The Defining Generation
Jimmy Stanford & Vince Yrineo
early 1965 American military advisors to Vietnam, including Green Berets,
numbered some 23,000 men; though the United States was not yet officially
at war with the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong. The mission of the
American soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines was to advise and assist
the South Vietnamese forces in their efforts against the growing
On February 7, 1965, the
Viet Cong attacked the garrison at Pleiku, killing eight American
soldiers. In response President Lyndon Johnson ordered retaliatory bombing
attacks against North Vietnam by American Air Force bombers flying out of
bases in Thailand. The operation was labeled Rolling Thunder.
On March 8 the first U.S.
Marine combat troops arrived in South Vietnam. Their mission, too,
remained defensive at first. They were charged with protecting the
American air base at DaNang against the kind of attack that had killed
eight of their American comrades the previous month. By the end of March
two more Marine battalions were authorized for deployment, and were
subsequently secretly authorized to begin the first American offensive
Within the month the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered deployment of the Army's 173d Airborne Brigade, based in Okinawa, to South Vietnam. When the 3,500 "sky soldiers" arrived at Bien Hoa Air Base on May 3, 1965, they became the first major U.S. Army ground combat unit committed to the growing war. Paratroopers all, they were NOT the elite like the men who wore the Green Beret. They were however, among the finest of the Army's traditional combat units. Perhaps the only noticeable difference between that combat brigade and the airborne combat units of previous wars was the color of the Brigades' soldiers. For the first time in American history Black, White, Yellow, Red, and Brown soldiers fought together as one integrated unit.
There was nothing in the orders that sent the young Sky Soldiers of Company B, 2d Battalion, 503d Regiment of the 173d Airborne Brigade into the enemy-infested jungles near Phu Cong, Vietnam, on October 22, 1965, that alluded to either advisory or defensive roles. The mission of Lieutenant Jimmy Stanford's platoon, as well as the other platoons in the company, was "search and destroy"--find and kill.
Since the arrival of the Sky Soldiers in Vietnam six months earlier, more than 325 U.S. Army soldiers had been killed in action, many of them men of the 173d Airborne Brigade. Forty-one of those were Black American soldiers, comprising 12% of an ethnic minority that at home that represented an almost identical proportion of the American population.
Already on this day Lieutenant Stanford's platoon had suffered one casualty when Specialist Fourth Class George Luis of Pahoa, Hawaii, had been instantly killed by a bullet to the head. Luis was the third Asian-American soldier to sacrifice his life in the same period. (Casualty statistics from May to October 1965 also included two Native American Indians.) Vietnam had indeed become the proving ground for the concept of equal rights in service, as well as equal opportunity to sacrifice one's life in that same service.
Lieutenant Stanford was thankful for every man in his platoon, regardless of color. Each man provided additional fire power to accomplish the mission. Even so, Stanford was NOT without his own personal prejudices. "I was a real redneck," he admitted unabashedly to Don Terry during an interview for a 2002 story in the "Chicago Tribune." The 29-year-old officer had grown up in the segregated town of Lake Jackson, Texas, and told Terry he couldn't remember seeing Blacks (outside) after dark when he was growing up in the 1930s and 40s. "They stayed in their place, we stayed in ours," he continued.
The prejudice that Stanford struggled to overcome was the product, as is all prejudice, of experiences thrust upon him during the formative years of his youth by an older generation unwilling to face the winds of change. Stanford spoke in that interview of a friend, the child of a black woman who worked for his family when he had been only 6 or 7 years old. The two youths, too young yet to develop irrational racial prejudices, often played together and became friends. Friends that is, until one fateful day when Stanford's father saw the two of them together and chased the Black boy away while admonishing his son "to go play with his own kind." After that "I'd give them (Blacks) hell," he recalled. "It was just normal racial harassment, nothing serious, practical jokes, name-calling, kid stuff."
