A Trip Back in Time to Vietnam

By J.T. “Birdie” Bertrand

It is 12:45 PDT, April 14, 2012, in Los Angeles. Korean Airline’s A380 has just started its takeoff roll and soon we will be airborne on our way to Seoul Korea, a 1 hour 20 minute stopover and a connection to a Korean Airlines B-737 flight, non-stop to Da Nang Vietnam. Total time from LAX to DAD, 18 hours and 45 minutes. That is today.

But a long time ago, I saw the WW II movie 12 O’Clock High. It begins with the actor Dean Jagger walking down the centerline of an old abandoned runway in the English countryside. Weeds were growing through the asphalt. It could have been Alconberry, Upper Heyford, Mindenhall or any number of WW II military airfields before the cold war took its tight grip of the western world. That movie made a lasting impression.

So now my wife Loretta and I are off, not knowing what to expect, heading for Vietnam. I had little desire to see a lot of touristy stuff so the trip I planned was for 5 days in Vietnam. I want to see those things in “I Corps” like Hoi An, PhuBai, and Hue that I was slightly familiar with. But primarily and most of all, to possibly walk down the abandoned airfield from my war, the Vietnam War. I want to walk some of that Chu Lai ground where VMA 311, VMA 225, and some weeks later VMA 214 lived. In due course other squadrons would come and call Chu Lai home.

I had arrived the first time in Chu Lai on June 14, 1965 via A4 Skyhawk from Cubi Point to land on 3500 feet of expeditionary runway made of M-2 Matting constructed by Navy Sea Bees. The landing was a Morest landing. Squadron aircraft arrivals were sequenced over a 14 day period starting on June 1, because the runway and ramp areas were a work in progress and couldn’t accommodate a full complement of squadron of aircraft. By 15 June all aircraft of my squadron, VMA 311, and VMA 225 were in place at Chu Lai.

In the beginning, the 3500 foot long runway, built on beach sand, was perhaps the pilot’s greatest enemy because of sub-surface stability. Arrested landings were the norm and JATO takeoffs were standard, day or night. And just when the Sea Bees got the runway built out to 8000 feet they would cut it in half again for complete subsurface repairs and then JATO departures and arrested landings started all over again. Like Dean Jagger in the movie wanted to remember and recall his experiences, I wanted to see what had become of that place called Chu Lai.

Vinh - Vietnam Tour GuideWe arrived in Da Nang at 2145 on April 15, 2012. When I walked out the door of the B-737, I was hit with a blast of hot air that could have been caused by the shock wave of a MK-28 detonation. Damned near knocked me down. Temperature 87 Deg F. and I was soon wringing wet. Welcome to Vietnam. Uniform guys – red stars on their caps were plentiful walking throughout the airport. We met Phan Van Vinh (our guide) and Nguyen Quang Minh (our driver). Vinh and Minh as we came to know them.

Minh - Tour Guide in VietnamThe drive to the hotel was through downtown Da Nang. Some high rise buildings scattered throughout the city, neon lights, some wide 4 lane streets, motor bikes zig zaging, some cars, a few buses and trucks, less than a handful of traffic lights, white and yellow lines painted on the paved streets, and traffic circles. Lots of heavy construction vehicles were parked on sidewalks and in the streets awaiting the dawn to start work. At 10:15 PM at night the city was slightly busy but going to sleep. About half way to the hotel I observed that the traffic signals and lines on the roads surely must be “advisory only” because no one in any vehicle seemed to be paying much attention to any of them. Some kind of haphazardly semi controlled traffic chaos was at work…. but vehicle size was definitely a determining factor. Da Nang has all the appearances of an evolving modern city.

Driving south on the 4 lane China Beach road by the Marble Mountain complex the former Marine Helicopter Base on the right and the South China Sea on the left. On the seaward side of the road, there are several Palm Springs or Caribbean style luxury hotels. Some had casinos some didn’t. And more hotels and condominiums were being built. The city has grown from a 1965 population estimated at between 100 to 150 thousand to over 850,000 souls today.

We arrived at the Sandy Beach Hotel and Resort which would be our home base for the 5 days we were in Vietnam. The hotel, located on China Beach, had 2 large swimming pools and over a quarter mile of beautiful beach front on its property. The grounds at the hotel are extensive and well kept.  I notice that there are 4 computers in the lobby for the guests that one could use to access the internet and pick up e-mail – for free. A Tiger beer was in order, and then to bed, The Tiger beer is much better than I remember. I love air conditioning!

