Robert Mueller in Vietnam
1968 was a watershed year in American history. Assassinations, riots, social change, a Presidential election, and an unpopular war all contributed to the upheaval. That year would also be the bloodiest for American troops in Vietnam, with over 16,500 killed in action. For young men about to graduate from high school or college, it was decision time. Many had already received their Order To Report For Induction from the Selective Service System with its famous "greeting" from the President.
During the Vietnam War era, 1965-1973, deferment from the draft was commonplace. Many were for legitimate reasons: marriage, children, schooling, and injuries. Others had the means to avoid service by having a doctor concoct a fake medical condition, like bone spurs. The more resolute resisted by going to jail.
For the vast majority, it was an agonizing decision. These men had grown up with John Wayne and documentaries like Victory at Sea. Many of their dads had served in WWII. It was their turn. As the war went on however, former classmates did not come home; others came back with permanent injuries. The nightly news broadcasts increased its coverage of the war every week. Perceptions gradually changed. Questions were raised about the mission. By the middle of '68, a tipping point had been reached.
Into this maelstrom walked a 23-year-old Marine second lieutenant, Robert Swan Mueller III.
The Road Less Taken
Born into wealth, Mueller was the son of a DuPont Executive, growing up in Princeton, New Jersey. At the time of his birth in 1944, his father was serving in the Navy. Raised a Presbyterian, he attended St. Paul’s school with another future Vietnam veteran, John Kerry. He played hockey, lacrosse and had as idyllic life as one can imagine. But it was at Princeton University where world events intruded on his life.
Vietnam was barely on the public's radar when Mueller and his contemporaries started college; by graduation, it had become a centerpiece of American foreign policy. Throughout his college years, long talks had been held about what to do. Mueller and most of the guys felt a patrician sense of duty; to whom much is given, much is expected. Even if drafted, most of them could avoid combat should they choose; their education and connections afforded them plum assignments in intelligence or as aide de camps. In early 1967, a former St. Paul's lacrosse teammate and fellow Princeton alum was killed in Vietnam. This only strengthened his resolve to serve.
By the end of August 1967, Mueller faced the decision. Now married and holding two degrees, his path seemed secure. Despite being able to choose any career he wanted, he joined the Marines and went to war. This was after he had already been turned away the year before due to an injury.
In 1966, Mueller was rejected as medically unfit for military service (4-F) because of knee injuries sustained at St. Paul's. The doctors told him it had to improve within a year or face another rejection. Never one to rest, he kept busy, marrying and earning a Master’s at New York University. By mid-1967, the knee had healed and the doctors declared him fit; then it was off the Officer Candidate School in November. After OCS, he was sent to Army Ranger School, where the Marines sent their best officer candidates to prepare them for the terrain of Southeast Asia. His last stop during training was Fort Benning for jump school.
The Tet Offensive began on January 30, 1968. Conducted by both the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces, it shocked the U.S. military and shook public opinion at home. Coming during the Vietnamese New Year, Tết, it was a complete surprise. All over South Vietnam, even in Saigon, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces were attacked. The Marines had numerous firebases located around the central highlands. Their static nature made them easy targets and were quickly under siege. The most famous of these was the base at Khe Sanh in Quảng Trị Province, It’s survival would also become the focus of President Johnson, leading to even more micromanaging. Operation Scotland, the counteroffensive to break the siege, took nearly four months.
Before Scotland I even ended, the Marines began planning another massive counteroffensive and clearing operation in Quảng Trị Province. Khe Sanh was relieved in mid-April. Operation Scotland II then began in earnest. The goal of the operation was to retake all of the Province, establish more bases and provide greater security in the central highlands. It would ultimately be one of the costliest battles of the war for the Marine Corps. Dislodging a well-concealed enemy who was suicidal in their zeal led to carnage.
