The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
January/February 2006
FEATURE
 
 

Breakthrough:
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 service members.

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 documents.

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 involvement.

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 their nightmares.

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 American people.” 

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 looking up.

“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 remarks:

“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 S. Salumatin:

“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 was difficult.”

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 price.

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 countries.

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 for.

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 marks.

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.

Postscript

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 success:

“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 Ukraine.”

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.

   

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