California During the Vietnam War
Myths and Legends: Mobilization of the California Army National Guard during the Vietnam War
By
SGM (CA) Dan Sebby
Post Historian, Camp San Luis Obispo
 
2015 marks the fiftieth anniversary of what was the start of one of the most controversial times of the California National Guard.

At that time, a large portion of the Regular Army was being deployed to Vietnam and it became clear that more Army units would also be deployed to Southeast Asia. This left few units ready to deploy to counter possible moves by the Soviet Union in Europe, the Chinese against Taiwan or the North Koreans against the Republic of Korea.

With this in mind, the Army leadership selected specific Army National Guard and Army Reserve units to be part of a newly formed "Selected Reserve Force" (SRF). These units would be equipped with the latest equipment and receive additional funding for training and were allowed to recruit above their authorized strength.

During the Vietnam era, service in the reserve components was particularly popular with young men as a way to meet their military service obligation without having to serve on active duty in general and Vietnam in particular. The extra training proved an easy way to make a little extra money so SRF units were mostly manned at above full strength levels.

However members of two units, the 1st Squadron, 18th Armored Cavalry Regiment headquartered in Burbank and the 40th Aviation Company from Long Beach, found out about the downside of being in a SRF unit. In May of 1968 both of these units were alerted and mobilized for service overseas.

What happened in 1968 is obscured by myth, legend and outright misinformation. Reading the contemporary press accounts, particularly the left wing underground press, someone would think that most of the 1,100 members of the cavalry squadron were in open revolt to their being called to active duty and that there was a massive failure in leadership. However, when a full review of the historical record is conducted, a completely different picture of the events of 1968 becomes clear.
 

1st Squadron, 18th Armored Cavalry Regiment
 
1st Squadron, 18th Armored Cavalry Regiment, led by Headquarters Troop, passing in review during the monthly review, Gray Army Airfield, Fort Lewis WA circa 1968.

In 1968, this unit was headquartered in Burbank with troops in Burbank (Headquarters Troop and Troop A), Sylmar (Troop B), San Fernando (Troop C) and Lancaster (Troop D). The squadron was equipped with M113 armored personnel carriers and a troop of M48 "Patton" tanks. It was made up of a lot of long serving career Guardsmen as well as the sons of many of Hollywood and Los Angeles elite families who had joined the National Guard to avoided being drafted.

The unit received its official mobilization orders on 13 May 1968. However, news had leaked out when a local congressman learned of the mobilization and called one of his political supporters who he knew had a son serving as a staff officer in the squadron headquarters. That officer immediately tried to resign his commission, but did not accomplish this in time and he was ordered to active duty. This officer was a leader of an extremely small cadre of unit members who tried to stop their orders by legal means which in the end proved fruitless. A handful of this small group, which never numbered more than 50, did desert when the squadron reached Fort Lewis, Washington. The rest of the group of dissidents resigned themselves to their fate and decided to soldier on. However many family members, including many of Southern California's leading families, anti-war groups and the left wing press continued to agitate for the unit's demobilization throughout 1968 and 1969.

Almost all of the soldiers of the squadron knew the possibility of mobilization and deployment and accepted it as professionals. There were also many Guardsmen who tried to transfer into the unit so as to deploy and serve in Vietnam. However, once the unit was notified of mobilization, transfers into and out of the unit was restricted.

Between the mobilization notification and arriving at Fort Lewis, rumors abound as to the unit's status. One was that Governor Ronald Reagan had requested that the squadron not be mobilized so that it could be used for state missions. Keep in mind that the Watts Riots had occurred in 1965 and there were several protests in 1968. Another rumor was that Lieutenant Governor Robert Finch, who was a close friend of Richard Nixon, was lobbying the President-Elect to have the unit sent home rather than deploy.

Once the 18th arrived at Fort Lewis, the squadron was attached to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR) for preparation for their deployment to Southeast Asia. Once they settled in, they started the business of training. During their time at Fort Lewis, they did as well as any Army unit on the post. This included, contrary to many of the myths, doing well on Army Training Tests. During their stay there, the squadron was recognized on several occasions by the 3rd ACR and higher headquarters for its professionalism.

Due to the strategic situation changing in Vietnam, the Commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams requested that 1st Squadron, 18th Armored Cavalry Regiment not deploy to Vietnam. However, their equipment was to be supplied to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the unit members were made available for deployment as individual replacements worldwide. Although the Joint Chiefs of Staff were concerned that this action might appear that as 'caving in', his request was approved by Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Most, if not all of the squadron's soldiers went on to serve with honor in Vietnam with some choosing to transfer to the Regular Army after their active duty orders ended.

The squadron was returned to state service and reconstituted in the California Army National Guard on 13 December 1969 after serving honorably as part of the United States Army.

It should be noted that when conducting research on this unit, there are several references to an 18th Armored Cavalry Squadron serving in Vietnam. This unit was a reconnaissance squadron in the ARVN.
 
 
40th Aviation Company
 
Aircraft of the 40th Aviation Company at the Long Beach Airport, circa 1968
 
If the mobilization of the cavalry squadron had a fitful start, the activation of the 40th Aviation Company was quiet and without controversy. Also mobilized on 13 May 1968, the company arrived at Schofield Barracks on 27 May 1968 and was immediately attached to the US Army Garrison.

Long associated with the Hawaii Army National Guard's 29th Separate Infantry Brigade, including being designated as the 29th Aviation Company from 1 November 1965 to 29 January 1968, the 40th was attached to the brigade to augment its organic aviation company. During this time the brigade, which was also ordered to active duty, was US Army Pacific's contingency force in case additional forces were needed in the Western Pacific.

The company spent its time on active duty flying in support of the 29th Separate Infantry Brigade's mission and training as well as any other mission tasked by US Army Pacific.

As with the cavalry, the 40th was released from active duty on 12 December 1969 and reconstituted in the California Army National Guard the following day at the Long Beach Airport.
 

Conclusion

Too often the National Guard is criticized for its lack of participation during the Vietnam War, but these two units show that if needed, the National Guard could have served in theater with honor. The fact that the Guard and other reserve components weren't given a larger role in theater by President Johnson is a topic for another, possibly political history.

I wish to thank Colonel (Ret) Ross Moen and CSM (Ret) John Gillis for their help in preparing this article.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Updated 8 February 2016