Honored Vietnam War pilot speaks at DMACC

Retired 1st Lt. Gerald Berry stands in front of his presentation in Building 5 on Wednesday, Sept. 25. Photo by Kaleb Schlatter

“If anyone asks you who talked to you today, say that guy from Des Moines who ended the Vietnam War,” Gerald Berry began.

Retired First Lieutenant Gerald “Gerry” Berry, recipient of three Distinguished Flying Crosses, spoke to a public audience in DMACC Ankeny Campus’ Building 5 about his experiences as a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War on Wednesday, Sept. 25.

Berry, a Simpson College graduate and former Des Moines resident, gave an overview of Vietnam’s history beginning with the French colonization of Vietnam, to World War II, and through the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the effort to relocate numerous Vietnamese refugees. 

Berry recounted several personal war stories, including his significant part in Operation Frequent Wind, the historic evacuation of Saigon on August 30, 1975.

On August 29, 1975, Lt. Berry was assigned to transport Graham Martin, then-U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, out of Saigon as a central part of Operation Frequent Wind. 

Upon landing at the American Embassy, Berry learned that Ambassador Martin refused to leave. In the ensuing eighteen-hour delay, Berry flew groups of Americans, sympathetic South Vietnamese, and third-country nationals to the American naval vessels, and was repeatedly redirected to the USS Blue Ridge command ship, where commanding personnel inquired about Ambassador Martin.

In the early morning of August 30, the skies cleared of American aircraft and NVA tanks came into view; Berry made a critical decision. Upon returning to the embassy for the final time, Berry called for the ambassador.

Berry said, “Lady Ace 09 is not leaving the roof until the Ambassador is on board. The President says right now.”

“Bang. Two minutes later, the ambassador and his whole entourage are on the airplane. I’m taking them out to the USS Blue Ridge, we land. But in the process,” Berry said he thought, “I could’ve done that ten hours ago.”

Nearly 45 years after the fall of Saigon, Berry continues speaking about his war experiences. 

Berry spoke of controversies related to the Vietnam War, as well as American fatigue with the conflict. After the war, Berry did not experience negative reactions to his service history that other service members encountered at home. Berry cited several examples where strangers exhibited extraordinary kindness by helping him out in times of need after learning he was a service member. 

“The American people are pretty good,” Berry said.

Berry repeatedly expressed grief for casualties of the war, which the United States did not win.

“There’s probably not a day that goes by in my life — not many days — where I don’t think about those young marines who perished there,” Berry said.

“Sometimes you think that the war didn’t amount to much, then we lose all those young guys — it’s really hard sometimes. But that’s the way that went down.”

Berry’s 25-year career in the marines began when he was drafted in 1969 and ended in 1994. In retirement, Berry has contributed as a commentator on CBS, PBS, CNN, History Channel, and Discovery Channel, and was featured in the Oscar-nominated film “Last Days in Vietnam.”

Berry remains active in his outreach to American-Vietnamese community groups, speaking at events in Orlando, Florida. He has returned to Vietnam twice, once in 1994 and again in 1996.

Berry spoke for about forty-five minutes, then took audience questions. Afterward, Berry stayed to converse and take photos with audience members, some of whom shared personal connections with the former marine’s story.

Former speakers in the War and Human Experience series include two Holocaust survivors: Celina Karp Biniaz, of Schindler’s list, and Harold Kasimow, Professor Emeritus at Grinnell College. The series has been hosted across several DMACC campuses. This event was sponsored by DMACC President Rob Denson and hosted by History Professors Matt Walsh (DMACC Ankeny) and Joe Danielson (DMACC Urban).

More information on the War and Human Experience series can be found at the DMACC Veterans page at www.dmacc.edu/veterans.

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