On July 10, 1969, the first American troops to be withdrawn from the Vietnam War are welcomed home with a parade and barbecue in Seattle. Led by two Army bands, a battalion of 778 soldiers -- wearing jungle fatigues and carrying M-16 rifles with fixed bayonets -- marches down 4th Avenue from Virginia to Madison. Spectators line the street, waving flags and cheering as the soldiers pass by. Secretary of the Army Stanley R. Resor (1917-2012), Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989), Seattle Mayor Floyd Miller (1902-1985), Lieutenant Governor John A. Cherberg (1910-1992), and other dignitaries greet the troops with speeches from a reviewing platform set up in front of the downtown library. Anti-war demonstrators interrupt some of the speeches with shouts of "Bring them all back." At the end of the ceremonies, the soldiers are trucked to the Seattle Center for a salmon barbecue and then returned to Fort Lewis to complete processing for either discharge from the military or reassignment.
The soldiers were the first to leave Vietnam under a "Vietnamization" policy adopted by President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) in response to growing opposition to U.S. involvement in the war. About 540,000 American soldiers were stationed in Vietnam at the time; more than 30,000 had died there so far. Nixon hoped to defuse anti-war sentiment by gradually withdrawing American troops from combat positions and replacing them with soldiers from the South Vietnamese army. Shifting the burden of fighting the Communists of North Vietnam to the South Vietnamese and away from the U.S., he said, would lead to "peace with honor" and an end to the decades-long war.
On June 8, 1969, Nixon announced that 25,000 Americans would be sent home during the first stage of the "Vietnamization" process. The Third Battalion, 60th Infantry, Ninth Infantry Division, was the first to leave. Most of the men assigned to the unit had completed or nearly completed their one-year tours of duty and had been scheduled to return home anyway. Under the new policy, they would not be replaced.
Shortly before dawn on the morning of July 8, the men were taken from their base camp in the Mekong Delta and driven to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, near Saigon. They were assembled there, on the tarmac, for a two-hour sendoff marked by military fanfare and expressions of gratitude by Vietnamese officials. Among those participating in the ceremonies was General Creighton W. Abrams (1914-1974), commander of American forces in Vietnam. "Within the next few days, you will parade in your own country as representatives of all who preceded you and all who remain here to assist a free nation in its struggle against outside aggression," he said. "Americans everywhere are proud of your achievements. You occupy a significant moment in history" ("Returning U.S. Troops ...").
South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu (1923-2001), Vice President (and former prime minister) Nguyen Cao Ky (1930-2011), and Defense Minister Nguyen Van Vy also spoke. "Together we have repelled Communist aggression," Thieu told the soldiers. "This has been our purpose and our goal." He noted that 1,855 members of the Ninth Infantry Division had been killed in action in Vietnam so far. "Our duty is to make sure this sacrifice was not in vain," he said ("Returning U.S. Troops ...").
The soldiers were given leis and small gifts by young Vietnamese women, and then ushered into nine C-141 transport planes and flown to McChord Air Force Base, near Tacoma (now part of Joint Base Lewis-McChord). The Army Personnel Center at Fort Lewis had been selected as the processing site for the returning troops. One soldier, clowning on the ramp as he prepared to board his plane, grinned into a dozen cameras and said: "I'm going home to momma where I belong" (McArthur).
The infantrymen arrived at McChord on the afternoon of July 8, 1969. They spent the next day practicing close-order drills at Fort Lewis, in preparation for their homecoming parade on July 10. "They toiled and wheeled down a hot and dusty Fort Lewis street, relearning the elementary parade drill that will enable them to get out of the Northwest in unison if not in style," a Seattle Times writer commented. "Eleven months in the swamps and thickets of the Mekong Delta isn't the easiest way to keep up parade-ground skills" (Hinterberger, ""Returned G.I.s ...").
It was raining in Seattle on the day of the parade. The rain may have kept some people away, but 4th Avenue was still lined with onlookers, many waving signs saying "Thanks." Tickertape filled the air as the soldiers marched smartly down the street.
A large crowd gathered around the reviewing platform, in front of the library. Some waved American flags; others held anti-war signs. A huge banner, prepared by the "G.I.-Civilian Alliance for Peace," read: "Welcome Home -- We'll Stay in the Streets Until All the GIs Are Home." Another large banner, signed by the Young Socialist Alliance, said "BRING ALL THE GI's HOME NOW." Several members of a group identified as Students for Vietnam expressed another point of view, with signs reading: "Win in Vietnam. U.S. Forever. Surrender Never."
Remarks by Magnuson and others were occasionally interrupted by shouts of "bring them all back now." Some in the crowd responded by telling the anti-war demonstrators to "Go home, Commies!" But according to press accounts, such exchanges were limited and the overall mood was celebratory.
The Seattle All-City High School Band, two drill teams, and the Shamrock Drum and Bugle Corps performed. About 40 young women from the American Institute of Banking's women's division and the Peterson Business School handed out roses to the soldiers, recreating a sanitized version of a "welcome lane" that had greeted troops returning from the Korean War in 1953. (The Korean veterans were welcomed by "can-can girls," to the consternation of some public officials).
The colors of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, and Ex-Prisoners of War posts were displayed, along with the banners of the Third Battalion, 60th Infantry. Although the returnees marched under the colors and wore the badges of the Third Battalion, only 158 had actually served with that outfit. More than 600 men from other units -- so-called "short-timers," who were nearing the end of their one-year combat zone assignments -- were transferred into the Third for demobilization. Still, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Peter B. Peterson of Chicago, accompanied the group home. He and Sgt. Harold Blye, a Purple Heart veteran from Myrtle Beach, S.C., received special honors during the welcome ceremonies, including a floral lei and a kiss from Seafair Queen Karen Brown.
Associated Press photographer Barry Sweet, who covered the event, was struck by the respect and appreciation demonstrated by the onlookers toward the soldiers. One of his photos from that day -- included in his 2012 book, Split Seconds: Four Decades of News Photography from the Pacific Northwest and Beyond -- shows people smiling and applauding as the battalion passes by. A woman in the foreground appears nearly overcome with emotion. "There's a lot of talk about how Vietnam vets -- people didn't think much of them when they came home," he said recently. "Not true in Seattle…here in Seattle they gave them respect" (Royale).
Hail and Farewell
An Army information officer told Seattle Times writer John Hinterberger that it normally took 14 hours to process a soldier through the Fort Lewis personnel center. For the men assigned to the Third Battalion, it took three days. Hinterberger and others suggested that the soldiers should have been allowed to just go home, avoiding the lengthy hoopla. Instead, before "Johnny" could "get on with the business of marching home," he had to "march in Seattle, march at Fort Lewis in preparation for the Seattle parade, and spend an afternoon eating complimentary salmon at Seattle Center" (Hinterberger, "Troops Leaving Vietnam ...").
After the parade, the author of a letter to the editor of The Seattle Times said she wanted to "express my apologies to those men for the ordeal they were put to." The soldiers had to endure "two hours of standing in the blazing sun in Vietnam for sending-off ceremonies," followed by "hours of parade drill to entertain us at their welcome home." She added that she was "embarrassed that we should have inflicted so many speakers upon them" (Richards).
Perhaps because of the complaints, including some from the soldiers themselves, the next group of returnees mustered out with little fanfare. The Fourth Battalion, 47th Infantry, Ninth Infantry Division arrived at McChord on July 13, 1969. There was no sendoff in Saigon by top military or South Vietnamese officials. As with the first contingent, the 800 or so men in the battalion were flown to McChord on nine transport planes. Each of the planes was greeted by an Army band and an officer from Fort Lewis. After that, most of the men were on their way within four to six hours, either discharged from the military or released on leave prior to reassignment.
There was no parade, no barbecue, no roses from pretty girls. The news of the battalion's arrival was published on page 17 of The Seattle Times, not Page One. The arrival of subsequent groups of returning soldiers was hardly mentioned in the local newspapers at all.
More than 28,200 American soldiers were killed in Vietnam between July 8, 1969, when the phased troop withdrawal began, and March 29, 1973, when it was completed. Two years later, the army of North Vietnam captured Saigon, and North and South Vietnam were reunited under a Communist government. Altogether, 58,220 American soldiers died in Vietnam. One of them was a member of the Fourth Battalion, 47th Infantry. He was killed in a rocket attack on July 10, 1969 -- on the day the Third Battalion was being feted in Seattle, and three days before his own unit left Vietnam.