01 March 2017
Featured Guest Author, Captain Dale A. Dye, USMC (Ret)
During the last week of February 2017, Capt Dye and a small, close group of friends returned Vietnam. These Great American Men wanted to share this experience with you. As follows are the daily journal entries made during this trip by Capt Dye;
An emergency room physician circulated among the survivors. His diagnosis was quick and easy: Terminal culture shock. If the moment had been some jangled parsec in the psychedelic sixties he’d have called it a bad acid trip, but the Doc knew where and when he was even if the shocked Veterans kept claiming it couldn’t be Vietnam, the war-ravaged turbulent country they’d left behind nearly fifty years before.
It started the moment they began to unwind from 17 hours jammed inside a turbo-jet tin can that roared out of LA, through Hong Kong and into Danang, headquarters of their old 1st Marine Division where most of them served as Combat Correspondents in the bloody gut of the Vietnam War at various times ranging from 1965 to 1970. Giving them the bored-bureaucrat stare at passport control were guys in familiar olive green uniforms festooned with red collar tabs. The last place most of them had been so close to uniforms like that was up on the Demilitarized Zone – at places like Con Thien, The Rockpile and Khe Sanh. And then the uniformed Vietnamese were carrying AK-47s rather than rubber immigration stamps.
On the bus ride through throngs of mini-bikes and motor scooters toward a five-star resort most of the returning vets kept their greying heads on a swivel, unable to completely relax despite constant reassurances that they were safe from ambush. “Traffic still sucks,” commented former Cpl. Rick Grimm, one of the Combat Correspondents who often navigated Danang streets choked with cyclos and military convoys, “but at least they now have traffic lanes and some drivers actually pay attention to them.”
Early in the morning of their first full day as Combat Tourists, the loose gaggle of eight Marines and one lonely former dogface who did his time far to the south in the Mekong Delta with the U.S. Army’s 9th Infantry Division, found themselves in full flashback mode as they rode up to Monkey Mountain in a convoy of six salvaged American military jeeps. Danang metropolis, or what they could see of it though a blanket of morning fog, spread below them. In deep water harbors and offshore in what the U.S. Navy used to call Dixie Station, there was not a warship in sight. Sampans and a few of what rural Vietnamese fishermen called basket boats bobbed sedately in the South China Sea. Atop the mountain, famed for rampaging hordes of rock apes, they searched in vain for remnants of the AFVN station that used to broadcast from the heights of Monkey Mountain while retired Captain Dale Dye entertained with impromptu lines from “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
It was all a little too civilian, a little too civilized for the Combat Correspondents who came expecting to see…well expecting to see at least a remnant or two of the war they fought and wrote about for the Marine Corps “Don’t these people realize we fought a war here,” asked retired Sergeant Steve Berntson who was badly wounded in Hue during the Tet 1968 fighting. Well, no actually they don’t as most of the current Vietnamese hustling and bustling through the streets of Danang were born after the war in their country ended.
In desperation, the tour group, sponsored on the return to their battlefields by The Greatest Generations Foundation out of Denver, Colorado, hustled to a local Vietnamese military museum, where a diminutive female in crisp uniform and unsoldierly western eye shadow and lip gloss invited them to view exhibits of captured American (running dog imperialist) and South Vietnamese (puppet army) equipment. Naturally, the lights were out in the sector of the museum that contained information on American forces who were based in or around Danang. And nobody could find the switch to remedy that.
So, it was retire to the hotel bar for war stories the way we remember it. Plans are firm for tomorrow’s expedition south to what little remains of the An Hoa combat base, Go Noi Island and the infamous Arizona Territory. More from there soonest.
On Day 2 of the Back to Battlefields Magical Mystery Tour seven survivors of the Greater Southeast Asia War Games are on an excursion to the TAOR southwest of Danang. Five us are arguing about what was where nearly fifty years ago when we roamed the area as Marine Corps Combat Correspondents. The other two are fascinated by a lissome Vietnamese beauty steering a motor bike with one hand and texting on an iPhone with the other. She’s wearing a pink Hello Kitty helmet over a traditional ao dai dress, the confounding fusion of ancient and modern that has kept us all in a mild state of disorientation since we arrived in Vietnam. The idea was to reexamine the wartime experiences that were so seminal in our lives, to rekindle memories good and bad, to revisit old haunts that were so familiar to us as young Marines. And it’s that last thing that’s proving a bit disturbing. Old haunts are populated by old ghosts.
