On September 15, 1984, more than 300,000 people came together at the Washington Monument to watch the first large-scale public triathlon in Washington, D.C. Joined by the president, the Olympics and the Marine Corps, the event raised over $1 million for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The U.S.’s first triathlon on the National Mall was a massive success, and it was repeated in 1986 and 1987 with even more success.
July 1, 1984: One hundred and twenty seven veterans and civilians from the United States and Northern Ireland, organized by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, traveled to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. There, they conducted the first solo, one-day race to the Wall, which in 1984 had no plaque or marker.
In 1984, a group of veterans, mostly Vietnam veterans, who had been active in the movements against the war in Vietnam and were involved in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund began planning a large-scale event to be held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.. Read more about historynet vietnam war and let us know what you think.
To honor the fallen, four veterans swam, ran, and biked from coast to coast in 1984.
In the frigid November of 1982, I attended the dedication ceremony for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and came away inspired. I imagined a team of veterans competing in a triathlon from the Pacific to Washington, D.C., and passing a baton at the base of the Wall in honor of the names inscribed on the gleaming black granite panels. I was convinced that a well-prepared team could complete the course in two weeks, so I set out to find a squad of national-class veteran triathletes.
I had previously placed in the top 20% of the prestigious Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii, twice. I saw my accomplishment as a testament to the valor and spirit of veterans. I assumed I was the only veteran in the 900-person field for the 1982 Ironman competition until I met Marine Corps Maj. John Bates. He was as tough as sharkskin and unfazed by three war wounds he received in Vietnam. Bates was the ideal candidate for my new strategy, and he became a lifetime friend.
During the communists’ 1972 Spring Offensive, also known as the Easter Offensive, I was deployed to work with officers of South Vietnam’s 23rd Division as an adviser/linguist with Military Assistance Command, Vietnam in the Central Highlands. I was in Kontum when the city was invaded by the North Vietnamese in mid-May 1972, resulting in a weeks-long siege that ended in early June with the North Vietnamese withdrawing. During my two months in Kontum, while being a sergeant at the time, I was given the honorary title of “acting captain” to reflect the importance of the intelligence intercept and translation work I accomplished with my Vietnamese intel counterparts.
I channeled my pent-up energies after Vietnam into advanced academics and long-distance running. Despite having a bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa, I earned two more from Boise State University, in psychology and social work. In 1977, I graduated from the University of Hawaii with a double major in psychiatry and international social work, as well as advanced Vietnamese studies.
In 1978-79, I managed a county mental health program for Indochinese refugees before joining the senior inpatient staff for psychiatric care at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Medical Center, where I was working during the time of the veterans triathlon.
In the 1976 Olympics, I came close to qualifying for the Olympic trials in the 26-mile marathon. I was only 2 minutes behind the US standard for the trials. In 1976, I won the Hawaiian AAU Marathon Championship, and in 1977, I set the Big Island Marathon record by running the race in 2 hours, 25 minutes, beating out numerous Olympians. I also won the Hawaiian-Pacific 50-mile championship in 1977, finishing in 512 hours, the greatest road time in the United States.
The team’s path, as depicted on a map. / Jon C. Bock
My triathlon journey had three goals: to remind Americans along the way of the valor and sacrifice shown by more than a million service members in Vietnam, to raise awareness of the search and diplomatic efforts to locate more than 2,500 Americans listed as missing in action, and to acknowledge and strengthen bonds with the South Vietnamese refugees who had fled the country.
In the summer of 1984, I set out to organize a veterans triathlon. It was difficult to find top-tier veteran triathletes. I was looking for people who not only had the physical stamina and endurance to complete this arduous cross-country race, but also had a strong commitment to the cause.
I and three other people eventually formed a core team.
Ron Barker, my twin brother from Boise, Idaho, served in the Army as a specialist 5 for 17 months in Japan during the Vietnam War. He worked as a communications analyst, keeping tabs on Soviet activities. Ron completed a three-year stint as a Spanish linguist at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, where he kept an eye on Cuba. He won the Pacific military 1,500-meter race as a triathlete and national-class distance runner.
Fraser Langford, a U.S. Air Force sergeant from Campbell, California, served as a cryptologist in England from 1964 to 1967. In 1967, his younger brother served as an infantryman in Vietnam, where he saw intense action. Langford excelled as an Ironman triathlete and cyclist.
Thieu Nguyen-phuc, a South Vietnamese air force chopper pilot and strong athlete, was born in San Jose, California. During the 1971-72 era, he was shot down twice in Quang Ngai province in northern South Vietnam, but escaped major injury. During South Vietnam’s closing hours in April 1975, he maintained his fight against communist forces and eluded capture by flying his chopper to an American carrier in the South China Sea. He obtained a business degree in the United States and began working in the furniture industry.
Bates, a Marine friend, was invited to join the triathlon team, but he could only bike with us in his home state of Arkansas due to active-duty obligations. Andy Bryant, a Vietnam-era US Army chopper pilot, all-around athlete, and nephew of famed University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, would accompany him.
