March - April 2005
Bill Haponski


In 1968 - 1969 Bill Haponski served as S-3 (Plans and Operations), and XO (Executive Officer) of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, and commanded  the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division ( Big Red One).  The following is a report of his visit to modern day Vietnam. 


As a career soldier I was not done with Vietnam when I returned stateside in 1969. In the English Department at West Point I answered the questions of my cadets and, beginning two years later, my ROTC cadets who very much wanted to know about the war they might soon fight. I tried to give them objective, non-emotional answers. I replied too, to the questions of fellow vets - "Where were you, what unit were you in, what was your job?" - the usual kind of thing. Beyond that, though, I did not want to talk about Vietnam. I certainly could not have imagined in those days I would ever want to return.

But I did return, in late March and early April of this year.

By 1965, when our massive military and financial aid mission of four years, preceded by seven years of increasing commitments, clearly had failed, I believed our country made a tragic mistake by committing American ground combat units. My journals of that time show I recognized it. By 1968, my company mate during four years at West Point, Ray Celeste, had been killed. My Beast Barracks roommate, Bob Stewart, who told me on the first day I met him he was determined to graduate first academically in our class, and did so, was flying F-100s and had disappeared over Indo China, never to be found. On the first day of Tet, 30 January 1968, my dear, dear friend, John Martin, was aboard a helicopter at Hue when it was shot down, killing all aboard. John left a wonderful wife without a husband, and five beautiful children without a father.

So many of the South Vietnamese people had suffered so much for their right not to live under the Communist North's flag I wanted them to be free. But I believed that a country which could not establish and maintain a viable government and gain the loyalty of a majority of its people could not be propped up by an outside power. Soldiers cannot choose the wars in which they will fight. But their president can. I believe the true test of national determination is the personal test of the president: Would I subject my son or my daughter to the ordeal I am expecting other people's sons and daughters to undergo to fight this war? If the national interests which reflect the best America has to offer truly require a yes from its president -- he is willing to sacrifice his son or daughter because there is no alternative, then fight, fight intelligently, and fight fiercely America must.

But strategic thinking is for oval offices. Soldierly thinking is for battlefields. The soldier's enemy is the person who's shooting at him. The soldier's concern is to protect himself and his buddies, and kill as many of the enemy as he can.

I had been trained on a war that absolutely had to be fought, World War II. Many of my tactical officers and instructors during my cadet days at West Point were veterans of that war or another war which could not be avoided if we were to live up to our commitments -- Korea. I hugely admired these soldiers and was profoundly grateful for what they and America did. I hoped I could measure up. I wanted to serve my country well. As a cadet, in a boring moment in class, I whimsically sketched a picture of myself in my textbook. I put stars on my shoulders - not a measly two, three, or four, or even five as General of the Armies, not six as Commander of the World, but seven - Commander of the Universe!

By 1968 I had gotten my Ph. D. During the course of my humanities studies and teaching at West Point I had encountered much of what art, literature, and philosophy had to offer. The best of life is creation, love, life itself. My small family had been living the best of life. One of our visiting lecturers posed a challenge to the cadets: As a soldier, he told them, you must consider the value of that which you might have to destroy. So I had to answer some very tough questions. Vietnam forced a reevaluation of what my life was all about. The answer was clear: Just as my career was on a swift rise it was over. But I was a professional soldier and knew I had skills that were needed by our soldiers. On my volunteer form for Vietnam I wrote that I wanted to serve at the lowest possible level for my rank in an armored combat unit. I did.

In Vietnam there were only two staff positions for a lieutenant colonel (armor) in a combat unit. They were S-3 (Plans and Operations), and XO (Executive Officer) of 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. In addition, there were twelve armored cavalry squadron or tank battalion commands country-wide for armor lieutenant colonels. In the year from mid-1968 to mid-1969 I first held both staff positions in 11th Cav and then took command of 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division ( Big Red One), thus holding all three possible positions, a record. In those assignments I got a unique perspective on the war. Because of the helicopter I could be at one moment among the generals doing the directing, and in the next among the troops doing the dying. From the first moment I saw those 11th Cav troopers, grimy, tired, scared but able to laugh at the same time, my consuming passion was to do my job well so I could help bring as many of them back as I could.

When I took command of 1-4 Cav, I had two inseparable goals: Kill as many of the enemy as I could, and save as many of my men as I could. My whole existence, virtually my entire concern was to do just that. I took the mutilation and death of my men very hard, and I was determined to be as smart and efficient a commander as I could be. Successful command of an armored unit requires quick thinking and aggressive action during every waking moment except for the precious few you can squeeze out for some rest and a good laugh or two. Intensive thinking and planning, always anticipating, and then acting decisively becomes a way of life. I believe I was very good at killing the enemy. I know I wasn't nearly as successful as I had hoped to be at saving my men.  

In the11th Cav I was responsible for planning and helping to execute operations of a large force of tanks, armored cavalry assault vehicles, artillery, and helicopters. We had about 3600 men organic to the unit, and with attachments to include US and Vietnamese battalions, our strength sometimes reached 6500 or so. The fighting during my time with 11th Cav was always small unit in nature - a squad, platoon, sometimes a company or troop in contact. Original unit records reflect that my memory is correct: During the last half of 1968 we never had a whole squadron or battalion engaged at one time. Our area of operations was the relatively open terrain just north and east of Saigon and the limitless jungle of War Zone D north of Bien Hoa. The fighting was frustratingly brutal - men killed and maimed by mines and booby traps, often with few or no enemy killed. Or they were injured and killed by horrific accidents of war -- friendly fire, overturned vehicles, falling trees during jungle-clearing operations. My personal encounters with our dead, wounded, burned, and mangled men were gruesome. On one occasion I had landed and picked up a horribly burned and blinded man and medevac'ed him. Afterward, outside the hospital, covered with his gore, I retched until my gut seemed to be coming out my mouth.

Our war was terrible too in terms of the toll of innocent civilian lives - those taken deliberately by the enemy to terrorize the population, such as when they threw phosphorous grenades into the choir loft as the children were singing Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, those taken accidentally by us in countering enemy movements, and those taken in cases of mistaken or questionable identity.

One of the accidents profoundly affected my life. In September 1968, one of our 11th Cav troops was in a night defensive position outside a tiny hamlet, Binh Co, way out in the boondocks, hard up against the jungle of War Zone D. I did not know at the time but many years later during my research learned that this hamlet and its sister hamlet to the north, Binh My, were in fact the center of the Viet Minh resistance movement against the French in Cochin China (the southernmost of the three subdivisions of Vietnam). This area remained an important command and control and supply point for the enemy during American times and beyond, and also served as the jungle headquarters of the Dong Nai Regiment. On that night in 1968, a small probing attack by an element of this enemy regiment resulted in our unit firing illumination rounds. One of the flares failed to burn out and landed in the thatch of a mud-walled house belonging to a very poor family - the poorest of the poor, which by Binh Co standards was poor indeed.

 The woman was a widow with four girls, ages 18, 13 , 9, and 8. As was characteristic with rural people, the girls seemed much younger than their true ages and their mother much older. The widow's house and the one next to it burned to the ground.

In the course of the next few days, as our engineers began building new houses - this time of wood with tin roofs - I came to love the little 13 year-old, only somewhat more than a year older than my daughter Maura, now so far away. At first Nhan was terrified of me. Gradually she tolerated me, then became my friend, and finally came to love me as her father - "Papa-san," she called me, and, pointing to herself, "Baby-san." The regimental commander, Colonel George S. Patton, son of Old Blood and Guts, and I decided to make Binh Co and Binh My the center of our regimental pacification efforts, a model for all the other hamlets in our area of operations (AO). I flew in many times to coordinate these efforts and visit with the villagers. General Abrams, the American commander in Vietnam after Westmoreland, had taken over only a few weeks earlier, and he made pacification -- which meant, in its most basic form, security for the villages -- the centerpiece of his plans for Vietnam. When he came to see Patton he would always ask how Binh Co and Binh My were doing.

The story of Binh Co and my relationship of 1968 - 69 with Nhan is recorded at length in my journals, pictures, and movie films. When I left 11th Cav to command 1-4 Cav my visits necessarily were limited. I managed to return only a few precious times from the fighting farther to the north and west. Throughout the remainder of my tour I did everything I could to ensure that the family was taken care of, to include having tons of captured rice, several bicycles, and other essential and useful items delivered to them and other hamlet residents. My S-5 (Civic Action), Captain Tom Witter, among the finest soldiers and most wonderful men I have ever known, delivered a bull calf and heifer in the back of his 3/4 ton truck to Binh Co, driving over mine-swept, but by no means necessarily mine-free, roads. (He was always doing things like that, out all hours of the day and night in the hamlets, working tirelessly to make things better for the people.) I hoped the cattle he delivered while I was far off would provide the family an important source of income. Earlier we had gotten Nhan's mother a treadle sewing machine (who ever heard of electricity in Binh Co?), and we had arranged to enroll her sister in a nursing program, hoping the family could find means for a livelihood. On my final visit, just before I left for home, Nhan was not there. She had gone to another village to visit her older sister. Her mother told me that Nhan would stand for hours looking at the sky, hoping that the next helicopter to fly in to the night defensive position (NDP) at Binh Co would be mine. At the end of my tour, as I lifted off from Tan Son Nhut and looked down, I knew that Nhan was down there somewhere, and I knew I would never see her again. My later attempts to regain contact and send money to the family were all fruitless, and as soon as the 11th Cav left the area in 1970, Binh Co fell back into VC hands.

Almost thirty years passed. In 1998 I more or less accidentally found a reference to my old unit, 1-4 Cav, on Internet. That led to my contact with Mike O'Connor, who, I discovered, as a young sergeant had commanded a tank during our fiercest battle during my six months in command. This was on 30 March 1969 in the infamous Michelin Rubber Plantation, about 40 miles north of Saigon. I later learned what a remarkable man he was and is. On the day before the battle he had lost all external and internal communication in his tank and was not able to restore it. He refused, though, to exercise his option (more a requirement than option) of deadlining the tank even though he knew he we were headed for a big fight the next day. After emailing one another several times, he and I got to be friends. Then during the following months and ensuing years, I was able to contact dozens of the men of my task force, and a hundred or so more who had been in 1-4 Cav or units under its operational control during its five years in Vietnam. Soon we established a research team of over a dozen men, and we recovered 14,000 pages of original documents from National Archives. Several were operation orders bearing my signature, and one of them was even a note I had written in long hand during my 11th Cav days. I began studying the war in earnest, doing Internet research, buying used books, some 200 of them in English and French, making trips to National Archives, corresponding with Frenchmen. I had arrived at the point of wanting to know what it was all about. What the hell was it all about?

As I researched, I relearned much I had forgotten, and discovered much I had not known. I felt compelled now to write about it. Most of what had been written was published before or soon after the Communist Spring Offensive of Tet 1968, that shock to the American psyche when Vietnam erupted and a few VC even briefly penetrated the US Embassy Compound in Saigon. Books published for years afterward read as if the war had ended with Tet 1968. Apparently, after the national and international shock from Tet 68 subsided, no one wanted to hear any more about the war. But it went on. In fact, it did not peak at 549,000 Americans serving in Vietnam until almost a year and a half later, just before I left in July 1969. During my year, with Tet 68 behind us, much of the war was still ahead. In fact, by the spring of 1969 the war had reached a stage north of Saigon from which it largely had retreated since the highpoint of Tet a year earlier. Again, whole battalions or armored cavalry task forces were being committed against enemy main force units of regimental size and larger. My troops would do much fighting and considerable dying during the new war, the one no one wanted to hear about.

For years I never conceived of going back - not even when, in 1998, after talking with Mike, I took my journals out of a musty, Vietnam-smelling footlocker and put them on my shelf. There they stayed for another year, unopened since I had last looked at them soon after Vietnam, 30 years earlier. I could not look at them. Then one day, for what reason I do not know, I began to read. I was rediscovering a critical period, one that had affected me immensely. Soon I knew I had to write about it. I wanted people to know of the sacrifices of my troops, of what 19- and 20-year-olds had accomplished against such enormous odds. I will always remember, will never forget, what they did.

Still I could not conceive of going back. My guilt at not being able to help Nhan and her family was overwhelming. Although for the first 28 years of my life I was Methodist and not Catholic as I since have been, I was able to feel guilty. Guilty about Nhan, about everything. (Isn't a Catholic obligated to feel guilty ?? I had missed a whole 28 years of feeling guilty, and maybe was trying hard to make up for it.) If I returned, what would I find? Would she have died, and under terrible circumstances? Would she be maimed or sick? If so, what could I do about it? Would I find a 49-year-old woman looking like the forty- and fifty-year-old women I remembered from Binh Co - looking as if they were 89 not 49, broken by a lifetime of peasant labor, teeth missing and the few remaining ones beetle nut-stained? Would she remember me? If so, would she resent me?

Finally I knew I had to tuck up my guts and find out 


The trip from Orlando to Los Angeles, where I would stay overnight and meet Maura the next morning, was - well, interesting. I boarded for Atlanta, the first leg, on time. Then we all sat in the plane, grounded, waiting out tornados between Jacksonville and Atlanta. And we sat. When we finally took off, the seat belt light never was turned off, the plane bounced around a good deal during the flight, and we landed hard. I had missed my connecting flight. A few hours later I was off again, plane loaded to capacity. Next to me, against the window, was an enormously fat man who took up all of his seat and much of mine. He fell asleep instantly and snored and snorted all the way to LA. I didn't try to sleep, just survive. When we landed 8 very long hours later, and hours behind schedule, I managed to get out from under him and drag my baggage to the curb to await my shuttle from the hotel. It was scheduled to arrive 24/7, every 15 minutes. But no shuttle. Then, after I had waited a long time, suddenly security men  poured out of the terminal and began frenziedly setting out orange cones to reroute traffic. They shouted for everybody on the platform to move. In the next several minutes I struggled at least a quarter mile, dragging my bags to new pickup spots, each time to be moved some more. Bomb threat. Airport closed. Finally, as the traffic was allowed to start again and began to unsnarl, I was able to bribe myself a ride on another hotel's shuttle, arriving exhausted at my hotel, many hours overdue, mindful that at least last time no one had tried to kill me until I got to Vietnam.

