40 years on, Vietnam troop withdrawal remembered
Forty years ago, soldiers returning from Vietnam were advised to change into civilian clothes on their flights home so that they wouldn’t be accosted by angry protesters at the airport. For a Vietnamese businessman who helped the U.S. government, a rising sense of panic set in as the last combat troops left the country on March 29, 1973 and he began to contemplate what he’d do next. A young North Vietnamese soldier who heard about the withdrawal felt emboldened to continue his push on the battlefields of southern Vietnam.
While the fall of Saigon two years later — with its indelible images of frantic helicopter evacuations — is remembered as the final day of the Vietnam War, Friday marks an anniversary that holds greater meaning for many who fought, protested or otherwise lived the war. Since then, they’ve embarked on careers, raised families and in many cases counseled a younger generation emerging from two other faraway wars.
Many veterans are encouraged by changes they see. The U.S. has a volunteer military these days, not a draft, and the troops coming home aren’t derided for their service. People know what PTSD stands for, and they’re insisting that the government take care of soldiers suffering from it and other injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Below are the stories of a few of the people who experienced a part of the Vietnam War firsthand.
Former Air Force Sgt. Howard Kern, who lives in central Ohio near Newark, spent a year in Vietnam before returning home in 1968.
He said that for a long time he refused to wear any service ribbons associating him with southeast Asia and he didn’t even his tell his wife until a couple of years after they married that he had served in Vietnam. He said she was supportive of his war service and subsequent decision to go back to the Army to serve another 18 years.
Kern said that when he flew back from Vietnam with other service members, they were told to change out of uniform and into civilian clothes while they were still on the airplane to avoid the ire of protesters at the airport.
“What stands out most about everything is that before I went and after I got back, the news media only showed the bad things the military was doing over there and the body counts,” said Kern, now 66. “A lot of combat troops would give their c rations to Vietnamese children, but you never saw anything about that — you never saw all the good that GIs did over there.”
Kern, an administrative assistant at the Licking County Veterans’ Service Commission, said the public’s attitude is a lot better toward veterans coming home for Iraq and Afghanistan — something the attributes in part to Vietnam veterans.
“We’re the ones that greet these soldiers at the airports. We’re the ones who help with parades and stand alongside the road when they come back and applaud them and salute them,” he said.
He said that while the public “might condemn war today, they don’t condemn the warriors.”
“I think the way the public is treating these kids today is a great thing,” Kern said. “I wish they had treated us that way.”
But he still worries about the toll that multiple tours can take on service members.
“When we went over there, you came home when your tour was over and didn’t go back unless you volunteered. They are sending GIs back now maybe five or seven times, and that’s way too much for a combat veteran,” he said.
He remembers feeling glad when the last troops left Vietnam, but was sad to see Saigon fall two years later. “Vietnam was a very beautiful country, and I felt sorry for the people there,” he said.
Tony Lam was 36 on the day the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam. He was a young husband and father, but most importantly, he was a businessman and U.S. contractor furnishing dehydrated rice to South Vietnamese troops. He also ran a fish meal plant and a refrigerated shipping business that exported shrimp.
As Lam, now 76, watched American forces dwindle and then disappear, he felt a rising panic. His close association with the Americans was well-known and he needed to get out — and get his family out — or risk being tagged as a spy and thrown into a Communist prison. He watched as South Vietnamese commanders fled, leaving whole battalions without a leader.
“We had no chance of surviving under the Communist invasion there. We were very much worried about the safety of our family, the safety of other people,” he said this week from his adopted home in Westminster, Calif.
But Lam wouldn’t leave for nearly two more years after the last U.S. combat troops, driven to stay by his love of his country and his belief that Vietnam and its economy would recover.
When Lam did leave, on April 21, 1975, it was aboard a packed C-130 that departed just as Saigon was about to fall. He had already worked for 24 hours at the airport to get others out after seeing his wife and two young children off to safety in the Philippines.
