Series: Utah Vietnam War Stories
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.