Friendly Fire  (1979)

 

 

 

Director:     David Greene.

Starring:     Carol Burnett (Peg Mullen), Ned Beatty (Gene Mullen), Sam Waterston (C.D. Bryan), Dennis Erdman (Michael E. Mullen), Timothy Hutton (John Mullen), Fanny Spiess (Mary Mullen), Sherry Hursey (Patricia Mullen), Michael Flanagan (Father Shimon), Hilly Hicks (Willis Huddleston), William Jordan (Col. Byron Schindler), Vernon Weddle (Col. Georgi), Jack Rader (Sgt. Fitzgerald), Robert Wahler (Alan Hulting), David Keith (Leroy Hamilton), Bernard Behrens (Dietrich).

Made for TV movie.

a woman fights the US army to learn the truth about how her son died in Vietnam

 

 

Spoiler Warning:

"This film is dedicated to Michael E. Mullen, his family, and the men of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry, 198th Infantry Brigade, Americal Division."

Iowa, USA.  A young fellow works on the farm feeding the pigs.  His name is Michael E Mullen.  His mother Peg is doing the laundry.  In the afternoon Michael's brother John returns from school.  Later his two sisters, Mary and Patricia, return home. 

At night Gene Mullen is just finishing off his shift at work.  He tells his supervisor that his son is home on leave right now, but tomorrow he's shipping out to Vietnam.

Working in the corn field, Michael found an Indian arrowhead.  He and his brother talk about Chief Black Hawk of the Sauk Indians.  He fought for his people in the Black Hawk War in l832 in Illinois and Wisconsin.  Black Hawk died in 1838 (at age 70 or 71) in what is now southeastern Iowa

In the morning Michael sees John off to school via the bus.  A little later the rest of the family takes Michael to the airport.  At the airport the family says goodbye to Michael.  His mother starts crying and Michael tells her not to worry.  He says the war will be over in six months. 

Michael's early letters are rather upbeat.  Then one night his unit pounded a Viet Cong Village for three hours.  Then at dawn they burned out the whole village.  "Can't say much more, except eight months left in this hellhole.  Some G. I.s, out of frustration, are inhuman to these people."

The family gets a letter written about a week ago from Michael.  He says that he will be going out into the field for a few days.  Peg says she has been jumpy of late.  The war disturbs her.  She has written letters, one even to President Nixon, about the war, but now she feels that's just not enough.  She wants to do something more against the war. 

A car is coming toward the farm house.  Gene Mullen is outside trying to fix the TV antenna.  The car arrives and it's an army vehicle.  A minister and an army man get out of the car.  Now Gene is worried.   He asks the men twice:  "Is my boy dead?"  The minister asks Gene to come into the house.  Gene backs up from the men and runs into the house shouting:  "It's Mikey!  It's Mikey!"  Peg stops work on the curtains and comes over to find out what's going on.  The two men come inside and with Peg in the room Gene now asks for the truth:  "Is my boy dead?"  Yes.  The minister says he's sorry to Gene and Peg.  Peg wants to know how was her boy killed?  Sgt. Fitzgerald reads that Michael Eugene Mullen died while at a night defensive position when artillery fire from friendly forces landed in the area.  Peg wants to know what this friendly fire is.  She's told that it's any fire not from the enemy.  Peg says that means that the American artillery killed her son.  No.  Actually it was fire from the South Vietnamese artillery in the battle at Bien Hoa.  Gene says that his son was some 300 miles away from Bien Hoa.  He wasn't anywhere near that place.

The whole Mullen family has been devastated by the news.  Gene and Peg go through some of Michael's personal items.  Peg gets pencil and paper.  She says she's going to write down everything Sgt. Fitzgerald said about the death of their child.  Gene asks why is she doing this?  She says she wants to see it all written down. 

A message comes over a teletype machine that Michael's body is coming in tomorrow around 8 o'clock at night.  The body is being escorted by Sgt. 1st Class Glenn Marin.  When Peg learns about the arrival, she is upset.  They had the right to have two friends of Michael escort the body to the Loomis Funeral Home.  So now they have Sgt. Fitzgerald back in their home.  He says that he was told that if the Mullen family wants their own escorts, then there will be a delay of 15 days.  Peg says she could wait 15 more years as long as her son gets the two named escorts. 

So now the army informs Sgt. Fitzgerald that the body will be held at the Oakland Army Terminal Mortuary pending arrival of special escort. 

