Was LBJ sendoff fake?
By Nat Kline and Paul Kneeland Globe Staff \
What actually happened on Feb. 17, 1968 when Lyndon Johnson decided to see members of the 82d Airborne Division leave Fort Bragg, N.C., for Vietnam?
The Armed Forces Journal calls it "The Day the President Got Conned".
Did LBJ say "goodbye" to the wrong troops?
The Journal says he did. The "great deception" that day was kept secret for eight years, until 1976.
But five men who were members of the 82d Airborne division in 1968, two generals at Bragg and three paratroopers who shook hands with LBJ and then flew to Chu Lai for combat duty said the article was at variance with their experience that day.
It was the middle of the 1968 Tet offensive and the President was under enormous pressure. According to the Journal story, Johnson could not sleep and decided on the spur of the moment to fly to Fort Bragg and see the men off, only to say goodbye to a group of men who had just returned from Vietnam.
Despite reactions of a number of men disagreeing with the story, Benjamin F. Schemmer, Journal editor and publisher, and author of the article, said "We are sticking with the story. I checked it out.
"Even though a few units went off in flights to Vietnam that day, a large number of the men rounded up to listen to LBJ did not go."\
The five men who talked to Globe reporters insist that LBJ ? Viet talked to the correct troops, and there was no 'con'.
Sgt. Wilbur B. McAninch says he was one of the paratroopers who shook President Johnson's hand as the paratroopers boarded the C-141 transport plane on Feb. 17, 1968.
"We all sure as hell wound up in Vietnam soon enough, right in the middle of the war," said McAninch. "I'm shocked by any article that says otherwise."
"Staged?" snorted Staff Sgt. Daniel E. Lewis, now based at Fort Devens. "All 90 or more men in that vets say 'No! plane . went to Chu Lai, as I did, after shaking hands with the President. Some died in Vietnam."
McAninch, now an electrician living in Nashua, N.H. and Sgt. Lewis, said any idea that it was a 'con job' is ridiculous.
Anthony J. Geremia on that date was a second lieutenant and executive officer of Company B, 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Airborne, in which Lewis was a platoon leader, and McAninch was a communications non-com he concurs.
Geremia is now a commercial bank loan officer working in Boston, also concurs.
"As far as I'm concerned, there was no hoax," Geremia said. "I was in that plane. LBJ shook hands with each man as he entered the C-141 Starlifter. We went to the West Coast, to Alaska, Japan and into Vietnam."
Maj. Gen. John Bennett was chief of staff of the 82d Airborne Division and a colonel at the time. Now a
businessman (Continued on page 8
Was LB J PARATROOPS Continued from Page 1
Alaska, Bennett said he was dismayed to read the article.
"It would have been ridiculous to think we could have called out a different unit to greet the President," said Bennett. "I can say'" with
absolute candor that every member of the brigade w
as In the original formation, that a large number were men who had been in Vietnam and had volunteered to go back and that this was one of the proudest days of my life.
"I know of no case of anyone objecting. I was dismayed to read the article."
Lt. Gen. Richard Seitz, who commanded the 82d during LBJ's meeting with the airborne troops at Ft. Bragg, is now a businessman, living in Kansas. "
"I have had nothing but telephone calls and letters from irate soldiers since that article came out," he told the Globe in a telephone interview.
"Above all, any thought that the plane LBJ boarded did not go to Vietnam is absurd. I personally took the President on that plane. I definitely concur with Sgt. Lewis and the other men who went off to Vietnam."
Sgt. Lewis remembers the details clearly of that Feb. 17.
"I was 21 years old when this happened. It was the first time the President of the United States talked to me and shook my hand. It may never happen again.
You don't orget details 'When something like that happens.
In January, 1968, the North Koreans captured the USS Pueblo. My battalion was on a field training exercise in Florida. The exercise was cancelled and we were brought back to Fort Bragg and placed on possible alert for, deployment to Korea.
"I received notification at my home, which was just off post, on Feb. 14 that we were again on alert The following morning we bean receiving tropical equipment, , malaria tablets and new rifles. All our weapons were zeroed in (to bring them up to up-to-date functioning..)
"On that Feb. 17, we were set to go. The group I was with, between 90 and 94 people, were all members of B Company, 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry, Airborne, one of the units in the 8 2d Division's 3d Brigade.
"My company commander was 2d Lt. Larry Fleener and the battalion commander was Lt. Col. Archie E. Carpenter.
"We were told the President would make a speech and then, we would move out to our plane.
"Air Force One landed. The President got out, accompanied by Gen. Harold K. Johnson, Army chief of staff; Col. Robinson, his aide, and a woman in a brown coat.
"President Johnson came over to
one formation, shook hands with Lt. Fleener, then went to the speaker's stand and made a short speech.
