Back to Battlefields Magical Mystery Tour: Day 2
On Day 2 of the Back to Battlefields Magical Mystery Tour seven survivors of the Greater Southeast Asia War Games are on an excursion to the TAOR southwest of Danang. Five us are arguing about what was where nearly fifty years ago when we roamed the area as Marine Corps Combat Correspondents. The other two are fascinated by a lissome Vietnamese beauty steering a motor bike with one hand and texting on an iPhone with the other. She’s wearing a pink Hello Kitty helmet over a traditional ao dai dress, the confounding fusion of ancient and modern that has kept us all in a mild state of disorientation since we arrived in Vietnam. The idea was to reexamine the wartime experiences that were so seminal in our lives, to rekindle memories good and bad, to revisit old haunts that were so familiar to us as young Marines. And it’s that last thing that’s proving a bit disturbing. Old haunts are populated by old ghosts.
Standing near the ruins of the once-bustling Liberty Bridge over the river that separated An Hoa combat base from the infamous Arizona Territory, a former enemy playground that practically guaranteed deadly firefights for Marine units that patrolled there, Dale Dye, a 1st Marine Division sergeant in 1968, recalled walking with a unit of the 5th Marines out of An Hoa to a small village called Phu Loc on the other side of that bridge. “There was a woman in the village whose husband was an officer in an ARVN unit,” he told listeners standing nearby. “The NVA unit operating in The Arizona found her and gutted her like a fish. Then they hung her upside down on the village gate as a warning to the other villagers. We heard the buzzing of swarms of black flies as we approached the ville…and there she was…an ugly sight that still haunts.”
An Hoa, the hyperactive base of so many Marine units operating in The Arizona, is now nothing more than a flat expanse of reddish laterite dirt and deteriorating asphalt. Vietnam’s verdant jungle flora has overgrown and erased virtually all traces of American presence except for a long flat expanse of sun baked dirt that was from 1967 to 1970 swarming with helicopters and light aircraft flying in support of combat operations southwest of Danang. There are still smiling gaggles of local kids who come to gawk at the occasional visitors to the area but they’re just curious about real round-eyes as opposed to those they see in on-line programs. There’s none of the hawking and haggling over warm beer, weed or sexual favors that we recall from a tine when their ancestors relied on American appetites to eke out a living in a war-ravaged land.
So we wander aimlessly up and down the old airstrip arguing about whether our old Combat Correspondent’s hooch was at the north end or the south. And chase the ghosts. “Right about here,” speculates former Sergeant Mike Stokey, “was what we called the cadaver hooch. It was where they used to prepare the KIAs for shipment hone.” There are happier ghosts at An Hoa. It was here that former Sergeant Rick Lavers bet his fellow CCs that he could run around the combat base fifty times without stopping. He lost. It was also where former Sergeant Dye bet his buddies that he could eat an entire case of C-rations in 24 hours. He won.
And then it’s back on the bus where the windshield tour continues to period jams from Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones who still can’t get no satisfaction. It’s appropriate as the returning vets wheel through the looming shadows of the Que Son Mountain Range. Looking up at the peaks once known to the 7th Marines as LZs Ross, Ryder and Baldy, Lavers recalls a firefight in triple canopy jungle up there after which his unit discovered a complete NVA hospital complex made entirely of bamboo. With a Hospital Corpsman friend Lavers explored the spooky structures to discover a cache of medical supplies shipped to the enemy “from your friends and compatriots in Berkley, California USA.”
More memory-driven ghosts arise at places like Hills 10, 55 and 37, all once patrol bases and defensive strongpoints in the ring of Marine positions around Danang. And there are more disagreements about who was where and what happened when. The only one really sure of much is former Sergeant Bob “Ding” Bayer who promises everyone it was right there in the Que Son Valley that he became the first in a long line of 1st Marine Division Combat Correspondents to be wounded in action when 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, the unit he was covering, was shattered in a North Vietnamese mortar attack during Operation Union. “I was helping to move the dead and wounded,” he recalled, “when a mortar round hit about 10 feet in front of me and knocked me on my butt.” Bayer survived the shrapnel wounds and went on to extend his tour in Vietnam, humping with and writing about units in many of the other places we visited on Day 2 of what we are all beginning to think of as The Great Ghosts Chase.
And here’s one of the eternal truths about combat veterans — any war, any time and any place — that we are all learning: Take two or three guys occupying the very same hole in the ground during the same firefight, shoulder to shoulder, facing the sane enemy at the sane tine and on the sane day and you’ll get three different stories about what happened. It doesn’t really matter which version is precisely correct. In some way they are all accurate for the people who survived. The key is that they were there for each other on that rugged day in a bad place. It’s that element of such a seminal experience that created the aging band of brothers and forged the steel bonds they are reinforcing on this return trip to Vietnam.
Tomorrow is a very big deal. The Combat Correspondents will return to Hill 327, site of the 1st Marine Division command post in an effort to find the location of their infamous Hooch 13, where outrages against common decency and violations of many Marine Corps regulations occurred.
Marine officer Dale A. Dye rose through the ranks to retire as a captain after 21 years of service in war and peace. Following retirement from active duty in 1984, and upset with Hollywood’s treatment of the American military, he went to Hollywood and established Warriors, Inc., the preeminent military training and advisory service to the entertainment industry. Dye has worked on more than 50 movies and TV shows, including several Oscar- and Emmy-winning productions. He is a novelist, actor, director, and showbusiness innovator who wanders between Los Angeles and Lockhart, Texas. Look for Dye’s new Shake Davis novel, Havana File.
This piece originally appeared in Huffington Post.