>The Return to Vietnam: 32 Years Later
by Mick Greene
During 10 days at the end of March, 2000, six of us who flew together in Vietnam 32 years ago went back as tourists, to visit and to put ourselves at rest with our role in the war. We had flown together in a special unit that was formed because of the need to search out and destroy southbound war material along the various branches of the Ho Chi Minh (HCM) Trail in North Vietnam and Laos. The slow propeller driven airplanes in use in the South for this Forward Air Control (FAC) mission, O-1s and O-2s, could not survive in the much higher Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) threat area of the North. This dictated that “fast movers” were required, and the two-seat F-100F was chosen for the job. A volunteer unit of F100 Fighter Pilots took the job of finding this war material, marking the target with a 2.75 inch White Phosphorus smoke rocket, and directing ordnance- laden Fighter Aircraft in the attack.
The F-100F was armed with two 20mm cannons which were often used to try to stop a truck convoy when no fighters could be brought to the area in time. With the Radio call sign “Misty”, we operated in the Route Pack One area of North Vietnam just north of the DMZ and in neighboring Laos. The HCM Trail entered Laos at the Mu Gia Pass and re-entered Vietnam near the famous and besieged Marine base at Khe Sanh. The first leader of the group was “Bud” Day, who was shot down north of the DMZ while flying a Misty mission in September of ’67. Bud was severely injured on ejection, and was captured almost immediately. He escaped, swam the Ben Hai River into South Vietnam but was shot and recaptured after evading for almost two weeks. Bud spent almost six years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton, his conduct while a POW setting the standard for warriors of all Services. Bud was awarded the Medal of Honor, Air Force Cross, Silver Star and other decorations for his POW conduct. Col. Bud Day is still the leader of the group.
The trip to revisit the area where we flew was the idea of adventurer Dick Rutan, with whom I flew many missions in these areas. Dick, as everyone knows, is the first man to fly around the world unrefueled in the Voyager aircraft, now hanging in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Others on the revisit were Don Shepperd and PK Robinson, USAFA ’62, and Ed Risinger, who resigned after Vietnam, went to Medical School, joined the Navy and retired as a Radiologist. The sixth man was Wells Jackson, who now farms coffee in Panama and works for the Air Force Reserves in Stuttgart.
We meet at the bar in the International Terminal at LAX for the midnight flight for Taipei enroute to Saigon (No one but the Commie Government calls it Ho Chi Minh City)
We arrive at Tan Son Nhut Airport with a tingle of reminiscence and apprehension.
How dangerous is it going to be this time? Can we expect hostility or worse? The State Department reports that we gathered in preparation for the trip have painted a very hazardous and unfriendly picture. The wartime aircraft shelters are still there on the airfield and the old Base Ops building is now the Air Terminal. Captured VNAF aircraft are barely visible in a boneyard over a security fence in the distance. An active AAA base defense battery is spotted on the far side of the runway. We take another picture of our “group” of six old fighter pilots in front of the airfield sign, noting that part of the spelling, for some unknown reason, has changed from “Nhut” to “Nhat”.
We meet our guide Tanto and board the Vietnamese standard Toyota Van for the first of many hours of travel. As we make our way from the airport to the hotel along with thousands of motorbikes, we note that the busses no longer have the anti-hand grenade screens on the windows. Must be safer than when we here before, we muse. After a stop at the Vien Dong Hotel to drop our bags and pair up with roommates (mine was Dick Rutan), we board the van again to tour the city market place and vendor shops chosen by the guide. The city is bustling with activity with motorbikes belching fumes and bicycles choking every street. The people were all clean and neatly dressed. Some women driving motorbikes wear the traditional white Ao Dai with scarves over their faces for smog defense and long gloves to protect their skin from the sun. Even in this setting, they were immaculate.
The people were very friendly, happy, and smiling. They treated us with open friendliness, even when it was revealed that we were “Yankee Air Pirates”. We began to feel more comfortable. Dinner at the Vien Dong Hotel and the crash in a comfortable bed were welcome after the long trip.
The next day, we fly from Saigon to Hue, meet Les Stone, the freelance photojournalist who will accompany us for 6 days, our guide Trieu, and the driver of our van. Trieu is an ex-combat interpreter that worked for the US Marines at Khe Sanh. He spent time in a “Re-education” Camp after the war, and like those others from the “wrong side” has lower status and employment possibilities with the government than those that came from the winning side. We get into the van and started the drive to Dong Hoi, 300 km away and about 150 km north of the old DMZ.
