Monday, July 24, 2006

Quang Tri

Quang Tri is just inland from the South China Sea and a few miles south of the DMZ in I Corp. Once the division moved up there from An Khe, we spent a considerable amount of time out on fire bases called “Suzie”, “Pedro” and “Jane” as you see pictured here. In 1999 I went back and with my guide and the help of a man who had been a VC mortar commander during the war, found what had been LZ (Landing Zone) Jane.

I can’t honestly say things looked familiar or actually that I could prove it was Jane. It “felt” like Jane but that could be because I wanted it to. Nothing of my war year was recognizable because my time was either in the field or in an area the Army built for its own use. No time in the cities.

However at worst these “before” (1968) and “after” (1999) pictures were taken within a few miles of each other if not on the exact spot, which my ex-VC new friend insisted was the case (he said he mortared us on more than one occasion.) And, of course, the pictures of me are exactly that.

Note the pocked marked building. This was a school house in Quang Tri City. Two years after the 1st Cav was ordered south, the VC/NVA overran the area and this building is an example of how bad things became. Really sad.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Khe Sahn

The battle for Khe Sahn was interesting because it ended a non event relative to what might have been. Situated near the Laotian boarder, a major route south for the North Vietnamese Army, it became a “must win” symbol for both sides.

The 26th Marines and select Army Special Forces units such as those at Lang Vei had endured and returned a tremendous amount of punishment centered on what was to become a historic remote outpost in the most north/eastern corner of the country. In the end over 40,000 NVA/VC facing 15,000 1st Cav and Marines. Their numbers against our firepower. Beginning in mid March 1968 ending in mid April, the final toll for the 1st Cav was 59 KIA, 250 wounded and 5 MIA (this did not include Marine or South Vietnamese causalities) against a confirmed 638 NVA/VC killed. The expected decisive battle never came, likely because the other side realized they would be beaten. As suddenly as it began it was over and we were off to air assault A Shau Valley.

The accompanying pictures of the kids are at a school within 5 km of the former firebase. Pictured with me is one who took me the last 200 or so yards to the very spot I had been some 27 years before he was born. This is why I came. All in contrast to the dark days of 1968 when we were all digging in for whatever lay ahead. Replace dark memories of soldiers with color images of kids. How great is that?

And then in 1999 I return to a pastoral landscape devoid of everything. No indication of the siege the Marines endured, our positions, nothing. It’s as if we had never been there and I can't think of a better legacy.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Tet 1968: The Citadel

Another must stop for anyone seeing more than just Saigon and Hanoi is Hue, the ancient imperial capital of Vietnam. I was interested for that reason and because I was there during Tet 1968. The palace is now a ruin, in part due to normal wear and tear over the centuries, WW2 and the fighting during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The Communists used it as a base and as a result the grounds suffered immensely due to the fighting.

Anyone familiar with South East Asia and/or part of Georgia for that matter will know about Cicada, the grasshopper like bug that emerges each 17 years to live a short but incredibly loud life. They were on the Citadel grounds when I was there and there is no way I can over state how loud they were. Loud enough to cause me to cover my ears.

Note the two pictures of the Citadel; one with a flag and one without. I took both some 31 years apart although quite by accident. I found the 1968 photo among my war pictures only after returning from the 1999 trip . Pure serendipity. Or does it qualify as deja vu if I was actually there??

Perfume River

These pictures were taken on the Perfume River near the Citadel. Those people you see on the boat, and countless others like them, live their entire lives on the river on those boats. I cannot even begin to imagine what that would be like.

Also at the river’s edge is the Thieu Mu Pagoda, a beautiful structure and grounds about 5km from Hue City. Built in 1601 and heavily damaged during WW2, it is still a major tourist attraction today.

Reunification Express to Hanoi from Hue

Back on the train, this time from Hue to Hanoi overnight and as before, bring what you want to eat and drink and minimize visits to the “facilities” and you’ll be fine. A bit warm and humid but overall an overnight train ride just like anywhere else.

There is an interesting story associated with this part of the trip from Hue to Hanoi. When I boarded the train I put my bag under the bottom bunk. Shortly thereafter I was joined by a middle aged Vietnamese couple with whom I would share the compartment. They attempted to put their bag under the bunk as I had done but for some reason it wouldn’t fit. So I got down on my hands and knees reaching under the bunk to see what was stopping it.