Standing near the ruins of the once-bustling Liberty Bridge over the river that separated An Hoa combat base from the infamous Arizona Territory, a former enemy playground that practically guaranteed deadly firefights for Marine units that patrolled there, Dale Dye, a 1st Marine Division sergeant in 1968, recalled walking with a unit of the 5th Marines out of An Hoa to a small village called Phu Loc on the other side of that bridge. “There was a woman in the village whose husband was an officer in an ARVN unit,” he told listeners standing nearby. “The NVA unit operating in The Arizona found her and gutted her like a fish. Then they hung her upside down on the village gate as a warning to the other villagers. We heard the buzzing of swarms of black flies as we approached the ville…and there she was…an ugly sight that still haunts.”
An Hoa, the hyperactive base of so many Marine units operating in The Arizona, is now nothing more than a flat expanse of reddish laterite dirt and deteriorating asphalt. Vietnam’s verdant jungle flora has overgrown and erased virtually all traces of American presence except for a long flat expanse of sun baked dirt that was from 1967 to 1970 swarming with helicopters and light aircraft flying in support of combat operations southwest of Danang. There are still smiling gaggles of local kids who come to gawk at the occasional visitors to the area but they’re just curious about real round-eyes as opposed to those they see in on-line programs. There’s none of the hawking and haggling over warm beer, weed or sexual favors that we recall from a tine when their ancestors relied on American appetites to eke out a living in a war-ravaged land.
So we wander aimlessly up and down the old airstrip arguing about whether our old Combat Correspondent’s hooch was at the north end or the south. And chase the ghosts. “Right about here,” speculates former Sergeant Mike Stokey, “was what we called the cadaver hooch. It was where they used to prepare the KIAs for shipment hone.” There are happier ghosts at An Hoa. It was here that former Sergeant Rick Lavers bet his fellow CCs that he could run around the combat base fifty times without stopping. He lost. It was also where former Sergeant Dye bet his buddies that he could eat an entire case of C-rations in 24 hours. He won.
And then it’s back on the bus where the windshield tour continues to period jams from Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones who still can’t get no satisfaction. It’s appropriate as the returning vets wheel through the looming shadows of the Que Son Mountain Range. Looking up at the peaks once known to the 7th Marines as LZs Ross, Ryder and Baldy, Lavers recalls a firefight in triple canopy jungle up there after which his unit discovered a complete NVA hospital complex made entirely of bamboo. With a Hospital Corpsman friend Lavers explored the spooky structures to discover a cache of medical supplies shipped to the enemy “from your friends and compatriots in Berkley, California USA.”
More memory-driven ghosts arise at places like Hills 10, 55 and 37, all once patrol bases and defensive strongpoints in the ring of Marine positions around Danang. And there are more disagreements about who was where and what happened when. The only one really sure of much is former Sergeant Bob “Ding” Bayer who promises everyone it was right there in the Que Son Valley that he became the first in a long line of 1st Marine Division Combat Correspondents to be wounded in action when 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, the unit he was covering, was shattered in a North Vietnamese mortar attack during Operation Union. “I was helping to move the dead and wounded,” he recalled, “when a mortar round hit about 10 feet in front of me and knocked me on my butt.” Bayer survived the shrapnel wounds and went on to extend his tour in Vietnam, humping with and writing about units in many of the other places we visited on Day 2 of what we are all beginning to think of as The Great Ghosts Chase.
And here’s one of the eternal truths about combat veterans – any war, any time and any place – that we are all learning: Take two or three guys occupying the very same hole in the ground during the same firefight, shoulder to shoulder, facing the sane enemy at the sane tine and on the sane day and you’ll get three different stories about what happened. It doesn’t really matter which version is precisely correct. In some way they are all accurate for the people who survived. The key is that they were there for each other on that rugged day in a bad place. It’s that element of such a seminal experience that created the aging band of brothers and forged the steel bonds they are reinforcing on this return trip to Vietnam.
Tomorrow is a very big deal. The Combat Correspondents will return to Hill 327, site of the 1st Marine Division command post in an effort to find the location of their infamous Hooch 13, where outrages against common decency and violations of many Marine Corps regulations occurred.
