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Vietnam War veteran preserves history of U.S. Marine tankers
His name is Ray Stewart, United States Marine Corps, 1955-1985. His distinctions include two tours in Vietnam, 1965-67 and 1969-70 as a tank operator.
Now, his mission is to preserve the personal histories of the men who operated the tanks in the Vietnam War.
Stewart, a Federal Way resident, is president of the Marine Corps Vietnam Tankers Historical Foundation (MCVTHF).
“We talk a lot about the tanks, but we don’t talk a lot about the four men who made them go,” said Stewart.
The primary armor of Vietnam was the M48 Patton, while the M50 Ontos was a light armor “tank buster.” For the men who served in these vehicles, the larger picture of the war was mostly unknown, Stewart said.
“Vietnam was so complicated and fragmented. Most of us, most of the time, didn’t know exactly where we were,” Stewart said. “We would be in our tank and go where we were told and do what needed to be done. You didn’t ever see the larger picture coming out of Saigon and from (Gen. William) Westmoreland.”
Outside of the lack of understanding of the larger battle plans, Stewart said navigating a country made up of jungle was difficult, confusing and dangerous.
“It’s a big country and difficult to roll around in a tank,” he said. “It was either sandy plains that the (Vietcong) mined heavily, or we were in the jungles in the west of the country. We lost a lot of tankers to mines and rocket propelled grenades.”
With the tankers foundation, Stewart’s purpose is two-fold. The first is to make sure that these proud warriors are remembered correctly for their service. Stewart said the “ultimate goal is to write a comprehensive history of Marine armor.”
The second, and perhaps more important part, is to make sure the friends and families of these men know what it was their fathers and grandfathers did in Vietnam. Stewart shared a story of someone who would have benefited from the existence of a comprehensive history.
“I got an email from a guy I’d never met. His father was dying, and he had some information about his father, and he wanted me to go and find out more about his father’s Vietnam history,” Stewart said. “We looked into it, and his father died, and he wanted to give a eulogy for his father.”
Unfortunately for the man who emailed Stewart, they were unable to find much information about his father’s service in Vietnam before he died. But, Stewart said, the son discovered an amazing history as he went through his father’s stuff.
“He went back through his dad’s things and found two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts,” Stewart said. “His dad was a freaking war hero and he didn’t know it. He didn’t know his father was a hero.”
Purple Hearts are awarded to those who are wounded or killed in battle. The Bronze Star is awarded for acts of bravery or meritorious service. If the Bronze Star is awarded for bravery in combat, it is the fourth highest combat award a soldier can receive, and is the ninth highest military award overall.
Stewart said the MCVTHF has approximately 800 members spread across the United States at this time. Stewart is always looking for help from those who served, or from anyone who has an interest in U.S. military history. Stewart said former soldiers have a little easier time navigating through the military lingo, but doesn’t discourage anyone from contacting him to help.
“I would love to have some local folks, high school kids or parents who are interested in helping,” he said. “I get asked questions all the time about Marine units and other army units.”
For those who may be interested in sharing their personal stories from Vietnam, Stewart feels it is important to do so soon.
“I’m 74 years old, (and guys my age) are feeling pretty mortal,” he said. “I want these men to be able to get their stories straight, and be ready to pass it on to their relatives, their siblings, their children, their grandchildren. It’s so important.”
Those interested in helping Stewart can visit www.mcvthf.org or can contact him by phone at (206) 484-0871.