Return to Vietnam, April 20 โ€“ May 4, 2008

Scott Laidig
Scott Laidig

My overall impression is that the trip was enjoyable, but not for the reasons I anticipated.   I was part of a tour organized by Military Historical Tours (MHT.)  The tour was billed as a 2d Battalion, 4th Marines (2/4) 40th Anniversary Return to Vietnam.  There were 19 of us, including the tour director and two assistants.  Of the 19, nine of us actually served in 2/4 in Vietnam. 

The "hosts" for the trip were Brigadier General William Weise (USMC, Ret.) and Major General James E. Livingston (USMC, Ret.)  The focal point was the battle of Dai Do, which occurred April 30-May 3, 1968, about 3 miles northeast of Dong Ha.  The high point of the trip was actually walking the battlefield with the two generals, and five others who fought there.  Of the seven, four were wounded and evacuated during the fight.  General Livingston, then commanding Echo Company, earned a Medal of Honor and General Weise a Navy Cross while serving as the Battalion CO.  We actually got to walk the ground while the various participants described what happened, including where they were wounded.  One can only marvel at the bravery and ferocity with which the individual Marines fought and too often died, while also gaining great respect for the tenacity and stubbornness of the North Vietnamese Army.  That 2/4 overcame great odds (they were probably outnumbered at least 4 to 1 and attacked an enemy who occupied well fortified positions which commanded great fields of fire) probably meant the enemy was stymied from attacking the 3rd Marine Division headquarters and major logistics base at Dong Ha.  Such an attack against a weakly defended area (Dong Ha) would have seriously jeopardized the Marine activities in northern I Corps and would have been a significant propaganda victory for the communists.  Weise's battalion foiled that and sent the enemy's 320th Division back north of the DMZ to regroup and reform.

After the walkabout on the battlefield, we held a memorial service for those who never returned.  It was organized by George (Fritz) Warren, who at the time of the battle was 2/4's Operations Officer.  The simple ceremony reflected both grace and reverence and seemed to reveal the accomplished style with which Fritz does everything.  It is easy to understand why General Weise holds him in such high regard.  For me personally, the Memorial Service dissolved any remaining emotional ties I had to the past.  I felt unburdened when it ended.  We all will never forget the friends and comrades and fellow Marines who were not as fortunate as we were to return to the great country we are privileged to call home.   Without realizing that it would even occur, the Memorial Service that Fritz organized and led made the trip really special for me.

Nearby to where the Memorial Service was held, another event is forever etched in my mind.  There is a Vietnamese kindergarten in Dai Do, and the children (who knew we were coming) serenaded us with "Hello Marines" as we arrived.  Children everywhere are cute, but these Vietnamese children were really adorable.  All were sparkling clean, cheerful and enthusiastic to meet and greet us.  Their schoolhouse is one large room but it seemed stocked with things for them to use learning and playing.  Perhaps some of that resulted from the generosity of General Livingston, who sends the school a donation annually, or from previous MHT groups who have passed by.  Our group passed the hat and it resulted in a significant contribution for the kids and the school.  Of interest, the head of the local Viet Cong cadre that operated in and about Dai Do, a Mr. Ahn, has become a friend of Generals Weise and Livingston and he remains an obviously important figure in the local community – including at the kindergarten.  We were honored to have him at the Memorial Service as well.

The rest of the trip was of less interest for me.  We visited places that will live forever in Marine lore, places named Chu Lai, Liberty Bridge, Marble Mountain, Hill 327, Phu Bai, Hue City, Quang Tri, Dong Ha, Con Tien, Camp Carroll, Khe Sanh, Gio Linh, the Washout and the Marketplace, and the Rockpile.  Nowhere was it evident that great battles had ever been fought there.  In Hue, you can easily imagine what happened there, though I doubt any of us who were fortunate to miss that battle could ever imagine the deprivations and horror experienced by our brother Marines.  Almost everywhere the local vegetation has reclaimed the land, although in some cases coffee (Khe Sanh) or rubber (Con Tien) plantations are current attractions.  It is no doubt better that places important during the war years for us Marines are now significant for the local economy.  Other than those who fought at Dai Do, few of us could remember any specific locales, Marble Mountain or the Hai Van Pass being the exceptions.  So if returning to specific place is a high priority for future visitors, such visitors are likely to be disappointed. 

