I want to give a special thanks to my oldest son, David, for taking time away from his job, wife, children, and grandchildren to be with Mike and me as we make this journey.
David was more than just a helper on the trip. I noticed his concern as Mike and I climbed Hill 411, walked across dikes and trails and through heavily forested areas and climbing up Debbie.
He was our navigator with my cell phone and Google Maps, and he learned phrases in Vietnamese, Left, Right, Straight and bathroom so he could communicate with the driver. For Mike and me, bathroom was the most important.
He helped make our trip a success – Thank you son, I love you.
I know why I went back to Vietnam – it was to say goodbye to all my brothers that didn’t come home. I knew I had to be at or near the spot where they took their last step and breath, I needed to be close to them. I wanted to talk to them one last time.
It was through their leadership, friendship, caring, brotherhood and sacrifice that made it possible for me to have a wonderful life that I’ve had over the years, and continue to have. I owe them that life.
Thank you, and you will never be forgotten: Goodbye Bruce Tufts, Juan Ramos, Eldon Reynolds, Jerry Ofstedahl, Robert Swindle, Richard Wellman, Paul Ponce, Joe Mitchell, James Anderson, Danny Carey, Gary Morris, Roger Kidwell, and Willie Matson. Until we meet again.
I will continue to repeat their names every day.
After getting up early, I got ready for our last day of visiting locations that are important to Mike and I. We had the buffet breakfast and waiting for our driver to pick us up at 7:30. The last couple of mornings we moved the pickup timeout 30 minutes so we could get a little extra rest.
Ben pulled into the hotel street and open the side door for Mike and me and David climbed into the front passenger seat, navigator seat, of the van. We departed for My Lai Massacre Museum in the Quang Ngai area.
If you aren’t familiar with the My Lai Massacre - A young lieutenant, William Calley, a platoon leader in the 11th Brigade Americal Division, and his platoon killed over 500 civilians. Being a career soldier, I wore the Americal Division insignia on my right shoulder for 20 years, and it was immediately associated with the My Lai Massacre. Mike and I were with our unit one year after the massacre occurred, in March 1968 and the area we operated in was just across the river. Mike and I thought we should pay our respects to the civilians that lost their lives that day due to one criminal, a lieutenant.
I found the Museum and Memorial educational and humbling. It was slanted towards North Vietnam and their people, but it should be, it’s their story. The platoon shouldn’t have committed these murders under any circumstances.
I had a woman in her mid-twenties that was with her boyfriend and sister ask me how I felt about the massacre, as she was crying. I told her I thought it was a criminal act, and I felt sorry for villagers that were killed that day. She thanked me and left.
We departed Quang Ngai for the last time and headed north towards Chu Lai. Chu Lai was the Americal Division Headquarters and the location of the Combat Center. The Combat Center is where all division soldiers entered to get transportation to their unit. It was also the location of my rear job, after I left my infantry platoon, where I was responsible for shipping these soldiers to their unit.
After an hour drive, we reached the Combat Center. Of course, nothing was there, but it wasn’t too hard to visualize the layout of the Shipping Shed and where my hooch was. It was at my hooch that Mike came to visit after he got a rear job, and we sat out front watching the South China Sea and sipped on our Jim Beam and Coke and talked of our time together and our platoon brothers. It was the same location we hugged, for what we thought would be the last time, when I left Vietnam to go back to the states.
What a fitting ending to an exciting, unforgettable, and emotional trip back in time. A trip I could only do with Mike.
More to come tomorrow.
I am back in my room after having dinner with Mike and David. We decided to eat at the hotel restaurant again because of the long travel day. The meal was good, and a little different for my taste. I had “beef” and potatoes with a strange sauce. It was the same meal Mike had last night, so I thought it safe to eat, Mike was still with us. They had pizza.
After we left FSB Debbie, we headed south towards the fire we outran May 24, 1969. We located the hill, but the highway was moved about ¼ up the hillside, therefore by the pictures it does not look as tall. We walked down a trail on the other side of the road, and you could easily add another 200 or more feet to the elevation. Chuck I couldn’t find the stagnate pond we drank from that day.
Next, we headed north toward FSB Charlie Brown and the bridge. We had to make some corrections with my navigation instructions, but we made it to Charlie Brown without a problem. After stopping alongside the road Mike, David and I got out and started taking pictures. We didn’t try to go to the island, seeing it from a distance was good with us. Charlie Brown was the first firebase that Mike and I served on. My memory was mostly pulling KP and poop burning duty. We did get to swim in the South China Sea. Getting to know the platoon members was my best time at Charlie Brown.
