Vietnam War

The Puerto Rican Experience In The U.S. Military: A Century Of Unheralded Service

written by Dr. Harry Franqui-Rivera; Senior Digital Aide, Monique Aviles


Battalion surgeon, Ernesto Gonzalez M.D. and Sgt. Stedman in Vietnam Aid Station, 1967-68

French colonial rule over Vietnam ended in 1954 after a bloody war of independence. After independence, the country remained divided between a pro-Western South and the Communist North. After elections to reunify the country were cancelled a low intensity war started with North Vietnam backing the Viet Cong guerrilla in the south.

The United States supported South Vietnam with military and economic aid, trainers and observers. As South Vietnam’s army proved incapable of defeating the Viet Cong the U.S. increased its military presence sending support troops in 1961.

The United States’ involvement in Vietnam escalated after the highly disputed Gulf of Tonkin Incident of August 2nd, 1964. By 1969, over half a million American troops were in Vietnam.

The 1968 Tet offensive mounted by the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong in over a 100 cities, although ultimately defeated, shocked the American public which until then was convinced that progress was being made by the U.S. military.

The war, which had been growing unpopular on the home front, created a schism in American society. The duration of the war, mounting American casualties and the involvement of U.S. forces in documented atrocities turned the American public against the continuation of the war.

After 1969, the United States initiated a phasing out of its military commitment and followed the policy of “Vietnamization” of the war-or putting more responsibilities for the prosecution of the conflict on its South Vietnamese ally.

Though a peace agreement was signed on January 27th, 1973, by the United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the National Liberation Front, the war would continue until April 1975 when North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon. Vietnam was formally reunified in July, 1976.

Dr. Ernesto Gonzalez in Vietnam giving vaccination-1967.jpg
Dr. Ernesto Gonzalez in Vietnam giving vaccination, 1967
Courtesy of Dr. Ernesto González

The Cost of the War

U.S. military casualties during the Vietnam War amounted to over 58,220 dead and 303,704 wounded. South Vietnamese military personnel deaths were estimated between 180,000 and 250,000. About 164,000 South Vietnamese civilians were killed by North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong forces. Thousands more were killed by the U.S. and South Vietnamese Army. The North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong military personnel deaths mounted to over 1,100,000. The official estimate of Hanoi puts the number of civilian deaths in the entire war at roughly 2 million people.

Official numbers show 48,000 Puerto Ricans participated in this conflict. The Department of Defense lists casualties from Puerto Rico at 345 killed and 3,000 wounded. However, these numbers only consider those who were drafted or enlisted in Puerto Rico. Other estimates show Puerto Rican deaths at 450. A conservative estimate would include around 12,000 stateside Puerto Ricans serving in Vietnam. That would mean that one third of all Hispanics serving in Vietnam were Puerto Rican. In all likelihood the number was higher.

Vietnam casualties map

Click image to view
Center for Puerto Rican Studies

Continue to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Photo caption: Battalion surgeon, Ernesto Gonzalez M.D. and Sgt. Stedman in Vietnam Aid Station, 1967-68