MEMORIAL DAY 2013 • SPECIAL SECTION
The United States ended its combat role in the Vietnam War in 1973. American troops came home, and prisoners of war were released. Forty years later, it's still easy to debate the war's meaning and its lasting impact. But not on Memorial Day, a time reserved to honor service and sacrifice. Here we recount some of the stories of the Vietnam War. Of the special bond of comrades in arms. Of the unending devotion to missing servicemen. Of the incredible courage in captivity. And of the heroes who once walked among us.
Stories from the World-Herald special section and coverage of Memorial Day.
Lingering echoes of a distant war
The Vietnam War made America more reluctant to commit troops to far corners of the world and more respectful of those who return home from service. Read more.
Tiny Danbury's heavy burden
Three of the best and brightest from a little southwestern Nebraska town went missing more than four decades ago. Residents never dwelled on why they would have to shoulder such a load. Instead, they took it upon themselves to make certain that their boys would never be forgotten. Read more.
Never leave a man behind
Nebraskan Ronald Coker lived up to the military credo in his attempt to save a fellow Marine during a deadly firefight in Vietnam. Read more.
The gift his buddies never got
Omahan Gary Putrino came back from Vietnam to build a good life with a loving family. When he counts his blessings, his thoughts often turn to his friends who never came home. Read more.
A long torment in enemy hands
An American pilot experienced torture, hunger and humiliation during his captivity in North Vietnam. Still, the Lincoln native says in reflection, “I can't moan about being a victim.” Read more.
A Memorial Day thank-you
More than 220,000 World War II veterans are expected to die this year from a bullet that can't be dodged: old age. At a pre-Memorial Day ceremony in Omaha, 24 veterans of that war sat attentively rather than stood at attention, as they once would have. Read more.
Hero's life ended in Vietnam, but another went on
A 66-year-old retired Long Island police officer and grandfather of two owes it all to an Omaha man he barely knew. Read more.
Memorial Day essay
James Martin Davis of Omaha is a lawyer and a Vietnam combat veteran. This is the 33rd year he has written a Memorial Day essay for The World-Herald. This Memorial Day is extra special
Tracking U.S. involvement in Vietnam
With the Korean War just getting under way, President Harry S. Truman authorizes $15 million in military aid to France in its struggle to retain a grip on its former colony of Vietnam. U.S. officials believe involvement is necessary to counter the spread of communism because of Chinese and Soviet support for Ho Chi Minh's government.
France is defeated by Vietnamese forces on the battlefield and agrees to exit. The embattled country is partitioned at the 17th Parallel with the idea that unification would follow elections. But each side blames the other for failing to follow through with elections, and North and South Vietnam begin efforts to undermine each other.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower pledges direct U.S. military aid and training for South Vietnam's army, as communist guerrillas begin a campaign of bombings and assassinations. Americans' role, mostly behind the scenes, continues to grow.
On July 8, Army Maj. Dale Buis, a native of Pender, Neb., and a soldier from Texas are killed by gunfire 20 miles north of Saigon. Buis' name for years was the first of the 58,000-plus American dead listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Other names, which had been omitted earlier, since have been added on a panel to its left.
Viet Cong guerrillas capture and kill Staff Sgt. Wayne Marchand, who attended schools in Plattsmouth and Bellevue. He is one of the first members of the Army's elite Special Forces, the Green Berets. A World-Herald editorial later notes about his death: "The guerrilla fighting in Vietnam is not on the scale of the conflict in Korea, but the stakes are as large, or perhaps larger. Having virtually lost Laos to the Communists, the United States appears to be trying desperately to hold the other flank of the Free World's line in Southeast Asia. We say 'appears to be trying' because there is no official explanation of America's grand strategy."
A military coup, with CIA involvement, removes corrupt South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, who is killed. But the change does nothing to provide stability, and by the end of the year, more than 16,000 American military advisers are in the country.
An American destroyer comes under fire in August, under disputed circumstances, during a naval operation off the coast of North Vietnam. Congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing the use of force to prevent attacks on U.S. forces and allowing for rapid expansion of the war.
Viet Cong assaults in February on Pleiku and Qui Nhon lead the United States to begin Operation Rolling Thunder, a bombing campaign against North Vietnam that lasts until 1968. The Strategic Air Command unleashes its B-52s from Andersen Air Force Base on Guam as part of the effort. The 1st Marine Division, the first major ground combat unit to arrive, lands at the Da Nang air base a month later and is in heavy action by summer. The first major battle of the war occurs in August when U.S. Marines at Chu Lai attack Viet Cong positions, killing nearly 700 enemy soldiers. By the end of 1965, more than 180,000 American troops are stationed in South Vietnam.
