MARINE CORPS TANKERS VIETNAM HISTORICAL Foundation's
Vietnam Personal Accounts
Return to Vietnam
40 Years LaterBy Bill Davis
Forty years have passed since I was in Vietnam. For most of that time I never thought I would return as a tourist. This changed last year when an old friend who served in Vietnam in the U. S, Army as a door gunner on an UH1 Huey Helicopter and I decided to return and see for ourselves how Vietnam changed since 1969.
Our group consisted of eight veterans, three wives and William, my 42-year-old son. The trip spanned 15 days and took us from Los Angeles to Hanoi, Hue, Leatherneck Square, Camp Carroll, Khe Sahn, the Ashau Valley, DaNang, Hoi An, Chu Lai, Pleiku and Ho Chin Minh City (Saigon).
The evening of August 8, 2009, we met the other members of our group in Los Angeles and were briefed by Military Historical Tours on the trip details. In the early hours of the morning we left Los Angeles International Airport and flew to Hanoi via Taipei. While in Hanoi we visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the grounds of the Presidential Palace and the Hanoi Hilton. After leaving the Hanoi Hilton we added a visit to the marker showing where John McCain parachuted into Truc Bach Lake after his A-4 Skyhawk was shot down by a missile. Surprisingly the marker identifies him as an officer in the USAF. We only stayed in Hanoi a day and a half before departing via Vietnam Airlines for Hue/Phu Bai in the early morning hours of August 12.
Leaving the Hue/Phu Bai airport which is located on the old Marine Corps Air Facility we drove north on Highway Route 1 stopping at some of the key points from the Battle for Hue during Tet in 1968. Our guide, Captain Ed Garr, USMC (Retired) gave a commentary as we walked to the some of these sites. Two of the most significant were the Shell Station and the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) compound. The site of the Shell Station is now occupied by a Petrolemex gas station. This station was the site where Captain Chuck Meadows took cover and found maps of Hue City that he used throughout the battle and as cited in “Marines in Hue City: A Portrait of Urban Combat, Tet 1968” was for a time the only maps his battalion had of the city. We stopped at the site of the MACV compound where the American advisors to the 1st ARVN Division successfully held out against the VC and NVA forces until relieved by Marine Infantry and four tanks from 3d Tank Battalion. After checking into the Huong Giang Hotel on the Perfume River, we toured the Forbidden City and the royal palaces inside the Hue Citadel.
Beginning in 1995 the Vietnamese government began rebuilding and repairing the Citadel’s buildings. It is now one of the major tourist sites in Vietnam for foreigners. One of the key buildings that has been restored is the Flag Tower where the VC Flag flew for 25 days during the fighting for the city. Some of the other buildings that have been restored are the Ngo Mon Gate, Thai Hoa Palace, the Hall of the Mandarins and the Royal Library. An interesting note during our stay in Hue was that during the war our hotel was an Army of the Republic of Vietnam Officer’s Quarters.
Early on the morning of August 13, we departed Hue and drove north on Route 1 toward Quang Tri and Dong Ha. Our first stop was at the site of Camp Evans and Landing Zone Nancy where nothing remains of the bases. Our next stop was LZ Sharon, which is now a Vietnamese military base. A short distance from Sharon is the scarred remains of the Quang Tri Catholic Church, which serve as a reminder of the 1972 battle for the province. After crossing the Quang Tri River we continued down a modern divided highway until we reached the site of the former Quang Tri Combat Base and drove as close as we could to the site of the Headquarters area of 3d Tank Battalion. The area is now rice fields and duck ponds but the road that led to the U.S. Army’s Camp Red Devil in 1968 and 1969 is still there.
We continued on to Dong Ha, which is now the capital of Quang Tri Province. There are no signs of the Dong Ha Combat Base but the old LCU ramp at Dong Ha on the Cam Lo River remains and is being used by the Vietnamese Navy. Crossing the new Dong Ha Bridge we proceeded up Route 1 and stopped at the old 1st ARVN Infantry Division camp at Gio Linh. There is an old M41 Tank hull on the right hand side of the road. Across the road is a large military cemetery for NVA soldiers killed in action during the war. Every province and many towns have military cemeteries for NVA and VC dead. The ARVN dead however, were disinterred and buried in family plots without any reference to their military service.
Leaving Gio Linh we soon came to the Ben Hai River and the site of the Demilitarized Zone and the old frontier between South Vietnam and North Vietnam. Across the Hien Luong Bridge are a small museum complex and a very large Vietnamese (NVA) flag.
We turned off Route 1 on a connecting paved road to Con Thien by way of the Market Place. The entire route is bordered by rubber trees, as is the area around Con Thien. The only sign of the old combat base is the French Bunker, an occasional ammo box, rotting sand bags and duds scattered around the area.
