Sunday, March 29, 2009
The Search for Barbara...March 29, 2009
We left Bastogne and headed back to Hue. Joe had reserved us a table at another restaurant that catered to mostly what they perceived as the western palate. It was very good, with a pineapple half hollowed out with a candle burning underneath, lighting the sculpted carrots and other accoutrement, making it look like a peacock, with a dozen skewered little spring rolls sticking out of its back. That was followed with some fish, shrimp, beef, rice, etc. There was a live traditional group playing a long zither, two different lutes, sticks for percussion, and tiny, teacup castanets. Two of the women would alternate standing and singing. It was very mesmerizing music, but the table of French loud speakers next to us made for a major distraction. I said shhhhhh, and pointed to the stage, but they ignored me.
The next place I wanted to revisit was a hill called Barbara, north of Hue, and inland where half of A battery and two guns from Birmingham spent Thanksgiving, 1971. Intelligence expected a major push from the North, and they wanted a forward presence to knock out some suspected ammunition caches. We loaded two guns on flat-bed trucks and our personnel on the open back of deuce-and-a-half ton trucks, picked up two guns and their crews at Birmingham, and headed east toward the river and Phu Bai. Through Camp Eagle and onto Highway One we rolled through Hue. Of course I did not know anything about the ancient capital, the beauty of the Perfume River, the Forbidden City, and had only barely heard of and remembered the Tet offensive of 1968, when Hue was a Full Metal Jacket war zone, with many American, VC, and civilian casualties. Not a clue. People lined the street and watched us roll through without any sign of resentment, protest, or anything. We were a presence that by that time was just there, and, if possible, ignored (at least by some of the population). Maybe about 20km north of Hue, we stopped at a base camp called Evans, on the west side of One. We spent the night drinking and sleeping in abandoned hootches and left early the next morning. Just a few more km north, we turned onto a dirt road and followed it on a winding course through some wooded, some planted countryside, until we came to a very big, high hill with a road leading up. On top was an abandoned, run down and rotting fire base with above ground bunkers, a terraced perimeter with many bunkers staggered around, and a tall look out tower at the top, above where we set up the FDC bunker. Climbing up into the tower I could look down at an ARVN battery of 105mm guns, laid out very neatly, with the place swept clean. Our side of Barbara, especially after a couple of days, was a garbage dump, muddy, and like I said, had not been occupied for some time. We ate C rations for two weeks, except for Thanksgiving when they flew out some turkey and dressing in the insulated, military food containers. We had missions every day and every night, and twice I heard the rolling thunder of B-52 strikes north of us.
Anyway, I was this close, had sent Joe maps of the area, and he had told me he could get me there, so that was on the agenda for Thursday. We drove up One and planned to take the van in as far as it would go and then get on the mountain bikes. The van went to the end of the dirt road, somewhat populated, and we had to ask somebody about the American hill. The man in the last house we could access invited us in to his two room concrete house, very sparsely furnished, with curtains separating the spaces. He was nodding and pointing in the direction the road would have gone, but he said it was washed out and never repaired years ago. There were other fire bases in the area, so I'm not sure if he was talking about Barbara or some other place. We headed back to One and turned north, looking for a road west. Roads entering One from the west were few and far between, but we finally found one (I think it was too far north) but we drove in for a couple of miles and got the bikes out. The road was typical one-lane, partially paved, with lots of kids coming and going. Fairly densely populated. I kept telling Joe to ask an old fart if they remembered. We finally found a tiny little house with a display of liquor and cigarettes in front, and some plastic tables, with a few men sitting around. One of the men was about my age, or a little older, and he said he had been an ARVN soldier and indeed there was an American installation up the road. We ate some soup with ramen noodles, and had a bottle of water. This was one of the diciest meals/places we had eaten. This guy kept saying something about McNamara and pointing up the road, but I thought he was saying Barbara and it sounded like McNamara.
We rode on up the road, climbing higher, through what looked like logging (small trees) country. The road was dirt and clay with many streams and run off creating deep, muddy bogs to ride through and hope you made it through without touching or falling down. It was mostly uphill and did not have the feel I remembered from 1971. After several km, we started seeing remnants of old asphalt which had been a road way up there in nowhere land. I don't recall any asphalt leading up to Barbara or on top, but I need to check with some guys who were there with me. I forgot to mention that two young guys from the place we ate came as guides, riding their motorbike. When we got to a place that felt like the top we hopped off the bikes to look around. There was lots of this asphalt, broken, grown-over, but the topography did not feel like the hill I remembered. We continued on a few km and the motorbike guys got off again and pointed up to another high point. We stopped and walked around. There were lots of long slit trenches, grown over bunker-like cavities, and we found an unexploded mortar round. I looked and looked and tried to imagine that area being what I remembered as the top of Barbara, but could not get the feel of it. Like Bastogne, it was totally grown over, so the shape was difficult to discern, and the asphalt meant that something had been there, but who knows what. John later said he had read something about McNamara's Eye, which was a network of listening devices set in the jungle to track movement. Back then I did talk to one person who was down on one of the perimeter bunkers who said his job was to place listening devices and then listen.
We walked around and finally hit the road back down. It was a fast ride down, a lot of fun. We loaded the bikes back into the van and headed back to One. A sign post as we hit One said Hue - 37km, and I think we were about 12-15km west, so I have something to compare to maps.