In October ’68, Lt. Mueller embarked for Okinawa, headquarters of the 3rd Marine Division. The large Marine base was used as a staging area prior to deployment in Vietnam. By November, he arrived at Dong Ha and was assigned as a platoon leader in H Company ("Hotel Company"), 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment of the 3rd Marine Division. The Division had been fighting on the eastern end of the Demilitarized Zone in central Vietnam, in and around Quảng Trị Province. High causality rates had become the norm. In 1967, the 2nd Battalion had lost two-thirds of its men killed and wounded.
His men took notice of him right away. Ivy League platoon leaders were still rare, and the platoon veterans were a little suspicious. But Mueller established himself quickly: studying hard, listening to the outgoing lieutenants, and most of all, doing what the sergeants told him to do. That earned him the most respect from the enlisted.
His platoon was a mix of veterans and new arrivals. Both were scared but in different ways. The vets knew what was coming; the new arrivals just did not want to embarrass themselves and Mueller counted himself among the latter. Almost all of the surviving members of the platoon had been wounded in the desperate battles of early 1968. Regardless of the time in combat, the 40 men under his command would be watching their new lieutenant once the shooting started.
The company spent the rest of November and early December acting as base security for Camp Vandergrift; Getting acclimated to the climate was another challenge. Heavy rains hit the area upon Mueller's arrival. Gusts of wind blew tents every which way. Some guys gave up on having any real shelter and just pulled their ponchos over their heads, waiting for it to stop. The vets told their new comrades to just get used to it.
Looming northwest of the base were the steep ridges and dusty plateaus of the DMZ. Every Marine knew that was where they would have to head eventually. Casualties passed through every day. The Marines' primary tasks were search and destroy missions. It was impossible to block out the war. A tense atmosphere fell over the men. Finally, word came down for Hotel Company to move out. The entire Battalion was headed to the notorious Mutter’s Ridge.
It was December 7, 1968.
The Marines had been fighting on Mutter's Ridge since 1966. Mutter's was a ridgeline that ran east to west along the southern DMZ. A series of hills made up the ridge. It was used extensively by the NVA and Viet Cong as an infiltration point. Thousands of Marines had already been casualties fighting to control this area. Ground would be taken, then after withdrawal, the enemy would sneak back to their old positions. By 1968, the ridge had become infamous.
The going throughout the heavily forested and mountainous terrain was arduous. Knee deep mud slowed everyone. Sharp vines cut into their hands and faces. Ambushes were frequent. The enemy frequently vanished without a sound. Casualties were constant. There was no front line, the enemy popped up from every direction; it was 360 degrees of chaos. Enemy bunkers were dug into the side of the mountain, with slits barely peeping out of the mud.
Day of Days
On December 11, 1968, Mueller and his platoon were bivouacked on a nearby hill when they received orders to come to the aid of another company. Before the orders had come down, small arms fire could be heard across the valley. Breakfast would have to wait. It was time to head for Foxtrot Ridge. H Company packed up and worked their way downhill, before heading up to Fox Company's positions.
Upon reaching the ridge, wounded lay everywhere. Fox Company had been decimated, most of the officers hit, and at least one killed, 1st Lieutenant Steven Broderick. The firing was just a hundred yards or so in front of them. Lt. Mueller immediately ordered his men to drop their packs, check their ammo and form up for assault. They were going straight across the ridge. Within minutes, NVA fire cut down several of his men. Mueller stayed upright, wanting his platoon to see him directing them forward. He continued to reassess the situation every few minutes and call in air strikes. The whole company was pinned down. Despite the heavy fire, the men felt reassured and tried to keep moving forward.
Hours went by and losses mounted. Mueller moved from one isolated group to another. NVA troops now appeared behind them. Several companies of Marines had been ambushed. AK-47 fire was coming from every direction. One of Mueller's men described the scene as pure terror. Even the Navy Corpsmen were forced to defend themselves, throwing grenades while treating the wounded. The enemy could not be seen. Marines grabbed machetes and desperately hacked at the brush. Ammunition of all kinds began to run low.