Mr. Vinh, the guru of all things Danang-related and erstwhile Vietnam Veteran’s tour guide, had it wrong this time. As we passed a Vietnam People’s Army base on the way to Hill 327 he pointed at the area and said “Here 1st Marine Division headquarter…”
Uh…no, Mr. Vinh…that is most definitely not the headquarters of our vaunted 1st Marine Division, a unit that the returning veterans had served for various lengths of time from 1966 to 1970. See, the one thing all seven of us knew as our bus dodged gravel trucks working a stone quarry on the face of the massif overlooking beautiful downtown Danang, was that we had enough time humping up that hill to the Informational Services Office, to know our home base when we saw it. So we had Mr. Vinh goose the driver past the flats that once housed the 11th Motor Transport Battalion, a unit whose truck drivers often gave us rides to outlying commands where we served with infantry units when we weren’t in the rear to write about them. We insisted that he drive on, keeping our necks craned and our eyes peeled, alternating between the passing scenery and a detailed photo enlargement former Sergeant Frank “Lurch” Wiley had prepared before we left the States.
Dung Lai! Dung Lai! Former Sergeant Dale Dye remembered enough Vietnamese to order the driver to stop when visual memories kicked in just below the military crest of the hill. And there it was. We had a landmark there on the left that worked for us like an old reliable lensatic compass. At this point we were almost home again. Just across the road that wrapped around the huge hill complex and directly in front of a working gravel pit, we spotted a large stone stele carved as a triangle with the big number 1 of our division. Up closer we discovered that the stone marked the headquarters of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, dedicated to Captain Frank Reasoner, a Recon Marine who was killed in action in 1965 in the process of earning the Medal of Honor. It was the “Recon Pad” where we caught helicopter by rides from Danang to outlying infantry units on those infrequent occasions when we were forced into the rear area to file stories, collect our pay and mail, and conduct debauches. And more about those things in a moment.
“It’s really amazing that they’d leave this here,” former Sergeant Rick Grimm commented looking up at the gaping gouge out of the hillside where the division command complex once stood. Virtually every trace of what had been a thriving and hyper-kinetic American command during the Vietnam War had been scraped from the face of the hill by workers mining rock and gravel to support the frenetic construction efforts in and around post-war Danang. “They’ve ripped everything apart up here. Why would they leave this?”
It was a question never answered. And it didn’t matter. Using the Camp Reasoner landmark, we were able to track back down the road toward the area that once supported the hard-back hooch numbered 13 (an ill omen if one was ever needed) which was home to one of the most colorful and highly-decorated small units of the Vietnam War. Skirting a fence line designed to keep drivers or pedestrians from falling into a deep excavation that had once been flat rice paddies, we bickered until we finally decided that we were standing quite near the site of “The Fabulous Thunderbird Club,” where former Sergeant Rick Grimm earned the nickname “Rafterman” after crashing from the roof of the club into a rowdy crowd gathered to see a show featuring half-naked Asian go-do dancers. The resulting riot got the 1st Marine Division Combat Correspondents permanently banned from that rear-area club.
Given that insult to their status as combat men who rated respect if not worship from the pogues of the division headquarters, the Combat Correspondents – who were by now referring to themselves as the Snuffies (after Snuffy Smiff, a woe-begotten newspaper cartoon character who always seemed to get the dirty end of any deal) – decided to build their own bar and general recreation facility in Hooch 13 where they slept when they were in from the field. And that gave rise to the general depravity and serious violations of Marine Corps regulations for which they prided themselves. Common courtesy and an undetermined statute of limitations preclude me from a full accounting here, but it was in Hooch 13 where the Snuffies invented the barter system of trading faked “VC Assassin’s Knives” for booze that was otherwise unobtainable by junior enlisted Marines. And it was atop Hooch 13 that they gathered, naked and stoned, to watch an enemy rocket attack on the Danang Air Base, cheering yet another surreal experience in a war that was killing them…in so many ways.
And there they stood, nearly 50 years later, staring at the great gap that was once where Hooch 13 stood, feeling the great gaps that were rapidly being filled on this return to the battlefields odyssey in Vietnam. There they stood smiling over shared secrets of the soul. It was there on a hillside ravaged by capitalist industry that they understood – finally after half a century of contemplation – that the sage had it wrong.
You can go home again.
Day Four of The Great Ghost Chase gives me a case of the staggering willies even before the bus rolls out of Danang headed north on Vietnamese Highway 1. Our course runs through the once-infamous Hai Van Pass that meanders as it climbs toward the far north. Then – somewhere up around 1500 feet – it twists into a series of radical switchbacks. And it’s up there where the road contorts like Lawrence Welk’s old accordion (okay…google it…he used to be a popular polka music guy on early American TV) right up around that point is where the North Vietnamese Army used to ambush truck convoys from the jungle-covered high ground above the Hai Van Pass. The convoys were called Roughriders with machine gun-festooned gun trucks rolling at front and rear of the cargo haulers. Marine Corps Combat Correspondents hitchhiking rides up to infantry units in areas like Phu Bai, Hue, Quang Tri and other killing fields closer to the DMZ hated the Roughriders. Granted riding a Roughrider was easier than humping hills but those heavy machine guns doing recon-by-fire played hell with nap time.
