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War's Ghosts, Aftershocks Haunt Thousands Of Web Sites
Thursday, April 20, 2000
By LISA HOFFMAN
SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE
The "stinking mud," red and sticky from the blood spilled that night by hundreds of dead and wounded men. And their screams, in English and Vietnamese.
That is what Donald Schaffer remembers most vividly about Feb. 2, 1968, the night during the fierce Tet Offensive that he and 30 other outgunned Marines held off the enemy at their besieged compound at Cam Lo, South Vietnam.
When the battle finally broke, every Marine but an officer, who hid in a bunker all night, had either been killed or wounded. U.S. artillery and Marine fire felled 1,900 North Vietnamese. Lance Cpl. Schaffer, then 20, had been hit four times, including by a bayonet through the back.
For the next 30 years, as Schaffer built a career with the Boulder, Colo., Police Department and raised a family, details of that chaotic firefight remained fuzzy. It was only after a war buddy tipped him to a particular Internet site two years ago that Schaffer, now 52, found a long-lost comrade who could fill in his blanks.
"If it weren't for the Internet, I would have never made contact with anyone and never found out what actually happened that night," Schaffer wrote in a recent e-mail message.
That is just one small example of the intersection of the Internet and the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which ended 25 years ago April 30 with the frantic evacuation of the U.S. Embassy as Saigon fell.
Few subjects can match the breadth and depth of online attention given to America's most controversial war. Plug "Vietnam War" into a search engine and you'll get 88,000 or more World Wide Web sites that, in one way or another, grapple with what that war wrought in America and in millions of people's hearts.
The conflict's ghosts and aftershocks began to draw people to the Internet from its infancy, long before most of the country discovered the revolutionary medium. That was partly because many of the veterans remained in the military, which developed the Internet and was a pioneer in putting it to use more than a decade ago.
The array of Vietnam topics is staggering. The Web is packed with sites dealing with everything from veterans' service benefits, post-traumatic stress disorder, Agent Orange and the ongoing search for the remains of the last 2,047 GIs still missing in action. Online support groups and "chat rooms" abound.
Scores of local Vietnam veterans' groups have their own home page, as does the Vietnam Dog Handlers Association (troops who served with K-9 guard dogs) and the Hmong refugees who resettled in America after helping the CIA and the Green Berets fight communists in Laos.
At the cost of only your time, you can take a challenging online "study course" on the war http://www.refstar.com/vietnam/online_study.html, which links you to articles and analyses by prominent thinkers. And you can read for yourself such historic documents as the congressional Tonkin Gulf resolution that vaulted the United States deep into the conflict.
There's even a site that lists the names of those who have falsely passed themselves off as war heroes and former prisoners of war. So far, there are 487 "phonies and wannabes" listed, with another 56 not yet substantiated. -- many of whom never set foot in Southeast Asia, according to the POW organization that compiled the list http://www.asde.net/~pownet/phonies/phonies.htm.
One of the most popular sites is the Lost and Found locator service http://www.vietvet.org/lostfnd.htm, where vets and their loved ones try to reconstruct the past, or see how the future turned out, by posting messages to those long lost but not forgotten, even after 30 years.
One recent message was from Louie "Doc" Capriotti, now of Kenosha, Wis., who was seeking anyone who knew the whereabouts or fate of a soldier he knew only as "Jungle Jim" of the Army's 5th Infantry Division in Quang Tri in 1970.
"Jungle Jim was out on patrol in the early evening and stepped on a booby trap. Jim lost both legs and was med-evac'd out to the 18th Surgical Hospital. I was the medic who treated him," Capriotti's message said, in its entirety.
Similarly poignant pleas come from some of the estimated 20,000 children of soldiers who never came home. On the Sons and Daughters In Touch Web page www.sdit.org/History.html, they attempt to sate their hunger for information about their fathers -- whom most remember only barely, if at all.
In this way, the Web also serves as a sort of virtual cemetery where people can post tributes to their dead and remembrances of their lives. Dozens of fighting units provide lists of their fallen comrades, often with photos and personal anecdotes.
It's also a gallery of war photography with a perspective rarely shown by news correspondents or movies. Hundreds of GIs have posted their snapshots, which portray a grunt's-eye view of life at war. Here there are few scenes of combat; instead, you'll find photos of makeshift Christmas decorations, a unit's mascot puppy, a group of guys goofing off over beers, mess halls and choppers at rest, the lush and deceptively pastoral countryside.
There is no shortage, however, of combat accounts. In fact, the Internet is a historian's gold mine, filled not only with thousands of first-person accounts of battles, but also official battalion operations reports, "after-action" analyses, unit histories and narratives accompanying recommendations for medals.
So much first-person detail is available that it is possible to re-create pivotal battles virtually hour by hour. The 16-day siege of the hills of Khe Sanh in 1967 -- the Marines' most pitched and deadliest campaign of the war -- is recounted with almost squad-by-squad action http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/4867/hillbatt.htm
There is, for example, this account from April 30, 1967, about a week into the siege: "Reaching a small knoll about half-way up the hill, First Platoon became pinned down by a sniper who seriously wounded the rockets man. The corpsman immediately began attending to his wounds when the Lt. got hit in the leg and someone called 'Corpsman up!' The corpsman jumped up and started to run across the hill, but was shot through the head. One enemy dashed across an opening, attempting to climb a tree for a better shot at the Marines. He was shot and knocked out of the tree."
About a year later, Lance Cpl. Schaffer found himself in similar peril. It is easy to understand why his recollection of that six-hour battle was incomplete. With the help of his platoon-mate, he was able to reconstruct the night as follows:
When the Cam Lo compound came under attack, Schaffer fired his M-16 rifle at what seemed to be an enemy weak point. In response, he took two bullets to the right shoulder. The enemy overran the compound. Schaffer kept firing until his rifle either was hit by enemy fire or malfunctioned and blew up in his right hand, which broke in 22 places as a result. (His latest reconstructive surgery took place in 1990.)
Undeterred, he tried to go to the aid of a nearby Marine machine-gunner with a severe head wound. Schaffer was hit three times more, this time in the right leg, shattering the bones. He crawled to the M-60 machine gun and began firing, left-handed.
Incoming artillery fragments broke his back in three places. Fifty-seven pieces of shrapnel pierced his body. (His last surgery to remove infected shrapnel was in May 1996). An enemy soldier then bayoneted Schaffer, stabbing him through the lower back until the blade came out his belly.
Eventually, with the help of U.S. artillery, the area was secured and the wounded, including Schaffer, evacuated.
War on the Internet:
Links to Web sites on memorials, units, personal accounts:
Extensive anthology of Vietnam War-related Internet sites:
The Vietnam Center and Archives at Texas Tech University: