Fifty years later, a wartime killing haunts the survivor

It was Dec. 22, 1967. Christmas rapidly approached, as Private First Class Calvin Touchstone and a planeload of Army recruits sped westward, the holidays were a time of apprehension.

Leaving the States for a foreign country right before Christmas is depressing enough. Arriving before Christmas in a war zone is a whole other affair. Upon their arrival in Saigon, the army wasted no time to allow the malady of homesickness to sit in, and within two hours they were loaded into a caravan of vehicles for the trek to their new “home,” in the hamlet of Cu Chi 35 miles northwest.

Upon their arrival, they witnessed a ”Huey” helicopter land, its interior lined with what they immediately recognized as OD Green for “body bags,“ heavy-duty rubberized fabric pouches for the storage and transportation of servicemen killed in action. The reality of war hit home.

Cu Chi served as the base camp for the the 25th Infantry Division “Tropic Lightning.” As such, it housed some 25,000 troops, including the  three-quarter (3/4) Cavalry Squadron to which Touchstone had been assigned. Modern cavalry units trace their lineage back to the troops who fought the Indians in the American West, updated to include tanks and tracked vehicles, along with an assortment of helicopters.

Cu Chi stood at the bottom of the “Iron Triangle,” an enemy stronghold used to launch strikes against Saigon and elsewhere. Most tellingly, a few feet below were a complex maze of interconnecting tunnels that the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong (PAVN/VC) utilized as a refuge from the bombardment of the Air Force, while they plotted the campaign against the American invaders.

Settling in for a two-front war

“…disproportionate Black combat death rates. Article 15’s, racist promotion criteria and rumbles between Black and White soldiers, was the sometimes bitter fruit of the military’s attempts to integrate itself.”

—from “A White Man’s War: Race Issues and Vietnam,” Vietnam Generation,” by William M. King, 1989 for La Salle University.

Race relations at Cu Chi mirrored those back in the states, albeit with a twist. Soldiers of color could experience unduly harsh punishment for minor infractions, be overlooked for awards and decorations, and little or no advancement in terms of promotions.

During basic training Touchstone had been lucky enough to train under a Caucasian sergeant, a southerner at that, who was equitable in his treatment of new recruits. Upon his arrival in “The ‘Nam,” his luck held through with a White Troop commander who was equitable in his treatment of those under him.

“My Captain (named Sturboise) was not in any way prejudiced. I was happy to have been assigned to his command.”

This was the exception rather than the rule, as he notes “…the rest of them, with maybe the exception of one or two, were rednecks as far as I was concerned.”

One figure stood out. The lone Black officer within the squadron known as “Captain Midnight.”

Imposing at 6 feet, 2 inches, James Barrington Westbrook earned this nickname (in a non-derogatory way) due to his dark complexion. As befitting a responsible commander of Bravo Troop, he saw that everyone was treated fairly and promoted regardless of race.

All of his subordinates were not pleased with this Howard University graduate and member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, however. The Cadre of racist sentiments usually had roots within the Midwest and Southern United States. Whites who had no such basis would tell their compatriots of color about snide remarks concerning this officer who dared to attempt to level the playing field.

Touchstone’s “office“ was an enlarged armored personnel carrier (APC), a super-sized variant of the M113 tracked vehicles that saturated the conflict. Properly called the M577, it stood nine feet tall, and resembled an armored porcupine with antennas protruding in all directions to ensure communications within line units on the battlefield. As a radio teletype operator, Touchstone and his colleagues were stocked with a supply of white phosphorus incendiary grenades to ensure that it’s contents would be burnt to a crisp before falling into enemy hands.

Given their mission, the M577 was an attractive target for their opponents.

“They (the M577s) would have been a likely target. We were lucky to never get fired on by RPG’s (Rocket Propelled Grenades) because we were usually in the middle of the formation.”

A turning point

“I must confess, the VC (Viet Cong) surprised us with their attack. It was surprisingly well coordinated, surprisingly impressive and launched with a surprising amount of audacity.”

—John Chasson, US brigadier general on the Tet Offensive, February 1968.

 Jan. 30 started off normally enough. The 2nd Infantry Battalion “Wolfhounds” engaged guerrillas in a fire fight just outside the wire, and 3/4 Cavalry’s C Troop was called up to support them. Just outside the main gate they too were attacked, but were able to beat down the numerically weaker force. This was, however, just part of a coordinated series of attacks all over the country by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Now known as the Tet Offensive (so named for the Lunar New Year or “Tet” which begins in January or February, and signifies the arrival of spring), it proved to be a turning point in the war.

Looking back, armchair generals consider this a military victory, but a political defeat.

“We lost a few people, (but) they lost a bunch of people,” Touchstone says.

Overwhelming casualties aside, this offensive, lasting into September, demoralized the American public and demonstrated the PAVN/VC could and would mount an offensive regardless of the cost in manpower.

Mounting tensions and a double tragedy

From his vantage point in the commo track, Touchstone was privy to information available only to his commander and above. And so it was, on April 4, as the Tet Offensive raged, the news came over the airways that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot to death. Cpt. Sturboise immediately told Touchstone to keep the tragedy under wraps.

“He didn’t want the information to get out before he could address the entire unit,” Touchstone recalls. “He was worried about racial unrest.”

Several officers, including squadron commander Lieutenant Colonel Glenn K. Otis called their men together to acknowledge the recent tragedy, but stressed that they were in a war zone, and that anyone making disparaging remarks about King would be dealt with.

By Aug. 25, the PAVN/VC were embroiled in another wave of attacks as elements of the 3/4 Cavalry were out searching for the enemy near a French Rubber Plantation at Filhol. Westbrook reportedly dismounted from his track to personally direct his men. At some point he was hit by gunfire.

Meanwhile, Touchstone was in his own track monitoring the progress when news of the Captain’s death came over the teletype. The commo officer repeated the instructions relayed after the King murder.

Later in the day he encountered soldiers from Bravo troop who told him Westbrook had been killed. Still later, rumors circulated that he’d been executed by friendly fire.

From his own troops.

“Them White boys killed him,” the rumors spread. “They shot him in the back. Twice.”

Eventually an assembly similar to that held in the wake of the King assassination was held, as the top brass announced Westbrook’s passing, then reiterated warnings of repercussions to anyone voicing disrespect to the fallen officer.

For the rest of Touchstone’s tour, the atmosphere remained tense-but didn’t get any worse. No inquiries or investigations were ever made. A search of Westbrook’s name on Vietnam related websites lists him as “Killed in Action by Small Arms Fire.”

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