“My associate told me, ‘You’d better go. It’s critical. You don’t want to end up as a Communist prisoner.’ He pushed me on the flight out. I got tears in my eyes once the flight took off and I looked down from the plane for the last time,” Lam recalled. “No one talked to each other about how critical it was, but we all knew it.”
Now, Lam lives in Southern California’s Little Saigon, the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam.
In 1992, Lam made history by becoming the first Vietnamese-American to elected to public office in the U.S. and he went on to serve on the Westminster City Council for 10 years.
Looking back over four decades, Lam says he doesn’t regret being forced out of his country and forging a new, American, life.
“I went from being an industrialist to pumping gas at a service station,” said Lam, who now works as a consultant and owns a Lee’s Sandwich franchise, a well-known Vietnamese chain.
“But thank God I am safe and sound and settled here with my six children and 15 grandchildren,” he said. “I’m a happy man.”
Wayne Reynolds’ nightmares got worse this week with the approach of the anniversary of the U.S. troop withdrawal.
Reynolds, 66, spent a year working as an Army medic on an evacuation helicopter in 1968 and 1969. On days when the fighting was worst, his chopper would make four or five landings in combat zones to rush wounded troops to emergency hospitals.
The terror of those missions comes back to him at night, along with images of the blood that was everywhere. The dreams are worst when he spends the most time thinking about Vietnam, like around anniversaries.
“I saw a lot of people die,” said Reynolds.
Today, Reynolds lives in Athens, Ala., after a career that included stints as a public school superintendent and, most recently, a registered nurse. He is serving his 13th year as the Alabama president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, and he also has served on the group’s national board as treasurer.
Like many who came home from the war, Reynolds is haunted by the fact he survived Vietnam when thousands more didn’t. Encountering war protesters after returning home made the readjustment to civilian life more difficult.
“I was literally spat on in Chicago in the airport,” he said. “No one spoke out in my favor.”
Reynolds said the lingering survivor’s guilt and the rude reception back home are the main reasons he spends much of his time now working with veteran’s groups to help others obtain medical benefits. He also acts as an advocate on veterans’ issues, a role that landed him a spot on the program at a 40th anniversary ceremony planned for Friday in Huntsville, Ala.
It took a long time for Reynolds to acknowledge his past, though. For years after the war, Reynolds said, he didn’t include his Vietnam service on his resume and rarely discussed it with anyone.
“A lot of that I blocked out of my memory. I almost never talk about my Vietnam experience other than to say, ‘I was there,’ even to my family,” he said.
A former North Vietnamese soldier, Ho Van Minh heard about the American combat troop withdrawal during a weekly meeting with his commanders in the battlefields of southern Vietnam.
The news gave the northern forces fresh hope of victory, but the worst of the war was still to come for Minh: The 77-year-old lost his right leg to a land mine while advancing on Saigon, just a month before that city fell.
“The news of the withdrawal gave us more strength to fight,” Minh said Thursday, after touring a museum in the capital, Hanoi, devoted to the Vietnamese victory and home to captured American tanks and destroyed aircraft.
“The U.S. left behind a weak South Vietnam army. Our spirits was so high and we all believed that Saigon would be liberated soon,” he said.
Minh, who was on a two-week tour of northern Vietnam with other veterans, said he bears no ill will to the American soldiers even though much of the country was destroyed and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese died.
If he met an American veteran now he says, “I would not feel angry; instead I would extend my sympathy to them because they were sent to fight in Vietnam against their will.”
But on his actions, he has no regrets. “If someone comes to destroy your house, you have to stand up to fight.”
Two weeks before the last U.S. troops left Vietnam, Marine Corps Capt. James H. Warner was freed from North Vietnamese confinement after nearly 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war. He said those years of forced labor and interrogation reinforced his conviction that the United States was right to confront the spread of communism.
