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A Vietnam Veteran Returns

by David Hagen


Posted on January 31, 2017


Ancient row houses create a soulful setting

David Hagen, from Grass Valley California, planned a return trip to Vietnam in 2015 —36 years after being stationed there in 1967-8, with the intent of making contact with people he had known during the war. Below are notes, correspondence and historic photos David shared with us about his fascinating experiences during this project.

To: Patrick Morris, Indochina Travel Subject: Vietnam Experience 1967-69 - Background, Photos, Documentation

Hello Patrick: As we discussed, my main objective for this trip is to try to locate friends.

From July 1967 to May 1968 I was Commanding Officer of the 61st Medical Detachment at Dong Tam Base; it was located in the Mekong Delta, seven kms west of My Tho. Dong Tam was home of the U.S. Army's 9th Infantry Division and the joint U.S. Army/Navy Mobile Riverine Force. The 61st Med Det provided preventive medicine support throughout IV Corps Tactical Zone - essentially all of the Delta· 40,000 square kilometers. We traveled extensively, supporting U.S. Army units and Vietnamese public health officials in disease prevention and sanitation improvement.

I have put together photos, info and documents to help with the search. Below is some background and descriptions of the photos on the flash drive. I am making progress contacting a former New Zealand Red Cross worker who worked with the Montagnards while I was there (he's in photo 36). I hope he can give me some specifics on the Montagnard villages in the Pleiku area. Background I was fortunate after college to receive a direct commission as a Medical Entomologist in the U.S. Army Medical Service Corp because of the entomology courses I took.

The Army needed Entomologists for Viet Nam. It was an interesting, challenging job. The mission of Army Preventive Medicin is to "Conserve the Fighting Strength". Our job was to prevent disease and promote health in a hot, humid and hostile combat environment, with many endemic communicable diseases and health hazards Many of these diseases were transmitted by insect and rodent vectors - diseases such as malaria, dengue hemorrhagic fever, Japanese encephalitis, plague, rabies, scrub typhus. Diarrheal disease, venereal diseases, fevers of unknown origin (FUOs), typhoid fever, intestinal parasites, cholera, infectious hepatitis, water- and food-borne disease, poor sanitation, heat cramps, heat stroke, skin rashes, immersion foot, hearing loss - there was no shortage of preventive medicine challenges in Vietnam.

Dong Tam Base

A. Photos of Dong Tam Base (My Tho) and 61st Medical Detachment

Aerial view - My Tho and Dong Tam Base

Aerial view of Dong Tam Base

Dong Tam and 61st Medical Detachment (I am second from right)

Dong Tam and 61st Medical Detachment

Dong Tam and 61st Medical Detachment on Beautification

MyTho and Dong Tam Base 1967-68

These are the people I would like to locate:

Photo 1: Dai Uy (Captain) Linh (the well-built gentleman second from left) was Commanding Officer of the 7th Ordinance Company, 7th Infantry Division, ARVN, located in My Tho. This photo was taken in his office in 1967 or 1968, with his staff. The American in the photo is not me, but SP/5 Ely, one of the men in my Detachment. One of Dai Uy Linh's responsibilities was to store the weapons captured from the Viet Cong.

Photo 2: Some of Dai Uy Linh's captured weapons, 7th Ordnance Company, ARVN, My Tho.

Photo 3: This ARVN Lieutenant and his wife owned a bar in My Tho. I am sorry I don't remember his name.

Photo 4: ARVN Lieutenant and family in their My Tho bar. Photo 4A: Me and the Lieutenant.

Photo 5: ARVN Lieutenant and his wife, with wife's friends, at Dong Tam Base.

Photo 6: Our Detachment secretary. Sorry, I don't remember her name. She was an employee of Pacific Architects and Engineers (PA&E), an American civilian contractor, who supplied manpower to U.S. Army units.

Me and the Lieutenant

Photo 7: U.S. Army dentist with two of our hooch girls, Dong Tam Base.

