The startling images were forever seared into the minds of Americans in the 1960s.
A monk doused in gasoline and burning to death on a busy Saigon street.
A South Vietnamese police chief about to pull the trigger of a pistol pointed at a prisoner’s head.
A naked little girl crying and running from an American napalm strike that left her badly burned.
It was the Vietnam War as depicted through the skewed lens of America’s media.
U.S. soldiers were seen as crazed, drug-addicted “baby-killers” and “murderers.” America’s Vietnamese allies didn’t fare much better; they were often portrayed as corrupt, cowardly and unworthy of U.S. troops’ sacrifice.
But did these images and portrayals – splashed across Americans’ TV screens and newspapers – really represent the true story of Vietnam and the mission to halt the spread of communism?
Executive Producer Richard Botkin and Producer Fred Koster take a provocative look at the Vietnam War and the troops who fought it in the new documentary film, “Ride the Thunder: A Vietnam War Story of Victory and Betrayal,” set to be released on March 27 in Westminster, California. The movie portrays the inspirational story the media neglected – one of friendship, bravery, patriotism and sacrifice.
Botkin said, quite frankly, Americans have been duped.
“The men who served in Vietnam are every bit as great as their dads and uncles who served in World War II,” he told WND, adding that “there were several hundred thousand junior officers who served in the Marine Corps and Army, and yet the only name that is ever recalled is Lt. William Calley,” a former U.S. Army officer found guilty of murdering 22 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968.
“We’ve got to change that,” Botkin said.
After the war had been over for several years, former President Richard Nixon lamented, “No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then. It is misremembered now.”
Many popular films dealing with Vietnam – such as “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Rambo” and “Full Metal Jacket” – serve as great entertainment, Botkin said, but they often grossly distort the reality of the warriors who fought courageously to stop the spread of communism.
“They portray the American fighting man as doped, duped, a victim, in it for the wrong reason. And, when he comes home, he’s definitely marginalized and at the mercy of the military industrial complex,” Botkin said. “And our Vietnamese allies are portrayed even more negatively. They’re portrayed as corrupt, effete, not wanting to fight, not worth fighting for.”
But Botkin – who also authored the WND book that inspired the movie, “Ride the Thunder,” and has toured former battlefields in Vietnam and chronicled accounts of the Vietnamese Marines and their American Marine advisers – is adamant in his assertion that “those representations are just simply wrong.”
“The film is our effort to try and right the historical wrongs, to leave a more positive record of the American fighting man and also our Vietnamese allies,” he said. “Communism is evil. We were right to oppose it.”
Watch the trailer for the film, which will be released on March 27 at the Regency 10 theaters in Westminster, California, where it will be shown eight times a day for a week:
In the early 1970s, under President Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” program, the war was being turned over to South Vietnam. Botkin’s film tells the little-known story of a few courageous American and Vietnamese Marines who fought valiantly to thwart the Communist invasion – nearly saving South Vietnam – during North Vietnam’s all-out attack on South Vietnam from the DMZ known as the 1972 Easter Offensive.
In a true-life story, the film shows how, when the unrelenting North Vietnamese Army of 20,000 soldiers and 200 tanks reached the bridge at Dong Ha, their offensive was stopped in its tracks by a small force of just over 700 Vietnamese Marines and U.S. military advisers.
Even though the South Vietnamese Marines had nearly won on the battlefield, they would suffer terribly, starving and spending long years at hard labor after the war as part of the communists’ re-education process.
The film follows Vietnamese Marine Maj. Le Ba Binh, the main character played by Joseph Hieu, during his time at the communist camp in Nam Ha in 1979.
“We start with him in a re-education camp and having all these flashbacks,” Botkin explained. “During the flashbacks, we go to Vietnam, post-World War II, with him as a boy. We go to all the American people and Vietnamese people who were interviewed and appropriately tell the story through Binh’s life experience.”
Binh, a man with few equals in the war-fighting profession, served 13 years in heavy combat and another 11 years in prison camps. Despite numerous battle wounds and lost comrades, he showed unwavering courage in the face of extreme hardship. He was wounded nine times and awarded the American Silver Star.
“When the Americans went to Vietnam, they typically would go for 12 or 13 months,” Botkin explained. “But Binh was there for the whole thing. It’s through him that we tell the story, hoping to make the Americans see that their sacrifice was justified.”
As the war ended, millions of displaced Vietnamese citizens fled the communist invasion. Hopeless citizens faced imprisonment and execution. On the morning of April 30, 1975, the Vietnamese Marine Corps ceased to exist after 21 years of combat.
The film cast includes many Vietnamese refugees. In fact, the location of the film’s premiere, Southern California, is home to about 370,000 Vietnamese Americans, many of whom are first-generation immigrants, refugees or war veterans from the former South Vietnam. Nearly 200,000 Vietnamese Americans live in Orange County.
“For them, telling the story has become more than just a job. It really is something they passionately believe in,” Botkin said. “All of these people are strongly anti-communist. They’re passionate, because they’ve suffered at the hands of communists. Their families have been killed or brutally tortured. They risked a lot and paid a heavy price for their freedom. I have nothing but respect for them.”
As for the U.S. mission in Vietnam, Botkin said the effort bought time for the rest of developing Asia to grow free of communist influence.
“When we went ashore in 1965, there were active communist insurgencies in the Philippines, in Malaysia, in Indonesia, Thailand,” he said. “The American effort – for all its flaws that people point out – stalled the communist expansion and allowed those economies time to grow. I just don’t think there’s any question that our effort was the right one.”
As for America’s reputation today, Botkin said, “We’re fighting a battle for our nation’s soul. People think America is a bad country. But America is the light of the world. We’re the good guys.
“We were the good guys in World War II. We were the good guys in the Korean War. And believe it or not, we were the good guys in Vietnam.”