Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 17

OKLAHOMA CITY — Captain Wallace “Wally” Johnson commanded the U.S. Special Forces A Team when the two UH-1D “Huey” helicopters landed at Chi Linh on May 14, 1967, to begin the rescue of more than 100 Vietnamese soldiers.

A month earlier, the camp had been called Cau Song Be, but confusion over the name had resulted in 30 tons of rice being delivered by mistake to the Special Forces camp rather than to the nearby provincial capital of Song Be.

Wally Johnson had given the camp its original name. The camp had been built near a stone bridge — “cau” in Vietnamese — over the Song Be River. Though the camp had been renamed in April 1967, the helicopter crews still knew it as Cau Song Be.

Wally Johnson’s family went back to the 1800s in Louisiana and Texas. “My mother was an only child and my father, with his lineage, was a little bit of everything — African-American, of course, but we also have some French blood, some South American blood, and my grandfather, his father, was approximately 50 percent Choctaw Indian,” Wally said.

“They started off in Parish, Texas, and just prior to that — my father was born in 1902 and my mother was born in 1908 — in a little place called Shiro, Texas.”

Shortly before Oklahoma became a state in 1907, his parents were given a parcel of land in what was known as Indian Territory.

“My father settled in a place, southeast of Oklahoma City, just 7 or 8 miles east of what is now Tinker Air Force Base. It was a small, predominantly African-American community called Newalla. That’s where my father grew up on a farm. His family had 11 children, 6 boys and 5 girls. My father was involved in farming and ranching. My grandfather was a rancher and farmer, and raised horses and cattle. They grew their own crops,” Wally said.

His father, Carroll W. Johnson, moved to Oklahoma City in the early 1930s. His mother, Pauletta Bibbs, was living in Oklahoma City before they married.

When Wally was growing up in Oklahoma City, he recalled, “everything was segregated. We lived on the east side of Oklahoma City. There’s a street named Broadway that runs north and south that divided mainly African-Americans who lived on the east side of town, on the east side of Broadway.

“Believe it or not, there were railroad tracks; the railway came from the north, out of Kansas, all the way down to Oklahoma City. I grew up on the other side of the track,” he said.

In Oklahoma City, Wally’s father started off as a dishwasher, working at various cafes and restaurants. About the time Wally was born in August 1939, his father became a chef at the Twin Hills Golf and Country Club.”

Wally was a middle child, the fifth of 10 children, who were evenly divided between 5 boys and 5 girls. The Johnson children attended Inman E. Page Elementary School, near their home.

“Then we went to Frederick Douglass Junior-Senior High School, about a half mile from our home,” Wally said.

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. the Board of Education decision in a 9-0 ruling that ended racial segregation in the U.S. schools. The ruling led the way to racial integration throughout the United States.

“In 1955, all the schools and their programs became integrated. Blacks went to school with whites and whites went to school with blacks in Oklahoma,” said Wally, who was a 16-year-old high school sophomore when integration was implemented.

Wally is No. 36 in high school team photo.
“Leading into my junior year, I had a choice of schools to attend because of integration. I lived closer to Central High School, which was downtown, but since I had played football as a sophomore at Douglass High School, my coach informed me that, ‘You don’t really have a choice, you’re a starting fullback and linebacker and you’re going to be playing with us the rest of the year.’

“They had just built a brand-new Douglass High School before Brown v. Board of Education, so I started off in the newly renovated high school, Douglass Senior High School. My class was the first class, the Class of 1957, to start and graduate from that high school.”

Wally remembered his high school “had a really great football team, winning something like 46 games in a row and 12 state championships. Then, when we integrated in the fall of 1956, we played an integrated schedule and we won the state championship again in class AA, as well as the Mid-State Conference and District Championship. We didn’t have any really big schools; class AA was as large as it got back then. We won the state championship again in 1956,” Wally said.

Wally at University of Oklahoma
“One of my teammates had gone down to the University of Oklahoma the year before, in the fall of 1956, and was the first African-American to play football for the University of Oklahoma.”

Wally went to the university in the fall of 1957 with an academic scholarship and subsequently received a football scholarship when he made the football team.

At the university, Wally took four years of Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). “Back then, unless you had a physical defect or other valid exemption, during your first 2 years it was mandatory that you take ROTC.”

Wally opted to take Advanced ROTC during your junior and senior year.

