A Journey For My Soul
In search of something hard to define yet perceived lost.
There are two incidents which have motivated this journey. Each in their own way have contributed significantly to the present situation of my return to Vietnam. They are far apart in time, about thirty years, yet both connect in that deeper sense of soul knowledge with its subtle confidence of direction.
The first occurred sometime in 1968 while traveling by helicopter across the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I was a Pararescueman assigned to the 40th Aerospace Rescue & Recovery Service, known as "The Jolly Green Giants." It was our duty to retrieve downed airman along the Laotian side of the Trung Son mountain range, the Annamite Cordilla. We could, through the use of the newly commissioned HH-53B helicopter designated by Headquarters ARRS as "The Super Jolly Green," but affectionately known as BUFF's, "Big Ugly Fat Fuckers," fly the higher altitudes of the "Vietnamese Alps" north and west of Hanoi to facilitate combat rescues.
Our littler brothers, "The Jolly Green Giants," had, up until the time of our arrival, patrolled this same area yet could not handle the altitude, time on target, flak, provide meaningful fire suppression or carry the additional personnel necessary to manage the difficult, hazardous and sometimes horrific battles. They had been sent east of Udorn to Nakhon Phanom, Thailand and worked the lower altitudes, though no less dangerous areas, of Uncle Ho's Hyway to Hell. Our smaller companions were HH-3E's called "Nit Noy Jolly's" from the Thai word for small. We enjoyed a friendly rivalry and, when our ships came into the theater, it was the Nit Noys who familiarized us with our new combat environment.
Many of the men who served on the original Jollys would do later tours on the Buffs. Many appreciating the advances in airframe design; a few lamented the Super Jolly's responsiveness, somewhat sluggish as compared to the Nit Noys. Yet what was always appreciated by all was the capability of the HH-53B/C's to absorb ground fire, small arms and heavy flak, provide suppressive fire from its three GAU/B "MiniGuns" and the extra Pararescueman who manned the rear "Mini" during the rescue attempt and was also there as an additional medic when things got really bad. Sometimes, THINGS GOT REALLY BAD!
From 1967 to 1969, the Buffs flew out of Udorn, Thailand and, bypassing Vientien because there were no US Combat troops in Laos according to the official American stance of collusion with the "neutralists" Lao government, we would land at LS 98, Long Tieng, Laos. There we would on load JP-4 since sometimes our air to air refueling efforts were not successful, have lunch at the CIA mess, and wait until we were called into action through a "Mayday, Mayday....am bailing out!" in terse, frighten and stressed tones. Now, Long Tieng was known as the "secret" CIA base of operation for the northern section of Laos, mostly the PDJ, Plains Des Jars for the conundrum of stone urns found throughout this area.
Laos appears, as a whole country, similar in shape to Italy but with out the boot, Sicily or the azure blue Mediterranean waters. Laos was landlocked, panoramically green and spiked with ridges of mountains. Its only really navigable river, the Mekong, was known to us as "The Fence" since it earmarked the "badlands" of Charlie country verses our safe haven Thailand from which we flew out of daily to do battle with the "bad guys" or "Indians." Long Tieng, as part of the ongoing CIA deception, mostly of the US Congress who appropriated the funds unquestionably and the ignorant American public who forked over obediently the monies necessary to run the "secret war" against the communists in Laos, was also called "Alternate 20."
This was a duplicitous differentiation from Lima Site 20 on the other side of "Skyline" ridge from the CIA base. LS 20 was the USAID "Pop" Buell run model Hmong relocation village and hospital. The hospital was staffed by American doctors and nurses who were recruited through various mundane non-profit organizations to humanity, for the express purposes of the CIA to have superbly trained and competent personal on site for medical care. Anything beyond, which required intensive surgical or long term hospitalization, the personnel were sent to Udorn to recuperate at the Air Force's base facility. Being nineteen turning twenty when this all happened in my life, lent a "Spy vs Spy," "Terry and the Pirates," "Steve Canyon," -ish aura to the circumstance.
