WESTMINSTER, Calif. – "I've been waiting 40 years for this film!"
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That was a common refrain among the Vietnam War veterans and the South Vietnamese Americans – most with tears streaming down their faces – who gathered here on March 27 and 28 to witness their powerful story finally making it onto the big screen at the wildly popular premiere of "Ride the Thunder: A Vietnam War Story of Victory and Betrayal," a film that exploded at the box office and ranked as the top movie in the nation in per screen revenue this weekend.
Some South Vietnamese attendees recalled their own heart-wrenching memories of more than a decade of starvation and torture in prison camps after they fought to keep their country free of communism. Separated from their wives and children, they saw friends and loved ones brutally murdered by North Vietnamese guards during their communist "re-education."
And 40 years after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, U.S. Marine and Army veterans remembered harrowing fire fights alongside their South Vietnamese brothers in arms – and their return to a nation that some say turned its back on its own freedom fighters.
But this momentous event wasn't about re-opening old wounds.
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Instead, it was a heartfelt celebration of brotherhood, a long overdue welcome home and a chance to finally tell the incredible story of unparalleled sacrifice that most Americans have never heard.
"The film record of the Vietnam War is what will determine history 10, 20, 50 years from now when all the Vietnam veterans are gone," Richard Botkin, executive producer of "Ride the Thunder," told WND at the red-carpet event.
"Ride the Thunder" Executive Director Richard Botkin at the premiere of the film:
Many popular films dealing with Vietnam – such as "Apocalypse Now," "The Deer Hunter," "Platoon," "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.
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"Those films portray our troops as victims, as dupes," he said. "It marginalizes them, shows them very unfavorably and the leadership unfavorably. It shows our Vietnamese allies as even worse. Our film is an effort to begin to turn the tide against that so that, in the future, people will realize that America was right to fight in Vietnam, to stop communism, and that our South Vietnamese allies were worthy of our sacrifice and that they fought well also."
The main character of the film is South Vietnamese Marine commander Le Ba Binh, who was a prime example of enduring courage in a battle of David and Goliath proportions as his battalion of only 700 men held 20,000 communist invaders in Dong Ha.
Binh, a man with few equals in the war-fighting profession, served 13 years in heavy combat (1962-1975) and another 11 years in communist prison camps. Despite numerous battle wounds and lost comrades, he showed unwavering courage in the face of extreme hardship.
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"Americans, when they went to Vietnam, if they were a Marine, they went 13 months for one tour. If they were in the Army, 12 months. Some men went two or three times, but very few," Botkin explained.
"The Vietnamese generally had one tour that ended with death or dismemberment, so they fought forever. My main character, Binh, fought forever – 13 years, wounded nine times. At the end of the war, the communists put him in prison – they called it euphemistically 're-education camp' – for 11 years. He comes to the U.S. because he'll never get ahead in Vietnam. He comes to the U.S. with nothing and prospers. That's the Vietnamese story in America – suffering, hardship, come to America, work hard and succeed. It's a great story."
Botkin traveled to Vietnam seven times to do research for the film and the WND book that inspired it, "Ride the Thunder: A Vietnam War Story of Honor and Triumph." He and Binh visited Saigon and toured battlefields where the South Vietnamese Marines and their American advisers had fought so valiantly.
The film cast includes many Vietnamese "boat people," refugees who came to America's shores on overcrowded boats. They endured violent storms and even vicious attacks by pirates. An estimated 250,000 refugees would die at sea in their unwavering pursuit of freedom.
"No one dies breaking in to communist countries," Botkin said. "They all die breaking out. These people broke out. They were the risk takers. Those are the people who came to the United States. We got the best of the best. The risk takers came here, and that's why they've done so well."
Botkin's name was on the lips of most veterans and Vietnamese-Americans attending the premiere, all of whom said they were profoundly grateful that he and Producer Fred Koster endeavored for so many years to finally bring the untold story to the big screen.
One Vietnamese couple, Kim Ly and Thomas Ly, was filled with emotion after seeing the film.
With tears welling in her eyes, Kim told WND: "There were a lot of memories. We cried so much when we were watching that movie."
Thomas said his brother, an Army of the Republic of Vietnam general who was famous for his leadership at the Battle of An Loc in 1972, is his "first hero."
"But Richard Botkin, he's my second hero," Thomas said. "When I watch this film, I am so proud."
See the emotional reactions to the "Ride the Thunder" film:
WND also interviewed Col. Gerry Turley, member of an all-star American team of advisers who found the moral courage to persevere when he was forced into one of the highest positions of leadership in the midst of a brutal and bloody confrontation.
Turley, whose real-life story is told in the book, admired Binh's determination and sacrifice.
"I think that Col. Binh was illustrative of all of those other Vietnamese officers who served their country," he said. "He really laid his life on the line so many times. Then he became a prisoner. All he had to do was say, 'I accept communism.'"
Another leading character in the book and film is the late U.S. Marine Capt. John Ripley, who showed exceptional physical strength and courage when he took on the superhuman task of detonating a steel bridge at Dong Ha on Easter Sunday, 1972 – before the enemy could cross with its tanks and 20,000 invaders.
Ripley had not slept or eaten a solid meal in four days when he shimmied up and down the I-beams of the bridge for nearly four hours, rigging them for detonation. His legs dangled like moving targets, inviting enemy fire from snipers and North Vietnamese tanks. While most people might never have dared attempt the monstrous feat, Ripley never backed down, purchasing critical time for allied forces.
Hollywood actor Eric St. John played the part of Ripley in the film. He said he drew all of his inspiration and insight on Ripley's character from the WND book, "Ride the Thunder."
