The story of an Army helicopter pilot's return trip to Vietnam
By Dr. Dick Elgin l Special to the Rolla Daily News
The Rolla Daily News - Rolla, MO
By Dr. Dick Elgin l Special to the Rolla Daily News
Updated Nov. 12, 2012 @ 10:29 am
By Dr. Dick Elgin l Special to the Rolla Daily News
Updated Nov. 12, 2012 @ 10:29 am
» Social News
I felt some trepidation as the airliner began its descent and the pilot announced (in English, but with a thick Vietnamese accent) we would soon be landing in Hanoi. Trepidation because I was a little unsure of what my reaction might be to the people, sights, sounds and scents of Vietnam, the country I left 41 years ago. I patted my Army-issued dog tags which had lain in my dresser drawer for those 41 years, but were now strung around my neck (with my well-used P38 can opener attached). From a bright blue sky we let down through scattered clouds, passed over rolling green hills, then over the familiar sights of rice paddies, to touch down gently at Noi Bai Airport, Hanoi.
My wife Becky and I were taking a bicycle tour of parts of Vietnam. The itinerary: A couple of days in Hanoi with a short trip to Halong Bay with an overnight on a junk (boat), then return to Hanoi. A flight to Hue (the old HuePhu Bai airfield south of Hue) to tour the Citadel and the city and cycle its countryside. Then south on Highway 1 over Hai Van Pass and down into Danang, by Freedom Hill, along Red Beach, out to China Beach, then south down the beach past Marble Mountain to Hoi An. After a few days in Hoi An, a flight from Danang to Saigon. A few days touring in Saigon and bicycling the Mekong delta, then a side trip to Cu Chi. Then back to the states.
To me, the only Vietnam Veteran in the group of 16, places like the Citadel, HuePhu Bai, Danang, Marble Mountain and Hoi An were much more than names on an itinerary. We had selected this bicycle tour mostly because it spent time in the Danang/Hoi An area and because it had a free day while in Hoi An which my wife and I were going to use to drive to LZ Baldy, the Que Son Valley, Highway 1 to Tam Ky and on to Chu Lai. This was the area I had flown from May, 1969 until May, 1970 as a “Charger” helicopter pilot for the Americal Division's 196th Light Infantry Brigade, living on and flying off of LZ Baldy (and later Hawk Hill). Then, as an A Company, 123rd Aviation Battalion “Pelican” flying off of Ky Ha, at the very northern tip of the Americal's huge Chu Lai base. That had been quite a year for this then20-year-old Warrant Officer from St. James.
Hanoi In Hanoi we toured, visiting the city's highlights such as Uncle Ho's Tomb, Uncle Ho's house in the Presidential Palace area, Ba Dinh Square, a cyclo tour of the very interesting Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem Lake, and a water puppet show. We enjoyed drinks at the Metropole Hotel, probably one of the more famous hotels in Asia. Built by the French in 1901, it is still beautiful. Luminaries who have stayed there include Charlie Chaplin, George H.W. Bush, John McCain. We also toured the “Hanoi Hilton,” or, Hoa Lo Prison, built by the French in the late 1800's. Only a fraction of the prison exists today, most of it having been razed to build a hotel. It is a museum, but still a very sobering place. Every American who visits Hanoi should visit Hoa Lo Prison and quietly remember our POW's who suffered and died there at the hands of North Vietnamese.
Hanoi is one of the most interesting cities we have visited. It is both old and new. The pace is slow. Its Old Town is fascinating, its parks and greenspace are expansive, and it still has many vestiges of French influence (don't miss the Metropole Hotel). As with most Asian cities, the air quality can be poor and the traffic and number of scooters can be nearly overwhelming.
