Wednesday, November 24, 2010

In search of Chi Linh

HANOI — We returned to Hanoi on Monday night after a 4-day visit to Cambodia and another day in Saigon.

On our return to the Hoang Phu Gia Hotel in Saigon, the two young ladies who manned the front desk broke into big smiles and a warm "Welcome back." The ladies are very efficient, polite and friendly.

One of them told us we should always turn our hotel key in at the front desk when we go out during the day, for safekeeping. "If you lose the key, it will cost $10 to replace it," one of them told me. The other young lady nodded in agreement. I was convinced.

Each time I returned, the key was automatically handed to me.

Another thing I noticed this time in Vietnam is the front desk will hold your passport until you are ready to leave. Then, during checkout, someone will be sent to your room to make sure nothing has been removed. It's an effective way to guard against theft.

A couple of hours after checking back in to the Hoang Phu Gia Hotel, Police Senior Colonel Thanh Hung -- whom I met when he attended the International Law Enforcement Academy in Roswell -- had two of his friends in Saigon pick us up and take us to dinner. One of his friends is a retired Army colonel and national football star; the other is a retired policeman.

Col. Thanh, Nghia and Truc examine a map showing
location of Chi Linh.
They took Ken Fritz, a fellow Vietnam helicopter pilot; Dinh Ngoc Truc, a former member of the Viet Cong; and me to a German beer hall in downtown Saigon. We started with "yellow beer," as the Vietnamese call light lager. Retired Col. Tran Van Thanh asked me if I liked the beer in Hanoi or Saigon the best. I out-clevered myself by replying, "I won't be able to tell until after I've had 5."

Needless to say, Thanh, retired Policeman Nguyen Tuan Nghia, Ken and Truc decided to hold me to the 5 beers. Thanh ordered a 2-liter mug, but I passed it around the table so the other 4 helped quaff it.

We also had deep-fried chicken feet, fish, stew, pork, greens, chiles, fresh vegetables, and on and on.

Nghia and Thanh were picking us up the following morning to look for Chi Linh, the name given to Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp about 1968 to avoid confusion with the provincial capital of Song Be. "Cau" means bridge in Vietnamese and the camp was near a bridge on Hwy. 14 that spans the Song Be River.

Nghia and Thanh met us at our hotel at 7 a.m. We drove north from Saigon, stopping at a nice restaurant owned by a football star friend of Thanh's. Though not far from a main highway, the restaurant was on a secluded road. A branch of the Saigon River ran past it.

We brought out maps and my iPad to check out the site of Chi Linh. Nghia called a friend on his cell phone for help.

Tom Baca of Albuquerque, the commander of a second helicopter on the May 14, 1967, rescue of some 100 South Vietnamese soldiers and 1 U.S. Special Forces advisor, had provided me with a computer printout showing the location of Chi Linh. We knew it was about midway between Chon Thanh and Dong Xoai on Hwy. 14, and was located near a large bridge.

Small rubber trees planted at site of Chi Linh.
We drove the route, but there was no village. We stopped at a small restaurant and drank green coconut milk while Truc and Thanh began asking people nearby if they knew of a village named Chi Linh. They were told there was no village by that name in the area, but there was an old military airfield north of the bridge.

We backtracked several kilometers until we passed back over the bridge. Then Nghia began looking for dirt roads going north from the highway. The first took us to a small house, but there was a fork in the road that went north. Thanh and I got out of the vehicle and walked the road; Ken Fritz joined us. Then I walked to the edge of the road, beyond some trees. The land dropped into a large clearing where rubber trees recently had been planted. On the far edge of the clearing were mature rubber trees, just as in May 1967. I was sure this was where the camp stood 43 years ago.

In the meantime, Ken and Thanh had walked back to our Toyota SUV. Nearby, were some young men who had ridden motorbikes to a home under construction. Ken, an avid motorcyclist, struck up a conversation with one of the young Vietnamese men. The man let Ken take his bike for a spin down the dirt road, then up to the highway, with the bike's owner on board.

When they stopped several kilometers down Hwy. 14, the young men had described the former base to Ken and Truc, who had been riding backwards on one of the other bikes to film Ken cruising down the highway.

Ken and Truc told us where to find the former camp. Part of it was where I had walked to the clearing containing young rubber and banana trees; another part was in an open field to the north. We took photos at both locations.
Ken, Col. Thanh, Jack, and Truc with site of Chi Linh
behind them.

Truc and Thanh checked some farmers' houses, but learned they were "newcomers" who knew nothing about the events of May 14, 1967. No one else in the area knew any survivors or family members of the 100 survivors rescued that day from a force of 600-700 North Vietnam and Viet Cong soldiers.

Chi Linh does not exist because it was the name given to a military base that existed for a relatively brief time.

There were no survivors to be found, but for a brief time I stood on the edge of the clearing and almost could see Tom's and my Hueys preparing to take off from the red, dirt runway to make the 5 trips into the landing zone where more than 150 South Vietnamese soldiers and their Special Forces advisors had been ambushed by a battalion of the 273rd NVA Regiment.

With us that day in 1967 were Tom's copilot, Larry Liss; my copilot, Ken Dolan; and Lt. Al Croteau, who had volunteered to fly as my door gunner that day.

Location: Hwy. 14

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