A C-130 Pilot Revisits Vietnam Thirty-Six Years After the War

I first saw Vietnam in the spring of 1967, when I was assigned as a C-130 pilot in Southeast Asia. Although I was assigned to a tactical airlift unit based in Taiwan, I spent most of my flying time “on the shuttle” in South Vietnam, flying from one airfield to another, from the delta in the south to the hill country in the west to the coastal areas to the east and north (up to but not past the 17th parallel). I spent approximately eight of my fifteen months in Southeast Asia flying through the skies of Vietnam into thirty-plus fields of varying sizes, from large to small. It was a challenging experience, trying to fly the C-130 cargo aircraft safely into and out of long and short fields surrounded by hills, tall trees, valleys, and often members of the Vietcong or North Vietnamese army trying to shoot holes in the aircraft. I learned to know the military airfields quite well while I was there, and there were few runways or taxiways I did not know intimately. But I seldom ventured off these military installations and never really got to know what Vietnam itself was like.

Thirty-six years after I left Southeast Asia, my wife and I traveled to Vietnam. For her, whom I married well after my return from Vietnam, it was a little-known country about which she knew little. I remembered the country as a sequence of beautiful land- and sea-scape scenes which concealed people in grey or black clothing determined to cause harm to as many Americans as possible. In my mind it was a collection of large and small airfields, each with its own challenges and hazards. On my return visit I was determined to see what Vietnam was like outside the confines of the airfields I had known so well so many years before. I was looking forward to seeing a peacetime Vietnam, even if it was unified under a non-democratic government. I was hoping to see a few of the airfields into which I had flown, and I was not sure what my reaction would be.

The first city we visited was Saigon. I have some reluctance in calling it by its new official title, Ho Chi Minh City; the name was changed after the North Vietnamese successfully invaded the south in 1975. The international identifying letters for the airport—SGN (for Saigon)—remain the same, prominently featured on our baggage stickers. We arrived late in the evening on the 26th of January, 2004, just as the Tet (Chinese New Year) celebration was winding down. This year’s Tet festivities brought in the year of the monkey. I thought it was more than a little coincidental that the last Tet celebration I had seen in Vietnam also brought in the year of the monkey, though the festivities that year (1968) were more violent and hazardous to one’s health than those we witnessed during our visit.

We arrived on Thai Airways via Bangkok (a city also much changed during the intervening thirty-six years, but that’s a separate story), arriving about eight o’clock at night. Even before we landed, I noticed two major differences: a much larger illuminated city area than I remembered flying over at night, and a total lack of tracer fire and descending flares between the airport and the Cambodian border, about 30 miles to the west. I knew that all that activity had stopped over thirty years before, but that was what I saw every time I flew into Tan Son Nhut (the old name of the Saigon airport) at night over a period of one year. One other aspect of the earlier days I recalled well: the tenseness in my gut the closer we got to touchdown. That sensation was gone this time.

When I flew my C-130 into Tan Son Nhut in 1967 and 1968, it was one of the busiest airports in the world. The aircraft controllers talked on the tower frequency non-stop, directing arriving and departing aircraft. Whenever I approached Tan Son Nhut in my C-130, I would wedge my way into the arrival landing pattern and continue my approach, hoping that the tower operators would not object. If they did, I would break out of traffic and re-enter again without complaint.

However, when we arrived there wasn’t a lot of air traffic coming into or departing from the airport at Tan Son Nhut/Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, and the airport building was rather small, especially compared to airports serving capitols of other Asian countries (it was about 1/100th as busy as the Bangkok airport). I was surprised to see that a “follow-me” vehicle was leading our aircraft into its parking spot at the airport terminal building. At first I thought this was due to construction on the taxiways or ramp, and the difficulties of seeing in the darkness, but when I saw the same phenomenon on other Vietnam airfields I decided it might be due to concerns about security (as if a Thai Airways jet would taxi inadvertently into the military area of an airport), or to demonstrate governmental control, or to provide jobs for more people. As we taxied up to the terminal building in the darkness, I could see the cargo ramp off to the right (south) of the terminal, where I used to bring my C-130 in the old days to drop off or pick up a load of cargo-packed pallets. The concrete-reinforced alert hangars were still standing west of the cargo area and the large hangar where the Airlift Command Element (ALCE) was located was still there to the east of loading area, although many other buildings had disappeared.