My head was turned toward the couple as I felt under the bunk. Way back in the corner I grabbed something that, to me, felt like what I think a dead woman’s leg would feel like. It was fleshy and cool to the touch and felt as though it was wrapped in nylon (hence, dead woman’s leg.) I grabbed hold of it pulling it out from under the bunk and as it emerged, I saw a look of horror come across the faces of my traveling companions. What I had was not a leg but a 6 foot cobra snake wrapped in a mosquito net.

The snake belonged to a conductor who was smuggling it north from Saigon. Cobra meat is an illegal delicacy with many men drinking the snake’s blood believing it to be an aphrodisiac. However not for me. One bite and I would have been toast. How ironic to have survived the war only to die decades later on that train.

Hanoi Street Life

Unlike many cities I have visited around the world, in Hanoi my pictures were more often street scenes involving people in contrast to the structure pictures I would take in Europe and other parts of Asia. It's not that I don’t find Hanoi’s buildings interesting because I do but the people in the streets IS Hanoi. I can think of no other city where the street life interests me as much as do the buildings other than New York.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Uncle Ho

Ho Chi Minh was modern North Vietnam’s George Washington while at the same time a lesser Hitler to those in the south. Now long lines of tourists’ line up to tour his simple house and mausoleum where he lies in view in a fashion similar to Stalin’s Moscow tomb. Indeed he is transported once a year back to Moscow for a “freshening” before being placed back on display.

Moving through the line past his body is a somber experience however not because all necessarily revere the man. Instead it is because the military guards tolerate no disrespect, intended or otherwise.

My feelings about Ho Chi Minh notwithstanding, it was a significant moment for me, passing within feet of the body of the man who commanded the millions of troops who had directly and indirectly affected so many of my friends and family; indeed all Americans of that era.

What do most Vietnamese think of him today? There are many answers to that depending on who you talk to and under what circumstances you ask. Publicly, he is still praised although much less so in the south than in the north but privately, he is mostly a non entity; an artifact of an age now past as the Vietnamese rush to modernize, well on their way to a Capitalistic future “Uncle Ho” would have done all he could to prevent.

French Hanoi and the Communist Capitalists

What surprised me most about Hanoi was the French architectural influence. If you ever saw news footage taken in and around the city during the bombing, which occurred later in the war, what you saw was generally in black and white and appeared very bleak. Certainly nothing pretty, just simple utilitarian functional.

No doubt it was bleak given the pounding the city was subjected to but visiting years later it was clear that Hanoi once was and could be again, quite beautiful just as are Paris, Washington, Venice and many of the old Europe cities. The infrastructure is poor with much to be done but you don’t have to look far below the surface to see what could be.

Finally I was also struck by the commerce occurring on the sidewalk, such as this barber. Not so deep down, these Communists are true Capitalists.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Hanoi Hilton

No trip to Hanoi would be complete without a visit to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” where US POW’s were held under brutal conditions for years. There are no words to express how walking through the prison makes one feel and it would be an insult to all those who were held there to say “I know what it must have been like.” I don’t and never will anymore than I can begin to fathom the pain and suffering of those who were held in the Soviet Gulag or any of the Nazi extermination camps.


Many times I would drive my jeep through Quang Tri Village on my way to battalion and when I did I would often stop in the village to buy a Coke from some of the kids. It was actually “our” Coke (they had “our” beer as well) but before we could get it in the field it found its way, along with a lot of other stuff, out of the hands of the military onto the black market. In most cases I was not OK with that but when it came to buying Cokes and beer from the locals it seemed fine. For many that was their only source of income.

The 13 year old girl you see here called herself Dolly. As the smile on her face should tell you, she was a sweetheart and had a great and positive outlook for one so young living under such poor conditions. While we were all over the area during the day the VC controlled her village at night and she and all the others had to be very careful about fraternizing too much with the Americans.

One day I stopped to buy a Coke from Dolly but this time instead of her usual smiling self, she was very tense and nervous, continually looking around as we talked. She finally told me the road ahead had been mined and she did not want me driving further. However if I turned around at that point and someone was watching us talk, they would probably conclude she had helped me. And, of course, someone else could easily hit the mine.

I thanked her and told her to go on doing what she always did and that I would take care of things. She walked away and I got back in my jeep and began to crank the engine purposely turning the key off just before it started. I did this a few times more and then got out opening the hood making a show of looking at the engine. Finally I got on my radio and called battalion telling them about the mines. With that done I waited until help arrived and after playing with the engine some more, we started and moved on after we knew for certain the road had been cleared.