For those who are shoppers, Marble Mountain (for marble, of course,) Hoi An, Da Nang, Hue and Hanoi provide ample opportunities, and great bargains.

Vietnam is growing by leaps and bounds.  Korea, Taiwan, Japan, France, Australia and the United States seem to be investing heavily there.  The beaches (which are largely unused by the local population, since they think suntans are unattractive) will be the sites of huge hotel complexes for which construction is either underway or in the late stages of planning.  The area near Chu Lai is the scene of tremendously large truck, car and motorcycle assembly plants.  We met in Da Nang a group of Americans who are building a textile factory using the latest US technology.  Their plant will produce 120 meters of material a minute!  Change is coming fast and furiously to Vietnam.  The population has exploded and now numbers 85 million, most are under 35 (and have no memory of the war.)   Everyone we met seemed to like Americans.  Besides urban sprawl, village sprawl seems to have occurred – no where was the distance between villages as much as I remembered it to be.

We observed how manpower intensive rice farming is there, but we also saw a few "machines" that were speeding the harvest and dramatically reducing the numbers of people (usually women) involved.  The leap to machines and technology in the fields is inevitable, but not without challenges for the Vietnamese.  The American textile people mentioned that they have no issue hiring good information technology people and electricians, but plumbers and skilled construction laborers are in short supply.  Anyone displaced in the rice field by a machine will have a tremendously difficult time learning the skills needed to work in other areas.

I saw no communists while in Vietnam – except for perhaps Mr. Ahn.  We did see the last statue of Victor Lenin in Hanoi, and we know the communists still rule with an iron hand.  How is that you might ask?  Well, people are not permitted to travel outside their home province except by obtaining travel permits, which identify the reason for the trip and the people with whom they will be in contact.  And no one wants to receive mail directly from friends in the United States.  It raises too many questions locally.  But the impression that we all had is that capitalism will be in the inevitable economic form for these happy, vibrant and extremely friendly people.  While we did not visit Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) it is the land of $28 breakfasts and $200+ hotels.  Like Shanghai and Hong Kong, there is no way to suppress the entrepreneurial spirit of the local Saigon residents, no matter how hard the local communists might try (and there is little evidence they are trying very hard.)  Perhaps the most ironic thing I witnessed during the trip happened in Hanoi.  The Vietnamese Army has a large museum to the war, one that honors Jane Fonda and Angela Davis.  In the gift shop of the Museum, the only price tags visible are denoted in US$.   Prices in the national currency, the Dong, were nowhere to been seen. 

While the social and economic trends are mostly positive and encouraging, still there are major issues for the Vietnamese to overcome.  Perhaps the most important is sanitation and cleanliness.  I have always thought Brazil was the dirtiest country I had ever visited; Vietnam is far worse.  Litter and garbage are everywhere.  Even our local tour guide, an otherwise clean and educated individual, thought nothing about simply throwing litter on the side of the road.  And while sanitation in the hotels is nearly to western standards, (all but the pickiest people would have no trouble travelling from hotel to hotel,) certainly in the countryside a much more problematic situation exists.  Open sewers are the order of the day, and even "outhouses" appear nonexistent.  Certainly the water cannot be drunk, and eating vegetables rinsed in water but not well cooked is highly problematic.   Consequently, I think that before Vietnam becomes a major tourist destination, lots of work is required.  

We twice met with the US Ambassador to Vietnam, Michael Michalak.  The first time was the day of our arrival in Hanoi, where the Ambassador kindly joined us at the Marine House, where the six Marines assigned to the Embassy reside.  What an impressive group those young men are!  The Ambassador made brief remarks and we were privileged that he took time to meet with us.  Of interest, an imposing picture of General Livingston and his Medal of Honor Citation graces the Marine House's entry way.  Then, on our last day the Ambassador joined us again for lunch at a local restaurant.  He is a down-to-earth, friendly and obviously very talented fellow.