“Most of the athletes took all 4 years of ROTC. We had an academic counselor who was a veteran of World War II. We later found out he had stormed the beaches at Normandy,” Wally said. “He was pretty persuasive, to say the least, at encouraging us to go into advanced ROTC. Most of us did. Back then it was a very honorable profession to become an officer. I had talked with my high school teachers and coaches, and they had encouraged me, also. They said, ‘You know, you’re going to have to go into the military anyway, so you might as well go as an officer.’”

Wally originally planned to stay in the Army for only 2 years. “I still had some ambitions of playing professional football, but during the second year at Fort Benning, I injured my right knee. I gave up on the football as a professional career and, after talking it over with my battalion commander, I decided to make the Army my career.

Wally with a very large snake
“I don’t know how many people were given the opportunity I was given. I had made first lieutenant and my battalion commander told me, ‘I’ve got 5 or 6 assignments. Which one do you want? I think I can get you to any one you want.’”

“That’s basically how I got into Special Forces.”

His battalion commander also told him he could go to Fort Bragg and go through the Counterinsurgency Course and then the Special Forces Qualification course, and finally to West Germany or Okinawa. “I chose to go to Bad Toelz, West Germany, and into the 10th Special Forces Group.”

Wally remembered the training for Special Forces was intense, but not all that tough for him. “If you played football and endured 2-a-day practices in the summer in Oklahoma, you could pretty much handle anything.”

In 1964, Wally started off with the 4-week counterinsurgency staff officers’ course, which involved talking about the war in Vietnam and unconventional warfare. That course was followed by what is now known as the Special Forces Officers Qualification Course, but then it was the Special Forces Officers Course, even though it included officers and enlisted soldiers.

“We had some pretty intensive training, but at the same time we got a bit of all the specialty areas — weapons, communications, medical, intelligence operations, you name it,” Wally said. “I started there in March 1964 and finished up at the end of August. I left a little early to visit my family in Oklahoma.” His youngest son, Steven, was born on July 13, while Wally was in the field.

Wally was home a week before departing for Germany.

Aerial photo of Chi Linh Camp
Unknown to Wally Johnson and each other at the time, two of the helicopter pilots who would help rescue the Vietnamese CIDG soldiers from Wally’s Special Forces camp three years later also were at Bad Toelz.

“What a coincidence,” Tom Baca would recall more than 40 years later. “I was in Bad Toelz in late 1964 at the 7th Army NCO Academy as a private first class. It was a test to see if I had what it took to be a warrant officer aviator. I had just turned 19 years old.”

Tom subsequently was approved for flight school and about two years later would graduate from the Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama, as a warrant officer helicopter pilot.

Larry Liss, too, was in Bad Toelz, from around Christmas 1964 until December 1965, with the 2/9 Cavalry, working north along the Czech-German-Austrian border “trizone” point.

“We were up against Russian Special Forces (Spetsnaz) units who were embedded among the Czechs. I jumped back and forth between the squadron’s headquarters in Munich and Bad Toelz. I never saw so much snow in my life,” Larry later would recall.

During the May 1967, rescue of the CIDG soldiers, Tom and Larry finally would meet Wally.

Tom was command pilot of a UH-1D “Huey” helicopter that worked with another Huey to rescue the soldiers and a U.S. Special Forces advisor stationed at Chi Linh Special Forces Camp. Larry was copilot aboard Tom’s helicopter.

Wally, who was in charge of the CIDG soldiers, accompanied Tom and Larry on the medical evacuation of 6 soldiers after their company was ambushed by 600-700 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. After the wounded soldiers were evacuated, the helicopter would be joined by a second Huey.

Inside Chi Linh Camp
Together, they would land, under enemy fire, in a clearing made by cutting vegetation with their main rotor blades. The 2 helicopters rescued all living members of the company by making 5 trips each into the area.

But that would be years in the future.

At the time Wally was stationed in Bad Toelz, U.S. Special Forces was oriented to various countries. Many of Wally’s fellow Special Forces classmates studied foreign languages during their training, though Wally took his language training later, after he had joined 10th Special Forces.

Although he had taken intensive training, Wally was not fully qualified until he had completed several Special Forces operations, as well as language training and jumpmaster school.

