Michael Archer


MICHAEL ARCHER grew up in northern California and served in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine in 1967-68.  His books include A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered, which VIETNAM magazine called “the best first-hand account of the battle of Khe Sanh;” A Man of His Word: The Life and Times of Nevada’s Senator William J. Raggio; and, his most recent book, The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited, chronicling his search for answers to a friend’s mysterious death at Khe Sanh.  The Long Goodbye was named the 2016 INDIES Book of the Year in the category of War & Military nonfiction by a panel of librarians and booksellers from among hundreds of submissions by independent publishers and university presses from across the nation.


Michael's articles and essays have appeared in The Nevada Review, Political History of Nevada 2016; Reno-Tahoe and Red Clay magazines. His research is frequently cited in works by writers of historical non-fiction. He was a technical adviser in preparing the screenplay for the 2013 short film about Khe Sanh, Guarding Charlie and was a cast member in the 2015 documentary film The Siege of Khe Sanh.


Michael has spoken at numerous universities, colleges and other venues across the country.  In addition to his writing, Michael is currently a staff member with the Senate Committee on Finance of the Nevada State Legislature and lives in Reno.                                     

                           INDIES  Book of the Year 

2016


                                   The Long Goodbye

  

 

                                     A Patch of Ground


                                     A Man of His Word







I was honored to be asked to be keynote speaker at the November 11, 2017 Veterans Day ceremony at Eastern Kentucky University to dedicate a monument in memory of my friend Robert “Doc” Topmiller and other fallen veterans. For those of you who were unable to attend, here is the text of that speech: 


                         Me, Dr. George Herring and  EKU President Michael Benson 

President Benson, Doctor Morris, distinguished guests.  What an honor it is for me to be preceded at this podium by Dr. George Herring.  Dr. Herring, a Navy veteran, is one of the country’s leading, and most sought after, experts on U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy.   But more importantly to the theme of today’s ceremony, beginning in the late 1970’s, when our country was still very much politically divided over the recently ended war in Vietnam, domestic unrest, Nixonian abuses of power, and the decline of American prestige abroad, Dr.  Herring’s balanced examination of that era in his books and treatises, helped us to understand how we had gotten to that place and were instrumental in moving this nation past that “long national nightmare.”  

 

I would also like to thank Dr. Chris Taylor and Dr. Brett Morris for inviting me here today; for their generous hospitality and for the extraordinary work they did over the last few years in advancing this meaningful project, not merely to remember those who gave that last full measure of devotion in the service of our country, but as guardians of something even more precious—their reputations. This is my fourth trip to Eastern Kentucky University and each time I return I’m pleasantly reminded of the real sense of community and spirit of purpose displayed by students and faculty.  There is certainly no timelier example of that spirit than in our presence here this morning.

 

In 2004, I reunited with EKU history professor Robert “Doc” Topmiller, my close friend from the Vietnam War.  Despite it being 34 years since we last spoke, it seemed like almost no time had passed, picking up on threads of conversations we had started back then and soon relapsing into the grim, satiric humor that we’d developed in combat—a coping mechanism I later recognized—to deal with issues that might otherwise have overwhelmed us emotionally.  

 

Doc invited me to speak to his students, and, on my first day here on campus, he took the opportunity to tease me by fabricating a darkly humorous hypothesis. In January 1968 I had been with a platoon then guarding the District Headquarters compound in Khe Sanh town when we were suddenly attacked by several hundred enemy assault troops. Though badly outnumbered, we fought for two days and then managed to escape just as we were running out of ammunition, allowing those communist forces a substantial propaganda coup from having captured, up to that point in the war, the first seat of government within South Vietnam.

 

Doc amusingly spun that event for his students, saying that this boost in enemy morale "created by PFC Archer's surrender," had transformed the northern forces into a juggernaut and thus was directly responsible for the fall of Saigon seven years later. Accordingly, he introduced me to each class as: "The person who single-handedly lost the Vietnam War." While most of his students knew it was a joke and laughed, there were always a few faces that remained contorted in revulsion throughout my lecture.  I, of course, loved every moment of it, basking in the joy of our renewed special bond and pleased that nothing seemed to have changed over the years.  But I was wrong.

 

By 2006, I’d come to realize my friend was now spiraling into PTSD-fueled despair, but I was encouraged that several PTSD researchers at the time were of the opinion that some of this disorder stemmed from a combat vet’s sense of alienation after returning home. This was not necessarily due to being shunned, as had been experienced by most Vietnam War vets; but rather because they longed for the loyalty, trust, cooperation and self-sacrifice that typified good soldiering in battle that was not easily found in modern civilian society. As such, I naively believed that our grim but comical wartime patois at the absurdity of the human condition, was just the medicine Doc needed to overcome this; the same way it had appeared to work in combat years before. However, it proved to be far more complicated than that.

