I was so touched by Don’s story and my need to do this, that I decided to send the idea to WCCO TV (local CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, MN). I felt this story would be of interest to other Vietnam Vets in particular and perhaps encourage them to get some closure on this part of our lives. Within days, I received a call from Bill Hudson, a news Anchor for WCCO. He agreed this was a story he wanted to tell. (Video can be viewed by going to: www.wcco.com/videos Search the library for the first story “After 4 decades” and the second story by searching the library again by entering “Vietnam Vet Reunites”.)
BACKGROUND-SETTING UP THE TRIP
I had set up our flights and then contacted Doug Reese to set up an itinerary for our in-country travel. He arranged a car, driver and interpreter for our trip back to Bac Lieu, deep in the Mekong Delta. Bac Lieu was the headquarters of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) 21st Infantry Division and the US Army Advisory Team # 51. I was assigned as the RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) of a 5 man US Team that worked with the 42nd Vietnamese Ranger Battalion. The Rangers were part of the ARVN 21st Inf. Div. and were considered to be the “elite” fighting troops of the South Vietnamese Army. The battalion of approximately 400 men was the smallest group that was authorized a 5 man American Advisory Team.
HO CHI MINH CITY
We arrived in HCMC late at night on October 18, 2007. The next 2 days were spent trying to get over the jet lag and visiting various sites in HCMC. While I had spent several days in Saigon 40 years earlier, not much looked the same. We were now staying in a 5 star hotel and eating in fine restaurants. One of our first stops was the War Museum. It had several US planes and tanks on display and many pictures of the war. Needless to say, it was from their point of view and highlighted what they considered to be American war atrocities. Not surprisingly, Senator Kerry was pictured with some of his comments about the war. Enough said!
On October 21, 2007 we started our trip down to Bac Lieu, deep in the Mekong Delta. We get to our first stop in Can Tho. Can Tho is the capital of the Mekong Delta and I had spent several days there during the war. I did not recognize anything from the past. The American base is now the local military headquarters. There are many war memorials and cemetery’s for their war dead along with statues of Ho Chi Minh everywhere. We stayed at the Victoria Hotel, a very nice 4 star hotel.
The next morning we are to make the final leg of the trip to Bac Lieu. I am up at day break shooting some film of the sampans and junks along the Hau River that feeds into the Mekong River. It is becoming an emotional trip for me at this point in time. I fight back the tears thinking about what I might find in Bac Lieu and the old memories I have of that time in my life.
The next town down the road is Soc Trang. Our support helicopters were based in this town about 40 miles from Can Tho. It is also about 40 miles from Bac Lieu. The guide asks us if we want to stop and visit something in Soc Trang, but now I am focused on getting to Bac Lieu. We push on.
The road into Bac Lieu looks very different. Forty years ago, it was a poorly maintained dirt road with nothing but a few grass shacks and rice paddies along side of it. Now it is a black top highway with so many houses along it that you can hardly see the rice paddies. As we approach the city center in Bac Lieu, I can only recognize the town square, bridge and an old water tower. Everything has changed. We check into the Bac Lieu Hotel (a 3 star hotel) and Donna (my wife) is beginning to wonder what I have gotten her into. This town is still considered to be the “old Vietnam”.
I had asked my interpreter, Toan, to try and find anyone that was old enough to remember the war. I am now in search of my old comrades in arms, any of the Vietnamese Rangers that I had served with. He finds an older man that knows someone that was a Ranger. After only about 20 minutes, a rough and rugged looking guy walks into the hotel lobby. He looks like a Ranger! I can tell by his slightly graying hair, he is what I’m looking for. It turns out to be Sgt. Che from the Ranger Battalion. While I do not remember him personally, he served with the Rangers while I was there and for years after I had left. By now, I have spread out all of my old pictures on a table in the lobby of the hotel. We have gathered quite a crowd of interested spectators. Sgt. Che starts looking at the pictures and telling me stories. I am particularly interested in knowing what has happened to several of my old friends. The Battalion Commander, Maj. Kiet, was killed several months after I had left in early 1968. I had heard that before, but he confirmed the story. The Major’s RTO had stepped on a land mine killing himself, the Major, and critically injuring the American Advisor. Maj. Kiet was a real warrior. He had been wounded many times during battles in the past and I was saddened to know that he was ultimately killed by a land mine. He deserved better.
