Vietnam was divided by the 1954 Geneva Accords that ended the French-Indochina War.
When the French Colonialists were kicked out, the communists were well ensconced in the North, where Ho Chi Minh and his team formed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). These leaders were dedicated communists and closely connected to the Soviet Union and to some degree China.
In the South, the Republic of Vietnam was governed in a haphazard and often corrupt fashion but was dedicated to remaining free of communist control. After the French pulled out Communist insurgents (called the Viet Cong) immediately began guerrilla warfare to undermine the South Vietnamese government.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s communism, was pushing to gain a foothold and expand on every continent. Seeing this rolling spread of communism western leaders called it the Domino Effect. This seemed to be what was going to happen in Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam—with that, there would only be Thailand remaining to stop them from taking the entire Indochinese Peninsula, giving them control of the crucial shipping lane of the Malacca and Singapore Straits.[i]
The Vietnam war was a long war– American participation lasted from 1965 until 1973. Most of our Army, Air Force and Marine combatants had a one-year assignment to the war. And some would come home for a year or two and go back for another one-year assignment. Some Naval forces operated bases and marine warfare in the South, but most served on ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Over the seven years of the air war, Navy pilots often flew multiple combat tours. For Air Force crews who flew over North Vietnam airspace, there was also a special stipulation: if we completed 100 missions over the North before the one-year commitment we could go home early. Hence, most Air Force fighter pilots in the 65-68 Operation Rolling Thunder (air combat over the North) era completed their 100-mission tour in 8-10 months. Keep in mind that North Vietnam (especially the Hanoi – Haiphong area) was the most heavily defended area in the world against incoming air attacks. Many aircraft were shot down and though many aircrew members were rescued, many were declared Missing in Action (MIA) or Killed in Action (KIA). Those shot down were not listed as POWs unless there was some clear evidence that they had been captured and were alive in custody of the Communist North Vietnam government.
Factual evidence was hard to get. Some men were declared dead, when in fact they were POWs. Some were listed as a POW when in fact they died shortly after capture. The pain and the burden on wives and families was extreme. This era was thirty years before women were allowed to participate as war combatants, so there were no American women POWs.[ii] But the battle that wives and moms were facing was often more emotionally painful than what the POWs experienced. We knew we were okay. As you will see in the stories ahead, they did not.