Skip to comments.Joe Galloway: Today, Vietnam Is Different from When the War Started and Ended
Posted on 05/09/2005 9:44:34 PM PDT by Former Military Chick
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam - Never mind that dateline. It will always be Saigon to me, the place where I landed 40 years ago to cover a war that would eventually consume much of my youth and much of my country's innocence before it ended in bitter, bloody chaos three decades ago.
The old familiar streets are still here, but now they're lined with chic shops and boutiques instead of the seedy bars where delicate Vietnamese women once wheedled overpriced "Saigon Teas" out of big American GIs.
The traffic is, at once, both denser and calmer as motorcycles have replaced bicycles and the man-powered cyclo taxis have been banned from the center of town. Pedestrians seem to risk death just crossing a street full of speeding motorbikes, but it's a carefully choreographed dance. There are rules for the walker: Don't run. Don't try to dodge. Just walk slowly straight ahead and let the motorbikes adjust for you.
The Vietnamese are still the hardest-working people I have ever known, hustling and bustling and chasing a buck and a living with determination. The majority of them, 60-plus percent, are under the age of 30, and for them the war is something in the history books.
The country and the people are far different than they were when we came and when we left. In the cities, the old shabby yellow colonial buildings that survived have been spruced up and modernized. Office towers and high-rise hotels tower over their older neighbors. Cranes are everywhere in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City as new construction sprouts on every available scrap of land.
Communists may still rule here, but business is still business, and business is good in Vietnam. The country's economy grew at a rate of 7.7 percent in 2004.
Two-way trade between Vietnam and the United States has reached $6 billion annually. Trade with neighboring China is also at $6 billion a year. A local Honda plant cranks out millions of the ubiquitous motorbikes that sell for the equivalent of $1,000 to $2,000.
On the outskirts of Hanoi, a huge gate modeled after the Brandenburg in Berlin, complete with sculpted horses, marks the entrance of a new subdivision for the very affluent. A planned but still unbuilt house there sold six months ago for $250,000. The same non-existent home has already changed hands twice. The last buyer paid $450,000 for it.
Yet in poorer rural areas such as Quang Tri province, the per capita income is still around $200.
What we call the Vietnam War the Vietnamese call the American War. "You see, we have fought so many wars over a thousand years that we could never call yours `the Vietnam War' -- it would be meaningless to us," explained an earnest young guide in Hanoi.
The American War takes up only one paragraph in the history book taught in grade schools in Vietnam today. But a big, busy bookstore on what once was Tu Do Street in old Saigon carries shelves full of books about the war and biographies of some of the great North Vietnamese Army commanders, such as Gen. Nguyen Huu An, who did his best to kill all of us in the Ia Drang Valley during some terrible November days in 1965.
A friend and fellow scribbler, Phil Caputo, inscribed a copy of his book "A Rumor of War" to me: "As an old French general once told another, `The war, old boy, is our youth - secret and uninterred.'" By then, in the late 1970s, both of us knew exactly what that old French general meant.
It seemed so simple and straightforward when we began that march 40 years ago with the landing of the first American Marine battalion at the port city of Danang. We were a modern superpower blocking the spread of communism to a Third World country.
War has a way of looking simple going in -- and generally turns out to be far more complex and costly than the architects ever thought possible. This one sure was.
The Vietnam War consumed the presidency of the brash Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, who sent the first combat troops there. It brought young American protesters into the streets and helped topple Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon. A third president, Gerald Ford, inherited an orphaned war that ended in chaos and defeat on his watch.
To those who fought it, mostly young draftees on both sides, the war was unavoidable, a duty their country demanded of them. To those caught in the middle, the peasant farm families, it was an unending and deadly disruption to their lives. One and a half million Vietnamese perished in those 10 years. On the black granite wall in Washington, D.C., the names of 58,249 Americans who died in Vietnam are engraved.
The war gave me the best friends of my life and took some of them away almost immediately. I can still see their faces as they were then.
There was Dickie Chapelle, with her horn-rimmed glasses and a boonie hat decorated with the jump wings she'd earned in some other war long before. She told me that the first rule of war corresponding was that you must survive in order to write the story and ship your film. A Marine walking in front of her set off a booby-trapped mortar shell and a tiny fragment nicked her carotid artery. She bled to death, her head in the lap of another reporter, Bob Poos, while a Catholic chaplain gave her the last rites.
