General Julius W. Becton, jr., was the Comanding Officer of the 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry, when the unit deployed to South Vietnam in December, 1967. He recently had the opportunity to return and is kind enough to share his experience with us.
"Return to Vietnam"
My return to Vietnam was something that I had not planned to do after leaving some 31 years earlier, hence my arrival at Hanoi brought about a strange feeling, which I found to be somewhat discomforting. It wasn't the aircraft, because we were flying Business Class (sitting in the first class section) on Cathay Pacific, an airline for which I quickly developed a fondness. The air crew, both stewards and up-front crew, were most courteous and we were served an excellent lunch during our less than two hour trip. It wasn't even caused by the "FOLLOW ME" vehicle that met the aircraft, the first one of which I have seen in more than 20 years. I guess that feeling came about because I was in a place, where here-to-fore was truly enemy territory. In earlier days the only Americans who came here were US military personnel under guard. Of course that excludes Jane Fonda and the likes.
Our journey from the airport to the city was uneventful, except that there were few cars on the roads and the roads were the poorest we had seen thus far. The Five Star Hotel Sofitel in Metropole Hanoi probably wasn't much different from when the French built it. While the country side through which we drove was sparse, downtown Hanoi was thriving. It appeared that the government's reported 30% unemployment out of a population of about 3.5 million were all on the streets. From the time we landed everywhere we went we were greeted by friendly people, from the hotel staff to the folks on the street to even the sentry/receptionist at "HANOI HILTON".
The so-called "Hanoi Hilton" was the most depressing site we encountered on the entire trip. It was closed, but money works around the world and we were permitted to enter and wander around at our leisure. The prison was built in the middle of Hanoi by the French back in the 19th century and was used first to imprison the Vietnamese. Every occupying force since then used it to imprison the Vietnamese. So it clearly was the site of choice by the North Vietnamese to hold US Airmen. The cold hard blocks of stone and cement along with the wrist and leg irons were grim reminders of man's inhumanity to man. It probably is one of the most primitive of any prison in the world with toilet and wash facilities that contains the barest of necessities. While there are examples of cutout on display of the tunnels used by Vietnamese prisoners, through which they escaped, there are no reported records of Americans making it out. Another disgusting thought was the fact that Fonda and her likes probably drove past this facility, knowing what it was, without the slightest apparent concern for those inside.
Driving around Hanoi amongst the bicycles and old vehicles was an experience that all folks, who complain about the grid-lock on Shirley Highway at the mixing bowl, should experience at least one time. Traffic control was minimal. The next day (22 March) we visited Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, which was not open to the public because it appeared to be getting ready for some dignitaries. Immediately behind the mausoleum is Ho Chi Minh's home which he allegedly occupied during the war. It's built on stilts. It is hard to visualize or contemplate that he lived there and we didn't know it and/or did not terminate him. It was difficult to drive anywhere around the city and not see a picture of Ho Chi Minh. With the exception of the military formation at the Mausoleum, I saw relatively few soldiers, keeping in mind that Hanoi is the capitol.
We saw few beggars, but those that did approach us, were really in bad shape. We had been warned that if we were to stop and give them anything, we would be swarmed by a crowd offering to sell us things and at the same time attempting to pick our pockets. While that did not happen to us, I couldn't help but think about the difficulty a person would have had getting at my wallet which was in my left rear pocket, so secure that often it took me minutes to retrieve it. We visited the One-Pillared Pagoda, the Temple of Literature, and The Restored Sword Lake. Although there were many vendors, it was difficult to see how most of them made a living because there were far more of them selling than those buying and there didn't appear to be that many foreigners. The French influence was clearly significant in the buildings. The American Embassy was easily accessible located away from the other embassies. The Consul-General, Richard A. Boucher in Hong Kong had offered at the AMCHAM BALL to alert Ambassador Patterson that we would be in Hanoi, which I graciously declined. The one thing that I was not looking for was the visibility as a retired Army officer. I was visible enough.
Although the relatively short flight on Vietnam Airlines (interesting enough VN #217) from Hanoi to HO Chi Minh City was delayed several hours due to a schedule change, at least two other flights heading south departed on time. By the way, there are still parts of the city that has the name Saigon and the airport symbol is SGN. While I had flown into Tan Son Nuht Airport some 31 years ago, I was unable to recognize anything. As we drove to the New World Hotel Saigon, another five star facility, I was forced to reevaluate my views about traffic jams. HCM City was by far the worst I have ever seen. Traffic lights are far and few between. The presence of police is almost nonexistent. It is not that they are not present, because they are, generally standing on the curb, apparently waiting for an accident to occur and then writing citations and fining offenders.
HCM City has a reported five plus million people and two and a half million registered motor bikes. It is clearly a city that is bursting with energy and there is little evidence that Hanoi has imposed any brakes or restrictions. It sort of reminds one of the relationship that exist between Beijing and Hong Kong. As we were heading to the official museum, we stopped by the main Post office, which cause Bill and me to be puzzled. Once we got inside, we discovered that this was not the typical post office that we knew. In addition to the usual post office activities, there were the bank of telephones, vendors' booths, and rows of tables for writing. I had wanted to call home, avoiding calls from the hotel because of the exorbitant charges, but I shied away from these phones. Also my Premiere WORLDLINK calling card does not have a toll-free access number from Vietnam.
The most disheartening visit of the entire trip was the WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM, where, from the Ml13 and M41 tank on the outside, along with other US weapon systems to throughout the facility, the US military and the "puppet" ARVN forces were the bad guys. The lead comment in their published brochure is a quote by Robert McNamara: Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.
