Clanton veteran tells of Vietnam War final battle

Published 3:28 pm Tuesday, November 7, 2017

By JOYANNA LOVE/ Senior Staff Writer

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Albert Byrd of Clanton recounted the last battle connected to the Vietnam War to the Jefferson State Community College Chilton-Clanton Campus during a presentation on Nov. 7.

While the fighting in Vietnam officially ended in 1973, the final casualties of the war were in 1975.

Byrd joined the Air Force after graduating from the University of Alabama in 1973.

“Mainly, I just wanted to get out of Clanton, Alabama and see a little bit of the world,” Byrd said. “So, I did.”  

He was assigned to combat photography in Thailand. However, since the fighting was over, they took photos for documentaries of training and other base happenings, such as delivering medical supplies and giving medical care.

During his presentation, Byrd showed students the 1970s 35 mm film camera he used during his time in Thailand. He said the camera weighed about three pounds.

Things were peaceful for the base until the capture of the United States cargo ship Mayaguez, which was headed toward the base where Byrd was stationed in Thailand.

As the ship passed Cambodia, which had recently become ruled by the Communists, it was captured.

“Cambodia was kind of like the middle person in this war we called Vietnam,” Byrd said. “Everyone ran over them to shoot at each other.”

When the Communists took over the country on April 12, 1975, “they kicked everyone out of cities, and they moved to the countryside,” Byrd said. “There were no embassies. There were no communications. It went dark.”

U.S forces had been involved in evacuation efforts of those connected with and friendly to the United States, as well as orphans and others at risk of being killed.

When the ship with supplies for the base was captured, no one was really sure where the crew had been taken.

“We had a very hard time finding out what happened,” Byrd said. “They sent out a distress call, but we don’t have the satellites then. We don’t have imagery then.”

After three days, a rescue plan was launched. Byrd said Marines were brought to the base to carry out the rescue mission.

While the ship was found easily, the island that the U.S. attacked was not the one the crew was on. However, Byrd said the attack did lead to the crew of the ship being released.

The Marines had landed on the east and west banks of a narrow island. One front was able to hold its position, but on the other bank helicopters were shot down as they tried to land. This left people stranded on the east side of the island. The mission then became rescuing those who were stranded and getting all personnel off of the island. Even after the release of the crew, the fighting on the first island continued.

All of those who survived the helicopter crashes were rescued.

“They all survived, and they got them out,” Byrd said. “It was an amazing thing.”

Those who died in the helicopter crashes or in the fighting on the island are memorialized as the final names on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.