Friday, March 27, 2009
Hue and Bastogne...March 27, 2009
It has been a busy three days and I need to catch up.
The train rolled into Hue about 11:00am on Wednesday. Joe had a driver waiting to pick us up and take us to the hotel for a quick check-in before lunch. The hotel is the Park View, about two blocks from the Perfume River. From the cafe/bar on the ninth floor, I can see the river, the forbidden city on the other side, the famous Eiffel bridge built in 1890 (now used just for motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians),and a more modern bridge for cars. The Eiffel bridge changes colors span by span continuously every night for a very nice light show. The Park View is luxurious, four star, with a great buffet breakfast with all the exotic fruit, cereals, french style pastries, Vietnamese style rice and noodle dishes, and standard fried eggs, bacon, crepes, etc., if one is so inclined. Everyone here but us and the staff is French. Hue was the capital of the Nguyen dynasty beginning in 1802, and the French made it the provincial capital when they colonized Vietnam in the mid-19th century. So, there is a lot of French influence here, and therefore, a lot of French tourists. There are just under one million people here, so about one-fifth of the motorbikes, and there are stoplights that people pay attention to, so it is a much more relaxed environment.
The Road to Bastogne
I came here for several reasons, but one of the main goals was to visit a hill called Bastogne where I lived in an underground bunker for about five months back in 1971-72. Bastogne is west of a town called Phu Bai, which is just a few miles south of Hue. Back then, Phu Bai was on the east side of Highway One, the main North-South artery from Saigon to Hanoi. On the west side of the highway was a huge sprawling base camp called Eagle. The few times I was at Camp Eagle, to get back to Bastogne, we would exit the back side (riding in the back of a deuce-and-a-half), and follow a winding dirt road to a large river. The river had a pontoon bridge which we would drive across, while local people poled shallow boats up and down, fished, and washed clothes in the river water. On the other side we would pass through a Montagnard village, local, ethnic people who lived in thatched huts and had a water buffalo or two, some rice fields on the south side of the road, and not much else. We would see these women carrying baskets of firewood on their backs. I remember a stone fence that looked very old on the south side of the road and always wondered if there were some kind of monastery back there. A few km west of the village on the north side of the road was a hill called Birmingham, where B Battery was stationed. Ten or twelve km beyond Birmingham, also on the north side of the road was Bastogne. Like I said, we lived underground. The top of the hill had been bulldozed, and holes big enough for bunkers to hold about 16 men had been cut and lined with timber and plywood. On top, from about calf height, there were sandbags stacked to about waist height. The entrance was a half round of metal culvert material. There were four of these crew bunkers, FDC (where we figured the shoot data and had radios to talk to HQ, forward observers, and the gunners), the command post, the XO post, and a mess hall, all underground. Twenty yards or so from each crew bunker was the gun pit where the 175mm cannon sat, with an above ground powder bunker and an above ground shell bunker. On the north side of the hill, out several meters, was a chopper pad, covered with asphalt. That was our side of Bastogne. The other hump of the saddle belonged to an ARVN 155mm unit, but we never communicated. All of Bastogne was barren, no green, all red clay mud.
So, I don't know what I expected to find. I thought we could sort of find where Eagle had been, find an old dirt road and follow it out. We drove to Phu Bai which now sprawled on both sides of the highway, with a large Vietnamese army base on the west side in many concrete buildings that looked like they might have dated to the French period. I had never been to the south side of Eagle, so I thought it was possible that those buildings might have been there. My old map of the region showing the locations of fire bases and base camps showed that the road we followed to Bastogne was number 7. Road 7 was now a double laned concrete road headed west past the Vietnamese army camp and just did not look right, so we went back to Phu Bai to look for someone who might have some recollection of Camp Eagle. We stopped in a little store and drank tea while Joe talked to the owner, a fifty year old woman who said her sister used to work at Camp Eagle. Her daughter jumped on a motorbike and came back in a few minutes with her English speaking aunt who seemed glad to see me. She said this whole part of town used to be Eagle, and if I knew Colonel something back in the states to please have him get in touch with her. She did not really know where Bastogne was, but was helpful in confirming that indeed we were sitting in what used to be a small town of plywood and screen buildings, mud, jeeps, trucks, all kinds of soldiers, and Vietnamese helpers.
We got back into the van and headed back to road 7 and kept following it. It was pretty well developed, with lots of houses along the road. We came to the River, but the pontoon bridge was a huge, modern, concrete span. The other side had no thatch village, just typical houses, lots of concrete walls, wooden doors, lots of kids and motorbikes. There were a few animals, but not like the areas we had been bicycling through. The land was much hillier than I remembered, and much more wooded. But the trees were not old, mostly 10-15 years, and all along the road there were piles and piles of logs of the skinny trees bundled up for transport somewhere. I did see an old stone fence on the south side of the road that looked like the one I used to see. Joe had a GPS and a laptop with the old military map I had sent him, so when we came up to a wooded, bushy hill on the right side, I said, "That looks like Birmingham." He checked his GPS and said he thought I was right. We kept going, farther than I recalled, still past very wooded country, but with lots of people living along the road.
Finally, we approached a hill on the right side of the road that had the shape of Bastogne, but it was so wooded and bushy that I could not be sure. We stopped at a house just at the base to ask. A man my age came out with Joe, and even though I could not understand what they were saying, the man was nodding and pointing at the hill. Joe said this guy had been a local ethnic villager who had joined the NVA during the war. He escorted us up what was now at least a partially paved driveway, where there were a couple of small houses. I could see a couple of women farther up cutting plants. We turned up the hill and found remnants of truck tracks in the bushes. It was totally covered with thigh high weeds everywhere, and the skinny trees in clusters in various areas. The man pointed out cavities in the earth which could have been bomb craters. After we left in '72, the NVA attacked the ARVN and took over the hill, but were bombed heavily by US air forces, so a lot of the holes were due to that. Given the shape and the complete overgrowth, I could not be sure if this was Bastogne. We worked our way to where the chopper pad should have been, and found an asphalt covered mound which was exactly where it should have been. I knew this was it, and standing on the chopper pad and looking back at the hill I tried imagining where the bunkers should have been. John got a picture of me with the NVA soldier standing there like long lost buddies. The other guys wandered back up and I tried to locate some bunker cavities. I found what would have been the bunker for the crew of gun 4, and poked around a little. Then, as they kept going, I fell into a pit up to my neck, and quite large, in the area where either gun 1's crew bunker or the mess hall was. These holes were not visible at all due to weeds growing up from the bottom and all around the edges. We found some remnants of sandbag material, but nothing else. The guy said that after the war everyone was so poor that they would come up to these places and scrounge every ounce of scrap metal they could find. I know there was a lot, metal canisters that had held powder lined the perimeter of the hill when I was there. I would have liked to stay, but it was getting late and I could have easily fallen into something and broken my leg or my neck. So, we headed back down, thanked the NVA veteran, gave him 100K Dong (about 5 dollars), and headed back to Hue.
I know none of the pictures would mean anything to any of the guys who were there, because it does not look anything like it did back then. Nature has a way of healing scars. I'm afraid a local villager or a farm animal is going to fall into one of those holes and hurt themselves. I fantasized about getting a crew of guys with gasoline powered weed whackers and going back and locating each bunker cavity, cleaning the weeds up, spend a few hours remembering the teeming activity and the gut-wrenching explosions when we fired the guns. Luckily for us, while I was there, it was all out-going, and I don't think we were doing much damage to the NVA or VC. They knew the range (15 or so miles) and stayed far enough away, most of the time. Then we could fill in the holes somehow, making it a safe place for goats, or cows, or water buffalo.