Category Archives: Vietnam War

If it’s Veterans Day, “Don’t Thank me for my service”


Basic Training Graduation Photo: Ft. Bliss Texas  Drill Sgt’s Annus (on left) Drill Sgt Semko (on right)   You never forget the names of your Basic Training NCO’s.

I joined the Army in 1969.  The Army has a battery of tests to figure out how to best use a new recruit.   One of the questions was “Which would you rather do? Go to the Opera? OR Go camp out in Yellowstone National Park?

42nd Infantry Platoon Scout Dog

Of course, I answered the Campout!!  “Yep.., He’s infantry material.“    I finished at the top of my class in Basic Training. And  the Top 2 % Army Wide in Infantry training. I took Basic at Ft. Bliss –went to Infantry School at Ft. Lewis and Scout Dog Handler  training at Ft. Benning. I landed in the 101st Airborne Division (I Corps) Vietnam 70-71. Vietnam was a defining experience for those of us who went, I”m glad I did. Combat Infantry.  At the Tip of the Spear. It does not get any better.

My unit was the 42nd Infantry Platoon Scout Dog / 101St Airborne Division)

Location: Camp Eagle. Just got in from the field.
Cleaning my M-16–the day before a mission. I changed to a CAR-15 (with telescoping stock). The CAR-15 was much smaller -(they cut the barrel length and chopped 3 inches off the Stock.) It was a much more manageable weapon in the heavy thick jungle terrain of I Corps.

I was an Infantry Scout Dog Handler.

Scout Dog Teams walked “Point‘ on Infantry jungle patrols. The “mission” of the Scout Dog team is to provide “Early Silent Warning” of booby traps, ambush, cache’s of weapons, and evidence of enemy activity. The “Point” Man and his Scout Dog, (worked off leash) followed closely by the “slack” man. The “slack” position is filled by an experienced soldier to “backup” the “Point” team. NO CHERRIES! –My unit only had 3 CAR-15‘s (CAR-15 with shorter/telescoping stock ). CAR-15’s were issued to the 3 senior field opns soldiers in my unit. I didn’t get a CAR-15 until sometime in early spring of 71. — Photo above with M-16. I carried 23 magazines…. 2 (7) magazine OD green cotton cloth bandoliers across my chest. 2 Magazines on the weapon itself. (Taped in Reverse for rapid reload) 4 in a Pistol belt pouch on my right side — and 3 in an outer pouch of my Rucksack.– Carrying grenades was optional. My first few months in the field I carried 4 — I loosened the pin — which was hard as hell to first-time pull –– but I taped the spoon down so I had to remove the tape first. You only get one chance with a grenade. Improper pin removal, stance or throwing method could be fatal.— The Jungle is thick and lots of stuff grabs onto you. I didn’t want to chance any detonation with the M-26. I eventually dropped to carrying 2 grenades. I always started a mission with 18 quarts of water. That’s 2 lbs per quart =36 lbs of water alone Dogs dehydrate way faster than a Man. A Dog Handler couldn’t be sure his mission would be near the bountiful jungle streams. I always max- loaded water as if we would not be near a natural water source. In our AO (area of operation) there were many streams that fed the rivers., The Song Bo River out near the Ashau Valley was magnificent.

“Fuck-that! I’m not superstitious!” 1st Bde LZ @ Camp Eagle. OUT Bound.

My  Scout Dog “Argo” his head over my leg as we lift off. Argo, loved watching the jungle below when we were flying on a mission, often at tree-top level. Sometimes his saliva would blow back onto the Door Gunner! ! They would always laugh! This was sometime in late 1970. My platoon Sgt. took me and Argo up to the LZ in a jeep. No one in my unit had their picture taken departing on a mission in over a year– according to unit lore.The last team to do so got hit on the mission. So there was this mystical belief about it. No one wanted to be photographed flying out-bound on a mission. After a few months I said, “fuck-that”, I’m not superstitious. If I get hit, having my photo taken won’t be the reason.  We “Argo” and I walked “Point”  in the Jungle.  I live today because of that small ( 58 lb. Shepard) Best pure “Combat Dog” ever. ( Ok– I confess to hypocrisy. I always wore my lucky headband in the bush. Either around my neck or on my head under my “boonie” hat.–

  My decorations: Among the most coveted awards in the US Army


     Combat Infantry Badge


No Ceremony. No handshake. The Presidential Combat Medal. The Bronze Star.

Bronze Star 2
42nd photo
mew taking photo in VN

Most GI’s in Vietnam got a 5-7 day leave for “Rest and Recreation”. Your choices were Thailand for debauchery, Hong Kong, Australia and Honolulu.  OR worst case. China Beach, an “In-Country” R&R.

