Dennis Hughes said he thought he followed the war pretty closely when he was at East High School in Duluth, and when he enlisted in the Army and certainly while he was stationed in Vietnam.
“But I’m still learning what was really going on,” Hughes said this week after watching several episodes of the PBS series, “The Vietnam War.”
“I’m finding it informative. … I’m learning things I didn’t know before, or at least getting more detail,” Hughes said of the series.
The 10-part, 18-hour TV event has sparked debate and emotions on several levels even before the first segment aired on Sep. 17.
Some groups say the series has underplayed the political lies, military blunders and senseless loss of life that American involvement in Vietnam wrought from 1955 to 1975. Military buffs have said the series overstated political deceptions and military mistakes, and understated the valor of the men and women who served in the war.
But three Northland veterans say they think the series has played it straight.
Fletcher Hinds of Duluth, a U.S. Marine combat veteran of the war, said many Vietnam veterans are still trying to come to terms with what they experienced nearly a half-century ago. The series, he said, has helped that ongoing process for him.
“The combat footage is a little tough, for me,” Hinds said. “But I think it benefits everybody to put all of it, all of the history, into a package for people to see what happened, and to make sure we never do it again.”
Without public history lessons like the Vietnam series, Hinds said, America tends to suffer “collective amnesia” and repeat the same mistakes of war.
The made-for-TV series was 10 years in the making by noted documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. It ends Thursday on PBS. (Episodes also can be viewed online at pbs.org.)
Hughes said most of the members of the local Purple Heart Club, wounded veterans who meet monthly in Duluth, gathered earlier this week and agreed that the series was good.
“And most of them now are Vietnam veterans. I think everybody liked what they had seen so far,” Hughes said.
Hughes arrived in Vietnam just after the peak of U.S. military involvement. He was helicoptered in to a unit of the Army’s 101st Airborne at a place called Fire Support Base Henderson. Early on May 6, 1970, Hughes, a medic, was asleep against one of the wheels of a massive 155mm howitzer when an enemy satchel charge blew him into the air. He was awarded the Silver Star for bravery in duty for his efforts to save other members of his unit even as he was severely wounded.
The base was overrun by the enemy in 45 minutes. U.S. military officers “put us right into the middle of the enemy to see what kind of fire we would draw, and they found out fast,” Hughes said.
Still, Hughes holds no ill will against the Army or his country’s intents in Vietnam. He re-enlisted in the Reserves and served for two more decades, including a stint in Operation Desert Storm with the Duluth-based 477th Medical Company, a U.S. Army Reserve ambulance unit.
“We were too young to figure out what was happening then,” Hughes said of his time in Vietnam, adding that he still feels pride in his service. “I don’t have any bad feelings about who I served with or what we did. … It’s too easy to make those judgements in hindsight.”
Jon Polecheck of Duluth, a Vietnam veteran who’s a retired Department of Natural Resources forester and longtime taxidermist, said he’s tried to watch as much of the series as possible.
Like Hughes, Polecheck says the TV series has been well-done. But Polecheck said it’s reinforced his feelings that the U.S. made a horrible mistake when it entered the war and then compounded that mistake day-after-day, year-after-year, until more than 58,000 Americans and 2 million Vietnamese were dead.
“I think we were on the wrong side from the start. We should have helped Ho Chi Minh when he asked us,” Polecheck said, noting the series included the history of Vietnam’s struggle against French colonialism before the U.S. ever became embroiled in the war.
Polecheck, a sergeant, was in charge of a heavy mortar platoon in the Army’s 11th Light Infantry Brigade. They spent much of 1970 in the mountains at a fire base nicknamed San Juan Hill. It was a free-fire zone.
“Nothing lived” anywhere their shells could reach, he said.
Polecheck isn’t bitter about his service, saying he thought he was doing the right thing at the time — namely fighting global communism. He was eager to go back to Vietnam after the war and made trips in 2006 and 2010 with his wife, Jan. They’ve donated to and sponsored libraries, playgrounds, schools and museums in Vietnam, including an American-built library at My Lai, the site of an infamous American war crime where U.S. soldiers killed hundreds of civilians in two villages.
The television series has reminded Polecheck of how beautiful Vietnam is — but also of how many people died for no discernible reason.
“I think it’s been great so far. I think it helps get the truth out,” Polecheck said. “There are still people, including some guys who served over there, who say if we had just done this or that or dropped a few more bombs or hung on a few more years or killed a few more Vietnamese, that we could have won the war. But there was no way we were ever going to win, no matter how long we stayed, no matter how many kids died.”
Hinds, a Marine rifleman, spent most of 1969 near An Hoa, about 70 miles west of Da Nang, in an area that saw constant battles.
“I spent a year living outside, and I didn’t mind that part of it. … I still like to go camping,” Hinds said with a laugh.
“For me, the thing that really hits home again (watching the TV series) is the grind of that war. It just went on and on and on. The same battles over the same ground over and over and over,” Hinds said. “I think they’ve done a good job showing how the military and political leaders would lie, putting people in harm’s way to help their careers or for their personal pride.”
Hinds said the series may also help people who didn’t serve, especially younger people, better understand what Vietnam veterans went through both during and after the war, when they returned home to a bitterly divided and damaged country.
Hinds is currently president of the Minnesota Veterans for Progress, a group that recently sponsored an $18,000 fresh-water facility in a Vietnam village.
“It helps me make amends for what I did over there,” Hinds said of his current service. “If we were willing to kill people to help the Vietnamese, we need to be willing to help the people live.” ___
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