Reflections of Vietnam: Florida Guardsmen share stories of life during war
Story and photos by Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa
Florida National Guard Public Affairs
With time, memories and photos fade.
The photos are black and white – images of young men in military fatigues and muddy combat boots staring knowingly into a camera. The edges of the glossy prints are starting to curl and yellow.
They were taken somewhere on a bunker in central Vietnam in the late 1960s; maybe on a spring morning. In one, the Soldier on the left with the mop of uncombed hair is smiling. Whatever he was thinking about – home, a girlfriend, a private joke – is long forgotten.
Looking through these photos, Lt. Col. David Butler says he remembers the faces, but can’t remember the names of those Soldiers he served with nearly half a century ago. And while the memories of that particular bunker may start to fade with each passing day, for Butler and a few members of the Florida National Guard the Vietnam War is indelibly stamped upon their souls.
The next thirteen years have been designated as the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. Through 2025 the Department of Defense joins other groups in thanking and honoring all Vietnam veterans, and paying tribute to the more than three million U.S. service members who served in Southeast Asia from 1962-1975.
Recently the numbers of active Florida Guardsmen who served in Vietnam have dwindled. In early 2012 there were five; now only two Vietnam vets still serve in the Florida Army National Guard. The last Florida Air National Guard Vietnam veteran retired in January. At least one Airman personally lived through the evacuation of Saigon as a teenager.
Their stories are still poignant memories of a long and controversial chapter in U.S. history.
Lt. Col. David Butler refers to the injuries he received in Vietnam as “just part of the game.”
As one of the last Vietnam veterans in the Florida National Guard, Butler, 63, could rightfully brag about his two Purple Hearts. But as a Special Forces Soldier who also served in Afghanistan as a medical officer, Butler is “matter-of-fact” about his Vietnam experiences and the wounds he received from a booby trap and small arms fire.
Butler grew up in a small town in West Tennessee and joined the Army in 1969. As a 19-year-old enlisted Soldier he deployed with the 101st Radio Research Company and was stationed at Phu Bai in central Vietnam. His job of monitoring enemy Morse code transmissions took him into harm’s way and into the countryside on short missions with the 101st Airborne Division.
“It was pretty new for me,” he said of the experience in rural Vietnam. “The people were interesting. When you talked to them most could care less about the war. They just wanted to be left alone, grow their rice and survive. They were caught in the middle for the most part.”
Although Butler said he was too young to form any political opinions about the war, his mother sent him copies of U.S. papers and he would compare their accounts of the war to those in Stars and Stripes.
“It was like you were reading about two different exercises but you knew they were talking about the same one,” he said. “They were complete opposites sometimes.”
At the time Butler was more interested in surviving than engaging in political discourse.
“We saw quite a bit of action,” Butler said of his routine patrols with infantry Soldiers. “I think everybody in the unit did.”
After his Vietnam tour and active duty commitment ended, Butler served in various National Guard units and eventually earned his commission with the Florida National Guard in 1992. He deployed to Afghanistan with 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group, and now serves with Special Operations Detachment –Central in Tampa.
Turning the pages of his photo album, Butler pointed to photos taken at a Vietnam firebase where Soldiers slept under bunkers fabricated from 55-gallon drums and culvert halves in order to protect themselves from frequent rocket and mortar attacks.
The threats then may have been somewhat similar to what he experienced in Afghanistan, but it was really the “homecomings” from war that were different.
“I can remember getting in a fight at the airport in San Francisco between flights (on the way back from Vietnam),” he said. “It was pretty volatile.”
But public sentiment and treatment of returning Soldiers changed after more than 30 years. Today a Soldier in uniform at an airport is more likely to get a handshake and a “thank you” than be chastised.
“Back then you didn’t say much about it…you didn’t look for anything,” the combat veteran said. “I think the American public has definitely gotten better at welcoming people back and appreciating what they do.”
Joseph Do should have been a farmer.
If communists had not driven his family from North Vietnam to Saigon in the 1950s, he would probably be quietly tending a plot of land in Southeast Asia like his father and grandfather.
Do’s father, who at one time served with the French Army, fled North Vietnam in 1954 to escape political persecution. He settled with his family far to the south in Saigon where he worked in construction and later as a contractor for the U.S. Army.
“We were lucky because we lived in Saigon and the capital was safe,” Do remembered. “We didn’t have to experience the war until 1968 during the Tet Offensive.”
He awoke one morning to the infamous Tet attacks by Viet Cong forces on Jan. 30, 1968, hearing small arms fire and explosions in his city. Do said he can still remember the shock he felt at knowing Saigon was under attack.
“A full-blown battle just broke out; it was unbelievable!” Do said, describing the smoke and noise of that day. “It was just like watching a movie in real-time…You’re just numb, (asking) ‘Is this real?’”
