Vietnam Veterans Day – On March 29 each year, we honor those who faced hardships abroad — and at home
To paraphrase the late Winston Churchill, never did two simple words mean so much to so many.
It is 50 years to the day that the last of the American troops departed from Vietnam. The long war resulted in more than 50,000 killed, tens of thousands more wounded and missing, and hundreds of thousands more bringing awareness to a new disorder, PTSD.
And yet, the more than 3 million men — and women — who served came back to a divided homeland, with many of their countrymen treating them like lepers.
It took until 2012, when a proclamation was issued naming March 29 Vietnam Veterans Day, for there finally to be a day set aside to honor them.
Special events have sprung up in recent years, like concerts and family-fun days, many acting as fundraisers to help needy Veterans and their loved ones.
Quietly, though, behind the scenes, many unsung Americans have found ways of their own to thank our Vietnam Veterans for their service,
The honor these Veterans has been long overdue. It is gratifying that even now, when they’re in their golden years, they are finally shown our thanks.
The fight against communism
Vietnam Veterans were born during the World War II and Korean War years, for the most part. They were the children of the Greatest Generation, and they were brought up to believe in the defense of our nation above all else.
Post-modernist writers, academics and pundits like to paint this belief as some kind of twisted jingoism, and that communism represented a viable, and “better,” way to self-govern.
The truth is that communism posed a very real threat around the world after the Korean War — itself fought to prevent a communist takeover.
Leaders of big and influential countries like the USSR and East Germany made no secret of their intention to turn the entire world into one vast “paradise” of total control. They began taking over nation after nation, installing puppet governments, to achieve this aim. Vulnerable countries fell with frightening frequency, threatening the freedom — once again — of the entire world.
Only the United States still had the resources and manpower to organize opposition to this threat, whether we liked it or not. Most of us saw the threat, and though we were not happy about being the “world’s policeman,” we felt it was our duty to stand up against it.
Hindsight has taught us that the task in Southeast Asia was more complex than we had anticipated, but we believed in “give me liberty or give me death.”
Battlefields and guerrillas
Americans had been embedded in Indochina from the time the French withdrew in 1954. The Viet Minh revolutionaries took over northern Vietnam, and the U.S. send advisors and military aid to the opposition in the South.
By the end of the 1950s, North Vietnam was fielding 40,000 troops against the South, and President Kennedy amped up the American advisory presence.
One of these soldier-advisers was retired Army Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Morris, of Cocoa, who is a Medal of Honor recipient from the War (as related in past Veteran Voice articles). The highly decorated soldier continues to appear at occasional speaking engagements to share his experiences and his patriotism. For him, being an “adviser” meant being a combatant.
There were a number of significant major battles, beginning in 1965 with the Battle of La Drang, and included the Battles of Khe Sanh and Hue, which was part of the larger Tet Offensive.
For the first time, American forces had to contend not only with conventional troops, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), but also an equally sizeable guerrilla force, the Viet Cong.
Our troops had to contend with motivated enemies well entrenched in their home turf, in countryside that was alien to Americans.
Historians have argued, and will continue to argue, why American troops were finally withdrawn, and why we “lost” the War. The truth is, the Vietnam War represented a sea change between the set-piece big battles of World War II and Korea to the mixture of conventional versus unconventional warfare that has changed the face of warfare itself, and our troops were at the sharp end.
The times they were a-changin’
At home, an equally seismic shift was taking place.
After World War II, the G.I. Bill meant that more Americans than ever in history began attending colleges and universities. It was a point of pride for the Greatest Generation to give their children access to the best education possible.
College campuses became hotbeds of post-modernist ideologies, which rebelled against the conformism of the 1950s and sowed the seeds of rebellion in an already rebellion-prone cohort of young adults.
The national draft became the epicenter of resentment and, along with women’s liberation and the Civil Rights movement, made a perfect storm of social upheaval. Rank-and-file troops became the target of national anger. By now, we are all aware of the treatment they received at the hands of their “brethren.”
Vietnam Veterans not only believed in defending our national interests, but believed that our national values, including the right to protest, should also be protected. They had fought bravely overseas, but were powerless to do anything against the onslaught of national fury. This, added to their wartime suffering, contributed to the emergence of PTSD as a terrible bond shared by so many of these Veterans.
Divided we (still) stand
Thankfully, though our nation is politically divided as never before, we are united in at least one thing — the belated recognition of the contributions of our Vietnam Veterans. Many are involved in this effort.
One such group, working tirelessly behind the scenes, includes the volunteers with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Together with scientists of all descriptions, hundreds of volunteers are dedicated to finding, and identifying, the remains of Vietnam (and Korean War) Veterans in Indochina.