Our bus has no machine guns but there is a bad-ass dragon amulet swinging from the rear view mirror, so we figure it’s OK to relax. And when that happens war stories come bubbling up like swamp gas. Nobody wants to talk about the blood and guts stuff. Or if they do nobody is going to listen very long. That’s the kind of thing that makes you wheeze, gag and moan with night-sweats. Better to focus on the funny stuff…like the tine you were stranded with a broken down six-by overnight at the Hai Van Pass with only a .45 pistol and a bent tire iron to fight off hordes of marauding enemy. Yeah…well, maybe it wasn’t hordes. Maybe it was a couple of rock apes that scared the hell out of you and refused to retreat despite firing off every round of your pistol ammo and then grabbing the tire-iron from the panicky driver to do close-quarters battle with mountain specters. I’ve heard it all before, so it’s easy to tune out and contemplate some of the mysteries that confront us on this return to Vietnam after a half-decade of swearing we’d never return to the Land of the Lotus Eaters, The Nam where we all first learned to embrace the suck.
So we’re just past a mile marker that tells me we are a scant 734 kilometers from Hanoi, the capital or our anti-capitalist former enemies when I begin to wonder about beer. The most ubiquitous local brew was Ba Muoi Ba (Vietnamese for 33) and very often we were doomed to drink it as the Marine Corps officially banned anyone in the scum-sucking junior enlisted ranks from buying American beer in any sort of useful quantity. So we drank as much of the local bust head as we could get when we could get it and ignored the rumors that it contained formaldehyde. Never you mind the embalming fluid. The important ingredient was alcohol…and the more the better….because as Country Joe and the Fish reminded us on bootleg tapes, we were all gonna die. There’s another one…Google it. Today there’s still beer 33 but someone has added an extra 3, so it’s now called. Ba Ba Ba…333. It still tastes a little gamey and no one seems to know why or when the extra digit was added. Mr, Vinh just shrugs and smiles. The victors write the history.
Tuning back into war stories brings us to a discussion of water buffaloes, the beasts of burden that we saw so often on patrols one side or the other of the Hai Van Pass. “We called them Water Bo’s,” remembers former Sergeant Rick Lavers, “and they were sort of the Vietnamese farmers John Deere. God help an outfit that killed one out on an operation.” Your bog-standard Water Bo hated the scent of beef-eating Americans and would charge like a runaway semi when we got within sniffing range. Naturally, we shot a bunch of them which usually brought combat operations to a screeching halt until someone from higher headquarters arrived to compensate the grieving peasant farmer for his loss…with cash…and lots of it.
Yes, well…that was then and this is now. Vinh says the current generation of Water Bo’s are much more docile with the sensitivity to running dog lackey of the imperialist war-mongers bred right out of them. In fact, he tells me, in the outlying villes that tourists frequent these days, farm families will let you pose on or around the family Water Bo for a couple of bucks, no questions asked and no chance of a fatal goring. These farmers, the peasants of the land whose hearts and minds we were told were the real prizes in our war, now consider a docile and camera-friendly Water Bo to be the family Mercedes.
There’s time for a stop at the top of the pass which is still strewn with the rubble of French fortifications from the days of Dien Bien Phu when yet another foreign legion tried to restrict free passage of guns, money and a little lawyer named Ho Chi Minh from north to south. And be that as it may, what brings on the willies are the familiar refrains of female hustlers and hawkers selling trinkets and Tiger Balm salve which is reportedly good for anything and everything that ails you in Southeast Asia. “You…you…you buy from me!” The demand is from a stocky little lady in a conical hat who proudly displays her international flair with a pink hoodie: ALABBAMA…Crimsion Tide. So Roll Tide and buy some Tiger Balm in memory of coach Bear Bryant. He’d be so proud…and likely a little confused. But no matter, it’s the least we can do for a college football fan at the top of the Hai Van Pass.
We roll down the other side of the mountain headed for Hue, where at least three of us got into some serious fights during Tet 1968. Vinh has it all mapped out for us. Former Sergeants Dale Dye, Steve Berntson and Mike Stokey don’t need no stinkin’ maps. They were there. And we bomb through Phu Bai headed for Hue watching the ground fog roll up the mountain and remembering when the NVA used to roll right up on us within that evil mist.
