This past Friday was Veterans Day, and I was once again honored by the Rice Lake Veterans Memorial Committee to be the guest speaker at its community event. We gathered in the Armory on an unseasonably nice November morning, and soon the hall was filled. Many were veterans and their families, many others were just members of the community who wanted to show their support. The Rice Lake Middle School band and choir were on hand to provide the music.
Our topic on this day was the Vietnam veteran. In a way, it’s hard for me to believe that these men and women are now in their 60s and 70s. When I was a kid, there were World War I veterans around who were about that age, but they’re all gone now, and we’re down to just a few thousand World War II vets. But as our country moves forward, our wars recede further into the past, and eventually those veterans leave us forever. Here’s a list of our major wars since our independence, and their last surviving vets:
Revolutionary War (1775-83): Daniel F. Bakeman, a farmer from New York, died in 1869 at age 110.
War of 1812 (1812-15): Hiram Cronk, a shoemaker from New York, fought as a 14-year-old infantryman and died in 1905 at the age of 105.
Mexican-American War (1846-48): Owen T. Edgar, a banker from Pennsylvania, served on Navy frigates. He died in 1929 at age 98.
Civil War (1861-65): The last verified Union Army veteran was Albert H. Woolson of New York, who served as a 14-year-old drummer boy but did not see combat. He was later a carpenter and died in 1956 at age 106. The last verified Union combat veteran was James A. Hard, who served in the 37th New York Infantry and fought at First Bull Run, Antietam and Chancellorsville. Hard died in 1953, four months and three days shy of his 110th birthday, although he might have been a year older than that. On the Confederate side, the last verified veteran was Pleasant R. Crump, who left his home in Alabama at age 16 with a friend and joined the 10th Alabama Infantry. Crump fought in the siege of Petersburg and witnessed Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox in April 1865. He died on New Year’s Eve 1951, eight days after his 104th birthday.
Indian Wars (c1700-c1898): Frederick W. Fraske, a German immigrant, enlisted in the Army in 1894 and served a quiet deployment at a fort near Cheyenne, Wyoming. He said he never fired a shot in anger during his service and was glad of it, as he had nothing against the Indians. He died in his adopted hometown of Chicago in 1973 at the age of 101. The last surviving Indian scout was John Daw, a Navajo who served with the 2nd Cavalry in New Mexico from 1891-94. Daw died in Arizona in 1965 at age 95. On the Native American side, the last confirmed surviving veteran was Dewey Beard, a Lakota Sioux whose Native name was Wasu Maza (“Iron Hail”), who fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn as a teenager and later was wounded at Wounded Knee. He died in South Dakota in 1955 at the approximate age of 98.
Spanish-American War (1898): Jones Morgan, an African-American from South Carolina, claimed to be a trooper with the 9th Cavalry, the famed “Buffalo Soldiers,” although he had no documents to prove it, claiming they were lost in a fire in 1912. Eighty years later, the Congress passed a bill recognizing Morgan’s service and granting him an honorable discharge. He died a year later at age 110.
Philippine Insurrection (1898-1902): Nathan Cook of Missouri, who enlisted in the Navy at age 15 in 1901. Although he didn’t see combat in that oft-forgotten conflict, he did during World War I, when he commanded a sub chaser that sank two German U-boats. He retired from the Navy after more than 40 years of service in 1942, spending his last years in uniform as executive officer of a transport ship. He died in 1992, a month shy of his 107th birthday.
World War I (1917-18): Frank W. Buckles, a native of Missouri, enlisted in the Army at age 16 after the U.S. entered the war and drove ambulances and motorcycles behind the lines in France. After the war he served as a purser on cargo and passenger ships and sailed all over the world. He was in Manila when the Philippines were captured by the Japanese in early 1942 and he was imprisoned for three years before being liberated by Allied troops. Years later he became a farmer in West Virginia, where he died in 2011, just weeks after his 110th birthday. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
They saw no yellow ribbons when they returned.
Here is the text of my speech:
Thank you, Larry, and to all of you here today, especially to our honored veterans, I bid you good morning. Today, here in this hall and in other halls around the country, Americans gather together to greet old friends, to make new ones, and to honor the memories of comrades who are no longer with us. Those of us who are not veterans are here to show that we stand with you, that we remember and honor your sacrifices and those of your families. And these young people here today are getting a glimpse of men and women who they might otherwise see only on movie and TV screens, and those images are so idealized that we have to wonder where reality ends and fantasy begins.