I took these pictures back with me in 1999 hoping to find out something about Dolly however not unexpectedly I found nothing. The VC/NVA took over the area in 1972 and it is very likely Dolly was killed in what was tremendous fighting for control of Quang Tri. Or maybe she lived and continues to live today.

I will never know.

Steven Francis Dolim, Jr.

This is not a war story. It is about Vietnam its people and the 31 years separating my two visits to the country. However there is one war death I must discuss.

Steve would not be happy with his full name being used as the title of this post. As proud as he was of his family and heritage he did not see himself publicly as a “Steven” and certainly not as a “Francis”. He was to be Steve, nothing more. But I would tell all his story if I could; every minute detail of his short 20 years.

Steve was born in Maui the only son of Portuguese descent Hawaiians who in the mid 50’s moved to Southern California for better jobs. We first met in high school when I pledged and made a club Steve was already in. We became great friends and afterward, he told me the truth about my pledging. I had only one “ding” (no vote), making the club easily (three dings and you didn’t get in.) That one vote came from Steve.

Steve was a tough guy with a big heart. He could and did handle himself well in the inevitable high school fights but would also do whatever he could to help his friends. He also stuttered, at times so bad you didn’t think he would be able to complete his thought. But that was just a part of Steve and after awhile, not something I noticed.

We went off to Long Beach City College after high school, in part because we would not have been able to get in anywhere else given our grades, in part because we assumed we wanted our student deferments due to the war and in part because we didn’t know what else to do.

One day in the spring of our freshman year, I ran into Steve during a break and after talking awhile he said he wasn’t doing well in school and planned to join the Marines. I told him he’d be crazy to do that given the war but since I wasn’t any more enthused about school than him, I would quit too and we’d find something to join. We talked awhile longer and as we did Ron, Tom and ultimately Dave, all friends from high school, in Ron’s case junior high and for Tom and I, 6th grade, joined us deciding on the spot to quit as well so we could all join “something”. The question was, join what?

The Air Force and Navy were out because they were not rugged enough for Steve and because they were four years. At least we had some small nano particle of sense that told us four years was too long. That left the Army for three years as long as, we all agreed, we went into one of the combat arms.

So with not much more deliberation than that including no discussion with our parents, the five of went down to a recruiter and signed up on the delayed enlistment program so we could at least complete the one year of college before leaving June 27, 1967 for basic training. On December 7 of that year four of us (Dave came over a few months later) were in Vietnam and six months to the day after, Steve was dead, the victim of a B40 rocket attack that took off the side of his face as he lay sleeping on the ground.

It is now 32 years later and I can honestly say Steve is as present in my mind as he was then. Each July 4th I visit his grave along with that of his mother who died of brain cancer at 50, thinking about the seemingly random gyroscope turns that is all our lives. That only comes with age. When we were 20 we were invincible, indestructible and would live forever. There was nothing random about it; we could handle anything and were in control until on June the 7th, 1967 we discovered we weren’t. All of us that is except Steve who will forever remain the boy/man we all had been the day before.

As strange as it may seem, I no longer have regrets about Steve’s death and do not blame the VC or NVA soldier who fired the rocket that killed him that June night. Whoever that was was doing no more than we and may be somewhere today missing some long dead friend, also never forgotten.

Commandos forever Steve!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Going Home

32 years! What a long, strange trip from naïve 19 year-old to, well, I suppose a still naïve 50 year-old. And what did I learn in all that time? I learned that:
• In many cases what appears to be, probably is not.
• What most believe about something they have not experienced, will be mostly wrong.
• Initial impressions are just that and bear little relationship to what will be in the long run.
• That looking for something long lost is not the same as finding it.
• That living in regret of the past gets in the way of moving into the future.

I would not trade either of my times in Vietnam even though the cost of the first visit was so great both during and after the war. Looking back I see how much the war year made me who I am, both the good and the bad. To say now I wish that had not happened is to say I wish I had become something other than what I am and while there is always room for improvement I cannot do that.

I have “closure” not with the war but of greater importance the country and with one exception, the people; both of which mean more to me than I can ever explain to others. The one thing I was not able to do was to learn the fate of Dolly and in that regard, as the U2 song says, I still haven't found what I was looking for.