San Diego — Forty years after the fall of Saigon, gray-haired men — some walking with canes, many relying on hearing aids — came on Saturday to see the names of old friends who never came home from a very unpopular war.
“Many, many men died who I knew. It’s hard to talk about,” said Richard Escajeda, a Navy surgeon in Vietnam from 1965 to ‘66.
“It’s something that you don’t forget,” said Escajeda, who attended the San Diego opening of The Wall That Heals, the traveling version of the Vietnam War memorial wall in Washington, D.C.
This weekend, the nation is remembering the inglorious, chaotic end of the Vietnam conflict.
On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese forces plowed into Saigon, and the United States hastily evacuated the remnants of its military force and tens of thousands of South Vietnamese refugees.
t was 40 years ago. But for some in San Diego, it could have been yesterday.
Terry Zeithamel was a young sailor aboard a Navy ship during Operation Frequent Wind, the April 1975 mission to save South Vietnamese refugees who were flooding out of Saigon.
They came packed into helicopters and small boats, desperately trying to get to the American ships waiting offshore.
“That made it very personal, when you could see those families come off the helicopters with everything they owned or what they could carry — little kids, old ladies, old men,” Zeithamel said.
What is the lasting impact of nearly two decades of U.S. involvement in a small Southeast Asian nation far from home?
Veterans visiting the traveling war memorial — open around the clock at the USS Midway Museum until Thursday — were pretty frank in their analysis of the value and cost.
“I think it was a waste of life fighting for something that eventually was worthless, because we just packed up our bags and left,” said Pete Mestre, who served as a Marine between 1968 and ‘69, during the Tet Offensive.
“In hindsight, it was probably unnecessary,” said Mitch Long, a Navy hospital corpsman who was in Vietnam from 1966 to ‘67.
“But it’s your country. Right or wrong, you’ve got to do it.”
Between 1957 and 1975, more than 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam in a vain effort to save South Vietnam from being overrun by the communist-ruled North.
American deaths numbered about 58,300, while Vietnamese deaths — military and civilian, on both sides — are estimated at 1 million to 2.5 million.
Students of the war complain that American troops won their engagements but that U.S. policy created a quagmire that eventually led to the pullout.
The war was hugely unpopular at home for several reasons: the loss of American life, a draft that forced young men into service, a questioning of American motives in what appeared to be Cold War jockeying for power between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The war era created lasting fractures here at home, said historian Jon Wiener of the University of California Irvine.
“The Vietnam War divided Americans more than anything since the Civil War. The divisions are in many ways still there,” said Wiener, whose focus is on the Cold War.
“Questions about: What is America’s role in the world? Can our government be trusted? What’s the purpose of our military?” he said. “These are questions that people didn’t worry very much about in the first half of the 20th century.”
As for U.S. defense policy, the defeat in Vietnam created a lasting reluctance to dedicate ground troops.
However, the end of the draft led to the creation of the all-volunteer military, which is now seen as a resounding success. The more-educated volunteers were a good match for an increasingly high-tech fighting apparatus.
“The ultimate legacy of the American military involvement in Vietnam is that — while there’s a political aversion to foreign interventions that lasts well in the 1990s — you have a shift to a force where people are going in for educational benefits or a career,” said Karl Zingheim, historian at the USS Midway Museum.
“From the nadir of American military fortunes in the early 1970s, you have this shift to a volunteer military that within a decade paid off tremendous dividends in the 1980s.”
The war left a particularly large thumbprint on Southern California because of the influx of Vietnamese refugees.
It started with a 50,000-person relocation program, called Operation New Arrival, in a hastily erected tent city at Camp Pendleton in 1975.
Many soon migrated to Orange County, in what became known as Little Saigon and is still one of the largest concentrations of Vietnamese outside of their native land.
On the Midway Saturday afternoon, U.S. military veterans seemed to have found some peace with their experiences.
No matter their opinions of the war — how it was waged, or the reasons for it — not one said they regret serving.
Mestre, the Marine who served during the Tet Offensive, said, “I’m real glad that I served my country. And if I had do it over again, yes, I would.
Read more: UT San Diego
Vietnam anniversary events
• Sunday: A commemoration of Operation Frequent Wind and a celebration of the Vietnamese culture. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the USS Midway Museum. A special wreath ceremony will be held from noon to 2 p.m. Refugees and U.S. veterans will share their stories.
• Sunday: Vietnamese Americans will hold a ceremony at 11 a.m. at the Marine Corps Aviation Museum at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station to remember the fall of Saigon.
• Thursday: An exhibit titled, “Vietnam: A Retrospective” will be unveiled at 10 a.m. at the Veterans Museum and Memorial Center in Balboa Park.
• Thursday: Panel discussion and documentary screening at MiraCosta College in Oceanside. The event starts at 5 p.m. and includes a reception with Vietnamese food in Room 3601, 1 Barnard Drive