Once we entered the airport building, the first hurdle was the customs desk. I have to admit that I was put off at first by the green military uniforms worn by the customs officials, especially the green high pointed “wheel caps” with the red bands the visa men were wearing, and the flags showing a large yellow star against a red background. But after I paid for the visas, the visa man smiled and welcomed us to Vietnam.

Once through the baggage carousel area, we were relieved to see a smiling Vietnamese man holding a sign with our name on it. He and the driver promptly loaded our bags in the car and off we went to downtown Saigon. The last time I had driven into Saigon from Tan Son Nhut I rode in an uncomfortable blue air force bus with wire mesh covering the open windows (to prevent grenades from being tossed in). This time, we rode in an air-conditioned car with a guide.

When we arrived in the downtown area I was surprised and pleased to see how well the streets were illuminated, especially around the more international area between the Rex and Continental hotels and the Saigon River. The main street in the area, formerly known as Tu Do Street, now renamed Dong Khoi (“Uprising”) street, was full of pedestrians, locals and visitors alike, all shopping or partying under the New Year’s banners and brightly-lit storefronts. On every street we saw bright red banners with yellow lettering that said “Chuc Mung Nam Moi” (“Happy New Year”). Along Dong Khoi street, as we approached our hotel, we could see long strings of white lights hanging down from the tree branches for several blocks along the road.

The next morning we headed west for our first tour of the trip—a tour of the tunnel system at Cu Chi, about an hour’s drive out of Saigon and halfway to the Cambodian border. On the road to Cu Chi I told our guide we were interested to know what he (and other Vietnamese) thought of Americans—were we viewed with hostility? Disdain? Curiosity? Our guide said the Vietnamese welcomed Americans; they were happy to see us in their country. The Vietnamese, he said, didn’t think about the past—only the future. At first I thought he might be saying this to make sure we felt comfortable spending the day with him. But we found this attitude to be prevalent throughout Vietnam (or that part of it we visited). When I told him that I had been a pilot and had flown into most of the airfields in the southern half of Vietnam, he expressed the idea that I had seen quite a bit of Vietnam. “Yes, but from the air,” I said. “Not on the ground.” When I told him that I had landed at Khe Sanh in January and February of 1968, he told me that his father had been a soldier in the South Vietnamese army and had been injured fighting there. After the war his father had been sent to a re-education camp and had been denied the opportunity to work, so his son was helping to support him. I told him to greet his father for me and to give him my best wishes.

When I was in Vietnam in 1967-8, we knew that a tunnel system existed in the Cu Chi area, but we (or at least I) had no idea that it was so extensive. Apparently it was begun in World War II, when the Vietnamese realized the benefits of having an access/escape route to/from the Saigon area. The tunnel system was developed further during the period of the French occupation in the early 1950s, and it was developed even more completely during the American war. We Americans never fully appreciated the extent of the tunnel system, even though its presence was known and at least one GI accidentally fell into it.

Our guide gave directions to the driver, who drove down a maze of two-lane roads, and we eventually found ourselves driving though a series of rubber tree groves, which I remembered flying over (and landing on short strips cut through the rubber trees) many years earlier. After purchasing the tickets, our guide led us across the road and up a path into the trees. Soon we came to a covered display area, where we saw a map of the area as well as a miniature cross-section of the tunnel complex. The map showed the extent of the tunnel system (which ran from Cu Chi nearly to the Cambodian border) and the cross-section diagrams showed the typical levels and interconnections of the tunnel system. Accompanied by a man dressed in a green uniform wearing a green tropical helmet, who turned out to be a soldier in the Vietnam army, we proceeded to a location in the middle of a small group of trees, where the soldier reached down and removed a small dirt-covered door from the surface of the ground exposing a small hole into which he promptly lowered himself. He also pointed out well-concealed air holes (for breathing underground) near the base of the trees.

A little further along, the soldier showed us some sample booby-traps, consisting primarily of pivoting doors in the ground that tilted quickly to reveal long sharp spikes sticking up from a large pit beneath. My wife did not find this exhibit to be especially entertaining. (I thought of what a load of bursting napalm might be like and said nothing.) Nor did she care much for the next exhibit, presented under a covered roof, which was an extensive display of similar home-made booby-trap devices, simple but effective.

