Belfast Telegraph

Vietnam War maverick Col Michael Yunck showed an unflinching conscience is the mark of the truly brave

By Mike Gilson

I only stumbled across the pictures because I had man flu. I'd gone to bed early and switched on the TV, looking for distraction. As usual, nothing was on.

Searching for something, anything, I stumbled across a channel called Yesterday, which was showing an old documentary about the Vietnam War.

I didn't think there was anything more I could learn about that conflict that changed America. I was wrong.

Have you ever heard of a guy called Marine Colonel Michael Yunck? Neither had I. I think he stands as a lesson for all time, for two reasons.

Col Yunck was an all-American hero, a skilled helicopter pilot festooned with medals including the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart.

Yunck took it to the enemy, because that was his duty to God and country. But that was not why he was in this documentary.

We first see him in the jungles of Vietnam, being stretchered into a makeshift military hospital where his leg will be amputated. The camera follows him into surgery where, in complete agony, he semi-delirously says: "I hate to put napalm and bombs on women and children. I just couldn't do it."

His words travelled from the fetid tropical rainforest into the living rooms of millions of Americans back home via the TV news bulletins. In doing so, they helped change the course of history.

You see, what Yunck had refused to do was to follow military policy and carpet napalm and bomb entire villages regardless of who was living in the flimsy huts as the US ratcheted up its increasingly desperate, deranged and doomed campaign against the Viet Cong guerrillas.

Back home, the US government was telling its citizens the war was going well. Yunck and the grunts on the ground knew differently. That day, the colonel was leading a Huey platoon to seek out the enemy. He was about to bomb a village when he saw women and children cowering in terror.

He took his helicopter in closer to the ground to be sure, and was hit in the leg by a sniper in the jungle. Back in the hospital, he insisted he would not massacre innocents even if the price was the loss of his leg.

Heroism of an astonishing order. And yet what also made this story even more remarkable was that journalists and the cameras were there to record it, as they were the terrified faces of young Americans and the body bags throughout the paddy fields and jungles of a strange land.

Back home, President Lyndon Johnson insisted communism was being defeated. Thanks to the bravery of journalists, the newspapers and TV sets were telling a different story.

Johnson claimed those journalists had "sh** on the American flag", and media owners came under incredible pressure to change their stories. That they did not was almost as brave as the actions of Yunck himself.

So the game was up, the truth was out, the war over, and America was forced to look in the mirror and admit it didn't like what it saw.

When the programme finished, it occurred to me through the sniffles that brave people like Yunck and journalists dedicated and able to tell stories like his, to stand up to the powerful, are needed today as much as they were more than 50 years ago. The question for us is, do we have them?

Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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