- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 28, 2009

It wasn’t American soldiers that Capt. Jack Nicholson went to rescue one night in December 1963. But it didn’t matter to him that they were his Vietnamese allies.

Growing up dirt poor as one of seven children on a farm in rural Iowa, he had learned to look out for more than his kin. As far as Capt. Nicholson was concerned, any comrade in the fight against communism was worth risking his life for.

“I felt like what I was doing there was very important for our country, for the South Vietnamese people, and for the world because we were trying to deter the expansion of communism - a heartless, joyless, phony form of government,” the 75-year-old retired brigadier general recalls with the gruffness of a battle-worn commander.

And on Wednesday morning at Fort Myer, the Army will give the Iowa farm boy a long-delayed Silver Star in recognition of the 13 lives he saved on that moonless evening in the Mekong Delta.

Among those on hand will be the South Vietnamese general whose men a young Capt. Nicholson fought to rescue. And the American officer whose efforts have prompted a forgetful bureaucracy to honor his bravery decades later.

Today, Gen. Nicholson remembers his ordeal in exquisite and painful detail - the humidity hanging like a wet and heavy blanket on his back; the mud-brown drinking water; the stench of rotting corpses.

He draws back in conversation to the death smell that he still cannot shake. But the sacrifices of war remain a proud scar on his psyche.

That night two days after Christmas 46 years ago, he and his South Vietnamese men - reduced under fire from 240 to 39 during a chaotic, eight-hour firefight - rescued 13 of their wounded soldiers, carrying them out on their backs for six more hours under intense fire.

Four of the South Vietnamese would later die, but for the nine grateful wounded who survived to tell the tale of how Gen. Nicholson, known to them as “Dai uy Nick,” became a legend among the troops who learned of his compassion and valor.

Capt. Nicholson was formally recommended at the time for a Silver Star, the Army’s third-highest honor, but the paperwork was lost in the crush of war. But now decades later, thanks to a chance meeting a year ago with another retired general, Gen. Jack Cushman, “Dui uy Nick” will receive his Silver Star.

In attendance at the parade ceremony will be not only be some of Gen. Nicholson’s fellow “paddy rats” from the Vietnam War, but also Gen. Tran Ba Di, the South Vietnamese officer who would later serve 17 years in a communist hard-labor camp before making his way to America and becoming a U.S. citizen.

Gen. Nicholson is proud - of his service, his honor, and the cause.

The handsome, tough-talking grandfather, who makes his home in McLean, proudly attests that he can still fit into his military uniform, which he will wear when they pin on his chest the 1 1/2-inch Silver Star (made of gold, despite its name).

When discussing his personal accolades, he quickly rises to defend what he calls a rightful war. The lessons of Vietnam - not to abandon foreign allies - still matter, he says with some defiance, even as his son, now also a brigadier general, takes up his legacy and has served in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

“We need to stand up to have some backbone as a nation, like we’ve always had,” he says of the nation’s current war efforts. “We shouldn’t let things like this happen. We should not make the same mistakes [of Vietnam]. This republic of ours is not guaranteed. If we don’t sustain it, we’ll lose it.”

Gen. Nicholson acknowledges his service with pride, but also regret that his country didn’t finish and win the Vietnam War.

“I regarded that with shame on the part of our government,” he says of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, after which came the collapse of the Saigon government, the rise to power of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and more than a million Vietnamese boat refugees. “To have done that, it was a shame on our nation.

“Unfortunately,” he warns, “there are people who want to inflict the same on our country 34 years later with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Jack Nicholson began life as one of seven children on a Struble, Iowa, family farm where there was no running water, the winters were bitter and food was often scarce. But there was the bootstrap, Midwestern belief that one’s circumstances could not dim future success.

At 17, while attending classes at Iowa State University, Jack received life-changing news - he had been accepted at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, pointing him on his career path. He graduated in 1956, returning as an instructor in the 1970s.

The first of his three Vietnam tours began in 1963, acting as an adviser to 5,000 South Vietnamese paramilitary troops, teaching strategy and battlefield techniques with the help of an interpreter, all the while making sure not to take prestige away from the Vietnamese commanders.

This was not a desk job, but one that saw him in the heat of vicious jungle battles directing forces, often as the only American, even as debate over the war back home stewed and later festered.

“It was loud and smelly and scary,” he says matter-of-factly, but “the war was winnable.”

“The Vietnamese were hardworking, stoic, resilient, determined … with great senses of humor. The government was young and immature, but definitely trying hard.”

But there was no textbook for this battlefield. As educated and trained as Capt. Nicholson was, succeeding required decisions from his gut, sometimes earning him the ire of commanders.

“I was learning about myself that when I had to figure things out, I did,” he said of the lessons of that era. “When challenges arose that had never been taught or talked about in my schooling, I had to go by my instincts and by the principles that had been taught to me about being prepared, being aggressive, be honest - and to be audacious in combat.”

On Dec. 27, 1963, he would put his instincts to the test: A battle with the communist Viet Cong guerrillas had raged, and his troops had been decimated, were in retreat and had left behind fellow soldiers who lay dying. That wasn’t right. Not on his watch.