The next display was less immediately frightening but disturbed me more than the booby-traps. This was the remnant of an American M-48 tank, long disabled and left to decay in the heat and rain. It apparently hit a mine in the Spring of 1973; the track on the right side had come off and the structure of the tank had been severely damaged. I tried not to think how unpleasant it must have been for the men who had been inside. When the accident occurred, the countryside must have been open country, but now it was surrounded by the trees that had grown up in the intervening thirty years. The tank’s cannon drooped dispiritingly. Vietnamese tourists liked to climb on the tank to have their pictures taken.

Finally we came to the central display of the site—real tunnels that the eager tourist could climb down into. These have been very much modernized and made tourist-friendly, as shown by the fact that I was able to make my way through them—though at a very much slower rate than my younger and smaller soldier guide. After attempting to duck-walk through the first few meters, I quickly gave this up as a bad idea and settled for crawling on my hands and knees. The tunnels were not really dark, as there were small colored spotlights placed at key locations. But I was happy when the sample tunnel came to an end, probably not more than 100 meters from where it began. We next visited replicas of a command post and a hospital (both dug into the ground but open to the air with a roof overhead to make it easy for visitors to enter).

The next day, after another quick session of shopping in the local shops, we were taken to the Saigon airport for the short flight to Nha Trang. As we took off to the southeast, I could see the remnants of the old Tan Son Nhut military compound to the left. Although some of the buildings appeared to be used, most appeared to be standing empty and neglected. I had always thought of that military compound as large and spread out, covering many acres. From the perspective of our departing aircraft, however, it was small and confined, rather like a decaying jungle prison. When I checked the map in the Vietnam Airlines magazine, I was not surprised to see that some of the larger airfields I had flown into were still being used by the Vietnamese for commercial passenger service. These included Vung Tau and Qui Nhon on the coast, and Pleiku, Dalat, and Ban Me Thuot in the central highlands.

The one hour flight to Nha Trang took us over the hill country of Dalat, where I had often landed to pick up pallets of vegetables destined for army and air force dining halls in the Saigon area. I remembered that not far from Dalat was the small community of Bao Loc, which had featured a short humped runway that caused me much anxiety both landing and taking off. However, the cloud layers preventing seeing much on the ground in this area as we flew over. When we descended for our approach into Nha Trang, however, the clouds gave way and we could easily see the coastline and surrounding hills. The pilot let down to the east, heading momentarily towards the northern end of Cam Ranh Bay, and as the aircraft banked left I could briefly see the tip of the peninsula in the hazy distance. Cam Ranh Bay, where I often landed to refuel and pick up a load of cargo-filled pallets, is now part of the Vietnamese military establishment and visitors are not allowed into the area.

We continued our descending left turn and I could see the north-south coastline well-defined below us, with the waves breaking on the long sandy beach. As we turned to the final approach landing to the west I could briefly see out our passenger window the view that I had so often admired when landing there many years before: the high hills close on the left side, the wide river valley stretching ahead, the town of Nha Trang to the right, and the giant white Buddha sitting on a hilltop just west of the town. I had seen the Buddha every time I flew into Nha Trang. In fact, I usually used it as a check point to position myself on downwind when landing to the east at Nha Trang: if I could see it just off to my right when heading west, I knew I was in a good position when I turned left to land at the field. I always found it a comforting visual check point.

Our hotel was located on the beach not far from the approach end of the runway on which we had just landed. I was amused to see that it was situated at the point on the beach where American soldiers and airmen used to go swimming during our off-days at Nha Trang. The last time I had visited that location, there were American helicopters overhead cruising the beach looking for American nurses sunbathing.

Two days later, we boarded the aircraft that would take us to Da Nang. Once again we were flying a twin-engine Fokker turboprop. As we taxied out to take off from the west end of the runway, we moved past at least twenty MiG jet fighter aircraft and two large helicopters, also of Soviet design, sitting behind revetments along the north edge of the airfield. Even an inexperienced eye could see that these aircraft had not been used in a long time. There was very little being done to prevent the corrosion caused by the Vietnamese warmth and high humidity, and it was a sure bet that none of these aircraft would ever fly again.

