The Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Frankfort pays tribute to each of the 1,103 Kentucky servicemen and women who died in the war. Veterans of the war shared their memories with Kentucky Life.
Jack Mattingly, a Marine veteran, remembered taking the wounded and dying out in helicopters. “I’ve asked myself, you know, for 40 years, why I’m here and they didn’t make their way back,” he said. “We’d bring them in the helicopters. Some of them were already gone. Some of them were asking us to help them. We’d hold their hands. They would tell us not to let them die.”
He recalled his helpless feeling when soldiers would ask him to tell their parents that they loved them. “I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t know how to do that,” he said.
Two Bardstown veterans recalled the artillery attack that killed several men from their town.
“I saw the mess hall explode,” remembered veteran Tom Raisor. “ After the mess hall exploded, the whole hill started lighting up.”
Veteran Don Parrish remembered the noise was incredible. “We took two direct hits from RPGs. One was directly above Tom, and one was pretty close directly above myself,” he said. “And the din is just crazy.”
They wondered if they would survive, he said. Five National Guardsmen from the Bardstown unit were lost in the attack.
Army veteran Ronnie French of Maysville remembered his fallen friend, Louisville native Charles A. Smith. “We were inseparable,” he said. “Everywhere I went, he went, and everywhere he went, I went.”
Smith was killed in an operation in which French himself had already been wounded. “If I had been with him at the time I probably would have been killed too,” he said. “We were that close. And that’s a constant reminder that the war was real.”
Steve Ross of Fort Thomas, an Air Force veteran of Vietnam, remembered his brother, Joseph. “All he talked about was he wanted to be a pilot,” he said.
The brothers served at different air bases in Vietnam. One day Steve was able to visit his brother, and they talked about their plans. “We were going to R&R in Australia and meet down there. And then when he went back to the States, I was going to live with him and go to college.”
The next day, his brother was shot down on a bombing mission. His body was never recovered.
Army veteran Jerry Cecil of Winchester earned the Distinguished Service Cross for leading his men out of a jungle ambush that wounded every member of his company. Now Cecil is a member of the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s board of directors.
The memorial, which opened in 1988, is a sundial with the names of those killed etched on the granite plaza. The 14-foot-tall sundial pin, or gnomon, casts a shadow that touches the name of a fallen soldier on the anniversary of his or her death. The MIAs are listed behind the sundial so its shadow never falls on their names.
“If you really want to know what their sacrifice means, you need to spend quiet time up here and understand how this works,” he said. “And then challenge yourself, go through the directory, find a veteran, and come up here on the day that they were killed in Vietnam, and that will send chills up and down your spine.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2119, which originally aired on May 26, 2016. Watch the full episode.