KHE SANH, VIETNAM
Revisited Sept. 1998
A 30-year perspective from Lee webber:
It is all so far behind me, but the vivid memories make it seem like only yesterday. For many years I've talked with people about my experiences during my time in Vietnam. Some of those experiences were full of joy, while many others were filled with pain.
I have always believed that whatever I did during that time was sanctioned by my government and personally, by my God, who has always held me closely in spite of my sometimes errant ways of approaching the life he has given me.
Now on the 30th anniversary of the siege at Khe Sanh the time had come for me to return and face the people and the land with whom I did battle so many years ago - the people who fought so tenaciously for their homeland, and, the land, which was always there neutral making survival my personal responsibility. The lessons learned from Vietnam turned me into a tough-minded, resilient survivor. But it also brought compassion and an acutely sensitive form of human understanding into my life. I have come back to Vietnam to face the ghosts of my past. Those same ghosts that have come together, with the balance of my life experience, to form the man I am today.
I recall our landing in DaNang, looking at the countryside as we descended, wondering where the enemy was - not knowing the real question was: Who was the enemy? As the plane door opened, the hot muggy air of Vietnam filled the cabin with an unforgettable pungent scent that became part of my life as a Navy medic for the next 12 months
During that first night I met a Marine who was heading home and asked him for advice because he obviously survived his tour. He told me to volunteer for Recon duty. I did and was sent to Phu Bai and attached to Delta Co., 3rd Recon Battalion, 3rd Marine Division. At Phu Bai we ran eight-man patrols from September to December 1967, then we were moved north to Quang Tri
On Jan. 19, 1968 our platoon was selected to move to Khe Sanh combat base in an effort to reinforce the Recon unit there. Unbeknownst to us, we were moving from the frying pan into the fire. We were to become center-field players in U.S. military history
On Jan. 21, the base came under siege. As the first rounds landed we scrambled into the makeshift trenches that we had been digging so half heartedly. We huddled together and crouched as low as possible in the shallow trenches we'd dug
In the days that followed, I rummaged through what was left of our battalion aid station trying to salvage medicine and supplies. I could see planes bringing in what I thought were reinforcements. Instead, down the street came people with cameras and tape recorders shooting pictures, video and asking the proverbial stupid question, "How are you doing?" I recall looking at one reporter (whose cameraman had poked his lens in my face) and telling him something like - we need guns and they send us you guys with cameras
As the days wore on they blew our ammunition dump - we battled the nightly procession of rats as they searched for food and safe haven from the battle. The North Vietnamese cut off our only water supply creating the need to air drop water
Near the end of the siege I was evacuated to DaNang hospital for an appendectomy and on to the USS Sanctuary. When I returned to my unit, the siege had ended and we were located at Dong Ha. Following Vietnam, I was stationed at U.S. Naval Hospital Guam. I found my new home and have lived on Guam since late in 1968.
Returning to Vietnam was always a desire of mine. At the quadrennial reunions of our Marine unit there were always discussions that centered on the idea. Two years ago fellow team member Ken "Bernie" Burnett and I decided we were going back. We found Military Historical Tours out of Arlington, Va., and began our plans to make our return on the 30th anniversary
The group of more than 50 departed from New York, Los Angeles, Singapore and Guam meeting in Hong Kong for the final leg of our journey to Hanoi. We arrived in Hanoi late in the afternoon, treated to dinner with the Marine Security detachment of the America Embassy. It was a good evening of laughter photos and fun. On day two, as the group moved through Hanoi, I went to Ninh Binh province for the dedication of the Hong Phong children's school. The school, which was paid for through Gannett Foundation grants, was built for pre-schoolers. It was a good feeling to be around the children listening to their singing, laughter and paying attention to their endless curious comparisons between their size and mine. The dedication ceremony was a very appropriate way to begin my return given the circumstances that existed when I left the country in 1968.
The next day we went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. While I didn't tour the mausoleum, I found the endless line of thousands of pilgrims from the countryside an odd curiosity as they stood quietly, without hats, and hands dangling at their sides. Foreign visitors were lined up, given strict conduct instructions, and lead to the front the of the line ahead of the Vietnamese who had been waiting so patiently.
Later that morning we moved on to DaNang. My landing in DaNang reminded me of my arrival more than 30 years before. The door to the plane opened and the muggy air filled the cabin. They only thing missing was the smell of jet fuel.
We boarded buses and headed to Route 1 for the trip to Hue. Along the way we made stops at Red Beach, Hai Ban Pass and Lan Co fishing village. The countryside has not changed as people continue to live off the land on an almost day-to-day basis. The most obvious changes were the sporadic cellular phones, endless karaoke bars and the more colorful, slightly western-style dress of the people.
We arrived in Hue around 5 p.m. to a beautiful sunset dinner on the Perfume River - a far cry from my last meal in the city that consisted of c-rations and water eaten along a dirt road.
The next morning we visited the Cathedral where we met Father Joseph Phuc, who was also at the church in 1967. At the time, he had brought his children's choir to perform for the troops. As he lead us in prayer, the room fell silent while men wept. You could almost hear our tears hitting the cold tile floor. At lunch that day, we happened to meet Judith Hansen, a former Red Cross volunteer who worked in DaNang from March 1966 through October 1967. She was as surprised to find us there as we were to find her.
