One went to Vietnam as an advisor, years before American forces went en masse.
One had the greatest peanut butter and jelly sandwich of his life while manning a gun mount on a destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf.
One tended to Vietnam War wounded at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.
And another spent all of 56 hours “in country” as an artillery radioman at Hamburger Hill.
With today’s Vietnam War Veterans Day in mind, CalVet Connect visited with some Vietnam veterans who live at the Veterans Home of California-Fresno (VHC-Fresno).
Vietnam-era veterans currently comprise roughly one-third of California’s military veterans, but represent 743 of the 1706 veterans (44%) living collectively in CalVet’s eight Veterans Homes of California. Each veteran has his or her own memories to share – and some unique ones at that.
James A., who graduated 11th among 511 cadets in his class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1953, became an engineer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The U.S. military had advisors on the ground in Vietnam as early as the 1950s; In 1962, James joined them for a tour duty that lasted exactly one year to the day.
“I flew in (to Saigon) on Pan Am at 10 a.m. on April 16, 1962 – my dad’s birthday,” said James, now a bow-tie clad 92-year-old. “I left on a charter jet on April 16, 1963, at 4 p.m., wheels up.”
He served in the Military Assistance Advisory Group, and much of it in Saigon reviewing contracts with the locals who would build the mobile tent camps that would give the South Vietnamese Army a strategic advantage. Just one problem, he said.
“Their officers would not sleep in tents,” James said. “If they were going to have a military operation, we had to send in everybody to build a camp (with wood or metal buildings). Where’s the surprise in that? When the Americans came in, they slept in tents.”
It didn’t take him long to question what the United States was doing there in the first place.
“I could recognize it was a civil war and not a naked aggression, like the Korean War,” James said. “I did my job, but I did not agree we should have been here. One day a sergeant turned to me and said, ‘Captain, why are we here?’ I replied, ‘Sergeant, I’ll be damned if I know.’”
He got his answer when, shortly before he returned to the States, an officer told him the Army planned to ramp up its presence, transitioning from advisors to combatants. “He told me the number they were aiming for was 370,000 (troops),” James said.
By the time the war ended in 1975, more than 2.7 million Americans had served in Vietnam, and 58,220 died there, including 5,822 from California.
While battles raged on the mainland in the 1960s, Navy veteran Gary R. served aboard the destroyer USS Maddox as a boatswain’s mate and boat coxswain for the captain from 1967 through 1969.
The USS Maddox carries an important place in history. The so-called Tonkin Gulf incident happened in August 1964. The U.S. claimed the North Vietnamese patrol torpedo boats attacked the ship, distorting the facts of the incident to justify formally entering the war, according to the Navy Institute.
Gary recalls times when the ship came under enemy fire. “We were in the Tonkin Gulf firing in support of the ground forces,” he said. “I had my head out the hatch. A shell landed 20 feet from the ship and knocked me for a loop. It hit the water near the bow.
His duties included spending long and tedious eight-hour shifts in the turret of a 5-inch/38-caliber gun. The joys were small and few, but stay with him to this day. “I remember them bringing up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from the magazine for us to eat,” he said. “You get pretty hungry in the gun mount. Those were the best peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I ever ate.”
Sharon H. didn’t go to Vietnam. Instead, the aftermath of battle came to her. She worked as a nurse at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, from 1966 through 1969, tending to soldiers, Marines, and sailors wounded in Vietnam. She saw the results of war from bedsides by caring for their wounds, helping them recover and to heal.
“When they came back, I did everything I could to make them feel like they were really, really great people,” she said. “Some of them cried when they came back because they’d lost best friends over there.”
She and her brother joined the Army at the same time. He went to Vietnam, and returned with a message in the event the Army sent her there as well: “He said, ‘Sister, if you do go to Vietnam, don’t make any friends.’” He’d lost several comrades during his tour of duty there. His words hit home because of what she’d seen at Walter Reed.
Today, she is on the Honor Guard at the Home. The Honor Guard represents the final escort, complete with the playing of “Taps.” “When somebody does pass away, I get to walk with them from whatever building they’re in out the door,” Sharon said. “It makes me feel good.”
Their friend until the end.
Craig S., an artillery communications specialist in the Army, got his Vietnam campaign medal before he actually got to Vietnam. When he finally arrived in August 1972, he stayed for just over two days.
How did that happen? Just as his unit left for Vietnam in 1971, he was reassigned to a base in Germany where he spent most of his first year. Finally, in August 1972, he received orders to rejoin them at the infamous Hamburger Hill.
“They trained us for what we were to accomplish in what was supposed to be 256 days,” Craig said. “We got all set up. I met a captain and got all set up on my job. I got orders that I was supposed to relay orders to the howitzers – the guns, as we used to call them. That never happened. I got shipped out in 56 hours.”
The sergeant he had worked under as a radio operator in Germany suffered a stroke, Craig said. “I don’t know why they shipped me back, but they did,” he said. “I was there until 1974.”
When that deployment ended, he returned stateside to bases in Colorado and Oklahoma before separating in 1982.
Craig is in a unique zone of his own: A veteran with 11 years in the Army, he is considered a Vietnam veteran because his campaign medal and 56 hours of duty in-country say so. “It’s kind of hard to relate (when Vietnam vets talk about their time there),” he said. I can’t say, ‘Oh, yeah, this is what I did.’ I can only explain what I was supposed to do.”
Indeed, the Vietnam War was many things: deadly and devastating, deceptive, controversial, brutal, political, and social, on the battlefields as well as at home.
This is the time of year when we honor those who served this nation in that unpopular war. It is a time to thank them, and to recommit to properly welcoming them home and supporting veterans, no matter the conflict or when and where they served.
And it is a day to reflect on the unique range of stories and experiences that are part of any war.