In the summer of 1814, a mixed force of British, Indian and French troops stormed the city of Plattsburg, New York, and captured James Hollingsworth. He was the most senior officer at the time to be taken captive during the War of 1812, and is now best known as one of the last British prisoners of war held in North America.
A veteran of the American Civil War, James Hollingsworth was born in 1839 in Clinton County, Ohio. He was the eldest of 12 children, and his father died when he was only 9 years old. After his father died, his mother moved the family to Burlington, Iowa, where they lived on a farm.
“A warrior general as portrayed by Central Casting.”
James F. Hollingsworth, a 1940 graduate of Texas A&M University, made his early reputation in World War II as he fought across two continents and six countries with the 2nd Armored Division and 3rd Army of Gen. George S. Patton Jr. Always leading from the front, he was wounded five times. After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, “Holly,” as he was known, remained in the Army and served in positions of increasing responsibility. In December 1965, Hollingsworth was promoted to brigadier general and subsequently assigned to Vietnam as assistant division commander of the 1st Infantry Division, known as the Big Red One after the design of its shoulder patch. In Danger 79er, a biography of Hollingsworth, historian James H. Willbanks shows how the general’s inspiring leadership in that assignment helped make him one of the Army’s legendary commanders.
In March 1966, Brig. Gen. James F. Hollingsworth was sent to the 1st Infantry Division’s Vietnam headquarters near Di An, roughly 10 miles north of Saigon. Maj. Gen. William E. DePuy, a new division commander, came on April 1 to replace a commander who had been promoted. Under Gen. William Westmoreland, the top commander for US combat forces in South Vietnam, DePuy was the chief of operations at Military Assistance Command, Vietnam.
De Puy graduated from South Dakota State University’s ROTC program in 1941 and served with the 90th Infantry Division in World War II. At the age of 24, he gained command of the 1st Battalion, 357th Infantry Regiment and commanded it from Utah Beach in Normandy through the Battle of the Bulge. DePuy witnessed directly how bad senior leadership led to massive losses and was merciless in his criticism of military commanders. He had no patience for individuals who were proven to be lacking.
Division commanders had little say in the appointment of their assistant division commanders under the personnel system in Vietnam in 1966, and DePuy only knew Hollingsworth by reputation. “General, I want only the best officers for my division,” DePuy remarked when he met Holly. On my team, I don’t want any softies or behind-the-scenes listeners. If you can’t make it here, pack your belongings and return home.” “I’ll let you know if I can’t do the work, but don’t bother hunting for a replacement,” Hollingsworth said, unfazed. You won’t require one.” “All right, we’ll find out,” DePuy responded after a brief pause.
From that tense start, Hollingsworth and DePuy built a deep personal and professional bond that helped the 1st Infantry Division become one of Vietnam’s most effective fighting divisions. On the surface, the two men appeared to be an odd couple. DePuy didn’t squander any time. “A guy from out of Hollywood’s central casting version of a fighting general….profane, bombastic, bold, and the antithesis of a diplomat,” said retired Special Forces officer Henry Gole in his biography of DePuy. Holly was described as a “large, brash, rough, loud-mouthed Texan, inclined to extreme braggadocio” whose every word was “dogmatically delivered with extraordinary self-confidence to an accompaniment of profanity” by Lt. Gen. Phillip Davidson, who served as Westmoreland’s chief of intelligence.
There was no middle ground when it came to Holly’s opinions. People either adored and revered him or despised and despised him equally. According to Davidson, Hollingsworth’s critics accused him of purposefully modeling himself after Patton, but “what differentiated ‘Holly’ from most of the Patton imitators…is that when the bullets started to whine and the shells fell, ‘Holly’ invariably made good on his boasts.”
