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.
I looked around at the surrounding peaks. Out there was Hill 950, where the radio relay station had been positioned; Hill 881S, where forty Marines had been killed during the siege; Hill 861, the location for more than a year of two gun crews from my unit. I couldn’t remember where my own people had been, couldn’t tell one hill from another, which bothered me; I looked closely but couldn’t see any bomb craters. U.S. aircraft had dropped the equivalent of 1,300 tons of bombs per day around Khe Sanh. My battalion had fired more than 150,000 artillery rounds into those hills, but I saw no sign. 1 remembered the airstrip as being absolutely level, but the whole area was on an incline. My friends kept asking me questions about the siege, where things had been located, but I had no answers. I didn’t know; everything seemed different now.
Only a few hundred Vietnamese soldiers had been within the perimeter of the base during the siege, but many thousands had spent that winter and spring in the surrounding hills. I felt sympathy for them. For every rocket, mortar, or artillery round they fired into the base or at our hill positions, we fired ten. They had no air support, while we continuously rained high explosives, white phosphorous, and napalm upon them, using everything from helicopters to B-52s. They must have been terrified then, but did they ever come here now? Were they curious about this place?
We walked around with our guide, heeding his warning not to stray too far from the airstrip. The area still contained quantities of unexploded munitions. It was sunny, warm, and breezy; a perfect place to camp. It was very peaceful. There were two young men probing the ground with long sticks, searching for the voids that would indicate the location of old bunkers, hopeful they could find something with salvage value. One of them sold me the brass casing from an artillery round for twenty cents. Seventeen of our trucks had been badly damaged by rocket fire during the siege, and we had buried them in the ground. I wondered if anyone had found them. I picked up several pieces of shrapnel and a few bullets for souvenirs. Machine-gun-belt links were rusty but still plentiful.
There seemed no point in remaining here; we had a long trip back to Hue. But I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to identify something I knew.
The guide motioned for us to go back to the van. I noticed an old boot, a fan belt, and part of a gas grenade as we walked. The guide asked if we wanted to take a picture of the monument. Near the highest elevation point was a shabby masonry monument that I had never heard of, well adorned with Vietnamese graffiti. We took pictures and asked the guide to translate the Vietnamese inscription:
“Amazing, truly amazing,” I mumbled. Our side had in fact broken the siege—and then abandoned the base—and the cost in lives had been in the hundreds.
The sun was getting low in the sky, fading like a spent flare. The light was good for photographs. The things I found in Vietnam had always been there. Most of what I couldn’t find was the baggage of the American presence, things that had been imposed upon Vietnam from without. There was no reason for them to still be there. The driver was awake and waving his hand for us to come back to the van. Tim had read about the battle at Khe Sanh for a history course he was taking at New York University.
“What’s the matter, Peter,” he asked, laughing. “Isn’t that the way you remember it?”
“No, not exactly,” I said.
“It’s their monument, right? I guess they can write on it whatever they want,” he replied, taking a few last pictures of the hills.