Vietnam

The Known Unknown

Michael Blassie

“At a moment of great crises in the history of the world, he gave of himself,”

Archbishop Justin Rigali at funeral mass for Michael Blassie

Air Force First Lieutenant Michael Blassie’s life came to an end at age twenty-four on May 11, 1972 when the A-37B Dragonfly that he was flying in support of South Vietnamese troops in An Loc was shot down.  His body could not be recovered because the North Vietnamese had control of the area where his plane was shot down.  The Saint Louis native, a 1970 graduate of the Air Force academy, had a short military career but an illustrious one:  earning a Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, and an Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters.  Thanks to the air support he and his colleagues gave, the North Vietnamese did not take An Loc.

Five months later partial skeletal remains were recovered from the crash site.  Initially identified as being Blassie’s, the remains were later reclassified as being unknown when it was erroneously determined that the height and age of the remains did not match with Blassie. Continue reading

Hey, Who Did Win the Vietnam War Anyway?

 

Vietnam Today

 

History is full of ironies and none more so than the development of Vietnam in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.  Independent journalist Michael Totten, who specializes in covering wars and desperately poor, ill governed countries, gives us refreshing news about Vietnam:

 

The ruling Communist Party knows better than just about anyone that communist economics are a disaster. Vietnam’s economy has been growing at light speed for a while now. I knew that in advance, and yet it still stunned me. The city trembles with industriousness and entrepreneurship. Small and large businesses are everywhere. Half the residents seem to be in business for themselves. Anything and everything you can possibly imagine is for sale, though it’s not all high-end yet. I saw a Louis Vuitton outlet next to a bootleg CD store, an elegant Western-style café next to low-end bar with hard chairs and no air-conditioning, a Body Shop next to a used clothing store with cast-off second-hand T-shirts from the West, and an art gallery next to a store selling old pots and pans.

Market economies are uneven, no doubt, but they sure as hell beat the alternative. I could hardly believe it, but when I was a kid the Vietnamese stood in long lines on the street to exchange ration coupons for handfuls of rice. Today the country is one of the world’s largest exporters of rice.

Japan and South Korea: watch out. If the economy keeps growing and the political system breaks open, Vietnam will be a country to reckon with. Continue reading

Rocky Versace: The Bravest Man You Have Never Heard Of

Captain Versace

 FOR THE ROCK and the children and sugar people of NamCan

Dedication of the book The Fifteenth Pelican by Marie Teresa Rios Versace

 

For his entire life Captain Humbert Roque ‘Rocky’ Versace was on a mission.  His first mission was as an Army Ranger.  His second mission was to be a Catholic priest and to work with orphan kids.  He had been accepted to a Maryknoll seminary but then fate intervened.  The son of Colonel Humbert  J. Versace from Puerto Rico and his wife Marie Teresa Rios Versace, a novelist and poet who, among many other books, wrote The Fifteenth Pelican on which the TV series The Flying Nun was based, Rocky was an unforgettable character.  A graduate of West Point in 1959, he was an Army Ranger and a soldier as tough as they come.  He had an intelligence of a high order as demonstrated by his fluency in French and Vietnamese.  He loved to laugh and have a good time.  At the same time he was deeply religious and a fervent Catholic.  In short, he was a complete man.

Volunteering for service in Vietnam, he began his tour as an intelligence advisor on May 12, 1962.

Rocky fell in love with the Vietnamese people, especially the kids.  In his free time he volunteered in a Vietnamese orphanage.  He believed in his mission and regarded it as a crusade to prevent the people he loved living under Communism.  During his tour he received news that his application to attend a Maryknoll seminary had been accepted.  He planned after ordination to return to Vietnam and work with Vietnam orphans as a priest.  He agreed to a six month extension of his tour since that fit in with his plans to attend the seminary.

On October 29, 1963 he was serving as an intelligence advisor with the 5th Special Forces Group (Green Berets).  He accompanied several companies of South Vietnamese Civilian Irregular Defense (militia) that were seeking to remove a Viet Cong command post in the U Minh Forest.  They were ambushed and Rocky gave covering fire to allow the South Vietnamese to retreat and get away.  He was captured.  The Viet Cong murdered him on September 26, 1965.  What happened in between made Rocky a legend.  He was taken to a camp deep in the jungle along with Lieutenant Nick Rowe and Sergeant Dan Pitzer.  After their eventual release they told all and sundry what they witnessed Rocky do. Continue reading

Bobbie The Weather Girl

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Any American stationed in Vietnam in 1967-1969 will recall Bobbie the Weather Girl, going away the most popular feature of American Forces Vietnam Network broadcasts.  Bobbie Keith was an army brat, the daughter of an Army intelligence officer in Vietnam.  Twenty years old in 67 she was a clerk for the Agency for International Development in Vietnam.  Chosen almost at random to be the Weathergirl, her good looks and a flare for comedy made her an instant hit.  A patriot, in her spare time on weekends she would visit combat units her fans invited her to, often coming under enemy fire.  To homesick grunts she was the epitome of the girl next door and was cheered wherever she went.  From an interview in 2009:

Clearly you were you a sex symbol, right?

I never thought of myself as being a sex symbol. I was treated more like the girl the guys left behind. I wore White Shoulders perfume back in those days, and the guys would say, “Oh my girlfriend wears that… that reminds me of my girlfriend.”  I was reminding the guys of their loved ones they left behind. I don’t think anyone ever treated me as a sex symbol. No. Even when they did the pin-ups. I wasn’t a movie star. I wasn’t Raquel Welch. I wasn’t Hollywood. I didn’t have any talents. I was just there, an American girl. It could have been anybody. There’s a way to conduct yourself and a way not to. And I think because I was on military bases as a brat growing up I could recognize and deal with this very chauvinistic organization full of testosterone.

Did you ever feel exploited or used?

No, never. The guys at the TV station treated me with a lot of respect. They were so cute. I think of all of those people as my big brothers. They took good care of me. When you treat people the way they want to be treated, if you treat somebody in that environment like “okay you’re my big brother,” then they act like your big brother, they become your big brother. They become your siblings. I never had a problem.

Were you ever criticized for doing the show?

Well, yeah, there were a couple of occasions, like when they painted the temperatures on my body. I don’t think any of us thought of it as being sexist, as even being cheeky. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a take-off of Goldie Hawn on the TV show Laugh-In. Somebody—I think in Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker’s office—took offense, so they put an end to that. Maybe if I had seen the show on TV I would have thought so too, but we didn’t think of it that way.

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Grunt Padre Honored in Vietnam

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As faithful readers of this blog know, I have many times had posts about heroic Catholic Chaplains serving in our military.  A man whose courage beggared description is Servant of God and Medal of Honor recipient Vincent J. Capodanno, known as the Grunt Padre.  I am not ready yet to do a full post on him, wishing to do him justice, but a recent news story in The National Catholic Register caught my eye:

 

DA NANG, Vietnam — Bishop Joseph Chau Ngoc Tri of Da Nang recently said Mass  in honor of Father Vincent Capodanno, a U.S. chaplain killed during the Vietnam  War, and he encouraged his people to ask the priest’s intercession.

Ted Bronson, a retired Navy Captain, told Catholic News Agency June 26 that  Bishop Tri “is a brave bishop, fostering Capodanno under the umbrella” of  Vietnamese communism.

The Mass, said on June 14, marked the 55th anniversary of Father Capodanno’s  priestly ordination. Father  Capodanno was ordained for the Maryknoll Missionary order, and he later  became a chaplain for the U.S. Navy.

While with Maryknoll, Father Capodanno served in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and  then he requested to be reassigned as a chaplain with the Marines. He was sent  to Vietnam in 1966 and requested an extension to his tour of duty when it was  up.

On Sept. 4, 1967, his unit was in the Que Son Valley near Da Nang, and they  became outnumbered by North Vietnamese forces. As American soldiers were being  gunned down, Father Capodanno went about giving viaticum and anointing  to the dying, as well as medical aid to the wounded.

Shortly after reassuring a wounded Marine, Father Capodanno went to another  soldier who had called out for help. Both he and the solider were shot and died.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1969.

His citation for the Medal of Honor says he “left the relative safety of the  company command post and ran through an open area raked with fire. …  Disregarding the intense enemy small arms, automatic weapons and mortar fire, he  moved about the battlefield administering last rites to the dying and giving  medical aid to the wounded. Continue reading

Ronald Reagan on Memorial Day

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Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience – almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad.

                                        Pope Benedict XVI

 

My fellow Americans, Memorial Day is a day of ceremonies and speeches. Throughout America today, we honor the dead of our wars. We recall their valor and their sacrifices. We remember they gave their lives so that others might live.

We’re also gathered here for a special event—the national funeral for an unknown soldier who will today join the heroes of three other wars.

When he spoke at a ceremony at Gettysburg in 1863, President Lincoln reminded us that through their deeds, the dead had spoken more eloquently for themselves than any of the living ever could, and that we living could only honor them by rededicating ourselves to the cause for which they so willingly gave a last full measure of devotion.

Well, this is especially so today, for in our minds and hearts is the memory of Vietnam and all that that conflict meant for those who sacrificed on the field of battle and for their loved ones who suffered here at home.

Not long ago, when a memorial was dedicated here in Washington to our Vietnam veterans, the events surrounding that dedication were a stirring reminder of America’s resilience, of how our nation could learn and grow and transcend the tragedies of the past.

During the dedication ceremonies, the rolls of those who died and are still missing were read for three days in a candlelight ceremony at the National Cathedral. And the veterans of Vietnam who were never welcomed home with speeches and bands, but who were never defeated in battle and were heroes as surely as any who have ever fought in a noble cause, staged their own parade on Constitution Avenue. As America watched them—some in wheelchairs, all of them proud—there was a feeling that this nation—that as a nation we were coming together again and that we had, at long last, welcomed the boys home.

“A lot of healing went on,” said one combat veteran who helped organize support for the memorial. And then there was this newspaper account that appeared after the ceremonies. I’d like to read it to you. “Yesterday, crowds returned to the Memorial. Among them was Herbie Petit, a machinist and former marine from New Orleans. ‘Last night,’ he said, standing near the wall, ‘I went out to dinner with some other ex-marines. There was also a group of college students in the restaurant. We started talking to each other. And before we left, they stood up and cheered us. The whole week,’ Petit said, his eyes red, ‘it was worth it just for that.’”

It has been worth it. We Americans have learned to listen to each other and to trust each other again. We’ve learned that government owes the people an explanation and needs their support for its actions at home and abroad. And we have learned, and I pray this time for good, the most valuable lesson of all—the preciousness of human freedom. Continue reading

The Priest and the Marine

Born on January 3, 1936, one of five kids, Robert R. Brett knew from an early age what the wanted to be.    As his sister Rosemary Rouse noted, “He always wanted to be a priest. He was always there for everyone.”

He attended Saint Edmond’s and Saint Gabriel’s grade schools and then attended a preparatory seminary for high school.  Brett entered the Marist novitiate at Our Lady of the Elms on Staten Island and made his profession of vows on September 8, 1956.  Studying at Catholic University, he received a BA in philosophy in 1958 and a Master’s Degree in Latin in 1963.  He was ordained a priest of the Society of Mary in 1962 by Bishop Thomas Wade at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

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