The Vietnam conflict is often referred to as America's longest and most controversial war.
Civil war within Indochina had raged on since the 1940s, when the Indochinese resisted the colonial rule of the French, who had maintained their control of Vietnam since the late nineteenth century. Conflicts between the French and Indochinese continued through 1954, when Ho Chi Minh's nationalist group, the Viet Minh, successfully overthrew French colonial rule. Vietnam was then divided into two regions along the 17th Parallel (a dividing line constructed by the Geneva Accords along latitude 17 degrees north). North Vietnam became the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, controlled by the anti-French Vietnamese Communist Party. Its capital was in Hanoi. South Vietnam, known as the State of Vietnam, was first ruled by emperor Bao Dai, and then by US-supported premier Ngo Dinh Diem. The capital was located in Saigon.
The conflict that would become known as the "Vietnam War" stemmed from North Vietnam's goal to establish an independent Vietnam and unify the regions under a single communist regime. The National Liberation Front (NLF) and its military, the Viet Cong, which both had originated in South Vietnam, launched a war against Diem and South Vietnam, which was more closely aligned to Western governments. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared his commitment to assist South Vietnam in the fight against communism in Asia. Diem received support from the US, who provided funding, weapons, and military training, then eventually troops. North Vietnam was backed by the Soviet Union and China, which both provided the region with economic and military aid. In November 1963, after the violent suppression of Buddhists and the declaration of martial law, Diem was killed by South Vietnamese generals in a controversial US-approved coup under President John F. Kennedy. Critics, including later President Richard Nixon, indicated this act as the point at which the war "became American."2
The US military was in Vietnam in small numbers as early as 1951. On February 9, 1965, the US deployed a Marine air defense missile battalion to Da Nang, making its first commitment of combat troops to Vietnam. By 1969, this number had increased to more than 500,000.3 In total, approximately 2.7 million American soldiers served in Vietnam.4 Yet US-supported South Vietnam was no match for communist-supported North Vietnam and the fierce nationalism of the NLF. In 1973, the US withdrew its combat forces from the region. In 1975, South Vietnam surrendered to the North and the NLF. Vietnam became a unified nation under communist rule.
All told, American forces fought in Vietnam for about 15 years. It was US military might against a nationalistic Vietnamese resistance, and this nationalism eventually drove the NLF and North Vietnam to victory. This 15-year period was characterized by bitter combat involving napalm bombs, chemical defoliants, and guerrilla-style warfare.
The war is often represented as consistently unpopular war among Americans, garnering more criticism than support. In actuality, at its start, only a relatively small group of Americans protested the war. This opposition group included young Asian Americans, particularly Sansei, or third-generation Japanese Americans, who saw the Vietnam conflict as a racial war.5 But as the war dragged on, and as casualties mounted and the economic costs escalated, it became increasingly unpopular.6 Americans also began to question the judgment of their government officials.
The US estimates that between 200,000-250,000 South Vietnamese died in the war. Vietnam estimates that more than 2 million civilians on both sides of the war also perished as well as some 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters.7 Some 58,000 American soldiers died as a result of the war.8 More than 75,000 soldiers were severely disabled, with more than 23,000 completely disabled.9 These casualties do not include those suffered by Allied countries, including soldiers from South Korea, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand.
Many of the Japanese Americans serving in the Vietnam War were Sansei. Some were sons whose fathers, uncles, or other male relatives had served in World War II. World War II veterans from the 100th/442nd RCT also voluntarily chose to continue their service to their country.
One such remarkable veteran is Colonel (Retired) Jimmie Kanaya, who served as a medic for the 442nd RCT while his family was incarcerated at Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. The Oregon-born native was a POW during the war, captured by the Germans in France. After World War II, he continued to serve the US in both the Korean War as an interrogator and the Vietnam War as an advisor to the South Vietnamese government, from 1961 to 1975.10
Many of the Sansei either voluntarily enlisted or were drafted to serve in Vietnam. Like Kanaya, some came from families who had been incarcerated during World War II. Some young men were inspired by Nisei veterans of World War II or the Korean War. Regardless of how they came to the conflict, like many other soldiers fighting for the US, they demonstrated time and again their bravery on the battlefield.
