Back in the day, as Kelly would say, I spent a little while in the Air Force. Interestingly, I had been anti-military during the Viet Nam war; when I found myself without a path a few years out of college, I did the expeditious thing and enlisted. Lucky for me we were at peace by then.
I made some really good friends in Monterey. One of them, John, and I still write. He is four years older than I, happily married more than twenty years to my DLI roommate, and has spent just about all of his adult life in the military or in a civilian job with a DOD contractor. I've always loved getting letters from him because his writing, while not always (OMG!) grammatically correct, is intelligent, graphic, and usually hilarious. In the last five years, however, John's letters have become few and far between - partly because it's physically difficult for him to sit still long enough to write (too many jumps out of a perfectly good plane), and partly because he's been struggling to write a book about a month-long battle in which he fought in the mountainous backcountry of Viet Nam.
This morning, I received a long e-mail from John. I've pasted it below, word for word as he wrote it. Pull up an easy chair because it'll take you a while to read. When you're done, tell me - what does one answer to a letter such as this?
I was trying to write you from a street-side internet cafe but some old but well-dressed mamsan was standing over my shoulder, trying to read what I was writing. A bit weird, especially the way she kept grinning at me when I turned around to ask what she wanted. I'm back at the hotel's internet access now. Guess I should tell you that I am in Nha Trang, on the coast of South Viet Nam, wind blowing thru the open hotel doors, waves of turqoise blue crashing just across the street; palm trees and bamboo gardens swaying, making that South Pacific Exotic Movie sound you always hear in those films, like when Burt Lancaster is smooching what-er-name on the beach. Yep, Viet Nam is hell, alright. OK, where was I. Spent 10 days in Hanoi. People up there were pleasant, did not hustle you, didn't even stare at us oddly dressed fat obnoxious white round eye persons. They just went about the business of earning a living and pulling themselves out of the shit of a 10 year period of american sanctions against this country. We suck, but more about that later.
Hanoi was OK, crowded, cold! somewhat noisy from all the motorbikes beeping their horns, but friendly and they dont seem to hold grudges.
Saigon sucks. It is everything I dislike about Asia. Hustlers, noise, filth, ungracious dipshits going about their business of squeezing as much as they can out of us po' white folk. (Of course, looked at another way, it is just a free market economy, no different than the endless commercials on TV for crap no one needs; those "hustlers" are just business people trying to make a living; gotta keep reminding myself to maintain a little perspective.)
And, AND way too many goddam french!! Oh jesus jump up mary do I hate french people, more so now that I witnessed one of the rudest displays I have ever seen in my life, foisted on a poor harmless waiter in the restaurant across the square from the Caravelle, by a pair of french couples. I mean the kind of rude behavior you only hear about in french-people jokes or in the movies. Ohmigod but did they confirm every thing i ever thought about the french. They. Really. Do. Suck! I made sure afterwards that the waiter knew I was an American and definately not french. First time in my life I have gone out of my way to advertise the fact that I'm a Yank.
Nha Trang has become the Pattaya Beach of VN. Tourists, trekkers, Europeans, a very few yanks, mostly frogs and brits. And 20-something backpackers. Hotels, beach restaurants, actually not too bad. The beach is gorgeous. But goddammit where the hell are all the bomb craters! Where are all the unexploded rounds, the burnt out tanks and APCs? Dammit we taxpayers paid good money and a lot of it for a war and I'd sure like to see some evidence of my investment!
Which is to say there is virtually no sign there ever was a war here. Almost none. You gotta look real hard to find it. Under Doi Moi Vietnam set itself on a course of free enterprise, making money and becoming an economic power in Asia and boy howdy are they doing it. 2nd fastest growing economy in SEA and it shows. The official government policy is "We make war no more", unless attacked and we all know how THAT works out. Believe me, we backed the wrong side.