Danny Nguyen, 13, my stepson, was a “spark plug” on our team, bringing fresh interest and excitement to our endeavor. He would occasionally ride his bike alongside the professional triathletes to provide emotional support.
The event began with a 4-mile relay swim off the coast of Long Beach, California, followed by a 10K run (6 miles) and bike ride through Los Angeles, and then nearly two weeks of nonstop riding interspersed with daily jogging.
California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Virginia were all visited on the trip to Washington, D.C. To get to the Wall, we set a time limit of 13 days. That would need us to travel 270 miles per day on average. This pact sparked an ecstatic and contagious wave of emotion.
On June 20, 1984, the four-veteran team poses with supporters after three of them, Jim, Ron, and Langford, swam a 4-mile relay off the coast of Long Beach, California, to begin off the triathlon. / Photo by Jim Barker
One or two veterans would be cycling or jogging at any given time, another would be driving a Volkswagen van we had purchased, and the fourth would be resting for his aerobic turn. The back of the van, with its open doors reminiscent of a chopper on a Vietnam mission, was dominated by a large MIA/POW sign. We rented a camper vehicle to house a small support crew that provided food and acted as a point of contact for local media. Pam McMahan, a Vietnam nurse, accompanied us on the trip and assisted with driving and planning our activities, as did Frank Gonzalez, a Vietnam veteran who assisted with media coverage.
We pulled off the road at the end of a hard day and slept in the RV or the Volkswagen van with the doors open.
“I am running to show the American people that we will always remember the help they gave us and to remind them to honor their veterans who gave so much,” team member Thieu said at a large and stirring reception given by the Los Angeles Vietnamese community on June 19, the day before we began the triathlon. In both languages, I expressed our gratitude and sentiments to the hosts.
A support gathering had previously been held by members of the Vietnamese community in San Jose/Bay Area. They were also thanked and addressed in their native tongue. The team also gave a moving speech to the California National League of POW/MIA Families.
Fraser raced the grueling Sacramento 50-mile race with a 2,000-foot elevation difference as a motivational and team-building exercise, and I won the mountainous and difficult California 50-mile championship.
On June 20, the “DC Day” expedition was begun. Despite the stench of gasoline in the ocean near Belmont Shores in Long Beach, our 4-mile relay swim in the direction of Catalina Island, a popular boating and tourist destination, was invigorating. J.R. Edgecomb, a compassionate Vietnam veteran, provided boat guidance and supplies. The team ran a 6-mile run as soon as they got out of the water. On an adrenaline high, I next hopped to the bike and sped through Los Angeles traffic to the coast and southward for a 72-mile stretch.
We headed into the highlands after escaping the megalopolis, aiming towards Phoenix. The crew stopped at the Vietnam Veterans Center for assistance for a television shot a few days later, off the bikes and jogging a final 4 miles into the city in 110-degree heat.
We then descended into New Mexico after climbing the Rockies to Flagstaff. On a downhill, Langford passed a semi at more than 40 mph in an iconic gritty moment. Everyone was absorbed in the aerobic activity while also being extremely concerned. If Langford had died in the accident, he would have been gathered, last rites delivered, and the mission would have continued!
As we approached Albuquerque, a group of Laguna tribe Vietnam veterans stood on the side of the road, waving the Stars and Stripes. They proudly displayed the flag, which was as straight as the final plant on Iwo Jima during WWII. The squad was joined in an elaborate and moving ceremony with the community’s veterans in Old Town Albuquerque. Residents in Vietnam were kind enough to invite us to a free restaurant supper. That night, as we cycled out of the city, we were surrounded by an enormous amount of motivating energy!
As we passed the flat areas of Northwest Texas, the squad was weighted down by humidity and rising temperatures. The locals were both curious and friendly. At a water stop, some teens were surprised to learn that none of the triathlon team members had ever smoked or attempted anything to get high.
Truckers who were transporting goods to marketplaces were generous enough to donate fresh food. People have occasionally made cash donations on the spur of the moment. Throughout the tour, this sensitivity and kindness were evident. There were no money requests made by the team.
As we approached Oklahoma, our sights were set on Oklahoma City and a meeting with Governor George Nigh’s administration. We met a very patriotic lady called Elizabeth Roy along the way, who was riding a donkey named Walter on a journey to Oklahoma City that had started eight months earlier in Southern California. She was raising money and awareness for veterans in need.
