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Vietnam veteran Donnie Tincher speaks to students at Alleghany High School. Tincher visited the school recently to provide students with a “living history’ of the war. (ACPS Photo)

AHS Students Hear ‘Living History’ Of Vietnam War

Valley Ridge, VA (May 9, 2022) - Vietnam veteran Donnie Tincher recently shared his war experiences with a group of Alleghany High School students, while noting that each of the 2.7 million Americans who served during the conflict had their own stories.  

Tincher, a semi-retired Alleghany County resident, served as a U.S. Army radio operator in Vietnam. He visited AHS recently to share his Vietnam story with English and History dual-enrollment students. His visit is part of a “Living History” celebration being used by teachers Mallory Thompson and Karen Johnson Hopkins to give students an eye-witness account of historical events that helped shape American culture. The presentations have been recorded for future generations to view.

“It has been such an honor to have these men and women visiting our classroom and sharing their stories and experiences with us. I am especially pleased to have local voices and local history heard and now preserved. It is important that we retain local involvement on history’s stage because it is too easy for local stories to be lost in the background of the American story,” said Mrs. Johnson Hopkins

In February, the students heard from several African American guest speakers during Black History Month. One group of speakers gave students an insightful look at growing up during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and experiencing the segregation of schools in the Alleghany Highlands. 

As the Civil Rights Movement dominated news headlines in the 1960s, so did the war in Vietnam. The United States’ involvement in Vietnam started in 1955. By 1968, the U.S. troop count had reached 549,500 and President Lyndon Johnson ramped up military operations against the communist North. 

In 1968 Tincher, who is a son of a World War II veteran, was working in the carbon plant at the West Virginia Pulp & Paper Company mill in Covington. With plans to attend college, he came to Covington for work after graduating from high school in Rainelle, W.Va. His plans abruptly changed when he found himself headed to Vietnam after being drafted into the U.S. Army at the age of 19. 

“It just turned my world upside down,” he said, while recalling a bus ride to an Army induction center in Beckley, W.Va. 

After undergoing training at military bases in Kentucky and Louisiana, he landed at Bien Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam. From the joint air base, U.S. troops were dispersed to their assigned units.

Tincher’s first impression of Vietnam was the oppressive heat and the smell of human waste being burned in barrels by the U.S. military. 

“The first thing you encountered was the stench and the heat. It was 120 degrees and it stunk to high heaven. Everybody was just tickled to go somewhere else to get away from that,” Tincher said of his arrival at Bien Hoa.

During his 18-month tour in Vietnam, Tincher was stationed in a housing compound that was constructed by the French military. After World War II, the French sought to reestablish control in Southeast Asia through colonial rule. The French pulled out of Vietnam in 1954 after a garrison at Dien Bien Phu fell after a four-month siege led by Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh. A year later, President Dwight Eisenhower pledged his support for South Vietnam in an effort to halt communist aggression. The U.S. military was initially involved in an advisory capacity to South Vietnam. 

As a radio operator, Tincher was tasked with monitoring communications from U.S. military air traffic. A majority of his time was spent in a radio room, but he would go on patrol with his unit once a week, carrying a 70-pound radio on his back.

“We didn’t have a whole lot of trouble where I was at. We would run into trouble once in a while, and I would call in a helicopter or artillery,” Tincher said. “Most of the heavy fighting was north of us. The people who were up there really went through some stuff. My hat goes off to the people who served up north.”

However, his most harrowing experience occurred on his 21st birthday, when he volunteered to go out on patrol. Tincher was cut off from his unit after it encountered rockets and small arms fire from the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong was a community revolutionary organization in South Vietnam that aided the North Vietnamese. The Viet Cong specialized in guerilla warfare.

“I had all kinds of things going through my mind. I said a prayer and I could hear the enemy going from house to house in the outpost looking for Americans. I could hear them beating people and demanding information on where the Americans were hiding. I figured it was just a matter of time before they would find me. But then things got quiet a couple of hours later. My team had come back looking for me,” he said. 

When his war experience ended, Tincher returned home and eventually became a building contractor. But when he returned to the United States, he found his country in turmoil. Soldiers from Vietnam were not welcomed with open arms. 

“When I returned home, anti-war protests were going on all over the country. The people who came back were called ‘baby killers’ and some of them were even spit on. Thankfully, I didn’t experience any of that,” he said. “But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I would even wear a hat with Vietnam on it.”

Tincher had gone to Vietnam shortly after North Vietnam had launched the Tet Offensive in 1968. The campaign was a series of attacks on more than 100 cities and outposts in South Vietnam. The offensive was an attempt to bring about rebellion among the South Vietnamese population and encourage the United States to scale back its involvement in war. 

Even though U.S. and South Vietnamese forces managed to hold off the attacks, news coverage of the massive offensive shocked the American public and eroded support for the war effort. Despite heavy casualties, North Vietnam achieved a strategic victory with the Tet Offensive, as the attacks marked a turning point in the Vietnam War and the beginning of the slow, painful American withdrawal from the region.

In January 1973, representatives of the United States, North and South Vietnam, and the Vietcong signed a peace agreement in Paris, ending the direct U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War. South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975.

“There were 2.7 million Americans who served in Vietnam, and each one of them had a story to tell. Every story is different,” Tincher said. “It made me stronger. I am lucky it didn’t affect me like some of the other people who served over there. Many of them still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“It was a kid’s war,” he said, noting that the average age of American troops in Vietnam was 19. By comparison, the average age of an American soldier in World War II was 26.

“Some of them over there in Vietnam were 16 years old. Their parents had to sign for them to get in,” Tincher said. 

According to the National Archives, 58,220 Americans died in the Vietnam War. It is estimated that less than 850,000 Vietnam veterans are alive today. In 1995, Vietnam released its casualty estimates from the war. According to those estimates, 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers were killed. In addition, an estimated 2 million civilians on both sides died in the conflict.     

“When I saw it for the first time, I couldn’t sleep. But when you were over there, it was just something you sort of got used to,” Tincher said in describing the first time he saw the bodies of Vietnamese killed in battle.

“I mostly saw the aftermath of stuff,” he said.

Students in Mrs. Thompson’s and Mrs. Johnson Hopkins’ classes asked several questions as Tincher shared photographs from his time in Vietnam. His exhibits included his military uniform and a Vietnamese rifle with a bayonet.

Mrs. Thompson said Tincher will likely be invited back to AHS after the students read Fallen Angels, a young-adult novel written about the Vietnam War.

“I enjoy it,” Tincher said of the opportunity to speak with students. “Like I said, everyone who served over there has a story to tell. I am just fortunate enough to have the opportunity to share mine.”

He made a similar presentation at AHS prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020.

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