|Army DJ John Bagwell was one of the broadcasters defending AFVN in Hue. (Seen here earlier in An Khe)|
[The final layout of this story is in Vietnam Magazine's February 2018 issue]
Introducing television to
Vietnam’s northernmost provinces was
doomed from the start. For the pioneers assigned to build the American Forces
Vietnam Network’s most remote broadcast facility, there was trouble even before
they arrived: While still in Saigon, an AFVN
engineer was badly injured in a grenade attack and evacuated out of the country.
Then, on May 15, 1967, when AFVN officially opened its newest upcountry affiliate, designated Detachment 5, in
Hue, the Viet Cong answered defiantly with a mortar
attack. Six weeks later, the TV tower collapsed when a fuel truck backed into a
guy wire, knocking Channel 11 off the air for five weeks. The inauspicious beginning
of the Hue TV station foreshadowed the detachment’s agonizing demise in a
communist assault, which would seal a poignant place for AFVN in broadcasting
As the Tet Lunar New Year holiday approached in late January 1968, a staff of six men was operating the expanding broadcast facility. Two others had just arrived from the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) to help launch the detachment’s new radio service. Spec. 5 Steven Stroub and Spec. 4 John Bagwell had been working at the 1st Cav’s own radio station in An Khe in the central part of the country. They were reassigned to AFVN, assuring that American radio would be there for the troops when the division relocated to
Camp Evans, just
northwest of Hue.
On the eve of the Tet Offensive, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), which oversaw military operations throughout
South Vietnam, had placed Hue under full alert. Broadcast engineer Army
Spec. 5 Harry Ettmueller, one of only two survivors of the attack still living,
remembers the ominous signs. “With all my contacts, they kept telling me you
don’t want to be here for Tet. You need to be on R&R. Don’t be here.”
original TV station signed off the air for the last time. The final two
programs would have been ABC’s Combat
and The Fugitive, according to a
published TV schedule.
The entire eight-man staff, along with visiting civilian engineer, Courtney Niles, an Army veteran employed by NBC International, worked at Hue’s broadcast center, which housed the dual facilities of AFVN and the city’s Vietnamese television station. The compound was the former residence of the U.S. Consul.
|The Americans used to live in this villa, the former U.S. Consul residence. It was later converted into to a broadcast center.|
The Americans were sleeping in their new billet, a villa one street over, when “all hell broke loose,” remembers Bagwell, the other remaining survivor. “We had a pretty good view from our back door,” he said. We could actually see the attack going on.”
In the coming hours, days and weeks, the ancient imperial capital would become an iconic flashpoint of the countrywide Tet Offensive as the North Vietnamese Army took control of large sections of
South Vietnam’s third largest city.
Enemy gunners targeted the television station on the first night. A mortar shall penetrated the roof of AFVN’s maintenance shed at No. 3 Dong Da St.
From the detachment’s nearby quarters, the officer in charge, Marine Lieutenant James DiBernardo, called the MACV headquarters in
Hue on the house telephone,
Bagwell said. “They told us to stay put. Fighting, they thought, was all over
the city. Sometime the next day the line was cut. We were on our own at that
A protracted siege at the broadcaster’s villa started with sniper fire. “We could see them out there every now and then probing,” said Ettmueller, who carried an M-14 rifle. The others were armed with a hodgepodge of weapons requiring different ammunition, which was available only in limited quantities.
In addition to Ettmueller’s M-14, the defenders had a collection of old M-1 carbines, a couple of M-16 rifles, a .45-caliber pistol, a shotgun, a heavy M-60 machine gun and six hand grenades. The detachment was never issued its M-79 grenade launcher, Ettmueller recalls. “The supply officer in
Saigon thought that we didn’t need it because we were in
The men took up positions inside the house to secure entry points. They had C rations, drinking water and even a transoceanic radio that was their link to the outside world as they listened to AFVN radio broadcasting from
Saigon. Bagwell was guarding the window
in the bedroom where he slept. “We eluded them for a couple of days and
actually thought that we would eventually be rescued,” he said.
|Five of the defenders are seen in this 1967 photo in the TV compound in Hue. Standing (r to l) DiBernardo; Niles; Anderson; Ettmueller; Gouin.|
After several days, an American helicopter flew over. “As far as they knew, the whole city had been taken,” Ettmueller said. “They came buzzing over, and the door gunner fired down on us.” The stunned men escaped the friendly fire.