South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky awards Maj. Gen. William DePuy and Hollingsworth honors for their leadership during Operation Attleboro in November 1966. (Texas Tech University’s Vietnam Center and Archive, Douglas Pike Photograph Collection)
The Big Red One was going to get a personal look at it. Hollingsworth, who took the radio call sign “Danger 79er,” sat in on a briefing for battalion commanders as the division’s 1st Brigade prepared for an operation along the Cambodian border in a region known as the Parrot’s Beak. When the briefer was through, Hollingsworth took the stage in front of the tent and gave an enthusiastic speech about what he wanted from his commanders. “We should keep going, like a good boxer, we keep going,” he urged, urging speed and firepower. These sonsa’bitches are going to be completely surprised. We don’t get a lot of them like this. We’ll be in charge, and goddammit, I’d like to believe we’ll be wielding a mean pointed stick against those sonsa’bitches. Prepare your men and make them mean. There are times when you should take it easy and other times when you should lock and load— kick ass. It’s that time again. It’s critical to get in and out quickly. Kill as soon as possible.” Hollingsworth in his prime. There was only one way to go in war: as hard and as quickly as possible.
DePuy was less spectacular than Hollingsworth, but he was just as driven, and he found a soul mate in his assistant division commander. “I have 1,000 percent faith in Hollingsworth,” DePuy told Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett only a few months after Holly arrived. He’s utterly fearless and abrasive.”
Hollingsworth’s tactical concept was similar to DePuy’s: locate the opponent and pile on the pressure. “It’s always been my belief that if one tiny patrol gets in trouble out there, we ought to give him the whole division, otherwise we’ll never get a patrol to go out 100 yards at night,” Hollingsworth said after the war. The only way to convince patrols to go out is to assure them that they will be supported.” And top leaders could only know what the troops needed if they were on the ground. Hollingsworth was fond of stating, “The general has to be there at all times when there’s a crisis.” “And if you’re talking to the little guys and they know you’re there, yeah, they’ll stick with you.” Holly’s warriors owed him their eternal loyalty since they knew he would do everything in his ability to provide the battle support they required when they were in jeopardy.
Action Abilene, a search-and-destroy mission that began on March 30 in Phuoc Tuy province, east of Saigon, was the division’s first major operation under DePuy and Hollingsworth. The 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, discovered a Viet Cong base camp on April 11 as the two generals kept an eye on the situation. Company C, which was isolated in the thick jungle vegetation, came under a massive mortar barrage late in the afternoon, followed by a vigorous enemy ground attack.
Throughout the night, the hastily dug-in infantrymen repelled multiple attacks. Two reinforcement companies marched through the forest to Company C’s position early the next morning. According to the official narrative, the VC had withdrawn by the time they arrived, leaving 41 dead on the battlefield, but 35 Americans also killed, partly because close-quarter fighting limited the type of ammunition that could be utilized.
The division had 48 killed and 135 injured when Operation Abilene finished on April 15. Although DePuy and Hollingsworth were disappointed with the number of casualties, they considered the mission a success. The enemy had been brought to battle and had suffered significant losses. According to DePuy, “Operation ABILENE demonstrated decisively that the 1st Infantry Division can move—and move quickly” using airmobile tactics. “In Phuoc Tuy Province, the Vietcong have suffered a huge loss of prestige.”
DePuy’s evaluation of Operation Abilene was not universally praised. The Army chief of staff, Gen. Harold K. Johnson, arrived in Vietnam shortly after the operation and scolded DePuy for the significant losses in Company C’s combat. “If we keep experiencing the kind of deaths that Charlie Company has had,” Johnson said, “the American people will not support this war.” DePuy agreed to make modifications in order to reduce casualties, but this was only the beginning of a series of events that would sour the relationship between the Army chief of staff and the Big Red One’s top leadership.
DePuy followed up Operation Abilene with other missions aimed at locating and bringing enemy units to battle. The second significant one, Birmingham, was launched on April 24 in Tay Ninh province, northwest of Saigon. Hollingsworth was subjected to his first round of journalistic scrutiny as a result of it. When his troops were attacked by enemy gunners on the other side of the Vietnam-Cambodian border, he ordered artillery batteries to fire across the border, breaking rules of engagement that prohibited strikes on ostensibly neutral Cambodia. A reporter afterwards questioned Hollingsworth if it was true that he had ordered artillery fire on Cambodian targets. “Sure, I’m the person who fired into Cambodia,” Holly responded, “but I’m going to protect our soldiers,” meaning that he would do it again to safeguard American lives. Holly had a reputation for being brutally honest with the press, which did not always work in his favor.
