The Road to Hill 10

A veteran's return to Vietnam

When I came to Da Nang in 1969, the airport was one of the busiest in the world. Fighters and transport planes competed with airliners on the runways, and in the sky helicopters of every description buzzed like swarms of dragonflies. The noise w as deafening. The airport itself was crammed with American soldiers and Marines. The waiting rooms were jammed with Americans waiting for flights, sleeping on their duff bags. The parking lots and surrounding roads were choked with traffic. In the background from time to time we could hear the sounds of shelling. On this trip, when I landed, there was only a strange, pre-modern silence.

During the war Da Nang had been a mini-Saigon— loud, raucous, and teeming with refugees, mutilated beggars, hustlers. Now it was obviously less crowded; it was, in fact, back to a population of 350,000, its size before the refugees swelled it to more than a million people in 1970. We drove north from the city, with "Gloria" playing on the driver's stereo. We crossed the Nam O Bridge and began the climb up to Hai Van Pass. High up on a switchback I asked the driver to stop. I got out, the wet sea air in my face, and looked back on Da Nang. I could see almost the entire area of my unit, the 1st Marine Division—from Elephant Valley out Route 37 in the north, stretching south past Ba Na Mountain, Charlie Ridge, and the Arizona Territory, and down the coast past Marble Mountain and beyond the Que Son Mountains, visible only as a dim smudge on the southern horizon. Beyond the narrow stretch of coastal plain, where the Tuy Loan and other rivers flowed out in a wide delta, were the mountains, hidden in clouds. On the mountain behind me waterfalls coursed down through tropical foliage; hundreds of feet below me gentle swells broke on deserted beaches scalloped from the rocks. It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. It seemed unthinkable that so much war had been here.

From the car the only clue to the presence of an old American base was a sudden increase in scrap metal for sale in the houses along the road. We passed Phu Bai, the first American base built between the DMZ and Da Nang. All that remained was some rubble, a lonely, abandoned watchtower, and a few strands of rusty barbed wire. And so it was with all the trappings of what had been a vast American civilization in Vietnam: Red Beach, Marble Mountain airfield, Camp Eagle—all gone. The huge staging areas, the movie theaters, the ice-cream parlors, the officers' clubs—built to last forever—have all vanished. At none of the old bases does anything grow; the bare red dirt lies on the earth like a scar.

We drove north from Hue toward the DMZ, into some of the most fiercely contested areas of the war. Among veterans of the war this is the heart of the beast, where names that have now faded into obscurity then told of the war's most brutal fighting: Hill 881, Con Thien, the Rockpile, Dong Ha, Quang Tri, the A Shau Valley, Hamburger Hill, Lang Vei, Firebase Ripcord, Khe Sanh. Stacks of old shell casings were everywhere, to be recycled into tools. Along the road and fields were stands of newly planted eucalyptus and falao pine. Throughout the war virtually the entire region had been a free-fire zone. The people had been evacuated, the fields abandoned, and the trees and houses blasted into the mud. Even Quang Tri, the one town of any size, had been obliterated in 1972, during the 138 days the Communists had held it against some of the heaviest bombing of the war. Now the people are back, and rice is being harvested and brought in from the fields.

Long before we should have arrived at the DMZ—my mind being attuned to the old travel times in military vehicles along less than secure roads—we were there. Some sampans floated idly in the Ben Hai River, for twenty-one years the boundary between the two Vietnams and for more than ten years a fearsome no-man's-land of bitter fighting. Without ceremony we crossed the bridge to their side. On the south side—our side—were rice paddies, a few houses, a boy on a water buffalo. Three women were wading slowly in the river, gathering water potatoes and oysters. An old Dodge van, converted to a bus, lumbered across the bridge from the south and stopped by our car. Five or six children poured out and ran off down a narrow trail, chattering and carrying their satchels from school. The wind made patterns in the yellowing rice. The mountains were gray in the distance. From the sea, clouds were blowing in. There was simply nothing to do but get in the car and go back.

