Understanding how Vietnam became a battleground for millions of young Americans may be difficult, but Ken Burns answers this and other questions with his popular 2017 PBS documentary aptly titled “The Vietnam War.” The filmmaker begins with an episode titled “Déjà vu,” starting the timeline for exactly when the war began. Viewers watch and listen as the United States increases its involvement from an attache of military advisors to nearly its full military might as the series unfolds.
With such a large number of Americans involved, it is difficult to find someone who lived during that time who was not affected by the war in some measure. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the height of America’s involvement, but for millions of Vietnam veterans, it feels as though it happened yesterday.
Columbian Alan “Shoe” Shoemaker grew up in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and studied biology at Furman University. He knew he would likely be sent to Vietnam, so instead of waiting to be drafted, he volunteered, joining the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps with the expectation of becoming an officer upon graduation. He was then commissioned as a second lieutenant and reported to his first duty station at Fort Stewart near Savannah, Georgia. He spent eight months there before receiving orders for his obligatory tour of duty in Vietnam.
Alan was soon promoted to first lieutenant and sent into the theatre of operation near the small town of Ben Luc (pop. 600), an hour south of Saigon, where he served as a platoon leader for Delta Company 709th Maintenance Battalion 9th Infantry Division. They occupied a forward-operating base from which they supported infantry and armor units conducting patrols around the area. In past conflicts, a job in the Quartermaster Corps would guarantee some level of safety and security even while serving in a combat zone. But in Vietnam, distinguishable lines of battle were made irrelevant by Viet Cong, also known as the National Liberation Front, guerrillas who regularly launched attacks on military support elements.
Alan barely had time to get settled into his unit before his mettle was tested. During his second night at Ben Luc, a platoon-sized element of Viet Cong attempted to overrun their position three times, expecting this was a softer target than the armor and infantry units. The enemy assembled in a small village to the east under the cover of night, and when they were 200 yards or so from the small American outpost, they launched their assault. “I remember hearing a pistol fire into the air and these guys shooting at us and screaming as they charged,” Alan says.
After hearing the report of the pistol pierce the darkness, echoed by the furious cries of the Viet Cong rapidly closing in, the gangly and spectacled 24-year-old officer grabbed his rifle to join his men on the line. The moon’s luminescence offered Alan and his comrades a group of shadowy figures upon which to direct machine gun fire. Green beams of light from the Viet Cong’s machine gun tracer rounds streaked out into the darkness as enemy rounds buzzed and whirled overhead, snapping and popping when they struck the dirt.
When the fight was over, the smell of spent gunpowder and hot metal lingered in the air, and Alan and his company investigated the field from which the enemy had launched their assault. “I think about the assault frequently — how a platoon thought they could overrun a company with heavy armored equipment and armored personnel carriers when they had nothing but AKs and rifles. It was suicide,” Alan says.
Throughout his tour, he experienced several more engagements with the enemy; during one, he earned the Bronze Star for intercepting and destroying a Viet Cong supply boat full of enemy troops in the Mekong Delta. He and a Kiowa helicopter pilot happened upon it while in transit to another location.
After President Richard Nixon decided to draw down the number of ground forces in June of 1969, Alan served the final days of his tour at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, before redeploying to the mainland United States. He and other soldiers received a homecoming ceremony in Hawaii unlike many other Vietnam veterans. Alan says, “I had heard all the terrible stuff going on back home on the mainland, but I didn’t have to go through any of that. Hawaii is a military-friendly state, and they had bands playing and flags waving.”
He was guaranteed a duty station of his choice and chose Fort Jackson, South Carolina, to finish out his two-year obligation to the Army. He attended the University of South Carolina to seek a post-graduate degree in biology and was hired by the Riverbanks Zoo before he graduated. He then spent more than 30 years in their employ. “I defended my thesis on a Friday, started the job that Monday, and worked there my entire professional career. Since I’ve retired I’ve done a lot of consulting work, so I’m actually still working,” Alan says. He currently writes grants and proposals for zoos wishing to import or export regulated wildlife.
Patton Adams also served in Vietnam during the height of the conflict. Like Alan and so many other young men during that time, he decided to volunteer and serve as an officer instead of being drafted into service. Patton attended Washington and Lee University in Virginia, receiving his commission through the Army ROTC program in June of 1965. He received a deferment from service until he finished law school at the University of South Carolina in June of 1968, after which he reported for duty and was commissioned into the Ordinance Corps. He had already married Jackie, his wife, and together they reported to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, until he received his orders for Vietnam. “I knew I’d spend the second year of my commission in Vietnam — that was a given,” Patton says.
