For me, it is still a moment frozen in time, that instant on Dec. 20, 1966 when I---through my camera lens-came face-to-face with then-Lt. Gen. Jonathan O. Seaman, commanding general of II Field Force, US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV.)
He was on his way to a briefing at the US Army's 199th Light Infantry Brigade's Tactical Operations Center (TOC) at Long Binh, South Vietnam, shortly after our unit's arrival in-country. I happened to be standing nearby with a camera, when this tall man with the fiercest-looking scowl I'd ever seen on anybody turned to look in my direction.
Impressed, but unawed, I raised my camera and took what I knew would be a terrific picture; it was. In that instant, I decided to find out who he was, why he was there, and what role he played in the war in which I had just arrived to serve. He died in 1986, the same year in which I played a supporting role in helping to found a magazine on Vietnam; another 14 would pass before I sat down to write his story at last.
What I discovered was that his life was a metaphor for the Vietnam War, from the string of victories in battle that the troops under his command helped to win, to his being in charge of the investigation of that controversial conflict's most infamous American war crime: the My Lai 4 Massacre of South Vietnamese civilians.
There is no doubt in my mind that the incident helped force his retirement after a stellar 36-year-long military career, and that-but for it-he would have received his fourth general officer's star. His, therefore, is both an interesting and poignant saga worth recalling; but for that photograph, I would not be the one doing it, alas.
His obituary appeared in the December 1988 edition of Assembly, the official publication of The Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy. "Jonathan Owen Seaman was born in Manila, PI on Dec. 14, 1911, just 11 days after his father and mother arrived in the Philippines. As the son of 1st Lt. A. Owen Seaman" (later a Brigadier General) "Jack grew up around the world: Tientsin, China; Ft. Douglas, UT; Ft. Bliss, TX; Washington, DC; San Francisco, and Brooklyn, NY, where Jack attended the Polytechnic Preparatory School... " His mother was the former Florence Look.
"He graduated in 1929 and went to Millard's West Point Preparatory School and entered the US Military Academy on July 1, 1930. Jack thoroughly enjoyed life as a cadet. As a first classman, he was a cadet captain twice... Outside of academics, Jack fought sabre on the fencing team, was an academic coach and associate editor of the Howitzer" campus publication.
Thus was joined two the future General's lifelong interests: sports and the branch of service that Napoleon I called the military's "thunderbolts:" the artillery. His official biography would say that, "Gen. Seaman is fond of all types of sports, and encourages athletic competition and participation among his troops. He plays a fair game of golf."
As a member of the USMA Class of 1934, Seaman was commissioned a second lieutenant of field artillery, and was assigned to the 16th FA (horse-drawn) at Ft. Myer, VA before graduating in 1939 from that branch's school at Ft. Sill, OK. Next he went to France for six months to study French, and by the end of that year had been posted to the 4th FA Battalion (Pack) at Ft. Bragg, NC. After the Second World War broke out, Seaman was sent to the New Hebrides in the South Pacific in April 1942 (without the mules), and commanded the battalion in combat against the Imperial Japanese Army for nine months before returning stateside.
At what would later become Ft. McNair, VA, Lt. Col. Seaman was placed in the G-1 section of Army Ground Forces Headquarters at Washington, DC, remaining a year before being sent to Europe in September. In January 1944, he had graduated from the Army Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, KS. It was while at the Plans and Operations Section of the 6th Army Group Headquarters that he was promoted to the rank of Colonel, and took part in the Ardennes-Alsace, Rhineland, and Central European Campaigns against the retreating armies of Nazi Germany.
Returning to Washington, Col. Seaman remet and married the widow of Hueston R. Wynkoop (USMA 1937), who had been killed aboard a Japanese POW ship. She was the daughter of Lt. Gen. George Grunert and the sister of Seaman's friend George R. Grunert (USMA 1932). The couple had two daughters: Mary Owen (Wendy) and Margaret Reynolds (Penny.) In his spare time, the future General enjoyed photography, gardening and wood-working.
