Forty-one years ago today, the longest war in U.S. history came to its official end.
Vietnam was a bloody conflict for all involved and with many that just happened to be in the way of the warring factions. And it wasn’t confined to Vietnam. The war spread into Laos and Cambodia, causing the rise of the Khmer Rouge, primarily in Cambodia.
One of the common perceptions of the war is that it started in August 1965 when it was claimed North Vietnamese gunboats fired on the destroyer U.S.S. Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin. At the time the American people were told the Maddox was fired upon twice and that a short battle ensued. Many years later, Robert McNamara, who had been the Secretary of Defense at the time, said the second attack never occurred.
It was from the Gulf of Tonkin incident that President Lyndon Johnson was granted absolute power to wage war — without Congress declaring war — in Southeast Asia. It was called the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
It’s difficult to write about the end of the Vietnam War without a mention of how we got involved. The war started for the United States much earlier than August 1965. Officially, November 1, 1955 is when it started. But there were U.S. troops in Vietnam much earlier than 1955, as far back as 1945. The first American casualty of Vietnam was U.S. Army Lt. Col. Peter Dewey, who was with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), killed September 26, 1945.
The irony of it being, after World War II the British were mopping up as they say, all the remaining Japanese soldiers left in Indochina. The French had held that area as a colony, but after the war Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh declared they were the rightful government of Vietnam … which didn’t go over too well with the British and the French. But Lt. Col. Dewey, an American of uncompromising American ideas about freedom and self-determination, had sympathies with the Viet Minh. So much so the British general in charge of Indochina ordered Dewey to leave.
On his way out of Saigon Dewey encountered a Viet Minh roadblock and had a confrontation with the guards, who shot him. The rest, as they say, is history. It’s not likely the U.S. would have been too tightly aligned with the Viet Minh since they had communist leanings, but when Ho Chi Minh gave a speech declaring his group the rightful government of Vietnam and that their country was a free nation, Ho paraphrased the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
The French then ousted the Viet Minh and the first Indochina War began. That ended when the French surrendered to the Viet Minh, August 1, 1954 at Dien Bien Phu. Through the agreement reached by the French and the Viet Minh, Vietnam was cut in two North and South, with the former ruled by the communist Viet Minh and the south by an autocratic emperor who was later deposed by Ngo Dinh Diem, who was later deposed by bullet in 1963.
The ARVN, the military of South Vietnam, took over and put their own guy in the presidential palace.
By this time the U.S. had hundreds of “advisors” in Vietnam (sound familiar?).
The war carried on, with nearly 59,000 American men and women giving their lives. My oldest brother was a sailor in the war, making it home to attend college and get on with life.
He resided in San Diego for nearly 30 years before he died. His ashes are interred at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma.
All branches of the military were involved in the war, including the Coast Guard. Both men and women fought and died in that war.
The danger of writing this is getting too deep in the details, of which there are many. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ordering the implementation of Operation Frequent Wind, to the playing “White Christmas” to signal the evacuation was beginning.
To the names of the last two Americans to die in the Vietnam War: Corporal Charles McMahon, 21, and Lance Corporal Darwin Judge, 19, killed April 29, 1975 in a rocket attack on Tan Son Nhut Air Base.
Both men were members of the Marine Security Group assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Lance Corporal Judge was six weeks younger than me.
Many of us had been prepped in the event the U.S. Congress authorized then-President Gerald Ford to re-escalate the war, in accordance with the Paris Peace Accords that had been signed in January 1973.
On April 30, 1975, we were in a barracks, watching it unfold — actually April 29, by U.S. Pacific Time. We weren’t allowed to go anywhere in case we were called to either join the fight or the evacuation. Congress refused to re-escalate and so it was Operation Frequent Wind.
Some of our fellow Marines were called up to temporary duty at Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego, or to Okinawa, Japan, the Philippines and Guam, to help with the relocation of Vietnamese refugees.
The rest of us sat in that barracks watching TV, drinking beer and smoking pot. Days before we had filled out and signed our wills, which were given to some admin people who put them under lock and key. I don’t recall ever seeing mine again. Our barracks at our base had been sealed after we left.
But there we were in that transit barracks on Camp Pendleton, watching the war end, looking out the window at our surroundings, the Pacific Ocean, the rolling, almost arid terrain.
Then the flag at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon was lowered for the last time. One of us said, “whoa …”
That was the end. It was over. That, Kelly Ripa, was our long national nightmare.
For several months the Vietnam veterans in our unit were a little … off their game, so to speak and eventually the base commander banned the display and even the owning of Vietnam War “souvenirs.” Specifically the VC ears, fingers, noses, etc. that combat vets had collected from their time “in country.” Curiously enough the souvenirs didn’t appear before April 30.
Some people just dealt with the end a little differently.
We have since normalized relations with Vietnam. They make a lot of our clothing.
This day is one that lingers in the memory of many. Most have moved on, but in April we are reminded once again: we didn’t win. You can argue the merits of the war all day long, but it doesn’t change the memory of April 30, 1975.
All photos from Wikipedia.
Top photo by Hubert van Es, a Dutch photographer, is the iconic image we remember from the fall of Saigon.
Tim Forkes started as a writer on a small alternative college newspaper in Milwaukee called the Crazy Shepherd. Writing about entertainment issues, he had the opportunity to speak with many people in show business, from the very famous to the people struggling to find an audience. In 1992 Tim moved to San Diego, CA and pursued other interests, but remained a freelance writer. Upon arrival in Southern California he was struck by how the business of government and business was so intertwined, far more so than he had witnessed in Wisconsin. His interest in entertainment began to wane and the business of politics took its place. He had always been interested in politics, his mother had been a Democratic Party official in Milwaukee, WI, so he sat down to dinner with many of Wisconsin’s greatest political names of the 20th Century: William Proxmire and Clem Zablocki chief among them. As a Marine Corps veteran, Tim has a great interest in veteran affairs, primarily as they relate to the men and women serving and their families. As far as Tim is concerned, the military-industrial complex has enough support. How the men and women who serve are treated is reprehensible, while in the military and especially once they become veterans. Tim would like to help change that reality.