Names On The Wall: A Closer Look At Those Who Died In Vietnam

6/12/2006 • Black History, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Vietnam

…’In honor of the men and women of the Armed Forces of the United States who served in the Vietnam War. The names of those who gave their lives and of those who remain missing are inscribed in the order they were taken from us. Inscription at the beginning of The Wall.

The 58,152 names of those who died in Vietnam are etched onto the two rising black marble slabs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The slabs meet at a vertex of 125 degrees, 10 feet above ground level to form the Wall. The shining surface is intended to reflect the sun, the ground and those who stand before it. The names are listed chronologically by date of death, the first to last. As one walks the Wall slowly, examining the ineffably American names, one is struck by the same recurring surnames. How many Smiths can there possibly be who died in Vietnam? There were 667; How many Andersons?, 178; Garcias?, 102; Murphys?, 82; Jenkins?, 66; One wants to know more about these Americans. Who were they?


A new Department of Defense (DOD) database computer tape released through the National Archives allows researchers to take a much closer look at our 58,152 Vietnam casualties. From 1964 to 1973, 2,100,000 men and women served in Vietnam, but this was only 8 percent of the 26,000,000 Americans who were eligible for military service.


The vast majority of Americans who were eligible by age but did not serve in the armed forces were exempted by reason of physical, mental, psychiatric, or moral failure; or they were given status deferments because they were college students, fathers, clergy, teachers, engineers or conscientious objectors. Others, later in the war, were simply ineligible because of high lottery number. Many others joined the reserves or National Guard, which were not mobilized in any appreciable numbers during the war. A relatively small number refused to register for the draft at all. Some went to Canada or Sweden, but few of those who evaded the draft were actually prosecuted and most were eventually pardoned by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.


The DOD database shows that of the 2,100,000 men and women who served in Vietnam, 58,152 were killed. The Army suffered the most total casualties, 38,179 or 2.7 percent of its force. The Marine Corps lost 14,836, or 5 percent of its own men.

The Navy fatalities were 2,556 or 2 percent. The Air Force lost 2,580 or l percent. Coast Guard casualties are included in the Navy totals. Of the 8000 Coast guardsmen who served in Vietnam, 3 officers and 4 enlisted men were killed and 59 were wounded.

Eight women were killed in Vietnam, five Army lieutenants, one Army captain, one Army lieutenant colonel and one Air Force captain. All were nurses, all were single and all but one were in their 20s. An estimated 11,000 women served in Vietnam.


In this study we will refer to casualties as the 58,152 who died in Vietnam, but it should be emphasized that there were 153,303 who were wounded seriously enough to be hospitalized. Thus, there were 211,455 killed and wounded, or one in every 10 Americans who served in Vietnam. The Army as a branch had 134,982 killed or wounded (9.5 percent), but the Marines suffered 66,227 killed or wounded (22.5 percent) or almost one of every four Marines who served.


Since the days of Alexander the Great and the Roman Legions, it has always been the young, inexperienced, low-ranking enlisted man who has taken the brunt of combat casualties. The Vietnam War was no different. The DOD percentages reveal that nearly 75 percent of Army enlisted casualties were privates or corporals. The Marine Corps losses were skewed even more to the lower ranks, 91 percent were privates or corporals. If the two branches are combined, then 80 percent of the Army and Marine enlisted casualties were privates or corporals, grades E-1 to E-4.

Although it is a truism that the young die in war, one is still unprepared for the fact that 40 percent of Marine enlisted casualties in Vietnam were teenagers; that more than 16 percent of Army enlisted casualties were also teenagers; and that nearly a quarter of all enlisted casualties in Vietnam were between the ages of 17- and 19-years old. If the demographic is expanded to 17- to 21- years, then we find there were 83 percent of Marine enlisted casualties, and 65 percent of Army enlisted casualties. Only the Navy, with 50 percent of its enlisted casualties over 21, and the Air Force, with 75 percent over 21, showed an older, more experienced age demographic. No other American war has presented such a young profile in combat. These young men were trained quickly and shipped to Vietnam quickly. They also died quickly, many within a few weeks or months of arriving in Vietnam.

