Dadlands: The incursion

Back to Tuy Hoa for a story from my Dad’s Vietnam war letters:

A day off today. We need it after what happened last night. We had just returned to our quarters after having flown until 1 am when the mortars started coming in. They hit in the aircraft revetment area, about a mile away. The fracas brought us all out of bed and we were standing around outside (the mortars had stopped) watching the fires when an Air Policeman came up saying that about 10 Viet Cong had gotten on to the base and were headed in our direction. 

I envied him. He was wearing a helmet and flak vest and carrying an M-16. I was wearing underwear and shower clogs and didn’t even have a cigarette.
 

Tuy Hoa Airport (former air base)

He suggested we get into a bunker and we did. I didn’t like it, though, because there were about 30 of us in there and if the VC really wanted to get personnel (normally they don’t – they want airplanes) they could get us all with one hand grenade or satchel charge. So I left and went back to my quarters thinking that if they really wanted me, they would have to go through all the hootches and find me. 

I stayed in the hootch for a while, then got dressed and went outside again because if an evacuation were started, I didn’t want to be left behind. There were 2 helicopter gun ships orbiting overhead dropping flares and occasionally cutting loose with machine gun fire. Suddenly, one of the helicopters wheeled around and cut loose five rockets into an area about a half mile away. Maybe a mile. All the calmness I had regained in the preceding hours left me in a flash but by then things were pretty well under control. An all clear was declared shortly and we went back to bed.

This morning I hear that there were 2 search and rescue C-130s totally destroyed, either by mortars or satchel charges. They killed 9 Viet Cong. Five Americans were injured, only 2 seriously.

I hesitate writing you about all this but it makes such interesting writing and besides it’s very unlikely to happen again before I leave which isn’t too far away.

Apparently the security people got caught napping. Security will undoubtedly get much better now. The whole thing rattled the base a bit. Somebody remarked that it was almost as bad as Cleveland. — Tuy Hoa, July 29, 1969

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Dadlands: French Onion soup and a steak

One of the things I find funny and a bit sad about my Dad’s old letters is his dogged search for Western food all across Southeast Asia. There he was in culinary wonderlands like Bangkok and Saigon, ordering hamburgers, steaks and fried chicken — and with such disappointing results!

A couple of nights ago I had Southern Fried Chicken and it was more like Southern Fried Roadrunner. It wasn’t much larger than a sparrow and was in perfect condition — pure muscle. I don’t know how they ever caught it. It could easily have beaten back a dozen men. — Bangkok, Jan. 29, 1968

The irony is, after the Great American Ethnic Food Revolution of the 1980s, Dad became a big fan of Vietnamese and Thai food, along with Afghan, Puerto Rican and all sorts of other cuisines that had suddenly popped up in the strip malls of Northern Virginia. I wonder if he ever looked back on his Bangkok burgers as missed opportunities.

Anyway, I wanted to order one of those classic Dad meals as part of our sentimental journey up the Vietnamese coast. When Chad spotted French onion soup and steak at a place around the corner from our hotel in Hue, we knew the moment had arrived.

 8ee73-dadsoup

Everyone seems to specialize in French Onion soup and most of it is delicious. Most of it is made with a little chicken and ham in it and is quite different from the French Onion I am used to. It is also often served with a lot of cheese mixed into it so that it is quite thick. — Bangkok, Jan. 14, 1968

This soup was probably a bit more like the French Onion my Dad was used to. There were no bits of meat in it, but the broth tasted like beef stock flavored and darkened by lots of caramelized onions. I could have used more cheese — I like lots of cheese — but it was a perfectly good soup.

4c5e3-dadsteak

The steaks were marinated which was just perfect.

I wish I could find a good old American steak. They marinate everything over here. I’ve never had a steak in a restaurant that wasn’t heavily marinated. — Bangkok, Jan. 19, 1968

They had also been pounded for tenderness, and were quite tasty. In fact, after weeks of sampling as many Asian tastes as we could, it was nice to eat something familiar — sort of like pushing a culinary reset button. The ice-cold bottles of Tiger beer didn’t hurt, either.

Dadlands: Tuy Hoa

Well, as expected, Burma turns out to be a difficult place to blog. First of all, they block blogger.com, and secondly, even if you use a proxy to get around the censors, the connections are so slow and unreliable it’s just too frustrating to try and post anything.

So now that I’m back in Jakarta, I’ll try to get some Burma posts up. But first, I’ll wrap up the story of our trip up the Vietnamese coast to some of the places where my father was posted during the war.

For the serious Dad-ologist, Tuy Hoa is the ultimate destination. It’s where he wrote some of his best letters, and also, probably not coincidentally, the base he liked the best out of all the places he was stationed in Vietnam.

This is the first time I’ve really been proud of a troop carrier operation. We’ve really got a good bunch of people over here. — Tuy Hoa, Oct 9, 1967 

Like many of the old airbases left over from the war, the Tuy Hoa facility has become the local airport. We went down there on a hot, brutally sunny morning. There were no flights scheduled in or out that day and access to the airfield was limited.

I strolled around taking some pictures of the terminal and parking lot and then the assistant director came out to see what we were up to. He said a lot of Vietnam vets come by to look at the place. We chatted a little and then walked back to our waiting taxi. Just as we were pulling out of the lot, the assistant director ran up to say we could walk partway out to the airstrip and take some pictures, which was nice of him.

