- From the South China Sea to Laos
The Demilitarized Zone (there is a laugh) is an area 5 km to each side of the Ben Hai River, which runs sort of East-West and was the dividing line between North and South VietNam between the end of WWII and 1975. In an attempt to prevent infiltration of troops and material, the Americans established a line of bases, artillery fire bases, and Special Forces Camps roughly parallel to and south of this line. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a web of roads and trails running north to south in the western half of this area and in Laos. To this day the official position of the government is that the trail was entirely in VietNam. Of course most of it was in Laos, and Cambodia, where northern engineers and as many as 200,000 laborers built a maze of roads on which, by the early 1970's the NVA could move an entire division south in 7 days. The country is very narrow and curved like a comma. By maintaining bases in Laos and Cambodia, the enemy had the advantage of interior lines. We Americans overcame that advantage with air mobility, not to mention the CIA sponsored Laotian irregulars operating in that un-governed country. Does anyone remember the "Plain of Jars"? After we turned the fighting over to the South, the advantage shifted decisively to the Northern side.
Our objective for our day was to explore the sites of those bases without loosing any body parts. Departing Hue, we headed up Rt. 1 to Dong Ha, a Marine supply base for the DMZ, and drove west on Rt. 9, parallel to the Cam Lo River. The first stop was the site of old Camp Carroll. This artillery fire base was located on a flat topped hill and had a commanding view of the valleys around. This fire base provided a long reach with its 175 mm guns, giving support to Khe Sanh and beyond. There is little left here except the history, and a gaudy marker commemorating the desertion to the enemy of its South VietNamese Commanding officer, Col. Ton That Dinh, to the NVA in 1972. He now owns a hotel in Hue. The area of Camp Carroll (named for a Marine Captain killed here early in the war) is now a collective farm that grows Jackfruit trees in the killing zones, stripped bare and pre-ploughed by war. These trees grow fast and high with a straight trunk and no foliage for the first 75% of its height. Climbing hot pepper plants are supported by the trunks, and the lower coffee bush occupies the spaces in between the rows of trees. It is a nice plan. Nearby, some new Rubber Trees have been planted.
Heading west, we pass a mountain called "The Rock Pile" by the Marines, for obvious reasons. There was a recon unit on the top, placed there by helicopters. The Marines would appear to have been relatively safe way up there. The road degenerates badly from here on. The car had to negotiate a mostly rock road, often one lane, and deeply holed. The up side is that it traverses startlingly beautiful countryside with a sparkling river and green mountains all around.
After another couple of hours of bouncing and scraping, we stopped for a breather at DaKrong Bridge. (The current bridge was built by the Cubans in 1979 and fell down unexpectedly last month.) At this point the DaKrong River Valley leads south along with a narrow track the VietNamese call Rt. 14. Any kind of name is a misnomer, but this was a major road of the Ho Chi Minh Trail leading into the infamous Ashaw Valley and the awful place known as "Hamburger Hill".
Early in the war, our response to this leak in the middle of the DMZ was to recruit the local tribesmen into paramilitary groups, trained and equipped by Special Forces "A" Teams (Green Berets).
Two of the early Special Forces Camps were Khe Sanh and Lang Vei, anchoring the west of the line at the Lao border. In 1966, Khe Sanh was turned into a Marine Combat Base when it was discovered that main force NVA had arrived in strength in the area south of the DMZ. Khe Sanh was the westernmost combat base and the parallels to Dien Bien Phu, which loss brought down the French in 1954, began to haunt Westmoreland and President Johnson. The US responded to this threat with a massive build up of force and huge artillery and bomber support.
When it became obvious that the threat at Khe Sanh had been a diversion of the Brilliant Gen. Giap, Westmoreland quietly moved his marines out and abandoned the base. The Khe Sanh museum, part of the old air strip operations building on the side of the dirt strip, portrays a different ending for the combat base. Prominently displayed there is a faded newspaper photo showing Americans, in good order with rifles slung, loading aboard helicopters. The caption reads, "American Imperialist Soldiers are all killed dead by victorious woman freedom fighters and then turn tail and run."
So, we visited Khe Sanh. It is so far from anything that one Marine Officer once remarked that when you are at Khe Sanh, you are not really anywhere at all. We approached it on roads which had turned to sheep trails and drove overland through a collective farm and bounced onto the badly impacted and eroded runway. Nothing grows on this clay airstrip to this day. Nothing is here except the hills, 881-north, 881-south, and Hill 1015 to the north-east, each of which had Marine outposts. Nothing is there except the hills, and the silence. In the block building containing the photos I mentioned is a visitors' book. When I signed it, I noticed that very few veterans have visited this place.
Heading back to Rt. 9, we turned west again, this time for the site of Lang Vei Special Forces Camp. This fortified village was established way back in 1962 to train and arm the mountain people so as to deny the area to the enemy. It is situated overlooking the Tchepone River, which constitutes the Lao border. (We stood on the very edge of the border before we left.) Across that river towers Co Roc Mountain, where the NVA had heavy artillery making life at Lang Vei very unpleasant. The purpose of the camp was to slow the movement of troops and war supplies entering northern VietNam and down the Ashaw corridor. In February, 1968, this camp was defended by 500 Bru, Montagnard, and ARVN Soldiers, along with 24 American Special Forces soldiers. A heavy artillery bombardment began and 9 Russian PT-76 Tanks appeared for the first time in the war. The isolated base was overrun with near total loss of life. Afterward, American Bombers hit it to destroy any residual inventory of weapons and ammunition. The base was never re-established, and the trail operated continuously for the rest of a very long war.
Visiting the site, we were met by PT-76 Tank, left there as a memorial. We climbed the rise among the impact craters and looked down on Laos and the river to the south and west which is the Lao border. We walked silently among the bunkers, destroyed in the battle, and felt the isolation and vulnerability of this place, hanging out on the edge of the country. What brave men stood there and waited? I am in awe of them.
In the west corner of the hill, suddenly there before us on the edge of a ruined bunker was a live 60 mm mortar round. It had been fired, but did not detonate. Called to care by that discovery, we looked down at our feet to find many other mortar and small artillery rounds scattered around where we were walking. Lonely Planet reports that since 1975 over 5,000 people have been killed here along Rt. 9 alone. We decided to be a bit more careful. We picked our way through the craters toward what is called a road. I don't think many people come here, ever.
Well, we had gone that far, why not a bit more, so we continued west to Lao Bao, the border crossing, and just stood on the boarder, just to do it. I would have loved to have stepped over, even one foot, but some guy said no, and he had a rifle.
We were booked into a hotel at Dong Ha, and arrived, exhausted, bounced, and shaken, about dark. The hotel was built by the government and is one of those colossal disasters which communist governments can create with central planning. It is huge and tasteless, in a location where no one goes. We climbed to our room (no lift) to find it large but uncomfortable. The door to a balcony didn't close and the railing out there had fallen off. The room was lighted by those two little 10 watt bulbs, one of them green and the other one burned out. There was a bath room with no tub or shower. Mosquito netting was provided, but no sheet or towels. A bottle of water was there, but with the seal broken. At dinner, we found that we were the only guests staying (and eating) at this huge place.