My good friends were Capt. Long, the Battalion Executive Officer and 1Lt. Tai, the 4th Company Commander. Sgt. Che did not know much about what had happened to Lt. Tai, but knew much about Capt. Long. After the death of Maj. Kiet, Capt. Long was promoted to Battalion Commander. He commanded the Battalion for several years and eventually attained the rank of LTC. After that, he left the Army and was made the District Chief of Cai Lai, in the Can Tho area. He was married and had some kids.
During the fall of Vietnam in 1975, many things changed and people disappeared. Sgt. Che was sent to a re-education camp for 1 year. When he returned to his family, he had a very difficult time for several years. He worked odd jobs trying to make a living before finally being accepted back into the “new” society. He believes that Capt. Long made it to the US and is still alive today. My search to find him will continue when I return home.
In reflection on the life of my old friend Capt. Long, I feel very sad. I cannot imagine the life he has had, if he is still alive. We take so much for granted in our country and have such wonderful lives compared to so many in this world.
Sgt. Che took us around Bac Lieu showing us the old American Base and various other sites. There isn’t a single brick left of any of it. The old Provincial Hospital where I had volunteered to help out with casualty control following a mortar attack in early 1967 was completely gone. The wall around the old building was still there, but a new hospital stood where the old one used to be. The old Ranger Battalion area was also gone. Nothing was left of any of it. We toured the area out by the ocean and I learned of a Viet Cong guerilla base that was located very close to an area where I had spent a lot of time. We were very close to it, but had never found it.
I thought it might be interesting to actually meet a Viet Cong guerilla and have a conversation about his side of the war. I asked Sgt. Che if any were around the area and what he thought of the idea. He said there were many around, but he would have no part in that conversation. I decided to drop the idea.
As a monsoon storm approached, we said our goodbye’s to Sgt. Che and thanked him for his help and information. It was an emotional goodbye for me. I could not believe that I had actually found an old Ranger that I served with and learned so much in such a little period of time. We had dinner that night at the Bac Lieu Hotel. One of the items on the menu was a snake head dinner. That was enough for Donna. She stayed with the fried rice and shrimp and asked when we could leave to go back to Can Tho.
There was a room that said Massage and Karoake on the door down the hall from our room at the Bac Lieu Hotel. We decided to check it out. A quick look inside had a bench with many young ladies sitting on it smiling at us. I knew this was not a place for us and we quickly departed for our room and the night.
I had met Donna just days before leaving for Vietnam in October, 1966. We had gotten to know each other by writing letters back and forth during that year. It was one of the fond memories that I have of Bac Lieu…getting to know my future wife.
The next morning I was up at the crack of dawn taking my last photographs of the town. There were some military officers staying at our hotel and they were making an early morning departure. While I do not know their ranks, they all appeared to be officers with the one in charge riding in a car in front of two vans of the others. I walked up to him and indicated I wanted to take his picture. He waved me off like I was really annoying him and turned his back to me. I figured taking his picture was a bad idea.
DEPARTING BAC LIEU
We departed Bac Lieu on October 23, 2007…exactly 40 years to the day that I had departed it before. This time, I was leaving with a sense of closure. There was no longer anything for me in this town but memories. It was a year that I would not change for anything, but would never want to do again.
Leaving the town that day, I wanted to stop and walk on a rice paddy dyke. I had walked on many during my time here in the past. In fact, I swear I walked on everyone of them in the entire Delta 40 years earlier. The paddies looked the same except for one thing…they now have telephone and power lines running through them. A strange contrast to the past. While I got my shoes a bit muddy, it brought back old memories. This time I would not be worried about land mines, ambushes or snipers. Life is good!
