“I have places where all my stories begin,” confesses writer Barbara Kingsolver, and so do veterans. Place, memory and story are intertwined and part of this journey is about returning to places of significance for the American veterans on this trip. These are the veterans’ AOs – military speak for “areas of operation.” Forty years later these places have changed. Some are overgrown. Others have limited accessibility as current military installations. A few have been preserved as historic sites.
On a wall surrounding the abandoned Da Nang Airbase we found this interesting graffiti.
As we drove to places and walked the land the stories poured out - stories about military jobs, lost sleep, soggy bunkers, C-rations, military equipment and getting stoned. But there were also stories about battles, boredom, hot landing zones, lost innocence, killing, fallen comrades and wounded souls. For the veterans, these places are sacred ground. And in many of the places our group sought to ceremonially honor the memories of these places and those who served.
At Chu Lia Airbase, the home of the Americal Division, we could not get to the actual ground but on a hill overlooking the base held a brief ritual in the rain.
During that ritual a veteran recited a portion of St. Crispin’s Day Speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V that includes the following lines:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age . . .
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. . .
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with meShall be my brother . . .
Hue City was the site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. Fought during and following the 1968 Tet Offensive, the battle resulted in thousands of military and civilian casualties and became a turning point in the war. We walked somberly through the ruins of the Citadel (the old Vietnamese Imperial City) where much of the fighting took place.
Heading north from Hue, Highway 1 winds through the Hai Van pass, a strategic high ground and the place where 34 Americans died in a helicopter crash in 1971.
Hai Van Pass
Further north a strategic lookout point for Americans in the war was known as The Rock Pile (Thon Khe Tri to the Vietnamese). The only way up was by way of helicopter but the Vietnamese found ways to continually attack the Americans there.
The Rock Pile
Continuing along the beautiful South China Sea I found it difficult, as a civilian, to imagine helicopters, bombs and tanks in this stunning landscape. But it was in this area that both the Vietnamese and Americans experienced the highest casualties of the war.
Peaceful fishing village of Lang Co
The impact of the war along Highway 1 soon became apparent as we passed bombed and bullet ridden buildings and numerous war cemeteries. S
ong, our guide, explained that this section of Highway 1 has become known to the Vietnamese as "the road without joy" because of the fierce fighting and thousands of war casualties along the route. The numerous
cemeteries we saw only represented the North Vietnamese Army and VietCong. The fallen South Vietnamese troops are not honored in war cemeteries.
We conducted another ritual to remember the fallen at the site of Firebase Tomahawk where four men from the town of Bardstown, Kentucky were killed in one battle in 1969.
Remembering at Firebase Tomahawk
Turning off of Highway 1 and heading west on Highway 9 we made our way to Khe Sanh where U.S. Marines underwent 77 days of continuous attack in 1968. This site had a powerful attraction to all the veterans and after walking the site we held another ritual of remembrance.
Veterans walking into the old Khe Sanh base
Looking across the old landing strip at Khe Sanh
Cattle grazing where fighting occurred.
A rusted piece of military hardware and an overgrown field is all that is left of the northern most Allied position at Gio Linh. But that did not stop veterans from wading into the bush and conducting another ritual.
Veteran reads a poem written for the occasion.
Small altar created in the bush to remember a friend who died here.
We ended this portion of the journey by walking across the Ben Hai River, the dividing line between North and South Vietnam during the war. There were no gates, no guards and no sounds of battle. Children on the north side of the river were laughing and lazily kicking a soccer ball, and on the south side a water buffalo contentedly grazed.
Bridge across the Ben Hai River