But given the draft policies, the hard-sell recruitment, the severe escalation from month to month and the refusal by President Lyndon Johnson to call up the older reserves and National Guard, it could not have been otherwise. The burden of combat fell on the very available non-college-bound young.


The civilian and military men who formed the policy did not see it necessarily as a disadvantage. The very young were considered by many to be preferred combat material. Despite their inexperience, they were thought to accept discipline readily. They did not, in most cases, carry the burdens of wife or children. They were at their peak physically. Perhaps more important, many of them probably did not yet fully understand their own mortality and were therefore less likely to be hesitant in combat. And, as in every American war, it is the very young who are the most willing to volunteer.


It may come as a surprise to some that 63.3 percent of all Vietnam enlisted casualties were not draftees but volunteers. If officers are added, then almost 70 percent of those who died were volunteers. Of course, the Marine, Navy, and Air Force enlisted casualties were all volunteers, but as it turned out, almost 50 percent of Army enlisted casualties were also volunteers. It should be noted, however, that the draft was specifically designed to trigger volunteer enlistments. The draft policy at the time of the Vietnam War was called the Universal Military Training and Service Act. Since its adoption in 1951, at the time of the Korean War, this policy had been renewed by Congress every four years. It called for the registration of all 18 to 26-year old males, with induction to take place at 18 1/2 if so ordered by the local draft board. The draftee, if found physically and mentally fit, would be inducted for a period of two years, to be followed by another two year period in the active reserves and a subsequent two years in the inactive reserves. The trigger came when the recruiters pointed out that the volunteer could enlist as early as 17 (with parental consent); that he was allowed to select his branch of service; that he would receive specialized training if he qualified; that he could request a specific overseas assignment; and that his three year enlistment followed by three years in the inactive reserves satisfied his military obligation immediately. Sad to say, many of these recruitment promises were fudged in one way or another, and many of these young men found themselves shipped directly to Vietnam after basic training.


One additional factor, often overlooked, that influenced volunteer enlistment was military tradition — the influence of fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles and others who had served in previous 20th century wars. In many of these families it was considered unpatriotic and indeed reprehensible to avoid active duty by requesting a status deferment or seeking out a draft counselor for advice on how to avoid the draft. Often that advice, especially for professional athletes, rock stars, sons of politicians and other celebrities, was to join the never-to-be-called-up reserves or National Guard. All of this was one of the great and abiding agonies of the Vietnam War, causing repercussions within families and on the national political scene to this day.


The training for American officers is thought by most foreign military authorities to be the best in the world. With few exceptions, almost all of the 6,600 commissioned officers who died in Vietnam were graduates of the service academies, college Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), or the Officer Candidate School (OCS) programs. The major service academies and other military colleges provided close to 900 of the Vietnam officer casualties: the U.S. Military Academy, 278; the U.S. Air Force Academy, 205; the U.S. Naval Academy, 130; Texas A & M, 112; The Citadel, 66; Virginia Military Institute, 43; Virginia Polytechnic Institute, 26; Norwich University, 19.


Officer casualties in Vietnam, including warrant officers, numbered 7,874, or 13.5 percent of all casualties. The Army lost the greatest number of officers – 4,635 or 59 percent of all officer casualties. Ninety-one percent of these Army officers were warrant officers, second lieutenants, first lieutenants or captains. This was a reflection of the role of warrant officers as helicopter pilots (of the 1,277 warrant officer casualties, 95 percent were Army helicopter pilots), and of the young lieutenants and captains as combat platoon leaders or company commanders.

The same profile holds true for the Marine Corps, where 87 percent of all officer casualties (821 of 938) were warrant officers, lieutenants or captains. Army and Marine officer casualties were also quite young. Fully 50 percent were in the 17- to 24-year age group, and astonishingly, there were 764 Army officer casualties who were 21 or younger.


Quite a different profile emerges among the Navy and Air force officer corps. The Air Force lost the highest percentage of officers. Of 2,590 total Air Force casualties, 1,674 or 65 percent were officers. Many of them, as experienced pilots, were older (two thirds were thirty or older) and many were high ranking. Almost 50 percent were majors, lieutenant-colonels, colonels and three were generals. The Navy had a similar profile: 55 percent of its 622 officer casualties were 30 years of age or older, and 45 percent were ranked at lieutenant commander or above when they died. It should be emphasized that 55 percent of all Navy and Air Force officer casualties came as a result of reconnaissance and bombing sorties into North Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. As a result, it was mainly the families of Navy and Air Force pilots and crewmen who suffered the great agony of the POW (prisoner of war) and MIA (missing in action) experience that came out of the Vietnam War.


The makeup of U.S. combat forces in Vietnam has long been the subject of controversy among social scientists. The feeling is that the poor, the undereducated and the minorities made up the vast majority of the combat arms during that war. This makeup, they say, was the very antithesis of what we stand for as a democracy — a shameful corruption of our values and our historical sense of fairness and social justice. There is some truth to this, but it is instructive to look at what the DOD database reveals in terms of race, ethnicity, national origin, religious preference and casualties by U.S. geographic areas.


Of all enlisted men who died in Vietnam, blacks made up 14.1 percent of the total. This came at a time when blacks made up 11 percent of the male population nationwide. However, if officer casualties are added to the total, then this overrepresentation is reduced to 12.5 percent of all casualties. Of the 7,262 blacks who died, 6,955, or 96 percent, were Army and Marine enlisted men. The combination of the selective service policies with the skills and aptitude testing of both volunteers and draftees (in which blacks scored noticeably lower) conspired to assign blacks in greater numbers to the combat units of the Army and Marine Corps. Early in the war (1965 and 1966) when blacks made up about 11 percent of our Vietnam force, black casualties soared to more than 20 percent of the total. Black leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., protested, and President Johnson ordered black participation in combat units cut back. As a result, the black casualty rate was reduced to 11.5 percent by 1969.


During the Vietnam War, the Navy and Air Force became substantially white enclaves – enlisted and officer casualties were 96 percent white. Indeed, officer casualties of all branches were overwhelmingly white. Of the 7,877 officer casualties, 7,595, or 96.4 percent, were white; 147, or 1.8 percent, were black; 24, or 0.3 percent, were Asian; 7, or .08 percent, were Native American; 104, or 1.3 percent, were unidentified by race.


The 1970 census which is being used as our Vietnam era population base did not list an Hispanic count but gave an estimate of 4.5 percent of the American population. In a massive sampling of the database, it was established that between 5 and 6 percent of Vietnam dead had identifiable Hispanic surnames. These were Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and other Latino-Americans with ancestries based in Central and South America. They came largely from California and Texas, with lesser numbers from Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, New York and a few from many other states across the country. Thus it is safe to say that Hispanic-Americans were over-represented among Vietnam casualties — an estimated 5.5 percent of the dead against 4.5 percent of the 1970 population.


In terms of national origin/ancestries, an extensive sampling of the data-base reveals that Americans of French Canadian, Polish, Italian and other Southern and Eastern European surnames made up about 10 percent of the Vietnam casualties. These casualties came largely from the Northeast and North Central regions of the United States, many from the traditionally patriotic, Catholic working class neighborhoods.

The remaining 70 percent of our Vietnam enlisted casualties were of English/Scottish/Welsh, German, Irish and Scandinavian-American ancestries, more from the South and Midwest than the other regions, many from small towns with a family military tradition. The officer corps has always drawn heavily on English/Scottish/Welsh, German, Irish and Scandinavian-American ancestries from middle-class white collar homes, with other large percentages from ambitious working class blue collar and, of course, career military families. These officer casualties came more from the South and West regions, 4.1 deaths per 100,000, in contrast to 3.5 from the Northeast and Midwest regions.


The DOD database listed precise religious preferences for the 58,152 Vietnam casualties. Protestants were 64.4 percent (37,483), Catholics were 28.9 percent (16,806). Less than 1 percent (0.8) were Jewish, Hindu, Thai, Buddhist or Muslim combined, and 5.7 listed no religion. Blacks were 85 percent Protestant. Officers of all services, by tradition largely Protestant, remained so during the Vietnam war, sustaining casualties in comparison with Catholics by a 5 to 2 ratio.


As a region, the South experienced the greatest numbers of dead, nearly 34 percent of the total, or 31.0 deaths per 100,000 of population. This number of deaths per 100,000 compared strikingly with the 23.5 in the Northeast region, 29.9 in the West and 28.4 in the North Central (Midwest) region.

