Wearing the faded military uniforms of another era and a foreign land, they gathered Sunday at Westminster's Sid Goldstein Freedom Park to say goodbye to a man they called a hero.
About 100 people -- a quarter of them wearing military uniforms of the former South Vietnam -- stood at attention and saluted, some dabbing their eyes, during a memorial tribute to retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam during a major escalation of the war.
Westmoreland died two weeks ago at 91.
Though vilified by some, the general was revered by this group.
"You were there with us, fighting in the jungle of Vietnam," Jimmy Tong Nguyen, who organized the event along with several Vietnamese veterans groups, said of Westmoreland, whose portrait stood in front of an eternal flame and statues of Vietnamese and U.S. soldiers at the city's Vietnam War Memorial. "You gave your best efforts," Nguyen said.
"By virtue of Vietnam, together we held the line for many years and stopped the dominoes from falling. You are and always will be ... a courageous and dedicated soldier."
The Rev. Minh Nguyen, who served as Westmoreland's wartime interpreter, offered a prayer. "He was a straightforward man," Nguyen said in an interview. "He was very honest and dedicated to his country. He was a great patriot."
Jimmy Tong Nguyen said he organized the event to honor Westmoreland not only for his wartime service but also for his subsequent efforts "to work toward camaraderie between the Vietnamese and American veterans. He publicly apologized for the U.S. abandoning South Vietnam. I believe, deep in my heart, that he was a soldier's general and a hero of the Vietnam War."
The point was made repeatedly during the 30-minute service, which included the singing of the U.S. and South Vietnamese national anthems, a color guard of uniformed Vietnamese veterans bearing both nations' flags, and the singing of other military and patriotic songs in English and Vietnamese, including "You Are The Hero," written for the general.
"He has left us in sorrow," Giap Ngo, president of the Vietnamese Veterans of the Republic of Vietnam in Southwestern California, said in Vietnamese, translated by Jimmy Nguyen. "He is a great and honorable leader. Please follow in his footsteps."
Frank Fry Jr., Westminster's former mayor and now a city councilman who was instrumental in construction of the Vietnam War Memorial, said he was touched by Sunday's service.
"These soldiers stood side by side on the battlefield," Fry said. "We had so many people who died [in Vietnam] and they were never supported by their country. We are celebrating Gen. Westmoreland today for something the country itself never" has celebrated.