As the United Air Lines 747 touches down at Tan Son Nhat Airport in Saigon, Vietnam, I have an excruciating knot in my stomach. I look at a country I thought I would never see again and stare at a parade of old Quonset huts and decaying air strips that once housed military helicopters, transport planes and fighter jets. The now-empty shelters and vacant asphalt meadows are haunted by the sounds of aircraft and my memories of a terrifying war in a far-off country 43 years ago. It is March 4, 2008.
My last trip to Vietnam was in April 1965. I was a U.S. Marine Corps infantry platoon commander thrown into the middle of a frightening war. Then, too, I had a knot in my stomach. Committed to serving my country and helping the people of South Vietnam, I was excited, apprehensive and scared.
As my wife, Arlene, and I disembark, I feel the familiar humidity, thick as slime. The fetid aroma from the lack of sanitation triggers more memories.
I recall the Viet Cong prisoner’s face. We were in the cavity of what was once a church, waiting for the helicopter to take him away. I was shaking as I looked in his eyes. My finger was tense on the trigger of my pistol, afraid he might try to kill me if I turned my head. But he could no longer walk. His legs, blown apart by a shotgun blast, hung by tendons. His trousers and shoes were a deep, blood red. I wanted to say, “I’m sorry,” but he and his comrades had just killed one of my men and injured four others. I felt confused and sick to my stomach. I wanted to go home.
Arlene nudges me out of my reverie as we check through immigration. My hands shake; my body is tense. The faces of the uniformed Communist personnel have the icy solemnity of 1965 that I could never quite get out of my memory. The somber looks do not help me feel welcome. These could be the sons of men we encountered on battlefields, of women whose villages we stormed. I wonder about their feelings for a war fought four decades ago.
Have I made a mistake coming back to Vietnam? On my first trip here the South Vietnamese people were happy to see us. We were here to liberate them from the Viet Cong brutality and atrocities which they had long experienced. Have their feelings changed? Unless my first impression proves to be wrong, it is going to be a long two weeks in this country.
This mission is personal and twofold. We have come to see if my tour of duty in 1965 had a positive effect on the people here. More important, we are here to find the home village of our adopted daughter, Kateri, who came to America via Operation Babylift on April 10, 1975.
When we get through the airport formalities, our guide meets us with a broad smile, and I feel the warmth of the people that I remember from 40 years ago.
Even though Arlene and I had three biological sons, we decided in 1972 to adopt a girl. We had no idea then how difficult it was. Only one agency, Catholic Social Services, gave us any hope for adoption, indicating children who might be available from Vietnam. We were thrilled. I had wonderful memories of Vietnamese children from my military service here.
But it took three years of interviews, paperwork and waiting to be approved to adopt a child from Vietnam. We then anxiously awaited our assignment from Catholic Charities. In February 1975 we went to a meeting for prospective parents in San Francisco, and the two featured speakers were Sister Kateri Maureen Koverman, who was responsible for the orphanages, and Laurie Stark, who ran a school for children.
A month later, during the military collapse of South Vietnam, we were notified that the orphanages in Saigon would be evacuating children to the United Stated, since any children left behind could be mistreated or even murdered — especially those suspected of being part American. Arlene and I glued ourselves to the phone each day as Operation Babylift airplanes arrived at various military bases in the States.
When a plane full of adoptive children and volunteer escorts crashed on takeoff from Tan Son Nhat Airport in April, we feared for our new daughter’s life. We soon learned our daughter was not on board, but Laurie Stark was.
Our travels take us north to Da Nang, the area of my 1965 tour of Vietnam. Our guide, a former South Vietnamese army veteran, makes me feel as if I am returning home. He is excited to talk to me, since we were comrades during the war. Using maps both old and new, and incessantly questioning strangers, our guide and driver are finally able to find the area in which I served.
As an infantry platoon commander with the Marine Corps, I led many guerilla-warfare patrols through the rugged mountains and the humid jungles in this part of Vietnam. As I travel the dirt roads to this village, the terror of war starts to move stealthily back into my memory. I am visualizing the horrors of injured, maimed and dead comrades, civilians and Viet Cong soldiers.
The memories of mortar explosions, artillery shell detonations, horrific sounds of continuous gunfire and the whosh-whosh of helicopters above are overwhelming. I feel nauseous once again as I recall the pile of dead Viet Cong soldiers killed in an ambush.
