Editor’s note: John Mayo is a former elected official, a journalist and an educator. He and his brother Mike served together in Vietnam. His brother Pat is a retired Master Sergeant; his brother Robert is still in the Army with 38 years of service; his sister Maureen is a former MP Sergeant, one of the first who was regular Army and not a WAC. His father is a retired Sergeant Major; his mother was a Sergeant during WW II; one grandfather was a First Sergeant for General John “Blackjack” Pershing and a grandmother was in the Coast Guard Auxillary. A Mayo family member has been in every conflict this country has been involved in, dating to Ethan Allen’s capture of Ft. Ticonderoga.
Following is the speech Mayo gave May 13 (Mother’s Day) in DeSoto County, Miss., at the closing ceremonies of the Travelling Vietnam Wall.
That wall in front of you was designed to make war personal. At the Wall in Washington, bulldozers moved about six to eight feet of natural ground at construction to represent the scars to this country caused by the war. Of course, the names etched into the granite make the war very personal to friends and family alike. I would like to remind you, there are 58,170 sons and 8 daughters on that wall. They are not visiting or calling their mothers this day. But, in Washington, moms are touching the Wall and silently saying, “I love you, Son. I miss you, Daughter.”
July 3, 2008. I stood in the early morning heat. The flag waved over the compound. You could hear it snap as the Stars and Stripes stretched out to all its glory. Goosebumps on my arms, the hair on the back of my neck rose up, a tear dropped down my cheek.
I was taking pictures of the flag of the United States of America at what was once the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, now named Ho Chi Minh City. I was on the street where in February 1968 the Viet Cong breached the wall. Five American Soldiers died defending our embassy. Only a small one-story building serves as the U.S. Consulate. The flagpole from which our flag proudly flies is all that remains to indicate we were there in 1968. This is hallowed ground.
I was trembling, almost on my knees, when people began yelling at me. They were pointing across the street. A soldier, shouted, “Doong lai,di di mau” (phonetic spelling). “Stop, move on.”
Snapped out of my trance, I left walking away on a cloud, swelling up with pride. 40 years have passed since I left Vietnam. I have come to realize that the American Soldier accomplished everything we were asked to do: “win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.”
Here’s how this story began. In 2008 my brother called from Iraq. The legislature was in special session. “John, I want you to do me a favor. Meet Barbara (his wife) in Atlanta and accompany her on a trip.”
I said, “Sure, where to?” “Vietnam.” was his one word reply.
Three weeks later as the Korean Airlines jet touched down at Tan Son Nhut, I told Barbara, “I left this country from this airport. It’s going to be unbearably hot, smelly, and body pressing against body waiting in line to get out.” Was I stunned.
Ho Chi Minh International is a very modern airport. They could not get you out fast enough. A quick visa check and you were shown the door.
This is not the Vietnam Mike and I left four decades ago. We arrived about 11 p.m., picked up by our guide, checked into our hotel, got our rooms and by midnight were seated on the roof of the Rex Hotel, enjoying some ba ba ba or 333 beer, unwinding from the 24 hour flight.
We marveled at the night lights of what was once called the “Paris of the Orient.” But, during the war, Saigon was a very different city. The Rex and Continental hotels, the quarters for many U.S. troops, were bombed by the Viet Cong. Today, they are modern, four-star hotels where everyone, including the maintenance personnel speaks English. In fact, everyone we met, including kindergarten children, spoke English.
History has discussed abundantly our reasons for being there and whether or not we should have been there at all. Often left out of the discussion, though, is the role played by the American Soldier.
On this visit back, I discovered the impact the American Soldier had on a hamlet in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Mike, Barbara, and I were looking for Ap Binh San and the base camp of my unit, 1st Platoon, Co. C, 15th CBT Engineers and Mike’s unit 1st Platoon, Co. A, 2/60th Inf, 9th Inf Division. We were two platoon leader/brothers serving in the same location, same division, my platoon supporting his battalion.
I knew the way to the basecamp, but I don’t think our guide relied on the memory of a 61-year-old. We found a bridge built by my platoon, but not the one I had set out to find. Out in the boonies, we turned around to head back when I asked the guide to stop, take a right, go 1.5 kilometers, turn right, take an immediate left, and then come to a sudden halt because there would be a tributary of the Mekong River in front of us. If it were not there, I said, we would go back to the city.
Shortly, the guide turned and said, “John, we are near 1.5 kilometers.” I said, “Look out the window.” There in front of us was a right hand turn. We took the turn, and immediately turned a sharp left… and there in front of us was the bridge that changed my life and, as I would discover, the lives of the people who lived in the village as well. A modern bridge has replaced a 287-foot-long timber bridge built by 11 men in seven days, defended from attack on three nights, in the middle of what use to be a thatched hut, no electricity hamlet.
The “hooches” have been replaced by modern brick stucco and metal and wood buildings. They not only had electricity, but wireless Internet as well. And, this was the site where American Soldiers, I believe, won the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people living there.
During the construction of our bridge in the summer of ’67, a very pregnant lady approached the far bank. She had to get to the other side, but was in no shape to make it. Specialist Four Anderson stopped his work, went to her, picked her up, and carried her the length of a football field across bridge materials, between trucks, through the mud, and into a hooch on the other side. An hour later, the midwife emerged. A dozen, sweaty, filthy, weary men gathered ’round to view a child born in the depth of war. She thanked us profusely. My life changed and I am certain the kindness shown by Specialist Anderson to that new mother represented the humanity of the American Soldier and our values in time of war.
The very next day, the children of the bridge presented us with a mud model of the bridge complete with a truck loaded with timber, and what looked like an American Soldier carrying a woman across the bridge.
As I took pictures from this new bridge of the town, I could not help but notice I was being watched. I got out my photos taken 41 years earlier and began showing them. These were pictures of children who were everywhere as we constructed the bridge. Looking at the pictures, many let out a gasp, laughed hard, called their friends, and passed the pictures around as fast as others came to see what the commotion was.
These men and women of 45 to 55 were looking at themselves in 1967. They pointed to a picture. Yes, it was me, 40 years younger. They covered their mouths, smiled, and hugged me. I was mobbed. I had never been kissed by so many women at one time in my life.
The governments of our countries may have screwed up, but the American Soldier got it right. Forty years have passed. The American Soldier accomplished the mission… winning over the Vietnamese people.
Mike visited me in Clarksdale a couple of months ago. Mike had two tours in Vietnam. I was on the radio with him just before he was shot the first time. Laid up for a year, he went back and was wounded again, recovered and finished out his tour. He was a colonel in the First Gulf War. He retired a general. He has been in Iraq most of the time since the second Gulf War as a civilian. At the height of the Iraq war, 50,000 people were working for him.
We got into a discussion about our current wars. We view the wars differently. We have agreed to disagree. Vietnam came up as we reminisced about our visit and just how much the country had changed in 40 years but more important the effect the American Soldier had on the Vietnamese.
In an article upon returning from Vietnam, I wrote this thought: “This trip exceeded my expectations of what we had accomplished. When the American Soldier took a “pause for the cause,” by all things righteous, 40 years later we have “won the cause.”
I added a line Mike had said on our way to the airport: “We will win Vietnam in this generation because of the way people were treated by the American Soldier 40 years ago. Those kids (now adults) have not forgotten us and because of what we did, they want their children to have a better life, and they look to America as their model.” Our guide made a similar remark when he said, “I hope my son can go to America. We see you as a great country and many of our people would like to have what you have.”
“John,” Mike added, “we will win in Iraq for the same reasons. You should see how the children respond to the American Soldier. Like Vietnam, when they grow up, they will not forget us. The American Soldier is the best thing the United States has going for it.”
The American Soldier, wherever he or she is called to go, carries the values you and I hold. I wish the men and women whose names are engraved on that wall could rest knowing they have won the hearts and minds of the people of Vietnam. That is what they and we were sent there to do.
If you will allow an aging veteran a moment of speaker’s privilege — I would like to ask all Vietnam Theater veterans to please stand… that is everyone who was in-country, or maintaining the B-52s in Thailand, the secret bases in Laos, the supply bases in the Philippines, the ships off shore, the Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, merchant marines of the Vietnam War… please stand.
Men, you have done well serving your country. Welcome home. If people see you with that far-away look in your eyes — and you know what I mean — and they ask, “What are you thinking?” Just answer, “I was somewhere else for a moment,” and move on, because they just won’t understand. If that look persists, talk to somebody who does understand. Since returning home from our visit in 2008, I have felt as if a heavy burden had been lifted off my shoulders. I want all of you to be proud of what you did. You may have spoken to a child, given comfort to a family, or showed your humanity in the ugly business of war. You took “a pause for the cause.” You made a difference. You were the American Soldier a Vietnamese child remembers to this day. Take what burden you might have off your shoulders. I want you to know this evening… we did good.
Today in Washington at a very personal Vietnam Memorial, the mothers of 58,178 American children are saying, “Son, I love you. Daughter, I miss you.” And if you listen, you will hear 58,178 American Soldiers reply, “I Love you, too, Mom. We did good.”