- Historic Sites
How a patch of ground forged a man’s future, stole a part of his soul, and gave it back to him 30 years later
June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
Working with Global Spectrum, a Washington-based travel agency that specializes in tours of Vietnam for American veterans, I began setting up my return visit with Dick Schonberger, himself a two-tour veteran. I sent Dick various documents I’d gathered over the years, including articles about the Battle of Hiep Due and Noonan’s death, an operations log detailing radio reports from the battlefield, and a map of the region encompassing Hiep Duc and the Que Son Valley. Each held clues. The articles gave a name, Hill 102, to the knoll where I had fought; at the time I had known it only by coordinates. They described Noonan’s helicopter as going down 1,600 or 3,200 feet from where our troops were engaged.
The ops log, a chronological, clinical listing of reports gathered by a rear-echelon Army clerk, had been given to me years earlier by my closest Army buddy, Francis Whitebird, who was Charlie Company’s medic; he’d gotten a copy at a reunion. The log is eerie. To see this complex story of combat, of life and death, redacted to one cold sentence: “C Co while in night lager received RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) rds (rounds), MC (machine-gun) fire and SA (small-arms) fire resulting in 1 US KIA (killed in action) and 13 WIA (wounded in action).” The report went on to list the victims; my name was among them. It was inadequate, annoying in its minimalization of what had happened that night. But it did offer clues, such as coordinates for artillery fire.
Schonberger put it all together. “I’m sending you a map that is marked. I think I’ve got it pinpointed where you were,” he told me over the phone. “It’s Hill 102, at the base of the mountain where Landing Zone West was located. LZ West has to be where your company helicoptered in, and from there you walked down into the Que Son Valley. Your description, the articles, the log, the map—all the pieces fit.”
“Do you think we can find the exact spot?” I asked, excited.
Dick said he would contact a Vietnamese tour guide in Hoi An and ask him to scout out the area before we arrived. When I looked at the map, with LZ West and Hill 102 circled in dark ink, I knew at that moment I wanted—no, needed—to go there again.
The anxiety was palpable among us when our Vietnam Airlines jet approached Hanoi Airport. The joking and small talk had stopped. As we landed, I noticed how lush and green the countryside was. When we disembarked, we were greeted with the first of several emotional segues—moments of transition—in my personal journey.
Two dozen young men and women formed a pathway as we walked to the terminal and, smiling, handed each of us a bouquet of flowers. Thirty years earlier, stepping off the plane at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon, I had been handed an M-16. The feeling then had been good—complete and utter awe that I was actually there and comfort in the power of the weapon in my arms to protect me. This time, flowers. A good feeling as well, but very different.
The next day, our delegation went to the Vietnam National University in Hanoi to dedicate the new computer lab our fund had built. We were greeted by about 50 students in brilliant white silk uniforms. “Because of you, these students can now become citizens of the world,” said Dr. Truong Gia Binh, dean of the university’s business school. We chatted with the young people and even traded e-mail addresses. If the students knew about the war, it was not evident. They seemed warm, sincere, and without reproach, much like all the Vietnamese we had seen, even those old enough to have suffered from the war.
I was beginning to look at Vietnam in a different light. For 30 years it had existed as a strange, distant, and very hostile land. The sun was beginning to play on that dark corner of my mind. Could I shift the prism? Could I see Vietnam as a familiar and beautiful country where long ago something awful had happened?
I knew from news articles the name of the unit my company had engaged in the Que Son Valley, the 2d NVA Division. Jeff Kruger, the project director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund delegation, had reminded me that our group was to meet Vietnamese veterans in Hanoi. He had asked his contacts to try to find someone who had fought in that division. Anxious but curious, I arrived 15 minutes early at the offices of the Veterans Association of Vietnam, in a beautiful old French building painted light yellow and trimmed in white.
Jeff was waiting. “Paul, the 2d NVA is here!”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes. The division’s commander is inside!”
This would be a major step in my journey. I was thrilled and scared. Would he be hostile, wary, or friendly? Would we feel any connection at all? Was he the right man, in command of this unit in 1969? Would he remember the battle? Would we shake hands? The idea of meeting him brought a welling up of emotions. I felt my eyes filling.