Ashbrook Teacher Works with Students, Veterans to Reenact an Early Vietnam Battle
December 24, 2020
Dan Reed, a graduate of Ashbrook’s Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program, teaches government at Lorain County Joint Vocational School (JVS). “The MAHG program has helped me focus the class on the original documents of our country, which give standards that those who came after looked to for guidance in preserving freedom,” Reed says. Reed also teaches a very popular military history elective, using “the major wars as guideposts for our history. If students know the sacrifices made by combat soldiers, they might take more ownership of the freedom given to them.
“Students will say, this is the first time I learned what it is to be an American,” Reed reports, looking puzzled. “Isn’t that what we’re all supposed to be teaching them?” Aided by Ashbrook’s approach with the MAHG program, Reed helps deliver lessons that reach the students more directly. He has enlisted vocational school students—who learn best by doing—to help him make films about military history.
Reed’s students are curious about the Vietnam War, a conflict depicted in pop culture as engaging both a foreign enemy and a domestic protest movement, backed with a soundtrack of rock and roll. This month, Reed’s former students may be discussing with grandparents the 50th anniversary of our first major battle in Vietnam—since they helped Reed make a 52-minute film about it, called A Walk in the Sun.
At the Battle of Ia Drang (November 14 -18, 1965), Americans fought fiercely with North Vietnamese troops, testing the “airmobile operations” model they would use in the remainder of the war. The battle began near a helicopter landing zone the Americans dubbed “LZ X-ray;” it ended in an unexpected ambush as troops made their way to a second landing zone, an evacuation point called “LZ Albany.” While the first part of the battle was featured in the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young,the latter story is seldom discussed.
Reed’s capstone project for Ashbrook’s Masters program was a video that told this forgotten story. Like all projects in Ashbrook’s program, Dan knew he would need primary sources. In his case, Dan needed the firsthand accounts from veterans of the battle. Most hesitated to speak to Reed, fearing he might carry a biased political agenda. Fortunately, Reed found Bob Towles, an historian retired from Kent State University, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross after fighting at Ia Drang. Seeing that Reed wanted to neither glorify nor condemn the operation at LZ Albany, Towles began to share information, and he persuaded other vets to speak with Reed. “I went from a projected story about four soldiers’ experience to one woven from the accounts of over twenty interview subjects,” Reed said.
Reed wrote a screenplay, found an Ohio location that vets said looked remarkably similar to the Vietnam Central Highlands, and located authentic uniforms and gear with the help of the American Legion, Am Vets, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The interactive media class at Lorain JVS produced animated maps of troop movements, while cosmetology students learned to give actors GI haircuts and simulated wounds. Over the course of three years, almost 200 students helped produce the film—“almost as many as the men who fought in the battle,” Reed said.
The filmed debuted at a reunion for the Second Battalion, 7th Cavalry vets who fought at LZ Albany. “It was completely quiet when the film ended. Then one of those who had been hardest to interview stood up clapping, and the whole crowd stood up. I was patted on the back by vets and hugged by crying wives, brothers, kids of men who fought there, saying ‘Now we know what really happened.’”
Reed said his students learned something similar. Eating donated canned rations, acting out battle scenes, and getting muddy and tired, they realized that soldiers fight “to keep their friends alive, showing honor, courage and trust—virtues kids don’t see often enough today.”
It is teachers like Reed that help fulfill the goal of Ashbrook’s Rediscovering America Initiative by helping to engage students with primary sources and transforming the way American History is taught. Studying the words of the past breaks through current conceptions and preoccupations, allowing students to understand the past as those who lived it understood it. This offers students an indispensable path to understanding and affirming the principles of freedom and equality essential to being an American.
As we come upon the 50th Anniversary of the battle of Battle of Ia Drang, the Ashbrook Center would like to recognize Dan Reed, Bob Towles and all veterans, past and present, who fight to protect our freedom. And a special thanks to the students and supporting classes at the Lorain County Joint Vocational School who put together this film.