Americans From The Ground Up
BY MOKIE PRATT PORTER
By the end of the Vietnam War, U.S.
aircrews had dropped over seven million tons of bombs on targets
in Indochina, more than three times the tonnage dropped during WW
II. Of the approximately 3,400 fixed-wing planes lost in this
massive air war, 996 aircraft were associated with 1,633
unaccounted-for personnel. To date, 600 U.S. servicemen associated
with aircraft “downings” have been accounted for. A total of 1,789
military personnel remain missing; 1033 of the remaining
unaccounted-for are casualties of the air war.
The Vietnamese in the North did not
fight their war alone. To secure needed supplies, equipment, and
resources, the Vietnamese played an artful diplomatic game,
sometimes pitting the Soviet Union and China against each other.
The PVO Strany, the air defense portion of the Soviet Military,
came to the aid of the Vietnamese, providing them with
surface-to-air missiles, radar, electronic equipment, and advisers
to instruct them in their use. We now know that of the 18,000
Soviet citizens in Vietnam during the war, 13,000 were military
After the collapse of the Soviet
Union, the U.S. and Russia established the U.S.-Russia Joint
Commission on POW/MIAs (USRJC) to be a forum through which both
nations seek to determine the fate of missing personnel from World
War II, Korea, Vietnam, and other venues of the Cold War. The
Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office works with the USRJC and has
Russian-speaking personnel working in the former Soviet Union to
support the mission.
Just as American veterans came home
from Vietnam with photos, documents, and other information that
helped the Vietnamese account for some of their many missing,
former Soviet veterans of Vietnam have information that might help
clarify or resolve the fate of missing American service members.
DPMO has interviewed hundreds of members of the Soviet military
who served in Vietnam and has reviewed thousands of pages of
When an invitation to meet with
veterans of the former Soviet Union came to VVA through the
Veterans Initiative Task Force, VVA President John Rowan was ready
to act. An Air Force veteran who had served with the 6990th
Security Squadron, Rowan had flown over North Vietnam, working
with Strategic Air Command to direct bombing missions. He
understood the potential for answers. “Maybe these are some of the
guys who were shooting at me,” Rowan joked. “I’d really like to
meet them and see what they know.”
The letter from the leadership of Vietnam Veterans of Kharkiv,
delivered via DPMO’s MSgt. Michael Lunini to VVA, outlined the
reason for the invitation:
“Today we have no ‘Iron Curtain’
separating us. We have a common enemy—terrorism.
“Today, we should come together to share our stories and
impressions about the difficult and tragic war in the skies over
North Vietnam. “A meeting of veterans is needed even moreso
as our numbers are declining.
“We will continue to assist your Department of Defense Prisoner of
War/Missing Personnel Office by providing them information.”
Roger Schumacher, DPMO’s Director
of the Joint Commission Support Directorate, long familiar with
the successes of VVA’s Veterans Initiative working veteran to
veteran with their former enemy to account for the missing,
suggested sending a VITF team to Ukraine to discuss the
international role of veterans in accounting for MIAs.
Lunini noted that Ukranian Vietnam
veterans have fate-clarifying material and information useful to
the U.S. government in its efforts to provide the fullest possible
accounting. “A visit by Vietnam Veterans of America’s Veterans
Initiative,” he said, “could help allay fears of a system that
prevents them from being completely forthright and open.”
A motion presented by Rowan on
November 4 to the VVA Board of Directors passed 16-5 with 2
abstentions. Approval was received for VI Task Force chair Robert
Maras to travel to Ukraine. Rowan’s schedule did not permit him to
join this first delegation. Mokie Porter, VVA Director of
Communications, who had initiated the contact with DPMO, joined
Maras to record this historic first meeting.
Friends and Enemies
We arrived in the Ukranian capital
of Kiev on Wednesday, November 18, and were met by DPMO’s Lunini
and James Connell, our guides and translators. The next day, we
boarded an AN24 (with bald tires), and after a short, bumpy ride,
arrived in Kharkiv in the dark and snow.
We were scheduled to meet with our
hosts, the Kharkiv Organizations of Veterans of the Vietnam War (KOVVW),
on Friday morning at the Museum of the International Warriors.
We arrived early. The museum is
located on the top floor of a two-story building. Along the walls
of the stairwell leading to the museum are etched the names of
Soviet soldiers from Kharkiv who died in Afghanistan. To enter the
museum, we passed through a replica of the bridge over which
Afghan troops crossed, a symbol of the end of the 10-year Soviet
We received a warm welcome from
Nikolay Ovcharenko, a para-Olympian who lost both legs in
Afghanistan. It is his vision and determination that is
responsible for the museum. He gave us a tour.