And Henri Huet, half French, half Vietnamese, all heart, all smiles. He took me on my first combat operation, teaching me every step of the way how to do this insane work and stay alive. He went down in a South Vietnamese Huey helicopter inside Laos in 1971 with the finest photographer of the war, Larry Burrows of Life magazine, and another who might have inherited Burrows' mantle had he lived, Kent Potter of UPI.
I think of them all, all 66 who died in our war giving everything they had, telling the truth and showing the real face of war to America and the world.
I think, too, of the young American soldiers who died all around me in the Ia Drang Valley and elsewhere in a war that seemed like it would never end -- and never really has in my memory and in my heart.
There were men such as Jim Nakayama of Rigby, Idaho, who had so much to live for. His wife, Cathy, gave birth to their baby girl, Nikki, a couple of days before he died on Nov. 15, 1965.
Then there were those on the other side, such as Gen. An who did his best to wipe us out in the Ia Drang and came damned close to it. Years later, in 1993, he and some of his officers went back to our old battlefield with us, walked that blood-stained ground and shed tears with us for all who died there, American and Vietnamese.
Gen. An died of a heart attack a year later.
In 1995 my good friend Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and I visited Gen. An's home in Hanoi to pay our respects to his widow and children. There, in a glass case of his most precious possessions, along with his uniform and medals and photographs of the young warrior, was a copy of our book, "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young," which told the story of the battle.
I think, too, of Col. Vu Dinh Thuoc, who started his career as a private storming the French positions at Dienbienphu and progressed to lieutenant commanding a company at the Ia Drang and on to colonel commanding a division in the final attack on Saigon.
As we later walked the battlefield together, Thuoc tapped me on the chest and said:
"You have the heart of a soldier. It is the same as mine. I am glad I did not kill you."
So am I, colonel. So am I.
And I am glad that peace and a measure of prosperity have at last come to Vietnam and its people after a thousand years of war. There's no room left for anger or bitterness, only memories, and they, too, will vanish soon enough.
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers. He spent 22 years as a foreign and war correspondent and bureau chief for United Press International, and nearly 20 years as a senior editor and senior writer for U.S. News & World Report magazine. His overseas postings included four tours as a war correspondent in Vietnam.
On May 1, 1998, Galloway was decorated with the Bronze Star with V for valor for rescuing wounded soldiers under fire in the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. His is the only medal of valor the U.S. Army awarded to a civilian for actions during the Vietnam War. He is the co-author, with retired Lt. Gen. Hal G. Moore, of the national bestseller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young," which was made into the movie "We Were Soldiers," starring Mel Gibson.
Tonk .... you might be interested in pinging the vet list here and Chick should get to know you when it comes to posting military articles she finds that are interesting.
Take good care, the BOTH of you.
If we win, Vietnam will follow. If we don't, nothing will matter anymore.
Thank you for the informative comment. I was quite young at the end of the Vietnam War so I take my history from those who have served and I doubt I will ever feel I have learned enough when I meet the creator.
I have gone back and fourth on Galloway as I did regarding Hack (RIP), that as great a soldiers they both were, they seemed to turn on the current amazing men and women serving, with their critical eye on the war in Iraq.
It would be wonderful if there were a voice that folks knew and respected, that gave a voice to the many, who frankly, by sheer luck of Kerry's platform for President, that folks like the Swiftee's got their voices heard and in turn those who served during Vietnam.
It is an observation only and it might be misguided but my heart is in the right place.
Tonk and I do exchange PINGS, I did not know there was Vet PING list so to speak but am happy to help. I am grateful that you found the article of interest Nam Vet.
I think my negative feelings are mostly about the MSM and American people toward us when I returned. I see the same tides flowing and it turns my stomach. The only thing different is that the leftists (read socialists) don't have the 'gonads'* to turn on the troops in total. All they can do is pick at the edges of a few overblown "outrages".
* read as balls (as in the male of the species)
Did you take the time to read just which of Chick's post numbers I was responding to? She was asking political questions. I made two comments/posts before this one now. So far as my Bud Tonk, as a vet, he knows as you should that no two vets have the same service experience, welcome home nor personal take on Vietnam. There IS something inside we all know and recognize between us tho'. I respect Tonk and my other Bros here as I am sure they respect me. We do share something inside that can't be described.
