WOONSOCKET - It was the longest war in American history and the most unpopular American war of the 20th century. It resulted in nearly 60,000 American deaths and an estimated two million Vietnamese deaths.
Forty-seven years after enlisting for Vietnam, Richard W. Schatz says he holds no regrets for his decision, especially at a time when so many of his friends were actively protesting the war.
"I enlisted to serve my country just as my father and my uncles did in World War II," says Schatz, president of the Cumberland Veterans Council and the 2011 grand marshal of the United Veterans Council of Woonsocket's annual Memorial Day Parade held Monday.
The honorary grand marshals were the Woonsocket Elks Lodge 850 and its Ladies Emblem Club No. 27.
"Some of my friends were against the war and when they heard I enlisted I lost those friends," says Schatz, who was also named Veteran of the Year this year by the United Veterans Council. "I felt it was the right thing to do and the only regret I have is that I didn't have friends who could understand and accept my decision."
Hundreds of people lined Clinton Street and South Main Street for Monday's parade, which stepped off at the corner of Cumberland and Clinton streets and ended at River Island Park. People waved flags and saluted as the parade rolled by. The line of march included Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, City Councilmen John Ward, William Schneck, Daniel M. Gendron and Christopher A. Beauchamp, city Veterans Advisor Melvin Defoe, and United Veterans Council President Ernest R. Frappier.
The parade also included a Woonsocket Police Department motorcade and color guard; Woonsocket United Veterans Council color guard and officers; and the Woonsocket High School and Middle School bands.
Also participating were color guards from the Cournoyer-Ducharme-Gosselin-Lambert VFW Post 11519; Belhumeur-Duhamel American Legion Post 62; American Legion Fairmount Post No. 85; Amvets Harnois-Barnabe-Arel Post 7; Woonsocket Post No. 15; Franco-American War Veterans; Disabled American Veterans Chapter 12; and the St. Joseph Veterans Association.
Marchers also included members of lady auxiliary posts, the Woonsocket High School Junior ROTC Unit, Knights of Columbus, Woonsocket Elks Lodge #850, and local Cub Scouts.
Despite overcast skies and intermittent light showers, hundreds lined the streets to watch the parade and take part in the Memorial Day ceremony at the war memorial at River Island Park, where Schatz threw a bouquet of red, white and blue carnations over the bridge above the Blackstone River.
It was the kind of gathering of respect and gratitude Schatz - who served in the Air Force from 1964 to 1965 - wished he and other Vietnam veterans had received when they returned home.
These men and women answered their nation's call, he said, to protect the world from the spread of communism. Some were drafted, many more volunteered to serve in a cause in which they believed.
Because of the widespread opposition to the war, and the strong passions ignited by anti-war activists, Schatz explained, Veitnam veterans were grossly mistreated when they returned home. They could not wear their uniforms off base for their own safety, they were spit upon in public places, and one of the many epithets hurled at them was "baby killer." Even in the Pentagon, military service members only wore uniforms one day a week.
"When I got home and got off the plane in New York, there was a young lady waiting to board another plane," Schatz said. "I was in uniform and she walked up to me and spit in my face and called me a few obscenities. I was very angry, but I didn’t want to cause a scene."
Between 1945 and 1954, the Vietnamese waged an anti-colonial war against France and received $2.6 billion in financial support from the United States. The French defeat at the Dien Bien Phu was followed by a peace conference in Geneva, in which Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam received their independence and Vietnam was temporarily divided between an anti-communist south and a communist north. In 1956, South Vietnam, with American backing, refused to hold the unification elections. By 1958, Communist-led guerrillas known as the Viet Cong had begun to battle the South Vietnamese government.
To support the south’s government, the United States sent in 2,000 military advisors, a number that grew to 16,300 in 1963. The military condition deteriorated, and by 1963, South Vietnam had lost the fertile Mekong Delta to the Vietcong. In 1965, Johnson escalated the war, commencing air strikes on North Vietnam and committing ground forces, which numbered 536,000 in 1968. The 1968 Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese turned many Americans against the war. The next president, Richard Nixon, advocated Vietnamization, withdrawing American troops and giving South Vietnam greater responsibility for fighting the war. His attempt to slow the flow of North Vietnamese soldiers and supplies into South Vietnam by sending American forces to destroy communist supply bases in Cambodia in 1970 in violation of Cambodian neutrality provoked antiwar protests on the nation’s college campuses.
From 1968 to 1973 efforts were made to end the conflict through diplomacy. In January 1973, an agreement reached and U.S. forces were withdrawn from Vietnam and U.S. prisoners of war were released. In April 1975, South Vietnam surrendered to the North and Vietnam was reunited.
In his speech, Schatz thanked those who took time out to attend Monday's ceremony, which included a wreath laying at the monument.
"For many, this weekend is a fun-filled time when we spend time with our families, have barbecues and watch fireworks," he said. "But the true meaning of Memorial Day is in the conscience of each and every one of you who pulled yourselves away from all that to pay tribute and to remember the 1.2 million men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.
"On this day I ask you all to turn your hearts and minds to those who gave so much to this country. "We don't honor war, but those who came home in flag-draped coffins. We can't replace what they have given, but we can remember what they have given."
Schatz, who holds leadership positions with the Disabled American Veterans and other state and national veteran organizations, thanked the United Veterans Council of Woonsocket for naming him veteran of the year, but said that honor should go to every veteran and to every veteran who continue to help other veterans in need.
"They are all veterans of the year, each and every day," he said.
In his remarks, Mayor Fontaine said the overcast skies and light rain were "fitting" for such a solemn occasion "because this is a time we remember with sadness the loss of those loved ones who served this great country."
"But at the same time it's a time to celebrate the greatness of our country," he said. "The United States is the only country in the world that was formed on the principle of freedom. This Memorial Day is a day for us to remember and honor every soldier who has protected those freedoms."