairs officer had read the passionate prose of Dr. Dooley's situation reports and recognized true talent.  Lederer reached out to Dooley and urged him to keep a journal of his exploits.  He also alerted Landsdale as to his find.

Lieutenant Junior Grade Thomas A. Dooley explains the operation of  a water purification system to Vietnamese refugees near Haiphong, Vietnam, in September 1954.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image
Like T.E. Lawrence in the Transjordan during the First World War, Dr. Dooley seemingly appeared out of nowhere exactly where he was needed, capable of working with, writing and speaking eloquently about a people his countrymen knew next to nothing about.  Far from the senior officer present and something of a nonconformist, yet a man possessing just the right skills at just the right time with the ability to enthrall audiences with the tales of his exploits, Dooley quickly made an outsized impact upon his part of the Cold War.

At Haiphong Harbor, Indochina, a ladder is lowered to a French Landing Ship Medium (LSM) alongside USS Montague (APA 98) to take aboard thousands of refugees for the journey to Saigon during Operation Passage to Freedom. (National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-644449 via Naval History and Heritage Command)
 Assigned to attack transport USS Montague (AKA 98) in July 1954, the former Navy Hospital Corpsman and recent medical school graduate found himself right in the middle of Operation Passage to Freedom after Rear Admiral Lorenzo S. Sabin, Commander Amphibious Force, Western Pacific, called the refugee camp he saw at Haiphong in August "one of the most awful sights I have ever seen," and ordered a medical team be sent there.  Fluent in French and the product of a Catholic education, Dooley quickly established rapport with the refugees, many of them Catholics as well, after he was directed to help establish medical facilities near Haiphong.  

Thanks to Lederer, Dooley's account of his effort to help the thousands awaiting transport there found its way to Reader's Digest in April 1956, followed by a best-seller, Deliver Us from Evil: The Story of Viet Nam's Flight to Freedom, which was written with Lederer's help. The book also received editorial treatment from Landsdale, which comes through in its more lurid details.  "I was treating diseases that most of my classmates would never encounter in a lifetime's practice, performing operations which the textbooks never mention," Dooley wrote.  "What do you do for children who have had chopsticks driven into their inner ears?  Or for old women whose collarbones have been shattered by rifle butts?  Or for kids whose ears have been torn off with pincers?"

Despite the protestations of some who also worked in the refugee camps that many of the atrocities Dooley described did not take place, Dooley was encouraged to repeat the accounts before thousands across the United States during a Navy-sponsored tour promoting what the service had done for the people of Vietnam during Operation Passage to Freedom. 

Dooley's promotional prowess reaped rapid rewards. He was personally awarded the National Order of Vietnam by President Ngo Dinh Diem and subsequently became the youngest naval officer up to that time ever awarded the Legion of Merit.  Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke had written the introduction to his best-selling book, and his future with the Navy seemed bright.  So much so, in fact, that Dooley dared dream of one day becoming the Navy's surgeon general. 

By garnering all that attention, however, Dooley lost any shred of privacy he might have been able to maintain as a gay member of the military, a segment of the American work force notably lacking in privacy to begin with.   

Reverse of the Dr. Thomas A. Dooley III Medal. (NHHC 2014.001.006./ M.C. Farrington)
It was the time of what some historians have called the Lavender Scare, during which the investigative agencies of government were as zealous about catching homosexuals in the ranks as they were about catching Communists.  In fact, there was a great deal of official conflation between the two.

During his tour promoting Operation Passage to Freedom, agents of the Office of Naval Intelligence compiled a dossier on Dooley's private activities and submitted it to naval leadership.  Dooley was quietly discharged under other-than-honorable conditions, yet through the machinations of the lobbying group American Friends of Vietnam and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a cover story was concocted in which he would return to Southeast Asia to independently continue his work as a civilian.  

Even though Dooley was no longer in the U.S. military, Edward Landsdale continued to work behind the scenes to influence the doctor's career, engineering an invitation through the IRC from the Laotian government to establish a clinic there.  Although he continued to receive laudatory coverage in the American mass media for his humanitarian work, Dooley's tasks included making sure shipments of arms made it to the CIA-sponsored militias fighting the Pathet Lao.  The Navy compensated Dooley for his taking the new notional government assignment by upgrading his discharge and publicly maintaining that the doctor resigned his commission of his own free will. 

Before long, Dooley was putting more effort into maintaining his public persona, coined by one journalist as "The [Albert] Schweitzer of Asia," than in the work he originally set out to do after leaving the Navy.  But as he had been in the Navy, Dooley excelled at creating great copy and giving the public (as well as his unseen benefactors) what they wanted to see and hear.  The grueling pace of interviews, public appearances, producing his own radio program, as well as writing two other books during this time helped Dooley burnish his national fame. In 1959, a Gallup poll ranked him the seventh man most admired by Americans, ahead of General Douglas MacArthur.

That same year, however, Dooley discovered that he had cancer.  He adroitly managed to parlay this devastating news into an opportunity to publicize an organization he had founded called Medical International Cooperation (MEDICO) by inviting CBS to make a documentary about his treatment, which was broadcast to the nation on April 21, 1960.  Although the prognosis for Dooley was grim, he put on a brave face throughout.

President John F. Kennedy cited Dooley as an inspiration in his November 2, 1960 speech proposing the launching the Peace Corps, and his standing on Gallup's list of men most admired by Americans rose to number three, behind only Dwight D. Eisenhower and Pope John XXIII.  He would not live to savor the new heights he had achieved, however.  He died on January 18, 1961, one day after turning 34. 

On May 27, 1961, a joint resolution of Congress "[t]o authorize the President of the United States to award posthumously a medal to Doctor Thomas Anthony Dooley III" was passed, authorizing the sum of $2,500 for its production.  Frank Gasparro, who had recently redesigned the Lincoln cent as assistant engraver of the United States Mint, produced the medal and on June 7, 1962, the Dr. Thomas A. Dooley III Congressional Gold Medal was presented to Dr. Dooley's mother, Agnes Wise Dooley, by President Kennedy.
President John F. Kennedy presents the posthumous Dr. Thomas A. Dooley III Congressional Gold Medal to Dr. Dooley’s mother, Agnes Wise Dooley (center left). Also pictured: Dr. Dooley's younger brother Malcolm W. Dooley, his wife Gabrielle Dooley and their children, Malcolm Jr., Thomas, and Michael.  (White House Photographs Collection/ John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
The Congressional resolution authorizing the production of the gold medal also stipulated that "[t]he Secretary of the Treasury shall cause duplicates in bronze of such medal to be coined and sold... at a price sufficient to cover the cost thereof... and the appropriations used for carrying out the provisions of this section shall be reimbursed out of the proceeds of such sale."

One of the bronze duplicates of Dr. Dooley's medal can now be found in the Beginnings section of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's new exhibit, The Ten-Thousand-Day War at Sea.    

Biographers and historians of the Vietnam War disagree on Dooley's legacy and his impact upon American involvement in Vietnam and Laos, but most seem to agree on one point: that because of the earnest young doctor from Missouri, in the words of reporter Diana Shaw, "the public now cared about a part of the world it had known nothing about before Dooley started pleading on its behalf."

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Sixty Years Ago: Third Polaris Submarine a First for Newport News Shipbuilding, and the Confederacy

By M.C. Farrington
HRNM Historian

The past is not set in stone.

Nothing epitomizes this as much as the ways in which the leading figures of the Confederacy have been interpreted in vastly different ways by the generations born after the Civil War.  Viewed as rebels and pirates during the war and handled with a deliberate policy of non-recognition by the War and Navy Departments of Abraham Lincoln's administration, by the mid-20th Century an aura of genteel respectability had somehow alighted upon Confederate leaders in American popular culture; the same leaders who had sought to carve their own nation out of American territory a century earlier.
On the rainy morning of December 18, 1959, shipyard workers prepare for the launching ceremony of USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN 601) at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. At left is the attack submarine Shark (SSN 591), which would be launched three months later.  The Polaris submarine program was such a high priority when Robert E. Lee was ordered in 1958 that Shark's original hull and reactor plant was snagged by shipyard engineers, renamed and lengthened from 252 to 381 feet to accommodate 16 of the solid-fueled tactical nuclear missiles. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
The revisionists of a century ago managed to rehabilitate those figures in the public imagination, foremost among them Colonel Robert Edward Lee, who resigned from the U.S. Army after his home state of Virginia seceded from the Union and was promoted to general by the Confederate authorities in Richmond who were impressed by his ability to lead their armed struggle against the U.S. Army.  Decades after his death in 1870, five years after he was indicted for treason by a federal grand jury in Norfolk, Lee was effectively recast as a great uniter by his many admirers.

Monuments to the man were erected throughout the former Confederate states and beyond, and his statue even joined those of other honored American luminaries in Statuary Hall within the United States Capitol in 1909 after the Virginia General Assembly picked him and George Washington to represent the Commonwealth there.

Today there is a movement afoot within the Virginia General Assembly to remove the statue.  Protests throughout the summer of 2017 in the wake of the Charlottesville City Council's initiative to remove another one of Lee's statues near the University of Virginia culminated in deadly riots that August, shocking the nation. 

Elected representatives within Virginia aren't the only ones taking a dim view of Lee and his legacy.  Those in the historical profession today such as Jonathan Horn, whose recent warts-and-all biography of Lee was entitled The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, have taken more of a originalist stance towards Lee.  Other up-and-comers in the field have shown much greater contempt for Lee, openly calling him a traitor.
The cover of the launching program for the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine Robert E. Lee (SSBN 601). (Dale Hargrave via
Sixty years ago, nothing could have been further removed from the sentiment of those launching USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN 601), especially the Polaris ballistic missile submarine's sponsor, Lee's granddaughter (and widow of WWI hero Lt. Gen. Hanson E. Ely) Anne Carter Lee-Ely.  The matron of honor was one of Lee's great granddaughters, and the maid of honor for the ceremony was one of Lee's great-great granddaughters. Robert E. Lee was the third of the George Washington-class to be launched, but the first constructed in a former state of the Confederacy.

The decision to name one of America's premier tools of strategic defense after someone who foreswore his allegiance to the nation would probably be met with vehement opposition today in Congress, which has historically set the rules regarding the naming of naval vessels.  However, it was not technically prohibited by Congress until just last week, when New York Congressman Gregory W. Meeks successfully attached an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act prohibiting such namings. According to his press release, Meeks declared, "Those we’ve entrusted to defend the union should not be serving on ships named after those who fought to undo it."

Incidentally, Robert E. Lee wasn't even technically an American citizen for the first decade of the ballistic missile submarine's operational patrols. His citizenship was posthumously restored by an act of Congress in July 1975.
USS Robert E. Lee (SSBN 601) departs Newport News Shipbuilding past the mostly-complete aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVAN 65) for sea trials in December 1960. She would conduct her first test launch of a Polaris missile that same month.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Robert E. Lee, commissioned on September 16, 1960, was the only U.S. naval vessel ever to carry that name, quietly avoiding detection on deterrent patrols under the waves (and the stars and bars) for over two decades until finally being decommissioned on December 1, 1983. 

Only one of the five U.S. naval vessels named either for Confederate leaders or Confederate military victories remains in service, the guided missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville (CG 62), which was commissioned in 1989.

She was named for the greatest Civil War victory of Robert E. Lee.