Editor’s note: Gary and Judy Washburn, Realtors from Chatsworth, went to Vietnam on Nov. 29, 2012, to visit the sites where Gary’s brother, Lance Cpl. Robert Washburn, USMC, served his nation from November 1967 to his death in August 1968. Visiting Vietnam was a long-time dream for Gary and provided a better understanding of the war in Vietnam.
HO CHI MIHN CITY (Saigon) -- As a young television news reporter assigned to the state capitol in Sacramento in 1966, I was requested by NBC News Los Angeles to interview a young combat veteran of the newly developing war in a far-away country called Vietnam.
The Army sergeant, a Los Angeles native, was wounded in a battle in the La Drang valley. It was a horrific firefight in which more than 300 Americans were killed when ambushed by the North Vietnamese in the Fall of 1966. The North Vietnamese set a trap for the Americans and they walked into it. The Army was overwhelmed by the combat losses and didn’t know how to notify next-of-kin – most of whom lived at Ft. Benning, GA, home of the Infantry.
The Army ordered Western Union to deliver telegrams in the middle of the night. It was a public relations fiasco and, from it, a whole notification and follow up procedure was developed to insure that the next-of-kin for Vietnam casualties would be notified in person and that a follow-up officer would remain in the community with the family until conclusion of the funeral and tribute to a fallen war hero. The follow up-officers, as part of their orders, would send a floral wreath from the Secretary of the Army (not to exceed $20).
As we talked that April day in 1966, I realized that I might be drafted. I was 24, single, a college graduate and an excellent candidate for the draft as the American military efforts in Vietnam were building – the goal was to have 500,000 Americans on the ground.
As Judy and I toured both the Reunification Palace and the War Remembrance Museum in Ho Chi Mihn City (Saigon), I remembered both the day I interviewed the young sergeant and the day I took the oath to defend my country, Aug. 6, 1966.
The War Remembrance Museum, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), is a four story building that contains several photographs and documents from the Vietnam War. Built by the Vietnam government, the museum has a point of view naturally, tilted to the struggle of the people of North Vietnam in their war against the governments in South Vietnam sponsored by the United States. The Vietnam War started after President Lyndon Johnson stated that the United States Navy was attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin by the North Vietnamese Navy (the account of what happened in Tonkin has become a matter of controversy).
The war in Vietnam has several layers. The Vietnamese have spent their life in combat to obtain their freedom. When thousands of us were drafted in the early part of the war, we knew nothing of combat. I spent four years in college and two years in a fraternity at Fresno State College. War and military service were the last things on my mind. As we graduated in January 1966, some of my fellow Fresno State students were given both degrees and commissioned as officers in various branches of the military. Several of the new officers joined ROTC to get a free education—no one thought they would face combat.
One fraternity brother, who was in Marine ROTC, cried when he realized that he would be in combat in Vietnam as a 2nd Lieutenant.
As we toured the four story building and the outdoor exhibits, there were so many familiar pictures and stories of the combat that began when American Marines landed in a dramatic fashion in Da Nang in the spring of 1965. One commander said that the United States would smash the Vietnamese—a peasant nation of farmers—in record time. After La Drang, several months later, everyone realized that we were fighting a motivated enemy. And the battle would rage for years and be dragged into American and international politics. In 1968, Richard Nixon said he had a secret plan to end the war. He kept the secret after his election.
We saw site of the old American embassy in Saigon where 75 helicopters transported both American and South Vietnam personnel to Navy carriers in April, 1975. Pictures of the helicopters rescue are in the Museum. Once the helicopters completed their job, the North Vietnamese occupied the embassy grounds and the war officially ended.
Some of the images in the museum were reminders of a war that Americans began to hate after the Tet Offensive in February 1968. General William Westmoreland, to that point, said that there was light at the end of the tunnel. Tet taught everyone that the North Vietnamese were a tough enemy that would not surrender. Walter Cronkite, commenting on Tet on the CBS Evening News, said the war was over and American troops should come home.
The most famous image at the museum is the Marine at Khe Sahn with the Thousand Yard Stare. The look was common among American military because Vietnam was a war with no borders or boundaries. Friends who served with my brother at Camp Carroll, a Marine fire base which we toured recently, told me that the incoming fire was sometimes 24-7—it never stopped. One of the Marines at the reunion said some guys would simply stand up in the middle of the incoming fire with the Thousand Yard stare and wait to be killed.
The museum has the weapons, Air Force planes and helicopters used by Americans in the war. It is an interesting exhibit. Some of the exhibit rooms I left because I happen to have a different point of view.
Those of us who served were young guys drafted to fight in a war that would grow increasingly unpopular over the years. We left jobs and careers and were doing our duty. Watching hundreds of thousands of Americans in Washington DC demonstrate against us—the uniformed military—was demoralizing. We had morale challenges with our troops at the Atlanta Army Depot because they didn’t want to be in the Army and, by 1968, they couldn’t wear their uniforms off base.
Bill Clinton ended the trade embargo against Vietnam in 2000. We ate lunch at the Pho 2000 restaurant in Saigon because that’s the year that President Clinton ate noodles at Pho, declared them delicious and they have a huge picture of a smiling President Clinton with the restaurant staff. The Vietnamese love both Bill and Hillary… and several mentioned Monica Lewinsky (it’s a small world).
Vietnam is today building its tourism business. There is extensive construction of resorts and townhomes in Da Nang, site of the American war base in the ‘Nam war and the place where the Marines came ashore. It is generally a nice place to visit, the people are very pleasant and the war is something that occurred in the past.
My military veteran friends have told me that they never want to return to Vietnam. Americans that served in the war were mostly in their late teens and early twenties and what they saw was both traumatic and life changing. For Judy and me, it was an opportunity to visit both the Marine Fire bases and to see a nation that is working to build its economy. It’s been a nice visit and, starting in 2013, McDonalds will locate restaurants in Vietnam!