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.

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