I think that the North Vietnamese soldiers and the American soldiers may come to a similar peace long before the latter ever do with the civilians who betrayed and disdained them. For them undying enmity. I do not forgive, and I shall never forget.
I don't have a problem with that, although I suspect that the "will vanish" part is to be read as, "those of us who remember it will die off."
We neither fought nor hated "Vietnam and its people." I made Vietnamese friends there; some got out, some would have but couldn't, and most didn't really understand the difference. A couple of them were heroes, as were a number of Cambodian mercenaries I gave a solemn last handshake.
I wish them all peace and prosperity and, after giving it lots of consideration back when I could have afforded it, I think I could handle--and would really enjoy--a trip to Vietnam.
I resisted for years, but finally made that painful pilgrimage to The Wall. Embarassed, I prayed, I traced my friends' names, I bawled like a baby. I realized everyone else was doing the same things, and I did it all again. I didn't hate anyone, though, and I'd do the same things at a Vietnamese "Wall," if they had one and I had the chance.
That doesn't mean I wouldn't go back, in a heartbeat, for a serious effort at giving them the freedom I cherish.
We were all young once ... and soldiers.
I will always click on anything with "Joe Galloway" in the title. I think I know his heart.
Almost a year and a half after the battle of the Ia Drang, fought by the 1st Air Cav, elements of the NVA got my "cherry" as we were inserting troops of the 4th ID into an abandoned firebase at the western end of the same valley.
I still know that area SW of Pleiku, and most of II Corps, like the back of my hand.
At the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Reunion in 2000, Joe Galloway spoke at The Wall after a flyby of a few vintage Nam choppers. That experience is seared in my memory also.
If you are considering a return trip to Vietnam, check out Vets With A Mission.
My wife & I went to DaNang with VWAM in June of last year to help conduct medical clinics. She helped with the clinic while I worked with several other vets to construct a new medical clinic building. We also helped Habitat for Humanity with building a home for a Vietnamese family.
All of the Vietnamese people we met were very friendly. The older folks would see us middle-aged, overweight Americans pushing hand carts of cleared building rubble, drenched in sweat. They all just smiled and nodded, knowing who we were, and why we had returned. Two teen-aged boys on a moped passed me pulling a load of rubble. They turned, gave me a thumbs up and a big grin and said "Wow!"
Yes, China Beach now sports the Furama Hotel, a 5 star resort. DaNang Bay has a six-lane boulevard along the shore. A water slide park is near the old airbase. The old steel Namo Bridge with the railroad track running down the middle of the highway lanes now has a 4 lane concrete highway bridge next to it. Changes...
I was able to get out to "Arizona Territory", an area SW of Danang, near the mountains, where I had spend several very rough months in 1969. The scattered huts and footpaths had been replaced with paved roads, power & telephone lines, cafes with refrigerators and foos-ball tables. The farmer that I had hope to locate, the one who had given me water in 1969, had died in November of 2003. The huge boulders that I had hid behind during the assault on the NVA position had been quarried 20 years ago for building stones. An irrigation canal & aqueduct flowed over the ravine where I took cover during the final assault on another NVA position.
60% of the population of Vietnam was born after the US pullout in 1975. The war for them is ancient history. Life has moved on for me, too. It was very, very good for me to return to Vietnam, to show my wife places I had lived, fought and seen friends die. We both are very glad that we went. Glad for the healing and for the opportunity to do a kindness to the Vietnamese people.
If you would like to go back, Vets With a Mission is an outstanding group to go with. Check out their website, give the director, Chuck Ward a call.
USMC 1967-69, Lima Co, 3rd Bn, 26th Marines. Field radio operator, 81 mortar forward observer, tunnel rat.
Photos of the Battle of IA DRANG-1965:
HAL G. MOORE: The Legacy and Lessons of an American Warrior
RICK RESCORLA: Help honor 911 Lifesaving Hero
Signed:.."ALOHA RONNIE" Guyer
Veteran-"WE WERE SOLDIERS" Battle of IA DRANG-1965, Landing Zone Falcon
(Where MOORE, GALLOWAY & RESCORLA walked in Vietnam, exactly - See 1st Photo)
Another Picture of Communist Vietnam: