Everything’s bigger in Texas, and that includes the Lone Star State’s contributions to the Vietnam War. A Texan served as its Commander in Chief. Texas military bases trained the war’s nurses, medics, pilots and soldiers. A Texas company designed and built the war’s iconic life-saving helicopter. Most importantly, thousands of young men and women left the farms and ranches and cities and small towns of Texas to serve in that war half a world away. More than 3,400 never came home.
Since the first farmers and ranchers took up arms to fight for independence in the Texas Revolution, the Lone Star State has had a strong tradition of military service, sending its young to fight in places like Gettysburg and the Somme, at Normandy and Iwo Jima, and, during the 1960s, to places like Ia Drang and Khe Sahn. Many were drafted and many volunteered to wear the uniforms of the United States Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard in the Vietnam War, where they served in all capacities as infantry soldiers and marines, helicopter and airplane pilots and crew members, sailors, medical professionals and in other combat and support personnel positions. Though only one in ten Americans deployed in Vietnam was a direct combat veteran, the lack of a clear front and the nature of guerilla warfare combined to put all who served in harm’s way. Texans and Texas families paid a heavy cost: 3,417 Texans died in the Vietnam War. Today, 104 Texans remain missing in action in Vietnam.
Though there is no accurate statistic of the exact number of native Texans who served, today an estimated 500,000 Texas residents claim the proud title of Vietnam veteran. Many of them passed through the Lone Star State on their way to the war through the state’s major military bases.
At Fort Wolters in North Texas, nearly every helicopter pilot of “The Helicopter War” gained stick time flying a combined 5.6 million training hours. At the height of the war, the air around Fort Wolters often carried more than 500 helicopters at any given time as young pilots learned the tactics and maneuvers that would save lives—including their own—in the deltas and jungles of Vietnam. With an average 2,000 take-offs and landings daily, during the Vietnam War years, the airport at Fort Wolters, Texas, was one of the busiest in the world.
It was a logical location for a helicopter training ground, located in close proximity to Bell Helicopter, where the iconic Huey helicopter was manufactured. Originally designed in response to an Army request for an ambulance aircraft, Bell’s UH-1 “Huey” proved to be a highly versatile and effective machine for a variety of tasks, including troop insertions, resupply missions and medical evacuation. During the Vietnam War, Bell manufactured and sent more than 7,000 Hueys to the war for use by all military branches. This Texas-made helicopter became the infantry’s lifeline, earning its place as the icon of the Vietnam War.
The role of the Huey in evacuating the wounded quickly from the point of injury to a nearby surgical hospital revolutionized Army battlefield medicine, saving some 900,000 lives. This and other advances in Army medicine originated in the training centers at Fort Sam Houston, home of Military Medicine. Hundreds of infantry medics, nurses, physicians, and medevac crew members rotated through the San Antonio base before their deployments to Vietnam, where their techniques not only saved the lives of combat wounded, but came home to revolutionize trauma care treatment for American citizens.
Many soldiers also trained at Texas Army bases at Fort Hood and Fort Bliss. Fort Hood is now the home of the famed First Cavalry Division, whose proud historical legacy continued as it traded its horses for helicopters in Southeast Asia, and the 4th Infantry Division, which served four years in country. Texas is also home to a number of Air Force and Navy bases, where pilots and support personnel trained and prepared for service in Vietnam. Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio was the reception area for eleven flights of returning Vietnam Prisoners of War in 1973.
Texas civilians also served and sacrificed in the war. Families sent their loved ones to Vietnam, and more than three thousand paid the ultimate price. Texas companies sent civilian employees to serve in contracted support roles to the fighting force, and many young Texas women served as front-line morale boosters in the American Red Cross overseas recreation program as “Donut Dollies.”
The most well-known civilian was Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, who served as Commander in Chief during the Vietnam War. Just a few miles from the Texas Capitol where the monument will stand, the LBJ Library chronicles the turbulent presidency of a man promoting domestic improvements in civil rights and universal education while plagued by the growing cost of U.S. blood and treasure as the Vietnam War escalated. A believer in the Domino Theory of Communism, LBJ continuously expanded American action in Vietnam, “”trying to win it just as fast as I can in every way that I know how,” but after the Tet Offensive of 1968, he found himself in an increasingly agonizing position as the nation turned against both the president and the war. Despite the controversy, President Johnson, a veteran himself, never forgot the price paid by the individuals called to service. Prior to her death in 2007, his widow Lady Bird Johnson signed on as Honorary Chair of the effort to build a state monument honoring Texas Vietnam veterans.
The soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors of the Vietnam War fought, and sometimes died, just as skillfully and heroically as had their forefathers in other wars. In the end, the nation turned against their war, and tragically, against them as well. Despite the cold shoulder turned to them upon their return, Vietnam veterans determined that their dead brothers would not be forgotten, that the United States would continue to search for its missing, and that never again would a generation of warriors return home to no welcome. An important part of the noble legacy of Vietnam War veterans is a nation that now honors its returning soldiers with open and grateful hearts.
Now Texas will turn a grateful heart to them. The Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument will stand as a long overdue thank you to honor, remember and celebrate the courage, integrity, duty and sacrifice of all Vietnam veterans who call Texas home.