Also in Hanoi, the group was given a briefing by the Marine Corps Major in charge of the Joint Task Force – Full Accounting office in Hanoi.  He discussed the means and methods used to try to account for all MIA's from the war. 

On the tour's last day in Hue, five current members of BLT 2/4 joined the group.  They were led by the Bn XO, Major Scott Gehris.  Others included the S-2, Captain Ryan Welkam, the Mobile Assault Company CO, Captain Johnathan Smith, the 81 Mortar Platoon Commander, 1st Lt Hunt, the Echo Company Gunny, Gunnery Sergeant Jon Tehan.  Again, what an impressive group of Marines they are.  They had many of us thinking that we were lucky to have become Marines when we did, because now the standards might be too high for us!  The active duty Marines were going to tour the Dai Do battlefield with General Weise and Ed Garr, after visiting the scenes of the Hue City battles.  They will rejoin BLT 2/4 in Thailand.  Later in the summer, another group from 2/4 will join General Weise and Ed Garr to visit the battlefields.  One did not need to be a keen observer to see the energy flowing into General Weise when the active duty Marines joined us.  We all felt rejuvenated, though General Livingston was ready to take them for a run to determine if they really were in great shape, or whether they just looked like they were all fitness ambassadors.

As for MHT, I cannot say enough good things about Ed Garr, our tour director, and his assistants Bob Perry and Tom Kilduff.  All are Marines, and both Ed and Tom served in 2/4, Tom during the battle at Dai Do.  Ed and my time overlapped, though he had such an important position (Operations Chief) that he failed to notice a new brown bar.  Ed has made 55 trips to Vietnam and he knows everything there is to know about getting along in the country, and he knows much of the unit histories at each location.  Bob and Tom provided additional attention at times when some of us needed it, and we all felt fortunate to have them with us.  I have often said that I would have traded places with almost anyone in Vietnam except helo pilots; well, after learning what Bob's assignment at Chu Lai was I can only say, "thanks Bob, for doing what you did."  Getting to know Bob just a little, it was plain to see why he, as a 19-year-old, was given such a thankless assignment – graves registration.  He is a classy, classy guy.  Tom recovered from extremely serious wounds (inflicted after Dai Do) to become an important clog in the MHT team.  His sense of humor, willingness to tackle any job, no matter how demanding, and his eagerness to assist anyone in need make him special.   And of course Tom provided the perspective of a Marine rifleman, the most important ingredient in any Marine Corps unit.

Everyone on the tour contributed to our experience.  The Marines who were not part of 2/4 offered diverse and unusual points of view.  Tony Mustapich had a unique perspective as an artillery officer turned logistician who made the initial landings at Chu Lai.  Tony's efforts as a 1st Lt and then young captain were soon taken over by colonels and lieutenant colonels – but Tony started them.  Tony's son Todd, himself a Marine artilleryman, added wit and good humor (and lots of energy) to the trip.   Bob Spence served at the northern and eastern most Marine strongpoint in I Corps – an Amtrac position called Oceanview, about one mile south of the DMZ.  Bob was an Amtrac platoon commander and then company commander in the late stages of the Marine actions, 1968 and 1969, and his stories, when we could get him to talk, added interesting information about Marine Corps activities along the Cua Viet River and the Dong Ha logistics base.  Bill Griffith is a wounded survivor of the Khe Sanh siege and his knowledgeable contributions added a valuable perspective to that battle.   Danny James is a Korea/Vietnam Marine and a consummate gentleman.  It is easy to see why he is the President of his local Rotary Club.  Danny had the unique experience on the trip of meeting the Viet Cong with whom his platoon exchanged grenades and gunfire the night he was wounded in 1965.  There were enough details of the firefight that the local man knew to convince Danny that he was there.  Keith Olsen was a grunt wounded in the Da Nang area; Keith's ever-present good humor and his Minnesota-Norwegian accent contributed to our understanding of the infantryman's attitudes during the war.  Keith could lift a building, but traveled light; and when he spoke he usually had something interesting to say.

