Viet-Nam – my journey back

Steve Leighton preparing for a division operation with the 42nd Vietnamese Ranger Battalion, Mekong Delta, August 1967.

Background
This story begins in August 2007. I had been thinking about a trip back to Viet-Nam for the past couple of years. A friend found some websites and encouraged me to visit them. On one of the sites, I found the story of Don Bocik of Chicago, IL, a veteran and former Advisor in the Mekong Delta, who had gone back to Viet-Nam on his 40th anniversary. There was an e-mail address with the story so I contacted him with a few questions. Within minutes of sending the e-mail, my phone rang; it was Don. His encouragement helped me decide that it was time to do this. Don put me into contact with Doug Reese, another former Advisor from the Delta. Within hours, Doug called me from Viet-Nam and we were on our way to setting up the trip. Doug lives in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and works with a Viet-Nam tourism company and knows what to recommend for former vets who want to make this type of trip.

I was so touched by Don’s story and my need to do this, that I contacted WCCO TV, the local CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, MN. I felt this story would be of interest to other Viet-Nam vets in particular, and perhaps en-courage them to get some closure on this part of our lives. Within days, I received a call from Bill Hudson, a news anchor for WCCO. He agreed this was a story he wanted to tell.

Setting up the trip
I set up the flights and then contacted Doug Reese to set up an itinerary for our in-country travel. He arranged a car, driver and interpreter for our trip to Bac Lieu, deep in the Mekong Delta. Bac Lieu was the headquarters of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Viet-Nam), 21st Infantry Division and the U.S. Army Advisory Team No. 51. I was assigned as the RTO (radio telephone operator) of a five-man U.S. team that worked with the 42nd Vietnamese Ranger Battalion. The Rangers were part of the ARVN 21st Infantry Division and were considered to be the “elite” fighting troops of the South Vietnamese Army. The battalion of approximately 400 men was the smallest group that was authorized a five-man American advisory team.

Ho Chi Minh City
My wife, Donna, and I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) late at night on 18 October 2007 and spent the next two days visiting various sites there. While I had spent several days in Saigon 40 years earlier, not much looked the same — we were staying in a 5-star hotel and eating in fine restaurants. One of our first stops was the War Museum. Several U.S. planes and tanks were on display along with many pictures of the war. Need-less to say, it was from their point of view and highlighted what they considered to be American war atrocities.

Can Tho
On 21 October we started our trip to Bac Lieu, deep in the Mekong Delta. Our first stop was Can Tho, the capital of the Mekong Delta and where I had spent several days during the war. I did not recognize anything from the past. The American base is now the local military headquarters and there are many war memorials and cemeteries for their war dead, along with statues of Ho Chi Minh. We stayed overnight at the very nice 4-star Victoria Hotel before continuing to Bac Lieu. I got up at daybreak to take photos of the sampans and junks along the Hau River that feeds into the Mekong River and suddenly the trip began to become emotional for me. I fought back tears thinking about the memories and what I might find in Bac Lieu.

The next town was Soc Trang where our support helicopters were based, about 40 miles in either direction from Can Tho and Bac Lieu. The guide asked if we wanted to stop but I was focused on getting to Bac Lieu so we pushed on.

Bac Lieu
The road into Bac Lieu looked very different from 40 years ago. Then, it was a poorly maintained dirt road with nothing but a few grass shacks and rice paddies alongside of it. Now, it’s a blacktop highway with so many houses along it that you can hardly see the rice paddies. As we approached the city center, I only recognized the town square, bridge and an old water tower; everything else changed.

We checked into the 3-star Bac Lieu Hotel and Donna started to wonder what she had gotten into. This town is still considered to be the “old Viet-Nam.”

I had asked Toan, my interpreter, if he could find anyone who was old enough to remember the war. I was searching for old comrades-in-arms, the Vietnamese Rangers with whom I had served. He found an older man who knew someone. After about 20 minutes, a rough and rugged looking guy walked into the hotel lobby; he looked like a Ranger! He was Sgt. Che from the Ranger Battalion and, while I did not remember him personally, he served with the Rangers while I was there and for years after I had left. I had spread out old pictures on a table and Sgt. Che started looking at the pictures and telling stories. I was particularly interested in knowing what has happened to several of my old friends. The Battalion Commander, Maj. Kiet, was killed several months after I had left in early 1968. I had heard that before, but he confirmed the story. The major’s RTO had stepped on a land mine killing himself, the major and critically injuring the American advisor. Maj. Kiet was a real warrior. He had been wounded many times during battles and I was saddened to learn that he was ultimately killed by a land mine. He deserved better.

My good friends were Capt. Long, the Battalion Executive Officer and 1Lt. Tai, the 4th Company Commander. Sgt. Che did not know much about what had happened to Lt. Tai, but he knew much about Capt. Long. After the death of Maj. Kiet, Capt. Long was promoted to Battalion Commander. He commanded the battalion for several years and eventually attained the rank of LTC. After that, he left the Army and was made the District Chief of Cai Lai, in the Can Tho area. He was married and had some kids.

