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By Paul Hague
This is from a speech delivered several years ago at John Stark Regional High School in Weare, New Hampshire.
It is proper that we are gathered here today to remember and honor those who have served in our military and, throughout our history, suffered enormous casualties. Since the Revolutionary War, our country has been involved in at least 29 wars or conflicts. The greater among these, in terms of casualties, are the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Since Vietnam, we have been fighting in Lebanon, Grenada, the Persian Gulf, Panama, the Gulf War, Kurdistan, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Global War on Terror. Over the course of our history, over 70 million men and women have served in our wars and conflicts, and have suffered at least 1,152,635 deaths. Over 1,400,000 have been wounded and an unknown number suffered mental and spiritual casualties, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We here today are mindful and grateful for this sacrifice.
My war was the Vietnam War. I was there at the beginning. I served in the US Navy from September 1960 to September 1966. From May of 1963 I was on the crew of USS Constellation (CVA-64). At that time, the Constellation was the Navy's newest aircraft carrier, homeported in San Diego. In late July of 1964, we were deployed on a WESTERN PACIFIC cruise, enjoying a liberty call in Hong Kong. I was ''on the beach'', exploring that beautiful port city, when we were recalled to the ship to make ready for an immediate emergency departure. We steamed at flank speed to a place called Vietnam, where, on August 2 in the Gulf of Tonkin one of our destroyers, the USS Maddox (DD-731), was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The Maddox returned fire, damaging all three of the boats, and called for air support from another aircraft carrier, the Ticonderoga (CV-14). When Constellation and her Task Group arrived on the scene the first skirmish was over, and we were placed in a state of battle readiness called General Quarters.
My job on the Constellation was to operate and maintain the Pilot Landing Aid Television and the Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System. The Pilot Landing Aid Television, or PLAT, makes a television recording of every launch and recovery of aircraft aboard the ship. It also serves as a training aid for pilots, allowing them to review their performance during takeoff and landing, and provides a valuable record in case of a crash or other mishap. The Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System is a system of lights that allows a pilot to assume a proper approach and the correct glide angle to catch an arresting cable and land safely aboard. Needless to say, operations involving multi-ton aircraft moving at high speeds require highly trained personnel doing their jobs perfectly or bad things will happen. Sometimes, in spite of all our training and experience, bad things happen anyway, and casualties result.
I mention this only to emphasize that training and practice are necessary for any military operation, and everyone serving must be at peak performance for things to go smoothly. When there are screw-ups, communication failures, accidents and misunderstandings, the results can be tragic. The flight deck, during aircraft launches and recoveries, is a very busy and dangerous place. Imagine 10-20 jet aircraft, in an area of about 4 acres, engines howling, maneuvering to the catapults to be launched. Anyone in the wrong place or doing the wrong thing can be a problem, or injured. Once a crew member was blown by jet blast over the side, falling 70 feet to the water. He was rescued by one of our helicopters. Another time, an arresting cable broke on landing, and an F4 Phantom, with two men aboard, crashed into the sea.
On August 4, another destroyer, the Turner Joy (DD-951), reported being under attack from PT boats. Radar operators had seen what they believed to be swift moving targets approaching the ship, and the captain ordered the ship to open fire. Turner Joy also requested air support and Ticonderoga and Constellation launched aircraft to assist. After a search of the area, our aircraft saw nothing and returned to the ship. This second attack, perceived as real by the crew of Turner Joy, got greater attention in Washington, and President Johnson ordered Constellation and Ticonderoga to launch reprisal attacks on North Vietnam at the port of Haiphong, where the PT boats were stationed. During these first attacks, one of our pilots, LtJg Richard Sather, was shot down and killed. A second, LtJg Alvarez, was shot down and taken prisoner. He was a POW for over 8 years. Another crewmember, James P. Powell was killed on the flight deck during operations.
While these attacks were taking place, President Johnson went before Congress and asked them to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which granted him full powers to prosecute war on North Vietnam.
The first casualty when war comes, is truth; said American Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917. Subsequent investigation revealed that before the destroyer Maddox went to the Gulf of Tonkin, it stopped at Taiwan to have special radio and signals processing equipment put on board, to be operated by special secret personnel. The Maddox was then ordered to Vietnam, to patrol nearshore (these were called DESOTO patrols) to provoke a response by the Vietnamese, so they could analyze resulting radio signals. On 4 August, another DESOTO patrol off the North Vietnamese coast was launched by Maddox and the Turner Joy, in order to reinforce our presence after the first incident.
Further investigation by Naval authorities revealed that the so-called second attack on the Turner Joy wasn't an actual attack on the ship, but that over-eager radar and sonar operators, in a high state of readiness, had probably reported a phenomenon known as ''sea return''; false targets which are radar reflections off of waves. This explained why aircraft from the carriers saw nothing. Can we conclude that inadequate training and faulty interpretation of radar data and the following government action resulted in the escalation of the Vietnam war?
I think so, and this incident, along with other elements of our government provoking the North Vietnamese, led to America's ten-year-war with Vietnam, resulting in 58,220 deaths and 153,303 wounded on the American side, and, no one knows for sure, but probably millions of casualties suffered by the Vietnamese. We dropped more bombs on Vietnam, a country roughly the size of California, than in all of WWII.
The Vietnam war led to massive social unrest at home. There are over 58,000 names on the wall of the Vietnam Memorial, and more than twice that number of Vietnam veterans have taken their own lives. Others live daily with the effects of PTSD, and many more live all their lives with the feeling that they ''just don't fit in''. Civilians don't understand what we've been through and expect us to forget the past and get on with life. It's not easy to forget the chaos and madness of war. To this day, I feel that the only person who really can know what I've experienced and understands how I feel is another vet. I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, for its tenth anniversary. It is a very moving experience to stand in front of that wall, with the names of all who died engraved on that black granite, and to see your own reflection superimposed on those names. Names of friends and shipmates. It produced in me a powerful mixture of feelings – an unutterable grief and a feeling of rage and futility. I wept like a child.
Since the Revolutionary War, veterans have had to fight for benefits promised them, and it continues today. Congress has voted to cut funding for veterans' care many times. Just yesterday the senate voted to block a $21 billion plan for new VA clinics. At the same time, they advanced a $600 billion corporate tax cut. If this injustice matters to you, please express your feelings to our representatives in congress. To hear a ''Welcome Home'' or a ''Thank you for your service'' is kind, but actually receiving excellent and timely medical care and the other benefits promised veterans would be much more supportive.
So today we honor those who have fallen, but let us also remember others who have suffered injury, disorders of the mind, drug addiction and unemployment. Additionally, may we be mindful that it is not only veterans who suffer the consequences of war, but their friends and families too.
If you are interested in learning more about veterans' feelings about war and its consequences, may I suggest the following books, all written by veterans, as a start:
•The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
•All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria von Remarque
•A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
•The Thin Red Line by James Jones
•The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
•Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
•Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
•The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (especially the chapter on how to tell a true war story)
•Chickenhawk by Robert Mason
•Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic
Paul R. Hague was a Former IC2, US Navy, USS Constellation (CVA-64)