The past 40 years have proven that free enterprise is the key to prosperity, Warner said in an interview Thursday at a coffee shop near his home in Rohrersville, Md., about 60 miles from Washington. He said American ideals ultimately prevailed, even if our methods weren’t as effective as they could have been.
“China has ditched socialism and gone in favor of improving their economy, and the same with Vietnam. The Berlin Wall is gone. So essentially, we won,” he said. “We could have won faster if we had been a little more aggressive about pushing our ideas instead of just fighting.”
Warner, 72, was the avionics officer in a Marine Corps attack squadron when his fighter plane was shot down north of the Demilitarized Zone in October 1967.
He said the communist-made goods he was issued as a prisoner, including razor blades and East German-made shovels, were inferior products that bolstered his resolve.
“It was worth it,” he said.
A native of Ypsilanti, Mich., Warner went on to a career in law in government service. He is a member of the Republican Central Committee of Washington County, Md.
Denis Gray witnessed the Vietnam War twice — as an Army captain stationed in Saigon from 1970 to 1971 for a U.S. military intelligence unit, and again as a reporter at the start of a 40-year career with the AP.
“Saigon in 1970-71 was full of American soldiers. It had a certain kind of vibe. There were the usual clubs, and the bars were going wild,” Gray recalled. “Some parts of the city were very, very Americanized.”
Gray’s unit was helping to prepare for the troop pullout by turning over supplies and projects to the South Vietnamese during a period that Washington viewed as the final phase of the war. But morale among soldiers was low, reinforced by a feeling that the U.S. was leaving without finishing its job.
“Personally, I came to Vietnam and the military wanting to believe that I was in a — maybe not a just war but a — war that might have to be fought,” Gray said. “Toward the end of it, myself and most of my fellow officers, and the men we were commanding didn’t quite believe that ... so that made the situation really complex.”
After his one-year service in Saigon ended in 1971, Gray returned home to Connecticut and got a job with the AP in Albany, N.Y. But he was soon posted to Indochina, and returned to Saigon in August 1973 — four months after the U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam — to discover a different city.
“The aggressiveness that militaries bring to any place they go — that was all gone,” he said. A small American presence remained, mostly diplomats, advisers and aid workers but the bulk of troops had left. The war between U.S.-allied South Vietnam and communist North Vietnam was continuing, and it was still two years before the fall of Saigon to the communist forces.
“There was certainly no panic or chaos — that came much later in ‘74, ‘75. But certainly it was a city with a lot of anxiety in it.”
The Vietnam War was the first of many wars Gray witnessed. As AP’s Bangkok bureau chief for more than 30 years, Gray has covered wars in Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and “many, many insurgencies along the way.”
“I don’t love war, I hate it,” Gray said. “(But) when there have been other conflicts, I’ve been asked to go. So, it was definitely the shaping event of my professional life.”
Harry Prestanski, 65, of West Chester, Ohio, served 16 months as a Marine in Vietnam and remembers having to celebrate his 21st birthday there. He is now retired from a career in public relations and spends a lot of time as an advocate for veterans, speaking to various organizations and trying to help veterans who are looking for jobs.
“The one thing I would tell those coming back today is to seek out other veterans and share their experiences,” he said. “There are so many who will work with veterans and try to help them — so many opportunities that weren’t there when we came back.”
He says that even though the recent wars are different in some ways from Vietnam, those serving in any war go through some of the same experiences.
“One of the most difficult things I ever had to do was to sit down with the mother of a friend of mine who didn’t come back and try to console her while outside her office there were people protesting the Vietnam War,” Prestanski said.
He said the public’s response to veterans is not what it was 40 years ago and credits Vietnam veterans for helping with that.
“When we served, we were viewed as part of the problem,” he said. “One thing about Vietnam veterans is that — almost to the man — we want to make sure that never happens to those serving today. We welcome them back and go out of our way to airports to wish them well when they leave.”
He said some of the positive things that came out of his war service were the leadership skills and confidence he gained that helped him when he came back.
“I felt like I could take on the world,” he said.