Each year, expeditions must be carefully planned before teams go out in the field to search for remains. Today’s Vietnamese government has worked side by side with Americans in this task.
The work is hard, and the rewards few. In 2020, only 218 sets of remains were located, before being sent to labs in Hawaii for DNA analysis. Other finds proved helpful, though, such as aircraft parts, in filling in historical gaps. But the bottom line is the search will continue until the last Veteran is accounted for. For this reason, POW/MIA Day also continues to be a crucial element of honoring Vietnam and all Veterans. (For more information on the agency’s efforts, visit taskandpurpose.com/military-life/american-soldiers-missing-in-action/).
Another grassroots effort more widely known is Honor Flights. Originally begun in 2005 to ferry World War II Veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit memorial sites, the gradual decline in those Veterans’ numbers led to including Korean War Veterans, and now Vietnam Veterans are welcomed into the honored ranks.
In the Veteran Voice readership, both Southeast Florida Honor Flight and Space Coast Honor Flight conduct up to six flights per year, averaging 70 Veterans and an equal number of guardians on a “trip of a lifetime.” There they visit memorials to World War II, Korea and of course, The Wall and the Three Servicemen statue.
On their return to Florida, crowds of well-wishers overwhelm the Veterans with cheers, handshakes, hugs and flags, leaving many in tears. Everyone is welcome to participate, and all are changed by the experience.
This year, 50th Anniversary commemorations include several national events in Washington, D.C., and around the country, including Florida. Continuing through May, many “Welcome Home” events are slated to take place.
On this Vietnam Veterans Day, the thanks may be belated, but they are deep and heartfelt. These Veterans have earned their honored place in history.
PHOTO CREDIT: National Park Service/Wikimedia Commons – A National Park Service volunteer uses paper and a graphite stick to obtain a rubbing of a name from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., known as “the Wall,” on behalf of a family member unable to visit themselves.
By Patrick McCallister
For Veteran Voice
Images courtesy of Citizens 4 Responsible Development Daytona Beach
Citizens 4 Responsible Development Daytona Beach is leading efforts to save the City Island Recreation Center, a city-owned World War II-era building. The city got Works Projects Administration funding to build the recreation center for Sailors and aviators at the Naval Air Station Daytona Beach and Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps — later Women’s Army Corps — recruits training throughout the city. Residents increasingly complained about the WAACs. An Army investigation found that a lack of recreational facilities for the WAAC recruits caused frictions. But, the Army refused to build them recreational facilities.
Editor’s note: The writer, Patrick McCallister, submitted written comments urging preservation of the City Island Recreation Center to the Daytona Beach Historic Preservation Board for its March 15 regular meeting.
Citizens 4 Responsible Development Daytona Beach has taken the lead in efforts to keep a World War II building from the wrecking ball. On March 15 the group rallied 17 people to speak at a Daytona Beach Historic Preservation Board regular meeting in favor of saving the City Island Recreation Center at 104 E. Orange Ave. None spoke in favor.
“It was built in 1943 and it was used by the city as a recreation hall for many years,” said Anne Ruby, chairwoman of C4RD Daytona Beach, in a telephone interview after the meeting. “It was closed in 2012, because there was a rat infestation. At some point people at city hall forgot when it was built and why it was built.”
City staff have, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal,repeatedly asked the commission about demolishing the structure — which has fallen ever deeper into disrepair — over the last decade. The commission will again consider the proposal at its next regular meeting, Wednesday, April 6. The Historic Preservation Board voted 4-1 to recommend to the commission saving and restoring the building. C4RD Daytona Beach hopes to not only save the building from demolition, but to finally get its renaissance going.
“We’re hoping for really good public turnout for support on April 6,” said Ruby. “Email the commission. Better yet, show up for the meeting. We need people to show up and say this building is worth declaring historic.”
A city historic designation would allow for certain grants. The commission meeting will be at 6 p.m. at 301 S. Ridgewood Ave., Daytona Beach. Commissioners can be emailed simultaneously at email@example.com.
Florida in World War II
There was a time, now almost completely forgotten, when Florida was on the front lines of World War II.
In 1942 German U-boats prowled Florida’s shores largely unfettered and unafraid. They were part of Operation Drumbeat, which cost an unprepared America hundreds of ships and thousands of lives in a matter of months. The counts vary, because there was largely a news blackout about the daily attacks so’s not to scare the public. But, Operation Drumbeat was one of the few times in history Americans standing on American soil could witness a major foreign military attacking and killing Americans.