This uneven impact was caused by a number of factors: (1) While the South was home to some 53 percent of all blacks in the 1970 census, almost 60 percent of black casualties came from the South; (2) Although we cannot be as precise, we do know that a considerable majority of Hispanic-American casualties came from the West, (California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado) and the South (Texas); (3) Better employment opportunities in the Northeast reduced the number of volunteers; (4) Greater college matriculation in the Northeast increased the number of status deferments for the region’s 17- to 24- year olds; (5) More anti-war sentiment in the media and on college campuses in the Northeast.

A correspondingly greater tradition of military service in the other regions had its effect on U.S. regional casualties. It is not surprising, for instance, that West Virginia, Montana, and Oklahoma had a casualty rate almost twice that of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.


World War II had been, for the most part, a perfect war, clear of purpose, the forces of democracy and freedom lined up against the forces of fascism and tyranny. Our combat arms were thought to be completely classless. They drew on every segment of American society. We were one giant Hollywood B-17 bomber crew, one perfect socioeconomic platoon storming Omaha Beach or Okinawa. All classes were drafted or volunteered and all served and died equally, although it must be noted that most blacks died separately.


But after World War II a kind of educational apartheid had settled over the United States. Where previously a high school diploma had been an acceptable goal, now it was college and all the benefits it would bring. The popularity of the GI Bill after Vietnam emphasized this yearning. Early on President Johnson, his advisers and especially the Congress, realized that if the draft was to be truly equitable and had included combat assignments in Vietnam for the sons of the educationally advantaged and influential Americans from the professional and managerial classes, then the resulting uproar would have shut down the war.


Congress and the Johnson administration, therefore, sought to protect our college-bound and educated young men. The Channeling Memo of July 1965, instructed all local draft boards to give status deferments to college undergraduate and post-graduate students. The Selective Service System it said, has the responsibility to deliver manpower to the armed forces in such a manner as to reduce to a minimum any adverse effect upon the national health, safety, interest and progress.

It is forgotten now, but in the beginning Congress and most of the American people were behind our containment effort in Vietnam. The young enlisted volunteer or draftee had not had much time to form any complicated theories about our Vietnam commitment. He accepted the tradition of military service passed on to him by the popular culture and by President John F. Kennedy’s ringing words, Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.

Most of the young American enlisted men who served in Vietnam were not college prospects at the time they entered the service. Those who could have qualified for college probably did not have the funds or motivation. Many of the 17- and 18-year olds were simply late in maturing. They were struggling through or dropping out of high school, or if a high school graduate, had tested poorly for college entrance. (Surprisingly, as it turned out, the percentage of Vietnam veterans who applied for the GI Bill was higher than either World War II or Korea.)


The DOD database provides no civilian or military educational levels for the Vietnam casualties specifically, but it does give us general levels for all enlisted men across all the services during the Vietnam era. The figures show that on average 65 percent of white enlisted men and 60 percent of black enlisted men were high school graduates. Only 5 to 10 percent of enlisted men in the combat units were estimated to have had some college, and less than 1 percent of these enlisted men were college graduates.


The Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) was given to all entering enlisted men. The resulting aptitude scores were used to classify entrants into four categories and this would, for the most part, determine their subsequent assignments. On average, 43 percent of white enlisted entrants placed in categories I and II (scoring 65 to 100) and 57 percent in categories III and IV (scoring 10 to 64). For blacks, however, only 7 percent placed in categories I and II and 93 percent placed in categories III and IV. In civilian life, poor aptitude testing can have a tremendous negative impact, whether for college placement or for simple job advancement. In the military it can be somewhat more deadly. John Kennedy, discussing military assignments, said that, life is unfair. True enough, but many of the surviving Vietnam casualty families would reply that the ultimate unfairness is death at an early age, in a land far from home, for reasons not clearly defined.