These youngsters see people who look like their parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and maybe some of them here today really are their relatives. It’s not unusual for a young person to say, “My grandpa was in the war, but he never talks about it.”
The other night, the movie Pearl Harbor was on TV again. I remember seeing it in the theater when it was released in 2001. Although filmed more than half a century after the war ended, it’s typical of World War II movies. The hero is a guy with a chiseled jaw and nerves of steel, who dreams of coming home to his girlfriend when it’s all over. His buddy is not quite as good-looking, not quite as fearless, but he gets the job done. And the girlfriend is a nurse, of course, and drop-dead beautiful to boot.
The romanticization of World War II began in the American media even while the war was being fought. There was Casablanca, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, A Yank in the RAF. The stars were tough guys like Humphrey Bogart or dashing dreamboats like Tyrone Power, and the women all seemed to look like Betty Grable. The trend continued after the war. We all remember John Wayne as the tough Marine sergeant in The Sands of Iwo Jima, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, and of course George C. Scott in Patton.
And in the last twenty years, even as the men who fought the war become fewer and fewer, we see more movies and TV series extolling their heroism. Besides Pearl Harbor, we have Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan, and many more. We can’t seem to get enough of our World War II heroes.
It’s a different story with Vietnam.
I was sixteen years old when the peace accords were signed in Paris. It was late January of 1973, and on that day I looked down Main Street in Platteville and it was just another winter day in Wisconsin. There was nobody celebrating, no confetti falling, no horns blaring, no sailors kissing nurses. As little as I knew about history then, I knew that somehow there should be some sort of celebration. The war was over, wasn’t it? Our guys were coming home, weren’t they? We had won, hadn’t we?
The answers were no, not really; yes, they were; and no, we didn’t.
In the years after our troops and POWs came home, the myths started to build about the war, myths that were started even while it was being fought.
When our involvement in the war ended, a lot of Americans who fought there didn’t even want to admit it, and those of you who were there probably remember why. When you came home, there were no yellow ribbons, no flags, no parades. Troops walking through airports in uniform were not greeted with applause or handshakes or even a simple “Thank you for your service.”
There are still some people today who claim that there were no incidents where returning vets were spat upon or had obscenities shouted at them. In 2012, the author David Sirota wrote an op-ed that was published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. In it, he said that there were very few, if any, incidents where returning soldiers were disrespected. Sirota called such reports “propaganda,” and accused every president from Reagan to Obama of perpetrating what he called “the myth of the spat-upon war veteran.”
Shortly after Sirota’s column appeared in the Star-Tribune, a letter from a Vietnam vet named Bob Feist was published in rebuttal. Feist lives in Medina, Minn., and was an Army infantryman who suffered a disabling wound during his tour in 1968-69. He said, “I am not aware of many Vietnam vets who were not subjected to some disrespect, either personal or from the culture who called us ‘baby-killers.’ We were shamed and embarrassed. My car, with a military base sticker, was egged. I bought a wig to hide my military haircut.”
And so the debate goes on, forty years after the war ended.
Today, anyone under the age of forty knows of the Vietnam War only through the media, and what a relative who served might say about it. But that under-forty American might hear the actual myths and think they were true, depending on who’s doing the telling.
The number-one myth is that most of the men who saw combat in Vietnam were draftees. In fact, two-thirds of the men who served were volunteers, including seventy percent of those killed in action.
Here’s another: a disproportionate number of American servicemen killed in Vietnam were black. The facts: eighty-six percent of KIAs were white. Twelve and a half percent were black, a figure right in line with the proportion of black citizens at the time.
And another: the war was fought largely by poor and undereducated soldiers. According to the Combat Area Casualty File, Vietnam vets were the best-educated soldiers our nation had ever sent into combat, with seventy-nine percent having a high school degree or higher.
Ane one more: the average age of an infantryman fighting in Vietnam was nineteen. The average age was actually twenty-two. None of the enlisted grades had an average age under twenty. By comparison, the average age of a World War II soldier was twenty-six.
And finally, we all remember the terrible photo of the nine-year-old Vietnamese girl, running naked away from a napalm strike near Trang Bang on June 8, 1972. She was burned, we were told, by bombs dropped from American planes. How could we do something so terrible? The answer is, we didn’t. There was no American involvement in the Trang Bang airstrike. The attacking planes were South Vietnamese Air Force jets, flown by Vietnamese pilots in support of ARVN troops on the ground. The South Vietnamese pilot who dropped the napalm in error was, as of a few years ago, living here in the United States. Even the AP photographer who took the photo was Vietnamese. And no American officers ordered the airstrike, either. It was an ARVN show all the way, and it had a tragic result for that girl and her fellow villagers.
