Pete Hilgartner fought in vicious battles during the Vietnam War that have gone unrecognized by history. He lived through events that even he doubted he would live through. Yet, two years ago, during a speech to Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, he realized that the story of his life, and the men who fought beside him, needed to be told.
Given the current War in Iraq, he believes the lessons learned in Vietnam could prevent a repeat of that outcome. ÒItÕs about lessons learned. There is teaching value in this book,Ó said Hilgartner.
But before he delves into the harsh realities of war and details the hidden reason for the buildup of troops in Vietnam, Hilgartner touches on the innocence of youth and lazy summer days spent with friend and dancing partner, Jacqueline Bouvier, who would go on to become the wife of President John F. Kennedy.
At 16 he was earning extra money during the summer in Newport, RI., by cutting hedges for the wealthy residents when he met and befriended Hugh Auchincloss, the stepbrother of Jackie Bouvier. ÒI had a secret crush on Jackie,Ó reveals Hilgartner.
ÒThere was a dance and Mom said, ÔWhy donÕt you call up Jackie Bouvier and ask her to go with you. SheÕs a nice young lady.Õ I was flabbergasted when she said yes,Ó said Hilgartner. ÒI couldnÕt drive then so I sent a taxi to pick her up and with a corsage. When I finished that night, IÕd spent so much money, I was flat broke,Ó said Hilgartner of his first evening with Bouvier.
Secret crush not withstanding, Hilgartner knew the young beauty was not destined for him. ÒI knew she was being prepared to marry wealth. She was being groomed to marry someone far wealthier than me. But we hung around that summer together. We were pals,Ó said Hilgartner.
HILGARTNER THEN turns his attention to the military and to the serious topic of war. As a retired Colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, he has an intimate knowledge of the strategy and twists of fate that can determine the course of history.
John Ripley, also a retired Colonel in the USMC said, ÒThis is not your standard memoir. This is primarily a story of leading Marines in combat from someone universally recognized as a successful combat leader. In two wars, Pete Hilgartner gained a considerable amount of combat experience. His Marines were all the better for it, especially during Operations Union and Swift and the Que Son Valley in Vietnam.Ó
Hilgartner reveals two unknowns about the Vietnam War. First, how the Marine deployments began from the perspective of someone privy to the initial decisions, and second, the story of three major battles during the Vietnam War that were never fully reported on.
Hilgartner contends the buildup of troops in Vietnam happened because of a Hawk Unit. Hawk Units are stationary missile, anti-aircraft units.
ÒThe Marine buildup went from one Hawk Unit to feeding infantry to protect them. The enemy didnÕt have airplanes. What did we even need a Hawk Unit there for? This is the gospel truth of what happened,Ó said Hilgartner.
At this time Hilgartner worked directly with Admiral Thomas Moorer, who later became Chief of Naval Operations, and Hilgartner was either in the room or on the phone when strategic decisions were being made. On several occasions he acted as a liaison between Moorer and Gen. Krulak, who requested the Hawk Unit.
Hilgartner wrote, ÒTo this day I do believe that General Victor Krulak put a Marine missile unit in Vietnam because it would need infantry troops to defend it. He was doing that as a subterfuge to get Marine infantry into Vietnam without creating a stir in the press. Gen. Krulak had a good political reason for deploying a Marine Hawk unit in Vietnam, but to my mind there was never a tactical reason for bringing in such a unit.Ó
The story of the three pivotal battles in HilgartnerÕs life were bloody events that tested his mantle as a leader and a man. ÒUnion One, Union Two and Swift, these were major battles and have never received much attention,Ó said Hilgartner.
ÒWe lost, in terms of violence, twice as many men as Hue City, which now has a ship named after it,Ó said Hilgartner about Swift. That battle is an example of military experience and discipline aiding in the outcome. Outnumbered by about 1,200 NVA to 350 Marines, Hilgartner made several crucial decisions that day that saved his troops from walking into an ambush.
ÒTHAT WAS a hell of a battle. I really wasnÕt sure I was going to make it that day,Ó said Hilgartner.
Ripley said, ÒCombat leaders are not born, nor do they necessarily show up when they are needed. The Marines who served with Pete Hilgartner were very fortunate to have someone of his caliber and experience when fighting became desperate.Ó
Hilgartner sees parallels between Vietnam and Iraq but is more optimistic about the potential outcome of the current war. ÒI see one thing better. We have better leadership than in Vietnam. And weÕve got a better relationship with the press, though IÕm not entirely happy with it,Ó Hilgartner said. ÒI know they are going to accomplish their mission [in Iraq] if they are just allowed to do it. We could have won in Vietnam if theyÕd let us do it.Ó
ÒThis is a safer war from the troop standpoint. TheyÕve got better equipment to fight with, better food, and they know where their enemy is,Ó Hilgartner said.
This book, said Hilgartner, is important not just for its teaching and history value, but because he is able to express his appreciation to the men who fought beside him. ÒWe got spit on when we got home. They wonÕt forget that, and they shouldnÕt. This is my way of acknowledging them,Ó Hilgartner said.
He knew the book had struck a cord when he received a letter from a mother with a picture in it of her son graduating from the Naval Academy and holding in his hand a copy of HilgartnerÕs "HighpocketÕs War Stories And Other Tall Tales."
Kinnaird McKee, Retired Admiral, U.S. Navy, and former Superintendent of the Naval Academy, said, ÒIn my judgment, this book will appeal to a wide range of thoughtful readers who maintain a serious interest in ground combat by professionals; enlisted men as well as officers. It should become required reading for young infantry leaders in every grade, Army as well as Marine.Ó
Hilgartner, who has a book signing of his work at GilletteÕs Coffee in Great Falls on Saturday, Oct. 9 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., said, ÒThis is about leadership, about struggling, grit, courage, standards and about luck and having a bunch of angels help you out when you need it.Ó