At noon on Monday, veterans and their families, elected and appointed governmental officials, local citizens and members of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution and other organizations dedicated to historical preservation and patriotism will gather for a public ceremony on the South lawn of the Hamilton County Courthouse to ‘Welcome Home’ Vietnam Veterans, 46 years after the withdrawal of U. S. forces from the Republic of South Vietnam.
March 29 is National Vietnam Veterans Appreciation Day, designated as a day to commemorate the service and sacrifice of the more than 2.7 million members of the U. S. Armed Forces who served in the Republic of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War and the additional 6.9 million who served in support of the military actions. In Hamilton County, Tennessee and across the nation, governmental officials, veterans and community leaders will pause to remember and acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, recognizing the more than 10,000 Vietnam veterans who reside in the Tennessee Valley.
The United States became involved in the Vietnam conflict in the mid-1950s, after official authorization was granted for the deployment of advisors to assist the South Vietnamese government in their fight against Communist forces in North Vietnam, directed by Ho Chi Minh. U. S. support grew throughout the early 1960s with the first Tennessee casualty recorded on December 22, 1961.
Tom Davis, a senior at Tennessee Technological University who resided in nearby Livingston, Overton County, decided to leave school and enlist in the United States Army. After basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. and AIT at Fort Devens, Davis was ordered to join the 3rd Radio Research Unit in Vietnam, aiding the South Vietnamese in identifying enemy signals and locating insurgents. Because of the rugged terrain, the unit served as ‘advisors’ from the front lines with the South Vietnamese forces. On Dec. 22, Davis lead a Vietnamese team, attempting to locate a Viet Cong guerilla force operating in the area, and his team fell under heavy attack, eventually succumbing to enemy fire.
U.S. military forces grew incrementally through the Kennedy administration and, following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in early August 1964, U. S. policy changed. After reports that two U. S. destroyers reported that they had been fired upon by North Vietnamese forces, President Lyndon B. Johnson went to Congress, requesting permission to increase the U. S. military presence in Indochina. Days later, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing the President to use any ‘necessary measures’ to retaliate and to ‘promote’ peace and security in Southeast Asia. By July 1965, full combat units were deployed and the U. S. became fully engaged in the fight, alongside South Vietnamese forces, against North Vietnamese troops and the Viet Cong forces.
Over 58,000 members of the U. S. Armed Forces would die in the Republic of South Vietnam, including eight women.
At the same time, civilians became divided over U. S. military involvement in South Vietnam and the country erupted into public demonstrations, protests including the burning of draft cards and U. S. flags and conflicts in Congress regarding continued support of the war. Members of the Armed Forces found themselves trapped between those who supported intervention and those who opposed the U. S. presence in Southeast Asia. It appeared that the nation had turned on its own military, often serving because they had been drafted and had chosen to serve in the tradition of their fathers and grandfathers who had served with valor in World War I and World War II.
Returning home meant encountering hostility from those who opposed the war. Most Vietnam Veterans simply returned home, changed into their civilian clothes and set about working to support their families and to improve their communities, seldom acknowledging their service. There were no grand parades in their hometowns and no ‘Welcome Home’ signs. When the last personnel were evacuated from South Vietnam in April 1975, the Vietnam Veterans and “their war” seemed to slip from our nation’s memory.
Unfortunately, South Vietnam did not slip from their memory; instead many of them suffered in silence. The horrors of guerilla warfare, chemical warfare and the disregard for those who had given the supreme sacrifice haunted the veterans’ days and nights.
When existing veteran groups failed to include Vietnam veterans or promote issues of concern to them in their political agendas, the younger veterans came together to advocate for their own needs. Known as the Council of Vietnam Veterans after its official formation in 1979, the group would eventually become known as the Vietnam Veterans of America when they reorganized to add political strength to arguments based on morality and justice. They advocated for health care related to combat service and other VA services. They pledged that no other veterans would return home without a ‘Welcome’ from the nation and its citizens. Today, VVA has a national membership of over 85,000 members and over 650 chapters, including two in Hamilton County.
In 2007, the 110th Congress authorized the Secretary of Defense to conduct a program commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War, 2015-2025, mirroring the years of active combat presence. President George W. Bush signed the National Defense Authorization Act on January 29, 2008 and President Barack Obama officially inaugurated the Commission at a commemoration at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Memorial Day, 2012.
Chattanooga and Hamilton County 50th Anniversary Commemoration Committee, co-chaired by Major General Bill Raines and Chattanooga-Hamilton County Historian Linda Moss Mines and comprised of Vietnam veterans and other public officials, seeks to thank and honor Vietnam veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the Nation, with special recognition of former prisoners of war and families of those still classified as ‘Missing in Action’ and to remember those who were ‘Killed in Action’ during their service to their nation.
Fly your flag during the week of March 29 in recognition of those who served and were not welcome home. It is never too late to say Thank You.
For more information regarding the Vietnam Veterans of America, contact Charlie Hobbs who serves the national VVA organization at 423-991-5858.