We took off to the east, over the bay, and turned north for Danang, a route I must have flown at least fifty times in the old days. Whenever I flew north, we always flew out over the ocean, two miles off the coast (flying “feet wet” up the coast, as we used to say). We did so to reduce the chances of receiving any ground fire that might be directed towards us and to avoid the odd air force fighter or army helicopter that might be dropping bombs or carrying troops. Since the war was long past now, however, our route of flight went straight to Danang, which meant flying well inland, away from the coast, for most of the flight. Fortunately the weather was good and the visibility was excellent, and sitting on the right side of the aircraft I was able to see the coastal town of Qui Nhon off to the east; but I could not see the Qui Nhon runway, on which I used to land frequently, and where I had made possibly the worst landing of my air force career, when the C-130 I was flying fell (from a height of about ten feet) out of the sky and slammed into the runway there. The landing was so hard it injured some of the U. S. Army soldiers I was carrying on the aircraft. I always wince when I think of that experience.

Nor was I able to see Tuy Hoa, farther to the north, another airfield at which I landed frequently. The town of Tuy Hoa was much smaller than Qui Nhon, which was a major seaport. Tuy Hoa was just a convenient spot on the beach. I had imagined I would easily be able to see the runway at Tuy Hoa, because I had remembered it as a long, white, concrete strip in the sand. But I couldn’t see it. Nor could I see An Khe, several miles inland from Qui Nhon, now a small Vietnamese village, but then the site of a large army installation with a very short and ugly makeshift runway, called the “Golf Course,” where I had thoroughly scared myself and my instructor pilot, early in my tour, by demonstrating my initial near-catastrophic incompetence in making short field landings.

As we approached Danang, the seacoast angled back under our line of flight, and I suddenly saw a long, clearly military, runway passing along our right side. A runway that long I had to have landed on. But what was it? Then I realized it had to be Chu Lai, the marine base just south of Danang, which the marines flew their A-4s and other support aircraft. All that was left of the base was the runway, and as I looked at it I realized why I hadn’t been able to spot the runway at Tuy Hoa. The long north-south runway at Chu Lai, which I had also remembered as a long white concrete strip, was now a long dark brown concrete strip. Due to the passage of time and the lack of use, the surface of the concrete had become darker and discolored until it blended in with the surrounding countryside. It seemed strange to see this long runway and taxiway, with its high-speed turnoffs, sitting in the middle of a flat coastal plain with no visible structures around. I had landed there many times; I especially remembered off-loading equipment at night, the headlights of the Marine Corps fork lifts sweeping across the sides of the aircraft while the flares, dropped by helicopters or other aircraft and suspended by parachutes, fell slowly outside the field perimeter. Now, there was no sign of any activity there.

We landed straight in at Da Nang, from south to north. I recalled flying towards the coast from the sea and trying to break into the steady stream of aircraft flying on downwind from south to north, turning left (west) over Monkey Mountain, then descending to the south over Da Nang Bay to land. As our Vietnam Airlines aircraft turned off the runway and taxied to the terminal I looked for buildings and structures that had been there thirty years earlier. I hardly recognized the area. I did see the cargo loading ramp on the east side of the taxiway, located approximately midfield, where I had waited innumerable times for my C-130 to be loaded with supplies. I remembered how I had felt, standing or sitting on the ramp, while pallet after pallet of ammunition had been loaded onto my C-130 for me to carry one hour’s flying time north to a place called Khe Sanh, where the marines were firing their ammunition almost as fast as we brought it in (especially after their ammunition dump went up when a north Vietnamese mortar exploded in it late in January of 1968).

The large hangar that served as our airlift center building was still there, north of the cargo loading ramp. But not much else had survived on the east side of the field. We stopped in front of the passenger terminal, which looked like the old passenger terminal where the commercial charter 707s used to offload replacement soldiers in the old days. As we climbed off the aircraft and walked to the terminal, I paused to look across the field. To my surprise, almost no structures were standing on the west side. During the war, the west side was where the marines had some helicopters and other aircraft; there had also been hangars and support buildings. All I could see now were a few small buildings at the north end and lots of trees.

Our hotel in Da Nang was situated at a location I had heard much about (and flown over frequently) but never personally visited—China Beach. China Beach is the beach area due east of the city of Danang. Our guide took us straight to the area of China Beach, where we paused briefly for a look at the beach and Monkey Mountain, standing high (when viewed from the ground at China Beach) to the northeast. I remembered Monkey Mountain primarily for the large radar display operated by the air force that controlled aircraft movement into and out of the Danang area. As soon as we had arrived and put our bags in our (very nice) room, we called for a taxi to take us to the town of Hoi An, located about a half-hour’s drive south of Danang. Hoi An was one of the few historic coastal Vietnamese to have survived the war without suffering devastating battle (or other) damage.

Early the next morning we started off on our final tour, an all-day excursion to the historic city of Hue, an hour and a half drive north of Danang. The driver of our mini-bus drove through the center of Danang and then along the waterfront of Danang Bay, heading first in a westerly direction and then north as the coastline of the bay curved north. After we left the waterfront, the road immediately started the long climb up to Hai Van Pass, the crucial geographical feature that serves as the primary natural roadblock separating the northern half of Vietnam from the southern. I had seen the pass only occasionally when flying C-130s from Danang to Khe Sanh, due to the heavy cloud and fog which usually built up in the pass area. When we approached the pass at 9:00 AM, we found cloudy conditions reducing forward visibility to zero. It was noticeably colder as we went into the cloud. Eventually we came down out of the cloud and soon saw another wide valley on the north side of the pass. As we stopped briefly to admire the view, our guide pointed out a new road and bridge being constructed that would take Highway 1, the main north-south road from Saigon to Hanoi (and the road on which we were now driving) through the mountains that created Hai Van Pass rather than over it. One more year, he said, and there would be no more challenging trips across Hai Van Pass. (I assume that by now that tunnel has been completed.)

Once over Hai Van Pass, we continued up the road to Hue, crossing two or three smaller ridge lines. The weather improved as we drove and by the time we reached the outskirts of Hue, the sun was shining brightly and it was very warm. As we drove along, I told our guide that I had been a pilot during the war and had landed at many fields in Vietnam, including the airfield at Hue. He asked me if I had landed there during the 1968 Tet Offensive. I told him I had in fact landed there and that I had carried a planeful of wounded South Vietnamese soldiers back to Danang for medical treatment. He asked me if I had seen the fighting in the city. I told him that I had not, as we had been told to avoid flying across the old city, which was farther north. Somehow our conversation got around to Nguyen Cao Ky, who had been a pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force and briefly president before South Vietnam fell. After the fall of Saigon, Nguyen Cao Ky moved his family to Virginia and opened a Vietnamese restaurant. I was amazed to hear our guide tell us President Ky and his family had been staying at our resort all week and had just left that day. It was his first visit back to Vietnam. They had been staying on the floor above our room.

As we proceeded north, we could see the flat coastal areas on our right and the low hills gradually becoming higher on our left. Shortly after we entered the outskirts of town, our guide pointed over to the right. Hue airfield, he said. Sure enough, there it was, just as I had remembered it: a fairly long concrete runway bordered on three sides by low grass and vegetation, the terminal building located on the west side. I had landed there several times, usually on flights to or from Danang or on the way to Quang Tri or Dong Ha, farther north, near the DMZ. The north end of the runway came close to the highway. Passenger aircraft now fly into the airfield on a fairly regular basis. I remembered that it had been an easy runway to land on: no restrictions to the approach, coming in from the east, and no hills to avoid (except farther west). I had wondered every time I landed there why I could see so little of the city of Hue. As we continued our drive I found out why: the old city of Hue was many kilometers farther up the road.

Eventually we drove into the old part of the city, which the Perfume River divides into two halves, north and south. The Perfume is a broad river and the bridges which cross it are modern additions. In the days of the emperors, ferries were required (and are still used). The southern half of the city is the commercial center, with several modern hotels, shops, and restaurants. The northern half is the historic area, containing the Citadel, the home of the emperors.

We crossed the river but drove past the Citadel, for our first stop at the Thien Mu Pagoda, an historic pagoda made famous by a Thien Mu monk who, protesting President Thieu’s religious policies, committed suicide by setting himself on fire in 1963. The pagoda sits picturesquely on a small hill on the north side of the Perfume River. We walked around the grounds as the guide showed us the Austin motor car, which the monk used to drive into Saigon, where he set himself on fire (the picture that was sent world wide, and which I remember seeing very well, shows the monk on fire with the car behind him). We then drove to the Hue Citadel, the residence of the Vietnamese emperors.

