His name was Jim Hayes. He was from New Buffalo, Michigan, a small town just the other side of Lake Michigan from Chicago. In January 1963, when he was twenty-one he enlisted in the US Army, went through boot camp at Camp Crowder in Missouri, and then served in the special forces branch, counter insurgency. He was a Green Beret. That meant he went behind enemy lines.
His life was one of confidence. At six foot two inches, 205 pounds, and having gone through six months of rigorous physical and psychological training, he was certain that he was capable of doing whatever the task might be. He was a marksman and proficient with the most modern weapons given an individual soldier; M16 rifle, rocket launcher, propelled grenade, automatic pistol, bayonet, garrote. He could disassemble and reassemble all firearms, and hit his target with a 95% accuracy at a four hundred meter range.
The eldest of 5 children, his family relied on him not just to ‘know’ what was necessary, but to ‘do’ what was necessary. His high school teachers and friends considered his quiet demeanor a perfect compliment to his easy smile. When he brushed his light brown hair off his face, it was as if to say, ‘I’m not really shy.’ He played football and basketball. He liked to sing and dance.
At the University of Michigan he met Ruth. She was from southern California and he taught her how to have fun in the snow of a mid-western winter. She taught him the meaning of success. They became lovers and best friends. She went home to Marina del Rey, California, for her sister’s wedding and never came back. In his mind’s eye, Jim could see the overturned red convertible Mustang, its back wheels spinning in the air, Ruth’s body 50 feet away on the side of the cliff.
The next month, November, the president was assassinated in Dallas. That’s when Jim enlisted.
To Americans in 1963, Viet Nam was still a place, not yet a war. Jim was assigned to forward units, always with the first advisors in a ‘hot zone’. He bonded with his men and made friends with villagers. He saw comrades die in combat and locals slaughtered like chickens. When he could, he killed the enemy, without mercy. He did three tours of duty in Southeast Asia, being promoted and receiving medals and commendations from his superior officers. He was wounded three times, shrapnel from a Viet Cong attack at Bac Ha, small arms fire on the border with an advance unit fighting along side a Montagnard hill tribe, and a booby-trap hand grenade in Cambodia.
The politics of the war reached the battlefield in 1965 and Jim began to have his doubts about his participation. New recruits told stories of the states: the war protest movement, smoking marijuana, civil rights confrontations, turn on tune in drop out, LSD, the cult of music. Then in early 1968 Martin Luther King, the American apostle of non-violence, was assassinated, and later that year Robert Kennedy, like his brother Jack, was shot in the head. The Chicago police riot followed.
The violence exported by America to Viet Nam was returning home. Jim connected more and more with the new recruits, and assimilated their stateside experiences. He participated in bull sessions where the topic was the absurdity of the war, he smoked marijuana, he became like a brother to a small group of seasoned soldiers.
In 1967, without authorization from Congress as revealed in the Pentagon Papers in 1970, the scope of the war had shifted into Laos and Cambodia. The communists had been utilizing the Sihanouk Trail in Cambodia to transport and store weapons and material. This system operated in the same manner and served the same purposes as the much better known Ho Chi Minh Trail which ran through southeastern portion of the Laos.
President Lyndon Johnson authorized Project Vesuvius, a secret war of covert cross-border reconnaissance operations conducted by the highly-classified ‘Studies and Observation Group. Jim was a platoon leader in the 5th Special Forces and in April 1967, Operation Daniel Boone commenced cross-border recon efforts in Cambodia and the triborder region:
"to execute an intensified program of harassment, diversion, political pressure, capture of prisoners, physical destruction, acquisition of intelligence, generation of propaganda, and diversion of resources, against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam."
Initially, the small teams were to rely on stealth, crossing the border on foot, without either helicopters or aircraft tactical support. Then President Nixon expanded the war ordering the carpet bombing of Cambodia with Stratosphere B52’s. Later, men were parachuted into the jungles of Cambodia. Jim was among them.
Thirty miles into Cambodia, near Kon Nieh, just off the Sihanouk Trail, his sergeant discovered an underground storage cache of arms. When Jim arrived, an overanxious soldier tripped a wire and an explosion killed 2 men and wounded 3. Jim didn’t remember much. They told him of the helicopter escape and his recuperation first in Saigon and then Germany where the steel plate was put into the left side of his head to replace the part of his skull that had been blown away.
The Cambodian people, whose fate was the most dramatically effected by the results of the incursion, were ignored. Nixon’s decision heated up what was a low-key civil war and irrevocably widened the boundaries of the conflict. The Nixon administration, callous of the weakness of the Cambodian regime and its military, pushed it into a conflict that it had no possibility of winning. Cambodia would be sacrificed and millions of Cambodians would pay the ultimate price as a result of those decisions.
The war in Viet Nam was over for Jim and he was glad of it. There would be enough time for him to sort out his feelings about the past 7 years, but for now he was content to not be a part of any group and to not have any particular plan. He teamed up with a buddy from New Orleans, Bob Huffer, and they bought an old wooden 42 foot sailboat, a schnooer, with a loose idea to sail the ‘Purple Haze’ to the Carribean. His mind was filled with thoughts of a tropical life of easy living, underscored by Cuban rum and Jamaican marijuana.
They crossed the Gulf of Mexico only to discover that the boom on the Purple Haze mail-sail was warped into an ‘S’ curve and needed to be replaced. Just south of Miami there was a small harbor across the bay from Key Biscayne. Alongside the harbor was a boatyard with an old wreck, a Bahamian sloop, that had been scavenged over the year, depleting it of its fittings, line, stays and even some cabin carpentry. It was a stroke of luck that its short mast made out of lignum vitae, ironwood, lay alongside the rotting hull, and it made a perfect boom for the ‘Haze’.
Anxious to begin their new life, they left at one in the morning from the pier at Coconut Grove near the boatyard. A couple hours out nearing Government Cut, the channel into the Caribbean from Biscayne Bay, Bob Huffer went below leaving Jim at the helm to stand the first watch.
Bob came topside with the dawn. The Purple Haze was ‘in irons’ simply pointing into the wind, adrift. The untied ironwood boom swung in a small arc, permitting the wind to spill out the sail as the boat rocked from side to side. Jim was not on board.
About 3 miles from the Purple Haze, on the southeast coast of Key Biscayne was a complex recently bought by Richard Nixon. Nixon's compound placed him close to his cronies Charles ‘Bebe’ Rebozo and industrialist Robert Abplanalp, heavy contributors to the Nixon election campaign. Nixon had been up late, drinking with the boys, discussing the escalation of the war in Viet Nam. Later, unable to sleep, the President stood alone staring out the glass doors, a view into the red sky and gray sea. He decided to take a walk with his dog, Ducky.
The water lapped on the beach of the compound as the the tide was receding leaving the detritus of seaweed, plastic debris, and cut fishing line. Earlier that evening the new ironwood boom, swinging across the stern of the Purple Haze in an uncontrolled jibe, had struck the head of the helmsman at the exact spot where a steel plate had been inserted to replace that part of Jim Hayes left in southeast Asia. He went overboard, unconscious.
Ducky, running ahead of the President, was rooting and barking at the twisted pile of weed and line and Green Beret. Nixon approached, and unable to comprehend what was so clear said: “Watcha got there, Ducky?”