In his memoir, Even the Dust Cried Tears: Memoir of an American Advisor to the Vietnamese Rangers (310 pp. $25.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Stephen Nahay recounts his experiences as a U.S. Army Ranger working with South Vietnamese Army Ranger units from December 1971 to December 1972. A native of New York City, Nahay enrolled in Army ROTC at the City College of New York. Upon receiving his commission as a second lieutenant, he went to Fort Benning for Infantry Officer Basic program, then completed Airborne and Ranger training. Nahay then volunteered to go to Vietnam to work with his ARVN counterparts.
When Nahay arrived in country Vietnamization was well under way, and ground combat operations were being turned over to ARVN units. By early 1972, American troop strength in Vietnam had dropped by nearly two-thirds, from a 1968-69 peak of more than 500,000 to below 157,000. By the end of the year fewer than 15,000 American troops would remain. As the ARVN filled the gap, they relied heavily on American air and sea power.
In late 1971 American advisers no longer served with South Vietnamese companies, only at the regimental and brigade levels. Those still working with ARVN units acted as liaisons to American forces as restrictions were put in place to minimize the risk of injury and death to U.S. troops during a time when public opinion back home turned decidedly against the war.
Nahay served with different ARVN Ranger units throughout his year in Vietnam, rotating from the region around Saigon (III Corps) and the far north near the border with North Vietnam (I Corps). Soon after his arrival the North Vietnamese launched Operation Nguyen Hue—also known as the 1972 Easter Offensive— a massive attack to try to break South Vietnam into pieces and end the war.
The most harrowing part of Nahay’s story is his recounting of a thirty-six hour period when ARVN units withdrew from Quang Tri, the capital of South Vietnam’s northernmost province. In the confusion, Nahay and his senior American advisers found themselves cut off from friendly units fifteen miles behind enemy lines.
For the next day and a half, the Americans and a handful of their ARVN counterparts carefully made their way south on foot. Calling for evacuation by air, they coordinated with a Forward Air Controller to direct airstrikes against the nearby North Vietnamese. Nahay writes that the enemy was so close he could feel the heat of the napalm dropped on them.
The North Vietnamese were heavily equipped with shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles. They shot down FAC planes and a rescue helicopter, and damaged another so badly damaged that it was forced to land before returning to its base. The offensive was blunted, but the NVA’s determination on the battlefield proved a sobering lesson and foreshadowed the 1975 campaign that defeated the South.
Nahay’s gripping account is especially sobering given the scope of the North Vietnamese attack. Through it he gives a compelling account of one young officer’s efforts to help save the South Vietnamese as they fell ever deeper into the shadow of their enemies.