By JOHN W. CONROY
---- — HO CHI MINH CITY — Nearly 50 years ago, when the U.S. Marines landed on Red Beach in central Vietnam, Saigon was a small city.
Today, visiting there with three other Vietnam veterans from the Plattsburgh area, we found the landscape much changed.
Renamed Ho Chi Minh City, with a population of 8 million, the former Saigon extends nearly 20 miles to the northwest to the town of Cu Chi. This town is best known for the tunnel system that extended from the Cambodian border to beneath the Presidential Palace in Saigon during the Vietnam War.
It was the base camp of the U.S. Army’s 25th Division. Nothing remains today except the tunnels, which are a main tourist attraction.
Corky Reinhart, Neil Tallon, Pete Conroy and I, guided by former U.S. forces interpreter Omar Bui, drove from Cu Chi toward the Black Virgin Mountain in Tay Ninh province.
The stretch of highway passing through the small town of Trang Bang is the site of one of the most iconic photos of the Vietnam War. It was shot by AP photographer Nick Ut as “The Girl in the Picture,” Kim Phuc, was fleeing with some other children from military action when they were mistaken for enemy forces and napalmed by aircraft from the South Vietnamese Air Force.
Her family runs a small coffee shop and roadside memorial in that town.
“You wonder sometimes,” said Tallon, a two-time candidate for U.S. Congress, “how the U.S. could have used such a horrible weapon throughout this country. And why?
“And yet today, we’ve got the drones bombing in Afghanistan.”
U.S. HELD MOUNTAINTOP
Looming over 3,000 feet in the distance shortly past Tay Ninh is Nui Ba Den, the Black Virgin Mountain, an extinct volcano centered on a plain.
Pete Conroy, a soldier with the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, was involved in operations in this area during the fall of 1968.
“The word was then,” he said, “that we controlled the top of the mountain, but the VC (National Liberation Front soldiers) always held the bottom and surrounding plain.
“We flew on helicopters many times through this vicinity.”
“There is a theme park and a gondola system that takes people to the top these days,” Omar said. “This is the main tourist attraction here besides the Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh.”
From Tay Ninh, the highway winds back easterly toward the 31,000-acre Michelin Rubber Plantation that was the scene of many battles during the Vietnam War.
The historic record indicates that while this plantation was a staging area for VC and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) operations, they were paid off by Michelin so the company could keep the rubber operation running.
The U.S. government paid Michelin for any damages incurred by U.S. military action.
“The orderly plantings of these rubber trees bring to mind the end of the French Colonial Empire,” said Reinhart, a retired college professor.
“I was a photo interpreter in Saigon during the war,” said Tallon, “and many times I’ve viewed this area looking for evidence of VC or NVA activity from the perspective of an aircraft flying at 10,000 feet.
“Whole battalions could operate under this canopy with no one being the wiser when viewed from above.”
Along the outskirts of Cu Chi is a large military cemetery for the sons and daughters of this community who died during the war. The entrance monument, a large concrete mosaic somewhat resembling Picasso’s “Guernica,” shows men, women and children with guns and hand tools toiling away for their cause.
“This cemetery’s precisely ordered gravestones reminds me of our own Europe and Asia,” Tallon said. “These people were their heroes who died driving out the foreign invader. A little like Iraq and Afghanistan — or for that matter the War of 1812 in our area.
“It all depends on the perspective.”
“What impressed me,” Pete said, “was the spread in ages on the gravestones. From young teenagers to the 60s. Most of our dead were of draftee age, 18 to 22.”
This secondary route back to Ho Chi Minh City eventually opens up on the new skyline of a modern city.
It no way resembles the Saigon of the 1960s, when the Caravelle Hotel, at 10 stories, was the tallest structure in town.
During the Vietnam War, John Conroy served a 15-month tour with the U.S. Army in Bien Hoa, just north of Saigon. More recently, he has traveled with Army soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and shared his inside perspectives of the war with Press-Republican readers.
RETURN TO VIETNAM
This is the first of a short series of columns by John W. Conroy as he and three other veterans from the Plattsburgh area tour Vietnam.