Part One of KUED's Vietnam War Stories follows a number of Utah's veterans who were sent to Vietnam during the crucial buildup phase of the conflict. Follow these vets as they describe how the bustling city of Saigon began to deteriorate in the wake of attacks on U.S. war ships in the Golf of Tonkin in 1964.
Utahans were among the first combat troops to set foot on the ground in Vietnam in 1965. As relations between the Communist North and the United States-supported South escalated slowly into full-scale civil war the U.S. shifted from a limited supporting force in the South into the leading role combating the North Vietnamese, all the while enduring a brutal guerrilla war in the South.
KUED is proud to let the men and women who fought and lost friends and comrades finally tell their stories. It was a moment in time that would become a defining episode in American history, and in the lives of those who served.
For the men and women who served in Vietnam it was the signature sound of the war.
The rhythmic thumping of helicopter blades could mean life or death. An assault deep in enemy territory or life-saving medical evacuation. Critical re-supply or a return to base and relative safety. Forty years after the war, Vietnam veterans have vivid memories of the moments of their lives played to the soundtrack of helicopters in action.
"You would look in their faces when you were taking them to a fire support base, or on a troop strike," recalls Terry McDade of Layton, Utah who served as a gunner and crew chief on a Marine Corps helicopter. "Are they going to be alive, or are they going to be dead?"
It forms one of the many gripping segments of Utah Vietnam Stories: Turning Point, the continuation of KUED's powerful documentary tribute to the men and women of Utah who served during the Vietnam conflict.
Built upon dozens of interviews with soldiers, sailors, airmen and medical personnel, Turning Point is a compelling oral history of the pivotal months in Vietnam during and immediately after the Tet Offensive of 1968. More than 500,000 Americans were serving in Southeast Asia at the time, and the surging, confusing nature of the conflict was fueling deep anti-war sentiment back in the United States.
"I didn't take it personal, these demonstrations," remembers Army Specialist Dennis Stevens of Kearns, Utah. Returning soldiers were treated indifferently, and sometimes with hostility, when they came home on leave. "It shouldn't be directed at us. But, in retrospect, who else would (protestors) direct it to? We were easy targets."
"Turning Point is not a military history of Vietnam," says program producer Sally Shaum. "At its best, it is a deeply personal statement by an incredible collection of men and women who served their country at a time of division and uncertainty."
Part of a seven year commitment by KUED to document the touching, searing and even humorous memories of hundreds of men and women who have served during times of war, Turning Point is the second in a three-part series dedicated to the Vietnam Era. Previously, KUED produced the landmark Utah World War Two Stories series creating almost ten hours of original programming chronicling Utah's role in every corner of the global conflict.
While Turning Point offers compelling stories from the battle lines of Vietnam, it also offers unforgettable portraits of moments away from the conflict. Few stories are more penetrating and touching than the recollections of the men and women who worked tirelessly to save lives in the middle of war. From battlefield medics to "evac" pilots to MASH surgeons to nurses serving in country and stateside, Turning Point offers tender moments of compassion in the most unlikely of settings.
"Never in my life have I taken care of patients who would say to me 'Ma'am my buddy is three beds down, he needs you more than I do. Go to him first'," remembers retired Rear Admiral Maxine Conder of the Navy Nurse Corps, pausing for a long moment to compose herself in the memory. "They were very special young men."
"While the programs themselves are powerful, the enduring contribution of our interviews with veterans is the creation of a long-overdue oral history collection," states KUED Director of Production Ken Verdoia. "Our efforts will preserve the contributions of more than two hundred 'average Americans' who served and sacrificed for their country. Their individual stories may be repeated in other settings, but these unique stories from Utah are far from commonplace."
The transcripts of all of the KUED veteran interviews are available on-line, either through the Utah Vietnam War Stories or the Utah World War Two Stories web pages.
Turning Point is the sights and sounds of a nation at war. The teeming streets of Saigon, where "every night was Friday night" in the memory of a retired Marine who was once a nineteen-year-old away from his Utah home for the first time. Temples dating back hundreds of years appearing in unlikely settings. Music they would never forget. And, always, the sudden certainty of war. A nation, a state and a generation remember a time when the world seemed to spin faster and life was held together by a slender thread. The music was loud. The helicopters louder.
In the Civil War there was an expression. Soldiers said they want to “see the elephant”—meaning they were eager to go into battle. Once they dealt with the horror, they never wanted to see the elephant again…
The memories of the helicopter scout pilot whose life changed the minute he “saw the elephant” firsthand in Southeast Asia. The 17-year-old USO singer who thought the soldiers in her audience looked better suited to take her to the prom. The first tears of relief as a POW returned to his Utah home after five years of captivity and finally recognized, “I made it.”
These and dozens of other personal stories of the men and women of Utah who served in the conflict form the heart of Drawdown, the final chapter in KUED’s critically acclaimed, award-winning documentary series Utah Vietnam War Stories.
Focusing on the final, convulsive years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, producers Elizabeth Searles and Sally Shaum fashion a powerful portrait of the last Utah residents to serve in the conflict. From the confusion of “Vietnamization”—an awkward transfer of power to the South Vietnamese so they would carry a larger share of the war effort—to the air war aimed at moving along the Paris peace talks, men and women from Utah’s big cities and small towns served in every corner during the final years of the war. As anti-war sentiment built at home, each soldier, sailor and pilot focused on doing their job and supporting their buddies. Many had a special vow, in the words of Air Force veteran David Chung of Cedar City, “not to be the last to die in Vietnam.”
“The memories and stories of the veterans are noticeably different in this conclusion of Utah Vietnam War Stories ,” says Producer Sally Shaum. Along with Elizabeth Searles and contributors Rick Randle and Geoff Panos, Shaum interviewed nearly 100 Utah veterans for the three-part series. “After the 1970s the men and women who serve are well aware of the absence of support at home,” Shaum continues. “They are at the end of a difficult war that will end in withdrawal. While proud of accepting the challenge to serve their country, the veterans featured in Drawdown are thinking of the cost.”
Among the most poignant moments in Drawdown are the memories of veterans returning from the battle zone. Vietnam represented a new era of returning from war, and soldiers could find themselves in jungle combat one day, and returning to their family two days later. Surviving the war brought a sense of relief to all. “The moment when the plane lifts off,” says veteran Lynn Higgins, “you are ‘wheels up’ and a cheer fills the air. A moment you never forget.”
But touching down in the homeland they dreamed of seeing could offer harsh lessons on the political conflict over the Vietnam War. Unlike World War II there were few—if any—welcome home celebrations. Soldiers were sometimes advised to change out of their uniforms before leaving the airport to avoid confrontations. While some veterans say their return to civilian life was seamless, others acknowledge they struggled for years to find a sense of home, connection and calm.
For veteran Tom Davis a return from war would begin a lifelong reflection on what he had seen and the price of service. “I am not bitter,” he says. “But there are times when I wonder what my life would have been like if I did not serve.” Davis would battle bouts of depression until connecting with support groups for veterans to share the lingering impacts of combat. “Even now there is an opportunity to get your life back,” offers Army veteran James Holbrook, “to gain control of your own story again.”
For Air Force Lt. Col. Jay Hess the return to his family and home in Kaysville was the realization of a dream that had kept him battling for survival over five grueling, tortured years as a POW. His Utah return was one of the few that produced a parade and cheers. But it meant little to the pilot until he crossed the doorway of his family home and tears filled his eyes. For the first time he was willing to admit it to himself. He was home. He had survived.
Drawdown, the conclusion of KUED’s Utah Vietnam War Stories , is made possible through the support of the Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke, Jr. Foundation, and the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation.