This is Jerry’s account of his two return visits to Vietnam in 2001 as written to his former platoon members and a Vietnamese friend with whom he works. It is a beautiful story of his Vietnamese girlfriend and their reunion 34 years after Jerry left Vietnam, some unsettling facts he learned from the current residents of Vinh Kim about the reality of the war and his platoon and a wonderful account of how Vinh Kim has changed since the war. Please don’t miss the touching letter near the end from Jerry to Leroy Harris by way of his daughter.
Vinh Kim is a small village near My Tho which is about 75 miles Southwest of
to go back to Viet Nam took a while. Since none of you guys would go with me, I
finally decided to go alone. I was a little concerned, but once I got back to
the village it was great. Even the Viet Cong seemed glad to see me.
of Viet Nam trip reports follows:
went back to Vinh Kim and it has grown quite a bit. Probably 4 times larger than
when we were there.
country is still very poor, but the people (at least in the countryside) are all
very happy. They are all (even the former enemy) very happy to see Americans.
They think that we are all rich! I understand from my Vietnamese friends that it
is more difficult being Vietnamese American because they expect you to pay
bribes (they would call it tips)...especially to clear customs.....and, of
course, all your Vietnamese family expect you to bring gifts and money. My
friends in the village say that there are two major differences from 1969: .
thing that I expected to see that wasn’t evident was a strong police or
military presence. There was basically none.
took back a lot of my old pictures...all of your pictures were included. After
less than 30 minutes in the village, we found some older people to show the
pictures to. I had a Vietnamese guide who had served with the 173 Airborne for
several years.....he was great.
only picture of Vietnamese people that this group recognized was Barbara’s
(the really good looking girl that sold us cokes....and that ended up following
us to Can Giouc and Can Duoc). You might remember, she got hurt in the explosion
that killed Jim McPike. At first we thought that they were saying that she
didn’t live there anymore but that her sister did. We thought that they were
going to get her sister. They came back with Barbara.
was like a dream...or a movie script....I still can’t believe that this trip
like to remember the good things...especially finding my girl friend from
1969....and the relationship that we are now trying to rebuild. I have many
pictures both past and present. I like to show the “past” ones so that
everyone can see that Barbara and I were not always old. She was, and still is very
beautiful. In 1969 she had told me that she was 19 (I was 24). On my return to
Viet Nam, I found that in 1969 she had really been only 16 -17...she had lied to
me, knowing that I would have had nothing to do with her if I had known how
young she was. She still thinks that it was all very funny...that is, her lying
about her age.
may remember that we had often heard that Barbara’s family was VC. Well, as it
turned out, they were. While
I was there, Barbara’s brother-in-law made a comment that “Just like me, he
fell in love with a Viet Cong girl before he knew she was Viet Cong”...I
looked at her and said...”So what the previous company told us was
correct...you really were VC?”. She admitted that her family was VC.
But she and her family liked us very much...especially Jim.....and
didn’t want to see us hurt. I asked the former VC why the VC blew the command
det when she was walking with us (she knew nothing about the command det’s
being there), and they said that they were far away and didn’t see her. All
that they saw was Jim’s radio antenna....and they were trying to kill the
leader of the element (me), assuming he would be next to the RTO.
the explosion....Barbara and I were just really good friends. Actually our
relationship was very, very limited until she got hurt. Note: Everyone
(including her mother) except for me remembers me carrying her to the medivac
helicopter. I assume that I was in shock at all that had happened. Her family
could not afford to keep her in the hospital at My Tho for one month in 1969...I
asked how much...it was only $40 USA dollars back then...so I paid it.
Shortly after she got hurt....my luck finally ran out and I was injured
by a booby-trapped Chi-Com grenade. Once we finally got back together...our
relationship grew stronger...but nothing other than kisses.
may remember Bach...the young boy that Lt. Mercurio “recruited” as a Tiger
Scout for us. After we killed his brother...the VC with the wooden leg....he
turned VC. He later lost an arm to a grenade. I understand that he still lived
in the village....but I didn’t see him.
people talked forever about remembering guys in our platoon giving them cookies
from the Care packages that our Mom’s sent us. They really liked us and said
that they were sorry that they couldn’t tell us where the booby traps
were...because if they did they would have been executed. One of Barbara’s
cousins was executed by the VC for helping a GI escape a booby trap.
month or two after Jim was killed, we moved to a place just South of Saigon
called Can Guoic. I (along with a lot of guys) got out of the field after the
move. I was assigned to a MACV force in a small village as a liaison between the
MACV and the 9th Division. Note: My replacement was killed shortly after (he was
walking point, going into a wood line, and was shot in the head by a sniper). I
was on radio watch at the MACV compound when it happened. I tried to get them to
send a helicopter to pick me up and drop me in with the platoon, but they said
to wait to see if any further action occurred. Since it didn’t, they did not
pick me up.
people in the village and in Barbara’s family think of me as Tuyet’s (her
name means snow...Barbara was her “American” name in 1969) first husband who
has returned to her. In order for her to be with me during the later part of my
1969 tour in Vietnam, she had to tell the family and all other interested
parties that we were married...which, of course, we were not. But, “good”
girls didn’t associate with GI’s outside of marriage...so “marriage” was
the only acceptable way. After she
got out of the hospital, and our unit was moved to Can Guioc, I thought that was
the last that I would see of her. But, two weeks after we were moved, Barbara
showed up and said that she wanted to live with me. Prior to this, it had been
kisses only. She ended up staying in the village that I was assigned to and I
saw her each night for a few hours. When I moved to Can Duoc as a liaison...she
moved with me. We were together for 3 months, then, of course, I had to return
to the states. At first she didn’t want to come with me because she would miss
her family ...then she did want to come...but it was too late for the paperwork.
After what she told about her family being VC.....the Army never would have
approved her marrying me anyway. After
I returned to the states, I went back to graduate school and she and I wrote for
a while. She wanted me to come back for her, but I told her that I could not
until the war was over. Well....as you know....the war was not over for 5 more
years....we stopped writing...and I didn’t have contact with her again until
April of this year when I returned. Per
a letter that I received from Al Sanchez, who was there when I left, she was
heartbroken when I left and simply withdrew from associating with you guys with
whom she had been very close.
has had a rough life. At the direction of her mother, she married a South
Vietnamese Lt. about a year after I left and had 8 children. After all that she
went through in the French and USA wars.....her first son died fighting for the
Vietnamese against Cambodia in 1990. Her husband then died a year later of a
heart condition. So, she had to raise 7 children alone.
got a better understanding of the Civil War aspects of the war in talking to the
people. Even though Barbara’s family was VC.....at least two of the girls
ended up marrying South Vietnamese army officers and one married a South
Vietnamese Sgt. Once they married, they had to leave the village. When Barbara
followed us to Can Giuoc, she also made the VC “bad” list. She was unable to
return to Vinh Kim until after the war was over.
spent most of my visit going from one house to another having celebration meals.
These visits ranged from Vinh Kim to Saigon. While I was there, a newspaper man
came by and wrote a newspaper story about us...picture included. Later the story
was on local television. They referred to us as the Romeo and Juliet of Viet Nam
(hopefully with a better ending).
to the guide that I used on my first trip (after I returned to the USA)
have a good story for you. My Vietnamese friend in the USA, Chi Lan, has a
friend in Houston, Texas who was telling her about reading a story in a
Vietnamese paper in Houston about a GI who returned after 32 years to find his
girlfriend. Chi Lan ask her the names of the people in the article. It was a
story about TAM and me. Chi Lan told her friend that we were her friends. Chi
Lan has talked to Tam many times on the phone since my return. As you know, my
Vietnamese is not very good and her English is a little rusty; therefore,
initially, I needed a translator. Chi
Lan works where I work, and she is the same age as Tam. Chi Lan comes
from a small village Cau Quan which is south of Tra Vinh in Tra Vinh Province.
(FYI: This is approximately 80 miles south of Vinh Kim.)
Please tell Tam this story, that now even the Vietnamese people in the
USA know our love story.
to platoon member
Trip in September 02 (Yes…I was there on 9/11….rather scary)
I returned in September to see Tuyet’s (Barbara) new house, I spend two weeks
in the village. Bach came by to see me and asked about all of our platoon
members. In addition, I asked Tuyet if any of the VC that we killed were family
or friends and she said that all of them were. One of the VC that we killed the
day before Jim was killed was her brother-in-law. One of her other
brothers-in-law we also killed earlier. I was worried that we had killed her
father and older brothers (three), but they were killed before we arrived
(1968...I believe), and they were not killed around Vinh Kim.
on what she told me, the entire village (to include all of the coke kids) was
pretty much VC...even the local militia (PF’s and RF’s) were either VC or
had family members that were VC; therefore, they had an agreement to leave each
other alone. Thus the reasons for the warning shots that they used to fire as we
walked past their compounds.
traps: There were no special signs warning the people of the booby trap
locations. The VC just told the people where they were...so they knew. If they
went into an area that they did not know well, they asked the local people and
they told them where the booby traps were located.
As to the mortar that we were always looking for...the VC told me that after
they fired a few rounds, they would hide it close by and come back and move it
later. There never was a single location where they kept it.
for the really interesting additional points.....
had a Lt. Mercurio who made us move fast while the other platoons moved slowly.
They also feared the fact, that once we got set up, we sent out a small element
that moved fast, quietly, and...at times... caught them by surprise.
had an E-6 pointman (Barry Wible) who was greatly feared. At the time we were
there....I thought that the people liked him, but from comments made while I was
there....I now believe that they (the good and the bad) were simply afraid of
had an E-6 Plt Sgt (me) who walked point. (A strange point here...my guide said
that the village police chief...former VC.. remembered me...and then started
describing incidences that showed that he really did....he then said to tell me
that I was lucky to have gotten home alive...that when they blew the command det
(per them, two Chinese claymore mines) that killed Jim, they only saw his
antenna and were trying to kill me...hoping that I was beside him. I was,
however, walking point. I told them that I wasn’t any good at walking point or
finding booby traps (except with my feet...the Lord was really watching over
me....because I know that I tripped at least 4 that didn’t explode)...and that
I certainly wasn’t brave....in fact, the only reason that I walked point was
because I knew that I couldn’t deal with it if anything happened to one of you
guys. I figured if I got killed....I would never know about it. That’s why
Jim’s death has haunted me all these years.
men were good to the Vietnamese families and didn’t abuse them. They
remembered us trying to save the grandmother who died before we could get a
medivac to her.
VC families that we knew (well...we didn’t know they were VC at the time we
were there) said to let you know that they liked us but not their government.
They didn’t want to fight us and kill us, they would have preferred to have
been our friends.....and in many cases, they really were. Like I said, many
cried when Jim died.
summary, the trip was a dream.......everyone said to tell you guys hello and
that they would like to see you again someday.
never forget you guys....you were the greatest!
changes in Vietnam since 1969
area across the river from the village has now over come the destruction that we
caused. As you might remember, it had pretty much been blown to pieces when we
were there. Now it is full of trees, houses and people. By the way.....TV
antennas everywhere. I understand that most of these TVs were bought with money
sent from relatives in the USA.
old firebase area is now an open field used for soccer games and evening karate
major reference points such as canals are still there...and quite a few of the
older houses...but with trees and houses everywhere, in previously open
areas...it was not easy trying to identify old locations.
road that we used to walk out for most of our ambushes, etc. has now been
widened and goes all the way to the “big” river(Mekong branch...the one Dong
Tam was located on) , with cars and such traveling down it to a road that runs
along the “big” river. This “river” road starts in My Tho and runs along
the river to provide access to the south and west (Can Tho, etc.). Bridges now
cross the canal at Dong Tam and the “Vinh Kim” river. Ferrys are used to
cross the larger rivers, except for the river adjacent to Can Tho where the
Australians have built a huge, and beautiful bridge.
has a large presence in Viet Nam....especially Foster Beer factories. My Tho
even has a beer factory under construction.
