An unidentified Vietnamese woman and child in the crowd of Vietnamese refugees Iowa recruited and welcomed to the state, in this 1975 photo from Des Moines. Credit: State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City

A scab on the memories of lots of Americans was yanked off last week with the airing of the first segments of Ken Burns’ new documentary on the Vietnam war.

The film brought to life the horrors and heartbreak of Vietnam and those events from 50 years ago that divided our nation like it has been divided few times in U.S. history.

Randy Evans


Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He is a former editorial page editor and assistant managing editor of The Des Moines Register.

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Each day’s installment of Burns’ history lesson — coupled with the headlines from that day’s news reports — had me reflecting on the current tensions with North Korea, on the rhetoric coming from our president and dictator Kim Jong-un, and on the potential for cataclysmic consequences from this nuclear age showdown.

One of the faces from Ken Burns’ film figures prominently in my anxiety over the North Korea crisis. That was a young man we have gotten to know in the past week. His name is Denton Winslow Crocker Jr. — “Mogie” to his friends and family.

We learned that Mogie grew up in the 1950s with a strong sense of patriotism and a desire to serve his country. He ran away from home briefly until his parents agreed to sign the papers so he could enlist in the Army in 1964 at the age of 17.

Two years later, one day after he turned 19, Pfc. Mogie Crocker was killed in action while serving as “point” for an infantry patrol in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam — half a world away from the Crocker home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., a house that would blend in nicely on the streets of Bloomfield, Iowa.

For a high school kid in Bloomfield 50 years ago, he knew the draft would hang over him when he turned 18, so the Vietnam war could not be ignored. But the war came even closer to home when the front page of the Bloomfield Democrat carried heart-wrenching local news:

* About Air Force Lt. Col. Russell Martin, 29, being declared missing in action in 1966 when his plane was shot down on a reconnaissance flight. (It would take until 2004 before the co-pilot’s remains would be identified and buried at Arlington National Cemetery with the rest of the six-man crew.)

* About Richard Clendenen, 21, of Milton being killed in 1967 along with 133 other sailors when a rocket accidentally misfired on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, setting off explosions and fires that burned for 12 hours. (Among the survivors was a Navy pilot named John McCain.)

* About the death in 1968 of Marine 1st Lt. Gordon B. Matthews, 36, the son of a popular Bloomfield minister.

But it was the death in 1969 of a former classmate, Army Cpl. James Speer, 19, that struck the hardest. He was just a few months older than I was. He was drafted into the Army to feed the military’s manpower needs in Vietnam, while I was spending my freshman year at the University of Iowa. And every trip home took me past the I.O.O.F. Cemetery, where Jim’s grave was just a few yards from the side of the road.

When I joined the staff of the Des Moines Register, one of the references that caught my eye in the newspaper’s library was a cluster of red books standing side by side on a shelf. The spine of each book bore the year and the bold lettering “Vietnam Deaths.”

On the pages of these hard-bound calendars were Register news articles about the deaths of every Iowan killed in the war — Richard Clendenen, Gordon Matthews, James Speer, and all of the 850-some others. Each article was glued next to the date the tragedy of war came home to that man’s family.

It’s all too easy to think of war as some grand game of strategy played out by nations’ leaders using their armies, navies and air forces. It’s too easy to think that military might makes right.

It’s all too easy to forget that the price of war is paid by patriotic men and women who are sent into battle by their well-meaning commanders. And that price is paid, too, by their families left back home to wait and wonder and worry.

Before the United States plunges into a war with North Korea, we must ensure that we have tried every means of diplomacy to find a resolution. Diplomats may not seem to be as macho as soldiers, but their ability to find a resolution through give-and-take and compromise, rather than fighting, is vastly preferable. And impatience is something our leaders must avoid.

Ten million people live in Seoul, the South Korean capital, including many Americans. Seoul is as close to North Korea as Ames is to Des Moines, so any military action will put the lives of those innocent South Koreans at risk.

Our president and our military leaders would do well to talk with Harding Smith Jr. His father was the navigator on the Air Force jet co-piloted by Davis Countyan Russell Martin on the fateful night of June 3, 1966.

When the remains of his father, Martin and the other crew members were laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in 2004, surrounded by graves from this generation’s war in Iraq, Smith told a Washington Post reporter:

“I’m afraid we haven’t learned some of the lessons that war might have taught us. The Vietnam war was a senseless war. I wish I could say my father died for some great purpose, but I think he died for the foolishness of the American leadership.”


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Randy Evans can be reached at

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