Halong Bay From Hanoi we took the 2.5 hour bus trip to Halong Bay, east of Hanoi. Halong Bay, “Descending Dragon Bay” is famous for its 1600 limestone features which poke out of the bay. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is a popular tourist destination. We boarded a junk along with a dozen other Western tourists and slipped around the bay, along with about 200 other junks, also loaded with tourists. One of the limestone features (an island) has within it a huge cave, which we walked through, along with about a thousand other tourists. Our tour guide stressed how Halong Bay was protected by UNESCO, but the bay seemed highly impacted by tourists and very crowded with junks which rotated through a dock, loading area and building where all manner of Halong Bay trinkets can be purchased, all constructed specifically to support the tourist trade. The area seemed not “protected” by anyone. Not quite a Disneyland, but certainly not a wilderness area. After our overnight on the junk, we bussed back to Hanoi. Later we learned that a few weeks before our Halong Bay excursion, one of the junks (named the “Dream Voyage”) sank at night, trapping and drowning 12 tourists. I would not recommend the Halong Bay excursion, due to the very crowded and “canned” tourist atmosphere we experienced.
Hue From Hanoi we took a onehour flight to Hue, landing at the old HuePhu Bai Airport, built by the U.S. military and used by all the services during the war. After settling into our western-style resort, for several days we bicycled country roads and lanes, experiencing the hamlets, rice paddies, people, scents and sights of rural Vietnam, all at 10 miles per hour, which is the perfect speed to experience any country. One ride was along the Perfume River (badly missnamed) which flows through Hue. The ride ended at the famous Thein Mu Pagoda, then down the river by boat to the Citadel, the walled fortress which used to house the Imperial City. The buildings inside the Citadel were heavily damaged during Tet 1968 as a result of the NVA attacking the ARVN headquarters located in the walled city, then the U.S. response to aid the ARVN's. Due to postwar neglect by the communist government, the buildings of the Imperial City further decayed. The area was made a UNESCO site in 1993. Some of the buildings destroyed during the war have been reconstructed, but bullet marks in the stone walls and older structures in the Citadel are easily recognizable. It is difficult to get a sense of the fierce fighting and losses that took place in the Citadel and Hue when touring the area today.
On to Hoi An From Hue it was south down Highway 1 past HuePhu Bai Airport and then up the mountain to Hai Van Pass. (We did not go through the tunnel which now cuts through the mountain.) We stopped at the summit of the pass to be swarmed and inundated by vendors. Watch your belongings very carefully! Then down the other side to the northwest edge of Danang. This is the area I knew as Red Beach and the area of Freedom Hill PX. Along the beach is a new road and a huge new bridge which spans the Song Han River (which flows through Danang), and goes out to what every GI whoever was in Danang would call China Beach. The new road goes to the north part of China Beach, nearly to the foot of Monkey Mountain where the 95th Evac Hospital was located (nothing left today and, alas, no Dana Delaney). The top of Monkey Mountain still bristles with radio antennae and communication dishes, similar to 1969 when I used to fly “signal guys” up there. From the north end of China Beach we went south (feet wet) on a new, modern, 4lane motorway past the old Marble Mountain Airfield and Marble Mountain itself, past the old ROK (Republic of Korea) compound (nothing left), all the way to Hoi An. The sights along the drive were unbelievable. The whole area of what we knew as China Beach has been developed with worldclass hotels, condos and resorts. The beach itself is just as white and the South China Sea is just as blue as I remember. I could not tell where the China Beach PX had been, and Marble Mountain Airfield is no more, but some of its old concretearch revetments still exist. South of Marble Mountain practically all the way to Hoi An are golf resorts. Unbelievable. Along the beach, the only familiar sights were the round, woven and lacquered basket boats, still used (as they have for generations) for fishing.
In Hoi An we stayed in one of those worldclass, madeforwesterners resorts in neardowntown on the Thu Bon River (not the ones out on the coast, a few miles east). Such resorts have been built in the most popular locations in Vietnam (as have been hotels), catering to western tourists. Hoi An is an ancient, historical town, known for its shopping, tailor shops and restaurants. We had a great couple of days and nights touring and enjoying Hoi An. It is probably one the most visited towns in Vietnam, (albeit small).
