Remembering the last days of Vietnam

Next week, as the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War approaches on April 30, the country will be flooded with stories, TV shows, and memories of the war, which — at least for a time — made us reluctant to get into another one.

Though it’s been a battle ever since to frame it historically, the war remains as divisive as any snapshot in our history.

Today, the Rochester Post Bulletin carries a compelling remembrance from Tom Novotne, now 64.

The Marine recalls the flight to Vietnam was full of laughter. The flight home was quiet. And everything in between was ugly.

Even a few days off from the front lines offered no respite from death.

One time, Novotne and some friends of his were given a few days away from the battlefield. They were in a tent when a new guy walked in. The guy was drunk and complaining that his girlfriend had sold his car to pay for rent. The man laid down on a cot between Novotne and another guy, turned around and shot himself in the head.

“They were carrying him out,” Novotne said. “I went outside to have a cigarette. The guy said you better go in and wash your face. I went into the head to wash my face, but I couldn’t believe how much blood I had on me.”

When he returned to California, he said he was spit on.

“There were protesters all the way through. They would spit on you,” said Novotne, who recalled reaching for his .45 at the provocation but doing nothing. “That was the biggest thing. That starts things. All of sudden, you know about Vietnam. You don’t let anybody know.”

For 30 years, he says, he didn’t talk about Vietnam. He says no matter what pills they give him, it gets worse as he gets older.

But he says he’s learned it’s time to talk.

“I think the people from Vietnam who went over there, they still need some kind of comfort,” he said. “It really helps talk to other people who have been through it. It helps a person.

The nation will face its own challenge next week. Can it provide comfort to those who need it without sanitizing a war?

From the archive: You Should Meet: Gary Bipes

On 50th anniversary, a sanitized Vietnam War.

The Vietnam success story.

  • John O.

    My father is 85 now and served in Korea as an officer in a MASH unit. He won’t discuss those experiences at all.

  • MrE85

    I am a little wary of Mr. Novotne’s claim that protesters “spit on him,” as those who looked into that oft-repeated story about Vietnam find scant evidence. I also think it would have been unlikely for any soldier to fly home with a loaded sidearm, even in those days.

    • Yeah, I’ve read that, too. OTOH, I wonder what would constitute “evidence”?

      • MrE85

        I would settle for a reporter or photographer witnessing such an incident and reporting it directly. But you’re right, it would be hard to prove/disprove. It just seems that has become part of the mythology of the war.

    • Erik Petersen

      I don’t have any sense that’s an accurate detail at all. Be charitable and blame the reporter.

      My father was pre- M16, the year or so before. When his tour was up, they took him from whatever post he was at, took his M14, and put him on a jeep to catch his plane. One of the harrowing things was NOT having a weapon on the jeep ride. So I hear. These old timers will talk, but you gotta ask questions that are not so provocative.

      I have no sense that marine infantry had sidearms generally. I have some sense these guys took commercial flights back from Hawaii to SF or San Diego. They wouldn’t have had their sidearm as they deboarded to encounter
      spitting protesters.

      • As I recall, all the soldiers coming back from the Far East were on charters.

        I don’t have a problem with anyone asking a provocative question. I *do* have a little bit of problem questioning his veracity without evidence it didn’t. He says it happened. Did it happen? He says it did.

        • MrE85

          Even a veteran who served honorably can have “false memories.” I’m not calling him a liar. I’m saying that it might not have happened exactly the way he recalls today. I only mention it because this story has come up before.

          • Erik Petersen

            Right, I hear ye. The spitting protester story is apocryphal, everyone believes it’s true but…. there’s not any very good documentations this ever happened to any vet. You know… in Rambo, John Rambo says people spit on him and called him baby killer…. Which sorted of cemented this idea into popular culture. I recall Slate doing something on the ‘spitting at vets’ etymology, might have been 10 or 15 years ago by now.

          • I guess I don’t know why it had to be “documented” to be believed that one guy says it happened to him. Granted the story has been appropriated by the special interests, but I don’t see where that diminishes what one person who was there said happened.

            Nearly 3 million soldiers served in Vietnam and most of them came back and there was no way Slate or any other journalists could’ve watched all of them on their return.

            I don’t really care anything about some movie. If a guy went to Vietnam said it happened to him. I’m predisposed to believe it happened to him.

            Now your assertion that the widespread spitting is more myth than reality may be true, but there was nothing in the post that asserted a widespread spitting. He only said HE was spit on.

            Now clearly his larger point was that there was shameful treatment of people coming back from Vietnam and there’s no question that there was. He’s absolutely correct on that point, which for some reason is being largely ignored in the discussion.

          • So you’re saying it’s impossible that out of 2.7 million men returning from Vietnam, not a one was spit at upon his return?

            Keeping in mind, of course, that many people against the war did, in fact, view the soldiers as representing a corrupt government that sent them to war in the first place.

