The last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam 40 years ago Friday, and the date holds great meaning for many who fought the war, protested it or otherwise lived it.
While the fall of Saigon two years later is remembered as the final day of the Vietnam War, many had already seen their involvement in the war finished – and their lives altered – by March 29, 1973.
U.S. soldiers leaving the country feared angry protesters at home. North Vietnamese soldiers took heart from their foes’ departure, and South Vietnamese who had helped the Americans feared for the future.
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 takes 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.
‘MORE INTERESTED IN GETTING BACK’
Dave Simmons of West Virginia was a corporal in the U.S. Army who came back from Vietnam in the summer of 1970. He said he didn’t have specific memories about the final days of the war because it was something he was trying to put behind him.
“We were more interested in getting back, getting settled into the community, getting married and getting jobs,” Simmons said.
He said he was proud to serve and would again if asked. But rather than proudly proclaim his service when he returned from Vietnam, the Army ordered him to get into civilian clothes as soon as he arrived in the U.S. The idea was to avoid confrontations with protestors.
“When we landed, they told us to get some civilian clothes, which you had to realize we didn’t have, so we had to go in airport gift shops and buy what we could find,” Simmons said.
Simmons noted that when the troops return today, they are often greeted with great fanfare in their local communities, and he’s glad to see it.
“I think that’s what the general public has learned – not to treat our troops the way they treated us,” Simmons said.
Simmons is now helping organize a Vietnam Veterans Recognition Day in Charleston that will take place Saturday.
“Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another. We stick with that,” said Simmons, president of the state council of the Vietnam Veterans of America. “We go to the airport. … We’re there when they leave. We’re there when they come home. We support their families when they’re gone. I’m not saying that did not happen to the Vietnam vet, but it wasn’t as much. There was really no support for us.”
A RISING PANIC
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,” Reynolds said.
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.
NO ILL WILL
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.”
A POW’S REFLECTION
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 the 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.
A DIFFERENT RESPONSE
Chief Warrant Officer 5 Duane Johnson, who served in Afghanistan and is a full-time logistics and ordnance specialist with the South Carolina National Guard, said many Vietnam veterans became his mentors when he donned a uniform 35 years ago.
“I often took the time, when I heard that they served in Vietnam, to thank them for their service. And I remember them telling me that was the first time anyone said that to them,” said Johnson, of Gaston, S.C.
“My biggest wish is that those veterans could have gotten a better welcome home,” the 56-year-old said Thursday.
Johnson said he’s taken aback by the outpouring of support expressed for military members today, compared to those who served in Vietnam.
“It’s a bit embarrassing, really,” said Johnson. “Many of those guys were drafted. They didn’t skip the country, they went and they served. That should be honored.”
John Sinclair said he felt “great relief” when he heard about the U.S. troop pull-out. Protesting the war was a passion for the counter-culture figure who inspired the John Lennon song, “John Sinclair.” The Michigan native drew a 10-year prison sentence after a small-time pot bust but was released after 2 ½ years – a few days after Lennon, Stevie Wonder and others performed at a 1971 concert to free him.
“There wasn’t any truth about Vietnam – from the very beginning,” said Sinclair by phone from New Orleans, where he spends time when he isn’t in Detroit or his home base of Amsterdam.
“In those times we considered ourselves revolutionaries,” said Sinclair, a co-founder of the White Panther Party who is a poet, performance artist runs an Amsterdam-based online radio station. “We wanted equal distribution of wealth. We didn’t want 1 percent of the rich running everything. Of course, we lost.”
The Vietnam War also shaped the life of retired Vermont businessman John Snell, 64, by helping to instill a lifetime commitment to anti-war activism. He is now a regular at a weekly anti-war protest in front of the Montpelier federal building that has been going on since long before the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Haslett, Mich., native graduated from high school in 1966 and later received conscientious objector status. He never had to do the required alternative service because a foot deformity led him to being listed as unfit to serve.
“They were pretty formative times in our lives and we saw incredible damage being done, it was the first war to really show up on television. I remember looking in the newspaper and seeing the names of people I went to school with as being dead and injured every single week,” said Snell, who attended Michigan State University before moving to Vermont in 1977.
“Things were crazy. I remember sitting down in the student lounge watching the numbers being drawn on TV, there were probably 200 people sitting in this lounge watching as numbers came up, the guys were quite depressed by the numbers that were being drawn,” he said. “There certainly were people who volunteered and went with some patriotic fervor, but by ’67 or’68 there were a lot of people who just didn’t want to have anything to do with it.”