“Tragic,” “confusing” and “frustrating” are just a few of the words that come to mind this Memorial Day in remembering the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War.
Tragic for the immense loss of human life -- the loss of all those tomorrows -- and the pain and suffering of family members who were left to cope.
Confusing for the difficulty in trying to sort out exactly what happened, and how we got there.
And frustrating for what could have been, what was, and what is.
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Of course, Memorial Day is a remembrance of all of America’s war dead in all of its wars.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War, still our bloodiest war, which remade our society.
And the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War, which seriously tore the fabric of our society.
Millions of men and women my age, some a little younger, some older, served in Vietnam.
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I was there, too, just one among more than 530,000 serving in Vietnam in 1968.
My first cousin, Merritt Jones, of Durham, N.C., was drafted the same month as me and served with the Army in Vietnam a year before I arrived there. Two of my brothers-in-law were there at the same time as me. One worked on helicopters at Bear Cat and the other was an infantrymen. He was sent into Cambodia.
I might never have been in the military except for the fact that I got myself drafted. In the predawn hours of Feb. 9, 1966, a bus took a load of us draftees from St. Augustine to Jacksonville for induction. One of my high school classmates on the bus, a boy named Rickey, was drafted into the Marines and died in Vietnam. He left behind a wife, and, I think, a young child.
I was drafted into the Army and sent to basic training at Fort Benning. From there, I was assigned to Fort Ord, Calif., where I was trained as a light weapons infantryman. All of the people in that company were headed next for airborne training or to one of the officer candidate schools. I know many of them eventually were sent to Vietnam.
My next stop was Signal OCS at Fort Gordon. After graduation, I was assigned to Germany as a second lieutenant. After a few months in the Stuttgart area, I requested reassignment to Vietnam and got my orders in early 1968 just as the Tet Offensive was breaking out.
I was saddened to hear that another of my high school friends, a cool, quirky kid named Leon who loved the Beatles, had been killed during the Tet Offensive. Later I learned that he was a generator mechanic for the 1st Signal Brigade, and had been hit by incoming fire during the siege of Khe Sanh.
In August 1968, I arrived in Vietnam as a 1st lieutenant and was assigned duties as an assistant operations officer in the 52nd Signal Battalion in Can Tho. Five months into my tour, I was named commander of Company D, the southern-most signal company in Vietnam. That would be my job for the next seven months, working with 120 young men, spread across six widely separated sites.
Then something wildly unexpected happened: I met a wonderful young Vietnamese woman, and fell in love. Maybe that’s a story for another time, but when I finished my tour of duty, I went back to Washington, D.C., and got my next assignment changed from being a stateside communications instructor in the armor school to going back to Vietnam for another tour.
This time, I would be stationed at Long Binh with the 1st Signal Brigade, working on programs to get the Army of the Republic of Vietnam ready to take over the backbone communications system the United States had constructed.
In all, I eventually had 33 months in Vietnam, and when I finally left in 1971, I had a brand-new wife on the plane with me. We’ve now been married more than 40 years, and in the past seven years we have returned together twice to visit Vietnam.
So, I’ve got a definite point of view about the war, and it’s been interesting to see how Vietnam has become a valued trading partner, and which values the United States as a counterbalance against China.
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The war cost America 47,424 battle deaths, 10,785 other deaths, and 153,303 wounded, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Among those war dead are at least 30 from Manatee County.
Those names are on a monument in the courtyard of the Manatee County Courthouse.
U.S. forces were in Vietnam to prevent Ho Chi Minh and the communist north from taking over South Vietnam.
It can be difficult to remember how powerful the tandem of the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China were then. How close they seemed to be on running the table to gain world domination.
Some saw the potential loss of Vietnam as a tipping point that would allow the communists to take over much of the rest of Asia.
While the U.S. military was in Vietnam, there would be no communist takeover. Not even close. There would be no communist victory until two years after U.S. forces had been pulled out of Vietnam. Maybe U.S. aims in the war were ultimately not attained, but there was no defeat of the U.S. military. It didn’t happen.
What our leaders didn’t count on was a war of attrition, one that would go on for more than a decade and exhaust the patience of a nation.
One of the Vietnam vets I interviewed recently felt that the American public turned on the troops who survived the war. Even though most of those soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines had served with professionalism and honor. Many served heroically. And they served in difficult, dangerous circumstances far from home.
It’s that sacrifice, that sense of honor and duty that we remember today, Memorial Day.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.