In 1963, Bob “Doc” Werner lied about his age, and at 16 enlisted in the Navy. Joining the Navy was something he always wanted to do and he was excited to see the world.
Trained as a combat corpsman, Doc was ultimately assigned to a Marine Corps unit deployed to Vietnam. He did three tours “in country” and was wounded multiple times while saving the lives of countless Marines. He was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star for his bravery and courage, and the Purple Heart for his wounds. Werner was an American hero.
However, when he returned home to the United States after risking his life in defense of democracy, he was treated like dirt on the bottom of someone’s shoe.
“We were not treated very well when we came back,” remembered Doc, a USS Midway Museum docent with more than 3,000 volunteer hours on the ship. “I personally was spat on and was called some very nasty names when I came back from Vietnam.”
On March 29, National Vietnam War Veterans Day, the USS Midway Museum held a large commemoration ceremony on its flight deck to publicly pay tribute to Vietnam War veterans.
“It’s wonderful, finally, that 50 years later we’re starting to recognize the sacrifices that we all made,” said Doc, who has been volunteering for Midway since 2015. “It’s very special and dear to my heart.”
The date of the ceremony was significant as it marked the 50th anniversary of when the last U.S. troops left Vietnam and the final group of American prisoners of war were freed and departed Hanoi. The commemoration featured several guest speakers who described how their heroic, harrowing and heartbreaking experiences during the war changed their lives and the lives of their families forever.
Like Doc Werner, Jim Collins served on the front lines of the war with a Marine Corps reconnaissance battalion. On his final mission, his unit was attacked and he was severely injured by an enemy grenade. Although told he may lose a foot, he eventually fully recovered. He was awarded the Purple Heart.
“I heard somebody shouting,” remembered Jim. “I looked down, and there was some sparking going on down there. The next thing I knew, I was up in the air. It was gray. It was black. It was loud. I just lost consciousness.”
Jim was ultimately transported to St. Albans Naval Hospital in Brooklyn where he recovered from his wounds. He would later get his college degree and a Marine Corps officer commission. In 1990, now a fighter pilot, he commanded a Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet squadron flying combat mission over Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.
Roy Knight was only 11 years old when his dad, a U.S. Air Force pilot, was shot down and killed while on a combat mission over Laos in May 1967. For Roy, the loss was devastating.
“My dad was my hero,” said Roy before more than 700 people, mostly veterans, who attended the ceremony. “He was the person I admired the most and was the person I always wanted to emulate.”
By the end of the war, Roy and his family had lost hope that his father was still alive or that his remains would ever be found. In 2019, however, during the final investigation of the aircraft crash site, remains of Roy’s dad were finally located, positively identified and returned to the United States after 52 years.
In April 1975, 8-year-old Courtney Herrmann found her world crumbling around her as the North Vietnamese army attacked her home city of Saigon. Her family’s close connection to the United States made them targets.
“Living under the rath of the Viet Cong wasn’t an option,” said Courtney, recalling the chaos of the moment nearly five decades ago.” My father, a former high-ranking officer in the South Vietnamese army, would have been subjected to torture and possibly death.”
Gripped by fear, Courtney and her family miraculously made their way into the Saigon airport where they were ultimately flown by a military helicopter to the USS Midway (CV-41) stationed off the coast of South Vietnam during Operation Frequent Wind. It was the start of a long journey to a new life in the United States.
“Freedom should never be taken for granted,” said Courtney, who lives in Orange County. “I personally witnessed the best in humanity from so many in our armed forces, including veterans like you in attendance today, who came to Vietnam to save thousands, including an 8-year-old like me. I am therefore a grateful and forever a proud American.”
The ceremony’s final speaker was retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Everett Alvarez. Shot down in August 1964 and captured by the North Vietnamese, he spent nearly nine years as a prisoner of war. He said that he survived imprisonment thanks to primarily his faith in God and the mutual support of the other prisoners
“Vietnam vets are a resilient group,” said Everett, an A-4C Skyhawk pilot during the war. “But what stands out most in my mind, is that you have a brotherhood which is significant. We must always honor the service of our military men and women.”
The ceremony concluded with a wreath and flower laying that involved all of the veterans, as well as their family members, in attendance.
“As we commemorate the end of the Vietnam War, these gatherings are really meaningful to me,” said Everett, who later became the acting head of the Veterans Administration under President Ronald Reagan. “I’m very appreciative for having the chance to be here.”
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