Fritz Warren was lucky enough to have his son, Joe, and grandson, Vincent, join us for most the trip.  Joe was a Marine officer in the 80's.  He and Vincent are real internationalists.  Except for college and his time as a Marine, Joe has spent his life in Asia – Indonesia and now China.  Young Vincent has never lived in the US (it seems) and attends an international school in China.  Vincent was made the tour's honorary "Gunny" while Joe regaled us with song and good humor – both added lots to the trip.  And when General Weise commanded that we sing all three verses of the Marine Corps Hymn each morning on the bus (and sometimes other places,) it was the Warrens who led the chorus. 

Carol Ann Olsen was never formally a Marine, but growing up as General Weise's daughter she probably has more time near and around Marines than most of us.  Carol's presence added civility and perspective to what might have otherwise degenerated into never-ending war stories.  And Carol did everything the group did, including enduring the issues related to living in the countryside.  Her smile and easy manner added immensely to our group. 

Of the former members of 2/4, Ed Garr was the first to join the battalion, having served as Hotel Company Gunny and then becoming the Operations Chief in 1965, when the legendary persona that was Joseph "Bull" Fisher was CO.  Ed participated in Operation Starlite (he was with Bull Fisher the entire battle) and he told a funny story about General Westmoreland visiting 2/4 shortly after the landings.  Indeed, Ed is full of stories and I even think most of them are accurate!   James Goodwin was the next to join.  James was a grunt who was turned into a cook after arriving in Vietnam.  He told a poignant story about eating breakfast with the Hotel Company gunny before they left for Starlite, where the gunny was killed.  I then was next to join, arriving in January, 1966, when I became a platoon leader in Hotel Company, and later served as Acting CO of Golf Company, Battalion S-2, and finally Fox Company XO before departing in February, 1967, having participated in a string of operations including Texas, Hastings and Prairie.

But it was the men who served with 2/4 during Dai Do who had the most vivid memories.  Mike Frey was an infantryman in Golf Company and later extended to serve in a Combined Action Platoon.  Unfortunately, Mike's participation during the tour was cut short by the effects of his diabetes and an accident when he broke his ankle in Dong Ha.  Mike is living proof of the value of travel insurance.   Steven Wilson was a platoon radio operator at Dai Do, specifically David Jones' (Echo 3) radio operator.  Most lieutenants and their radio operators establish a close bond, and the Jones-Wilson duo is perhaps the penultimate example.  Both were wounded during the savage assault on Dai Do, and Steve's heartrending story about that experience provided an emotional rollercoaster for all.  Dave Jones, whom General Livingston temporarily promoted to brevet captain during the tour, is an obviously competent man who surely was a fine combat leader - as Steve and General Livingston both attested.  

But, as I have mentioned, it was our privilege to walk the battlefield not only with those mentioned above, but also with the Battalion Commander, the S-3 and the Echo Company Commander.  I have had the opportunity to walk several Civil War battlefields, but never with actual participants (even though my grandchildren think I am old enough to have been one.)   Listening to General Weise go through his thoughts and movements, to hear General Livingston discuss what Echo did and why, and to hear Fritz Warren's reliving his frantic calls to 3rd Marines for assistance, cannot be duplicated in a book or article about the battle.   Perhaps the most repeated praise from all the leaders came when discussing their respect for the individual Marine infantryman – of whom much was asked and from whom much more was given.  For me, going to Vietnam just as a tourist would not have been justified; having the privilege of accompanying these heroes - from the bewildered LCPL Kilduff to the aggressive Lieutenant Colonel Weise - made the trip much more than worth the time and effort.  The group held a Memorial Service for all those who did not survive the war. The service was held on the ground at the scene of the Battle of Dai Do. Maj. Gen. James Livingston, on right, earned a Medal of Honor for his actions as a company commander (captain) during the battle. Mr. Ahn, on the left, commanded the local Viet Cong unit that supported the North Vietnamese Army in and around Dai Do during the time of the battle. Mr. Ahn still lives in the area, and is a respected leader of the community.