On November 16, 1968, Major Colin Luther Powell was serving his second tour of duty in Vietnam, this time as the assistant Chief of Staff to the commander of the U.S. Army’s Americal Division (also called the 23rd Infantry Division). It was mostly a desk job, but that day Powell was traveling by helicopter with his commanding officer, Major General Charles M. Gettys, to inspect a captured North Vietnamese camp when their chopper clipped a tree during landing and crashed.
Powell broke his ankle in the violent crash, but the injury didn’t prevent him from rushing back into the wreckage again and again to save the lives of Gettys, his chief of staff and one of the pilots. At one point, Powell tore away parts of the flaming wreckage with his bare hands to free a trapped comrade, knowing that the wrecked chopper could explode at any second.
Powell received the Soldier’s Medal for his bravery that day, which added to the Bronze Star and Purple Heart that he also earned during his two tours in Vietnam.
Decades later, Colin Powell would become America’s first Black national security advisor, the nation’s youngest chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black Secretary of State. During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, Powell resolved not to repeat the costly mistakes of America’s failed war in Vietnam and executed an overwhelming show of force now known as the Powell Doctrine.
The qualities that later made Powell such an effective military advisor first “blossomed” during his Vietnam service, says Jeffrey J. Matthews, a professor of business and leadership at University of Puget Sound and author of the biography Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot.
“Powell’s commanders commented consistently about his extreme dedication, his hard work, his commitment, and his competence as both an officer in the field and as a member of a staff,” says Matthews. “If you want to understand Powell’s ultimate prominence, it was because he used those qualities to become a great supporter, subordinate and advisor to very powerful military and civilian leaders.”
Powell’s First Tour Advising South Vietnamese Generals
Powell arrived in Vietnam on Christmas Day 1962. It was the early days of U.S. military involvement in the ongoing conflict that pitted the communist North Vietnamese against the pro-Western government of the South.
In an effort to strengthen the South Vietnamese army’s response to the North’s guerilla attacks, President John F. Kennedy sent thousands of “military advisors” to Vietnam from 1961 to 1963. Powell, a 25-year-old Army captain, was among them.
During his year-long tour, Powell was a tactical advisor to three different South Vietnamese army commanders, and he adapted his supporting role to fit each man’s personality, writes Matthews. When the commander was effective, Powell stepped back into soldier mode, often personally leading dangerous counterinsurgency raids. But when one Vietnamese commander lacked rapport with his men, young Powell stepped in to win the confidence of his 400 troops.
“I was supposed to be an advisor, not the leader,” Powell wrote in his 1995 memoir My American Journey. “Nevertheless, the two of us were in quiet collusion. Leadership, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And I had been drawn in to fill the void.”
A loyal and unquestioning soldier, Powell didn’t hesitate to participate alongside the South Vietnamese when they torched enemy villages, killed livestock and burned fields, but he drew the line at corpse mutilation, writes Matthews, banning the practice of cutting off the enemy’s body parts as trophies.
Powell’s first tour was cut short when he stepped on a North Vietnamese booby trap called a punji spike. The sharpened stick was smeared with buffalo excrement to increase the odds of a deadly infection.
“The Special Forces medics cut my boot off, and they could see my foot was purple by then,” Powell later said in an interview. “The spike had gone all the way through, from the bottom to the top, and then come right back out, totally infecting the wound.”
Second Tour and the My Lai Massacre Cover-Up
In between Powell’s first and second tours in Vietnam, the career soldier enrolled in a series of prestigious officer training programs and repeatedly graduated at the top of his class. Powell redeployed to Vietnam in 1968 as a battalion staff officer with the Americal Division stationed in Duc Pho, a Viet Cong stronghold where American soldiers suffered heavy casualties.