Vietnam: Past and Present

Did you know what you wanted to do upon your graduation for high school?  Many of us thought we did.  Tanglewood resident Warren Smith had what he thought was a pretty good idea.  He enlisted in the Army.

Hailing from Skowhegan, Maine, 17-year-old Warren entered the U.S. Army on October 16, 1962 and headed Ft. Dix in New Jersey for basic training.  His next stop was in January, 1963 when he arrived at Ft. Rucker in Alabama for helicopter maintenance training.

Warren so young and ready.

On June 8, 1963 Warren was sent to Vietnam for what was then a 13-month tour.  Saigon greeted him with extremely hot and humid weather.  There he became part of the 8000 advisers to South Vietnamese troops.  Those with advisory status often found their hands tied, figuratively speaking.  All advisers could do was…advise.  They could only help if asked.

Warren was sent to the Mekong Delta to a post west of Vin Long to advise.  “The Vietnamese infantry Lieutenant was upset because I had no training except basic and helicopters.  He asked why I was even there.  I was a PFC in the Army less than a year and was doing what I was told.”

In September, as part of a patrol he was with, Warren was hit in the left arm with shrapnel from a hand grenade.  “The Army then decided I was a helicopter mechanic and sent me to Vung Tau on a search and recovery helicopter as a crew member.”  Warren’s role was as the ground man for searches or hook up for downed aircraft.

By December 1963 Warren was sent to UTT Helicopter Company and became crew chief in a UH1B Armed Huey.  At that time the UTT was the first and only completely armed helicopter company in the world.

“It was my job to keep the helicopter flying with necessary maintenance.  At first we could not fire at the enemy without permission from the Vietnamese soldier who flew with us.  But that did not last long.  We could fire back when fired upon.  At that point we finally were assigned missions and the war was on.

“We used to do a lot of missions in Tay Ninh around a mountain called Nui Ba Den, also known as Black Virgin Mountain.  We had several heavy fire fights there which ended in us chasing the enemy into Cambodia which was 20-25 Kilometers away.   One day In January ‘64 I lost two close friends in the fighting around that area.  The very next day I lost a third friend.  We were always a foursome.  Always helping each other and doing everything together.  I figured I was next.  But that day never came.

On February 16, 1964 Warren was shot in his left arm again while assaulting entrenched enemy.  On April 17 he was again shot in the left arm as they ambushed Viet Cong who were setting up to attack the Soc Trang Airfield.  “Our two helicopter crews were credited with 96 confirmed kills that night.”  Warren stayed as crew chief until July ’64 when he was sent home to Ft. Benning in Georgia to the 11th Air Assault which became the 1st Cavalry Division.

Warren participated in the early support at Ia Drang.

In January, 1965 at morning formation, Warren was one of many who had his name called out.  “By noon that day all of us were on our way to Vietnam for a second tour.  It seems the Army was really short on experienced crew chiefs.”

I was sent to Pleiku to the 119th Assault Helicopter Company where much to my disgust I was an extra crew chief.  They didn’t need me so they made me a spare.  If a crew chief or gunner was off that day, I flew in his place.  I flew almost every day.”

By June ’65 some changes had been made.  Warren found himself with a newer Huey and a new pilot.  This time he was on search and rescue missions.  They had several rescues along with a fair tally of confirmed kills.

November ’65 they supported the 1st CAV into the Ia Drang valley.  The book and movie We Were Soldiers Once…And Young are based on actions in that area.

December 7, 1965 Warren stepped on a booby trap.  “I didn’t want to be delayed going home so I had a medic patch me up.  I arrived in the states, where I ended up spending 12 days in Letterman Military Hospital in San Francisco.”

1968 found Warren attending college in California.  He was broke, partying, and flunking out.  It was an ad in the LA Times that caught his attention: Helicopter Mechanics Wanted in Vietnam.  “The pay was unbelievable!  So, off I went.”

Warren split his time there between Chu Lai and Da Nang where he repaired helicopters and learned a lot more about flying them during test flights.  Once again, Warren was wounded in a rocket attack at Chu Lai.  It was at this point he said, “The heck with it.  I quit the job, bought a plane ticket and flew home.”

Considered an old man by 22, he was about to head home.

That was then.  But Vietnam never left Warren.

September, 2018 finds Warren and wife Patti relaxing and enjoying their time in the Sunshine State, a far cry physically from Vietnam.  Even though he rarely talked about his time in Vietnam, he did often mention wanting to visit the country again.  Patti is the one who gave him the needed push.  “You have been talking about it for years.  Why don’t you just go?”

