Some sources indicate that the Republic of Vietnam Presidential Unit Citation was originally established in 1950 as the “State of Vietnam Friendship Ribbon” or simply “Vietnam Friendship Ribbon,” that it was given its current title in 1961 and awarded to units under the same criteria as used for the United States’ Presidential Unit Citation, and that it was issued by the South Vietnamese government up until its collapse in 1975. Unfortunately, the sources that make these claims, which certainly sound accurate and seem reasonable, do not provide any documentation to ensure their validity or accuracy.

What we do know for certain about the medal is that, in the case of members of the United States Armed Forces, it was awarded for humanitarian actions taken during August and September of 1954 during a mostly forgotten evacuation called Operation Passage to Freedom.

Following the French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in May, 1954, a peace conference was held in Geneva that yielded the Geneva Accords, which partitioned Vietnam into countries at the 17th parallel and delineated a 300-day period when people could move freely between the two nations. The free-movement period was slated to end May 18, 1955.

Both France and the State of Vietnam (South Vietnam) grossly underestimated how many people wished to migrate from the north, where heavy fighting with the French had forced many residents to leave their homes. The Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam estimated around 10,000 refugees would leave the north, while the French Commissioner-General of Indochina thought the number would be 30,000. Unfortunately, the stupendous inaccuracies of these guesses had severe consequences because the Accords stated that not only were citizens free to move from North to South and vice-versa, but also that they would be “helped to do so.”

The Geneva Conference ended on July 20, 1954; by early August, more than 200,000 Vietnamese were waiting in refugee camps in Hanoi and the port city of Haiphong. In response to the crisis—and no doubt to gain the loyalty of those fleeing the communist regime in the north—the United States assembled a Task Force to aid in the evacuation process. The first U.S. vessel carrying evacuees, the USS Menard, left Haiphong on August 17 with almost 2,000 refugees; the USS Montrose embarked from Haiphong to Saigon the next day with even more refugees. In all, it’s estimated that U.S. vessels were responsible for the evacuation of more than 300,000 people.

All the uniform regulations that mention the medal refer to it as the “Vietnam Presidential Unit Citation,” while The Institute of Heraldry calls if the Republic of Vietnam Presidential Unit Citation. Which personnel are eligible for the award naturally varies from service to service. Navy regulations, for example, specify that it’s authorized for wear by personnel who served with certain units cited by the President of the Republic of Vietnam during the evacuations in August and September, 1954 (U.S. participation lasted long beyond this time); that list is maintained by the Chief of Naval Operations.

AR 600-8-22 says the medal, which is authorized for permanent wear only, is awarded to all personnel assigned to the Military Assistance Advisory Group, Indochina during that same time period. The medal is not mentioned in AFI 36-2803, while the SECNAVINST 1650.1H explicitly states that no Marine Corps personnel are eligible for the award.

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