Though his assignment in Germany originally was a 3-year tour, Wally was there a little over 2 years “because the war in Vietnam intensified and it got pretty hairy. Most of the Special Forces folks who were in Vietnam in the 1960s — in the 1965 and 1966 timeframe — were coming out of Okinawa and Panama,” he said.

“One thing not commonly known is we had Special Forces in Vietnam since 1957, serving as advisors, training the indigenous Montagnards, some in Cambodia. For example, at Chi Linh we had quite a cross-section of different ethnic groups. Two companies were of Vietnamese origin, we had one company that was Cambodian, predominately Cambodian soldiers, and the other was Montagnard. And then we had two recon platoons of ethnic Chinese Nungs,” Wally said.

The survivors of the CIDG company extracted on May 1967 were predominantly Vietnamese.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 16

LONDON — Beforeleaving Ho Chi Minh City in October 2008, we met up with the Windfall Filmscrew at the Tan Son Nhat Airport.

Tom Baca; his flightschool roommate, Sterling Essenmacher; my wife, Renee; and I were catching aJapan Airlines flight to Tokyo. We then would return home by way of Dallas-FortWorth.

After arriving at thebrand-new international terminal, we had more than an hour to kill before ourflight left for Tokyo Narita International Airport. Before leaving for Tan SonNhat Airport, Renee and I had eaten a light dinner at the Hotel Caravelle. Ourflight was scheduled to take off just before midnight, so we figured we’d sleepall the way to Tokyo.

I wandered back andforth up the concourse that led to the departure gates. During my wandering, Isaw documentary director Richard Max and cinematographer Stuart Dunn emergingfrom a security checkpoint. Richard had a box containing the videotape shotduring our week in Vietnam.

He and Stuart werereturning to London, by way of Incheon International Airport hear Seoul, SouthKorea. As I approached Richard, I could see the uniformed security guardpointing to the seal on the box of videotape. “It’s been opened,” the guard wastelling Richard.

“No. No. No. The boxhas not been opened. See the seal? It has not been broken,” Richard replied. Icould see he was frustrated.

After several minutesof haggling, the guard allowed Richard and Stuart passed through security andinto the concourse.

“I remember being quite stressedby the airport incident,” Richard said. “We had spent several hours previouslydoing the rounds of various government departments to avoid just this problem.We paid a hefty fee to receive an official stamp and seal on the box, and goneto what I considered some extraordinary lengths to comply with theirregulations.”

Richard said he didn’t know “whetherthe security guy was just doing his job” or wanted a fee.

As their flight wouldleave after ours, Richard and Stuart joined us at our gate. Richard told us hewould be on a tight editing schedule to meet the documentary’s planned releaseafter December 2008.

We told Richard andStuart goodbye at the gate. Though we did not know it at the time, we wouldmeet again in less than three months.

In November 2008, Ireceived an email from Richard, telling me the HelicopterWarfare documentaries wouldbe broadcast on the FIVE Channel in the United Kingdom in January. WindfallFilms planned a screening of our documentary — VietnamFirefight — at the HospitalClub in Covent Garden. The Huey crews were invited. Since we would be travelingthe farthest, Richard asked that we suggest a date in early January for thescreening and party to celebrate.

I sent a note to TomBaca, Larry Liss and Al Croteau. Tom, Larry and I planned to attend, so we cameup with a date during the first week of January; Al had travel plans elsewhere,so he could not attend.

While growing up inthe mid to late 1950s, I had lived outside of London, in Stanmore and NorthWembley, for four years. Aside from spending a week in London shortly afterRenee and I were married in February 1968, I had not been back to the UnitedKingdom, except to change planes at London Heathrow Airport. Renee and Idecided to go early and spend 10 days in the UK.

By coincidence, afriend in the United Kingdom was a subject of the Falklands War Helicopter Warfare installment.

I had met ChristopherParry about a year earlier when he was came to Santa Fe and Socorro, NewMexico, to make presentations to state government, business and academicleaders about how the world would look in the future. Chris was well qualifiedto do this. As a Royal Navy rear admiral, he was the British Ministry ofDefence’s director general of development, concepts and doctrine.

I was a consultantwith New Mexico Tech, which was sponsoring Chris’s visit to the state. Asarrangements were being finalized, university president Dr. Daniel Lopezsuggested the organizers include me as Chris and I had “both served onhelicopters in combat.”

