After spending the night in a hotel that was only slightly better than the tents we lived in in the Chinook revetments at Tay Ninh years ago we mounted the busses for the days activities. We were in Phuoc Long village, the place we used to call Song Be. As I walked out the door, there, in front of me was Nui Ba Ra, shrouded in cloud as it always was at this time of the morning. As we headed out to find the old runway of what used to be Fire Support Base Buttons I was amazed by the topography and the relief of the terrain. I had always remembered this place as being relatively flat but it is anything but. It is incredibly beautiful! As we passed by the ever growing populace I noticed that the Vietnamese girls have adopted a traditional western style of dress. Blue jeans and T-shirts! They still sport their beautiful long black hair, but gone are the traditional Vietnamese Ao Dais! Those elegant, feminine and sexy long dresses.
It didn't take long before we were standing on the runway of Buttons. It is all that remains of the once vast base. We stayed at the strip for over an hour filming interviews, taking pictures and trying to put ourselves back in this place at 19 years of age. The thing that struck me most was the lack of noise! No more artillery, no more M60's, no more rotor blades. Just the noise of the people going about their everyday lives.
On the runway at FSB Buttons with NuiBaRa behind
It is challenging to recall the memories, the vivid memories of this place in 1970 and to see what it is today! In some small way I was hoping to find it as it was, dusty, noisy and to walk between the revetments and to be able to say 'I remember standing here and...', but it is not to be. This is a different place, a different country than we left it. There is no animosity towards us. The people are warm and welcoming, smiling and waving as we go about our business. They are happy the war is over, those old enough to remember it. It is all they ever wanted. For the fighting to stop
Wrapping up at Song Be we got back aboard the busses and continued heading north towards Bu Dop, the dusty little fire base on the Cambodian border from where we launched our incursion into that country in May of 1970. The road to Bu Dop is the same as most all of the other roads we have travelled since our arrival, paved and lined with homes and small businesses
And the country...it is so incredibly beautiful that I wonder if it is the same place I flew over for over 1,000 hours. I have to remind myself that my focus is much different this time. 35 years ago my focus was my Scout ship and the mission. How can I get out there, accomplish the mission and get us all back alive? I didn't care about the terrain and the natural beauty of this place. All I knew is that we were over hostile terrain with people down there who were trying to kill us. It is
a different place from what I remember.
Approaching Bu Dop I notice that the people are different. There are more and more Khmer, or Cambodian, people than Vietnamese. We stopped to ask the locals if they know where the old fire base was and they point us north two more kilometers. Stopping one more time the man we ask jumps on his Honda and leads us to the airstrip at Bu Dop. I recognize it immediately. Looking to the northwest I see the terrain drop quite markedly and I am looking at a fertile green valley inside of Cambodia.
Bu Dop airstrip
I also notice the thicket of bamboo were Tommy Whiddon and Gary Mckiddy lost their lives and Rhett Lewis crashed a short time later. It is hard to explain my thoughts as I look over the bamboo where I had friends die and at the same time visualize the beauty of this land. Rest in peace my brothers. Wow! This is powerful stuff. We do some shooting and I walked alone for awhile just needing some time to reflect.
Looking north into Cambodia from Bu Dop. The village on the other
side of the big open field is the same one from where Whiddon got shot down.
Soon we are heading back south towards Nui Ba Ra, ever present in the distance. Much of the jungle is gone, replaced by row after row, mile after mile of rubber trees. I watched as the plantation workers go about their business of emptying the small pots of sap and I wonder how the hell they keep track of all these trees? Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of trees. We continue past rice paddies with the grazing and bathing water buffalo, the huge gray beasts of burden that the VC used so effectively to transport their war materials.
In the rubber plantation
The greens are green, every different shade of green imaginable and our B cameraman, Dean Butler, constantly comments on the light and the sheer magnificance of the beauty of this land. It only dawns on me now that there are no longer any bomb craters. There is nothing to remind me that there was ever a war here.
As we pass around the north side of Nui Ba Ra, we pass a yellow crescent shaped building, now part of a government complex. In 1970 this was the old French hotel, long abandoned, that the VC used to hole up in and I personally put countless rockets into. Continuing along we turn towards the mountain and start to climb until we come to a shrine on the side of the mountain. This shrine, one of many throughout the country, is for the VC who died here. I wonder to myself how many of the names on the placques in this place, and the graves in others, are there because of me?
As I turn around to look out to the north I am amazed at the sight. Five years ago a dam was built along the Song Be River and I am now looking over a vast lake that covers a large portion of our old AO. I remember when we pulled out of FSB Joan and its location from the mountain. It is now under water.
As I stood there with Brian and Galen trying to assimilate the view, the buzz of mosquitos interrupts my thoughts. It is now that I realize we aren't going back to Vietnam, we are back!