June 11, 1972

The Man Danger Couldn't Touch

Vann Was a Legend With 9 Lives


(UPI) --John Paul Vann was not well known in the United States. But in Vietnam, his was a name to conjure with.

He was the longest-lived, the most articulate, far and away the most aggressive of a much-maligned breed, the American advisers to the South Vietnamese Army and the American officials in charge of the so-called pacification program.

I met him for the first time just two weeks ago. He was about to fly into Kontum, infiltrated that morning by Communist troops and already under heavy artillery fire.

"If you want a ride to Kontum, I'll see you at my chopper in 10 minutes," he threw over his shoulder as he disappeared into a map room in the U.S. compound.

I gathered up my pack, filled my canteens with water, zipped up my flak jacket and clapped on my helmet. I was ready for battle.

So was Vann. No helmet, no flak jacket, no canteen. Just a lime green shirt, slacks and tie.

"Follow Mr. Vann," an American captain on his second tour of Vietnam told me. "He has nine lives."

I followed Mr. Vann. His code name, on voice radio, was "Rogues' Gallery." Rogues' Gallery wanted to know how best to land by helicopter into Kontum. "It's flying in all around, sir," came the reply. "If you come in from the northeast you may miss some of it."

We missed all of it. Shells were exploding all too close when our tiny chopper landed on a roadway near the tactical operations center (TOC) at Kontum. Vann took the time to close the rear door of the jet properly and then loped to the TOC. He loped fast.

I followed at a dead run. We disappeared into the sandbagged tunnel and a shell exploded outside.

"He leads a charmed life," an American major marveled down in the TOC where maps with transparent plastic overlays jockeyed for position with field radios. "He lands, the firing stops, he takes off, the firing resumes."

Vann got a quick fill-in. He barked over the radio. "Tell your counterpart (a South Vietnamese battalion commander) to get off his tail and get his troops humping or tomorrow we're going to be in deep trouble."

American advisers supposedly do not talk like that about their loyal allies. Vann did.

Moments later we were airborne. A 105-mm shell exploded just where we had taken off. Vann said over the intercom,-- "Mr. Higbee, you are on a privileged flight. I am going to do something which I hope you won't report."

I didn't at the time. Now that he is dead it doesn't matter. He had his pilot fly to the point from which the captured 105-mm gun had been fired. It was still wreathed in smoke.

Vann---once a professional military officer and thoroughly at home with firearms-- pointed downward with an M16 rifle and poured automatic fire at the smoke from 500 feet.

This went on for a full two or three minutes of circling. Afterward, Vann told me, "If you wrote about that, people would think I was trying to be a hot shot. The fact is, I don't think I hurt anybody, but I made them damned uncomfortable. It's hell to be under fire."

By this time our chopper had landed back at Pleiku and Vann --- short, slight, with thinning reddish-blond hair, freckles, a hawk-like face and the eyes like Greenland glacier ice, had gone off to confer with some general about keeping Kontum from going belly-up.

Vann had nine lives. He used them all up, without stint, without sentiment. Whether the cause he lived and died for has used up its nine lives-- or had that many to begin with-- remains to be seen.

No matter. Whether you agreed with him or not, this redheaded banty rooster of a man never demanded respect. He simply got it.

"Vann Was a Legend With 9 Lives ", by ARTHUR HIGBEE, SAIGON, (UPI) published in the Pacific Stars and Stripes on Sunday, June 11, 1972 and reprinted from European and Pacific Stars and Stripes, a Department of Defense publication copyright, 2002 European and Pacific Stars and Stripes.
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