Traveling south down Route 15 on a modern paved road our next stop was the Wash Out which now has a bar and restaurant overlooking the stream and there is a new bridge at the site. On the other side of the stream is a small lumber saw mill. Further south is Cam Lo Bridge and a new road connection to Route 9 and the town of Cam Lo.
Leaving Cam Lo we drove back to Dong Ha on Route 9 and stopped at Vinh Dai, the site of B Company, 3d Tanks base camp from January 1969 until
the company re-deployed to Okinawa later that year. Today Vinh Dai is occupied by a large and modern rock crushing operation. During the war the site was also a rock crusher operated by the US Navy Seabees. When I was in Vinh Dai it was home to the Seabees, B Company, and an U.S. Army twin 40 mm Duster Battery.
Our hotel in Dong Ha was built by the Soviet Union but has recently been remodeled. The rooms were basic but very clean. The hotel is near the site where the Dong Ha Combat Base was located. Nothing remains of the base. The site is filled with houses, small business operations, government offices and farmland.
Departing the hotel at 7 am we drove through Cam Lo and then over a
winding two lane paved road to Mai Loc. Mai Loc is now a training area for the
Vietnamese Military and a small farming community. An old access road connects Mai Loc with Camp Carroll. Carroll is covered in heavy vegetation and pepper plants and features an unkempt NVA monument commemorating the surrender of the camp by Colonel Pham Van Dinh, Commanding Officer of the 56th Regiment, 3d ARVN Infantry Division on April 2, 1972.
Our next stop was at the Rockpile and the Razor Back. Materials from both outcroppings are being processed for gravel and noticeably are reducing these landmarks in size. The area is littered with thousands of .50 caliber and 5.56 projectiles along with discarded ammo boxes.
The site of Vandegrift Combat Base is now home to farmers, Montagnards and a Vietnamese Army Camp with no signs of the camp as we remember it.
Gone is the dirt road to Khe Sahn and the base site is now planted in hundreds of acres of coffee plants. The airstrip has some scrub vegetation but for the most part is characterized by long strips of the red clay soil of Vietnam. There is a small museum on site with outside displays of 155 mm artillery, a UH1 and CH47 helicopters, a M41 Tank hull along with piles of rusting ammo and helicopter parts. The museum has displays of US, ARVN and NVA military equipment and weapons along with maps of opposing forces and position. There are also vendors selling fake military lighters, medals and badges.
Continuing our trek westward on Route 9 we came to the site of the Special Forces camp at Lang Vay. This past year the Vietnamese government constructed a monument with a NVA PT76 Amphibious Tank mounted on top. From Lang Vay we drove to Lao Bao on the border between Vietnam and Laos where we experience one of the surprises of the trip. Not only does Lao Bao have a traditional Montagnard outdoor market but it also has a big box store
much like COSCO where you can buy French Cognac, Korean appliances and
American laundry soap. The other surprise was our modern four story air-conditioned hotel in Huong Hoa (Khe Sahn town).
Leaving Huong Hoa on Saturday, August 15th we are driving to Hue by way of the A Shau Valley. Leaving Route 9 at the Da Krong River Bridge we followed part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail past Tiger Mountain (site of Dewey Canyon battle) to A Luoi and then on to Hue and back to the Huong Giang Hotel. After checking into the hotel we walked across the Trang Tien Bridge and explored the huge Dong Ba Market and enjoy a traditional Vietnamese dinner at the Hotel Saigon Morin.
Leaving Hue the next morning we started the next phase of our trip, exploring DaNang, Hoi An, Chu Lai, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
We began the second phase of our journey on August 16 when we left Hue for DaNang. Shortly after leaving Hue we stopped along the road to take photos of a young farm boy who met us at the bus and began posing for photographs on his Water Buffalo. At the base of the road leading to the Hai Van Pass are the magnificent Lang Co beaches. They are a beautiful expansive section of beaches that rival any in the world. Atop the Hai Van Pass we were treated to magnificent views of DaNang, Red Beach and China Beach. The vendors at the pass were by far the most aggressive we experienced during the trip. They have perfected the art of high-pressure sales. Since there is a new tunnel taking Route1 through the Truong Son Range that bypasses the pass most of the visitors these days are tourist and we are considered fair game for the vendors. DaNang has grown a great deal since the war and is a busy port and business center for Central Vietnam.
Stopping at Red Beach and the site where 3d Battalion, 9th Marines landed on March 8, 1965, we found a large and popular beachfront bar and restaurant. The area that was the site of the Force Logistics Command shows no signs of the unit ever having been there and this was true for the area where III Marine Amphibious Force headquarters was located. China Beach is experiencing extensive development, especially on the beach near Marble Mountain where many large luxurious hotels are being built. At Marble Mountain there are many old military aircraft hangers still being used by the Vietnamese military. After visiting a marble and stone factory and sales area we stopped at the Thang Loi Silk Factory. This factory was one of the most interesting sites during our trip. Watching the young artisans spinning the silk and sewing silk artwork, tablecloths and clothing was an amazing interlude in our trip.