Second Platoon's Private William Sparks found himself low on ammo and pinned down on the north side of the ridge. Running through the hail of fire, Corporal John C. Liverman, threw a bag to Sparks. Moments later, Liverman was shot through the head, but still alive. Sparks did his best to get John undercover, then tried to pick him up over his shoulder, only to get hit himself. He managed to crawl into a shell hole and drag Liverman over the lip as well. Looking up to the top of the ridge, he heard some voices. One of them was Lt. Mueller, who shouted down to stay where they were, "we're coming to get you."
Mueller and another marine reached them quickly. While they administered first aid and dressed Sparks' wound, getting them out remained the problem. They carried Sparks up first. Then Lt. Mueller dashed back down to get Liverman. Both were evacuated, but Liverman did not make it.
The battle raged till late in the afternoon, when the NVA disengaged, having suffered heavy losses as well. For the two Marine companies, Fox and Hotel, it had been a bloody day: 13 killed and 31 wounded. The rest of the month was mopping up and patrols. Adding to the misery was the constant wind and rain.
After a few days of R&R at a nearby beach, Mueller and the rest of H Company were back on patrol by mid-January 1969, seeking out lingering enemy fighters. There was the occasional firefight and nighttime infiltration by the North Vietnamese, but no major battles for them. Mueller continued his disciplined approach, learning more and more; even dealing with the radical social changes that were penetrating the old school Marine Corps.
In April 1969, enemy attacks seemed to increase again. Ambushes became more frequent. Second Battalion's three companies were constantly engaged in reinforcing each other as patrols came under fire from their rear. It was during one of these firefights that Mueller received a round through his thigh. Because of the rough terrain, he was evacuated via a sling hung from a helicopter. It was his last day in combat.
By the end of May, Mueller had recovered but based on the rotation system, was reassigned to Divisional Headquarters as an aide-de-camp. While at HQ, he was awarded his Bronze Star. In December, he had been transferred to the Marine Barracks near the Pentagon. Shortly after his acceptance at the University of Virginia law school, he left the Marines.
After a few years as a private litigator, he had his first stint with the United States Attorney, working in both California and Massachusetts. After 12 years in the office, he held various high profile positions with both the U.S. Attorney and the private sector over the next several years. Nominated by George W. Bush, he was named FBI Director in July 2001.
The Marine Corps casualties in Vietnam were appalling. Over 66,000 killed or wounded, nearly one quarter who served in the War. The 3rd Marine Division suffered 6,869 killed in action during the entire war. Operation Scotland II costs the Marines 435 killed in action.
Besides Corporal Liverman, others from H Company killed on December 11 include Corporal Augstin Rosario, Corporal James Weaver, and Lance Corporal Robert W. Cromwell.
Fox Company dead included HM3 Dan M. Bennett, PFC Raymond H. Highley, LCPL Gerald C. Hoage, CPL Thomas C. Rutter, PFC Bobby G. Simpson, PFC Daniel Tellez, LCPL Roy J. Weatherford Jr., and CPL James Woodward.
John Liverman was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He had already been wounded three different times earlier in 1968 and was on Okinawa finishing up his tour when he volunteered to go back. He came from a family of veterans. His father, Troy, was a World War II veteran who had been wounded in the closing days of the war; his two brothers also served, one as an Army officer in Vietnam. Both survived.
Rest in peace.
- Graf, Garrett M. "The Untold Story of Robert Mueller's Time in Combat." Wired.com, May 15, 2018.
- Lamothe, Dan. "Robert Mueller’s military career, detailed in documents, was brief but remarkable." Washington Post, February 23, 2018. (online edition)
- Leepson, Marc. "What It Was Like To Be Drafted." New York Times, July 21, 2017. (online edition)
- Webb, James. "The Price of Duty." Parade Magazine, May 27, 2001.
- Weinstein, Adam. "7 Fascinating Facts About Robert Mueller's Time As A Vietnam Marine." Task & Purpose, May 16, 2018. taskandpurpose.com.
- Graff, Garrett M. The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller's FBI and the War on Global Terror. New York: Little, Brown & Company 2011.
- USMC Historical Division (grc-usmcu.libguides.com/marine-corps-archives)