Written by Dania Dwyer, CNN
Fifty years ago this month, the United States lost 625 airmen in a devastating attack by an F-4 Phantom fighter jet on a fuel tanker, a loss that came at the end of what was then known as Operation Rolling Thunder.
It was a brutal blow to the anti-Soviet coalition, and an additional 100 troops were killed in combat. But the fact that these men — mostly Red Army members — had died defending a country in which they had felt compelled to serve has inspired intense reflection over the past half century.
On April 11, each year at the height of the Memorial Day weekend, there are special events for service members who served in the Vietnam War. Much of the country will gather to honor them for their service.
For those who left or remain stationed in Southeast Asia — not to mention the families of those who didn’t — there is another way to honor their sacrifice: writing down a name.
Born and raised in the American South, 56-year-old James Taylor learned to write when he was a teenager. “I just wrote everything down, all day long, like it was nothing,” he said with a smile.
Taylor came to Vietnam as a Marine in 1968, the last of 25 young service members he had known who chose to serve in the region, and he still remembers the decisions they made.
“We only went there to secure the South Vietnamese countryside,” he said. “And if you can make something out of that than that’s a testament to your strength. They were heroes — men with their lives on the line.”
On Memorial Day each year, the stories of the men and women who served in Vietnam are recounted through ceremony and memory. Getty Images
But the deep memories aren’t enough to heal the wounds still lingering, Taylor said.
“It’s kind of our bond that holds us together,” he said. “When you’re in a war or a paramilitary organization and you’ve lost someone — like an uncle who was killed — you can never heal. It’s like a part of you was lost, and that part never comes back.”
More than a quarter of a century has passed since the Vietnam War ended. But the wounds are still very much present, especially for those who live on the Korean Peninsula, a country that has long called itself the forgotten land.
“When you look at some of the Korean guys and what they went through, it’s really unreal,” said Cal Pahl, 65, an Air Force veteran who serves as the editor of A Good Little War, a weekly newspaper based in Pyongtaek, South Korea.
“I know we’re an Asian nation, but these men and women were Americans fighting for America, and they were also held responsible for the deaths of Americans.”
The 25 servicemen Taylor said he knew in Vietnam came from all over America. Some had no family left, and others suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
A new website hosted by the U.S. Air Force vets’ organization Anaconda, uses personal stories from veterans and civilians of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to find common stories. One story includes the story of a veteran who, at age 10, saw his grandfather killed in action in Vietnam.
“For many years now, Vietnam veterans have been at the forefront of creating attention around the issue of forgotten wars,” said Maj. Gen. James Bock, who is the coordinator of the “Muddy Cambodia” website and president of Vietnam Veterans of America, in a statement. “I believe ‘Muddy Cambodia’ holds tremendous promise for the United States and the world in the effort to acknowledge the toll Vietnam soldiers and their families took on our collective conscience and to combat the isolation of veterans who served elsewhere.”
For the next couple weeks, “Muddy Cambodia” will feature an account from a Korean Vets who fought in the war and passed away in 2006.
For Taylor, whose final mission in Vietnam was the evacuation of a wounded Vietnamese Air Force pilot who had been shot down in 1966, the stories of those who served there help in building closer bonds with South Korean Vets.
“We go to any event in South Korea or Japan to bring people together and talk about the contributions of our Vietnam veterans — and Korea’s Vets especially — so that we can better understand each other’s experiences and foster a greater understanding and admiration,” he said.