The southerners are industrious but with a hint of the old American/French blackmarket rip-you-off mentality. The Northerners however are just flat out industrious. they work 7 days a week (really) a solid 10-12 hours a day and they work hard. Its still a beautiful country but sadly they have discovered billboards, Vogue magazine and (and this one alone is enough to make me want to go back and enlist as a Viet Cong) Kentucky Fried Colonel. In this country of so much history and beautiful culture, in the most cultured city in Asia, there is a chain of those awful, poisinous symbols of pure Americanism. How could they let that happen?? I mean these people are capable of resisting 10 YEARS of B-52 strikes and they let one of the vilest chains of US fast-food waltz in here and open up!! Oddly, though, The Colonel is about 60 pounds lighter and bears an uncanny resemblance to another elderly chin-bearded gentleman. All the other bad things that go along with a robust economy are here as well-traffic, smog, high rises, industrial parks built on valuable farm land. Oh well, when you are faced with the choice of a full belly or postcard countrysides, I guess I know which one I'd pick.
After Da Nang I split off from the other 3 guys I was travelling with (and gladly), they went to Cambodia, I went to Kontum. Normally, it would have been nearly impossible for me to get that far into the Highlands but Tom Leckinger (in-country director of Viet Nam Veterans of America Foundation-VVAF) greased some palms and got me access up there. I'd hoped to find Dak Seang, site of my epiphany but doubted it would happen. Upon arrival Kontum I discovered the town had tripled in size. It is still a sleepy mountain town, laid back compared to the big cities but grown enough so that I hardly recognized anything. Got hooked up with a "tour guide" that speaks not only english and Viet (duh) but also Bahnar and Sedang. Had several adventures but most importantly discovered that Highway 14 went all the way to Dak Seang, and through Dak Pek (formerly-The End Of The World) and on northwards. Unbelievable!! To give you perspective, that would be as if a paved highway had been built along the top of the Andes and connecting to the deepest darkest part of the Congo. OK, weird analogy but my part of the Central Highlands used to be extremely remote, isolated and accessible only by helicopters flown by pilots with brass doo-dads.
Anyway, we took a 3 hour ride in his 4WD and went to Dak Seang, camp A-245. Arrived there to find a black marble slab with a lot of north viet names on it, DOB, place of birth and date of death all of them between 01 April to 29 April. Hhhmmm wonder why? Sorry, poor joke. Did not recognize anything at first. There is a rubber tree grove there, and a tiny 'Yard vill, whereas before there was only the camp and airstrip, no occupied vills in our AO back then. I recognized Nui Ek and the other mountains and so was able to place myself. The two hills, one east, one west, where Nguyen Van Superman popped up at every sunrise and sunset and would pump 5 rounds of 75mm recoiless rifle rounds at me. ME! And I recognized the mountain slope where we called for a Daisy Cutter drop on an estimated battalion. Pat Dizzine went out there during the siege (for a short guy he sure had a pair!) and did a body count. Hard to do when all that was left were bone splinter embedded into blasted trees. Sorry, mind wnadering. Back to reality...
After a while of scuffling thru the grove I began to pick things out. The hump in the ground that marked the row of sandbags of the south wall where the NVA swarmed over, straight into point-blank 105mm Bee Hive. The large open area where so many yards and their families died in the first minutes. And Main Street turned out to be the remnants of the airstrip. Still a lot of penaprime left to make a more or less paved road. I wandered past the southern perimeter, down to a gully where, just beyond, Danny Little and Johnnie Petit died. Dannny's body was never recovered. I shoulda gone on down there and looked for him. Next time I will.
I leaned against a rubber tree and contemplated things, looked down at my shoes, thinking about what was, and saw...
