Monday, 15 February 2010

Al Lavelle, John Vann and Lamar McFadden "Mac" Prosser, - South Vietnam icons/iconoclasts

Al Lavelle leaning on one of the two aircraft he owned and piloted regularly. Al mastered aerial acrobatics and stunts in his specially designed planes, but some of the best stunts he pulled, was working for USAID in South Vietnam.Al taught me a stunt or two, but above all he taught me to put people first, and deal with the bean counters in HQs later.

I was 22 years old, going 23, when I first met Al Lavelle, in Qui Nhon, South Vietnam in 1971.

Two months earlier I had returned to New Zealand after spending 13 months in Antarctica with three other men, and I was looking for work overseas with a humanitarian organisation. Luckily I was interviewed and accepted to join the 4th New Zealand Red Cross Refugee Welfare Team, working with displaced people in South Vietnam.

Al Lavelle and our New Zealand Red Cross team worked with Montagnard (hill tribes) internally displaced people photographed below.

The photo of our team is above L to R. Simon Evans, Bob Mckerrow, Andrianne Lattimore, John Gordon and Peter Barnes.

I had only been in Qui Nhon a few days when I met Al, a sturdy barrel-chested second generation Irish-American. He wore an Hawaiin shirt, partially buttoned up with a mass of greying hair growing over the top button, and a black hat with a coloured hat-band woven by Montagnard women. Al would have been 51 then and in fine physical shape. Over the next year Al became a sort of guru to me, and introduced me to reality of working in war zones, and what humanitarian aid was, and how the line between aid, politics and war was blurred.

Al was an advisor to USAID on refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). More than anyone else in my life, it was Al who made me realise that the Red Cross with its seven principles which includes neutrality, impartiality and independence, needed to keep a certain distance from gun-slinging USAID workers, and the many US soldiers that surrounded us. He was a generous man with a heart of gold, and found his true calling working with IDPs and refugees.

Saigon i (below)n the 1971, the Paris of the East. Photo: Bob McKerrow


Many children in South Vietnam lost legs and arms by stepping on landmines. Frequently we would find injured children in villages and bring them back to Qui Nhon to have limbs fitted. Here is a young boy I brought back and after two months, was playing football. Photo: Bob McKerrow

I slowly got to know Al Lavelle during 1971, sitting in his trailer hut, sometimes drinking Budweiser or Jack Daniels, or just sitting on the beach and hearing his stories. We did a number of field trips together, to Van Canh and Bong Song where I was supervising the construction of two schools.

The first trip I did with Al was to An Khe, in the central highlands. We were about 5 km from An Khe pass when the US forces launched an all out aerial attack on Vietcong position near the pass. As an array of helicopters swooped in for the attack, Al would excitedly tell me, "That's a Cobra," or " That's a Huey or Chinook." Al would stop his olive green Jeep by the road side and explain to me the intracacies of laying landmines and show me claymores and other booby trap mines..

Another trip I did with Al was from Qui Nhon to Pleiku, where I met the man he admired most, John Vann (photo right), a fellow pilot and an inconoclast like Al.
Vann was an impressive man, a man in a hurry with a mission to right the wrongs of the US Government in South Vietnam.
Lavelle served on staff of the famous John Paul Vann in Southeast Asia working in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. That is when I met Al. He was staunchly loyal to his country but was disenchanted by the direction his Government was taking in Vietnam, and that is why he had a huge amount of respect for, and hope, for John to fix it. I recall the day John Vann became Al's boss when he was appointed commander of II Corp in about April 1971. He excitedly told me " John Vann has just been appointed to get this war back on track, he'll show them."

Montagnard refugees in Pleiku where I first met John Vann in 1971 and where I worked in 1973-74 for one year. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Vann's wit and iconoclasm did not endear him to many military and civilian careerists, but to Al Lavelle and many young civilian and military officers he became a hero as he understood the limits of conventional warfare in the irregular environment of Vietnam, and dare to chellenge his superiors.Vann was assigned to South Vietnam in 1962 as an advisor to Col. Huynh Van Cao, commander of the ARVN 7th Division. In the thick of the anti-guerrilla war against the Viet Cong Vann became aware of the ineptitude with which the war was being prosecuted, in particular the disastrous Battle of Ap Bac, January 2, 1963. Vann, directing the battle from a spotter plane overhead, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery in taking enemy fire. He attempted to draw public attention to the problems, through press contacts such as New York Times reporter David Halberstam, focusing much of his ire on the US commander in the country, MACV chief Gen. Paul D. Harkins.

1971 saw a scaling down of US troops, but the roads of South Vietnam were dotted with US military equipment. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Vann was forced from his advisor position in March 1963 and left the Army within a few months. He returned to Vietnam in March 1965 as an official of the Agency for International Development (AID). When I arrived in Vietnam in 1971 Vann was assigned as the senior American advisor in II Corps Military Region when the war was winding down and troops were being withdrawn. For that reason, his new job put him in charge of all United States personnel in his region, where he advised the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) Commander to the region and became the first American civilian to command U.S. regular troops in combat. His position was the job of a Major General.

The meeting of man and moment: John Paul Vann (white shirt) and his staff at their Pleiku headquarters

Al Lavelle was thrilled to be working for John Vann again and served him loyally he advising him on internally displaced people and refugees that were noving back and forth between Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Al Lavelle knew so much about IDPs, refugees and used to regail me with stories of his work with refugees and quote UN refugee conventions. His hero John Vann was killed after the Battle of Kontum , when his helicopter crashed in 1972. Al Lavelle lost one of his most respected friends and colleague.

Journalist Neil Sheehan wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam history and biography of Vann, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in his book, Sheehan describes Vann as an ardent critic of how the war was fought, both on the part of the Saigon regime, which he viewed as corrupt and incompetent, and, as time went by, increasingly, on the part of the U.S. military. In particular, he was critical of the U.S. military command, especially under William Westmoreland, and their inability to adapt to the fact that they were facing a popular guerrilla movement while backing a corrupt regime. He argued that many of the tactics employed (for example the strategic hamlet relocation) further alienated the population and thus were counterproductive to U.S. objectives. In the late 90's a movie was made about John Vann's time in Vietnam. Al Lavelle used to quote Vann and one of his favourites was
"If it were not for the fact that Vietnam is but a pawn in the larger East-West confrontation, and that our presence here is essential to deny the resources of this area to Communist China, then it would be damned hard to justify our support of the existing government." Like Vann, Al Lavelle was unhappy with the way his Government closed a blind eye to the high levels of corruption and gross inefficiencies of the Government of South Vietnam.

This is a typical village that Al Lavelle and I worked in on the road between Pleiku and An Khe. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Returning from Vietnam, Lavelle became an educator teaching languages and world history for 23 years at Roosevelt High School and at the Junior College level.

He was one of only three U.S. teachers selected to teach in the then Soviet Union during the first year of Détente. The exchange was meant to ease tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States.


Last night when looking at my Vietnam photos to post with this story, I began to realise most of the montagnard women were topless At the time, I never noticed it. I do now !

He taught at the University of Foreign Languages in Kiev Ukraine in 1975. Lavelle was often called upon to lecture at various colleges and universities because his knowledge of the Soviet Union was quite extensive and at that time few Americans had really been inside the so-called Iron Curtain.

Al Lavelle, my good friend Mac Lama Prossers, myself any many others who worked with the Montagnard people in South Vietnam, were grief stricken to learn that after taking over South Vietnam in 1975,  the communist government had many religious and political Montagnard leaders executed or imprisoned in harsh re-education camps while simultaneously instituting a policy of cultural destruction and forced assimilation on our population. Examples include the Montagnard Senator Ksor Rot who was publicly executed in 1975 and Minister Nay Luett (who was subjected to torture) and died in a re-education (forced labor/concentration) camp in the 1980s.

The origins of the Montagnard persecution stems from several historical factors namely, the alliance many Montagnards had with the United States military during the Vietnam War and the intent by the current communist regime to exploit the ancestral homelands of the Montagnards in the manner that indigenous peoples around the globe have all suffered by modern encroachment. History will show that it was people like Vann who were part of the US military effort that supported the Montagnards. also influenced the North Vietnamese distrust and dislike for the Montagnards.

Al Lavelle and I were close to Nay Luett the then Minister of Ethnic Minorities and I was very proud that on my departure from Vietnam in 1974, Nay Luett presented me the Ethnic minorities medal first class for the work the New Zealand Red Cross team had done in the for the Montagnard people of Central Highlands of Vietnam for many years. Somewhere I have the medal with the head of an elephant on the ribbon.


During his long and active life, Lavelle pursued his hobbies excelling in competitive acrobatic flying, wood working, painting, music, writing his memoires, and contributing his interviews on Vietnam to Texas Tech University – The Vietnam Archives, Special Collections Library, Rm. 108, Lubbock, TX.

Somewhere round 1999 Al had heart surgery, sold his planes, and ended his flying.
It was Al's last wish that there be no flowers, cards, funeral service or memorial service.

He requested that donations be made to a charity of one's choice. His last Hurrah was: God Bless America, Erin Go Braugh (Free Ireland), Help Russia and the Ukraine become Democratic, followed by God Help Us All.

