. . . And Last Out

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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:

LIBERATED BASE MONUMENT THE AREA OF TACON PONT BASE BUILT BY UNITED STATES AND SAIGON PUPPET . BUILT 1967. AIRFIELD AND WELL CONSTRUCTED DEFENSE SYSTEM. CO LUONG [town] DONG HA [county] QUANG TRI [province]. UNITED STATES AND ARMY PUPPETS USED TO MONITOR MOVEMENT AND TRIED TO STOP ASSISTANCE FROM THE NORTH INTO THE BATTLE OF INDOCHINA (3 COUNTRIES) . AFTER 170 DAYS AND NIGHTS OF ATTACK BY THE SURROUNDING LIBERATION ARMY, TACON (KHE SANH) WAS COMPLETELY LIBERATED . THE LIBERATION ARMY DESTROYED THE DEFENSE SYSTEM FOR THE BATTLE OF INDOCHINA . 112,000 U.S. AND PUPPET TROOPS KILLED AND CAPTURED . 197 AIRPLANES SHOT DOWN . MUCH WAR MATÉRIEL WAS CAPTURED AND DESTROYED . KHE SANH ANOTHER DIEN BIEN PHU FOR UNITED STATES .

“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.