Documentary brings Vietnam War back into living rooms
At 8:35 a.m. on April 30, 1975, the last 10 Marines remaining in South Vietnam were airlifted out of Saigon from the top of the U.S. Embassy.
By 11 a.m. on that day, North Vietnamese troops began pouring into the city. The Viet Cong flag was raised from the presidential palace, and South Vietnamese president Du’o’ng Văn Minh announced an unconditional surrender.
Thus ended the long national nightmare that had gripped the nation, destroyed Vietnam and wreaked havoc on American politicians who attempted to tread the murky water that was the Vietnam War.
The first birthday to be drawn from the blue plastic capsules that day, assigned the lowest number “001,” was Sept. 14. The higher the number, the lower the chance of taking the first boat to Southeast Asia.
Our neighbors, with a son of draftable age, were terrified as they watched each birthday appear before the screen. Joey’s November birthday appeared early – meaning a low number and bringing to life his parents’ worst nightmare.
Fortunately, Joey never went to Vietnam – thanks to a combination of medical issues and a reduction in troops being sent into combat zones.
Joey was one of the fortunate ones. Not so fortunate were the 9,087,000 military personnel on all sides who served in active duty during the Vietnam War era – between Aug 5, 1964 and May 7, 1975.
Americans serving in Vietnam totaled 2,709,918, including 1st Lt. Timothy Lane Worth, of Tullahoma, the son of Mary Worth, my grandmother’s dear friend.
Worth, his mother’s only child, was killed on Jan. 31, 1968, in the province of Gia Dinh, just days before he was due to return home.
My grandmother had told me that Worth, a recent college graduate, was in a hurry to complete his military service and get on with his life. He was 23 years old.
Others from Tullahoma killed in the Vietnam War were Army Pfc. Gerald Douglas Anthony, 20, who died on May 2, 1969; Army Pfc. Homer
B. Bell Jr., 21, who died on May 15, 1968; Army Spec. 5 Terrill Edward Bradford, 21, who died on April 29, 1971; · Navy HM2 Freddie Ray Kelley, 22, who died on Sept. 16, 1968; Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Kenneth Lee Kirkes, 23, who died on Feb. 9, 1968; Army Spc. 5 Walter Daniel Smith, 26, who died on March 30, 1969; and Army Spec. 4 Randy Neal Ward, 20, who died on Jan. 27, 1968.
According to the National Archives, these young men who died were among the 58,220 U.S. military fatal casualties in the war. The earliest casualty record contains a date of death of June 8, 1956, and the most recent casualty record contains a date of death of May 28, 2006.
Now, documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have brought the Vietnam War back to our television screens in painful and vivid detail in a documentary which recently aired on PBS.
The 10-part documentary takes its audience back to the days of French colonization of the country, the conflict between northern and southern leaders as to its political direction, and to the U.S.’s first interference in Vietnam in 1954.
Taped conversations of several U.S. presidents, including John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, detail the angst they suffered when realizing interference in the country’s civil war was ill-advised, but sent troops to the war’s front nonetheless, oftentimes escalating the bombing and troop presence.
Burns and Novick describe America’s final hours in the country – offering the viewer a glimpse into the harrowing attempts to rescue every remaining American, including the ambassador to South Vietnam Graham Anderson Martin, who steadfastly refused to believe the country’s government was collapsing. Martin had lost his son in the war.
The documentary is set against the backdrop of the 1960s and a country in crisis, with political assassinations, the burgeoning women’s and civil rights movements, and anti-war demonstrations and riots.
“The Vietnam War” is a sensational documentary. It is at its best, however, when the war is relived through the eyes of those who served, both American and Vietnamese. One such story is that of Hal Kushner, a physician who was a medic before being captured and serving as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five years.
In describing his 1973 release from the prison camp, Kushner, tears in his eyes, said, “There was an Air Force brigadier general in Class A uniform. He looked magnificent. I looked at him, and he had breadth, he had thickness that we didn’t have. He had on a garrison cap and his hair was plump and moist, and our hair was like straw. It was dry, and we were skinny. And I went out and I saluted him, which was a courtesy that had been denied us for so many years. And he saluted me, and I shook hands with him, and he hugged me. He actually hugged me. And he said, ‘Welcome home, major. We’re glad to see you, doctor.’ The tears were streaming down his cheeks.”
In an interview on PBS’s “Fresh Air,” Burns said, “The Vietnam War” is really a series of intertwined stories that present “a fundamental fact of not just war, but life, which is: More than one truth can [exist] at the same time.”
Novick said, “The soldiers know the lessons. The people who were there, they know what it’s like, they know what happened, they know the cost — it’s the leaders [who don’t]. It’s hard to hold on to these lessons.”
Those who missed this extraordinary and heartbreaking documentary may still view it on pbs.org by using the PBS app on a streaming device, or on YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Video or Google Play Movies and TV.
Susan Campbell may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.