Florida was traumatized in April of ‘42 when U-123 attacked and destroyed the SS Gulfamerica on its maiden voyage. People in Jacksonville Beach enjoying our too short spring evenings watched in horror as 19 crewmembers died in a fiery German attack.
Weeks later four covert German agents tasked with recruiting what we’d now call homegrown terrorists and disrupting American manufacturing with well-aimed factory bombings came ashore at Ponte Vedra from U-584. They were quickly captured, tried and executed.
Folks walking on the Daytona Beach Boardwalk in 1942 were all too aware a German on a U-boat might be watching.
Daytona Beach in World War II
As America ramped up to fight World War II, Daytona Beach became a hub of military activity. The municipal airport became the Naval Air Station Daytona Beach to train pilots on a variety of planes including the storied Scout Bomber Douglas “SBD” Dauntless — the Slow But Deadly — that played a critical role in the victory at the Battle of Midway.
But, also and very importantly, Daytona Beach was the second Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps basic training facility. No, there wasn’t a WAAC training facility in Daytona Beach. Daytona Beach was the training facility. At first, the Army used buildings and spots around Daytona Beach to train the WAACs. This led to tensions as about 20,000 of America’s most patriotic women did their basic partly on the streets and beach. Yes, in public. The WAAC recruits, naturally, needed recreation during their weeks of training. The Army did nothing about that; it built them no recreational facilities.
Tensions in Daytona Beach
Author Mattie E. Treadwell wrote in the 1954 book “The Women’s Army Corps” how Daytona Beach became the site of the largest investigation in the WAC’s history. The “Auxiliary” was quickly dropped and the Soldiers counted as active duty. It didn’t help that even after agreeing to building a small training camp to get the recruits off city streets, the Army refused to add recreational facilities for the WAACs, later WACs.
“As a result, large numbers of recreation seeking Waacs descended on the city nightly, provoking much civilian resentment and some of the most serious allegations encountered by investigators,” Treadwell wrote.
At first complaints were generally about the women taking up space at restaurants. They grew from there.
“Rumors nevertheless grew more vicious. It was said that WAAC trainees drank too much; that they picked up men in streets and bars; that they were registered with men in every hotel and auto court, or had sexual relations under trees and bushes in public parks; that there was a nearby military hospital filled to overflowing with maternity and venereal disease cases,” Treadwell wrote. “Finally, it was seriously stated that Waacs were touring in groups seizing and raping sailors and Coast Guardsmen.”
The Army sent investigators to Daytona Beach. What they found was a lot of women Soldiers in extraordinary circumstances exercising military discipline almost inarguably better than their male counterparts at traditional bases.
“Although the center had almost 10,000 trainees, the military police report for a typical Saturday night revealed a total of only 11 delinquencies: 2 kissing and embracing in public; 1 no hat on; 2 injured in auto accident; 1 without identification card; 1 walking with officer on street; 2 found intoxicated; 1 AWOL returned; 1 ‘retrieved from Halifax River in an intoxicated condition,” wrote Treadwell.
The book adds, “The inspectors and the local authorities unanimously blamed the location and the lack of recreational facilities.”
Most of the WAACs, investigators concluded, had taken to staying in their rooms during off time, likely due to local resentment towards them, and there was a growing moral problem in the ranks because of it.
“The Fourth Service Command inspector general recommended more recreation facilities so that trainees would not need to roam the city at night,” Treadwell wrote. “The military intelligence operative agreed: ‘It is the opinion of this officer that recreational facilities are inadequate.’”
The Army declined to build recreational facilities for the recruits.
The book is among the U.S. Army Center of Military History’s online publications at www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/Wac.
Ruby said a lot of that history is long-forgotten, even in Daytona Beach. In her efforts to save the City Island Recreation Center she reviewed microfilms of local newspapers published during World War II. Ruby came across the fact the city got Federal Works Administration funding to build a recreational facility for the Navy and Army trainees in Daytona Beach. Among the things Ruby discovered is that Navy Capt. Willis Everett Cleaves spoke at the dedication in December of 1943.
“When you get close to the enemy, you don’t need recreation,” he reportedly said at the dedication. “It’s when you’re a long way from the battle front, where you would like to be, you need recreation to keep up your morale. As beautiful and charming though Daytona Beach is, men and women in uniform need someplace like this to which they can come when off duty.”
The WACs wouldn’t get to enjoy the city-supplied recreational facility for long. The Army moved the Daytona Beach WAC basic to the more isolated Fort Ogelthorpe, Ga. in ‘44.
About the only reminder of those days is the City Island Recreation Center.
“We had residents (at the Daytona Beach Historic Preservation Board meeting) who got up and said, ‘We never knew the WAACs were associated with this building,’” said Ruby.