North Vietnamese troops cross the Demilitarized Zone in May and battle Marines at Dong Ha in the largest battle of the war at that point. SAC reports in June that its B-52s are dropping about 8,000 tons of bombs each month. By the end of the year, American forces in Vietnam number 385,000 men, with 60,000 sailors stationed offshore. More than 6,000 Americans are killed during the year, more than triple the year before.
An estimated 400,000 march in April in New York City to protest the war. Appearing on Capitol Hill, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara testifies that U.S. bombing raids against North Vietnam have not achieved their objectives. Years later, Leo Geyza of Omaha, a Marine lance corporal in Vietnam, described fighting along the DMZ between North and South Vietnam: "We could not cross into North Vietnam or Laos, and it was frustrating for assault grunts to be defensive."
Viet Cong forces attack more than 100 cities and towns across Vietnam -- including Gen. William Westmoreland's U.S. command headquarters -- on the Tet holiday in January. "We were on full alert for several days," recalled Bill Gilmore (center) of Omaha, an Air Force sergeant at the time. "This time frame was very scary, and I recall getting off duty and being assigned to a perimeter site with helmet, battle gear and M16." The city of Hue is overrun by North Vietnamese troops, resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them executed before the city is recaptured a month later. U.S. forces end the siege of Khe Sanh in April after 77 days of fighting, the war's biggest battle at that point. While the Tet offensive is a military disaster for the Communists, it damages U.S. public support for the war. A month after the attacks, a Gallup survey indicates that 50 percent of Americans disapprove of President Lyndon Johnson's handling of the conflict. Facing opposition within his own party, Johnson announces that he won't seek re-election. In March, American soldiers kill more than 300 unarmed civilians at the village of My Lai. News of the atrocities reaches the U.S. later, further damaging support for the war.
Melvin Laird, newly elected President Richard Nixon's secretary of defense, describes a policy of "Vietnamization" in congressional testimony in January. The objective is to shift the burden of fighting to South Vietnam and lessen the combat role of U.S. forces. In March, Nixon authorizes the covert Operation Breakfast bombing program to destroy enemy supply routes and camps in Cambodia. In April, U.S. combat deaths surpass the 33,742 killed in Korea from 1950 to 1953.
South Vietnamese troops move into Cambodia in April, followed by three U.S. divisions two days later. Noel Knotts of Omaha, who served as an Army colonel, described a North Vietnamese field headquarters that had been abandoned during the lightning strike into Cambodia: "They had left so rapidly that they drove away with field telephone wires still attached to their vehicles. We found a few rice bowls with still-warm rice inside." The incursion against Viet Cong bases is a military success but causes a diplomatic uproar and ignites student protests in the United States. Ohio National Guardsmen shoot and kill four students at Kent State University during a demonstration in May, and the escalating protests prompt a number of campuses to shut down. Hundreds of students occupy the Military and Naval Science Building at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but leave the next day.
Peace talks in Paris, which had begun in 1968, near an agreement in October, but South Vietnam objects to the terms. The North breaks away from the talks in early December, and Nixon orders Operation Linebacker II to begin Dec. 18. The bombing operation, directed from SAC headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, targets transportation, power and defense facilities around the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi and the port city Haiphong. Operation Linebacker II becomes the largest bombing raid since World War II by the time Nixon ends it Dec. 29. The next day, the North Vietnamese government requests a resumption of truce negotiations.
A cease-fire is signed on Jan. 27, bringing an end to America's combat role in Vietnam. The final U.S. combat units exit South Vietnam in March, leaving behind only military advisers and Marines protecting U.S. installations. American prisoners of war return home.
North Vietnamese tanks roll into Saigon on April 29, marking the fall of South Vietnam. Darwin Judge, from Marshalltown, Iowa, and another Marine stationed in a guard post at Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Airport are killed in a rocket attack. They are the last two American servicemen to die by hostile fire in Vietnam.
Sources: The World-Herald's "At War, At Home: The Cold War," Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Wikipedia, KoreanWar.com, PBS.org, U.S. Defense Department
Missing in action
These men from Nebraska and western Iowa didn't come home from the Vietnam War. They are among the more than 1,600 Americans still unaccounted for from the conflict, according to the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office. Listed are rank at time of disappearance; age when the servicemen went missing; date they were missing in action and location. The search continues for their remains. Their families and their nation have not forgotten.
Remembering the fallen
Names come from the National Archives’ lists of service members with known Nebraska and western Iowa roots. Names are as they appear on those records.
Medal of Honor recipients
The Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor, was awarded to 247 servicemen during the Vietnam War. Seven went to men with Nebraska or western Iowa ties for their actions of extraordinary courage. Four of the medals were award posthumously to their families.
