Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 7

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — On our second morning back in Vietnam, we all met for breakfast in first floor dining room of The Caravelle.

Tom Baca; his flight school friend, Sterling Essenmacher; Larry Liss and his wife, Celeste; my wife, Renee, and I were all staying at The Caravelle. Al Croteau, documentary producer Richard Max, and cameraman Stuart Dunn were staying at nearby hotels.

Tom, Larry and I already knew Richard. Three months earlier, he had filmed us in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Al and Richard had visited by telephone and email, but had never met in person. Stuart was new to the project for Windfall Films of London.

Municipal Theater seen through lobby
of The Caravelle
We all had a great time over breakfast as Richard explained the filming schedule. Our first scenes would be at Bien Hoa, where the two flight crews were assigned at the time of the Cau Song Be rescue.

Tom, the pilot and commander of the VIP Huey involved in the May 1967 mission, and copilot Larry flew for II Field Force (Vietnam) flight detachment. Both had considerable combat experience. Tom previously flew with the 118th Assault Helicopter Company. Larry had flown with the 162nd Assault Helicopter Company and then served as assistant commander of a Pathfinder detachment that set up landing zones in hostile areas.

I was the pilot in command of the second UH-1D Huey, a “slick” used to fly combat assaults, medical evacuations, and resupply missions. Al was a second lieutenant who had volunteered to fly as door gunner on my aircraft the day of the rescue.

All four of us had lived in villas on Cong Le Street, Bien Hoa.

Renee, Al Croteau in bar at The Caravelle
By chance I had known Tom’s twin brother, Jim, when we were news reporters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before I joined the Army. Jim covered news for one of the Albuquerque television stations; I was a reporter with The Albuquerque Tribune. He never told me he had a twin brother, particularly one in the Army. When I met his brother, Tom, in the Officers Club at the 118th AHC in February, I remember thinking: “What the hell is Jim Baca doing here?”

Tom and I became good friends, staying in close contact for 45 years.

Jim Baca, an Air Force veteran, later moved from television news to public relations and politics. He served as mayor of Albuquerque, headed the federal Bureau of Land Management under President Bill Clinton, and was New Mexico state land commissioner for two terms.

But in October 2008, Tom, Larry, Al and I would be returning to Bien Hoa to rediscover where we had lived during wartime. After breakfast, we agreed to meet in the lobby a short time later to travel to Bien Hoa, 20 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City.

The others were waiting when Renee and I returned to the lobby. In front of the hotel were two large vans. The flight crews and wives would travel in one; the Windfall Films crew in the other.

Celeste and Larry Liss with Renee (right)
Before we boarded the vans, Richard introduced me to Dinh Ngoc Truc, with the International Press and Communication Company, operated by the Vietnam Ministry of Culture and Information. Truc would be the film crew’s escort.

Shaking my hand, Truc said: “I was in the Viet Cong.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I was an antiaircraft gunner,” Truc responded.

I replied: “I’m glad we never met before.”

Before returning to Vietnam, I had wondered if I would meet someone who had fought on the other side during the war, and how we would react to each other. So far, so good.

During a week of filming in October 2008, and over lunch and dinner, Truc and I visited frequently, comparing memories of the war. Truc lived in Hanoi, where he had grown up. After training in the Vietnam People’s Army following high school, Truc traveled by truck — or lorry — down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Vung Tau, in what was then South Vietnam. He served in the Viet Cong several years after U.S. forces had left Vietnam.

Over lunch one day in Vung Tau, Truc and I chatted about General Vo Nguyen Giap, leader and strategist of North Vietnam and Viet Cong military forces during the war. Truc once had interviewed General Giap.
Tom Baca and Dinh Ngoc Truc

On our last night in Vietnam, Truc took us to a restaurant for a Vietnamese dinner. At the end of the evening, Truc handed me an English-language book entitled: “General Giap His Youth”

Inside the cover, he had written: “To Jack with fun. Truc, VC”

Our visits that October were the start of a friendship during which I have visited Truc in Hanoi four times and he has stayed in our New Mexico home, as well as with Tom and Jan Baca.

During the course of our friendship, we have traveled by road from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City twice, and from Roswell to Las Vegas, Sacramento and Los Angeles. We have enjoyed dinners with his and my friends and family, have gotten to know one another’s wife and children, and worked together on books.

One day while driving from Ha Long Bay back to Hanoi, Truc turned to me and said: “Aren’t you glad we didn’t kill each other? We would never have become friends.”


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