 

As a nineteen-year-old combat corpsman-medic during the brutal 77-day siege of Khe Sanh, Doc Topmiller had been thrust into the unimaginable position of each day having to save many, of what turned out to be, nearly 400 killed and 2,500 wounded young Americans; treating injuries ranging from relatively clean bullet holes to gaping artillery shrapnel wounds and horribly burned bodies, all within a filthy underground environment with few sophisticated medical tools at his disposal, some literally dying in his arms.

 

It was not until two years later, when he ended his life, that I was forced accept the reality that each wound Doc had touched at Khe Sanh, physical or not, had become his own and was painfully reminded of a doleful verse by A.E. Housman a century before: "The saviors come not home tonight. Themselves they could not save."  

 

There is no good data on how many Vietnam veterans took their own lives because they could not cope, but no doubt many did. Psychiatrist/author Jonathan Shay suggested that fully twice as many of those veterans died by their own hand than by the enemy's.  And while many PTSD researchers concede that high levels of intrusive memories among combat vets can predict the relative risk of suicide, other predictors are unclear. All we do know is that many American veterans of all wars are struggling with this life and death issue each day and more awareness of the seriousness and complexity of their plight is needed. To further that end, this academic institution dedicated a memorial bench a few years ago. 

 

Sadly, in addition to today’s unveiling of the monument commemorating those lost in war; we are also here to witness a new name being added to that bench, honoring a veteran who later succumbed to such invisible, unhealed wounds suffered in his service to our nation.

 

The most profound lesson I learned in my search to understand post-war trauma, is that wars do not end once the shooting stops. War ends within families.  For those who we have come to honor today, the war is over.  But, for those who have suffered the immeasurable sorrow of having lost a son or daughter, father or mother, brother or sister, the war never ends.  And so, it is only fitting that today, and on every occasion when we stop to pay tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, we never forget those they left behind with a piece missing from their lives and a perpetual anguish at “what might have been.”

 

In battle, soldiers often bond into ties similar to a family that has been compared, since at least the time of Shakespeare’s Henry V, to a “band of brothers.” Among them, grief for a fallen friend can be equally intense.   About eight years ago I came to know a former Marine, Allen V. Williams, who had fought at Khe Sanh, though in a different unit than mine, and had been wounded in an unsuccessful attempt retrieve the body of his close friend, Tom Mahoney. Mahoney, one of the last Americans to die at Khe Sanh, and on the very day that infamous combat base was finally abandoned, had been my high school buddy and we had joined the Marines together. My later search for Tom, and for answers to the unusual circumstances surrounding his death, became the subject of my book The Long Goodbye. It was during that research that I found Allen, who, as it turned out spent   months in a New York Naval Hospital recovering from his wounds, and then had a long, accomplished career as an actor in television and Hollywood films. Despite this uncommon level of fame and success throughout his life, Allen told me: “A day never goes by that I don’t think of Tommy. For a long time, I thought of trying to talk to someone about it, but for the most part, I just buried it in some deep part of my heart.” Needless to say, we immediately bonded in the commonality of our grief.  On Veterans Day 2010, both Allen and I received the same eloquent and heartfelt message from his daughter Carrie.

 

In closing, I would like to share her words with you and dedicate her sentiment to my fellow veterans here today:

 

“I wish you had never had to endure the tragedy and turmoil of war, or had to grow up too fast, or lose your best friends in combat. I could never understand where you have been. I can only be grateful for the impact you both have made on my life. Thank you for your service to our country, for your love of each other, and the example you set for the next generation.”  

Thank you.   

 


 

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                    Fantastic news to share! 

The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited, was selected as the INDIES best book of 2016 in the category of “War and Military.”  There were many hundreds of excellent submissions in that category from small and independent publishers and university presses across the country  and so I am truly honored by this. 

 https://awards.forewordreviews.com/winners/2016/war-and-military-2/

 

********* 
Coming in Early 2018

  The Gunpowder Prince     

How U.S. Marine Captain Mirza Munir Baig

Saved  Khe Sanh

Michael Archer

I wasn't going to write another Khe Sanh book, but I just love life's absurdities and this is a classic. 

In January 1968  the North Vietnamese Army surrounding the combat base , and outnumbering the  defenders at Khe Sanh  5-1, prepared to close in  for the kill. What the Marines crucially needed at that moment was an infusion of  intelligent and creative countermeasures—with no room for error.

