When we left the hotel on the shuttle, I felt it for a second. You know that feeling, a little flutter, just a slight rush, a feeling of apprehension. Now its back a little stronger, a little more longer. I'm sitting in the plane waiting to take that final leg into Saigon.
The surprise is that this could be any flight to in the U.S. A modern jet filled with a mixture of middle class people: families, husbands and wives, kids, and businesspeople headed for meetings.
You can spot a few of us. Overweight older men travelling together, a different walk or posture. We seem a little more serious. Quieter. Not as boisterous. And we can all feel it. If we closed our eyes, it would be 40 years ago, in uniform, and headed for some place we really aren't sure we want to be.
An hour and a half later, our plane starts to make it's final approach into Tan Son Nhat Airport ( still the same name it had) and our first view of Vietnam in a long time appears before us. Miles of suburbs neatly lay before us with small shops and homes lining busy streets. This could be any city in Asia. Bangkok. Manila. Hong Kong. Just another city.
Our plane touches the runway and as we rush down the runway, it no longer becomes another city or airport. An outpost flashes by where guards stood duty, revetments come into view (now the home of Russian helicopters and military aircraft), reinforced shells that protected our fighter jets hold equipment and parts. Sandbagged areas line the taxiway, and suddenly I feel that maybe I have just went back to another time. It took twenty hours of flying and almost 13,000 miles to get here, and I didn't want to get off the plane. But, I had come this far. I really had to do this.
The first thing that hits you is the heat and humidity. That hasn't changed a bit. The next thing is the number of non-Asians. Lines and lines of British, Germans, Poles, Aussies, and Americans wait to check through customs. They're here for vacations and/or business. Vietnam has been discovered. As I find out, this is a country of bargains in food, drink, and accommodations. A first class meal is less than $10.00, a beer is a dollar, and a five star hotel or resort should cost less than $100 a night. People are swarming here to vacation and do business.
Then & Now
Wespenda couple of days here sightseeing, then it's up north to Pleiku. Easiest way is by air, we load into an older Air Vietnam turboprop and an hour and a half later we're in Pleiku. As we climb higher and break into the mountains, I can't help but notice that most of us are peering out the windows, looking for familiar sights, other aircraft, maybe where vegetation is gone, the tops of mountains gone, or B-52 craters. Most of us are flight crew members, either pilots or crew members, and I think, sometimes old habits die hard. If anything, I find this type of thing happening off and on throughout our trip. A sort of mental switching back between my tour 40 years ago, and the present time. All of us do it, but some slip back into that same old machismo and attitude they had before.
As we enter the Central Highlands and approach Pleiku, the biggest landmark possible rears up in front of us. Dragon mountain. A huge mesa just outside the city greets us. She certainly stands out, and no one could miss her poking out from the flat area around her. Our aircraft banks around on to final to the airport and everyone is staring out the window for a glance of Hollowway. You see, the old Air Force Base is the the new Pleiku airport, and the rice paddies, the old runway, and what's left of Holloway can be seen clearly on approach. Yup, right, what's left of Holloway. You see, the government decided after the war to take many of the old American bases and ARVN bases over. Either they were totally bulldozed and cleared, or taken over by the Vietnamese Army. I guess we should be honored, Hollloway they converted to a military base. We weren't allowed to go near it, or take pictures of it. What ever we have were taken from a moving bus or from other areas with telephoto lenses. But, let me tell you! When you step off that plane you know you're in the Central Highlands. " THE REDDEST DIRT YOU'LL EVER SEE"!!
We board a bus and head into town to stay where else, but the Pleiku Hotel. Most of us remember the road out of the airbase, lined now with deserted bars and shops that at one time catered to the needs of GI's. Now, the only thing left of the Air base is the tower and the original terminal. A new terminal has been built, and the old one is awaiting demolition. A far cry from the paved streets and buildings that were there 40 years ago. Now it just open fields. The main drive from the airport into Pleiku (highway 14?) has been widened. Now it's a four lane divided highway accommodating large trucks and buses alongside the multitudes of motorbikes that dominate the country. We find out later, that after the war was over, the North Vietamese moved many of their people from the north into the Central Highlands. We were welcomed here, but many of the older people were stand-offish. I'm not sure they knew what or how to deal with us, or as a matter of fact, what to make of us. A bunch of older Americans walking down the street taking pictures of everyone and everything. Talking and waving to everyone, not really understanding anything the natives were saying. God!!! What a sight they must have seen!
Statute of Ho Chi Minh in front of gov't building
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Another of many parks in Saigon.
Thousands of motorbikes, traffic laws optional
Part of our group, me on the left
The Presidential Palace in Saigon.
Huey on Palace roof (famous pic taken here of last evacuation of Saigon.
.Camp Holloway from across the rice paddy. The red dirt is the runway and part of what was the Christmas Tree. To the right is where the tower, hooches and admin buildings were. To the left is where the 604th and maintenance was. On the extreme right would be the entrance to Holloway.
Flying into Pleiku Airport
Pleiku Airport (Air Force Base)
Vietnamese soldier and me.
The main street into town.
Some of the local kids.
Young girls taking a break from work.
Pretty young Vietamese girl having lunch.
On the way to the 4th Division area.
Traffic circle on the way downtown
Old entrance to Camp Holloway.
Old Main entrance to Camp Holloway.
One of the admin. buildings now on grounds
View across rice paddy on back of Holloway.
How Pleiku has grown up.
Growing in every direction!
