The Road to Vinh Thanh

A former warrior returns to an old battlefield.

Vinh Thanh is a small village in the coastal lowlands of central Vietnam. It sits beside the lazy Con River, in Binh Dinh Province—not a place you’d expect something life-altering to have happened to an American. Not once, but twice.

The first time I went there was May 16, 1966, as a young infantry platoon leader. I flew in, sluicing above the ground, looking down from a drab green helicopter at the people below. This is the way Americans seem to prefer traveling. Fast, heavily weaponed, power-drunk, godlike —all the better to avoid the natives. The weather sucked. Low clouds glowered at us. “Turn back,” the clouds seemed to say. We were, as you may have guessed, about to be sucked into the whirlwind of our destinies, collective and individual. It would be bad news.

Reaching a ridge just above Vinh Thanh, we set down and left the choppers. I disliked this part. We had arrived at what infantrymen call the “Line of Departure,” one of the almost literary phrases tacticians have come up with. It means, “Ahead lies Indian country. It’s a good day to die.”

We hiked up the ridge looking for “Indian Charlie,” and then we died. We got taken under more fire than I’d seen in five months. Many died soon, within 60 seconds of the ambush, others later, well into the 20 hours that we lay surrounded on that damn hill. But how the nearly 30 who met death that day actually died wouldn’t matter to them anymore. To those of us left behind, however, the how and why of it turned out to matter a great deal. To me, it has mattered more and more ever since.

And so it was that 42 years later, on November 18, 2008, I took the road back to Vinh Thanh. This time I traveled slowly, seated in a cramped SUV, looking up at lush hills that rose from the Con River, looking out at the people passing by at eye level. This is now the way I prefer traveling—though it’s taken me a while to get used to it. Deliberate, unarmed, sober, childlike—the sort of traveler natives like to take in. The only similarities to my first trip were the weather and the fact that I was again accompanied by a small band of brothers.

This time the brothers all chattered along in Vietnamese. I couldn’t understand a word, but I understood how they felt. Once they were busy trying to kill men like me, while I was busy trying to kill men like them. We all got good at it.

When we reached the base of the ridge at Vinh Thanh (I couldn’t say “Line of Departure” in Vietnamese, but there must be a phrase for it), we got out and walked uphill, approaching the old landing zone. End of the road. We stopped, quieted down, and took in the surroundings. I picked a spot in a farmer’s field and dug a small hole in the wet earth. I buried a little 1st Cavalry Division pin, yellow and black. I spoke to the souls of the men I had left there—and to the souls of the men we killed that day. I thanked them all for being patient, waiting for me to come back.

I tried a little prayer, but words choked up in my throat. I felt a good emptiness. I cried. One of my comrades, Nguyen, whom I’d nicknamed “Many-Wounds-Guy,” said the place was now “sacred.” My daughter-like interpreter, Trang, touched my shoulder and said, “Michael, you be alright.”

Then we all walked back down the hill toward the village and had lunch.

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