They went to Europe in 1951, where Seaman saw service in 7th Army Headquarters before commanding the 30th Field Artillery Group for 18 months. Before returning to Germany, Seaman had graduated from the Armed Forces Staff College at Norfolk, VA, and in 1950 had been named to the faculty of the Army War College in Kansas. After completing his three-year stint in Europe, Col. Seaman saw service from 1954-58 in the Office of International Affairs of the Assistant Secretary of the Army at the Pentagon.
In July 1958, the Colonel was posted to Bangkok as Deputy Chief of Staff to the Joint US Military Advisory Group to Thailand, in Southeast Asia. Noted Assembly, "Of all his assignments, Jack believed this one was one of his most interesting and, at the same time, most demanding."
With his promotion to the rank of Brigadier General in the summer of 1959 came command of the artillery of the famed 25th Infantry Division (Tropic Lightning) at Oahu, HI's Schofield Barracks, until he was named Director of the Office of Special Weapons Development at Ft. Bliss, TX; the following September, Gen. Seaman received his second star, as a Major General. It was in that capacity that he was assigned as Commanding General of the 6th US Army Corps at Ft. Benjamin Harrison, IN, and, later at Battle Creek, MI.
It was now that Gen. Seaman was on the threshold of the career that made him famous throughout the American military: his service in the Vietnam War.
Notes his Assemblyv obituary, "The clouds of war in Vietnam were gathering in the late spring of 1965, and in June of that year, one brigade of the Big Red One deployed to Southeast Asia; the remainder of the Division followed in September." Gen. Seaman had assumed command of the Division at Ft. Riley, KS in January 1964, and its shoulder patch appears on his right sleeve in my photograph.
Adds the public information office at Ft. Riley's Headquarters, "Lt. Gen. Jonathan O. Seaman, the Big Red One's first combat commander in Vietnam, brought the Division to Southeast Asia in late 1965. It became operational on the first day of November and fought its first significant battle 12 days later. At the end of that day, 198 Communist soldiers had died around the Big Red One's perimeter near Bau Bang...
"On March 15, 1966, he left the Big Red One and took command of II Field Force Vietnam (IIFFV), leaving behind him a legacy of victories. Operations such as Hump, Bushmaster 1 and 2, Crimp, Rolling Stone, and Hattiesburg saw the Fighting First kill over 1,600 enemy and capture over a half million tons of rice."
In August 1966, Seaman was promoted to his final rank-that of Lieutenant General---and thus it was in that capacity that I saw him the following Dec. 20th.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the General was about to embark upon what were to become his best-known military operations in-country: Operations Cedar Falls and Junction City.
The first took place between Jan. 8-26, 1967, and was a US military venture against the Iron Triangle; its target was the headquarters of Viet Cong Military Region Four, and its supporting units. It was a preparatory strike ordered by MACV commander Gen. William C. Westmoreland, to be the later of the two efforts.
Writer John F. Votaw in Volume One of Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, describes Cedar Falls as "A strike into the Iron Triangle to interdict Viet Cong control of the transportation and communications network emanating from that base area. A coordinated intelligence-gathering plan tracked and analyzed VC movements and contacts over a period of months to identify patterns."
Adds Assembly, "Under his (Jack's) command were the 1st, 9th and 25th Divisions, three separate brigades, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, two artillery groups, and an Australian Task Force. During his command, two of the most highly successful operations of the conflict took place-Operations Cedar Falls and Junction City."
A hammer-and-anvil technique of attack was selected, with the hammer cutting a bloody swath through the Iron Triangle, and the anvil being formed by the Saigon River at the Triangle's southwestern border. The local populace would be evacuated and the area defoliated of all vegetation.
The initial phase of Cedar Falls (from Jan. 5th-8th) consisted of positioning the attack forces in secret and hitting the village of Ben Suc with an air strike on the 8th. The follow-up phase began on the 9th , with the 11th Cav and Task Force Deane of the 173rd Airborne Brigade becoming the east-west hammer starting near Ben Cat, while the 1st Division closed the Triangle at the Thanh Dien Forest with airmobile assaults, then swept southward to the junction of the Saigon and Thi Tinh Rivers.
