03.17.2012 - 03.23.2012 87 °F
Imagine yourself in 1967, 20 years old, a US Marine, stationed at the closest US base to North Vietnam, often referred to as the "Meat Grinder", "Hell Hole", or "Dodge City" in Vietnam's DMZ which many Marines called the "Dead Marine Zone".
Welcome to Con Thien Firebase. While this base is less famous than Khe Sanh or Camp Carroll, it saw some of the bloodiest battles between the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the USMC during the Vietnam War. During the war, Con Thien was intended to be used as a base for the McNamara Line to prevent the NVA from penetrating the DMZ. The firebase was considered to be extremely important thanks to it's untainted views of the surrounding area and North Vietnam, but unfortunately, it was also within artillery range of the NVA leaving Marines constantly exposed and seemingly defenseless. Washington's unwillingness to appreciate the vulnerability of this base, has made it one of the most tragic examples of the far-removed, high-tech planners of this war. Directly translated, "Con Thien" means "Hill of Angels" and the men who served on this hill were undoubtedly angels. They paid a steep price as they persevered against a well-trained, well-armed enemy. Official records state that 1,419 US Marine and Navy Corpsmen were killed in action and 9,266 were wounded between 1966 and 1969, at or near Con Thien.
In 1967, CBS ran a special on Con Thien. It's quite interesting.
Joe & I were introduced to Mr. Hoa, a former soldier of the South Vietnamese Army and life-long resident of a small town right outside of the DMZ, Dong Ha. We spent the day following Mr. Hoa around the DMZ on our motorbike, listening to his experience in the Vietnam War, the effects it had on his hometown, and the effects it is still playing for him and his family now. Mr. Hoa was conscripted into the army when he was young and fought alongside the US Army against the NVA. He was a low-ranking solider but believed in democracy, and very quietly confided to us that he still does today. After the war, Mr. Hoa was forced to go to a reeducation camp for two years. He lived deep in the jungle, was forced to work for eight hours a day, attended another four hours of "classes", and given only enough food to ensure basic survival. After his reeducation he was able to get a job but says he can still feel the discrimination against him. It is harder for him to get a job, harder for his children to get into good schools, and while former Communist party members are given a large discount for university, he must pay full price for his two daughters to receive university education. His brother, who was a high-ranking officer in the South Vietnamese Army, had to go to reeducation camp for five years after which the US helped relocate him to Colorado, where he still lives today, to protect him from Communist discrimination and persecution.
Although Con Thien was once a large base that covered three small hills, only one bunker remains. That would be our first stop for the day. As we drove along the Ho Chi Minh Highway, we suddenly pulled off the road, down a tiny path in the middle of an endless array of rubber trees. We drove into the jungle for about 10 minutes then got off our motorbikes and walked for another 5. I was extremely nervous during all of this. While millions of tons of ordnance were dropped over Vietnam during the war, it's estimated that one-third of them did not explode. It's believed that nearly 20% of Vietnam remains uncleared, with more than 3.5 million mines and between 350,000 and 800,000 tons of unexploded ordnance. Between 1975 and 2007, this resulted in 105,000 injuries and over 45,000 deaths. Additionally, death and injury still happen nearly daily in the DMZ as a result of this. (Mom, I tell you this information now ~ after I've returned safely). Needless to say, knowing this information I was beyond nervous to be driving around the jungle and traipsing through bushes. Luckily, we got to the top of the hill just fine and found the only remaining bunker standing before us.
Our Drive In
view from the top of the bunker
After all the research we had done and watching the 1967 CBS Special on Con Thien, all the bullet holes, the carving of California in the wall, the old Budweiser can, the dry, scarred land... they were all pieces of such a tragic story of sacrifice.
We got back on the Ho Chi Minh Highway and were taken to the original Ho Chi Minh Ttrail. We got to walk down it for a little while and heard about the many different stages of the roadway. There were actually several Ho Chi Minh Trails that led to different places.
Before & After
Our next stop was the Truong Son National Cemetery. This cemetery is the final resting place to more than 10,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. While South Vietnamese soldiers and US soldiers were sent to their hometowns to be buried, all NVA soldiers were buried along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They were later unearthed and what was left was reburied in this cemetery. Many graves remain empty and all are marked with a simple white tombstone with the Communist Star on top and the words liet si which means "Hero's Martyr". Their names, birthdays, date of enlistment, and date of death are also marked on each tomb. It was sad to see how young many of these boys, quite literally, joined the army and died. Many were around 14 years old when they enlisted and were killed not long after.
We continued to drive for quite some time down unpaved country roads, seeing the depths of this very small and highly un-visited area. In the short time that we spent here, we saw no other foreigners at all. We stopped along the highway at the Hien Luong Bridge that ran over the Ben Hai River which was the official dividing point of North & South Vietnam. The bridge was painted red on the Northern end and yellow on the Southern end while each side had their corresponding flag flying next to the bridge. While the bridge and the surrounding area was destroyed in 1967 as a result of heavy bombing, the government rebuilt the bridge to look like the original, as well as the Communist flag but left all Southern Vietnamese relics as nothing more than dust. You'll see in the before and after photos that the South Vietnamese flagpole no longer exists. The Communist government also built a monument of a woman and her children waiting for their fathers to come home after fighting for the Communist army.
Hien Luong Bridge in 1965 and 1966
Hien Luong Bridge Rebuilt for Tourists
area around the bridge in 1966
area around the bridge March 2012
These speakers were used during the war for Communist propaganda. As we walked around at night, many of the streets in Dong Ha had similar speakers and right at 5 o'clock the news began to ring out amongst the streets. Obviously we don't know what they were talking about but it definitely created a very "Big Brother" feel.
We continued to drive for quite some time and the only way we found we could describe the land is amazingly desolate. While the land was still beautiful and covered with miles and miles of rice paddies, it was endlessly pock-marked with bomb craters and cemeteries. While the government has begun a large movement to plant mass amounts of rubber trees along the roadways, it is seemingly a lackluster way to cover the immense damage caused by the use of defoliants, such as napalm, and heavy bombing. The area largely just looked dead and forgotten.
1966 & 1968 Overview of Ho Chi Minh Trail and the DMZ. You can see in the second picture that the Hien Luong Bridge is destroyed, no longer connecting the two sides and the entire terrain was pock-marked with bomb craters at this point. These craters remain today.
Our last stop of the day was just North of the DMZ, to a village that is actually considered one the most heavily bombed and shelled strips of land on the entire planet. As a survival tactic, the village of people living in this area literally went completely underground in 1966. This village created a highly impressive complex of tunnels in which more than 90 families lived for nearly 6 years. The tunnels consist of three levels and took 18 months to dig by hand. The first level of tunnels began at 12 meters deep. This level was used only for cooking and storage, as this level was still vulnerable to American Drilling Bombs. The next level started at 15 meters deep and this was the largest area, encompassing the level where all living happened. There was a meeting area (which also doubled as a reception area for weddings and other celebrations), living quarters, water well, watch posts, an operating room, and even a maternity ward. 17 babies were actually born in the tunnels, all of which are still alive today. The lowest level of tunnels were dug to 32 meters deep. This level was too low to live, as it is very moist, so it was used for storage, one bathroom (to be shared among everyone), and showers. There are 13 entrances and exits to the tunnel. While they've all been remade today to allow tourists to go in, they were highly disguised during the war. One was left as is and we took a picture of it. Their cooking area was covered by the jungle and had tiny holes so from the top it would only look like jungle mist, not smoke, while they were cooking. Everything was completely covered with trees and built into the side of a hill, making the village completely undetectable by US pilots. Traveling in these tunnels was absolutely fascinating. Every single detail of the tunnels was so incredibly thought out. It's amazing to see what people are capable of doing when they work together to survive. Their hard work and determination was successful. Amazingly, no villagers lost their lives as they quite literally lived under fields of fire.
After our tour, we regrettably said goodbye to Mr. Hoa and boarded a 13 hour bus to Vietnam's capital city, Hanoi.
In Hanoi, we went to the Hỏa Lò Prison which was originally built by the colonial French but was later used to keep POWs during the Vietnam War, most notoriously, John McCain was first held captive here. It has been left largely as it was when it was being used. American POWs sarcastically referred to this prison as the "Hanoi Hilton" and it had an entire section about how well they treated US soldiers during the Vietnam War. This was all quite contrary to the story any US solider held here will tell you. According to U.S. POWs held in "Hanoi Hilton", they endured miserable conditions, including poor food and unsanitary conditions. Beyond that, the facilities here were used to torture and interrogate many US servicemen, especially US pilots shot down over North Vietnam. Many of the torture methods used at the Hỏa Lò Prison included rope bindings, irons, beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement with the goal of getting written or recorded statements from the prisoners that criticized U.S. conduct of the war and praised how the North Vietnamese treated them. Such POW statements would be viewed as a propaganda victory in the battle to sway world and U.S. domestic opinion against the U.S. war effort. In the end, North Vietnamese torture was sufficiently brutal and prolonged that virtually every American POW subjected to such torture eventually made a statement of some kind at some time. After being forced to make an anti-American statement, Senator John McCain wrote, "I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine." Joe & I both found it extremely, extremely difficult to walk through the rooms full of claims that our American Heroes were being treated not only humanely, but downright graciously. We did get to see John McCain's flight suit and parachute on display here.
While we've both spent extensive time reading and researching wars and always do our best to learn every side to the difficult stories these wars have to tell, in the past week we've seen the damaged, dark, and miserable effects this war had on everyone involved in a way we never could have in the far removed land that we call home. The realities of war are just so difficult to comprehend and stomach. We've spent hours upon hours reading first hand accounts of US Vets and we've talked to Vietnamese citizens who lived through this nightmare. We've seen the scars that are left as everyday reminders on the land here and we walk away thinking, "Why?" As I sit in this now communist country, unable to freely access my Facebook account, where Mr. Hoa can't openly say that he believes in democracy and can't receive financial support for his children's education because he served alongside US troops, for what means did everyone pay such a huge price?