When I flew out of Vietnam in September 1968 to return to “The World” I gazed out the window until the green jungle transitioned to blue ocean. I was overjoyed to leave a country that held many unpleasant—and a few pleasant—experiences and vowed I would never return. I was flying home to rejoin my wife, 3-year old son, parents, relatives, and friends. I was a battalion surgeon with the 2/77 Artillery, 25th Infantry Division. Our base camp was located on the edge of the Michelin rubber plantation in Tay Ninh Province near the Cambodian border. When in base camp, I was housed in a shrapnel-pocked French building; however, the majority of my tour was spent at fire support bases where I resided in self-dug bunkers. Near the end of my tour, I relocated to a field location near Tan Son Nhat Airport where I developed a friendship with an ARVN soldier and his family. That relationship, some interaction with the day-workers in our base camp, and the unique camaraderie that develops among deployed military personnel in a war zone were the highlights of my deployment.
Although, unpleasant memories persisted upon my return, I mellowed over time. In 2005, I came across a brochure featuring a two-week Southeast Asia cruise that originated in Singapore, visited two ports in Thailand, Ho Chi Minh City (to me, it will always be Saigon), Hue, and Hanoi, then to its final destination, Hong Kong. After some reflection, and a discussion with my reluctant wife, I booked the cruise. We had two days in Saigon. For the first day, we hired a private guide to locate my old base camp. I was particularly anxious to show my wife the Colonial French buildings. After interrogating several locals in Tay Ninh, our guide informed me that he could not locate the base camp. I told him that it had an airstrip and a large public swimming pool that some industrious GIs renovated and reactivated. Armed with that information, our guide made a contact with a man who escorted us to the camp on his motor bike. The air strip was there, as well as the swimming pool, but no French buildings. Next to the pool was a small park containing a Huey, a tank, some artillery shells, and some kiddie rides. Our guide contacted a woman who was a little girl during the war. She informed us that about six months after I left, the VC took over the camp and our military bombed it to oblivion. I was comforted by the fact that we had found what was left of the camp. The region is prospering and now boasts a large fish farm, whose products might wind up at your local market.
On our return, we bypassed Cu Chi, its tunnels, and playing soldier with automatic weapons. I had no desire to squeeze my 6’-3” frame into those claustrophobic tunnels. We finished the tour with a visit to some of the Saigon landmarks. The second day, we took a boat ride on the Mekong River and made several stops. Our overall impression was that the Vietnamese in the south were friendly and bore no animosity. Our next port was Hue, which was occupied for a short time by the VC while I was deployed. I was in-country during the Tet offensive, which marked a turning point from advancing to pulling back. We arrived in Hue on the first day of Tet, and since we were the first visitors on that important holiday, we were warmly greeted. However, overall, the people were less warm than the citizens of Saigon. On our way to Hanoi, we passed through Hai Long Bay, which contains amazing rock formations. I highly recommend a boat ride through that area. We were guided around Hanoi by a young man who was a real piece of work (he was born after the war and followed the party line). We toured the Hanoi Hilton with our guide who was a policeman when not spreading propaganda to tourists. He informed us that the POWs were treated humanely—they sang songs, played games, and enjoyed duck dinners. I told Charlie Cop that I was stationed in Vietnam as a doctor during the war. He asked me how many Vietnamese I had killed. I told him that as a physician I was a non-combatant and was there to provide medical aid. I told him that the army extended medical aid to the enemy. He responded, “That’s not what I heard, how many women and babies did you kill?” We departed later, together with our disparate beliefs.
The trip to Vietnam served as closure, and I am extremely pleased that I returned—this time on a luxury cruise. I wish all veterans the best on this Veterans Day—focus on the good things and don’t dwell on the bad ones.
Captain Robin Wulffson, USAR, November 11, 2015.