The flight by Asiana Airlines (Korean) to Seoul was long and tiring, but Maura and I got to see an astonishing sight. We had flown up the west coast, along the Aleutian Islands, across the Bering Sea near the Arctic Circle, and at 30,000 feet we looked down upon Siberia. I have seen mountains from the air in winter - the Alps and Rockies included - but never have I seen such a sight. It was a brilliant sunny day, and beneath us for as far as we could see to the west were huge mountains buried entirely in what must have been many feet or yards of snow. We saw not one patch of gray. No windswept mountaintops revealing rocky surfaces, no roads or habitations, no rivers flowing, only mountains, huge mountains, entirely white. Beautiful. Awesome.

The final leg from Korea into Saigon was uneventful most of the way. Nearing midnight, as we lowered to a few thousand feet and watched the flight indicator on the screen, noting we were 100 miles north of Saigon, we began seeing lights. Electric lights in the lower Central Highlands?? Things obviously had changed in Vietnam. The lights became more prominent as we got closer, and for the last 20 or so miles appeared to reveal one continuous huge city. We could see lit roadways, homes, and large factories. Just before we landed I easily identified bends and twists in the wide Dong Nai River that connects with the smaller Saigon River south of the city. I had flown over the river many times and studied it on my maps. We were seeing now the huge cities of Bien Hoa and Saigon and their outlying villages which, instead of being entities as they were in our day, appeared to be one continuous mass. In 1968 and 69 this expanse was sparsely lighted, or not at all. But since then the population of Vietnam quadrupled. Just as we were on final approach, the pregnant young Asian lady seated next to Maura and me threw up on the floor, splattering my carry-on luggage. Thus, from Orlando -- delays, tornados, fat man overflowing into my seat, bomb threat, more delays, exhaustion, squeezed for hours into an economy class seat, and now vomit to top it all off -- an interesting experience. Welcome to Saigon, 2005. I told Maura I almost preferred the 1968 variety, just two hundred or so GI's on a direct flight from Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco. This time, though, she was with me, and I had a much better chance of returning home. Everyone on the plane would return home. Everything was okay.


On my first trip to Vietnam we had taxied past the graveyard of planes that had been all shot up, some appearing to be from French times. This time we taxied past left-over American arched concrete revetments for aircraft which, after the fall of Saigon in 1975, had housed Soviet helicopters and MIG 21s. Last time, at the door of the ramp lowered to the tarmac we had been assaulted by a wall of excruciating heat and humidity to our front, sharp contrast to the air conditioning at our rear. On my second trip, though, we entered the modern way, through the level exit ramp into a - would you believe it? - well air conditioned, immaculate terminal. On my 1968 trip we had waited, milling around under the oppressive glaring sun until our busses pulled up and we loaded, already sweat-streaked, and looked out through heavily screened windows at Vietnam, wondering what lay ahead. The second time, Maura and I were near the end of the processing line, and this time too we had some wait. However, each customs and immigration counter was open, and we were processed efficiently by uniformed men and women, neither friendly nor unfriendly, just businesslike.

Our welcoming party was at the exit gate of the terminal, two men, one of them our interpreter holding a sign with our emailed picture on it. The English of his emails had been nearly perfect, but now, after greeting us, he struggled to understand us and express himself. This tendency grew less and less noticeable as the hours and days progressed until by the end of the trip he was much more comfortable in communicating and we were kidding him he should pay us for improving his English instead of us paying him for interpreting and guide services. Thoan [not his real name, as I will explain] was a delightful, sometimes quirky little guy, a bit shorter even than I. Looking 35 or so, but actually 28, he had a neck and shoulder problem he attempted to solve every few minutes by violently jerking his head side to side and swinging his shoulders. The driver Tan [not his name] spoke no English. Our transportation was a quite new, small Toyota van, air conditioned, which seated eight people. It is an advantage to be a small person in Vietnam. I was comfortable in my space, but my six-foot son-in-law Steve who joined us from Australia the next day would later admit he could have well used more room.

We took back streets toward the major highway built in French days, Route Coloniale 1 which wound from south of Saigon all the way up the coast to Hanoi. It was now well after midnight but the streets were quite busy with motorcycles (some without lights), trucks, bicycles, and various small conveyances going everywhere. We went along back streets, some under repair, and finally through an opening in a fence and onto a bumpy dirt track which served well enough as an entry ramp onto Route 1, a super highway of either six or eight lanes - I don't remember which. Tan took the leftmost lane, not driving fast but passing the slower motorcycles in the two or three right hand lanes, weaving skillfully around trucks, and dodging out from under those bigger vehicles bearing down on us from the rear. He honked the smaller slower nuisances out of the way and got honked at by the bigger nuisances. More on driving in Vietnam later. (If I describe it here, as it needs to be described, we'll never get to the hotel.)

We crossed the Saigon River on one of the dozen or so major bridges for which I had provided ready reaction forces in 1969. From my predecessor in command of 1-4 Cav, Jack Faith, I inherited the 1st Division warning that if one of those bridges goes down I had better be on it.

Soon we were at the intersection with what the French called Route Coloniale 13, the other French-built international route in Cochin China. It goes directly north to the Cambodian border, and on to Vientiane in Laos. As soldiers we knew the portion of it from Lai Khe to An Loc as "Thunder Road" because of the mines and frequent fighting. During the American war, Highway 13 was the most strategic route in III Corps area from Saigon northward.  Take a moment to orient yourself. Tan Son Nhut Airport (now called Tan Son Nhat) is bottom left. The broad red road going east is Route 1. The broad red road going south to north is Route13. Go north on this road noting Thu Dau Mot, Ben Cat, and at the far north, An Loc. Find the Michelin Plantation at left center of the map and then find Binh Co to the east of Ben Cat. The Michelin, Thunder Road, and Binh Co were the focal points of my trip.]

We were headed north on the east bank of the river, through the heavy palm frond area along the lowlands.. Here in 2005, squalid houses and small businesses intermingled carelessly with nicer ones, and the route was crowded, unlike the old days in which the foreboding presence of a building along the road was much more occasional. [From letter to my wife Sandra and daughter Maura, 20 January 1969:] "Today I had a pleasant drive in a new area, from the outskirts of Saigon north along Route 13 to Phu Cuong, paralleling the Saigon River. This is a lowlands area of rice paddies, green even now during the dry season, and of napa palm. During the wet season, water rises to several feet in the houses. I've seen them under water except for the roofs, yet the people seem somehow to come back and live in them. Apparently it's all in what one gets used to."

In my letters to my family I never spoke of the terrible realities of the war, only the unusual things and the pleasant moments I could find in it. This is reflected in my journal entries, made only for me, not shared with anyone until now. [From my journal, 22 January 1969:] "I drive the roads in the heat of midday, a lazy somnolence settled over the land, and I think lazily, with nothing particular in mind. I don't think much of danger except perhaps at some turns in the road or during long stretches when the palm fronds and vegetation close right up to the shoulders of it. Then I finger my weapon and watch the sides of the road. Otherwise, the sights are interesting, enough to ward off drowsiness, and life goes on. It was not so long ago that a drive up Highway 13 from the outskirts of Saigon to Phu Cuong, an old provincial capital, was unheard of unless one went in force. Yet, a few days ago I made the drive with only myself, driver, and operations officer in the jeep."

What I did not realize in 1969 was that the area along the river through which I was driving was at that moment being prepared on both sides of the road as a huge enemy base camp. It was planned to be the closest one to Saigon for the enemy's 1969 Tet Offensive. I was not to discover this until over thirty years later when at National Archives I read interrogation reports by MACV, the major headquarters of US operations in Vietnam. The enemy's advanced parties were already building the bunkers only yards off the road as I made my leisurely drive that day. On 6 January 1969, my first full day in command of 1-4 Cav, we had captured an officer who said he was a lieutenant in the Dong Nai Regiment. Nice to get a lieutenant, but no big deal. The MACV interrogation reports revealed, though, he was in fact a lieutenant colonel charged by COSVN, the enemy headquarters for South Vietnam, with planning the next massive attack on the capital, scheduled for late February. As a result of our capture, combined with the reports of a double agent, General Abrams was able to anticipate enemy moves and easily defeat the attempt. (It would have been nice for us in 1-4 Cav to have known this in 1969, but sharing intelligence information with the units that first seized it was not a long suit of any headquarters, division and above.) Lucky for me and my two other troopers on that balmy day in late January 1969, the enemy had no intention of endangering their preparations for a major attack by killing three insignificant Americans.

Now, in 2005, we were headed for Thu Dau Mot, the name by which Phu Cuong is currently known. (Actually Phu Cuong is only one of the six wards of a vastly expanded city, Thu Dau Mot). Though tired from the long trip, I remembered my earlier drive and the ceramic pieces I had bought in Lai Thieu, the old French garrison village through which we were now driving. Under the street lights we could see small ceramic factories and showrooms along the highway, many more it seemed than had been there in 1969.

A few minutes later, now approaching 2:00 a.m., we arrived at the Vu Gia hotel on Route 13 in Thu Dau Mot, about 16 miles north of the airport. It was a small building with an open air restaurant along its front. We awakened a young man asleep on a mat in front of the reception desk. He was the assistant manager - descendant of the Kempetai?? -- the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo during the Japanese Occupation of 1941-45?? No threatening curved saber here, no hostility of any kind from him, but no smile or word of greeting either. Maybe it was just the hour or ulcers or something.

On this first night Maura and I had to share a second floor room overlooking the highway. Immaculate, nice big room, double beds. But noise from the street - honking all night long. We were too tired, though, to be kept awake during the precious few hours we had until breakfast.

Before daylight I was awakened by the sound of crowing. Crowing? Just like when I was a kid on the farm. But roosters in a city? After daylight we were to see chickens scratching and pecking around among some of the apartment buildings and houses behind us. We had tea or coffee and the Vietnamese staple for breakfast -- pho -- rice noodle chicken soup. (We could have had rice noodle hamburger {pork} soup, or plain noodle chicken or hamburger soup. During our trip we tried all of them. Very good, but I was glad to get a bacon and eggs breakfast upon return stateside.) {Sidewalk Café at Hotel} Maura had a migraine and went back to bed, so despite her strong desire to make this day's trip with me, a very special one, I would make it alone. I exchanged a couple crisp one hundred dollar bills for dong (piasters in our day) at a good rate at the hotel, and headed north.


I had decided late in 2004 to go back to Vietnam. I did not realize until I was into the planning, though, that in 1969 I had been 36 and now I was 72. Because I was writing a book, I thought it sensible to visit the scenes of my largest battles on their anniversary rather than at some other time so I could describe them more accurately. For instance, what was the condition of the leaves on the trees in the Michelin Plantation at that time of year - important for an understanding of what I could or could not see from the ground and from my helicopter. My memory and my research indicated the answer, but why not visit on the anniversaries of the battles so I could confirm conditions of weather, foliage, daylight and darkness -- so important in military operations? And why not on the anniversaries to pay respect to the dead? So it turned out I programmed my first visit to be on 25 March 2005 in the Michelin Plantation at the scene of my most difficult moment in battle, the day exactly half a lifetime earlier in which I had to kill one of three men who were trying to kill me, and probably all three (although to this day I do not know for certain whether I or my infantry killed the other two).

[From my journal, referring to 25 March 1969:] "My interpreter, riding with me, saw them running, and we opened fire." The journal entry goes on to describe the incident. Across the years it has profoundly affected me.  I saw the men running and fired at them from the top of my command track, my weapon jamming. I tried to clear it and fire again, without success. The three disappeared into a stream gully. My track moved up quickly, along with another track or two, and about a half dozen infantrymen on the others jumped off and immediately plunged into the gully to the right of me, firing and receiving fire. Green tracers ripped by me close to my right shoulder, coming from the gully. Over the noise I heard screams, and two infantrymen were dragging a writhing buddy back up from the streambed toward their track. I knew he was seriously wounded. More tracers came at me as I took as much cover as a six-inch rubber tree will provide while I peered around it. I tried to return fire, but my rifle jammed again, and I yelled and motioned to troopers on my command track (I think, or maybe another track) to throw me some grenades. They tossed two over toward me and I scrambled on the floor of the plantation after them and picked them up. I yelled to the three or four infantrymen who had emerged from the streambed to ask if everyone was clear of the gully. They said they were, and I asked them if they were sure. One of them yelled yes, and I quickly crawled forward to within a few yards of the edge of the gully and threw the grenades one after the other into the thicket where I was getting the fire. I remember nothing of the incident after that. I do not remember looking at the man I killed although my journal says I did, a gruesome sight, his leg blown off. In fact, throughout the years I thought I had killed all three, but I see no evidence of that in my journal. It mentions looking at only one. My journal reminded me that one of my troopers had found a picture of the man on his body and given it to me. I found it in my footlocker. I had not remembered the picture. I just don't remember anything after throwing the grenades and hearing the explosions. My mind has done some funny things with Vietnam events.

Much about the war affected me deeply - in this case, the terrible wounding of my infantryman, and my personal killing of a man, maybe three men. Why couldn't I have waited and tried to get them to surrender? Why didn't I do this or do that? I was a professional soldier, trained to kill as many of the enemy as possible while saving as many of my men as I could. And I was effective in doing just that. Maneuver of ground units, control of fire support, air assault -- maybe complicated to others but no sweat to me. But the losses? I found all aspects of command easy -- except for the killing and wounding on both sides. As a staff officer I had planned the killing. As a commander, both on the ground and in the air, I had led my units in doing it. I knew how to do it and did it well. But now I had done the killing myself, close in, as I expected them to do it, they who were 18, 19, 20 year-olds -- kids really. Kids who became old in doing it.

A psychologist to whom I will ever be grateful asked, "Would you want to be the kind of person who would not be profoundly affected by all of this?

So on the late morning of the 25th of March 2005 I was headed north toward the Michelin, some 30 miles distant from Thu Dau Mot. My driver today was a different man, Minh (not his real name). My interpreter Thoan had filled the ice chest in the van with bottled water. The temperature outside was about 88, not bad for Vietnam, and the air conditioning inside blew gently in my face and felt wonderful. Quite a change in riding style from 1969.