For the next seven years Do was afraid every time a guerilla attack or a rocket barrage occurred near his neighborhood. He described one attack on the next block that killed some of his classmates, and emotionally traumatized him.
“We didn’t see the damage until the next morning when I got up to go to school,” he said. “From that time on I was terrorized, wondering if the next night ‘would be my night.’”
Luckily, Do’s “night” never came. When the People’s Army of Vietnam captured Saigon in April 1975, his family knew that it was time to leave their home and find a way out of the fallen capital.
On April 30, 1975, Do and his family were on their way to a Saigon Navy base, but were stopped at a roadblock and told to go home. His grandfather, who had been a political prisoner in North Vietnam, was terrified of being captured again. He confronted the civil defense force manning the roadblock.
“My grandfather said ‘You’re just going to have to shoot me because I’m not going to stay here with the communists coming,’” Do said. “He went up and pushed them apart and pushed the barricade away. If it hadn’t been for our grandfather we would have all been stuck.”
As they neared the naval base, shelling and rocket attacks into the city increased; the wide boulevards were littered with bodies. Then everything went dark, and Do felt a sensation like hitting a wall and drowning at the same time. He thought he was dead.
“A round fell out of the sky and impacted point blank in front of me,” Do explained. “God left his signature on me by protecting me from even one least bit of scratch from the gravel and shrapnel, even though the man next to me was missing his lower half.”
The family made it to the naval base about noon as fighting continued around Saigon, but found the gates closed and under guard.
“About two hours later the guards stripped out of their uniforms and threw down their weapons,” Do said. “Then we heard that the president of South Vietnam had surrendered to the communists…I thought ‘If we don’t have any way to escape I’m just going to jump in the river. I’d rather drown than be tortured.’ That was my plan.”
The family left Saigon via a small Vietnamese Navy boat, and rendezvoused with the U.S. fleet bound for the Philippines. With the help of a sister living in Jacksonville, Do and his family eventually made it to the U.S.
His rescue by ship perhaps left an impression on the 14-year-old refugee: in 1986 he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and later served in the Navy Reserves. In 1999 he joined the Florida Air National Guard.
“Because of events out of my control, here I am: way far from being a farmer,” Do said, a smile masking the horrors he witnessed as a child.
On a December night in 1972, a young “buck” sergeant named Charles Wisniewski was standing on the sidelines and watching as the U.S. attempted another shot at ending the Vietnam War.
Operation Linebacker II – a massive aerial bombing campaign on targets in North Vietnam – was in full swing, and Wisniewski was serving as an Air Force weapons technician at Utipoa Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. He was helping load B-52 bombers as they took off on intensive bombing missions, unaware that stalled peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese had initiated these strikes around Hanoi and Haiphong.
He said one of his most vivid memories of the operation was watching lines of B-52s take off in 15-second intervals and head north to bomb strategic positions.
“By the fifth or sixth day (the enemy) had apparently run out of surface-to-air missiles because they could fly in and bomb with no problem,” Wisniewski said. “They had so many fighter jets up there the MiGs were not a problem for them. After about five days I think we lost our last B-52.”
While antiwar activists at the time claimed this “Christmas bombing” was deliberately targeting civilians, Wisniewski and the men loading the bombs were only hoping it would bring the North Vietnamese back to the peace talks.
“From what we understood that was going to be the end of the war,” he said, remembering his feelings from 40 years ago.
Wisniewski, who joined the Air Force in 1971, said he felt slightly disconnected from the war in Vietnam during his year in Thailand; he was relatively safe on his base which served as a staging point for long-range bombers.
Although he had an older brother who saw heavy combat in Vietnam with the U.S. Marines, Wisniewski personally didn’t see direct combat.
“We weren’t in danger; not like the people who were actually in Vietnam,” he said. “We weren’t being shot at or anything…. By that time the war was winding down and we knew we were getting out of it.”
Four decades later Command Chief Master Sgt. Charles Wisniewski, 59, would be the last Vietnam veteran serving in the Florida Air National Guard. He retired in early 2012 as the highest enlisted Air Guardsman in the state.
Although there were more than 58,000 U.S. casualties from the Vietnam War, veterans like Wisniewski still feel that their service truly counted toward securing democracy.
“So many people lost their lives during that war,” he said. “You hope we did deter communists somehow (or) at least slowed down (their) progress and let them know we weren’t just going to stand by and let them walk across the countries in Asia.”
For more information on the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War visit http://www.vietnamwar50th.com or take time to talk to a Vietnam veteran. Each veteran who experienced that war has a story to tell or a memory to share. They may not carry the images in a photo album, but they carry those “reflections of Vietnam” somewhere within their hearts.