Chris, who was PrinceAndrew’s commanding officer during the Falklands War, had been mentioned indespatches in the helicopter rescue of 16 SAS soldiers from the Fortuna Glacieron South Georgia Island. He also was mentioned for his role in finding anddisabling the Argentinian submarine ARA Santa Fe. Later, Chris would command HMSGloucester, HMSFearless and the RoyalNavy’s Amphibious Task Group.

The rescue of the SASsoldiers from Fortuna Glacier was the subject of the HelicopterWarfare: White Outdocumentary. As chance would have it, White Out and Vietnam Firefight would be the two documentaries shown atthe London screening.

Renee and I arrivedin London on New Year’s Day 2009. Several days later Chris called. Though wehad planned to have dinner one night, he suggested Renee and I take a trainfrom Waterloo Station to Portsmouth Harbor, where he would meet us at the rail station.

After a 65-milerailroad trip, we arrived at the Portsmouth Harbor station just outside theRoyal Navy base. We accompanied Chris onto the base, where we visited LordNelson’s flagship HMS Victory and the Tudor carrack MaryRose, which had sunk withall hands on board before the eyes of King Henry VIII.

Later that day wewould join Chris and his wife, Jackie, for tea in their home, then have dinnerwith the Parrys in a waterfront pub. We then dashed by car to a train stationto catch our ride back to London.

Tom Baca, Larry Liss and me at Hospital Club.
Several days later,we would see the Parrys at the screening in Covent Garden. After watching bothdocumentaries, I recall telling Chris I was glad I had faced enemy fire on the VietnamFirefight mission thanflying blind as his helicopter had done in White Out. His replied he felt the opposite.

Larry and his wife,Celeste; Tom and his wife, Jan; and Renee and I arrived at the Hospital Clubwithin minutes of each other. Cherry Brewer, line producer for Windfall Films,greeted us warmly. “I feel like I already know you,” she told me. Working onthe documentary, she knew our images and our voices from the videotaped interviews.

Cherry showed me to alarge room where a photographer was waiting. He directed me to turn back andforth naturally while he clicked off hundreds of photos on his camera’s motordrive. Tom, then Larry, joined me in the photo session. After individual shotswere taken, the photographer took photos of the three of us together.

Larry remembered arriving at the Hospital Club a littlelater than he had planned. “We had to walk about 20flights of small steps when the tube station’s elevator and escalator brokedown. I thought I was going to have a heart attack.”

After the publicityphotos were shot, we were taken upstairs, where a party was about to begin.With a glass of wine in hand, we made the rounds, renewing acquaintances fromfilming the documentary and meeting others who would be attending the screening.About 30 minutes later, we entered a theater to view the documentaries.

Tom, Jan, Larry,Celeste, Renee and I were shown to a row of leather lounge chairs on the firstrow, marked “Reserved.” Jackie Parry sat on the other side of Renee.

David Dugan, WindfallFilms chairman, was master of ceremonies. As our film would be shown first,Richard Max described how he now had met Tom, Larry and me “on threecontinents.” After the introductions, Richard pushed a beanbag chair in frontof Tom, Larry and me. I knew Richard was a stickler for accuracy, so I figuredhe wanted to hear our comments as we saw the documentary for the first time.

Ten minutes into thedocumentary, I tapped Richard on the shoulder and said, “Great job.” I heard aslightly audible, “Whew.” Several minutes later, Tom leaned forward and toldRichard, “This is really good.”

In one of the scenes,my face almost filled the screen. My wife turned to me to say something. Ithought, perhaps, she would comment on my appearance. She did. “Your teeth lookyellow,” she told me.

Larry remembered “the screeningwas a great experience for Celeste and me. We had one of our best friends,Larry Hoelscher, who lives and works in London, come to the Hospital Club. Hewas really blown away.

Larry, too, was familiar withLondon, having worked there one week each month for eight years.

“Meeting the Brits who flew theFalklands mission was a real privilege,” Larry said. “We sat with the WindfallFilms staff at one of the bars and really got to know them well.”

Tom was impressed by the computer-generated imagery — orCGI — in the film. “The technical explanations of helicopter flight were good,as well,” he said. “The music and the reenactments also were very good. Larrystole the show with his wit and humor.”

