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Ceremony recognizes 81 Vietnamese 'heroes who could not be buried in their own country'

U.S. and Vietnamese veterans gathered for the interment of 81 members of the Vietnamese Airborne Division at Westminster, Calif., October 26, 2019.

HILARY KAYE PHOTO

By SUSAN CHRISTIAN GOULDING | The Orange County Register | Published: October 27, 2019

WESTMINSTER, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Sam Nguyen spent his 85th birthday honoring fallen comrades who, after 54 years of languishing in anonymity, finally were laid to rest.

“It is a very important day for Vietnamese people,” said Nguyen, who served on the ground alongside American soldiers in the Vietnam War. “These men fought for our freedom. They must not be forgotten.”

That is why, the Minnesota resident said, he traveled so far to witness the interment of 81 members of the Vietnamese Airborne Division. Along with four Americans, the men were shot down in 1965 over contested territory.

On Saturday, Oct. 26, the soldiers’ remains were buried together in a single casket at Westminster Memorial Park.

Services began with speeches at Westminster’s Freedom Park, where about 2,000 gathered to pay tribute. Many wore fatigues and red berets – the uniform of the Vietnamese Rangers..

American veterans of the Vietnam War showed up in force, as well.

“I came to recognize these heroes who could not be buried in their own country,” said El Monte resident Donald Hewko, 73.

Speakers included U.S. Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, FedEx CEO and Vietnam veteran Fred Smith and former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.

Also a Vietnam veteran, Webb made it his mission to give the “forgotten soldiers” a proper burial when he learned about them two years ago.

Eighty-five soldiers died when their transport aircraft crashed inside an inaccessible area. Recovered in 1974, their remains were shipped to Bangkok – and then, a decade later, to a lab in Hawaii for identification.

DNA testing of bone fragments eventually named the American crew members. But South Vietnam did not have a record of its soldiers on the plane, so their remains were never identified.

Vietnam, led by a government the soldiers had fought against, twice declined to accept their remains for burial. They became “men without a country,” Webb said.

Draped in the yellow and red South Vietnamese flag, the men’s casket arrived at the cemetery in a procession of cars down Beach Boulevard. After a three-volley salute by U.S. Marines and the traditional playing of taps, the casket was lowered into the ground.

At long last, the soldiers had found a home away from home – in the city boasting the biggest Vietnamese American community in the United States.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, America, for giving Vietnamese refugees a place to feel safe,” said Lam Quang Trung, 76, a war veteran there to acknowledge the momentous occasion.

Quy Le, 75, was a commander on the ground when the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1973.

“I have two impressions,” he said. “First, I felt abandoned by the U.S. We had to surrender, and I served five years in a prison.

“But then there is my other impression,” Le added. “The United States is a beautiful country. It has been good to so many of us.”

©2019 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
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