Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
Tour Bus at the Khe Sanh Combat Base, 1993
After reading several accounts by people who had visited Vietnam lately, I realized that I had both the inclination and the money to make the trip. My memories of the places I had been were quite vivid. I was curious; what had happened to Vietnam since I left, what had become of it? Had it changed as much as I had? So I joined a group of people with diverse motives and went back.
I had 'choppered into Khe Sanh in 1967, just in time to celebrate Christmas. In April, 1968, I left, a passenger in a jeep that drove out of the base on a convoy through the heart of Indian Country and beyond. Every molecule of chlorophyll had been obliterated; not by herbicides but mechanically, with explosives. The trees had been blown over, stripped of their leaves and branches. A headless body lay like a rusty beer can by the roadside near the first bridge. It was quiet and calm again, finally, although hundreds of Marines and thousands of North Vietnamese had died here since January.
Twenty-five years later I was excited as the airplane descended once more toward Da Nang. I wanted to experience again the places I had known as a nineteen-year-old. I was particularly curious about Khe Sanh. But I couldn't even be sure if I had landed at the same airport and nothing in Da Nang looked familiar to me. We drove north on National Route 1 to Hue. This was Bernard Fall's "Street Without Joy," where Viet Minh tactics had proved so frustrating for the French during the First Indochina War. We passed by the site of the huge Marine base at Phu Bai. It was all gone, just an abandoned airstrip with weeds growing through the pavement. Everything in Hue looked new to me as well, although in 1968 I had been to the Naval Support Activity facility near the University of Hue to pick up a new jeep.
I was disappointed in my inability to recognize things I thought would be familiar to me. I felt cheated somehow and began to wonder if there was any point in trying to go back to Khe Sanh. I had talked to some of the others who were traveling with me and three had expressed interest. But our group had a full schedule of meetings and day trips on the itinerary and there really didn't seem to be time for an excursion to Khe Sanh.
On Saturday, January 16, we visited the Citadel in Hue. The Citadel had been the site of savage fighting during Tet, 1968. I found it satisfying to visit places that I knew historically, if not personally. I mentioned to the others that our trip to Khe Sanh seemed unrealistic as the schedule called for us to drive back to Da Nang the next day. Tim seemed particularly disappointed. Tim was not a vet but had a strong interest in the Vietnam war, especially its military aspects.
Late afternoon found us returning to Hue via covered boat on the Perfume River. It had been a perfect day, the best of the trip. I had visited the pagoda from which the Venerable Quang Duc had gone to Saigon in 1963 to protest the Diem regime with self- immolation. I remembered the famous picture of Quang Duc's grisly spectacle of incineration, which Madame Nhu had termed a "barbecue." Quang Duc's car had been returned to the pagoda and was garaged there; a Hillman station wagon, up on blocks, a shrine of sorts. Lowell, a journalist, played a game of hacky- sack with some of the Buddhist monks.
I thought about the hour we had spent talking with a group of Vietnamese high school students and their teachers while at the pagoda. Dwight told them that for some of us it was our second visit to Vietnam, that we had been there during the war. None of them were old enough to remember the fighting. They were interested as to why we had come to Vietnam in the 1960s. Their understanding was that we had been forced to fight by our government, that all Americans were in Vietnam against their will. They seemed surprised when we offered the US's fear of communism as an explanation; they had never considered the fighting in the context of the Cold War. They found it incomprehensible that America could fear Vietnam and Vietnamese communists. They made no distinction between the French and the Americans, only that there were colonialists and neocolonialists. And none of them had heard of Khe Sanh.
The drone of the engine was relaxing as the boat proceeded down river. I closed my eyes, remembering the accusation of one of the school teachers at the pagoda. "You wear short pants," she said, "You have rubber sandals and smoke Da Lat cigarettes. VC smoke Da Lat and dress like that. I think you were VC when you were here before." I asked her if she meant it as a compliment and decided that Vietnamese women had the most alluring smiles.
Down with the sun went the realization that this was as far north into I Corps as I would get. The awareness that I wasn't going to return to "my" Vietnam bothered me. But Hue was exceeding my expectations. As we headed down the river I watched the Vietnamese washing laundry along the shore, waving to us as we passed. Others were bent over planting shoots of rice and I wondered where the little plants came from, and why they couldn't plant seeds in the paddies. The youngest member of the boat's crew, a two-year old boy with no pants, waddled over to where I sat against the bulkhead. He handed me a warm can of "33" beer without a word. I watched him wait on the others, moving expertly on tiny sea legs, and decided perhaps the trip might work out after all.