I discovered photography in Vietnam and badly wanted a 35mm camera.  I could buy the 35 mm camera– but then I couldn’t afford an out of country R&R.  So I bought the camera and went to China Beach near DaNang. We surfed all day then got wasted every night listening to a Vietnamese Rock Band play American songs.  They were awful musicians.  We didn’t care!

China Beach is now a “hip” tourist destination.

Back in the World! After processing all night long at Ft. Lewis, Washington- we were released in brand new uniforms and officially out of the Army. The date was 2 July 1971. As we were getting on the Bus, I shouted, “Wait, we need a picture!” — The bus driver took my camera and then others and shot the group photo above. — Then he drove us to SeaTac International Airport– and off to civilian life we went! ( 11 days later I would be in summer school at the University of Texas at Austin )


 Ft. Campbell Gander Memorial Service: Some 14 years later in 1985, I was working on a political story on Capitol Hill.  The news desk editor called and told me that members of my former division had been in an airplane crash in Gander, Newfoundland. He asked if I wanted to go to Ft. Campbell for the Memorial service. (As if there was any question?? Of course!) He said, “yes we figured you would want to go”. The soldiers, most of them from the 101st Airborne Division’s 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, crashed shortly after taking off from a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. All 248 soldiers and the plane’s eight crew members were killed.


The Memorial Service was on Dec. 15/16 1985. It was bitter cold that day. In the 20’s with 9-10 mph winds. (I looked it up!) The division was formed on the parade field for hours. And we in the press stayed in the stands for hours. Above: A 105mm howitzer was fired every 5 minutes, marking the loss of one soldier

101 Eagle

Steeped in history, it is an honor to have been a  “Screaming Eagle”  of the  101st Airborne Division.

1995 Doc SHOOT copy

Above: Professionally  I returned to Vietnam in 1995.  We shot a documentary at the 20-year point of the war’s end.  It was an amazing trip. We traveled the entire country. Photo. Above: –POW/MIA recovery dig near Haiphong in the north

Above: Mike Whatley left, Vietnamese government official and interpreter in Center with Retired North Vietnamese Infantry Colonel Nguen Quoc Khan. He was a big deal. How I got to talk with him still boggles my mind. We stayed in his hotel in Hue. Retired at the time of photo–He was dressed in uniform for a military parade that morning, that was held in honor of General Võ Nguyên Giáp.

One of the most important photos I’ve ever taken.

I shot this photo of General Vo Nguyen Giap in Hue, on March 24, 1995.  It was pouring rain and he was under a reviewing stand roof. I was in the rain and I could not believe my good fortune. Security allowed me within about 20 feet of the General. Many historians regard Giap as one of the greatest military strategists of the 20th century. I knew that as I pressed the shutter. I had read Bernard Fall’s “Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu” in college. And this elderly soldier, in full uniform on the platform that rainy day was the Commander that defeated the French in 1954. He was a hugely important military figure in the lives of all of us who went to Vietnam. (I shot the photo in a downpour with my small point n shoot film camera and then I prayed the image would come out. — Image above is cropped.)


Above: The statue of now  Senator John S. McCain, where he was captured as his parachute dropped him in Trúc Bạch Lake in Hanoi. It was a pretty heavy moment to stand before this statue. I think of it often now as he lays dying of brain cancer in Arizona.

McCain was taken prisoner of war on October 26, 1967. I was a Senior in high school. He was flying his 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam when his A-4E Skyhawk was shot down by a missile over Hanoi. He would remain in prison for 6 years. I graduated High School in 1968, joined the Army in 1969, went to Vietnam 70-71 and was discharged and back in college— And all of that time John McCain (tortured and beaten many times) remained in prison until 1973. Take a couple of minutes to think about that. What a sacrifice.

Above: The young men in this photo were in their 20’s in 1995. Even then their posture, expressions and confidence showed.  I wish I could interview them now.

Vietname Wall 1995
Mike Whatley at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Wash DC with photo shown below given to me by Colonel Nguyen Quoc Khan.

ABOVE: 1986 Photo of Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp and Infantry Colonel Nguyen Quoc Khan. The day we left Hue in 1995, Colonel Khan gave me the photo above with an inscription on the back.


The series  “20 Years since the Fall” won 2 Regional Emmy’s.

VDHA Sticker

Vietnam Dog Handler Association Decal

ln 1995 Jan Scruggs (President of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund) hosted a luncheon in Rosslyn, Va.– It was held in the Key Bridge Marriott on the top floor. The view is fantastic, overlooking the Potomac toward the “Wall”. Those of us fortunate enough to attend were given this commemorative knife. In many ways to me– it represents the final act of the Vietnam War.

A War story….


