Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Unsung Hero of Tet and the "PR General"– Keith Lincoln Ware (1968)

TET! That single word evokes strategic surprise and the beginning of a long, painful period in American history. In the opening hours of the Tet Counteroffensive (30 January 1968 - 1 April 1968), MACV Headquarters in Saigon faced a number of immediate priorities, but perhaps none was more important than ensuring the security of the capital. By the early morning of 31 January 1968 neighborhoods in the heart of the city and Tan Son Nut airbase were receiving heavy small arms and mortar fire. The well-publicized targets, like the embassy compound, weren’t the problem, in spite of the growing importance of the evening news version of the war.
Facing the Americans and their Vietnamese allies in the field were combat-hardened, regular units of the North Vietnamese People’s Army and highly motivated Viet Cong cadre, a force totaling more than 25,000 men. General Nyugen Giap had reckoned the timing perfectly and achieved strategic surprise. Lt. General Fred C. Weyland, commanding II Field Force, quickly gained control and knew what to do. He turned to his deputy, Maj. Gen. Keith Ware, and ordered him to assemble a task force headquarters and take operational control of all U.S. units in the Capital Military District. Weyland could not have found a better man to defend Saigon.

Major General Keith Lincoln Ware (1915-1968) was a smart, experienced, highly decorated, and well-respected combat officer. He began his military career as a 28-year old draftee graduating from Infantry OCS in 1943. Assigned to the 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, he participated in four combat invasions and numerous battles and skirmishes in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany. No infantry regiment spent more time in combat. While in command of 1st Battalion on 26 December 1944 and attacking a fortified hill near Sigolsheim, France, he was forced to pause because of heavy casualties. Seeing that his men needed some inspiration, he advanced alone 150 yards beyond the most forward elements of the battalion, and personally reconnoitered the enemy positions, deliberately drawing fire to force the enemy to reveal their locations. He then led a dozen men against those positions, knocking out numerous guns in close combat. Half of his men, including Ware, were casualties, but he refused medical attention until the hill was taken and secure. For this action he was awarded the Medal of Honor. His postwar career filled in gaps in education, higher command responsibility, and other line and staff skills, of an increasingly global army.

Ware also had a unique appreciation for the complicated interplay between events on the battlefield and the cultural climate shaping the politics on the home front. His insight into this increasingly important element of the American way of making war had been informed and deepened during the two years (1964-1966) he served in the Pentagon as the Army’s director of Public Affairs Office (PAO), where he stressed excellence in journalism. Perhaps better than anyone else at II Field Force HQ in Saigon, or even MACV, he knew that perceptions would be just as important as battlefield developments over the next weeks in shaping the “official” and lasting media reality. Less than 8 hours after the first gunfire crackled through the Cholon district, Task Force WARE was operational.
Getting organized was the easy part. At first, there were few combat units available, and those close by were poorly positioned for a defensive mission. At the beginning of the battle, only a single U.S. infantry battalion and a dozen howitzers were operating nearby. For political reasons, MACV boss General William Westmoreland, had kept major American units outside Saigon and the other large cities during the TET holiday.
Making a virtue of necessity, Ware’s initial plan utilized Vietnamese government forces to conduct the main operations in Saigon, with the Americans playing a very close and hand-on supporting role in the suburbs. The early fighting was intense, and bloody, mostly house-to-house battles reminiscent of the WWII campaigns in which Ware had earned his reputation. By February 18, Saigon was considered secure and Task Force WARE was disbanded. It was a silent victory; American popular opinion increasingly viewed TET as a defeat, even though the enemy was totally shattered from a military point of view.

After the Battle of Saigon, Keith Ware took command of the renowned 1st “Big Red One” Infantry Division. By mid September 1968, the division was conducting large-scale reconnaissance in force missions in northern Binh Long Province. On September 13, 1968, one of his brigades reported heavy contact with a regular NVA regiment, and during the operation, Ware’s helicopter was downed by enemy ground fire. He was killed along with all 9 passengers, including “King,” a German shepherd and gift from the division’s recon outfit. A celebrated warrior and a potential leader of a post-Vietnam army that would have benefited by his diverse experience and insights into media, Keith Ware was the highest ranking Army officer and one of two division commanders among the eight generals killed in action during the Vietnam War. Keith Ware's name endures - more than most great heroes - because of the work he did in Public Relations and through the prestigious Keith L. Ware Public Affairs Awards given each year to the best Army journalists.



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