The account below is authored by Phil Huntington, a West Point classmate of Richard Whitesides, one of the Stocktonians to die in the Vietnam war.
The names are eroding off Stockton's Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- such as the name of Richard Whitesides, partly visible at lower left.
“Fifty years ago today (this was written in 2013) Richard Whitesides was controlling air operations during one of the largest battles in the early years of the Vietnam War. In the first engagement of the war to merit award of the Air Force Cross (AFC), his actions earned him that award. Unfortunately the event was little reported in news accounts and largely forgotten because of what was happening back home in the U.S.
“Just after noon on November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald fired two bullets into President John Kennedy at Dallas. In Vietnam, on the other side of the International Date Line, it was November 23rd and sometime during that day, probably about dusk, more than two battalions of Viet Cong (VC) infantry attacked Cha La, a Republic of Vietnam (RVN) Army (ARVN) supply base at or near Dam Doi in the far south of the country.
“Early on November 24th, Vietnam time, while Lee Oswald sat in a Dallas jail, Richard was called upon to help save Cha La. The VC had deployed an antiaircraft (AA) battalion armed with Soviet style heavy machine guns brought in at night by sea from China. Aircraft carrying ARVN infantry reinforcements to the fight were badly shot up by the AA guns.
“U.S. air power was called on to destroy the AA guns with Richard assigned as forward air controller to direct air strikes and coordinate other air resources in the battle area.
U.S. accounts reported that 23 U.S. and VNAF (Vietnam Air Force) aircraft were hit by AA fire, with 18 shot down according to VC reports. Richard’s small O-1 (L-19) aircraft was hit and partially disabled but with great flying skill he was able to remain airborne over the dangerous battle area, marking targets with smoke rockets or hand-thrown smoke grenades for incoming B-26 and T-28 bomb and gun attacks against the AA guns.
“One B-26 was shot down during its third low-level bombing run. The pilot Cpt Howard Cody was never found. The bodies of 1st Lt. Atis Lielmanis, the navigator, and the Vietnamese copilot were later recovered. Cody and Lielmanis were also awarded the AFC.
“Of the three AFC awardees, only the remains of Lielmanis made it home to the U.S. as Richard was lost five months later to AA fire near Khe Sanh and never found.
“The outcome of the battle was that the VC withdrew with heavy losses. They reported losing more than 500 men while the RVN side lost more than 400 men in addition to the 18 aircraft.
“That evening, Vietnam time, John Kennedy was taken by caisson to the U.S. Capitol to lie in state. Shortly after midnight, Vietnam time, Lee Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby in Dallas. The world’s attention was on events in the United States.
“Richard’s Air Force Cross was the first awarded to a graduate of any of the service academies and one of only three ever awarded to graduates of West Point. We are privileged to have had Richard as a K-2 friend and classmate.”
Here’s a look at Stockton’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial – before decay set in.