Pictures of Son My (My Lai) village were prominently displayed in color with all the gore of the dead women and children in the ditches. (The reported massacre occurred on 16 March 1968 in Son Tinh district, Quang Ngai province in which 504 people were killed.) Of course they had the picture of the ARVN officer executing a Viet Cong. One is quick to realize the portrayal of the VC and forces of the Vietnam government (a.k.a. North Vietnamese) as the liberators and the "barbaric" US and their Vietnamese (ARVN) allies as the bad guys, the ultimately defeated forces. The identification of all major US units were depicted on a large map in their area of operations (AO). MEDCAP and other humanitarian activities by US forces were not reflected at all. Simply stated no US unit was depicted in a good light. Pictures of the victims of fragmentation bombs, Agent Orange, and napalm, as well as pictures of a man (presumably VC) being drug to death by an APC and another man being thrown from a flying helicopter with the caption that he refused to answer interrogations. On the page in the brochure next to the My Lai scene is a picture of four soldiers and the bodies of two guerillas. The caption beneath the photo reads After decapiting (sic) some guerillas, a GI enjoyed being photographed with their heads in his hands. The printed caption on the picture is too gross to be repeated here. Riding away from this place caused all of us to feel as dejected as the picture of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, on the back cover of the brochure entitled WAR REMNANTS IN VIETNAM.
The museum visit was followed by a trip to CHINATOWN, reportedly the largest outside China. One could spend literally several days just trying to get through the place if he/she were interested in seeing everything. Of course the name of the game was to bargain and negotiate and it was obvious to me that the vendor will not lose. That was true no matter where we went. Equally true was the fact that everywhere we went everyone exhibit the same friendliness mentioned above. (NOTE: It should be appreciated that back in '67 and '68 I made only three trips to Saigon, one to go on R & R in Bangkok, once I visited MACV HQS (which lasted less than 24 hours), and my last visit was to come home.)
Driving on Routes 1 and 22 to Cu Chi was a thrill (particularly if you like to drive and ride with Harvey Gough, a la my journey to Russia in '96), but it is not for the faint at heart. There are no visible traffic rules. Whoever has the biggest vehicle has the right away. There is utterly no regard by motor bike riders for cars. I have never seen such apparent mass confusion before in my life, yet everything seems to work out okay. During this trip we only saw the results of two accidents, although we saw literally hundreds of potential accidents. We covered the 75 Km in little more than an hour. As we approached the Tunnels of Cu Chi, for which the area is now famous, we passed a war memorial monument containing the names of more than 45,000 Vietnamese. In all innocence I asked our tour guide as to whether it included the names of both ARVN and VC. In a very indignant manner, he responded that it only included the names of "revolutionary forces" and not the traitors, i.e., ARVN.
The Cu Chi tunnel briefing starts with a video and oral explanation of the tunnel complex, which apparently was is quite extensive. According to the young girl dressed in the black pajama material we used to recognize as VC, there were three levels of tunnels. The bottom level afforded the maximum protection from the American bombs. The complex consisted of headquarters, supply facilities, eating areas, sleeping areas, command, control and communications. We entered one, in which Bill Tidball took a very unflattering picture of my backside filling up the tunnel entrance. We managed to get through, but it was clearly not fun and I wouldn't want to spend my life crawling around through them. While the tunnel complex we visited was not under the old 25th Infantry Division's area, it was pointed out that there were tunnels under elements of the division. Of course the interesting fact was that I had spent some time at Cu Chi in the latter part of June and the first week or so of July 1968, and clearly drove, walked or flew over some of the tunnel complex I indicated as much to our tour guide and he was impressed that we had no idea as to where the tunnels were. Cu Chi, as best I recall, was on the receiving end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a journey that started in the then North Vietnam, into Laos, Cambodia, and then into the Northwest corner of Vietnam. At the end of our tunnel visit, which by the way is a popular tourist attraction, I for one was ready to get back into HCM City. And once again, we played Russian Roulette with the traffic. The only accident in which we were involved was at the hotel when our driver was backing up to pick us up and a tour van driver was moving out slowly, and they collided. There was more damage to their egos than to either vehicle.
I had been asked by David Andrews, VP for the ABN-AMRO Bank in Hong Kong, to comment on four activities in HCM City. We met previously at the AMCHAM Ball. He mentioned the Cu Chi tunnel, the War Crime Museum, the "Q" Bar, and Apocalypse Now. We did not visit the latter two, due to distance from the hotel and our reluctance to challenge the traffic one more time. Sorry David. The departure, albeit on Cathay Pacific Airway, did bring back some pleasant memories. I can vividly recall the distinct smell at Tan Son Nuht back in those old days and once the aircraft got off the runway, the odor was fumigated by the crew. While fumigation this time was not necessary, the wheels up, in-bound for Hong Kong was a pleasant feeling. We lost an hour as we arrived at HK, due to the time differential. I am glad that I made the journey to Vietnam. Even though it is a Communist country we saw very little evidence of it except for the picture of Ho Chi Minh throughout the entire country and of course on all the paper money. The people, as I have said many times, are very friendly. The food was superb. The prices were very reasonable. And the visit to both the Museum and the Tunnels of Cu Chi brought back memories that I thought were long gone. For those who want to venture back to Vietnam, I would encourage you to leave the "chip on shoulder" at home. The war is over. For all practical purposes we lost. We know the good things we did but you will not find them visible in Vietnam.
Finally, after considerable thought, I am convinced we did it the best way, Hanoi first
and HCM City next. If you can afford it, visit some of your old firebase grounds in