Hue…on Day 5 of The Great Ghost Chase…brought to you in livid color by The Greatest Generations Foundation. The tally at the final whistle: Ghosts – 3, Vets – 0. And here’s how it went.
The Vets defense crumbled as the Specters dominated on offense, appearing everywhere, flitting in and out of doorways and rubble-strewn stretches of moss-green masonry. This time they weren’t firing AK’s and B-40 rockets as they were a half-century ago but they could still do damage. They were still capable of bulling through souls and psyches which is what they did all day on both sides of the Perfume River – especially to the three Vets who fought here during Tet 1968.
At kick-off the Vet line formed at the An Cuu bridge over the Phu Cam Canal which surrounds the city that was once the seat of the ancient emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. “They dropped this bridge like a bad habit to keep the Marines from reinforcing Hue,” said former Sergeant Mike Stokey, standing with fellow Hue veteran former Sergeant Dale Dye at the point where both staggered across the canal on a flimsy stretch of two-by-fours rapidly constructed by Marine Engineers. “And it was right over there,” Dye added, “that we got strafed by a U.S. Army helicopter.” After fifty years of contemplation, neither has ever come up with an answer for why that happened but both agree it was an omen of seriously bad karma to come in the battle of Hue City. And we’ll be right back after this commercial break.
If you’re looking for a way to get rich…and who isn’t…you can’t do better than investing in two-wheel transportation in Hue, Vietnam. Everyone beyond infancy here buys, rents or rides a motor-scooter, motor-bike or some noisy variant thereof. Of course all those suicidal riders need gas so you might drop a few Dong on Petrolimex shares. There’s a crowded station right now, just on the other side of the Phu Cam Canal. That bustling business was a bullet-riddled Shell Station back in 1968. We know it as the first place U.S. Marines were able to find a city street map when they charged into the south side of Hue to do battle with invading North Vietnamese Army regulars. Shell had maps. Marines did not. Now back to our program.
The Vet line formed up in a phalanx of cyclos to begin the march into Hue’s bustling commercial gut on the south side of the river. It was an emotional drive for the Combat Correspondents who looked to the left sideline and saw the huge red flag with centered yellow star that flies over a wall of the Hue Citadel across the river. A similar flag flew there when the NVA held that bastion during the war and it stayed there as a constant irritant to South Vietnamese and American forces until the Marines finally blew it to shreds late in the bloody, brutal fighting in Hue, February- March in the Year of the Monkey.
There’s a government facility of some kind fronted by guards that frown sternly on picture-takers where the old Military Assistance Command – Vietnam compound once stood. “The initial idea when we arrived in Hue,” Dye explained was to reach MACV and take the pressure off the allied forces trapped inside.” That was much easier said than done as the Marines had to run a deadly gauntlet of enemy fire from fortified positions all along the streets leading to the compound. “About that time,” confirms retired Sergeant Steve Berntson who was half of the first two-man team of Marine Combat Correspondents into Hue, “we realized that all our training and experience as jungle fighters wasn’t going to be very helpful. This was becoming a very ugly, very close-quarter street fight. And there weren’t many – maybe just a few old timers who fought in Seoul during the Korean War – who knew anything about that.” More right after this…
Education is a wonderful thing, especially for people who might wind up in bodybags if they don’t learn the techniques for staying alive. So if you’re facing a tenacious, well-armed and highly-motivated enemy in urban combat, you can’t do better than enrolling for FISH…Fighting In Someone’s House. See any veteran of Operation Hue City for details. And now back to coverage.
Quarterbacking the drive down Le Loi Street, Hue’s central artery today and scene of some of the most intense fighting on the south side of the city in 1968, was Sergeant Berntson. He pushed the Vets along as fast as his game leg, riddled with rocket shrapnel during fighting on the north side, would permit. And the gaping ghosts attacked immediately. “Probably one of our toughest fights was here,” he said staring at the Thua Thien Hospital complex. “The NVA had tossed all the local patients out to suffer or die in the streets. They wanted the beds and the medical attention for their own wounded.”
So the Marines had to bull their way into the rabbit warren of wards and operating theaters behind showers of grenades and blazing bullets. “We discovered a bunch of them dressed as medical orderlies or lying in hospital beds waiting to ambush us.” It was that kind of fight in the early days of Operation Hue City involving most of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines whose ranks were dwindling as they discovered another painful truth about fighting in built-up areas. The bloody effect of every bullet fired, every high-explosive round launched in their direction was multiplied with stinging rock or concrete shards.
