Amid a vibrant delta, jarring memories persist
By ROBERT STOKES
May 15, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth in an occasional series about a
reporter who covered the Vietnam War and returned this year for a
journalists' reunion. Robert Stokes filed stories to the Asbury Park
Press during 1967 from Vietnam, after which he joined the staff of
Newsweek magazine. He later joined Life magazine, where he served as
an associate editor and covered the Attica prison riot in 1971.
Stokes later rejoined the Asbury Park Press as a reporter and
columnist, winning several awards for investigative reporting and
In l967 and 1968, the only way to reach the main towns and villages
in the fertile Mekong River Delta was by helicopter with a gunship escort.
And even then, the chopper you hitched a ride on was often a target
for Viet Cong snipers armed with .51-caliber machine guns hidden in
the dense jungle canopy along the canals and rivers that cross the region.
More than 40 years later, my return to the delta was considerably
safer in the ultimate comfort of an air-conditioned van and bottles
of ice-cold sparkling water at my beck and call.
It helped that we drove on a brand new, divided two-lane highway
equal to anything built in the U.S. and passed over the shiny, steel
Vinh Long expansion bridge built by Australian engineers in 2001.
Before the bridge, it took several hours for farmers to catch a ferry
to take their produce to market across the Co Chien River. Now, the
trip is measured in minutes, barring traffic jams.
During my time covering the war, I often accompanied U.S. Marines and
soldiers from the 9th Infantry Division wading through leech-infested
delta canals and streams that provided ample ambush opportunity to
the VC. But on this trip, I was a tourist, enjoying the Vinh Long
boat tour, which transported my wife and me to a fascinating,
close-up look at current life on the Mekong River, its various
islands and tributaries.
First stop was the floating market at Cai Be, a bustling water-borne
hubbub of commerce where farmers in large boats sell to smaller
farmers on a wholesale and retail basis. Traders maneuver their boats
agilely, loading coffee, fruit, charcoal and even hot noodles from
one boat to another. Farther up the river, we found various water
taxis, houses on stilts, and boat builders still constructing small
fishing boats the old fashioned way with local wood, nails and caulk.
But as we made our way up the river to An Binh Island to see a
successful orchard grower and have a wonderful Vietnamese lunch, my
mind wandered back to some scary forays with Navy Swift Boat crews
coming under fire from Viet Cong machine gunners on both sides of the
Mekong River. Cai Be lies a few miles west of the historically
significant hamlet of Ap Bac, the site of a battle in l963 that
resulted in the first major victory of the Viet Cong over the South
Nearby are several small islands in the Mekong River, the most
notable among them Phoenix Island, the home of the eccentric Coconut
Monk, a man who took a vow of silence in l948 as a protest of war in
his native Vietnam. Meditating in a coconut tree for days and weeks
on end, the man, Nguyen Thanh Nam, often was jailed by the government
in power for his criticism of its policies.
Following the victory by the Communists in l975, the government in
Hanoi curtailed the monk's access to the western media, and his
slightly bizarre anti-war efforts ended. He reportedly died in prison in 1990.
While my tour of the Mekong River Delta this time around was more
sedate and uneventful, I still have some painful memories of this
part of Vietnam that are hard to erase from my psyche. One of my
first combat experiences was with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th
Marines, in Kien Hoa Province on a joint operation called Deckhouse Five.
I was awakened in the Command Post of B Company about 2 a.m. on the
third night of the operation when I heard a frantic call for an
emergency medevac for a young Marine with a sucking chest wound and
internal bleeding. It was not the million-dollar wound that
servicemen pray for one that will send you home, never to return.
Instead it was a tragic mistake of one Marine accidentally shooting a
fellow Marine returning from a night patrol, a case of "friendly
fire" that happens in war more frequently than commanders want to
admit. Whoever created that term has clearly never been on the
business end of it.
Reviewing my notes from that experience, I want the reader to share
in some way the same emotions I felt listening to the company radio
transmissions that night between the Bravo Company Marine radioman
and the Navy corpsman trying desperately to save the 20-year-old
After the radio echoed the position of the landing zone for the
medevac chopper, the corpsman's voice came again, this time with a
tone of urgency:
"Round entered through chest, exited upper back; request all possible
speed on medevac."
"Roger Bravo Papa Two. Will request all possible speed for medevac, out."
"Bravo Papa Two, this is Bravo, Bravo, request serial number of
Whiskey India Alpha (international phonetic language for WIA, wounded
in action), also if LZ secure and type of smoke to be used for
marking LZ, over."
