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16 Feb, 2008 17:41

USSR ‘secret' Vietnam soldiers speak out

Russian veterans have gathered to mark the anniversary of America’s withdrawal from the Vietnam War. More than 3,000 Soviet soldiers fought in the conflict despite years of government denials that they were ever involved.

It was America’s longest and most divisive war, with almost 60,000 young men dead in a conflict that killed more than five million on all sides. 

Most still think of Vietnam as a war the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies fought against the North. 

But Soviet Union’s men were there, too, doing their part to advance the spread of communism. They are some of the Soviet Union’s forgotten soldiers, veterans of a war their government denied involvement in for almost twenty years.

It was only after the regime collapsed in 1991 that officials admitted more than 3,000 Soviet troops fought against the Americans in Vietnam.

Now, some of these old soldiers are together again to mark the 35th anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal.

“Officially we were known as a group of Russian military experts. The commander was referred to simply as the senior expert. Thus, technically, there were no Russian units in Vietnam.  The only thing we knew was that we were Soviet people, Soviet soldiers, and that we had to do whatever it took to stop air raids, which is what we did,” Nikolay Kolesnik, Vietnam veteran, remembers.

Soviet expertise played a vital part in training Vietnamese forces and Soviet anti-aircraft missiles to inflict heavy damage on American planes.

Those who fought alongside the Russians say it’s difficult to overestimate the impact they had.

“The Soviet Union was a huge help in the war. We have a lot of respect for Russian equipment and Russian experts. Their equipment was better than what the Americans had. That’s why we were able to win,” Lee Cong Niem, Vietnam veteran, said.

Saturday's ceremony was a chance for the next generation of soldiers to meet the men who have done it all before and for a grateful nation to thank the veterans who were its unsung allies for so long. 

For years, those were the men who ‘weren’t there’, veterans of a war their government said they never fought in. Now, thirty-five years after the last of them left the jungles of Vietnam they can properly commemorate their part in one of the 20th century’s most significant conflicts.