Memorial Day

Ben H. Swett
Bethany Christian Church
29 May 2016

Scripture: The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

Memorial Day preserves a tradition that began during the American Civil War. In 1862, women in Savannah, Georgia, decorated Confederate graves. In 1866, women in Columbus, Mississippi, laid flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers. In 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans' organization, established "Decoration Day" as a time to place flowers on the graves of Civil War dead. Michigan made Decoration Day an official state holiday in 1871. The name "Memorial Day" was first used in 1882. It was declared a national holiday by Congress in 1967.  For many Americans, it is a day off work with time to cook bar-be-que and watch the Indianapolis 500. Some places have Memorial Day parades and patriotic speeches. The largest celebration is the National Memorial Day Concert at 8:00 pm tonight on the west lawn of the Capitol, and the National Memorial Day Parade up Constitution Avenue starting at 2:00 pm tomorrow.  Both are well worth watching. But basically, Memorial Day is a time for each of us to remember those who died in military service.

I was too young for World War II and Korea, but I was in the Strategic Air Command during the Cold War. My unit, the 509th Bombardment Wing, lost almost 100 men in air crashes between 1957 and 1965. I was in Vietnam in 1970, as Chief Navigator and Civic Action Coordinator of the 315th Tactical Airlift Wing at Phan Rang Air Base.

About 2.6 million Americans served in Vietnam. Peak troop strength was 543,000 in 1969. The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, is inscribed with 58,307 names, including 8 women. 41 were men from my base who died in 1970, 2 in rocket attacks and 39 in air crashes. When I remember them, I remember what else we did in Vietnam, besides fighting, that never got a lot of publicity.

In Vietnam, Civic Action started in 1962. At that time, the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group established their medical teams in each province. In late 1965, a large number of U.S. Forces were sent to South Vietnam at the request of the Vietnamese government. In other countries, such as Turkey, Thailand, the Philippines and Korea, all assistance was given after the fighting was over, but in Vietnam, U.S. military forces were used to help the people while fighting the war. Civic Action projects were in fields such as education, agriculture, public works, health and sanitation.  All U.S. military services were involved. Especially notable were the Marines' Combined Action Platoons in the northern provinces, and the Army Special Forces' work with the Montagnards in the central highlands. The Navy sponsored hospitals and orphanages in Saigon and Da Nang. The Air Force Civic Action Program progressed from nothing in 1967 to a very influential factor in Vietnam by 1970. Not only was progress being made around the air bases, but all over South Vietnam.

In a 7th Air Force newsletter, the Vietnamese Civic Action Liaison Officer at Phan Rang wrote, "Why do we need your help? In the US military, there are certain capabilities, which we do not have, and which are necessary for development of national resources, leadership, technical skills, and people who are willing to do the job in Civic Action. We cannot do this alone. We do not wish you to change the Vietnamese way of life, but you can improve it, if the Vietnamese people desire to improve, by the strength of your intentions to assist them, and by your sincerity to work with them." Vietnamese people were involved in two ways: First, if they were able and desired to, they could participate in Civic Action projects. Second, even if they could not participate, they could suggest ideas as to how Civic Action could help.

In my May, 1970, report to the Wing Commander, I described 20 Civic Action projects being conducted by our Wing with direct benefits to 23,000 Vietnamese. These included support for 5 hamlets, 3 orphanages, 2 hospitals, maps and encyclopedias for several schools, and our part of the country-wide Dollars For Scholars Program.  After he read my report, the Wing Commander said," I want in on this scholarship program," and gave me all the money in his wallet.

Each scholarship was $76.50 per student per year. The money was from voluntary contributions by our people: no government funds were involved. For $8.50 a month, a high school student could continue in school, but without it most of the kids we assisted would have had to leave school and help support their families. They had lost fathers and brothers in the army, or in Viet Cong terrorist attacks. Students were selected for these scholarships by their teachers and principals on two grounds. First, they had to show high academic ability, and second, a real economic need. These were the same criteria that a scholarship board would use in the United States. The youngsters studied hard-core subjects like math, physics, chemistry, philosophy, history and government. All of them took Vietnamese and either English or French. Many graduated with a good understanding of all three languages.

About 200 high school students who were receiving scholarships from units at Phan Rang Air Base were brought from Phan Rang City on busses for a tour of the base with a rest stop at the passenger terminal and a picnic lunch at the outdoor theater. It was a fine day. I almost caused an international incident during the rest stop when their lady English teacher asked me what we were having for lunch. I said, "Hot dogs and potato salad and baked beans." She said, "This hot dog, I think it is a sandwich?" I said, "Yes." One of the students tugged at her sleeve and obviously asked her what we were talking about. She must have translated literally -- hot dog sandwich -- because about thirty students turned green. I started saying "No" but she said, "Some Vietnamese people, they eat this sandwich, too." I said "Oh?" and she said, "Yes, the Montagnards." (They do eat dog.) I said, "No, no. This sandwich is just called a hot dog. It is made of beef." She translated, and the students turned a little less green, but they weren't really convinced until we got to the picnic area and some of the boys tried the sandwiches. They slathered them with mustard, took a few bites, and pronounced them good. Then they all ate two or three, as teenagers usually do.