We all rose, stood at attention and sang the Marine Corps Hymn for her. She stood proudly at the front of the restaurant. As I looked around the room I wondered what thoughts were passing through the minds of the Vietnamese staff who were watching. A couple days later, we were in Lang Vei where we spent hours walking through what was left of the base that had been overrun by the NVA in 1968.
The area was littered with old munitions and rounds. One of the cameramen following us stepped on a mortar. We told him to stop as he rolled his foot forward and backward - we all cringed in hopes it would not explode. Had it exploded, it would have been a horrible way to end our tour and possibly the life of this young cameraman. After lunch we moved on to Khe Sanh where we were spent the afternoon wandering the combat base that was once our home. Bernie and I found what we believed to be the location of our old bunker, Charlie Med and the Ammo dump.
The base, bulldozed by the Americans following the end of the siege, has since been turned into what can best be described as a disjointed coffee plantation. Earlier, Khe Sanh residents tried to find locations of an old base based on the photos we had. The most prominent location was hill 1015 directly across the valley from our old bunker site. As the clouds and mist rolled away in late afternoon we were able to see the mountain and surrounding hills - the same view we had while under siege 30 years ago. We brought a large wreath and conducted a ceremony as Gen. Carl Mundy spoke of valor, heroism and the bond of brotherhood shared by those who fought on this hallowed ground. There was not a dry eye while the Marine Corps and Navy Hymns, and Taps played. One obvious thing during the entire tour was the friendliness of the Vietnamese people. It was a good feeling to come back to such a warm welcome given the circumstances under which we left.
At each base location, roads had been changed and most American structures had been destroyed. At most of old base locations, there were monuments noting the location and the fact that "the Imperialist American forces and their Saigon puppet regime" had been defeated at this site.
The next day we headed for the Vinh Moc tunnel complex. These tunnels were constructed in 1965-66 by the people of Vinh Linh village. They consist of 68 kilometers of tunnels that go down three levels, the deepest of which is 23 meters below the surface. There are 13 entrances (seven facing the ocean and six facing the hills). They contain living facilities including a birthing room where 17 children were born.
The following day we visited the old Dong Ha combat base that is now a residential area containing only one of the original buildings. This appears to be an old theater that, while horribly run down and dirty, is still in use today for videos and laundry. Then it was on to Quang Tri airstrip. We couldn't find the base where I lived. I was able to approximate our old location. Again, the purging of any American remnant of the war was very obvious.
At Phu Bai we found the old air control tower and building slightly renovated but essentially intact. It's one of the few American structures still standing. While in DaNang I visited the Ho Chi Minh war museum containing historical items from 1925 and through the American occupation. There was a photo showing pieces of B-52s noting that "this was the 4,000 B-52 shot down" since the beginning of the war. Others noted the number of Americans killed with the particular weapon on display. We spent an afternoon at the new China Beach resort and Marble mountain areas, much different than I remember.
It is ironic how pictures in our minds can affect our lives and the lives of those around us. This trip back to Vietnam was filled with those pictures, memories of smells, tastes and sounds of the past. Change was extremely obvious everywhere we looked. I believe many were expecting to see things as they were when they'd left Vietnam. There were looks of loss on many faces as the endless searches were conducted for those places in our minds where we hide the pain of the past. When memory was reconciled with today's reality, there seemed to be a release of these ghosts. They were replaced by tourists, new roads, different buildings and scenes of rice fields and playing children. While some of this was a relief, there also was a sense of loss.
It was good to see Vietnam slowly growing and improving. In spite of the damage inflicted upon the people and the land by that horrible war, nature had saw fit to replace the destruction with a new coat of paint.
The people were friendly, spoke of growth and peace, and how important both were to them. However, beneath the surface memories of the war lingered. At the museums, displays recounted the atrocities inflicted upon the people by the Americans and the puppet Saigon government. These museums were always filled with guides taking children and tourists around explaining the so-called war crimes. It was interesting to see the looks we would get when these tour groups would pass by, knowing that we were Americans who had fought in this war.
I am now home with mixed emotions having made this journey with other warriors. Laughing, crying and sharing our lives together as we did so many years ago. It was a very moving experience but one that carried with it a much different maybe older and wiser view of the land and the people. I am walking away with a better, kinder view of this country and her people.
As you entered the dining room tonight, you may have noticed a single table set in a place of HONOR.
It is a table set for each member of our Armed Services. Allow me to explain. Military tradition is filled with pride, customs and symbolism. This table is our way of symbolizing the fact that members of our profession of arms are missing from our midst. They are oftentimes called P.O.W.s/M.I.A. and K.I.A.s. You remember them as your buddies. We call them Fallen Comrades.
The table setting is small, symbolizing the frailty of a prisoner alone against his oppressors.
The table cloth is black, symbolizing the uncertainty of our comrades' fate.
The place setting is white, this symbolizes the purity of our comrades' intentions to respond to his country's call to arms.
The single rose you see displayed reminds us of the families and the loved ones of our Comrades-in-Arms. Those who kept the faith, awaiting for their return.
The red ribbon tied so prominently on the vase is reminiscent of the red ribbon worn upon the lapel and breasts of thousands and their unyielding determination to demand a proper accounting of our missing.
The slice of lemon on the bread place is to remind us of their bitter fate.
There is salt upon the plate, symbolic of the families' tears as they wait.
The glass is inverted, they cannot toast with us tonight.
The chairs are empty, they cannot be with us tonight.