On National Vietnam War Veterans Day, Americans are remembering the men and women who served, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and many more who lived half a world away from the early 1960s until the war ended in 1975.
Nearly 60,000 Americans died in Vietnam. More than 150,000 were injured, at least 21,000 of them permanently disabled. Most soldiers returned to a nation divided over the United States’ role in the war, with the traditional welcome home celebrations few and far between.
The Department of Military and Veterans Affairs said the Sunday, March 29, observance is “a way to thank and honor our nation’s Vietnam veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice.” The holiday objectives are to:
- Highlight the service of U.S. Armed Forces and support organizations during the war.
- Pay tribute to wartime contributions at home by American citizens.
- Highlight technology, science and medical advances made during the war.
- Recognize contributions by American allies.
When Willis Teel was told he would be deployed to Vietnam in 1963, his first question was “Where is that?” He was a helicopter repairman in the aviation division of the U.S. Army, but few Americans knew much about the Asian country being torn by war. Teel’s unit was the second U.S. Huey helicopter company sent to Vietnam.
Teel, a retired hydro journeyman from Alabama Power’s Mitchell Dam, worked mostly at the Vinh Long military base but was occasionally sent into the fields to repair helicopters too damaged to fly back. Teel volunteered on weekends as a door gunner, firing at the enemy while gliding by from above.
“You’re a target anytime you go up,” he said in a 2017 interview for Powergrams magazine. “I didn’t think about the danger. I just wanted the higher combat pay.”
Oddly, Teel said his most dangerous Vietnam experience was a bout with appendicitis. He was rushed to a hospital in downtown Saigon for emergency surgery. While in recovery, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem was killed and his government overthrown.
“We sat there and watched them dive-bomb the palace until we were told to get away from the windows,” he said.
Buford Lee was 22 when he was drafted into the Army in 1962. He was deployed to Bangkok, Thailand, where his unit set up communications antennas in remote mountaintops. He became an aide to a battalion commander and spent most of his two-year tour abroad within battalion headquarters.
During the Vietnam War, Teel was promoted from private E1 to sergeant E5 and became a platoon leader.
“I knew what was going on but I never had to deal with it (combat),” Lee said in a 2016 Powergrams interview. “We got out of there before it got hot.”
Lee returned to the U.S. to begin a 45-year career with Alabama Power. He retired in 2005.