Allen Silberman  a freind of Al's wrote this tribute: Your comments about Al Lavelle accurately portrayed the man and his ability to see through the facade of politics and war. He was a true humanitarian, a dedicated teacher, a true aviation enthusiast, and most of all the best friend I ever had. During our 40 year friendship we flew many hours together, watched night air strikes, walked into Viet Cong villages together, and spent many hours before the war sitting on his front lawn talking politics and sharing flying stories. Thanks for writing the blog. Al had been a special part of our family since the mid 1960's.

He is survived by his wife of 12 years, Margarita T. Belous-Lavelle; daughters: Jean Antoinette Villarreal and husband, Rogelio of San Antonio, TX; Sheila Marie Lavelle and husband, Steven Tysver of Gloucester, MA; Dawn Lee Miyasaki and husband, Mitsuyuki of New York, NY; grandchildren: Laura A. Cross of Knoxville, TN; Ruth Villarreal of Austin, TX and Roger Villarreal of San Antonio, TX.

Allan J. Lavelle
Born in Denver, Colorado on 15 July. 1920
Died Jun. 15, 2008 and resided in San Antonio, Texas.

I met Il Lavelle and John Vann during my first mission to Vietnam in 1971. I was ar an age when I needed mentors and could I have asked for better ?  I came back again in 1973 and stayed fior another year, leaving in September 1974.  By 1973, the American troops had departed. However the CIA and USAID still had large num,bers of staff.

Lamar McFadden "Mac" Prosser

Then I met Lamar McFadden "Mac" Prosser,  another one of these intriguing characters who was on the South Vietnam and Indo China landscape for many years. Born in 1922, Mac as we knew him, was a polished, suave diplomat, whio I first met in Pleiku in 1973.  Mac impressed me with his work for the International Red Cross in the Congo, and a spell pushing papers in Geneva at Red Cross HQ.  He began his military service in 1940 when the South Carolina National Guard was activated. He served in the 760th Tank Battalion in North Africa, Italy and Germany during World War II.

The New Zealand Red Cross IDP team worked in Pleiku for more than two years, and Mac was always there to support, give advice and encourage. He had loved his time working for Red Cross for a few years during a long military and humanitarian career, and was impressed with the community development work we were doing.

I spent many a long evening with Mac, enjoying his never-endingd hospitality and unlimited duty free grog, discussibng thr world's problems. His knowledge on community development was extensive and we learned from him..

Mac served in Italy and we talked about the various battles including Monte Cassino where my Dad fought. Mac was wounded in Italy but returned to duty four months later. After the war, he served in Indochina and then retired from military service in 1961. He immediately joined AID and had assignments in Chad, Geneva, Bangkok and Saigon, and after his stint in Pleiku 1973-74. moved to Saigon as an advisor to the US Ambassador. Mac was happy in Saigon, because his wife was working for the US Embassy. He retired from AID in 1982.

Mac died at the age of 77 of pulmonary disease on July 21, 1998 at Georgetown University Hospital, Washington, D.C. His wife Katherine, died in 1996.

To John Vann, Al Lavelle and Max Prosser. I thank you. From you guys I learned about war, humanity, peace, and above all, putting people first.


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
I would have loved to have been taught in high school by such a man. I hope he opened the eyes of a few future Americans. Guys like this give me hope for my own country.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Robb

Al Lavelle and John Vann were remarkable men who chose to work within a bad system, and tried to change it. They did indeed make some changes.

Cheers mate.


Gollum said...

You never fail to come out with the surprises Bob.

You met John Vann. Incredible. I bought A Bright Shining Lie about 20 years ago and still read parts of it regularly. A very complicated man was Vann in what was a very complicated war.

So you knew Keith Murdoch and you met Vann. How many other people on my bookshelf did you know? You have mentioned Bonnington. What about Whillans?

Did you know Whillans?

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Hi Gollum

Yeh, Vann was a complicated man, who believed he had the solutions to solve the Vietnam debacle. Had he not been killed, he may have helped the US withdraw with greater dignity.

Who else do I know on your shelf ? Many of them. But so what ? My travels, my work brings many people across my path and I across their path. Life is meeting !

The great ones in terms of mountaineering and polar travelers are:

Bonnington, Doug Scott, John Tinker,Reinhold Messner, Anatoli Boukreev, Rob Hall. Gary Ball, Pete Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Ang Tharkay, Dingle, Murray Jones,Sir Ed, Ed Cotter, Norm Hardie,Junk Tabei (1st woman to climb Everest) Nick Banks, Russell Brice, Erhard Loretan, Lydia Bradey, Naomi Umera, Ran Feines, Bob (Sir Holmes) Millar, Will Steger, Trevor Hatherton, Ann Bancroft, Jean-Louis Ettienne....come to mind. I never met Don Whillans but I arrived in Cahmonix a few days after him as a very young lad, after an Italian climber got stranded on the climb of a building in Chamonix. The guy was about to fall so he shouted, " Throw me a rope !" Whillans threw him a rope, a coiled one, and knocked him off the building and he broke his legs."