JEEZUZFUCKIN'KEERISTONAPOGOSTICK!!!! I was a-straddle an unexploded 105mm Willy Pete round! I stared in gory fascination for 5 minutes, too scared to move and then looked around. My brain and eye systems, now calibrated to the size, shape and color of UXOs suddenly discerned that the ground was liberally sprinkled with dozens of the awful things. They seemed to rise out of the ground. 105s, 82mm (with and without fins) 106 and 57 and 75mm Recoiless Rifle rounds, 60mm mortar ohmigod they were everywhere! And I'd been shuffling through them on my stroll down Memory Lane. Shit! Huynh strolled over and bade me follow him where he showed me the casing of what must have been a 500 pounder. Then he squatted down and scooped up a handful of very small, black, cylindrical hard things, a bit smaller than the eraser of a #2 wooden pencil. He touched his lighter flame to them and they blazed up quite merrily. Propellant granules from-who knows what-everything tube-launched I guess. The ground was covered with it.
Consider this, we make expensive cars that deteriorate in 10 years or so. But we make instruments of misery and awful chemicals that last at least 40 years and probably forever. That battle was 37 years ago. Those granules lay in the harsh sun, mud, rain and had not even begun to crumble and were still alive. I'm thinking we might have our priorities wrong.
I took a lot of pictures so that I can bore you with them when I get home. I finally traced out where everything was.
Huynh says that in 2001 when they built the vill, they found some underground tunnels and large concrete covered bunkers. Probably my commo shack, Beikirks dispensary, the operations room. In one of those bunkers they found piles of "jumping up jacks" (his term for toe poppers). The villagers filled in the underground passageways and bunkers. that stuff is still down there and they are afraid of messing with it. I guess the jumping up jacks will be OK, covered up with feet of soil and rocks, but the UXO laying around on the surface really disturbs me. No one mentioned any kids getting blown up so I guess they know what the stuff is. But a lot of it showed signs of being moved, mortar rounds stacked into piles. I am meeting Tom Leckinger in a few days and maybe he can make something happen. The V V A F has a UXO clearing operation and hopefully they can get Dak Seang cleared up.
After 3 or 4 hours I wanted to go back home. So I walked down to the western end of Main Street (the ol' airstrip) and paid my respects to the names on the black marble slab. God Bless them every single one. They were far better soldiers than I. I sat there 20 minutes or so. Then I mumbled a prayer for Johnnie Pettit, Danny Little young Albert Barthelme and the 9 crewmen of the Caribous that were shot down; I silently said another for the Montagnards and their families, living and dead, and the NVA that died trying to over run the camp. And then I took of my St Michael medal and laid it on top of the slab. I'd worn it for decades to remind me of that month. That slab is probably as good as any place to store it for now.
On the way back to Kontum we deviated and stopped by the site of Ben Het. Nothing there but the hills now, and collapsed tunnels and bunkers. The airstrip of course. The 'Yards use Ben Het and Dak To airstrips for drying tapioca during the daytime, and at night the teen agers come out and do what teen agers do. Huynh calls Dak To "Airstrip of Love".
Throughout the country the i have seen occasional displays of weaponry, tanks, crashed aircraft, cannons and such. Collected for the curious to look at, and for kids to climb on. But none of it is preserved. They've gathered the stuff together in a few places, made little signs to tell the tourist what it is, and left it there, rusting away. In our parks and museums where we have the ubiquitous M-48 or the odd Huey we tend to take care of them, repaint them in their original colors, put up wordy signs telling us who drove this tank, who flew that chopper, where this F-4 was based out of. The Viets let it rust away.
I think they have the better idea.
Hard to believe there was once a war here. Wars. The awful frogs. Japs. French again. Then us. Then a 10-year occupation by russians. And somehow they survived it all and are thriving. I found out that instead of the domino theory becoming reality, the viets after 1975 actually stabilized this region. In '75 they were attacked by the cambodes, followed soon after by the chinese way up north. In both events the vietnamese kicked asses, drove the enemy back across the borders and after that things began settling down. Laos and Cambodia are both soup sandwiches of course, tho Cambodia is developing a tourist indistry. Mainly for the very hardy and Euro-trekkers. But there hasn't been much trouble over here since. Our stupid 10 year embargo caused some really bad times here, but they somehow survived that as well.