With no warning, an enemy soldier appeared in front of Bagwell’s window and fired an AK-47. “He’s just a kid, probably 10, 11, 12 years old,” Bagwell thought. “I could hear one of the bullets go by my right ear, and a second later another bullet went past my left ear and the kid was shaking.” Poor marksmanship saved Bagwell. “When he shot at me I realized I’ve got to kill this kid or he’s going to kill me, so I shot him and he fell in front of the window.”
As the radio played, Bagwell heard an AFVN newscast. “Someone they were interviewing, I think it was [MACV Commander Gen. William] Westmorland, said, ‘Oh yes, we knew that this was going to happen in
Hue.’ We looked at each other and thought, ‘We
wish you’d told us.’”
In the fourth day of the marathon standoff, the billet lost power, and the men darted past flickering candles while hostile soldiers gathered for a mass attack. A salvo of three or four rocket-propelled-grenades signaled the start of the assault. “One B-40 [rocket] went right through the window,” Ettmueller said, “and blew the back wall apart, crashed down on top of me, crashed down on top of Tom Young,” a Marine sergeant and the station’s newscaster. The other men in the villa “had to pull us out from underneath the debris,” Ettmueller added.
The coming brawl was chaotic and brutal. One attacker, carrying a satchel explosive, tried to get inside, but one of the broadcasters shot him. The resulting explosion splattered the parked AFVN pickup truck. Army Sergeant First Class John Anderson, the noncommissioned officer in charge, was shot in the chest.
Anderson, Marine Corporal John Deering and Army Sergeant First Class Don Gouin were armed with carbines dating back to World War II. “Every time they fired those [carbines] the magazines fell out,” Ettmueller grumbled.
The most potent weapon the Americans had, the M-60 machine gun, was capable of easily firing a hundred rounds, or more, per minute. But the one at AFVN wasn’t properly maintained. The gun jammed after firing just two rounds and was promptly discarded, said Ettmueller. He picked apart the M-60’s belted-ammunition and saved the rounds, which could be used in his M-14, and took up a shielding position at the back of the house.
“They were coming up and trying to throw grenades in the window,” he said. “I killed four, possibly five. I nailed them in the back of the house with my M-14. I had it on rock ’n’ roll [fully automatic].” After daylight, Ettmueller discovered a dud “Chicom” grenade on the floor between his legs.
The 16-hour assault had extended the punishing stalemate into a fifth day. Injuries were mounting for the beleaguered AFVN crew, and supplies of food and water were now exhausted. Ettmueller described the final moments: “They were shooting RPGs into the building. The house was on fire. It was falling down around our ears.” The Americans had no choice but to flee and try to make it to the MACV compound a mile away.
|The sleeping quarters the broadcasters had to flee, at No. 6 Tran Duc St. U.S. Navy photo.|
Ettmueller and the others had split off in the opposite direction with NVA soldiers in hot pursuit. The Americans scampered across a rice paddy but could not get through a fence and were trapped next to the U.S. Information Service Library, which had been gutted by fire. “We were firing back, but the problem was we were hemmed in on three sides,” Ettmueller said, reliving the final desperation. “They were maybe 20 feet away, throwing grenades; automatic weapons fire. I got shot in the leg. The adrenalin was pumping.”
The end came when Young was killed in a burst of automatic weapons fire, and Stroub was hit in the arm with an open fracture. “They tied us up with commo [communications] wire,” Ettmueller said, “and as they started to lead us out, he [Stroub] started to falter and that’s when they turned around and shot him right in front of me. I’ll never forget that. There was no mercy.”
Officer in charge DiBernardo had hidden in a pile of trash. “If he’d stayed there they would never have found him,” said Ettmueller. “All of a sudden they bring Dibernardo out; they took his glasses off, dropped ‘em on the ground and stepped on ‘em. I laughed, I couldn’t help it.”
|Another photo of the abandoned villa. Courtesy U.S. Navy.|
As the five survivors were marched away as prisoners, they witnessed some of the first executions of noncombatants in
Hue. “They made us look,” Ettmueller said. “They
had these people on their knees, hands tied behind their back with their head
down. They were shooting people in the back of the head, Vietnamese civilians.
Five people, bang, bang, bang.”