After packing up our bus, we head north, driving past Camp Holloway toward Kontoum and ,ultimately, Dak To. Our travel takes us through passes and valleys that we would never have dreamed of driving through 35 years ago. Both the terrain and people seem more hospitable with friendly waves and smiling faces along our route. This country really is beautiful with its roadways leisurely gliding between high mountains and deep valleys. Occasionally, a village or cluster of small houses crop up with shops and rest stops. Always an invitation to stop for food and drinks. Here the roadway shoulders become drying areas for the ever present casava root. A plant whose root is cut up, dried, then ground into a flour used to make tapicoa. Yup, that's right, tapicoa. That pudding stuff your mother always made you and put Cool Whip on top! Here there's millions of pounds of this plant drying on the side of the road. Even the abandoned airstrips are used for it. Farmers collect it into large nylon bags, load it on to trucks, and ship it to market.
When we arrive in Kontoum, our first adventure is an 8 kilometer trek up through the countryside and jungle along the Dak Bla River. After a leisurely picnic on it's banks, we hop into dug outs and ride the river back down through white water to our trip origins. We wide our way through coffee plantations, casava farms, and jungled walkways. What had started out as a wide dirt road turns into a pathway, and finally, just a narrow opening in the vegetation. The river opens before for us, and you realize how open this country still is. There isn't a streak in the sky, no airplanes, no noises. Just the sound of the river running and the bamboo clicking together. A great place for lunch.
Cassava root drying on roadside
Mother and son cutting root
Rice paddy on walking trek, near Kontoum.
Banana trees on montanyard farm.
Dugout canoe crossing Dak Bla River
Picnic on river bank before canoe trip
Some of the trekking team
A small farming hut along river Dak Bla.
Finishing up our river ride.
Highway 14 into Pleiku City
After a short rest at the hotel involving several bottles of Saigon, Tiger, and 333 beer, we rented a van and headed out for Dak To. For many of us, this a special trip back. Our missions out of Dak To for re-supply and troop extraction were still vivid. So vivid for one us, that he said he wasn't ready to go back yet. So off we went, beer in the van, Vietamese guide, and more bravado than brains. Our guide explains to us that the paved two lane highway was the scene of major bombings as can witnessed by the large patched holes all along our route. As the NVA tanks were driving south to Kontoum and then to Pleiku, ARVN aircraft bombed and straffed the highway, and although they were able to slow them, they were unable to stop the final take over of the Central Highlands.
One of the most famous battlefields on the way to Dak To sits directly along Highway 14. Skull Hill lies 17 km from Kontoum, and represents one of the bloodiest battles between The NVA and ARVN troops. The site was critical to the north in its march to the south and had to be taken before they could move forward. In 1972, the ARVN's fought to the last man holding back an entire battalion of men.
Further down the road lies Charlie Hill. About five km outside of Dak To, this was another major battle site, and again the ARVNs fought to the last man, enduring a two month siege, they refused to surrender and fought to the last man. This site is still mined heavily and is unsafe to explore. We finally bump our way in to New Dak To, past old Dak To, and 5 km north to the air base. Most of you will remember this area, it was the staging area for our company. Mostly it was picking things up here and transporting them to different firebases. Often used for refueling, Dak To sometimes even became a second home for us when we were needed. You can see Rocket Ridge and Charlie Hill from here. Walking here is different. Here you know the land. The PSP is gone, tents are gone. But, everyone of us knew where we were. It felt like the old Dak To. As we walked into the brush along side the airstrips, we saw projectiles, pieces of claymores, shredded sand bags, and large holes that were once bunkers. Whether we wanted it or not, this was the Vietnam of our bad dreams and nightmares. This was the Vietnam that brought tears to your eyes, made you remember your friends and buddies that died there. We picked through the rubble, white phosphorous still lies about on the ground. We actually picked pieces up and lit them off. Yup, this was the Dak To everyone remembered. A toast to everyone that made it, and everyone that didn't, and then we were off. Vietnam got over the war, and we should too.
Old Dak To
Monument with 1st Chinese tanks in Dak To
Second Chinese Tank into Dak To
Dak To runway as it is today (no psp)
Rocket Ridge and Charlie Hill
Another view of the old Dak To runway.
A toast to those who made it & didn't make it.
Ordinance and sandbags still lying around
Remains of the bunkers are obvious everywhere
The river Dak To, Montenyard ville was here
Highway 14 runs parallel to the runway.
Saying goodbye to Dak To at sunset.
This has been a good day for many of us. No, this has been a great day for us. We have made that connection with the past we all needed. We closed our eyes and felt Dak To 35 years ago. We found those relics in the dirt of Dak To that made us a part of this land, this spot, that war that ravaged this land and our lives so many years. But, in return, it gave us new life, new meaning. We gave our final good byes to those that died there and remained there, and we left in the belief that now it would be easier to live ourselves and our past. That night there was stories to be told, toasts to be made, and new things to experience. The beer and whiskey flowed. We all went to sleep that night a little more content and ahppy with our lot.
Next day we were off to Quin Nhon. Travelling by bus, we were doing what most of us had never done. Drive through VC valley, through the Mang Yang Pass, and then downard to the seacoast and Quin Nhon. This is something we would have avoided at all costs. The valley and the pass were as extremely dangerous as could be. There was only one way to go through here, and that was as high as you possibly could. You didn't want to be close to the ground. It meant ground fire, and more than likely being shot down. Now days you're biggest fear is cow shit and trash that seems to litter the road from one end to the other. The Mang Yang Pass is the only way from the central highlands to the coast, and every means of transportation or flow of goods must pass through here. The cool wet climate is perfect for vegetation, and steep walls along the roadside hang with the lush plant life of the area. You can see for miles. Mountains break away to plains, that finally break away to the South China Sea with her palm trees, white sand coastlines, and deep blue waters. Always amazing, Vietnam shows a diversity and beauty and we were never able to see in the past.