The remains of 81 South Vietnamese soldiers were buried Saturday in Westminster after being stored in Hawaii for more than 33 years.
Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer and former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb spoke during a ceremony attended by more than 2,000 people at Freedom Park.
Spencer invoked the unknown soldiers buried at Gettysburg National Cemetery in his tribute to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers who died along with four American service members after their plane crashed on Dec. 11, 1965.
“Across this great country, the Vietnamese American community has endured and indeed carved out a new birth of freedom,” Spencer said. “And may these actions help us remember who we are as Americans and who we should aspire to be, a people who respect and never forget those who fight alongside us.”
During his service in the Vietnam War, Webb fought with the South Vietnamese army as a platoon commander with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. He received the Navy Cross, the branch’s second-highest honor, and went on to serve as Navy secretary under President Reagan.
In 2017, Webb heard about the bureaucratic and political quagmire holding up the unknown South Vietnamese soldiers’ burial and established the Lost Soldiers Foundation. The three-decade-long delay persisted because the U.S. military couldn’t verify individual identities from the remains, and the Vietnamese government twice declined to accept them.
“It was a very complicated process, but we are here,” Webb, a Virginia Democrat, said. “Our soldiers are here.”
With the support of Spencer and FedEx Chairman Fred Smith — both of whom are retired Marine officers — Webb won government approval to release the soldiers’ remains from a military facility in Hawaii.
On Sept. 13, retired Marine Col. Gene A. Castagnetti, former director of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, accompanied a box containing the soldiers’ remains on a U.S. Air Force flight from Hawaii to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside. The remains were driven to a Westminster mortuary, where they were kept until the ceremony.
“For many years, the American public never knew how close we fought, shoulder-to-shoulder with the ARVN … and they’re our brothers in arms,” said Castagnetti, who served as an American advisor with the South Vietnamese army during his first tour of duty in Vietnam. “This shows we have not forgotten that they fought communism, oppression and have the same dream that the American colonialists had for freedom.”
Saturday’s ceremonies were particularly emotional for the dozens of South Vietnamese veterans wearing the red beret of the Vietnamese Airborne Division.
Hiep Nguyen, president of Gia Dinh Mu Do (Family of the Red Berets), saluted before placing his hand on the coffin draped with the yellow and red South Vietnamese flag.
He thanked Webb, Castagnetti and attorney Jeff McFadden for their work to bring the remains to Little Saigon, the de facto capital of the Vietnamese diaspora.
“They have spent a tremendous amount of time and effort to overcome many, many political, administrative and bureaucratic challenges,” he said.
Vietnamese Airborne Division veteran Tam Le of Sacramento said he shed a few tears in the moments before the memorial tribute.
“We don’t know who they are, but they are heroes to us,” he said. “Today, we come to respect our friends.”
Vuong Pham, a South Vietnamese veteran, drove overnight from San Jose to be at the memorial service.
“I think it’s a good choice,” he said of the final resting place. “We’re very happy with what Jim Webb did for our soldiers.”
A Westminster police motorcycle motorcade, Vietnam War-era military police jeeps and federal government vehicles accompanied a white hearse transporting the casket from Freedom Park to Westminster Memorial Park.
Under the sweltering midday sun, the casket was interred next to the Vietnamese Boat People Memorial.