On Armed Forces' Day, Peg attends one of the ceremonies.  An army representative answers questions for a crowd of people.  Peg wants to know why, in the army statistics of the number of dead, does the army not include the men killed in non-battle situations?  Aren't they just as dead as the men killed in combat?  And why doesn't the army include the numbers of wounded in action that later die in the hospital or at home?  The poor army representative doesn't really know why.  He urges Peg to write a letter to the army's public affairs office and she will get an answer to her questions.

The family gets a letter from the Office of the President expressing President Nixon's regret to hear of the loss of their son.  Included with the short letter are copies of Nixon's speeches on Vietnam.  Peg gets so mad that she writes on the big envelope from the Office of the President:  "Return to Sender.  Not Interested."  Gene now telephones to find out when their son's body is expected in.  He learns the body will be coming in at 4:45 p.m., accompanied by Sgt. Roy O'Connor. 

The family is there at the airport to receive the body. 

The family goes to see Michael's body at the funeral home.  Peg can only stay there at the casket for a little while.  Her husband helps her to the car. 

Gene goes back in and demands a death certificate from Sgt. Fitzgerald.  He says there's not a mark on the boy, so he wants to know the real circumstances of his death.  The sergeant shows him the paper he has, but Gene rejects that and asks for the death certificate.  The sergeant finally says that he just doesn't have one.  In the car, Peg says that she didn't want to see her son with his body whole without a mark on him.  She expected and wanted his body to be blown to bits.  That way she could believe that her son actually died in a war.  Inside the funeral home, Gene will not accept a medal from Sgt. Fitzgerald.  Nor will he have a military guard at the funeral.  All he wants is a flag to be draped over the casket. 

Following the funeral ceremony, the family receives a letter from the army.  It says that Michael was in a night defensive position at the village of Tu Chanh, approximately thirteen miles south of Tam Ky City, in Quant Tin Province, Republic of Vietnam.  At 2:59 a.m., the unit was adjusting the artillery to provide a predetermined range of fire in the event of enemy contact.  During the testing, Michael received a fatal wound  when a round fell short of its intended target."    

The description of what happened to Michael does not jive with what Sgt. Fitzgerald said about Michael being killed by South Vietnamese artillery.  So the truth is that Michael was killed by someone in his own unit.  Peg wants to know why were they adjusting artillery at about 3 o'clock in the morning unless they were being attacked?  And why was it that the funeral director only found one hole in Michael's back about the size of a bullet?  Why wasn't there any investigation?  Did anyone else get hurt? 

So now Gene and Peg find the name of a boy from Waterloo, Iowa named Huddleston mentioned in one of Michael's letters.  There are four Huddleston numbers in the telephone book.  Peg wants to call all the Huddleston numbers right now, but Gene reminds her that it's already past midnight.  They can call the numbers in the morning. 

Peg finds the address for Huddleston and she writes him a letter asking the man for information on the death of their son.  Gene and Peg are bothered by bureaucratic business with the army.

Peg gets a letter back from Huddleston.  The letter says:  "The short round that killed Mike also killed another soldier named Hamilton and wounded six or seven others.  The army has this thing they call the 'D. T.'s', that's 'Defensive Targets' that they shoot about 200 to 300 meters away from you. They used to do this almost every night, but now they've stopped."  Peg reads this to her son John and it's obvious that John doesn't want to hear anything more about the death of his brother.  He tells his mother that he has to go study, in order to get away from her. 

Peg and the family have guests over and Peg keeps talking about the death of her son Mike.  One of the male guests, named Earl, says you can never really trust what the "G. I. s"  tell you, because they are always complaining about the army.  Peg says that Huddleston at least gave her some new information about her son, which the army has failed to do lately.  The dinner quest tells Peg that the army is busy running a war.  It doesn't have time to write everybody personal letters.   Peg gets real serious and says to the man:  "Don't you think I know that?"   Things start getting very tense around the table, so one of the women insists on changing the subject. 

Gene and Peg suggest different things on which they can spend Mike's insurance payments.  Peg wants to use the money to talk to the people of Iowa about the war.  She puts an advertisement in the newspaper calling for people to speak out against the Vietnam War.  Below her short announcement she has 714 crosses standing for the 714 Iowan lives that have been lost in the war.  The ad gets a lot of media coverage.  And Peg and Gene start getting lots and lots of letter from around the country. 

Peg gets in a shouting match with Earl because she confronts him about the fact that he doesn't like what she's doing.  She keeps saying it until Earl confesses that he doesn't approve of what she has been doing.  He says:  "All right!  I don't Peg!  It's trash! These letters, that ad.  Getting on the air, attacking the army, the government  It's a disgrace to this town and to your boy's memory."

Peg and Gene gets a letter from Huddleston saying:  "Today we were informed of rights by the army.  If any of us have written to you in the mail, we can be court-martialed for mutiny and undermining the army."  He asks Peg not to write anything about this as it could hurt some of the soldiers.  Peg says that, according to the army, she and Gene are the enemy. 