As if on cue, a helicopter landed in a steady drizzle at the Khe Sanh airfield and offloaded a thirty-five-year-old Marine captain. His name was Mirza Munir Baig, nicknamed “Harry” during Officer Candidates School eight years earlier; a Cambridge-educated, India-born Muslim and inheritor of a proud and fierce, seven-hundred-year-long Western Himalayan tribal warrior tradition. 

 Captain Baig was a combination counterintelligence and artillery expert who had been in Vietnam since 1962 interrogating POWs and establishing spy networks with tentacles all the way to Hanoi. 

I would work alongside this uncommon Marine officer for the next ten weeks, throughout near-constant enemy artillery bombardment and regular bloody ground attacks against us, and would come to recognize, along with others who observed him, that, as our target intelligence officer, Harry’s ancestral panache, classical education, tactical expertise and matchless intellect were instrumental in saving us “infidels” (as he sometimes entertainingly referred to those of us around him) from defeat.

Harry Baig had been rehearsing his entire life to step on to a stage like Khe Sanh and shape the course of history. And, in the end, our fate would hinge on the seeming absurdity that he came to Khe Sanh armed with only a distinctive, inwardly curved, ancestral khukri sword on his hip, an old family score to settle, and a stack of well-thumbed volumes of antiquated British, French and Vietnamese military history.

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UPDATE (September 23, 2016)

I RECENTLY HAD THE GOOD FORTUNE of being a guest of Ellie Newman for an hour on her show That Got Me Thinking at the studios of KDPI - FM 88.5 in Ketchum (Sun Valley), Idaho to discuss my new book The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited.

Ellie’s smooth, informed, interviewing style, coupled with an insightful recognition of the complexity of emotions engendered by the Vietnam War—and Tom Mahoney’s fatal decision— required me to dig deeply into my feelings about war, duty, loyalty and survivor’s guilt; the result being one of the most frank and thought-provoking interviews I’ve had.

Click to listen: That Got Me Thinking interview with Michael Archer

                                     
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UPDATE (June 22, 2016)
IN THE CLOSING HOURS of the American occupation of Khe Sanh Combat Base in July 1968, after the longest and bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War, Tom Mahoney inexplicably walked away from his platoon, unarmed, and was shot to death by enemy soldiers hiding nearby. His body was never recovered.

After decades of exhaustive research, I have been able to describe in The Long Goodbye why Tom, my high school buddy and fellow Marine, took that mysterious walk into oblivion. However, several attempts over the years by American and Vietnamese search teams to locate his remains (and even the use of a psychic) have been disappointing. As such, I’m delighted to report that another effort by a joint U.S.-Vietnamese search team last week, this time taking with them for the first time actual eyewitnesses to the events of that tragic afternoon, returned with news that this long, painful quest may soon be coming closer to fruition. 

Frank Ahearn and Tom Northrop, two members of Tom Mahoney’s platoon the day he was killed, and involved in attempts to recover the body from under an intense enemy ambush, led the searchers to the correct area of the hill (about 500 meters from where the teams had been previously looking).

According to these men, they were able to locate a convergence of two trenchlines at the location of the gate through which Mahoney had walked to his death. The team then searched the area with metal detectors, clearing away a good deal of underbrush in a square of about 100 feet on a side, and soon located several pieces of barbed wire, a button and what appeared to be some grenade parts, including pins and unexploded detonators. Also nearby in an old bomb crater they found a decaying plastic poncho, a belt of fifty-caliber machine gun ammunition, several spent bullet casings and a metal ammo box—all issued to American forces in that period. Not far away they located a sizable fragment of the tube from a Marine light anti-tank weapon (LAW), shoulder-fired rocket launcher. 

Those familiar with the details of Tom’s death from reading The Long Goodbye will be excited by how promising these initial findings are. They show extensive American habitation at that location, and Tom was lost not far from the barbed wire defenses around that gate area. The Long Goodbye also contains a photo taken a few days before Mahoney’s death of his squad leader, Ken Fernandes, standing beside the sole fifty-caliber machine gun on that hill, not far from where Tom was last seen. The hand grenade pieces are even more encouraging because the fighting that day by six Marine volunteers to retrieve his body (three of whom were wounded) was hampered by the inability of everyone involved  (including the enemy soldiers using Tom’s body as bait) to identify targets amid the thick vegetation—forcing all into a lengthy hand grenade duel.

It is now up to the U.S. Defense POW-MIA Accountability Agency to decide when to begin excavating for Tom. I’ll keep you posted as more information arrives. 



Caption: Parts of old hand grenades recently located near the surface on Hill 881 South at the site identified by Ahearn and Northrop as where Tom Mahoney was last seen.