For the men and women who served in Vietnam it was the signature sound of the war.
The rhythmic thumping of helicopter blades could mean life or death. An assault deep in enemy territory or life-saving medical evacuation. Critical re-supply or a return to base and relative safety. Forty years after the war, Vietnam veterans have vivid memories of the moments of their lives played to the soundtrack of helicopters in action.
"You would look in their faces when you were taking them to a fire support base, or on a troop strike," recalls Terry McDade of Layton, Utah who served as a gunner and crew chief on a Marine Corps helicopter. "Are they going to be alive, or are they going to be dead?"
It forms one of the many gripping segments of Utah Vietnam Stories: Turning Point, the continuation of KUED's powerful documentary tribute to the men and women of Utah who served during the Vietnam conflict.
Built upon dozens of interviews with soldiers, sailors, airmen and medical personnel, Turning Point is a compelling oral history of the pivotal months in Vietnam during and immediately after the Tet Offensive of 1968. More than 500,000 Americans were serving in Southeast Asia at the time, and the surging, confusing nature of the conflict was fueling deep anti-war sentiment back in the United States.
"I didn't take it personal, these demonstrations," remembers Army Specialist Dennis Stevens of Kearns, Utah. Returning soldiers were treated indifferently, and sometimes with hostility, when they came home on leave. "It shouldn't be directed at us. But, in retrospect, who else would (protestors) direct it to? We were easy targets."
"Turning Point is not a military history of Vietnam," says program producer Sally Shaum. "At its best, it is a deeply personal statement by an incredible collection of men and women who served their country at a time of division and uncertainty."
Part of a seven year commitment by KUED to document the touching, searing and even humorous memories of hundreds of men and women who have served during times of war, Turning Point is the second in a three-part series dedicated to the Vietnam Era. Previously, KUED produced the landmark Utah World War Two Stories series creating almost ten hours of original programming chronicling Utah's role in every corner of the global conflict.
While Turning Point offers compelling stories from the battle lines of Vietnam, it also offers unforgettable portraits of moments away from the conflict. Few stories are more penetrating and touching than the recollections of the men and women who worked tirelessly to save lives in the middle of war. From battlefield medics to "evac" pilots to MASH surgeons to nurses serving in country and stateside, Turning Point offers tender moments of compassion in the most unlikely of settings.
"Never in my life have I taken care of patients who would say to me 'Ma'am my buddy is three beds down, he needs you more than I do. Go to him first'," remembers retired Rear Admiral Maxine Conder of the Navy Nurse Corps, pausing for a long moment to compose herself in the memory. "They were very special young men."
"While the programs themselves are powerful, the enduring contribution of our interviews with veterans is the creation of a long-overdue oral history collection," states KUED Director of Production Ken Verdoia. "Our efforts will preserve the contributions of more than two hundred 'average Americans' who served and sacrificed for their country. Their individual stories may be repeated in other settings, but these unique stories from Utah are far from commonplace."
The transcripts of all of the KUED veteran interviews are available on-line, either through the Utah Vietnam War Stories or the Utah World War Two Stories web pages.
Turning Point is the sights and sounds of a nation at war. The teeming streets of Saigon, where "every night was Friday night" in the memory of a retired Marine who was once a nineteen-year-old away from his Utah home for the first time. Temples dating back hundreds of years appearing in unlikely settings. Music they would never forget. And, always, the sudden certainty of war. A nation, a state and a generation remember a time when the world seemed to spin faster and life was held together by a slender thread. The music was loud. The helicopters louder.