Proceeding to Hoi An we checked into our hotel and walked through the old quarter of the city. Historically the city has a long and rich history and was a major trading center during the 16th and 17th Centuries. One of the most interesting buildings is the Japanese Covered Bridge. It is one of Hoi An’s most prominent symbols. Built in 1593 the bridge connected the Japanese community with the Chinese section of the town. Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site and enforces strong conservation rules governing repairs and prohibits modern alterations to the buildings. The colonial French buildings now house art galleries, craft shops and restaurants. The city has become a major tourist area. We were among the only Americans but French, Germans and Australians were well represented.
Early in the morning on August 17, we departed our hotel in Hoi An and stopped at the Dien Ban Veterans cemetery which is for VC and NVA war dead from Quang Nam Province. Our next stop was Hill 55. As you drive up the central rib of the hill you quickly see that it is the key position in Quang Nam Province. At the top of the hill you come upon a hugh monument dedicated to the Viet Minh who defeated the French in July 1954. From Hill 55 we looked out on what will be familiar names to many of USMCVTA members; Charlie Ridge, Happy Valley and the Arizona Territory.
Leaving Hill 55 we drove past Hill 65 and stopped at Hill 37. Once again there is another large military monument. Near the hill is the site where Liberty Bridge once stood. The bridge is gone but there is a small operating ferry transporting mainly Vietnamese riding motorbikes. There is also an office of the Wood Checking Bureau collecting taxes on logs moved down the river.
That evening we had an interesting experience where we ate dinner. As we were leaving the restaurant we noticed a large framed collage with photos and certificates that told the military history of a VC Officer. It turns out that this former VC Officer now owns the restaurant along with a number of buildings and other business in Hoi An.
The next morning, August 18 we left Hoi An and continued driving south on Route 1. Our first stop was LZ Baldy. The two Army helo Pilots in our group operated from here quite a lot in 1968 – 1969. LZ Baldy is now a Vietnamese Army Base and couldn’t enter to look around.
The next stop was Chu Lai, the creation of Lieutenant General Victor Krulak, USMC. Chu Lai was as noted by Colonel Allan Millett, USMCR (Retired) in his book “Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps” a Marine enclave built to supply close air support in Southern I Corps and Northern II Corps. Colonel Millet also pointed out that this gave III MAF a rational for extending its operations in Quang Tin and Quang Ngai provinces. Following the war it was a Vietnamese Air Force base but two years ago it became a commercial airport. The airport sits in the middle of the hugh area that was the base during the war. One of our group, Dick Waters, was assigned as a Platoon Commander with 1st Tanks from June 1966 until November 1966 and with the Chu Lai Defense Command from December 1966 until February 1967.
The area where the helo’s pads were is now an Automobile Driving School. Close by the driving school and on the beach is “Linda’s Restaurant.” Linda worked for the Marine Corps during the war and in a small way continues to connect with the Corps, with banners hanging from the ceiling of the restaurant that have USMC Stickers interspersed with beer logos. Our final stop in Chu Lai was Hill 43, which briefly was 1st Tank Battalion’s Command Post and the home to A Company and C Company, 1st Tanks. The hill has a commanding view of
the old base area along with the airport. It also is directly above a large Vietnamese Army Base. As we talked about the Marine Corps in Chu Lai, it came to light that our Vietnamese guide was the son of the VC Commander for the Area.
We continued driving south and stopped at Quy Nhon before going to An Khe, and Pleiku. Our final stop was Ho Chi Min City (Saigon). While most of us never saw Saigon during the war it should be included in the itineraries for anyone returning to Vietnam. The city boasts 7 million people and is the economic engine for the whole country. Seeing the former Presidential Palace, the site of the United States Embassy and the other landmarks we heard about during the war helps bring the question of seeing what happen to Vietnam in focus. So much has changed in the last 40 years. Vietnam, like the United States has changed dramatically. This trip brought back many memories and traveling with our group provided different perspectives on the Vietnam War.
We saw Vietnam from the experiences of Marine Tankers, Marine Infantrymen, a Marine Helicopter Pilot, two Army Helicopter pilots, an Army Helicopter door gunner, wives, a son and our Vietnamese guides. As mentioned earlier there were many surprises. The places where we were based and the areas where we fought are gone for the most part. There are signs throughout the country that bring back memories, but the reality today is that Vietnam is a country with modern and efficient road systems, major construction and building programs stretching from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, and a very young, educated and hard working population. While Vietnam boasts unconstrained economic growth it is a one party state with a very tightly controlled political and governmental structure.
All in all it was a great walk back through history.