After thedocumentaries were screened, Richard told us there was someone at the party whowanted to meet us. He introduced us to Alasdair Reid, who had composed thescore for the documentary series. Alasdair is a Scotsman who lives in Berlin.

“I hadn’t planned tocome to the screening until I learned you all would be here,” he told us.

Richardsaid he thought filming our interviews in Vietnam “is what made that filmparticularly stand out from the others in the series, and really brought hometo the audience the humanity of your story.”

Hesaid he already had started editing the film when he and cinematographer StuartDunn left for Vietnam in October 2008. Richard said he had left film editorJustin Badger “in the editsuite to go out filming in Vietnam.”

“Justin’s father had been ahelicopter pilot in the British forces and Justin himself had been at Fort Woltersas a baby in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when his dad was posted there fortraining,” Richard said.

Tom, Larry and I had taken our firstfour months of helicopter flight training at Fort Wolters, Texas, home of theU.S. Army Primary Helicopter Training Center.

The telecast of the HelicopterWarfare documentaries on theFIVE Channel was bumped back until May 2009. A short time later, the four-partseries would be broadcast on National Geographic Network International as HelicopterWars.

Eventually, it wouldcome to the United States as Helicopter Missions on the Smithsonian Network.

The forgotten missionwas starting to resurface.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 15

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — We left Vietnam around midnight.

It had been a great reunion for me with a country I previously had known only at war. During my combat tour in 1967-68, I was always on my toes. In flight school, as student pilots we were told never to trust anyone because you never knew who was friend or foe.

Now — in October 2008 — I felt safe. Now I could drink a beer in a rural restaurant that had been in Viet Cong territory and ride through the former capital of Saigon without worrying a satchel charge would be thrown into my vehicle.

As our Japan Airlines flight lifted off from Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, I knew I would be back. Though Vietnam was at war on my first visit, I could appreciate the beauty of the country, as seen from a helicopter at 1,500 feet. Now I could visit the country at ground level.

Dinh Ngoc Truc, who accompanied us as a representative of the Vietnam Ministry of Culture and Information, had invited me to visit him in Hanoi.

During the next 4 years, I would return to Vietnam 3 more times. Truc would become a good friend as we traveled from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay on my first visit to what had been North Vietnam during the 1960s. My wife, Renee, joined me on that visit.
Jack Swickard with helicopter in 1967.

On 2 subsequent trips, I was joined by friends like Ken Fritz, former president of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association; Tom Krumland of Roswell, who owns one of the largest car companies in southern New Mexico; Congressman Steve Pearce, who was an Air Force C-130 pilot during the Vietnam War; and Steve’s good friend, Joe Yue, a restaurateur from Hobbs, New Mexico.

We traveled by domestic airliner and van from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, visiting old battlefields and cities whose names were repeated often in television new reports during the 1960s and early 1970s. Parts of our travels were on paved portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

We occasionally would stop at a home or business along the highway for lunch. The owners and their family would heat water for our meal of tea and pho, along with pork sandwiches. Truc referred to this as “VC food.” Our hosts invariably were delighted to welcome us. Hospitality prevails throughout Vietnam.

On my third trip back, in late 2010, I wanted to visit the site of the Cau Song Be Special Forces Camp, about 100 kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh City, on National Highway 14. In May 1967, our 2 helicopters had flown from the camp to rescue more than 100 Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) soldiers surrounded by 600-700 North Vietnam Army and Viet Cong troops. We flew the survivors to the camp after the rescue.

I still can see the CIDG soldiers’ wives and mothers, their eyes hollow in agony, surrounding our helicopters each of the 5 times we landed with survivors. Sometimes there was the joy of a safe return. Sometimes there was only the sadness of loss.

Returning to Vietnam in 2010, I wanted to find a survivor or the relative of a one to interview about the May 14, 1967, rescue.

Tom Baca, command pilot of the other Huey, had located a rough, black-and-white map that showed Chi Linh along Highway 14, near a bridge over the Song Be River. The camp’s commander, Capt. Wallace “Wally” Johnson told me Cau Song Be’s name had been changed to Chi Linh to avoid confusing it with Song Be, the capital of Phuoc Long Province in 1967.

Over dinner in Hanoi, I had told my friend, Senior Police Colonel Than Hung, I would like to find the former camp. Several weeks later, Tran Van Thanh, a retired North Vietnam Army colonel and one of Hung’s boyhood friends, and Truc, a former Viet Cong antiaircraft gunner, would take me to the site of the camp.