            I mean, yes, I understand the effort to dismiss the idea that it was not a widespread occurrence. But I find it disingenuous for people to suggest it didn’t happen at all.

          • MrE85

            No, I said “I’m a little wary.”

        • Erik Petersen

          Right, and I’m saying it’s by now a trope, and it’s got an
          etymology that can be analyzed. And that generally, it fails analysis.

          Charter… that’s a better description. I think my dad said he came back in a 727. Also to say, it’s hard to believe these soldiers would be lounging in the cabin with a bunch of gear like sidearms.

        • Erik Petersen
          • Yes, well Bob brought that up before. And it’s on the internet so this qualifies, I guess, as a rebuttal to any soldier who says he was spit on.

            But again, as the article states, it doesn’t prove NO soldier was spit on. But it was reduced to urban myths because the guy who wrote the book couldn’t corroborate the ones he tried to.

            That in itself does not render today’s assertion incorrect.

            What this thread DOES do is prove the point in the post, which is 40 years later, the Vietnam War remains divisive and raw.

        • Erik Petersen

          Bob I think your sentimentality is sorta apropos. I don’t think we should put the truth squad to all these guys. But your logic is
          not compelling. Yeah it coulda happened and may have a few times. But an earnest reporting of the events and an earnest re-reporting of the past shows its more myth than reality. You can’t just ‘take their word for it’ if you care to have real understanding of history and truth is important.

          Integrating an ‘I was spit on’ story into your memories is
          actually pretty similar to Brian Williams. It’s really no less a stolen valor phenomena, there’s an argument to be made that sort of exaggeration shouldn’t be tolerated.

          • I don’t know if it’s sentimentality or just an inclination to believe that people who relay their own stories are more likely to have a handle on their experiences than people on the Internet.

            Oh, and also being alive at the time.

            One of the best ways to understand history is to actually have the experience and understand firsthand the mood of the country at the time.

            Was there a widespread epidemic of people spitting on returning soldiers from Vietnam? Probably not. Was the mood of the country, was the war so divisive that if nothing there was a metaphorical spitting of returning soldiers from Vietnam? There absolutely was. That should be indisputable.

            In that context,and even if only in that context alone, the myth is reality.

          • MrE85

            “Was the mood of the country, was the war so divisive that if nothing there was a metaphorical spitting of returning soldiers from Vietnam? There absolutely was. That should be indisputable.”
            No argument there, Bob. While I’m a few years younger than you, I haven’t forgot those days, either. What I find most distressing was the less than warm welcome many Vietnam War veterans received from the members of local American Legion and the VFW clubs. Many of these same groups are now giving female vets the cold soldier.
            And they wonder why the service posts are closing…

          • What’s the story behind the cold shoulder? I would’ve thought in the bunker mentality world at the time, they’d have found safe harbor there.

          • MrE85

            As I understand it, some of the WW2 and Korea vets looked down at Vietnam as a lesser “police action” and not a real war. There was also a sense that somehow these soldiers had blackened the reputation and record of the military somehow by not winning a conclusive victory, as in WW2, or at least an enforceable cease-fire, as in Korea. Finally, there was a huge generational divide, just like anywhere else in those days.

          • Wow. That’s….that’s….. well, wow. God bless America.

          • MrE85

            In retrospect, I think many now service clubs regret how they welcomed — or didn’t welcome — the Vietnam vets. In the end, many of the (then) younger veterans didn’t want to hang out at their father’s service club, and many of the oldsters didn’t want to reach out. More the pity. With all the returning veterans from the past decade+ of war, they now have a second chance to do the right thing. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

          • Erik Petersen

            I don’t think that’s a reflection of a real journalistic ethic or method, that we just ‘believe the person who’s telling’ without corroboration. See UVA, Rolling Stone. Further, the original Slate piece and the book the piece discusses represent reasonably serious scholarly contemplation of the spitting phenomena. With this observation made seriously in the
            public realm, the journalist would be malfeasant to not analyze the vet’s spit on claim against the idea that the ‘vet spitting’ is a bogus trope…. I will say, there’s a time and place and scope that’s appropriate, and it’s not necessary to truth squad some guy who’s reminiscing. But there’s cause for some skepticism generally, and if this guy was a public figure it would be natural to have an elaborate discussion of what was actually likely to have been the real factual history.

            And….when someone on your earnest and contemplative blog is attracted to pipe up and argue this observation in an earnest and contemplative way… that’s a bit off putting Bob, that’s its dismissed as the contrarian trolling of ‘some person on the internet’.

            I wasn’t ‘alive at the time’ (or at least until 1968), you gathered correctly about that. But my existence was serendipitously dependent on the timing of my father’s return home to encounter my mother at a certain time and place, and I’ve given this time period the reflection it warrants and as much as anyone can. One thing is, I believe the past is a lot like the present….just older.

          • So walk me through how the PB reporter questioning should have gone .

            He says, “I was spit on.”
            The PB reporter says, “Slate says you weren’t”

            Now what?

            //that’s a bit off putting Bob, that’s its dismissed as the contrarian trolling of ‘some person on the internet’.

            I’m constantly asked to defend realities that people create for themselves. In fact what I said was :

            ” I don’t know if it’s sentimentality or just an inclination to believe that people who relay their own stories are more likely to have a handle on their experiences than people on the Internet..”

            I’m saying I’m more inclined to believe a person’s stated individual experience than i am someone who searches google.
            That doesn’t mean I think you’re trolling; it means I’m more inclined to believe he believes he was spit on in the absence of proof to the contrary.

            //One thing is, I believe the past is a lot like the present….just older.

            Maybe. But it’s night day between Vietnam and our present forays. The draft, you know.

          • Erik Petersen

            I said repeatedly, I don’t actually perceive the necessity to truth squad this particular Joe Schmo.

            I might have said, “was this going on a lot at the airport in those days?”

            Then, depending on how strong the anecdote was, I may not have written that stuff into the news story.

          • Jerry

            I wonder if it is situation where he felt like he was figuratively spit on has over the years become in his mind that he was literally spit on. But that is only speculation on my part. Those stories did provide a way for conservatives of the 60’s and 70’s to portray the anti war movement as the bad guys.

            I do think that the feeling of disrespect that returning Vietnam vets felt directly led to those idiotic “Support Our Troops” pro-war signs that appeared before Iraq War. How is sending soldiers to war supporting them? I’d rather support them being at home with their families. But that’s a different argument for a different day.

          • I agree and I think this is a perfect example of how Vietnam dictated events long after the war itself ended.

            Americans could not/did not distinguish between government policy and individual soldiers, and then when it came time to whip up support for a government policy, the supporters used the individual soldiers. Whether they intentionally — and certainly cynically — took advantage of the relationship is open for debate but I don’t think there’s any question that the rush to war coincided with a reluctance by institutions and individuals to be “unpatriotic.”

            It all reminded me so much of George McGovern’s “Come home, America” theme in the 1972 election.


            Of course, he got clobbered. He was a sitting duck in a country that STILL doesn’t know how to pride itself in any other way than military terms.

          • Well, I certainly wouldn’t have approached it that way, of course.

            First of all, how would HE know whether it was going on a lot at the airport in those days. You’d be leading him right into the trap that people use to conclude that he wasn’t spit on.

            Not to mention you’d be depriving yourself of the opportunity to include the story the larger picture of the treatment of returning vets from Vietnam.

            But it’s also a dishonest approach to interviewing someone because you’re not asking him the question you really want to ask him. “You really WEREN’T spit on, were you?”

          • Erik Petersen

            Well, such that the way I would have explored it is not satisfactory to you, I do think there was a way to explore it nonetheless.

            Like… questioning the notion that returning infantry soldiers were deplaning commercial jetliners in San Diego with M1911s strapped to their hip. That would require that reporters
            have a certain knowledge base that they usually don’t have however.

  • Kassie

    I just saw the HBO documentary last night about the Vets Crisis Hotline. One stat they mention is more service members have been lost to suicide than on the battlefield.

  • Gary F

    My former manager Bob from Grand Rapids MI told me in tears as we were watching a mother proudly showing off her Desert Storm soldier son to her smiling co-workers 20 or so years ago, “when I got home they gave me the finger”.

  • E-4

    I worked with thousands of Marines returning from Vietnam in 1971, on commercial charter aircraft. Sad, lost, betrayed men. The politicians and Pentagon bureaucrats are now feeding us a load of manure about Vietnam. Too many members of the government lied to us back then, they are doing the same now to cover the impact of their lies. So many of us Marines wouldn’t talk about our experiences simply because we saw the price of those lies and were afraid no one would believe us. The spitting conversation doesn’t interest me. I was lied to about why we were there. We all were and are lied to about why we were there. Many of my peers are still bitter about that. As I said, betrayed. I came to realize that the anti-war people weren’t my enemy. The self-serving liars in government are. Nope, I’m not anti-government. I simply call my public servants to be truthful. The spitting business only serves to have us thinking us vs them.

    I copy this from Veterans for Peace (I’m a member): The Pentagon is very aware of the significance of this year and has mounted a heavily funded initiative to commemorate the war as a time in our history to celebrate. We in Veterans For Peace have pledged to meet their campaign with one of our own — we call it the Vietnam War Full Disclosure movement (see our web site at We think the American people deserve a more truthful accounting. Please join us.

    These days, I start a conversation with someone who has been to war
    with the words, “Welcome home”. Then just listen. I’ll play the
    “Marine veteran” card when I sense a desire to talk.