Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 6

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — We arrived late at our hotel, The Caravelle on Lam Son Square in the former capital of South Vietnam, then known as Saigon.

My wife, Renee, and I had linked up with Tom Baca and Sterling Essenmacher, his roommate in Army flight school during the mid-1960s, at Tokyo’s Narita Airport earlier on Oct. 12, 2008.

The four of us would fly to Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat Airport on the same Japan Airlines flight. Our 10:30 p.m. arrival at Tan Son Nhat assured us a quick cab ride to our hotel in downtown District 1.

It had been more than 41 years since I last visited Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, I was a U.S. Army helicopter pilot stationed at Bien Hoa Air Base, 20 miles northeast of Saigon. I visited Saigon, then the capital of the Republic of Vietnam, regularly and knew the city fairly well.

In addition, I had made many helicopter landings and takeoffs from the main helipad — known in military parlance as “Hotel 3” — at Tan Son Nhat. The airport was an active air force base, as well as a civilian airport. During the war, Tan Son Nhat reputedly was the busiest airport in the world.

As we taxied to our arrival gate in 2008, I saw several concrete bunkers and revetments left over from the war. Once we were inside the international terminal, there were no more reminders of the past. The terminal, known as International Terminal 2, had opened 13 months earlier. Everything in the steel-and-glass terminal was brand new.

I was not sure what to expect on my arrival back in Vietnam. I had known the country during wartime and the people I had been fighting were now in charge. Would I feel any hostility? Should I remain silent about being a military pilot during the war?

Before I left my home in New Mexico, senior Vietnamese police had assured me I would be welcome in Vietnam. I became acquainted with the police officers while on contract at the International Law Enforcement Academy-Roswell. The Academy was operated for the U.S. Department of State by a consortium headed by New Mexico Tech.

The first class of Vietnamese police had arrived 3 weeks before I left for Ho Chi Minh City. The class leader, Senior Colonel Nguyen Duy Thu, was deputy head of training for the Police General Department, headquartered in Hanoi. He told me he was delighted I was returning to Vietnam and gave me one of his business cards, which was printed in Vietnamese on one side and in English on the other.

I was in familiar territory when we arrived at The Caravelle on Lam Son Square, which had been known as Place Garnier before South Vietnam was overwhelmed by troops fighting for North Vietnam in 1975. Whenever I drove to Saigon in 1967, I would plan lunch in the rooftop restaurant of the nearby Brinks Hotel Officers Quarters on Place Garnier. The hotel has since been demolished to make room for the Park Hyatt, Saigon.

Renee, Al in front of

Municipal Theater
Adjacent to the Caravelle Hotel in 1967 was the Saigon Opera House, then home to the South Vietnam Nationally Assembly. After reunification, the Opera House was renamed the Ho Chi Minh Municipal Theater. During the war, I thought the unique building was a beautiful structure. Renovations were almost complete when we returned in October 2008 and, on my last visit to Ho Chi Minh City in February 2012, it was stunning.

On the other side of the Opera House-Municipal Theater is the Hotel Continental. In 1967, it was known as the Continental Palace and was a favorite haunt of journalists covering the Vietnam War. Where once the first floor was a restaurant with arches opening to the outdoors, it has been enclosed. In 2008, the restaurant specialized in Italian food. When I returned in 2010, it served French cuisine.

The Caravelle, too, had undergone major remodeling. It originally opened in 1959 and, with 10 floors, was the tallest hotel in Saigon. The original building now adjoins a 24-story hotel tower.

During the Vietnam War years, the Caravelle Hotel had housed the Australian and New Zealand embassies, as well as the Saigon news bureaus for the NBC, ABC and CBS television networks. In August 1964, a bomb exploded in Room 514, on a floor occupied by foreign journalists. The reporters were away on assignment when the explosion occurred around 11:30 a.m.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Vietnamese government took over The Caravelle and operated it as the Doc Lap Hotel — or Independence Hotel. It became The Caravelle once more in 1998 and is managed by a Singapore-based company.

Ho Chi Minh City skyline, Saigon River
I awakened early on the morning after our arrival in October 2008, ready to explore the neighborhood on foot. I could see the Saigon River from my hotel room. I was amazed at the number of tall and modern buildings. I couldn’t recall any tall buildings in the city during the war.

Al Croteau joined Tom, Sterling, Renee and me at The Caravelle for breakfast. Al had arrived the morning before and was staying at the Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon nearby. He told me he selected the hotel partly because it was a Marriott hotel and offered a U.S. military discount. The irony was not lost on me.

After breakfast, we walked around the area. Though the city had changed dramatically, I still recognized some of the streets and buildings. Before arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, I had no idea what to expect. Here was a modern, bustling city that retained the flavor of Saigon.

Even Pasteur Street, one of the longest streets in the city, was where I had left it. I later learned the name was changed in 1975 to Nguyen Thi Minh Khai after reunification, but the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee reverted to Pasteur Street in 1991.

Continuous streams of motorcycles flow throughout the city. In areas that attract foreign visitors, green-uniformed tourist police halt the traffic for pedestrians. If there are no tourist police around, residents will take you by the arm and escort you across the street. The key to a safe street crossing is to keep moving, so motorcycle riders and vehicle drivers can judge where you will be. If you follow this no-stop rule, the traffic flows around you like water in a stream. If you chicken out and stop moving, you’re setting yourself up for an accident.

Al, Renee and I spent several hours touring District 1 near The Caravelle. At lunchtime, we stopped at an Internet café. Over a sandwich, Al dropped a bombshell. “I still remember the soldier we left behind,” he told me.

“What do you mean the soldier we left behind?” I asked. “We got everyone out.”

Al corrected me. “There was one soldier left.” Al told me the soldier had been on his mind for 41 years.

Before we left Vietnam less than a week later, Al would learn the Vietnamese soldier had been evacuated safely to Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp by Tom Baca and Larry Liss, on our last trip out of the landing zone.


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