The scenic route itinerary takes us along the Ben Hai River, the old border between NVN and SVN, westward through the DMZ to Con Thien and Cam Lo. We stop at the Martyrs Cemetery, where 10,000 Communist defenders are buried and eulogized on monuments and individual tombstones. Propaganda is pervasive. We never quite determine from the guide or the workers in the cemetery exactly how the bodies were buried. The gravesites are extremely small and we thought the bodies had possibly been cremated. The guide related that the Buddhists believe that cremation constitutes a “second death” and is not practiced.
After the visit to the cemetery, we drove by Con Thien, where nothing now exists except a road sign and dense jungle foliage. Then we pass Cam Lo of Bat 21 television movie fame and the Cam Lo Bridge over a small tributary. Further on to the North we cross the Ben Hai River Bridge, the old border, and make a ceremony out of crossing the bridge, with Les Stone snapping pictures furiously. We took a lot of pictures with our own cameras too, including a large number of pictures of our “Group” as we passed our cameras to Les to get us all together.
The camaraderie among “The Group” becomes the highlight of the trip. In the DMZ, we hike to an old gun bunker overlooking the plain going down to the Ben Hai. We meet several of the local farmers and their wives and children along the way. They were typically very friendly and smiling all the time.
We get back into the van and resumed the journey northward. We stop in a roadside “Diner” on the shore of “Butterfly Lake” the name we gave it as an important aerial landmark because of its shape as it appeared from the air. We also had Fingers Lake, Bat Lake, Pork Chop Lake, T-Bone Lake, and a couple of others as landmarks, the names of which didn’t relate to the Vietnamese names. This diner is our introduction to the fact that, although Heineken is available at about $ 0.50 a bottle, no one had yet learned it was supposed to be cold. Other beers were good too, like Ba Ba Ba (333), but also have to have a special request of an ice bucket to get cold.
We stop frequently for photo ops and visits at every school, fair, and market we see. We find a VN Army Bomb disposal team looking for metal fragments and unexploded ordnance from the war, and spent over an hour having fun with these guys and the family in whose back yard they were digging. Ed Risinger, as usual, hogs the show by trying to dig up the “bomb” that the metal detector had found. The soldiers are genuinely friendly and interested in us. The weather is overcast and cool with some light rain.
At the end of another long day, we arrive at the Dong Hoi Hilton, easily a 1/2 Star Hotel and tourist Spa. The last time Dick Rutan and I flew over Dong Hoi, it was nothing but rubble. It has been rebuilt so that you would never know there’s been a war. We meet our “Minder”, the VN person who will keep us out of trouble and get Government permission for the places we want to go. We go through the cold beer thing again, with Trieu explaining. The hotel staff seem to understand and come back after 20 minutes with six very small glasses and one bottle of iced-down Heineken. We thanked them and indicate that this amount of beer was “Number Ten” (GI jargon for “no good”). Eventually, after much explanation, we got a bucket full of bottles and tell them that this was “Number One” (Very good) and that they are beginning to understand Yankee fighter pilots! The serving girls giggle and go away chattering to each other.
That hurdle past, with the Minder, we plan the next day’s exploration and then have dinner. The food is excellent throughout the trip, although we don’t really want to know what some of it is. At a later day during the trip, someone mentioned pig heart, but I still didn’t want to hear about it. No one got sick or had the trots at any time during our 10 days in Vietnam.
We walk around the town in the dark, listening as Communist propaganda blares from a TV in the town meeting hall. We return to the hotel to rest up for the next day’s adventure. The room is equipped with a mosquito net apparatus over each bed, and a TV with only one channel, which seems to be all propaganda. TV in Saigon and Hue had multiple channels, including CNN.
We pile into the van and head for our destination for the day, the Disappearing River. To our great surprise, we discovered that it’s actually the “appearing river”, the Song Troc, which flows about 50 km from the cave mouth to the South China Sea at the larger town of Quang Khe. The Mistys operated along this river a lot trying to catch truck traffic crossing the river at a ferry site about 2/3 of the way from Quang Khe to the “Disappearing River” Cave. We also tried to catch the ferry or loaded sampans out in the open before they moved into the cave during the day.