On one wall, our eyes rested on
what appeared to be an organizational logo, a sphere with the word
“Vietnam” and the dates “1965-1975.” Next to it, mounted behind
plexiglass, we counted 44 photographs—formal portraits of
seasoned, decorated soldiers.
Within a half hour we were joined
by our hosts, some of whom we recognized by their pictures on
exhibit. We exchanged greetings with Petr Serdyuk, president of
KOVVW, and 13 of the organization’s 93 members, who had come out
on a grey November day to meet with us. Together we stood in front
of a mural depicting an ambush of a transportation company,
evocative imagery, we were told, that resonates for every Soviet
soldier who fought in Afghanistan.
Along the wall are the individual
sketches for this finely detailed mural. Accompanying the mural is
an audio track that narrates the horrors, their memories, and
Our attention shifted from the
mural presentation as we eyed the older veterans in the room. We
moved into the adjacent hall and gathered around a small table.
The turnout was better than expected. More chairs were set out;
still there were not enough.
Serdyuk, president of the Vietnam
Veterans of Kharkiv, opened the meeting. “We are very grateful to
you for meeting with us,” he said. “This is our first opportunity
to meet with Vietnam veterans. We welcome this new relationship
between our governments, our veterans’ organizations, and the
KOVVW is the only Vietnam veterans
organization in the former Soviet Union, Serdyuk explained. The
organization came about because Kharkiv is home to a military air
defense engineering academy (now called the Kharkiv University of
Air Forces), large military air defense forces, military and
civilian facilities, and universities. All, Serdyuk noted, had
served in Vietnam some time during 1965-75, and had advised or
assisted the Vietnamese with air defense matters. Many settled in
the area and are still involved in the university. Today, most of
the members are over 70 years of age.
Maras, in turn, introduced VVA and
delivered greetings from John Rowan: “For us, the fighting is
over. The governments of Vietnam, the U.S., and Ukraine are at
peace, but the search for the missing from the war goes on. VVA
welcomes your initiative to share memories of the air war in
Vietnam. We appreciate your willingness to help with the
accounting of missing Americans.”
Serdyuk invited his fellow veterans
to share their memories: “Amongst our ranks we have generals,
officers, and enlisted men. We gave aid to the Socialist Republic
of Vietnam in their struggle for independence. Just as you have
established relationships with the Vietnamese, we have established
and maintain a relationship with the Vietnamese Embassy in Kiev.
The Vietnamese have expressed their appreciation for what we have
done for them. I would like to appeal to you for joint memoirs.”
Retired Gen. Vladimir Mikhailovich Zakoryukin was the first to
offer his recollections: “I am very glad we are meeting today,” he
said. “I only saw Americans from the bottom up, from the ground
“I was going to Hanoi in the North.
An F-4 Phantom started to strafe the road. A lot of civilians were
on the road. As you can imagine, it was all filled up with
bicycles. We were in a Jeep. We were going very slowly. All the
populace got scared. They scattered, running for cover. We, Soviet
specialists, had special instructions. Get out of the Jeep. Stand
next to it. Show yourself. We wore white shirts and dark trousers.
We were unarmed. We had no documents, no identification. We had no
weapons. The Phantom made a pass. I could see the pilot’s face as
he made a second pass. I had the impression that he saw me. I was
terrified. He was smiling. He made holes with his machine gun 30
meters away. The rounds ricocheted over my head.
“The Soviet specialists were also
great patriots. The civilian population [of Vietnam] didn’t have
anything to protect them. As friends of that country—we were
professors and teachers—we helped them use our technology, and
they used it against you. “War is war,” Zakoryukin said. “As
veterans, we all acknowledge that we did our duty. It is very
pleasant to be with one another. People of our age live basically
in our memories—the memories of all the good things we have done.”
Professor Nikolay Shershnev is a
veteran of the Vietnam War and professor at the University of Air
Forces, Ukraine Ministry of Defense. In July 2005, Shershnev was
asked by the commander of the university to review libraries and
faculty holdings for information regarding American losses in
Vietnam. Currently he teaches students from Myanmar in the use of
the old Soviet anti-aircraft missile system. Shershnev was
accompanied by his teaching assistant, who is fluent in English.
