John Paul Vann

John Paul Vann

John Paul Vann (July 2, 1924June 9, 1972) was a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army, later retired, who became well-known for his role in the Vietnam War.

Early life

Vann was illegitimately born as John Paul Tripp in Norfolk, Virginia to John Spry and Myrtle Lee Tripp, a part-time prostitute and alcoholic (who was murdered late in her son's life). Vann's mother married Aaron Frank Vann about 1929, and Vann took his stepfather's surname. In 1942, Aaron Vann officially adopted John. He grew up in near-poverty. Through the patronage of a wealthy member of his church, he was able to attend boarding school at Ferrum College. He graduated from its high school in 1941, and from its junior college program in 1943. ["A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam", by Neil Sheehan, New York 1989, Random House.] . With the onset of World War II, Vann sought to become a pilot.

Military service

In 1943, at the age of 18, he managed to enlist in the Army Air Corps. Vann underwent pilot training, then transferred to navigation school, and graduated as a second lieutenant in 1945. The war ended before he could see action, however. He married Mary Jane Allen of Rochester, New York in October of that year; ["A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam", by Neil Sheehan, New York 1988, Random House.] . They would go on to have five children together.

When the Air Corps was divided from the Army in 1947 to form the separate Air Force, Vann chose to remain in the Army and transferred to the infantry. He was assigned to Korea, and then Japan, as a logistics officer. When the Korean War began in June 1950, Vann coordinated the transportation of his 25th Infantry Division to Korea. Vann joined his unit, which was placed on the critical Pusan Perimeter until the amphibious Inchon landing relieved the beleaguered forces. In late 1950, in the wake of China's entrance into the war and the retreat of allied forces, now-Captain Vann was given his first command, a Ranger company. He led the unit on reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines for three months, before a serious illness in one of his children resulted in his transfer back to the US. He completed his undergraduate degree at Rutgers University, specializing in economics, mathematics, and statistics. ["A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam", by Neil Sheehan, New York 1988, Random House.]

In 1954 Vann joined the 16th Infantry Regiment in Schweinfurt, Germany, becoming the head of the regiment's Heavy Mortar Company. In 1955 he was promoted to Major (United States) and transferred to Headquarters US Army Europe at Heidelberg where he returned to logistics work. In 1957 Vann returned to the US to attend the Command and General Staff College, a requirement for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, and in 1961 Vann was promoted. He earned his Masters of Business Administration degree from Syracuse University. He also worked at Syracuse toward his doctorate in Public Administration. ["A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam", by Neil Sheehan, New York 1988, Random House.]

Vietnam war service

Vann was assigned to South Vietnam in 1962 as an advisor to Col. Huynh Van Cao, commander of the ARVN 7th Division. In the thick of the anti-guerrilla war against the Viet Cong, Vann became cognizant of the ineptness with which the war was being prosecuted, in particular the disastrous Battle of Ap Bac, Jan. 2, 1963. Vann, directing the battle from a spotter plane overhead, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery in taking enemy fire. He attempted to draw public attention to the problems, through press contacts such as New York Times reporter David Halberstam, focusing much of his ire on the US commander in the country, MACV chief Gen. Paul D. Harkins. Vann was forced from his advisor position in March 1963 and left the Army within a few months.

Civilian career

Vann accepted a job in Denver with defence contractor Martin Marrietta, and succeeded there in a term of nearly two years, but missed Vietnam, and angled to return. ["A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam", by Neil Sheehan, New York 1988, Random House.] Vann returned to Vietnam in March 1965 as an official of the Agency for International Development (AID). After an assignment as province senior adviser, Vann was made Deputy for CORDS in the Third Corps Tactical Zone of Vietnam, which consisted of the twelve provinces north and west of Saigon— the most important part of South Vietnam. CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) was an integrated group that consisted of USAID, U.S. Information Service, CIA, and State Department along with U.S. Army personnel to provide needed manpower. Among other undertakings, CORDS was responsible for the Phoenix program, which involved neutralization of the Viet Cong infrastructure.

Vann served as Deputy for Civil Operations and Rural Development Support CORDS III (i.e., commander of all civilian and military advisers in the Third Corps Tactical Zone) until November of 1968 when he was assigned to the same position in Four Corps, which consisted of the provinces south of Saigon in the Mekong Delta.

Vann was highly respected by a large segment of officers and civilians who were involved in the broader political aspects of the war because he favored small unit, aggressive patrolling over grandiose, large unit engagements. He was respectful of the Vietnam soldiers notwithstanding their frequent lackluster performance and he was committed to training and strengthening the morale and commitment of the Vietnamese troops. He encouraged his personnel to engage themselves in Vietnamese society as much as possible, and he constantly briefed that the Vietnam war must be envisaged as a long war at a lower level of engagement rather than a short war at a big-unit, high level of engagement.

On one of his trips back to the U.S. in December 1967, Vann was asked by Eugene Rostow, an advocate of more troops and senior Johnson administration official, whether the U.S. would be over the worst of the war in six months: "Oh hell no, Mr. Rostow," replied Vann, "I'm a born optimist. I think we can hold out longer than that." Vann's wit and iconoclasm did not endear him to many military and civilian careerists, but he was a hero to many young civilian and military officers who understood the limits of conventional warfare in the irregular environment of Vietnam.

After his assignment to IV Corps, Vann was assigned as the senior American advisor in II Corps Military Region in the early 1970s when the war was winding down and troops were being withdrawn. For that reason, his new job put him in charge of all United States personnel in his region, where he advised the ARVN Commander to the region and became the first American civilian to command U.S. regular troops in combat. His position was the job of a Major General. After the Battle of Kontum, he was killed when his helicopter crashed.

Vann was buried on June 16, 1972 in Section 11 of Arlington National Cemetery. His funeral was attended by such notables as Maj. Gen. Edward Lansdale, Lt. Col. Lucien Conein, Senator Edward Kennedy, and Daniel Ellsberg.

On June 18, 1972, President Richard Nixon posthumously awarded Vann the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian citation, for his ten years of service as a top American in South Vietnam. For his actions from April 23 & April 24, 1972, Vann, ineligible for the Medal of Honor as a civilian, was also awarded (posthumously) the Distinguished Service Cross, the only civilian so honored in Vietnam.

Journalist Neil Sheehan wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam history and biography of Vann, "A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam".


*"It was a miserable damn performance." (speaking of the Battle of Ap Bac)

*"If it were not for the fact that Vietnam is but a pawn in the larger East-West confrontation, and that our presence here is essential to deny the resources of this area to Communist China, then it would be damned hard to justify our support of the existing government."

*"This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I'm afraid we can't do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worst is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle — you know who you're killing."

*"We don’t have twelve years’ experience in Vietnam. We have one year’s experience twelve times over"

*"In one fell swoop [President Thieu's Land to the Tiller Program] eliminated tenancy in Vietnam. All rents were suspended." [Lewis Sorley, A Better War, p. 194.]

*"The basic fact of life is that the overwhelming majority of the population — somewhere around 95 percent — prefer the government of Vietnam to a Communist government or the government that's being offered by the other side." [Lewis Sorley, A BETTER WAR p. 348]

ee also


*cite book|title=A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam|authorlink=Neil Sheehan|last=Sheehan|first=Neil|location=New York|Publisher=Random House|year=1988Richard Neely, Capt. U.S. Army artillery, member of the staff of John Paul Vann, 1968

External links

* [ Red Tanks, Troops Near Kontum]
* [ John Paul Vann: Man and Legend] article by Peter Kross
* [,fd&rpp=10&pg=1&rid=25951 Vann's DSC award information at the National Archives]

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