Last, but not least, since the river area (especially near the cave) was populated with many AAA sites of all calibers, we frequently had to perform Search and Rescue direction activities in the area, as F-4s, F-105s and our own F-100 Misty buddies were shot down. We mostly encountered 6-gun rings of manually aimed 37 mm firing flaming golf-ball-looking tracers that filled the sky and self-destructed at 14,000 feet, leaving thousands of white puffs that clouded the sky. As these rounds went close by the cockpit, they sounded like someone snapping their fingers rapidly. In Route Pack 1, the 37 mm got more kills than any other weapon. We also saw a lot of what we called “50 caliber” fire, which was actually 12.5 and 14.7 mm. These guns were less effective than the 37s because their effective altitude was lower, but the high rate of all-tracer fire made them fearsome if you got too low, the upcoming fire looking like it was sprayed out of a hose. 57, 85 and 100mm guns were there also, fortunately not in the numbers in the DMZ, where they doubled as Field Artillery. We knew that the ferry was parked in the tunnel, and probably other material to support the war. We put countless bombs and rockets into the cave mouth and the sheer karst (rock) face above the cave, trying to close off the cave mouth. The karst mountains rising into the mist were breathtakingly beautiful, even in the setting of life-and-death combat.
We take a sampan from the Ferry, now in full operation, pulled back and forth across the river by a small one-banger diesel engine on a fixed cable.
We had to get a briefing before we embarked on a sampan to the cave mouth. To our great surprise, the cave, and the amazing 7.7 kilometers of explored river included a navigable portion of over 2.3 km inside the cave mouth with a thousand feet of karst above it is now a major tourist attraction. There are lights on the cave walls and the stalactites and stalagmites look very much like Carlsbad Caverns, except for the deep, clear river flowing out of the cave. The place is crowded with groups of tourists of all nationalities. Postcard vendors are in abundance. We find that during the “American War”, a hospital was housed in the cave and 3000 people lived there! We looked at each other in disbelief that we had believed we could do any significant damage to this impenetrable hiding place!
We once had flown a Rescap for an F-105 pilot who had parachuted onto the top of the karst mountain, a thousand feet above the cave mouth. The defenses were horrendous and it took two days before we could get a Jolly Green into the area to pick him up. We hoped the locals didn’t kill him, and they didn’t.
We hike along the Ho Chi Minh trail next to the Song Troc River. Along the way, we encounter three school children in their immaculate blue and white uniforms walking home from school. They are happy and laughing and more than willing to have their pictures taken.
At one point the trail passed a small cave where a highly visible yellow propaganda sign indicated that we were on the historic HCM trail.
On the spur of the moment, we hire one of the Sampans for the trip from the ferry back to Quang Khe, where the van would meet us. We stop at a village on the river bank about half way to Quang Khe. The villagers greet us with the good cheer we were beginning to expect. Ed Risinger does his disappearing handkerchief trick, which never fails to be a lot of fun for the villagers and for us, too, watching the eager eyes and the big smiles. The handout of candy and facial play stickers resulted in a happy pandemonium as we depart in the sampan.
We join the van at Quang Khe, another rebuilt town, for the now shorter trip to Dong Hoi, stopping along the way to visit, with the help of our interpreter guide Trieu and the Minder, the locals at every school and market.
The hotel has now been provided our form of indoctrination, and a large bucket of cold bottles of Heineken beer await us. The plan for the next day’s trip was to visit the gun site that had nailed Dick Rutan on his last mission in Vietnam and to try to make it to the Mu Gia Pass, where the main branch of the HCM Trail went into Central Laos. We ride in the van up a tributary to the Song Troc, navigating with Dick’s GPS receiver. The road keeps getting narrower and less passable until we decide give up on the gun site and the Mu Gia Pass.
Always the adventurer, Dick insists on “seeing what was over the next hill”, so we walk for another couple of miles. To our amazement, the road becomes a “Temporary MiG airstrip”, long since unused. Pacing it off between the karst mountains on either side, over terrain that would have challenged U.S. rough-field transports, the airfield measures about 8000 feet. The U.S has no fighters that could possibly get into or out of this field, except the Harrier, if you call that a fighter. The soft field landing gear of the MiGs was evidently suited for this. We never heard that they made it through the gamut of MiG-hungry Air Force and Navy fighter pilots for operations this far south while we were there, but they did in 1971-72.
Dick, frustrated that we could not get on to Mu Gia, formulates a plan where we would all come back at a later date and backpack from the airfield through Mu Gia, down the trail in Laos through the heavily bombed Ban La Boy ford to Tchepone and on into Khe Sanh. Dick points out that it is “only a couple of hundred kilometers”. We tell him to give us a full report of how his trip turns out! And he will probably do it!
