Forty years ago today, the Fall of Saigon signaled the end of the Vietnam War. Just two years before, the last American combat soldiers had left South Vietnam. The war, which claimed 58,220 U.S. service members, had been deeply unpopular among many Americans, and returning soldiers were often treated with derision.
The News-Sentinel decided to reach out to some local Vietnam veterans, asking them to share their memories of the war and their homecoming.
In 1965 Roy Buskirk was drafted into the Army. He volunteered for Vietnam because he had no wife or children and "just felt it was better for me to go."
He spent a year in Vietnam, from August 1966 to August 1967, with the 89th military police group. His job was to be a bodyguard and driver for his colonel. "Because we had MP units all over the country I drove him or we went by helicopter all over Vietnam," Buskirk said.
"Four times we were fired upon," Buskirk said. "They did not hit the vehicle." He said he and the colonel would drive from Long Binh to Saigon at night to draw enemy fire. "My colonel was a nut," he said.
Buskirk, who came from a farm, said he was "fortunate just to be able to get all over that country." He was impressed with Vietnam, including the country's "hard-working people" and "wonderful ground" that could be double-cropped. He noted Vietnam's natural resources, such as forestry, gemstones and oil. "It was really a rich little country if they could be left alone."
He also noted the French architecture and the boulevards in Saigon with trees and grass in the middle of them.
The weather in Vietnam was another matter — hot and humid. "If it rained you pretty much just stood out in it because it felt good," he said, although then it would become hot and steamy after the rain.
Coming back to the United States, facing war protesters who hurled contempt at returning soldiers, was another story.
Buskirk said soldiers were allowed to grow out their hair a little bit shortly before returning home, so they wouldn't stick out so much as soldiers. Once they returned to the states, "we were instructed to get in civilian clothes as quick as possible," he said.
"We were sure not welcomed back to this country," he said, describing himself as feeling "heartbroken."
The biggest slap in the face for Buskirk was when he tried to get car insurance and they wanted to charge him an extra $100 for the first two six-month premiums. They told him it was because he hadn't driven a car in a while, but he told them he drove a Jeep all over Vietnam. They weren't swayed, and he took his business elsewhere. Buskirk says he will never have insurance with that company.
He lost friends in Vietnam who he had met in basic training and military police training. Those losses still sting today.
Buskirk coped with leaving a war-torn country and coming back to an unwelcome reception by moving on with his life, rather than looking back. "I just got busy, went back to college. ... For many years I wouldn't talk about it, but I've opened up about it some."
He said he wasn't happy about the way the war ended. "I really felt bad for the Vietnamese people who helped us, that they were trapped. That's the thing I think I feel the worst about."
Richard Hoeppner was just 19 years old when he was drafted into the Army in March 1969. He left for Vietnam in November of that year, assigned to the 116th Assault Helicopter Company.
Hoeppner started out as a gunner, and then became a crew chief. He and his fellow soldiers provided support for the 25th infantry. "We flew pretty much ever day over there," he said. "Our job was to find the enemy and roust them out."
He flew the whole Cambodia campaign, in the delta in the south and up by the demilitarized zone. He said it was beautiful country up north in the mountains. For a while he was stationed right off the South China Sea at Chu Lai. He remembers going to the beautiful white sand beaches when they got time off. "You often wondered why it can't become a huge tourist attraction," he said.
Four times while he was over there he was in a helicopter that got shot down. "We made it back twice," he said. "Two times we put it down in a rice paddy" where they were then rescued. He was injured during one hard landing and experienced a couple days of numbness in his legs. "Nothing critical," he said.
Hoeppner credits religion with getting him through those days. "I prayed daily," he said. "I had a strong faith."
He remembers packing up the belongings of soldiers who were killed in action, and the feelings associated with it. "You lived over there day to day, and often thought in the back of your head, I wonder who's going to pack my stuff up."
Nineteen days short of a year Hoeppner came back, in November 1970. "It was tough going from a combat area within seven days back to your home town," he said. "Things just weren't the same."
Hoeppner said there wasn't much in the way of counseling offered by the VA at that time. He credits family support and a strong church background with helping him figure out how to deal with things.
Returning home, there wasn't any big welcome back. Vietnam vets were scowled at or called baby-killers. "You ignored it," he said.
When his father returned from World War II he and his fellow weterans were welcomed back as heroes. By contrast, Vietnam War vets were "kind of looked down on," he said.
Now, 40-45 years after the war, Vietnam War veterans are finally being recognized for their service, but Hoeppner said, "It's hard to accept a thank you now."
He says being in Vietnam has made him a stronger person, and he wishes every young man and woman could serve their country for a few years, "but I wouldn't wish combat on anyone."
Watching war movies still brings back memories and flashbacks. "You think, why am I back here when a lot of friends didn't make it?"
Hoeppner assimilated back into life, got married a year after he was home, had a couple of children and now grandchildren. He was superintendent of a large construction company for years, retiring in 2008. Now he is the mayor of Woodburn.
"I've had a good life since I've been back," he said.
Willis “Bill” Colburn
Willis “Bill” Colburn not only fought in Vietnam, he saw action in World War II and Korea as well. After 25 years in the military he retired as a major.
He said at the time he hoped being in the Defense Department and helping to maintain the peace would save his sons and others' sons from fighting, but he knows now that turned out not to be true.
In face his son, George Colburn, also fought in Vietnam.
“Their fighting in Vietnam was very, very crude,” Willis Colburn said. “I remember George was telling me that with all the foliage that they would drop 55 gallon barrels of napalm to burn the bushes so people could get through. That's a lot different than what used to be normal warfare like I saw in World War II. What normal warfare is today I don't know. I think it's a lot more political now than it was then.”
Willis Colburn was only in Vietnam a short time on temporary duty. “We were near Tan Son Nhut Air Base. It was difficult. If you're talking about Vietnam, the object there was we have forward control of the front line and we developed a code and system to bring them out safely. It was quite a challenge.”
Willis' son wrote home after the first time he was fired upon, asking some hard questions. “He asked me what did it feel like the first time I killed a person and how did it make me feel when I killed the person,” Willis said. “Of course, they opened fire on him so they had no choice but to return the fire. I just wrote to him, it's just part of living. If you didn't fire on them they were going to kill you. You don't think of it as a person. You think of it as an operation. You learn it pretty fast when they're shooting at you. They will come and kill you unless you kill them first. That's probably a crude way to put it but that's the way it is.”
After his mission in Vietnam, Colburn was asked to head out to Vietnam on another mission. At the time, he had enough points to retire. “I had enough,” Colburn said.
Five of six of Willis Colburn's sons were in the military. The youngest one was not sent because of his young age. George Colburn is buried in Arlington Cemetery.
-- Jaclyn Goldsborough of The News-Sentinel contributed to this report