For many Vietnam War veterans, the hostile reception they received when they returned home from this war remains vivid in their hearts and minds. This past weekend, my husband Bob, now a spry 73, and a former Marine from the Vietnam War Era (February 28, 1961 to May 7, 1975), was just one of about 900,000 motorcycle riders (statistic from:https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/gallery/2017/may/29/30th-rolling-thunder-ride-in-pictures), who paraded in the “Ride for Freedom,” through the streets of Washington, DC. on Sunday, May 28, 2017 as part of the annual Rolling Thunder Demonstration Ride.
“Operation Rolling Thunder” was the title of a gradual and sustained aerial bombardment campaign conducted by U.S. and the Republic of Vietnam Militaries against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) during the Vietnam War (from March 2, 1965 until November 2 1968). Who knows, this might have been the origin for this now 30 year old gradual but sustained demonstration held annually in Washington, DC on the Sunday before Memorial Day each year.
I usually don’t write about Bob in my posts, but I thought I would say a little something about this 30-year-old commemorative ride because it is so near and dear to his heart. In fact, at least one of his motorcycle riding buddies (from the Skipjack Chapter of the Nam Knights of America Benevolent Organization), has ridden in this parade every year since 1988–the first year of the “Rolling Thunder” demonstration ride. Further, the Nam Knights Motorcycle Club formed in New Jersey in 1989 just shortly after New Jerseyan and 1968 Bronze Star Medal recipient Ray Manzo (a combat engineer from Company B, 7th Engineer Battalion, 1st Marine Division), first visited Washington, DC to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. There, Ray experienced an all-consuming drive to right an unfathomable wrong–Our country had reneged on its sacred vow to its warriors “to leave no man behind”.
The Rolling Thunder Concept: 1987
In September 1987, Manzo heard about a Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club prisoners of war, “POW Vigil,” being held in Asbury Park, N.J. And, there, in Manzo’s mind, he crystallized a concept for a massive demonstration by thousands of bikers to stir the country to not forget about POWs and MIAs left behind in Vietnam. Ray went home and wrote hundreds of letters to military and veterans organizations, congressmen, senators, newspapers and magazines, and a handful of biker magazines. Then, on Memorial Day in 1988, Manzo’s dream of thousands of bikers assembling in the Pentagon Parking Lot, crossing the Arlington Cemetery Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial, riding past the White House and Capitol and then back to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall became a reality. On that Sunday before Memorial Day in 1988, there were an estimated 2,500 bikers who had been inspired by Manzo’s call. By 1992 there were over 40,000 bikers and now 30 years later–there were one million bikers and spectators!
Staff Sgt Tim Chambers 2016
In 2002, Tim Chambers, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. (retired), first wore his dress blues to the Rolling Thunder demonstration. “I was going to go around, shake some hands, tell these veterans ‘Thank you,’ he told Vietnam Magazine. “Then I saw all these vets zooming by on motorcycles. I popped out and started saluting.” He’s been the “Saluting Marine” at Rolling Thunder, and other events, ever since, holding his salute for the approximate four hours as bikers roll by. And, in 2016’s event, he married his bride right where he has stood and honored fellow veterans for the past 15 years, and together they stood there until the last biker had passed them.
Now Rolling Thunder has evolved into an emotional display of patriotism and respect for all who defend our country.
Another MIA Just Returned . . .
1st Lt. Willam (Billy Ryan)
On May 10, 2017, just days before this now infamous motorcycle riders’ demonstration to keep the memories of our Vietnam warriors ever present, my husband Bob and nearly 100 fellow bikers proudly escorted the remains of Marine Corps Reserve 1st Lt. William (Billy) Ryan, of Bogota, N.J., from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware where he arrived back in America to Arlington National Cemetery.