During my year in Vietnam I had either staff or command responsibilities that covered the entire 1st Infantry Division area of operations except for a relatively small area in the extreme north and northeast. This AO included all the terrain from the northern outskirts of Saigon for about 75 miles almost to the Cambodian border north of Loc Ninh, and east to west about the same distance, from Xuan Loc on the east to the Michelin Plantation on the west. [See map: 1st Infantry Div] The terrain was varied. Wet areas of rice paddies, dense palms, and bamboo were predominant along the Saigon and Dong Nai Rivers and the smaller rivers and steams. Away from the water the uplands were relatively flat, in some places arid and others fertile. Here fruits, vegetables, and various grain crops were grown and the rubber plantations began. Farther north and to the east was the dense jungle - tropical rain forest, actually. Do not get the idea it was as you see in the movies, all vines, steamy undergrowth, and huge primeval trees. Most of the latter had long ago been cut for lumber, and the trees, although occasionally as much as 6 feet in diameter, were usually smaller, double canopy at most, where we punched through with our armored columns. The Iron Triangle often was likened to a dagger pointing at the heart of Saigon. Route 13 was the main supply route north and south, and the Michelin was a strategic location, a favorite temporary basing area for the enemy. The enemy called the US armored forces, usually placed in more or less of a series of concentric arcs to the north of Saigon, the Iron Gateway to Saigon. The capital of South Vietnam was always the desired prize of the communists of North Vietnam. Without winning Saigon, even if they took some of the rest of the South, they could not be said to win the war. Our job was to keep the Gateway closed.

The enemy's Spring Offensive 1969 was seriously disrupted when its plans were discovered, but nevertheless they launched it with widespread attacks and modified objectives on 23 February 1969. By early March they were moving large forces into the Michelin Plantation and the surrounding jungle. American Operation Atlas Wedge was designed to counter the offensive by striking into the 7th NVA Division and other main force units. Task Force Haponski, as it was called, was part of the thrust into the plantation, beginning 18 March. At first the 11th Cav did the bulk of the fighting, then withdrew on 23 March, leaving the plantation and Fire Support Base Doc at its eastern edge all to us. (The FSB was named after John "Doc" Bahnsen, my West Point classmate who had made the first contact of Atlas Wedge with his air cav troop over the Michelin near this spot). My task force had worked the rubber from 22 March through 25 March. We had scattered contacts and came across a few small to moderate-sized base camps and finally, one enormous bunkered complex in the plantation. But there was no major fighting. During those first days in the rubber, we found the plantation to contain only VC caretaker units and NVA reconnaissance teams. The 11th Cav's big battles several days earlier had driven out the major units.

The Michelin, toward which I was now again headed, was the largest plantation in Indo China, and may still be, I don't know. It is eight miles long by six wide. After about an hour and half over a paved but bumpy road, we entered the quite clean and neat village of Dau Tieng and passed the impressive district government headquarters -- red flag with yellow star and red flag with hammer and sickle flying -- as they flew all over the province. Maybe I was paranoid, but it seemed that the government wanted to be sure no one missed the idea that the North had defeated not just the South but also the most powerful nation in the world.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant the driver obviously knew well, traveling back streets without hesitation to reach it. I was tired and wasn't hungry. Then we entered the rubber itself. I found that the essentials of the Michelin as defined by its road networks and sectors of trees had not changed since it was first planted in 1925. (I have maps from those early days and the 1940s to confirm it, as well as my 1960s era maps). Now, though, the two main roads through the trees, Routes 239 and 245, were paved and so were a few others. In 1969 the worker hamlets throughout the rubber, at least in the north where we fought, had been largely deserted and the plantation had fallen into disrepair. Undergrowth had gained a foothold among the trees in several places, and the trees themselves were not regularly attended and fertilized. Battles of the 11th Cav before us had severely damaged many of the plots of trees, and when I first set foot in the rubber on 22 March 1969 we were entering a recently vacated battlefield on a hot day. Even though most of the bodies had been removed or buried by the enemy, the Michelin smelled of death.

Although I had my maps in the van, down among the trees the patterned layout of a plantation in regular north-south, east-west grid squares requires a compass, and I discovered I had left it in my room. Rows upon rows upon rows of trees can be mistaken fairly easily for other rows upon rows upon rows of trees. My guide was not really a guide for finding locations. He had in fact never been in the plantation. Later I taught him how to use a compass and map. Without the compass that day we did some wandering, finding water buffalo roaming in small groups among the trees, and coming upon bustling hamlets. In fact, there were houses now along the roads where none had existed in my day. By the time I got oriented and on the right road, I discovered it to be one we had already traveled, Route 245, and we had earlier passed within a hundred yards of the site of my encounter with the NVA.

I now stopped and found the spot, or at least within a few yards. It was an unreal sensation, walking again on this ground along the deep gully. I stood a long time. Today was Good Friday. I prayed for my infantryman, whose name is unknown, so seriously wounded on that day. He had survived for sure since no KIA is recorded in his unit of 1st Infantry Division. I prayed too for the enemy dead -- three young men -- and for me. And I cried. From a small plastic bag I emptied a handful of soil from my back yard in Florida and in its place scooped up a handful of soil to bring back home.

Now heading back toward Thu Dau Mot by another route, I was not paying much attention but suddenly realized that the driver had turned onto a road, Route 239, that led to the scene of another major incident. This was the attack on my Fire Support Base Doc during the night of 27/28 March 1969. Here I was, among houses - in fact, at a corner restaurant and small store - where there had only been barren ground. I first arrived at the spot just across the stream on 22 March 1969. By that point in the war this place had been left raw and ugly by the resettlement of the villagers of Thi Tinh, bulldozed flat in President Diem's Strategic Hamlet Program of the early 1960s. Thi Tinh was a crossroad of three routes - 239, 240, and an unnumbered route, now called Route 302. It was an important piece of terrain. All three routes eventually intersected Route 13 to the northeast, the east, and southeast. Beginning on 18 March 1969 this ground located at the eastern edge of the rubber became a temporary fire support base of 11th Cav. I took it over when my task force remained behind as the Cav withdrew, leaving us as the most exposed unit in that area. Now in 2005, Thoan, Minh, and I were drinking cold drinks just across the bridge over the Thi Tinh stream, not more than a hundred or so yards from the center of my old fire support base. The stream was lower and not as clear as I remembered it in 1969 when during the transition period to the wet season we had had a few spots of rain. I remembered the pool in the stream, cool, delightful when we could spare a few moments from important business. We did not know at the time - I did not know until I got the records years later - that bodies of North Vietnamese were beginning to bloat and surface farther up the stream in which we swam.

We chatted with an old woman who seemed to own the small establishment. She was very friendly and pushed out a stool for me. She told how she had lived in Village 4 within the plantation which, according to my 1949 French planters map, was five miles west into the rubber on this same Route 239. She said her mother had covered her and put her in their tunnel for protection from US bombs. (Vietnamese call anything that came from the air "bombs." Since it was forbidden to bomb the plantation except in a major contact, she probably meant artillery fire or rockets from gunships. Whatever, it was lethal.) I told her who I was, that I had commanded US forces in the plantation and at the firebase across the bridge. I told her I prayed for all soldiers and their families on both sides of the war. Then I showed her a picture of me taken on the morning of the 28th after the attack on the firebase and joked at how thin I was in the picture, patting my overlarge stomach. Some little girls stood at my elbow and I told them how pretty they were, and they hung their heads and smiled.

As word spread, inhabitants began showing up, young and old, hurrying in, two or three at a time, and I bought drinks for them: beer for the adults, soft drinks for the younger ones. They had come to see an American, something they did not see out here in the boonies, not ever. But if we were to do some other things on our return trip to Thu Dau Mot, we could stay no longer, so I told the woman I would return on the 28th, as I had planned on my itinerary. This would be the anniversary of a night I will never forget, nor will any who were there, at what was then a God-forsaken spot a hundred yards or so east of this corner store where I now drank a coke near the stream that would become a river that would become as well known to the Americans as it was to the French who fought along its banks to the south some twenty years earlier.

 We left Fire Support Base Doc on a bone-jarring ride down a paved but quite bumpy Route 240 back toward Ben Cat through what had been Fire Support Bases Picardy and Lorraine. In the old days there was nothing there except the FSBs, and the artillery pumped out rounds that had helped slow the attack on FSB Doc. Now in the late afternoon we went through hamlets in which children played, chickens scratched, and young girls in white ao dais pedaled their bikes and rode motorcycles home from school.

I had the van stop alongside the road about four miles north of Ben Cat. On the morning of 9 June 1969 the enemy had hit one of my personnel carriers with an RPG, killing one of my men, Private First Class Arturo Carrasco, A Company 1-16th Infantry (Mechanized). Then in the afternoon, less than a mile away, four more of my men were killed in what seemed to be a terrible joke of fate. Although accounts vary among men who were there, the most credible report seems to be that an armored personnel carrier had hit a mine and sustained minor damage. In hooking up to it for retrieval, a man on top of another vehicle jumped the seven feet to the ground and landed squarely on an antitank mine. Had he only stepped on it, the pressure would not have been great enough to set it off. Or had he landed a few inches one way or the other, the mine quite certainly would not have exploded. This came within a month of the end of my tour. At this point, one more horror seemed more than I could take. I was several miles to the north. When I got the radio message I called for a helicopter to be sent out to me. They were all committed, I was told. I felt an unwelcome sense of relief. By not pressing hard, which might possibly have sprung one loose from somewhere in the division area, although that was unlikely, I let my men and myself down.

 Now here on the road I said prayers for :
    Private First Class Arturo Carrasco, A/1-16 Infantry (Mech)
    Private First Class Johnnie J. Carraway, Headquarters and Headquarters Troop 1-4 Cav
   Specialist Fifth Class William R. Gregory, A/1-4 Cav
    Sergeant Donald R. Smith, A/1-4 Cav
    Private First Class Larry R. Jenkins, A/1-4  

A few weeks earlier Jenkins had survived a mine explosion with minor wounds.

Back at the hotel, exhausted, I fell on the bed and slept an hour until Maura's hard banging on the door managed to awaken me . Steve had arrived, and the three of us, our interpreter, our driver and his daughter and her friend had a wonderful dinner in a restaurant in Thu Dau Mot. All of the others used chopsticks, but I used a fork, never having been able to master the art.


I had programmed the next day, the 26th, to be a light one in order to become more rested. We would stay in the Thu Dau Mot area. From our hotel we drove through Phu Loi - our air cav troop headquarters in 1969 -- and past the prison. It had been first used by the French and gained a notorious reputation. Then the Japanese kept American and other Allied prisoners in it as slave labor to rebuild the air strip. It had been used by the South Vietnamese who were accused of poisoning a thousand prisoners, unjustly it seems. And now it contained who knows what. We went on to Tan Hiep which barely rises above the wetlands along the Dong Nai and was a spooky place indeed in 1969. Despite the modern factories now in the vicinity, it seemed a bit foreboding still as I looked out across rice fields and palm trees to the river. Probably just my memories kicking in. I thought of the night we had played funeral music and fired into the dense growth around the hamlet in an attempt to psyche out the VC who frequented the scrub brush and marshlands.

We proceeded south outside the perimeter of Di An Base Camp, headquarters for both 2nd Brigade as well as 1-4 Cav in early 1969, now a Vietnamese military installation with flags flying. Some of the buildings we could see from the road seemed to have been left over from our time. Steve started to take pictures when Thoan sternly ordered, "No pictures." This was to occur several more times in the next few days, sometimes for no reason we could fathom.

We proceeded through Tan Dong Hiep, just outside the east gate of the base camp, and stopped to take pictures where my troops in cooperation with district forces had scarfed up the COSVN lieutenant colonel whose capture contributed so greatly to the failure of their 1969 Spring Offensive.: Tan Dong Hiep, COSVN LTC Captured 6 Jan 1969 Behind Small Building Across Road} From there we proceeded to the village (city?) of Di An where Major Nguyen Minh Chau (later Lieutenant Colonel), the best district chief in Vietnam, had lived. Chau was a remarkable man, an unforgettable person. Wounded three times and crippled by his wounds, he was nearly killed on the night of 20 October 1968 while I was still in 11th Cav. He was shot from ambush on this road, just outside the gates of our base camp a few hundred yards from where I now stood. The bullet went through the back of his jeep seat and buried in his lung. Miraculously he survived this fourth wound, and within weeks of the assassination attempt was out of the hospital and back in the hamlets of his district, always concerned, always trying to help his people. The bullet remains in his lung to this day. Chau's miraculous escape from Vietnam to the United States after years of terrible imprisonment in the North, and later the escape of his whole family, is an inspiring story, unfortunately too long to be recounted here.

We walked down a street where I thought I remembered his compound to be located, and we talked to an old man who remembered him. Colonel Chau had wanted me to pass on his best wishes to his people, and when I told the man this he smiled and said he would do it. Following his guidance, we found Chau's compound where he had his home, district headquarters, and advisory team headquarters. I had visited here several times in the old days, but now the place seemed to be a home enclosed behind a fence and gate and we were unable to get around to see the front of it. {Chau's Compound to My Rear}

Several of the main streets of Di An were torn up, being improved. The old French watchtower was still there but soon will be demolished to make way for an industrial site. (Di An, French Watchtower Ruins) I asked Thoan about salaries and wages. He said that the average blue collar factory worker in Binh Duong Province gets about $85 a month, the white collar worker about $150, and the managers much higher. Some individuals are extremely wealthy. Taxes are paid by workers making more than $300, and Social Security payments are deducted from the pay of all workers.

We spent a few minutes in the bustling Di An marketplace where I had had a beer one afternoon in early 1969. The vegetables and fruits were beautifully displayed, but the fresh meat and fish scenes and smells were not so appealing. {Di An Marketplace Fruits} I felt a strong sense of the tragic history of the place. On 17 October 1968, three days before the assassination attempt on Chau, and ten weeks before I arrived in Di An to take command, the crowded marketplace had been the scene of a heinous terrorist explosion. It killed three children, an old man, four women (one of whom was pregnant), and wounded thirty others, fifteen of them seriously.

Only a mile south of Di An is Dong Hoa, and at the southeastern edge of town early on 13 January 1969, A Company, 2-28 Infantry dismounted from their trucks for a sweep. Captain Wilson A.Russell, the company commander, recalled the action 35 years later:

"There was a hilly clump of scrub brush and trees in the middle of rice fields, about 25 - 50 meters across, and I thought that if there were to be any VC, that would be the place. We went through in three files. 1st Platoon and my company command group had gone all the way through to the other side when all hell broke loose behind us. I thought that one platoon had mistaken another for enemy in the dense growth, and I rushed back toward the firing shouting to cease fire."