LZ Baldy, Que Son Valley, Tam Ky, Ky Ha, Chu Lai While in Hoi An we arranged for a minivan, driver and interpreter to give us a oneday tour of part of the AO (Area of Operation) where I had flown helicopters for the 196th LIB. We were picked up at the hotel that morning and drove west out of Hoi An a short distance to Highway 1 and turned south toward Chu Lai. In this area Highway 1 is brand new, a ribbon of asphalt with hordes of traffic. No centerline stripe, but no matter. Buses, tanker trucks, vans, cars of all ilk, large transport trucks and scooters, all belching clouds of black exhaust, all honking at each other in a veritable freeforall, filling the roadway. The only saving grace to the chaos is that none of the vehicles are capable of going very fast. Old Highway 1 was just to the west, that being the Highway 1 we flew up and down lowlevel as fast as my helicopter would go! We crossed the Thu Bon River on a new bridge, similar to any Interstate bridge in the states. Upriver to the west was the rebuilt railroad bridge. First constructed by the French, bombed into the river many times and now rebuilt, it carries the “Reunification Express” a passenger train between Saigon and Hanoi. South a few more miles and on the right were the unmistakable two hills of LZ Baldy, sticking out of the coastal plain which stretches from the South China Sea, westerly 15 miles or so to the foothills of the Que Son Mountains. We turned off Highway 1 and drove a couple of miles to the former headquarters LZ of the 196th LIB (and other units both before and after the 196th was there). The LZ is unmistakable, but it is completely overgrown with trees. Its airstrip now unused, converted to a Vietnamese Army base. Our driver was not interested in driving up to the guarded gate and inquiring about entering with two Americans in the backseat. Instead we backtracked some and drove a small gravel road which took us to the northern part of the LZ at the foot of the hill. There we found about 10 or 15 women and men cutting trees. As soon as we stopped and got out, they all came to look at the Americans. They wanted their pictures taken, to be shown in America. We obliged. I had brought with me and showed the group pictures of myself, standing beside my helicopter, taken on LZ Baldy in the summer of 1969. The older gentleman of the group started talking to the others and to our guide, explaining who I was and about the photos and my helicopter and where the photos were taken (not far from where we stood). There was quite an animated discussion among the group, in their singsong tonal language, led by the older man and our guide. Turns out the older gentleman was a former VC and had lived in the little village just outside the wire of LZ Baldy. Through the interpreter he told of mortaring the LZ many times (including the summer of 1969, interrupting my sleep), and how he had sifted through the LZ's trash dump at night. He explained to the group how the VC were always scared when there were helicopters in the area and how deadly they could be. The old VC and I had quite a conversation (through the interpreter) about the war and how it had mostly been fought by very young men. We spoke of the bravery on both sides and of the loss of good friends during the war. He had survived 10 years of war in the area of Baldy and the Que Sons, I only had to endure and survive one. As we were saying our “goodbyes” and shaking hands, the old VC said “We are the lucky men.” It was quite an emotional moment for both of us. I never would have dreamed of such an encounter, nor its impact on me (and my wife).
From Baldy we drove on out west through part of the Que Son Valley past LZ Ross (not distinguishable). It is amazing how that area has developed and how many people live and farm and raise rice there (but only very meagerly). We turned around before getting to Hiep Duc (Kam Duc would be even farther west) and started back for Highway 1. LZ West was just to the south, easily recognizable. That part of the 196th AO during the summer of 1969 had seen some of the most fierce battles and losses of the war. Read the late Keith Nolan's book, “Death Valley: The Summer Offensive, I Corps, August 1969.” And James Humphries' “Through the Valley.” And Chuck Carlock's “Firebirds.”
At Highway 1 we turned right and went south past Hawk Hill (not distinguishable) to Tam Ky and then on south to Chu Lai. We found our way to the northern tip of the former huge American base which served as the headquarters of the Americal Division. It was very difficult to get oriented because there is essentially nothing left of the former base. The beach line is recognizable and mostly from that we found part of what used to be the vast Ky Ha heliport. Part of the pavement still exists, used today as a parking lot and to train truck drivers. The hill where the Americal HQ and Main PX and 91st Evac Hospital were located is just barely distinguishable. The Chu Lai East airfield is gone. Chu Lai Main is still operational as a cargo airport. Some of the old concretearch revetments which used to protect the Marine F4's are still visible. It is amazing how nearly the whole, huge, sprawling Chu Lai base is now a big sand dune with some scrub brush. It's all gone. The place is very quiet.
Although My Lai is only a few miles south down Highway 1 from Chu Lai, I felt no need to visit Vietnam's “memorial” to the site. In early 1970, I had flown members of the Peers Commission to My Lai when it was investigating the massacre (also a CBS camera crew and thankfully, no Dan Rather).
We left Chu Lai and headed back north up Highway 1 past green rice paddies that looked just as they did in 1969, with the ancient methods of moving water and the conical hats still tending the rice. The populated areas along Highway 1 are more dense, but the structures, markets, people, facilities and wellworn hordes of vehicles and scooters have not changed. We arrived back at Hoi An after a long day, the highlight of which was being reminded, “We are the lucky men.” Yes, I am a lucky man.
Saigon We flew from Danang (the old “Danang Main” air base) to Saigon. I never was in Saigon during the war, but I doubt that during those years one could shop the stores of Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Armani and Burberry. These capitalists haven't found their way to (or been allowed into) the more conservative Hanoi. It has been said that we may have lost the war, but we won economy. There are no Walmarts (yet) but McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Huts, ATM's and WiFi have invaded Saigon and won. While I understand the fabulous Rex Hotel in downtown had a rooftop bar during the war, I doubt it had the great live band, tremendous food, wonderful drinks and beautiful cocktail waitress that we enjoyed there one night. (Well, on second thought, maybe the wonderful food and drinks and beautiful women were available at the Rex during the war.) We enjoyed a delightful evening atop the Rex. Looking out on the brightly lit skyline of Saigon from up there, the view could be of any modern, vibrant city in the world. (One did not get that impression in Hanoi.)
Our group was shuttled into the Mekong delta for a day cycling the roads and lanes from Tan An to My Tho, stopping at markets and hamlets along the way. Back in Saigon we toured Notre Dame Cathedral, the Post Office (designed by Eiffel, as in Eiffel Tower), and the former Presidential Palace, now renamed the Reunification Palace and used as a museum. Portions of its basement remain as a warera command center, complete with map rooms and U.S. radios. On the front lawn is a Chinesemade tank, the same one (according to the tour guide) that crashed through the Palace gates on April 30, 1975 and ended the Vietnam War. We also walked by the current U.S. Embassy (no stopping and no taking pictures), which is not at the same location as April, 1975.
The Saigonarea tour included a day going to Cu Chi to see and experience the tunnels and then a stop at the War Remnants Museum. The former name of the museum was the War Crimes Museum but was changed probably to placate American tourists. Having read online accounts and reviews of these tourist “attractions” and their tour guides, my wife and I opted, instead, for a delightful day in Saigon shopping, sightseeing and eating. When others of our group returned late that afternoon they believed my choice, as a Vietnam Veteran, of not vising the tunnels and the museum was wise.
All of the large cities have central markets. In Saigon is the wellknown Ben Thanh Market. If you go to the “wet” side of the market which has seafood, fish and live animals, have a strong stomach! Also in the cities expect to see very small pho restaurants. They are on every street corner, mostly set up on the sidewalks. Tiny plastic tables and chairs (about Kindergarten size) with many Vietnamese huddled around slurping down the popular noodle soup. We enjoyed pho, but not out of a communal pot while sitting in the middle of a busy sidewalk breathing the exhaust of buses speeding by a few feet away.