"Two US and one ARVN (Army of Vietnam) infantry divisions, supported by extensive artillery, engineer, and aviation units, were committed to the operation, the largest of the war to date. The village of Ben Suc at the northwest corner of the Iron Triangle was the headquarters of the Viet Cong secret base area known as Long Nguyen (pronounced as "Long Win.")
One of the battalion commanders involved in securing this vital area would go on to become a four-star general in his own right, a deputy to Henry A. Kissinger in the Nixon-Ford White House, and US Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan: Alexander M. Haig, Jr., played by actors Powers Boothe in the movie Nixon and Richard Dreyfus in the television drama The Day Reagan Was Shot.
"It took only 40 minutes to land an entire infantry battalion of 400 men, achieving complete tactical surprise. By midmorning, the village was secure... Despite the large number of Allied units engaged in the operation, the actual work of search and destroy was done by small units-infantry squads and fire teams. Search by day and ambush by night became the routine.
"The absence of strongly-held VC defensive positions and counterattacks confirmed that the Viet Cong were trying to slip away from the attacking forces and exfiltrate the Iron Triangle to fight another day... By the end of Cedar Falls, 2,711 acres of jungle had been cleared and 34 landing zones were chopped out of the jungle in the Iron Triangle."
Important lessons were learned about infantry and engineers working together, as well as about the placement of helicopter landing strips and artillery fire zones. The term "tunnel rat" also entered the consciousness of the American public for the first time, one that detailed the role of the soldier armed with pistol and flashlight as he sought out hidden VC soldiers below ground.
"Literally tons of VC documents were recovered from the Military Region Four Headquarters, many of which, when exploited, told the Allies a great deal about their Communist antagonists. The conventional statistics showed 750 VC/PAVN (People's Army of Vietnam) killed, 280 prisoners and 540 Chieu Hoi converts" (to the South Vietnamese side), compared to Allied losses of 83 killed and 345 wounded."
There was, however, a downside to Gen. Seaman's overall battlefield success: "The VC had suffered a significant setback with the penetration of their previously safe base areas close to Saigon, but they had avoided the destruction of their major combat forces in the area... The American commanders, ever optimistic of their combat power and ultimate victory, were not able to understand fully the determination of their foe to continue the war despite stinging losses. Communist forces had been damaged, but their will had not been destroyed."
Junction City, lasting from Feb. 22-May 14, 1967, was the second Corps-sized operation of the war, and one of the largest ever fielded by the Allies, with four ARVN and 22 US battalions involved. Planned before Cedar Falls, it had been delayed at the express request of Gen. Seaman to Gen. Westmoreland, his superior. Its main goal was the destruction of VC 9th Division in a marshy area along the Cambodian border northwest of Saigon.
The battlefield consisted of both jungle and rice paddies with Black Woman Mountain predominating. Twenty days before it was launched, Junction City was preceded by twin operations designed to establish east-west flanking forces, Gadsden and Tucson.
Notes Gen. David T. Zabecki, "On the tactical level, Operation Junction City was a success. Although most Communist propaganda organs claimed the US and ARVN lost 13,500 killed, 800 armored vehicles and 119 artillery pieces; the actual tallies were 282 killed and 1,576 wounded, three tanks, four helicopters and 21 armored personnel carriers (APCs.) Communist forces lost 2,728 killed and an undetermined number of wounded. The Allies also seized 490 weapons, 850 tons of rations; 500,000 pages of documents, and over 5,000 bunkers and other military structures."
Once again, Gen. Seaman's forces had won another victory-but also one that wasn't conclusive: "Despite its tactical results, Junction City, as with so many other American efforts in the war, failed to yield long-term strategic leverage. Although the three regiments of the VC 9th Division were temporarily shattered, they would be back in force less than a year later for the 1968 Tet/New Year Offensive," that would play a vital role in turning the American people domestically against the long-running war.
Recalling Tet in his 1976 memoirs, A Soldier Reports, Gen. Westmoreland made this telling notation: "When I had asked Jack Seaman, commander of the II Field Force, in the summer of 1966 to prepare a war game based on the worst possible contingency in the region around Saigon, his staff had come up with almost exactly what did happen in 1968, but even though the appraisal alerted us to the possibility, we deemed it at the time as unlikely."