When Russell scrambled back to the platoon, he saw a bunch of wounded. He asked one of them what had happened and got the answer that the platoon leader was dead. The KIA was 1Lt Charles E. Higbee, Jr. from Charleston, South Carolina, a twenty-two year-old. Russell said, "The story I got later was that he had seen a VC, trained his rifle on him and called out 'chieu hoi' [rally]. Two other VC came out of spider holes [firing positions] and they began shooting and throwing grenades. Higbee had been hit in the chest and was dead when I got to the spot." Three VC were killed and one captured who later led us to sites where we killed and captured more VC.

When I got the word I immediately flew to the scene and reinforced, but we had no more action. Lieutenant Higbee was the first KIA under my command. Although his unit was under operational control to me for the day and not an organic 1-4 Cav unit, he was my responsibility, one of my boys. In the next several months many times I would get the same feeling in my gut that I had that day.

We had some difficulty in finding the spot because trees had grown up and they were partially obscuring the mound. Where there had been rice paddies there were now houses, and where Higbee had entered the dense undergrowth that day there was now a soccer field. No kids were around or one of them would have gotten a soccer ball from the bag in our van.{ Site of Higbee KIA. Fallow Rice Paddy in 1969, Soccer Field Now. Mound in Background.  Overgrown Mound}

The remainder of the afternoon was devoted to what was intended to be a sampan ride from Thu Dau Mot down the Saigon River to the bridge at Lai Thieu. David Lam Phan, a South Vietnamese author now living in the United States, was born in Di An District. In his book, "Two Hamlets in Nam Bo: Memoirs of Life in Vietnam," he describes how people could be victims of both the French and the Viet Minh, with horrible torture and lethal treatment at the hands of each. "Every evening I saw a big [French] military truck carrying prisoners to the bridge linking Phu Long, Thudaumot Province, and Than Loc, Gia Dinh Province, to be executed. They were shot and thrown in the Saigon River, which, during the Franco-Vietnamese War, was full of rotten dead bodies. Some of the bodies got caught at the quay of Laithieu after the reflux [tide flowing upriver from the sea].

On the dock at Thu Dau Mot we entered not a romantic sampan but a rather ordinary sightseeing boat. The owner of the boat service indeed had a sampan but preferred to use the bigger boat for safety. A look at the sampan was enough to convince me he had good sense. As we sat perfectly still at the dock before departure I got a weird sensation that we were moving, and fast, down river when in fact we were still tied to the dock. The illusion was created by an enormously powerful tide flowing upriver, carrying huge masses of some kind of floating, living vegetation fast upstream. The Vietnamese author may have been exaggerating the severity and frequency of the events he says he witnessed, but he had pegged the nature of the river correctly. At this point in the river we were 12 miles upstream from Saigon, and the river at Saigon still had forty miles to wind its way southeast before it emptied into the South China Sea. A strong tide over fifty miles upstream from the sea to me is remarkable. { Saigon River South of Phu Cuong (Thu Dau Mot), with Tide Incoming}  

We had gone only about half way down to Lai Thieu when, by mutual agreement, Steve, Maura, and I chose to cut short the boat trip and return to Phu Cuong. In our three miles or so down river we had experienced enough of the sensation that the riverine forces must have had as they peered at dense foliage along the banks, expecting at any time to be shot at from shore. Frankly, we were pooped from our long journeys, and I decided I did not need to see the bridge which had been another one of my ready reaction force responsibilities. Instead, at the advice of the pilot, we pulled into a wide stream which entered the river to visit a pagoda. Here the creepy feeling was worse - no habitation of any kind, and dark green underbrush down to the water on both sides, close in. We docked upstream at the Buddhist temple. { Buddhist Temple on Side Channel to Saigon River} There we were greeted by the caretaker, a 69 year-old man who had been a South Vietnamese soldier in the Long Thanh rubber plantation a few miles east of Saigon. The head monk joined us. A woman who seemed to be the old man's wife served us tea and scrumptious little bananas. After this we removed our shoes, entered the temple, lit incense sticks, and paid respects to those who had suffered and died on both sides during the war.

During the whole trip on the Saigon River Thoan was insistent, "No pictures." We could not imagine why since there was nothing to be seen but greenery along the banks and a few boats on the river. But no pictures it was except when he relaxed and said we could take some of boys swinging out over the water on tree branches and dropping into the water. "That is okay," he said. {Boys Swinging from Tree Limbs and Diving Into Saigon River Below Thu Dau Mot}. (After our trip I asked Thoan why. He said, "I told you not to take picture when there were signboard telling us not to take picture. And I did not understand why, too."

That night we had a delicious dinner for three people at our hotel. Quan had been hesitant to have us eat there, saying that the restaurant was not a professional one, meaning apparently it was not officially open for dining in the evening although it would serve meals to hotel guests. We found it to be consistently among the best places to eat. Our delicious dinner for three, including three beers and one water and fresh fruit for desert, came to a whopping $8. (Tipping seems not to be the custom for meals in Vietnam.)


The next day, the 27th, was Easter Sunday. I had hoped to go to Mass at the large, beautiful church a few blocks from the hotel, but faced an especially demanding schedule that day and had to content myself with the idea that under intensive travel conditions a simple prayer would have to suffice. People, dressed in their best clothes, were entering church.

Today was the day I would head for Binh Co to search for Nhan.

The weather was wonderful -- clear skies, moderate temperatures. We headed north on Local Route 14 and soon were in Chanh Long, known in the old days to everyone who looked at a map as Dog Leg Village, the outlines of which suggested a fairway that, after the tee shot, hooked left toward the green. I was astonished at the development of houses and factories in what had been a rural area, quite close to Saigon, yes, but nevertheless as isolated from urban living standards as the moon is from the earth, or so it seemed in those days. Most of all, though, I was amazed at the rubber plantations. Small and moderate sized plantations, mostly privately owned we were told, were everywhere. The foreboding look of this brush and tree-covered VC country had disappeared, and it was a lush vibrant green. I did not even try to locate the fire support bases, NDPs, and field positions I had flown into almost every day while in 11th Cav to check on operations. I would have seen nothing there but new development. Along the road were gas stations and electric and telephone poles. We had to look hard to find a very few mud-walled houses, and we could find no thatched roofs except on a few small outbuildings.

We came into Binh My then headed south on - miracle of miracles - a paved road, Local Route 16. Before we knew we were there we were in Binh Co. Not only was there a government headquarters flying the red flag, but a modern factory and a huge house new house, Victorian in architecture. And a gas station! We stopped at the ubiquitous roadside refreshment place, and Thoan got out, carrying the two pictures of the children I had brought. My anticipation was about as much as I could stand. Thoan was showing the pictures to some ladies, and they looked at one another, talked, and pointed down the road. Thoan got back in the van, said something to the driver, and we drove another hundred yards or so, then stopped in front of a small red brick home lacking a finishing coat of plaster. A teen-age boy came out, Thoan spoke with him, and returned to the van. "This is the home of Miss Luong," he announced. Luong was the youngest of the four children, a beautiful child of eight years when I knew her. {Luong's House}

The rest was a swirl. People began arriving and chattering, looking at the pictures I had brought, and excitedly pointing this way and that. { Binh Co. We Know Her !!} {Binh Co, November 1968, Tuong, Nhan Holding My Hand, Luong} {Binh Co, November 1968. Toung, Bill, Nhan, Loung, Nghanh}

Thoan had a hard time keeping up with them, translating for me in fragments. Nhan lives in Bien Hoa with her husband. She is well. I couldn't believe it. I had found her!

Maura and Steve were overjoyed, and Maura hugged and kissed me as Steve and Thoan shook my hand. Only later did I remember it was Easter Sunday. What a wonderful, wonderful day.

For the moment, I was in a daze. I met Luong's two sons, one age 17 and the younger perhaps 14. Where was Nhan's house? The one I had often visited? The two ladies, both of Nhan's age, in their late 40's or early 50's, both of whom knew Nhan, led me only the few yards away into a plot of ground which was a young rubber plantation, planted with trees about three years old. I came to the spot where the house had stood and was told that the trees did not grow well there. I noted the stunted growth. { Nhan's House Site} In time I learned that the two houses and school we had built of pine lasted only about ten years before they had been almost completely devoured by termites. (Their mounds are everywhere throughout the countryside, and the American-acquired lumber must have been a big treat, drawing quite a crowd..) One of the men, though, would show us something. He came back in a few minutes lugging a rusted, cement-caked steel post that had been one of the piers the engineers had sunk for Nhan's house.

Why anyone would keep such a thing for twenty-five years I have no idea, but I'm glad he did. {Binh Co, Rusted Steel Anchor Post}

Luong's son looked for Nhan's telephone number - telephones in Binh Co?? Nhan's telephone number?? - but he couldn't find it. No problem. One of the women who was Nhan's girlhood friend sent him to her house to get it. Thoan called on his cell phone and Nhan answered.

I was dumfounded. We would meet at her house in Bien Hoa.

Before I left, though, I had to find out what happened to the schoolhouse. The site was behind Luong's home. The termites had eaten it also. { Binh Co, Site of the School} I gave the 17 year-old a soccer ball and another to the woman to give to the schoolteacher for the children. We didn't have soccer balls to give away in the old days, but we built playgrounds with swings and teeter-totters which the children loved. {Luong's Sons with Soccer Ball} Before we left Binh Co I had presence of mind enough to inquire what had happened there when the NVA appeared in April 1975. I knew from their histories that Binh My and Binh Co were important objectives, and I thought there might have been fierce fighting. There wasn't. The South Vietnamese had evacuated before the NVA arrived, and the people only heard the armored columns go by in the night.

We were soon on our way toward the large city of Bien Hoa, and I was having difficulty looking at the hamlet of Binh Co, trying to absorb everything in and south of it while my mind was elsewhere.


We stopped briefly four miles west of Tan Uyen to remember Specialist Fourth Class Frank J. Marconi, C/1-4 Cav, killed by a mine on this road, 23 January 1969 while opcon to another unit.

Everybody else was famished so we pulled off at a riverside restaurant below Tan Uyen on the west bank of the Dong Nai River. Fishermen were taking shrimp from the water just yards from where we were eating their earlier catch. I ate two or three -- huge, delicious, fresh, whole shrimp - but I had little appetite for more.

Back in the van we drove only a few minutes before Thoan was telling the driver to pull over. He had done this on previous days to ask for directions, but I wasn't sure why he was stopping here since the large city of Bien Hoa was across the river to the east. As the van slowed I saw a woman standing on the walk beside the road, waving. Nhan!! I would have known her, I'm sure, even in a crowd. She was laughing, crying, and I got out and hugged her, and we kissed and laughed and cried. Before I came back to Vietnam I had hoped to find her alive, and if so, was prepared to find a peasant woman. Instead, here was a sophisticated lady. Maura said, "She's beautiful," and indeed she was -- my beautiful Nhan !! {Easter Day at Nhan's House. Bill's Two Daughters, Nhan 49 and Maura 48} { Maura and Nhan} { Bill and Nhan} {Nhan Holding 1968 Picture}

We talked for perhaps two hours. Thoan, wonderful Thoan, had a difficult time translating through his tears. I can remember little of what was said at this first meeting and can't separate it from what I learned later. Everything poured out in a gush. We found that Nhan's mother had died  in 1978 and Nhan had an even more difficult life. Soon, though, she met the man who was to become her husband, Sung. This was a good man I could tell immediately without understanding a word he said as he excitedly tried to tell us everything. He loved her deeply and she loved him. They had married in Binh Co and he had gone to work in a brick factory in Tan Uyen, a few miles to the south. By 1984 he had been able to save enough money to move another few miles south to their present location. Their small building was both their home and business establishment, accommodating Nhan's refreshment cafe and Sung's motorcycle repair shop. {Sung, Bill, Mother-in-Law, Nhan, in Sung's Repair Shop} {Their Business, Repair Shop on Left, Nhan's Refreshment Café on Right. They had a 25 year-old daughter, Minh Thanh, and a 21 year-old son, Tot, who was serving his two years in the army.  Street noise made it difficult to understand Thoan's translations. Vehicles were going by, many with blaring exhausts, and all of them, it seemed, honking their way. After perhaps two hours we decided that as soon as we could we would meet in a quiet place for lunch. With teary eyes Nhan and I made "happy faces" and parted.


That night, the 27th of March, I recalled the events of 36 years ago. Operation Atlas Wedge began on 17 March 1969. The day before, I had been briefed on this highly secret operation that would take us north to the jungle surrounding the Michelin, and I had flown over some of the route. While he was getting his hair cut on this day, one of my platoon leaders, Lieutenant Jim Pitts, would have his Vietnamese barber tell him, "So, Trung Uy, tomorrow you go north."

In my relatively comfortable hootch in my base camp headquarters that had been my home for nine weeks I wrote in my journal, "Tomorrow we go into the dense jungle in search of the enemy. It will be difficult, crashing through with tanks. Supposedly the 7th NVA Division and the 34th Artillery Group are in there. Today as we flew low over the area I could see some evidence of heavy traffic. It will be no picnic. I trust that I will bring out as many as I take in."

I did not.

By the 27th, my task force was well into the operation. On 18 March we had departed Di An never to return and attacked west from Route 13 north of our division headquarters at Lai Khe. In the first few days we made only a few small contacts, and on the 22nd, entered the Michelin under operational control of Patton's 11th Cav on the heels of their large fights. Then Patton took his two squadrons back toward War Zone D far to the east and left FSB Doc and the Michelin all to me. By the 25th, the day of my encounter with the NVA reconnaissance team, we had been in the Michelin four days. Then we were abruptly ordered out so it could fill up again with enemy, at which time I would attack. Because of these orders we lacked time to blow bunkers in a huge, prepared but as-yet unoccupied, enemy base camp we had discovered, and we left them behind us.

Just before dark on the evening of the 27th I walked around the perimeter of the fire support base to assure myself that the men knew what to do during an attack. The enemy had had plenty of time to observe, get approval from higher command, calculate mortar data, prepare rocket positions, and make their ground assault plan. The attack, if indeed it came, would be a cover for the movement of a large enemy force into staging areas in the rubber. I thought of the bunkers waiting for them, enough for a regiment. A B-52 strike would be in order, but was forbidden in rubber plantations.

As I walked the perimeter I again thought through my Michelin attack plan. We had worked the rubber, and we knew the location of gullies and crossing points, and we knew where those fresh bunkers were located, and where others were most likely to be. I had gotten approval for reinforcements to be brought up. Everything was ready.

But tonight would be the enemy's turn.

From my journal, written on 17 April 1969:

"As I wait to depart on R & R, I think of the last few weeks. On the night of the 27th I could feel the danger in our situation. We occupied the fire support base closest to the 165th Regiment, 7th NVA Division, battle-tested troops. We were totally alone, our support consisting only of artillery and air-lifted troops to be landed at night, a difficult means of reinforcing. Before dark I reviewed contingency plans with the infantry, artillery, and cavalry commanders."

I thought the attack would come in at least two to three company strength between one and three in the morning. That would give them enough darkness to move into position, strike hard, then retire before daylight. Following their SOP, they would try to overrun, but if they failed, they would at least want to inflict enough damage to keep my task force out of the plantation while their troops were digging out caches and fitting themselves for their movement south on Saigon.

I cut back toward the center of the position and questioned the infantry commander about his observation posts close in to the wire and his ambush in the stream bed. I quizzed the artillery battery commander on the plan for laying his tubes for direct fire in case of a penetration, using the new beehive rounds holding hundreds of dart-like flechettes. I had the cavalry troop commander repeat my instructions for defending the base from the outside with a cavalry platoon cutting up the attack as it came in and another ready to join it if required.

I remember that as night fell everything was still, except for the faint sound of insects and frogs outside the perimeter and an occasional sound of movement inside. Through the small starlight scope on my track I surveyed the mounds and ridges of rough, uneven grass, and beyond, the tree line. Nothing moved in the ghostly green scene. The big scope in the tower might spot something, but the grass was high enough to hide movement even from the tower if the enemy was careful. I believed they would surely trip some of our warning flares in the grass and at the edge of the trees.

For perhaps an hour I listened to the night. A flare had tripped and my battery commander immediately put some high explosive and illumination rounds out, but we saw and heard nothing other than the HE impacts and the fizz of the flares as they swayed back and forth under their parachutes. Now I could hear the insects again, and nearby some light snores. I had given instructions for a normal one-third alert until midnight but two-thirds after that until three o'clock.

I remember my driver and Man Friday, the young, the irreplaceable Sergeant Bob Towers, quietly calling up to me in my seat atop my ACAV as he was rustling around in the ice chest for a Coke, "It sure is dark tonight."

This was the evening of the 27th. I agreed, "Dark as hell."

At 0200 all hell broke loose. We were hit all at once by mortars and rockets, then small arms and machinegun fire, followed immediately by the ground attack. The sound of mingled explosions and screams is indescribable. We fought back from inside the perimeter, and the cav platoon went to work immediately outside, wheeling and cutting into them before they could get going. They never got within 75 yards of the concertina wire surrounding the perimeter. When daylight finally broke just after 0500, we had lost four dead and over four dozen wounded, medevac'ed during the night. Our fires support base was a mess, anti-RPG screens blown to pieces, bunkers destroyed, antennas knocked down, vehicles scarred. The division damage assessment team that flew in later that morning counted over 400 explosive impacts -- 150 mortar rounds, 3 rockets, and the rest RPGs. Steel fragments lay on the top of my command track. I was pissed to discover when I needed him that the officer who had been at my side for part of the night operating radios had medevac'ed himself on the last flight out with hardly more than a scratch on his chest for a wound. Our courageous squadron surgeon, Doc McGeady, who had been treating the wounded all night, could have put a Band-aid on it. Outside the perimeter were only 12 enemy bodies, the rest of the dead and wounded having been dragged away in every direction during darkness, leaving gruesome blood trails behind.

Our van took us from the hotel at Thu Dau Mot up the same route we had used three days earlier, but we went immediately to the location of the fire support base, stopping at the bridge over the Thi Tinh to take a picture. Thoan said, "No picture." I told him I needed a picture at least of the old bridge whose remains lay in the water beside the newer one. After a further exchange he agreed we could take one picture, but only of the remnants . Steve took it, and the three of us began walking east on Boundary Road toward the spot where the division's Public Information Office had taken my picture on the afternoon following the attack. {Bill at FSB Doc} The dip in the road in the picture was the clue I needed, for everything else had changed. Houses and gardens and cows and dogs and children now were there in place of the high grass and rough mounds that in 1969 had reached out for more than a hundred yards in every direction. I was going to have Steve take my picture on that same spot, half of my lifetime later. Thoan suddenly said, "No picture."

No picture? No ------- PICTURE ?? On a barely paved road umpteen miles from anywhere? What Communist secrets would be revealed by such a picture? I had come half way around the world to get that picture, and I was not going to leave without it. This was the only time Thoan and I had any kind of disagreement. For three days I had gone along with the no picture routine but not this time. Thoan is a wonderful man, and he had his reasons, but I had mine. Four of my men had died here. He relented. Without further discussion I positioned myself and Steve took the picture. { Thi Tinh - Temporary Fire Support Base Doc}

[From 7th Division: A Record, the official report of the 7th NVA Division, published in Hanoi, 1986:]

On 28 March 6th Battalion/165th Regiment, led by Battalion Commander Dinh Lo and Political Officer Nguyen Di, daringly attacked a concentration of American vehicles at Thi Tinh, inflicting heavy damage on two troops of armored personnel carriers and killing many soldiers of the American 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.

With this series of continuous engagements [referring to earlier battles] employing many different types of tactics, 7th Division, together with other units, defeated the enemy's "Operation Atlas Wedge."

NVA histories are not noted for accuracy or modesty in assessing the results of battles, and the author confused 11th Cav with 1-4 Cav, and we only had one cavalry troop that night, and Atlas Wedge was anything but a defeat, but you get the idea.

We walked the hundred yards or so back to the bridge past another corner store, this one on the east bank of the Thi Tinh (competing corner stores at FSB Doc ??). Two interesting historical events involving General Tran Van Tra occurred here near the original bridge which now lay in the water beneath the current one. I told Steve and Thoan what had happened. (Thoan already knew about this general, famous among the South Vietnamese, but he did not know the history of this place.)

As 1/9 Cavalry was fighting in the Ia Drang Valley far to the north ("We Were Soldiers Once and Young," the book by Harold Moore, and "We Were Soldiers," the movie with Mel Gibson} the first big battle involving American ground units in this part of South Vietnam occurred on 12 November 1965 at Ap Bau Bang, 12 air miles east of Thi Tinh on Route 13. This was before it became known as Thunder Road, before any fire support base was there. On that night, Troop A, 1-4 Cav was under operational control of 2nd Battalion 2nd Infantry (Mech).

Merle Pribbenow, retired CIA, has translated several histories of our former enemy for me and for others. Several of these histories contain fascinating pieces of information related to our area of operations. In one of them, the VC 9th Division Commander, Colonel Cam, wrote about the Ap Bau Bang battle: "Our forces had eliminated two U.S. battalions and two armored cavalry troops (about 2,000 men) from the field of battle, as well as destroying 39 vehicles (mostly tanks and armored personnel carriers) and eight artillery pieces." [Troop A in fact lost 7 killed and had 5 armored vehicles destroyed. I haven't researched the other US losses, but there were far fewer than 2,000 US troops total in the battle, and it goes way beyond reason that 34 more vehicles were destroyed.]

Cam continued, "I hurried off to brief Tran Van Tra [military commander for COSVN] on the situation. At that time Tra was staying near the Thi Tinh Bridge at the base camp of the Binh Duong Province Party Committee.

Because he had forced us to both anxiously monitor the developing situation at this turning point in the war as well as to hold planning discussions with all our units about how to deal with the increasing level of B-52s attacks, when he saw me walk up, Tra immediately asked,

"Have you fought yet?"

"We've fought, and it's over," I replied.

"Why was the battle over so quickly?"

"They were Americans, after all!"

"What were the results?" Tra asked.

"Very good."

Tra laughed out loud, grabbed my hand and shook it again, and said,

"Then we must go back to brief [General Nguyen Thi] Thanh."

"When do we leave?" I asked.

"Right away. Get your things together for the trip. We will have to travel all night so that we can meet with Thanh tomorrow morning.

We set out - Tra, me, Hai Chan, and two bodyguards, each of us riding a bicycle [through the Michelin Plantation]. By now the sun had set and the night had begun to spread its dark curtain across the land. Along the way Tra urged us along, telling us that when we reached the COSVN command post he had a chicken waiting to fix a bowl of chicken and rice soup for us to eat before continuing our journey."

When I read that passage I cannot help but compare Tra on his bicycle with Westmoreland in his spit-shined helicopter, returning to his headquarters after a long day in the field, striding into his air-conditioned dining room with a meal fit for a king laid out before him. I think, too, of the flaccid Major General Thuan, Commanding General , 5th ARVN Division and the very young, very mini-skirted girl seated next to him during the luncheon I attended. Could the North possibly have lost this war????

The second incident involving General Tra occurred on 30 April 1975, the day Saigon fell. He made his Victory Drive on the capital, leaving his headquarters near Chon Thanh on Route 13 and driving down Route 239 and through the site of FSB Doc where he forded the Thi Tinh stream a few yards downstream from the bridge site where we now stood. This was the same ford site we had used several times in 1969 to get into the Michelin. Tra had continued on Rte 239 west through the plantation on the road we had just traveled eastward in order to get here. { The Road General Tra Traveled}

Tra, greatly respected as a battlefield commander who had fought the French and now the Americans, like so many Southerners after the war, was soon pushed aside by the Northerners in the Party. He got one book published on his experiences, many of them in our area of operations, but his other publishing attempts were squelched by the Party. He came to the United States on at least one occasion after the war to speak at Cornell University where I was a freshman in 1951 while he was fighting the French, and where I got my doctorate degree in 1968 while he was fighting the Americans. He died in 1996.

Back at the corner store across the bridge, I met Nguyen Van Banh, an 80 year-old male former VC, and Tran Thi Dieu a 50 or so year-old woman who also was VC. Banh served with a local area unit but said he never fought against Americans, only South Vietnamese solders, from 1945 to 1975. The woman was a farmer near Ben Cat on Route 13, some 14 miles to the southeast. She said her job was to watch Route 13 and report on acivity. She said, "We knew everything the Americans were doing." The old man laughed and said, "Yes, we knew everything you were doing, but most of the time we didn't have the means to do anything about it." We exchanged jokes about how glad we were that the other guy of us wasn't such a good shot. We laughed about how thin we were then and how paunchy we are now. In that category, I easily won the contest. { Bahn, Dieu, Maura, Bill, and Tiger Beer} Another soccer ball went to the Thi Tinh school. {A Tinh Tinh Future Soccer Star}.

Just a few feet across the corner was a small fuel processing business owned by Bahn's son. The young man cut up pieces of rubber trees and processed them for firewood or charcoal which, in turn, was used by small plantation factories to dry their pressed sheets of latex before baling them for shipment. He gave me a small piece of rubber tree from the plantation. Along with a ceramic collection bowl and steel spigot and the packet of Michelin Plantation soil, it is sitting now on a shelf in my bedroom.

We drove south to Ben Suc, another target in the Strategic Hamlet Program, but unlike Thi Tinh, which hardly anyone knows about, it became famous. Early in the war during the enormous American military operation, Cedar Falls, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander M. Haig commanded the 1st Infantry Division battalion that provided the seal for the village and the meat for the book, The Village of Ben Suc, by Jonathan Schell. No other village in Vietnam had the dubious honor of having a future NATO Commander, White House Chief of Staff, and Secretary of State play so prominent a role in its destruction.

We went across the river to the Tunnels of Cu Chi, now a favorite site for tourists. We saw no Westerners, just a handful of Vietnamese. In the pagoda at the site  was a sobering testimonial to the fallen Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers - name plaques on virtually every wall, dozens upon dozens, hundreds upon hundreds, thousands upon thousands. 1969 was a prominent year among them. }.

We had a fine lunch at the Tunnels restaurant on the Saigon River, topped by grapefruit. (If I were younger and had any business sense at all I would try to grow Vietnamese style grapefruit in Florida. I had forgotten, but they are so sweet and delicious that Florida grapefruit and even oranges would not have a chance against them.) This time the floating greenery was headed fast downstream.  Our 28 year-old tunnel guide was a delightful treat with his good humor and quips as we probed a short stretch of the tunnel, widened to accommodate Americans (barely, as Maura found. She told me not to make any big butt jokes.).  His mother and father had both been VC.

On the way back through the Iron Triangle (now all green with plantations and crops growing and full of hamlets and schoolchildren instead of looking like the surface of the moon), we stopped at a destroyed American tank, no unit identification showing. I wondered why it hadn't been recovered. Sometimes the conditions must have been too tough to risk further loss of life, but I cannot recall any American unit leaving a vehicle on the battlefield. {Destroyed Tank in Iron Triangle}.

This depressing sight behind us, we entered a bamboo research project, a cooperative arrangement between a department [province] in France and a professor at Ho Chi Minh city University of Natural Science. In its early stages the project is collecting and growing many kinds of bamboo from all over Vietnam and other countries and investigating commercial uses. The Vietnamese love for flowers - flowers are everywhere in Binh Duong Province - was evident in the many varieties flourishing among the bamboo stalks, apparently just because the manager liked flowers. { Flower at Bamboo Project}

Exiting the Iron Triangle we discussed the Vietnamese language. Thoan said that Americans speak with a nasal sound whereas Vietnamese use their mouth and throat. Couldn't prove it by me - I think it's the other way around. A car passed in the opposite direction bearing an American company logo and wording, a strange sight going into the Iron Triangle. Thoan said that most of the many new factories in the province were owned by corporations from Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, or Japan, but he thought that four or five American companies also had factories here, some making furniture. { Not a Hotel, but an Industrial Park}


The 29th was our day for driving up Route 13. The road from Saigon to Ben Cat is now four lane highway. {Route 13 Near Ben Cat} At Ben Cat, 30 miles north of the center of Saigon (still called Saigon instead of Ho Chi Minh City by those I met), the road is all torn up for a few miles with construction, being widened from two to four lanes.  At Lai Khe we had hoped to stop at the Institute for Rubber Research which was begun early in the rubber culture and the current buildings built by the French in 1943. In 1968-69 these buildings were 3d Brigade, 1st Infantry Division headquarters. (I believe I never set foot in it. All the time I was under operational control of 3d Brigade, almost every day from 18 Mar 69 to my departure on 12 July, I did not enter the place. Colonel Haldane would always land at my location in the boondocks for our planning. He was a good commander -- always around to give help when requested, but never interfering.) Incidentally, if anyone wants information on the French in the area north of Saigon until 1956 when they left Vietnam, let me know. I'm doing another book on backgrounds to the war in that area and have collected a ton of information from French and other sources.

We did not get to tour the Institute since I had been required to get permission through the US Consulate in Saigon and got no reply to my request. Nothing at the site of 1st Division Headquarters looked familiar that I could see from the highway or the road around the perimeter of the Institute except for the French buildings. The air strip is now rubber plantation as is most of the area, with many hamlets and interspersed houses and businesses along the road. { Lai Khe Rubber Plantation at the Research Institute} From Lai Khe north the road is two lane, paved but bumpy. When we headed north from Lai Khe I told Maura, Steve, and Thoan we were entering "Mine Alley" of Thunder Road. Thoan quipped that in the old days we were over the mines and under the thunder, a version, I suppose, of "between heaven and earth." Thoan is a wise man.

On the trip up Route 13 we would stop at all the Thunder Fire Support Bases -- I, II, and III. I also stopped at the center of the largest of the convoy ambushes during my time, that of 6 June 1969.

On 28 April I had picked up responsibility for Thunder Road and the large area east and west of it after having worked mostly in the Michelin Plantation and Trapezoid to the south of the Plantation and in the Long Nguyen Secret Zone north of it for six weeks. Overnight I acquired nine major field installations to add to my Rome Plow NDPs in a way I have never quite understood even after studying the original records. My assigned strength of 1,000 men was at least doubled. (On one brief occasion, it rose to about 3500 men, American and Vietnamese.)

How my 1969 mission on Thunder Road came about is unusual.

On the 27th, in the jungle, I had received this message, recorded in our squadron log: "1006H. People of Di An District would like W55 [Haponski] to dedicate new school [Tan Hiep] in this area." We had started this school, one or two others, and similar projects while I had my headquarters in Di An and was working closely with Major Chau. Now that this school was finished he wanted me to be present at its dedication. Never did I receive a more welcome invitation, a night in my old hooch back at Di An, in a bunk - a real live bunk with a fan beside it - instead of on the twelve-inch wide bench mat placed on top of ammo boxes in my sweltering ACAV. On the mat I could sleep only on my left side or right side, take my pick, but not flat on my back because there was no room.

[From letter to my wife, 28 Apr:] "We're still operating northwest of Lai Khe, but right now I am in Di An, having returned to attend a school dedication and sewing center dedication, two of our civic action projects. I had a big lunch and am now sleepy. . . ."

After I wrote the letter and was flying lazily and somewhat reluctantly back north in a loach (Light Observation Helicopter, OH-6A), I was startled fully awake by an urgent call from Danger 5, BG Smith, the assistant division commander, now commanding while MG Talbott, the division commander, was on leave in the US. He told me a convoy had been ambushed on Thunder Road north of Lai Khe and I was to take command at the ambush site. It was well outside my assigned area of operations and I had no units anywhere near the site. Why didn't the commander who had the responsibility act? I didn't ask. I just operated the dials on the one radio net available to me, quickly switching back and forth to try to determine which units were on the ground and what was going on, all the time prodding my pilot to step on the gas..

[From my journal, 15 May 69, referring to 28 April:] "I have written nothing for a long time, having had no time, or when time was available, no desire. . . . Everything is the same, there are no new experiences to record. I live in repetition; only the details of the horrors change, the pattern is the same. . .

"One day I saw the hulks of the tanker trucks, ammo trucks and helicopters, and then I took command of the ambush area. A few days later I heard another call, and flying from the south, saw the smoke billowing hundreds of feet into the sky. The convoy had again been ambushed and was a tangle of burning trucks and men. As I landed and climbed onto an ACAV to attack, an ammunition truck blew up behind us just after we had left the spot."  

This was the beginning of a series of ambush attempts on Thunder Road, the first in over a year. Why the acting division commander had me take command that day when none of my units was involved I have not been able to fathom from the records, and apparently was too busy at the time to have remembered or cared. What was clear was that I had suddenly inherited Thunder Road and a large piece of real estate around it.

Now I said a prayer for men killed within sight of the road:

    One soldier Unknown, C/2-28 Infantry, 2 May 1969 Ambush [Will continue to research]
    Staff Sergeant Richard C. Garcia, C/2-28 Infantry, 3 May 1969 Ambush  
    Warrant Officer 1st Class James K. Ameigh, D/1-4 (Air Cav), Air crash, 24 June 1969  
    Specialist Fourth Class James A. Slater, D/1-4 (Air), Air crash, 24 June 1969

From Lai Khe we now drove north about two miles until our driver turned into a small road leading west through a small, privately-owned rubber plantation which his uncle owned and managed. We were now only a mile south of where our task force had attacked west on 18 March 1969, the second day of Operation Atlas Wedge. (In those days there was no rubber plantation, only rain forest from which the largest of the primitive trees had been logged many years ago.)

As we drove through the plantation, in some gulleys, dry during this transitional period to the monsoon season, we saw bomb craters where it made little sense to expend the effort to fill them. On the productive land, however, the craters had long since been leveled and we saw only healthy young, producing rubber trees, and among the rows, the ubiquitous termite mounds. { Termite Mound} These mounds were not as large as the six foot high mounds we had encountered in the Michelin in 1969, presumably because this plantation was well tended, devoid of any underbrush and knocked down trees such as we had encountered so many years ago.

The owner was very proud of his little plantation. {Owner of Small Plantation} He showed us the old vats and machines he used and explained the process. The latex was treated with chemicals and allowed to coagulate into a mass which was then cut into blocks and rolled into sheets. { Rubber Processing Machinery}. The latex sheets were then dried by a blower forcing the warm air from a charcoal fire into the drying shed where the sheets hung until baled for shipment. {Charcoal Furnace}. His trees looked healthy, and the ones that were tapped were running with latex. We learned that in a simple ceremony, incense sticks would be attached to a tree near the factory and lighted to thank the grove of trees for good production. {Incense Sticks on a Tree}

(I have studied rubber production in Vietnam from its inception in 1897 and will include some of this in my book on backgrounds to the conflict. I have many French books, articles, maps, etc., and am in contact with a French rubber planters association. If anyone has specific questions, I might be able to answer them. In this part of Vietnam, rubber was, is, and quite certainly will remain the most economically important agricultural product, ahead of even rice. White gold, it was called. in the early days.)  

We returned east onto Thunder Road and drove up to Thunder I  where the village of Ap Bau Bang had been bulldozed and the fire support base built in its place. Ap Bau Bang was the scene of the November 1965 "victory" that so pleased the 9th Division commander and General Tra. {Ap Bau Bang , Monument to the "Victory" Over the Americans.} After the battle the rats got into the graves of his dead and fed upon them. Even three years later, the tracks of my armored vehicles would turn up skulls and bones near Thunder I as they made sharp turns maneuvering into position.

At one time or another, from 28 April until the end of my tour in July, I had my headquarters at all three fires support bases, Thunders I, II, and III, depending on my mission. During this period we not only secured convoys along Thunder Road, and the Rome plows working beside it, but also secured two other routes, from Ben Cat northwest toward the Michelin, and from Ben Cat northeast toward Song Be. At the same time we had Rome plow security missions in the jungle around Lai Khe, conducted air assaults, and went on many nearly fruitless and always frustrating jungle-busting missions to the east and west of Thunder Road. The rains came in torrents. Our fire support bases resembled the Verdun trenches of World War I. Our bunkers filled with water so deep we often had to sleep on top of them, rolled in our ponchos. Between rain gusts, we swatted at hordes of mosquitoes. At night the rats would jump from one sleeping body to another to another to traverse the base. Apparently they didn't like wet, muddy feet. I recall being so tired I was only vaguely aware when they landed on top of me, instantly to bounce off to the next guy. I was glad to get out of the Thunders for a few days on a mission that took us to the northeast, far up the Song Be Road into the wilds of War Zone D. It was ominous country, but nothing much happened and we returned to the Thunder Road mission.

We drove to Thunder II { Thunder Road Between Thunders I and II}, stopped and looked at the nondescript spot, and then went on into the village of Chon Thanh. This had been an important ARVN installation as well as the regional US Special Forces camp. We supported Chon Thanh with artillery fires from our Thunder fire support bases and reinforced them with a cavalry platoon on those nights when they had probing attacks.

Our driver seemed to know every little side road restaurant in every out of the way spot in the province (and beyond - we were now just north of the province border). He drove us unhesitatingly to one and we had a delicious lunch in the outdoor, thatched roof dining area. (I am told that in Saigon, one can dine expensively at famous restaurants. Otherwise, most restaurants are inexpensive and outdoors. A few, such as the one at our hotel, which was consistently excellent, offer both a dining room and an outdoor cafe or cabana-style dining area.)

I went to the men's room -- a euphemistic term. The ones I had used to this point were clean but this one smelled of urine, and as I turned from the trough to wash my hands at the sink at my elbow, I almost hit a chicken. It had silently hopped up there while I was occupied and unobservant. Not anxious to catch Avian flu, I retreated and instead used the handiwipes we always carried.

The Vietnamese are an immaculate people in most respects. How they can remain so clean and keep their clothes unsoiled, especially in such dusty driving conditions, is a mystery to me. Their houses and the yards immediately up against them are neat. Even in the old days of hard-packed earthen floors, they were well swept and tidied up. The farther one gets from the house, though, the messier the environment. Debris that flies off trucks remains uncollected along the roadways. Restaurants are immaculate when they first open for the day but become increasingly messy as some of the table remains are casually swept onto the floor, there to remain until the restaurant closes and is again cleaned.

We continued north six miles from Chon Thanh, stopping briefly at Thunder III, and then on to the center of the 6 June ambush site, the biggest one I had experienced or heard about during my time in Vietnam. On this day in 1969 the 101D Regiment of 1st NVA Division was dug in for two miles along Thunder Road with units on both sides of the road. They were part of a multi-division NVA attempt to hit Americans hard along Route 13 and north of it at the opening of their Summer Offensive.

[From my journal 7 June 69:]

"Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of D-Day, a day I remember well, though I was only twelve. A quarter of a century has passed. In those days men were engaged in a gigantic cooperative enterprise designed to make decent living possible for everyone. Yesterday we fought a large battle, from noon until dark, killing 49, capturing 2, this time with light casualties - 3 wounded. But this battle was not the first step in liberation of a continent, and it will never be cheered, a measure of the difference in times and circumstances. It was a dirty little fight in which we confused the enemy hunched all night long beside the road, waiting for our convoy. His first rounds were hardly out before I rolled my chopper in and laced down the sides of the road, and followed it with gunships and artillery. I was shot at many times by RPGs - a new experience - 51 cal antiaircraft machinegun, and AK's. This fight was costly to the enemy. Had he been better organized and disciplined, things would have gone much worse for us.

. . . I feel no sorrow at this battle, content to take the praises for a 'good job.' . . . How can I kill 49 people and be indifferent? Strange. Quite strange."

In fact, probably over 100 enemy died in that action and many more were wounded. After the battle close to the road was well in hand I had tried to maneuver my ground elements into position to pursue and cut off the enemy. The regiment had selected their escape routes well, though, and our armor had a difficult time jungle busting as they moved east and west from the more open strip along the road, and they lost contact. Night was coming on and the best that my artillery forward observer, Air Force forward air controller (FAC), and I could do overhead in our separate aircraft was to bring artillery fire and air strikes onto the retreating columns, glimpses of which I could see as they cut across jungle clearings. Intelligence reports I found at Archives over thirty years later contained one striking report, that of an agent who, the next day in the jungle, observed a long column of enemy dead and dying being carried on makeshift litters away from the battlefield toward their base camps even deeper into the jungle.

Now in 2005 in some places the trees grew close to the road instead of having been Rome-plowed back 200 meters on either side as they were in 1969. Back then we had used work crews of Montegnards to cut by hand in the gulleys and other hard-to-reach places along the road, and I hoped we would see some of the people or their charcoal kilns, so prevalent in the old days. I did not, but may have missed them.

I looked at the area of the 6 June ambush. About where a radar-controlled antiaircraft gun had locked onto my helicopter each time we made the elliptical orbit above the battle (probably 37mm -- which never fired on us so far as I know), an industrial park was cut in among rubber trees. The road, black-topped now, went straight north-south as I remembered it, and the land was flat on both sides where the enemy had prepared their hasty positions among the waist high clumps of brush. Although we had lost no one in this battle, we did along the road in other places on other days. I said a prayer for the several KIAs unknown to me because they were from support units - air crews, drivers and vehicle crews we were trying to protect along that long, lonely stretch, the 33 miles of Thunder Road from Lai Khe to An Loc to Quan Loi. I remembered too the many enemy dead and felt the waste. {Bill at Center of 6 June 1969 Ambush Site, Now Plantation.}

Back in the van we passed semi-permanent NDP Lussi north of Thunder III which I had established because I needed to cover 12 miles of barren road between Thunder III and An Loc. I named it after Maura's figure skating coach in Lake Placid where she and Sandra spent the year of my tour. (On the radio Lussi comes out as "Lucy," and that's how it is spelled in division reports.) Like the other installations, it had changed. All were now fields, plantations, or hamlets.  

As we continued north I expected to go at least to An Loc. Thoan, however, had someone he wanted to visit down a side road along what used to be the edge of the rubber just south of the village. Whereas up until now we had seen many plantations where in 1969 there had been just scrub land and cut-over forest, now we saw the opposite: Where there had been a plantation, none now existed. Perhaps had we continued north into An Loc we would have come upon the rubber, but the hour was late. At the request of one of our troopers I silently recalled the 23rd Psalm in memory of Staff Sergeant Roosevelt Williams, KIA near the edge of the rubber 6 October 1968 (before I was in command). After Thoan finished his unrevealed mission in the woods, we turned south.

I had intended to drive Route 239 from Chon Than southwest to FSB Doc, along the route General Tra had taken on the last day of the war. We went down the road only a mile or so. It was unpaved and narrow, as in the old days, but this time it was without mines such as had wounded Jenkins. We also went a short distance down Boundary Road, now Route 302, from just south of Thunder II west toward FSB Doc. Evening was coming on and we had no time for a full exploration.

