Periodically I scour the internet for images or accounts of certain fire bases used during the Cambodian invasion of 1970. Among them was the short lived Fire Support Base Bronco, a remote muddy hole manned by the line companies of 1/7 Cavalry and bolstered by 1/30th Field Artillery. In forty-five years only one image of Bronco, and a handful of men who were on it, has surfaced.
Recently I discovered several videos of the base. Lacking sound tracks, even so the half dozen clips were mesmerizing. Here, in all its grueling filthy mud slick glory was the base we grunts trudged or choppered to for seven days respite after weeks of tense and tedious jungle patrols.
Poorly located, often flooded by monsoon rain, dug directly into the enemy’s backyard, Bronco, ringed by barb wire and two man bunkers, had a well stocked aid station, a mess tent, several Howitzer cannons. For one solid week we lucky grunts would feast on three hot meals a day, take showers under jury rigged barrels, relieve ourselves on mortar box crappers, read our mail without fear of ambush. At night, if not sleeping in the bunkers or on the ground outside, we pulled perimeter guard. On the seventh day, re-supplied with food, water and ammo, we marched or choppered back into the Cambodian jungle, as the dread cycle began again. For the infantry, life on a fire base, no matter how primitive or picayune–saluting and petty harassment were never far away–was much preferred to the terror and uncertainty of jungle patrol.
Sitting in the comfort of my living room, I sat spell bound watching a sweated and shirtless artillery crew lift and load, lock and fire high explosive rounds toward a distant target. In another gloriously close up clip, I recognized a medic I knew as he patched up a GI in the dark dreary aid station. Elsewhere, I saw a hard core officer or enlisted man, it was hard to tell, pose for the camera while his hair was cut with a barbers clipper. From out of the blue, a C-47 Shinook, ‘shit hooks’ we called them, floated down from the sky, landed in a small field between the base and the jungle; in the afternoon heat, a dozen grunts trudged from the berm to unload its cargo. Finally, I watched an exquisite clip of senior officers, just flown in from the rear, casually traipse into view. Wearing crisp clean uniforms, and whose job it was to plan and order our daily missions, they talked and joked amongst themselves. ‘Highers’ we called them. Periodically, from the safety of their large, modern, well protected bases, they pinned medals on our chests.
I shared this gold mine of emotionally charged memories with a dozen vets who’d lived on Bronco, patrolled and survived it’s deadly free fire zones. A lively email thread followed, as one man after another recalled life on and around the forlorn base.
Of life on Bronco, one man wrote, “How did we ever survive that mud pit?” Another man humorously recalled the constant threat of leeches. “On ambush discovered one size of a pepper in crack of my ass-fully engorged. Can’t remember who it was that administered the bug juice to release it. But I damn near bite my fingers off so as not to disclose our position when it hit my asshole!”
Recollecting the loss of two friends, a man said, “You guys ran into some bad shit while I was away. Pick and Weid got killed. I cried, then got really pissed. I went back to the company and then back out to the bush. I wanted to find out how the fuck they died.”
Toward the invasions end, shocked out and physically exhausted by the daily press of jungle slogs and sudden terror, a man described finding his limits:
“I was in a daze after May 30th. On one patrol we stopped and I sat on my ammo can. When we moved out I just got up and left it. Later I wondered why I felt so light, and considered not telling the lieutenant. But I did and we had to go back and get it. That night the LT said, ‘Sergeant, I believe you’ve had enough. Sgt Cruise will take the gun squad and you can go in on the next bird.’ “
It was during this time of many emails that I stumbled across the curious case of General Eugene P. Forrester. Unbeknownst to us First Cav grunts, who daily fought the vicious ground war, carried out its plain and simple dirty work, and who paid the price in blood and bone, his shameful courage under fire had made headlines.
General Forrester, the assistant division commander of the First Cavalry in 1970, had been awarded the Silver Star, the third highest valor award for heroic actions, involving combat near LZ Bronco. But the New York Times reported that officers close to the general had instructed three enlisted men, who wrote award citations, to fabricate the generals gallantry in combat. According to the Times article: “Pvt. James Olstad, 22, said that he had invented the acts because he had no choice.”
The award citation stated that General Forrester, while flying with a co-pilot in his command helicopter on 9 June 1970 spotted US troops near Fire Support Base Bronco in Cambodia taking enemy fire. The clerks said they had picked 9 June because one soldier said it was his birthday. The citation described how the general’s aircraft came under intense fire, that he bravely remained in position, called in and adjusted artillery on the enemy troops. The citation praised his delivering ammo to the besieged Americans, and lauded his courage in evacuating their wounded.
The clerks insisted they had made up the entire event late at night on October 4, under extreme pressure. “It is possible that Forrester could have seen a lot of action,” Private Olstad said, “but he certainly did not see this action and the award he accepted is for action that never existed.”
The account, unintentionally comical, was filed by New York Times war correspondent and future National Book Award winner Gloria Emerson (who I met in Boston in 2000). But the story did not end there. General Forrester was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, for “extraordinary heroism” on the very same day he earned the Silver Star. An investigation was held. The medals were revoked. No one took blame and the general was never questioned directly about the affaire embarrassante, because, said a high ranking officer, “He is a modest man.”
Nor did the general escape scandal after Vietnam. After retiring from the military, General Forrester placed money in Bishop, Baldwin, Reward, Gillingham and Wong, Inc, an investment firm with alleged connections to the CIA. Not long afterward the SEC claimed BBRDW had engaged in wide ranging securities fraud. In his defense, Ronald Reward, head of the company, claimed he was a covert agent for the CIA who gathered intelligence, and that his firm was a cover for 22 CIA agents, and a conduit for money laundering.
The CIA denied Reward’s allegations, and subsequently denied it had attempted to assassinate him. Renwald was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison but served 10 and was released on parole.
General Forrester and several military officers were part of larger group of investors who sued the CIA for their investment losses. It is unclear if they recouped their money. It is alleged that BBRDW, now defunct, was set up by the CIA to replace the notorious Nugan Hand Bank, which made international headlines after it collapsed in 1980.
But what of the admirable low ranking clerks who had first exposed the incurious general? After all these years, could they perhaps add a bit to the official story? Medic could only locate Spec/4 Richard Kempkens, who had died in 2013. General Forrester ascended to heavenly ranks in 2012 and was buried with full military honors at the U.S. Military Academy Cemetery at West Point. His sterling biography omits his brush with stolen valor.
It is fitting that the last word on the curious case of General Forrester be given to a solider who appears in one of the clips of Fire Base Bronco. Says former Bravo 1/7 platoon leader, retired colonel and Silver Star recipient David Judge, “Forrester visited Bravo Company’s 3rd platoon in the field and told us that while a brigade commander in the 4th Infantry Division, his unit had killed 5,000 NVA! He put his arm on my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘And there wasn’t one of them that I couldn’t put my boot on…’ Yeah, right. Regardless, one of his fake awards was presented for the “action” that took place while he was telling me of his battlefield success…I don’t recall any one shooting at us on that day.”
That was quite some time ago. In light of Obama’s current and future missions, among the casualties committed by Americans upon themselves will likely be the theft of valor.
Marc Levy served with Delta 1/7 First Cavalry as an infantry medic. He was decorated three times and court martialed twice. His website is Medic in the Green Time.