A hairraising experience you will have in Saigon will be merely walking across the street. Some very large intersections are not signalized (and the streets are not striped). Zooming hordes of scooters flow in these streets, filling them curb to curb, along with cyclos, buses, cars, trucks, and bicycles. The flow does not stop at a street intersection, but sort of spreads, merges and bifurcates, sorting itself out. The scene has been described as a symphony without a conductor. So, how does one cross a street? On YouTube there are videos on how to do it, but what you do is take a very deep breath, say a little prayer and step off the curb. No real need to look, just have faith to take the step. Once you step into the street DO NOT STOP and DO NOT CHANGE SPEED. Very deliberately walk straight across the street. Again, there is hardly any need to look, just walk (actually it is better if you don't look). Surprisingly, just about with certainty you will arrive at the opposite curb without being hit. The masses will part (ala you being Moses, the traffic being the Red Sea) and you will cross the street unscathed. It is very disconcerting at first, but after doing it a time or two you gain faith you will not meet your demise by a Vietnamese (or two or ten) on a scooter. Go look on YouTube. You will chuckle.
Why? Any Vietnam Veteran contemplating a return trip to Vietnam needs to answer the oneword question: Why? Assuredly when you tell others, particularly other veterans, you will be asked the question, usually with amazement. To some it may be a cathartic journey to bring “closure” to their war experience (to use the contemporary, much overused cliché'). To others it may be to remember and honor a friend who died there in some longforgotten place. To some, just to return to the area where one participated in or witnessed incredible acts of heroism, hardly known to anyone and acknowledged by no one (such as myself flying the Hiep Duc area in the summer of 1969), will perhaps bring a certain comfort. There is a nostalgic curiosity to some of us who are semiretired and have had time to reflect on that incredible year (or more) when, as relative youngsters and helicopter pilots, we were given sometimes unbelievable responsibilities in unpredictable circumstances literally making life and death decisions. On some reflection about that duty and how we met the challenges, most of we pilots get nostalgic about our tour (or tours) in Vietnam, reflect on those injured or killed, and have a natural curiosity about the country and, in particular, the area where we flew. However, when telling some Vietnam Veterans I was going back, I got quite an earful about the Vietnamese, the country, and supporting the Communists by my trip. One told me how unpatriotic I was for going back. We all can easily imagine experiences suffered by Vietnam Veterans during the war which would make the thought of returning abhorrent. Even those who would like to return might wonder how he might react to some sight or scent experienced during a return trip there (and hence my trepidation on landing in Hanoi).
For some, returning with family members will probably lead to a much better understanding of the war and what the veteran experienced. Some veterans who haven't spoken much about the war will probably be more open to do so during a trip back to Vietnam. In my case, my wife and I were not married while I served in Vietnam; still, Becky now has a much better understanding of my year in Vietnam and my renewed interest in the country and the war. Some veterans who travel back to Vietnam find the trip lifechanging and many want to go back. Several American groups (some organized by Vietnam Veterans) have established various missions and mission trips for humanitarian assistance in Vietnam.
My decision to go back was for a combination of reasons. It was part nostalgic curiosity brought on by my recent interest in 19th and 20th century history of southeast Asia and particularly the area during World War II, the French and Indochina War and the Vietnam War (called the American War by the Vietnamese). I would visit my old AO from Chu Lai to Danang and the South China Sea to Kam Duc (the Laoian border), where I had been a part of so many wonderful and terrible experiences, known just about only to the participants. Also, to my wife and me it was another bicycle trip and adventure to an exotic international location. All my expectations were met, and some exceeded.
A Few Observations The people are very friendly, helpful, approachable and curious about westerners and smile continuously. The young people are particularly curious and will approach you to practice their English (which is now taught in school). This is true for the service employees in westernstyle hotels and resorts and also true for the Vietnamese we encountered while bicycling rural areas and even in a small market in the western part of the Que Son Valley. When we asked a waitress at a resort if she'd been to America, she said no, but it was her dream. My wife and I have traveled in China where it seems not many people smile. In Vietnam everyone is smiling.
