Small Wars Journal

A Great Man Has Passed

A Great Man Has Passed

Keith Nightingale

Yesterday, 18 August 2016, a good and great man died-Gen Jack Vessey. If any senior officer could be included in the Grunt Hall of Fame or in the Best Person Hall of Honor it would be this man. I worked for him directly in the Pentagon and at a distance in Grenada. Each encounter reinforced my personal belief that he was truly someone special. Let me explain so that people unfamiliar with him might understand that he is and was something special that any combat soldier should revere in their personal panoply of Gods.

He faked his birth records to join the Minnesota National Guard at the age of 16. He rose from a private to ISgt through North Africa. At Anzio Beach, he made his first great mark.

The German panzers had broken through and portions of the assault force made it to part of the beach. This was a moment when the Commanding General, Mark Clark, seriously considered withdrawing from the lodgement.

ISgt Vessey was acting as Chief of Smoke in his artillery battery which was directly astride the German advance. With the bulk of the leadership dead or wounded, he took charge of his position, lowered the guns to zero elevation and broke the back of the tank attack. Gen Mark Clark awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross and commissioned him a Second Lieutenant.

Much later, in Vietnam, he performed a near re-enactment of that at LZ Gold/Suoi Tre 21 March 1967. The following is written from a first person observation as related to me.

LTC Vessey commanded a 105 arty battalion that was inserted on LZ Gold/Suoi Tre on 19 March. The location was in the center of a VC Main Force element and immediately began to exchange fire throughout the period.

On the night of 20-21 March, the Fire Support Base (FSB)It was hit with a reinforced regiment of Main Force VC augmented by a heavy weapons regiment and additional infantry. The base was entirely isolated from reinforcements at the time. 2-34th Armor (M48's), Opcon to 25th ID and part of the 4th ID, conducted a forced march through the jungle the entire night to relieve Gold.

The tanks, without accompanying Infantry, made a trail through the dense spongy jungle as there was no road.

Finally at around 0630 on the 21st, the lead tanks of C/2-34th broke through into Gold. The base was at the point of being overrun from 360 degrees and the bad guys were inside the wire. All the 105's were at zero elevation firing beehive as fast as they could be loaded. Vessey went to each gun position and instructed the gunners on how to crimp the fuzes on HE rounds so they would explode in less than 30 meters from the barrel-Anzio deja vu.

He, in coordination with the Infantry leadership, went to the Infantry bunkers moving troops to compensate for the casualties and encouraging them. The infantry security force was reduced to less than half strength and many of the gun bunnies were using their small arms close in.

The armor, attacking without Infantry, fired canister in the rear of the attackers with the Armor company commander, Cpt Kimmerling, determining that the risk to the FSB troops was greater if he did not use canister in their direction.

The After Action report of the 25th ID summarizes the situation:

The situation inside FSB Gold had by this time become so critical that howitzers within the perimeter were lowered to fire directly into the waves of advancing enemy soldiers. The tenaciously held perimeter of the Fire Support Base had been penetrated in the north and southeast by 0751 hours. During this penetration the enemy succeeded in overrunning and destroying one M-55 Quad .50 caliber machine gun and actually penetrating one of the howitzer positions. The other Quad .50 MG had been destroyed by an anti-tank round during the initial attack. In all, two howitzers were totally destroyed by mortar and anti-tank rounds, and nine others were damaged. In addition, many of the more than 500 RPG-II anti-tank rounds which were fired into the support base landed in the ammunition stores. In spite of the withering small arms fire and the exploding stores of 105mm ammunition, the gun crews remained at their guns, cannibalizing the destroyed howitzers to keep the damaged ones firing. Crew members from destroyed guns carried ammunition and steeped in to fill vacancies as casualties occurred in the operation crews. All cooks, clerks, and other available personnel of the artillery battalion which had been formed into a preplanned reaction force, now moved to block the penetration of the infantry’s perimeter. By this time the infantry soldiers on the perimeter of the FSB who were subjected to the brunt of the assault were fighting from isolated positions as the determined enemy force penetrated and encircled the U.S. defensive positions. Small elements of the U. S. soldiers fighting fiercely in hand-to-hand combat continued to resist the assaulting enemy. As the fighting intensified and ammunition stocks depleted friendly troops reacted quickly to the situation, seizing weapons and ammunition from the dead and wounded enemy. During the course of the action, the penetrating Viet Cong threatened the Command Post of the 3d Battalion, 22d Infantry and the Fire Direction Center of the 2d Battalion, 77th Artillery. These positions were successfully defended, however, and the enemy assault was repulsed after suffering numerous casualties. Twenty-six dead Viet Cong soldiers were found within 50 meters of the artillery Fire Direction Center. By the time the relief force reached the scene of the battle it was estimated that over half of the troops on the eastern portion of the perimeter had exhausted their own ammunition and were using captured AK-47’s and Chicom carbines.

