My Journey Back
by Mark A. Petersen
101st Airborne Division (69-70)
In September of 2000, 30 years after returning home from Vietnam, I journeyed back. I travel a lot, all around the world (fishing Alaska, swimming in the Sea of Galilee, 4-wheelin the dunes of Qatar, hiking the mountains of Costa Rica, and so on). But my journey back to Vietnam became the best adventure I have ever had.
Some of you have also been back to Vietnam. I suppose for a variety of reasons. Many people have asked me, “why?” It is a difficult question. I could easily voice several reasons, which I have done, but the simple truth is that I don’t really know why it was important for me to go back. It just was.
So, I did some research, booked a hotel in Hue, and traveling alone I headed out. I spent a day in Bangkok, then flew to Da Nang on Vietnam Airlines. The longer the Airbus was airborne, the more anxious I got. I was seriously rethinking this plan of mine! Though it was mostly cloudy at departure the skies cleared and I intently looked to the north. The A Shau Valley was easily recognizable from the air. In a short while we landed in Da Nang. The first people I saw in the terminal were soldiers wearing pith helmets and carrying AK47’s. I really didn’t know what to expect but everyone was friendly and helpful.
I didn’t recognize anything in the bustling city of Da Nang, I had only been there once. I traveled by taxi out of the city, dodging bicycles and motorcycles, on my way to Hue. And as we neared the top of Hai Van Pass I had my driver stop at a place overlooking the South China Sea. There was a beautiful cove beach surrounded by lush greenery and a ville, far below. My driver told me this village is a leper colony. Later, I learned this is Hoa Van Leprosy Village that was founded by a Baptist minister. I had known there were lepers in Vietnam. While in the lowlands in “69” we searched a ville and I remember going inside a large hooch that had coverings over all the openings. It was dim, stuffy, and the smell was indescribable. I saw several people, maybe 20 or so, and as my eyes adjusted to the dim I was shocked at what I was seeing.
On we went. Concrete bunkers are still standing, somberly, at the top of Hai Van Pass. We dropped off the pass and wound our way down to the coast, to a fishing village where we stopped at a wall-less, dirt floored cafe . Mama-san served me the best jumbo shrimp I have ever had. The only company in the place, besides my driver, was a rooster on top a table which mama-san shooed away.
We drove to Phu Bai where I learned I couldn’t go into Camp Eagle because it’s now a Vietnamese military base. We went on to Hue and I found my quaint hotel (Thanh Noi Hotel) on Dang Dung Street to be within the walls of the Citadel, about a block from the inner citadel which contains the Forbidden Purple City. For 10 days this became my base-camp.
From there I began searching out many of the interesting sights, beginning at the Forbidden Purple City, until by happenstance I ran into a fellow that turned out to be a former ARVN soldier. He was about my age and just within the last several years he had been allowed to have his own business as a tourist guide, of sorts. His name is Truong and he had a notebook filled with testimonies written by veterans he had guided in Vietnam. So, I hired him. There was a place I wanted to go, but not alone.
My plan was set in motion and one dark a.m. we headed out on motorcycles from Hue. We drove along the Perfume River, passing several tombs of Emperors, then drove onto a putt-putt boat and crossed the river. This is Route 547. After crossing the river we stopped in the first ville we came to and got a bite to eat. That peculiar smell of a Vietnamese ville, long forgotten, quickly bridged 30 years.
On we went. We passed FSB’s Birmingham and Bastogne, up a long hill and at the crest we found several graves. This was an unusual place for a graveyard, along the narrow roadway, and I supposed it was from a battle but I didn’t see any markers with dates. We then dropped off the other side and soon went past FSB Veghel. I had plotted the FSB’s on a map.
On we went. As we neared the A Shau we met 2 guys on motorcycles heading the other way. It turned out to be a French fellow being guided by a former NVA soldier. What’s the chance of that! They had begun their trip in Hanoi. I learned this soldier had fought his last fight at Khe Sanh. So here, standing on what barely could be described as a road, were 3 veterans that at another time would have killed each other without hesitation. We talked, and when the NVA fellow learned I was an American with the 101st during the war, he hugged me, and he cried. Through my ARVN guide he told me they (NVA) had much respect for the “Screaming Eagles.” He showed me the wounds the Marines had given him at Khe Sanh.
On we went. As we dropped into the A Shau the hair stood on the back of my neck. At the junction of Route 547 and Route 548 (presently known as Ho Chi Minh Highway), there was a little market where we got some Cokes. I wonder where they got the ice to keep the Cokes cold. Anyway, Truong called these folks “aliens.” They spoke a different dialect of Vietnamese and Truong had difficulty communicating with them. At first there were only a few people but in a short time a friendly crowd had gathered, mostly children. I was a real curiosity to them.
We turned north. Every so often we passed by Vietnamese Memorials, filled with names, honoring their fallen soldiers. I located Hill 937, known to the Montagnard tribesman as “the mountain of the crouching beast.” The mountain known to Americans as “Hamburger Hill.” As I stood there, an eerie hush blanketed the Valley with only the early rumblings of a storm coming from the north. The trees and bush have grown back on Dong Ap Bia, again covering the “crouching beast.” With the storm coming I decided to begin the return trip. I said a prayer. I didn’t experience the Battle for Hill 937 but it is a vital part in the life-blood of the 101st.
My last several weeks in-country, September, 1970, I spent on FSB Veghel. I had gotten sick with malaria and though I recovered rather quickly they decided to put me (a short-timer) on Veghel till I went home. We stopped at the foot of Veghel and I climbed to the top. The wire, and everything else, is gone, but you can still see where the bunkers and trenches lay, though just dents and troughs in the ground. At places I saw pieces of poncho sticking out of the ground. I picked up some 5.56 brass. And I sat in the dent that at one time, for a few long weeks, had been my home. The bunker to my left, just off the helipad, had been a quad-50 (named Widow Maker), and not far to my right had been a Duster. I looked west to the mountains that were hiding the A Shau. The same mountains I had once humped with my fellow Grunts, my friends, and I was flooded with the memories and emotions of the struggles, the battles, and the loss. Thunder was rumbling over the A Shau now and it was not unlike hearing the impacts the B-52’s would leave trailing behind. Sitting there was surreal. It was kind of like sitting next to a young soldier, and that soldier was me.
There were no trees growing on Veghel but there were people planting banana trees on the hillside. There was also this guy with a metal detector and when he found something he would clang at it with an entrenching tool. Dah!
On we went. When we needed petrol we bought it from people along the road. Gas was sold in bottles. We arrived back in Hue late that evening. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. But, it had been a good day. A very good day.
I didn’t say much about the rest of my travels in Vietnam. There is an abundance of history to experience. A dollar goes a long way. Truong guided me just the one day. He is a good man and was an excellent guide. I traveled about by foot, bicycle rickshaw, motorcycle, and taxi. The Vietnamese people treated me wonderfully and I shared my Skippy, which I brought from home, with other foreign travelers at breakfast in the hotel. The beaches and the mountains are beautiful, as you likely remember. And I met several other U.S. veterans in Hue.
Well, that’s my story and I’m stickin to it. My journey back took me much farther, and much deeper, than I had ever imagined it would. I think you understand.
Honor and Country