By 1967, Americans had begun to realize that the Vietnam War, the country’s first “unpopular war,” wasn’t going to end anytime soon. Troop levels had reached nearly 500,000, and still to come were the 1968 Tet Offensive, the riots in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention, the My Lai massacre, and the secret bombing of Cambodia, as well as the Kent State shootings.
The 50th anniversary of this pivotal time in the war is being recognized this year by print and broadcast media around the country.
In Polk County, a local resident is marking the anniversary with the launch of a Vietnam veterans' oral history project timed to coincide with Rockmart’s Homespun festival, coming up this weekend.
Tricia Cambron, graduate of Cedartown High School class of ’67 and a former assistant editor at the Standard Journal, will be interviewing and recording Vietnam veterans in the conference room at the Rockmart Historical Museum from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, July 22.
She's hoping anyone who served during the Vietnam War, whether they were deployed in Vietnam, stateside, or elsewhere, will come take part and record an interview.
There is no charge for the interview or for the copy of the recording. The interviews will be conducted individually and in private.
If the veteran agrees, the recording will be archived with the Veterans' History Project at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. , where it will be available digitally to the public, including to historians, authors and filmmakers, but the material may not be used for any purpose without the veteran's permission.
When the Vietnam War finally ended in 1975, nearly 60,000 soldiers had died in service to their country. Of those who came home, many were severely injured, missing limbs or sight. If they arrived home relatively intact, many eventually suffered from the long-term effects of Agent Orange and the as-yet-unnamed killer, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
What they didn’t come home to were cheering crowds lining parade routes. And once home, they weren’t stopped on the street by strangers who thanked them for their service. Instead, many of these soldiers, some of whom were still teenagers when they arrived in Vietnam, came home to a country so sick of the war that there was little public will left for honoring the soldiers who fought it.
Cambron said she’d never forget the day when the Vietnam War got personal for her.
“I was walking down the ramp from the old Cedartown High School gym, down toward the girls’ locker room, and somebody – I can’t remember who – came up and told me Ray Woods, a great guy a year or two older than me, had been killed in Vietnam. I was devastated,” she said. “That would have been in 1967, and up until then I don’t think I really understood what was happening.”
Cambron said she still didn’t do much about “what was happening,” especially what was happening when the soldiers came home.
“I’ve always regretted that I never sufficiently acknowledged the wrongness of what was happening to the veterans who came home from Vietnam as compared to soldiers who returned from previous wars,” she said. “The thought of it still makes me sad.”
50 years later, she heard a Fresh Air interview with Col. Karen Lloyd, new and first woman director of the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project, that suggested a way to redeem that regret: an oral history project that would collect the stories of Vietnam veterans still alive.
A former army pilot, Col. Lloyd said the Library was concerned that time was running out to preserve the stories of Vietnam War veterans.
Col. Lloyd pointed out that veterans who were deployed to Vietnam in 1967 would be approximately 72 today, and many more were deployed during the decade prior.
“I was really moved by Col. Lloyd’s plea, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had the skills to make a contribution significantly larger than talking to the two or three veterans I might know first hand,” said Cambron, who has worked as a journalist for the past 30 years.
She contacted Owen Rogers, liaison for VHP at the Library of Congress.
Rogers encouraged her to go ahead with the project, saying the Library would look forward to receiving the Polk County recordings and include them in their archives.
Cambron contacted Rockmart Museum Director Pat Sampson about conducting the first set of interviews at the museum during the upcoming Homespun Festival. Sampson was quick to agree.
“As a museum, we’re not only grateful, but we are interested in those that served our country and their stories,” she said.
Personally, Sampson said, she didn’t really realize what was going on in Vietnam until she tuned in to the evening news one night in the mid-1960s. On the news was a film of soldiers using forklifts to unload casket after casket from the back of a C-130, where they had been stacked on pallets, one on top of the other.
“My husband came home and I was crying. He said, ‘why are you crying?’ I told him what I had watched. I don’t think I really knew there was a war until then,” Sampson said.
Years later, when the Vietnam Memorial in Washington was completed, Sampson had another realization: “I realized they really were the forgotten ones, because nobody paid much attention to them when they came home.”
Cambron said she hopes that veterans will take advantage of the opportunity to be remembered by telling their stories Saturday. Their memories will be preserved in the Library of Congress archives, which serve as an important resource for historians producing books and films about the war. Most importantly, she said, the veterans will own the recording of their story so that it can be passed on as part of a family’s history.
“I recognize many veterans will not want to relive their experiences. But I hope some of these forgotten, unacknowledged veterans will see this project as a way to preserve a part of their history that can be cherished by their loved ones, now and into the future,” Cambron said.