During the fall of Viet-Nam in 1975, many things changed and people disappeared. Sgt. Che spent a year in a re-education camp; when he returned to his family, he had a very difficult time. For several years he worked odd jobs trying to make a living before finally being accepted back into the “new” society. He believed that Capt. Long made it to the U.S. and was still alive. My search for him would have to wait until I returned home.

Sgt. Che took us around Bac Lieu showing us the old American base and various other sites. There wasn’t a single brick left of any of it. The old provincial hospital where I had volunteered to help out with casualty control following a mortar attack in early 1967 was completely gone. The wall around the old building was still there, but a new hospital stood where the old one used to be. The old Ranger Battalion area was also gone; nothing was left of any of it. We toured the area out by the ocean and I learned of a Viet Cong guerrilla base that was located very close to an area where I had spent a lot of time. We were very close to it, but had never found it.

As a monsoon approached, we said our goodbyes to Sgt. Che and thanked him for his help and information. I could not believe that I had actually found an old Ranger from the time I served there and had learned so much in such a short period of time.

Departing Bac Lieu
We departed Bac Lieu on 23 October 2007… exactly 40 years to the day that I had left before. This time, I was leaving with a sense of closure. There was no longer anything for me but memories. It was a year that I would not change for anything, but would never want to do again.

On the way out of town, I wanted to stop and walk on a rice paddy dyke. I had walked on many during my time there, in fact, I swear I walked on every one of them in the entire Delta 40 years earlier. The paddies looked the same except now there are telephone and power lines running through them.

Although I got my shoes a bit muddy, it brought back old memories. This time I wasn’t worried about land mines, ambushes or snipers.

Soc Trang
We stopped at the old airbase in Soc Trang on our way back to Can Tho. I had flown several operations out of this airfield and, today, there is a military base located there. The old airfield is still there, but is not used for anything.

We made a stop at a place called the “bat pagoda,” a Buddhist pagoda surrounded by big bats that live in the trees there. They hang upside down all day waiting for the evening to go out and feed. There was a woman sit-ting outside of the pagoda with a cage of small birds. The custom is to buy a bird for 5,000 dong (about 32¢), say a prayer for a deceased person and release the bird — believed to release the deceased’s spirit. I bought and released two birds, one for Maj. Kiet and one for SSG Kenneth Hargrave (SSG Hargrave was a U.S. Army Special Forces whom I replaced on the Ranger Team. He was killed in a major battle with the Viet Cong in February ’67).

We again stayed at Can Tho’s Victoria Hotel and visited the floating market on the Hau River (the back river) before returning to HCMC. The market was a fine example of how capitalism works in this country. People from everywhere brought their goods to sell; while Viet-Nam is a communist country, capitalism reigns.

People own property and land like anywhere else; they can start and run their own businesses or work for others; there are rich and poor, and the government is not noticeably visible and there is very little military presence.

When a man turns 18, he must serve two years in the military, and afterward is free to do whatever he pleases. (I have since learned that it is not all what it appears on the surface. It is still a communist country and while it looks very peaceful to a visitor, there is still a lot of “suppression” going on.)

Reflections
We made the journey back and I was very glad. I highly encourage others to do so and hopefully it will give the closure that so few of us got all those years ago.

The Vietnamese people are wonderful and seemed very happy and friendly; they were glad to have us as their guests. I am happy for the Vietnamese people. They have endured so many years of war and it is good to see them finally at peace. This may be the longest period of time in their history without a war.

Viet-Nam has approximately 85 million people and two-thirds were born after 1975… the fall of the old South Vietnamese government. Many today do not know much about the war, considering it to be their father’s war or the “American” war. An example of this was at the hotel in HCMC. There were three guys working at the reception area and when they asked me why I was visiting Viet-Nam I told them I was a former Vietnamese Ranger (Biet Dong Quan); two of them had never even heard the term before.

I buried some “ghosts,” got answers to questions that have bothered me over the years and now had a sense of closure. I will always have fond memories of my comrades-in-arms, both American and Vietnamese. I will always remember those who died, were wounded and those who returned after doing their duty for God and Country.

The story continues
Upon returning from Viet-Nam, I joined an organization called “Counterparts,” a group of people dedicated to reuniting comrades-in-arms from the Viet-Nam War. I asked for their help in locating Capt. Long.

Bill Laurie and Joe West took up the challenge. They have many Vietnamese friends and contacts and knew where to go to start the process. After only a day or two, Bill Laurie contacted me saying he had a lead and would get back to me with more information.

About a week later, while on vacation in the Florida Keys, I got a call from a young lady asking me if I was Steve Leighton, the guy looking for Capt. Long. When I confirmed that I was, she identified herself as Annie, Capt. Long’s daughter and that he was on the phone with her. His English was not the best, so she said she would interpret for us. This was a total shock for me! My search was over! I could not believe it. For the more shocking news: he lived in Minneapolis, MN, barely 20 miles from my home. I traveled halfway around the world looking for him and found him living within 20 miles of me. Simply unbelievable!

A few days later, Annie called me, and her father and I began a very long conversation. I learned that it was very hard on her father after the war. He was sent to a “reeducation” camp in North Viet-Nam along the border with Laos where he spent 13 years. He had a wife and family, but his first wife passed away; his children from that marriage still live in Viet-Nam. He remarried and started another family, and in 1993, he left Viet-Nam, taking his family with him and settling in Minneapolis.

The meeting

We decided to meet the next evening. The WCCO news camera was present as well. When they arrived, I immediately recognized him. He had aged, but it was he. He walked in and we exchanged salutes, hugged and cried. I was simply overwhelmed at seeing him again after 40 years!

We spent the next two hours filling in the gaps. Another good friend was 1Lt. Tai, and I learned that he lived in California and that Long was still in contact with him.

The 13 years Capt. Long spent in the “reeducation” camps were hard on him, and they were especially hard on the Rangers (the VN elite troops) and anyone who had a high-ranking position in the government. Many Vietnamese did not survive these camps and life was extremely difficult. When I left Viet-Nam, he gave me a small 18k gold Buddha, which I had given to my wife years ago. She was wearing it that evening on a charm bracelet, and Capt. Long could not believe I still had it.

The following day was Capt. Long’s birthday and I had some old pictures of us made into 8x10s, framed and presented them to him as a birthday gift. He had lost all of his belongings in 1975 and was very pleased to have these pictures.

We shared more dinners together and even entertained Capt. Long in our house where I was delighted to have him meet the rest of my family. (While I keep referring to him as Capt. Long [he was a captain when I knew him], he was really a Lt. Col. when he got out of the military.) He brought all of his U.S. family to our house and we had a houseful. I wanted his family to know how honored and proud I was to have them at my house and what a great patriot their father was for their homeland.

He had suffered much, but that evening was just awesome. Capt. Long was a powerful man and had a very distinguished career in the military and government in his country. It was very hard for him to leave that behind and start a new life in a foreign land. He did his part for his people and country and he did it well. I will always honor and respect this man for all he has done in his life and especially for me.

From left: Le Tan Tai, Steve Leighton and Le Thanh Long in April 2009, the first time the three were together in 42 years.


A Christmas present
It was Christmas and I received a call from Annie Long, who had set up a conference call with Maj. Tai, my other counterpart. He was alive and well, living in San Jose, CA. We spent time chatting and it reconnecting and I learned that he, too, spent 10 long, hard years in a “reeducation” camp.

While it’s referred to as “reeducation,” it was anything but. This was more like a prison with lots of long, hard labor, starvation, disease, etc. Tai was lucky to survive his years in the north at this camp.

Final chapter
In February 2008, Donna and I flew to California and met with Major Le Tan Tai, former 42nd Ranger Battalion, ARVN 21st Infantry Division and his family.

We went out for dinner, and I learned that he works for a pharmaceutical company. He could not believe we went back to Viet-Nam to look for him; his family was very touched by our story about returning to Viet-Nam. It was so great to reconnect with him; he and Long had a tremendous impact on my life and I’m sure I’m a better person for it.

Tai gave me a description of his time spent in “reeducation” camp and it was the first time someone actually described it to me in detail. Here is some of what he shared.

His group of approximately 300 people was sent to a jungle camp in North Viet-Nam along the Laotian border. They were awakened early every morning by a loud clanging noise and the first thing for the day was exercise. Exercise was very difficult because they were given no food and, as time went on, they became very weak. They were ever vigilant of the jungle floor for anything that moved. If a bug so much as ran across in front of them, they tried to catch it for food. At one time, Tai was so weak he couldn’t walk without help from others and a walking stick. He could not lift his legs high enough to step over a small log.

As time went by, the first order of business each morning, before exercise, was to see how many had passed away during the night. (By the end of his 10 years, they lost approximately 200 to death from disease and starvation.) Work for the day was primarily the construction of a prison camp. When one camp was completed, they moved to a new location to begin construction of another camp.

This went on for years until most all had perished and there was no need for new camps. Tai lost his closest friend in the camp, and at one point, Tai thought he would die as well because he was so skinny he could hardly walk. His wife managed to get some food to him and he survived.

After surviving reeducation, he returned to Saigon where he lived for five years before gaining a sponsor to come to the U.S. During his time in reeducation, his mother and his father-in-law passed away. His wife, wanting to spare him from additional mental anguish, didn’t tell him about the deaths until he was released.

Tai remains in contact with another counterpart, former 1Lt. Loc, 42nd Ranger Battalion, who lives in Grand Rapids, MI. I was not as close to him as I was with Long and Tai, but he did take me out of the bush on my 20th birthday for a hot shower and a cold drink. (We were on a 17-day deployment outside of Bac Lieu pulling security on the salt flats where the VC were quite active. My birthday fell right in the middle of it.) I will always remember Loc for that trip back to town on my birthday — what a treat!

If you have questions about the trip or want some contact information about the groups I am now active in, please e-mail leightonconsult@earthlink.net.