PROJECT 100,000

Adding to the problem was Project 100,000. Lower end category IVs consisting of those who scored below 20 on the AFQT were usually rejected for service. But in 1966, President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara decided to institute Project 100,000 that would allow category IV men to enter the military. This, they felt, would offer these men the opportunity to get remedial training in the service and then be able to compete successfully when they returned to civilian life. Many high-ranking military men (including General William C. Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam) opposed the program, feeling that the effectiveness of some units would be reduced and that fellow soldiers would sometimes be put in greater jeopardy by these less mentally capable personnel. Nevertheless, 336,111 men were phased into the service under this plan (mostly the Army) and 2,072 were killed. This amounted to 4.1 percent of all enlisted casualties in Vietnam.

Thus we can see that the channeling philosophy continued within the armed forces. Through the AFQT process, the men scoring in the higher categories were more likely to be channeled into further specialized training and eventually assigned to technical and administrative units.


The widely held notion that the poor served and died in Vietnam while the rich stayed home is way off the mark. A more precise equation would be that the college bound stayed home while the non-college bound served and died. The idea that American enlisted dead were made up largely of society’s poverty stricken misfits is a terrible slander to their memory and to the solid working-class and middle-class families of this country who provided the vast majority of our casualties. Certainly, some who died did come from poor and broken homes in the urban ghettos and barrios, or were from dirt-poor farm homes in the South and Midwest. And more’s the pity, because many of them were trying to escape this background and didn’t make it.

Some recent studies tend to refute what had been the perceived wisdom of social scientists and other commentators that our Vietnam dead came overwhelmingly from the poor communities. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study released in 1992, found that our Vietnam casualties were only marginally greater from the economically lowest 50 percent of our communities (31 deaths per 100,000 of population), when compared with the economically highest 50 percent (26 deaths per 100,000 population). Although valuable, this study was almost certainly misinterpreted by its authors when they said that their data showed that most privileged and influential segments of American society were not insulated from the perils of Vietnam conflict. There is no question that all segments of American society were represented. The officer corps’ casualties alone would satisfy that judgment, but that is not the same as being representative.

What the MIT study almost certainly showed was that members of the so-called working class consisting of carpenters, electricians, plumbers, firemen, policemen, technicians, skilled factory operatives, farmers, etc., were living in middle class communities and were, therefore, part of our burgeoning middle class. Their sons, if not college material, made up a significant part of the volunteers and draftees.

As we have pointed out earlier, more than 80 percent of our casualties were Army and Marine enlisted men with an average age of 19- to 20-years. Only 10 percent of enlisted men had even some college to their credit and only 1 percent were college graduates. By and large, with the exception of the officer corps, most of the college bound and educated skipped the Vietnam War at the urging of, and with the approval of, their own government.


Additionally, many of the names on the wall were other teenagers from the suburban white collar communities with siblings who were in, or would go on to college, but who, as individuals themselves, were slow to mature, struggled through high school and were therefore very available for the Vietnam War. It is instructive to read the literature of the war, the letters written home from those who died, the novels and narrative accounts of those who served in combat and then returned. They often reveal a typically warm American family atmosphere. They refer to older or younger siblings who are either in or on their way to college. And they often show a heartbreakingly wry sense of humor with the same sensibilities as their college-bound peers. It forces us to the conclusion that many of those names on the wall were kids who just couldn’t quite get it together in high school, a little late in maturing intellectually, and didn’t have the resources or the guile to get out of the way when the war came.


What will be the evolving historical judgment for those names on the Wall? With the end of the Cold War, many now believe that at its outset the Vietnam War was a quite honorable extension of our ultimately successful policy of Communist containment; that our effort in Vietnam became flawed because of political and strategic failures having nothing to do with those who died there; and that these young Americans were asked by three presidents and six Congresses to give up their lives so that freedom would have a better chance in the world. As one stands before the Wall one feels that no other judgment is acceptable to their living memory. As Maya Ling Lin, the architect of the Wall, has said: It was as if the black-brown earth were polished and made into an interface between the sunny world and the quiet dark world beyond that we cannot enter. The names would become the memorial. There was no need to embellish. Postscript: Since 1982, there have been 89 names added to The Wall. In 2004, the total is 58,241 names.

The article was written by Bill Abbott, an independent researcher and writer. He was a Navy enlisted man during World War II and has a degree in Political Science from Duke University. The article was originally published in the June 1993 issue of Vietnam Magazine and updated in November 2004.

For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!

Tags: , ,