Vietnam II: Rerun
by Ron McCants
The late afternoon shadows were lengthening as dusk settled in over the thatched roof of the hooch nestled by the small river. The lush green vegetation in the open field, along with the palms and the myriad of other trees lining the riverbank gave an eerie sense of the uncertainty of what lay beyond them. As the sky grew darker by the minute I realized it was a night like hundreds of other nights that I had come to hate so passionately. I knew the drill. In just a few minutes (after darkness had settled in) we would be approaching the hooch, sending the inhabitants scurrying to their bunker as we set up a perimeter around the small cluster of dwellings that sat a couple of hundred meters away from the wood line along the river.
Calling in our position to TOC? establishing contact with each position? setting up claymore mines? arranging guard duty? finding a dry spot to lie down for the night? all the things that had become automatic began clicking through my mind like a checklist. I wonder if ?Charlie? has spotted us and knows our position for the night? Did he see us double back just before dark and figure out which hamlet we would occupy? Were we keeping a low enough profile? Is someone trying to get in one final ?smoke? before dark, endangering our location? The blackness of the night, the possibility of what could and often did happen, the emotions of fear, fatigue, loneliness, grief, hatred? all came crashing down in a sudden burst of emotion as the scenery unfolded before me.
But wait! Something was different! My vantage point had changed? instead of seeing the silhouettes of grunts carrying M-16s and machine guns and mortars against the dreary looking sky? the horizon was filled with other sights. I was looking across the Saigon River from the 16th floor of a five star hotel! In less time than it has taken you to read this so far, so many of the thoughts and emotions of 30+ years ago flooded my mind.
Those of you who have been there know exactly what I mean. Although I had planned this trip for months? had landed at Tan Son Nhut? had ridden through the streets of Saigon? it still came upon me so violently and unexpectedly that tears began flowing before I even realized it. There is nothing wrong with tears, but I just had not expected the accompanying ?flashback.? Many years have gone by, but certain sights, smells, and sounds will for a brief moment put you right back in some jungle, rice paddy, or river that you thought had been forever wiped from your memory. (Does the sound of a Huey, or any chopper, still take you back 30+ years, too? I thought so.)
And here I was, looking out the window of a hotel in Saigon (it?s still Saigon to me!), watching as that familiar scene changed to an unfamiliar one. As darkness covered the land a strange new element was being added to the mix. Neon! Neon lights? advertising Heineken, and electronics and so many other things that I don?t recall. Just the neon? and the ferryboats and the ?thousands? of motorized bicycles and non-motorized bicycles loading and unloading as people were headed home for the evening.
Yet, it would get stranger than this in the next couple of days! That evening, my friends and I ate dinner in the hotel (mostly American cuisine with an oriental flavor) and walked around the shopping and tourist district of Saigon. The word tourist in the same sentence with Saigon still seems strange to me. Some things, however, never change. In addition to the normal food ?brokers? there were vendors selling caps and t-shirts and the only staple that rivals the food – Zippo lighters – with all the slogans that I remember, plus some. And, of course the oldest profession is still alive and well, although they say it has more class now. (I wonder if they still call them boom-boom houses?) Tourism sure brings out the best in a nation!
Something else was drastically different. From the moment we left the airport I noticed there were far more cars than I remember. I suppose they replaced the jeeps and deuce-and-a-halves that were common on the last trip I made to the airport. The motorcycles, which are really motorized bicycles, are still in abundance and they haven?t changed their driving habits – horns are just as vital as brakes! It is nothing short of a miracle that they don?t kill each other. In case some of you were wondering, the Lambrettas were still there, but mostly in Cholon (China Town), since the Lambretta is an import from China. I would bet good old U.S. dollars that I saw some of the same ones that were on the streets of Saigon the last time I was there in August of 1970.
After arranging for a taxi and guide, we retired for the night. I couldn?t get any of my traveling companions to pull guard duty or help me set secure a perimeter, even if I supplied the claymore mines! I sure am glad they weren?t with me the last trip I made, or it may have been my only trip. From a barracks made with ammo boxes filled with sand, mosquito nets around my bunk, and poncho liners and beads for walls and doors, to my own bathrobe, slippers, mini-bar (now that would?ve worked the first time!) and sumo wrestlers on ESPN, I made the transition from 30 years earlier with ease. Ah, the nights in Vietnam have a different aura now!
As soon as we had breakfast in the hotel (same oriental flavor), we loaded into a van and headed north, northwest out of the city toward Cu Chi. As we made our way out of the city, I saw places that had once housed U.S. military personnel now being used as a prison. Once outside of Saigon villages along the route looked the same as I remember – poor, muddy, with a few nicer houses standing out like the ?rice barons? or the ?rubber barons? of 3 decades past. The water buffalo still is a familiar sight along the way. Apparently we didn?t eat all of them in the mess hall! The stores and bars and taverns all looked the same, minus the 9 year old boys yelling ?my sister boom-boom fah 10 dollah,? or ?G.I. numbah 10!? Of course, they carry a complete line of electronic equipment now for your added shopping pleasure.
