Saturday, November 13, 2010

Visit to Khe Sanh Museum

KHE SANH, Vietnam – Remote and out of the way, the Marine base at Khe Sanh is now a museum, with several bunkers and two U.S.-made helicopters scattered around the grounds.

A lone vendor walks the grounds, offering North Vietnam Army badges and U.S. military dog tags for sale to the few visitors who find their way to the site of the ferocious, months' long battle between American Marines and NVA soldiers in 1968.

Nguyen Viet Minh, the museum's director, heard Ken Fritz and me speaking about our experiences as U.S. Army helicopter pilots during the Vietnam War.

Ken, former president of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, and Tom Krumland, my auto dealer friend from Roswell, N.M., had joined me on a road trip from Hanoi to Saigon, now officially known as Ho Chi Minh City.

Ken Fritz, former president of the Vietnam Helicopter
Pilots Association, at Khe Sanh Museum in Vietnam.
Mr. Minh slipped gently into our conversation, asking Ken questions about his flights to Khe Sanh, all made after the siege in 1968. It was obvious Minh had a scholar's knowledge of U.S. and NVA (officially the Vietnam Peoples Army) forces deployed in the area.

Minh showed us around his museum. Stopping at one display, he told us how Vietnamese and Americans have different versions about the length of the battle. He said the museum should present both versions, so people have a better understanding.

Though there are many photos showing U.S. Marines at Khe Sanh and there are American military items and weapons on display, Minh said he would like to have more detailed, written materials giving the U.S. version of the siege.

We exchanged email addresses.

Outside the museum are two U.S.-built helicopters with Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF) markings. The museum has attempted to display the choppers accurately, but has had to mix some components. For instance, the UH-1H model Huey has one H-model rotor blade and one wider, C-model blade.

Minh told us he has plans to restore the runway at Khe Sanh.

We drove to the battle site, sometimes over now-paved portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the mountainous areas of central Vietnam, from the imperial city of Hue, a site of ferocious fighting during the Tet Offensive of 1968 and between French and Viet Minh soldiers in 1947.

On the way to Khe Sanh, we visited the 17th Parallel -- also known as the DMZ -- that divided North and South Vietnam during the war. Today a monument and a museum mark the former frontier.

I left Khe Sanh, wondering how many American GIs who had served there would return. I had no doubt their stories would be carefully recorded by Mr. Minh for his museum.

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