It was about this time in the sweep down Le Loi,” added Dye, “that someone decided it might be helpful to employ tear gas.” And it was…until the wind shifted. So it was on with gas masks which limited vision and made a stinking rotten situation that much worse. Cordite stench and tear gas fumes have been replaced along modern Le Loi Street with motorbike exhaust and the scent of jasmine that wafts from the pristine hospital still serving the sick and infirm in Hue. But stand around aiming cameras or dueling with old haunts for too long and those guys in peaked caps and dark green uniforms will hit you with paranoid glares. On the whole Berntson and Dye opined as the crowd moved on down Le Loi, your standard paranoid glare beats an incoming. AK round any day of any week.
About midfield on Hue’s south side is the site of one of the most rugged – and heavily-reported – encounters during the Tet battle. Marines from Hotel Company, 2/5 were tasked with driving the enemy out of the Thua Thien Provincial Headquarters complex. Berntson was right there for the moment when Marines fought their way into the fortified building, cleared the enemy in and around the structures, cut down the North Vietnamese flag and raised the American national colors. There exists some very dramatic and regularly televised footage of that dramatic moment but Berntson gives the Vet team a little unreported information. “Everyone was delighted with what was happening…you know a symbol that we were winning the fight…and there was our flag gamely flapping in the wet breeze, right across from the enemy flag flying on the other side of the river.”
Naturally, the allied press that was beginning to chase the biggest story of the Vietnam War to date was all over it with still photo and TV coverage. But the real story for Combat Correspondent Berntson was what happened after the civilian reporters departed for Phu Bai to file their copy. “We were clearing enemy stay-behinds out of spider holes in the courtyard when a couple of U.S. Army officers arrived and told our Company Commander he’d have to take the flag down as regulations said only South Vietnamese flags could fly over government facilities. The Hotel Company Commander thought for a moment and then told them that if they wanted the American flag pulled down they could go ahead and pull it down themselves but he wasn’t guaranteeing their safety from his Marines who fought and bled to put it up there.”
As if the combat situation in Hue needed any more complication, as if the Marines bleeding and dying in the streets and structures needed any further burdens in an unfamiliar fight, political issues surfaced like the festering head of a painful boil. Under pressure from the South Vietnamese government, forces fighting in Hue were restricted in using the fire support – artillery, Naval gunfire and tactical air strikes – that they relied on to gain the edge in standard combat encounters with the enemy. The South Vietnamese wanted the Marines to clear the enemy forces from Hue but they wanted it done without damage to historic landmarks and structures, particularly the Citadel on the north side of the city which enclosed the ornate palace of the old dynastic rulers. It was nearly two weeks into the fight before the Marine command won the argument over use of heavy weapons…and that fight was won only after Marine commanders, watching their ranks being decimated, finally refused to advance further until life-saving fire support was approved for use in Hue. Yes…and you can have your ancient, historic city back but you’re gonna have to accept a little collateral damage. Your choice…and the grudging decision was made to allow the air and arty. No trustworthy reports exist as to how many politicians and senior commanders retired to Saigon fainting couches. And no matter to the Marines in Hue.
The press corps was beginning to flood into the city and often required escorts, either as protection or simply to point them in the right directions to cover the ongoing fight. Former Sergeant Mike Stokey was one of the Marines involved in this pursuit, arriving in Hue as the fighting on the south side was dwindling with most of the combat action focused on Hue’s massive Citadel. As an enterprising hustler eager to take advantage of flush toilets and sleeping someplace besides under a wet poncho out in the bush, he set up a sort of “press house” in an abandoned residence. It became a thriving concern that even led to conscription of a couple of local beauties that he eventually smuggled out of the city disguised as South Vietnamese reporters. It’s a legendary exploit among the Snuffy Combat Correspondents of the 1st Marine Division but an ill-defined criminal statute of limitations precludes much elaboration.
Seeking to replicate as much as possible the paths taken in Hue by the returning Vets, Tim Davis of The Greatest Generations Foundation and Mr. Vinh rented a sampan so the Hue Veterans could cross the Perfume River by boat just as they did back in 1968. At that point, The Great Ghost Chase went into sudden death overtime. The rest of our report will be brought to you without further commercial interruption.
