Authors: C.R. Ryder
Staff Sergeant Gerald Zachary
Texas National Guard
We showed up at 0700 this morning. It was not a shock. We’ve all been watching the news and I for one got my papers a week ago. The only thing that bothered me was that there was no return date. I figured it was a bad sign.
Pacer, the electronic company I worked for in Houston said they’d keep my position. They have to by law. My friend Terry is going to be covering for me. He told me to drop him a line from time to time. We joked that in ten years there wouldn’t be any letters home anymore. Everything would be electronic mail.
Everyone looked groggy. They had us gathered in a hangar for four hours while the active guard guys figured out how to start. Everyone was making trips outside to smoke like it was the last one they would ever have.
Toward midmorning the AGRs got their shit together and started shuffling us through the line. First came the paperwork. Nothing was right. Everybody was missing something. They had JAGs at the ready for wills and powers of attorney. The wills really fucked some people up. I had been active duty so I knew it was a formality, but for some of the Guard Babies it was a wakeup call. When they signed on the dotted line on that will they knew that it was real. That was the moment when it all came home.
The JAGs warned you not to sign your stuff over to the girl you met a week ago. If you’re single leave everything to your folks, married your wife and divorced your kids if you got any or otherwise back to your folks.
Next was the gear. We were deploying with the new Battle Dress Uniform with the camouflage pattern. The uniform was hot as hell and we had not even left Texas yet. After that we got the John Wayne gear which was a canteen, helmet and web belt.
The whole time I am in line behind Wright.
All my life I have been last in line. Anybody who says alphabetical order is fair is full of shit. I always get the dregs when it comes to equipment or none at all.
I curse my last name as I get another damaged item. They say they are going to replace it downrange but I’m not going to hold my breath on that.
I only get six bullets for my nine mil. This time Wright got fucked too.
We sit in the passenger terminal until two in the afternoon when they start loading the plane.
Wright starts getting twitchy and we have not even left home yet. I am not looking forward to sitting next to this guy for the next day until we get to Guam.
The engines start and we taxi out. Already I need to pee. Wright starts waving at the load master who runs over.
“Are we really leaving?” He asks.
Pretty soon Wright is up and in the aisle and the loadmaster is losing his mind trying to get this guy to sit down. When the plane stops I know that there is going to be trouble. There are four birds behind us all loaded with just as many soldiers.
The Platoon Sergeant comes over mad as hell followed by the OIC.
“What the hell is the matter Wright?”
“My son is in the car. I thought we were just doing an exercise.”
We’re off to a great start.
Senior Airman Doug Bradley
Little Rock AFB, AR
When I joined the Air Force I told the recruiter I wanted to fly. He tried to sell me on being a crew chief saying that I would get to fly as well as fix the planes. Looking at the schools they sent each career field to, I figured out real quick the ones that went to combat survival school were the enlisted jobs that did the flying. With that knowledge in hand I tried to be a flying radar operator and a boom operator and ended up landing on C-130 loadmaster.
I was on leave when everyone got the call. I knew something was up when I was in the BX the day before and there was a rush on suntan lotion and camo gear. Every hunting and surplus store was selling out of the stuff.
They recalled everyone at 1900 for a commander’s call. The whole squadron had to be there by 2100. There were only two reasons to have a Commander’s Call at 2100 on a Wednesday night. Either we had a rash of drunk driving that required a mass smack down or we were going to war.
I drove into work that night past the gate guard. It was a C-130 static display better known as an airplane on a stick. The one in front of Little Rock AFB was tail 56-0518. Famous for being the last plane out of Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, the C-130 carried a record breaking 452 refugees to safety in Thailand with an impressive 32 alone in the cockpit.
Looking at the airplane I think I knew exactly what the Commander’s Call was about.
Senior Airman Khoa Tran
“Talk to them Kevin.” Scott ordered.
“Well?” Scott looked nervous. We all were. There were a lot of guns pointed in a lot of directions.
“They aren’t speaking Vietnamese.” I told him.
“You are fucking worthless man.” Jeff chimed in while aiming his AK-47.
“I’m trying.” I couldn’t catch a break with these guys.
“This country is called Vietnam. Why doesn’t anyone speak Vietnamese?” Jeff said.
The two guards were well compensated for their inconvenience. Scott had dropped at least a couple of hundred bucks on each of them. They took snapshots the whole time. Then they told the guards that if they were ever caught then their superiors would find the film and see that the two of them had taken money from Americans. This would mean a fire squad for them and ensured those two guards would be very motivated to make sure we did not get caught.
We entered the Central Highlands after two weeks of hiking. We did not run into anyone. These guys were good at getting around without being seen.
We were supposed to meet up with a friendly contact in the mountains. Instead we were facing a squad of rough looking men. There I was with my first chance to be an asset. To do something really useful and instead I cannot make a word this guy is saying. Worse yet Jeff and Mike have their guns ready and look like they are going to smoke everyone. The natives are tense too. They’ve all got AK-47s and machetes.
This wasn’t exactly the Kurtz’s jungle compound out of Apocalypse Now. These guys were wearing Western t-shirts and I saw at least one kid listening to a Walkman.
When Scott told me we were meeting Montagnards I pictured that they would look like they walked in from the last century.
At last one of them comes forward. He is older and looks like he’s seen some of V1.
“Glun Y. Howdy partner.”
“What does that mean?”
“Glun Y is my name. Howdy partner is from The Undefeated. Like your John Wayne. We are like your John Wayne. We never surrendered to the Communists.”
He’s referencing a movie that I am not familiar with.
“US go home, RVN surrender, but not us. We keep fighting. We never surrender.”
From Judge gave me a quick history of the highlands and its inhabitants during the hike in.
