Vann’s legacy recalled
WOODLAND – On Highway 258 just outside of Woodland stands a vacant house.
It has stood the test of time, its red shutters still clinging onto the siding in contrast to the white paint that is chipping away, slowly exposing the boards underneath.
It’s a lonely shell of what it used to be, a mere ghost of the past illuminated only by the rising and setting sun.
This two-story farmhouse was once the home of Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann, a well-known and vocal Vietnam War hero.
“He was a hero because he knew what was happening (in the war),” said William “Shurley” Vann.
As Shurley sits in the kitchen of his Murfreesboro home he has the few memories he owns of his second cousin laid out on the kitchen table.
A framed photo of John Paul’s immediate family standing next to former President Richard Nixon after John Paul’s funeral; New York Times journalist Neil Sheehan’s book titled “A Bright Shining Lie” and a copy of his family tree showing the connection between him and John Paul.
According to Shurley, John Paul was born in Norfolk, Va. in 1924 and during his early childhood his parents split up.
His father soon fell on hard times and brought his son back to Northampton County where they lived with John Paul’s paternal grandfather, Henry.
John Paul grew up on his grandfather’s farm. Shurley said John Paul attended school in Woodland.
During the summers, the large Vann family reunited at their family reunions held in Virginia just outside of Franklin. There John Paul was just another cousin to Shurley because of the immensity of the family.
Shurley’s father and John Paul’s grandfather (who were brothers) were two of 17 children descended from Sarah and Richard Vann.
“There were just so many of us,” said Shurley, referring to the many family members. “I did see him occasionally.”
John Paul began his military career right out of school when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943. A few years later when the Air Corps broke away from the Army, John Paul chose to stay in the Army and transferred into the infantry.
When the Korean War began in 1950, John Paul became a captain and commanded a Ranger company, leading them on reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines.
Near the end of the Korean War, Shurley and John Paul’s paths crossed when they met up at a base in Kansas. Shurley was stationed there after being called out of the reserves and seeing his cousin came as a surprise.
“I heard someone asking for Sergeant (Shurley) Vann,” said Shurley. “I had no idea he was in the service.”
The two cousins spent their conversation talking about their family.
In 1962, John Paul was assigned to South Vietnam and served as an advisor to Col. Huynh Van Cao, a commander in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARV), after receiving a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.
John Paul helped coordinate Cao’s unit, the 7th division, one of the most successful South Vietnamese forces.
At the time Vietnam was a nation divided. In 1955, with the help of the Americans, South Vietnam had become its own entity governed by a democratic leader named Ngo Dinh Diem. Shortly after, Diem claimed South Vietnam was under attack from Communists in the north part of the country.
Diem counterattacked with American military aide and used controversial laws to jail suspected Communists without formal charges. Out of this grew frustrations over Diem’s rule and the attacks on his forces increased. In 1959 the Communist Party approved the use of revolutionary violence to “free” South Vietnam from Diem’s control.
Guerrillas were formed in both North and South Vietnam, making individuals from students to farmers self-made soldiers. The southern forces also faced the Viet Cong, a branch of the National Liberation Front, who were known for their brutal military tactics and ability to hide in local terrain.
During his time in Vietnam, John Paul saw the effects of anti-guerrilla war against the Viet Cong and the ham-fisted way the war was being handled by military leaders, both American and Vietnamese. He noticed this most notably in the Battle of Ap Bac in which he directed from a spotter plane above the battle while taking on enemy fire.
“John Paul would take his plane across the border, he’d have hand grenades on his lap,” said Shurley. “He’d see (Viet Cong) coming over the border and he would take a hand grenade and throw it at them.”
John Paul earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his work at Ap Bac.
According to a New York Times article printed in 1963 days after the battle, John Paul later called the battle “a miserable damn performance” because of Vietnamese commanders ignoring battle advice from their American advisors resulting in a number of deaths on the ARV side, including three U.S. advisors, and the loss of five helicopters.
Journalists covering the war, including New York Times writers Sheehan and the late David Halberstam, flocked to John Paul because of his honesty.
John Paul favored smaller units for battles over the large troops which were popular with many of the officials in charge.
“He (John Paul) was always telling it like it was,” said Shurley.
John Paul’s candor did not settle well with some as he was forced from his advisor position and within a few months left the Army in 1963.
Two years later, John Paul returned to Vietnam, this time as a civilian. He served as deputy of CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) and later assigned as the senior American advisor in II Corps Military Region toward the end of the war. He advised the ARV commander in the region and became the first American civilian to command U.S. troops in combat.
In 1972, coming off a victory in Kontum, a helicopter John Paul was traveling in crashed into a wooded area and exploded on impact, killing him and two others on board.
In a 1988 interview with Harry Krisler of the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkley, Sheehan, the author of a biography on John Paul, described his visit to the crash site. Sheehan said the debris field was close to the graveyard of a nearby tribal hamlet—the very kind of people John Paul was trying to defeat.
“And it was absolutely uncanny,” said Sheehan in the interview. “It was as if the land had somehow reached up for him in the night and taken him, because he had come up the road, he was jubilant, he thought he had won his war, he was skylarking along (it was the most dangerous route to take, he shouldn’t have been taking it), and he didn’t realize that these figures were waiting for him.”
Shurley, who was living in Washington D.C. at the time, was present at his cousin’s funeral, which was attended by U.S. military dignitaries, including Major General Edward Lansdale and Lieutenant Colonel Lucien Conein. Senator Edward Kennedy gave the eulogy.
John Paul was buried in Arlington Cemetery and bestowed the Distinguished Service Cross (the highest civilian honor) as he was not eligible for the Medal of Honor as a civilian. He was the only civilian cited with the honor in Vietnam.
But to his cousin Shurley, John Paul had been a hero all along for his integrity when others would not admit the truth.
“He fought it like he saw it,” said Shurley. “He wanted to tell the truth about the war.”