Iowa City.  One of Peg's daughters is at the University of Iowa.  She wants her mother to go with them to Washington, D.C. for a protest against the Vietnam War.  Peg says she doesn't want to go because a lot of clergy will be there and she doesn't know how to talk "clean" about the Vietnam War.  Her daughter tells mother that there are lots of different types of people going with them for the protest against the war.  She turns the phone over to one of the clergymen, Ralph Jenner, and he explains to Peg that they would really just love to have her come on the protest with them. He says they not only want her, they need her for when Peg Mullen speaks, people listen to her.  He tells Peg that, frankly, she's a celebrity. 

Peg does decide to make the trip to Washington, D.C.  She gets on the bus with all the others, including paraplegic former soldiers.  There is singing of protest songs on the bus.  On the long ride to Washington D.C., Peg's daughter tells her that Alan and her want to get married.  They will marry in Iowa City, because back home in Des Moines she feels the resentment of the citizens against her mother and father for protesting against the war.   Mother tells daughter that she will talk to her father about this.  She asks for a month's time to work on father. 

Peg has been having trouble with her home telephone.  And when she calls her husband, again she keeps getting that same clicking sound and a fading in and out of the phone.  She has to hang up earlier than she would have wanted to.  She asks Ralph Jenner about the problem and he tells her that it sounds like her phone is being tapped. 

Peg attends a Department of Defense presentation and listens to the constant bullshit from the defense speakers.  When questions start coming, they are hard hitting and, frankly, embarrassing of the speakers for their many falsehoods.  Peg has some embarrassing questions for the speakers and she is certainly a well-informed citizen on the Vietnam War.  She wants to know especially why are they lying to the public about the real losses in this war?  An officer takes Peg down to where they keep the statistics on the deaths in Vietnam.  The officer gets impatient with Peg, but catches himself and asks if she has any more requests?  She tells the officer that she wants the names of every man that died in the week during which her own son died (and whose name did not appear on the original list).

Peg's daughter is getting married today.  Peg tells her that they heard from the mother of the Hamilton that was killed along with Michael and she said that the Pentagon gave her Peg's name and suggested that Mrs. Hamilton write a letter to Mrs. Mullen.  She asks her daughter why would the Pentagon do that?  But daughter is too consumed thinking about her wedding dress to bother about the Vietnam War.  In fact, she specifically tells her mother that she doesn't want to hear anymore about that subject on her very special day.  She says that mom just will never let up, never stops. 

Knox County, Kentucky.  Gene and Peg are driving to speak with Mrs. Hamilton at her home in Kentucky.  The parents commiserate with each other, but Peg doesn't really learn anything new about her son's way of dying. 

Then one day a black soldier comes to see the Mullen family.  The soldiers proves to be none other than the Willis Huddleston who has been writing letters back and forth to the Mullens.  The family is very enthused to see Huddleston.  They have dinner together and the family learns that the fiorward observer that night was a soldier named Quintero.  He starts to go into detail about the deaths.  That's when John bolts out of the house to get away from those very details.

Huddleston didn't really know much about what really happened.  The only useful information was the name of the forward artillery observer's name.

A writer from the east named Corty comes to see Peg and Gene. He wants to write about their story.  They talk for a long time with the fellow.  John again can't take it and runs out of the house.  Corty goes out to apologize to John for bringing the whole subject up again.  John says that's it's just that he's so fed-up with constantly hearing about the war and the death of his brother and the army cover-up.  The writer does says one important thing to John:  his parents really need John. 

The writer returns to Guilford, Connecticut.  He wants to write a book about the Mullens.  One night, Corty gets a call from Gene.  They are in the area and would like to stop by and talk to him.  Gene says that have located Michael's commander, Lt. Colonel Schindler, the man they suspect is behind the cover-up.  He is in the hospital and they paid him a visit.  But what Gene and Peg learn doesn't change their attitudes in the least.  They think all these officers are in on the cover-up.

So Corty decides to start interviewing the officers himself to see if he can piece together what happened to Michael Mullen the night he died. 

At 5 p.m. Sgt. Mullen is told that they are going to fire the D. T. s, so have the men put on their flak jackets and stay in your foxholes. 

At 8 p.m. word gets to the men that Quintero said that they have called off the D. T.s.  So the men takes off their flak jackets.  Mullen says he will stand guard first. 

At 2 a.m. Mullen is relieved of guard duty and replaced by a fellow nicknamed Cactus. 