Army Spc. 5 Charles Hagemeister of Lincoln received the Medal of Honor in 1967 for saving lives as a combat medic. His unit came under attack from three sides, and he saw two members of his platoon wounded seriously by sniper and machine-gun fire. He crawled forward through heavy fire to help them and learned that the platoon leader and several other soldiers had been wounded. The 20-year-old Nebraskan, whose role as U.S. Army medic meant he was not armed, seized a rifle and moved forward. Single-handedly, he killed the sniper and silenced the machine gun. Then he dragged his comrades to safety. “When you see your buddies in trouble, you don’t pause to weigh the consequences,” he recounted later. “You just wade right in.” Above are his mother, Alvena Hagemeister, Nebraska Gov. Norbert Tiemann and Hagemeister at a Lincoln event in 1968.
George E. Day
Air Force Maj. George E. Day, 42, a Sioux City, Iowa, native, went down over North Vietnam in 1967 when his F-100 jet was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He ejected into enemy territory, breaking an arm and spraining a knee. Day pretended to have injured his back after being captured, allowing him to escape his captors. After 15 days of freedom, he was recaptured by the Viet Cong after coming within two miles of a Marine base in South Vietnam. He was returned to the camp from which he escaped and was later tortured. He was not released until 1973 and received the Medal of Honor for his actions in resisting his captors. Day, the only POW to escape from prison in North Vietnam, became the nation’s most highly decorated officer since Gen. Douglas MacArthur. When he retired as a colonel, his uniform could barely accommodate his nearly 70 military decorations and awards, of which more than 50 were for combat.
James W. Fous
Army Pfc. James W. Fous, 23, of Omaha, while guarding a perimeter on May 14, 1968, shot two Viet Cong soldiers, but a third threw a grenade. Fous dived on it, absorbing its impact and saving three Americans. He died of his wounds and received the Medal of Honor posthumously. Fous was a 1964 Central High School graduate. The school made sure its students knew the legacy of Jim Fous, a hero who once had walked the hallways of their school. A monument at Central honors him and other graduates who died in the war. The above at right, taken in Hawaii, is the last photo taken of Fous. It was found on a camera returned to his mother after he was killed.
Marine Corps Pfc. Ronald Coker, 21, of Alliance, Neb., died March 24, 1969, of wounds suffered from gunfire and a grenade explosion while trying to save a comrade. “He was a hero because somebody else’s life was more important than his,” fellow Medal of Honor recipient Bob Kerrey said of Coker, who died nine days after Kerrey lost part of a leg in the war.
Robert J. Hibbs
Army 2nd Lt. Robert J. Hibbs of Cedar Falls, Iowa, who was born in Omaha and attended schools in Omaha and Lincoln, died March 5, 1966, after he led a patrol against the Viet Cong. Hibbs, covering the withdrawal of his patrol, threw hand grenades and opened fire with an automatic rifle on the 50 surviving members of a Viet Cong force. After rejoining his men, he learned that a wounded member of his patrol had been left behind. He and a sergeant went back for the man. Once again Hibbs, 22, provided covering fire as they withdrew. Armed only with an M16 rifle and a pistol, he charged two Viet Cong machine gun emplacements in an effort to draw fire to himself.
Marine Lance Cpl. Miguel Keith, 19, of Omaha, a machine gunner, fought “almost overwhelming odds” while members of his platoon withdrew to safety on May 8, 1970, the Marine Corps’ citation said. He died of wounds that day and received the Medal of Honor posthumously for giving his life to protect his comrades. The City of Omaha in 1994 renamed a seven-acre park at 2909 W St. in honor of Keith. A Marine Corps building in Washington, D.C., also bears his name, along with a boulevard at a Marine station in Yuma, Ariz., and the American GI Forum headquarters in San Antonio.
Navy Lt. j.g. Joseph Robert Kerrey, a 1966 graduate of the University of Nebraska and a former Lincoln Northeast High School student, served in Southeast Asia as a sea, air and land (SEAL) team leader. On March 14, 1969, Kerrey’s unit — a seven-man SEAL team — set out to attack a Viet Cong terrorist group on an island in the Bay of Nha Trang. Instead, the SEAL team ran into a Viet Cong ambush. An enemy grenade landed at Kerrey’s feet, and the explosion severely injured his lower right leg. Kerrey, 25, continued to lead the assault, despite his wounds, and finally passed out from the loss of blood. Kerrey wound up at a Navy hospital in Philadelphia, where part of his right leg was amputated. A year later, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
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At War, At Home: World War II
The World-Herald marks this year's 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor with a special book honoring the Nebraskans and Iowans who helped the nation win a war.
The newspaper's stunning words and photographs capture the sacrifice and commitment of a special generation of Americans.