Published: December 31st 2008December 31st 2008
My cousin was killed in Vietnam. He was 21 years old when he died in the early morning hours of July 14th, 1970 at a place called Hill 805. His name was Paul Guimond. Paul was four years older than I. He was the son of my Dad’s sister Jerry. I didn’t know him very well. He was one of the ‘older’ kids I played with at the annual summer gatherings my Aunt Kay threw at her big place in a Chicago suburb. I remember that there was a cornfield behind her yard that we utilized for games of hide and seek. There were always a lot of other kids to play with. Our families were nothing if not fecund. There were so many of us that we would play games of baseball with four outfielders and five infielders so nobody had to pout on the sidelines. My uncle filled a big aluminum cooler with ice and pop for us, which we frequently dipped into during the games. Paul would help us pick our teams so things didn’t get too lopsided. I remember Paul as being kind and a comfort when any of us scraped a knee sliding into home or
climbed a tree that taxed our athleticism.
Paul was a member of the 101st Airborne Division, the unit known as the ‘Screaming Eagles’. Elements of the 101st Airborne took up residence in what was known as Fire Support Base Ripcord and proceeded to make life miserable for the NVA commands in and around the Co Pung. This situation elicited a violent response from the NVA leading to the "Siege of FSB Ripcord" in June-July 1970. The three-week period covering the siege cost the 101st Airborne 75 killed and 345 wounded in action before FSB Ripcord was abandoned on 23 July 1970.
On the morning of 12 July 1970 Company D, 2/501st Infantry, Paul’s Company, took up positions on Hill 805, about a mile southeast of FSB Ripcord. While the assault itself was unopposed, the company perimeter was heavily attacked at about 2130; a fight that resulted in 13 US medevacs but no deaths. The next day was quieter, but at about 0100 on the 14th the perimeter again came under heavy attack; this time there were six US soldiers killed in action. Paul was among them. He was armed with an M-60 machine gun. The M-60 is a
Many of the following are photos placed on the web from the personal collections of Marines who fought at Con Thien. Semper Fi Marines.
heavy weapon. When Paul was killed he was running from position to position in the dark defending the perimeter against VC ‘Sappers’ who were attempting to crawl under the barbed wire barrier and toss satchel charges into the position. I cannot begin to imagine.
When Paul died I did not know any of these things. His body was sent home in a sealed coffin. There was a glass plate in the top so we could look at him. He was dressed in his Class ‘A’ uniform. We went to the funeral home every evening for three days. There was a soldier that came home with the body. I never talked to him. Every night after the wake was over he would sit with my Uncles and drink with them. They talked a lot and they did not seem so unhappy when they did. All of my Uncles served in the military. Service was and is considered an honor in my extended family. At the burial the Army sent a squad of men who presented my Aunt and Uncle with a flag and fired their seven rifles three times in unison. We kids were very excited by that. Even in
death Paul was still making things fun for us.
When Karen and I knew that we were coming to Hue I thought about tracking down Hill 805 to see where Paul had spent his final minutes. I talked with a man in Hue who specializes in reconnecting American Vets with places in their past. He explained that the area I was interested in wasn’t accessible. It sits in a sensitive area of the A Shau Valley that isn’t open to visitors. In any case there was no way to get to the top of the hill unless I used a helicopter which is how Paul and his unit got there. There are not so many helicopters in Vietnam now. There are dozens of hills just like 805 in the A Shau Valley. The Valley was considered militarily important because it housed a major logistics complex, which supplied elements of the North Vietnamese Army. Fighting there was incessant. Paul’s final battle was one of a long series. I joined the Army a year after Paul died. During seven years of service I never saw anything close to what Paul and his unit had. I thought that going to the DMZ
Air Strike; Con Thien
Washington Post photo 1967
would help me better understand what had occurred there. On a personal level, I wanted to say goodbye to my cousin.