Meanwhile, Bagwell was ducking fire and running for his life between houses. “I felt there was this Plexiglas surrounding me,” he recalled. “There was something keeping the bullets from reaching me.” One shot got through, however, hitting him in the foot. “I’d probably gone a good eight city blocks. I don’t know where I am. I said a prayer, and I looked up and here was this Catholic church that was literally not there 30 seconds before. I mean, it just appeared from nowhere.”
Bagwell knocked on the door and a priest let him in but insisted, “I’m not going to hide you in your uniform.” They went to the backyard and buried Bagwell’s rifle and fatigues. He put on typical Vietnamese civilian clothing and the radio DJ was suddenly in a cathedral with about 100 refugees. Many had been wounded.
The priest disguised the American soldier as an injured civilian and placed him among the Vietnamese casualties. Gauze was wrapped around Bagwell’s head to cover his face and hair. “The only thing showing was just my eyes,” he remembered and described what happened next. “The door swung open and the North Vietnamese came in and started looking, probably for me.” As they walked down the hall, one stopped and pointed his rifle 2 inches from Bagwell’s nose. “I was staring up the barrel of an AK-47, closed my eyes and thought I’d die, but he didn’t recognize me as being American. He bought it.”
Bagwell was human contraband, and the priest isolated him upstairs in the cathedral’s steeple. “I was laying there and all of a sudden we started getting shelled,” he remembered. In disbelief, Bagwell realized, “It was the Americans. Someone had instructed the Americans that the North Vietnamese were hiding in the church.” At nightfall, he was told to leave and the priest pointed toward a light far into the distance—an American outpost.
Bagwell motivated himself with hope: “I want to get married. I want to have kids. I want to get out of this.” He slipped out of the church and was slogging through rice paddies when danger appeared overhead. “An American helicopter started shining a light on me. I would stop, and I would move, and they would move their light.” That cat-and-mouse pursuit continued for more than an hour. “I thought, I’ve made it this far, and the Americans are going to kill me thinking I’m a Vietnamese.” The chopper moved on.
Wounded and cold, Bagwell crawled to a ravine and waited till morning across from a
signal company. “The sun comes up, I sneezed, and these guys have no idea who I
am,” he said. “So I pulled off my white shirt and kind of waved it in the air,
jumped up and said, ‘For God’s sake, please don’t shoot.’” They fired a warning
shot and challenged whether he really was an American. “With this Okie [ Oklahoma] accent you
can’t tell? I’m John Bagwell.” The soldiers said they thought he was dead and had
been looking for his body.
On the seventh day after the Tet Offensive slammed into
Hue, the gritty disc
jockey was finally safe. Spec. 5 Mike Larson, who worked with him at the 1st Air
Cav’s public affairs office, saw Bagwell lying on a cot at
right after the ordeal. “I think he was probably a little shell-shocked, as you
can imagine,” Larson said. “We were soldiers. We carried a weapon, but pretty
much did our shooting with cameras.” Camp Evans
|The interior ruins of the Americans' house in Hue. U.S. Navy photo.|
Bagwell told me that he counted a dozen times when he should have been killed. “I literally wake up every morning glad to be alive.” His good fortune continued in the days after his escape. A nurse told him his leg would have to be amputated because of his untreated foot injury, but it healed. Months later, Bagwell learned from a friend that on the night he left for
Saigon, his tent was shelled and the soldier who took his
bunk died instantly. “God has allowed me to live for some strange reason.”
After arriving back home in
Oklahoma, Bagwell’s mother had saved a Newsweek magazine for him. It had an
article about a Vietnamese priest who was executed in Hue for hiding an American. “I’m pretty sure
that would have been him and they were referring to me,” Bagwell presumed. “I
could have been a prisoner of war easily.”
Harry Ettmueller and the other four survivors of Detachment 5 were POWs for five years, starting with a harsh, barefoot march up the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They endured the squalor and abuse that was common for Americans held in
most infamous prisons. Ettmueller came home with nightmares and what he called
war souvenirs: “Every now and then a piece of shrapnel will pop out of my leg.”
Ironically, John Deering, the detachment’s program director, survived many months in solitary confinement by constructing the perfect radio station entirely in his mind, according to his biography at macoi.net. He then equipped it, staffed it and managed it. The imaginary project became the POW’s obsession and helped him overcome the despair of brutal confinement.