But why did it happen? ARVN troops were engaged with North Vietnamese regulars who had occupied the village. In other words, the South Vietnamese were trying to repel an invading army.
The little girl survived the bombing, thanks in large part to the care of American and South Vietnamese and European doctors in Saigon. She stayed there after the Communists took over and became a medical student. She was often used by the government for propaganda purposes. What did she think of that? She left the country as soon as she could. She went to Cuba to study, met another Vietnamese student there and married him. In 1992 they went to Russia on their honeymoon, and when their plane stopped in Newfoundland to refuel, they escaped and asked for political asylum. Today they are Canadian citizens.
Less than eight months after that photo was taken, the war was officially over. President Nixon ordered an intense bombing campaign that forced the North Vietnamese to sign on the dotted line, and we packed up our gear and went home. But we all know what happened three years, three months and three days after that. The NVA rolled through Saigon, and then the war was truly over. This time, with no possibility that America would come to the South’s rescue, the North ended the war on its terms.
And so, here we are. A couple months from now will be the 44th anniversary of the signing of the peace accords. That anniversary has never been given the same consideration as V-E Day or V-J Day, or even Armistice Day, the original reason for the very holiday we note here today. It was ninety-eight years ago today that the shooting stopped in Europe, and the First World War, the Great War, came to an end. It was said to be “The War to End All Wars,” but it was not.
It is said that history is written by the winners. The Vietnamese Communists knew they were going to win. Way back in 1946, Ho Chi Minh said, “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” He said that to the French, who were left in charge of Indochina by the Yalta Agreement, signed a year earlier. Eight years after Ho made that prediction, his Viet Minh had fought the French to a standstill, and under pressure from Russia and China, he agreed to the Geneva Accord of 1954, which partitioned the country into North and South Vietnam. Free elections designed to reunite the country were never held. Ho and the North waited a few years for the French to withdraw and to build up their own forces again, then went back on the offensive.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson went on national TV and said, “We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw, either openly or under the cloak of a meaningless agreement.” Yet less than eight years after that address, we did exactly that.
And what did we say then? President Ford, in a speech a week before the fall of Saigon, said, “American pride cannot be achieved by re-fighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.”
It is not our purpose here today to re-fight the war. It is not for us to say that Johnson should have ended the war by ordering an invasion of North Vietnam, or that Nixon should have kept the bombers on the ground and simply ordered a withdrawal, or that Ford should have sent the bombers back over Hanoi to save the South Vietnamese from defeat. Historians have been debating this for the last forty years and the debate will go on into the future.
No, my friends, we are here to recognize the men and women who answered their country’s call in the sixties and seventies. Most of them volunteered. For those who saw combat, it was in many ways more intense than what their fathers and grandfathers had endured in Europe and the Pacific and Korea a generation before.
One in every ten Americans who served in Vietnam was a casualty. The percentage of amputations or crippling wounds was 300 percent higher than in World War II. More than forty years after the war, some 75,000 American veterans are severely disabled.
Every one of you here today who was over there remembers what it was like. You made it home, but I’m sure you had buddies who did not. You came home to a country that was divided about the war, a polarization that makes our political impasse today almost laughable by comparison.
But today’s political polarization is still very serious, and we shall see if our new president can start resolving it. One reason why I think we will struggle is that we don’t have enough veterans in positions of leadership. Three days ago we certainly did not elect another Eisenhower.
When the candidates started jostling for position in 2015, with nearly two dozen people competing for their parties’ nominations, only two were veterans: former senator Jim Webb of Virginia, who saw combat as a Marine in Vietnam, and former governor Rick Perry of Texas, who was a cargo pilot in the Air Force.
Among our first forty presidents, twenty-five served in the military, many of them in combat. Of the last four, including our president-elect, only one ever put on our nation’s uniform. That was George W. Bush, whose service in the Air Force Reserve was often mocked and derided.
In 1972, seventy-three percent of Congressmen were veterans. Today, it’s fewer than twenty percent. Only one member of the Supreme Court, Samuel Alito, has served.
Historians are still debating the causes of the War of 1812, and I have a feeling there will still be books written about the Vietnam War in the 23rd century. All of our veterans will be long gone by then. What will those future historians say about these men?