The tribal inhabitants of the Central Highlands of Vietnam were dubbed “Highlanders” or Montagnards by the French colonists. The tribesmen referred to themselves as “Dega” which is a term that combines their versions of Adam and Eve. Converted to Christianity during the French colonial period the Montagnards, due to their indigenous status and the inaccessibility of their homeland, were given a large degree of autonomy by the French.
This did not last under the South Vietnamese.
“The RVN hounded us. They made us learn Vietnamese. The RVN were Catholic. They say we should be Catholic. They say Christianity is illegal.” Glun said.
“Are you RVN?” Glun asked as he led us into his camp.
“We like Americans. They supported us. When the Northers came, they came through Dega lands. The corridor led right through here. Where you stand now. The path to the south.” Glun points first north and then south to illustrate. “The tribes formed alliances. We built up militias. We fought the invaders, but we did not fight well. Then the Americans came.”
“What happened next?” I knew this was touchy territory. So far all he had done was list for me all the people his tribe hated.
“Americans came. They wore Green Berets. They taught us to fight well. We were able to defend our villages. Eventually the Dega patrolled the entire mountain border.”
I translated for the others. Judge needed no translation.
“It’s true. They were good soldiers. Unparalleled in fierce fighting skills, personal courage and most of all loyalty. At the height of the war 40,000 Montagnards soldiers served with the U.S. military as soldiers, scouts, and interpreters.” Judge said.
“It was a good time. That is my grandson.”
I nodded to the man. He was a few years older than me and shot me a dirty look.
“He says that we should not help you. He says you will bring us nothing except suffering.” Glun explained.
I didn’t know how to answer.
“I told him you will push the Communists into the sea.”
I looked at Glun and wondered what I should say.
“No. We are looking for our lost soldiers. Lost after the war. We think the Communist have them.”
The old man nodded.
“You want these men back?” Glun asked.
“What are you willing to do to get them?”
“Whatever it takes.” I said trying to sound tough.
“I had three brothers.” Glun held up three fingers. “My youngest brother was showing off one day and he took a fall. He ended up dangling off of the side of the mountain. My oldest brother did not hesitate. He went after him. The cliff was very slick. He could not find good footing and he fell trying to save him. Then my twin brother crawled down after him. He too fell to his death. That left me. I did not go down after my brother. I stood there and watched as he held on until he could hold on no longer and joined our other two brothers in eternity. Do you understand what I am saying?”
“I knew then I did the right thing. I could not save him. I would have just fallen too. I know now that I did the right thing. I have had many children and my children have given many beautiful grandchildren. I fought with the Americans. I got to fly inside a C-130 once. Still as old as I am there is not a day that I do not think about my brothers and that cliff and there is not a day that I do not regret going to the bottom with them.”
It was a sad story. My face slackened.
“You are very emotional. Like woman. You are making me cry. I do not tell you this story to make you sad. I think that you finding your brothers will be a good thing for all peoples. Yours and mine. We will help you.”
I walked off to find Scott. He and the others were setting up the satellite receiver.
“What happened? You gay for that old man? You looked like you two needed a room.” Jeff said.
“What did he say?” Scott asked.
“He said he’s going to help us.”
“How?” Jeff asked.
“I don’t know.”
“There is a man here. He is from the city, but he wants to be Dega. He speaks good Vietnamese. Better than me.”
He led us through their camp to a small dwelling on the edge of the jungle.
“He lives the old way.” Glun explained.
The old man that came out was a Vietnamese in Montagnard dress. He was dressed like a Montagnard, but he was Vietnamese. We all sat down with him.
“The Americans are back?” He asked.
None of us answered. I had finally learned to keep my mouth shut.
“Are we going to get our country back?”
Again we were silent.
“You’re not Russian are you?”
“No,” I told him.
His name was Pham and he had been hiding out with the Montagnards for the better part of five years.
“I was a South Vietnamese Ranger during the American war. I was at Khe Sanh, Bien Hoa and the Burger Hill. I kept fighting after the Americans left. I was at the Xuan Loc for the last stand. After that the army surrendered or deserted in droves. I went to Saigon. On the roof with my wife and sons. All our leaders fled to Taiwan.” Pham said and then spit on the ground.
“The Communists took me to a reeducation camp for many years after the war. They beat me. Tried to make me like them. I would not give in. They took us out to remove land mines and bombs from planes that did not go off. We had no tools for it. It was dangerous work and everyone died eventually. After the years the Communists became lazy though. One day I just walked into the jungle and escaped.”
“Then you came here.”
“No. I went to find my wife. She died of pneumonia while I was in prison. My sons had become good Communists. One of them called the police on me. My country gone. My family gone. I always admired the jungle and the jungle people. I came here and started a new life.”
Scott looked at me. They were getting impatient. These guys were on a time schedule that I was not privy to and they tolerated no delays.
“Did you ever see any Americans?” I asked.
“Heard many stories. Xom Ap Lo, Son Tay, camps in the mountains, Chi Hoa, Kilo Site.”
I was translating for the others the whole time. At this point Scott interrupted and whispered something in my ear.
“What about Bao Cao?”
“Yes. There were prisoners there during the war. I spent a year there in ’81. I never saw any American there though.” Pham said. “If there are any Americans left they would be in Hanoi.”
We bid Pham goodbye and I talked with Scott and Todd.
“He says that if anyone is still alive they are in Hanoi.”
They nodded and looked grim.
“We don’t have the go to head that far north yet.”
“What do we do?”
“There’s something close by we are going to look into first.”
“Got the word on SATCOM that one of the high altitude U2 birds found possibles in a reeducation camp here in the mountains. It was abandoned and now it’s got a big signal.”
“On top of that they’ve got pictures of Caucasians at the camp.” Scott explained. “We’ve been ordered to check it out.”