Gen. John D. Lavelle commanded the Seventh Air Force during the Vietnam War. He served five steps down the chain of command from President Nixon. In his oral history — recorded by an Air Force history officer in 1978 — he explained how, six years earlier, his life changed forever.
It started with a meeting with a Thai general, Dawee Chullasapya, who had charged Lavelle with overseeing an operation to destroy anti-aircraft guns in North Vietnam. It was a mission necessary to keep Thailand in the war.
“I said, ‘Marshall Dawee, for every crew that gets one of those 130-millimeter guns, I’m sending them to Bangkok. And you, Dawee, are going to put on the biggest goddamned party Bangkok ever put on for each one of those troops,’ ” Lavelle said. “He said, ‘It’s a deal.’ “
Lavelle’s pilots eventually destroyed 11 guns. The mission was such a success, Lavelle got a wire saying that the Thai prime minister wanted to thank Lavelle himself.
“I also got a wire from [Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Dale] Ryan the same day saying, ‘Come home. You’re fired.’ “
Why Lavelle’s career was cut short without warning is shrouded in executive and military secrecy that marked the end of a losing war. Seven years after Lavelle was fired, he would die of a heart attack — but not before a public shaming that left him a broken man. Forty years later, his family would still be looking for answers.
Not Going In Without A Chance
Lavelle had been in the military for more than three decades when he began to think there was a problem with the rules of engagement — one that was making it more difficult to win the war.
American fighter pilots were not authorized to fire on targets in North Vietnam unless they were fired on first or if there was an indication they were being tracked by enemy radar. This was known as being “activated against.”
But there was a new type of Vietnamese radar that could track American planes without alerting radar detectors in U.S. cockpits. Unknown they were being tracked, American pilots were being shot down.
“One morning, about 2 o’clock in the morning, I was going through paperwork,” Lavelle said. “Included in the paperwork were some letters the chaplain wrote and the commander signed — back to widows or wives of people missing in action.
“I had one I was signing to a wife of a pilot who had flown for me in the 50th Fighter Wing in Europe. I almost couldn’t sign it. I could say to myself, ‘The letter is a form letter, and it’s a fake.’ If we would just go in there aggressively and do the job we had to do instead of the phony rules we were playing with, there was no need for that guy to lose his life. And I resolved then that they weren’t going in there without a chance.”
‘Do It, But Don’t Say Anything’
After months of losing pilots in the tail end of 1971, Lavelle sent a request up the chain of command for a more liberal interpretation of the rules.
“Secretary [of Defense Melvin] Laird told me he agreed but the climate was just not right in Washington for any changes,” Lavelle said. “He told me I should make a liberal interpretation of the rules of engagement in the field and not come to Washington and ask him, under the political climate, to come out with an interpretation; I should make them in the field, and he would back me up.”
What Lavelle didn’t know was that changes were also being discussed in the Oval Office. On Feb. 3, 1972, Ellsworth Bunker, the ambassador to South Vietnam, explained to President Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger why the Air Force needed greater authority to strike targets in North Vietnam.
His voice can be heard on recently released tapes of recordings from the Nixon White House.
“Now the authority is for — to bomb them when they fire at the aircraft,” Bunker says. “Or when the radar’s locked on. The problem is — that’s late to start attacking.”
But because of diplomatic pressures — Nixon’s upcoming visit to China — the officials agreed it was a bad time for the U.S. to appear more aggressive in Vietnam. Nixon issued an OK for Gen. Creighton Abrams, the commander in Vietnam, to authorize strikes without radar activation but to keep it off the books.
“I want you to tell Abrams,” Nixon said, “to tell the military not to put out extensive briefings with regard to our military activities from now on until we get back from China. Do it, but don’t say anything.”
‘I Never Saw Them’
But the truth was Lavelle had already been doing it. Ten days before that meeting in the Oval Office, Lavelle’s pilots took out a runway in North Vietnam so an enemy bomber couldn’t land.
“The mission was successful,” Lavelle said. “The North Vietnamese called off the plan and actually turned the airplane around. In subsequent message traffic, [the Joint Chiefs of Staff] actually commended us for the mission.”
But when the after-action report was issued, there was a problem. It indicated “No reaction” from enemy radar near the runway, which violated the rules of engagement.
“The duty officer called my attention to those words, ‘No reaction,’ ” Lavelle said. “I called my D.O. and asked him to call the wing commander and tell him we could not report ‘No reaction.’ As far as I was concerned, there was no question the system and the radar were activated against us, and I felt we were making a mistake in reporting, ‘No reaction.’
“Of course, this is the report that somehow or the other got blown up into all my trouble.”
It’s still unclear how, but Lavelle’s message was garbled somewhere in the chain of command between Lavelle and a 23-year-old staff sergeant in Thailand who prepared the reports.
That sergeant wrote to his senator, Harold Hughes of Iowa, who described the letter on All Things Considered in 1972.
“And in this letter he started out by saying, ‘Dear Senator Hughes, I and other members of winged intelligence have been falsifying classified reports for missions in to North Vietnam. That is, we’ve been reporting that our planes have received hostile reactions and such anti-aircraft fire and SAM missile firings whether they have or not.’ And the sergeant went on to tell that he’d been instructed to falsify reports.”
Later, Lavelle did not dispute false reports existed, but he said they were the result of miscommunication.
“I’m sure that late that night, with the adrenaline charged as it was, in the command post, it never entered my head that somebody would make their interpretation of my words, and there would be false reports turned in. There is no question of false reports. I saw them later on. I know there were. But anybody who knows anything about Air Force operations knows the four-star commanding general there never sees the op-4 reports. Those are punch cards that go from airman to airman. I never saw them.”
A Broken Man
After the letter, the Air Force ordered an internal investigation into Lavelle’s bombings. In March 1972, Lavelle was ordered home.
“I was hanging around Washington trying to find out what my fate was going to be,” Lavelle said. “Gen. Ryan told me that the secretary of defense had talked to Gen. Abrams, and Gen. Abrams had denied all knowledge of any authorized attacks or any false reports. And that Gen. Abrams would abide by any decision Gen. Ryan and the secretary made. I was pretty shocked.”
His commanders were abandoning him.
Lavelle eventually met with Ryan and made his case that the radar in North Vietnam was different. It had been activated, and Ryan agreed with him on this point. But when it came to the false reports, Lavelle took responsibility, providing protection for those officers beneath him.
“So you have to go,” Ryan told him.
Within a few months, the story exploded into a public spectacle. It was all over the newspapers. Lavelle’s son, John Jr., still keeps the clippings in old manila folder.
“Ex-U.S. commander admits falsifying data,” he reads. “Bombing violation concealed: General admits false data on raids in Northern Vietnam. Lavelle admits or ordered authorized bombings. Lavelle may have hurt peace talks.”
Lavelle was hauled before House and Senate committees to testify. Publicly, the Nixon White House distanced itself from him, but in private, Nixon was furious.
“I don’t want a man persecuted for doing what he thought was right. I just don’t want it done,” Nixon said in a taped conversation on June 14, 1972. “Can we do anything now to stop this damn thing, or?”
But there was nothing to be done. All that was left was for the Senate to confirm his retirement. In an unprecedented step, however, the Senate declined to approve Lavelle’s retirement at the rank of four stars. He was demoted to a two-star general.
“I can remember going to the house,” his son remembers, “finally when it was obvious how this whole thing was going — that he was going to be accused of this whole thing and take full responsibility and full blame for it — for all of it — that he was physically and mentally broken by it. I can remember walking in and seeing him sitting in the chair — kind of slumped over — his hands cupped in his lap — and it scared me because I thought to myself, god, what has happened here?”
Seven years later, in 1979, John Lavelle died of a heart attack.
And the story would have ended there.
But several years ago, the case was resurrected by a lawyer named Pat Casey who stumbled upon it while researching a book. The Obama administration agreed to reconsider Lavelle’s demotion. The Nixon White House tapes, newly released, seemed to suggest Lavelle was acting on orders. The Obama White House asked the Senate to posthumously restore Lavelle’s four stars.
The Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Sens. John McCain and Carl Levin, asked for an independent investigation. Neither senator agreed to speak with NPR about the case but in a statement issued in 2010, the committee cited “inconsistencies” in the historical record.
Part of those inconsistencies may have had to do with a letter the committee received from Charlie Stevenson, who had worked for Sen. Hughes in 1972.
“Nixon may have wanted it. He may have said it to Henry Kissinger and Ellsworth Bunker who were not in the military chain of command. But he never signed a written order to change the rules,” Stevenson wrote.
“[Lavelle] had noble motives,” he wrote. “He wanted to protect the lives of his pilots and thought they were endangered by the existing rules of engagement. So he thought he had a good reason to take winks and nods from higher authorities as some kind of proof that he could bend the rules.”
Casey and the Lavelle family are still in the dark as to why the independent investigation has now gone on for two years. And for them, time is running out: Lavelle’s widow, Mary Jo, is 93.
“She’s hanging in there,” Lavelle’s daughter, Geraldine, says. “She’s doing a good job. And I do think at this point that it has actually become more important to the kids than it is to mom.”
The family takes small solace in Lavelle’s gravestone, which displays four stars at Arlington National Cemetery.
“That was my mother’s doing,” Geraldine says.