“Armored Cav in Vietnam: Col. William Haponski”
Describe to me the moment you decided to join the military.
“I was 17 years old, a few months short of graduation. I had been urged by some great teachers to go to college, but I took all business courses instead, poor preparation for what was to come. I saw a short article on taking a civil service exam for West Point, took the exam and was only the third alternate. It took three years, and finally, I scored highest in New York State and could have appointment to West Point or Annapolis. I took West Point, a great decision.”
What was your mission in Vietnam and how was your unit organized?
“I had 27 M48A3 tanks, 63 ACAVs (Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicles), 4 flame thrower tracks, and other armored tracked vehicles in my 1/4 Cav — over 100 total, plus many more OPCON (operational control) to me most of the time, and also infantry and mech infantry OPCON. I air assaulted infantry as often as did the infantry battalions in 1st Division. In addition, I had artillery, air cav, and air — Air Force, Navy, Marine — in direct support during contacts.”
“We fought six major battles, the three largest being defense of our fire support base at night against a reinforced NVA (North Vietnamese Army) battalion, the attack into the Michelin Rubber Plantation against two reinforced battalions and a regimental headquarters in bunkers, and a counter-ambush attack against a reinforced regiment on both sides of a supply route in bunkers and spider holes three miles long, the longest I ever heard of in Vietnam.”
Tell me the story of your most profound experience while in uniform.
“In 1968 Vietnam I was the senior staff officer of 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (Plans and Operations, then Executive Officer.) I often went on missions with our units in contact with the enemy, VC (Viet Cong) and NVA. In 1969 I took command of 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division. We were configured as a task force of armored cavalry, air cavalry, tanks, straight-leg, and mech infantry. I was with my troops on the ground as we fought six major battles, and like them, I had to kill at close range so as not to be killed. I learned a great deal about those wonderful guys, and about myself. I would not trade that experience for any other.”
What smell, taste, or touch symbolizes the military to you?
“We fought the largest battle ever fought in the bloody Michelin Rubber Plantation. The smell of tanks and ACAVs firing at a determined skillful enemy – the cordite you smell and taste – the air support screaming down, releasing their bombs and napalm – the smell of your men’s blood, and the gruesome sight and smell of enemy blown to bits – the look of what had been beautiful rubber trees that are now hideously scarred, twisted, leaking white latex down their trunks – the terrible stench of the dead rotting in 100 degree heat — all of this and more symbolizes an armored cavalry task force in Vietnam battle.”
What did you do before the military?
“I was a farm kid who worked hard, loved to get paid for doing a good job on the farm, factory, and other jobs. I had another year of postgraduate courses in math and sciences, and then a year at Cornell in civil engineering, and as an enlisted man in the Naval Reserve, all of which prepared me well for West Point.”
What would surprise the average civilian about your military experience?
“Not only did I do all the military things from Lieutenant to Colonel, but about half of my assignments were a combination of military and civilian duties. I earned a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from Cornell as I taught full time and directed courses at West Point on two tours. My last two assignments were at the University of Vermont as Professor of Military Studies and head of the ROTC program, and the same at Fordham University.”
Tell me about your best day in uniform.
“My best day was a military wedding in which I married the young lady who loved me, and to date, we have had over 62 wonderful years together.”
When you hear the term “leader” who is the first person that comes to mind? Why?
“I think of Lieutenant Colonel Minh Chau of the South Vietnamese Marine Corps. He was a marvelous district chief, so good that if all South Vietnamese officers had his courage, character, and skills with both his military units and his civilians in his district, we might not have had to fight a Vietnam war.”
The service is a time of great learning on a personal level: what did you learn about yourself, what did you learn about others, and what did you learn about the world?
“I learned that the world is both a marvelous place and a highly dangerous one, and the people who make the most contributions have integrity, courage, ambition, and dedication to serving others.”
What advice would you give to a young officer about to take his first Platoon?
“Look, listen before you talk, and treat each event as a learning experience.”