Lieutenant Stanford's own ingrained prejudice had not yet negatively impacted his relationship with his men. He had been transferred only a few days earlier to command Company C's 3d Platoon, so he was not well-known yet to the men who would follow him into battle. Furthermore, as a career soldier with more than a decade of Army service, and a man who had worked his way through the enlisted ranks to a commission as a Second Lieutenant, Stanford had learned NOT to allow his personal prejudices to negatively influence his job performance.
For Lieutenant Stanford, this ability to ignore personal prejudice for the sake of the mission was fortunate. Two of his subordinate squad leaders in 3d platoon were black, as were several of the men who served in all of the squads. His senior NCO, Platoon Sergeant Vince Yrineo, was Mexican-American; so was one of the squad leaders.
Thirty-six year old Platoon Sergeant Yrineo understood racial prejudice first-hand, though not against himself. His first insight into the injustice of judging fellow Americans based upon the color of their skin occurred early in 1942 when President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. That action ultimately resulted in uprooting more than 110,000 Americans from their homes and placing them behind the guarded barbed wire of "relocation camps", all because of the color of their skin. American men, women, and children were subjected to this unwarranted exclusion from American society which was, despite more innocuous terms nothing short of imprisonment, for having as little as one-sixth Japanese ancestry.
Twelve-year-old Yrineo's family had moved from Tuscon, Arizona, shortly after war broke out in order to be near a brother who was in military service and stationed in California. In his home in Los Angeles Vince's best friend was a Japanese-American boy his own age. Murio, as he vaguely recalls his friend's name 55 years later, was a regular visitor to the Yrineo household. There was no racial prejudice in the Yrineo household, no admonitions to "play with his own kind" as Stanford had been told in his youth. For young Vince Yrineo, Murio was more like a brother than a neighbor. When his best friend and his family were uprooted and sent away to a "relocation camp" because of the color of their skin, Vince was both crushed and angry. "That was completely out of line," he says.
Though four of his older brothers served in World War II, by the time Vince was old enough to join the military the war was over. Vince joined the Navy and, though he never experienced any racial prejudice against himself for his own Hispanic-American heritage, the injustice directed against Black Americans was obvious. "I served on a small ship," he recalled, and besides me there was only one other Mexican in the crew. We never had any problems."
"Did you witness any prejudice against Black Americans?" I asked in a recent phone interview.
"No," he replied. "We never saw any Blacks. If there were any in the crew, they were down in the galley as cooks."
Vince returned to civilian life after a brief stint in the Navy, and then joined the Army to become a career soldier. He went to jump school and was serving with the 11th Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when President Harry Truman desegregated the U.S. Army. "There was a line of barracks nearby that housed 400 Black Airborne soldiers in one company," he recalled. "The day they were to join our ranks, they moved across the street and into our barracks, and there was not a single problem."
Over the next decade Yrineo continued to serve during the period in which the military changed rapidly from one of America's most segregated sub-cultures into what may have been our country's first truly integrated institution. He believes that the Korean War, during which he served in non-combat assignments, set the stage for the expanding opportunities for Black soldiers. He doesn't recall witnessing any overt prejudicial acts against his comrades in military service during the period.
As a Platoon Sergeant, Yrineo finally saw combat duty when the 173d Airborne Brigade was deployed to Vietnam in 1965. In mid-October he also witnessed one of his first major evidences of lingering racial prejudices when Lieutenant Jimmy Stanford transferred in as his Platoon Leader. "He was a real REDNECK," Yrineo recalls from first meeting his new commander. While preparing to brief his squad leaders for a mission planned for October 22, Lieutenant Stanford told Sergeant Yrineo to "go get those niggers."
"My platoon had two black squad leaders, one white, and one Mexican. I told Stanford, 'I don't have any niggers in my platoon!'," Vince recently recalled. "I simply wasn't going to take that shit from some redneck shavetail, and I wanted him to know right away where I stood."