Capt. Nicholson advised the South Vietnamese that they needed to go back and get them, unsure though he was that they’d make it. When his own interpreter balked at the plan, Capt. Nicholson made his point in his own way.

“We had to do what duty called for, which was go back into the scene of the battle to get these wounded guys who had been abandoned by the troops I’d been advising,” the general recalls. “My interpreter said ‘You can’t do that.’ What I remember really well was pointing my rifle at him and saying, ‘If somebody takes aim at me, I’m going to fill your stomach with 30 rounds I have in this clip.’ ”

Such a threat was not in the official playbook, but it did make a point. They were going in.

The Vietnamese captain was buoyed by the American’s swagger and bought into the plan, even as the danger was clear.

They needed some significant cover if the plan could have a chance of working. So they radioed then-Maj. Di who was at a command post up the canal. He offered fire support and mortar rounds that pushed back the Viet Cong enough that 39 of Capt. Nicholson’s men could hike in, pick up the wounded and carry them through the nighttime to safety.

Their jungle trek, through hostile fire to a medical command unit, took them until 2 a.m. But in completing the mission, Mr. Nicholson says he learned something about himself that has stood the test of time for the rest of his life.

“Although I was really scared, I realized that I could control my fear and do what was the right thing to do,” he says. “That has sustained me since then. Whether my fear was subsequent to combat or from the threatening, bullying bosses of the bureaucracy, I learned that you just have to stand up for what you believe in. You have to always do what is right because nobody escapes alive. We’re all gonna meet our maker some day. So while we are here, we’ve got to do the best we can.

“I want anybody who reads about this to say, ‘That’s an example of doing what is right,’ ” he adds. “I learned how to control my fear.”

Capt. Nicholson would return from Vietnam and complete a 30-year military career, also including slots in Germany, Korea, Lebanon and Switzerland. He served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and was the commanding general of the U.S. Army Training Support Center.

He was appointed by President Bush in 2005 as chief executive officer of the American Battle Monuments Commission, a post he held until June. (His younger brother, Jim Nicholson, also a Vietnam vet, has served both as chairman of the Republican National Committee and Veterans Affairs secretary.)

The memories were left behind until a chance meeting with retired Brig. Gen. Jack Cushman, 88 and living in Washington. He was in Annapolis a few years ago when he saw Gen. Nicholson, who had served under him in Vietnam, and he remarked about the Silver Star that he had requested for his captain.

“He said: ‘What Silver Star? I never got it,’ ” Gen. Cushman said.

Gen. Cushman asked whether it still mattered, and Gen. Nicholson said it did. So he began the arduous task of refiling the paperwork, having to locate former soldiers who could provide witness statements to Gen. Nicholson’s heroism. Finally, with the help of another Vietnam veteran, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, the honor was approved and authorized by President Obama in July.

The Army citation honors his “forceful persuasion, personal example and willingness to risk returning to the chaotic scene of fierce fighting.” It notes that his “selfless courage in the face of a determined enemy are in keeping with the finest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Army.”

Official language aside, Gen. Nicholson, ever the blunt military man, looks at it this way: “My country said, ‘Go there,’ and I went. I served, and I volunteered for three assignments. I would do it again in a heartbeat,” he says.

“The communist system is horrible. They were trying to take over the world. The Nazis, Italian fascists and the Soviet Socialist Republic and the Chinese - it’s a lousy way to live. I’d rather die defending our freedom than give it up and live.”

In Orlando, Fla., an aging Vietnamese man agrees - the former Maj. Di.

After U.S. forces pulled out and Saigon fell in 1975, South Vietnamese army commanders - Maj. Di eventually reached the rank of general - were rounded up and sent to “re-education” camps, followed by years of hard labor and nearly starving. He was imprisoned for more than a decade, but never gave up hope, even as the guards attempted to beat a love of communism into him.

Gen. Di’s family made it to the United States, and he followed them after his release from prison in May 1992. He became a U.S. citizen in 2003.

His own quest for freedom and all the hardship that came with it was worth it, Gen. Di now says. He cherishes his friendship with Gen. Nicholson, saying that he “accomplished his duty with the highest degree of spirit” and deserves the Silver Star.

“His exemplary bravery in the face of the enemy is unequaled,” Gen. Di said. “Most of all, he is a living symbol of the U.S. Army fighting for a noble cause - supporting a friendly country in preserving its independence.”

Gen. Di maintains to this day that the U.S.-South Vietnamese cause was just, and said the impact of Americans such as Gen. Nicholson who fought with him and for him is lasting and profound. Gen. Nicholson’s name on the battlefields “was magic,” he said and inspired his own faith in freedom.

Without broader U.S. support, Gen. Di said, he might never have been a free man.

“Seventeen years and five days of hard labor, cruel brainwashing and humiliation had ended,” he said. “I would like to emphasize that without the consistent pressure from the U.S. and the free world, the Vietnamese communists probably would have never released us. They let us pass away one by one in their loathsome re-education camps. We would have disappeared into oblivion if not for the U.S.’s attempts to free us.”

The cause of freedom, he allows, is just.

“In God,” Gen. Di writes, “I trust.”

• Andrea Billups can be reached at abillups@washingtontimes.com.

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