We headed back for Thu Dau Mot, leaving behind some unsettling memories, and I looked now for the last time at Thunder Road. I saw lush plantations where there had been sticky, sometimes unbearable heat, insects, torn bodies, and people trying to kill one another. At a school above Lai Khe, just about at Thunder I, we stopped and gave the soccer coach a ball. This greatly pleased him. He asked me to inscribe it, so I chose an inconspicuous spot and wrote, BILL, 1-4 CAV. Who would even notice it in the heat of a good game?

The traffic in Binh Duong Province is an interesting experience, heavier than one might expect even so far from a city. We had found it to be a smoothly flowing, raucous ballet with the dancers playing a dangerous game of fractions of inches in total nonchalance. The one time we saw an accident, with a man on a new motorcycle sliding along the ground beside us, he got up, looked at his now scratched and dented machine, and rode off. By now we were road veterans. For instance we knew, when walking across a road, to move smoothly and not to jump or dart. If stop you must, do not dodge. You must let them miss you. When riding and disaster seems imminent and of course nothing happens, you just say casually, "Well it worked okay again."

As we reached Ben Cat on the return trip we saw a Russian T-54 tank being pulled on a lowboy. It looked old but undamaged and still in decent shape - perhaps even operable, who knows? In the days after 1970 when 1st Infantry Division had been withdrawn to the states, ARVN took Lai Khe for its 5th Division headquarters and was responsible for Route 13. In 1972 the area from just north of Lai Khe to An Loc became the scene of the enormous NVA Spring Offensive against the South Vietnamese who, once again, had only some US advisors to assist them. General Tran was still commanding the COSVN troops. The same 7th Division we had fought in the Michelin and along this road in 1969 was back, this time cutting the road between An Loc and Chon Thanh where we had fought on 6 June 1969. They dug in and held their positions for weeks. North Vietnamese tanks -- maybe including the one I saw -- had forced their way into An Loc and fought pitched battles against the stubborn, courageous South Vietnamese troops. Finally Abrams ' massive use of B-52s in continuing, around-the-clock raids broke the siege of An Loc. In early 1975, though, the North Vietnamese Army was back in even greater force. Using the 7th and 9th NVA Divisions and other units they followed virtually the same scenario, cutting off Chon Thanh. Now the South Vietnamese, long lacking ammunition, spare parts, and basic supplies because our Administration and our Congress failed to keep commitments they had made, were unable to hold on. After ferocious fighting, An Loc, then Chon Thanh had to be abandoned, and General Tra moved his his final field headquarters down from Loc Ninh to Chon Thanh. Lai Khe and Ben Cat soon fell. With Thunder Road now in their hands, enemy we had kept in check and defeated along this road in 1969 were using it to push on to Saigon.


On two earlier days in the trip we had traveled the roads north from Thu Dau Mot to the Michelin, the same roads the French had tried to keep open with outposts and watchtowers. We had entered and exited the Iron Triangle across the Ong Co bridge, which had been destroyed in our times. We had traveled Route 240 on the eastern side of the Triangle between Ong Co and An Dien and had crossed the Thi Tinh bridge, critical in 1969 because it was the only remaining access to the Triangle. A/1-16 Infantry (Mec) had been opcon to me and, with one of our cav platoons, was tasked to secure the bridge as well as provide road sweep and convoy security north along Route 240 toward the Michelin. Convoys needed to reach our series of Rome plow NDPs and fire support bases Lorraine and Picardy which had remained after we evacuated and leveled FSB Doc on the last day of Atlas Wedge.

We had traveled, too, the main road, Route 14 on the western side of the Triangle, which in several places came close to the winding Saigon River. Now again on 30 March 2005 I was headed back into the Michelin. This time though - my last -- I was leaving a comfortable hotel room behind me to which I knew I would return, and instead of Sergeant Towers riding shotgun on the top of my command track, I had a marvelously supportive, loving daughter and son-in-law behind me in the van.

We drove through Dong Soi, now a lively village again that on my 1960s map was marked, "Destroyed." We went through Rach Bap ("Destroyed"), Ben Con ("Destroyed"), Bung Cong ("Destroyed"), to Ben Suc - the name didn't even appear on my map. Had this place been so infamous it no longer should be remembered by name and was left entirely off the map? All of these villages and hamlets had been important in the French attempts to secure rubber shipments from the Michelin to Saigon, both by this road, and by barges on the river. I would liked to have had the time on one of my trips along the road to try to find the ruins of the triangular outposts that General Paul Simonin established as a captain and described and illustrated in his book, Les Berets blancs de la Legion en Indochine.  

Ben Chua, the next village north of Ben Suc, had been spared, perhaps because the South Vietnamese government had reached the limits of its ability to continue the Strategic Hamlet Program in this area. Ben Chua was the most hostile village I encountered during my year in Vietnam. The residents would not look at you, except surreptitiously, they would not talk with our interpreters. They were sullen. Were we interrupting their gardening which seemed to consist mostly of planting mines? On 27 May 1969 we sealed the village for a morning search next morning. For twenty four hours I was the commander of a navy. A few river assault group (RAG) boats were sent up river to me and I loaded some infantry on them to seal the waterfront along the Saigon while we maintained the rest of the seal with a portion of my ground task force.

The day before, just as dusk was turning into darkness I heard an enormous explosion off to the north in the direction of my opcon B Company, 2-34 Armor. Earlier I had been talking with the mess sergeant of this tank company - good man, in his mid to late forties. He had flown out from base camp in Lai Khe, personally bringing the marmite cans for evening chow, looking out for his young men as always. The explosion was that of a command detonated 500 pound dud bomb. It had been recovered by the VC, booby trapped, and hidden near a destroyed bridge under the muck in the streambed. On the preceding day we had laid an armored vehicle launched bridge nearly over it. The mess Sergeant, who had been riding on the back deck of the tank, clinging to his cans and the bustle rack, was dead. The bridge and tank were destroyed, a mangled mess. How the tank crew itself survived I do not know.

We stopped at the spot and Steve took some pictures. { Site of 500# Command-Detonated Bomb}. The original small bridge had been rebuilt and cows grazed peacefully nearby. {Calves at Site of Blast} I said a prayer for Sergeant First Class Merrill Barnes, killed in action 26 May 1969, and we headed north.

On this same road, then unpaved and much narrower, on 18 August 1949, Lieutenant Jean Delaunay lost his right hand to a booby trap as his unit was opening the route for a convoy. He was the commander of 1st Squadron, 5th Cuirassiers , a company-sized armored unit garrisoned in the Michelin, operating a hodgepodge of leftover World War II equipment. He has sent me a considerable amount of unpublished material relating to his experiences in patrolling and securing the Michelin Plantation and the convoys that took out the rubber both by this road and by barges down the Saigon, less than a mile distant to the west. After receiving his fourth star, he capped his 40-year career by serving from 1980-1983 as Chief of Staff of the French Army.

In a little over two miles we were at Ben Tranh, the site of a 25th Infantry Division fire support base attacked by the NVA on the night of 23 February 1969 in the opening hours of the enemy's 1969 Spring Offensive. The detailed plan for the 141st Regiment, 7th NVA Division attack, contained in the official history of the division, was followed almost to the letter a month later by its sister regiment, the 165th, which attacked us twelve road miles away at Fire Support Base Doc. These attacks had a pattern. The enemy would recon the target carefully, plan and practice the assault, then launch it, always with the US commander's vehicle or bunker the primary target. They would penetrate the base if they could, cause as much destruction as possible, then withdraw before daylight. The 141st had succeeded in penetrating the fire base at Ben Tranh but were soon ejected.

In a few minutes we were back in Dau Tieng, passing the new rubber factory  and the old French watchtower near it.  The shortest route to where I wanted to go passed the scene of my encounter with the three NVA. We stopped and this time took some pictures, and I explained briefly to Steve and Maura what had happened. { The Site.  Where I Threw Grenades.  Impact in Gully36 Years Later, Rubber Tree Branches Shade the SpotAnd the Trees Produce Rubber}

It was easy, shortly after that, to find the scene of the most ferocious fighting on 30 March 1969. { Ford Site at Stream Where C/1-4 Cav, D/1-11 Cav, and later B/1-4 Cav Crossed Heading West (to Right)} { Mission for D Troop (Air Cav) was to Place Fires Along This Gully Running North South}

[From my journal, 17 April 1969:]

"On 28 March the battle of FSB Doc had ended.

"But this was not to be the worst.. That came on the morning of the 30th when we dashed into the Michelin . . . . They were tough bastards, the kind who stood up to tanks and ACAV's with their RPG's."

I had tasked the medical platoon to move with C Troop, the lead element in our approach to attack.

From the journal of our squadron surgeon, Doctor Steve McGeady:

30 March. Palm Sunday. The day Christ rode an ass into Jerusalem to be hailed king, we rode iron horses into the Michelin to trap the NVA. The big strategy was that we would surprise the enemy by using an AVLB. . . . The Col wanted to put [it] across at the base camp & Charlie would find us in his lap before he knew what had happened. At 0600 we left Doc & were in Michelin by 0700. The AVLB was moving toward the launch site & a mine sweep team was out in front clearing the path when suddenly the NVA began to pull out across the stream about 200 m[eters] into the rubber & they began moving north across the road. One of the Big Boys [tanks] fired an HE round & we saw it impact over in the rubber. Suddenly they called for a medic. Nobody knew what had happened. When I got there the 5 men on the mine sweep team were lying in the trail. I ran from one to the other seeing how badly they were hurt. The first lay still with his eyes closed; there were 2 ragged holes in his chest heart high & his eyes were glassy with  dilated pupils. The stethoscope told me for sure what I already knew, and I moved quickly to the next man. The next 2 were leg wounds & not very bad & the 4th just a superficial scratch on the lower back. I went back & was working on the leg wounds, not realizing that another man had been hit. Finally I saw him & ran up almost to the little bridge. I didn't even use a stethoscope on him. The wound was the same as the first & the result was too. A claymore. The NVA had picked this spot right at the bridge where everyone had to funnel together. Just like a big shotgun it sprayed the trail with whatever they'd loaded into it. A single shot fired, time 0750 & already 2 GI's dead. We called a Dustoff for the wounded & put the bodies into bags. The boy by the bridge's friend was furious. Two days he's been here from A Troop. 2 days. He's 21 years old today. That man was 21 years old today. I slapped his shoulder & said come on we've got work to do. I knew it'd be a long day. We went North now, the AVLB plan now scrapped. We crossed the stream and raced West in 2 column sweep, hoping to box in the NVA who were moving North on 3 sides & force them to fight. Down the rows of rubber you could see glimpses of the enemy soldiers running now East, now South. They were too far off to engage so we contented ourselves with forming a blocking force. The NVA trying to escape East ran smack into [D Company, 1-11 Cav] tanks & were turned back. Next they tried to go North, & ran into B Trp. which was sweeping South like us. Next they just holed up in bunkers & fought. When B's sweep reached them they were ready & opened up with RPG & RR [recoilless rifle]. . . . we wheeled our line about so we were facing East & moved ahead hoping to flank the bunkers without getting into Bravo's line of fire. We were moving ahead & "reconning" by fire as we went. All the bunkers we encountered were reconned with .50 cal. & grenades thrown in. They were app. empty. Then came [the troop commander's] voice, "All right everybody down they're bringing in air strikes. B's getting the shit kicked out of them." We crouched into the belly of the ACAV. God it was hot, & the sweat just rolled off us & soaked thru our fatigues. The jets rolled in in crisscross patterns & dropped their ordnance or fired their 20 mm cannons. For 40 min. they pounded away at the middle of the 3 sided box we'd formed. We kept one man up to make sure the NVA didn't slip up on us but even he ducked when the jets came in. Finally it was over & again we moved ahead as before slowly but steadily. . . . Finally about 1230 we came to a clearing & stopped. The troop continued to check bunkers & throw grenades in. One tank driver threw an armed grenade but his hand hit the tank's gun & the grenade fell into the cockpit with him. He tried to find it for a moment then realizing his plight began to scream & scramble trying to get out of the tank. He didn't make it. There was a muffled "Thump" & they called for a medic. . . . This was the most needless death of all. We took the body to a central collection point near where Bravo had had the heavy contact & only then did I realize how badly Bravo had been hit. Three vehicles were in flames. One tank & a pair of ACAV's. One ACAV had a huge crater in the front which could only have meant a RR. I didn't hold much hope for the driver of this vehicle. I learned that they'd had 7 KIA & a dozen dusted off mostly with slight injuries or nervous exhaustion. By now it was over. The NVA were completely demoralized & it was just like slaughtering sheep. Our men would creep up to a bunker & peer in, recoil in horror at the sight of 1-2 NVA sitting inside & hurl a grenade in. The NVA made no attempt to fight or escape & were killed in 1-2 grps throughout the rest of the afternoon."

Doctor McGeady, down among the trees with C Troop, did not realize that B Troop had some fighting yet to do, which they did with great courage. Its third platoon had taken six men killed out of forty, and followed their wounded platoon leader, Master Sergeant Charles McGrath, in the continuing attack.. Mike O'Connor in Bravo's second platoon knew he had more work to do, as did Jim Pitts commanding first platoon. Contacts continued until dark, especially with the aerorifle platoon of D Troop (Air Cav) which had been inserted in various spots since early morning. We had hit into elements of two regiments of 7th NVA Division (165th and 209th) in the single largest battle of Atlas Wedge. It was a day which no one who was there on either side would ever forget. It was a battle which never would be noticed by anyone else.

Continued from my journal:

"Twelve of my men were dead.. We had fought the battle all day, and in a lesser fashion the next day. When it was done, ninety enemy bodies lay under the trees and six prisoners had been taken. The air strikes and artillery and gunships that I put in undoubtedly killed many more, but darkness fell before we could sweep the whole battlefield. That night, late, in the quietness of the rubber I thought of over one hundred men dead. I, and I alone, had full responsibility."