We stopped at the old airbase in Soc Trang on our way back to Can Tho. I had flown several operations out of this airfield. There is a military base located there today. The old airfield is still there, but is not used for anything. I took some pictures, but it is technically against the law to do so today. You are not allowed to take any pictures around military bases. Seems like a joke being that you could “google” it on-line and get a better view than you could walking near it. But, this is a new Vietnam.
We made a stop at a place called the “Bat Pagoda”. This Buddist Pagoda is surrounded by bats (big ones) that live in the trees there. They hang upside down all day waiting for the evening to go out and feed. There was a woman sitting outside of the Pagoda with a cage of small birds. The custom is to buy a bird for $5000 Dong (about 32 cents USD), say a prayer for a deceased person and release the bird. This is to help release the spirit of the deceased person. I buy and release 2 birds, one for my old Battalion Commander Maj. Kiet and one for SSG Kenneth Hargrave (SSG Ken Hargrave was a US Army Special Forces (Green Beret) that I replaced on the Ranger Team…he was killed in a major battle with the Viet Cong in February, 1967). I hope they both rest in peace!
We spent that night back in Can Tho at the Victoria Hotel again. Donna was happy to return to this area where it was not so “rural”. We visited the floating market on the Hau River (the back river) before returning to HCMC. The market is a fine example of how capitalism works in this country. People from everywhere bring their goods to this market to sell them and make a living. While this is a communist country, capitalism reigns. People own their own property and land like anywhere else. They can start and run their own businesses or work for others. There are rich people and poor people. The government is not noticeably visible and there is very little military presence. Here, when a man turns 18, he must serve 2 years in the military. After that, he is free to do what ever he pleases. (I have since learned that it is not all what it appears to be on the surface. It is still a communist country and while it looks very peaceful to a tourist, there is still a lot of “suppression” going on.)
We have made the journey back. I am very glad that we decided to do this. I highly encourage others to do so. Hopefully, it will give you some closure that few of us got 40 years ago.
The Vietnamese people are still wonderful. They seem very happy and friendly and glad to have us as their guests in this country. While Donna loved the people, she thinks it is one of the worst places she has ever visited. She had a hard time with what she perceives as total poverty. I am happy for the Vietnamese people. They have endured so many years of war and it is good to see them finally at peace. This may be the longest period of time in their history without a war.
This country has approximately 85 million people in it, and 2/3 of them were born after 1975…the fall of the old South Vietnamese Government. Many of them do not know much about the war and consider it to be their “fathers” war or the “American” war. An example of this is at the hotel in HCMC. There were 3 guys working at the reception area. When they asked us why we were visiting Vietnam and where we were going, we told them I was a former Vietnamese Ranger (Biet Dong Quan). Two of them had never even heard the term before. It is a new Vietnam!
I have buried some “ghosts”, gotten some answers to questions that have bothered me over the years and now have a sense of closure on this time of my life. I will always have fond memories of my comrades in arms, both American and Vietnamese. I hope some day ALL American people will understand and appreciate the sacrifices that are made by the men, women and their families of our Armed Forces. I will always remember those that died, were wounded and those that returned after doing their duty for God and Country.
The Story Continues
It is now November 18, 2007. I have joined an Organization called “Counterparts”. This organization is a group of people dedicated to re-uniting comrades in arms from the Vietnam War. I have asked for help in locating my counterpart Cpt. Long. Bill Laurie and Joe West take up the challenge and do their thing. They have many Vietnamese friends and contacts and know where to go to start this process. After only a day or two, Bill Laurie comes back with an email saying that he has contacted a VN friend that thinks he knows of Cpt. Long. He will get back to me with more information.
We (my wife and I) have left Minneapolis for our annual fall fishing trip to the FL Keys with our good friends from Boca Raton. After about 4 days of hearing nothing from Joe West or Bill Laurie (it had sounded like information was coming at any moment), I sent them an email asking what was happening. I was assured they were working on it and these things would simply take a bit of time. (That was on Saturday, November 17, 2007). We were sitting in our friend’s condo in Islamorada, FL watching football, (Sunday, November 18, 2007) when my cell phone rang. There was a young lady on the phone asking me if I was Steve Leighton, the guy looking for Cpt. Long. I confirmed that was me and she said she was Cpt. Long’s daughter and he was on the line with her. His English was not the best, so she would be an interpreter. This was TOTAL SHOCK for me! My search was over!! I could not believe that I found him. Now for the more shocking news…HE LIVES IN MINNEAPOLIS, MN…not 20 miles from me. I JUST COULDN’T BELIEVE IT!!! IN MY HOME TOWN !!!!!!!!!! I have traveled half way around the world looking for him and find him living within 20 miles of me. Simply un-believable!!!
During our phone conversation, I think we drove his daughter crazy. He was asking me questions while I was asking him questions and his poor daughter was trying to interpret both of us talking at the same time. (His daughter is a student at the University of MN).
It is now Tuesday, November 20, 2007.
Annie calls me at home on Tuesday night. Her father is there and we start our 1 ˝ hour conversation. I have learned that it was very hard on her father after the war. He was sent to a “re-education” camp in North Vietnam along the border with Laos, for 13 years. He had a wife and family before this. His first wife passed away and he has several kids by that marriage. These kids still live in Vietnam. He remarried and has another family. He got out of Vietnam in 1993 with his family and came to Minneapolis at that time. He is currently 69 years old and his youngest daughter, Annie, is 20 years old and a student at the University of Minnesota.
The Meeting After 40 years! (November 21, 2007)
We decide to meet at the Applebee’s Restaurant near the U of M campus. Donna and I are there in advance to make sure the restaurant is OK with this…primarily with the news camera there.
When they arrive, I immediately know it is him. He has aged, but it is him. He walks in, we exchange salutes, hug and cry. I am simply overwhelmed at seeing him again after 40 years!!
We spent the next 2 hours filling in the gaps of the last 40 years. One of my other good friends was 1Lt Tai. He now lives in the states and Long remains in contact with him. He will pass my phone number on to Tai very soon and I will start this meeting process over again.
The 13 years he spent in the “re-education” camps have been hard on him. They were especially hard on the Rangers (the VN elite troops) and anyone that had a high ranking position in the government. Many VN did not survive these camps and life was extremely difficult…at best. Not much I can say about this and how I feel, but at least I have found him…alive! When I left Vietnam 40 years ago, he gave me a small 18k gold budda. I gave this to my wife years ago and she was wearing it on a charm bracelet during this meeting. He could not believe I still had it. It was very important to me and always a reminder of him and our time together in 1967.
It was Long’s birthday the next day. I had some old pictures of us together made into 8X10’s, framed and gave them to him as a birthday gift. He lost all of his belongings in 1975 and was very pleased to have these pictures. I was thrilled to give them to him!
We went to another restaurant nearby for dinner. It was absolutely great sharing dinner with him again. As in the old days, he made sure we were all taken care of first.
Our next meeting will be at our house Friday night, November 23, 2007. I will have my whole family here…2 daughters and husbands and all 4 grandkids. I want my family to meet my extended family. I am so thankful for all the blessings I have had in my life and this is certainly one of the big ones! We are so lucky to live in this great country. Never take it for granted!
FRIDAY, November 23, 2007
While I keep referring to him as Cpt. Long, (he was a Captain when I knew him) but he was really a Lt. Col. when he got out of the military. He brought all of his US family to our house tonight…except one daughter-in-law that had to work. With my daughters, husbands and 4 grandkids, we had a houseful. I wanted his family to know how honored and proud I was to have them all at my house and what a great patriot their father was for their home land. He has suffered much, but tonight was just awesome. Long was a powerful man and had a very distinguished career in the military and government in his country. It has been very hard for him to leave that behind and start a new life in a foreign land. He did his part for his people and country and he did it well. I will always honor and respect this man for all he has done in his life and especially for me.
Tuesday December 25, 2007
I received a call from Annie (former Cpt. Long’s daughter) tonight. She had set up a conference call for me with Maj. Tai…my other counterpart (former 1Lt Tai). He is alive and well, living in San Jose, CA. It was AWESOME finding him. He sent me some pictures and I have done the same for him. While we need to spend more time chatting, it was great re-connecting. I can’t believe I have found both of them…alive and doing well in this country. Like Long, Tai spent some long hard years in a “re-education” camp. While I refer to it as “re-education”, it was anything but that. This was more like a prison with lots of long hard labor, starvation, disease, etc…Tai was lucky to survive his 10 years in the North at this camp.
Tuesday February 5, 2008
We flew to San Francisco and went to San Jose for the night. It was another GREAT experience. My wife and I met with former 42nd Ranger Bn, ARVN 21st Inf. Div. Major Le Tan Tai and his family last night (Feb 5, 2008) in San Jose. We went though all of my old pictures and Tai kept about 50 of them for reproducing. We met his daughter and grand daughter along with his wife. We went out for dinner at their favorite restaurant after a visit to their home. He is doing very well for himself and his family. He still works for a pharmaceutical company and owns his own home. His daughter and husband live in the house next door and they are a typical, very close VN family. We did not get to meet his son-in-law because he was in school for recertification as a chiropractor. His daughter is an RN and works at a local hospital. As in the past, they were all very nice people and could not believe we went back to VN looking for them. They were very touched by our story of going back and it was so GREAT to re-connect with him. He and my other counterpart Long, had a tremendous impact on my life. I’m sure I’m a better person for it. I would love to get him to Minneapolis someday to re-unite with Long and my family. It was like old times again!
Tai gave me a good description of his time spent in “re-education” camp. It was the first time someone actually described it in detail to me.
This was his experience:
They were sent to a jungle camp in North Vietnam along the Laotian border. His group had approximately 300 people in it. They were forced up early every morning by a loud clanging noise in the camp. First thing for the day was exercise. Exercise was very difficult because they were given no food and as time went on, they became very weak. They were ever vigilant of the jungle floor for anything that moved. If a bug so much as ran across in front of them, they would try to catch it for food. At one time, Tai was so weak he could not walk without help from others and a walking stick. He could not lift his legs high enough to step over a simple small log. Every morning when they got up, before exercise, the first order of business was to see how many of them had passed away during the night. (By the end of his 10 years in this camp, they would lose approximately 200 to death from disease and starvation.) Work for the day was primarily the construction of a prison camp. When one camp was completed, they would move to a new location (not far away) and begin construction of another camp. This went on for years until most had perished and there was no need for new camps. Tai lost his closest friend in the camp. He simply passed away, like so many during the night. At one point in time, Tai thought he would die as well because he was so skinny he could hardly walk anymore. His wife eventually got some food to him and he managed to survive. It was a very bad ordeal. After surviving re-education, he returned to Saigon where he lived for another 5 years before getting sponsored and allowed to come to the US. During his time in re-education, his mother and father-in-law both passed away. His wife, wanting to spare him from any other mental anguish, did not tell him about the deaths until he was released. He spent 7 nights sleeping on top of his mother’s grave, grieving. Needless to say, it was very hard and sad time for him. This was a very hard story for me to listen to. It hurt me to hear of the way he was treated after being such an important part of my life. It all seems like such a waste. Once again, it reminds me of how lucky we are to live in such a great country.
Tai remains in contact with another counterpart, former 1Lt Loc, 42nd Ranger Bn. Loc lives in Grand Rapids, MI, and I will eventually get there to see him. I was not as close to him as I was with Long and Tai, but he did take me out of the bush on my 20th birthday for a hot shower and a cold drink. (We were on a 17 day deployment outside of Bac Lieu pulling security on the salt flats where the VC were quite active. My birthday fell right in the middle of it.) I will always remember Loc for that trip back to town on my birthday…what a TREAT!
My only regret through all of this is that I did not do it sooner. BUT, better late than never!! .
God Bless America and all that serve her!
If you have question s about the trip or want some contact information about the groups I am now active in, please send an email to the following address: leightonconsult(at)earthlink.net
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