As we left Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, the pilot, Army Capt. Bill Buntyn, kept our small Grumman OV-1 Mohawk climbing until it couldn’t anymore, and, as it suddenly lost lift and gently nosed downward, all the dirt, maps, flight aids, and other miscellaneous cockpit debris floated weightless through the air.
It was another boring day in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people, and after a few minutes of the high altitude we returned to earth. At five feet off the ground and 280 miles per hour, one’s attention sharpens and the sense of movement and time increases; we were low enough to make waves in the stalks of rice in the flat green paddies we flew over.
Fifty-two years later and over 42 years after the war ended for the United States, I still think about it — even more than old girlfriends. Reviewing the 10-part PBS series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick just stirs those memories, expanded some, reminding me of others, and — most of all — once again raised the resentment.
I volunteered for the war in the Far East four times before finally being assigned the next levy of troops out of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There was a war going on, far away in an exotic land, and I, an Army paratrooper, wanted a part of it.
Probably the first book I read about the war was Bernard Fall’s "Street Without Joy" followed by his "Hell in a Very Small Place" and had begun to wonder about the wisdom of the mess we were getting into, probably as had those volunteer paratroopers who had preceded me at Dien Bien Phu.
Two days after a last stop in Saigon, I was back in Billings burning the point in some guy’s new Chevy SS-396. The war, for me, had ceased. It has been the intervening years, the further study and analysis, and the mounting dead that kept Vietnam like an ember inside me. I concluded even while I was there that it was a civil war among Vietnamese, and that the French had just lost a war there fighting the same tactics the United States was using. My study continued with lucent John Paul Vann’s "A Bright Shining Lie" along with the endless list of books published by grunts who had fought the war in the worst possible conditions, including the prolific novelist and former infantry platoon leader, Nelson DeMille.
Like all survivors of war, we got on with our lives, had careers, built families, got old, and many are now dying. Although I had volunteered, the grunts had a saying there, “Here we are, the unwilling, led by the unqualified, fighting for the ungrateful.” Nothing should ever be taken from those combatants.
It is for the 58,220 who died there that the resentment still burns subtly in me — and for those mothers, fathers, wives, sisters, brothers, and intimate friends who have borne the greatest burden of that damn war. My mother spent two Christmases escaping to her kitchen to quietly cry while the rest of the family gathered about the presents. My death there would have literally killed her.
Stones and bullets
The huge, brown artery of the Mekong River was visible in the distance, washing the detritus of this ancient killing land out to the all-embracing waters of the South China Sea. The delta area is perfectly flat for hundreds of square miles, covered with rice fields and water and rimmed in the far west and north by dense, jungle-covered mountains. Indolent white cumulus formed where the land met the nearby ocean and drifted lazily inland, reflecting painfully the tropical sun against the azure and limitless sky. I added the Armed Forces Radio channel, AFRS “Veet Nam,” to the other radio traffic we had to monitor or use, and the Rolling Stones came thumping joyfully through our earphones.
At the low altitude, we soon received gunfire from a group of palm trees. It was soundless and dreamlike and we wouldn’t have noticed except for the tiny sparks of the muzzle flashes and an experience-honed awareness that such a location was a good place from which to get shot at — plus when they did hit us, we could hear and feel the “thunk” of the bullets. Buntyn pulled the Grumman up quickly, circled back, and we unloaded our heavy machine guns and small rockets on the unlucky shooters. Mick Jagger never missed a hop, and we continued to our home airfield at Vung Tau.
As we crossed the Mekong, the South Vietnamese Air Force was obliterating some of their fellow citizens along with their homes and livelihoods in a small riverside hamlet. Our visual and moral senses were assaulted, but the rest were insulated from explosions, searing heat, and stink of burning flesh by our flight helmets. The small, propeller-driven, A-1E fighter-bombers were dropping napalm. Up and down the deadly mosquitoes swooped, spreading the fiery, jelled gasoline in an instant, hellish smear across the distant, toy-like village, beside the slow, brown river, under the brilliant haze in the deep blue sky.
Perfectly black billows of smoke reached furiously for the sainted white but terribly indifferent clouds, and ant-sized humans were sent directly to their ancestors in the perfect silence of the Rolling Stones.