Arrangements were made and tickets were purchased.  No backing out now.  Warren’s 22-hour flight to Vietnam began on October 15, 2018.  Warren decided not to sign up with a travel group to tour the country.  He had very specific places he needed to see that are rarely part of a vacationer’s tour.  He made this trip alone, except for his thoughts and memories.

He arrived in Saigon on October 16.  Stepping off the plane into the same hot and humid weather that greeted him in 1963.  He took a deep breath and greeted a part of the world that he last saw a lifetime ago.

His first day in Saigon was spent getting acclimated to the weather plus the sights and sounds of the city, along with reacquainting himself with the people of the country.

Warren had arranged for a personal tour guide for his time in Vietnam.  Ngan Nguyen, 24 years old and originally from North Vietnam proved to be a perfect choice.  “She turned out to have an uncanny knowledge of the Vietnam War.”

One of the first things they did together was tour Saigon and its neighborhoods.  The fish market made quite and impression on Warren.  “The shrimp were HUGE!  They enjoyed a meal of shrimp and crabs which cost 375,000 Dong or $16 in U.S. currency.  It took a bit to get used to the difference in money.

Not only could Ngan answer anything Warren asked her, she would question him all the time.  He felt she an amazing job of referencing things he and others had told her about the war and the area.

Ngan wanted to know what all Warren wanted to see on his visit.  She also made some suggestions after asking him questions.  His guide realized he had limited time in country and made an effort to get him to those spots most important to him.

View of Nui Ba Den today

One place that Warren felt compelled to see again was Nui Ba Den or Black Virgin Mountain.  It is one particular place that has remained with Warren all these years.  According to Warren it would be easy to recognize.  He should know since he saw it from the vantage point of the Huey almost daily.

The mountain itself appears to have risen up in the middle of flat land.  No other peaks are anywhere to be seen.  During the war the U.S. military ‘owned’ the very top of the mountain which was useful for radio transmission.  The U.S. also ‘owned’ the bottom of the mountain.  What cause the most trouble came from the middle where the VC had the power hand.  The mountain was riddled with caves.  “It was so frustrating.  No matter how many fire fights we were engaged in, the VC seemed to always survive by hiding deep in the caves.”

Ngan and Warren headed to Nui Ba den.  It was still easy to recognize, but now definite differences were apparent.  “I could not believe it!  It is now a park!  A cable car takes visitors ¾ the way up the mountain.  I paid $1.70 (40,000 Dong) and rode up to the pagodas that have been built since the war.”

“Once there I was sure I recognized where we had landed (during the war) the first time I was shot down which resulted in 5 bullet holes in the rotor blades.”

That was not Warren’s only memory on that mountain.  “I was also sure there was a cave located above the pagoda.  It was that cave we used to shot at a lot!  Of course, now trees covered it, but I was sure it was there.  I told my guide I was going to climb and find it.”

“Ngan asked me not to, telling me I was too old.  Damn!  She was right.  I made it maybe a whole 30 yards and had to turn back.  I was soaked in sweat, out of breath, with pains racking my body.  I thought I was going to die.  Actually, dying seemed welcomed at that moment!”

Vietnam through different eyes.

Another place Warren wanted to see was the Mekong Delta in order to find the place where he had been wounded.  “We had pinpointed it pretty good on a map, right by the only bend in the river in that area.  Even though roads around that area back in the 60s could barely be called cow paths are now six lane toll roads, we managed to find the spot.”

“We rented a sampan to make the rest of the journey.  Once again, against the guide’s advice, we took off.  She told me I would not like it once I saw it.  As we neared the spot, a weird feeling came over me.  I did not want to go any further.  She was right again!  At least I enjoyed the slow boat ride and saw some scenery.

“My time in Vietnam was almost over.  Upon return to the city we toured the Government Palace in Saigon.  A little history may be needed here.  This is where the Russian tank crashed through the gate in 1975 ending the Vietnam War.  For some reason the Communist regime left the palace exactly the same as it was in 1975.  Paperwork was still on his desk from that day when Vice President Ky left.

“This was interesting to me because in 1963 when I was at the airport in Saigon, I watched as South Vietnamese planes dived on and attacked the palace to overthrow then President Diem along with his brother.  They left the palace in an armored personnel carrier and were assassinated.

Although the Communist rule the country now, I think they have found out capitalism is not a bad thing.  I never dreamed I would see so many high-rise buildings or ride on a good road system where it used to be just wide enough for two water buffalo pulling carts to pass.

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