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A Moment Of History

March 18, 2015
BY CHUCK CLEGG - Columnist , Wetzel Chronicle

Mary and I recently joined our son and his family for lunch at one of those sports restaurants that specialize in hot wings. Around the room were at least two dozen TVs displaying a variety of programs, mostly sports. But, on one of the TVs was a 24-hour news channel. As I watched, I noticed running along the bottom a stream of silent short news items; mostly small bits of daily news about world events. Then I noticed one of those news bits, "50 years ago Marines landed in Vietnam." Those few words brought to mind what the government called a police action. But, for those of us around back then, we remember it as war and American soldiers died. The date was March 8, 1965.

When I returned home, I went to my computer and typed that same question. I found out the United States deployed 3,500 United States Marines to defend the air base at Da Nang on that date a half century before. It was considered the first direct involvement in the war. It was not long before the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines began ground operations.

Bombing of North Vietnam began several months before the Marines' landing. Operation Rolling Thunder unleashed bombing raids on the north's supply routes and weapons storage areas. During one of these raids, U.S. Navy commander Everett Alvarez Jr. was shot down in 1964. He was held as a prisoner of war (POW) for eight years.

Next, I asked the question, "What were the years of the Vietnam war." The answers came as a bit of a surprise at first. History remembers the conflict beginning as far back as November 1955 and lasted until the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

When I typed the question, "Who was the first soldier killed in Vietnam?" Air Force Tech-Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr. is listed as having died on June 8, 1956. The information reported that he was killed by another soldier. In 1999 his name was added to the Vietnam Veterans Wall in Washington, D.C. Whenever a person dies as a result of being a United States soldier in a foreign hostile land, we should know it is an act of war, declared or not. It was a life lost that can never be returned. A family's loved one is gone because they served their country.

On Dec. 22, 1961, Specialist 4, James T. Davis was listed as the first battlefield casualty of the war. It was reported that Davis, along with the other members of his patrol, were killed in an ambush. Davis was acting as an advisor to a group of Vietnamese at the time of his death. In 1961, most people may not have even realized the roll American soldiers were playing in a country so far from our shores.

From 1960 to 1975, nine million soldiers served in one of the branches of the military around the world. This 15-year time period in our country's history came to be known as the Vietnam War Era. From 1960 until 1964, 50,000 soldiers served in the conflict area. From March 1965 until March 1973, 2.59 million served in the South East Asia combat area.

I found out during my research there are no absolute answers to many of my questions about the war. Our country's involvement from the mid-1950's until 1975 often had few answers. I have come to believe since that much of the war was about politics and stopping communism. Answers were often fashioned by those in power. But, for the men and women who served our country, the reality of war was very real. For soldiers, the answer they hoped to find was to survive from day to day and return home.

West Virginia had the highest casualty rate based on percentage of the state's population during the war. Inscribed on the virtual list of those killed are the names of 732 from our state who were lost in the war. But, the Vietnam War took more than the lives of those lost in combat. To this day, it is very much part of many veterans' lives. Veterans hold memories of a place and time for which history is still trying to find answers-a war that took so much from so many.

Just three years after the first U.S. Marines landed, there were over a half million soldiers in the country fighting to stop the spread of the Communist from the north in 1968.

On Jan. 27, 1973, the Paris Peace Accord was signed. This ended the fighting and opened the way home for American troops. By December 1974, the South Vietnam government stood alone against the army of the north. In Washington, Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act. This effectively stopped all military aid to the south's government forces. On April 30, 1975, the south surrendered to the north and Saigon fell. The war that had gone on for so long was over. Vietnam was again united after 30 years.

In May 1975, the SS Mayaguez, a merchant ship, was seized by the Cambodian Navy. During the rescue of the crew 18 Marines and airmen were killed or went missing in the assault. The island of Koh-Tang was where much of the combat took place.

During the mission a helicopter was lost along with its crew and the soldiers on board. Twenty-three died in the crash. The crew of the Mayaguez was successfully rescued. The cost in American soldiers' lives was high during this last action of the war. During the Mayaguez incident three U.S. Marines were mistakenly left behind on Koh-Tang Island.

At the war's end the government listed 2,646 Americans unaccounted for, we know them as Missing in Action (MIA). Since the war's end, recovery efforts have returned a little over 1,000 of those listed as unaccounted for. Koh-Tang Island was the last official battle of the Vietnam War. History seems to little remember the last combat in the war's history two-and-half years after the Paris Peace Accord was signed.

Even after all these years, we struggle to understand the war and the price paid by those who served. The Vietnam Veterans Wall is a silent testimony of those who died. It is meant to honor those whose names are etched there in stone. We hope that future generations will have some understanding of the war and those who served. We can only hope they will also remember those who returned home when politicians told us peace was in hand. But, for many the war is still within and the memories will be carried for a lifetime.

In our community, alongside the American Legion, there is a Wall of Honor remembering those who served in the military from our county. Inscribed there are the names of men and women who served in times of war and peace. That place of honor is seldom alone in its vigilance. Citizens from the area visit to pay respect and honor. They sometimes touch a name and for a moment they remember. We all should be proud to live in a community that displays an Honor Roll of those who served.

Fifty years ago U.S. Marines landed on the shores of Vietnam and the war officially began. After reading my story you may come to understand the conflict in Vietnam has no defined edges to fit neatly onto the pages of history. American soldiers died long before the war was in the daily headlines. They also continued to die after "PEACE" was the two-inch headlines of the day. But, even now the war still goes on for those who served. It also goes on for those who waited at home for a loved who never returned. I hope in the future, the memory of the men and women who served during that long ago conflict are not reduced to a silent line of typed words across the bottom of a TV screen. It is for us all to honor and remember their sacrifice as we look Through the Lens.



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