As an example of another type of project: Hoai Trung was a Montagnard hamlet about 10 miles from the base. We took them agriculture tools (hoes, shovels, rakes), salvaged parachute shroudline (which they really liked and used for everything from sewing thread to tying their houses together), and packages from people in the States. One package had a doll that opened or closed its eyes and said "Mama" when someone sat it up or laid it down. Several of the old Montagnard men sat around and played with it, saying "heh, heh"-- which is their way of laughing uproariously. After dark, we showed a movie of the moon landing the year before. The Montagnards weren't impressed -- they only know the moon is high enough to clear the trees -- but they liked the Donald Duck cartoons. They called him "Mister very angry duck!"

In addition to my regular Civic Action projects, word got around that Civic Action had a friend in airlift, so I started getting phone calls asking for help. One was from an Army Civil Affairs Lieutenant near Cheo Reo. There had been a flood in that area. They had plenty of help from Buddhist Boy Scouts and Catholic Boy Scouts and etc., but the flood had filled the underground bins people used to store rice, and spoiled the rice. Could I get them some rice? I said, "I'll see if I can." Next morning I went to the early briefing and looked at the schedule. Four crews were going into one of the bases near the Cambodian boarder. I asked one of the pilots if he was coming out of there empty, and he said, "Yes." I said, "Why don't you ask the troops to load six pallets of the captured NVA rice that is just sitting there, then shoot a practice assault landing at Cheo Reo on the way back and give the rice to the Army Civil Affairs Lieutenant." He asked, "Civic Action?" and I said, "Civic Action." I talked with the other three pilots, and the result was, they moved 24 tons of rice in less than 24 hours from the Army Lieutenant's telephone call. He telephoned again that night to thank me. His opening line was, "Do you do miracles every day, or just on Tuesdays?"  I said, "Tuesdays and Thursdays unless it rains. Why?" He told me that he kept getting phone calls from the landing zone saying another plane load of rice had arrived, and he led groups of villagers to get it and carry it back. He said it was enough rice to last until a scheduled truck convoy arrived. Thirty years later, I got an email from a man who was pleased to see this report on my website. He explained that he was a fork-lift driver at that boarder base and said, "I loaded your rice! I'm glad it went to good use."

I got a phone call from our squadron in Da Nang: "Can you move six sewing machines from Saigon to Da Nang? The last time we tried it, they got stolen." I said yes and got the contact info. The next day, I went to Saigon and accompanied the sewing machines to Da Nang. A week later, Seventh Air Force News included an article that read -- A stitch in time may save nine, according to the old saying, but a timely gift of six new sewing machines is saving more than that for students of the Khiet Tam Catholic School in Da Nang. It has all been made possible by officials of the Cooperative for American Relief Everywhere in Saigon, with assistance from the 620th Tactical Control Squadron civic action office and the 311th Tactical Airlift Squadron here.  In the past, due to a shortage of machines, graduation of 75 tailoring and sewing students from the school required six months of training. The gift of six new machines is enabling the school to reduce the length of the classes to four months. In response to a plea for aid from Khiet Tam's Father Joseph Thieu, 1st Lt. Alfred Kernek, of the 620th TCS civic action office, wrote to the CARE office in Saigon and asked for sewing machines. CARE officials replied to the lieutenant and said they would give the machines to the school, but he would have to arrange to transport them from Saigon to Da Nang. Lieutenant Kernek then contacted Lt. Col. Albert Huskey, 311th TAS operations officer, who arranged for a C-123 Provider to fly the machines to Da Nang Air Base.  Once the sewing machines arrived, Lieutenant Kernek took them to the school. Father Joseph was on hand to open the crates. When he saw the sewing machines, he said, "You, and many Americans like you, have proven time and again that your only desire is to help the people of my country. On behalf of the entire school, I thank you for this wonderful gift."

Several times, I led a Medical/Dental team to one of the outlying hamlets. Those teams consisted of a doctor and a dentist, their two technicians, and a half-dozen troops in case there was trouble. As the senior officer present, my job was to drink tea with the old men of the hamlet. During one of those visits, the old man I was talking with turned to me and asked, "Why are you here?" I said, "We don't want you to be conquered by Communists. We want you to be our friends." He nodded and said, "We see what you do." I replied, "What do you see, Papa-san?" He said, "I think the American is the only soldier ever to come to Assam and bring his own food." I said, "Yes, we bring our own food." He said, "And no other soldier ever did this …" and waved his hand toward the scene in front of us. There was the sun-shelter tent over the doctor and his technician treating patients, and another over the dentist and his technician doing likewise, and over there a half-dozen GI's with their helmet liners on the ground full of soapy water, washing the little children and drying them with big bath towels. Washing with surgical soap and doing it again a week later would cure 95 percent of their skin diseases. As we were leaving, the old man smiled at me and his eyes said, "We see what you do."

And so, on Memorial Day, when I remember those who died in the Vietnam War, I also remember Civic Action, and I know that many Americans tried to live up to the example of the Good Samaritan and The Lord's commandment, "Go and do likewise." They saw people in need and did what they could to help. May they rest in peace.


Home | Testimony