The Defense Department’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency had conducted DNA tests to confirm his identity. On May 11, 1969, the day Ryan’s plane crashed while he was on board during a combat mission in southern Laos near the Vietnam border, Ryan was just 25 years old. This day was also just one day after his baby son Michael had celebrated his first birthday, 48 years ago. Lt. Ryan’s aircraft was pulling out of a bombing run when it was hit by enemy fire. The pilot bailed out and was rescued. According to military investigators who went to the Laos crash site in 1990, they found and identified Ryan’s plane seat. Investigators went back to the site six more times from May 2012 to January 2016 continuing their search for Ryan’s remains. And in April 2017, they identified Ryan’s remains through DNA tests and notified his son Michael immediately. Unfortunately, the next day Ryan’s widow, Judith, was diagnosed with stage-4 stomach cancer. But, finally on May 10th, 2017, on the eve of the 48th anniversary of his plane’s crash, Billy Ryan was returned back to his country’s land and was finally laid to rest–one soldier less who had been left behind!
After 30 years, progress has been made but the mission endures for Rolling Thunder . . .
As a member of the Baby Boomer Generation, I have so many memories of The Swinging 1960’s and the 1970’s Disco Era–specifically the years surrounding the Vietnam War. Many of my high school classmates either enlisted or were drafted immediately following graduation to serve their country in Vietnam. Some came home with no physical injuries, others lost limbs, and one, who I had dated briefly, came home to Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. And, as we have learned over these 40 or so years since the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, many soldiers came home but were never again the innocent young men who went off to war for their country.
Meanwhile in the States–Civil Unrest Ran Rampant:
1965 – Watts, Los Angeles: A race riot erupted that left 34 people dead. This was the first of many riots that erupted across the country over the next four years. In 1967, devastating riots also happened in Detroit and in Newark, New Jersey. The following year, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. rioting erupted once again, including in the nation’s capital. Often sparking these riots was one incident, usually involving the white police force and an African-American resident. Yet, the root causes of these disturbances are much more complex.
1967 – Detroit:
A Detroit Police Vice Squad raided an after-hours drinking club in a predominantly black neighborhood:
Eighty-two people inside holding a party for two returning Vietnam veterans. The police arrested these people, and this resulted in widespread rioting. The riots began in the northeast section and spread to the east over the course of five days. Widespread looting, fires and killing took place, and the situation got so bad that the National Guard and the 82nd airborne division mobilized to quell the violence. When it was over, 43 people were dead, 1,189 injured and over 7,000 people arrested.
1967 – Newark, Jersey:
The Newark Riot took place from Wednesday, July 12 through Monday, July 17,1967. It was sparked by a display of police brutality. John Smith, an African American cab driver was arrested on Wednesday July 12 when he drove his taxi around a police car and double-parked. A police report charged Mr. Smith with “tailgating” and driving in the wrong direction on a one-way street. Smith was also charged with using offensive language and physical assault. By early Friday morning five people had been killed and 425 people jailed. Hundreds were wounded. More than 3,000 National Guardsmen arrived later in the day along with 500 state troopers. Despite the presence of National Guardsmen and state troopers, rioting continued for three more days. As the riot approached its last hours, 26 people, mostly African Americans, were reported killed, another 750 injured and over 1,000 jailed. Property damage exceeded $10 million. The riot, the worst civil disorder in New Jersey history, ended on July 17, 1967. 1968 – Chicago:
On 5 April,1968, in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination, violence sparked in a poverty-stricken black neighborhood on Chicago’s West side. It gradually expanded to consume a 28-block stretch. Arson, looting and killing took place, and Mayor Daley banned the sale of guns and flammable materials. Overall, at least 10,000 police and 5,000 troops were sent to disperse the riot. In the end, 11 people were killed and over 125 fires had been lit.
April – May 1971 – Washington, DC: “Power to the People” by UPI.com
Forty-four years ago thousands of people were arrested in Washington D.C. as they clamored for an end to the U.S. war in Vietnam. There would be other national and local demonstrations before the war finally ended in 1975, but nothing would match the sheer size and intensity of this powerful drama that played out on the streets of our nation’s capital.
Just How Have We Fared Over these Years?
