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When One Honest Man Made a Difference

by Carl Jensen

He was ordered to lie
Thirty years ago, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was talking peace with the North Vietnamese leaders in Paris. Meanwhile, three of America's top military leaders were expanding the war by launching unauthorized and illegal bombing raids over North Vietnam. It marked the beginning of an untold story of honor versus glory -- a warning that needs repeating today.

The three officers were Admiral Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General Creighton Abrams, overall commander of the U.S. military in Vietnam; and General John D. Lavelle, commander of the Seventh Air Force in Saigon. When the bombing raids were publicly disclosed, the peace negotiations were disrupted and the Vietnam War continued to take its toll for three more years.

But it might have been much worse if it had not been for the conscience of an enlisted man in the Seventh Air Force named Lonnie Franks.

Staff Sergeant Franks was a 23-year-old intelligence specialist assigned to debrief Air Force pilots and crews on their return from missions. At the time, the Air Force was under strict orders not to fire upon the enemy unless they were threatened. During one such debriefing session where they acknowledged bombing the enemy, Franks asked the aircrew if they had received any anti-aircraft artillery fire. They said, "No, but we have to report it."

Franks went to his Officer in Charge, Captain Doug Murray, and told him the aircrew's reports were being falsified to justify the bombing over North Vietnam. The officer told him to report only what the crew told him to report. He was ordered to lie. The false information was then used in the official operational reports and slides for the morning staff briefings.

Franks agonized over the deceit for several weeks before he could no longer stand it. He made copies of several of the reports and sent them along with a letter to his U.S. Senator in Iowa, Harold E. Hughes. Franks' letter went from Sen. Hughes to Gen. John "Three-Fingered Jack" Ryan, Air Force Chief of Staff. Within 24 hours, Ryan sent Lt. Gen. Louis J. Wilson, the Air Force Inspector General (IG) to Seventh Air Force headquarters at Tan Son Nhut to investigate the allegations. Franks said Wilson was belligerent in his interview but the IG finally confirmed that "irregularities existed in some of the 7th Air Force's operational reports."

General Lavelle immediately stopped all the bombing strikes and the media rushed to print with information about the illegal bombing runs. Overnight it became a major media circus reflecting the raw divisions in American society over the Vietnam War.

On reading about the incident in 1972, I was impressed by the courage it must have taken for a young enlisted man to blow the whistle on a general. At the time I was a graduate student in sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. I wrote a letter to The New York Times criticizing the military's top brass and predicting the end result of this mini morality play. It was published on Friday, October 6, 1972.

First I noted that Adm. Moorer once again emerged as a central figure in a controversial incident that served to prolong U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Moorer initially played a significant role in our original expansion of the Vietnam conflict. In 1964, Moorer, then commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, refused to permit the destroyers Maddox and C. Turner Joy to withdraw from the Tonkin Gulf but rather recommended that the patrol move ninety miles farther north. This provocation led to a widely publicized naval encounter, which never occurred, and ensured the passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and our full entry into the Vietnam War.

Before the Tonkin Gulf incident, the U.S. had lost 163 American lives in the conflict; by April 30, 1975, when we finally fled Saigon, more than 55,000 Americans had died. In my letter, I pointed out that for his role in the Tonkin Gulf incident, Moorer apparently was "reprimanded" by being promoted. President Nixon appointed him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest position in the U.S. military.

With the precedent set by Adm. Moorer, I predicted the outcome of the Lavelle affair in my letter:

Lavelle will be handed to the mass media as the scapegoat. His 'punishment' will include a retirement pay in excess of what 90 per cent of all Americans earn. And his income probably will be augmented when he joins some defense firm. General Abrams will be reprimanded by being named Army Chief of Staff. This leaves only Sgt. Lonnie Franks, who exposed Lavelle's unauthorized raids. He will neither be promoted nor given a handsome retirement salary but no doubt will be dealt with by the military once the incident fades from the media.

The New York Times headlined my letter "Paths of Glory." I recently ran across that letter and wondered what really happened to those four key players in the illegal bombing episodes of the Vietnam War.

Gen. Lavelle was made the scapegoat. He was accused of criminal misconduct; court-martial charges were filed against him and 22 other officers; he was the subject of an intensive investigation by the Air Force Inspector General; the Senate Armed Services Committee interrogated him during a rancorous 12-day hearing on the case; the House Committee on Armed Services conducted a brief one-day hearing; and the Senate Armed Services Committee placed a hold on promotions for about 160 Air Force officers.

Not unexpectedly, according to Lavelle's Air Force file on the Arlington National Cemetery Website, "none of the threatened action against any of the affected officers came to fruition" and after the press coverage stopped "the investigations were eventually dropped."

The U.S. Senate ordered Gen. Lavelle's retirement rank reduced to major general, two ranks below his military service rank, and he retired with all the pension and fringe benefits due a major general in the Air Force. He died on July 10, 1979, at the age of 63, and is buried in Section 11 of Arlington National Cemetery.

Gen. Creighton Abrams was Lavelle's superior officer. He implemented the ill-fated program known as Vietnamization that was supposed to enable the South Vietnamese to become responsible for running the war. He also condoned the illegal bombing ordered by Lavelle.