In the early months of 1970, he arrived in Long Binh for in-processing and was promoted to captain soon after his arrival. “After I was promoted to captain, it was now a question of ‘where do we need a captain?’ And it just so happened they needed a lawyer who was a captain at Cholon at the Army Procurement Headquarters, near the Tan Son Nhut Airbase. So that’s where I wound up,” Patton says. The installation required his skills to oversee several property contracts for the Army and Navy throughout Vietnam.
Patton traveled all over the country inspecting work projects and ensuring supply shipments arrived at their destinations. Unfortunately, since few definitive areas were under United States control during the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong guerrillas often destroyed these work projects intended to help pacify the civilian population, and the supply shipments were often ambushed and hijacked. Patton says, “There was a truckload of liquor being run by Peril Trucking Company that was to deliver its cargo to Post Exchanges and Commissaries all over the country. The truck made it only as far as Bien Hoa, less than 30 kilometers from its origin in Saigon, before it was destroyed with all of its cargo seized.”
As the American forces withdrew from Vietnam, waste and corruption grew increasingly rampant as the war dragged on and the South Vietnamese government assumed more responsibility for its legitimacy. “There was nothing in my power to do anything about it, and probably little our government could do about it by this time. Things were happening very fast,” Patton says. When it finally came time for Patton to leave Vietnam, the drawdown of United States military personnel rapidly accelerated to the point of needing chartered flights of Boeing 747s to redeploy American forces back to the United States. However, the South Vietnamese government, during its last vestiges of legitimacy, demanded the ownership of a 747 aircraft before they extracted U.S. military forces, which delayed their removal.
Having returned safely to the United States almost a year after his departure, Patton was officially mustered out of service in Oakland, California, on Dec. 23, 1970, catching a red-eye flight back to Columbia. While en route back home to Jackie and his firstborn son, he experienced an exceptionally cold reception from his fellow countrymen. “Since I was officially out of the military, I had to pay my own airfare home. I wore my uniform because the airlines offered a discount on the fare if we did so, and during the long layovers in Oakland and Atlanta, Georgia, no one in the airports or during the flights said, ‘Welcome home, soldier,’ or even ‘Merry Christmas.’ Nobody cared,” Patton says. When he finally made it home on Christmas Eve, Jackie and their son, Patton Jr., welcomed him. They immediately went on a mission to find a Christmas tree for their new home on Wheat Street in Shandon. “We found what might’ve been the last tree available in the entire city of Columbia at the old Winn Dixie on Devine Street, which is now the Earth Fare. It was the ugliest and scraggliest tree you’d ever seen, but to me it was beautiful.”
Once he settled back into civilian life with a law practice, Patton received a call from the Catholic Relief Agency with a message from his former clerk at his duty station in Vietnam, who expressed a desire to relocate to the United States with her family. “There were several South Vietnamese who wanted to leave, and I gave them my information, telling them if they ever had a chance to leave, they could contact me,” Patton says.
With his friend, the former Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean H. Toal, they convinced Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church to co-sponsor this Vietnamese family who had fled their native country in search of a peaceful life. The churches gathered clothing and bedding and arranged for jobs and housing. They lived in Columbia until other members of their extended family escaped during the fall of Saigon, and they relocated to Los Angeles, California, to be with them.
Patton never forgot the lackluster homecoming he received and vowed to recognize the sacrifice of Vietnam veterans if ever given the opportunity. While serving as a member of Columbia City Council, he assembled a group of civic-minded Vietnam veterans and began raising funds to erect a monument for every Vietnam War casualty from the state of South Carolina. By the time Patton was elected mayor in 1986, his task force had procured the property, collected the names of every fallen soldier in every county, commissioned the builder, and dedicated the memorial with long overdue fanfare to veterans of the conflict.
“It was a major event for our city,” he says. “Among the special guests attending were Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh, Jr., Gen. William C. Westmoreland, S.C. Adjutant Gen. T. Eston Marchant, Ft. Jackson Commanding Gen. Robert B. Solomon, NASA astronaut and Marine Corps Col. Charles F. Bolden, Inspector General of the Army Henry Doctor, Jr., Gov. Richard W. Riley, Sens. Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings, Congressman Floyd Spence, and three Vietnam Medal of Honor recipients from South Carolina. Thousands of people attended both the ceremony and a memorial service, which was held at Trinity Cathedral the evening before the dedication, when each of the names of the nearly 1,000 South Carolinians who lost their lives in Vietnam was read and the church bells were tolled for each of them throughout the night.”
The physical and emotional wounds inflicted on veterans of the Vietnam War profoundly shaped their lives. And though many soldiers, like Alan and Patton, physically left Vietnam, their minds and spirits still wrestle with what transpired in those jungles. Fortunately, one lesson gleaned from the half-century-old conflict was to recognize and appreciate the sacrifice of all Vietnam veterans — regardless of the politics surrounding the conflict.