On March 8, 1965, the first American combat soldiers in the Vietnam War came ashore north of Da Nang.
What many consider to be the most controversial of American wars may seem like ancient history, as more than a half-century has passed since the 9th U.S. Marine Expeditionary Force waded onto China Beach that day.
But the effect of the war on the lives of huge numbers of American families — and countless Vietnamese families, too, of course — reverberates to this day.
Acclaimed documentary producer Ken Burns will explore those reverberations in a series, “The Vietnam War,” premiering on PBS this September.
In conjunction with the series, two of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s own award-winning documentarians are crafting a one-hour companion documentary, “Vietnam: West Virginians Remember,” which debuts Sept. 14 on WVPB.
As part of the effort, they are putting out the call for home movies, photos, slides, letters and other papers from the war as experienced by West Virginia soldiers, their families back home, doctors and nurses, and other support personnel who served in-country. The material will be used to build an archive on the Vietnam War at the West Virginia State Archives in the state Capitol Complex.
“The stories are endless, as you can imagine,” said WVPB executive producer Suzanne Higgins, who has been working on the documentary with associate producer Russ Barbour and editor Aaron Shackelford.
A total of 36,578 Mountain State residents served in Vietnam, and, of that number, 1,182 died, said Higgins. Most were teenagers and some were drafted, but the majority of West Virginians who served in the Vietnam War enlisted, she said.
WVPB has told the story of West Virginians in wartime in a previous documentary, “West Virginians at War,” which included Vietnam.
But the occasion of the new Burns’ series and the companion WVPB documentary offered a chance to dig deeper into West Virginians’ role in the war, Higgins said.
“This was an opportune time, when the entire nation was going to be watching a Vietnam series, that we tell our own story,” she said. “Not only do we tell it and share it, but that we archive it.”
Higgins’ fellow documentarian Barbour noted past WVPB documentaries have featured material from the state archives. But the Vietnam series offered a chance to gather a fuller picture in the archives of the war’s impact on West Virginians.
“We realized between the two organizations we just don’t have that much that really shows West Virginians specifically in Vietnam in that theater of war,” he said. “This is a good opportunity to ask for help.”
The documentary, partly funded with a grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council through the National Endowment for the Humanities, focuses on five West Virginia soldiers from Chesapeake, Buckhannon, Kaiser, Bunker Hill and Morgantown.
Higgins said the Vietnam veterans featured did not want to have their stories publicized until the documentary nears its broadcast debut on WVPB.
Their stories are told using personal photos; home movies; visual material from state, regional and national archives; video of present-day Vietnam Veterans events; and original music. Additional materials have come from the James E. Morrow Library at Marshall University and The West Virginia and Regional History Center at West Virginia University Libraries.
As to what each of the filmmakers took away from the project, Barbour noted: “I got more of a sense of interconnectedness. The community really gave up a lot of young men.”
Higgins noted how much she learned from the time spent with the Mountain State veterans of the war.
“We recorded no less than three hours of interviews with each of them,” she said. “You read about Vietnam, you might get a brief lecture in high school or college about Vietnam. But I didn’t come close to understanding what these teenagers went through — and that’s what they were.”
The minimum age for enlisting for the war at that time was 17 years old with parental consent, and two of the five soldiers interviewed enlisted at that age, said Higgins.
“They were on the football team, they used to play basketball, they had newspaper routes,” she said.
Higgins said the connection got personal, as she has a 17-year-old son.
“They thought they were doing the right thing,” she said. “It was an honor to serve your country. They went, and they believed it. To hear the first-person account of how you go from a local patriotic young man just believing he was defending the Constitution and democracy, and being thrown into what they were thrown into — the chaos and the carnage — and then to be often stereotyped as crazy baby killers? That was a really emotional project for me to experience myself.”
As for the archive they hope to build, they are particularly interested in 16 mm and 8 mm film as well as still photographs in the form of prints, negatives and slides. Also of interest are letters, documents and other paper materials.
The state archives will create a digital copy of the materials for its records, and the originals will be returned, unless people wish to donate them permanently to the collection. People who donate materials will also receive a digital copy of their materials for their own use.
Higgins said some Vietnam veterans have been leery in the past of telling their stories on camera given the reception some of them faced upon returning home.
“We did not honor our Vietnam veterans at the time and for many decades afterward,” she said.
The issue was compounded as veterans sought out help, which the government and medical community were ill-prepared to offer to returning veterans, she said.
“The medical community was not ready, and they often found they were not willing to deal with the complexity of issues that the returning Vietnam veterans were arriving with,” she said.
Higgins said WVPB and the state archives are in a unique position to tell a fuller story through the documentary and to develop a rich archive of the Vietnam War’s impact on the lives of average West Virginians.
“At this point in 2017, more of these gentlemen are willing to talk and are willing to share. We find that very humbling, and we are very honored to be the recipients of their time,” she said.
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In conjunction with “Vietnam: West Virginians Remember,” West Virginia Public Broadcasting is partnering with the West Virginia State Archives to borrow for documentation images taken by West Virginians fighting in the war, as well as doctors, nurses and other support personnel.
Material sought includes 16 mm and 8 mm motion picture film and still photographs in the form of prints, negatives or slides. Also of interest are correspondence, documents and other paper materials. A digital copy will be created for potential use in the WVPB documentary and will be preserved in the West Virginia State Archives. Donors will also receive a digital copy of these materials.
Materials will be returned to owners unless they choose to donate them to the West Virginia State Archives’ permanent collection.
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at
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