. . . And Last Out

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I choppered into Khe Sanh in 1967, just in time to celebrate Christmas. In April 1968 I left, a passenger in a jeep that drove out of the base on a convoy through the heart of Indian Country and beyond. Every molecule of chlorophyll had been obliterated; not by herbicides but mechanically, with explosives. The trees had been blown over, stripped of their leaves and branches. A headless body lay like a rusty beer can by the roadside near the first bridge. It was quiet and calm again, finally, although nearly five hundred Marines and ten thousand North Vietnamese had died here since January, during the seventy-seven-day siege.

Twenty-five years later I went back as part of a U.S.-Indochina reconciliation tour. I was excited as the airplane descended once more toward Da Nang. I wanted to see again the places I had known as a nineteen-year-old and I was particularly curious about Khe Sanh. But I couldn’t even be sure if I had landed at the same airport, and nothing in Da Nang looked familiar to me. Driving north on Highway 1 to Hue, we passed by the site of the huge Marine base at Phu Bai. It was all gone, just an abandoned airstrip with weeds growing through the pavement.

I was disappointed at my inability to recognize things I thought would be familiar to me. I felt cheated somehow and began to wonder if there was any point in trying to go back to Khe Sanh. I had talked to some of the others who were traveling in our group, and three had expressed interest. One in particular, Tim, seemed especially eager; he was not a vet but had a strong interest in the Vietnam War. But we had a full schedule, and there didn’t seem to be time for an excursion to Khe Sanh.

I was also disappointed not to be able to return to “my” Vietnam, but our time in the once bitterly contested city of Hue exceeded my expectations. On our last day there, Spencer, the tour leader, mentioned that our plans had changed and we would be spending another day in Hue. I told Tim.

“You realize what this means, Peter?” he said. “This is our chance to go to Khe Sanh.”

I was skeptical, but Tim manages a multibillion-dollar fund on Wall Street and he’s used to getting things done. He browbeat the Suit—as we referred to the local Communist-party representative—into getting permission for the trip and supplying us with an airconditioned Mitsubishi van. The cost would be $150.

Dwight, a vet from Pennsylvania, and Jess, a retired New Jersey engineer, wanted to come along, and the four of us, plus a Vietnamese driver and guide, drove north on Highway 1. I felt good. We went through Dong Ha, forward headquarters of the 3d Marine Division and the regimental headquarters of the 12th Marines, my old units, and turned west on Route 9, which ran across Vietnam past Camp Carroll to Khe Sanh and into Laos. It was sixty-eight kilometers to Khe Sanh, and the road crossed forty-nine bridges. I had spent six months in the area between Dong Ha and the firebase at Camp Carroll and had traveled the road many times. But I recognized nothing. We continued higher and slower, the Mitsubishi’s engines straining up the mountains. Now with no smoke or dust or mist I could see the wrinkling peaks clearly. They were higher and more rugged than I remembered. The countryside was mostly uninhabited, very lush, crossed with rivers and streams.

And all at once we were in the Khe Sanh village.

It was dusty and dirty, and much of it looked like a shantytown. We found the marketplace and walked around. There was nothing for sale that any of us wanted to buy, only the necessities of life: kerosene lanterns, axes, hoes, machetes, rope, cookware, tea. The Montagnard element was conspicuous here. These people were smaller than the Vietnamese, and darker. The women wore Gaucho-style hats and smoked long-stemmed pipes. Everyone stared and pointed at us, especially at Dwight, who was black and quite large.

We found a restaurant, but no one there spoke English. Our guide ordered lunch for us. The menu was handwritten and the meal was plain; rice with beef and pork. The owner was continuously chasing away the crowds of children who stared at us unabashedly. Dwight, Jess, and Tim seemed inclined to linger over their meal, sipping Coca-Cola imported from Indonesia, but I was impatient to get on to the old fire base. I was closer now than I had dared expect.

We started back toward Dong Ha. Just before the turnoff to the combat base I noticed a bunch of children playing on a pile of old empty iron bombs, perhaps five-hundred-pounders. We turned north onto a dirt road and drove 2.5 kilometers. There were several new dwellings in the area. The government had turned this region into a New Economic Zone. Vietnamese who were willing to settle here were given building materials plus six months’ worth of food.

My guidebook mentioned that the only thing recognizable at the Khe Sanh Combat Base was the old airstrip, for nothing grew there even after twenty-five years. The driver parked the van to let us out and went right to sleep in the warm sun.