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First Name: John

Last Name: Vann

Birthplace: Norfolk, VA, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Army (1784 - present)

Middle Name: Paul

Date of Birth: 02 July 1924

Date of Death: 09 June 1972

Rank: Lieutenant Colonel

Years Served:
John Paul Vann

•  World War II (1941 - 1945)
•  Korean War (1950 - 1953)
•  Vietnam War (1960 - 1973)


John Paul Vann
Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army

Vann was born as John Paul Tripp on 2 July 1924 in Norfolk, VA, out of wedlock, to John Spry and Myrtle Lee Tripp. Vann's mother married Aaron Frank Vann, and Vann took his stepfather's surname; Vann had three half-siblings, from Aaron and Myrtle: Dorothy Lee, Aaron Frank, Jr., and Eugene Wallace. In 1942, Aaron Vann officially adopted him. The Vann children grew up in near-poverty but through the patronage of a wealthy member of his church, Vann was able to attend boarding school at Ferrum College. He graduated from its high school in 1941 and from its junior college program in 1943. With the onset of World War II, Vann sought to become a pilot.

Military Service

In 1943, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Vann underwent pilot training, transferred to navigation school, and graduated as a Second Lieutenant in 1945. However, the war ended before he could see action. He married Mary Jane Allen of Rochester, NY, in October of that year and they had five children together.

When the Air Corps separated from the Army in 1947 to form its own branch of service, the U.S. Air Force, Vann chose to remain in the Army and transferred to the Infantry. He was assigned to Korea, and then Japan, as a Logistics Officer. When the Korean War began in June 1950, Vann coordinated the transportation of his 25th Infantry Division to Korea. Vann joined his unit, which was placed on the critical Pusan Perimeter until the amphibious Inchon landing relieved the beleaguered forces. In late 1950, in the wake of China's entrance into the war and the retreat of allied forces, now-Captain Vann was given his first command, a Ranger company. He led the unit on reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines for three months, before a serious illness in one of his children resulted in his transfer back to the U.S. He completed his undergraduate degree at Rutgers University; specializing in Economics, Mathematics, and Statistics.

In 1954, Vann joined the 16th Infantry Regiment in Schweinfurt, Germany, becoming the head of the Regiment's Heavy Mortar Company. In 1955, he was promoted to Major and transferred to Headquarters U.S. Army Europe at Heidelberg where he returned to logistics work. In 1957, Vann returned to the U.S. to attend the Command and General Staff College, a requirement for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, and in 1961 Vann was promoted to that rank. He earned his Masters of Business Administration degree from Syracuse University. He also worked at Syracuse toward his doctorate in Public Administration.

Vietnam War Service

Vann was assigned to South Vietnam in 1962 as an Advisor to Colonel Huynh Van Cao, Commander of the ARVN IV Corps. In the thick of the anti-guerrilla war against the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam, Vann became aware of the ineptitude with which the war was being prosecuted, in particular the disastrous Battle of Ap Bac. 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 U.S. Commander in the country, MACV Chief General Paul D. Harkins. Vann was forced from his advisor position in March 1963 and left the Army within a few months.

Civilian Career

Vann accepted a job in Denver with defense contractor, Martin Marietta, and succeeded there in a term of nearly two years, but missed Vietnam and angled to return. Vann returned to Vietnam in March 1965 as an official of the Agency for International Development (AID). After an assignment as Province Senior Advisor, Vann was made Deputy for CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) in the Third Corps Tactical Zone of Vietnam, which consisted of the twelve provinces north and west of Saigon- the part of South Vietnam most important to the U.S. CORDS was an integrated group that consisted of USAID, U.S. Information Service, Central Intelligence Agency, and State Department along with U.S. Army personnel to provide needed manpower. Among other undertakings, CORDS was responsible for the Phoenix program, which involved "neutralization" of the Viet Cong infrastructure.

Vann served as Deputy for Civil Operations and Rural Development Support CORDS III (i.e., commander of all civilian and military advisers in the Third Corps Tactical Zone) until November 1968 when he was assigned to the same position in Four Corps, which consisted of the provinces south of Saigon in the Mekong Delta.

Vann was highly respected by a large segment of officers and civilians who were involved in the broader political aspects of the war because he favored small unit, aggressive patrolling over grandiose, large unit engagements. Unlike many U.S. soldiers, he was respectful toward the ARVN soldiers notwithstanding their low morale, and was committed to training and strengthening their morale and commitment. He encouraged his personnel to engage themselves in Vietnamese society as much as possible and he constantly briefed that the Vietnam War must be envisaged as a long war at a lower level of engagement rather than a short war at a big-unit, high level of engagement.

On one of his trips back to the U.S. in December 1967, Vann was asked by Walt Rostow, an advocate of more troops and Johnson administration National Security Advisor, whether the U.S. would be over the worst of the war in six months: "Oh hell no, Mr. Rostow," replied Vann, "I'm a born optimist. I think we can hold out longer than that." Vann's wit and iconoclasm did not endear him to many military and civilian careerists but he was a hero to many young civilian and military officers who understood the limits of conventional warfare in the irregular environment of Vietnam.

