Kim dropped me off at Anchorage International Airport at 0730 and after two on-time departures I arrived at LAX on schedule. Within 30 minutes of touching down I met Brian in the lobby of the hotel. I put my stuff in the room and we went over to meet the other guys who were traveling with us back to Vietnam. They all seem like really nice people. One of the guys, Bill Wedmore is taking his son back with him. I wish I was doing the same.
For slightly less than $500 more than it cost me to get from ANC to LAX Korean Airlines took me back to a place I left 34 years and 7 months earlier. Remember the days of young slender flight attendants with great smiles and who were actually pleased to serve you the two hot full three-course meals on real plates with real silverware? Let's hear it for KAL!
Brian Holcomb, Randy Zahn & Galen Rosher
The first leg to Inchon was twelve hours and forty-two minutes and the flight to Ho Chi Minh City was four hours and twelve minutes. I was apprehensive when we landed in Ho Chi Minh City and I waited for the door of the plane to be opened for the blast of hot humid air and the foul smell that I remember from Vietnam but it never came. We walked into a jetway and into an air-conditioned terminal building where we waited for our location guy, Ed Henry, to obtain our visas.
I didn't recognize anything of Tan Son Nhut or Saigon on the way to the hotel but I was never very familiar with either.
After a few hours of sleep we had a wonderful breakfast of traditional Vietnamese Pho. It was awesome! As soon as we finished we loaded up our two busses and headed north into III Corp. Nothing was familiar. The once desolate dirt road north to Phuoc Vinh is now a paved highway with houses and small businesses virtually the entire way. We crossed theSong Be River just south of Phuoc Vinh and the old bombed out bridge remains alongside the new one. With the help of some 35 year old maps we were soon on the runway of our base camp at Phuoc Vinh. The runway is all that remains. The Vietnamese government have destroyed virtually everything and anything that could remind people of the US presence.
Runway 27 PhoucVinh
There are no roads, no buildings, no foundations, nothing, which made it very difficult to locate our area of the base camp. What does remain is the old yellow tower that occupied the ARVN compound behind our hooches and revetments. That found we located our area, but like I already said, it is nothing more than an overgrown piece of ground. The Army of the PRV has a base directly across the runway from where we were and not being too happy with our being there, especially with cameras, we were asked, no, not really.....we were told to leave. Very shortly after we drove out what used to be the main gate we were pulled over by four uniformed National Police officers who insisted we follow them to their HQ. In country for about 10 hours we were basically placed under arrest until our guides could spring us. All in all I guess we were POWs for about ten minutes!!
Once we were extricated from that little predicament we continued up Hwy 1A towards Dong Xoai. 35 years ago this was nothing but an abandoned airstrip, a few burned out hooches and a crossroad in the jungle. Today it is the provincial capital of Binh Phuoc Province with a population of 130,000+. Needless to say, it is totally unrecognizable!
Our goal was to find the abandoned special forces base at Rang Rang, and ultimately the field where my roommate, Kevin Frye was killed. We were unsuccessful at both. The problem is that during our generation of the war there was nobody here! The population have all been relocated from other areas of the country so nobody actually knew where Rang Rang was.
We headed east until I felt we were north of Rang Rang. A two-story house is under construction on some high ground and we got permission to go upstairs to try to ascertain our position, to no avail. I was, and still am, sure that we were in the area. The next thing I knew we had hired seven locals to take Brian, Galen and myself, along with the Director, a cameraman, the sound guy, and one of our interpreters further into the jungle in an attempt to locate the areas.....on motor scooters! The roads are muddy (remember the red mud?), bumpy and twisting dirt tracks, which is precisely why we couldn't take the busses.
To say I was a bit apprehensive about riding into the jungle, unarmed, on the back of a scooter at last light would be a pretty gross understatement! We passed an eerily familiar field at the crest of some high ground before stopping. It was getting dark and with the limited information we had we knew our search this day would prove fruitless. I am quite certain that we were within a mile of both locations. I knew it. I felt it. As we stood on that hill in the middle of the jungle I was reminded of something that Mrs. Frye had told me on the phone in 1998. She told me that she knew when they dropped Kevin off to catch his flight to McGuire, and subsequently Vietnam, that she would never see him alive again. I asked her why and she told me that as she and her husband were leaving the airport that it began to rain, with lightning and thunder.
I am sure that Kevin was up there watching us today and laughing his butt off at these middle-aged old farts running around the jungle at last light trying to find the field he died in. How do I know? Because as we stood there in the now tranquil jungle, looking over the horizon to the south, we were treated to a spectacular view of a lightning storm far off in the distance. He may be laughing but I took this as a sign that Kevin was acknowledging our effort. And there, on that hill, I said good-bye. Something I ever had an opportunity to do before he left us.
We remounted the scooters and headed back to the busses. When we arrived the rest of the guys were surrounded by children, smiling, laughing, friendly, unpretenscious and happy! They had smiles that lit up the world. We stayed and played with them for several minutes as their parents stood by and smiled and bowed at us. Saying good-bye to our new little friends we made our way back to Dong Xoai. Driving past the houses I couldn't help but notice the meager life these people live. The living rooms were almost identical; furniture bare save for a single hutch with a TV on it and as we drove slowly by they ate their dinners on the floor of this room watching TV and the thing that struck me most was how happy they appear. And then I couldn't help but wonder how many of these families were, in some way, affected by my presence in their country 35 years ago? I am not sure I want to know the answer to my own question?