South Vietnam 1969, South Vietnam today
By Don Johnson
Santa Paula News
Published: January 25, 2013
My wife Debbie and I spent three weeks traveling around Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand in December 2012. This is the first of several articles about Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand and our experiences during our trip.
In 1969 I was trying to finish college and all the while, along with many others, we worried that when we got home a special greeting would be in the mail. Well it happened, “Greetings,” I was ordered to report for military duty, I was being drafted into the Army. To say the least it was a sad day, but I knew I had to do my duty so off I went to Fort Ord, California for basic training.
I spent 16 weeks at Ford Ord going through basic training and advanced training, all the while wondering along with others where we would end up. It turns out I was ordered to report to Fort Bliss, Texas for some further training, spent three weeks in Texas, and then was ordered to Fort Knox, Kentucky. In Kentucky I was assigned to an armored unit, tanks, personnel carriers and the like. I was the training NCO and spent most of my military time at Fort Knox. Thinking I had less than a year in the military left, I thought I had escaped being assigned to Vietnam. I was wrong.
Orders came through ordering me to report to Seattle for deployment to Vietnam. Was I nervous, you bet, but I had excellent training and felt I could deal with the situation and off I went to war.
I left Seattle on a charter flight to Vietnam, with a stop in Guam along the way. I arrived in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam in early June 1969, not knowing where I would be stationed. I along with others stepped off the charter flight in the middle of the night and immediately walked into the back of a C130. Sitting in the cargo hold of the C130, the doors closed and we took off from Cam Ranh Bay having no idea where we were going. The C130 landed at Bien Hoa Air Base; we were put in the back of a truck and driven to our overnight barracks.
Still wondering what I would be doing, the next day I was sent to an office for an assignment. When I arrived, I was told I had been assigned to a tank unit; that wasn’t going to happen because I had never been inside a tank. I asked for another assignment and they sent me to Xuan Loc, Vietnam, Headquarters Battery, 2nd Battalion 35th Artillery (Camp Husky). The only problem with this assignment was that on the night of May 17/18, 1969 the North Vietnamese Army attacked the base with sappers, mortars, and rockets. Fourteen Americans and an estimated 80 to 90 NVA were killed that night. To say the least I was worried.
I was assigned to an operations center during my stay in Xuan Loc. The stay was rather quiet with nothing of any big nature happening during my tour of duty. Xuan Loc was an interesting area and I took hundreds of slides of the area and I commented many times, despite the war, that Vietnam was a beautiful country and one day I would like to return under different circumstances. I left Vietnam in January 1970 during a time when troops were being sent home in a draw down of military personnel.
Well, my wife Debbie and I discussed many times over the years about going back to Vietnam. One day she stopped in to visit Leslie Cornejo at Santa Paula Travel and Leslie mentioned a tour of Vietnam on a new ship sailing the Mekong River. The answer from me: I wasn’t that interested at this time. Debbie didn’t like the answer, so she began to work on me, and the next thing I knew we were booking the trip some 15 months in advance. We talked about a good time to be in Vietnam, and December 2012 was a good month. Weather in Vietnam has basically two seasons wet (I mean wet) and dry. December is usually the driest month of the year.
During the next 15 months we planned out our trip. We signed on to Avalon Tours and the ship the Angkor Pandaw, a new ship on the Mekong River.
The tour with Avalon was all-inclusive and it included three days in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), and a seven-day trip from Saigon on the Mekong River and into Cambodia with stops everyday at various villages and towns and ending in the beautiful city of Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat. These are the ruins of temples from early Cambodia. We left Cambodia and flew to Bangkok, Thailand where we spent three days.
I decided early in the planning stages that I would like to visit Xuan Loc, so we arrived in Saigon early and took a day trip to Xuan Loc. We engaged a tour company called “Tours of Indochina” to take us to Xuan Loc. Our tour guide and driver arrived at our hotel, the 5 Star Intercontinental Hotel in the middle of Saigon, to pick us up for the 60-mile trip to Xuan Loc.
We arrived in Xuan Loc about 11:30 a.m. and took some pictures of the mountain that was used as a communication relay during the Vietnam War. It is still used today for communications in the area. I could not remember where the base was located, just a general idea. Obviously the area had changed over the last 40 years and was now rice fields.
Our guide Son stopped and we walked into a rice field. Our guide talked to two women that were working the rice field and they directed us to a man in the rice field, who turned out to be the husband of one of the women. Son talked with him and then we were taken to meet his mother who had lived in the area during the war. Through Son, our guide, we talked to her about the war and the American Army that was stationed in Xuan Loc.
Her husband worked in communications with the South Vietnamese army during the war. She told us that after the war he had been arrested and put into jail for five years and came out a broken man. They had eight children, four boys and four girls. Two girls were not married. He died in 1992. She lived with two of her sons and their families in the same house that she and her husband had lived in for many years. We got so interested in her story, we forgot to get her name and the grandchildren’s names.
After leaving the family, we went looking for the hospital that had been built by seven veterans who had come back to visit 19 years ago. They had all been stationed at Camp Husky in Xuan Loc. While looking for the hospital we stopped and visited with a man who was 4 years old in 1970, living in the area. He recalled playing with the Americans while they were building bridges. He mentioned that this area was mostly jungle and only about 20 shacks had been in the whole area.
On the return trip to Saigon we stopped and took a picture of the new hospital Xuan Loc was building to replace the first one. Then headed back to Saigon in a massive traffic jam.
After returning to Saigon, we met up with our Cruise Director Mark Nichols and some of our shipmates. He gave us an update on what we would be doing the next day.
Following the update, Debbie and I went to dinner at Quan Ngon Restaurant. The meal was excellent and the entire meal cost $12 or $40,000 VND.
This is the first in a series about our visit to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand.