“You might as well use Weapons that kill. Napalm is no less humane than others”
MEMOIRS OF A NICE GUY WHO JUST DID HIS JOB
as told to CATHERINE BRESLIN
Lamar Cason (at left) is 29 years old and looks older. He’s six foot three, 200 pounds, with blue eyes and greying black hair. He flies small jets on weekends for the U.S. Naval Reserve, and big Pan-Am jets (DC-8s) on international runs for a living. He still sometimes rents a two-seater “just to take a spin.” His bachelor pad is a Manhattan duplex with fireplace, terrace, dishwasher and two bathrooms. He brings home furniture from Copenhagen, wine from Portugal, French bread from Paris. His favorite town is London — “an atmosphere more than anything else.” He subscribes to The New York Times, The New Yorker, Business Week and Evergreen Review, and he’s read most of the books you’ve always meant to. His favorite music is the hillbilly raga of his native South Carolina. He admits to being a gentle man, a complicated man. But happy? “I don’t know.’’ He’d walk 10 miles, hung over, to see a football game. He once wracked up two motorcycles, now drives a red convertible. He’ll make $13,000 this year. Girls like him fine. He’s got it made — at least until that man in the White House calls up the reserves and this nice guy turns back into a professional killer.
IF YOU’RE IN A WAR you might as well use weapons that kill people. Napalm, I think, is no less humane than other ways. For a while they were passing along propaganda'that when it went off it actually sucked the oxygen out of the lungs. We didn’t hear much of that later, but I still think they die from it with no more suffering than most ways of dying.
I dropped a lot of napalm in the 85 missions I flew over North and South Vietnam as an attack pilot off the carrier Bon Homme Richard. I napalmed huts, bombed forests and bridges, strafed trains and people running across the fields: it’s just the nature of guerrilla warfare. I also got shot at innumerable times, went down twice in emergency landings, watched some guys crack up physically and a couple mentally. That’s the other side of war.
When I was fighting that war I believed it was right. Now, two years later, I don’t know what the answers are. I’m no pacifist and I’ll fight again if I have to. But I just think that war is wrong.
Most of us never had the feeling of horror that people would think you’d have from killing people. It turns out a lot like the Nazis, I guess
— you do the job you’re trained to do. If you let it get you down, if you go in there worrying about women and children, you can’t do your job. It’s a matter of survival, really — you’ve got to be able to fly that machine well all the time, and you can’t if you’re up there haggling with your conscience. You’ve got to be just a bit cold about it, accept the idea that you’re going to make mistakes — and all of us did.
There are times you know you’ve gotten the VC, like once when a guy dropped his napalm right in the trench they were all in. You could see it shooting out in a straight line, just a little streak of fire down the trench; usually there’s a great glow going up.
But after a while you also knew there was a good chance you’d been killing innocent people in the South. (Most of us felt — I did, too
— that those people in the North were all the enemy.) We started getting back press releases on so many “suspected Viet Cong” killed, which often means civilians, women and children. But down South you always had a Forward Air Controller in an Air Force L-19, a kind of Piper Cub, directing all your hits by dropping a smoke bomb on your target. That guy took your conscience for you, and you said, “Screw it.”
I think it got to me more after the whole thing was over, after I left the navy. I’m not sure it’s really a conscience problem now. But in the great crush some things had gone wrong
— means, ends, it’s hard to say. Now, I don’t know. Mainly, I don’t believe we can win that war.
But I’m in the Naval Reserve, mostly because I enjoy flying the planes, enjoy it as much as anything I know. And I won’t say I wouldn’t go into it again if I were called up. I sure as hell wouldn’t enjoy it very much. But
I'd go, and probably change my views again — for my own survival.
All through training they told us that to be a good attack or fighter pilot you had to be prepared to kill people. Most thought consciously about that—like me—and some went other directions in training because of it. But, of course, this was the glamorous part of naval aviation — the most sophisticated planes and the hardest flying. The term was “tiger”: they were looking for guys who were tigers.
After 17 months of flight training in Florida and Texas I went to Lemoore, California, where for four months they polish you up for the fleet: teach you how to drop bombs, shoot rockets, land on carriers, fly low-level under enemy radar to deliver an atom bomb. One day my best friend in the squadron flew into a hill. That night I went out alone and got drunk, and never made a close friend among the aviators after that. You did that for your own protection, so you wouldn’t worry too much about them and get yourself killed.
I’d joined Attack Squadron VA 196, 18 pilots flying A-l Skyraiders, most of them junior officers close to my age, which was 25. All of a sudden you’re a “nugget,” which means you haven’t yet made a combat cruise, and everybody jumps up and down on a nugget about everything, including his flying, to see if he can take it. I couldn’t, so they gave it to me that much harder.