We reimbark in the butt-busting van and return once again to Dong Hoi for the last night before driving back to Hue. Our cold beer is a matter of no-sweat routine now! Les Stone departs our company to cover the 25th anniversary celebration in Hue of the Victory over the Americans. We give him a sendoff salute as a fellow adventurer and photographic veteran of Bosnia and the Gulf War, having more close calls than some of us. He anticipates possible trouble, but later relates that all went well and that no violence took place.
The following day, we got into the van, thankful that this was the last trip along the muddy dirt roads. We stopped at a Vietnamese wedding, totally disrupting the reception. We were all mobbed, as usual, by smiling Vietnamese children, eager to practice the “Hello, I am Tran; What is your name?” and “Where are you From?” The disappearing handkerchief trick and the candy and sticker handouts again create a happy bedlam.
We tour the Vin Moc tunnels, now a tourist attraction, just north of the old DMZ and at the shore of the South China Sea. During the “American War” the complex housed some 3000 people and included kitchens, fresh water wells, bathrooms, and a hospital where many children were born. The tunnels were very solid but very claustrophobic, with passage mostly possible stooped over.
On to Hue and the site of the initiation of the final NVA advance south to Saigon. The huge Hue Citadel, landmark through many wars since the 1600s, dominates the skyline.
We visit the American War museum, replete with the inevitable Communist propaganda. Amazing reinforced bicycles, used in the laborious task of getting supplies down the HCM trail are displayed, as well as the more conventional implements of war.
Frequent reference on picture captions in English is made to the “American Puppet” government of Diem and Ky. Pictures straight out of the American press show such famous pictures as the naked girl running from an American Napalm attack (later proved actually to have been a VNAF A-1 mistakenly attacking fleeing civilians), the recalcitrant interrogatee being thrown from a helicopter, and of course the famous pistol-to-the-head execution in a Saigon street. One picture I hadn’t seen was one of eleven girls that “wiped out a U.S. Battalion”. Pictures of U.S. G.I.s showed scowling, angry-looking men with cigarettes hanging from their mouths. There was also a picture of a hideous-looking angry Lyndon Johnson pounding his fist on the table. We all figured that since they had “won” the war, they could depict it however they wished. It made us relive the frustration of losing so many comrades in a hopeless cause due solely to political incompetence. That part of “our war” will never receive closure.
We visit the birthplace of Vietnamese Buddhism at the Pagoda and grounds built in 1623 and then take a 2-hour cruise in a traditionally decorated sampan on the Perfume river, coursing through the middle of Hue.
The next day, we fly Vietnam Air to Saigon the clean, new Fokker-70 for our last two days in Vietnam. The sun comes out for the first time during our stay and it becomes uncomfortably hot and humid. The evening consists of the six of us making a pedi-cab ride from the Vien Dong to the Rex Hotel, the wartime residence for correspondents and most of the Brass.
The rooftop dining room is very well appointed and relaxing. We entice a solo attractive 40-year-old Dutch woman to join us so we can finally have someone to impress with our wartime exploits. She is traveling with two men who are off in the jungle somewhere. They had been in Hanoi and had taken the train to Hue and on to Saigon. Tourist travel is much safer in Vietnam than many places in the States, regardless of all the State Department reports of danger we got prior to our trip! At any rate, she is not impressed and departs with our promise to send her pictures and a report of the trip.
On our final day, we visit the perimeter of the old Air Base outside of Saigon at Bien Hoa which, we are told, is now a MiG base. We don’t hear any aircraft flying. We go further out to Cu Chi, near where the large Army complex used to be. It also happens that there was a very large Viet Cong tunnel complex nearby under Cu Chi, from which almost continuous night time attacks were launched against allied facilities in the area. The allies were never able to stop or even find this complex. The tunnels at Cu Chi are now a going tourist concern. There is an open air tourist store selling beer, bottles of souvenir “Snake Wine” containing real Cobras coiled in a striking position, supposedly authentic GI dog tags, Zippo lighters with the crests of all the various U.S Army wartime units, and all sorts of knick-knacks made from M-16 shell casings. We finally find where Dick’s line in the sand is when he won’t drink the snake wine.
There are several, severely crippled men selling postcards and begging. They are apparently victims of, separately, Agent Orange birth defects and mine explosions. They also had a chilling outdoor exhibit of all the famous pungee stake-pit man traps. One of the guides demonstrates a trap door entrance to the tunnels. The internal dimensions of the tunnels were notably smaller than those at Vin Moc. Due to the narrow cut, it was impossible to turn around in the Cu Chi Tunnels, except at intersections or bunk rooms. Very claustrophobic!
Of course, they have the usual museum with the usual Commie propaganda! They also had cells which the propaganda touted as used by the ARVN (South Vietnam Army) to house VC prisoners. PK Robinson, who spent 9 months in the Hanoi Hilton, said the cell was nearly identical to his “suite” up North.
On the final night of our trip, we again take pedicabs (fare $1 one way) to the downtown area near the Rex for an “authentic” Vietnamese meal. They actually have cold beer without special preparation! The starter is cracked crab and 6 more courses of really great tasting delicacies. Nothing even suspicious-looking! We reminisce and enjoy each others company in a social setting for the last time for a while. The next event is the long trip back to the States on the following morning.
We never expected to get “closure” as the popular jargon now puts it. We didn’t have to fight the way the grunts did, eyeball to eyeball, with a continuous up-close awareness of human pain and suffering due to the horrors of war. We dropped our bombs, and fired our guns and rockets from relatively far away, and going as fast as we could make the old F-100 go; 600 knots, sometimes, when things were really scary. When you get hit at that speed, unless it’s a catastrophic hit, you could normally use all that kinetic energy to get to somewhere far away to eject so that you didn’t have to encounter the angry guys whom you had just tried to kill. One of the guys flew a good 15 miles on fire from the aft cockpit back in order to get into the South China Sea, where he and the back-seater could be rescued. Others were not that fortunate and were killed or captured. To most of us it was a combination of skill and luck. Most fighter pilots take their skill as a given. Hopefully luck can be improved by the skill employed on any day. The closure that can never come is that many, too many, of our comrades died for a cause for which the politicians lacked the resolve to win. We are starting to have to relearn the very basic rule that, once you make the decision to go to war, the politicians should turn it over to the professional warriors to complete the job quickly, and with the minimum friendly loss of life.
Another not-so-surprising fact the six of us learned was that we fatally underestimated the determination, industriousness, resourcefulness, energy, and stamina of the Vietnamese as a people and as warriors. We had around 600,000 military people in or near Vietnam at the height of the war. We could have doubled that and still not subdued the NVA and Viet Cong, the way the war was being waged.
What could we have done, short of the real nightmare of nuclear weapon employment? First, change the air war Rules of Engagement to include the targeting of harbor facilities, airfields, power plants and dams. Cut off the ability to produce and transport war material southward. Finally, and most important, put a wall of military emplacements across the Ho Chi Minh Trail from the South China Sea to Western Laos. Stop the trucks, troops and bicycles before the food and equipment is delivered to the VC and NVA already in the South.
VIET NAM TODAY
Aside from the Commie propaganda in the War Museums, the people have put “The American War” behind them. There is absolutely no animosity toward Americans or any other visitors. We are delighted with the hospitality and friendliness. There is moderate evidence of the injection of foreign capital into the country, mostly around Saigon and reportedly around Hanoi. Heineken beer, Toyota automobiles and many varieties of motorbikes, and other foreign products are in evidence. The Mekong River teems with traffic of ocean-going freighters. There is a road building initiative just beginning which will be vital to a new infrastructure. The roads are terrible, not much better than when we fought there. Apparently this foreign injection has dropped off drastically as investors tire of being victims of the Communist bureaucracy and business restrictions and duplicity. The communist approach to free enterprise is not working but, as always with such a regime, the Vietnamese people are not free to dispute or change the system. It was our opinion that the Communists are slowly losing their grip, an observation borne out in conversations with our guides and business people that felt comfortable talking to Americans. The people have had a glimpse of what free enterprise can do. They are universally industrious and eager. I would expect a most likely peaceful failure of Collectivism in Vietnam over the next 20 years, similar to the recent evolution in the USSR. We had several young people ask, “Can Vietnam become a Small Tiger in the area?” They are industrious beyond the Western imagination, and I say give them 20 years and the Tiger will be out of the cage!
The author, Mick Greene (Misty 30),
is retired from the Air Force and
working as an Aerospace Program Manager.
There was a similar story of this “return” in the
National Guard Magazine by Maj Gen Don Shepperd, Misty 34,
and there was also a Fox News Story by Michael Y. Park.
More recently, retired General Tony McPeak, Misty 94, and his two sons traveled in 2012
to Viet Nam and Laos to find and video a portion of the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail.