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.

No comments:

Post a Comment