At first, the thrill of being "in the black" was something of a boyhood dream come true: working behind enemy lines in secret; snatching potential prisoners from Charlie's encircling grasp; camouflaged, no identifiable unit designation and even no weapons showing when we landed at Long Tieng. (It was SOP that all hand guns and automatic rifles were stored in the security locker on board the Jolly and the mini's were retracted inside the fuselage with tail ramp closed so as not to provide even a glimpse of our armament or, God forbid, allowing a clandestine photograph by a nosy "journalist").
Yet, with more exposure to the "Agency" and combat in general, it all tarnished, never to return to the exuberance of the tyro's virgin expectations of covert missions and daring deeds. Somewhere between the extreme tedium of flying eight to ten hours with turbine-driven engines screaming high-pitched banshee wails in my ears, while the fuselage of the helicopter vibrated every bone in my body loose from its ligamentous connection; and the intense, adrenalinization of the short duration of our combat: miniguns spitting out fire, flame and expended cartridges while smoking the distinct acrid odor of ignited cordite; blood splayed on our corrugated decking, cries of pain, eyes full of anguish washed with relief, sweat stinking fear from the close calls with the enemy; jungle humidity and the intense heat of SEA, I lost my thrill for it all.
Looking out from my number one position, which was behind the copilots seat and the cockpit partition, while sitting on World War Two flak vests which were arranged on the expended rounds container below the minigun position and using another vest to pad the mini which was retracted so it wouldn't stick out the emergency exit from where it was projected when necessity required its 3000 - 6000 rounds per minute fire power, I viewed the uniformity of the jungle below. Massive mountains solid with verdant greens and an occasional silver streak sparkling in the crouches, some areas denuded by napalm or defoliants and an occasional dirt path mostly leading from one very poor village to another, I thought about what it would be like to return "someday" and travel the area without the guns, sans the political bullshit which placed me in the vicinity and with a certain knowledge of the area basically denied us as American serviceman because the Government didn't want us sympathizing with the people who we could possibly kill in order to accomplish our mission.
I remember distinctly fantasying about walking or riding on a bicycle the paths I occasionally saw. How would I react to the people I met? How would I stand the sometimes most oppressive heat? Would I talk to them in their own language however elementary my usage and pronunciation? Could I learn to like them instead of the "gook," "slopehead," "slant eyed bastards," and "dinks" I had grown to refer to them as? Was there any empathy for them as pawns in this absurd war? Could I try to understand them by studying their history instead of the simplistic good, American, Christian vs. the bad, Communists, heathen? These were all thoughts and queries of my self dialogue at various times during my two tours there in "that place." Over the years since then, I have wonder about and even continued the fantasy of returning and yet had not initiated the effort to go back. I'd many times asked myself "Why?" Was I afraid? Was I incapable of seeing "them" as anything but a target for my weapons firepower to demonstrate shredded or ground meat? Was I unable to confront my inner being and then somehow ameliorate it with the man I am now? All these questions, "what if's", and planned inertia prevented me from fulfilling that which I had, at one time, seriously considered doing until the night in November 1998.
It was an anniversary I had always remembered, November 22, 1963, the day of President Kennedy's assassination. I recall the place I was: High School in North Hollywood at about 2:00pm, Social Studies with Miss Campbell, when the news came which sent an irrevocable shock through my being: "The President had been shot dead." An unbelief, a refusal to realize, an anger that could not be enunciated, a "this can't be real," all coalesced into the disenchantment which would become a cornerstone of my life. Later, after the event, in curiosity, I'd purchased a copy of the Warren Commission Report on the assassination and even at that young age I couldn't believe what I was being told through the authorities. Have you noticed that within five years: the man who tried to end segregation, the man who tried to end the Mafia and the man who tried to bring racial peace, all died by the hand of a "single assassin?" (It reminds me of an Ian Fleming line in either, "Doctor No," or, "Goldfinger," which went something like: "Meeting once is fate; twice is coincidence and three times is ENEMY ACTION!")
Then, as years passed, my experience in SEA, a firm mortar in my disbelief of authority and its pronunciations, I accepted what many of my Special Forces companions stated: "The King makers and the King breakers," the CIA, was somehow behind the killing. Our collective experience with the "Agency" in SEA only confirmed this outlook. As a group, SF had been used as the manning pool for "The Company" often on loan to do their dirty work so that the CIA could assert themselves as "honorable men."
The Agency's intelligence gathering role, both passive and active, becomes entangled in the "direct action" of the paramilitary Directorate of Operations. Their duty is to deceive, degrade and dispose of those who oppose the particular pronouncements of the U.S. Government in such a way that they are not specifically fingered nor the USG for the dastardly deeds. Surrounded by the cloak of "plausible deniability, rigged elections, bought politicians, forced confessions, silenced enemies, trial-less confinement; secret armies, loyalists and mercenary, and proprietary civilian operations from airlines to weapons manufacturing, all are done in the name of national security and ultimately the American people who are left purposefully in the dark. At this juncture, The CIA might as well be called, "The Criminal Institute of America," characterized as the American Mafia with Ivy league educations, three-piece suits, wingtips and the protection of the "get out of free jail card," (which allows them to operate with imperious impunity), and can with all sincerity parade red, white and blues with the slippery elegance of a cobra snake, silently coil, then strike deadly, their "honorable" claim with superciliousness.
I mused over much of this the day 21 November 1998 when I was returning to my home in Captain Cook, the Big Island of Hawaii. It had begun to drizzle as the evening set in. The clouds had lowered, compressing, and in their tightening form began to wring out the little moisture contained within. I was rolling up hill with the flow of traffic at 45-50mph approaching the right angle turn at the top of the rise, the one marked by Teshima's Restaurant, a place I'd only frequented a couple of times. I was slowing as the traffic signs indicated 30 mph the closer to the top of the hill and nearer to the sharp curve that enters the Hanalo area of this portion of roadway. Since red lights of the breaking cars ahead began to twinkle as the drizzle flowed more steadily, windshield wipers on to clear the nuisance of water interrupting a clear view of the traffic situation ahead, I continued to decrease speed.
Entering into the curve the lights up ahead indicated someone was turning towards either the restaurant, the gas station it shared property with or into the apartment complex across the street. I was rolling to a stop as the cars ahead of me had when, "Bang!!!" I felt a substantial hit on my trucks body. I thought I might have broken a shock, a leaf spring or another piece of the trucks undercarriage. Or, possibly, it was the kids from the apartment complex on my right throwing rocks at me, a passing car. I looked in my rear view mirrors to see if even a car had bumped me. Nothing. I pulled ahead, turned left into the mutual parking lot shared by the restaurant and gas station. Got out of my vehicle and began to walk back to the rear of it in order to ascertain what had transpired, when an odd, even stomach churning feeling came upon me. I hadn't experienced it in a long time. In fact, it had been so long a duration having past I didn't really understand it for what it was. Sort of a premonition, maybe, but something at least in a very real way, I was recognizing that my life was changing rapidly as I slowly walked back to examine my truck.
There were cars already parked to obscure my view towards the way I had come, so I wasn't initially alerted to the commotion that had begun to hover about the situation. All I physically could see was the car I was walking along side of as I progressed towards what I thought was the problem with my truck. I bent at the back tire on the left hand side to begin my inquiry of the undercarriage, to locate the something wrong. My hand grasped the trucks bed, I felt the curve of the edge which turned inward and my fingers gained a grip as I prepared to bend and do the inspection, when for some reason I looked back the way from which I had come. And there it was. A motorcycle lay on the road and a figure prostrate on the ground gathering a crowd and I knew what had happened. I responded by having the clerks in the gas station call the police and emergency and then went with a flashlight to help.
Dead Danny. He'd impacted my vehicle's tailgate doing at least 50 mph faster than my truck's speed and, though I didn't find out until later, despite the best efforts of a declared RN on scene giving CPR, Danny died of cardiac tamponade. Which is a bruised heart filling the tissue around that muscle and slowly crushes it into cessation. I'd experienced a similar situation many years earlier when I worked as an ER technician at Palmdale General Hospital; we'd lost that one, too.
Later, after the police investigation, I was exonerated from any wrong doing. It helped that Danny was full of booze and driving recklessly. It didn't help when I learned later, through a mutual friend, that his friends who were with him in cars trailing behind on their way with Danny to drink more at another local pub, went to another "watering hole" and hoisted a few in the memory of Dead Danny, after the situation had been cleaned up and Danny on the way to the hospital and it's morgue. Probably without a sobering thought driving home later. "Blue Skies - Black Death!"
So I was left with a very deep feeling of loss. Funny as it may seem, I did not feel responsible for his death, passing a truck on a curve, barely missing an oncoming vehicle while he was in the wrong lane, the road slick with moisture, night dimming the area and his speed into my truck were all factors which mitigated any responsibility which could have been laid at my feet. No, the feeling of loss was about something much more profound and personal. It was something I had not done. It was something I had to do and had purposefully refused to recognize that it was imperative I follow through. I had been procrastinating the fact, I had been practicing the most determined avoidance, I was not performing something which I had believed and even agreed would be good for me and yet could not, would not, follow through with its initiation. What was that "thing?"
Oh! I knew. I just simply wanted to sidestep the situation and continue in my secure environment with which I'd become accustom. I was married, comfortable and somewhat sedate. Why bother with all the fuss necessary to do that which I regarded now as more a whim than a purposeful need? Yet, as I considered the circumstance, I realized that although I'd avoided this for many years, Dead Danny put an exclamation point on to "Get your ass in gear, Boy! Life's short and you too could be bumper trash very, very easily!!"
I knew I had to return to SEA. Danny's quick demise spread out on that canvas of asphalt, rain, and bystanders provoked the conclusion, however I resisted the knowledge. And so, in his own peculiar way, Dead Danny moved me to regard with all seriousness my return to "that place." To confront "That" through actually returning to the scene where so much of my virtue was lost. To walk the areas which I'd flown over; to ride across those roads I fantasized about while flying thirty years previous; to see the battlefields and maybe fly over the circumstance where my worst mission, my least proud moment, that personal thorn in my side had occurred. Just to be in the vicinity, to sense the smells, sights and feelings, physical, psychological and emotional, of that time so long past.
I knew I had to do it, and Dead Danny was the motivator, the primer initiating "the quest." To launch out of the security of my "Arthurian court" with its round table comfort zone of friends and fellow brothers of the blood telling tales of "no shit, there I was - thought I was gonna die," and "been there done that's" and traverse the unknown in search of "the holy grail." In this case, the "grail" was the dismembered remains of Jolly Green 67, the first Buff to be shot down in combat with the first major combat causality of our teams, a traumatic amputation slipping off the tail ramp as I "Oh, my god! This can't be happening to me's," blinking the crimson lights of extreme danger in brazen, spurting arterial red of my partners life blood squirting all over the helicopters deck. Jolly Green 67, who'd served the 40th so well over the short year and some months of her service in the mutual effort of our teams to rescue men stranded in war's purgatory, enemy held territory, and possibly destined for imprisonment or death.
She was one of the good birds. She seemed to always be flying. A well put together machine that never failed her occupants. She was not a 'hanger queen' like "the pig," another bird from the same manufactured which always seemed to have chip caution, yellow lights blinking warnings of impending failures and spending inordinate time in repair without any true resolution to any problem. No, JG 67 was a true mechanical friend. The kind, gentle, metal companion which flew virtually all over SEA with little problems, rare mechanical falter and in combat withstood the worst of the small arms and concentrated flak.
A stalwart steed, she would maybe struggle in her skin, vibrations quivering throughout her fuselage as she shook off the battle damage attempting to gain altitude, but still 'gird her loins" and valiantly flew her occupants out of the compromise, returning them back home safely to Udorn without fail. And somewhere near Tchepone, she was dismantled as "Rustic," dropped ordinance on her, and the comment radioed, "a lot of green bucks going up in smoke," became her epitaph. No! I had to return, however dangerous, to fly around that situation of her cemetery and at least try to make an attempt to find her and pay homage, a pilgrim returning to the crucifixion, and maybe kneel at the site, to pray forgiveness and thereby seek understanding of the circumstance. Resolution was not possible, as so much of our war remains contentious. But, a peace? Yes, that was conceivable in my consciousness. Peace!
And so it is. Since I made the decision to return, there have been several sleepless nights considering what I was getting myself into. Friends think I'm a bit dingy without even consuming a "blond pill"; partners from the war think I'm crazy. (But that shouldn't surprise them. After all, I was the one who brought a three piece surfboard (Tri-Sect by Morey-Pope) to Udorn and would, on occasions, take it out of its "JJ Moon, 'Worlds Hanger of Eleven'" case, and walk up and down it practicing my surfing). And there has been considerable preparation in order to facilitate the trip that is termed "SEATours."
The purpose of SEATours is to mountain bike most of western Vietnam from the ChiCom boarder to Saigon - an initial landing at Hanoi, with a circuit through Dien Bien Phu and the North Western area, then down Hwy One to Vinh and across the boarder at a place we called Napa pass. Napa was one of five crossings through the Trung Son mountains from Vietnam into Laos aka The Ho Chi Minh Trail's choke points - but to the Vietnamese is Keo Nuea. West on Highway Eight to Tha Khaek, which lies across the Mekong from Nakon Phanom, Thailand. Thence south along Highway Thirteen to Savannakhet, then east on Highway Nine to Tchepone. Across the boarder at Lao Bao, then to Dong Ha and the DMZ (where one of my first missions took place during the siege of Khe San and is featured in the Sep 1968 issue of National Geographic), then along the spine of Vietnam, the Central Highlands, using Highway Fourteen to arrive at Tay Ninh, Nui Ba Den, 25th Inf, Trang Bang bridge, the Cu Chi tunnels and onto Saigon.
The trip is projected to take five weeks. Many of the days are 70 to 80 mile lengths requiring that the participants are experienced long distance bike riders having done Ironmans (I've completed five and am preparing for my sixth), EXtera's, RAAM's or other similar cycling endurance events. Will use a hired driver as an interpreter/language instructor with a four wheel vehicle as a 'sag wagon.' For ease of round trip flying, we will probably return to Hanoi from a few days in Saigon and exit the country from there.
How to prepare for a trip of this magnitude? I mean just because I fantasized a route doesn't mean I can follow through. After all, I'm not nineteen anymore (which my wife is fond of saying with frequent and irritating consistency). So, how do I try and recognize the situation in reality-based terms, not the "dream on, dream weaver" musings of a fifty-two year old man, no matter how well-conditioned he is? Do an area study using the most accurate and up to date material available. But first, why the particular route?
Most returning vets begin at Saigon and work up to the DMZ because that was "their" AO. Some even venture to Hanoi, but why do I want to do the western regions? Oh, that is rather simple. It was "going downtown" to the fighter pilots who would bomb Hanoi-Haiphong region and used as an escape route either east towards the Gulf of Tonkin and "Yankee Station" or west to the PDJ. This was "my" AO and Hanoi was the place I was scared shitless of going into. It had the most concentrated flak traps, the widest range of gun calibers and SAM's, those flying, flaming telephone-pole long, radar controlled aerial bombs. I believed it was most appropriate to land "downtown" and on approach see "Thud ridge" where so many aircraft were shot down and one of the most daring rescues of the Jolly Green Giants was attempted with only one man escaping, and later rescued, the disintegration of the H-3 Jolly - the rest were captured clientele of Hanoi Hilton.
So I began my preparations by securing several tour books on Vietnam: "Vietnam," Lonely Planet; Moon Travel Handbooks, "Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Handbook"; and "Fieldings Vietnam, including Cambodia and Laos." Out of those three Lonely Planet's was the best in overall coverage. Then as input came from other sources I found, "Vietnam for Travelers by Travelers" which I recommend most because it has the largest comprehensive coverage of all aspect of Vietnam's history, present situation, language, customs, items to bring, traveling within the country and other considerations (although he is quite reticent to mention the "royal grease" necessary to facilitate many negotiations). Also recommended is Karen Muller's, "Hitchhiking Vietnam," which details her seven month sojourn throughout the country. (Karen more than makes up for the "Travelers" reluctance by relating the multitude of times she "greased royally" in order to "lubricate" the matter to her satisfaction.)
I found the maps provided in all the tour books to be without sufficient detail to be of any great use to me, so I began to invest in cartography sold through the bookstore and got Periplus' "Vietnam Country Map" as well as International Travel Maps, "Vietnam." Periplus' is a 1:2,000,000 and International is 1: 1,000,000, neither of which were of very great help to the detail I required and used in the military. The best was the Vietnam Travel Atlas produced by Lonely Plant and it would serve well for anyone not really interested in the boonies. Many hours of calling other map stores and outlets left me frustrated and disappointed. I could not seem to locate the 1:50,000 topographical maps I was so used to operating with in my twelve years of military service. Then, the proverbial last call, and BINGO! The U.S. Geological Service had just such maps. Out of Denver, CO, they have sent me all the necessary copies of the area's I am traveling. Once received, it was like I was really going, not just talking about it, or thinking it'll be nice. But there, held in by hands, were the three foot by two foot, thick paper, red light readable, familiar UMT grid lines with the true north and magnetic north angles delineated, the 1000m by 1000m sections and the 20 meter interval elevations so necessary to land navigation. I was ecstatic. Now I knew, as long as I had these maps and a compass, I could not be lost - if anything, at the most, only temporarily disorientated. And the real joke of the matter was that many of the maps HAD NOT been remade and still retained the 1964/66 date of the maps we used when we did operations in the same areas. Talk about "Dee-Gee View all over again," it was like homecoming week at the old football field when the alumni return to their former glory days!
The trip has been partitioned into "Route Packages," a pull on the RP's used by the Pentagon during the bombing of the country, I had three periods planned, each approximately 1000 kilometers long, with about 100 klicks each day to cover during a ten day time frame. There were 24 hour layovers interspersed every three days of travel, some train time such as returning to Hanoi from Lao Cai and Hanoi to Vinh, to set up the Laotian portion of the tour. But other than that, it was peddle your ass with the "sag wagon" either ahead to prepare for a rest break or behind depending on the condition of the roads. And that, the roads, was a circumstance unknown except for the more traveled highways. When we got off the beaten track such as north of Dien Bien Phu, west into Laos or south along the Ashau Valley and the Central Highlands, there was no guarantee that the road would be anything but trail or track, so we had to prepare for that eventuality. Therefore, I segmented the requirements of the trip into:
A. Time of Year
1. The country was remembered as either soggy wet or brutally
2. Jan through Mar appeared to be the best months to travel
where it was neither too rainy or severely hot
a. Honolulu to Hong Kong
b. Hong Kong to Hanoi
c. Saigon to Hanoi
d. Hanoi to Hong Kong
e. Hong Kong to Honolulu
f. Dong Hoi to Savannakhet
g. Savannakhet to Tchepone
Cannondale full suspension mountain bikes
a. Northwest run from Hanoi and back
b. Hanoi to Vinh into Laos and Dong Ha
c. Dong Ha to Saigon
a. Lao Cai to Hanoi
b. Hanoi to Vinh
c. Saigon to Hanoi
Transport of Last Resort
C. Daily Needs
Inexpensive listed for each RON
Listed with each days travel
4. Fuel/repairs of vehicle
On an as needed basis
D. Emergency Needs
1. Surgical Kit
Purchased through U.S. Cavalry catalog
a. Diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus - Booster
b. Polio - 2x's booster/4wks apart
c. Typhoid - 2x's/4wks apart
d. BCG (tuberculosis) - one
e. Hepatitis - 3x's/4wks apart
f. Hepatitis - 3x's/4wks apart
g. Japanese Encephalitis - 2x's (NA USA)
h. Malaria - prophylactic tablets
E. Contingency Plans
1. Maps and Compass'
2. Ropes, carabiners and seats
3. Trade items
4. Barter for hazardous situations
F. Language & Customs
a. Educational Services Language 30
Incredible "Da Kind"
G. General Equipment
2. Air Mattress
3. Dehydrated Rations
All this has been arranged now. We're eleven months out from launch, tentatively set 04 Feb 01. Repeated local calls to the America - Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce have not resulted in return communication. So, future contacts will be directed to the University of Hawaii, Manoa Campus, where a SEA studies program is available as well as the East - West Center.
To Be Continued
Copyright D.C. Johnson, 2000
All rights reserved.