Day 1 – April 16:

The first thing after breakfast was to exchange money. $10.00 = 208,000 Dong. I had a helluva time keeping track of all the zeros. I got a hundred dollars of Dong. I had money and stuffed in all of my pockets. Being a millionaire is easy in Vietnam. Loretta generally walked behind me picking up all the loot that randomly fell out of my pockets. One time I gave a baggage handler a 2000 Dong tip and he said “you gotta be joking.” I had to quickly re-calculate and re-evaluate!

Pickup by our guide and driver was at 0900 and soon we were on the road to Hoi An,  some 20 miles south of Da Nang. Leaving Da Nang, the China Beach road soon turned in to a traditional one lane each way road with seemingly thousands of motor bikes. It took 50 minutes to get to Hoi An. We drove by two Greg Norman golf courses and one Colin Mountgomery course (more on this later).

Hoi An is a much different place than Da Nang. Da Nang is on the move, money is flowing, and the modernization of the city is obvious. Hoi An on the other hand, and except for large numbers of motor bikes, is stuck in an ancient past, somewhere in the early 18th century. The paradox is that everyone old enough to talk has a cell phone and if one is over 15 years of age they have a motor bike. Cotton face masks cover each rider, probably to keep the bugs off one’s face and guard against pollution. I didn’t notice much pollution only haze.

The old town of Hoi An is actually a city within a city. They say that the inner city of Hoi An is a historical, cultural, and artistic center. I donated some Dong to a small museum we visited. Buildings are rarely more than 2-3 stories and all look like they are about to collapse. The city floods every year usually covering the first floor of every dwelling and building in the city. When the floods hit, the people just move up a story for a couple of days. The Japanese, as part of a trade agreement, volunteered to build a dam to control the waters of the Thu Bon River but the Vietnamese declined. Hard to Figure! Hoi An is an ancient sea port (over 500 years old) and during the USA Vietnam war it was part of a Viet Cong supply route. During that war some kind of “rules of engagement” agreement was made between the South Vietnamese Army, the Viet Cong, and the Americans to isolate the city of Hoi An from the war with the understanding that there would be no fighting within Hoi An. I don’t know of anyone who was ever actually in Hoi An during the war. And if there was such a person they would never have heard a shot fired. Today everyone seems to believe that the Viet Cong was the dominate force within and close to Hoi An in those days. Surely it was a traffic point for arms for the Viet Cong. No wonder we lost.

There are very few actual stores per se in Hoi An, only open markets that have everything from meats, fish, vegetables, clothes, etc, all in the stifling heat of the day. As we walked around the town it didn’t take long to be soaking wet. There are silk manufacturing shops that start with the basic silk worm and manual labor develops and manufactures silk products for sale in the open market. Their products are surely beautiful. It truly is an ancient town in every sense of the word. Although barely 20 miles apart, the contrast in physical modernity between Da Nang and Hoi An is truly remarkable. Because of time constraints, we did not get to see a more modern part of Hoi An located very near the beach where there are a couple of golf courses and more modern tourist facilities not unlike China Beach at Da Nang.

It is getting late in the day and so back to the hotel. We stop off at the The Colin Montgomery golf course and the two Greg Norman Courses which are close to the beach and only minutes from our hotel. There are 5 such courses in the area. I felt like I had just left the 18th century and stepped into a golfers fantasy land of 2012. The courses are world class and pristine in every sense of the word. They could be located anywhere in the US where there are palm trees. Hand cared manicure. Nice club houses. Pretty, young Vietnamese girls for caddies or golf carts…. take your pick. Real tough choices!

The Japanese and Koreans fly in on weekends and cram the courses on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. If you need golf clubs there are rentals, all new top line clubs. During the week there are very few players. You can play Monday through Thursday for $42 or about a million dong. Weekends the price is $75 or some incredible and equivalent amount of Dong with lots of zeros. We are back at the hotel at 1630 for a beer and dinner.

Day 2 – April 17

Breakfast was a combination of Vietnamese food, American food, and some strange stuff. We had some of each and it was all pretty good. I had to pick up some more Dong. I think I lost at least a half million out of my pockets in Hoi An.