After taking many pictures, we loaded back into the van and started driving to the bridge which was only 10 minutes away. At first, we couldn’t find it, but Mike and I saw terrain we recognized and had the driver pull over. We crossed through a small neighborhood and found the road where the bridge should be located. The bridge was moved about 500 meters south, and the river rerouted. However, the area to our front was identical to the last time we were there in 1969, I mean no changes that we could tell.
While standing in amazement of our view, we talked of the patrol that Mike went on into the foothills to our front. The patrol ran into about 17 NVA soldiers, but the platoon sergeant told them to remain hidden. I talked about the Buddist Temple that played strange music, and the monks chanted at night, making the darkness even more strange. David overheard me and saw part of an ornate building through the trees to our rear. We retraced our steps and walked up a path right through the gates of the Temple. I couldn’t believe it.
Tomorrow we are going to My Lai and then the Combat Center in Chu Lai.
This morning Bihn picked us up on time and we headed south. Our first stop is FSB Debbie. Driving along highway 1 we passed the hill Bruce Tufts died on, and I said my goodbye one more time.
Once we arrived at Debbie, it took 15 minutes or more to get ourselves oriented. We walked up to the base and knew we couldn’t go any further. We decided to go on to the rice bowl where the action occurred on July 2, and the track hit a booby trap several days later. I got us going in the wrong direction, so we needed to turn around. It was at this point we realized we were at the north-west side of Debbie. We stopped at the south side and took more pictures, and the terrain started to seem more familiar.
We then drove to the July 2nd location and found that portion of the rice bowl had completely changed. There is a dam in the middle of the section and the area where we fought that day was under water. And the location where the track exploded was on the backside of the dam. I still sorry for Mike because he was one of three that was assigned to remove the bodies from the track.
On the dam we found a group of teenagers hanging out, and they shouted and waved at us, just like teenagers in the US. When I approached the edge of the dam railing, I stepped into a pile of water buffalo poop, and the group of teenagers started laughing. Heck, I had to laugh with them because it was funny.
Mike and I talked about the events that surrounded Debbie and Rice Bowl. We decided to drive on to Fire location, FSB Charlie Brown and the bridge.
I will post more after dinner.
I’m up early and thought I would share more about yesterday. It was hot, humid and clear skies. The temperature was about 93 with 90% humidity. There were several times that Mike looked at me and asked if I was ok. Did I say it was hot? The heat reminded that I was back in Vietnam.
The driving yesterday was long and tiring, and we were the passengers. The roads we mostly traveled are paved two to four lanes with each lane marked with white or yellow lines and solid white lines for the shoulders, and there were traffic signs and lights. All the above seemed to be for decoration – the drivers rode down the center of the lines weaving, literally missing oncoming traffic by inches. Motorized bikes of all types zoomed all over the roadway but mostly keeping to the right. The horn is the drivers best friend. I learned it is best to watch the scenery out the passenger window and not look through the windshield for the oncoming traffic.
Once we got to the hotel, we cleaned up, changed and met downstairs for dinner. David an Mike wanted to go downtown to find a restaurant, but a rainstorm made the decision easy, eat at the hotel restaurant. The food was great, and we had an opportunity to relax and talk before an early bedtime.
Time to get ready for breakfast and a long drive to FSB Debbie. Later!
I rested better last night and was up by 5:00 am for our second travel day. Our goal today was to visit the August 13 ambush site and the Quang Ngai airport that we secured one night. It has been closed for years. After a great breakfast at the hotel, we loaded into the van for the long 2 ½ hour drive back to Quang Ngai.
David became an excellent navigator and worked well with Vinh using my cell phone and Google navigation system. We arrived at the August 13 location, and some landmarks were familiar, but a lot of changes have been made over the years. We walked along a trail and then rice paddy dikes to reach the ambush location where Jerry, Rebel, and Swindle were killed, and Brown wounded.
The large ditch that separated us from the enemy was now used to store water for the crops. It appeared the area was now a flood zone, with markers and foot and car bridges. Mike and I were pretty sure we were “close” to the area where it all happened. We walked and talked for about an hour to make sure this was the spot.