And, we Baby Boomers went on to raise families and lead successful lives and have now even entered the world of retirement. But, we will always remember and even cherish most of the decades that got us to today. As for me, I now spend quality time researching my family histories and genealogies. In fact, this avocation regularly puts me in touch with so many like-minded people. And, it often turns out in discoveries of living relatives that I never knew I had. And, upon communicating further, I find so many shared interests in common with them. These discoveries of commonality make me wonder if DNA–our molecular instructions for life–or our demographic/socioeconomic status creates this basis for immediate connectivity and bonding with our newly discovered relatives? At any rate, my research and social media networks brought me and cousin, Lyle, together just over two years ago. And, over these two years we have enjoyed finding just how many of our daily life experiences intertwine just like the two double helix strands within each molecule of our DNA.
Among the many interests, characteristics, behaviors, and beliefs we share are our love of Christ, the importance of and commitment to our country, families, and friends; our views on community and good citizenship; our love of the arts, and music, and, our nostalgic respects, regrets, appreciations and affections for our past histories.
And finally, we find high among our often conjoined interests–the Vietnam Era.
It was 24-year-old Lyle, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division in Phu Loi, north of Saigon in southern Vietnam until his tour ended in November 1969. And, it was Lyle’s recent writings about his days in Vietnam, his fellow servicemen, and his friendships with the village people who helped me somewhat better understand our American soldier’s bittersweet times and how their memories can either sustain or haunt them.
Major Base Camps as of April 23, 1969
Headquarters Building of the 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division at Phu Loi Base Camp in Vietnam, 1969.
Lyle eloquently wrote of his quite unintended and highly improbable found love in the midst of the war. Hoa, was her name. She was a hooch maid who cleaned and ironed clothes, shined boots, made beds, and paid about $5 monthly from each soldier. Hoa had an elderly father and children and was not allowed to leave Vietnam. Hoa and Lyle exchanged some 40 letters each over the next 17 months until April 1971 before losing contact with each other. It was about 10 years ago that Lyle started trying to find Hoa. But he has never found her nor any member of her family, or anyone who knows for sure what happened to them. It is as if they have vanished from the face of the earth. Lyle promised Hoa he would never forget her. And he has kept that promise.
A Poem By Lyle Staples
I was a soldier in the Cold War
Stationed at Phu Loi in Vietnam,
Doing my duty for Uncle Sam,
Serving out an extended year’s tour.
You were from Phu Cuong working all day
To support your children and father,
Another child due in September,
Husband lost in the war’s disarray.
Lyle writes now that he sees, because of his advancing age and on-going family responsibilities, that he will never finish an entire book of poems.He dos, however, hope to complete 10 or 15 poems.
In 2007, Lyle decided he would create a poetic remembrance of Hoa and their relationship called:
My Beauty, My Hoa: A Remembrance.
The following excerpts are from letters he and Hoa exchanged:
“I’ve not received any letters from you for a long time (about one month already). I wondered that you forgot me….You do not know how much I was miserable. Any time I think of you, I can’t help crying and missing you….I miss you all the time. I will love you until my last breath.”—Hoa, 17 May 1970
“Darling, at present I have been sick (my sickness is crazy)….One lady who is wife of American major reads our letters….She took me to the hospital when I killed myself because I was hopeless when I think I could not be your wife.”—Hoa, 21 May 1970
“Hoa, what did you do? Did you say you were in the hospital because you tried to kill yourself? You must never, never do that. Your children would be heart-broken. You have such beautiful, sweet children….For them, you must be strong.”—Staples, 29 May 1970
“I love you, I miss you, I think of you, I feel very miserable, sad and tired….I could not explain to you how I love you. I seemed to be crazy.”—Hoa, 1 June 1970