Cau Song Be (Chi Linh) camp in 1967.
On Nov. 29, 2010, we headed north on Highway 13 from Ho Chi Minh City. At Chon Thanh, we turned east on Highway 14. Our map showed 3 bridges; we crossed 5 before we figured the map showed only major spans.

We stopped in small villages along Highway 14, as my guides interviewed older people. No one remembered the camp, though several people had heard about one. We also heard reports of a military cemetery and a People’s Army war memorial. We encountered neither.

After crossing a major bridge, we stopped at Nha Bich village some 20 kilometers from the intersection with Highway 13. Inside an open restaurant, Thanh, Ken and I drank coconut milk while Truc interviewed several villagers. Then, with sketchy details, we drove north on dirt roads from Nha Bich to the edge of the Songbe Rubber Co. plantation.

We stopped our SUV near the rubber trees and walked to the edge of a small cliff. There were hundreds of newly planted trees before us. About a half kilometer away was a stand of larger, mature rubber trees. The outline was familiar with the stand on one side of the Special Forces camp in 1967. This could be it.

As we walked back to our SUV, we encountered a group of Vietnamese motorcyclists who had stopped in front of a country house under construction. Ken and Truc, who had started back to the SUV ahead of Thanh and me, were joking with the men about their motorcycles. Ken, climbed on one of the motorcycles, rode down a trail and back, causing laughter. I think they found it unlikely an American visitor would know how to ride a motorcycle, bit Ken had been riding since he was a child.

From left, Ken, Thanh, Jack and Truc at Chi Linh.
The motorcyclists, with Ken and Truc on board, then rode west on Highway 14 for several kilometers. When they rejoined us, Ken announced: “These guys ride around here all the time and know about the camp. They gave us directions.”

We turned onto another dirt road and headed north until we came to a house. Behind it was a stand of fully matured rubber trees. We had located Cau Song Be. There were no buildings. The red dirt runway no longer existed.

A man in his late 20s and a 2-year-old child were sitting in front of the house. I asked Truc if the man might be related to a survivor of the 1967 rescue. “I already asked him. He is a newcomer and just moved here,” Truc told me.

I knew it was a long shot to find anyone related to a survivor. The camp had no reason to exist after the war, so it disappeared. The soldiers and their families had moved to the camp from elsewhere, so any who survived the war likely returned to their homes or became refugees.

Even the ghosts of Cau Song Be had long since departed.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Forgotten Mission — Chapter 14

TAY NINH CITY, Vietnam — Though we returned to Vietnam in October 2008 as subjects of a documentary, members of our 2 helicopter crews wanted to revisit places where we had been 41 years earlier.

Tom Baca had visited Vietnam several years earlier, so he had a list of places he thought we could take in during our visit. High on his list was the Cao Dai Temple and grounds at Tay Ninh City, some 90 kilometers northwest of Ho Chi Minh City.

Windfall Films director Richard Max included a trip to Tay Ninh City on the shooting schedule. It worked out great — Richard got good footage of the helicopter crews inside the colorful temple and we were able to spend hours sightseeing on the Cao Dai grounds.

Dick Knowles, a friend of mine in New Mexico, had spent time with Cao Dai leaders during the Vietnam War. Since I had flown over the Cao Dai Temple grounds on various missions to Tay Ninh City, I was curious about Dick’s dealings with the religious organization, so I was a good listener.

Dick, known to many Army Vietnam veterans as General Richard T. Knowles, had deployed to South Vietnam as deputy commander of the 1st Air Cavalry Division. He was an Army helicopter pilot who was in the thick of combat during the war. Dick held the distinction of being shot down by the enemy while a general officer at the controls of a helicopter.

Cao Dai Temple at Tay Ninh City.
After retiring from the Army as a lieutenant general, he moved to Roswell, New Mexico. Dick opened an antique shop, which was named The General’s Store, and settled down to married life in southeastern New Mexico. Dick then was elected to the New Mexico House of Representatives, where he rose to House minority leader.

Largely because of Dick’s description of the Cao Dai, I developed an interest in visiting the temple grounds.

As we drove by van from Ho Chi Minh City to Tay Ninh, I was amazed at the number of small businesses. For more than 50 kilometers, both sides of the highway were lined with shops and small factories.

