Vets find memories of Vietnam changed by time

From the heights of the 2,900-foot mountain near Nui Ba Den, American veterans looked out on what once was War Zone C, now a vast reservoir filling up behind a new dam.

To reach this vantage point, they rode a cable car up what they knew as Black Virgin Mountain, now Black Lady Mountain. Christmas carols blared incongruously from outdoor loudspeakers, the inevitable fixture of communist societies.

In the 1960s, the mountain was a strategic landmark for both sides - its boulder-strewn slopes providing cover for guerrilla troops, the Americans maintaining a radio relay station on the top.

The veterans also visited the Cu Chi tunnels, once a Viet Cong stronghold but widened in postwar years to accommodate foreign tourists' bulkier bodies.

As many Americans - drawn back to Vietnam by nostalgia, curiosity or the country's intangible magnetism - are discovering, what they remember has changed, or no longer exists. It doesn't matter.

"The veterans have to come back, and even if they look at this whole empty space that used to be a firebase, they know what happened... that's the healing they seem to feel," said Richard Schonberger, a former paratroop officer who runs a private tour company catering to ex-soldiers.

"Some need it more than others. But they just have to come back and see what happened to the places they knew."

Joseph Thomas, 58, of Bellevue, Nebraska, was a case in point. The former combat engineer was making his first visit to Vietnam since he left in 1970.

"I knew that if I didn't do it now, I was never going to do it," he said.

It was the sixth return trip for John Haseman, 57, who visited the Mekong Delta where he served two tours as an Army intelligence officer and U.S. adviser to the CIA-run "Phoenix" counterinsurgency program.

"I fell in love with Southeast Asia and never left," said Haseman, who writes and lectures on the region from his home in Grand Junction, Colorado.

On a one-day jaunt along the highways and back roads of Tay Ninh province, northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, Schonberger's van skirted the outer edges of Cu Chi base camp, where the U.S. 25th Infantry Division headquarters once stood - almost atop the tunnels. Nothing remains to show that more than 10,000 American troops once lived there.

At the Disney-like park that has sprung up around the tunnels, the veterans watched an old propaganda film that described Americans as "a crazy bunch of devils who fired into women and children, fired into chickens and ducks, fired into pots and pans, even fired into Buddhist temples."

"Most veterans have mellowed out," Schonberger said in explaining his group's lack of visible reaction.

The tunnel tour also included a sampling of what guides said were typical Viet Cong field rations - raw tapioca stalks and small bits of compressed rice dipped in peanut sauce, with a tea chaser.

Near Dau Tieng, site of another vanished U.S. base camp, a few workers in conical hats were checking the cups attached to rubber trees of the Michelin plantation, repeatedly a killing ground in the former "Iron Triangle."

In Tay Ninh city, Schonberger's group, which also included Eugene and Margareta Standish of Colorado Springs, Colorado, joined other foreign tourists at the Cao Dai temple, where hundreds of worshipers sat in neat lotus-position rows, chanting noon prayers of the Tao, Confucian and Buddhist religions.

This, said Schonberger, was the Vietnam that few wartime GIs ever saw. For most, the world consisted of a sandbagged base camp or compound, with perhaps a few shanty-town bars outside the gate for entertainment.

"The only time I was ever in Saigon was the day I left," Standish said. "I flew down from Phu Bai in a C-130 with a female Vietnam air force lieutenant. That was the closest I was to a Vietnamese woman the whole time I was in Vietnam."

Along rural highways and in tiny hamlets, preparations appeared nearly complete for Sunday's national celebration of the 25th anniversary of the end of the "American war." Vietnam's flag, bright red with a yellow star, fluttered from almost every building, the colors in reverse of Saigon's erstwhile banner, yellow with thin red stripes.

That was not what had drawn this group of American veterans back to Vietnam.

"It doesn't mean anything to me," Standish said.

Thomas said he didn't even know it was the anniversary until he arrived.

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