Tours to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) are a major business in Hue. The DMZ runs across Vietnam’s narrow waist like an undulating 10-kilometer wide belt. The Ben Hai River traces a path through the middle. Most of the Americans who died in the war died in the provinces bordering the DMZ. You can take the standard one-day tour, which costs about $20 US and makes ten stops including Khe Sanh, Doc Mieu, Con Thien, and the Vinh Moc tunnels. There can be anywhere between 8 to 12 people in the group. The guides are of varying quality. I was only interested in a few specific spots. I knew that there was little to see at Khe Sanh except for the airstrip and a small museum. The famous battle there was relatively short-lived. On the other hand Con Thien and Doc Mieu were actively manned and combat committed for years. Karen and I hired Mr. Trung who is a former soldier in the ARVN. He can be reached at: Phone 0905.376.140 E-mail Nguyenvantrung101052@yahoo.com. He is knowledgeable and speaks English.
Inset photo was taken by a Washington Post photographer in October of 1967. This is the site as it appears today.
He did two and half years of ‘re-education’.
We were picked up at our hotel at 8:30 in the morning by a new SUV containing Mr. Trung, his driver and the driver’s ten year-old son who sat in the back seat slurping an early lunch of noodles from a Styrofoam container. We headed North on Hi-way 1. Mr. Trung was suffering from a major head cold. We listened to him honk and sniffle for about 50 kilometers before he launched into a nasally history lecture on what we were about to see. When he finished he and the driver fished around the mini-pharmacy in the glove compartment looking for something to alleviate Mr. Trung’s congestion. We passed through Quang Tri town. Once a major player, Quang Tri never recovered economically after the war. At the city of Dong Ha we turned Westward on Hi-way 9. Hi-way 9 runs all the way to the Laotian border passing by ‘The Rockpile’ and Khe Sanh. The Rockpile was an artillery spotting location. Howitzers stationed there were able to support the beleaguered soldiers at Khe Sanh about 10 kilometers to the Southwest. We lucked out when the sun broke through the clouds. We
Con Thien Marine taking cover.
had seen only rain since our arrival in Hue. This part of Nam is beautiful. Hi-way 1 runs alongside the China Sea. Huge rice paddies spread all the way out to the mountains of Laos in the West. During the war this area was patrolled by about 70,000 US Marines and was a major contact point between the opposing forces. Today all is quiet. There are more water buffalo than cars on the roads here.
Our first stop was Con Thien. Originally established by US Army Rangers in 1966 it was turned over to the Marines in 1968. The position was lost to the NVA in 1972. The Marines called this base ‘The Graveyard’. It was part of the original ‘McNamara Line’. The idea was to establish a line of firebases along the DMZ, which theoretically would stop the NVA from entering the South. A defoliated line called the ‘trace’ connected the bases. Con Thien was a heavily fortified position armed with weapons like the ‘Long Tom’ which was capable of striking targets as far as 30-miles away with 175-pound projectiles. Instead the base itself became a target. The NVA planted their artillery on the North side of the
Rear Defensive Trench
Inset photo is from Con Thien 1967
DMZ and rained death down upon the Marines at will. In May of 1968 alone nearly 4,200 shells fell on the base. The NVA placed their guns in positions so heavily fortified that nothing short of a direct hit from a 500-lb bomb could take them out. It was not a good situation to be in. If you look at photos of the base from 1968 you will see a long yellow ridge cleared of vegetation dotted with sandbagged concrete bunkers and large artillery pieces. On the South side of the base was a helicopter landing area for re-supply and medevacs. It was a very big operation.
Our car pulled to the side of the road. We followed Trung across a culvert and onto a muddy gutter of a trail cutting through knee-high weeds. Over a small hill we came upon a large rubber tree plantation. Two women in conical hats worked the trees collecting milky white sap. They smiled and waved when they saw us. A large water buffalo quietly grazed nearby tethered to a tree. We continued slipping and sliding up a large ridge for a kilometer. Near the top we came upon a deep trench. It
Inset photo was taken in December of 1967 at Con Thien. Bunkers were lined in three layers of sand bags.
went on as far as I could see into the jungle. An unexploded mortar round lay at the bottom. This was part of the rear perimeter defense that the Marines had dug. During the frequent NVA artillery attacks the Marines would take refuge by curling up in the bottom of the ditch. Trung pointed to a large grove of rubber trees to our right; the helicopter landing area. At the top of the ridge stood a lone concrete bunker. The only one surviving out of the many that had once lined the ridge. The rest were blown by the NVA. We were the only people at the site. What had been a major firebase was now completely engulfed by jungle. Karen showed me something that she had found on the ground; a six-inch length of green fiberglass tubing with English writing on the side. It was a piece of an M-72 rocket launcher called a ‘LAW’. A disposable weapon normally used against enemy armor. With the toe of my shoe I scratched at the dirt and exposed a tattered piece of a Marine’s cammy poncho. There were pieces of OD plastic and fragments of sandbags everywhere. I found a battery
Found this one at Doc Mieu
from a Russian-made RPG launcher. I could only imagine the material that lay buried under our feet. The sad reminders of the thousands of men who had lived and fought here for years were now being slowly and steadily digested by the Earth. Trung took us to a shrub and lifted a low branch. In the shadows lay a 5-inch shell with the fuse still attached. Probably a missile from one of the US Naval destroyers stationed off the coast. There is so little to see in the DMZ structurally the guides are reduced to pointing out munitions. Trung told me that when they cleared this small area for tourists the workers uncovered a small mountain of unexploded ordnance. Claymores, artillery rounds, heavy mortar rounds, small arms clips, satchel charges, grenades, RPG’s. I could only imagine what else lay hidden in the huge area the base had once covered. To the North was a wide plain where the NVA guns had been situated. To the south I saw the hills of the A Shau Valley. I looked for a while and wondered which of them was 805. They all looked the same.
On the way back to our car
Karen at Doc Mieu
Little to see at this site
we encountered a group of middle-aged Australian tourists who were trying to negotiate the muddy trail. One of the women was wearing a pair of moccasins. Nice smooth white ones. As I lifted her from the wet ground after her fall, her idle husband mentioned her recent hip replacement. If you are heading out this way, dress for the conditions. The mud will suck at your shoes and the thorny weeds will tear at your legs. Long pants and stout shoes are a must.
Our next stop was Doc Mieu. We parked next to a small historical marker and the stripped carcass of a tank. There was less to see here than there had been at Con Thien. I found another mortar round to the side of the path. They were beginning to bore me with their quantity. Doc Mieu was the Eastern anchor of the McNamara line. Today it is a collection of bomb cratered hills covered in beautiful wildflowers. We could hear the sea to the East.
Back on Hi-way 1 we crossed the old border into North Vietnam. On the Northern side of the Ben Hai River sat a small building attached to a thirty-foot
Sculpture greets you at the entrance of the Vinh Moc museum.
tower that had once been festooned with huge speakers spouting taped propaganda towards the ears of the southerners. The people here are poorer and the land seems prettier. Simple homes line a road that winds through conifer forests and hugs the prettiest coastline I have ever spied. We came to the village of Vinh Moc and one of the most remarkable tales to come out of the Vietnam War.
Vinh Moc is a village just over the northern edge of the DMZ. In 1966 the US began an intensive bombing campaign in the area. The villagers sent their youngest and oldest to safety in the North. Those who stayed continued to till the land as they had done for generations. They also tunneled, dumping excavated dirt into the adjacent sea under cover of darkness. By 1972 there were 60 families living in a three-level subterranean community that reached a depth of 90 feet. Over the years 17 babies were born in the chambers. Not one person who took shelter there ever died as a result of the bombing. On one occasion a bomb failed to detonate and pierced through the ground down to the lowest level. Knowing a good
There are a total of 5 entrances to the system
deal when they saw one, the residents turned the hole into an airshaft. I don’t know what became of the bomb. By day, the people remained below emerging only at night to farm and play and breathe.
Once again we were the only visitors. Vinh Moc is categorized as a historic landmark by the Vietnamese government. There is a small museum at the entrance to the village with an interesting sculptural relief entitled ‘To Be or Not to Be’. On the path to the tunnel entrance there is a line of small cafes furnished with those low metal tables and little red plastic chairs that are so common to eateries in Nam. The bomb-drilled airshaft is covered with a thatch awning. There are bomb craters everywhere you look. The entrances, which were originally camouflaged, are now graced with stone porticos and stairs. This was exciting stuff and for the first time on the trip the kid in the back seat joined us. We entered the narrow arched passageway and started down. The earth here is a tightly packed wet clay. You hear the echoing drip, drip, drip of water everywhere. The passages are low and narrow. Your shoulders cannot
30 inches wide and 5' 6" high.
help but rub against the walls leaving your sleeves decorated with rust-brown chevrons. Karen laughed out loud as she pictured her brother Tom taking the tour with us. Within minutes my lower back was burning from the stooped posture I had had to assume as we baby-stepped across the slippery floor. The tunnels used to be lit with small oil lamps. To recreate the same ambience they are now illuminated with small 10 watt bulbs every thirty-feet. It’s dark as a grave between the beacons. The smell of wet soil fills your head as you explore the ‘rooms’ cut into the passage walls. Each family had a niche about 4 feet wide and 8 feet deep. They slept on bamboo frames covered with rattan. Shelves were carved into the walls for household items. There was a ‘meeting room’ on the lowest level. This one was 20-feet long and 8-feet wide. This was where the political lectures were held. The walls are deeply engraved with Vietnamese words. (Political slogans, Kilroys were here?) Another niche labeled ‘Hospital’ is furnished with three womannequins. One lies on a bamboo bed smiling as the two others deliver her plaster infant. After a mere 15-minutes I
wanted out and out now. Trung led us to a secret entrance and fresh air on a small terrace overlooking the sea. After re-oxygenating ourselves we went back in for another go. Another 15-minutes and we were out of there for keeps. Karen and I discussed what it must have been like, sixty families living together in these cramped dark corridors. Backs pressed up against damp walls as they passed each other in the passages. Now sprinkle that picture with B-52 air strikes day after day and the resulting concussion waves that rocked the tunnels and threatened to bring the world down on their heads. We could not begin to imagine.
We grabbed a soft drink at one of the cafes. I watched three young villagers swinging together in a hammock, enjoying the sunshine and rain-scrubbed air. Behind them, a bomb crater slept under a blanket of soft green grass. Time and nature had dulled its formerly sharp edge. In another 40 years you might not even notice its existence. We got back on the road and headed south to Hue. The sun hung low over the A Shau hills. I thought of summer days and cold pop and
baseball games where you use lawn chairs for bases. And I said goodbye.
Tips: The best I can do is to tell you to read some history before you go. ‘A Bright Shining Lie’ by Neil Sheehan is the best background book I can think of. Look at some pictures on the Internet and get a feel for the times. There is very little to look at as far as artifacts and structures are concerned unless you really get into unexploded mortar shells. The Internet is a great place to start. Lots of veterans have posted their own accounts of the battles and pictures of the locations. NVA vets have done the same thing. A little research goes a long way in helping you to understand the significance of the War and its effects on the participants. We chose an individual guide simply because it allowed us to customize our visit. We could spend as much time as we wanted if something caught our interest and we could skip the things we wanted to skip. Our guide cost us $65 US, which included his services and transportation. There is quite a bit of driving involved. For us it was
a good investment. And if you go to Vinh Moc, bring a flashlight.
There are more photos below