Pickup is at 0900 and we are on our way to Route 1 and on to Chu Lai. The small town of An Tan is 85 km away and is adjacent to the Chu Lai Complex. It will take about 2.5 hours to get there. Our Guide tells us that Route 1 in this area, for the most part, has been completely rebuilt by raising the roadbed some 8-10 feet to preclude being flooded during the rainy season in some low laying areas. None the less, it is still a narrow two lane paved road. The paving is adequate but not in the best of shape. The traffic is impossible, buses, trucks and a plethora of motor bikes all competing for the road that is sometimes marked with center lines that in the end truly mean nothing in terms of rules of the road. It was good to have a driver. Rice fields on both sides of the road. We hardly saw any of the old “black pajamas.” Today they are multicolored but the hats were still typical and straw colored. Fashion and style, it seems, has taken over. If we were going to Saigon on this road with the traffic we are experiencing, I imagine that it would take two weeks to get there. So far, 30-40 km per hour is max. Train service to Saigon, on the other hand, takes a couple of days. Two check points were positioned along the way where we have to pay a fee to continue. I would not attempt to drive on my own in Vietnam without a cocktail or two to bolster my courage and a third to blur my vision so I couldn’t see what was really happening around me.

As we arrived in the small town of An Tan I looked at my watch … it said 1965 – and I don’t mean the time … I mean the year. Having only been in the town once 45 years ago it seems that little has changed. In 1965, when Mag 12 CO Col. John Noble found out that some of his Marines had been in the town, he restricted everyone from going there. I don’t know of anyone who ever went there again.

We are on our way now to a very large monument on a hill a bit northwest of the Chu Lai complex which is described as a memorial to the war. We were told that occasionally ceremonies are held here. Arriving at the monument, there are about 200 – 250 steps to climb to get to the base of the monument. It overlooks the entire Chu Lai complex and the view is excellent.

The obelisk style memorial is approximately 120 feet tall. One can see the “new” Chu Lai runway and a new airline terminal building. As we stood there, an Air Vietnam airplane had just landed. To the west of the monument about a half a mile away we are told there was a big battle at some point. Looking out in that direction – it looks like a jungle. Our guide said there is a rumor that several American airline companies are interested in development of a new joint aircraft overhaul and maintenance facility at Chu Lai. Having seen a fairly good portion of the area and population by now, it makes one wonder where they would get qualified workers to work on transport category airplanes…. and then most important, where would they find adequate housing for those technicians and families.

Climbing down the stairs we are soon on the way back to the north for about one half mile to a paved access road that will take us to what I remember as Chu Lai. To where, in 1965, the M-2 matted runway was located and that particular area that I want to see up close. But first, we turn right on another access road. The road is 4 lanes wide with a center lighted island and takes us to the new terminal building that sits in between the ends of the concrete runway.

I believe that an American construction company (Morrison Knudsen) built the runway. That runway was still in the planning and clearing stages while I was in Chu Lai. The terminal is a rather modern building with no jet-ways. Some concrete covered revetments and bunkers still exist at the north end of the airline and ramp.

Back to the primary access road and turn right toward the beach. At the end of the road, we turn right to the south and a couple of small buildings and a compound with a flag pole and a flag with a red star comes into view.

A Vietnamese Army area that evidently guards the entire old Chu Lai complex. I can’t figure out just what the Vietnamese Army is guarding. A 6-7 foot high brick and rock wall with broken glass imbedded on top is on the right and extends a couple of miles to the south. This particular road as I remember the terrain, is probably close to the same location where the dirt road that traversed through the living areas where the squadron members lived. We traveled south about 2-3 miles and made a right turn down a dirt road a quarter of a mile to where we could see to the north where the old M-2 runway was probably located. I’m guessing our actual position was real close to the old bomb dump and fuel farm area. There were some concrete revetments like those by the new airport terminal building. But other than that there was nothing there – not a trace, except for shacks and some workers doing “something” who paid us no attention.

I wasn’t satisfied with what I saw and we turned around headed back to the north to retrace where we had been. That damn wall obviously built to keep people out, was a barrier to where I really wanted to be. There were some holes in the wall and I had not come 8000 miles to be denied access to what I really wanted to see.  Inside the wall was a large extended sand dune that in my time at Chu Lai separated living areas from working areas and overlooked the old Chu Lai runway complex.

I told the guide and driver to stop at one of the breaks in the wall and told them I was going through to the top of the long extended sand dune to get my bearings and get a better look. The sand dune probably 25-35 feet higher than the road. With the Vietnamese Army outpost in mind, the guide said to me, “I going with you,” and said, “If we are caught, we would probably both end up in some kind of prison or I would be held and you would be put on an airplane in Da Nang for the USA..”