It’s unfair but it serves a purpose — it hardens you. You become suspicious as hell of everything. You learn not to show a reaction. Now it’s hard for anybody to bug me.
After six months we were sent to our ship, the Bon Homme Richard, a small attack carrier with a crew of 3,000, 70 or 80 planes and about 120 pilots. In January 1964 we sailed to Hawaii and the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan. For a few months we played war, practised invasions, acrobatics and formations, just to keep our proficiency up.
At that time the navy had almost nobody over in Vietnam. But toward the end of our nine-month cruise, after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the navy started flying very secret mis-
sions low over the Plain of Jarres in Laos, providing cover for the photo-reconnaissance planes. I got in four missions over Laos before we sailed back to home base in October 1964, scheduled to make a Mediterranean cruise in March — the main reason I’d joined the navy. A week before we left we found out they’d known for some time we were going back to Vietnam. So we headed on out, everybody damn bitter.
By this time regular missions were being flown over Vietnam. They gave us different briefings and another survival school and started us off easy — in the South. The biggest guns the VC had down there were rifles and 50-mm machine guns, and most planes will take a rifle shot and hardly show it. In the North they had stuff that could knock you down anywhere. We were getting clobbered. And that was when / continued on page 56
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continued from pane 23
they were still learning to shoot planes down. By now they're pretty good.
Our old Skyraidcr prop dive bombers flew in formations of twos or threes, carrying an average load of 3,500 pounds of bombs hung on our wings, with one or two tanks of napalm for a final mop-up. We also carried rockets — 800 rounds of 20 -mm cannon—and strafed almost every hop. Maybe half our bombs were “daisy cutters,” equipped with threefool rods at their tips so they’d explode outward instead of digging a crater. They weren’t specifically antipersonnel. but they’d probably flatten anybody within a half mile.
Napalm is the most spectacular. We used a lot in the South, especially on the huts along the Mekong Delta canal network. The 150-gallon canister looks like a fuel tank and tumbles as it drops, so to get any accuracy you have to go in low at 100 feet.
Most of the work up North was road reconnaissance, knocking down anything moving, and anything that looked like a staging area for troops, like warehouses and trains. You generally didn’t carry napalm because their big guns kept you too high to use it.
Bombing the forests down South you could see trees flying up. but you didn't know if you’d hit anything or not. You got so fed up bombing trees. But one day the bombing was so intense some VC troops in black-pyjama uniforms broke out of the woods and scattered across the fields. We got them with our cannon as they ran. One guy homed in on a single VC who was crawling on his hands and knees. "I got him.” he told us back on the ship.
Maybe the most surprising thing about real combat is that it is so little different from practice, except you're being shot at. But 1 found there’s an added fillip — like taking Dexedrine, or a few extra cups of coffee—going in on real people. At first you worry mostly about getting killed. You never worry much about killing other people —until later. Some of the guys got pretty bloodthirsty, and I was one of them. I guess most men feel combat is something they want to experience: the test of being brave or cowardly, proving you're a man or not. You turn out to be goddam scared and you do it anyway.
Back aboard ship, there was a lot of kidding about the guys who got a real thrill out of killing people and telling about it after. (You always have a few like that around. But for most of us it was detached — more like you were watching a movie.) There were other jokes, too, of course—like the blackboard in the ready room, where the guys had been keeping score: “Attack Squadron 196 has gloriously killed 5.000 trees. 23 VC, 46 women and children, 18 water buffalo & one freight elephant and driver." It was just to show how useless some of the targets were. But we erased it when a LIFE photographer came on board.
We only lost about 12 combat pilots out of the 90 on that cruise — you expect to lose a few even in peace-
time. Half were shot down, and one was actually napalmed when a freak rifle bullet ignited his canister. One went down in the middle of a village up North and we saw him captured: a real big fear of most guys. 1 was never hit myself, but on two different occasions l lost my engines and had to make emergency landings — fortunately, over the South.
When someone “dusted his tail,” “bought the farm,” it was “too bad but better him than me.” But some guys just weren’t tough enough to take the necessary cynicism—like my roommate for the whole last cruise. He was having problems flying. We tried to talk to him, but if you started getting to him, he'd tune you out. Sam was just a very nice kid. one of the few guys who went to church and didn't go to bed with the girls and raise hell with the rest of us when we were in port. I guess he couldn’t let go on his emotions. After that cruise, Sam was transferred to a new squadron. One day, taking some kind of routine examination on nuclearweapons delivery, he put his head down on the paper and just started to cry. They transferred him to a hospital in Philadelphia.
