By Alex McRae
When President John F. Kennedy ordered 400 American Special Forces troops into Vietnam in May 1961, Newnan's Mel Hayden had no idea he would soon join them.
In the fall of 1961 Hayden was a first lieutenant attending the U.S. Army's Special Forces Officer Course at Fort Bragg, N.C. He had orders to proceed to Okinawa after completing the course, but when Kennedy decided to increase America's advisory presence in Vietnam, Hayden was told to report to the Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam (MAAG-V). His orders required him to travel on commercial aircraft wearing civilian clothes.
"We didn't want to advertise the fact that American soldiers were coming in," Hayden said. "We wanted to keep things very low key."
Hayden joined approximately 3,000 other American military advisors in Vietnam. He remembers hearing Lt. General Lionel McGarr describe the "urgency" of the situation, but Hayden and his fellow advisors didn't feel threatened at all.
"We were just there to train the South Vietnamese soldiers," Hayden said. "We thought we'd just whip those guys into shape, and they'd be able to take care of things."
Hayden spent five months at South Vietnam's Infantry and Armor Schools advising a company of enlisted men hoping to qualify as officers. He was then transferred to a South Vietnamese Ranger training facility at Trung Lap and quickly realized the Vietnamese "Rangers" bore no resemblance to their American counterparts.
"They were just infantry rifle companies who never had American-style Ranger training," Hayden said. "But they worked hard and did their best and we helped them as much as we could."
Hayden and his fellow advisors trained the Vietnamese in basic marksmanship, communications, unarmed combat and Ranger patrolling tactics, including ambush, reconnaissance and raids.
The Americans then followed the South Vietnamese trainees into the field to watch them put their lessons to work against a live, armed enemy -- North Vietnamese troops.
"We were just getting started," Hayden said. "They needed a lot of work and we gave it to them."
In December 1962, Hayden returned to Fort Bragg and joined the 5th Special Forces Group. Six months later he was promoted to captain and sent back to Vietnam in command of a 12-man team that recruited and trained more than 800 Vietnamese troops between July and December of 1963.
Hayden's group also fought for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. His team's two medics ran a medical facility for Vietnamese civilians, trained village health workers and ran "sick calls" for locals that often drew 75 to 100 people a day.
They also spent plenty of time in enemy territory teaching South Vietnamese soldiers the combat trade.
"We took some casualties," Hayden said. "On my second tour things were a little more serious. We were training troops to guard villages and we could put them into as much hot water as we wanted. We didn't make it too hard on them, but it was still dangerous work."
The day President Kennedy was killed, Hayden had just placed 300 troops near the Cambodian border. He remembers the Vietnamese thinking Kennedy's assassination was part of an attempt to overthrow the American government.
"They didn't understand American politics at all," Hayden said. "There were coup attempts all the time in Vietnam, and for them political assassinations were just business as usual. They thought it was that way in America, too."
In the summer of 1962, halfway through Hayden's first Vietnam deployment, Newnan's David Markby arrived in Saigon just days after completing Army basic and advanced training.
"They sent me over pretty quick," Markby said. "We didn't even know where Vietnam was."
Markby worked as a radiotelepgraph operator for an Army unit stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base outside Saigon. The base was also his home. In fact he helped build the tent city at Tan Son Nhut that would soon house some of the thousands of American advisors that were pouring into the country.
"We put up the tents and then we lived in them," Markby said.
Markby spent his days sending and receiving messages between American advisors overseeing South Vietnamese Army combat operations.
"We heard lots of traffic about battles and knew our people were out there. But it really wasn't a big deal," Markby said.
After six months, Markby swapped his tent at Tan Son Nhut for a room at the Hung Dao Hotel in Saigon. The accommodations were better, but the security situation was worse.
"There were bombs going off all the time in Saigon," Markby said. "None of us were ever hurt, but you had to be careful. We were especially worried about villagers who worked in the fields all day and came to town at night to blow things up. Nobody wore uniforms, so you never knew who the enemy was."