Like most airstrips, it was a whole lot of nothing, but it was still cool to stand out there for a minute and watch the windsock flutter.

Some of the structures certainly seemed old enough to be original. Looking around, it was easy to imagine myself 40 years back in time. The hard part was envisioning this vast emptiness bustling and full of people.


Dadlands: Dong Ha

After the lovely visit to Quang Tri we pretty much blew through Dong Ha. We stopped to look at a war monument north of town. A lot of these monuments look like they’ve been shipped in by the boatload from the old USSR. They don’t do much for me, personally.

To take the edge off the coffee, we stopped for a bowl of beef noodles at the stall next door to the memorial. They were extremely tasty and, instead of the usual plate of bean sprouts, scallions and basil, they came with a mound of local watercress. It was mustardy and peppery and delicious in the soup, and we polished off the whole plate.

Dad related the following tale about Dong Ha:

We have our own special brand of fireworks here. The last holiday we had (I forget which one) the guys at Dong Ha fired off a bunch of flares in celebration. One of the flares dropped in the bomb dump and blew the whole thing up, making for quite a display. Blowing up ammo dumps seems to be a favorite sport. They blew up one at Hue and another in A Shau valley. — July 4, 1968, CCK Air Base, Taiwan

Dadlands: Quang Tri

 Sign advertising DMZ tours, Quang Tri

Dad was stationed in Quang Tri, right up by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing North and South Vietnam, for a couple of weeks in late 1967. This was well before the southern highway there became the “highway of terror”, but it still wasn’t a particularly pleasant place to work. First of all, it was a dull assignment, overseeing shipments of supplies into a newly-established Marine camp.

There is really nothing to write about at all. We had a few airplanes in today and it rained. That is pretty much the news. It rained, rained, rained and rained. — December 13, 1967 Quang Tri

In the second place, he was supposed to go back to the relative comforts of Da Nang on the last plane out every night, but he often got stuck in the field instead.

I am spending the night here at Quang Tri. … The Marines have given me a cot and an air mattress (which they call a rubber lady) and I have found a nice sleeping bag and a pillow.  — December 2, 1967 Quang Tri

Bomb, Vinh Moc tunnel historic site, Quang Tri

Thirdly, and most important, it was a scary place to be. Quang Tri was a “soft” assignment compared to what a lot of ground troops were facing, he wrote after wrapping up his stint —

but we still had small arms fire around the perimeter and mortars and artillery going off constantly and quite frequently air strikes just outside the perimeter. B-52 strikes up in the DMZ used to roll us out of the sack. I am tired of sleeping in a sleeping bag and worrying about being overrun and I am really thankful to be going back where I can sleep in peace again. — Dec. 14, 1967, Saigon

Chad and I drove up to Quang Tri on a motorbike from Hue and tooled around town, which didn’t take very long — it was pretty well flattened in the war and remains small today. On the road behind the train station, we were hailed by some people at a café.

The sheer radiant force of their welcome reeled us in. Soon we were sitting around drinking coffee and looking up words in the phrasebook.

The coffee was awesomely potent, so concentrated it was thick and almost chocolatey. It came in the spotted glasses that everyone seems to use on the north central coast. Were they originally sold with jelly in them, like the glasses my mom collected in the 70s? Did an enterprising gas station give them out free with fill-ups? Or did some super-salesperson make the rounds of every coffee stand and soup stall for 100 miles around?

Yes, they had that much condensed milk in them. And yes, they needed it.

The coffee also came with tiny cups of similarly potent tea, as is often the case up north. I’m not sure what the story is behind that, but it left me buzzing.

We figured out everyone’s ages and how many kids they had, and then our host, Phu, had to leave. We downed our last life-giving gulp of coffee and hit the road too, glad to find Quang Tri a much friendlier place than Dad experienced in 1967.

Dadlands: Hue

Dad didn’t write much about Hue, probably to avoid upsetting my mom. Only by way of a picture caption in one of his letters do I know that he was there at all. (The picture has since disappeared.)

All it says is:


Hue. We were flying a medical evac mission. This was not long after Tet.

Hue was among the bloodiest and most grueling battles of the Tet Offensive, so, depending on what “not long” means, I’m guessing flying medical evac from there wasn’t very pleasant. Also, Dad hated blood, needles and anything else having to do with hospitals. But he liked being useful. Shortly after beginning his tour, when he started flying combat-related missions, he wrote this:


The flying is interesting and challenging and best of all, it’s important. The Army and Marines depend a great deal on airlift. … Sometimes we evacuate the wounded troops which is a job I don’t like to do. I’ll do everything in my power to get a wounded kid out though. It’s a great comfort to the troops over here to know that they will be evacuated very quickly if they are wounded. — Oct. 6, 1967, Tuy Hoa

As for me, it was horrifying to realize that American bombs had destroyed Hue, with its walled palace compound modeled on the Forbidden City.

The compound only dates back to the early 1800s, but the place has a magic beyond its years. The sprawling, leafy grounds practically insist that you lounge around for an afternoon.

Some of the structures have been spectacularly restored since the war while others are still in shambles. You can wander to neglected spots and feel like you’re the only person who’s been there in decades.

We did, in fact, lounge around the grounds for most of the day, watching the caretakers whip the place into shape. The biennial Hue Festival was just a few days away and there were statues to polish and lanterns to hang.


They were even making decorations out of conical hats, one of the city’s most famous products.

Hue. Magical. I can only hope it stays undisturbed for centuries to come.