I remembered much of the area as riceland. Now it was difficult to see open areas in which helicopters could land in formation.

Nearing Tay Ninh City, the land opened up. This was what I remembered. Then I saw Nui Ba Dinh, the 3,268-foot-tall volcanic cinder cone rising alone above the surrounding plain.

Tay Ninh City was neat, clean and prosperous. We drove through parts of the city to the fenced Cao Dai complex and entered the grounds through a gate. It was another world.

Worshipers inside the Cao Dai Temple.
Ngo Van Chieu, who served as an administrator during the French colonial period of Indochina, formally established the Cao Dai religion in 1926. Caodaists believe Chieu received a communication from the supreme deity in 1919.

The religion draws on elements of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Roman Catholicism. Its saints include Confucius, Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Sun Yat-sen, and Victor Hugo. Many are represented by statues and in artwork.

We spent several hours sightseeing inside the temple and around its grounds while we waited for Mass to begin. With a video camera trained on us, we watched the service from a second-floor balcony.

After filming, we watched Richard Max and cinematographer Stuart Dunn chase down Cao Dai priests and worshipers to sign release forms. I was impressed with the film crew’s attention to detail, which was apparent throughout the filming of the documentary.

When we left the Cao Dai Temple, we were introduced to a woman in a black suit. Dinh Ngoc Truc of the Vietnam Ministry of Culture and Information explained she was a representative of the Tay Ninh Province People’s Committee, who had come to meet us. After we left Tay Ninh City and drove to the base of Nui Ba Den, she joined us for lunch at the roadside restaurant.

Later that afternoon, we would film the documentary’s final scenes in front of the old Saigon City Hall, a cream-and-white, French colonial structure on Le Thanh Ton Street that is now the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee Building. It was here Stuart caught on camera Al Croteau’s relief on hearing we had not left behind a South Vietnamese soldier during the May 1967 Cau Song Be rescue flights.

Al had believed for 41 years that we had left the lone soldier behind. During the final seconds of the last scene in front of City Hall, Larry Liss told Al he and Tom Baca had picked up the soldier in their helicopter before departing the landing zone on the last flight out.

Richard Max later would refer to Al’s belief we had left someone behind and his relief on learning we had not as “the soul” of the documentary.

That night we all went to dinner in a traditional restaurant. When the rest of us arrived, Truc was waiting with Saigon Beer in buckets of ice water. We all were departing the following day.

As our flight did not leave until just before midnight, Al, Renee and I were able to visit the former Presidential Palace, now known as the Reunification Palace. The Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnam Army tank crashed through the fence surrounding the Palace.

It cost us $1 each to visit the Palace. I remember walking through the front gate and up a curved driveway to the front steps. At the top, a young man in a white shirt and necktie asked us where we were from. We told him. He walked to a nearby desk and asked a woman something. “If you would like to have a seat, we’ll start an English language tour in 5 minutes,” the man told us.

Al and Renee took a seat, but I lingered. The young man asked me, “Is this your first time in Vietnam?”

Renee, Dung and Al inside Palace.
I wasn’t sure how to answer. What would be his reaction if I told him I had been a soldier during the Vietnam War, which the Vietnamese know as “The American War?”

I took the plunge. “I was a helicopter pilot during the war, stationed at Bien Hoa Air Base,” I said, pointing northeast.

“I’ll give you the tour,” he replied. Al, Renee and I spent several hours with our guide, Mr. Dung. When we finished, the other tourists were gone and the Palace was closing for the day. We shook hands with Mr. Dung and said goodbye.

Al and I had learned an important lesson: U.S. military veterans are welcome in Vietnam.

On a later visit to Vietnam, Ken Fritz, a fellow Vietnam helicopter pilot, and I toured old battlefields with Truc, who had served in the People’s Army and the Viet Cong. Vietnam Television (VTV) and the Voice of Vietnam radio program picked up on our visit and did interviews with the three of us. Truc said many Vietnamese were very taken with the fact two American helicopter pilots and a former VC soldier were touring the battlefields together.

Another time, a good friend who is a senior police officer in Hanoi told me his father had been in the Viet Cong and was stationed near Cau Song Be during the May 1967 rescue. “But he would not have shot at you,” my friend said. Later, he determined his father had been assigned elsewhere at the time of the rescue.