As we Vietnam Veterans know, the Vietnamese people are very industrious. They can make anything from anything and something from nothing. Everything is recycled and used. In the small villages we cycled through there typically was one long street along which there was every sort of shop and small manufacturing business. In shop after shop every scrap and piece is saved and made into something else. Absolutely nothing is wasted. It is amazing. This is not out of a sense of being “green” it is from having so few resources. On the downside, in these small villages sanitation was nearly nonexistent. Ditches are sewers. One's garbage is hauled to the edge of town on pushcarts and quite literally dumped at the side of the road, or top of an already huge, sometimes smoldering pile of trash and garbage.
Some Do's and Don'ts for Veterans Returning to Vietnam Based on our really great trip experience to Vietnam and getting to see some of the AO in which I flew, I can make a few recommendations and mention some options to other veterans contemplating returning. Everyone's purpose will be different as will be their preferred touring method, but the first choice should be whether to join a tour or travel independently. If one has never done any international or “adventure” travel (as a trip to Vietnam might be classified), you might want to join a tour where all the planning and arrangements have been done for you. If one is an experienced traveler, Vietnam can be toured independently and “on your own.” It is likely a tour will be more efficient, seeing more in a shorter period of time. However, with an organized tour the itinerary will be fixed. Unless it happens to visit your old AO and allow a “day off” from the tour (as ours did), you won't be able to accomplish what is probably the main objective of the trip, to revisit your AO. Some tours specialize and customize trips to Vietnam, so through one of them you might have the best of both worlds…an organized tour to areas you wish to visit. An independent tour of Vietnam is possible. The services and amenities in the larger cities are similar to any other and local daytrips can be booked through the concierge desk, which all highend Westernstyle hotels or resorts will have. Some Do's:
• Do visit Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An and Saigon and experience all the usual tourist spots. • Do visit your AO and experience the countryside and its people. • Do experience the local food but don't expect it to be westernstyle. • Do read and study about the Vietnam War and postwar Vietnam before you go. • Do expect a range of emotions while on the trip, especially in the countryside.
Some Don'ts: • I would not recommend a Halong Bay excursion. • Don't expect to find anything left at your old fire base or even the remains of the huge, sprawling former America base from which you flew. • Except for the madeforwesterners hotels and resorts, don't expect luxurious accommodations.
Summary Each Vietnam Veteran will have their own reason(s) to return (or not to). I wanted to go and it was a wonderful trip. All my expectations were met or exceeded. (I never thought I would talk to a VC who probably had chucked mortar shells into my LZ.) The trip was all positive. For the locations we visited there were no awkward or stressful or uncomfortable moments. The Vietnamese people were all welcoming. I sensed no animosity. I came home more respectful of the Vietnamese people, and more a student of their culture and country, something which regrettably I was not 41 years ago. During the war it was the mission which counted, not the people or their country. (Except for the hoochmaid, I never met another Vietnamese person.) During the trip I realized that while in Vietnam during the war I hadn't even learned how to say “thank you” in Vietnamese. Given a pilot's mission and living circumstances we would not have had much of an occasion to use it, but I'm sure our hoochmaid would have appreciated my saying “cam on.”
Would I recommend a return trip to a Vietnam Veteran? Definitely! The purpose and effect of such a trip will be different for each person, depending on one's Vietnam experience (the memories of which may be horrific) and what one wishes to get out of the trip.
All of us who return will be reminded of the extreme courage and sacrifices of a bunch of 20something kids whom the Army trained admirably as helicopter pilots, then thrust into untenable combat situations to make, quite literally, life and death decisions, sometimes against very long odds. To this we responded with courage and valor, without, in most cases, any recognition and very little thanks. Go and honor those of us who did not return. Go and remember with pride our service to our country. Go and say “never again” to another Vietnam War.
Dick Elgin, St. James
By Dr. Dick Elgin l Special to the Rolla Daily News
The Rolla Daily News - Rolla, MO
By Dr. Dick Elgin l Special to the Rolla Daily News