On October 22, 1965,
helicopters inserted Stanford's 3d platoon, along with other platoons of
the "Bravo Bulls" (Company B) into a clearing in the jungle near
Phu Cong at the southern edge of the Iron Triangle. The platoon moved out
quickly, advancing into the jungle to hack their way through dense foliage
to seek out the enemy. More often than not, the enemy found the Bravo
Bulls first, and their arduous incursion into the Viet Cong lair was
peppered with sporadic sniper fire and occasional brief engagements. Early
in the day an enemy round struck one of Stanford's soldiers, Private
First Class George Luis of Hawaii, in the head killing him instantly.
Despite the loss of a comrade and the challenge before them, Stanford's
men continued to seek out the enemy.
in the afternoon an enemy force hidden behind the heavy undergrowth
temporarily pinned down lead elements of the company with heavy fire.
Following initial contact however, as they had throughout a day of
multiple skirmishes, the enemy retreated. Stanford, Yrineo, and their
young soldiers immediately and aggressively pursued. Three soldiers, two
Black and one white, were grouped around Lieutenant Stanford and Platoon
Sergeant Yrineo as the "Sky Soldiers" hacked their way through
"wait-a-minute" vines and thick vegetation to reach a small,
burned out clearing. There, as enemy bullets impacted the ground around
them, the five men hit the dirt in a tight perimeter, seeking shelter
behind some burned out tree stumps.
a hail of incomming bullets, in a hearbreaking moment the ever-present
potential for sudden death became ominously more real. With a dull thud
that might go unnoticed in any other environment, but which was quickly
recognizable and unmistakable to a soldier in a combat zone, an enemy
grenade landed in the midst of the five men of third platoon.
didn't even see where it was coming from," recalled Private
John "Hop" Foster, a 19-year old Black kid from Pittsburgh, in a
2002 interview for the "Chicago Tribune." "Either they (the
Viet Cong) opened up the ground and threw it up or they were in the trees
and tossed it down."
closely bunched together were the five men, ALL of them faced probable
death from the explosion that would occur within seconds. "It was
about a foot from my face," recalled Lieutenant Stanford, who also
remembered a shouted warning from one of his men, a Black kid the men of
the platoon often called Skipper. "Suddenly out comes this black hand
and grabs it!" he continued.
came the explosion, not the sharp thunder of detonating explosives that
would throw thousands of deadly white-hot shards of steel into the bodies
of five under-fire soldiers. Rather, it was a muffled sound as a single
body absorbed the blast and shrapnel, because the man behind the hand
Lieutenant Stanford had just seen hugged the deadly orb to his chest and
fell on top of it.
pieces of hot metal struck Private Lionel Hubbard, a Black soldier from
Brownfield, Texas, who recalled for Don Terry nearly 40 years later,
"If it wasn't for Milton, I know I wouldn't be here talking to you
right now." Hop Foster had been wounded moments before the
grenade exploded when a bullet glanced off his steel helmet, and
additional fragments from the grenade struck both Lieutenant Stanford and
Platoon Sergeant Yrineo. Still, all four men, despite their wounds,
survived and were subsequently evacuated, thanks to a young Black man from
was the most incredible display of selfless bravery I ever
witnessed," Jimmy Standford said later. Vince Yrineo who, as a
Platoon Sergeant lost far more young soldiers during his service in
Vietnam than he cared to remember, still remembers each of them. But the
young man who died that day to save Yrineo's life holds a special place in
those memories. For decades he kept the battered and sheared dog tag of
the man who saved his life, only recently sending it to Skipper's
and I went on to become very good friends," Yrineo recently told me.
He changed drastically after that day." In fact, after serving a
second tour in Vietnam as a Green Beret, Stanford finished his career with
a 4-year assignment in the Army's Office of Race Relations and Equal
Of that day and the 18-year-old Paratrooper from Chicago who saved the lives of four comrades, Stanford said, "A day doesn't go by that I don't that about him. Milton Olive changed me. I made a vow never to forget him."
 Because Hispanic soldiers were identified as Caucasian in the casualty records, it is difficult to break out the number of casualties suffered in the same period by that ethnic minority that contributed in equal measure in Vietnam.
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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