The VC attacked the moving armor with satchel charges and mounting on the passing tanks, attempted to blind the drivers and gunners. The tanks mutually cleaned off each other by firing flechette rounds and 7.62 sweeping the tanks clear. Finally they ground up and drove off the attackers and surrounded the FSB.

Cpt Kimmerling was greeted by LTC Vessey carrying an M16 and thanking him for arriving like the cavalry in the movies.

The following is the narrative for the DSC awarded to LTC Vessey:

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918 (amended by act of July 25, 1963), takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Lieutenant Colonel (Field Artillery) John William Vessey (ASN: 0-65047), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations involving conflict with an armed hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam, while serving with 2d Battalion, 77th Artillery, 3d Brigade, 4th Infantry Division. Lieutenant Colonel Vessey distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous actions on 21 March 1967 while serving as a Battalion Commander during a combat mission near Suoi Tre. During the early morning hours, Colonel Vessey's battalion received a massive assault by a Viet Cong regiment. Although more than 200 mortar rounds fell, Colonel Vessey fearlessly moved through his unit area, first to alert his men, then to direct various phases of the defense. When vital howitzer positions were destroyed by hostile fire, he rallied men from other sections to man the guns, and he himself assisted as a cannoneer. He was wounded during this action, but continued to lead and fire the artillery pieces. At one point, he spotted Viet Cong rocket launchers that were placing devastating fire into the battery perimeter. He seized a grenade launcher, moved into an open area and knocked out three of the insurgents' weapons. When an enemy tracer round ignited a drum of diesel oil and threatened to set off two drums of explosives nearby, Colonel Vessey ran to that highly dangerous point and helped move the drums to safety. His professional command and courageous fighting throughout the battle were instrumental in turning back the numerically superior enemy force and killing more than 600 Viet Cong. Lieutenant Colonel Vessey's extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.

Much later, I worked for him directly when he was the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army and we were building all the SOF forces we enjoy today after the failure of the Iran Rescue. I was aware of the basic data regarding his history but knew nothing of the person himself.

On numerous occasions and under great personal risk and stress, he continually demonstrated his care and affection not only for soldiers but also for doing the right thing-difficult as that was with comfortable less productive choices available.

In his time as Chairman of the JCS, he visited my unit in Grenada and established an immediate and mutually respective bond with the troops. He cared little for the senior meetings and briefings, he cared a great deal how PFC X was doing and what he needed to do better and it was 100% sincere.

Above all else, Jack Vessey was a great soldier and a truly great man. He is and was a man every Grunt in a uniform would welcome to his perimeter.


Thank you for sharing this. As a young soldier during his time as the CJCS, I remembered two things from listening to my seniors talk about him. First, he was critical in starting to rebuild SOF. Second, he was personally involved in trying to resolve the status of our MIAs from the Vietnam War. As President Reagan said, he was a G.I. General who sincerely cared about the troops and realistic training (you can't really care about your people if you're not putting them through the paces to prepare for war). I am embarassed to say I was not aware that he received a combat commission, and I wasn't aware of his multiple heroics. Clearly a great man has passed. RIP sir.