On March 29, 1973, the final combat troops left Vietnam, the last of the 591 American prisoners of war departed Hanoi, and the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam was disestablished. After nearly 20 years, the fighting war for the United States in Southeast Asia was over.
The nearly 3 million sailors, soldiers, airmen, Marine and Coast Guard personnel who fought during the Vietnam War did so with tremendous gallantry and courage. Yet they were not welcomed home as the heroes that they were. In many instance, instead of being honored, they were scorned by the very people they swore to serve and protect.
“When a lot of us came back from Vietnam, we were not treated very well, said Bob “Doc” Werner, who served three tours of duty in Vietnam as Navy corpsman assigned to Marine Corps units stationed near Da Nang starting in 1965. “I was spat upon when I came back from Vietnam.”
In 2017, The Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act was signed into law designating every March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day – more than 40 years after the end of the war.
“Forty-six year later, our government finally got around to recognizing the service and sacrifices of Vietnam veterans and their families,” said retired Capt. Jack Ensch, an F-4B Phantom radar intercept officer who made four combat deployments to Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s. “I guess better late than never. To me, that span of time is indicative of the divisive impact that the war had on our nation.”
“I’m quite pleased that this has finally come to fruition,” said Doc, who was awarded three Purple Heart medals for wounds sustained in combat. “All who served during the Vietnam War are finally being recognized for what we did for the country. I believe it’s well deserved by all Vietnam veterans.”
For Stephanie Dinh, National Vietnam War Veterans Day is no less emotionally impactful or important, but her Vietnam War experience took a different path than those in uniform. Stephanie was only 15 years old when the communist army of North Vietnam began to invade Saigon and her world was torn apart.
“The memory of that day is still vivid in my mind,” said Stephanie, who, along with her family, was evacuated by a U.S. military helicopter to the USS Midway on April 30, 1975. “What happened made it both sad and amazed as it was a day that turned my life around. On the way to the airport, I saw that the entire city was totally in chaos.”
The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration—a national 50th anniversary commemoration – was authorized by Congress and established under the Secretary of Defense.
“The mission is to assist our nation in thanking and honoring our Vietnam veterans and their families, the fallen, those who were held as prisoners of war, and those still listed as unaccounted for,” said Mark Franklin, who is the commemoration office’s history and legacy branch chief. “My mission is to provide the American public with a clearer understanding and appreciation of the service and sacrifice of our Vietnam veterans, to tell their story and ensure that their legacy endures for future generations.”
To guarantee the accounts of these servicemembers are preserved, the commemoration office is also conducting oral history interviews with Vietnam veterans.
The USS Midway Museum held its first Vietnam War veterans commemoration ceremony on the flight deck on National Vietnam War Veterans Day. The ceremony was attended by more than 200 Vietnam veterans from around San Diego and Imperial Counties.
“I can’t think of a better place to have this ceremony than on the deck of the USS Midway,” said Jack, who was shot down on his 285th combat mission in August 1972 and spent seven months as a prisoner of war. “This great old grey lady, commissioned at the end of World War II, played a significant role in the Vietnam War. So Midway is forever connected to Vietnam.”
The USS Midway conducted three combat deployments to Vietnam between 1965 and 1973. The carrier returned to Vietnam in April 1975 to help with the evacuation of Saigon during Operation Frequent Wind as the city was being overrun by the North Vietnamese army.
“I want to thank the American servicemen,” said Stephanie, who has been a Midway docent since 2010 and has more than 2,800 volunteer hours. “We were taken by helicopter to a U.S. warship at sea – the USS Midway. As the ship pulled away, I could see the shoreline of Vietnam at sunset and thought that I didn’t know if I will ever be able to go back.”
During the commemoration ceremony, all Vietnam veterans in attendance received the official commemorative Vietnam War veteran lapel pin.
“I thought it was a very nice ceremony,” said retired Cmdr. Vern Jumper, who was the Air Boss on Midway during the evacuation of Saigon. “It’s meaningful to all of us because we were all there, so there is a camaraderie between us all, which I don’t think will ever go away.”
“We Vietnam veterans may not be the greatest generation, but I think we come in a damn close second,” said Jack, a Midway volunteer docent for more than 15 years. “We fought a war without public support and often times without a lot of support from those who sent us over there to fight. I salute my fellow Vietnam veterans and as we say in the Navy, Bravo Zulu for a job well done.”