Shershnev offered the following
“Despite the fact that we and the
general are old, we still work. We work with Zenith anti-aircraft
missiles. Every day, we appear before students and cadets.
“Over 250 years ago, the famous
Russian General Alexander Suvorov said, ‘The war is not over until
the last casualty is buried.’ We admire the American organization
[VVA] who attempts to put a period to war by continuing to account
for the missing so that they may be returned to their families and
be given a proper burial.
“I am engaged in writing a book
about personal experiences. It will be about what we did in
Vietnam. It will be called Heaven and Earth of Vietnam. Now
we are working on the illustrations. We will give a copy of our
new book to our American friends. Maybe we will have an
opportunity to work on a book together. Here amongst us are
missile men of various kinds, professors, political workers, and
those who pushed the button. Someday we hope to meet with those
among you who were pilots and airmen.”
Shershnev yielded the floor to Yuri
“Next year it will be forty years
since we returned,” he said. “I only saw the Americans on the
radar screen. But one time we did see a POW. On August 1,
1966, we had shot down many Americans. He was a lieutenant
colonel. He was trying to get back to the airport in Thailand.
This was about midnight. His captors were carrying burning
torches. My friend and I were out walking. What is that? That is a
pilot. Let’s go look at him. He had short hair. We were two meters
from him. He was wearing only his underwear. He was tied in ropes,
and there were bindings on his shoulders. There was a stopped car.
It was not a pretty picture. We couldn’t sleep with that terrible
picture in front of our eyes.
“Later on we saw some American POWs
in Haiphong. They were working in a fish factory.”
Anatoly Sokolov proudly proclaimed: “I am the only one here who
took part in both wars, World War II and Vietnam. The terror and
fear were much greater in World War II. I was a commander of
a field artillery unit then. I marched from Moscow to the River
Elbe where I met the Americans. In the confusion, we crossed the
river. We rejoiced in victory and celebration. We hugged. I was
only 21 years old. I will soon be 82 years old. I corresponded for
a while with my American friends, but then I lost touch.
“I went from field artillery to
being a specialist in missiles. It was my lot to fulfill my duty
[in Vietnam]. At the order of the Russian ambassador, I took part
in the interrogation of two American prisoners of war. I was given
the option of using force. I did not use force. I interrogated
them about the Shrike Missile System. I was chosen for the
interrogation because I knew missile systems, and I could ask for
details that would be useful technologically. It’s been a long
time. I can’t remember much. What can I say? The war in Vietnam
did not have the same degree of danger [as WWII], but of course it
Later, over dinner, Sokolov again
spoke of the battlefield horrors of World War II and of that
glorious day, April 29, 1945, when he met up with his American
allies at the River Elbe. He was among the soldiers of the Red
Army who had endured the Siege of Leningrad and had battled their
way from Russia into Germany.
He spoke of the irony of how, two
decades later, his duty was to help the Vietnamese civilian
population, which had no defense against the U.S. B-52 bombing
strikes. And with further irony of how, with the passage of
another thirty years, he is once again sharing a meal and
celebrating peace with former allies, and remembering the interval
when they were foes.
With sadness, Sokolov reported that
in Vietnam one of his comrades couldn’t handle jumping into one
more bomb shelter with the snakes and the scorpions. When the air
raid siren blew, he did not go for cover. He paid the ultimate
Sergey Varyukin recounted his
memories of Operation Homecoming: “I saw 24 American pilots in
1973. They were at the international airport in Hanoi. A C-130
came to the airport. The Americans were on one side, waiting. A
bus drove onto the tarmac with American prisoners of war. They had
little suitcases; they wore dark pajamas. I remember seeing the
first prisoner of war who was taken. He fell in a faint. They took
him on a stretcher. It was such an emotional moment.”
One veteran wanted to know, “Who is
the American POW who later became an astronaut?”
“What about the hydroelectric plant outside of Hanoi” another
veteran asked, responding to a question about where the American
POWs were kept. He added: “At one point, they moved the POWs near
the hydroelectric plant, because they felt that if the enemy knew
the POWs were located nearby, they would not bomb the plant.”
Varyukin explained: “Hanoi was
broken into no-bombing sectors by the Americans. The diplomatic
quarter was in a no-bombing zone.”
Conclusions And Beginnings
Serdyuk concluded the formal part of the meeting, reiterating his
membership’s appreciation for our visit. “It is a great gesture of
friendship and mutual work on the part of we who participated at
the will of our governments in war. I propose that our veterans
continue to work for peace, the peace of our motherlands and the
peace of our world.”