At 6 a.m. on April 10, 1975, we received a phone call telling us that our daughter had arrived at Crissy Field at the Presidio Army base in San Francisco. We jumped in the car and drove to the warehouse filled with cots and hundreds of Vietnamese children — from babies to teenagers. Moments later, after seeing my identification, an attendant handed me a tiny 6-week-old baby and, after checking her plastic wristband, said, “Congratulations, here is your daughter.” Kateri arrived in my arms exactly 10 years to the day after I made an amphibious landing in Vietnam — April 10, 1965.
With the help of a guide, we start our search for Kateri’s birthplace after a brief stay in Saigon. Looking at the streets through the window of our van, I stare at the stark poverty of the towns we pass. Many of the shacks are not much better than the tents in which our family lived at summer camp in the mountains of California. Our van dodges the thousands of motorbikes weaving in and out like busy ants hurriedly trying to find their separate colonies. There are no rules of the road in Vietnam except to avoid collision. Traffic in Vietnam is a symphony in movement, and we never tired of the performance.
My mind, though, returns to 1965, to those days when it was a constant chore just to stay alive. Patrolling daily in 100-degree temperatures and 99-percent humidity, we stalked the enemy while trying to avoid ambush. My eyelids heavy with fatigue, I was on constant alert. I existed moment to moment — each possibly my last. My troops, too, were my responsibility, and I wanted to get them all home safely. I sweated profusely, constantly, my trousers sticking to me like latex gloves. My skin tingled, my legs ached and I craved a good night’s sleep — but what a dream that was.
One night, checking my watch and anticipating being in the wrong place, I moved my patrol three kilometers to the right toward a sheltered area. Then all hell broke loose. We walked into the midst of attacking Viet Cong. The mass confusion was like that of any major catastrophe. Small arms fire, incoming mortar rounds, shotgun blasts, screaming, yelling, crying flooded over us all at the same time.
My now wide-awake mind figured out the situation, and my Marines quickly moved to their directed locations. The battle ended with one Marine killed and four Marines injured, with three Viet Cong killed and three captured.
As I sat down, aching and thirsty, my hands still shook, and I could hardly talk when my commanding officer called me on the radio. I looked at my watch, and remember thinking only that I had lived one more hour since I last checked the time.
Robert Langland had not survived the day. I recall how difficult and emotionally draining it was for me to write his parents, envisioning my own mother receiving such a letter. I remember longing then to be home with friends, having a pizza and beer, just hanging out. “Why me?” I asked myself many times as I continued to survive the horrors of war. Why was I being spared, while my fellow Marines were being injured or killed?
Hope of the future
After a two-hour ride through the lush farmlands of South Vietnam, we arrive in Tan Ngai Village in the Province of Vinh Long. Kateri’s paperwork indicated only that she was born in the provincial hospital in this village. We eventually find the place where our daughter was born. It is now a vacant lot.
Arlene and I squeeze each other’s hand and smile at each other. Daydreaming, I see Kateri growing up in this village if she had not come to America, had not become a school teacher, had not become the mother of our two lovely grandchildren. If not for her adoption, we would not have experienced her days as a youth soccer player and high school track star or her riding a horse in the Labor Day Parade in Mariposa, California.
My mind wanders, too, to the children with whom I came in contact in this country in 1965. They cherished the penny candy I gave them. I never knew if they, too, would be here tomorrow, or if an errant artillery shell would hit them. I remember that I made a point to be with them, smile with them, as we all had only this one moment to enjoy.
These children were the hope of the future. “God,” I prayed then, “please let them get through this mess.”
Across the street from the vacant lot is the Mekong River, an area of heavy fighting during the war. As I look up into the sky, I see magnificent thunder clouds forming overhead. My mind races back to 1965 and a specific May night I spent after trudging through the heavy brush on a recon patrol all day.
I had that same clammy feeling I have now as the air turns moist with rain. My body was aching, and I decided to rest in a cemetery for the night. Buckets of rain poured from the sky, and I covered myself with my poncho. As I propped myself against a headstone, a trickle of rain found its way through my poncho. I began shivering and curled to a fetal position. Lying in a pool of water, I strained to keep my eyes from closing.
A nudge from Jeremiah, my radioman, felt like an electric shock and alerted me that it was time to move again. Two hours had passed.
As we moved across the next river, I felt something sticking to my legs like suction cups. I focused on the opposite river bank to avoid thinking about the snakes, lizards and other dangerous creatures swirling around my legs. When we reached the other side, I quickly pulled off my trousers to find leeches affixed to my legs. I breathed a sigh of relief and pulled them off me.
The rain stops as quickly as it began, and as we look at the little town of Kateri’s birth we notice many inquisitive stares from the residents of Tan Ngai Village. Whenever we approach the villagers, we are treated with grace and politeness. More than once, we are offered a small banana (a significant gift) just because we want to talk to them or take their picture. They display the same graciousness I remember when I was in such villages 40 years ago, giving medical aid or helping out, or trying to keep them away from the battlefronts in the midst of a cruel war.
Looking at the rice paddies and surrounding mountains with a scattering of cumulus clouds overhead, I realize how beautiful they are. The happy faces of the children bring back all of those wonderful memories of young Marines playing with the children and giving them the coveted pieces of candy. Although scarcity is everywhere, the people are all smiles when they see us. Thatched roofs have been replaced with metal roofs and stucco has often replaced wood, but the lifestyle of the people seems somewhat frozen in time. Men, women and children still work in the rice paddies and in the little stores. The gentle water buffaloes roam the fields and streets.
As we walk along the road, the people want to talk to us, and the barefooted children are eager to touch us. One woman who is about my age invites me into her meager one-room house, which had been built by a former U.S. military veteran a few years ago. Her house has little furniture, and the stark white walls make it feel like an oversized tent. She offers me a small banana. It is important to her that I take this gift, since she is so happy that I have come back to her village after so many years. She, too, has seen the horror of war. I sense the closeness we now share, and I am now having trouble holding back the tears welling in my eyes.
I also talk to a woman who was 2 years old when I was in this village in 1965. She shows me the long scar of a leg wound she received from an artillery explosion during the war. She limps as she walks over to see us. Her smile is infectious. I am speechless.
My most coveted memory of this war-torn land is these children, since they were the innocent ones in the war. They made my experience in 1965 so significant. They were the hope for a free Vietnam. I am so sorry we were not able to have rescued them during the war, but maybe this return trip now has the meaning I desire. These are the people it was our mission to help. This is the Vietnam I remember — on brilliant sunny days and days filled with torrential monsoon rainfalls. Through it all, the people were kind and hospitable to us, even though we were in the midst of a brutal war. Maybe I did make a difference.
Our stop at Halong Bay in North Vietman becomes a significant part of this trip. It is close to the border of China, and it is truly one of the wonders of the world. It is rarely seen by Americans. It is a huge series of waterways that meander in and out of mountain outcroppings. I feel serene as our boat winds through this watery paradise.
On our tour of the harbor we go by boat to a remote fishing village, one of many of its kind in the middle of the bay, many miles from the nearest town. The village is a group of meager floating houses backed up against the mountains. The residents live, eat and sleep in their homes on the water. Many of these villagers live here their entire lives and die without ever seeing the mainland. Fishing is their livelihood, and they harvest fish under their floating homes and sell fish to passing boats and commercial enterprises. I see a young girl who looks so much like Kateri that her beautiful face mesmerizes me.
This area was heavily bombed during the war, and these people found shelter in the surrounding mountain caves. I can easily envision their terror as the bombs dropped onto their village from miles above. Some never made it to the sheltered mountain caves. I can still see a mother in 1965, screaming over the remains of her once-beautiful baby. I remember the sound of ordinance coming out of the sky. I remember those sounds and the devastation war caused.
I, too, remember the incoming artillery shells and bombs falling on our position. I’d be glued to the ground, the smell of wet grass in my nostrils. Artillery shells would be bursting all around, like popcorn in the popper. I remember once a calmness enveloping me. I hoped it was not going to be my last day on earth. I prayed to be spared one more time. When the shelling stopped, the relief was overwhelming.
Perhaps the people here sense that I have returned to understand the fear they also experienced during the war. They show no hatred toward me, even though they may suspect that I have once been a soldier in their country. I will interpret their smiles as a sign of forgiveness and healing between us.
William Yaley owns an independent real-estate appraisal company located in his hometown of Mariposa, California. He and his wife, Arlene, raised six children, including Kateri and two daughters adopted from Korea.