If this is not the favorite war museum in the south now, it must be a close second. I can?t imagine one with more propaganda being spewed out. The first things I remember seeing as I got off the van were young men in green uniforms, sandals included. The next thing, of course was the gift shop, then the first nostalgic view of several VC! They were mannequins (mostly females, which struck me as odd at the time) dressed in black pajamas with a small equipment belt on, and carrying AK-47s. As I stood several feet away, the sound of it came back in a flash! It has such an unmistakable sound that if you have ever heard one, you will never forget. My memory was so vivid as I stood there, for brief moments of time, one following another; it was if I was back in time.
Following the young tour guide past the ?captured? weapons and missiles, we came to an open- air theater where there was a map of the village of Cu Chi and other small villages in the surrounding area. A scale model of the surrounding area was on display, including the BoBo Woods and the underground tunnel complexes, complete with a U.S. gunship. A video was presented, which consisted mostly of footage of VC setting up booby traps and digging trenches to withstand the advances of the U.S. forces. The purpose of the mannequins being female came into evidence now – the video virtually declared that a few teenage girls in black pajamas with a few grenades and AK-47s defeated the heavily armed U.S. forces! The thought crossed my mind that if I laughed out loud I might have to fight my way out of this country again? but I couldn?t help myself!!! Ha ha ha!! They wouldn?t shoot a man who was already dying laughing would they? I think I made my travel companions a bit nervous. Some of them must have had some reservations about accompanying me to the museum.
From there we were ushered up a trail to view a few B-52 bomb craters. That was novel? it has been at least 30 years since I saw one of those? and the ones I saw didn?t usually have grass growing in them and a sign identifying them as bomb craters. Next, we came upon the entrance to a tunnel complex. I can assure you it has been 30 years since I have been in one of those! If you have never been the first one entering a tunnel after a bombing raid, you may not truly appreciate living like I do.
My mind was engaging in an argument against itself? should I go into the tunnel? It looked harmless enough, and larger than I remembered, although when I got my somewhat larger body slithering through the opening, the thought did occur to me that I may have to dig my way out? and I didn?t even have my trenching tool. Committing the cardinal sin of assuming anything, I started to go back up the steps that I came down?WRONG! Our guide led us through a narrower opening into another section of the tunnel. Almost on my hands and knees now, which is much more difficult at this age, I suddenly wondered how I had lost the argument with myself to even enter this hole in the ground! Fortunately, it was only a few feet and I soon found the exit? and used it while my tour guide was still trying to tell me what I already knew about the tunnels.
After this we walked by a long shed which was nothing more than a series of different types of booby-traps and bamboo pits. From there we headed back towards the van and the final gift shop. Beyond the gift shop was a desolate, lonely looking figure that once was the glory and strength of the U.S. fighting machine? the Huey ?slick.? Rusting and decaying, with a huge hole in its snout where a ?screaming eagle? or ?skull and crossbones? was displayed and where a pilot?s feet once ?pedaled? his trade, it sat alone and useless, a mere shell of what it once was. It had even lost its color? it wasn?t ?O.D.? anymore.
The sounds, sights and feel of the wind in your face as it carried you to another rice paddy or stand of elephant grass or wooded river bank came crashing back like the sudden violence of a hurricane crashing the coast or a twister roaring across the prairie? the popping of the propellers and the sudden burst of rounds of a machine gun in your ear, with a gunner yelling, ?jump? get your a? out of my ship!? I could almost hear his voice? though I never really knew him? he was a friend, because I knew he would be coming back for us, with that same voice yelling, ?hurry up, get your a? back on here so we can go to the house!? Funny, now I wish I had written down the number on its tail? maybe someday I might run into one of those gunners or pilots that came into a hot LZ to bring my butt home when ?Charlie? wanted my butt for a body count.
The road back to Saigon was a little more wearying than the trip out. But my day had just begun!
After a potty break at the hotel, we headed south toward ?Thunder Road.?
Minus the U.S. military presence, the scenery driving out of Saigon through the Cholon area was very familiar to the last time I rode through there in the back of a deuce-and-a-half – on my way to Camp Alpha to process out of country back to the world. As stated earlier there are a few more cars on the streets, but there were Lambrettas? and more Lambrettas? and many more Lambrettas! Of course, it was a sunny day this time, and one of the most vivid memories of my last ride through this town was the usual afternoon shower and some GI singing, ?Raindrops Keep Fallin? On My Head.? Now, it was just a whole lot of memories swirling through my head!
