The War Politicians Abandoned
In 1965, Marines were the first U.S. Armed Forces to deploy ground troops to South Vietnam. American command’s mission was to assist the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) in its war against the Communist insurgents (Viet Cong) who received leadership, reinforcements, and supplies from the north by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN).
However, as early as 1950, a U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) existed in Vietnam. In July 1954, the Geneva Accords ended the Communist Viet Minh war against the French in Indochina and Vietnam was divided along the 17th Parallel with a Communist government in the north and an anti-Communist regime in the south. Following the Geneva Accords, the United States agreed to support the South Vietnam Armed Forces in conjunction with the French, who later pulled out. In the years that followed, Communists waged a political war that became active guerrilla warfare attempting to overthrow the anti-Communist government in the south.
In the first year of his administration (1961), President John F. Kennedy directed military equipment and advisors be sent to strengthen and support the South Vietnam regime.
To that end, in 1962, a large Marine Task Unit (79.3.5) of helicopter squadrons were tasked with providing air support in Operation SHUFLY. Adaptations and innovations learned by these pilots (nicknamed Archie’s Angels, for their commander Col. Archie J. Clapp) flying UH-34D and HMM-362 helicopters in a jungle setting against elusive guerilla style fighters were critical to the success of later combat efforts and marked a new era in Marine Aviation.
In the summer of 1964, the most combat ready American troops in the Far East were Marine units tasked to support various contingency plans for Southeast Asia. Both air and ground components could quickly board Navy ships for deployment to South Vietnam or anywhere in the Pacific.
In August 1964, North Vietnam torpedo boats attacked two U.S. destroyers (the Turner Joy and Maddox). The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended and the President approved retaliatory air strikes against several North Vietnamese patrol boats and fuel storage areas and the U.S. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in which it approved and supported “the determination of the President, as Commander-in-Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”
As 1964 ended and 1965 began, the Viet Cong switched from guerilla tactics and began directly engaging the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam (RVNAF). This Binh Gia battle marked the start of the final Communist offensive. General Westmoreland said, “It meant the beginning of an intensive military challenge which the Vietnamese government could not meet with its own resources.” Greater American involvement was necessary if the Republic of Vietnam had a chance of surviving.
By 1966, nearly 70,000 Marines carried out large scale ground combat and air support operations from helicopter squadrons and fixed-wing aircraft striking targets in both South and North Vietnam. The following year Marines were fighting against both the North Vietnam Army along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in the north and running a counterinsurgency operation against the Viet Cong in the villages of the south.
The Tet Offensive is thought to be the turning point of the Vietnam War. While U.S. officials were claiming the war was nearly won, Ho Chi Minh and leaders in Hanoi planned the attack in hopes of surprising forces in the south and ending the conflict with a decisive victory. Their offensive began on January 31, 1968 during the Vietnamese celebration of the Tet Lunar Year.
On that day, North Vietnam forces attacked 105 South Vietnamese cities. The offensive ended in August, over six months later, and even though U.S. Marines and South Vietnam forces were largely successful militarily in fighting off this massive offensive by the North Vietnam forces, it proved to be a political defeat.
Photojournalists embedded with military units had captured video footage showing bloody battles in these South Vietnamese cities. While war waged half way around the world, their haunting yet compelling images, that included those of women and children, made their way onto television screens and magazine pages at home and changed the course of history and thus America lost the war at home.
When aired on television in the United States, the nation was shocked, public support for the war permanently eroded, and anti-Vietnam war sentiment led President Johnson to decide not to seek re-election. Toward the end of his term of office, President Johnson called for peace negotiations to end the war.
On June 8th, 1969, President Nixon met with South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu at Midway Island and informed him U.S. troop levels would be sharply reduced with the withdrawal of 25,000 men. Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization was intended to end U.S. involvement in the war through a program designed to expand, equip, and train South Vietnam forces, preparing them to take on an increasing combat role.
In January 1973, The United States and North Vietnam concluded a peace agreement, finally ending open hostilities between their nations and honorably allowing for the return of POWs (Prisoners of War) and U.S. forces to be pulled out of Vietnam. Sadly (as of July 12th, 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office), U.S. Military and Civilian personnel still unaccounted for number 1,588.
For the Vietnamese people, however, this peace deal quickly fell apart. The Communists violated the cease-fire even before all Americans departed and war between North and South Vietnam continued for two more years until, on April 30th, 1975, DRV forces captured Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam remains today a one-party Communist state.
The Marines were called upon again in 1975 in Operation Eagle Pull and Frequent Wind, evacuating American embassies in Phnom Penh and Saigon and then rescuing the crew of the USS Mayaguez which had been taken by the Khmer Rouge.
The Vietnam War was especially costly to the U.S. Marine Corps. Nearly 500,000 Marines served in Southeast Asia from 1965 to 1975. More than 13,000 Marines were killed and 88,000 wounded, accounting for nearly a third of all American causalities sustained during the war.
In the Vietnam War, America’s attempt to preserve freedom cost 58,220 American lives.
My Artist Statement
This quilt highlights the contributions of the U.S. Marines who were the first U.S. Armed Forces to deploy ground troops to South Vietnam, served throughout the conflict, and accounted for nearly a third of all American causalities sustained during the war.
It was the adaptations and innovations learned by the marine helicopter squadron tasked with providing air support against elusive guerilla style fighters in Operation SHUFLY that proved to be critical to the success of later combat efforts and marked a new era in Marine Aviation.
The yellow ribbon shows America’s support of our troops who fought so bravely, and also identifies the years America participated in the war and what this attempt to preserve freedom cost America.
Above the yellow ribbon are the colors of the stripes in our nation’s flag. White represents purity and innocence, perhaps that of the young men that willingly take up arms to defend her. Red signifies the hardiness and valor with which they fight.
Below the red and white stripes of the American flag, I’ve depicted a marine helicopter flying over the jungles of Vietnam where a Vietnamese woman wearing the traditional conical nón lá hat represents that elusive enemy. I also chose to depict 173rd Airborne Brigade Battalion member Larry Wayne Chaffin (died 12/3/1985) whose iconic image was famously captured by German photographer Horst Fass (died 5/10/2012). This singular image contrasts this young (age 19) soldier’s sweet smile and bright eyes with the words he chose to write on his helmet expressing his feelings about the war. War is hell! It always has been. However, when our government determines that American involvement in a war is needed for our good or the good of another nation or the world and American troops are deployed, it is our duty to be supportive and respectful of, and grateful for those who serve and make the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our nation.
Researched, designed, pieced, appliqued, embroidered, painted, and free motion quilted by Sue Hickman. Completed 11/11/2019.