It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, not because I’ve forgotten about it but because coming back to Vietnam has been so thought-provoking. I had in mind writing one long post about Vietnam but it was taking too long so I’m going to break it up into multiple posts. In this post, I’ll provide some background on why this visit is special to me…
When I finished the U.S. Army microwave repair training course at Fort Monmouth, NJ in September of 1968, I was pleased to learn that I was one of six selected to receive an additional 8 weeks of training to learn more about transistors (“solid state” technology.) Only the top six performers in the course were chosen for this and I was number six. As the rest of our friends left Fort Monmouth for assignments in places like Korea, Germany, and Fort Huachuca, Arizona, we stayed on to learn more, specifically about some equipment manufactured by a company called Radio Engineering Laboratories which had built some state-of-the-art microwave gear known as the 2600 series. I had enjoyed learning about electronics and thought it might be a career path for me. Knowing more about transistors, and how they performed all the same functions as vacuum tubes using much less power and space, would certainly benefit me. We didn’t know until later that this equipment was being deployed exclusively in Vietnam and that training for it would assure being stationed there. I don’t remember what the other guys felt when we learned this but I remember feeling proud and a little excited about the adventure that awaited me.
I was, of course, very young, very idealistic, and very proud of my dad who had served with the Marines in the south Pacific during WWII. I knew nothing about Vietnam but, like most Americans, I believed in freedom and democracy and, if my country thought we should extend a hand to a small country trying to prevent a communist takeover, then I would be proud to help in the effort. I wasn’t totally naive: I knew that young Americans were dying in Vietnam every day. Indeed, I had enlisted in the Army before being drafted (inevitable in 1967) so that I could choose to train for something that would keep me out of the direct fighting. Working on fixed radio gear would at least keep me out of the “bush” and that was my plan. (At the end of basic training in Fort Knox, I was offered an “opportunity” to change my training plans to become a warrant officer and fly a helicopter. Tempting as it was to learn to fly a helicopter, it was a no-brainer to decline the offer.)
Our mid-November graduation from the microwave solid-state class was followed by a 30-day personal leave and this put our departure for Vietnam in mid-December. Christmas was always special at the Millspaugh home and we celebrated it early that year so that I could be included. The photo at left brings back a fond memory of the special love I felt from my family on that occasion. The photo was taken by Dad, who had suffered a heart attack earlier in that year.
My dad was the central figure in our family as my mother could often be difficult. He was an intelligent, great guy with a good heart and a wonderful sense of humor and we all loved and respected him deeply. He took me to the airport by himself and we settled into seats in the boarding area of the small Weir Cook airport on the south side of Indianapolis. I was flying to Chicago where I would meet up with two of my Army class-mates and we would travel on together to Seattle and Fort Lewis, Washington. Dad and I sat talking quietly, speaking of nothing in particular that I remember. When they called us to board the plane, we stood and I faced him to say goodbye. I was shocked to see he had tears in his eyes. In that era, fathers tried to be “tough” and outward displays of emotion were rare. We hugged and I got on the plane and I remember feeling very upset about his reaction. I got on the plane feeling a little less certain about what I was about to do. But those doubts subsided in the days that followed: I suppose no one really goes off to war with realistic expectations – perhaps if they did, we couldn’t get a war started…
The military was sending literally hundreds of thousands of GIs to Vietnam at that point. Our forces in Vietnam had peaked at a half-million earlier that year and that number was just starting to decline as public support for the war was crumbling. Most GIs departed for Vietnam out of Fort Lewis WA, Oakland CA, or San Diego CA. My friends and I spent two or three days at Fort Lewis preparing for departure. We got new wardrobes ( “jungle fatigues and boots”) and received additional inoculations. We also did a certain amount of just waiting around but I enjoyed being there with my friends Bill Haire, Ken MacKinnon, and Jack Dineen. We were in high spirits as we prepared for our adventure.
We flew to Vietnam on chartered commercial airlines: I think I flew on “Flying Tiger” but I know others flew on American, Pan-Am, etc. There was no way the military could transport that many people half-way around the world using their own aircraft so it was mostly contracted out to civilian companies. Our plane left Seattle on December 14th about 1am. We stopped in Honolulu and again in Guam. Seeing Hawaii and Guam were exciting to me as was just flying in an airplane at that point. Several of the guys on my plane bought liquor at the BX in Guam Air Force base and the plane took on a party atmosphere for several hours after that. But when the captain came on the intercom and announced “We are about to descend for landing at Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam” the plane was quiet and I remember being anxious and also being surprised that I hadn’t felt that way until now. Suddenly it was real.
Last week, as Michael and I approached the Vietnam border on our bus from Siem Reap, Cambodia, for the second time in my life I was surprised that I suddenly felt a bit anxious. I wondered if coming back here was a good idea. I knew that many people had visited Vietnam in recent years and had great things to say about it. But how would they receive me? The North Vietnamese Communists had won the war and I knew that their government was still not friendly to the USA. Would this political wariness have a personal component, especially for a former American GI?
“So you came to destroy Vietnam, again?” said the pretty, young late-night clerk at our Saigon hotel when she learned I had been a US soldier in the Vietnam war. This was literally my first encounter with a Vietnamese person on this trip and the comment, delivered with an incongruous smile, caught me off-guard. We were exhausted from our 13-hour bus ride from Siem Reap, Cambodia so I wasn’t at my best. I think I said something like… “and several young men like me had their lives destoyed too.” It really upset me but I tried to ignore it. The young lady seemed very odd and I figured anyone who would say that to a customer checking in is probably not very smart.
…..It is now about a week since I arrived in Vietnam. In Ho Chi Minh City, Michael and I learned that the hotel clerk’s discourtesy was abnormal: we had many pleasant conversations with other Vietnamese people. Many responded to learning I was an American GI in the war by sharing that their parents or grandparents had fought alongside the Americans. We visited the “War Remnants Museum” which is basically photos and articles from the “US Aggression Against Vietnam” and it left me both sad and a bit angry. I’ll write more about why later. On Monday I took a 1-day Mekong Discovery tour (Michael was sick and didn’t go.) My young tour guide has asked me to share some of my thoughts about the war via email as she said she really wants to know what happened and she wonders if they are getting the whole truth in school (I’m sure they’re not.) On Tuesday, Michael left for home and I flew to Pleiku, the place where I spent one year as a soldier in 1969. After Pleiku, I took a 4-hour bus ride to the coast where I spent one night in QhiNhon, another city I visited once or twice as a soldier. From there I took an overnight train to Hanoi. More in coming posts…