Some 45 years ago my greatest fear was going to Vietnam to be one of the last Americans killed in a war that the nation had long since abandoned but had not yet left. While Nixon and Kissinger finalized America’s exit, young men were still being drafted, deployed, and killed. The last American soldier killed in the Vietnam War was Kelton Rena Turner, an 18-year old Marine. He was killed in action on May 15, 1975, two weeks after the evacuation of Saigon, in the Mayaguez incident off the Cambodia coast. In less than 40 days, I will travel to Vietnam and Cambodia to bicycle the Ho Chi Minh Highway.
The American war in Vietnam was the first, and probably last, war to be covered freely by the press. We literally watched the war every evening as part of our dinner routine. While the war is very much a part of my life and history, I decided to learn and relearn as much as I could before departing. Over the past few months, I have been reading all the books available in the local library, watching documentaries, and listening to the music of the time, the music of my youth. Let me share some of the music with you.
Perhaps the most famous song of the time was Country Jo McDonald and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.” It got a huge boost from “Woodstock.”
“Sky Pilot” written and recorded by Eric Burdon and The Animals in 1967 and released the following year has held up better over time because it is not Vietnam specific. The questions about military chaplains and the role they play in supporting and perpetuating war is still current today.
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” is one of the best rock songs ever written about social and economic injustice. Bruce Springsteen plays it in concert today and you can find a Springsteen-Fogerty performance on YouTube. The original still rocks like it did when I was a boy.
When country music begins to turn against a war, for example Dolly Parton’s “Daddy Won’t Be Home Anymore,” then there is no hope of regaining public support.
If you want to hear more, then a quick YouTube search will produce dozens. Edwin Starr’s War should not be missed. Johnny Cash’s Drive On written many years after the war is a reminder to hate war and not the warriors we send in our name. Many veterans have returned to Vietnam seeking solace and closure. My trip cannot be compared to theirs but I do expect forgotten emotions and memories to return as I visit the places we watched every evening on the CBS News.