After dinner we went for a drive around the darkened streets of Hue. A mass was in progress at the Hue cathedral, rebuilt as a strikingly modern structure grafted onto the Gothic architecture of the Hue seminary. In a field behind the church, during the Tet offensive, the Communists executed a young USIA employee named Stephen Miller. I am sure they did this as brutally and as matter-of-factly as General Loan executed the Viet Cong terrorist in the streets of Saigon. That execution, so dramatically caught on film—the captive being led up, the pistol being raised to his head and fired, the man falling over, blood spurting on the pavement—became a visual metaphor for the brutality of the whole war. Stephen Miller died no less brutally, but his death wasn't theater, and therefore in the practical terms of politics it might as well never have happened. While my guides smoked in the car, I stood in the field and bore him silent witness.

That night a hurricane blew in from the South China Sea. The wind beat against the windows of my room, the power, of course, went out, and the Perfume River rose steadily, churning with debris. The next day I had lunch with Nguyen Minh Ky, the vice-president of the province's People's Committee. Ky has the wavy hair and the good looks of a movie star. It was impossible for me to imagine that he had spent fifteen years living in the jungle. The Viet Cong whom we captured or who defected to us were tough, dedicated people, but they had the look of peasants who had just come from the fields. Ky looked as if he had just come from discussing a movie deal.

We ate lunch—the most lavish meal of my trip—on the roof of the hotel, overlooking the river, which by now was roiled and angry. The old city was barely visible through the storm, but I could see sampans balanced precariously against the howling winds in the center of the flood, the children on board searching for anything of value in the debris being swept past them. A young waitress in a yellow ao dai laid out giant prawns.

I asked Ky if he had been in Hue during the Tet offensive. He beamed. "Oh, yes. I was here for twenty-four days and nights. I was in the Citadel; I was everywhere in the city. The Americans and the puppets bombed us with everything they had, but we made them fight for every street. It was very fierce. The people had been living under oppression for fourteen years. Many of our fighters had not seen their families since 1954. They hugged each other and cried. It was glorious."

Ky asked me if I had seen the PBS program Vietnam: A Television History. "Everyone here saw it," he said. "I remember watching American troops throwing grenades into shelters. I thought of so many places I had seen such crimes. Those poor people were just peasants and laborers—they only wanted to plant rice, and they were killed. I could have cried."

As he talked, my own memories came back. In 1970 I had spent several weeks teaching English at night in Da Nang. One of my students told me this story: "My parents were living in Hue in 1968. when the Viet Cong took the city. They were schoolteachers. The Viet Cong came to the door and took them away. They told my grandmother they had to ask them some questions. My parents never came back. They found their bodies near the imperial tombs. They had been tied up and strangled."

And I remembered a Viet Cong attack in 1970 on a hamlet south of Da Nang called Thanh My. The Viet Cong had gone from bunker to bunker, throwing in satchel charges. Anyone who tried to flee was shot— old men, women, young children. W hen I got there the next morning, the mangled bunkers mere still smoldering, the bodies were laid out in long rows, and a few survivors with blank faces were poking in the rubble. They were "just peasants and laborers—they only wanted to plant rice." And I could have cried too. and did.

"I remember two things about Hue," I said. "I remember your flag flying from the Citadel, and I remember the bodies of all the innocent people the Viet Cong killed."

A shadow crossed Ky's face, a fleeting moment of hardness that made me glad I was his guest and not his prisoner. Then the smile returned. "That was a total fabrication," he said. "It was completely to the contrary. We were the people. How could we kill ourselves?"

Having proved to his own satisfaction that such a massacre was, in metaphysical terms at least, impossible, he went on: "Since 1959 the puppets had brought the guillotine to every corner of our country. They tied us up and rubbed chili pepper into our mouths, noses, and eyes." He warmed to his theme. "They ran electric current into women's private parts. They nailed your fingers down and then tore out the fingernails. They put out your eyes and cut off your ears and wore them around their necks—for publicity. The ripped open your belly and tore out your heart and liven They cut open the womb and yanked out the baby inside, then stomped it into the dust." He paused "Wow, that was terrible. If they could do that, they could make up any lie about us."

I asked him if he meant to say that his forces had not executed any civilians.

"That is correct," he replied, reaching across the table for some more prawns.

"Then where did all those bodies come from?"

He looked at me with sympathy. "It was a very chaotic time. A few criminals may have been spontaneously eliminated by the people, like stepping on a snake. But most of those bodies—if there were any—were probably patriots who helped us and were murdered by the puppets after we came into Hue during the war I pretended I was a fisherman, or a student, or a peasant coming to market. The Americans would come right up to me. They'd pat me on the back and offer me cigarettes."

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