“Dear Sir, I’m sorry that I must tell you something in this letter….I’m a lady who reads all your letters and her letters….If you could quit writing to her the letters, you should do it….If you still continue writing to her, it’ll be the way to kill her. She is very thin now. She has been sick all the time and sad all the time. She came to my home many times in order to translate your letters. I saw her crying always….I like her very much and her love to you has moved my heart….I understand that you can’t marry her, and her family status doesn’t allow her to get married with you. She could not leave them in order to go to America with you….One time, I came to her house, I saw her children and her father who is about over seventy years old. I like all of them very much….I told her sometimes that she should not love you so much….She must be strong as you wrote in your letter. But she can’t help–her face is unhappy all the time. She feel being tired of every thing in her living….You must help her to forget you.”—Lan, 5 June 1970
“I have received your letter. I do not know how to express the feeling in my heart….I thought that by writing I could make you happy. But I have only made you sad and miserable. Of all the people in the world, I wanted you to be happy….Please forgive me….I should never have written you when I came back to America. By now you would have forgotten all about me….Love from such distance can only be frustrating….Please take care of yourself and try to be happy.”—Staples, 11 June 1970
“Today I received the letter from your friend….Yesterday I mailed a letter to you which explains the feeling in my heart and my understanding of how you feel….I know I am not very good at expressing my love and concern for you….I knew you were sad…but I honestly did not understand how unhappy you were until the last few letters….Please forgive me for all the sadness I have caused you….I love you and my heart will never forget you.”—Staples, 12 June 1970
“I’ve received your letters….Your letters have moved my heart. Instead of you blame me, you blamed yourself. Darling, sometimes I was crazy, I can’t help, but in fact, I could not forget your image….I can’t understand how kind, nice you are.”—Hoa, 20 June 1970
“Remember that there was one lady who has been always unhappy without your presence. She has been falling in your love with all her heart….What is the strange love? I understand I could not, never, never, be your wife. But I can’t help loving…”—Hoa, 25 June 1970
“it has been a long time since I received a letter from you….I miss your letters so very much….Each night I cry myself to sleep thinking about you….The time goes so slow without you and I have nothing but your memories to live for.”—Hoa, 9 July 1970
“I have received three or four letters from you. Forgive me for not answering sooner. But I have taken a long time to answer so that I can think what will be the best thing to do. I understand your love for me and how it has made you unhappy. And I think you understand I truly love you….More than anything else in the world I want you to be happy….But…we must think about each other less often….The only way to do that is not to write as often….You will always be my love….We both have many wonderful memories. We must keep those memories and cherish them, but make a new life for ourselves, realizing that we will probably never see each other again….I hope we can both be happier in the future.”—Staples, 3 July 1970
“Having wrote to you three letters, I counted day to day in hope that I’ll have some replies from you….I was anxious and sad. But today I have your letter….Today, tomorrow, I am and I will be hurting without you. The sadness I have now in my heart I will have forever….But I have a great responsibilities to my children. And I must keep right on this….I get use to the sadness and you do not need to worry for me. I am sure that I am enough strong for bearing that.”—Hoa, 11 July 1970
“I want to tell you how much I still keep in my heart the love I have for you. But I think I better keep it in my heart. Because we will never have the chance for being together. Well, I should stop here. It hurts me very much whenever I talk about that. I’ll never forget the happiness you have brought into my body.”—Hoa, 5 August 1970
“I’ve received your letter….I’m very happy to hear from you. And it moved my heart that you still think of me….You are always a wonderful, kind man to me.”—Hoa, 30 September 1970
“I’m stronger than before so I’ll be happy even I’m thinking of you.”—Hoa, 12 December 1970
This poem is about the love, despair, and the binding ties of fate captured in the above quotes from our letters:
A Poem By Lyle Staples
When tears fall in drops upon your pillow
And run in pooled rivulets down your cheeks,
Dark night after dark day for weeks and weeks,
And all life’s promises seem so hollow.
When you lie curled in despair on your bed
Yearning and reaching for your heart’s desire,
Your stomach tied in churning knots afire,
Unable to resolve it in your head.
When the slow drip of pain upon your heart
Blots out all but the unforgetting pain,
And leaves you pining and nearly insane,
Body crying for the hurt to depart.
When with the awful cleansing march of time
Merciful resolution comes by grace,
And you can see the sun and lift your face
To once again join in life’s rhythmic rhyme.
Then there with a worried patience await
All the reasons for your existence there,
The permanencies in need of your care,
The binding, loving bounty of your fate.