40 years on, Vietnam troop withdrawal remembered

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 28, 2013 at 10:43 pm •  Published: March 28, 2013
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The news gave the northern forces fresh hope of victory, but the worst of the war was still to come for Minh: The 77-year-old lost his right leg to a land mine while advancing on Saigon, just a month before that city fell.

"The news of the withdrawal gave us more strength to fight," Minh said Thursday, after touring a museum in the capital, Hanoi, devoted to the Vietnamese victory and home to captured American tanks and destroyed aircraft.

"The U.S. left behind a weak South Vietnam army. Our spirits was so high and we all believed that Saigon would be liberated soon," he said.

Minh, who was on a two-week tour of northern Vietnam with other veterans, said he bears no ill will to the American soldiers even though much of the country was destroyed and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese died.

If he met an American veteran now he says, "I would not feel angry; instead I would extend my sympathy to them because they were sent to fight in Vietnam against their will."

But on his actions, he has no regrets. "If someone comes to destroy your house, you have to stand up to fight."

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A POW'S REFLECTION

Two weeks before the last U.S. troops left Vietnam, Marine Corps Capt. James H. Warner was freed from North Vietnamese confinement after nearly 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war. He said those years of forced labor and interrogation reinforced his conviction that the United States was right to confront the spread of communism.

The past 40 years have proven that free enterprise is the key to prosperity, Warner said in an interview Thursday at a coffee shop near his home in Rohrersville, Md., about 60 miles from Washington. He said American ideals ultimately prevailed, even if our methods weren't as effective as they could have been.

"China has ditched socialism and gone in favor of improving their economy, and the same with Vietnam. The Berlin Wall is gone. So essentially, we won," he said. "We could have won faster if we had been a little more aggressive about pushing our ideas instead of just fighting."

Warner, 72, was the avionics officer in a Marine Corps attack squadron when his fighter plane was shot down north of the Demilitarized Zone in October 1967.

He said the communist-made goods he was issued as a prisoner, including razor blades and East German-made shovels, were inferior products that bolstered his resolve.

"It was worth it," he said.

A native of Ypsilanti, Mich., Warner went on to a career in law in government service. He is a member of the Republican Central Committee of Washington County, Md.

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TWO-TIME WITNESS

Denis Gray witnessed the Vietnam War twice — as an Army captain stationed in Saigon from 1970 to 1971 for a U.S. military intelligence unit, and again as a reporter at the start of a 40-year career with the AP.

"Saigon in 1970-71 was full of American soldiers. It had a certain kind of vibe. There were the usual clubs, and the bars were going wild," Gray recalled. "Some parts of the city were very, very Americanized."

Gray's unit was helping to prepare for the troop pullout by turning over supplies and projects to the South Vietnamese during a period that Washington viewed as the final phase of the war. But morale among soldiers was low, reinforced by a feeling that the U.S. was leaving without finishing its job.

"Personally, I came to Vietnam and the military wanting to believe that I was in a — maybe not a just war but a — war that might have to be fought," Gray said. "Toward the end of it, myself and most of my fellow officers, and the men we were commanding didn't quite believe that ... so that made the situation really complex."

After his one-year service in Saigon ended in 1971, Gray returned home to Connecticut and got a job with the AP in Albany, N.Y. But he was soon posted to Indochina, and returned to Saigon in August 1973 — four months after the U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam — to discover a different city.

"The aggressiveness that militaries bring to any place they go — that was all gone," he said. A small American presence remained, mostly diplomats, advisers and aid workers but the bulk of troops had left. The war between U.S.-allied South Vietnam and communist North Vietnam was continuing, and it was still two years before the fall of Saigon to the communist forces.

"There was certainly no panic or chaos — that came much later in '74, '75. But certainly it was a city with a lot of anxiety in it."

The Vietnam War was the first of many wars Gray witnessed. As AP's Bangkok bureau chief for more than 30 years, Gray has covered wars in Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and "many, many insurgencies along the way."

"I don't love war, I hate it," Gray said. "(But) when there have been other conflicts, I've been asked to go. So, it was definitely the shaping event of my professional life."

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DEDICATION TO A YOUNGER GENERATION

Harry Prestanski, 65, of West Chester, Ohio, served 16 months as a Marine in Vietnam and remembers having to celebrate his 21st birthday there. He is now retired from a career in public relations and spends a lot of time as an advocate for veterans, speaking to various organizations and trying to help veterans who are looking for jobs.

"The one thing I would tell those coming back today is to seek out other veterans and share their experiences," he said. "There are so many who will work with veterans and try to help them — so many opportunities that weren't there when we came back."

He says that even though the recent wars are different in some ways from Vietnam, those serving in any war go through some of the same experiences.

"One of the most difficult things I ever had to do was to sit down with the mother of a friend of mine who didn't come back and try to console her while outside her office there were people protesting the Vietnam War," Prestanski said.

He said the public's response to veterans is not what it was 40 years ago and credits Vietnam veterans for helping with that.

"When we served, we were viewed as part of the problem," he said. "One thing about Vietnam veterans is that — almost to the man — we want to make sure that never happens to those serving today. We welcome them back and go out of our way to airports to wish them well when they leave."

He said some of the positive things that came out of his war service were the leadership skills and confidence he gained that helped him when he came back.

"I felt like I could take on the world," he said.

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A YOUNGER GENERATION'S TAKE

Zach Boatright's father served 21 years in the Air Force and he spent his childhood rubbing shoulders with Vietnam vets who lived and worked on Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert, where he grew up.

Yet Boatright, 27, said the war has little resonance with him.

"We have a new defining moment. 9/11 is everyone's new defining moment now," he said of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. soil.

Boatright, who was 16 when the planes struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, said two of his best friends are now Air Force pilots serving in Afghanistan. He decided not to pursue the military and recently graduated from Fresno State University with a degree in recreation administration.

People back home are more supportive of today's troops, Boatright said, because the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are linked in Americans' minds with those attacks. Improved military technology and no military draft also makes the fighting seem remote to those who don't have loved ones enlisted, he said.

"Because 9/11 happened, anything since then is kind of justified. If you're like, 'We're doing that because of this' then it makes people feel better about the whole situation," said Boatright, who's working at a Starbucks in the Orange County suburbs while deciding whether to pursue a master's degree in history.

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Flaccus reported from Tustin, Calif., and Cornwell reported from Cincinnati. Also contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Chris Brummitt in Hanoi, Jocelyn Gecker in Bangkok, David Dishneau in Hagerstown, Md., and Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala.

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