A time warp opened and sucked hard on Berntson and Dye who entered the north side Citadel in mid-February after a harrowing trip across the Perfume River in Navy landing craft. They took heavy fire from enemy gunners on the southern walls of the massive fortification and from parties of ambushers on several little islets dotting the waterway. Now moving with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines which had replaced the decimated second battalion for the north side capstone assault, they made their way under sporadic fire through the Dong Ba Gate, one of eight access points in the forty-foot thick walls. The initial objective of the north side assault was to break up an enemy siege of South Vietnamese forces who were trapped by a full regiment of North Vietnamese Army regulars. Marines got that done in fairly short order. “We wanted to break through to Tay Loc airfield,” recalled Dye. “That would relieve the ARVN forces and give us access to a place were we could land air support helicopters to evacuate casualties…and there were already a bunch of casualties. The NVA were dug in and defending from strongpoints along the. Citadel walls which let them fire on us practically anyplace we tried to move.”
So, the party was in full swing inside the Citadel by the third week in February with Marines winkling a stubborn enemy out of positions that they had sited and strengthened while their comrades on the south side battled to buy them the necessary time. The American focus was on driving south through the residential blocks inside the Citadel with all eyes focused on pulling down that enemy flag flying from a tall structure in the center of the southernmost section of wall. Delta Company had been given the very tough job of advancing along the eastern walls heading for a right turn at the corner of east and south which would point them in the proper direction where they hoped for another flag-raising to rival the one on the south side.
It was a brutal trek along that stretch of the Citadel walls, with constant eyeball-to-eyeball contact between the Marines and stubborn enemy defenders who had been ordered to die in place rather than retreat or surrender. Sergeant Berntson, by now an exhausted veteran of fighting on both sides of the Perfume River, was helping to evacuate wounded Marines off the walls, He was struggling down some stone steps carrying a badly-wounded Lance Corporal Dennis Michaels when an enemy rocket gunner opened fire. The round hit the concrete road near a truck they had hoped to use to get the wounded out of the line of withering fire. It also hit Berntson and some other Samaritans. “I caught a pretty bad burst,” Berntson told rapt listeners at the very spot where his Hue battle ended. “Shrapnel tore into my arm and leg and they had to carry me out in a hurry.”
Steve Berntson survived. Dennis Michaels did not. So on this day, nearly fifty years later, he stood with his friend Dale Dye and offered a toast to the one who didn’t make it that dark day. And he pulled out a little plastic pill bottle containing a half-century old piece of B-40 shrapnel that surgeons pulled out of his leg and laid it gently in the dirt of Hue’s Citadel walls. The music from a nearby café muted, the Vietnamese residents watched in silent wonder, even a rooster stopped cackling. And a long-dormant ghost faded with the mist over the walls. If there was a dry eye in bursting radius of a hand grenade, it was only because a bystander couldn’t hear Berntson’s eloquent little speech over the snort and snarl of two-wheel traffic.
And as a tangerine orange sun slowly sank into the Perfume River, yet another specter from the dark days of war in Hue city hissed into oblivion. Standing at an intersection near the eastern walls where Dale Dye covered a Charlie Company squad advancing under fire from an enemy machine gunner and had his rifle literally blown out of his hands by a sniper, a crowd gathered to watch him recreate the incident. It was akin to a scene from Groundhog Day for Dye who had wondered for most of his adult life what stroke of chance allowed him to survive that day. He produced a Vietnamese 10 Dong coin dated 1968 that had been in his pocket that day so long ago when he was wounded in Hue. And above his head, right there at the intersection where he traded fire with that enemy soldier, was a Buddhist family shrine. He looked around for some place to leave this little token of such a seminal experience in an adventuresome life that might well have ended right there if things had gone an inch or two differently. “Put in the shrine,” Mr. Vinh suggested. “Maybe good luck.”
Maybe so…and maybe a tenacious ghost is gone. That’s good luck and maybe one little part of a long and frustrating wartime experience is marked paid in full. It certainly seems that way as Dye, Berntson and Stokey sit at Hue’s DMZ bar, contemplating lives so inextricably meshed with their war in Vietnam, and watching a new generation of Vietnamese go about the business of living free of fear.
“You know,” Berntson says. “We made a difference.”
Indeed. And it’s all us survivors can hope for in the end..
This whole business of being a capitalist lackey and running dog imperialist war monger is a tough gig. I mean it’s a hard dollar when you make it by suppressing freedom loving peasants and supporting a puppet army. And if they’d told me I was going to spend most of my time at war cowering in fear of my own shadow? Why, hell no I wouldn’t go. But I did…several times. I even came back nearly. 50 years later on The Great Ghost Chase which is now in Day 6 during which we discover just how evil us bastards were way back then.