By then, hopefully we will have an objective examination of the facts of the war. One fact was admitted by Hanoi in 1995: the North lost 1.4 million men, dead of missing, during the war. That was four times the losses of the Americans and South Vietnamese combined. At one time, fifteen of the North’s sixteen combat divisions were in South Vietnam. This was not some homegrown insurgency, as the North’s propaganda constantly trumpeted and which was swallowed whole by much of the American media and the left wing that led the protests against the war. This was an invasion of a sovereign nation by a foreign military force. As a signatory to the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, we had pledged to defend South Vietnam against foreign invasion. When we as a nation sign an agreement to help another, we are pledging our sacred honor, and honor meant something then. And it means something now.
It was a bloody war, and our men were right in the middle of it. The Marine Corps suffered more casualties in Vietnam, killed and wounded, than it did in World War II, three times as many as it did in Korea.
Did our men make mistakes in Vietnam? Of course. Were there atrocities? Unfortunately, yes. But the difference between our side and theirs was that we owned up to ours. The soldiers who were responsible for My Lai were tried and punished. Hanoi has done nothing to punish its own soldiers who committed far more brutal atrocities. During the brief time the Communists had control of the city of Hue during the Tet Offensive, some 2,000 civilians were executed. Nobody was ever prosecuted for that.
As a society, we need to come to grips with every war our nation fights. Why did we do it? What did we accomplish? What did we learn from it? For the veteran, those questions are even more personal. Why did I go? Why did I do the things I did? How do I justify my actions? How can I honor the memory of my buddies who didn’t come home?
You men came from a small town in the Midwest and went to a land far away, the Land of Bad Things, some called it. What do you think about it today?
Perhaps we can all learn from the story of another young man from a small town in the Midwest who was there. In 1967, a young Army PFC named Sammy L. Davis left his home in Indiana and went to Vietnam.
On November 18th of that year, Davis was serving in Battery C, 2nd Battalion, 4th Artillery, at a small firebase near Can Lay. In the middle of the night, his battery began taking incoming mortar fire, followed quickly by a full-scale assault by a Viet Cong battalion. Davis manned a machine gun to provide suppressing fire and then, when his gun crew was wounded, he single-handedly returned fire with the burning howitzer. Despite his wounds and his inability to swim, Davis navigated an air mattress across a river to save the lives of three fellow soldiers. For his actions that night, Davis was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Davis attended the welcome home ceremony in Washington DC in 2012, where Vietnam veterans were formally recognized. And why did he go? He said, “Comrades gather together because they long to be with the men who once acted their best, men who suffered and sacrificed, who were stripped raw, right down to their humanity. I did not pick these men. They were delivered to me by fate. But I know them in a way I know no other men. I have never given anyone such trust. They were willing to guard something more precious than my life. They would have carried my reputation, the memory of me. It was part of the bargain we all made, the reason we were so willing to die for one another.”
In 2003, Vietnam veteran Jim Webb, who three years later would be elected to the Senate from Virginia, wrote an article for American Legion magazine about the war. He said, “Like every Marine I have ever met, my strongest regret is that perhaps I could have done more. But no other experience in my life has been more important than the challenge of leading Marines during those extraordinarily difficult times. Nor am I alone in this feeling.”
Webb quoted from a 1980 Harris poll of Vietnam veterans. The poll showed that ninety-one percent were glad they’d served their country, and seventy-four percent enjoyed their time in the service. Additionally, eighty-nine percent agreed with this statement: “Our troops were asked to fight in a war which our political leaders in Washington would not let them win.” “On that final question,” Webb wrote, “history will surely be kinder to those who fought than to those who directed, or opposed, the war.”
My fellow Americans, fifty years ago our nation’s elected leaders decided that the people of South Vietnam deserved a chance to live in a free and democratic society, and therefore we would honor our treaty obligations. They sent thousands of our young men, and more than a few young women, to help them defend their nation. The overwhelming majority of those young Americans performed their duties with honor, many with great heroism.
We are only now beginning to understand that what they did is worthy of our praise and support. It was worthy then, and it certainly is worthy now. So I would like to ask all of you to join me in a gesture that may never be noticed outside these walls today, but which I think is long overdue. I would ask our Vietnam veterans in the audience to come forward and join those in the honor guard who are seated up here.
And now I will ask the rest of us to stand.
And now, each one of us who are standing will together do something these men learned a long time ago. Gentlemen, we salute you.
Thank you. May God bless our veterans, and may God continue to bless these United States of America.