A return to Vietnam: Veterans occupy a former battleground 50 years after Tet

Halfway across the Truong Tien Bridge, walking north, George Haught seemed to jolt. He grabbed at the air and found Danny Cholewa beside him.

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In Hanoi, Lady Borton has legacy of Vietnam service

Lady Borton is an almost 50-year veteran of service in Vietnam. She still provides it, riding her bicycle through the streets of Hanoi at age 75.

She divides her time between Hanoi and a farm in Athens County, Ohio.

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Wives of combat veterans deal with their own anxiety

Worry is an accessory many spouses of combat veterans wear every day, a constant accompaniment in a life that otherwise hums along with work, kids, grandkids, errands.

Of the wives who accompanied their husbands on a recent tour of 1968 battle sites, several said they had trepidation about what the return would reveal to them. Maybe the door to that locked part of him would open. And what would that be like?

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The names: A church once packed with terrified civilians is a place of remembrance

The Phu Cam Roman Catholic Church in Hue was a frenzy of civilian refuge in the early days of the 1968 battle. Delirious, panicked, hungry, dirty, blood-crusted people crammed into the church, which, for all its nooks and crannies, could not possibly have accommodated 4,000 people except that it did.

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(Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette)
(Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette)

On a visit to Vietnam, it’s a must to visit the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. For a man who wished to be cremated upon his death, he is still of a piece, lying under glass 49 years after he left the earth.

The visionary, legendary and largely beloved leader of a fractured country through French rule and U.S. intervention, he was a nationalist first and a Communist second, but it was that Communist part that the U.S. balked at.

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Goodbye Vietnam

The group is dispersing after a flight from Hanoi through Seoul. Some flew to Los Angeles, others to San Francisco.

We came from Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Florida, New Mexico, California, Oregon and Illinois, and we leave in various stages of exhaustion, euphoria, relief and sadness.

Vietnam is a peaceful country of welcoming people and great prices for tourists.

Its vestiges of the American war remain in old buildings pocked and blackened by mortars and machine gun fire but most buildings were built — and most of the population was born — after the 1970s.

Our war is behind them as we still struggle with the emotional fallout.

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Tunnels and Spider Holes

A C-130 captured by the North Vietnamese sits at the site of the old base of Khe Sanh. (Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette)
A C-130 captured by the North Vietnamese sits at the site of the old base of Khe Sanh. (Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette)

Khe Sanh was a battle site made iconic when U.S. Marines were surrounded for 77 days in 1968.

But for one veteran visiting the isolated and windy plateau in Quang Tri province today, a museum, artificial bunkers, captured tanks and a C-130 obscured the panic and the power the place held in 1971.

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The Transformative World of Mr. Cu

Phan Cu was born in a sampan (a flat-bottomed wooden boat) on the Huong River, where he grew up with five siblings, his parents and two grandparents.

His father drove a cyclo — a bicycle with a passenger seat in front.

Today, Mr. Cu and his wife own The Mandarin Cafe in Hue, an enterprise that supports his family and a soccer program he uses as a vehicle for teaching children about health and safety.

From 1975 until the early ’90s he was among the have-nots. Unless you were a member of the Communist Party, you were locked out of a good job, he said.

His fortunes changed when the government allowed people to not only own their own businesses but their own properties.

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A land of crowded and vibrant streets

Near Da Nang, Vietnam. (Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette)
Near Da Nang, Vietnam. (Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette)

It has rained a lot in recent weeks and mud has pooled along the streets and on sidewalks. In town after town and also here in Hue, a city of about 400,000 people, the sidewalks are crowded with piles of bricks, bikes and scooters and wares — clothes, bunches of bananas, shoes, plastic bowls, tchotchkes.

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Destruction in a Beautiful Place

Chuck Meadows, left, and Larry Verlinde at the former An Hoa Combat Base in Vietnam. (Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette)
Chuck Meadows, left, and Larry Verlinde at the former An Hoa Combat Base in Vietnam. (Diana Nelson Jones/Post-Gazette)

Most roads in the boonies are narrow. That’s true in any country. But there’s a rustic area near Da Nang where a road is oddly wide, its shoulders ill-defined with creeping grass.

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Vietnam Timeline

16th century — After centuries of Chinese rule over the land that would become Vietnam, the French establish Catholic missions and mercantile hubs to exploit resources.

1859-1883 — France annexes Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam as French Indochina.

1940-1945 — Japan occupies Vietnam during World War II, after which the French return.

1950 — President Harry Truman orders aid to help the French resist the growing popularity of Ho Chi Minh, the nationalist Communist leader of Vietnam.

1954 — The Vietnamese defeat the French for a short-lived independence. The Geneva Accords call for elections in 1956. U.S.-backed Ngo Dinh Diem becomes prime minister in the south.

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The Caves of Marble Mountain

A woman clean and weigh small shrimp on the beach   early Tuesday morning Jan 30, 2018 in Da Nang, Vietnam. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)
A woman clean and weigh small shrimp on the beach early Tuesday morning Jan 30, 2018 in Da Nang, Vietnam. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Rising up from an unremarkable street in the remarkable ancient city of Hoi An, Marble Mountain is a precipitous piece of wow before you even climb it.

From the street it juts upward with convex and concave sides. A multi story pagoda rises from its greenery.

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Vietnam has evoked strong emotions in me from the time I was a kid watching the American war there on television.

When I interviewed a former Marine for Veterans Day articles last year, his story was so compelling that when he said he was going back to Hue City after surviving the incomprehensibly brutal battle there 50 years ago, I seized the chance to go too.

It would be an opportunity to tell the story of one man’s return to a place where he picked up the heavy pack of grief and pain that he has carried throughout his adult life. Would this trip help him lighten his load as he resumes his life back in the States? That’s one of many things I want to learn in Vietnam.

–Diana Nelson Jones

I have talked of traveling to Vietnam for at least 25 years. But I never made it.

In October, I had the honor of photographing a group of veterans telling their stories to more than 60 sixth-grade students from Dutch Ridge Elementary during a Veterans Breakfast Club meeting at the in Beaver County.

Many of the veterans talked about their military experiences and several expressed interest in returning to Vietnam, including George Haught, who served with the U.S Marines during the Battle of Hue and was awarded three Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam. Mr. Haught is returning after 50 years and I will be with him.

–Nate Guidry

Credits

Background image Vietnam (1967-68) from Mike Fey

Logo design Alexa Miller