One such Sansei who demonstrated uncommon valor was Hawaii-born Sergeant First Class Rodney James Tadashi Yano. On January 1, 1969, Yano, a helicopter crewmember, was engaged in combat with enemy forces in Bien Hoa when a grenade prematurely exploded into his aircraft, setting off supplies and other ammunition. Despite being blinded in one eye and suffering mortal injuries from the burning phosphorus, he managed to hurl the remaining ammunition off the aircraft to save the lives of his fellow crewmembers.11 He himself died later that day from his wounds. He was 25 years old.12
On March 20 of that same year, at Camp Radcliff in South Vietnam, an enemy demolition team infiltrated a unit's quarters with explosives and started firing upon the soldiers there. The enemy then lobbed another charge into the room. Despite the shock from the explosion and the enemy gunfire, Corporal Terry Kawamura went for his own gun to return fire. But seeing the unexploded charge and two of his fellow soldiers who were too stunned to move, he immediately threw himself upon the charge, sacrificing his own life to save several members of his unit.13 He was 19 years old. Both Kawamura and Yano each received a Medal of Honor posthumously.
The Vietnam War was a very different conflict from World War II and the Korean War. While World War II was "won" by the Allies, the US suffered a substantial loss in the Vietnam conflict. Yet the soldiers themselves faced some of the same challenges as their Nisei predecessors did. The integration of the races in the armed forces had already occurred by the time of the Korean War, but racism was still a considerable problem confronted by Japanese Americans serving in Vietnam. Still, experiences varied from individual to individual and across the armed forces. While blatant racism was reportedly common for many in the Marine Corps, for example, soldiers with the Army experienced few to no incidents of racism.14
For example, Scott Takahashi, who served in Vietnam from 1969-1970 with A Battery, 2nd Battalion, 35th Artillery Group, 2nd Field Force,15 said that in combat, "[o]nce the shooting starts, you're all green. Everyone is the same color."16 Takahashi, whose father, Masao "Mas" Takahashi, served as a rifleman with the 100th/442nd RCT,17 stated that he "had [experienced] more... prejudice at home than in the service."18 For some, however, it was simply their Asian appearance that made them a "gook" - a derogatory term used to refer to the enemy in Vietnam - in the eyes of some of their fellow soldiers.19
When the soldiers returned home, they also faced the same ambivalence that returning World War II Nisei soldiers experienced about retelling their war experiences to others. But for the Vietnam veterans, this ambivalence stemmed not only from the trauma of combat experience but also from the anti-war sentiment shared among many Americans. By the time the war ended, the American public had grown largely disillusioned with the US government. Returning soldiers were not met with the celebrations and fanfare that greeted the 100th/442nd at the end of World War II. Many returning soldiers came home in the midst of the anti-war movement. Some joined other Asian anti-war activists as they protested the US' involvement.20 Others read the anti-war movement as an attack on their own participation in the war, or as an insult to friends who had been killed or wounded in Vietnam. Some soldiers felt anger and bitterness at the US government's failure, on several fronts, in the war. Many felt a keen sense of alienation from the rest of American society.
Like many of their Nisei predecessors, Japanese American Vietnam veterans are often reluctant to share their stories about the war, even with their own families and friends. What is shared thus becomes of utmost importance to recognizing their achievements and understanding their role in the history of America.
1The controversial nature of this conflict, often referred to as the "Vietnam War" although Congress did not make the official declaration, becomes readily apparent when considering the start date, which is often disputed. Some historians and political analysts argue that the US entered into the conflict as early as May 1950, when the Truman administration determined that the Indochina colonial war was actually part of the larger Cold War against communism. Others contend that the start for America occurred in July 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson made the official statement that the US was in Vietnam to "help defend this small and valiant nation." Still others locate the beginning of the US engagement in the Vietnam conflict somewhere in between those dates, over a span of 15 years, as the US had been assisting Indochina with economic and military aid against the Viet Minh, or the Vietnamese communists. For a helpful discussion on this issue, see John Carland, "Information Paper: When did the Vietnam War start for the United States?", Office of the Secretary of Defense, Department of Defense, June 17, 2012, accessed on January 22, 2015, http://www.vietnamwar50th.com/assets/1/7/Info_paper_Vietnam_War_and_US_Start_Date.pdf.
