On April 30, 1975, the Vietnam War ended, but will it ever end as long as those men and women we know who served move among us and occasionally share their experiences?
On this day, Troy resident Marine Mike Swigart, a “cold warrior,” was at Guantanamo Bay in the Communications Center as part of the Naval Security Group monitoring the incoming teletypes. He was identifying which high-level South Vietnamese and American military had been successfully evacuated by helicopter from Saigon and were now aboard the transport ships.
Miami County Sheriff’s Department Captain and Marine David E. Norman, a member of the Marine Security Guard at the American Embassy in Saigon, was getting the last remaining occupants aboard helicopters on April 30 – even as the Viet Cong were battering doors of the embassy. They were scooping up the remains of secret documents that had been shredded but not completely burned so that they could identify who had colluded with the Americans and mete out appropriate punishment.
The command to Norman and others still remaining on that April 30 day had been, “There’s nobody coming for you. Don’t surrender. Get in your fighting position and fight to the last man.”
Sports writer John Andreoni of St. Marys was safe in the U.S. on April 30, 1975, as he had already put in his time in Vietnam as a member of one of the first battalions to be on the ground there in 1965.
Andreoni, an ROTC graduate/English major from Bowling Green State University, says, “Eight out of nine military folks have a lackluster career. We’re support troops, and I was one of them.” Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Andreoni was with the U.S. Army First Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, a division famous for exploits in the trenches in World War I, landing at Normandy in World War II and fighting in the hedgerows (dense brush where the enemy could hide and ambush), a highly-decorated infantry unit.
In March of 1965 the days of advisory status were over, and units were being sent to Vietnam. Andreoni says, “We had no idea what was going on, but we had a team with NCOs that had been in combat in World War II and Korea.” In the a 17-day trip aboard the USMS Gordon with 4,000 aboard, Andreoni’s battalion did PT, studied about the country and were indoctrinated with a pocket-sized Nine Rules Card that taught them how to respect the people, that the U.S. had been invited as guests. His group landed at Vung Tau. When they hit the beach at Vung Tau, they were greeted by school girls in white dresses, Boy Scouts and town officials.
That changed, however, when they headed north to Bien Hoa, 19 miles northeast of Saigon, where when they exited the cargo plane, they were mortared and the first order of business was to set up a perimeter and dig two-man foxholes. At this old rifle range in the jungle the weather was humid and scorpions, snakes, and bugs were there in abundance. The welcome committee of Viet Cong showed them that hospitality was not a part of their language. The goal was “to test us, to scare us, to keep us from sleeping with mortar fires, setting off our trip wires and exploding our claymore mines. There were self-inflicted casualties due to inexperience and fatigue: one of the sergeants in another battalion pulled the pin on a grenade and fell asleep.”
The men used whatever was available, shipping containers, to build bunkers underground. “Officers and enlisted men alike did whatever was necessary. Close knit, we never asked an enlisted man to do something we weren’t doing. I never worried about fragging: I knew they had my back.”
Andreoni had married his wife, Sally, in September of 1964, and she was crying as the deployment grew near. A platoon sergeant with seven Purple Hearts told her, “I promise you he will come back in one piece, alive.”
According to Andreoni, at Bien Hoa it was “Welcome to the War.” His job was the supervision of a battalion first-aid station, staffed by a medical doctor and medics responsible for on-site and in-the-field assistance as well as medical evacuations.
He experienced what many from the time period have reported. “Finding the enemy was difficult because of guerilla tactics. Their forces melded into the general populations, selling goods or working on base during the day and killing at night.”
“And everything was infected. I had malaria, dungue fever, paratyphoid fever, hospitalization with a fever of 105 and a lesion, a hole in my leg, from the bite of a sand flea. There was a 105% casualty rate: gunshots, mortars, mines, booby traps. I was never in the middle of a firefight, but I was under fire every day except when I was in town.”
When his tour of Vietnam was up, he was flown from Saigon to Hong Kong and dropped off at Oakland where he was responsible for getting back to Ohio. In a United flight from San Francisco to Kansas City, still dressed in his uniform, a flight attendant told him, “We don’t have a meal for you, but there’s a salad if you want it.” Androni’s seatmate “ripped her up for treating me that way.”
Andreoni says, “I did my duty. I served, grew, no regrets. It was the most meaningful time of my life. Now let me tell you about my daughter, Terri. She is what I wasn’t, a real hero: Lieutenant Colonel , Army, 82nd Airborne (40 jumps), one tour of Iraq, two of Afghanistan, recently named ‘Army’s Woman Athlete of the Year,’ so far 23 years of service.”
No, the Vietnam War is not over.