It was a war in a place few Americans had heard of, much less find on a map.
It sent millions of young Americans, men barely out of college and with little military background, into battle against Communist-backed forces who had years of combat experience on their native soil.
It was the first conflict the United States would leave unfinished, and the scars it left on American soldiers who fought there continue to ache to this day.
The Vietnam War is the subject of countless books and movies that try to make sense the hostilities that dragged on for years and took more than 58,000 American lives. Now the story is told by men and women from the commonwealth who were there in the KET documentary Kentucky Veterans of the Vietnam War: In Their Own Words. The Emmy Award-winning program was produced by Thomas Bickel.
The Seeds of Conflict
Army volunteer Donald Whitehouse of Madisonville was one of the first Kentuckians to be sent to Vietnam. It was 1963, and Whitehouse was among a group of soldiers who were told to board a troop transport leaving Fort Campbell.
“Nobody knew where we were going,” says Whitehouse. “The pilot came on and announced that we were going to Vietnam. We thought that might be in Germany… We didn’t know it was a country itself.”
Vietnam was a French colony for decades and a vital source of rubber for the European nation. But when World War II erupted, the French pulled their forces from Vietnam to fight against the Nazis. That left the southeast Asian nation vulnerable, so Communist Ho Chi Minh organized an army in the north of the country to protect Vietnam from Japanese invasion.
When the French tried to reassert their authority after World War II, Ho’s battle-hardened forces resisted. After nine years of fighting, a 1954 peace treaty gave the Vietnamese their freedom, but divided the country into a northern, pro-Communist sector under Ho, and a southern sector that wanted to maintain the government the French had established.
The United Nations, with the support of the United States, helped the South Vietnamese defend against Ho’s incursions. American military advisors had been in Vietnam since the early 1950s, but their numbers began to increase as tensions between the north and south continued to escalate. By 1963, when Kentuckian Donald Whitehouse arrived, there were more than 11,000 American advisors in the country.
Even though they were assigned to non-combat duties to support the South Vietnamese Army, the advisors were still at risk. While working at an airport guard tower in July 1963, a North Vietnamese sniper shot Whitehouse.
“I was hit with a 30-caliber [bullet]” says Whitehouse. “It hit in my arm, back, and chest. I lost my left lung, I lost the ribs on my left side, and I lost my shoulder blade…. and I have shrapnel throughout my chest.”
Because the U.S. was not yet officially at war, Whitehouse was not eligible for the Purple Heart. It would be 40 years before he would be awarded one.
Respecting the Enemy
Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, in which North Vietnamese torpedo boats reportedly attacked American destroyers patrolling off the Vietnamese coast, President Lyndon Johnson ordered American fighting forces into the country. Those troops found a landscape of dense, subtropical forests and low-lying river deltas, and an enemy well experienced in guerilla warfare.
“Some of these guys had been fighting the Japanese in World War II in the ‘40s, then they moved on to the French all the way up until 1954,” says James Angelini, a soldier from Louisville. “You learned to respect them.”
“These are not a bunch of rag-tag, medieval types,” says Army veteran Gordon Williams of Paducah. “These are people who are highly trained, highly motivated, and are well equipped… and if you underestimate them, you run a high probability of getting hurt or getting killed.”
In addition to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), who was backed by the Chinese and Soviets, Americans also had to battle the Viet Cong. They were farmers and villagers who lived in South Vietnam, but opposed the military government there and the American intervention. Because the Viet Cong didn’t wear uniforms, they blended in with the civilian population. That made it difficult for American troops to know which locals were friendly or not.
“The frustrating thing was the people that were probably shooting at me at nighttime were the ones I probably talked to in the daytime,” says Fred Hellermann of Crestview Hills, who served in the Marines.
The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong also had a home field advantage: they had an intimate knowledge of the terrain over which they fought.
“They always found us first because it was their country,” says Ronnie French, a Marine from Maysville.
They also set booby traps for the Americans, running trip wires set to detonate explosives, and setting bamboo spears tipped with poison along the soldiers’ paths. And they equipped women and children with rifles and hand grenades to attack the Americans when they least expected it. John Outlaw recalls the time he encountered a woman brandishing an AK-47.