DePuy deemed Operation Birmingham a success when it ended on May 16 and began expanding search-and-destroy operations. Holly was “intimately engaged at battalion level and in frequent direct contact with soldiers on the ground in squads and platoons,” according to DePuy biographer Gole. Unlike some senior officers, though, he did not attempt to seize command of squads and platoons. He believed that generals should be present with the troops in the midst of the combat, where they could see him providing inspiration and encouragement as well as ensuring that the required support arrived on time. But mostly, he just liked being in the middle of the action.
Hollingsworth’s colorful ways were the topic of several news reports, and on May 5, 1966, he was featured in a CBS News report by anchor Walter Cronkite. “Clearly, he is no armchair general,” the report said of Hollingsworth.
A month later, he didn’t fare as well in a London newspaper, The Sunday Times. Reporter Nicholas Tomalin spent a day with Hollingsworth as he led a search-and-destroy mission in the “Iron Triangle,” a region northwest of Saigon where the Viet Cong are concentrated in large numbers. Hollingsworth was described as a Texas redneck in Tomalin’s piece, “The General Goes Zapping Charlie Cong,” who enjoyed blasting up the countryside from his personal helicopter, casually and indiscriminately “killing Cong.” Hollingsworth believed he had been unfairly persecuted and later said he was only doing “what I have done throughout my military career—saving as many lives as possible while killing the enemy.” “The piece was horrible as hell and full of misquotes,” he said in a letter to his wife, Nickie, adding, predictably, “If General Johnson sees it, my ass is out a mile.”
DePuy got a letter from the Army’s commander of public affairs shortly after, implying that Hollingsworth had been less than circumspect in his statements to The Sunday Times. In response, DePuy replied that “Holly is the best soldier in Vietnam” and that he could essentially say or do whatever he pleased.
DePuy was also contacted by the Army Chief of Staff, who asked for his opinion on a press item that claimed DePuy and Hollingsworth were hunting Viet Cong in their helicopters. “You would not have received the post if I had wanted a lead scout in command of the 1st Division,” Johnson wrote. Your and Holly’s worth is proportionate to the amount of responsibility you have over 15,000 men. It is not your responsibility to shoot VC. It is your responsibility to ensure that others shoot VC. At least, that’s how I see things.”
DePuy and Hollingsworth pressed on with their strong strategy to fighting the war. After the war, one of their company commanders, William J. Mullen III, observed, “Morale in the division was exceptionally high.” We understood we were in a well-organized, combative unit…. We were part of the Army’s top unit.”
Not everyone was in a good mood. The “Byzantine atmosphere” that dominated DePuy’s command as officers on the division staff jockeyed for attention and favor, as well as the “personal discomfort and fear” that staff officers felt in such a command climate, are described in Gole’s book. One staff officer who eventually rose through the ranks to become a general described Holly as being an irreverent antidote to DePuy’s earnestness. Hollingsworth, he added, was a taskmaster who did not intimidate the staff officers and always had a lighthearted approach to every problem, lightening the tone in briefings.
The officers on the headquarters staff were not the only ones who were handled harshly. DePuy and Hollingsworth had particularly high hopes for the field’s officers and senior noncommissioned officers.
According to Gole, they were “ruthless in removing commanders who were not worthy of the soldiers they commanded.” During DePuy’s command, they fired seven battalion commanders and a slew of majors, captains, and sergeants major, for a total of 56. The increasing number of dismissals in the Big Red One widened the chasm between the division’s senior leadership and Johnson.
Despite his harsh demands on company, battalion, and brigade commanders, Hollingsworth adored the men he referred to as the “little fellers”— those fighting in the mud face to face with the enemy. Holly went out of his way to express his admiration for their bravery. He flew with a box of Purple Hearts, Army Commendation Medals, Soldier’s Medals, and Bronze Stars in his command chopper. His aide-de-camp made sure the box was kept full and that the follow-up documentation was delivered to the division personnel office. When one of Holly’s favorite company commanders was killed while charging a Viet Cong machine gun, Hollingsworth nominated him for the Distinguished Service Cross and wrote the captain’s wife and parents to express his sorrow.