Gen. Seaman returned home in April 1967 even as Junction City was concluding, to assume command of the 1st US Army headquartered at Ft. George G. Meade, MD the following June 1st, after a brief stint as Special Assistant to the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Harold K. Johnson, at the Pentagon. First Army was to be his last command, as fate would have it.
States Assembly, "These were trying times with a great deal of campus unrest, riots in the Washington/Baltimore area and a partial mobilization of the Reserve components, not to mention the unprecedented postal strike in New York City during which 1st Army was charged with delivering the mail. In addition, Jack was given the most unpleasant task of conducting the inquiry in the My Lai chain of command cases."
The year 1971 proved to be a controversial one for the embattled former IIFFV CO. On Jan. 29th, he announced his decision to drop charges against Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Koster that prompted a scathing editorial in the Armed Forces Journal by Benjamin F. Schemmer entitled Thundering Silence, Instead of a Public Accounting. Gen. Koster had been charged with "covering-up" the My Lai incident and Mr. Schemmer lambasted Gen. Seaman thus:
"Gen. Seaman's cursory announcement does nothing to clarify the issue; it obfuscates it. It not only fails to answer serious questions about an alleged My Lai cover-up; it prompts new doubts and raises new issues as well... This announcement is not a public accounting; it is a public insult."
The editorial appeared on Feb. 15th, and on March 1st a photograph appeared in the Washington Post of a still-scowling Gen. Seaman being awarded a Distinguished Service Medal by Gen. Westmoreland, then Army Chief of Staff, upon the occasion of his retirement following 36 years of military service.
Here is what Gen. Westmoreland had to say in 1976 in A Soldeir Reports: "Under usual courts-martial practice, the pre-trial investigations would have been assigned to the Army commanders in whose commands the officers were serving. To simplify procedures and assure that all would be judged by the same criteria, I instead transferred all the officers associated with charges stemming from the (Lt. Gen. William R.) Peers investigation to the 1st Army, and assigned the investigation to its commander, Jack Seaman.
"I am sure it was for him a demanding assignment. After detailed review of the Peers board findings and further investigation, Seaman concluded the evidence was insufficient to bring any of the officers to trial for dereliction of duty except the former 11th Infantry Brigade commander, who was subsequently court-martialed and acquitted after a lengthy trial.
"Even though the evidence as reviewed by a man of honesty and courage proved insufficient for trial or conviction, something had to be remiss in the Americal Division's chain of command if anything so reprehensible and colossal as the My Lai Massacre occurred without some responsible official knowing or at least suspecting."
In its June 19, 1971 issue, the Post ran a story headlined Army Drops Charges in Seaman Case: "Ft. Monroe, VA---The Army announced today it had dismissed war crimes charges brought against retired... Lt. Gen. Seaman by a young lieutenant who has since left the service as a conscientious objector.
"Gen. Ralph E. Haines, Jr., commanding general of the Continental Army Command, said he ordered the charges against the 60-year-old former general dropped because 'They were unfounded.' Lt. Louis T. Font of Kansas City had charged Seaman with conspiracy to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity in the planning and execution of operations in Vietnam during 1967."
That was not to be the sum total of Gen. Seaman's military saga, though, but was also reflected in his 16 American service medals (including the Silver and Bronze Stars, the Legion of Merit and DSM with a trio of Oak Leaf Clusters), plus 10 foreign decorations, from France, South Vietnam, South Korea, and the Republic of the Philippines.
I shall let Assembly have the final word: "Jack retired... and moved to Beaufort,SC, where he and Mary built a beautiful house on the deep water of Lucy Creek on Lady's Island... In the words of a fellow officer, 'We are left with great memories that time cannot erase-Jack's innate sincerity, sense of humor and the ability to inspire trust...
"Jack's obituary was entered in the Congressional Record of Feb. 27, 1986. In the words of Sen. Fritz Hollings, 'Gen. Seaman's career was long and distinguished, a career his wife and daughters should be fiercely proud of.'"
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