The Sortie Game
There were maybe two or three pilots on the ship who worried about the moral aspects of the war. One I'll call Bruce said he couldn’t go in if he was hitting the wrong target. (Myself. I just said screw it.) One night, after Bruce had stood duty all day and just seen his roommate killed in a take-off crash, they sent him up. He came back from his mission with what’s known as getaboarditis—unwilling to make the necessary second pass. He smashed into the deck, knocked off his wheels and went over the side in flames. He was lucky: he ended up in the hospital for a few months with back injuries.
A good many missions like his were launched in weather not worth a damn for flying: that’s known as the Sortie Game. Two nights in a row I flew a weather recon over the North and found nothing but solid clouds up to 12,000 feet, but they launched a strike anyway. It wasn’t the war they were winning, it was the Sortie Game —the cruddiest thing I’ve ever seen. A couple of commanders told us they knew it was ridiculous to send us up. “but the pressure's on us from higher up to get those sorties up and beat the Air Force.” So you'd tool around trying to find a target somewhere, anywhere, and end up bombing woods or. on about one strike out of five, you’d dump your ordnance at sea. All the pilots were disgusted about that, but when my old buddy, Alex Waier. said as much in a Michigan newspaper a few months ago, the papers were carrying Pentagon denials for days.
All the bombs didn’t get dumped at sea. One day when the First Cav was getting the crap beat out of them up around Ah Khe in the monsoon season, three of us went up loaded with ten 250-pound bombs, really wild to get in because those guys were hurting bad. But the only open weather we could find was a pocket 15 miles wide continued on page 59
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and a few miles deep right over a pretty little seacoast town. Many towns like that now are just craters, hut this one hadn't been touched. After orbiting for a couple of hours we were ready to head back to the ship when the controller radioed, “Look, I’ve got a target for you.’’ And he dropped a marker on this nice little town of maybe 2,500 people.
Lou, the flight leader, asked, "Did anybody see that?” and we both said no. Nobody wanted to be the first to go in. We asked the FAC to mark the target again. Well, that was it. Lou went in first and those bombs just walked down the street, bouncing off the sides of the buildings. Don hit one end and I took the other. We knocked down maybe 25 buildings.
Well, they’re just buildings collapsing. An attack hardly ever lasts over a minute. You don't sit in reverie up there, wondering if there are people down there. There’d been a sweep through there a few weeks before: it was territory, as far as we knew, secure. But we weren’t psychic —we couldn’t tell where the VC were and only hoped the FAC did know.
‘‘I don’t think we can win”
I tried not to bomb the civilians. If I tried to get a bridge and the bomb went into a populated area instead, it was just an error in marksmanship: I would rather have hit that bridge. There was no way we could take the blame and still justify our part in the war. We all basically believed in the cause, that the U.S. was in this for the protection of free people.
It’s a compartmentalized sort of thing anyway. Just because a guy can go out and have a professional pride in killing people, just because that’s his job and he does it well, doesn't mean he goes home and beats his children. There's a parallel between what any military man would do and what the Nazis did. It’s just that they were good warriors, and any man who fights well in a war is like a Nazi.
When you’re wrapped up in it. in an atmosphere of the military, sure as hell you believe in it. Part of what’s changed my mind is the course the Vietnam war has taken since I got back home. I can’t offer an alternative. but I don’t think we can win.
Hell, that’s a civil war — I’ve come around to thinking that. When we started bombing, the North Vietnamese had 400 people in the South; now they've got how many battalions? I never thought much about it but I never bought the idea that they were the ones keeping the war going in the South. If the war was going badly down there, the small amount of supplies that got through our considerable harassment wouldn't have kept the Viet Cong going.
We're just in a mess and I feel the way most people feel—that we're in something we don’t want to be in and we’re losing people for practically nothing. And any way we can get out with any grace at all — but that's the hooker.
Sometimes I feel there’s no other way I'd rather have spent those five
years. The flight deck of a carrier is the most masculine place in the world. One of the really enjoyable times to me was going up there any night they weren’t operating. I'd walk up after dinner, with the ship pitching a bit and three or four destroyers around us, floating on the sunset water. For once it would be so quiet you could hear the water and the engine hum. and the footsteps of the guys on security watch. It's the old bit of a ship at sea.
Maybe l put too much emphasis on being a man. 1 thought I would come back from war a better man— instead. I came back a lesser one, harder. Your detense mechanism is so strong you don't let yourself get snowed under by emotional feelings like love for humanity. Your own humanity is so much less—you’ve closed off some of your feelings for people: you have to keep your sanity. Emotionally, you’re not willing to go as far — probably with girls, too. It
takes something out of you to go out day atter day killing like that. You kill one person and it’s easier to kill another; you have your cherry busted.
When I got back I felt different— older. The last couple of years in the navy showed on my face. I started taking greater pleasure in small things well done. Like a picnic, or a back scratch. My ambitions now are less.
It's kind of like a lost youth, maybe. When I came out of that I just wasn't young any more. ★