At 2:30 a.m. the guards hear artillery fire, maybe over the heads of Delta Company.  Quintero is awakened and told that they are going to fire R. D. T.s now.  Quintero is told to have his men put on their flak jackets, but he says no, because the men have already had one false alarm tonight. 

An artillery shell is launched and it lands right where they wanted the round to land, so Quintero tells the radio man to tell artillery that the fire direction is okay.  So the radio man relays:  "On target.  Repeat, H-E."  The next artillery shell is fired but it lands in the area where the foxholes are.  The captain yells to relay to artillery to cease fire.  A man has been hit and wounded and he starts screaming.  The medic rushes over to the fellow. 

In Mullen's foxhole, a fellow soldier tries to awaken Mullen, but he is non-responsive.  The medic works on the fellow nick-named Prince, but now he has to rush over to check on Leroy who is not moving.  The medic checks Leroy and has someone to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on him.  Now the medic is called over to check on Mullen, who is also not moving.  The medic checks the chest area, but sees nothing.  Then he rolls Mullen over to check on his back side.  There he finds the wound.  The captain starts pushing on Mullen's chest, but the medic tells him that Mullen's dead. 

Over by artillery, Schindler calls over to the foxholes via the radio and is told the two men have already died and two more are likely to die if they don't get the helicopter here right now.  Schindler says, okay, that's what I needed to hear.  He starts telling the artillery men not to touch anything until after an investigation is made tomorrow.  Then Schindler knocks into three beer cans on the ground by the artillery position.  He repeats that the mean are not to touch anything. 

His investigation complete, Corty goes to tell his findings to Gene and Peg. They are very happy to see Corty again. It's been nine months since they last talked to him.

After dinner Corty drops the bomb that he doesn't think there was a cover-up of their son's death.  Gene and Peg are flabbergasted.  Corty explains that the error that night was committed at the Fire Direction Center.  Somebody forgot to calculate the right height of the trees in the area.  The round hit a tree and was deflected down to the foxhole area.  "The man responsible was given an official reprimand.  It wasn't direct negligence, Peg."  The report on the investigation was given a stamp of for official use only and that's why it was never released.  Gene and Peg are still arguing about all the bad things that happened to them because of the actions of the army.  They direct a lot of their anger now at Corty, who is caught off guard by the fury of their displeasure.  They say that Corty was out to get a story, so he could write a book, as if there was some nefarious about that.  Corty has to give up.  Peg tells him that when you loose your son, there's only one side.  Theirs. 

Back at the motel, Corty's agent finally gets through to him.  He asks if the Mullens were pleased and how is the book going?  Corty says he doesn't think he really has a book now.  Gene and Peg think he has just been using them.  The agent says:  "Well, you are."  They are using each other.  Corty says he will call the agent back when he gets back to Connecticut. 

Peg is strong, but Gene starts to cry as they discuss the events of the day with people calling Peg for some guidance after they have lost a son.  Gene wonders out loud if they aren't both crazy.  He asks how long can they keep on going on like this?  Peg says that she did wonder if they are going to have to live a lifetime of anger?  She answers her own question by saying they have to keep going on.  That way, Michael's death and the death of all others, will have some meaning. 

Peg and Gene drive to the cemetery.  There waiting for them is Corty.  He tells Peg that he would like to visit Michael's grave with them.  At first Peg doesn't say anything.  She starts walking toward the grave, but then motions back to Corty that he's to come with them. 

"The Defense department's official casualty report for the Vietnam War lists 45,958 combat deaths, and 10,303 non-battle death for the period between January 1, 1961, and March 31, 1973.  On March 29, 1973, the last American troops left Vietnam, formally terminating the United States' direct military involvement."

 

 

Spoiler Warning:  Powerful movie.  The U.S. Army like many institutions often have policies that hide so much information from the public that the public starts to get the feeling that such institutions are always lying and usually involved in some kind of cover-up of the real facts and events.  But in this particular case, there was no cover-up.  But the policies of limiting the information available to the public did make Peg and Gene think that they were up against a cover-up.  You can't blame Peg and Gene for thinking there was a cover-up because the bureaucracy was forced to release information bit by bit and a lot of it was contradictory information.  The real lesson here is that institutions have to be more open with the public as to the hows and whys of what they are doing or what the did.  Selectively releasing information favorable only to the bureaucracy, only makes many people conclude that there is really a cover-up going on.  Nobody is asking that true secret material should be released, but the definition of what's "secret" has to be loosened up.  Is it "secret" or just embarrassing to the institution? 

Carol Burnett (as Peg Mullen), Ned Beatty (as Gene Mullen) and Sam Waterston (C.D. Bryan) were all great in their roles. 

 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 

 

Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)