40 years on—Vietnam and my enemy encounter

Return to Vietnam – Part III

The chair lift up the once VC dominated Black Virgin Mountain outside Tay Ninh City.

The chair lift up the once VC-dominated Black Virgin Mountain outside Tay Ninh City.

My wife and I had just visited Tay Ninh City, where we separated from the tour group at the Cao Dai Temple and took a taxi to what we American troops knew as the Black Virgin Mountain (Núi Bà Đen). This 3000-foot extinct volcanic peak dominates the flat Mekong Delta plain around it. During the war I’d often gazed up at the mountain and yearned to visit the peak. The mountain was a VC (Viet Cong) stronghold at the time but US forces held onto a small outpost at the tip—one only accessible by helicopter. On my recent visit I was disappointed that a time constraint kept us from hiking one of the trails to the top. We had barely enough time to take the cable car (constructed sometime after the war) to a gaudy Buddhist temple two thirds of the way up the mountain. Nevertheless, the ride offered a spectacular view. Continue reading

Return to Vietnam—what I found

Return to Vietnam – Part II

Me at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. I'm standing in front of an armored personnel carrier in a courtyard crammed with American equipment.

Me at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. I’m standing in front of an armored personnel carrier in a courtyard crammed with American equipment.

Although Vietnam is still a relatively poor country, Southern Vietnam has clearly prospered since the war when the only real economic engine was Uncle Sam’s aid and GI payday. Ho Chi Minh City, which nearly everyone still calls Saigon, is today busting at the seams with people, shops, restaurants, taxis, buses, and particularly motorbikes. Capitalism, in other words. I was surely not the only visitor to whom it seemed that nearly all of the city’s 11 million inhabitants were out competing for space with taxis and buses on their 7 million motorbikes at all hours of the day and night. Their presence made street crossings daunting. The motorbikes also made it necessary to walk in the street much of the time because the sidewalk space not claimed by outdoor shops and vendors was packed with parked motorbikes. Anyway, I digress.

…military aid and assistance has again begun flowing into Vietnam from the U.S. government. Who’d have thought!”

Vietnam hasn’t forgotten the war, but its youngish population today has other national concerns. Big ones like its northern neighbor. Continue reading

Vietnam 40 years on—my return

Return to Vietnam – Part I

In 1971 I couldn't have imagined that someday I'd be welcome in the presidential palace in Saigon--a place constantly in the nightly news during the war.

In 1971 I couldn’t have imagined that someday I’d be welcome in the presidential palace in Saigon–a place constantly in the nightly news during the war.

World War II is still very much alive in our media and our consciousness, as I’ve noted in recent blog posts. But one of that war’s offspring, the Vietnam War, hasn’t gone away either. Six decades after it began for Americans, that war too lives on in much the same way. This past April 30 marked an important date in both wars. On that day seventy years ago, in 1945, Hitler killed himself and effectively ended the Second World War. And on that day 40 years ago, in 1975, the North Vietnamese Army took Saigon and ended the divisive Vietnam War. A flurry of news reports and documentaries commemorated the latter anniversary date, but I had time to watch only one. That was because I was about to commemorate the war’s end in a more vivid and personal way. By coincidence, my first return to Vietnam since serving there both in a base camp and as an infantryman occurred just days after this significant date.

Continue reading

The fall and rise of Vietnam vets

Vietnam revisited

Me and buddies, Christmas 1970, somewhere near Cu Chi, Vietnam

Me and buddies, Christmas 1970, somewhere near Cu Chi, Vietnam

Who alive in America today hasn’t heard of the Vietnam War or doesn’t know a family it has touched? This conflict dragged on for years and ultimately became very unpopular. Late in the war, returning soldiers like myself were despised by many.When I came back to America in 1971, we soldiers were warned not to wear our uniforms when traveling.

Well, how times have changed! Now veterans are popular once again and are often even thanked for their service. Even Vietnam veterans are now held in high esteem. Continue reading

Cherries—a Vietnam experience and a half

Helicopter drops grunts in landing zone. U.S. Army photograph. Public domain.

Authors writing from personal experience about combat know that conveying their experience is ultimately an impossible task. The chasm between those who lived the trauma in a place like Vietnam, or some other version of Vietnam in another war, and those merely reading about it is nearly unbridgeable with mere words or images. But like many other veterans before him, John Podlaski tries to do just that in his book, Cherries: A Vietnam War Novel. And in this basic mission he successfully describes what Vietnam was like for some. I have to say some because in a war where the vast majority of those in uniform served as support personnel, most of the hardship fell on those few actually in the field. But more about that later. Continue reading