Ivory Whitaker was reluctant to return to Vietnam with a handful of other Vietnam veterans. The United States Institute of Peace is sponsoring their trip to locate a mass grave that they helped dig to bury North Vietnam soldiers killed in a major battle.
Whitaker decided to go when he thought about the families involved.
“At first I really didn’t want to go,” he said. “But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are voids in people’s lives because they don’t know the true status of their loved ones that were lost in battle, that were lost serving their countries.”
The retired command sergeant major served two yearlong tours in Vietnam. He is a senior logistics analyst in the Aviation and Missile Command Operations Center.
The Vietnam trip is scheduled from July 29 through Aug. 11. Whitaker is the only veteran in the group who is traveling from the southern U.S.; one of the five resides in Ecuador. All five served in the military but Whitaker is the lone retired servicemember.
This is Whitaker’s first trip back since the war. “I really had some mixed feelings going back because I just wasn’t sure of the whole situation,” he said.
But then he thought about an officer he had served with in Germany who later was involved in trying to find U.S. servicemembers’ remains in Vietnam. Retired Col. Phoung Dahlburg was the former interpreter for the U.S. POW/MIA team out of Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. She was a second lieutenant when Whitaker knew her in the late 1980s with the 529th Ordnance Company at Monteith Barracks in Furth.
“When I think about my lieutenant’s role in the recovery of American bodies over there, that kind of gave me a new perspective on things,” Whitaker said. “It gave me a different perspective about giving people closure in their lives. It’s a lot about bringing closure to people’s lives.”
Part 380 in series
Whitaker, an Albany, Georgia native, volunteered for the Army in 1965. He arrived in An Khe, South Vietnam, in April 1966 as an 18-year-old infantryman with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry (Airborne), part of the 1st Cavalry Division. Within two weeks, he was involved in his first mission, a major battle called Operation Crazy Horse, in May 1966 in the A Shau Valley.
He was also involved in a major battle on Christmas Day 1966 on LZ Bird in the Bing Dinh Province. His unit and an artillery battery were guarding the perimeter of the landing zone which had about 150 Soldiers. That night about 1,200 Viet Cong surrounded them and tried to overrun the landing zone. But the Soldiers were able to hold them off. The enemy dead were buried in a mass grave.
The trip’s sponsor, the United States Institute of Peace, based in Washington, D.C., held a conference call with the invited veterans. The Vietnamese government is providing the lodging and transportation. The veterans’ interpreter is Le Hoang Linh, who works for Vietnam Television. Besides the five veterans, others who cannot travel for health reasons will join them via Zoom. The veterans include Bob March, Steve Hassett, Spencer Matteson and Kinbourne Lo.
“I tell you this has been a journey,” Whitaker said. “The deal is we’re trying to help these people find their loved ones. And I tell you the terrain has changed. We’ve been Zooming and they’ve been digging based on our Zooming.”
Whitaker’s second tour in Vietnam was from September 1969 to June 1971 in Phu Loi, South Vietnam, as an avionics maintenance supervisor with the 213th Assault Support Helicopter Company or the “Blackcats.”
He returned to the states and was greeted by antiwar protesters, who called the Soldiers “baby killers.”
Whitaker served 30 years in uniform, from June 9, 1965, until July 1, 1995. He retired as a command sergeant major and commandant of the NCO Academy, which subsequently left Redstone for Fort Lee, Virginia, in 2011. This was part of the move of the Ordnance Munitions and Electronic Maintenance School under the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure decisions.
Whitaker, 74, resides in Meridianville with his wife of 54 years, Vivian. Their daughter, Kajuana Watts, resides in Hazel Green; and their son, Ivory III, lives in Huntsville. They have seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
He shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“I like the way they’re treating servicemembers now, and I think that it was long overdue,” Whitaker said. “I love it when someone walks up to me and says, ‘Thank you for your service.’ My comment normally is, ‘Thank you for your support.’”
Editor’s note: This is the 380th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.