About a half hour after passing through Cholon, we turned off the main road onto a narrow road (paved!) and through a small, crowded village towards a village I remember all too well – Rach Kien. As we drove through the countryside, I wondered, ?Have I ever walked through this rice paddy, or did we ever sweep that wood line?? So familiar, yet so long ago?. At the time, I remember thinking that every area of operation was distinct, yet they were all an endless rice paddy, canal or river, field of elephant grass, triple canopy jungle or rubber plantation. The incidents that occurred at each place were what made them different.
Soon the paved road ended and we?re on more familiar terrain, a red clay road that led into a little village we called home. The mind begins to play tricks on me as I saw hooches and bars that seemed familiar, but once you have seen one, you?ve seen them all. Was the base camp on the right as we enter from this direction, or was it on the left? I suddenly remembered marching out the gate of the base camp and to the edge of village, between a couple of hooches on the right to ?firing range? to expend old ammo and check our weapons – as if something would happen to them on the 2 day ?stand down,? which reminded me of one of the greatest fears a grunt has – will my weapon jam? did I clean it properly? will the ammo jam in the clip? Over 30 years and it seemed like last week!
We stopped and asked some locals where the U.S. military base had been located and were directed to a site where a school now sits. Only one familiar looking building was still standing. We were told it was where choppers were kept? I must say I don?t remember it, but I do remember that local intelligence is always superior!! They probably knew more about us than we knew about them.
The entrance from the main road did look familiar, but time has a way of changing things? your memory for one!
Everything seems the same as I remember it? only everything is different. As we entered Rach Kien, I realized that my memory was fading? I mostly remembered the nights on perimeter watch and guard duty. I suddenly realize that I don?t even know what we called the watches outside the perimeter at night!
I walked through the village where we had walked a lifetime ago and some of the memories, though fleeting, came crashing back sporadically. One moment I am a fat, old grunt, walking through the village I vaguely remember with a camera around my neck, and the next moment I am a scared-spitless young kid, lugging 50+ lbs of gear through that same village on the way to an overnight patrol. Talk about returning to the scene of a crime!
We sat and had coconut juice and fruitcake with the pastor of a local ?open? church – those that are officially sanctioned by the communist government. He had been a chaplain with the 25th ARVN Division and had been with the 25th US Division chaplain to our base camp during Christmas of 1969 for a Christmas chapel service. He asked if I was at the chapel service? guess he didn?t know me back then!
We headed out, but instead of heading north toward Saigon, we turned on Hwy 4 south, toward Ben Luc and Tan An. There is a tower at the south end of the bridge that had the old ARVN flag painted on it. It has since been painted over with the red communist star, but that has faded and about half of the old ARVN red stripes on the yellow background were showing through.
So many memories? we would take every opportunity to hop onto a supply truck going to Brigade headquarters so we could stop and get some of the Navy chow! Some things were just worth getting shot at by snipers?. Other memories weren?t so pleasant? loading onto those floating targets they called Tango boats to go up and down the waterways until we drew fire just so we could jump off into waist deep mud and palm trees and chase Charlie until one of us was tired or dead! The Navy base is now a shipping point for some industry that built there. Capitalism at its Communist finest!
I remembered very little of Tan An. The entry to the 3rd Brigade Headquarters was identified as the entrance to a ?modern? soccer stadium. It is amazing the stares that a Caucasian tourist with a camera and a thousand questions can get on the streets of a third world city!
I never did quite make it to ?Thunder Road.? The day was about over and the road was flooded? imagine that! We headed back toward Saigon and that comfortable 5-star hotel. As we approached Ben Luc, it began to rain. Another novelty! As darkness began to creep into the countryside, those uncomfortable feelings again became so suddenly overwhelming. Surely, Charlie was not out there in the wood line, or crouching behind one of those hooches!
Even creepier was the drive across the Y Bridge and through Cholon after dark. No wall is as thick or as close as darkness in a strange, but familiar place. I found myself wishing I had my M-16 and at least a few frags! One of those PRC 25s would have been welcome, also. For the uninitiated, those were the radios we carried on patrol. With one of those, help was only a few minutes away.
I arrived back at the hotel, hooked up with my traveling companions and had dinner. I was about to spend my final night ?in country.? Even though I didn?t have one of those ?short-timer? calendars, I vividly remembered what it was like to be ?2-digit midget!? Tomorrow, ?I?m Leavin? On A Jet Plane.?
Nothing I had ever been through had prepared me for what I experienced? except one thing. Since my first venture to the garden spot of Southeast Asia, my whole life has changed, as has probably all my brothers who took that vacation as I did. Mine has changed for the better. I met the girl of my dreams, with whom I have a beautiful daughter, and turned my life over to Christ. He has made such a difference in my life over the years that even the return to the place of the darkest time of my life was more of a positive experience than a negative one.
I would encourage anyone reading this to make an effort to return to Vietnam. It helps to deal with the demons? even the demons you didn?t know existed. I know it will be hard, but it is well worth the time and expense. Besides there is only one other journey I would rather you take with me? my journey with Christ, because ?I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.? Phil 4:13 (NKJ)