"Our group of 90 or so moved to our C-141 transport plane. We entered from the left paratroop door. As we entered, the President shook hands with each member of' our group.
"After we were seated, Gen. Johnson came into the plane with the President-who made a 45-second speech. We took off less than an hour later.
"We flew to McChord Air Force Base in Washington, slept overnight at Ft. Lewis, then flew to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska. We went on to . Yakota Air. Force Base in Japan and finally landed in Chu Lai in Vietnam. "
"I did: a full 12-mqnth' tour of duty in Vietnam, and in 1970 and 1971 I did a second .duty tour there. I'm sure if you hear from any others in my. group, you'll find that they really went"
One of the "others" that made the flight heartily concurs with Sgt. Lewis.
"That's no statement to make --- that we didn't go to Vietnam, that we were coming back," says Sgt. McAninch , he was seated at his desk in the recruiters' office at the US Army. Reserve Center in Topsfield when he was interviewed by the Globe.
"Of course, we went to Vietnam," he continued, in his Southern accent, he's from Louisville, becoming more
pronounced as he pursued the subject.
' ''Three days previous to our taking off,., all the men were restricted to the post. I'll never forget it; that's when I knew for sure that we were Viet veterans shout a 'headed out'. That was it and my buddies agreed with me.
"We were right, too, because on the 17th of February, after shaking hands with LBJ, we were flying to Vietnam.
"As I boarded the big C-141, the President shook my hand the same as he did the other guys in the outfit. We all sure as hell wound up in Vietnam soon enough, right in the middle of the war. Where did the Armed Forces Journal get the idea that we were headed BACK from Vietnam? Wouldn't it have been great if we were!
"But it just wasn't that way at all. Otherwise, how would I ever have had the experience, as I did in the months to follow, of all those Vietnamese shooting at me?"
Luckily for Sgt. McAninch, he didn't receive a scratch. What he did get, however, was an Army Commendation Medal "you don't get those unless you've been to war, remember!" for valor in Vietnam. "See the combat patch?" He pointed to it on the right sleeve of his fatigue blouse.
"You don't get one of those for taking an airplane ride from Ft.
Bragg after shaking hands with the President of the United States and then flying back to Ft. Bragg a couple hours later like the Armed Forces Journal would have you believe."
To verify his account of the incident, the sergeant has a good start toward documenting the affair.
"My wife, Mary Lou, kept a v scrapbook about my Army career. It dates back to Dec. 26, 1962, when I first enlisted. I received my honorable discharge on Nov. 14, 1969. I can tell you exactly how long I served too, six years, 10 months, and five days," he said, smiling one of his rare smiles. Then, with pride:
"There's nothing better than the US Army. That's why I went back into the service last August." The
sergeant recalls, with the aid of his scrapbook, that Gen. Seitz, commander of the 82d Airborne, was standing next to the President that day at Ft. Bragg eight years ago.
"He kept shouting 'airborne' and the division's slogan, 'All the way, soldier.' " As the men. boarded the plane, Mr. Johnson shook hands with all 94, smiling each time as he did. Sitting in silence with their black M 16's between their knees, it was evident moments later, McAninch feels, when the President entered the fat-bellied plane that if ever the war reached LBJ's heart, it did just then.
"All the way, sir!" we responded to a man when the President said he would pray for our safe return.
"We expected him to leave then, but he didn't. Instead he walked to the cockpit, . opened the door, and said to the captain in a stern voice: " 'You take care of my boys!'
"I'll never forget his order. I was 22 the others were 20 or 21. It was
just another one of those awful truths; we were so young." (McAninch is 30 today.) McAninch, who lives with his wife and two daughters, Melissa Ann, 6, and Mary Ellen, 4, in Nashua, is an unemployed industrial electrician.
"At the hydro-electric station where I worked, they just cut back-on the staff," he explained. "Know anybody who needs an industrial electrician?"
The sergeant has been out of touch with his Army buddies, but since
the newspaper, radio, and TV coverage of the wrong-way-Vietnam-sendoff, he's started a letter-writing campaign in an attempt to reach them.
"The ones I've heard from are already hopping mad about the hoopla and false information and are backing me to the hilt," he continued.
In the sergeant's book, and in the minds of some of the 82d Airborne, apparently, Feb. 17, 1968, has gone down as their own personal-and-private Day of Infamy. And under McAninch's guidance, they have no idea of letting up until the Armed Force Journal sets the record straight.
"We all shook hands with President Johnson, received his blessing, and went off to war in Vietnam on Feb. 17, 1968. It's as simple as that. And it's the truth. Why try to twist it into a sequel of 'M*A*S*H?'
"Meanwhile, some of my buddies and their wives are planning a reunion. Won't that be great? I haven't seen those guys for eight years."
[The Boston Globe, Boston, MA,
15 Mar 1976, Mon Pages1 and 8 ]