After we said, our goodbye’s to our fallen brothers we drove to the Quang Ngai airfield. We found it deserted and assumed it hasn’t been used for many years. The company had us fly from the mountains to the airfield to pull security for one night and Mike, and I thought we would check it out.
Mike and I decided we would head south to the location were Bruce Tufts was killed, and Mike was wounded. Looking at the Google Maps, I thought we could climb this hill. Once we arrived we knew at once that it would not be possible, there were homes at the base of the hill, and any trail leading up was overgrown. Even if we tried, we would need to cross private property which was not a good idea.
After viewing the hill and talking about that night, we decided to visit Duc Pho (FSB Bronco), the 11th Brigade, Battalion and Company Headquarters. We headed north and arrived at FSB Bronco. We found the company location and nothing appeared the same. It appeared public cemeteries and Martyr (NVA or VC) cemeteries were used where military units built firebases.
I can write much more but getting tired and need to meet Mike and David downstairs for dinner.
More tomorrow, LZ Debbie and the rice bowl on the schedule.
Once leaving the Hill, we headed east to the ambush site of August 15, 1969. Google map has been a lifesaver so far. We had to go down many narrow roads, room for one car, with forest or houses lining the road. It was about a 20-minute drive from the Hill.
Once Google Maps said we at the location Mike and I looked at each and acknowledge it didn’t look familiar at all. We got out of the car and walked through a thicket of trees and elephant grass into some farmland. It was overgrown and hard to see, and we couldn’t get close enough to the site. We stopped and started pointing out familiar features we remembered that day. We are pretty sure this was the location. We stood and talked about what happened that day. Anyone that was there and looking at our photographs may have difficulty seeing what we saw. You had to be on the ground.
The last stop of the day was the Horseshoe. We stopped at the river and talked about the terrain and mountains that surrounded the horseshoe area.
When we left this site, we decided to call it a day and head back home. After the 3 hour drive, we cleaned up and went to find something to eat. Mike led the way and stopped at an outside/open café that served American food. There many Australian and French customers eating, drinking and watching the soccer match. After dinner, it was back to the hotel so we can get to bed early.
I was awake at 4:00 am this morning, exhausted but did not sleep well. I met Mike and David downstairs at 6:30 for breakfast. The hotel had a great breakfast for the guest. Everyone we encountered so far has been great to us.
At 7:00 the driver, Vinh, arrived on time, and we loaded into the van for the 2 ½ hour ride to Quang Ngai. There were many, I mean many, motorcycles and scooters on the road and very few cars. Mike and I watched out the windows and commented on changes to the countryside and the Vietnamese people.
After arriving at Hill 4-11, the driver parked the van, and we got out. Nothing looked the same. The hill was completely overgrown, and there was construction, moving dirt, at the bottom of the hill near where the entrance used to be. We roamed at the base taking some pictures and then followed a trail to the top of the hill. We found many cemeteries among the thick brush and trees. Nothing was familiar. Mike and I located our bunker position, and we located the bunker where Dusty, Chuck, Renolds, Ramos and Okino were.
We drove around the Hill to the north side and walked to the top again. The terrain looked familiar at this location. This is where 2nd and 3rd platoon had their positions. Mike and I talked during the climb and while we on top of the significance of FSB Hill-411 and explained our memories to David. From both locations, we climbed the mountains were visible.
More pictures later, need to meet Mike and David downstairs for dinner.
Not long after we were settled into our seats, on our flight to Da Nang, dinner was served, and we had chicken and rice. The flight seemed long, and we’re all tired, I’m exhausted.
After we landed in Da Nang, the customs officials kept the line moving. We made it through without any problems and walked to the main entrance to meet our driver. The car rental company was supposed to email the driver's name and photo, but it didn’t happen. As we approached the entrance, we spotted a driver with a sign with my name on it. After the introductions, we walked out the main entrance into the airport parking lot.
Mike and I looked at each other as soon as we stepped outside and acknowledge there was something familiar about our surroundings. The humidity is high and the smells strange. But it appears Vietnam has changed.
Once at the hotel, we were greeted and checked in. So far everything is on schedule. Tomorrow is the big day. I’m exhausted and going to bed. It is 11:30 PM June 15.
Our driver, Binh, picking us up at the Da Nang airport.
I snapped this picture of the entrance to the Da Nang airport once we crossed the street.
Mike and David checking into our hotel to begin our adventure.
When I Turned Nineteen: A Vietnam War Memoir and Soldiering After the Vietnam War.