the China Airlines 747 broke through the cloud cover over
Tan Son Nhut Air Base, I wondered what I would find below in Vietnam
after 30 years. I remember
having that exact same feeling in 1965 -- wondering what was
beneath those clouds. As we made our descent, that all too
familiar landscape came into view. I really was back in
As our plane taxied toward
the main terminal, the feeling of deja vu was more
than overpowering, even if Tan Son Nhut looked totally different.
When I arrived in 1965, it was one of the world's busiest airfields,
with a reported take off and landing (including helicopters)
every 10 seconds or so. Now, it was eerily quiet. Very few
aircraft were taking off, landing, or parked on the apron.
The first time I landed at Tan Son Nhut in 1965, our
plane was surrounded immediately by intense-looking young
air policemen wearing camouflage fatigues, black berets with
QC patches and sporting M16's. They took up positions to
protect us from terrorist attacks. As we were processed, some
of us, including me, found out that we too, had been "diverted"
to a place called "Cam Ranh Bay AB," which none of
us had ever heard of. We found out why a few days later when
we arrived at Cam Ranh--it hadn't really been build yet!
There was just a PSP runway, a "water buffalo,"
a handful of tents, an M60 and a handful of us making up
the 12th APS, working 12 hours on and 12 hours
off. Mostly we guarded the POL and bomb dumps until the squadron
of Phantoms finally arrived. Mostly I remember rain, sand
and C-rations and being scared in the teeming monsoon rain
at night. By the time I left, of course, Cam Ranh was a "sprawling
complex" and everyone now tells me how "easy"
we had it there. (Right)
This time, my plane was
met by several Vietnamese women, wearing white ao dai's,
the traditional native dress, who efficiently herded us passengers
onto large open-air buses for transport to the main terminal.
As I stood on the flightline, it was hard to believe that
I was actually back there, as I fumbled for my camera, my
mouth drooping a bit, no doubt. I recognized very little.
A rusted out hanger... one of the red and white checked towers
(now faded) I think the main terminal is the same building
we G. I. 's were processed through in the 60's. It seemed
familiar. Getting through immigration was less of a hassle
than I expected, thanks, perhaps to my feeble attempts to
speak some Vietnamese, which brought a smile to the faces
of some of the stern-faced officials.
I stayed a week in Saigon,
saw lots of sights and met many local people and had many
good conversations and laughs with them. Even now, they
do not see many Americans, except for those who work there.
I did hire a driver and
attempted to get up to Cam Ranh Bay AB, which was quite an experience.
Cam Ranh is "off limits" because it is still technically
under Russian control. Even the Vietnamese Navy is not allowed
into Cam Ranh Bay AB, I'm told. Rumor has it that the U. S.
Navy may return to Cam Ranh when the Russians pull out, but
that's just a rumor. I got as far as Myca, which was a little
fishing village on the edge of Cam Ranh AB when I was there
in 65-66. It was off limits to us G.I.'s back then and was
loaded NVA and VC. But darkness had fallen and the monsoon
rain made a hasty retreat back to Phan Rang advisable. How
ironic, I thought. In the 60's, I couldn't enter Myca from
Cam Ranh. In the 90's, it was the other way around. But, then
again--this was Vietnam--so it all made sense.
I spent my two weeks
vacation in Vietnam last November and had an incredibly positive
experience. I'm not sure every body should go back, but I
am glad I did. I wrote about my feelings, comparing my return
from Vietnam in 1996 to that of 1966. I shared copies of my
article from the Boston Herald and spoke to a large
group of homeless veterans--many of them Vietnam vets--about
my trip. They seemed to feel better about Vietnam, somehow,
when I had finished. They gave me a standing ovation, which,
I was told, was a rare sign of respect from those guys. My
brothers welcomed me home--again!
Jim was a freelance writer
from Boston, Massachusetts who specialized in veterans affairs,
particularly Vietnam veterans. He served with the12th APS at Cam Ranh Bay AB, Air Base, 1965-1966.