"It was a tremendous honor to play this great man. There's a responsibility when you play such a great person, a historical figure," he told WND. "There's an abundance of great material about him, his life, his family, what he did in the war. It makes the job easier as an actor when you have a book with such rich details about this person's life. Usually you're using your imagination and also your life experiences, but … it was great to have that book to go to and get all those details. I hope I did him justice."
Capt. Ed McCourt, who served in Vietnam in the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines, knew Ripley personally. McCourt, who grew emotional when recalling his time in Vietnam, told WND the film accurately depicted Ripley, the war heroes and the reality of the battles they fought.
"John Ripley was a real Christian type of individual," he said. "Fidelity was number one on his list. He was a super individual, inside and out. … His troops would follow him to hell and back just because he asked them to go. That's the kind of leader he was. … When his company would go out, he was like a [North Vietnamese Army] magnet. Every time they'd go out, they'd get in a fire fight."
McCourt said his Marines liked to go with Ripley on patrol because "we knew we'd get into something and not just walk around for six or seven days."
McCourt lamented that the U.S. military is still enforcing the same rules of engagement he believes handicapped the warriors in Vietnam.
"We've got the same thing happening right now," he said. "We send Marines, soldiers, airmen, Navy SEALs and whatever to combat, but we've got rules of engagement that will not let them win. This is ridiculous. We didn't learn anything in Vietnam when it comes to that."
Asked how he felt about the film as a whole, McCourt said, "I'll tell you, it brought me closure. … I thought it was fantastic. … I think the president should see this movie."
Nationally syndicated talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt said he "loved" the documentary film. He attended the premiere and saw the movie twice – once with a primarily Vietnamese-American crowd and a second time with a crowd of American veterans.
"The Vietnamese audience reaction was significantly different from the American veterans," Hewitt told WND. "The American veterans were moved and touched by the story of their compatriots. The Vietnamese were, in part, angry and very chatty about what they were seeing because many of them had survived the re-education camps before they got to the United States."
Hewitt predicted that the film will "play very well across the United States."
"It accomplished its ends. It was very sober. It's not propagandistic. It's just a telling of a story that needs to be told," Hewitt said. "[T]hey allow the film to tell the story about the people who were against the war and the propaganda they created for the enemy and the fact that they need to apologize. It really creates a moral obligation on the part of people like Jane Fonda and John Kerry and Donald Sutherland to step up and say, 'I'm sorry. I was wrong.'"
WND asked Hewitt: What was the most significant lesson you learned from this film?
"Don't give up the fight for history," he said. "It's never over."
Some U.S. history teachers said they're ready to bring the lessons of "Ride the Thunder" into their classrooms.
Todd Anton, an eighth-grade history teacher at Heritage School near Victorville, California, told WND, "It was an outstanding movie. … This is what we need to get in our classrooms throughout the country – the honest portrayal of the heroic men and women, both sides, who fought in Vietnam – because it's not taught in our schools anymore."
Anton said most school kids don't know much about the war, but, in his experience, Vietnam veterans are more than willing to have honest and thoughtful conversations with younger generations about their experiences.
"It's really opening up a lot of dialogue and a lot of healing for our veterans, which is so important," he said.
Anton said the "Ride the Thunder" film presents such a significant lesson of history that he's working on a related curriculum to teach in America's classrooms.
"This isn't some propaganda," he said. "There are two sides to every story. It's about time for people to hear both sides and let the individual make up their mind. That's what history is all about. It's not a predetermined outcome. It's using the facts, and this movie really brings that together."
Two jovial and brawny Marine officers who served two tours in Vietnam together, Maj. Wayne Legenfelder and Maj. Dell Williams, told WND they delighted in seeing the film.
Williams, a retired U.S. history teacher for MiraCosta College in North San Diego County, said: "It was an excellent, excellent film. It tells a story of Vietnam that I think very few people in this country have heard about – and that's something that happened after the Tet [Offensive]. Things were going so well in Vietnam, and we just don't hear that story. It ends with Tet, and 'Oh, we lost the war.' I don't think that's the case at all. It shows it well."
Williams said, in his experience, American students "have no idea" about the Vietnam War: "They don't understand the politics, the foreign policy, the agreements this country made."
Watch Col. Gerry Turley's speech:
And for those critics who say America had no business getting involved in the war, Chow Huang, whose father was a South Vietnamese Marine, had a special message:
"If you have never been to our country, you don't know," he said. "We were fighting for our freedom, and we appreciate all the help from the U.S."
Following the premiere, on March 28, a special ceremony was held in the parking lot of the Westminster theater that drew several hundred veterans and members of the community. The event, called "Bridging the Gap," promoted the brotherhood of the South Vietnamese and American veterans.
The emotional 40-year reunion of the brothers in arms featured veterans from both countries who individually saluted and embraced one another.
And for Richard Botkin, seeing the warm ceremony and the culmination of his 12-year labor of love was pure delight.
"I've met so many wonderful American Marines and their families," he said. "And the Vietnamese community has embraced us magnificently. It was a long time, but it was a complete joy for me."
Botkin shared the most significant lesson he learned in his dozen years of research:
"America is made and kept free by a small percentage of men and women who are willing to risk it all," he said. "We should celebrate those people. Unfortunately, we don't. We celebrate the wrong people all the time. But these are people who need to be celebrated. 'Joy' is the word that describes being around warriors. These are committed people. I love these people."
See "Bridging the Gap" ceremony highlights:
See photos of the "Bridging the Gap" event: