Monday, October 8, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 11

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Our return to Vietnam in October 2008 was a pleasant experience, accented with emotion from our wartime experiences four decades earlier.

Though we were reliving parts of the Cau Song Be rescue mission for a television documentary, Tom Baca, Larry Liss, Al Croteau and I had returned to Vietnam as tourists. Our wives accompanied Larry and me; Tom’s Army flight school roommate, Sterling Essenmacher, also had flown to Vietnam with us.

My wife, Renee, had wanted to visit Vietnam ever since I described the beauty of the country in letters I wrote to her during the war.

Richard Max visits with Larry and Celeste Liss
aboard the Vina hydrofoil.
Like the others on this trip, I wanted to revisit places I had known in 1967. Some, like Saigon and Vung Tau, were places I had gotten to know first hand. During the war, I drove to Saigon several times each month on days off from flying to pick up piastres for paying the South Vietnamese civilians who worked for the 118th Assault Helicopter Company, where I was assigned.

The French introduced piastre de commerce currency when they colonized Indochina, which included Vietnam. After the French relinquished Indochina in 1954 and Vietnam divided into two, the piastre remained a unit of currency in South Vietnam.

On my trips to Saigon, I would pick up piastre at a pay office, then visit the U.S. Army Post Exchange in the Cholon Chinese section of the city, and eat lunch at the Brinks Hotel near the Opera House before driving back to Bien Hoa by Jeep. It was a pleasant diversion from flying.

Occasionally it became obvious some of our military people in Saigon had forgotten we were involved in a war. I remember one time walking into the Cholon PX with a .38-caliber revolver on my hip and a briefcase full of piastre.

“I’m sorry, Sir. You’ll have to check your sidearm before entering the PX,” said a specialist 4 security guard, pointing to a typewritten sign that said firearms were not allowed on the premises.

I knew exactly how to answer. “Here, Specialist, sign for the 200,000 piastres I have in this briefcase.”

“Uh. That’s OK, Sir. You don’t need to check your weapon,” he responded. I had figured the last thing he wanted to be on the hook for was a boatload of Vietnamese currency.

There was a big gulf between the sparkly clean Saigon soldiers and the GIs who came in from the field with muddy boots and faded jungle fatigues. The security guards didn’t know where to fit helicopter pilots. Many of us had better living conditions and hooch maids, so we wore pressed fatigues and shined boots when we came to Saigon, but like all soldiers regularly in combat, we never left home without a weapon. As a result, we sometimes had to be direct with the guards. There was still a war in progress.

Tom Baca looks at Stuart Dunn's old movie camera.
Of course, the security guys were just following orders, doing what they had been told by their superiors. I never blamed them or thought they were the ones who had forgotten we were involved in a war.

When we returned to Saigon in 2008, the city long since had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The skyline was vastly different, with high-rise office and apartment buildings. The Brinks Hotel had been demolished and in its place had been built the Park Hyatt Saigon. I did recognize many of the streets and buildings from 1967 — the Saigon Opera House, now the Ho Chi Minh Municipal Theater; the Continental hotel and restaurant; the Rex Hotel; and fashionable Pasteur Street.

Tom Baca had told me he had taken a Russian hydrofoil boat down the Saigon River to Vung Tau on a trip he made several years earlier to Vietnam. The hydrofoil dock was only 3 blocks from our hotel.

Soon we were aboard one of the hydrofoils, the Vina. A Vietnamese stewardess in a traditional ao dai dress passed through the passenger cabin, handing out packets of wet towels and bottled water. Our fellow passengers included several Vietnamese Americans who had left the country in the 1970s as refugees, but were back as tourists.

Besides being a new adventure, traveling by hydrofoil was much faster than driving to Vung Tau by road. Tom explained the hydrofoil would have us there in about 45 minutes, while the trip down Highway 51 would take more than 3 hours.

The hydrofoil got up to speed quickly. There was no rocking as we glided smoothly downriver.

One of the reasons I wanted to visit Vung Tau was to have lunch at the Grand Hotel, where I had eaten prawns as large as a small lobster during an in-country R&R (Rest and Relaxation) in 1967. The prawns were so good dipped in butter I could remember the taste four decades later.

As we skimmed down the river, we passed a large bridge under construction. Then we passed Nha Be. When I arrived in South Vietnam in February 1967, Nha Be was a gasoline tank farm. Later it would become a U.S. Navy headquarters, complete with a chief petty officers mess that served lobster Newburg weekly for lunch.

About 20 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, we skimmed past the former Rung Sat Special Zone, also known during the war as “The Forest of Assassins.” Today, the Rung Sat swamp is the Can Gio Mangrove Forest, a haven for birds rather than the Viet Cong, as it was during the 1960s.

In the Vina’s passenger cabin, director Richard Max discussed an updated lead-in he wanted me to make in the documentary. He also wanted to get Al on camera in Vung Tau.

Al Croteau being interviewed for documentary.
After we arrived in Vung Tau, Dinh Ngoc Truc suggested we buy our return fare before leaving the hydrofoil terminal. Then we were off to look for the Grand Hotel. We found it, but it didn’t look anything like I remembered. Later I learned the hotel had been rebuilt.

We had less than 2 hours before departing for Ho Chi Minh City, so we decided to have lunch in the hotel dining room. There was not enough time for the chef to prepare prawns, so I ate rice flavored with fish bits.

After lunch, I joined Richard, camera operator Stuart Dunn, and Al on a walkway beside the harbor. Al was interviewed; then it was my turn before the camera.

By the time we finished, it was almost time for our hydrofoil to depart. I was the last passenger on board.

I had not eaten prawns in Vung Tau, but the day had been memorable. That night I would dine on prawns in Ho Chi Minh City.

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