Vietnam War and the Wonder Years

I want to expand on my piece from April 30th, but add in the impressions of what it was like for a child, little me, at the time.

I was born August 2, 1964, the day the Vietnam War “started.” I say it that way because my dad had been in and out of the country for almost a decade before hand. Vietnam had “started” decades earlier. He already knew what so many others did, that true victory was impossible, but kept his mouth shut to not get booted out. In the Service, you are not required to like an operation; you are required to do your duty.

We lived in a neighborhood in Nashville mostly financed by the Defense Department for their staff in Sewart Air Force base in Smyrna, TN. Why they built so far away I will never know. Almost everyone we knew was a military family, and the fathers were away a lot.

While dad was away fighting for his country, his country was trying to harass his wife and child into leaving. Mom was a defector from East Germany, fully vetted by the British government, the US government, and the US Military. But J. Edgar Hoover’s thugs knew better. Like our “colored” friends, we were a threat to the organization run by a closeted cross-dressing, self hating homosexual who used his men to harass minorities, women, and funny enough, other cross-dressers and homosexuals. When mom threatened to permanently return to England, the Air Force intervened. Hoover actually died still as Director of the FBI in 1972, after almost 40 years at the helm.

Saturday morning cartoons were new then (yeah!), and two of my week day excursions were to Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and to Captain Kangaroo’s Place. The captain always read books on the air, and encouraged children to read at home. He is one of the main reasons that my house has so many of them. There was still plenty of time to play outside in our huge yard.

Since dad was away so much, and mom was inexperienced in being a house wife, we had two friends who came over and helped. Hazel helped with the housework and taught mom, and “Slim” (real name Daniel) did house repair. I did not realize for many many years that Hazel and Slim were “colored”. I just thought of them as some other of my aunts and uncles. EVERYONE was Aunt or Uncle Somebody, and they were the same way. Hazel loved day time television, and we would watch soap operas (Dark Shadows was my favorite) and silly game shows while she did the ironing and such. Hazel never allowed mom to drive her all of the way home. She lived in a “bad neighborhood” and didn’t want to put mom in danger.

It was the Swinging Sixties, and both here and in England almost every adult I knew drank and smoked heavily. Dad did not smoke, but lots of his Air Force buddies did. They would dance and chat to loud music, and send me off to bed thinking I could sleep, while I knew I was missing all of the fun. In England, my beautiful Aunt Powder would come up to my room to visit and read to me until I fell asleep.

The television often had adults rioting about one thing or another. We even had some in Nashville. Dad had to airlift soldiers to Detroit in 1967 because of riots there. In China, the Cultural Revolution had started, and I usually saw this on television in England. I wondered who these people were, waving their little book around and shouting at each other. In Kindergarten, mom asked the teachers not to talk about the Vietnam War so much, because my dad was there and I cried a lot because I was worried for him. As a child, I thought that we had been in Vietnam forever, and I just assumed that when I was older I would go there as well. My grandfather had already instilled in me an overwhelming love of the Army, as all of those British soldiers at the Royal Norfolk Show would display their weapons and vehicles for little me. I hoped to serve in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and wear the Queen’s Coat. When you are a child, your dreams can take you in multiple directions at once.

The Air Force closed Sewart Air Force base in 1971, and dad was out by then. The war was grinding on in a useless stalemate. The Pentagon Papers revealed that even the US government knew there was no hope, but President Nixon wanted “Peace with Honor”, and so doubled the body count. Dad loved to go to the movies, and we went to everything, even movies with “R” ratings today. “Planet of the Apes” was my favorite and the start of a devotion to science fiction.

There was some trouble over forced busing, and I was to attend 12 schools in 12 years. Like thousands of other parents, mine moved us out of Davidson County, and I ended up going to only 3. We moved to the house that I still consider my true home, and my parents did not leave it until the mid 1990s.

We went to England often, and my grandparents came here in the cooler months, so for me England was always just a few months away. Over there we had so many interesting friends. I attended lots of dog shows because my family were judges and contestants. Granny and Opa also boarded dogs (and later cats) so there were many to play with. On my bicycle, I could ride for miles and rarely see a house. “Tele” was full of sport, Dad’s Army, Doctor Who, Paddington Bear, the Wombles, and lots of naughty adult themed shows they would never have shown in America. They let me stay up later now, and I was encouraged to join into the conversations. The oldest dissertation I can remember giving was on “Why the Modern Church of England was Losing Membership and What They Could Do to Reverse This”, at 8 years old. England was a truly magical place for me, filled with ancient wonders and fairies down the garden.

