Tag Archives: Da Nang

Waiting anxiously for a landmark event

I don’t believe it’s an overstatement to call Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s upcoming PBS documentary special a “landmark television event.”

They’re going to chronicle an event that shaped a generation of Americans. It made a lot of young Americans grow up in a major hurry. “The Vietnam War” airs beginning Sept. 17 over 10 days; it comprises 18 hours of viewing.

Burns told AARP magazine: “We have a kind of historical amnesia about Vietnam.” He said it is “like an amputated limb that still itches, still aches. If we as Americans want to get over the divisions we feel today so prominently, it’s important to understand the place where they began.”

AARP calls Burns and Novick’s project a “doozy.” Boy, howdy. Is it ever.

***

Millions of Americans are going to watch this event with a special interest. These are those who reported for duty at some time during the Vietnam War. They were affected by it openly and viscerally. The war brought them pain, which many of them brought home with them.

I was fortunate in that regard. I didn’t suffer physical pain as a result of my service there. I’ve noted already that I was what grunts called a REMF, a “rear-echelon motherf*****.” I worked on Army airplanes and later scrambled missions at the I Corps Tactical Ops Center in Da Nang.

But in November 1989, I had the rare honor of returning to Vietnam, 20 years after I reported for duty at Marble Mountain. I went back to Marble Mountain at the tail end of a three-week fact-finding trip I took with 20 other journalists, members of the National Conference of Editorial Writers. We toured Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. At the end of that “official” journey,” two colleagues and I flew north from Saigon to Da Nang as part of a personal sojourn.

We arrived in Da Nang and then took a car out to Marble Mountain. We strolled along the sandy terrain where I had walked as a young soldier. Our guide was explaining to us how the Vietnamese had absorbed our physical presence at Marble Mountain, how they had taken possession of all we had left behind. They put it to use for their own purposes, she said.

That’s when it happened. I broke down in tears. I began sobbing. I cried like a little child. Our guide, Mai, stopped talking. My friends backed away. I was alone with my emotions for, oh, just a few moments. Then it stopped. I wiped the tears off my face. Took a deep breath.

At that moment, I was cleansed of some unknown pain. I felt a sense of relief. I had shed a load of emotional baggage I never even knew I had been lugging around since my departure from the war zone two decades earlier.

I was a happy man. That “amputated limb” no longer “aches.”

I have told Vietnam veterans since my return from that marvelous journey that they, too, need to return. I get mixed reactions from them. I don’t press the issue; it’s for them to decide.

Ken Burns is an acclaimed documentary filmmaker with a huge body of work that’s been broadcast for decades on PBS. His collaboration with Novick is highly anticipated.

It will be a landmark event. I also am quite certain a lot of Vietnam vets will learn something about a critical chapter in their lives. They also might learn something about themselves.

Does it get any better than that?

Who are you callin’ ‘antique’?

AAgyrHD

Man, I’m feeling old today.

My body isn’t aching. I’ve got most of my marbles. My memory’s still pretty keen.

I just read a headline about “antique” weapons of war being used against the Islamic State.

The picture attached to the story is of an OV-10 Bronco, a twin-engine airplane used during the Vietnam War.

I remember the Bronco. I saw them take off almost hourly from an airfield in a place called Marble Mountain, just a few miles south of Da Nang.

I was assigned to an Army aviation battalion on the western side of the airfield. The OV-10s were piloted by Marines assigned on the other side of the strip. The Marines were stationed with a group called MAG 16, which is shorthand for the 16th Marine Air Group. They flew Broncos, Cobras, Hueys and the Marines’ version of Chinook twin-rotor helicopters.

OK, so I didn’t work on the Broncos, which look vaguely like the old P-38s of World War II; both planes had the twin-fuselage design.

They were effective weapons back then. I guess they’re doing the job now against the Islamic State.

According to the Daily Beast, the Broncos’ mission is somewhat hush-hush. They’ve been used to test updated equipment installed on the birds.

I recall the Broncos being fairly fast and agile aircraft. They would provide firepower to aid ground troops working in the I Corps region of South Vietnam. Today, they’re being used in a similar capacity against Islamic State terrorist fighters.

As the Daily Beast reports: “There are plenty of clues as to what exactly the Broncos were doing. For one, the Pentagon’s reluctance to provide many details about the OV-10s’ overseas missions implies that the planes were working in close conjunction with Special Operations Forces. In all likelihood, the tiny attackers acted as a kind of quick-reacting 9-1-1 force for special operators, taking off quickly at the commandos’ request and flying low to hit elusive militants with guns and rockets, all before the fleet-flooted jihadis could slip away.”

It’s interesting — and somewhat gratifying — to me that tried-and-tested equipment still has its place in this new world of high-tech warfare.

However, to call them “antique” makes those of us who watched these birds fly in their prime feel, well, a bit older than our years.

I can do without the reminder.

R.I.P., young soldier

I posted this blog essay two years ago to commemorate Memorial Day. I want to share it again today as the nation prepares to honor the memories of those who have fallen in battle.

I don’t dwell too much on these kinds of things, but I’m thinking today of a young man I knew briefly many years ago.

His name was Jose DeLaTorre. We served in the same U.S. Army aviation battalion at Marble Mountain, a heavily fortified outpost just south of Da Nang in what used to be called South Vietnam. He served in a different company than I did; he worked on a UH-1 Huey helicopter crew while I was assigned to a fixed-wing outfit, the 245th Aviation Company, which flew OV-1 Mohawk reconnaissance aircraft.

One day in June 1969, Jose came bursting into our work area full of enthusiasm. He was going home in just a few days. I recall he’d extended his tour in ‘Nam several times. I think he had served something like 32 months in-country. I recall he usually was full of it – even on his quiet days. But on this day, Jose was pretty much out of control with excitement.

Later that day, his Huey company scrambled on a troop-lift mission. DeLaTorre did what he usually did when his company got the call to lift off: He strapped himself into an M-60 machine gun and flew as a door gunner on the mission.

It was supposed to be a “routine” drop at a landing zone. It wasn’t. The LZ was “hot,” meaning the ships were greeted by heavy enemy fire when they arrived.

You know how this tale turns out.

DeLaTorre was killed in action that day.

I didn’t know him well. Indeed, it took me 21 years – when I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C. in 1990 with my wife and sons – to learn he hailed from Fullerton, Calif. I saw his name carved into The Wall. I paid my respects and, yes, choked back the lump in my throat.

Today I’m thinking of that effervescent young man and the 58,000-plus other names on that monument, as well all those who have fallen in battle since the beginning of this great republic.

May they all rest in peace.

Thank you for your sacrifice.

Take care in defining 'combat veteran'

It didn’t take Joni Ernst long to make a name for herself in the U.S. Senate.

The Iowa Republican is now defending her military record in which she defines herself as a “combat veteran.”

I would caution her to speak very carefully when using such terminology.

At issue is her service in an Iowa National Guard transportation company in Iraq and Kuwait in 2003 and 2004. She calls herself a “combat veteran” even though she didn’t face enemy fire during her deployment in the Middle East.

http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2015/02/joni-ernst-says-she-earned-the-right-to-call-herself-a-combat-veteran-despite-never-seeing-combat/

Sen. Ernst defends her record, saying that because she drew hazardous duty pay while deployed, she has earned the right to call herself a combat vet.

“I am very proud of my service and by law I am defined as a combat veteran,” Ernst said. “I have never once claimed that I have a Combat Action Badge. I have never claimed that I have a Purple Heart. What I have claimed is that I have served in a combat zone.”

Technically, she is correct. But it is a technicality that can be misconstrued. She needs to be careful how she uses such language in the future.

I understand where she’s coming from. I, too, served in a war zone for a time. The Vietnam War was raging when I arrived in-country in the spring of 1969. I received hazardous duty pay while serving as a U.S. Army aircraft mechanic and later as a flight operations specialist at the I Corps Tactical Operations Center in Da Nang.

Do I refer to myself as a “combat veteran”? No. I didn’t see direct combat — except for having to run for cover while the Viet Cong lobbed mortars into our position on occasion.

Sen. Ernst is rightfully proud of her service in Iraq and Kuwait, as I am of my service many years ago during another armed conflict.

But be careful, senator, when using terms such as “combat vet,” especially around those who’ve actually seen the real thing.

 

R.I.P., my fellow soldier

This blog post is adapted from a column I wrote for the Beaumont Enterprise; it was published on Aug. 24, 1990. With the country set to commemorate Memorial Day, this essay pays tribute to one young man who died in service to his country.

It took me eight years to make a journey to The Wall and to learn for myself what so many Americans have been talking about since it went up in 1982: the sight of those 58,000-plus names identifying each of the men and women who died in the Vietnam War; the array of keepsakes and tributes lined up at the base of the stark monument; the looks in people’s faces as they touched the name of a loved one while etching it on a sheet of paper pressed against the black stone.

I took my family to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to look for a name I remembered only as “De La Torre.” He wasn’t a buddy exactly. We weren’t close. He was an Army helicopter mechanic and a door gunner I knew in Vietnam. We did not serve in the same company; mine was a fixed-wing aircraft unit, his was a Huey company next to ours at a place called Marble Mountain, just south of Da Nang.

And yet, I saw him on his last day on Earth and the memory of his happiness at flying his final mission that day in June 1969 stayed with me long after the shock of his death had worn off.

De La Torre popped into my work area full of excitement. “Hey man,” he said to no one in particular, “I’m going home!” He had one more mission to fly — aboard a Huey on a troop lift into the mountains near Da Nang. De La Torre was a gung-ho guy, I guess, because he had extended his tour several times in Vietnam. I recall him saying he had been in-country for 32 months, well past his allotted one-year obligation.

Now he was going home, he declared quite proudly that day.

We learned later that evening that our guys weren’t prepared for a “hot landing.” Intelligence reports said enemy soldiers were nowhere near the landing zone. It was to be a “routine mission”: Drop the troops off and leave. The reports betrayed De La Torre and the rest of the men on the mission. They were met with intense enemy fire. I then was left to ponder the death of someone I didn’t know well but whose ebullience at the prospect of going home remains burned into my memory.

What I learned at The Wall, quite simply, was De La Torre’s first name, which I knew once had forgotten. In truth, we were on a last-name basis.

I knew little about Jose Manuel De La Torre when our paths crossed briefly in Vietnam. I don’t know much about him now, except for his full name, that he was about five years older than me and that he came from Fullerton, Calif.

Still, De La Torre seems a bit more like a friend now than when we both served in Vietnam. Granted, I don’t know what he liked or disliked, his favorite sport, food or movie actor. I don’t know how he coped with the fear of flying all those missions or if he was just too crazy to be scared.

I will settle gladly for merely relearning this young soldier’s full name. It was a small, but significant moment of discovery at The Wall, a place of profound sadness. Yet I came away feeling happy and satisfied that I got to know, a little better, a soldier whose last words to me were that he was going home.

Rest in peace, Jose.

Keep flying, B-52

The Air Force wants to upgrade its B-52 bomber fleet. My hunch is that the bird will be performing missions for the United States until hell freezes over … meaning forever.

http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-ageless-b52-bomber-20130819,0,6642110.story

Have you ever noticed the absence of the term “aging” when referring to the B-52? It’s been operational for more than 50 years and is still performing the mission for which it was built, which is to inflict heavy damage on enemy forces.

I actually have a B-52 story.

My story is brief, but fascinating — at least for me.

I was en route to Vietnam in March 1969. My TWA charter jetliner had departed from Oakland, Calif., with stops in Honolulu and Okinawa. We left Okinawa and were headed to Bien Hoa airport in South Vietnam.

As we approached the coast of Vietnam not long after dawn, I peered down from my window seat and saw plainly below us a formation of B-52s heading in the opposite direction. They were painted in jungle camouflage colors — as if that would make them more difficult to spot from the ground? I don’t know their destination, but I’m presuming it was perhaps to Guam, where the Air Force ran a huge bomber base during the Vietnam War.

We continued on and I saw bomb craters all over the landscape as we started our descent into Bien Hoa. I cannot attest that B-52s created the craters, but I’m guessing it’s a good bet they did.

That was 44 years ago. The B-52s hadn’t been in service all that long.

I would hear the big birds at work once I reported to my post at Marble Mountain, just south of Da Nang. I took comfort then as a young soldier in the constant rumbling we would hear on the other side of the mountains.

The LA Times reports that the fleet is about a tenth of the size it was during the B-52s’ heyday. Still, the Air Force wants to keep them in service. I’m not betting on anyone grounding the remaining B-52s any time soon.