On the day the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, Rock Hill’s Ted Vinson was a 27-year-old pilot of one of the last Air Force planes flying missions against the North Vietnamese. He flew a tanker plane that refueled fighters in mid-air.
Vinson, 69, was supposed to be the very last pilot of the very last combat mission in which bombs were dropped in the Vietnam War.
“We were trying to be the very last plane to land, but they wanted a bomber to land last, so we were second to last at the end,” he said. “We were glad it was over.”
Vinson served three tours of duty in 1971, 1972 and 1973, flying planes above a country on the other side of the world where so many Americans died – including one of his flight school best friends named Kamenicky.
It would take two more years for the fighting in Vietnam to end, and 40 years ago today, the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell.
Vinson and many of the Air Force veterans he flew with will gather in June for a 40-year reunion. They will remember old times. They will laugh and have a few drinks.
But this will not be a celebration, it will be a gathering of men who somehow lived through a terrible war – and a tribute to those who did not.
Politicians started that war. Guys like Ted Vinson fought it. There is a difference, and the chasm is huge.
Vinson is a war veteran who loves his country and the military, but he knows the Vietnam War was a war that was not being fought to win.
“Most of us felt, even then, that it was a losing proposition,” he said.
Watching footage of the pullout on television, Vinson said his reaction has not changed in 40 years:
“We just wasted 57,000-plus lives.”
The official death toll wound up at 58,300 Americans killed in Vietnam – 36 of them from York County.
Vinson hopes that people too young to remember how Vietnam fractured America continue to support our troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan – even if they have legitimate disagreements, as he does, about the political decisions that send men and women to war and the rules of fighting that don’t allow victory.
Before joining the service, while he was still in high school, Vinson had a job delivering flowers. He remembers pulling up to one particular mill house, knocking on the door and walking in with the flowers.
“There was this casket – the boy was 18 and he got killed in Vietnam – and it took up the whole living room of that little house,” Vinson said. “I will never forget it. I can’t forget it.”
Craig Charlton, commander of Rock Hill’s American Legion Post 34, was a teenaged Army Delta Force soldier in 1966 and 1967. His job: Finding the enemy in the jungle. One of his best friends since grade school, a fellow named Carney, died right there in the jungle.
Charlton agreed with Vinson that the “political war” in Vietnam was not fought to win, was hampered by politicians, and left so many tens of thousands dead and far more wounded in body and mind for life.
“The loss of lives was not worth it,” Charlton said. “We did not fight the war to win it. What a sad waste of American lives.”
Both speak of having compassion then – and still four decades later – for the South Vietnamese who tried to stave off the Communists but could not.
So, 40 years ago, today, the end came. You can watch TV specials that will show footage of people trying to flee on boats, planes, helicopters – anything.
Vinson and Charlton came home. More than 58,000 Americans did not.
These men do not tell “war stories.” They saw war, and it was hell.
That, they said, is what the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon means.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 • firstname.lastname@example.org