The United State signed the Paris Peace in 1973 Accords and withdrew mostly from Vietnam. Before they left, they transferred enough equipment to give South Vietnam the 4th largest army on earth, and the 3rd most mechanized. They outnumbered their opponents 3 to 2. Nixon also made some promises outside of the treaty to President Thieu, but it is doubtful if he could have carried them out. These are the “broken treaty promises” Vietnam Apologists cry about so often. The full text of the Accord is readily available to read, if one wishes to.

The summer I was 10 we went to England. We spent a week in London and visited the sights. My friend Micheal even came to join me. Girls were WAY more interesting now. An English girl kissed me for the first time ever by the seaside that year. One evening, while watching a rerun of “The Time Warrior”, a beautiful brunette in a pants suit walked in and introduced herself to the Third Doctor. She was Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elizabeth Sladen, and she stole my heart away.

That same summer, President Nixon resigned on August 7, less than a week after my birthday, and a month later President Ford pardoned him, and guaranteed himself defeat in 1976.

On March 10, 1975, North Vietnam launched Operation 275, a limited offensive to gain ground in the Central Highlands. By the second day, ARVN (Army of South Vietnam) resistance had collapsed and their forces were in a chaotic retreat. This surprised everyone, and with two months of good weather remaining until the monsoon season, the North government ordered a full offensive to grab as much ground as possible.

Here the Apologists go through their usual blame game. They say that the ARVN had no bullets, fuel, food, etc. despite the records of massive supply from the US and the huge amounts some units were using in defense. They can never explain why the abandoned guns and vehicles seemed to work so well for the enemy without bullets and fuel. Some units switched sides. At the battle of Xuon Loc (April 7-21 1975) the ARVN Air Force airlifted tons of supplies and ammunition every day until the end. If there was a shortage in some areas, it was based on corruption.

One of the Great Lies they tell is how the United States “cut off aid” to South Vietnam, and that it was “the Democrats’ fault”. The United States had already sent $111B, but the budget to South Vietnam for the fiscal period from July 1 1974 – June 30 1975 reduced the requested aid from $1.65B to $1B to $700M. They had sent 3 times as much the preceding year alone.This was a final total reduction of $300M. This 0.27% reduction of the war cost gave the North victory in the minds of some.

The Case-Church Amendment cut off further military action in Vietnam. It was passed 325-86 in the House and 73-16 in the Senate. The Senate sponsor of the bill was Clifford P. Case (R-NJ). Bombing ended April 15, 1973 per the amendment.

The breakdown of this vote needs to be reviewed. I shall use the format of Yea/Nah/Abstain for each party. In the House Democrat 211/14/20; Republican 113/72/8; Independent 1/0/0. In the Senate Democrat 39/13/4; Republican 35/4/3. In the House 58% of Republicans voted for the bill and in the Senate 83%. If this caused defeat in Vietnam, then both parties share full blame.

As Saigon was about to fall, Operation Frequent Wind took effect. Thousands of Americans and Vietnamese refugees were airlifted to safety or escaped on boats. Originally, only American citizens were to removed, but the Americans are a compassionate people overall, and the men and women on site broke the rules until those in leadership agreed. The remaining aircraft of the ARVN fled to other countries, surprisingly since they were supposedly without fuel.

We watched it all on television. Dad was cursing, not because of the defeat, but because of the bungled way the evacuation was taking place, and all of the decades of death. We watched people lifted from the sea, and helicopters pushed overboard to make room for more people.

A few months later we watched as the POWs were returned home. Mom cried as we watched Army Master Sergeant Gail Kerns kiss the tarmac of Andrews Air Force Base as he first stepped onto US soil.

And, for me, there it ended. The Vietnam War was over, and I would never go to fight in it. I did not discover until later how much the war had not really ended for so many people. Lots of dads drank too much, or would stare into nothingness, re-fighting old battles in their heads. The draft had ended due to the massive cheating that had sent the poor and minorities to do most of the dying. In the 1980s we had the Vietnam War Memorial and the whole thing came back again full force.

In the Gulf War, Vietnam seemed to hover over us like a ghost. It was talked about every day, especially by the older members (who often fought there) and the news. Would this veteran Iraqi Army, with 10 years of combat experience defeat this technologically superior but untried Coalition forces? I did not feel this way. I was trained in Reagan’s 1980s military, and I feared no foe.

The air campaign and the Battle of Khafji (January 29 – February 1 1991) surprised many in the leadership. On February 24 1991 we crossed into Kuwait, and the enemy collapsed as quickly as the ARVN had. 100 hours later, it was all over. The ghost was gone.

I hope that you enjoyed this journey today. History goes on all around us every day, even as we pass notes in class asking if someone likes us; check Yes or No. Like so many conflicts, the survivors struggle to make meaning of these events that shaped their lives. They should never be scorned or pitied; they are part of our collective family, and they should be loved. And a new generation is experiencing the same feelings, and this time perhaps we had understand them sooner.


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