After his assignment to IV Corps, Vann was assigned as the Senior American Advisor in II Corps Military Region in the early 1970s when American involvement in the war was winding down and troops were being withdrawn. For that reason, his new job put him in charge of all U.S. 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 equivalent of the job of a major general. After the Battle of Kontum, he was killed when his helicopter crashed.

On 18 June, President Richard Nixon posthumously awarded Vann the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian citation, for his ten years of service as a top American in South Vietnam. For his actions from 23-24 April 1972, Vann, ineligible for the Medal of Honor as a civilian, was also awarded (posthumously) the Distinguished Service Cross, the only civilian so honored in Vietnam, or since.

Journalist Neil Sheehan wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam history and biography of Vann, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. In this book, Sheehan examines Vann's alleged career-stunting incident involving a morals charge during his service in West Germany and how this possibly affected Vann's future actions and resulting career path in Vietnam. In 1998, HBO made a film adapted from the book, with Bill Paxton playing the role of Vann.

Distinguished Service Cross Citation

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918 (amended by act of July 25, 1963), takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) to John Paul Vann, a United States Civilian, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service as a U.S. civilian working with the Agency for International Development, United States State Department, in the Republic of Vietnam. Mr. Vann distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action during the period 23 April to 24 April 1972. During an intense enemy attack by mortar, artillery and guided missiles on the 22d Army of the Republic of Vietnam Division forward command post at Tan Canh, Mr. Vann chose to have his light helicopter land in order to assist the Command Group. After landing, he ordered his helicopter to begin evacuating civilian employees and the more than fifty wounded soldiers while he remained on the ground to assist in evacuating the wounded and provide direction to the demoralized troops. With total disregard for his own safety, Mr. Vann continuously exposed himself to enemy artillery and mortar fire. By personally assisting the wounded and giving them encouragement, he assured a calm and orderly evacuation. As the enemy fire increased in accuracy and tempo, he set the example by continuing to assist in carrying the wounded to the exposed helipad. His skillful command and control of the medical evacuation ships during the extremely intense enemy artillery fire enabled the maximum number of soldiers and civilians to be safely evacuated. On the following day the enemy launched a combined infantry tank team attack at the 22d Division Headquarters compound. Shortly thereafter, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam defense collapsed, enemy tanks penetrated the compound, and the enemy forces organized .51 caliber anti-aircraft positions in and around the compound area. To evade the enemy the United States advisors moved under heavy automatic weapons fire to an area approximately 500 meters away from the compound. Completely disregarding the intense small arms and .51 caliber anti-aircraft fire and the enemy tanks, Mr. Vann directed his helicopter toward the general location of the United States personnel, who were forced to remain in a concealed position. In searching for the advisors' location, his helicopter had to maintain an altitude and speed which made it extremely vulnerable to all forms of enemy fire. Undaunted, he continued his search until he located the advisors' position. Making an approach under minimal conditions he landed and quickly pulled three United States advisors into the aircraft. As the aircraft began to ascend, five Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers were clinging to the skids. Although the total weight far exceeded the maximum allowable for the light helicopter, Mr. Vann chose to save the Army of the Republic of Vietnam personnel holding on to the skids by having the helicopter maneuver without sharp evasive action. Consequently, the aircraft sustained numerous hits. In order to return to Tan Canh as soon as possible to save the remaining advisors and to save the soldiers clinging to the skids, Mr. Vann detoured his aircraft from Kontum to a nearby airfield. Throughout this time Mr. Vann was directing air strikes on enemy tanks and anti-aircraft positions. While en route back to Tam Canh, Mr. Vann's helicopter was struck by heavy anti-aircraft fire, which forced it to land. Throughout the day Mr. Vann assisted in extracting other advisors and soldiers in the Dak To area. On one such occasion another group of army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers attempted to cling to one side of his helicopter, caused it to crash. Undaunted by these occurrences, Mr. Vann continued directing air strikes and maneuvering friendly troops to safe areas. Because of his fearless and tireless efforts, Mr. Vann was directly responsible for saving hundreds of personnel from the enemy onslaught. His conspicuous gallantry and extraordinary heroic actions reflect great credit upon him and the United States of America.

General Orders: Department of the Army, General Orders No. 32 (August 3, 1972)


"It was a miserable damn performance." (speaking of the Battle of Ap Bac).

"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."

"This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I'm afraid we can't do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worst is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle - you know who you're killing."

"We don't have twelve years experience in Vietnam. We have one year's experience twelve times over."

"In one fell swoop [President Thieu's Land to the Tiller Program] eliminated tenancy in Vietnam. All rents were suspended."

"The basic fact of life is that the overwhelming majority of the population - somewhere around 95 percent - prefer the government of Vietnam to a Communist government or the government that's being offered by the other side."

"These people may be the world's greatest lovers but they're not the world's greatest fighters. But they're good people and they can win a war if someone shows them how." (speaking about the South Vietnamese).

Death and Burial

John Paul Vann died in a helicopter crash on 9 June 1972 in Vietnam. He is buried in Section 11 of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA. His funeral was attended by such notables as Gen. William Westmoreland, Maj. Gen. Edward Lansdale, Lt. Col. Lucien Conein, Senator Edward Kennedy, and Daniel Ellsberg.

Honoree ID: 3170   Created by: MHOH




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