Losses like these appeared to energize Hollingsworth even more. In July 1966, he arrived with the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment’s first troop lift in a major combat near the Cambodian border between An Loc and Minh Thanh. The troops were instantly pelted with bullets. Holly came across an 18-year-old soldier from Company A who was plainly terrified as she moved ahead with the infantry assault unit. “Son, you come with me and we’ll murder every son of a bitch that we see,” Holly urged the young soldier. The soldier “stuck to me like a leech,” he later said. When a firefight erupted to the general’s right, he made his way through the 5-foot-high elephant grass to get closer to the action. He was closely followed by the young soldier. Three VCs were killed in the immediate proximity of their post during the battle. The commander and the soldier moved forward after the firing stopped. “General, he is a dead son of a bitch,” the soldier exclaimed as he approached one of the dead VCs with his boot. I’d like to rejoin my team, and I’m no longer afraid.” “I’m not terrified either when I’m around soldiers like you,” Holly said.
As a young lieutenant with the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, John Lesko was struck by Viet Cong crossfire in a particularly hot landing zone. He recalls witnessing a “old man” exit a chopper that had just landed. Despite enemy tracers and mortars raining all around, the person began walking across the landing zone like he was “out for a stroll” as the helicopter took off. He flopped down next to Lesko on the ground and inquired about the lieutenant’s requirements.
Without looking up, Lesko exclaimed an obscenity and stated that he required artillery. Then he spun around and noticed Holly’s solitary black star on her helmet, thinking he’d just cussed out the assistant division commander. “Son, calm down,” Hollingsworth urged, putting his arm around his shoulder. I’ll go fetch some artillery for you.” Lesko astonished by the general’s coolness in the face of danger nearly 50 years later. Hollingsworth was allegedly described as “the only soldier he had ever met who truly had no fear” by retired Gen. Dick Cavazos, who worked under Danger 79er as a lieutenant colonel commanding a battalion in the Big Red One.
Army Chief of Staff General Lyndon B. Johnson was scheduled to visit Vietnam in early December 1966. He’d already conveyed his displeasure with DePuy and Hollingsworth about the high number of losses, their battle leadership style, and the division’s elaborate employment of weapons. This time, the issue was the increased number of officers who were being relieved of leadership. Johnson grumbled to subordinates before the trip, “If every division commander dismissed guys like DePuy, I’d soon be out of lieutenant colonels and majors…. He eats them like if they were peanuts.” Johnson wrote DePuy a letter advising him to take it easier on the dismissals and to give them another chance.
The Army chief met with DePuy at the division’s headquarters at Di An on a Christmas Day trip to Vietnam in 1966 to handle the issue in person. For a private meeting, Johnson, DePuy, and Hollingsworth headed to DePuy’s quarters. Hollingsworth recounted the incident 40 years later.
‘You’re relieving too many battalion commanders,’ Johnson said, looking at me. You’re the one who’s meant to train them.’ After that, there was a heated discussion.” The ramifications of the altercation became clear almost immediately.
DePuy desired to be relocated as the commander of the United States Army Infantry Center at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he believed he could make the most impact on the Army. DePuy was reassigned to a position aiding the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicating that Johnson did not want him at Fort Benning. On February 10, 1967, DePuy handed over command of the 1st Infantry Division to Maj. Gen. John H. Hay. DePuy and Hollingsworth’s cooperation, which had built the division into a very successful combat force, had come to an end.
Hollingsworth had privately wanted to be given command of the 9th Infantry Division, but instead was assigned to the Test and Evaluation Command in Aberdeen, Maryland, with orders to report on June 15.
Westmoreland wanted Holly to stay in Vietnam for another year, but Johnson determined that Hollingsworth would not be able to lead a fighting division. The negative news reports that dogged Hollingsworth during his deployment, as well as the often tumultuous relationship between the Army chief of staff and the Big Red One’s command, are likely to have harmed him.
Hollingsworth earned near-legendary status among the men during his 15 months with the 1st Infantry Division. He earned the moniker “soldier’s soldier” for his fearlessness in battle and sympathy for his comrades. In the years following Vietnam, he and DePuy mentored a lengthy list of officers who would go on to head the Army.
Despite the fact that Hollingsworth went on to become a lieutenant general, the Big Red One remained a particular figure in Holly’s heart for the rest of his life.
—General of the Army George C. Marshall Chair of Military History at the Army’s Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Jim Willbanks is a decorated Vietnam veteran, retired lieutenant colonel, and former General of the Army George C. Marshall Chair of Military History at the Army’s Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He has written or edited 19 books.
This essay was first published in Vietnam in February of this year.
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