The VVA Veteran® Online

November/December 2016

“When Did the Vietnam War Start—and End?”


Are you a member of Vietnam Veterans of America? If so, you are a veteran of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard who served on active duty during the Vietnam War.

However, if you are a veteran who served in Vietnam before February 28, 1961, or elsewhere around the world before August 5, 1964—or if your service began after May 7, 1975—you are not eligible to be a VVA member by virtue of the eligibility dates the organization has used since 1999.

This is notwithstanding the fact that thousands of service members put in time in Vietnam in wartime conditions before February 28, 1961, and that more than three dozen Marines lost their lives in the May 15, 1975, Mayaguez incident near Cambodia, which is widely considered the last engagement of the Vietnam War.

Which brings us to the question at hand: How do you determine the start and end of a conflict such as the American war in Vietnam when there was no official declaration of war? And this corollary: Should former military personnel who served in wartime conditions in Vietnam before February 28, 1961, and after May 7, 1975, be considered Vietnam veterans?

There is no easy answer to either question. For starters, the federal government recognizes at least four sets of “official” beginning and ending Vietnam War dates:

  • January 1, 1960, to April 30, 1975: the Department of Defense’s Vietnam Service Medal eligibility beginning and ending dates.
  • February 28, 1961, to May 7, 1975: the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 dates that define Vietnam War in-country veterans eligibility for veterans preference. Those dates are also in the 1996 Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act and are part of Title 38 of the U.S. Code, the official compilation of American laws.
  • January 9, 1962, to May 7, 1975: the Department of Veterans Affairs’ dates used to determine in-country veterans who are eligible to be compensated for exposure to Agent Orange.
  • August 5, 1964, to May 7, 1975: the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 and 1996 Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act dates that define Vietnam-era veterans (those who served outside Vietnam).

But wait, there’s more. The Pentagon’s U.S. Vietnam War Commemoration recognizes Vietnam veterans as those who served in country from November 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975.

And there’s even more: The earliest date of a name listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is June 8, 1956, the date of the death of USAF Tech. Sgt. Richard Fitzgibbon, Jr.

To complicate matters even more, just three of the beginning dates correspond to something significant that happened in the war:

  • November 1, 1955, the date used by the Commemoration, is when the Military Assistance Advisory Group-Vietnam began operations.
  • February 28, 1961, the beginning date used by the Readjustment Assistance and Veterans Benefits Improvement Acts for Vietnam veterans, is the approximate date that American military advisers began working directly with the South Vietnamese.
  • August 5, 1964, the beginning date used by the Readjustment Assistance and Veterans Benefits Improvement Acts for era veterans, is three days after North Vietnamese PT boats fired on the U.S.S. Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, and two days before Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which is generally regarded as tantamount to a Declaration of War.

Nothing significant in the war effort took place on January 1, 1960, or on January 2, 1962.


Uniformed U.S. military personnel were on the ground in Vietnam starting in September 1945 when World War II (and Japan’s occupation of Vietnam) ended. American troops remained in Vietnam up to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. So the United States—as the noted Vietnam War historian George Herring put it—was “deeply involved” in military matters in Vietnam from early September 1945 until the communist takeover of all of Vietnam on April 30, 1975.

First came a huge U.S. commitment of financial and logistical support for the French in their war against the communist Viet Minh from 1945-54, known as the First Indochina War. The U.S. did not take part directly in the war, but underwrote the French effort with funds and materiel—and a handful of American service personnel on the ground.

After the French defeat in 1954, increasing numbers of U.S. military advisers began working with the fledging noncommunist government of South Vietnam. That started with thirty-five military advisers who arrived in Vietnam in 1950 under the newly created Military Assistance Advisory Group-Indochina, which was formed on August 3, 1950.

That early involvement brought with it the usual consequences of war: service members killed and wounded in action and in accidents. The first American to lose his life in Vietnam was Lt. Col. A. Peter Dewey, who was shot in the head in a Viet Minh ambush while riding in a Jeep in Saigon on September 26, 1945. Dewey, an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) officer, was returning from a hospital after visiting another American, Capt. Joseph Coolidge, who had been wounded while returning from Dalat. Dewey’s name is not engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

A handful of other Americans were wounded and killed following the end of the First Indochina War in 1954. They served with the Military Assistance Advisory Group-Vietnam, which took over from the Military Assistance Advisory Group-Indochina on November 1, 1955. MAAG-V was followed by the Military Assistance Command (MACV), which began operations on February 8, 1962, under Gen. Paul Harkins. When Gen. Harkins landed at Tan Son Nhut that day, MACV already had five thousand American military personnel in country.

Most of the MACV troops were advising the Armed Forces of the Republic of (South) Vietnam. “Others, in increasing numbers, served in Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine units providing direct combat and logistical support to the Vietnamese or, in the case of the Navy, patrolling Indochinese coastal waters,” a U.S. Army historian wrote. “These Americans, especially advisers and helicopter crews, were beginning to come under, and return, Viet Cong fire.”

Other early casualties include:

  • U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr., who was shot and killed by a fellow airman in Saigon on June 8, 1956. He is the earliest casualty whose name is engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
  • Army Special Forces Capt. Harry G. Cramer, a West Point graduate, who was killed near Nha Trang on October 21, 1957, during an ARVN Special Forces training mission.
  • Army Maj. Dale Buis and Master Sgt. Chester Ovnand, who died on July 9, 1959, in an ambush as they watched a movie at the U.S. MAAG compound in Long Binh.
  • Navy Lt. Cmdr. George W. Alexander, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Roger H. Mullins, and Navy Chief Petty Officer William W. Newton, who perished in a helicopter crash in Quang Tri Province on February 17, 1960.
  • Spec.4 James T. Davis, who served as an Army Security Agency (ASA) Radio Research Unit advisor to the ARVN and was killed in an ambush along Highway 10 by Viet Cong troops on December 22, 1961.

Graphic: ©Xande Anderer


Determining the end date of the Vietnam War is much less complicated than settling on a beginning date. American military personnel were in harm’s way in Vietnam right until the final troops left Saigon on April 30, 1975. President Ford declared the “Vietnam era” over on May 7, 1975, the reason that two federal government eligibility laws use May 7, 1975, as the end of the “Vietnam era,” and that’s the date in the U.S. Code.

However, on May 15, 1975, thirty-eight Marines, Airmen, and Navy Corpsmen lost their lives in the Mayaguez operation and three men were missing in action. That includes twenty-three USAF personnel who died in a helicopter crash en route to the staging area in Thailand. Their names are the last ones engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. May 15, 1975, also is the date that the Commemoration uses as the end of the Vietnam War.

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