Vietnam veterans: Burns' film stirs memories of service, fills historical gaps

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John Webb


By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Monday, April 30, 2018

Several local veterans of the Vietnam War give the Ken Burns’ documentary "The Vietnam War" mostly a thumbs-up review on its treatment of America’s sixth-longest war. The 10-part documentary was broadcast on PBS in September.

John Cormicle, who served separate tours of duty in Vietnam with both the Navy and the Marines, described Burns' documentary as "right on time."

Cormicle, who watched the entire series, discussed the documentary recently following a meeting of the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America in Elizabeth City. Joining him the discussion were fellow Vietnam War veterans David Sawyer, Kenneth Hooker and John Webb. Each discussed the series — and the memories it has stirred — while sitting around a table in the group's meeting room at Christ Episcopal Church.

Sawyer served with the Marines, Hooker with the Army and Webb with the Navy.

Cormicle said regardless of which branch of service you served with in Vietnam, you faced danger and difficult conditions, and you're part of a brotherhood.

"When they say 'band of brothers' ...," Cormicle began, insisting that the phrase is more than a mere saying but also an important truth. "We're all brothers."

Burns’ film documents the 20 years the Vietnam War lasted, from 1955 to 1975, including the roughly eight years of U.S. troop involvement, from 1965 to 1973. Not only did the film touch on what the men saw in Vietnam, it also included history on what happened in Vietnam before U.S. troops arrived and after they left.

"It was an illuminating series," Sawyer said, adding that he gained some perspective on events that led up to his tour in Vietnam, from June 1965 to May 1966, and events that took place after he left.

Some of the episodes reflected what was going on in his mind at the time, basic questions such as "what is going on?" and "who is who?" he said.

Sawyer said the nature of the war changed over time.

"It gradually became something different," Sawyer said. " I watched it kind of grow."

Sawyer noted he watched the war on television after seeing if firsthand during his own tour.

"It brought up a lot of memories and it brought up a lot of questions about the whole thing," Sawyer said of the documentary. "It stirred some thoughts in me."

Sawyer, who served in a truck company that hauled ammunition and supplies, said he feels lucky that he didn't see as much of the horror of the war as those who served later.

Of course, even when he was there it was a dangerous place to be, he said.

Sawyer recalled that when he left the U.S. on his deployment he thought he was going to Okinawa. His first letter home began with something like, 'Guess what — I didn't go to Okinawa. I'm in Vietnam.'

Hooker, who served in Vietnam in 1969 and came home after being wounded, was in the thick of the ground war.

"I had the dirty work," Hooker said. "I was infantry."

Hooker recalled difficulties the troops faced, many of which were noted in the series.

"The job we had wasn't easy," Hooker said.

At times it was necessary to stay awake three days straight, he said.

Hooker said he saw a lot of images in Burns’ documentary that were consistent with what he experienced in the infantry.

"It wasn't a pretty picture and it wasn't a vacation," Hooker said.

Webb said he had not yet watched the documentary but has recorded it and plans to watch it. He said he served on a minesweeper in 1966. For a time, he also served aboard an aircraft carrier. Some of the Navy pilots he served with were killed, he said.

Burns’ documentary also chronicles the anti-war movement and interactions between protestors and returning veterans.

"The part about getting home and people throwing stuff at you — I caught it," Cormicle said. "It was there. It happened."

Cormicle believes political leaders at the time were too restrained in how they allowed the military to fight the war. For example, he believes they waited too late to begin aggressive bombing of targets in North Vietnam.

"People die in war," Cormicle said. "Everybody has got to realize that."

Cormicle served on an aircraft carrier on his first tour and then returned with the Marines.

"I was just a survivor like everybody else," Cormicle said. "And when I came home people said I was a baby killer. And I wanted to hit them — but I didn't."