The "American War"
Today, as I waited for the bus with other faculty and students, I was sensitive to any potential hard looks or words from our military escorts from the Ministry of Defense. But then I remembered that about 60 percent of Vietnam's population is under age 25 and did not live through the "American War," as it is called in Southeast Asia. (I guess that's fair—we call it the Vietnam War.) The remaining 40 percent, old folks like me, were neither rude nor abrasive. Maybe I was preparing myself for a confrontation as a returning "war criminal." I later learned that those who fought us viewed us not as enemies but as victims of the U.S. leadership during the war.
I was amazed to find Ho Chi Minh City so clean and the traffic relatively orderly. Don't get me wrong—there are thousands of motorbikes whose drivers obey few rules. I was told that in crosswalks, motorbikes ignore pedestrians' right of way. How ironic if, during my fourth trip to Vietnam, I were killed—by a motorbike!
This scene contrasted with the Wild-West atmosphere of Saigon in 1970: dirty, congested, military vehicles driven with immunity and impunity. When I was an adviser to the Vietnamese marines my driver used to ensure he could make a left-hand turn at the stoplight by driving up the right shoulder, then turning left and blocking all lanes of traffic by placing our Jeep across them and then proceeding with no difficulty. My protests in English and Vietnamese were respectfully acknowledged and ignored.
Our first night of this visit, a Saturday, was spent getting settled and exchanging money. (The Vietnamese currency is the dong; the days of the Indochinese piastre are over.) A surprisingly large number of our group joined me at the 1700 mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It was Palm Sunday Vigil—and standing room only. Perhaps Vietnam also has its Catholics who only show up for Christmas and Easter holy days, but I was impressed by the turnout. I sensed no "Big Brother" watching or taking names.
Back to the Delta
The next day we headed south to the Mekong Delta, where I had spent most of my time as an adviser. We traveled in boats; the sampan trip was amazing. Three or four of us would embark and be propelled by the efforts of two women who squatted in bow and stern and paddled us to our destinations. They had strength, agility, and grace—along with smiles for their passengers. I had almost forgotten how tough the women of Vietnam are. During the war, many women took on the jobs of men who were either serving in the South Vietnamese Army or were with the Vietcong.
On the way back to Ho Chi Minh City we stopped at the site of an important battle, Ap Bac. It was January 1963 when the Vietcong stayed in place and fought a significant force of the South Vietnamese, including an elite airborne battalion. At each stop throughout the trip, one of the students would provide a handout regarding a battle or the significance of the area and lead a discussion of its operational aspects. Faculty rarely became involved. I contributed only when I could provide useful commentary. I was struck by the students' intelligence and professionalism. They were superb.
Monday we flew to Phu Bai Airport to visit Hu e City. We were given an overview of the battle (literally, from the roof of a five-star hotel) and concluded with a tour of the ancient citadel. The next day we traveled to Dong Ha, Gio Linh, Con Thien, Leatherneck Square, the Rock Pile, Khe Sanh, Hill 881 (N) and (S), and Long Vei—names full of meaning for Marines and Army Special Forces who fought these battles. Between 1967 and 1969, more than 10,600 Marines were killed and wounded during seven major operations in these areas. I have even more respect for my comrades after seeing the terrain. Time changes things: the airfield at Khe Sanh is now a coffee plantation.
Wednesday we left for Hanoi, arriving at a modern, bright airport. I had expected an anti-American feeling here, but instead, we were treated like any other Western tourists. The Naval and Marine attach e , Lieutenant Colonel Bob Lucius, told us a story about the visit to Da Nang by U.S. Sailors whose ship was making one of the early port visits to Vietnam. When they arrived the Sailors were met by a noisy crowd that rushed their bus and began pounding on it. Thinking it an anti-American demonstration, the Sailors tried to get back to their ship. Colonel Lucius investigated the incident and learned the crowd was pro-American. The Vietnamese had just been over-eager to see American Sailors, speak English with them, and sell them souvenirs. The Vietnamese' earlier contact with the Soviets after the U.S. left in 1975 was not so happy, apparently. The Soviets were known as "Americans with no money."
The Temple of Literature and Hanoi Hilton
Our day in Hanoi included a stop at Long Bien Bridge, the railroad link to Haiphong and the port that was so critical in supplying the entire war effort. Being a true choke point, it was naturally a major air target for the United States. The NVA dedicated 80 percent of its air defense to keeping it intact. They were successful, we were not.
We also saw the Temple of Literature where those seeking degrees or governmental positions are tested. Next, we visited the small lake where then-Lieutenant Commander John McCain was shot down. There is an interesting statue depicting him in his parachute harness in a crucifix-like posture next to the wing of his aircraft labeled USAF . Like many Americans, the Vietnamese seem to think that if it flies, it must be Air Force. Nearby, in Ba Dinh Square, lie the remains of Ho Chi Minh, who, during the war, lived less than a kilometer from where McCain's plane went down.