2See, for example, The Pentagon Papers, vol. 2, chapter 4 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), pp. 201-232, accessed on January 26, 2015, http://www.archives.gov/research/pentagon-papers/; "Vietnam, Diem, The Buddhist Crisis," John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum," accessed on January 26, 2015, http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/Vietnam-Diem-and-the-Buddhist-Crisis.aspx; Katie McLaughlin, "The Vietnam War," CNN.com, August 25, 2014, accessed January 26, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/20/us/vietnam-war-five-things/; Christopher Matthews, "Kennedy's guilt over Diem coup," SFGate, November 29, 1998, accessed January 26, 2015, http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Kennedy-s-guilt-over-Diem-coup-3057067.php.
3Ronald H. Spector, "Vietnam War," Encyclopedia Brittanica, last updated October 28, 2014, accessed on January 22, 2015, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/628478/Vietnam-War.
4"Vietnam War Myths and Facts," LZ Center, 3rd Battalion 82nd Artillery B Battery 196th Light Infantry Brigade Americal Division, accessed on January 22, 2015, http://www.lzcenter.com/Myths%20and%20Facts.html.
5Jere Takahashi, Nisei Sansei (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), pp. 163-164.
6Mark Lorell and Charles Kelley, Jr., "Casualties, Public Opinion, and Presidential Policies during the Vietnam War," Rand.org, March 1985, pp. 61-84, accessed on January 22, 2015, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/reports/2007/R3060.pdf. Also see "The Vietnam War," US History, accessed on January 22, 2015, http://www.ushistory.org/us/55.asp. Also see "Vietnam War Protests," history.com accessed on January 22, 2015, http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-protests.
8"US Military Casualties in Southeast Asia," The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, accessed on January 22, 2015, http://thewall-usa.com/summary.asp.
9"Vietnam War Myths and Facts."
10"Jimmie Kanaya," Experiencing War: Stories from the Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, October 26, 2011, accessed on January 22, 2015, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/vhp-stories/loc.natlib.afc2001001.21666/#vhp:clip.
11"Yano, Rodney J.T.," Homeofheroes.com, accessed January 22, 2015, http://homeofheroes.com/moh/citations_1960_vn/yano_rodney.html.
12Duane A. Vachon, "INTO THE BREACH - Sergeant First Class Rodney James Tadashi Yano, U.S. Army, Vietnam War, Medal of Honor (1943-1969)," Hawaii Reporter, August 4, 2012, accessed on January 22, 2015, http://www.hawaiireporter.com/into-the-breach-sergeant-first-class-rodney-james-tadashi-yano-u-s-army-vietnam-war-medal-of-honor-1943-1969/123.
13"Terry Teruo Kawamura," Military Times Hall of Valor, accessed on January 22, 2015, http://projects.militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=2915.
14Toshio Whelchel, From Pearl Harbor to Saigon: Japanese American Soldiers and the Vietnam War (London: Verso, 1999), p. 15.
15Gustavo Bahena, "'Go For Broke' Veteran embodies spirit of Asian Pacific American Heritage Celebration," High Desert Warrior, June 7, 2013, accessed on January 22, 2015, http://www.aerotechnews.com/ntcfortirwin/2013/06/07/go-for-broke-veteran-embodies-spirit-of-asian-pacific-american-heritage-celebration/.
16"Japanese American Vietnam Veterans," panel discussion at Japanese American National Museum, C-SPAN, May 23, 2009, [video], accessed on January 23, 2015, http://www.c-span.org/video/?286768-1/japaneseamerican-vietnam-veterans.
18"Japanese American Vietnam Veterans," panel discussion at Japanese American National Museum, C-SPAN, May 23, 2009, [video], accessed on January 23, 2015, http://www.c-span.org/video/?286768-1/japaneseamerican-vietnam-veterans.
19Whelchel, p. 18. Note also that the term was used by many soldiers, including Japanese Americans, to refer to the Vietnamese enemy as well. See "Japanese American Vietnam Veterans" panel discussion.
20Whelchel, pp. 28-29.
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