Returning to a war zone such as Vietnam can be a bit daunting at first. Near Chu Lai, a nearby rock quarry set off a blast of dynamite while American veterans of a long-ago war were touring a memorial erected by the conquering North Vietnamese to their “victory.” The Americans “hit the ground” instinctively, even though we were walking up a series of stone steps at the time. Darned near killed ourselves, a bunch of old warriors in their 60s and 70s returned at that moment to “incoming” mortar attacks.
A few years ago, I published a book called Hill 488 (with Ray Hildreth) that told the story of the most highly-decorated small military unit in U.S. history. A recon platoon of 16 Marines and two Navy corpsmen were dispatched to watch the enemy and gather intel on the Hiep Duc Valley west of Chu Lai. During the early evening of June 15, 1966, a battalion of hardened North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong—outnumbering the Americans 25-to-1—threw everything they had at the platoon. The platoon held them off; six were killed, all the others were wounded. They were down to literally throwing rocks, with eight cartridges left, when relief arrived. The unit won a Congressional Medal of Honor, four Navy Crosses, thirteen Silver Stars, and 18 Purple Hearts, some of them posthumously.
Ray Hildreth was one of the survivors, and a friend. He asked me to return to Hill 488 with him, where he had lost close comrades—and perhaps a bit of himself.
Socialism and communism always promise a “workers’ paradise,” a “Utopia,” but invariably fail to produce. While the Vietnamese rarely wear “cone hats” and “black pajamas” anymore, instead preferring jeans and ball caps, the lives of the peasants have changed very little. Communist secret police still infiltrate all ranks of society, keeping watch and listening for subversive talk. No one will talk about it unless he knows you well, and then only in whispers.
My Vietnamese friend Vin told me of how another friend from the West sent him a book prohibited by the government. Agents opened the package at the post office, discovered the book, and threatened Vin with imprisonment if it happened again.
A black SUV parked down the rutted road from Hill 488 when Ray, a couple of other Marines and myself climbed back to the site of the Hill 488 battle. Secret police watched us from the moment we arrived. It was a bit unnerving, to be watched like that.
In the little hamlets that make up most of the towns, such as at Tam Ky, loudspeakers situated everywhere play The Communist Internationale each morning, followed by long harangues on the right way to live as a socialist citizen. Hammer-and-sickle flags fly on almost every corner. Government is ubiquitous in all aspects of life. There’s no escaping it.
It made me wonder at how far socialism has crept into the United States. Anyone who has seen state socialism, lived with it, will do almost anything to escape it—as the Vietnamese “boat people” refugees proved after 1975 when the Americans left the country and the communists took over.
The Return by Charles W. Sasser (now available on Kindle) is a novel of an American vet returning to Vietnam after the war searching for the truth of what happened to him.