A Museum Proudly Displayed an American Flag Rescued from the Fall of Saigon. But the Soldier's Story Wasn't True.

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February 26, 2024
J.R. Wilson touches the display case of an American flag at The Antioch Historical Museum

ANTIOCH — A U.S. flag neatly folded and encased in the military room of this city’s museum ended up there because, as the story went, it was draped around an Army soldier as he climbed on a helicopter from atop the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

He was among the last American troops to leave Vietnam, he said, and brought the flag that kept him company during combat home with him.

The precious possession was later presented with great fanfare to the Antioch Historical Society during a Vietnam Veterans Appreciation barbecue fundraiser nine years ago, on the cusp of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

“We were so excited about it at the time. It seemed like a really good deal,” recalled Laura Jacques, a longtime volunteer and past president of the Antioch Historical Society.

But the flag will now be removed from the wing of the museum where other decorated Antioch soldiers’ keepsakes are on display after records show it was probably never in Vietnam — and neither was the man who claimed to carry it.

Military records obtained by this newspaper show the flag-bearing former U.S. Army sergeant, Michael Thomas Greenawalt, was in fact stationed in Germany, working as a desk clerk during the Vietnam War.

While the records from the National Archives and Records Administration do not show the complete personnel file on his service from 1972 to 1985, not up for debate are historical records that say the U.S. Marines — not Army troops — were the last combat soldiers to evacuate the embassy by helicopter on April 30, 1975.

Greenawalt did not return calls or emails for comment. The longtime Antioch resident moved to a nearby county several years ago, available public records show.

But veterans and local historians who remember the lead up to the April 2015 barbecue fundraiser — which was documented by this news organization at the time — are now feeling a mixture of emotions over the new revelations.

Former museum volunteer and veteran Bill Fraga remembers being caught off-guard by the donation at the time, but the board was later excited to get it. Greenawalt, then-commander of the Antioch American Legion post, approached Fraga during a barbecue planning meeting just days before the event offering his prized memento, he said.

“He told a story that he had the flag around his neck when he left and got out of there,” Fraga recalled. “It was one of the last flags (to leave Vietnam).”

Fraga didn’t think to question it, given Greenawalt’s status with the local American Legion.

During the event, Greenawalt retold the tale of leaving the U.S. Embassy’s rooftop with the flag around his neck — the same one he had carried with him during his entire stay in Vietnam, he said.

“It’s one that I had with me that I brought from home. I had the flag with me in the country the whole time,” he was quoted as saying in an East Bay Times article.

When a reporter asked him why he decided to donate it, he said: “It just seemed right at the time and I did it.”

Greenawalt, who joined the service while living in Riverside, told those assembled at the 2015 veterans barbecue that he had served in a special unit, part of the Army Special Forces from 1972 to 1975.

But a tipster raised questions about Greenawalt’s service, which led to this newspaper’s review of his records.

“I feel like he played everybody there that day,” said Fraga, an Army veteran who did not serve in Vietnam. “If I had been a combat veteran, I would have been really upset, and as it is, I’m upset because he did that.”

“Getting this respect for something you didn’t do just ain’t right,” Fraga added.

J.R. Wilson, founder of the Delta Veterans Group, whose group benefited from the fundraiser barbecue, remembers being surprised by the late-minute flag donation and later questioning Greenawalt’s war story. Wilson said in an interview he didn’t raise the issue then and never spoke again with Greenawalt, who moved out of the area shortly thereafter.

Wilson finds it upsetting to think about the stars and badges on the American Legion honor guard uniform Greenawalt wore back then. They signified a senior jumpmaster with two gold stars during combat, a combat infantry badge and pathfinder torch badge symbolizing flight and airborne capabilities and a Vietnam campaign ribbon, among other badges.

He added that nearly half of Greenawalt’s uniform badges seen in photos from a past newspaper article appeared to be unearned. As commander of Antioch VFW Post 4551, Wilson is tasked with examining such records regularly.

“A clerk is not an infantryman, nor does he get combat infantry badges,” he said. “It’s pretty sad that someone would want to impersonate a hero.”

Even so, Wilson said Greenawalt has the “right to prove people wrong by submitting a DD-214 (military discharge papers),” though that could lead to more questions.

Autrey James, past commander of Antioch’s American Legion who took office just after Greenawalt vacated it, didn’t recall the flag story but did remember Greenawalt’s mention of serving in Vietnam. To be a member of the American Legion, you only need to serve one day of active duty, he said.

“If I had heard that (flag) story, I would have challenged him on that,” James said.

The Antioch museum plans to remove the flag.

“I guess we’ll have to look into things a little more before we display them. We’ll have to do some more research,” Jacques said. “Usually, we have some connection and know that things are on the up and up.”

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