Shershnev proclaimed: “We will
build an air bridge between our two organizations, Vietnam
Veterans of Kharkiv and Vietnam Veterans of America.” as he
presented Maras with a bulava, a wooden mace that is Ukraine’s
historical symbol of power.
In turn, Mara presented copies of
The VVA Veteran, VVA’s poetry anthology, Landing Zone,
and VVA’s photo book, Vietnam Veterans In America, to
Serdyuk and to Shershnev, expressing his hope for a warm and
productive relationship between the Vietnam veterans of both
The veterans gathered together for
more discussions after a short break. Porter mentioned that VVA
uses The VVA Veteran to provide information about the
ongoing effort to determine the fates of those still unaccounted
At the urging of Lunini, she
produced a copy of the May/June 2003 edition of The VVA Veteran
and pointed to Dixie Olmstead George, pictured on the cover in
front of a cross and a photograph of her father, U.S. Navy
Commander Stanley Olmstead. She showed them her POW/MIA bracelet
etched with his name, branch of service, and date of loss. She
described how his children, in their determination to find
answers, had traveled to Vietnam and had climbed 1,600 feet up the
side of Phuong Huang Mountain, only to find out later that they
had been at the crash site of a different plane.
She said Dixie’s proud young sons
will no doubt continue the search, as will their children’s
children, if need be, and expressed VVA’s wish that this family
and all families finally have answers regarding the fate of their
loved ones. She asked for any information that might help account
for Dixie’s father and others.
One veteran, visibly moved, asked
for the date, the place of shoot-down, and the type of craft.
Porter answered: F-4, between Lang Son and Bac Giang provinces,
near the village of Chi Lang, October 17, 1965. He said he didn’t
launch the missile. He was there, but he had already trained the
Vietnamese to shoot the missiles. He seemed relieved. He said that
his Vietnamese interpreter might be able to remember some of the
details, adding that the Vietnamese kept the records. He suggested
a meeting of former Soviet, American, and Vietnamese veterans.
With just a core of former Soviet
veterans and the Americans delegation gathered around the table,
Shershnev opened his briefcase. He handed some papers to Lunini.
We hovered over them. We saw a table of shoot-down records, a list
of classified books on file at the university that may have
information of interest to DPMO, and a broadside with an American
Chieu Hoi message. Lunini seemed pleased. Later he confided
that the shoot-down records are of great value. Porter asked,
“Possibly fate- clarifying?” He nodded in the affirmative.
We were presented with Shershnev’s
manuscript, 44 pages of Russian prose, representing the second
installment of the recollections of Vietnam veterans of Kharkiv,
the memories of 30 Soviet Air Force advisers of their time in
Vietnam. Lunini was eager to have them. He arranged for copies.
The originals were returned to the professor.
We examined a black-and-white
snapshot of the tail section of a plane that had been passed to us
by one of the veterans, a souvenir shot taken in Vietnam. The word
“Marauder” appeared on the wing. There were other identifying
Over lunch, we shared stories about
our families and our lives. We heard more about Sokolov’s stories
of World War II and about Shershnev’s Burmese students. We left
them a copy of Sen. John McCain’s Faith of Our Fathers and
encouraged them to have it translated so that they can learn about
the experience of the pilot “from the sky down.”
After lunch, we said goodbye.
Varyukin hugged Porter, exclaiming: “We were told Americans were
grizzly bears with horns in their foreheads. You are not at all.
You are just like us.”
We have been invited to return in
February to continue our dialogue. From the VI’s perspective, if
the process of developing a relationship with Vietnam Veterans of
Kharkiv helps even a single family resolve the fate of a missing
loved one, it will be worth the effort.
On November 22 in Kiev, Lunini and
Connell, with the assistance of the Defense and Army attachés and
the U.S. Ambassador, pursued access to the classified documents
thought to contain information useful to the accounting of missing
Americans. VVA received word via e-mail from Connell of their
“The day you all left, we had a
great breakthrough in that the Ministry of Defense Archives agreed
to declassify practically all of the documents we had identified
as being of interest to our work. Mike is staying an extra week to
finalize arrangements for our researchers to work at the archives
reviewing the documents. Looks like there will be more trips to
Shortly after we returned to the States, we learned, via a phone
conversation with Lunini, that the black-and-white photograph had
positively identified a downed craft. The remains of the pilot had
been recovered and returned from Vietnam in 1981.