Larry James Vietnam Report – 2

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 I have no idea how I'll be received, or IF I'll be received at all should I manage to find our former enemies. Since this is a diary, I can confess some apprehension about it. But the motivation to find out their side of the story so that we can have a comprehensive look at the ambush is strong, which brings me to a little more detail on why I decided to write this book.

     I guess you could say, the book began to write itself on the day in May of 1968 when I was assigned to the Manchus. I was 22 years old, a 1st Lieutenant. I had never heard of the Manchus and knew nothing of their recent history. The clerk who assigned me to them apparently did. After instructing me where to go to catch the flight to the Manchu base camp in Tay Ninh, he looked up briefly and said, "Sorry 'bout that.'

     The Manchus needed replacements. It had been a difficult spring. In the preceding five months the battalion had lost 138 dead and more than 730 wounded. Then, on one terrible day, the casualty rate soared higher still. Forty nine dead and more than two dozen injured. We feel the impact of those awful numbers still. Not just the survivors but those who were to serve with the Manchus in the almost two and a half years that remained in the battalions tour in Vietnam were also affected. The ambush cast a long, dark shadow on all of us. Now, 36 years later, I'm hoping to be able to shed some light on why and how it happened.

I'm going to need a lot of luck.
Tomorrow, on to Saigon.

March 31, 2004

8 p.m. 89 degrees and humid. Sound familiar?

     Actually it's not too bad here in Ho Chi Minh City. The aging, decrepit terminal building at Ton Son Nhut has been completely refurbished and looks pretty good, feels even better as you leave the airplane and are greeted with a cool blast of air conditioned air rushing down the jetway; a huge difference from only four years ago. The decidedly third world look of the airport terminal is gone. The new place is really quite nice. Shiny new duty free shop greets you as you exit through the high tech immigration area where IBM computers scan your passport and make a handy form complete with photo and all the pertinent personal details. Then it's a breeze through customs and out into the parking lot.

     Haven't seen the city in any real detail yet since it was dark when I arrived but from what little I did see on the ride in to the hotel I was amazed at the differences from just four years ago. Lots and lots of upscale-looking sidewalk cafes full of Vietnamese young people. Several upscale shops, Dolce & Gabana, Versace and a few others caught my eye as we weaved in and out of the hordes of little motor bikes. The two wheelers are still omni-present. In fact there may be more of them than there were four years ago, if that's possible.

     I'm staying at the Spring Hotel, the same place we stayed when Willy brought us here in 2000. Still a nice, small hotel although I will say my room could use a new carpet. That said, I'm not complaining. It has everything I need from the mini-bar to CNN, BBC and the Discovery Channel on TV AND, unlike last time, I can connect to the internet from my room. No need to walk around the corner to the Internet Cafe we used to hang out in. I upgraded to a suite thinking I might need the room for interviews if I succeed in tracking down people to talk to. Even if I do most of the leg work out in Hoc Mon it will be nice to come back to a pretty nice set-up complete with living room, large bath and separate bedroom all for $59 a night.

     This diary is supposed to focus on my search for our old enemy but since I didn't get to the hotel until 9 p.m.there is really little progress to report only first impressions.

     There is one thing I need to say however and that is the feeling I suddenly had riding in from the airport. The taxi driver, young guy in his 20's I'd guess, was eager to try out his English and was pleased to know I was American. He said it with something that sounded like real glee. "Washington, DC,' he almost shouted. "Wow, that's great! Did you know that there'll soon be 5 non-stop flights from Houston, Texas to Ho Chi Minh City?' He was genuinely excited. "Things are really starting to look up in Vietnam,' he said.

     Just like the last visit here with Willy, Rick, Terry and Larry, I was struck by how unexpectedly warm the welcome is. And that is a good thing. A very good thing. Something more than 60 percent of the population of Vietnam is under the age of 30. For them the "American War' as they call it in their history books, is just that, history. For an American veteran of that war coming here really puts things in perspective and slays lots of dragons at the same time. When we, the guys who fought here, say the word "Vietnam' we are talking about more than just a place. It is a very loaded word. It connects to too many old memories that many of us wish we didn't have. But, quite a bit of what we remember when we say "Vietnam' does not exist anymore. In fact, I'd say most of it doesn't. Yeah, there is still this small Southeast Asian country named Vietnam but that's about the extent of the similarity to what is in our memories. For that reason alone I would urge anyone who can to come and see what I mean. I wish I could explain it better. This feeling I'm trying to describe was strong during the first visit, it is even stronger now. Being here really proves that the war is over.
Enough for this diary entry.

p.s. (for the benefit of Willy, Rick, Terry and Larry) I picked up some Scotch in the duty free shop so I think I'll have a little night cap. There's sure to be plenty left over so I'll just take it back to my room. 🙂

April 1, 2004

For a while there it looked like this was going to be one of those days.

     The foreign ministry man did not seem happy to get my call this morning. First, he said he was busy and couldn't see me at all. But after pleading my case and explaining that I had been calling and sending e-mails for more than two weeks without receiving any response from him he reluctantly agreed to a meeting at 2 p.m. Evidently the soft heart hardened in the intervening six hours and when we met face to face he quite officiously pointed out that his office had no budget for helping people like me with projects like mine and that I would have to pay all the expenses associated with a trip to the ambush site. I said don't worry I'll pay even before I did the quick mental calculations and figured out that it couldn't cost that much to rent a car for a 25 mile round trip to the ambush site.