Jim Spencer, the leader of this US-Indochina Reconciliation Project tour, sat down beside me. We talked about what we had accomplished on the trip so far, and he mentioned that our plans had changed and we would be spending another day in Hue. I told Tim about this, and he immediately motioned for me to sit with him on the fantail.
"You realize what this means, Peter? This is our chance to go to Khe Sanh." He was very excited. Already Tim was planning another trip to Vietnam. He wanted to visit all the well-known battle sites and here was his opportunity to see one that was on his list.
I wasn't sure. A trip from Hue to Khe Sanh and back would take an entire day. We had been told not to travel on the roads after dark; we would have to get an early start in order to return to Hue by sunset. Travel in Vietnam is very complicated and I was doubtful that we could attend to all the details on a Saturday evening.
I conveyed my reluctance to Tim. He was insistent that we try. "Look, you came all this way and now you're within a hundred miles of the place. You'll always regret it if you don't at least make an attempt to get there."
Tim manages a multi-billion dollar fund on Wall Street and is used to getting things done. The Vietnamese we met with were very impressed with Tim when his background became known to them. We agreed to ask the others if they were still interested and let the opinion of the majority settle the issue.
Both Dwight, a Vietnam vet from Pennsylvania, and Jess, a retired engineer from New Jersey, wanted to try it. As soon as the boat docked at the pier in Hue, Tim and I asked our Vietnamese guide if it was possible to make the trip to Khe Sanh on the following day. Tranh thought it could be done and advised us to arrange for a vehicle at the hotel. Tranh said a suitable vehicle with driver and guide would cost about $75.00. Both the driver and guide were mandatory.
The clerk at the hotel said she could not reserve a vehicle for us without the permission of the Communist Party representative who was assigned to our group. This person, who we called "the Suit," had disappeared. No Suit, no trip, and time was getting short.
Tim located the Suit at 9:00 PM. He explained to us that the trip was not possible. We could not go to Khe Sanh without the permission of the police in Dong Ha. Since we didn't have permission from the police in Dong Ha, the local police would not give us permission to leave Hue. We asked Tranh if he could use his influence with the Hue police to help us. Tranh said no, because he was from Thua Thien province, and the problem was in Dong Ha, which was in Quang Tri province, and he didn't know anyone in Dong Ha that might help. The Suit said we should have planned this earlier, which would have allowed him to drive to Dong Ha to secure permission for us.
By this time I was more disappointed than surprised. At least we had tried. But Tim was challenged. Tim went back to where the Suit was drinking in the hotel bar and suggested that the Suit telephone the police station in Dong Ha and get permission for us to go to Khe Sanh. The Suit returned an hour later and said it was possible but he could not promise anything definite. We would find out in the morning. We should be ready to go just in case permission was granted.
At 7:00 on Sunday morning Tranh told us that everything was okay and to meet in front of the hotel in one hour. At 8:00 am the Suit arrived to say that the trip was off because a vehicle could not be arranged on such short notice. Once again I was ready to give up. But Tim was furious.
Three days previously we had met with Nguyen Van Luong. Luong had participated in the founding of the NLF in 1961 and was the commander of the NLF in Thua Thien province during the Second Indochina War. He was presently a member of the National Assembly. We had all drunk tea together and professed friendship and concluded that the war had been a mistake. We had more tea and agreed that the Vietnamese policy of reconciliation with the US was a wise and just policy.
Tim took Tranh aside. He told Tranh to tell the Suit that he was going to write a letter to Mr. Luong as soon as he got home. Tim would thank Luong for taking the time out of his busy schedule to meet with our group. Tim would tell Luong about the beauty of the city of Hue, and the remarkable progress that had been made in restoring the damage to the Citadel. He would mention his hopes for better relations between Vietnam and the US and would promise to do everything he could to help move toward the realization of that goal.
Finally Tim promised to mention that he thought it was a terrible comment on the sincerity and efficiency of the Vietnamese bureaucracy that a few American veterans could not get permission to visit their old battlefields, especially given the desires of the Vietnamese for reconciliation. Tim wanted the Suit's name so he could include it in the letter to Luong. Tim insisted that Tranh give this message to the Suit.
Within twenty minutes Tranh had new information for us. An air-conditioned Mitsubishi van would be ready to leave the hotel for Khe Sanh in a few minutes. The cost would be $150.00. The Suit waved and smiled at us and wished us an enjoyable trip.
The four of us, plus a Vietnamese driver and guide, drove north on Route 1 to Dong Ha. I felt good, very good. According to the guidebook we were near the former city of Quang Tri. Quang Tri City was the provincial capital during the war and was destroyed during the 1972 Easter Offensive. It was never rebuilt, rather, the capital was moved to Dong Ha. But there was nothing there, nothing to see. We proceeded to Dong Ha.
I had been to Dong Ha several times during the war. It was the forward headquarters of the 3d Marine Division and the regimental headquarters of the 12th Marines. These were my old units and I was glad to return to a place that I had visited many times. But once again the base was completely gone. The city was much larger than I remembered and I could not find my way around. We waited in Dong Ha for ninety minutes while our guide made arrangements with the police.
From Dong Ha we turned west onto Route 9. This road ran across Vietnam past Camp Carroll to Khe Sanh and into Laos, to Tchepone and beyond. Tchepone was the objective of the invasion into Laos by the ARVN in 1972, an operation that was launched from the abandoned base at Khe Sanh. It was 68 kilometers distance to Khe Sanh, and the road crossed forty-nine bridges. I had spent six months in the area between Dong Ha and the firebase at Camp Carroll during my year in Vietnam. I had traveled this road many times on convoys. The first village we would pass through would be Cam Lo, the only place of any size between Dong Ha and Khe Sanh. I had a picture of a Catholic Church in Cam Lo that was heavily machine-gunned during Tet. I especially liked this picture; the church looked positively Serbian and I had an enlargement of it hanging on the wall at home. I was particularly alert for this church but I never saw it.
The next landmark would be Camp Carroll, where I had been stationed in 1967. I would have missed the turnoff to Carroll if the guide had not pointed it out. Even though I once knew this area intimately nothing was as I remembered. We were far behind schedule and the driver wanted to hurry. The road was getting much worse. I had only been on this stretch of Route 9 once, when I drove out of Khe Sanh in 1968 in the opposite direction. It was very sparsely populated and we began to notice Montagnards. Some openly carried assault rifles left over from the war, apparently for hunting, even though this was against the law. This is the only time I was aware of civilians carrying weapons in Vietnam. The guide pointed out the Rockpile, site of another Marine firebase. I took some pictures for a friend who had spent time there.
Next came Ca Lu, a bend in the road that had been the staging area for the relief force that marched into Khe Sanh after the siege was over. It was later a large refugee camp. Once past Ca Lu we began to climb into the mountains. Twenty-five kilometers yet to go, and twenty-seven more bridges. The road had huge potholes and our pace was very slow. My recollection was that January weather was cold and damp in this area, but it was sunny and warm, breezy with low humidity. We crossed over the new Dakrong River bridge that had been built in 1975-76 with the assistance of the Cubans. I remembered pontoon bridges in this area. The old iron ones that had been blown up by the NVA were not to be seen.
The guide said we would drive past the road to the former combat base and proceed to Khe Sanh village for lunch. We'd visit the base later in the day. I was not sure how much of a village to expect. The North Vietnamese had fired artillery into the village, eventually forcing the Americans to abandon it. The seat of the district government was moved from the village to inside the combat base. I had never been to the village and I thought it had been destroyed in the fighting. We continued higher and slower, the Mitsubishi's engine straining up the mountains. Now, with no smoke or dust or mist, I could see the wrinkled peaks clearly. They were higher and more rugged than I remembered, as impressive as their name: the Annamite Corderilla. The countryside was mostly uninhabited, very lush, with numerous rivers and streams. This was all new to me as I had always entered and left Khe Sanh by airplane or helicopter.
And all at once we were in Khe Sanh village.
The village certainly had a Third World aura about it. It was dusty and dirty and many of the roads leading away from Route 9 wouldn't permit vehicular traffic. Much of it looked like a shantytown. We found the marketplace and walked around. There was nothing for sale that any of us wanted to buy, only the necessities of life: kerosene lanterns, axes, hoes, machetes, rope, cookware, tea. The Montagnard element was more conspicuous here. These people were smaller than the Vietnamese, and darker. The women wore gaucho-style hats and smoked long-stemmed pipes. Everyone stared and pointed at us, especially at Dwight who was Black and quite large.
We found a restaurant but no one there spoke English. Our guide ordered lunch for us. The menu was hand-written and the meal was rather plain; rice with beef and pork. The driver and guide ate a large fish. The owner was continually chasing children away from the windows (there was no glass). Large crowds of them stared at us unabashedly. Dwight, Jess, and Tim seemed inclined to linger over their meal, sipping Coca Cola imported from Indonesia. But I was impatient. I was closer now than I dared expect.
We started back toward Dong Ha. The word of our presence must have spread as there were crowds of people by the roadway, staring at us without expression. Just before the turnoff to the old combat base I noticed a bunch of children playing on a large pile of old empty iron bombs, perhaps 500 pounders. We turned north onto a dirt road and drove 2.5 kilometers. There were several new dwellings in the area. The government had turned this region into a New Economic Zone. Vietnamese that were willing to settle here were given building materials plus six months of food.
My guidebook mentioned that the only thing recognizable at the Khe Sanh Combat Base was the old airstrip, as nothing grew there even after twenty-five years. The driver parked the van to let us out and immediately went to sleep in the warm sun.
I looked around at the surrounding peaks. Out there was Hill 950, where the radio relay station was positioned; Hill 881S, where 40 Marines1 were killed during the siege; Hill 861, the location for over a year of two gun crews from my unit. I couldn't remember where my own people had been, couldn't tell one hill from another. It bothered me that I could not orient myself, that I didn't even remember where my battery had been located on the base. I looked closely, but couldn't see any bomb craters. US aircraft dropped the equivalent of 1,300 tons of bombs per day around Khe Sanh.2 My battalion fired over 150,000 artillery rounds3 into those hills, but I saw no sign. I remembered the airstrip as being absolutely level but the whole area was on an incline. My friends kept asking me questions about the siege, where things were located, but I had no answers. I didn't know; everything seemed different now.
Only a few hundred Vietnamese soldiers4 were within the perimeter of the base during the siege, but many thousands had spent that winter and spring in the surrounding hills. I felt sympathy for them. For every rocket, mortar, or artillery round they fired into the base or at our hill positions, we fired ten. They had no air support while we continuously rained high explosives, white phosphorus, and napalm upon them with everything from helicopters to B52s. They must have been terrified then, but did they ever come here now? Were they curious about this place?
We walked around with our guide, heeding his warning not to stray too far from the airstrip. The area still contained large quantities of unexploded munitions. It was sunny, warm, and breezy; a perfect place to camp. It was very peaceful. There were two young men probing the ground with long sticks, searching for the voids that would indicate the location of old bunkers, hopeful they could find something with salvage value. I bought the brass casing from an artillery round from one of them for twenty cents. I hoped that their salvage attempts were more fruitful than mine; I had yet to scavenge anything of value at Khe Sanh. Seventeen of our trucks had been badly damaged by rocket fire during the siege and we had buried them in the ground. I wondered if anyone had found them. I picked up several pieces of shrapnel and a few bullets for souvenirs. Machine gun belt links and bullets were rusty but still plentiful. There seemed no point in remaining there; we had a long trip back to Hue. But I didn't want to leave. I wanted to identify something I knew.
The guide motioned for us to go back to the van. I noticed an old boot, a fan belt, and part of a gas grenade as we walked. The guide asked if we wanted to take a picture of the monument. Near the highest elevation point was a shabby masonry monument that I had never heard of, and well adorned with Vietnamese graffiti. We took pictures and asked the guide to translate the Vietnamese inscription:
LIBERATED BASE MONUMENT
THE AREA OF TACON PONT [sic] BASE
BUILT BY U.S. AND SAI GON PUPPET.
AIR FIELD AND WELL CONSTRUCTED DEFENSE SYSTEM. CO LUONG [town] DONG HA [county] QUANG TRI [province].
U.S. AND ARMY PUPPETS USED TO MONITOR THE MOVEMENT AND TRIED TO STOP ASSISTANCE FROM THE NORTH INTO THE BATTLE OF INDO CHINA (3 COUNTRIES). AFTER 170 DAYS AND NIGHTS OF ATTACK BY THE SURROUNDING LIBERATION ARMY, TACON (KHE SANH) WAS COMPLETELY LIBERATED. THE LIBERATION ARMY DESTROYED THE DEFENSE SYSTEM FOR THE BATTLE OF INDO CHINA.
112,000 U.S. AND PUPPET TROOPS KILLED AND CAPTURED.
197 AIRPLANES SHOT DOWN.
MUCH WAR MATERIAL WAS CAPTURED AND DESTROYED. KHE SANH ALSO ANOTHER DIEN BIEN PHU FOR U.S.5
"Amazing, truly amazing," I mumbled.
The sun was getting low in the sky, fading like a spent flare, casting long shadows. The light was good for photographs. The things I found in Vietnam had always been there. Most of what I couldn't find was the baggage of the American presence, things that had been imposed upon Vietnam from without. There was no reason for the things I remembered to still be there. The driver was awake and waving his hand for us to come back to the van. Tim had read about the battle at Khe Sanh for a history course he was taking at New York University.
"What's the matter, Peter, isn't that the way you remember it?" Tim laughed, pointing to the monument.
"No, not exactly," I said.
"It's their monument, right? I guess they can write on it whatever they want," replied Tim, taking a few last pictures of the hills.