“It was heart wrenching,” says the Owensboro Marine. “We were taught growing up you don’t harm women, but in this case it was kill or be killed.”
Copters, Speed Boats, and Carpet Bombs
While the enemy employed guerilla tactics, the U.S. military had the advantage of technology. New generations of helicopters made by Bell, Boeing, and other aviation companies were used to attack enemy positions, protect American ground troops, deliver soldiers to landing zones, and retrieve the dead and wounded.
“We had helicopter pilots who were among the bravest, most courageous soldiers I ever served with,” recalls Army Ranger Michael Davidson of Louisville. “I never saw a helicopter pilot refuse a mission… They would risk the entire helicopter and their crew to get one of our kids out.”
In the Mekong Delta, U.S. Navy forces used lightweight patrol boats made of fiberglass to cruise the river and its tributaries.
“They were tremendously fast,” says David Cowherd of Cecelia. “They had two, humongous Chrysler motors in them and they would just move down the river.”
The speed of the boats appealed to young seaman raised on the excitement of war movies, but their crews often had mundane missions. Cowherd says they would inspect sampan boats the Vietnamese used to ensure they weren’t carrying contraband. But at other times the patrol boats served as bait to lure Viet Cong troops into shooting at them and thus reveal the enemy positions.
“There was not anything on the boats that usually stopped the bullets,” Cowherd says. “Fiberglass is not very good armor-plating for a boat.”
Other craft called Tango Boats delivered troops to hot spots. But the roar of the boats’ massive diesel engines often alerted enemy fighters to their presence.
The U.S. also deployed B-52 bombers to drop as much as 40 tons of ordnance on a single mission. This “carpet bombing” technique would kill anything and anyone in its path.
“There would be parts of people up in the trees. Sometimes you’d find a foot or a boot or their garments,” says Marine Stephen Hellmann of Lexington. “The enemy did not like the B-52s.”
The Horrors of Battle
In the early days of the conflict, the military comprised volunteer servicemen. But as the war raged on, the U.S. needed millions more troops to send overseas. The Selective Service System reinstituted the draft in 1969, and once again a generation of young Americans went off to combat. In World War II the average age for a soldier was 26. In Vietnam it was 22.
After a year of training, service men would be deployed to Vietnam for a year.
“I was young, invincible,” says Jack Mattingly of Harrodsburg. “As a Marine you thought nothing could hurt you… until I actually hit Vietnam and then reality struck.”
Despite their training, soldiers arriving “in country” were still inexperienced and prone to mistakes. Fresh troops were often placed at the front of patrols, according to Herman Love of Owensboro. That way if they came under fire and started shooting, they wouldn’t shoot their own men in the backs.
Troops would spend days, weeks, and even months battling back and forth over the same piece of territory. Victory was often marked not in terms of land gained, but by which side had the lower death toll.
“It’s a remarkable syncopation of rhythm when you’re with people like I was fortunate to be with,” says Jerry Cecil of Winchester, who earned a Distinguished Service Cross for dragging three fellow soldiers to safety after an ambush. “You can learn more about a man in 20 minutes of combat than you can by living next to him for 20 years.”
Don Parrish was a member of an Army National Guard unit from Bardstown, one of only two such units to serve in Vietnam. Parrish was a supply sergeant attached to a firebase along a prominent north-south route through Vietnam when his company came under intense enemy fire.
“The noise is incredible,” says Parrish. “It’s difficult to think. The only thing that you could think of is, am I going to survive this?”
Robert Wayne Griffin was an Army combat photographer. He entered one firefight with a pistol and three cameras, and watched a good friend, Eddie Cooper, die before his eyes.
“Eddie had just found a trail marker left by the NVA,” recalls Griffin. “I got down low and shot a picture of him… As he raised up, he took two steps, he took two rounds right through the sternum. I got him out of the line of fire, tore open his shirt, and saw the damage. He looked up at me and went ‘Momma,’ and that was the last word he ever said.”
“We see so many movies today and we see people shooting each other,” says Navy corpsman Thomas Bulleit of Louisville. “It’s really nothing at all like depicted in film.”
Fellow Marine Fred Hellmann lost four friends in one day of combat.
“I had so much hatred in me, so much revenge, I wanted to go out by myself,” Hellmann says. “I said, ‘I’ll sneak out and kill as many as I can.’”
Medics, corpsmen, and nurses sent to help the wounded also fell victim to enemy bullets. Bulleit says the crosses painted on the helmets of medical personnel often served as targets for enemy snipers. Gordon Williams from Paducah recalls the Army nurse who was killed when an enemy rocket hit their evacuation hospital. He says the death stunned her colleagues and patients.
“Having fellow male soldiers wounded and killed, you develop almost a callus towards that – it’s just part of war” Williams says. “But for one of the nurses to have been killed, people were reacting as if their little sister had been killed.”
Death was a constant presence for Army nurse Marj Graves of Louisville. She was days from completing her tour of duty in Vietnam when she was called upon to help identify the bodies of 34 men killed in a helicopter crash.
“That was the most horrific nursing situation I had ever been through,” says Graves. “Seeing wedding bands that are burned into somebody’s arm that’s been separated from the torso, seeing dog tags on half of a body, trying to identify who these bodies are.”
Following her discharge, Graves did not return to nursing.
Many Come Home But Others Do Not
The memories of friends and colleagues who died in Vietnam remain fixed in the minds of the American service members who did return home.
“I didn’t have anybody hurt for about three months and I thought I was really good,” says Joseph Hood of Lexington. “Then one night I had an ambush patrol overrun and that brought me back to reality.”
That night Hood ordered two platoons out on patrol in the Mekong Delta. Eight of his men were killed.
“I had to do the memorial service for these people, had to write the letters to their parents. Devastating,” Hood says. “Devastating.”
Sometimes a soldier’s thoughts turned to those men who were on the receiving ends of his rifle shots.
“The NVA that I saw over there who had been killed, I always had the impression that he had family back in North Vietnam somewhere, just like I had family back in the states,” says David Chaffin, who entered the Army from Greenup County. “There was somebody in North Vietnam, they knew he didn’t make it – he wasn’t coming home.”
As the conflict dragged on, and the death toll mounted on both sides, the anti-war movement in the United States gained strength. Questions about the morality of the war grew more intense after news of the My Lai Massacre broke in 1969. That incident, in which U.S. infantrymen killed some 500 unarmed civilian men, women, and children, outraged Americans back home. It turned public opinion against the men charged with fighting the war.
“You came back from Vietnam and you were called baby killer, a murderer,” says Marine Vance Huston of Greenup. “It broke my heart.”
“They told me when I landed in San Francisco to take off my uniform and put on my [civilian clothes] and fly the rest of the way home in civvies,” says fellow Marine Jack Mattingly of Harrodsburg. “There was people being spit on, cursed at, people being beat up, all kinds of things happening to Vietnam soldiers as they came home.”
It took four years of negotiations before a peace accord could be reached in 1973. Allen Broussard, a Marine from Louisville, was among the last troops to evacuate Saigon as that city fell into NVA hands in April 1975. He watched as the helicopters that carried American soldiers and South Vietnamese civilians to Navy ships waiting offshore were unceremoniously dumped into the ocean.
“At some point in time I really, really reflected on the fact, was this all a waste?” Broussard says. “Was all of those lives for nothing?”
Of the 125,000 Kentuckians who served in the conflict, 1,103 died, and 15 others remain missing in action. For those who returned, there can be a sense of pride that they answered their nation’s call to arms even if they have mixed feelings about the war itself.
“The American forces never lost a major battle over there at all,” says Army veteran James Angelini. “When we were toe to toe with them, we were kicking their behind.”
“These kids were wonderful soldiers,” says Army veteran Joseph Hood. “They came with very little experience, they got experience quick, and became good soldiers. A tribute to the American boy.”
“That was the proudest part of my life because I did what my government and my family and everybody expected of me,” says Carey Christie, an Army veteran from Rineyville.