With that warning I told the guide, “I may look old but I can run faster than you think.” We then went through the opening. We did that four times, through 4 different holes in the wall. Loretta and the driver stayed in the van, chickens that they were. I suspect that some others who came there before us, who also wanted to see the other side of the dune, took a sledge hammer and beat a holes in the wall. Whoever they were … “you all did good work and thank you.” It saved me from buying a sledge hammer.

Once through the wall in several of our breaches I could make out what I believed to be some of the terrain where the living areas were located. But 45 years changes things. The Vietnamese had also rearranged some of the terrain and planted lots of those scrubby trees that occupy the beach area. The guide told me that the weather was not what it used to be and much of the trees and vegetation had died out and they were replanting in hopes that the trees would once again flourish.

On top of the dune one could approximate where the runway was once located, because the terrain expressed itself to the eye as a rather long flat line. But there really was nothing to see except sand. The old working spaces access road (dirt road) that ran the length of the runway was now visible slightly below and in front of us. It was partially paved, and blowing sand had covered up much of it. Throughout this process of climbing through the holes in the walls and trekking to the top of the dune I never saw anything that would lead anyone to believe that anything was ever there, let alone a runway and airport complex ….. it was all back to nature. On two of those occasions, I could see a guy walking in the distance out beyond where the runway used to be located. I don’t think he ever saw us.

The guide said that there was some mining going on in the area but I suspect something else but wasn’t sure just what. I think it was a contamination clean up. At any rate after climbing up, down and all over the dune several times, my shoes were full of sand, I was soaking wet, and could have been used as a mop.

On the South China Sea side of the dune the beach is still beautiful and inviting. There are two medium sized resort hotels and a museum. Except for those concrete revetments Chu Lai has been physically removed from the landscape. I would hope that some of what once was there has been remembered in the museum but unhappily I didn’t get to see it because it was closed. The two resorts were also closed because, according to the guide, it was “getting into the hot season.” Hell, my body told me that the hot season had already arrived. The sea breeze I remember was still softly blowing making the temperature milder and less humid.

Driving to the north end of the area where the Vietnamese Army post was located, another smaller hotel is located on the west side of the road. It was also closed. On the right side of the road (street) on the beach there were what I call two or three very different, primitive beach side restaurants. We stopped and our driver and guide had lunch. Loretta and I had two Tiger beers.

I was kind of dehydrated (that is my excuse and I’m sticking to it). It was Loretta’s first experience with Vietnamese natural rural bathroom. It was an apparent hole in the ground and the flushing mechanism was a small bucket that you filled with water and threw down the hole. She had a sheepish grin on her face when she returned and wondered if she did it right. I said “if you didn’t get any on yourself, you did just fine.” She also said, “it was real dark in there and I couldn’t see and I was afraid of falling in.” Falling in would not be good!

From the beach restaurant and looking back (7-9 miles) toward the south as the bay curves around to the point there were lots of very large buildings which our guide told us was an oil refining and industrial area.. After lunch, and continuing north we arrived into the Ky Ha area. From the cliffs at Ky Ha, one could barely see the island Cu Lao Re quite a distance off shore and looking back was Chu Lai.

I remember that during “Operation Starlight” one of our pre-flight intelligence briefers said that the island was a suspected VC stronghold and arms trafficking port. Our guide confirmed that intel. briefing some 45 years later. I also remember one time, flying very — very low over the island at real close to Warp 9 speed. The Ky Ha area, where the helicopters were based, is completely grown over although you can tell where land was flattened and the helo parking pads were once located. Continuing on the road around the small peninsula there was the small fishing village of Ky Ha.

Today, the little village and has some good sized cranes. Fishing boats occupy the small docks. It looks to be abandoned but the guide said the cranes worked and the fisherman were still active providing fish for the local population. No one would ever know that there were 4 to 5 thousand or more US Marines based or located at Chu Lai and Ky Ha.

It was time to leave. We were in the Chu Lai area for about 4 hours and I got to see most of what I came to see. I would have really liked to have walked out to where the runway was once located but our guide advised against it. Besides, I’m not sure of how far or how fast I could run in the heat of the day if I needed to make a quick getaway. In the end it was OK.

Our guide wanted to get back to Da Nang by 5:30 PM. The trip back was pretty much the same except we saw 2 accidents. I’m surprised there were only 2. In one case a tracked backhoe had slipped off the road and was upside down in a rice field. Five or six guys in red star clad uniforms were standing around scratching their heads as were lots of people in those typical straw hats. Luckily, we made it through the crash scene area with a minimum delay and arrived back at the hotel around 6:00 pm.

Continue reading part 2 >>