RICHLAND — After failing some of his freshman courses, Tom Mattis dropped out of Columbia Basin College and joined the Marines.
The year was 1967, and he trained to deploy to Vietnam with artillery that would be shuttled to battle in helicopters in a nearly 14-month deployment to the war in Southeast Asia.
Mattis, raised in this South Central Washington town, viewed this next step in his young life as a straightforward call to duty. His mother had served in a civilian post with Army intelligence in World War II. His father, a former merchant mariner, was now working as a power-plant operator at the Hanford nuclear reservation, where plutonium had been produced for nuclear weapons.
“It wasn’t so much that they encouraged it,” Mattis recalls. “It’s just that there was no question it was part of your responsibility as a U.S. citizen.”
On Saturday, Mattis will attend the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park at the Museum of Flight just south of downtown Seattle. His younger brother Jim Mattis, the former defense secretary and retired Marine general, will give a keynote address in a rare public appearance since his January departure from the Trump administration.
The ceremony is expected to draw several thousand people, including some from Washington’s Vietnamese American community, to a 1-acre tract on the museum grounds dominated by a refurbished B-52G Stratofortress bomber.
The aircraft assisted in the fearsome aerial campaign the U.S. unleashed in Vietnam in a divisive war that ignited fierce protests in America. A plaque under the nose of the plane bears words of comfort and reconciliation for veterans of the conflict. It says “Welcome home,” a message that extends to Southeast Asians who fought on the side of the United States and later resettled their families in America in an era when the nation took in more than 700,000 of these immigrants.
That note of inclusion is expected to be affirmed by speakers Saturday, and is important to the Mattis family.
Tom Mattis’ wife, Thoa Kim Pham, spent her childhood in Vietnam during the war while her father served in the South Vietnamese Army as an intelligence officer. After Saigon fell to communist forces in 1975, the family spent four years in hiding, changing their names to conceal their identity, and repeatedly trying to leave the country before making it onto a crowded fishing boat that ventured into the South China Sea.
“I don’t remember how big it was, but it was just really, really packed with people,” said Pham, who now shares her Richland home with her father, Thanh Van Pham, and mother, Trinh Bich Pham.
Pham’s family — her parents, three siblings, two aunts and two uncles — were part of a wave of boat people. Most made their way to other countries. But in a grim aftermath to the war’s carnage, an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 people died at sea, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Phams’ boat was blown off course, and they ran out of food and fuel. They were rescued by a Russian tanker that offered some very hard biscuits as rations, Pham remembers, and towed them to the safety of a Malaysian port.
The U.S. military helped with rescues. Early on in his Marine service, a young Jim Mattis was deployed on a ship that assisted refugees. He was recognized with the Humanitarian Service Medal for that work.
Tom Mattis said he doubts his brother, who also now resides in Richland, will reference those experiences in his Saturday address. “He’s not one to blow his own horn,” Mattis said.
A new home in Wyoming
Among the 2.6 million Americans who deployed to Vietnam, Mattis considers himself among the fortunate. He suffered a mild shrapnel wound and was laid low by a nasty combination of malaria, jungle rot and a bacterial infection. But his artillery unit typically was away from the front lines where infantry troops, again and again, took grievous losses.
“Most of my combat experience is hunkering down in the bottom of a hole hoping that a Soviet- or Chinese-made artillery round or rocket round would not come in the hole with me,” recalls Mattis, now 71.
He left Vietnam in 1969 as homefront protests intensified. Even some of the deployed troops, he recalls, wore black arm bands to register their dissent.
Mattis returned to America determined to rekindle his academic career. He received his undergraduate degree at Central Washington University, then a master’s in counseling before working in state government in Oregon.
His wife, who lived in Vietnam until the age of 13, is grateful for her family’s survival.
When the communists took over, Pham’s father had the skills to elude capture and eventually arrange passage out of Vietnam. After months in a barracks in a Malaysian refugee camp, a Lutheran organization sponsored the family for resettlement.
Their new home was Cody, Wyoming. In this small western town, they put down roots.
Pham’s father worked for 34 years in maintenance at a hospital. Her mother also was employed there in nutrition services. In 2012, the two retired.
“We hear all the negativity today that Americans don’t want immigrants,” Pham said. “But there are a lot of people who welcome immigrants with open arms. Life for us in the United States was very blessed.”
Pham graduated with a political-science degree from the University of Wyoming, and headed to Washington, D.C., in the 1990s. She found work with what was then the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which had organized a campaign to remove land mines in Southeast Asia.
Reflections on the war
Pham’s efforts to assist an ailing American couple brought Tom Mattis into her life. While she worked in Washington, D.C., she had rented an attic apartment from his aunt and uncle. More than a decade later, she helped take care of them until they passed away, as did Mattis.
Mattis was then in a marriage he described as falling apart, and had no children. Pham had been single all her life.
“When you take care of two people who are dying, things just happen,” she said. “But no, I wasn’t expecting romance.”
They got married in 2012, and traveled to Vietnam, where they encountered a booming economy that lined China Beach — once a recreation site for GIs — with luxury villas. In 2015, they moved to Richland, where Mattis has launched a new mission — helping to set up a veterans court that will give those accused of nonviolent crimes a chance at treatment and alternatives to jail time.
They live in a home not too far from the old house where Tom and Jim Mattis grew up, and their mother — 97-year-old Lucille — still lives.
Pham’s father is now in his 80s. He and his wife will not be at Saturday’s ceremony at the Museum of Flight.
The memorial park is focused on an aircraft that in Vietnam helped give the U.S. dominance in the war waged from the air. The park and the aircraft’s restoration were championed by veterans including Jim Farmer, who flew B-52 missions over North Vietnam and campaigned to put the plane on display.
Farmer met with Mattis and Pham last year during a fundraising event. Since then, they have encouraged friends in Seattle’s Vietnamese American community to attend the dedication.
Back in Richland, there has been plenty of time to reflect on the war that — despite the aerial bombing campaigns and a peak deployment of more than 500,000 troops — ended with the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in South Vietnam.
Mattis said that in the 1970s he came to view the war as futile, although he now thinks it helped to prevent the spread of communism in other Southeast Asian nations.
His father-in-law said Americans were strong fighters, but did best in big fights, and faced difficulties in the guerrilla tactics of communist forces.
“Americans cannot fight a never-ending war,” he said.
Given the chance, he would fight again.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park dedication
Speakers include former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Jim Farmer, a veteran and Museum of Flight trustee who flew B-52s in Vietnam. 11 a.m. Saturday, Museum of Flight, 9404 E. Marginal Way, Seattle; free (206-764-5700, museumofflight.org)