- 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
Mr. Chinh was waiting with his car, and I pulled out my maps and articles to review with him. For two hours our party of five drove into the mountains, stopping at former U.S bases along the way. Finally we arrived at a clutch of thatched buildings, from among which emerged a narrow dirt road, spilling onto the main road. A sign said: HIEP DUC, 7K [kilometers]. I got out to look around and saw a shape that felt, rather than looked, familiar. I asked Mr. Chinh where we were. An entrance to the Que Son Valley, he said, and the shape looming ahead was Le Kiem Mountain, on top of which had sat, during the war, LZ West.
Four young men astride Honda Super Cub 90 motorbikes were waiting to take us in. We climbed on the backs of the bikes and set off over the very rough path. Twenty minutes later we pulled up in front of a tin-and-thatch hooch. Mr. Chinh introduced us to a Mr. Hen, an elderly, leathery farmer. They clearly knew each other. Mr. Chinh had already scouted out the area.
We started up the mountain path, following Mr. Hen. A young man joined us. He was extremely well groomed, wearing aviator sunglasses and crisply pressed chinos.
Through Mr. Chinh I asked Mr. Hen if he’d been here in 1969 and remembered the big battle. He nodded. Yes, he remembered it well. I asked if he recalled a helicopter being shot down. Yes, he knew exactly where it had crashed. Would he show us? Yes.
We continued climbing. I was back in the boonies, in terraced rice paddies, “humping” the narrow paddy dikes, skirting sugar cane fields. It all was so familiar, right down to the 100-degree-plus heat. I wasn’t minding the heat one bit. We passed an uneven depression in the ground, an artillery crater. Excitedly I pointed it out and snapped a picture. The man in the chinos raised an apparent objection. Then I understood: This man was the “minder,” the local Communist party agent sent to watch and control us. Mr. Chinh, visibly afraid, said we would be allowed to take only a few photos. I resented the young man’s presence. What right had he to thwart my return? But I knew we were dependent on his whim.
As we climbed, an expanse of valley unfolded below. I recognized its shape and the contours of the mountains that formed its borders. I could never have described the Que Son Valley, but now I recognized it as if August 19, 1969, had been yesterday. It was smaller than I remembered, and it was very beautiful. Rather than feeling fear, I felt summoned.
We spotted a set of black boulders resting conspicuously midway down the spine of a hill not far away. “There,” said Mr. Hen, pointing. “There is where the helicopter went down.” What had happened to the wreckage? we asked. All taken away for salvage, he said. Was he sure this was the spot? He grinned. Of course he was sure. This was his neighborhood. It isn’t often a helicopter is shot down in one’s neighborhood, and people tend to remember such things. I asked if he recalled a French plantation building, or the ruins of such a building, down in the valley beyond the foot of the mountain. Gone, he said, also salvaged for reuse.
The landscape began to take on meaning. Those must be the boulders Horst Faas had spoken of. The helicopter had gone down just above them; afterward enemy machine guns among the rocks had kept the Americans pinned down. It made sense. My adrenaline racing, I visually “triangulated” downhill from the boulders; if our research and my memory were correct, the spot I sought would be 1,600 to 3,200 feet below them. There it was! Past the foot of the slope and beyond a ravine stood a larger hill amidst a cluster of smaller ones, Hill 102. I begin to take photos. Mr. Chinh came up and told me to stop. “Mr. Chinh,” I said, “I have to take some pictures. You must tell our friend that I have come a long way for this moment.”
Mr. Chinh spoke to the young man for a while, and the other Vietnamese wandered away, chattering. Their backs were to us. I snapped a few quick shots, not wanting to tempt fate.
Then I told Mr. Chinh that we must get to the hill. “I don’t think we can go there,” he said, adding that Hill 102 was in another jurisdiction. “It is restricted. I will have to make a phone call. We must get permission.”
As we descended, my heart sank. What if my journey ended here, close enough to see but unable to touch?