The Vietnam War, 1961-1975
The Vietnam War was, essentially, an internal conflict between communist forces in North Vietnam and the pro-western government in South Vietnam. It had begun as a war between colonial French and nationalist Vietnamese armies, but after France's devastating defeat in the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954, the country was partitioned at the 1954 Geneva Conference into the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), led by Hồ Chí Minh, and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), led by Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm. After the French withdrew from Vietnam in 1956, the United States stepped in to support the South Vietnamese government. Deploying a steadily increasing number of military advisers and personnel, the U.S. sought to prevent the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. Although America’s participation in the war became one of the most divisive political issues of the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Tennesseans served in the jungles of Vietnam in virtually every capacity, with 1,289 losing their lives in combat.
Christopher D. Ammons
Christopher Ammons enlisted in the U.S. Army on June 1, 1967, one week after graduating from high school. Ammons served as a replacement, assigned to the 1st Infantry Division in Company A, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry. He began his service at the rank of Private First Class, receiving promotion to Specialist in March 1968 and to Sergeant in July 1968.
After his first tour ended in November 1968, Ammons returned to the United States, where he was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In July 1969 he deployed to Vietnam for a second tour, this time as a member of the 194th Military Police Company attached to the 1st Signal Brigade. Ammons spent his second tour with the security company on Vung Chua Mountain, a vital communications site near the city of Qui Nhơn on the South China Sea coast. Ammons completed his second and final tour in Vietnam in May 1970.
Letters from Sgt. Christopher Ammons
While in Vietnam, Ammons wrote many letters home to his family in Clarksville. In these letters he discusses the status of his squad, the men he saw come and go, major events both good and bad (from losing an officer in combat before he had even learned the man’s name to being selected to attend a USO show), and everyday life in combat in Vietnam. The correspondence on display includes the first letter he wrote during his first tour and the last letter from his second tour.
Because of the difficulties involved in acquiring accurate intelligence, the United States was unable to keep precise records on the number of American serviceman captured during the war. Some prisoners of war in Vietnam spent years in captivity, and many were subjected to mental and physical torture. Between February and April of 1973, a series of negotiations dubbed “Operation Homecoming” brought about the release of 591 American POWs. Despite this and similar efforts, more than 1,300 Americans were still listed as “missing in action” at the end of the war. The number of men surviving in captivity after 1973 remains unknown.
Captain James Williams, USAF
Williams, a Memphis native, was assigned to the 432nd Reconnaissance Wing at Udorn AFB, Thailand in 1971, where he flew an F-4D Phantom with the 555th "Triple Nickel" Fighter Squadron. He was shot down over North Vietnam on May 20, 1972, while flying his 228th combat mission. He remained a prisoner of war until his release on March 28, 1973. He retired from the United States Air Force as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1995.
Captain David Grant, USAF
Tennessean David Grant flew combat missions with the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron out of DaNang Airfield from March until June 24, 1972, when he was forced to eject over North Vietnam while flying his 75th combat mission. He remained a POW until Operation Homecoming secured his release in 1973. He retired from the United States Air Force as a Colonel in 1994.
Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Hughey, USAF
Colonel Hughey, a native of Dyer County, flew 564 combat missions in Southeast Asia between 1965 and 1967. His plane was shot down north of Hanoi in 1967 and he was taken prisoner. During his six years as a POW, he was transferred between four different prisons, spending fourteen months in a one-man cell and five months in complete isolation. Colonel Hughey was released from captivity in 1973 and retired from the United States Air Force in 1979.
Major Bobby Peel, USAF
Memphian Robert D. Peel was flying an F-105D Thunderchief when he was shot down on a bombing mission over North Vietnam in May 1965. He remained in captivity until his release in February 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming.
Lieutenant Colonel Thomas W. Sumpter, USAF
Nashville native Thomas Sumpter was assigned to the 41st Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron, Takhli AB, Thailand in December 1967. He was forced to eject over North Vietnam when his EB-66C Destroyer reconnaissance aircraft was damaged by enemy fire in January 1968. He remained a prisoner of war in North Vietnam until March 1973.
Vice-Admiral William P. Lawrence, USN
Nashvillian William Lawrence graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1951. He became a Naval Aviator in 1952 and was one of the final candidates for the Mercury space program. While serving as commanding officer of the VF-143 squadron aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation, he and his radar officer, Lieutenant James Bailey, ejected during a bombing mission over North Vietnam in June 1967 after their F-4B Phantom II was struck by anti-aircraft artillery fire. They were captured and held until 1973. Admiral Lawrence composed the official Tennessee State Poem, “Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee,” during his time as a POW. After the war he served as Superintendent of the Naval Academy from 1978-1981.
To assist veterans of the Vietnam War with the preservation of their history, the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) has launched Tennessee Remembers: Vietnam Veterans. The goal of this project is to collect original documents, photographs, and memorabilia related to the in-country experiences of veterans during the Vietnam War.
Section researched and written by James Castro, Archival Assistant.