Vietnam: A little background

vietnamOkay, so here’s a short (I hope) history lesson about the Vietnam War in advance of The Wall That Heals, the traveling Vietnam Wall, that is coming to Richmond Sept. 22-25.

I hope they teach this in schools but I wonder. And I hope if you are reading this you will share it with all those born after 1975 to provide them with some perspective.

Anyway, here goes.

The Vietnam War (it is widely accepted) lasted from Nov. 1, 1955 to April 30, 1975, though that depends on your definition of the war. Some argue that the war started Sept. 2, 1945 when Ho Chi Minh, a nationalist and eventually a community leader of North Vietnam, declared Vietnam independent of French control.

The U.S. government said the “Vietnam Era” lasted from Aug. 5, 1964 to May 7, 1975. U.S. front line troops fought in Vietnam for eight years from March 1965 to March 1973.

Okay, that’s confusing. But I hope you get the idea.

The war centered around Vietnamese efforts to oust the French from their country, eventually leading to the belief among many that the fighting was part of a worldwide plot by communists to take over Southeast Asia and later the world. The concept was that Southeast Asian countries would fall to the communists like dominoes, hence the Domino Theory.

Again, confusing and based on perspective, but we know the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong counterparts in South Vietnam were supported by Russia, China and other communist countries and the South Vietnamese were supported by the U.S., South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and other “free world” countries.

So let’s stick to the facts of U.S. involvement. Here goes:

From Jan. 1, 1965 to March 28, 1973, 3.4 million U.S. military personnel served in the Southeast Asian Theater (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, flight crews based in Thailand and sailors in adjacent South China Sea waters). Another 50,000 served there from 1960 through ’64, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Website VA Stats.

That Website reported that Vietnam veterans represented 9.7 percent of their generation.

Almost 2.6 million U.S. military personnel served in the borders of South Vietnam. Of those, 1 million to 1.6 million either fought in combat, provided close support or were at least fairly regularly exposed to enemy attack.

Of those, 7,484 women served in Vietnam, 6,250 as nurses. The U.S. troop strength in Vietnam hit a high of 543,482 on April 30, 1969.

The Wall That Heals is a replica of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. At its dedication in 1982, the Wall (as it is known) included the names of 57,939 U.S. soldiers, sailors, Marines and air force personnel killed in Vietnam. That number grew to 58,286 by Memorial Day 2013.

By Memorial Day 2015, the number was 58,307.

That number included 1,534 from Indiana and 40 from Wayne County.

The bloodiest year of the war in terms of U.S. casualties was 1968 when 16,899 were killed. Next was 1969 with 11,780, then 1967 with 11,363. If my math is correct, that means 40,042 U.S. military personnel, or 68 percent of the total casualties, happened during those three years.

If you know someone who served in Vietnam during that time, please thank them for their service and congratulate them on surviving.

Who died in the Vietnam War? Mostly young men. The website reported that 14,095 U.S. 20-year-olds were killed in the Vietnam War, the most of any age group. Next were 21-year-olds at 9,705 and then 19-year-olds at 8,283.

That means that of all those U.S. troops killed in Vietnam, 32,083 were 19- through 21-year-olds, or 55 percent. A sad and tragic number.

The bloodiest battle for U.S. troops in the war? Again, hard to tell. For instance, officials list U.S. casualties in the Battle of Khe Sanh at 246, but that does not include skirmishes prior to the beginning of the NVA and Viet Cong siege, efforts to resupply or rescue the trapped U.S. forces, skirmishes on surrounding hills and those who died when the base was dismantled.

Taking those into account, Ray Stubbe, a U.S. Navy Chaplain during the siege and now a Khe Sanh historian, lists the number of U.S. casualties at closer to 1,000.

That too is confusing But these are the facts.

Eight women, all nurses, died in the Vietnam War, including one killed in action.

Sixty-one percent of the men killed in Vietnam were 21 years of age or younger.

U.S. wounded in action totaled 303,704; 75,000 severely disabled; 5,283 lost a limb; and 1,081 sustained multiple amputations. Amputations and crippling wounds to lower extremities were 300 percent higher in Vietnam than in World War II and 70 percent higher than Korea. Multiple amputations occurred at the rate of 18.4 percent compared to 5.7 percent in WWII.

Twenty-five percent of the total forces who served, or 648,500, were draftees. Draftees accounted for 30.4 percent, or 17,725, of combat deaths. Total draftees during the war numbered 1,728,344. Of those 38 percent served in Vietnam.

The last man was drafted June 30, 1973.

A total of 5,977 reservists were killed in the war and 6,140 National Guard personnel.

Seventy-six percent of the men sent to Vietnam were from lower middle/working class backgrounds.

Of those who actually served in Vietnam, 88.4 percent were white, 10.6 percent were black and 1 percent belonged to other races. Of combat deaths, 86.3 percent were white, 12.5 percent black and 1.2 other.

Also, 97 percent of Vietnam Era veterans were honorably discharged.

I know, these are all just numbers and don’t in any way represent the reality of the war, the sacrifice of our nation and the tremendous loss that families felt in communities around the country.

With that in mind, I will also take a look at those from Wayne County who died in Vietnam, based on my 26 years of reporting on veterans and veterans affairs in this community.

And, by the way, I was a draftee and served in Vietnam from January to the December 1972. I was honorably discharged and was one of the 1 million or so not in combat and not fairly regularly exposed to enemy attack. Still, at times, it was scary as hell.

6 thoughts on “Vietnam: A little background”

  1. My husband was drafted out of college in 1969 and was trained as a medic. His entire class went to Vietnam except my husband. His experience of war was at the hospital at Fort Knox. Everyone experienced that war differently they all have wounds in different ways.


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