Markby said that as he watched planes packed with advisors fly into Tan Son Nhut each day, he knew the American presence was building but he and his fellow soldiers weren't concerned.
"Nobody was shooting at us," he said. "We were just doing our duty. We weren't really scared or worried about anything."
Neither were his folks back home.
"I remember telling my mother I was going to Vietnam, and none of us thought anything about it," Markby said.
The U.S. buildup in Vietnam gained more urgency in October 1962, when U.S. spy planes photographed Soviet troops building a nuclear missile base in Cuba -- just 90 miles from America.
Kennedy's threat to engage in nuclear war if necessary ended what came to be called the "Cuban Missile Crisis" and convinced the Soviets to dismantle the Cuban base. But the act of Communist aggression so close to home made Kennedy more determined than ever to aid the South Vietnamese against North Vietnamese forces, which by then were openly supported and supplied by the Soviets.
By the time Coweta's Chuck Crawford arrived in Vietnam as an Army Captain in June 1963, an estimated 14,000 American advisors were already there.
Crawford got a taste of what Vietnam would be like when his first orientation session in Saigon had to be relocated because a bicycle packed with explosives blew up at the building where he and other new arrivals were scheduled to meet.
"It was a eye-opener," Crawford said. "But we didn't worry about it too much. We just went about our business."
Crawford was assigned to Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MAC-V) and served as an advisor to the 14th Civil Guard Battalion in Pleiku. Most of the soldiers he trained were Montagnards, an indigenous ethnic group located largely in Vietnam's central highlands.
"The Vietnamese didn't like the Montagnards," Crawford says. "They treated them the way Americans used to treat Indians. But they were loyal and supportive of their leadership and they were fierce fighters, too. They were good soldiers."
Crawford spent a lot of time visiting village leaders across Pleiku Province to build support for the American presence. "We went out all the time spreading the message of democracy and good will," he said. "That was a big part of the job."
But the job also included advising on combat operations and Crawford soon learned that being an American advisor didn't guarantee your safety in a firefight. In fact, quite the opposite.
"The North Vietnamese didn't like us being there and didn't mind showing it," Crawford said.
The base at Pleiku was home to an American helicopter battalion. Choppers were used to ferry supplies and equipment throughout the area and helicopter gunships went along to provide security.
American advisors sometimes rode in gunships to battle sites to oversee combat operations and help troops on the ground distinguish between friendly and enemy forces.
One day a gunship carrying Crawford was shot full of holes by an enemy machine gun.
American advisors were under strict orders not to shoot unless they were fired upon, but Crawford said that order was largely ignored. "If we saw the bad guys we didn't wait to get shot at," he said. "I wasn't going to give anybody a crack at me for free."
Crawford -- a career soldier who joined the Army in 1954 and served until retiring in 1986 as a colonel -- said he and his fellow advisors were actually glad to see some combat action.
"We had spent a lot of time training to be soldiers and we were ready to put what we had learned into practice," he said. "We were doing our duty and nobody was particularly apprehensive about it."
When Kennedy was assassinated Crawford didn't notice any immediate change in military operations. But not long after Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as president, the American strategy in Vietnam shifted dramatically.
Kennedy had wanted to support the South Vietnamese financially and militarily as they fought for their own freedom against North Vietnam. Johnson wanted to win the war, and the sooner the better.
Johnson became more and more frustrated by the South Vietnamese Army's lack of success and decided the only way to win the war was to put American combat troops into action. But he couldn't do it as long as Americans served in a strictly "advisory" capacity.
Johnson needed a reason to send U.S. troops to war. In August 1964, a minor skirmish between an American naval destroyer and North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin gave Johnson the excuse he needed to send U.S forces into battle against North Vietnam.
Johnson talked Congress into passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized "all necessary action" to protect U.S. forces in Vietnam. In a televised address to the Nation, Johnson said that more troops were necessary to protect American forces serving as advisors in Vietnam. He then assured citizens that "...the United States seeks no wider war."
At the time, American deaths in Vietnam since 1956 were fewer than 400. That number was about to skyrocket.