Maura, Steve, Thoan and I walked to the scene of the contact where C Troop had forded the stream and split the enemy into two groups, one fleeing north, the other south. Now a bridge again crossed the gully in the same place it had been blown early in the war, who knows how long before1969. We walked several yards into the rows of trees to the place quite certainly within a few yards of where the D Company tank had been hit by and RPG and the driver killed. Not many yards ahead of that was the site where 3d Platoon of B Troop took the fusillade of RPGs, killing so many in a manner of seconds. { Site of Aston KIA with B Troop KIAs 50 or so Yards to My Rear} { Slight Defile Along Front of B Troop Line Where They Took RPGs}{ The Trees are Younger Now and There Is Almost No Undergrowth Where the Bunkers Were Camouflaged} {Foliage Is Not Quite at Peak, Now as Then, Allowing Me to See Enemy from My Helicopter a Few Yards Above Treetops}

I was particularly struck with how much the plantation floor had changed from 1969 to the present. During our attack the bunkers in the ragged undergrowth were as difficult to see in this neglected northern portion of the plantation as they were in the jungle surrounding it. Now the plantation floor was clean and healthy again. And all was quiet and peaceful, beautiful and cool in the shade of the trees. A few hundred yards from this spot, others of my men had died on that day, and two days later when a horrific accident killed them, and two weeks later yet when we attacked once more into the plantation only to find no major forces, just small units which, as we killed them, nevertheless took their toll on my men.

Maura and Steve lit incense and placed it near the bridge. Early in the morning at the hotel I had penciled a short statement and a list to be read at this spot. I had read some of this list of the dead two years earlier at a B Troop, 3d Platoon Reunion when we visited the grave site of Jerry Driggers. Reading names of the dead aloud is difficult but necessary.

In the plantation, 36 years later, I said: "On behalf of all Task Force 1-4 Cav soldiers, especially [I read the names of soldiers, family members, and others who had specifically requested a prayer], and all the families and loved ones of task force members who died in this plantation during Operation Atlas Wedge and a short time later, we offer prayers for the following men:

Killed in action at Fire Support Base Doc at eastern edge of this plantation, 28 March 1969  
    Private First Class George K. Golden, C/1-4 Cav  
    Sergeant First Class Alvin F. Gunter, C/1-4 Cav  
    Sergeant Gary L. Pollack, C/1-4 Cav  
    Specialist Fourth Class Robert L. Weiher, A/2-28 Infantry  

Killed in action on or near this spot, 30 March 1969  
    Private First Class Lamarr L. Johns, C/1-4 Cav  
    Private First Class Donald L. Nixon, C/1-4 Cav  
    Private First Class Melton E. Smith, C/1-4 Cav  
    Specialist Fourth Class Lyle G. Aston, D/1-11 Cav  
    Specialist Fourth Class Raymond D. Brown, B/1-4 Cav  
    Private First Class Daniel J. Curran, A/1-4 Cav  
    Sergeant Benito Diaz, Jr., B/1-4 Cav  
    Sergeant Jerry T Driggers, B/1-4 Cav  
    Staff Sergeant Jerry A.Garrick, B/1-4 Cav  
    Specialist Fourth Class Russell L. Johnson, B/1-4 Cav  
     Private First Class Willie Siegler, HHT/1-4 Cav  
    Sergeant Paul B. West, B/1-4 Cav

Killed near this spot in accidental main gun discharge in proximity to enemy, 1 April 1969
    Specialist Fourth Class James H. Rodgers, B/1-4 Cav  
    Staff Sergeant Gary L. Duggan, B/1-4 Cav  
    Specialist Fourth Class Wiley B. Moss, 1st Logistics Command

Killed in action near this spot, 11 April 1969  
    Second Lieutenant William L. Owen Jr., HHC/1-18 Infantry  
    Specialist Fourth Class Lawrence E. Zapolski, B/1-18 Infantry

"On behalf of Colonel Wood R. Deluil we offer prayers for the many US members of his advisory unit and South Vietnamese soldiers of his battalion who were killed in action in this plantation in November 1965.

"For myself and all who would wish to join with me, I offer prayers for three North Vietnamese soldiers and their families and loved ones killed in action near this spot on 25 March 1969.  

"I offer prayers also for all other French, Vietnamese, and other nationalities who died in this plantation during the Indo China Wars.

"On behalf of Alice Celeste Marson and her family, we offer prayers for Major Raymond Celeste, Jr., killed in action in South Vietnam, 22 November 1965.

"For myself, my family, and his family, I offer prayers for Lieutenant Colonel John F. Martin, killed in action over Hue, South Vietnam, 30 January 1968.

I then read the Twenty-Third Psalm, King James version, "The Lord is my shepherd . . . . Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. . . . I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

As we were returning to our van, a young man walked toward us through the trees. He was the manager of that section of the plantation. Thoan explained why we were here, and expressed my regret at the damage that had been done to the plantation during the war, and how pleased I was to see how healthy and beautiful it was today. The man was gracious and thankful we had come here to visit. In the van I had some inexpensive necklaces and I tried to give two of them to him for his daughters but he would not accept them until I assured him they were "cheap." Vietnamese do not wish to accept expensive gifts but are grateful for token expressions of friendship. He thanked us again and we left.

As we drove back south through the beauty of the rows upon rows of rubber trees on this gorgeous day, never to return, I saw people along the road going about their life, perhaps not knowing what had happened here, with their futures ahead of them. I too had a future and was pleased for them and for me.

We exited the rubber and, not being able to tour the modern factory of the Dau Tieng Rubber Company because it was closed for renovations , we went across the road to its museum. I wish we had discovered it earlier in our trip, but if we had, I might never have emerged. It had walls covered with pictures and what appeared to be a research room. {VN239, 240, 241, 246} I would have liked to explore, but now my business with the Michelin Plantation was finished, except for writing about it. The two museum employees were most helpful, and I was astonished when they presented me with a book, "History of the Dau Tieng Rubber Workers Movement, 1917 - 1997," by Workers Publishing House 2000, which my friends, Merle Pribbenow and Thoan are now translating for me. I was asked to inscribe the museum's guest book, and I did.

We left and drove west across the bridge over the Saigon. The old French docks and rusting hoist machinery for the rubber bales were off to our left. The bridge over which we drove was the key target for the enemy 9th Division in the last days before the fall of Saigon. When we had first entered the plantation on Atlas Wedge we had found some documents that belonged to the 9th Division. Near the end of the war in 1975, in base camps in the Michelin, on the site of the ones we had attacked in 1969, the division had rehearsed its planned attack on this critical bridge which would clear the way for the western pincer of the movement on Saigon.

Over the bridge, on the west bank, lay the Ben Cui Plantation, scene of events similar to those in the Michelin. Along the road old trees had been cut down and their stumps now lay on top of the ground, ready to be hauled away. A living plantation is wonderful for the environment, contributing what is necessary for life and growth. When refurbishing time arrives, nothing is wasted. Rubber trees are cut at about the 25 year mark when they have lost productivity. The trunks are used for furniture and the limbs and stumps for firewood or charcoal. The trees in the Michelin were not the ones we fought among, but ones planted since the war, as if the war had never existed.

I had never been on the western side of the Saigon River except in and over Saigon. We were now in the 25th Division's area of operations of 1969, headed toward tourist attractions, the Cao Dai Temple at Tay Ninh , and Nui Ba Den, the mountain that juts up for no apparent reason out of the flatlands surrounding it and is prominently visible from the air throughout much of South Vietnam and Cambodia.  During the war the US and South Vietnamese owned the top of the mountain where we placed an important communications station, and the VC owned everything else down to the base of it. I have an interesting account of a visit to the top of the mountain by a Frenchman in the late 19th century and would like to have taken the cable car ride, installed for tourists some years ago. But we could not make time for everything so we contented ourselves with a short visit to the temple. It had been a long day, and I was exhausted when we finally arrived back at the hotel, too tired to eat dinner. Maura and Steve brought me bread and snacks from the supermarket which, in fact, was more for snacks than groceries. The bread looked great but was light and fluffy inside and had little flavor. Some kind of additive gave the peanut butter a sweet sickish taste. And tomato-flavored potato chips from Thailand? I nibbled on some of this before turning to great candies made in Vietnam, and one of three different bunches of midget bananas. I sampled them -- each had a slightly different taste and texture, all were delicious -- and I fell into bed.


Throughout it all, Thoan had been great. He had bought some wonderful gifts for us to take back home. He had become our friend. As a measure of how much changing Vietnam has yet to undergo before it can become comfortable in its relatively new role among nations of the world, I cannot use "Thoan's" real name.

On the 31st we would meet Nhan and her family again, this time at a quiet restaurant. I was to learn that the correct pronunciation of her name sounded like "Nyea," a very nasal "yeah" with an "N" in front of it. I will probably always remember her as "Non" as I had all these years.

I was to learn, too, more about Nhan and her family. Nhan had been terrified of me when I first encountered her peeking around the corner of a building in Binh Co. She had good reason. An American helicopter had killed her father several months before I knew her. He was peddling his bike to Binh My to see about exchanging some oxen for a younger pair. We had burned down her house in the middle of the night, and now I was pointing what she thought was some kind of gun at her. She had never seen a movie camera. We learned that the corrugated metal on the roof of Luong's house was from the house we had built for the family. Only the wood had succumbed to the termites. Most interesting to me was that the cattle behind Luong's house and wandering over the site of the school were descendants of the original pair. Some of the old Binh Co as I had known it had been carried forward into present and would be part of the future.

We were able to establish how I could communicate with them (email). But most important, it became clear I now indeed had a "third daughter," Nhan, and an "adopted granddaughter," Minh Thanh, and an adopted grandson, Tot. (Our "second daughter" is Bette. She had been Sandra's student teacher in a Peekskill elementary school when we were at West Point and became an immediate addition to our family.) I was unable to meet Tot and Nhan's sisters. The time I was able to spend with Nhan and Sung was all too short, but we were to be together two more wonderful times before our departure. I am now in continuous touch with the family by email Thanh is studying English, and a neighbor is quite good in it. Since this neighbor lost her grandfather some time ago and misses him, she also wants to be our "adopted granddaughter." Needless to say, Sandra and I are delighted. Thao and her husband have a 17 month old baby girl, so we now have a "great granddaughter." I hope to get pictures soon of our newest family additions. And who knows, I may develop into the patriarch of a family clan, most of whom are Vietnamese.

Unfortunately, a few days earlier I had begun to cough. Just the road dust, I thought. However, it had developed into something worse, and I had no doubt what it was. Since I almost died as a one-year-old from pneumonia, throughout my life I have had bouts with it, a nearly fatal one twelve years ago. I had become an expert on the symptoms. If I got a fever and but had no sickness to my stomach it was merely bronchitis and I would get over it. If my temperature did not perceptibly rise (in fact it drops slightly) and I were to become nauseated, I was into the early stages of pneumonia, and that was not good. The antidote was a very strong antibiotic, administered as soon as I knew which way the thing was going. Of course I had prepared for the trip carefully, bringing everything I needed and some things I didn't, but no antibiotics for a "just in case" situation. The prospect of going to a Vietnamese hospital was not a happy one, nor was the idea of being quarantined while they determined whether or not I had picked up the deadly Asian flu virus. In the middle of the night I woke Maura and we discussed the difficult (perhaps impossible and certainly enormously expensive) change in trip plans so I could leave on the next flight.

Steve is a much smarter guy than I, and since he had gone to Australia to consult on Aborigine affairs with potential trips such as he had made on earlier visits deep into the interior, he thought it prudent to get a prescription and take along the miracle drug Cipro. It is administered to anthrax victims and others who need immediate and drastic treatment. (You see why I love him?) Although I spent the last two days of my trip in bed while Steve and Maura visited Saigon and did some shopping, it was apparent within 36 hours that the drug had worked. I continued (with extreme discomfort) to disguise my lingering cough as well as I could until we got back stateside and through customs and immigration, by which time it was okay to let loose. The prospect of quarantine in the US I could manage. Back home I soon returned to my normal ornery self.  

During my seven days in which I had been able to visit battlefield locations I had gone to the location of 33 of the 40 KIAs from all of my units, either 1-4 Cav or those opcon to me. The seven sites I could not visit because of inaccessibility or other reasons were those of:

    Staff Sergeant Gary W. Willis, M/3-11 ACR, 7 April 1969
    Staff Sergeant Gerral A. Smith, A/1-4 Cav, 8 April 1969  
    Unknown, probably Staff Sergeant George Coody A/1-16 Infantry (Mech), 6 May 1969 [Will continue to research]  
    Private First Class Walter Elam, C/1-16 Infantry (Mech), 6 May 1969  
    Specialist 4th Class Michael S. Nakashima, A/1-16 Infantry (Mech), 11 May 1969  
    Private First Class Thomas E. Gray, A/1-16 Infantry (Mech), 11 May 1969
    Specialist 4th Class Michael L. Lickey, A/1-16 Infantry (Mech), 11 May 1969

They, as well as all soldiers killed who were not in my unit or under my opcon, but nevertheless within my area of operations, received my prayers. While in Vietnam I felt a special kinship with our South Vietnamese comrades in arms who had borne such a burden, and sadness at their loss of life and freedom. I felt the tragic waste of the Vietnamese who fought against us. I felt a renewed sense of brotherhood with all my soldiers who had made it safely home, and a renewed obligation to those among them who still need help in overcoming their emotional disorders.

The ride to Tan Son Nhat airport almost at midnight was a last, treasured time. I had Nhan beside me, holding my hand, looking up at me, hugging me. Maura was seated behind me, putting her hand on my shoulder, patting me, loving me.

After I returned home I got an email from my new friend Thoan: "I have got emotional when seeing your reunion with Nhan, too. And you know, when we saw you to Tan Son Nhat airport, I tried to talk all the time, so that you and we did not cry. I believe that you and we tried to refrain from weeping. I always wonder whether it is better for you and us to refrain from weeping (I tried to talk all the time, so that we did not have time to weep)."

When we lifted off I looked down. Thirty-five men in my task force had died down there, and five assigned but not under my command. I had been able to visit the sites of thirty-three, and I had prayed for the others. People had asked me why I wanted to go to Vietnam. They wouldn't have understood all of it, so I said I wanted to see a rubber plantation fresh with new foliage. I wanted to see flowers growing and children playing. I did. And I found Nhan. Just as when I had landed ten days previously, I could again see the bend in the Dong Nai River. She would be returning to her home on the bank of that river. Maybe she was already there. I knew she would be okay. Maura, who had shown such loving concern for me and had encouraged me to return, was beside me. Sandra was waiting for me. We had lifted off from the airport in the darkness of a new day and I had soon fallen asleep. When I awoke the sun was shining through the window and we were headed home.