Anderson, the NCO in charge of the
Hue station, conducted a similar mental
exercise in solitary. “He built a radio station from the ground up, laying the
bricks, fitting the windows, even installing the wiring and equipment,”
according to a story written by the Fort Monmouth public affairs office. After
the POWs were released in 1973, Anderson finally
achieved his vision when he became operations manager for a bona fide radio
station in . Niagara Falls, New York
A half-century after the ghastly standoff at AFVN, the last men standing have both reached 70 years of age, and some pleasant memories of
Ettmueller recalls using a 16 mm TV projector to show movies on a wall for the
kids in Hue. “They
liked Combat and Batman.” Ettmueller returned to Hue in 2017 but could not find the place
where three broadcasters were killed, five taken prisoner, and only one
escaped. He has gone back to college and is studying history.
Bagwell talked about his DJ days before going to Hue, when he was a popular radio personality with the 1st Air Cav at An Khe and listeners knew him by his on-air moniker “The Scrawny Thing,” he chuckled. “I weighed 108 pounds.” Bagwell said he’s told his
Vietnam story hundreds of times at
veterans ceremonies, churches and schools.” Quite honestly, disc jockeys are
not supposed to be fired on. I’ve relived it and I’m grateful every day.”
Now 50 years later, the harrowing account of this band of broadcasters at
No. 6 Tran Duc
St. has received only limited exposure in the
literary world and none on the big screen. Bagwell would like to correct that,
and tells me he wants to get together with Ettmueller so they can work on a manuscript.
Ten years ago, Detachment 5 was inducted into the Army Public Affairs’ Hall of Fame at
photograph shows some of the men in battle gear standing in front of the Fort
Meade, Maryland Hue television station. The
broadcasters are in good company; other inductees include General Douglas
MacArthur, who started the Army’s first bureau of information, and Pulitzer
Prize-winning cartoonist Sgt. William Mauldin.
In 2017, the
military’s worldwide broadcasting service, now known as the American Forces
Network, also honored Detachment 5 in an article commemorating AFN’s 75th
anniversary. News manager Mike Roberts wrote, “AFVN Detachment 5 remains the
only unit in AFN history to take one hundred percent casualties.”
Rick Fredericksen was a Marine newsman at American Forces
Network in 1969-70. His new
e-book is Broadcasters: Untold Chaos. Vietnam
|Chief Engineer Don Gouin relaxes behind the TV van. Photo courtesy Ron Turner.|
>There is conflicting information on whether the defenders sabotaged the facility to keep a functioning TV station from falling into enemy hands. Engineer Ettmueller says he is not aware of it, but announcer Thomas Young’s biography at macoi.net claims “they disabled the radio and TV equipment just before a series of rocket-propelled-grenades struck.” When AFVN personnel came to recover the broadcasting van later, they found the TV trailer inoperable: the power line was sheared off, several shots were fired into the antenna cable and camera adjustments were turned out of alignment.
>The AFVN operation in
Hue was ill-equipped. The men had
insufficient weaponry and no field radio at their barracks, according to Ettmueller, who remains bitter. “We got very little support from Saigon. Nobody wanted to come up there because they were
afraid.” An after-action report written by AFVN’s Capt. R.W. Johnson reads,
“Due to the profile of the quarter’s area and the surrounding terrain, it
appears to be an impossible area to defend against the number of troops and
fire power of the enemy.”
>If the broadcasters had held out just a little longer they would have been rescued. A U.S. patrol with a military photographer arrived at the TV station less than two hours after the Americans fled, and the cameraman told Bagwell “the bodies [of the Americans] were still warm, the house was still smoking.” Waiting for help was not an option, Bagwell said. “They [the enemy] were coming in the back door as I physically went out the front door.”
Detachment 5 Roster
(Highest achieved ranks are shown)
Killed in Action
Thomas Young, sergeant, USMC, announcer;
Hot Springs, Arkansas
Courtney Niles, Army veteran, TV engineer for NBC International;
Steven Stroub, specialist 5, Army, broadcast specialist;
John Deering, gunnery sergeant, USMC, program director;
deceased Nashville, Tennessee
Donat “Don” Gouin, master sergeant, Army, chief engineer;
; deceased Central Falls, Rhode
James DiBernardo, major, USMC, officer in charge;
deceased Fulton, New York
John Anderson, master sergeant, Army, noncommissioned officer in charge;
; deceased Torrey, New York
Harry Ettmueller, sergeant first class, Army, TV engineer;
John Bagwell, specialist 5, Army, radio announcer;
|Contemporary photo of John Bagwell, who owns a media company in Texas.|