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
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.?
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
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
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
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)