December 3, 2013
Editor’s Note: This account first appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of The Bugle, the quarterly publication of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum
The moment was completely unanticipated.
We were surrounded — two helicopter pilots and a crew chief, one infantryman, a Marine captain and his Vietnamese counterpart, deep in Uncle Ho’s territory and surrounded by dozens of veteran North Vietnamese soldiers comfortable in jungle terrain and dark, nighttime conditions. They knew exactly where we were, who we were, and fully understood our limited ability to defend ourselves.
But it was not a place or time of mortal combat — it was Saturday evening, Sept. 7, 2013 in the Moung Thanh Hotel dining room. We five Americans and one Vietnamese interpreter — worn and still wearing the shorts and T-shirts of the day’s long walk through the old French-Vietnamese battlefields of Dien Bien Phu — found ourselves fully surrounded by older, well-dressed Vietnamese gentlemen and their wives.
Our interpreter was discretely asked if we were Frenchmen visiting the 1954 battlefield where France surrendered more than 10,000 men to the Vietminh. When told we were American Soldiers returning to Vietnam for the first time since our combat tours some 40-plus years ago, the group became animated, asking us to join them for food and drinks.
They were also veterans, visiting Dien Bien Phu for a military reunion of their own. Surviving North Vietnamese soldiers of the 324th Division, People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), they had fought against us in “I” Corps from 1967 through the Tet Offensive, Operation Lam Son 719 and the DMZ battles of 1975. They had served throughout the years of the “American War,” and we were the first Americans they had met outside of battle.
Bridging the gap of 40 years, this weaponless reintroduction was an amazing reunion of smiles and respect, the sharing of family pictures, and awkward attempts to bridge the communication cap of unshared languages. We old American veterans were quickly scattered among the tables of old Vietnamese soldiers while our interpreter strived to choreograph the many different conversations.
Frankly, the unplanned engagement shook me. Meeting these fellow survivors of war — our enemies — I had to excuse myself, step out of the room, and deal with the stunning epiphany that those I sought to destroy in 1972 from the cockpit of a heavily armed attack helicopter were equally young, desiring the same things for their future that I wished for my own.
The realization was clear: they fought to serve their country, just as we fought to serve our own. I knew their conditions were terrible, and that they fought without a chance of R&R or return home until death or victory. Reflecting on the horror of their combat conditions, I was moved to tears by their kindness and willingness to overlook the war’s devastation and simply celebrate survival with old opponents.
As the evening progressed we joined them on a long bus ride over bumpy dirt roads to enjoy an evening of native T’ai people cultural dances and exhibits. Strong rice moonshine served by T’ai women in traditional clothing led to a blurry celebration that lasted very late into the night. We parted reluctantly in the early hours of Sunday morning with smiling nods and gentle handshakes in the Vietnamese manner, and the engagement came to an end.
Reflecting on my 2013 visit to Vietnam, I can report the devastated wartime landscapes I remembered are now gone, recovered by fresh forest, farm fields and homes. My return to the former war zone revealed little to recognize beyond the mountain skylines, rivers, rice paddies and humid heat remembered in my daily thoughts. The recollections of old, however, are now supplanted by fresh images and memories of a healing land and friendly, gracious people.
The greatest memory of my 2013 return, however, is not the revisited jungles and fading battlefields of my combat days — it is the unexpected meeting of former combatants who survived and joined together in the Moung Thanh Hotel to prove old enemies can remember and forgive.
Bob Hesselbein is a decorated Vietnam War veteran and graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School. His military pilot career began as an Army helicopter gunship pilot flying the AH-1G for combat operations in Southeast Asia. He transferred to the Air Force, and then to the Wisconsin Air National Guard, where he flew A-10 and F-16 fighters until his retirement in 2000.