I have also met many great humanitarians, politicians, soldiers, sailors, world leaders, poets and writers.

But give me a kiwi farmer, a Fiordland fisherman or a west coast bushman for a mate in a pub ! They have done something !

Unknown said...

Hears to that Bob

Spent a well lubricated evening listening to an old deer recovery fella the other night. There is adventures to be had out there if you take your own path.

I like the old photos.


Donald said...

Dear Bob

This is quite a read... a very good read. That you've chosen to chronicle such inspiring work is very special.

Thank you.

> including Monte Cassino where my Dad fought.

Serendipitously my father was there too. I think it changed the beliefs of many people that one.

I recall him telling me once how they all took a day off to bury the dead - Germans [whom he respected immensely] and New Zealanders worked hand in hand, and the next day took up arms again against each other! How do you handle that one?

Later a Tiger tank came into a railway station and all but my dad was killed. He was wounded and survived, but not those he'd been through Africa with.

Without fear of contradiction I'd say all this has had a very strong influence on how we've been raised.

Food for thought!



Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Donald

I added to this posting last night the bit about Mac Prosser as I like to add bits when they came to ming.

Interesting that both our Fathers were in North Africa and Italy. It had a huge effect on them, and a significant effect on their families. Wars shape people as much as people shape wars.

Vietnam at 22 years of age had a huge effect on me seeing so much death, stupidity, wastage of resources by the US, destruction, senseless killing. As a single guy, it was one or two beautiful and caring Vietnamese women who kept me sane.

Many wars later I wonder if I am any the wiser. As Baldrick said, " war is a terrible thing."


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Unknown said...

I served with Mac Prosser in 1972-73 when he was Province Senior Advisor, Pleiku. As a young officer on my first overseas tour, I was mightily impressed with Mac, whom I viewed as a mentor. As you indicate, he was urbane, courageous and caring, but he insisted on good work. On one occasion, he fired a Major on our team who displayed cowardice in the presence of his Vietnamese counterpart. He disciplined me verbally when I made errors, but he was also quick to praise when it was deserved. When he dispatched us on combat missions, he was truly concerned about our safety and did his best to insure that we received all the support we needed in order to succeed. On one occasion after a six day deployment, he met me at his office with a welcome handshake and a glass of scotch and half-melted ice. Although we were years apart in terms of age and experience, he seemed to enjoy my company and we shared many a libation. The example he provided changed my perspectives and my life in many ways. A number of years ago, I wrote to him as his Washington address to tell him of my affection and admiration, but the letter was returned and marked "Deceased." I trust that he recognized how I admired him before he died.

Michael Harrison

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Quietman

Like you, I had a lot of admiration for Mac Prosser. I lived close to him during 1973-74 when I worked for the RC in Pleiku.

He was a mentor for me too. Thanks for writing this piece as it preserves important memories of a man widely admired, misunderstood by some, but a heart of gold. I wish I knew him better but we did have many evenings over a wee dram or two of the hard stuff. Cheers. Bob

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Thank you for the information. I to served on the province team under Mr. Prosser from December 71 to December 72. I have often wondered about my teammates. It is good to know the Micky Harrison is still around. Doug Davis

Unknown said...

Your comments about Al Lavelle accurately portrayed the man and his ability to see through the facade of politics and war. He was a true humanitarian, a dedicated teacher, a true aviation enthusiast, and most of all the best friend I ever had. During our 40 year friendship we flew many hours together, watched night air strikes, walked into Viet Cong villages together, and spent many hours before the war sitting on his front lawn talking politics and sharing flying stories. Thanks for writing the blog. Al had been a special part of our family since the mid 1960's.

Allen Silberman

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Allen

Great to get your cameo story of Al Lavelle. He truly was a gifted man that could cut through the "bullshit and bureaucracy' inherent in so many Government Departments and organisations.

Fry's Kitchen said...

Thank you for this wonderful story. I recently have read a book about displaced people here in the US and was talking to my mom about the people and the story. She told me Al wrote some stories about Montagnards and I found this site. The wonderful things you state about Al are so true! I knew him personally growing up and knew he was wonderful. He was a very special person aka Santa Clause to me growing up. Thank you for this blog!

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Mike said...

I had Allen for world history, and two years of college level Russian, while at Roosevelt High School. He was an amazing individual, of rare talent. I am starting the process of developing a scholarship in his name that would pay for high school seniors international travel. Cover the cost of a passport, some budget travel, as an effort to provide a "broadening" experience for graduates at Roosevelt HS.