Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 8

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — As we boarded our van at The Caravelle, I wondered what emotions would surface when I returned to Bien Hoa.

Tom Baca, Al Croteau and I had lived in the same villa on Cong Le Street — Tom before he was transferred from the 118th Assault Helicopter Company to the II Field Force (Vietnam) Flight Detachment, Al and I throughout our tours with the 118th AHC. The company’s call sign was “Thunderbirds.”

Al commanded the 198th Signal Detachment, which was attached to the Thunderbirds. Though not a rated pilot, Al flew hundreds of combat hours, manning door guns on the company’s assault Hueys. What I admired about Al was he regularly volunteered to fly into combat. That was why he had flown with me on the Cau Song Be rescue.

Al never got rattled in combat. During the Cau Song Be mission, his cool head probably kept us alive. He knew what to do and he did it.

Jack Swickard with Tom Baca and Al Croteau (right)
in front of hotel at site of villa in Bien Hoa.
In 1967, Al lived down the hall from me in the villa. By any standard, we lived well. Two officers lived in each room, which had ceiling fans and bathrooms. In the back of the villa, where I lived, the rooms also had doors opening onto a large patio.

Over the years, at Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association reunions, a Thunderbird would tell us how he had gone back to Vietnam recently and found the villa. The last report I had heard about the villa was several years earlier. In the report, it had been converted to an apartment building, with families living in the rooms.

As Tom, Al and I headed back to Bien Hoa, we had no idea what to expect. More than 40 years had passed.

Larry Liss had not lived in the Thunderbird villa, but down Cong Le Street in a villa that housed officers from II Field Force (Vietnam). Tom had moved into the same villa after transferring from the Thunderbirds.

Larry wasn’t with us as our van headed to Bien Hoa. He had not joined us in The Caravelle lobby before departing. At the time, I thought he and his wife, Celeste, had other plans.

This past weekend, Richard Max, the documentary’s producer, wrote about our return to Vietnam.

“I have enjoyed reading your Vietnam blog and think you must have been taking accurate notes about our shared documentary filmmaking journey as it all comes flooding back to me. I, too, was particularly moved by how much Al had been haunted by the one left behind, as well as Larry’s almost physical reaction to going back,” Richard wrote.

Larry added to Richard’s remembrance with an email.
Larry and Celeste Liss in Vung Tau.

“An interesting note by Richard about my ‘physical reaction’ to being ‘back in Saigon.’ I remember that Richard was concerned about my well-being and came to our suite to be with me (and Celeste). It was true. I was experiencing being dizzy and weak and just wanted to hide under the covers,” Larry wrote. “I was dealing with many ‘pictures’ from the past. Saigon in the 1960s, itself, was not a pleasant experience for me. I had been in two bar explosions over about 12 months. I could never allow myself to get comfortable back in the ’60s.

“The only place in all of Vietnam that I felt really on-guard was Saigon. I didn't feel uncomfortable anywhere else, even if the action was more dangerous,” Larry said. 

“I flew into Saigon a number of times and, on my second or third time, I was sitting in a well-known bar and restaurant near our embassy when a bomb went off just outside the front window. It was a mess. Many dead and wounded. I just got a couple of glass cuts,” Larry said. “From then on in, I didn’t stray very far from the heliport (Hotel 3) and the officer’s club. I know that I was in many more dangerous places, but I never felt so ‘on-guard’ as I did in Saigon.

“That was back in 1966-68. I was in Saigon with General Fred Weyand during Tet 1968 and that made it even worse because the VC and NVA were everywhere,” Larry said.

“When we arrived this time, I was shaking uncontrollably for the first few days. I felt safe in the hotel, although I was very clear that this was the same Caravelle Hotel that was bombed in 1964. Whatever it was that was stuck in my mind, passed and I was OK again,” Larry said.

Looking for villa

Tom, Al and I spent more than an hour trying to find the villa on Cong Le Street. The only landmarks we could find were a fountain and footbridge that had been in the courtyard. When we saw them near a fence in October 2008, they were far from where we thought the villa should be.
Richard Max

With a video camera following us, we walked through alleys and up and down streets. Finally, Tom saw the villa where he and Larry had lived after leaving the Thunderbirds. When we got our bearings, we discovered a hotel had been built on the site of the 118th AHC villa. On a second-floor balcony, we could look out over a familiar roofline.

There were several reasons we could not locate the villa: The building no longer existed, the small, alley-like street that ran through the compound in 1967 had been widened into a main thoroughfare with four lanes of traffic, and the street had been renamed.

Cameraman Stuart Dunn and Richard Max got some good chase scenes as we looked for the villa, but there was not much to trip our memories until we drove through other parts of Bien Hoa. I saw the cinema we passed daily on the way to the flight line in the 1960s. The water tower still stood outside the airfield gate. Some buildings near the water tower looked the same, but overall it was not a memorable trip down memory lane.

We returned to Ho Chi Minh City and The Caravelle in time for Richard and Stuart to film an interview with Al in the late afternoon sun.

While Tom, Renee and I drank a beer in the hotel’s Saigon Saigon Bar, Al would describe what Richard later told me was “the soul of the documentary.”


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