Somehow we always seem to fuck it up. I think it begins in our state department, those ivy league snot gobblers that gave us every other debacle we've had in the 20th century. Looking around here, I'm thinking that way back when, in 1948 when Ho asked us for help (not once, not twice, but 8 times!) instead of backing france (ALWAYS a bad mistake) and delivering Arclights later on, we shoulda delivered franchises instead. Every body want a full belly and a fat wallet. Only a few deranged individuals want warfare and fortunately those maniacs tend to end up in Ranger battalions and Special Forces and The Regiment, where they can be closely watched.
We are outta here tomorrow early, going to Da Lat. I am tired and burnt out on this trip and I'd just as soon spend the remaining 6 days back up in Kontum. If I ever come here again it will either be alone or with a couple of very select individuals.
My companions here are a former SP/4 intell clerk stationed in Saigon, a former Swift boat sailor that was in Da Nang and Nha Trang and an early 60s era helicopter pilot that spent his time in Schweinfurt. Good guys, really. But not looking for the same things as me. Its been OK, but they wanted to see every single temple museum pagoda ancient ruins and tourist site there is. The went to Cambodia and visited Angkor Wat for cryin' out loud. Me, I'd rather come back with an aid bag and clean up some 'Yard kids of parasites and skin rashes and such.
Speaking of which-just briefly and then I'll sign off-the 'Yards are doing marginally better. Only Saigonesians call them Moi anymore, and a few Yards have attained high positions in the government. Its still rough, but at least the government stopped "ethnic cleansing" to claim the Highlands for coffee. In fact there is a moratorium on cutting any more trees, because the viets are concerned that they have cut down too many forests already, and are reforesting now (thanks to the Finns).
I've been in this chair too long and my legs are killing me so I'm gonna go take my Pok Time (or Pot time, remember the mid-afternoon naps they used to do here?). Speaking of which, they don't really do that much anymore. Nor is there any more beetle nut chewing (oh how I miss those black rotted teeth ha ha).
I'll send another Spot Report soon. I've heard Da Lat is beautiful and I am hoping it is quiet, like the rest of the Highlands. Please God, no more french tourists.
more to follow...
p.s. this came back cuz I sent it to your old aol address. So here is a short update. I am back in Sai Gon now. Da Lat was beautiful, sort of like some small European Alps town. And COLD. Got down in the low 40s at night which to us New Yorkers would be a spring day but having been here a month I got used to the hot weather. Anyway, it was nice. Took a too long bus ride from Da Lat to here Ho Chi Minh City (formerly know as Sai Gon) and have been here 3 days, decompressing and wishing I was home. I was really hesitant about coming here and almost bailed out before the trip started, but I am glad I made it. I was able to shed some things, sort of leave them by the side of the road as I travelled around. I rejected all that New Age Yuppie Cathartic Closure Crap that I was told I would experience. The nightmares have not gone away, and I still feel pain and sorrow for the Montagnards we betrayed and the fellas I left here. But privately, for me, it's been a good experience. No, goddammit I did not achieve "closure". How I hate that term; it's used by every touchy feely idiot that has never ahd a traumatic experience. I will never be closed on some things but at least it was gratifying to see that this country not only survived our best efforts but is actually thriving. 2nd fastest growing economy in Asia. And the government seems to have stopped murdering the Montagnards for their ancestral lands in order to grow coffee. The Viets have become more sensitive to the minorities here, and especially for world perception of "ethnic cleansing". They fucked up in the 70s and 80 but seem to be on the righteous path nowadays. Thriving, like I said. No one starves any more and the worst hazards (besides way too much UXO) is the street traffic, always a good economic sign.
This could easily lead into a discussion of America's current debacle, and our leadership, but I think I will save that discussion for another letter to you. I have changed my opinions on an awful lot of things, and my hatred for our government and it's so-called leadership has increased by several orders of magnitude. Lemme know when you want to get down and political, girl.
Take good care Patty. I miss you and as always I still love you. Drop me a line when you can. Catch you laters.