The governor’s staff received us at the Capitol and presented us with a proclamation. Langford, who is Cherokee, was gifted with an eagle feather by a Cherokee chief. As I announced the team’s goals, we presented a commemorative baton. We had hand towels on hand for public lectures since the salt from perspiration irritated our eyes in the hot heat.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s dedication on Nov. 13, 1982, gathered hundreds of people and had an emotional impact on many, including Jim Barker, who decided to put triathletes on a course that would take them to the Wall on July 4, 1984. / Photo: Getty Images
We were eager to see Bates and Bryant as we arrived to the Arkansas border. Both males rode with the team the entire way through Arkansas. Meeting with Lt. Gov. Winston Bryant in Little Rock was one of the highlights of our trip. I talked to the assembled veterans and community people on the service and sacrifice of Americans and South Vietnamese, emphasizing the urgency of finding those who remain unaccounted for in Indochina. The team was featured at an American Legion convention of several hundred members after a lively jog downtown.
We were overjoyed as the squad crossed the Tennessee border and crossed the massive Mississippi River. We had a feeling we’d be able to beat the odds and make it to Washington on time. The motorway maze in Memphis that night was a challenge that demanded concentration.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol, to everyone’s surprise, directed us to exit the interstate and travel on side roads the next morning as we prepared to tackle the long distance of the Volunteer State. Our mileage load and physical difficulties both rose as a result of this. Despite the beautiful scenery, the team was committed to being in Washington on July 4th. We had to pedal for longer periods of time, and late nights became the new norm. Local sheriffs, on the other hand, were quite pleasant and accommodating. As we cycled past several farms in the dead of night, we were greeted with a thunderous applause from crowds of individuals we had never seen before. It had been a profoundly touching experience.
We hit a similar speed bump in Virginia. The crew was required by the state Highways Department to stay on secondary routes. With rain on undulating surfaces and winding, limestone-rich country roads, night riding became extremely dangerous. Our sense of brotherhood and fraternity, on the other hand, triumphed. The task had now taken on the form of a “crusade.” A team member was too physically and emotionally exhausted to participate in one of the bike legs. In the darkness of the night, I took his position.
The crew was near to Lynchburg the next day, a major Civil War battleground. The road seemed to climb in many terraces as we approached the city. Each cyclist took on this challenge head-on, tackling hill after rise. A couple people were convulsing on the final stretch into the city and had to be helped off their bikes.
On the stretch of road leading to Richmond, we found some relief. We felt like a triumphant band of conquering Union troops as we entered the city. We visited with Gov. Charles Rob, a Vietnam veteran who served as a Marine Corps captain, and presented him with a plaque and ceremonial baton—a highlight for the crew. We cycled to the entrance of Marine Corps Base Quantico, some 35 miles south of Washington, as the final leg of our Virginia trip. We raised our bikes high in a team shout in front of the white statue duplicate of the one outside Arlington National Cemetery that represents the flag hoisting on Iwo Jima, as champions do before the Arc de Triumph after winning the Tour de France.
The squad arrived in the District of Columbia the next day, July 4. We raced 4 miles after only two hours of rest to stand in reverence at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the changing of the guard. Following that, everyone on the squad was propelled on our last 7 miles to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by pure euphoria. The final mile along Constitution Avenue seemed like I was flying on air!
On July 4, 1984, Jim Barker, Fraser Langford, Thieu Nguyen-phuc, and Ron Barker, together with a “stand-in,” are at the Wall. During the conflict, both South Vietnamese and Americans made sacrifices, according to Barker. / Photo courtesy of Jim Barker is a writer who lives in the United States
Our final steps felt like a reenactment of history, like the single runner of Ancient Greece nearing the grounds of Marathon and declaring, “Athens is saved,” before taking his last breath. But there was a distinction. Four live veterans were interacting with the souls of the dead.
The team marched straight to the top of the Wall. There was a crowd of veterans and Vietnamese Americans waiting for them. We were standing in front of a gorgeous wreath of red, white, and blue flowers, as well as bright yellow and red flowers, the colors of the South Vietnamese flag.
I expressed my gratitude for everyone’s continued support and made a few remarks. I concentrated on the shared fight and sacrifice of Americans and South Vietnamese in the face of communism’s tyranny. Both languages were used to address the audience. As I have stated, we have never wavered in our commitment to serve in the defense of freedom.
Some of the physical toll from our team’s cross-nation trip was seen at the gathering, which doubters claimed was impossible in the 13-day span we committed to.
Gratitude was conveyed by a former South Vietnamese officer. A refugee professor at Georgetown University extended his blessing. An elderly Vietnamese woman steadfastly held the flags of two countries. The wife of a local Vietnam veteran guided her hesitant husband closer to the Wall. His eyes widened as he realized he was surrounded by people he knew.
In the years since, I’ve grown to consider our team’s experiences and accomplishments as confirmation of my veteran beliefs: Causes of decency and principle may need everything you have. V
From July 1969 until July 1972, Jim Barker served in Vietnam. From 1979 to 2006, he worked as a senior inpatient staff member at the Palo Alto VA Medical Center. From 1997 to 2004, he also taught Vietnamese part-time at Mission College in Santa Clara. Barker is a resident of Keaau, Hawaii.
This article first published in Vietnam magazine’s August 2023 issue. Subscribe to Vietnam magazine and follow us on Facebook for more stories:
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