"LZ secure, yellow smoke. Do you have approximate ETA (expected time
of arrival) of medevac?, over."
"Negative at this time, will keep you informed as soon as ETA available."
"Roger, Bravo Bravo. Try to speed up that medevac, out."
In the bamboo hut where I sat, several Marines nervously cleared
their throats as they listened to the radio traffic. Bravo Papa Two
came back on the radio, this time with a tone of desperation.
"Bravo, Bravo, this is Bravo Papa Two, this man has a sucking chest
wound, where's that God-damned medevac?"
"Bravo Papa Two, this is Bravo Bravo, medevac on its way to your
location, medic aboard, stand by."
"Roger, Bravo Bravo, Bravo Papa Two standing by, out."
Approximately 90 minutes after the initial call for a medevac, a Navy
corpsman and a few of PFC Don Roberson's buddies loaded him aboard a
Marine chopper for a race against death. He lost the race. He died
before the chopper touched down on the rolling deck of the Iwo Jima,
the amphibious assault ship that was home to the helicopter.
The hard truth is that memories like this never go away, regardless
of how much change has come to Vietnam.
Vietnam's "Disneyland': Bloody tunnels now tourist trap
By ROBERT STOKES
May 8, 2010
CU CHI, VIETNAM Part Vietnamese Disneyland and part crude
propaganda, the Cu Chi Tunnels, 180 miles of intricate underground
complexes that housed the North Vietnamese military leadership of the
war in the south, is now the country's top tourist attraction.
Built starting in the early l960s, the maze of interlocking
passageways 23 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, served as a
subterranean command post for launching the assault on the U.S.
Embassy in Saigon during the Tet Offensive in January 1968 and the
capture of the South Vietnamese capital on April 30, 1975.
The main series of tunnels, ranging from a few feet below the surface
to 30 feet deep, were built directly under the command center of the
25th Infantry Division, which never located the main tunnel complex
during the eight years the division fought there. The 25th Division
provided special teams of soldiers known as "tunnel rats" armed
with only a .45 caliber pistol and a flashlight to go down into the
tunnels to find and ferret out the Viet Cong who were deployed there.
There are two different tunnel systems here. The one at Ben Dinh
village, nine miles north of Cu Chi, was actually used by the Viet
Cong during the war.
The second set of tunnels at Ben Duoc, a few miles away, was built
exclusively for tourists and includes a shooting gallery where they
can get their kicks firing an AK-47 or M-16. Bullets cost $1.50 each.
I wondered what those GI tunnel rats who died in those dark,
claustrophobic passageways would think about the war they fought
being represented 35 years later as an amusement park spectacular.
The first word that springs to mind is grotesque.
The guided tour began in a briefing room where illuminated maps and
charts displayed the extent of the tunnel network. The briefer was a
former Viet Cong officer named Hynh Van Chia, who lost his right arm
in the war. The most striking information Hynh offered the group of
journalists in the audience was the Viet Cong casualty figures for
those who fought in the tunnels: out of 18,000 soldiers, 12,000
"sacrificed their lives" in the effort and another 3,000 were disabled.
Then came a 10-minute audio-visual presentation that represented
American soldiers as a modern breed of Mongol warriors destroying
everything that lived or moved.
In contrast, the brave Viet Cong were described as peace-loving folks
more interested in helping to grow flowers and help elderly folks
cross a busy street than guerrilla fighters who gave no quarter when
it came to killing civilians or GIs.
I walked out after about five minutes.
Following the propaganda film, visitors were given a hands-on
experience of going down into the tunnels and duck-walking a few feet
from one trap door to another.
The tunnel of horrors aspect included mock booby traps that included
bamboo pungi stakes in a pit and metal spikes intended to wound GIs.
As we walked from one trap door to another, lifelike mannequins
representing women guerrilla fighters, were placed at strategic
places along the well-worn jungle path.
We never did get to the firing range, which was just as well. Perhaps
the tour leaders decided that U.S. journalists who had covered the
war were not exactly the type of tourists interested in that kind of
As I walked back to the bus, I remembered a magazine story I had
written about 25th Infantry Division tunnel rats and the bravery and
casualties these troops had sustained.
The story had to do with one of the gutsiest tunnel rats of the 25th
a 19-year-old named Eddie Mann from Georgia. He had been down in
the tunnels for hours on this particular day and had been warned to
stop his search for a back door to this particular series of tunnels.
It was getting dark, and his flashlight was low on battery power.
The last words Mann uttered to his fellow soldiers was, "Hold it,
there's a breeze coming from somewhere. Let me check it out."
The next sound they heard was a blast from an AK-47. An hour later
they recovered Mann's body, shot point blank in the face.
Wherever Eddie Mann is today, he must be shaking his head at how
history has been distorted in a tourist trap known as the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Returning to a conquered city 40 years later
By ROBERT STOKES
May 1, 2010
HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM Despite the myriad changes that have
occurred in this city and the entire country since I left more than
40 years ago, the heat is the one constant reality that has not changed.
It greets you walking out of the air-conditioned new airport complex
like an old friend still nearly 80 degrees Fahrenheit at 7:30 in
the evening; a wet blanket of warm, moist air that reminds you of a
sauna, combined with a thick concoction of air pollution that is
hazardous to your health.
The pollution is another quality of the city that has not changed,
but only grown worse.
It's a mark of free enterprise vitality, despite its Communist leadership.
Hordes of scooters 5 million by one estimate, or one for every two
residents foul the air and create a cacophony of sounds that
vibrates inside the eardrums as our van weaves slowly out of the
airport headed for our downtown hotel.
My wife, Catherine, and I have just traveled 17 1/2 hours, with a
single stop in Hong Kong, to get here. That's a far cry from my first
trip in 1966, when it took 25 hours and six stops to get to what was
then called Saigon.
Before I landed, the events I experienced in those two years seemed
long ago but once back in the place where it all happened, it
seemed like only yesterday.
Moving slowly through the traffic, I am astounded by the commercial
change in the city.
Entire glass structures light up the night with huge, blinking neon
signs advertising everything from high-end Canon cameras to Gucci
shoes and midsized Japanese, European and American autos. It was
another huge change from four decades ago, when there were barely any
streetlights on major streets and Saigon was continually the victim
of power outages.
As we made our way slowly downtown, our Vietnamese driver asked me
when I was here before. I told him, and he laughed.
"I was an NCO (noncommissioned officer) with the South Vietnamese
Army in Pleiku," he said. Then he added, with a smile, "We supported
the U.S. 4th Infantry Division."
The man whom I will identify only by his first name, Thanh served
one month in a re-education camp after the war ended in 1975. Thanh's
more serious penalty was being ordered to live far from his family in
Quang Ngai Province for nearly 10 years.
I wanted to ask him how he liked his life under Communist control,
but because of the recent crackdown on dissidents and human-rights
activists throughout the country, I knew what his answer would be:
economy great, politics "numbah 10."
In 1986, with the introduction of "Doi Moi" meaning a more free and
open way of life economic controls were loosened, free enterprise
encouraged and those who were banished from Ho Chi Minh City to the
countryside were allowed to return.
Since then, Vietnam has become one of the most rapidly developing
countries in Asia. But politically, it remains a rigidly controlled
nation in terms of speech and human rights.
Earlier today, we visited the War Remnants Museum a few blocks from
our hotel. The courtyard was ringed with abandoned U.S. tanks,
helicopters and self-propelled 155 mm artillery as well as armored
personnel carriers all of which brought back memories, both good and bad.
But inside the museum, a banner over the door into one room told me
all I wanted to know about the contents. The banner read: "Historic
Truths About the American War."
It was anything but the truth.
Propaganda, pure and simple: photographs of so-called atrocities
committed by American soldiers and Marines.
In fact, many of the photographs of GIs in combat took me back to the
battles I covered in those years in places like Hill 881, Mutter's
Ridge and Con Thien. Photographs taken by close friends who died
there covering the fighting. Photographers like Dana Stone, who
disappeared in Cambodia and reportedly was executed by the Khmer
Rouge, and Bob Ellison, who died going into Khe Sanh to take some
Marines beer and cigars in repayment for their hospitality during the
All of a sudden, I wanted to be anywhere but the museum. We made our
way back to the hotel and decided on a nightcap on the rooftop bar of
the Caravelle Hotel. I remembered how, during the war, we journalists
would sometimes gather at day's end for a beer.
But our conversations would always be interrupted by the streaks of
red and green tracer machine gun bullets lighting up the sky as the
Viet Cong attacked another hamlet, pushing relentlessly closer to
Saigon and an outcome never seriously in doubt.
"What do you remember most about that time?" my wife asked me.
"The surreal aspect of watching those firefights from the rooftop 40
years ago, and now replaced by the red, blue and pink neon signs
selling fancy watches and jewelry lighting up the Saigon night," I said.