Back To The Past

Copyright © 1995 By Ann L. Kelsey, All Rights Reserved


Ann Kelsey served as a civilian librarian with Army Special Services in Vietnam in 1969-1970. Working out of Cam Ranh Bay, she administered libraries in Nha Trang, Dong Ba Thin, and the 6th Convalescent Center.

She returned to Vietnam for the first time since the war in 1992 and made another trip in October 1994 as a member of a humanitarian group, Project: Hearts and Minds, delivering medical supplies to clinics and hospitals. She co-authored an article on civilian women who served in Vietnam for the November 1993 issue of the _VVA Veteran_ and wrote a brief history of Special Services in Vietnam for the dedication program of the Vietnam Women's Memorial.

She is currently the Associate Director of the County College of Morris Learning Resource Center in Randolph, New Jersey.


In October 1994 I had the opportunity to travel to Viet Nam in a very different capacity from my trips in 1969 and 1992. This time, I returned as a member of a humanitarian group. Our purpose was to bring donated medical supplies and equipment to clinics in the southern part of the country.

Representatives of "Project: Hearts and Minds" (PHAM), a grass-roots, non-governmental organization (NGO) affiliated with "Veterans for Peace," had contacted me initially in the fall of 1993. They had heard that I was sending books and journals to Viet Nam, and they had many donated medical journals. I was impressed with the group's mission, dedication, and with the fact that their membership was a heterogeneous mix of veterans, Vietnamese, pacifists, and people just interested in helping the Vietnamese people.

PHAM was a symbol of reconciliation in microcosm. It brought together those who had fought in the Viet Nam War, and those who had fought against it, in a humanitarian effort focused on a nation whose name still means, for many, a war not a country.

During the winter and spring of 1994, I became an active member of the New York area chapter of PHAM; and my application to participate in the mission to Viet Nam in the fall of 1994 was accepted.

This was a unique opportunity for me. It was a chance to personally provide assistance and much needed medical supplies to the Vietnamese. It was an opportunity to see the actual effect of lifting the U.S. trade embargo on February 4, 1994.

On my first trip back to Viet Nam in 1992, I was struck by how little Saigon had changed from the time I had spent there in 1969. I wondered if lifting the embargo would affect the time warp. Would Saigon still look the same? It was also a chance to compare current conditions in two of the communist countries still existing after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In August 1994 I had attended the conference of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) in Havana, Cuba. Cuba and Viet Nam were similar in that both had been subject to a U.S. trade embargo for many years. They differed because Viet Nam had endured the kind of destruction to land, property, and humanity brought on by years of war, while Cuba had suffered no armed conflict within its borders since the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961.

I had been able to do some traveling outside Havana during my ten day visit, and my trip to Viet Nam would also include travel in the countryside. I had done a little of that in 1992 and even less in 1969. I wondered how these two countries--distinctly different culturally, but with similar climates, current forms of government, and histories as European colonies--would compare.


For the six of us selected to make the journey to Viet Nam, preparations were extensive and time consuming. Each of us was responsible for collecting 140 pounds of medical supplies, filling two sixty-inch boxes. Continental Airlines had donated the airfare for six participants and twelve boxes of supplies.

However, the cost of in-country travel, food, hotels, incidental charges such as visa fees, and airline taxes were underwritten by each participant. Part of the cost was subsidized from fund-raising activities undertaken both by the group as a whole and individually by the six persons making the journey.

The group was an eclectic one composed of four women and two men. Three--myself and the men--had served in Viet Nam during the war. The other three women were a pediatrician specializing in international public health, a teacher of English as a second language in China, and a British citizen who had lived through the Battle of Britain and had been active in the antiwar movement during the sixties.

One of the men, a Swedish national, had come to the United States and enlisted in the Marine Corps to fight in Viet Nam. Although he had continued to retain his Swedish citizenship, he also carried a retired U.S. military ID card, the result of a 100% disability sustained when his unit was overrun outside Da Nang in 1968. The other man had served with a transportation company outside Saigon and in the Delta. I had been a civilian librarian with Army Special Services in Cam Ranh Bay.

While collecting the supplies and putting together the money for the trip was a daunting task, it was nothing compared to trying to leave. In 1992, when I went to Viet Nam as part of a faculty seminar sponsored by the Council for International Educational Exchange (CIEE), there were problems with obtaining visas and some concern that we might never leave Bangkok. This scenario was repeated in 1994, as the departure date got closer and the visas were not forthcoming.

We did not find out we would have visas waiting for us at Tan Son Nhut Airport until less than twenty-four hours before our departure time. This was after three days of 3:00 a.m. phone calls, hundreds of pages of documents faxed in the middle of the night, and interminable consultations between the travel agency handling our travel in Viet Nam and PACCOM, the government office assigned to handle liaison services for NGOs.

The twelve-hour time difference between New York and Saigon meant that all business had to be conducted between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. EST. Those of us faxing and phoning were zombie-like by the time the issues surrounding our entry with the medical supplies into the country were resolved.

At one point, numerous local arrangements, including car services to the airport, the hotel reservation for an overnight layover in Guam, and medical evacuation insurance policies, had been canceled and had to be reinstated only hours before departure.

But all of the anxiety and sleeplessness was forgotten as the six of us gathered, our twelve seventy-pound boxes in tow, at Newark Airport at 6:30 a.m. on October 14. We were on our way!


For two of us, this was not our first trip to Viet Nam, nor our first trip since the war. I could empathize, however, with the others' apprehension as our succession of flights brought us closer to our destination. For me, there was a feeling of deja vu that I had not had when I returned to Viet Nam in 1992. Then I had flown from Newark to Taipei to Bangkok, spending a week touring in Thailand before going to Viet Nam. But this time our route, San Francisco-Hawaii-Guam-Manila-Saigon, retraced almost exactly my 1969 trip on a chartered Braniff jet loaded with soldiers on their way to war.

I remembered the journey from Travis Air Force Base outside San Francisco to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam to Clark Air Base in Manila and finally to Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon. What a difference 25 years had made. Instead of being practically the only woman on a plane filled with men in uniform, my fellow travelers were dressed in business suits and jeans. Instead of a military charter, we traveled on Continental jumbo jets and an Airbus flying under contract to Viet Nam Airlines.

The Continental pilot on the flight from Guam to Manila sent a newspaper clipping back for us to read. It was about bringing his daughter, an Amerasian, from Saigon to live with him and his family in the United States. A Viet Nam veteran, he wished us well on our journey, pleased that he had flown us part of the way. On the Air Viet Nam flight from Manila, the Vietnamese flight attendants were smartly dressed in pink ao dais or slacks and jackets. The pilot was French.

As we landed at Tan Son Nhut International Airport, lightning crackled through the sky; and immense black thunderheads turned day into night. By the time we got off the plane and climbed into the bus to take us to the terminal, sheets of rain were pelting down.

One of our group had hoped to see the monsoons that she had heard so much about, and she got her wish. But this was only the beginning. For me, that storm was a throwback to 1969, as lightning and sheeting rain, to this day, remind me of that year.

Tan Son Nhut had changed a great deal since 1992 and was unrecognizable from 1969. It was so quiet. The hustle and bustle, the scores of C-130s, helicopters, and airliners were gone. I could see the remains of some hangers and revetments, built to protect the military planes from rocket and mortar attacks; but it was a totally different place.

The arrivals area was also different. The open air Quonset huts were gone, as were the warehouse-like areas. There were no extended families living in the arrival and departure areas.

The changes since 1992 were striking also. The arrivals area had undergone extensive renovations. Walls and flooring had been replaced and several mechanical baggage carousels installed. There were many carts available for us to load our boxes of medical supplies onto. I thought of the arrival shed at Jose Marti Airport in Havana, and how much it had reminded me of Tan Son Nhut in 1969 -- a wall of dense tropical heat, a sweltering immigration line in a darkened hanger-like building, hundreds of people milling around trying to collect baggage. Could the economic consequences of lifting the embargo be such as to make these changes possible so quickly?

Our visas were indeed waiting for us, and immigration processing was quick and efficient--much different from 1992 and from Cuba just a few months before. The Customs agents, while still bureaucratic, were approachable and courteous. Our boxes were taken for "processing," which would take two days. We had been told, during the faxing frenzy just before our departure, this would happen; so, we were not surprised. After some discussion and negotiation, receipts were provided for the twelve boxes being retained by Customs.

As we left the Customs area and went outdoors, I was amazed to see a Vietnamese friend I had met in 1992 hanging on the fence at the exit. She had been waiting since 6:00 a.m. because she did not know for sure what flight I was arriving on. That meant she had waited almost 12 hours to meet me. I was so glad to see her and to discover that she lived near my hotel. She came to visit several times, bringing her baby for me to meet.