In October 1972, four months after the Lavelle bombing uproar, Gen. Abrams was named Army Chief of Staff, the highest leadership position in the Army. He died of lung cancer on September 4, 1974, at the age of 59, and was buried with full military honors in Section 21 of Arlington National Cemetery.

As chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Moorer already had achieved the highest possible position in the U.S. military when the illegal bombing took place. He retired from the Navy in 1974 and has since benefited from the largesse of corporate America by sitting on a variety of corporate boards of directors. He also has distinguished himself as an outspoken and often bizarre voice of the political right.

His favorite subjects include the "treasonous" act of turning the Panama Canal over to the Red Chinese, the mysterious military missile that allegedly destroyed TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996, and the "problem" with homosexuals in the military.

However, Moorer may be best remembered for his questionable role in the Vietnam War. In an opinion piece, published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, on November 22, 2000, former San Diego Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin described Moorer as follows:

"It cannot be pleasant to note that many of the 58,220 names inscribed on Washington's stark Vietnam Wall ... are of men who lost their lives after Admiral Moorer became chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Long after the senseless fighting should have ended."

Finally, there is former Staff Sergeant Lonnie Franks who exposed the illegal raids. It was relatively easy to discover what happened to Moorer, Lavelle, and Abrams. Their military records detail their lives. However, Lonnie Franks was a different story. It was only after a lengthy search on the Internet that I located him in Dayton, Ohio.

As predicted, Sgt. Franks was neither promoted nor given a handsome retirement salary. After the initial hoopla over his letter to Senator Hughes, Franks transferred out of his intelligence work and was assigned to a lackluster position as clerk-typist in Thailand.

Nonetheless, he continued to aspire to make a career in the military and, after completing his college education while in the Air Force, he applied for Officer Candidate School (OCS). With his military experience, and his college degree, he expected to do well as a candidate. And he did. He received the top score in the examination and was accepted for Officer Candidate School.

However, that was the extent of his success. Franks said his Wing Commander at Ellsworth Air Force Base told him that Gen. Ryan, a friend of Lavelle's, redlined his application. This was the same "Three-fingered Jack" Ryan who sent the Inspector General to Vietnam to investigate the charges against Lavelle.

Subsequently Franks was rejected for OCS without explanation. Realizing he had no future in the Air Force, he accepted a discharge after fulfilling his required period of service. He had spent a total of nine years in the Air Force -- rising to a staff sergeant in the first three and without a promotion in the final six after the Lavelle letter.

Franks found it much easier to find success in civilian life. He started his new career as a programmer/analyst with NCR in Dayton, Ohio. He quickly rose in NCR to director of architecture, director of engineering, general manager, and eventually became an engineering vice president with the corporation. He left NCR in 1999 to join a colleague, John Fry, to establish an information technology consulting firm, Caledonian Project Recovery. The firm specializes in project management and is headquartered in Kettering, Ohio, and Perth, Scotland. Today Franks lives a good life in Dayton, Ohio, with his wife and two children.

He is still a little bitter at not having had a chance at a military career. But is convinced he did the right thing by blowing the whistle on Lavelle. "It did stop the bombing and got rid of Lavelle who was absolutely immoral," he said, adding, "The U.S. is not supposed to be a military dictatorship."

Award-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote extensively about Gen. Lavelle and the unauthorized bombing at the time. He still recalls Franks' role with admiration. "Lonnie Franks came forward when others didn't," Hersh told me. "He wanted the right thing to happen and did what few people would do. Franks told the truth so I could verify what happened and get the information out to the public."

The military records for Moorer, Abrams, and Lavelle are liberally sprinkled with the medals, awards, and commendations the three of them received during their tours of duty. But there was no mention of the number of lives that were lost in Vietnam because of their unlawful military actions.

The discharge papers for Sgt. Lonnie Franks reflected no medals, awards, or commendations. Nor did they mention the number of lives that were saved because of his courageous defiance of military orders.

I suspect that the letters editor of The New York Times borrowed the headline, "Paths of Glory," from Thomas Gray's 1750 "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." It is enlightening to put the excerpt into context:

"The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
"And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
"Awaits alike the inevitable hour:
"The paths of glory lead but to the grave."
For Lavelle and Abrams, the paths led there earlier than later.

For Moorer, the path goes on but haunted by the memories of tens of thousands of families who lost their loved ones in Vietnam after he expanded the war with the Tonkin Gulf charade.

For Franks, the path goes on perhaps not with the glory of the military success he once desired but surely with the knowledge of knowing that he did the right thing when called upon. Given the choice, he followed the path of honor, not glory.

This mini morality play brought to light the triumph of the conscience of one good man over the dreams of glory of several lesser men in a futile war that left one and a half million Vietnamese and nearly 60,000 Americans dead.

It also comes at a time when we should beware of leaders crying wolf and demanding broader powers at the expense of our personal rights. The Lonnie Franks story urges us not to silently accept the dictates of those who may be more concerned with their own "paths of glory" than with the best interests of the nation.

Carl Jensen is the founder of Project Censored

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Albion Monitor October 10 2002 (

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