Oral History of Hugh Keogh
Contrary to popular belief, people didn’t always oppose the military conflict in Vietnam. For a long time people supported most of the President’s actions, but after the Tet Offensive many of these feelings began to dissolve. The Tet Offensive is usually observed as the turning point in the war. This combination of surprise attacks of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) sponsored the Vietcong, and began to realize they needed a quick military offense to maintain any hope of winning the conflict. In addition, the North Vietnamese felt a string of wins in South Vietnam would honor their dying leader, Ho Chi Minh. On January 31, 1968, about 85,000 launched an attack and were able to take key Vietnamese cities, including the capital of Hue. Ultimately the attack failed, but it called into question how long the war would last. Many Americans no longer believed Vietnam would be a quick and easy victory, and they began to call for immediate withdrawal.
One of the soldiers who helped combat the efforts of the NVA was Hugh Keogh. Born in Wheeling, West Virginia, Keogh was familiar with a military lifestyle, as his father was in the army. After his father completed his service in WWII, he moved to Vienna, Virginia; however, most of his high school years in Tehran, Iran. After his parents were transferred to Haiti, Keogh returned to the states to live with his grandparents in Wheeling, where he graduated from Wheeling Central Catholic High School. Keogh attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A., and was in the Naval ROTC. Keogh was excepted to enter the Navy, and he did with great pride. It was heart wrenching for Keogh to leave his wife soon after marriage, with a child and another on the way, but he had to prepare to depart from San Diego within a few hours. Upon arrival, there wasn’t much opposition to the war. Keogh believes that most of the soldiers had similar feelings of patriotism about the war. Their own expectations of each other created unity amongst each unit.
Keogh remembers being overwhelmed by Saigon. He was moved down the Mi Kong River to meet up with his crew. As soon as he came on board the U.S. Jennings in the Huchan, Hugh Keogh’s crew carried out a search and destroy mission. As Executive Officer, Keogh could not let his ship become a sitting duck, for he had 50 crewmen under his lead. His ship dispatched Navy Seals and Huey helicopters. He and his crew docked and searched on land. Lieutenant Keogh was responsible for making sure the enemy was never able to set up for attack; therefore, he tried to keep the ship moving. Keogh lived through the Tet Offensive, but the attacks from the Vietcong did cause them to question the war and how it was handled.
Keogh was usually on high alert and felt insecure about his future. For one of the first times in his life, he began to question the actions of his country; however, Keogh always felt a strong sense of pride in his service. Battles on the U.S. Jennings were rather different than those on land. Traveling on a football-field-size ship puts the crew out in the open for the Vietcong to see. With this in mind, Keogh remembers that the crew always had their guard up. The crews became accustomed to daily attacks, and were suspicious when they went for a length of time with no quarrels. When the ship would dock the crew carried their suspicions ashore, but still tried to aid locals. As Keogh mentions one never knew if they were talking to “friend or foe,” but the locals tolerated and appreciated the services of the Navy. Both his crew and the towns would not discuss the higher administration in Washington, to avoid conflict. None of the locals actually turned in Vietcong rebels. The relations Keogh and his crew had with the towns dealt with medical services and aiding the communities. Civilians could see when the football-field long ship was docking, which ultimately would give them time to hide anything they didn’t want to be uncovered.
In regards to fellow officers, Keogh trusted them full heartedly. He felt they were definitely competent, even if he didn’t always agree with their course of action. He never suspected his fellow soldiers had cruel intentions, for he did not see any indications of abuse of other soldiers or civilians. Keogh believed it was difficult for him to witness any signs of torture, done by the U.S., because his relations with the towns were sporadic ; therefore, the chances of there being any torture done by his own men were minimal. In regard to the people running the war, Keogh didn’t pay any attention, or receive much contact with people in Washington or high ranking commanders. There was no newspaper or news media outlet informing the soldiers of the public’s views on the conflict. This enabled Keogh and his fellow sailors to develop their own opinions about the war without too much bias from the negative media stories. Keogh’s emerging doubts indicated that the lack of support for the occupation in Vietnam wasn’t all fueled by the media. Some skepticism came from the first hand experiences of the soldiers.
Midway through his tour of duty Keogh began to ponder the real motives behind the war, and he did even more so after the Tet Offensive. Although he didn’t believe the U.S. was “losing the war,” Keogh thought these attacks were a strong indication that the United States was not in control of the situation in Vietnam. These attacks demonstrated that the Vietcong would continue to be a force in Vietnam, causing many of the soldiers to speculate if their time and efforts balanced their success. Returning home, his wife informed him of the anti-war sentiment that was gaining support among the nation; however, Keogh was never fearful to testify about his service. He did not have a “warm and fuzzy welcoming.” Although Keogh had many outside influences, he always developed his opinions about Vietnam from his first hand experiences.
After returning to the United States, Keogh met with his wife. In addition to seeing his first child, Keogh also welcomed a new one. Adjusting to family life was difficult at first. Keogh admits he was more “hard-nosed” than his usual self, but he feels he adjusted rather well after his first year back home. Spending three more years in the Navy after leaving Vietnam in 1971, Keogh served a tour of duty in Washington D.C. at the Defense Intelligence School. Following his time, he served two years as Aid and Flag Lieutenant to Commander Middle East Force in Bahrain. Keogh and his family moved to Richmond, Virginia in 1976. He served as Director of the Virginia Department of Economic Development from 1987- 1992. Today he has six children, and resides in Midlothian Virginia, where he is still extremely active in community life.
Researched By: Rachel M. Carey
Volunteer of the Cold War Museum
Cosby High School
Keogh, Hugh. Telephone interview. April 14.
Leuhusen, Peter. “The Vietnam War.” The Vietnam War. August 10, 2007.
www.vietnampix.com. 28 May 2008.
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