Indeed. And if you fought here during the Vietnam War and really don’t believe you are all or any of those things, if you believe at this remove that your heart was in the right place even if your body wasn’t? Well, then. You just need to take a little jaunt along Vietnamese Route 9 toward what was once the Khe Sanh Combat Base and that’ll do for your education…or re-education as the case may be. Up there, nearly in Laos and surrounded my mist-blanketed hills where Marines suffered under intense daily artillery barrages and held off legions of enemy soldiers trying to create Dien Bien Phu déjà vu, you’ll learn a thing or two.
Right there in the little museum you’ll learn that the peace-loving soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army didn’t really want to attack the cowardly Yankee imperialists but they just felt compelled by basic decency to trot on down the Ho Chi Minh trail and jerk a high-explosive knot in the American tail. And while they were at it, they killed 11,900 of the foreign invaders (real number of American KIA is 274), destroyed at least 400 aircraft piloted by Yankee Air Pirates (real numbers include one KC-130, two C-123’s and a half-dozen helicopters). The Khe Sanh museum also claims that tenacious fighters of the NVA also sank 80 ships during the 77-day siege. But look who’s counting. And there’s no reason to consider that Khe Sanh is completely landlocked when you’re amping up those numbers.
The whole show at what little is left of Khe Sanh Combat Base reeks of commie hokum. It’s P.T. Barnum in NVA greasepaint and it raises primitive hackles among a few of us Marine Combat Correspondents who served there at one point or another during the war. The joint is strewn with what purports to be captured U.S. equipment. There’s even a partridge running along the overgrown airstrip. No sign of a pear tree. So let’s ignore the cheap-jack concrete sandbags and misspelled American graffiti designed to paint us as poor uneducated peons forced to brutalize brave freedom fighters. Yes. And let’s just give all that the old wink and nod while we ponder a few observations made on the trip to Khe Sanh from Hue.
There’s the elaborate suspension bridge over the Cam Lo River right at one of the old Ho Chi Minh trail access points paid for and built by Cubans. You’ve got to figure the forebears of some of Castro’s construction crews were here once before…up north where they served as anti-air advisors or POW interrogators. But no mention of that either.
Up here in the highlands, traveling a newly-constructed highway that will lead to Thailand if you’ve got the time and inclination to make the trip by vehicle, there’s always a spooky mist hanging on hilltops like The Rockpile and Hills 861 and Hills 881 North and South. In the days American Marines fought to hold those rocky tors, it was an evil mist that made every nightfall a nightmare. As convection forced the fog up the forested slopes, NVA infantry often accompanied it, jumping out at startled defenders like heavily-armed Halloween ghouls. And at Ca Lu, a spot on the map-sheets that later became Vandegrift Combat Base, where Operation Pegasus kicked off in April 1968 to break the Khe Sanh encirclement, there’s an elaborate graveyard and monuments to NVA soldiers killed in what became known to Marines as The Hill Fights. The numbers are a little more accurate here including a count of some 5,000 KIA. Mr. Vinh translates a sign indicating that they are all brave southern fighters of the National Liberation Front. He’s got a great wink and nod.
What’s cool and a little disconcerting in this blowtorch barrage of propaganda are the Montagnards we see up here puttering around their stilt-supported straw huts as they’ve done for centuries. The ones we see are mostly Bru, one of the 13 recognized Montagnard tribes populating the mountainous areas of Vietnam and Laos. While most of Vietnam has morphed into a semi-modern nation, the Yards still live a fairly primitive existence. They don’t want or need much from the government…which is fortunate because they are still a disadvantaged and depressed minority.
We see a lot of national flags everywhere. No upright or vertical stanchion is without that gold star on a red field. Could be there’s a swivet of genuine patriots up here. Americans have no monopoly on flag-waving. Or it could be that the folks living a back-breaking stoop-and-bend lifestyle in the extremely rural areas just below the 17th parallel are anxious to let Big Brother know they came down on the right side of the fight that boiled through their backyards for so long.
And that’s it for now. There’s just one reliable treatment for massive sensory overload. It involves mass quantities of intoxicants and my keyboard will only suffer so much abuse. Stay tuned for a wrap-up which will be filed from the land of the free because of the brave.
To be continued…
Featured Guest Author Dale Adam Dye, Jr. is an American actor, technical advisor, radio personality, historian, and writer. Dye is a retired U.S. Marine Corps Captain and decorated Vietnam Combat Veteran. His company, Warriors, Inc., is the top technical adviser to Hollywood.