Our next stop was the Hao Lo Prison, the "Hanoi Hilton," where many American POWs had been held. If you believe the propaganda accompanying the picture you'd think they'd been well-treated. Too many Americans, including close classmates of mine, have given testimony to contradict such lies. Among other attractions the prison holds an actual guillotine—used on dissident Vietnamese. We left this site of American resolve and heroism deeply moved.
On Thursday we traveled to Dien Bien Phu (a modern airport in a remote, small civilian community) and spent a full day covering the battle that took place there. We visited the major outposts, hills occupied by the French and gradually taken by the Vietminh. The first outpost, Beatrice, was the most physically demanding part of the trip for me. As I climbed a hill that seemed to have no end in sight, I was reminded of the words of Rudyard Kipling: "That the sin they do by two and two they must pay for one by one."
Watch Your Buddy's Back
Again, walking the terrain makes all the difference. In reading about the battle I gained renewed respect for the Vietminh and for the French. In the last days the French were calling for reinforcements to an enclave that was shrinking in size and could be reached only by parachute. Up stepped French soldiers from other Indochinese locations who were not necessarily parachute-qualified but were willing to volunteer nonetheless. Their mission was to fly out to Dien Bien Phu, risking being shot down; jump from an aircraft under fire; risk being shot while in a parachute harness, if the parachute worked; risk capture or death if the winds drifted them into Vietminh lines; and risk certain capture or death if they successfully landed within French lines.
Why take such risks? For their comrades—their buddies. Before Desert Storm I gave a talk on combat leadership to the officers and SNCOs of the 1st Marine Division regarding Fatigue, Fear, Failure, and Feelings. To the question, Why do men fight? my answer was, They fight for their buddies. This still holds true.
The museum in Dien Bien Phu concentrated on the Vietminh. One photograph showed artillery pieces being dragged along a trail up a mountain overlooking the airfield and outposts of Dien Bien Phu. As the 30 or more men and women pulled the caisson, a wedge was placed under the wheel as it went up, literally, inch by inch. The incorrect assumption that artillery could not be found in these hills was fatal to the French and to their artillery commander who later committed suicide in disgrace. Anyone who doubts the determination and tenacity of the Vietnamese should see this photograph.
Those of us who served with the Vietnamese as advisers respect them based on our experience of learning their language and culture, eating their food, living and fighting side-by-side with them. We saw the Vietnamese, friend and foe, as admirable people.
With our return to Hanoi, my time with the students and faculty came to an end. Friday night we gathered at the Sports Bar of the real Hanoi Hilton (a beautiful hotel next to the opera house). There we reaped the benefits of various "fines" that had been levied on all of us for miscues, gaffes, or other embarrassments by the two "sheriffs"—our student representatives from Australia and Canada (whose vigilance was constant). It was another chance for exchanges and camaraderie for all, truly a delightful evening.
Saturday morning they departed for Guam, Hawaii, and home as I spent the day with Lieutenant Colonel Lucius. We visited tourist spots I hadn't seen, including the new Air Force Air Defense Museum. There was no sign of Jane Fonda or her antiaircraft gun. We visited a few thriving shopping areas. We noticed many non-Asians throughout Hanoi—especially shoppers. The city is an "inexpensive Hong Kong" in many respects.
At St. Joseph's Cathedral, I was surprised to learn that Mass is packed Saturdays and Sundays. I thought most Catholics had left North Vietnam in 1954. Lucius told me the bishop is a force to be reckoned with. The government was going to turn the papal nuncio's residence into a restaurant. The bishop threatened to encourage his diocese to protest if that happened. The government backed down.
I left Vietnam this time with mixed feelings—joy over what I had just experienced and sadness to be leaving again.
Why do I think we won? The people I met seemed to like Americans. They seemed genuinely happy and as free as they can be under a communist regime. I was reminded of Yugoslavia in 1973-75—what we called "communist lite." In Vietnam I saw kids in school, prosperity where there had been none, color—in the clothes, homes, cars—and a freedom of religion that astounded me. The cities are cleaner and more orderly. One week does not an expert make, but I was impressed. This was no North Korea. There is, I'm told, still graft and corruption; this is no utopia. But it's so much better than what I thought it would have become after April 1975, when we watched the U.S. forces leave the roof of the U.S. Embassy. Considering everything I saw, we won.
Do I regret my service, my sacrifice, my 28 months in Vietnam? Not at all. They were the defining moments of my life. Because of those moments I am a better husband, father, Marine, friend, comrade—a better man. I would not trade those months for anything.
What if I had been killed? Would it have been worth it? I think about this often and have tried to form an answer that makes sense to me. When I go to the Wall—the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial—and read the names of Marines from my rifle company, classmates, and friends, its mirrored surface has a symbolic effect. I see my own face reflected there, behind them. I ask myself what separates my mirrored face on the Wall from being a name inscribed in the Wall: a fraction of a second, a millimeter, God's will?
If, facing such risks again, I'd been given a chance—a deus ex machina opportunity to get out—would I have taken it? I believe I would have chosen to remain. Such a choice would have denied me all the joys that life has since given me—family and future opportunities to serve. But I could not have left Vietnam voluntarily. Not a very good answer, but it's the best I can do.