The Citadel is surrounded by a fortified wall in the shape of a large square, which in turn is surrounded by an outer moat, and then by an inner moat. We crossed over the outer moat and then pulled up in front of the main entrance, which we reached by walking over the bridge across the inner moat. We then entered a large courtyard which would have been used to greet visiting dignitaries, apparently with a great display of ceremony. Then we walked into a relatively large reception hall made of wood, where the dignitaries would have held their diplomatic discussions. Behind this hall was the “forbidden city,” so-called because no one would have been allowed to enter here; this was living quarters of the emperor and his family. Our guide stated that there were no buildings left standing in this area, as a result of the bombing and fighting during the war. The Vietnamese War? I asked, worried that Americans had single-handedly wiped out at least 50% of this historic site. But our guide said no, most of the damage had been done by the French in the 1950s. I breathed a small sigh of relief, but later wondered whether our guide was just trying to make us Americans feel better—as had happened in Saigon.

We crossed back over the Perfume River and paused for lunch, then drove southwest of Hue to the lands where the royal families had laid out their tombs. The setting of the royal tomb area is in the low hills west of Hue, where the temperatures are a little cooler, and one can often see the lowlands to the east through the trees. It was easy to see why the emperors had chosen this setting for their final resting place. Hue is much too pleasant a place to have been the scene of such terrible fighting during the Vietnam war.

When we started to climb the Hai Van Pass on our return to Da Nang, there were few clouds near the summit. We stopped briefly at the summit to take a few pictures of the military bunkers perched located there; although this is a crucial defensive location, there was relatively little fighting here when the North Vietnamese army moved into the Danang area early in 1975. The next morning we had an 8:00 flight to Saigon. While we were waiting in the Da Nang passenger lounge to ride the bus out to the aircraft, I looked across the field to the west, remembering a moment some 36 years earlier, when I had seen a Marine F-4 go out of control after running out of fuel while attempting to land, seeing the two crewmen eject downward at low altitude, impacting the concrete ramp area on the west side of the base before their parachutes deployed.

We took off to the south and from my seat on the left side I had one last glimpse of my old cargo loading area, the city of Danang, and China Beach, now bathed in early morning sunlight. We quickly climbed to 35,000 feet, too high to see much on the ground, but as I sat in my seat, I could imagine some of the fields I had flown many years before as we passed over them on our way south. First, there would be An Hoa, a strip of aluminum in a muddy field, just south of Danang, where I brought a maintenance crew in to fix up a shot-up C-130A model. Then there would be Kham Duc, a small runway in a bowl of mountains near the Laotian border where I brought diesel fuel to a special forces camp that was overrun by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong a month after I left Vietnam. And Kontum and Dak To, south of Kham Duc, two fields that also had been heavily involved in fighting during and after my stay. Dak To I vividly remembered for the dust of a mortar attack rising while I attempted to land on a runway with a mortar hole in the middle.

As we let down 45 minutes later for our landing at Saigon, I was able to see the long runway at Bien Hoa about 20 kilometers north of Saigon, formerly a huge US Army re-supply base and the home of the Air Force’s “Ranch Hands,” the C-123 unit that dropped the Agent Orange spray. Bien Hoa now is used by the Vietnamese Air Force. I could see a few aircraft parked along the ramp, mostly helicopters. We landed to the south at Saigon and taxied in to the in-country terminal, where we got our bags and walked next door to the international terminal.

By 11:30 we were airborne once again, and I took my last look at the dismal remnants of what had once been the well-known military facility known as Tan Son Nhut Air Base. During our week in Vietnam, we had landed on three of my old runways (I say “my” as if I had something invested in them; maybe I did), seen three others, and been in close proximity to three or four others. A total of ten runways out of thirty-plus that I had landed on thirty-plus years before. Of the remaining twenty runways, I knew or guessed that most of them had long ago ceased to exist. I had known well before I came, for instance, that the runway at Khe Sanh had been torn up and all that remained of that famed battleground was a path and a few small buildings sitting on a green plain overlooking a valley to the east. I was sure that the same fate must have befallen other runways in remote areas I knew well, like Dong Ha, Quang Tri, Bao Loc, Song Be, An Khe, Dak To, Kham Duc, An Hoa. Even though we had generally been flying higher, faster, and more comfortably than I had many years before, I felt like I had returned in more ways than one. When we were traveling and touring on the ground, I felt as if I were seeing the country for the first time. But when we flew from one field to another, then I remembered what it was like in the hectic weeks and months of 1967 and 1968, and those visions of coastlines and hills and valleys and the runways lying among them kept merging and blending with the view from my window.

For those Americans who fought in Vietnam and who are able to return to Vietnam, it is impossible not to see, superimposed on the Vietnam of the present, the Vietnam of the past.