You are 20 years old, Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, seated in the open door of a Huey helicopter launched on aCA (Combat Assault by Air)— There are five other Soldiers seated on the floor of the ship with you. Helmeted/Sun Visored Door gunners man M-60 machine gun’s on the left and right rear of the cabin.  There are five other Huey’s to put your platoon into the bush. You are on the third aircraft as they fly in a line. Your Mission:  Go Kill the enemy in the Jungle of Vietnam near the Ashau Valley. Flight time about 15 minutes.The beauty of the Jungle stretches to the horizon. A hot wind blows in your face as the ship flies at 100 knots skimming the treetops.


F-4 Phantom

Looking out forward you seeF-4′(FighterBombers) pounding the hill you are going to land on in about 2 minutes.  There may be Dinks( the term US GI’s used ) on that hill., There may not be.  

That last 2 minutes in the air, is the definition of anxiety.  As the Helicopter approaches the hilltop to land  the pilot flares the ship ( to “flare” a Helicopter the pilot puts the nose of the chopper up and reduces speed quickly and gently brings the descending aircraft to a hover at anywhere from  2-8 feet above the ground in the ideal.)

I always preferred to be first off the ship from about 4-6 feet.  Remember the infantry soldiers are carrying rucksacks on their back weighing anywhere from 30-50 pounds. This does not include weapons and ammo.   And it is during that final approach, the flaring of the aircraft, that’s when you learn all pilots are not equal.  There may be smoke or even fire on the LZ ( the Landing Zone), maybe a couple of Cobras on-station (Helicopter Gun Ships) —-The Door Gunners on your ship, swivel their weapons, watching the LZ closely as the descent begins.  If you have an experienced combat pilot he’s going to come in fast, flare and drop you from 4-6 feet off the ground.  He did his part (getting you in fast and close to the ground ) — Now you (Grunts) do your part — Get the Fuck out of the ship! –—  (Where is the rest of the unit? In the near tree line? In that clump of elephant grass ? Were you paying attention to the ground as you came in? Did you see how the first 2 Choppers went in?).  Again I prefer to be in the open door if not on the skid as my launch point to disembark. Get a Nod from the crew chief if you want to stand on the skid during approach. In the open door, you will be able to gauge how the  Pilot brings the ship in and leap to the ground — (There is an art to this, too long to go into here– ) It is at this moment when you jump to the ground that is an inexplicable high!! …..Once hitting the ground, the roar of the ship is deafening as the rest of the team exits the Chopper.   There is now a partial sense of relief...” Well, I’m on the ground and no one is shooting at me yet”. As you run to join the rest of the platoon, the tremendous aircraft engine noise fades away as the last ship in departs the LZ.  Suddenly it’s very quiet. Listen! If there is No small arms fire that is a good sign!!…… the Pink Team or an O-2 may still be on-station, but your immediate environment is now quieter and easier to interpret. One key to staying alive in the jungle is noise discipline. Don’t make unnecessary noise! Communicate by whisper or hand signal. Once the platoon Sergeant has the unit organized, we move out   Going who knows where…. In my experience, the majority of CA’s were not met with enemy resistance. Thankfully!  Yet that last 2 minutes on the ship and the first couple of minutes on the ground are the most fun, exciting, gut-wrenching and stimulating time of your short life.   Professionally I was a Network level TV  News cameraman for 20 years. —– but nothing in my life experience, ever matched the RUSH of going in on a Helicopter CA in a Slick as a member of an Infantry unit.  Believe it or not…. it could be addictive!

Air Medal

Many in the infantry received the Blue and Orange ribbon “Air” Medal awarded for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.”.     I remember when my Platoon Sgt. handed me my orders as a recipient of the Air Medal. No Ceremony. No Handshake. Just “here you go“.  When I look at my framed Air Medal hanging on a wall in my home, it is that last 2 minutes Inbound on the chopper that comes back to me.  The whap-whap-whap of the Huey, the hot air in my face, the sound of the fighter-bombers, the stomach in knots, and the leap to the ground….

I remember it all, even now as an old man…..

Mike Whatley / 42nd IPSD / 101ST Abn / I Corps / 70-71

Charlottesville, Va.      July 2017

Where is Vietnam?

I was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. The Division Area of Operation or AO was designated as I Corps. 4 Maps below to get you there. Why the maps? Because Geography matters.  Climate and geography LINK HERE

Map 1. shows where Vietnam is on the Global Map.

World Vietnam

 Map 2:  The Shortest flight path from the USA to Vietnam is 8,584 miles

USAVN Flight
Vietnam Regional

Map 3: depicts the region of South East Asia at large and the arrow point to the specific part of Vietnam my unit worked in.


Map 4 Depicting the area the 101st Airborne was assigned to. The important features are the Firebases in the center (Birmingham, Veghel, and Bastogne) and of course the famous Ashau Valley where the Division saw significant combat.  (During my time in Vietnam–70-71 I never went into the Ashau on a mission.)