Tho also has a small semiconductor plant (like Intel…only much, much, much
smaller…of course) under construction.
to tourists....there were quite a few French tourists in Saigon and My Tho (now
having 100k population)....German tourists also evident in Saigon. American
tourists also present...but mostly in Saigon. Once you get out of the larger
cities...you become quite a sight for the people. As I said before, I was only
the 2nd American to return to Vinh Kim and no one remembered the other guy. A
little girl even cried when she saw me because she had never seen a
non-Vietnamese in person. Many of the children will say “hello” in English
and every now and then an adult will try their English. From what I was told,
after the war, the schools taught Russian and Chinese; however, within a few
years, they changed this “second” language back to English. One man in the
Vinh Kim market started speaking to me in perfect English. He welcomed me and
hoped that I was enjoying my visit...he had worked for the Americans during the
war. BTW..I might have mentioned this...almost every house that I visited had
Viet Cong Service Awards proudly displayed. As Barbara told me.....basically the
whole village was VC.
Tam is now a Vietnamese Army Base and a Snake Farm (producer of snake
venom...with a hospital for snake bites). As a matter-of-fact Barbara’s
younger sister was bitten by a viper while I was there this last trip, and we
went to visit her in the hospital.
to the area around Vinh Kim....I had a difficult time identifying very much,
because all of the rice paddies have been converted to fruit orchards...more
money in fruit than in rice. The orchards and houses are all along the road, and
the older PF/RF forts have been removed.
you remember, when we where there, there was quite a bit of open area (not
densely populated) between Saigon and My Tho. Now there is very little open
area...basically villages and people all the way from Saigon to My Tho. It
appears that after the war, many people moved back to the country. Children are
everywhere ..it appears that VN is trying to see how large it can get. Ha! There
are so many children that schools are overloaded. ½ the children go to school
before lunch and the other ½ after lunch. So...right before these school
sessions, there are kids everywhere!
The Can Guoic and Can Duc areas were also very different with houses and people everywhere. I could not recognize the firebase at Can Guoic and the MACV Base that I had lived in at Can Duc had been turned into a small (messy) Army post.
to Leroy Harris (by way of his daughter)
want to take a moment to tell you about your Dad...because he might not have
talked to you about the war....I have said very little about the war to my
daughter and son. It was an honor to have served with your Dad. He was (and I am
sure....still is)not only a great person but also an excellent soldier. He
carried a machinegun in our platoon and he was very, very good. I could always
depend on your Dad under any conditions. Our platoon was very close, sort of
like a family looking out for each other. Especially all of us who had been
together for quite a while....like your Dad, “Skully”, Barry Wible, Eli Ford
etc. (names that you probably don’t know, but your Dad does). After our
“best” platoon leader (Lt. Mercurio...he is now a clinical psychologist in
New York) saw how bad the war was, he made it very clear that his main goal was
to get us home alive. Men like your Dad is why most of our platoon made it home
alive. The war was a mess and, in fact, looking back, we probably never should
have been there...but we were, and I would like for you and your entire family
to be very proud of what your Dad did under very difficult conditions. He not
only helped me and others get home alive, he returned to a country under very
difficult conditions and became a very successful business man...and, I am sure,
a very good father. I was very proud of him in Viet Nam, and I am very proud of
has been very nice to hear from you...please tell your Dad hello for me and that
I will send the pictures upon my return.
watched a movie last night that some of you might have seen.....It is based on a
true story of what a young girl had to endure at the hands of the VC and the
South Vietnamese. She was originally VC, but ended up being abused by both
sides. The story has a good ending......the movie starred Tommy Lee Jones....and
its title is “Heaven and Earth”.
Second Trip Update:
the $200/month that I wire to Tam, she no longer has to work and is considered
“well off” by village standards. The average monthly income in the village
is approximately $30. She now has a phone and I call her once per week (at a
rate of $.73 per minute!!!!).
plan to return for another visit in September of this year (2002).
she come to the states with me….Who knows? Only family members can sponsor
Vietnamese nationals to come to the USA for a visit. With our present USA/Viet
Nam relations, she can come to the USA only if I were to marry her. She says
that she wants to marry me and come to the USA….that she doesn’t want to
make the same mistake that she did in 1969, but I know that she would miss her
family….and (regardless of what the people in Viet Nam think) I cannot afford
to move her entire family to the USA.
all for now.
I just got back from a month in Viet Nam.
Well this trip was quite different in that I arrived on a Friday and Tuyet and I had a wedding ceremony (a family thing....not actually a "legal" wedding as far as the Viet Nam and US governments are concerned) on Sunday. There were approximately 350 people at the wedding which included a four course meal and enough beer and rice whiskey to float a ship. This thing lasted all day. The total cost to include decorations, food and drink and her 3 dresses was $1200 (USA). The photographer was there all day and two days later he handed us an album that contained all of the pictures that he had taken. The total cost for the photographer (and pictures) was $50 (USA). There were both former VC and former ARVN at the wedding. Many VC were invited but did not come. They told her that they would like to come, but since she was marrying an American, they felt it would be better if they did not come.
Throughout the month that I was there, we had numerous parties at the home of her friends where I sat around the table with both former VC and former ARVN. Someone always made a point to point out to me the former VC and the former ARVN...and then say.."VC, ARVN, GI......now all ok...no problem". Most appear to have put the war behind them and have gone on with their lives.
While I was there the first US Navy ship (since 1975) came into the Saigon port. This got alot of press on TV and in the newspapers. I believe that Viet Nam would like for the US to start using Cam Ranh Bay (now that the Russians have left). The people seem to like us better than they did the Russians. They said that the Russians were not very friendly and seldom smiled.
After the wedding, we had a car take us from Vinh Kim to Nha Trang (12 hour trip) for 3 days and then we met her family in Da Lat for 2 more days. The car and driver (for a week) cost me $150...the hotel at Nha Trang was next to the beach and cost only $20 a night. When we ate...it cost us about $1. We rented a large boat (and driver) for 1/2 day to go visit the 8 -9 islands and it cost only $20. I liked Nha Trang more than either Vung Tau or Da Lat because there is so much more to do. Scuba, snorkeling, boat rides, fishing, beach, swimming, trips to the mountains (Nha Trang is basically surrounded by mountains). Nha Trang is very clean and has many European tourists (French/German). It appears that Viet Nam is very popular in Europe as a nice and inexpensive vacation option.
After returning to Vinh Kim, we traveled southeast of Can Tho and spent a day and a night with the family of a person that I work with in Austin.
After this visit, we stayed around Vinh Kim. Tam has a best friend who is married to an American and they had just moved into their new house not far from Cai Lay....only about 15 minutes from Vinh Kim. He is retired Navy and they plan to live 6 months in CA and 6 months in Viet Nam. Super nice guy...it was nice to be able to speak English with him. He has been married to Anh Hong for 3 years. He speaks almost no Vietnamese and she speaks almost no English. He also has a computer with internet.....so I had to find out from him what was going on in the world. We spent several evenings with them...they have a beautiful house that cost only $24k to build.
While at Vinh Kim I finally got to go visit a family that I knew from 1969. We used to setup around their hooch at night because it bordered the rice paddies. In 1969 someone shot an M79 into their house and seriously injuried the grandmother. When my platoon arrived, we tried to save her, but she died before we could get a helicopter to her. The children are now all grown up, their father is dead, but their mother is still alive. She was very glad to see me and, of course, remembered the incident quite well.
Next year I plan to try to visit Hue and Hanoi.
I am doing the paperwork now to get Tam to the US on the Fiance Program. That gives us 3 months to get married. This paperwork/approval could take 4 - 6 months. Based on what my Vietnamese friends tell me, this is the best approach. If I "legally" married her in Viet Nam, the Vietnamese and US governments were going to require a ton of paperwork and it could take over a year to get her to the US.
AN INTERESTING FOOTNOTE FROM JERRY
I was in graduate school in 1970, Tuyet wrote me a letter and I wrote her
several letters...but I never heard back from her. I told her that I could not
come back to get her until I got out of graduate school and got a job. I asked
her why she never wrote me back. I figured that she didn't want to wait and that
she had decided to forget me. What had really happened was as follows:
Rest of the Story:
Dec 3, 2004, after 35 years, I brought Tuyet back to the USA, and we were married
in a small family (USA) ceremony on Dec 26, 2004. We are now working to build a
new house for each of our 7 children in Vietnam. Moving them out of their mud
hooches into a house more like the one that I built for their mother. To-date,
we have built 2 houses and we are presently working on number 3. We also plan to
have house #4 finished before the end of 2006. This will leave us with 3 more to
build. Hopefully we can complete the last house in early 2008.
Jerry and Tuyet lived happily ever after.