The Vietnam Experience of One of NU’s Most Distinguished Warriors

When I knew him at Norwich, George Wanat ’69 was a senior buck private with no outward love of the military. His mild manner masked a mischievous nature. I remem-ber when he was expelled from summer school for sailing an oversized water balloon from the top floor of Alumni Hall into a car window. Yet, George is also probably the most decorated undergraduate Norwich alumnus and only Prisoner of War since World War II. If there ever was a cadet that was underestimated, it was George.

George began his Norwich career with the class of 1968. Despite graduating a year later, he spent the vast majority of his time with our cohort and even appears in our ’68 edition of the War Whoop. Many of us claim him as a friend and a brother. He was not a member of the Honor Tank Platoon, Skull and Swords, the Corps Honor Committee, or AUSA. George was just another face in the crowd, as were many of us.

I had not seen George for 48 years. But several years ago, on Veterans Day weekend in 2016, I found myself in Danvers, Mass. So I contacted George, and we got together for lunch in nearby Peabody. We had enjoyed telephone conversations over the past several years. In 2006, I learned about George’s Vietnam experience while reading The Battle of An Loc by James H. Willbanks. (The author is currently director of military history at C&GS at Fort Leavenworth.) I remember that our during our fifth Norwich reunion in 1973, someone mentioned that something had happened to George in RVN. But no one knew exactly what.

Reading this book, I was amazed at what George had endured and how admirably he executed his duty. His actions prompted me to plead with Norwich’s administration and alumni hierarchy to recognize this brave officer. After seven years of correspondence, we dedicated the “Wall of Honor” at our 45th reunion in 2013, recognizing recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross (directly below the Medal of Honor) and Silver Star. Gen. Gordon Sullivan and President Schneider were most helpful in this effort. Norwich has been very active in supporting this effort and the resulting display is impressive and most appropriate for our rich military traditions.

George was commissioned an Armor officer and volunteered to be a Mobile Advisory Team leader as an infantry officer and later as Assistant District Senior Advisor to Vietnamese local forces. Loc Ninh district is roughly two miles south of the Cambodian border and 10 miles north of the city of An Loc in Binh Long province, northwest of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh city). I was in a similar position in Cu Chi district, fortunately about 50 miles south of Loc Ninh. In 2006 when I read of George’s exploits, a kindred interest was ignited.

In April 1972, the Easter Offensive commenced when a VC infantry division supported by NVA tanks, artillery, and rockets came across the Cambodian border with Loc Ninh as its target in the offensive. This resulted in three days and two nights of constant combat. George was in command of the northern portion of Loc Ninh and the district compound.  On the southern end of town and the airstrip, an Army Captain named Mark Smith (on his fifth tour in RVN with radio call sign “Zippo”) was in command.

Combat was non-stop incoming with frontal assaults breaching the wire and enemy tanks finally roaming the streets of Loc Ninh. George exposed himself repeatedly over the three days by directing air strikes, gunships, and helicopter gunship support from bunker rooftops while under fire. At one point an AC-130 Spectre gunship came on station at night to provide support with its miniguns and 105mm howitzer tube.  The Spectre gunner radioed George and said the opposing forces were so close together in the engagement that they could not distinguish friend from foe. He asked if there was a vehicle nearby that would run. George replied that his jeep was about 50 meters away but all four tires were burning. Would it start? A Vietnamese soldier with George volunteered to crawl the distance and start the engine. The Spectre gunner replied that he could see the four spark plugs firing via his Black Crow system. He then basically cleared the enemy from the battlefield and provided a brief period of calm.

George was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in this battle.

Yet, it was just the beginning of George’s story. When their position became untenable on the third day, George, his counterpart the district chief, and 30 Vietnamese sought to escape to the south overland in hopes of linking with friendly forces or making it to An Loc to the south. The area was swarming with patrols of two more Viet Cong and NVA divisions that were massing for an attack on An Loc, a subsequent battle that would last for three months. On the second day of their escape and evasion, the Vietnamese left George as they went into a hamlet to see if the residents were friendly. They did not return, and George was left on his own without a weapon, radio, or provisions of any kind. He was scantily clad due to shrapnel wounds; one large wound in particular on his right leg.

On the third day his sandals fell apart, and for the next 28 days he was in an escape and evasion mode barefoot, walking over tree roots as sharp as knives and constantly being assaulted by fire ants and other indigenous irritations. Enemy patrols were a constant hazard, and he successfully evaded. Food and water came from the land or from Buddhist monks, villagers, and Montagnards that he found to be sympathetic, although not all were. On the 31st day he was sitting under a bush eating a green banana when his eyes locked simultaneously with those of an NVA patrol member. He was captured after an amazingly successful 31-day escape and evasion.

George was taken to a small POW camp in the jungle near Kratie, Cambodia, where he joined six other captives. Zippo and others from Loc Ninh were among the prisoners, and on arrival Zippo’s only comment was “what took you so long.” George was chained in a 4ˇx4ˇx6ˇ bamboo cage, not large enough to stand up in. George suffered from seriously infected shrapnel wounds, malaria, and beriberi. His uninvited guests in the cage included poisonous snakes, spiders, scorpions, and fire ants. Meals were three bowls of rice per day with a couple of scraps of pork fat, hardly enough protein to sustain life.

On February 10, 1973, George and his fellow prisoners were dressed in new clothes and trucked to Loc Ninh, where they were joined by 20 other prisoners from small camps in Cambodia. Repatriation took place the following day. On the night they were awaiting release, the other prisoners were allowed to mingle freely. Only George and Zippo were chained to a tree. The NVA obviously feared these warriors. 

James F. Taylor ’68 lives in Gun Barrel City, Texas. He reports that today George lives quietly in Massachusetts, where he enjoys woodworking and metal working projects in his workshop at his home, and takes special delight in his children and grandchildren.

The Norwich Record | Spring 2019

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