An area resident has faced his past by retracing his steps along Vietnam's Mekong Delta River.
Rolland E. Kidder, a Jamestown native who grew up on a dairy farm on South Main Street Extension, has written a book entitled, "Backtracking In Brown Water," which is about his experience of serving as a Navy patrol boat officer during the Vietnam War. But, the book is by no means just a focus on the events that occurred more than 40 years ago, rather Kidder took the subject to the next level by returning to the Mekong Delta River in 2010.
In 1969, and in 2010, Kidder didn't make the journey alone, joined by South Vietnamese Thu Trung Van. During the Vietnam War, Kidder helped train Van to become a patrol boat river patrol officer. Van eventually became commander of his own division, as well as an American citizen in 1975. So, when Kidder decided to make the journey to contemporary Vietnam, he felt it was only logical to do so with Van at his side once again.
Thu Trung Van and Rolland E. Kidder are pictured in Vietnam in 1969.
Gordon Johnson, a friend of Rolland E. Kidder, is pictured, with Thu Trung Van during a return trip to Vietnam in 2010.
"My relationship with Thu Trung Van and his family has been one of my greatest experiences of my life," Kidder said. "The book probably wouldn't have been written had I not known Thu, and had he not been able to arrange this trip back for me."
According to Kidder, the experience was both transformative, and powerfully emotional, so he decided to write an article for Naval History magazine that was published in 2010. After writing the article, and thinking more about his experience, he was inspired to write a book by researching the lives of three of his comrades who died during service along the Mekong Delta River. Those three men were Eldon Tozer, Bob Olson and Jim Rost.
"It didn't take long to make friends in the people you were in combat with because you were all interdependent," Kidder said. "I had always wanted to meet the family of Navy Chief Petty Officer, Eldon Tozer, who had been killed one night in place that I was supposed to be but had been reassigned - he got killed and I lived. So, when I decided to try and find his family, I also made the decision to find the families of other friends I had made: Bob Olson and Jim Rost. The journey took me to Phoenix, Iowa, Long Island, Michigan and to the Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec. The emotions I felt when I met the families of these men were powerful because for me their lives were frozen in time by their deaths."
"It didn't take long to make friends in the people you were in combat with because you were all interdependent."
Kidder will celebrate the release of "Backtracking In Brown Water" with two area book signings. On Thursday at 4:30 p.m., Kidder will appear at the Robert H. Jackson Center, 305 E. Fourth St. in Jamestown, for a meet and greet, to share his reflections and sign copies of his book. Kidder will also make an appearance at the Bemus Point Library, 13 Main St. in Bemus Point, at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 31, for a presentation and book signing.
THEN AND NOW
Kidder volunteered to join the Navy during a time when a draft was in effect, and he served on a ship for two years before heading to Vietnam.
"I thought that it was my generation's war, and for the Navy the real action was going on in country (Vietnam) on small boats," Kidder said. "So, I thought I'd see what it was all about by doing it - and I volunteered to go on the river boats."
According to Kidder, his view of the Vietnam war now, and when he first went over, is that it was a mistake.
"As Americans we hadn't really understood what we were getting ourselves into because we ended up inheriting a lot of the problems that the French dropped in our laps," Kidder said. "I think at the time there was a belief in the domino theory that if South Vietnam went to the communists that communism would sweep down through Asia. It was an unrealistic fear, and I don't think that was ever going to happen, but at the time we were worried that it could happen."
Regardless of whether the war was a mistake, the experience was life-changing for Kidder, and he's thankful for the opportunity to see the world outside America that service brought to him. So, to be able to make the experience full circle by traveling back to Vietnam with Van 40 years later allowed him to see first hand what he and his comrades had accomplished. What Kidder found is that contemporary Vietnam is vastly different from the one he remembers experiencing in his youth, he said.
"There's a huge difference," Kidder said. "First of all, the country's population is twice as big as it was when I was last there. Half the population of Vietnam is under the age of 35, and they don't even remember a war. The country is very viable economically and there are a lot of jobs. There's also a lot of American business and interests there. But, it's still a communist country with a top-down type of government."
Kidder's not sure whether he'd consider the lives of Vietnam's people to be better before the war, but some things have improved, he said.
"If you define a better life economically, meaning more money to raise a family and living in a better house - yes, they are better off," Kidder said. "But, if you ask me if they are better off under freedom of expression of their ideas, and an open political system - no, they are probably worse off. I would say it's their politics that are holding them back."
Kidder, who graduated from Jamestown High School in 1958, is a graduate of Houghton College, Evangelical Theological Seminary and SUNY at Buffalo Law School. He is the former executive director of the Robert H. Jackson Center, he served four terms in the New York State Assembly and he currently serves on the board of directors for National Fuel Gas Company. He has been appointed to the American Battle Monuments Commission by both former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama and he was a member of the original National World War II Memorial. He lives on the edge of Chautauqua Lake with his wife, Jane.
In addition to "Backtracking In Brown Water," Kidder is also the author of "A Hometown Went To War," which is an oral history of 37 World War II veterans. For more information, search for Kidder's books on iUniverse.com, Amazon.com or visit www.rollandkidder.blogspot.com.