     Seeing that I wasn't put off with that particular obstacle, it was clear Mr. Niem would have to find another. So, he called in a colleague for consultations on the matter. He introduced me to Number 2, my "project officer.' He gave the man's name but it was Vietnamese and I'm not good at foreign names when my blood pressure has reached the level that would have blown apart a steel band clamped to my arm. To me he will have to be Number 2.

     I sat quietly doing the multiplication tables in my head while the office air conditioner hummed and the two foreign ministry officials rattled away in the curious sing-song staccato of the Vietnamese language. After what seemed like quite some time, but probably was only long enough to do the ones through nines 11 times, slowly, Mr. Niem informed me that it was out of his hands and he could do nothing for me.

"At all?' I asked.

"You see Phou Long is not in the Ho Chi Minh District. It doesn't belong to me.'

     "But,' I interjected, "I don't want to go to Phou Long. My business is in Hoc Mon district' knowing full well that in the first go around he had recklessly mumbled in English "ah, that area,' a pudgy finger smudging my new map "belongs to Ho Chi Minh City.'

     "Yes, of course,' he frowned, waiting for the next insurmountable problem to occur to him. "But I never received any written instructions from Hanoi so you see it is completely out of my hands.'

"Perhaps I should contact the Foreign Ministry in Hanoi,' I offered.

"Yes, of course,' he said. "But these things take time. And then there is the matter of budget.'

     I said I understood, reminded him that I had agreed to pay, thanked him for his time and said I would contact the Foreign Ministry and perhaps they could pass along the OK that had already been given to me when my visa was approved.

"Is that map made in Vietnam?' he asked as I stood to leave.

"No, it's American.'

"Good. We can use it,' he said folding it carefully and handing it to Number 2.

     During the short trip down the stairs of the Foreign Ministry building and out to my waiting rental car and driver, I consoled myself with the thought that I had had the foresight to order two maps of the Hoc Mon area from the U.S. Geological Survey. When I got in I saw my driver had already puzzled out how to get to the Hoc Mon and route 248, the scene of the ambush.

     I stopped off at the hotel and sent off a brief e-mail to Hanoi asking for them to be kind enough to inform Mr. Niem of my plans and to ask for his help. Then it was on the road to Hoc Mon. And that will be the subject of the next installment. I did get a some photos from the trip including a nice one of Rach Ben Cat, one of the biggest canals in the area that is just south of the ambush site.

     As I said I thought it was going to be one of those days but when I got back to my room an e-mail from Hanoi was waiting telling me that Mr. Niem had been briefed and he was now ready to help.

We'll see.

April 2, 2004

It's been a quiet day today.

     I got through to Mr. Niem and he confirmed that he now had the OK from Hanoi and would begin getting in touch with the local officials so that all the necessary permissions will be in order. For now I'll give him a little space but will phone back each morning while I await his call.

     In the meantime, I've made my fourth trip out to the ambush site this morning to try to get a feel for the landscape. It is not exactly new to me having spent time in the immediate vicinity in June of '68 and having visited when our group toured there in 2000. The place has changed a lot in the past 36 years and is nearly unrecognizable from the way it looked in 1968. There are now houses, shops, post offices and other buildings all along both sides of the road. But there are still landmarks.

     Even though I had visited the place with Willy four years ago, I wanted to double check and cross-check with all the information available to make sure I could identify the exact spot. I checked Larry Mitchell's excellent coordinates with the accounts from survivors immediately after the ambush and with details from more recent interviews with others who were there. They all match. The bridge Willy identified back in '98 is the bridge that marked the point at which the VC cut off the rest of the battalion from coming to help Charlie Company. Anybody on the south side of that bridge was in the killing zone of the ambush. Anybody on the north side came under withering fire from VC positions in the north-facing banks of the canal.

     There can be no doubt about it. That is the place. The bridge does look different from the pictures taken the day of the ambush, mainly because it is a new structure that sits higher above the road surface than the original it replaced. The supports for the old bridge are still visible, however. Apologies to Willy if it seems I doubted his initial groundbreaking work. I didn't really but I had to confirm it with all the other information I have.

     I also found what I am nearly certain is the old ARVN compound that sits just south of the ambush site. John Henchman had radioed the American advisor to that group asking for help but never got it or an explanation for why the ARVN there would not come. They were perhaps 500 to 700 meters (I'll try to get an exact measurement tomorrow) south of where Charlie company's point element was. They did radio information after the ambush was sprung that they had seen what they said was a platoon of VC heading north to join the fight. But that was the end of their usefulness as far as the Manchus were concerned. Why they never engaged those VC or left their compound to try to help are questions that remain unanswered.

     The exact area is now known as Ap Nam Thank which is part of the Hoc Mon district. I have not spoken to anyone in the area except to say hello and smile. I don't want to have my visa curtailed and get sent home for some perceived violation of the terms of my entry in the country. I must wait for all the permissions or I run the risk of being asked to leave with the job still undone.

     I may have already made too many trips to the area. People in the area certainly know some foreigner has been walking up and down the road taking pictures of bridges and canals. They are much more country people than the folks in Saigon just 8 or 10 miles away. Maybe it's my imagination but it seems they are suspicious of strangers. So, I'll lay low awhile. For now my plan is to stay in Ho Chi Minh City and wait impatiently for arrangements to be made.

Stay tuned.