Thursday, May 13, 2010

Beyond the Book - Q & A with Otto Lehrack, author of Road of 10,000 Pains

For decades, the story of what took place in the lush expanses of Vietnam’s Que Son Valley in 1967 has languished in the crowded realm of historical events that is rarely, if ever, studied, discussed, or honored.

Now, with the release of his new book Road of 10,000 Pains, veteran and author Otto Lehrack shines a long-overdue light on the courageous actions that took place in “The Valley,” honoring the men who risked, and often lost, their lives so far from home. In the following Q & A, Lehrack discusses what drew him to this largely untold story, why people need to know about what took place, and what writing the book has meant to him.


ZENITH PRESS: Road of 10,000 Pains is the first book to fully recount the Que Son Valley campaign. What first attracted you to this largely untold story?

LEHRACK: I was in Vietnam with a tour group in order to interview former enemy soldiers about the first major battle of the Vietnam War for my book The First Battle: Operation Starlite and the Beginning of the Blood Debt in Vietnam. I was not particularly interested in the Que Son Valley but because we had some Que Son Valley veterans in our tour group, both American and Vietnamese, it was on the schedule. As we drove through the valley, the amount of chatter from the American and enemy veterans reached a crescendo. Curious about all the emotion, I began to ask questions, and soon it became apparent that something had happened there that had gone unreported. From those questions, a book was born.

ZP: While touring the Que Son Valley, did you have a chance to walk over the battlefield with the veterans of the campaign?

LEHRACK: Yes, we walked over parts of the battle field several times. My greatest memory is standing on what the Marines called "the knoll" with retired North Vietnamese colonel Tranh Nhu Tiep and retired U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel John "J.D." Murray. Had it not been for the courage of the individual Marine and outstanding support from Marine aviation, Tiep's men would most likely have butchered Murray's entire company on the knoll. Listening to the two talk about the battle was fascinating. 

ZP: It seems that few, if any, stones remained unturned throughout your interview process for the book. Were you surprised or caught off-guard by anything you heard from your interviewees?

LEHRACK: I was surprised by the passion of the interviewees, the need to tell the stories of the Que Son Valley and the emotion many of them showed when answering questions. Some still cannot bring themselves to talk about it. Among the interviewees were Marines who had won medals for valor, but decorated or not, none, absolutely none, of them boasted about their own accomplishments. Their most passionate comments were about the bravery and sacrifice of other Marines. I also found that most of them had a great respect for the courage and determination of the enemy.

ZP: As a retired Marine and two-tour Vietnam veteran, you are no stranger to the type of gritty, complex combat experienced by those who served in Vietnam. That said, in speaking with the veterans of the Que Son Valley, was there anything about their recollections that led you to believe that combat in “The Valley” was, in some ways, unique when compared to other battles/campaigns waged in the war?

LEHRACK: One of the Vietnamese told me matter-of-factly that he and his comrades had killed more Americans in the Que Son Valley than at any other time and place in the entire war. I read all of the Marine Corps' after-action reports and believe this to be true, at least concerning the Marine Corps. I did not go through U.S. Army records, but it is true that the Marines, on a per capita basis, lost more killed in action than did the Army.

ZP: For many Americans, the 1968 Tet Offensive stands out as one of, if not the, most pivotal moments in the Vietnam War timeline. How did the U.S. Marines’ engagements with the North Vietnamese in the Que Son Valley affect, directly or indirectly, the outcome of the now infamous offensive?

LEHRACK: The Que Son Valley campaign of 1967 had a direct effect on the Tet Offensive. The 2nd North Vietnam Army Division, which was stationed in the Valley, was so decimated by the actions of the previous year that they were unable to carry out their assignment during Tet. They, and the local Viet Cong units, were supposed to seize Danang, Vietnam's second largest city. A retired North Vietnamese colonel told me that his unit only made it to the outskirts of the city and only a platoon made it into the city proper. Rather than become the predators, they found themselves the prey. Their weak attacks got them nowhere. They ended up hiding out, first near Danang, and then a few kilometers west of the city, for two weeks before they could make their way to their mountain sanctuaries. The official Communist history admits that their units failed to carry out their mission in the Danang area. In short, the Que Son Valley campaign kept the enemy from occupying Danang, as they did Hue, most likely saving the lives of thousands of civilians and military personnel.

ZP: The Que Son Valley campaign is largely viewed as the bloodiest campaign of the entire war, yet, outside of a handful of articles, very little seems to have been written about it. Why do you think that is?

LEHRACK: For the whole of 1967, North Vietnamese General Giap planned the 1968 Tet Offensive. An important part of his strategy was to draw Americans away from the population centers that were his target. He massed whole divisions north of the DMZ and west of Saigon and the Central Highlands. In May of that year he began what became known as the 1st Battle of Khe Sanh by threatening that outpost. In September, he laid siege to the Marine position at Con Thien and mad threatening moves against allied positions to the south. American media committed nearly all of their assets to these actions. It is, after all, better headline-making copy to talk of whole divisions and the specter of big unit actions than it is to try to unravel the complicated threads of a campaign that lasted seven months in an on-again-off-again fashion. Thus, action in the Que Son Valley was largely unreported at the time, and then was ignored by historians for the same reason.

ZP: If you could have readers take away one message from reading Road of 10,000 Pains, what would that be?

LEHRACK: I tell people that I write for minimum wage, and that is not far from the truth. I write because I want to tell as many stories as I can about the courage and sacrifices the Vietnam veteran exemplifies. I hope that readers will be moved to tears, I know that I am, and will shake their heads in wonder at the outstanding performance of these young men. I also want the readers who remember the Vietnam generation to remember how America so often scorned the veterans, held them in contempt, upon their return to a country they hardly recognized. There are many myths about the Vietnam War, and the worst of them is that it was fought by draftees, by an unfairly disproportionate number of minorities, and by losers, all who committed atrocities and then turned to drugs and hopelessness when they came back. None of these myths are true, and I hope to deal with them in my next book.

Road of 10,000 Pains is available at fine bookstores and online retailers everywhere or at

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