Vietnam War veteran Michael Heaney of Hartland (second from left), stands with Vietnamese veterans who fought in the Vietnam War, during a trip to the country in 2008 to connect with the nation’s veterans. The man at far left is the head of the veterans organization VNVets. The two other veterans, to the right, were part of the Main Force Battalion that ambushed Heaney’s company in the war. (Photo Provided by Michael Heaney)
By Curt Peterson, Standard Correspondent
HARTLAND – Michael Heaney, retired attorney and professor of history at the University of Hartford (CT), was leading a study at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Dartmouth when he heard one of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ associates say Burns was planning a film about the Vietnam War.
Heaney, now 74 and living in Hartland, fought in that war – his experiences have been written about and he’s been interviewed on the radio – not because he is a hero, but because he learned something when he returned to Vietnam that he feels he compelled to share.
Familiar with Burns’ productions, Heaney thought the film would be an effective way to tell his story.
He grew up in a small town in New Jersey. His father, who flew bombing missions over what is now Bangladesh during World War II, inspired his interest in the military. Heaney studied at Middlebury College in Vermont where he was required to participate in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program during his first two years, and he continued for two more years voluntarily.
Heaney graduated in 1964 – the Vietnam War wasn’t on America’s horizon. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all had maintained a few thousand “military advisors” in Vietnam, but Americans were generally unaware a major military conflict was imminent. Heaney trained as an infantry Ranger, learning everything from land navigation to parachuting from an airplane to basic explosives.
“From an endurance point of view,” he says, “Ranger School was a lot harder than actual combat.”
Heaney volunteered to go to Vietnam – President Johnson had assumed authority to send troops in as a result of an incident on the Gulf of Tonkin – one harmless attack on a U.S. destroyer and a fabricated second attack, in August 1965.
Heaney’s request was quickly granted. He became platoon leader in an airborne brigade – his men would be helicoptered to an area suspected to hold enemy soldiers and sent out to find and engage with them.
“Basically, we were sent out as bait,” Heaney says.
A platoon’s goal, according to Heaney, was to locate the enemy, then plan the best time and place to engage them.
Heaney’s platoon had what he calls, “a lot of firepower” – M-16 automatic weapons that could fire 20 rounds in under 2 seconds, M-40 grenade launchers with accuracy up to 50 yards. Each platoon has a machine gun.
“We had throwing grenades as well – smoke signal grenades to identify our location for rescue, fragment grenades, and white phosphorous grenades that would set things – and people – on fire when they went off,” Heaney says. “It was a really nasty weapon – probably against the Geneva Convention rules – but we didn’t worry about stuff like that.”
No matter U.S. troops were better armed – the North Vietnamese persisted and were often victorious.
On May 16, 1966, 120 men, including Heaney’s platoon, were dropped near a ridge. They had intelligence there might be a few enemy soldiers. They were moving under a tight, low canopy when the front man spotted an enemy soldier in the trail ahead and shot at him. He yelled what he had seen and was immediately shot. All hell broke loose as an intended ambush by 300 enemy soldiers erupted into a fierce firefight.
In a few minutes Heaney was the only man of ten still standing. He was hit in his calf by a piece of shrapnel from a grenade. Bleeding profusely, he crawled back to get medical help. The troops were under siege for 20 hours – food, water and medical supplies were running out.
“My war was over,” Heaney says.
For forty-three years this experience haunted him. Who were these people he had been trying to kill and vice versa? What kind of place was Vietnam when not a battleground?
What was the carnage all about? Why was I spared while everyone around me was struck down dead?
Heaney returned to Vietnam in 2008 to find the answers. Members of the Vietnamese Veterans’ Association took him to the site of the battle that began with an accidental sighting and an unauthorized rifle discharge, mistakes that inadvertently saved Heaney and the other survivors.
Heaney honored his dead comrades by burying a First Cavalry insignia on the ridge. He prayed for both the U.S. and North Vietnamese dead.
“A Vietnamese legend says the spirits of forgotten soldiers wander, screaming in the forests at night. My companions said I had freed them,” he says. “Then we went down the hill and had lunch. They were so good to me, these men I had tried to kill and who had tried to kill me.”
He came to understand the answers to his questions.
“I don’t think God pulls strings to make everything happen the way it does. But I do think He spared me on that ridge so I could tell my story because it has important meaning,” he says.
As documents are declassified, it’s clear that Presidents Truman through Nixon, and Ford, lied to the American people about Vietnam. Heaney thinks Burns wants his film to force us to have a Vietnam conversation we need to have. In the film, he gets to tell of the horrors of the war and, later, about his awakening when he revisited Vietnam.
“The war was horrendous, divisive, and killed an enormous number on both sides,” Heaney says. “And war is very expensive. Ken Burns’s film tries to present all sides of it – he knows it will bring attacks from both the left and the right.”
“War is never the answer,” he adds, “and we never learn from our mistakes. Nixon had an unwritten agreement with Ho Chi Minh in 1973 outside the peace treaty. We would provide funds to reconstruct their country in exchange for their helping us find our Missing In Action soldiers.”
Nixon was gone before the reconstruction was funded, he reneged on his promise to bring it up to Congress, and when Ho Chi Minh mentioned the agreement no one believed him.
“We had destroyed much of their country,” Heaney says. “We killed over 2 million of their people. We poisoned many more with Agent Orange. We have to face that and learn from it.”
PBS will begin airing Burns’ Vietnam documentary in nightly segments starting Sept. 17.
This article first appeared in the August 3, 2017 edition of the Vermont Standard.