My Tho Protestant Orphanage

Photos 8-20: I believe Dai Uy Linh, or one of our other Vietnamese friends, told us about the Orphanage. decided to contact my hometown newspapers and ask for donations of clothing, toys, soap. The San Francisco Chronicle picked up the story, as did my college paper at San Jose State College. The Army Times and 9th Infantry Division newspaper 'The Old Reliable" also ran stories about it. The response was overwhelming (see photo of our donations at our unit on Dong Tam Base). We outfitted all the children at the Orphanage many times over, and then tried to give the rest to people in My Tho. We were mobbed, and decided to end the clothing drive:>). I don't know if the Orphanage still exists; I would like to find out, and try to contact anyone who worked there, or some of the children who were there. All of us adored the children, and it was a wonderful experience for me and my men.

French Fort

Photos 21-26: While on the road to or from My Tho with your guide I would like to visit Phao Dai (Fort) Rach Coe, an old French Fort at Long Linh, NE of My Tho. It lies 16 km east of Highway 50, east of Can Duo, north of Go Cong, at the junction of Song Varn Co and Cua Soi Rap, and east of Ngoi nha 126 cot (House with 126).

Pleiku & Montagnards

Pleiku I was Commanding Officer of the 3rd Medical Detachment from November 1968 - November 1969. Photos 27, 28: My hooch maid and her children. Photos 29, 30: Other hooch maids. Photos 31, 32: I don't know if the village of Plei la Lou still exits. 32 is an article I got published in a medical journal about the health issues of relocating hill tribes. Photo 32A shows the villagers making knives. Photos 33-38: Montagnard village north of Pleiku. I don't recall the name, but I believe it was either Jarai or Rhade tribe. I am making progress contacting the New Zealand Red Cross fellow in photo 36 to get more information. Photo 39: This is a Montagnard village chief and his family. I don't remember the village. We helped him with some .38 pistol ammo we scrounged from the U.S. Air Force:>).

Post-tour recap

Hello Patrick, and Happy New Year! I am back in Chiang Mai, organizing the 1000s of photos from our amazing trip. It's going to take a while :>). I know you are on holiday, but I wanted to give you some feedback. It was my very good fortune that I happened to come across your website and gave you a call. Thanks to you and your wonderful team in-country, Nid and I had some truly incredible experiences and encounters. Everything went so smooth. I know you have been doing his for a while, and you certainly deserve your excellent reputation, in spades.

I had no idea what to expect after so many years, aside from what I had read; admittedly I had some preconceived pictures in my mind of how things might be. I gained a whole new perspective, thanks to your help planning the trip and your guides, with whom we really connected. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to meet Quyet in Hanoi. The visits he arranged with the musicians Pham Chi Khanh and his daughter, and with Colonel My, the MIG pilot, were magic. And thanks to you and Quyet for the gifts. So many stories, so many interesting contacts. So many former enemies now friends. But that's the story for all of us.

I was pleased that Ly Quang Hoan was our guide in Saigon and the Delta. As a former ARVN soldier in the Highlands, we had a good understanding from our common experiences.Was sorry to see they broke his arm with a rifle barrel in the re-education camp he was in for 2-1/2 years, because he refused to be re-educated. He got very lucky for us, twice. He wasn't sure we could get into the French Fort, NE of My Tho, since there is an army unit camped there. But his experience with other vets wanting to have a look at sensitive areas paid off again. We found a very young, very friendly enlisted soldier who I understand was a squad leader. It was really hot, and he was wearing green shorts and t-shirt. Quang explained I was a former Dai Uy Bac Si who did some malaria work at the fort in '67. Welcome, he says, and we go in. When I asked if I could take his picture he said please wait a moment, and he put some long pants on, still with the green t-shirt.

It really is a remote, broken down old fortress, and I have no idea why his unit is there. Didn't ask, of course. We spent an hour wandering around the old fortifications, exactly as my old pictures showed. Only difference - the surrounding area is overgrown now, where before their wasn't a tree for miles, and you could see all the way to the coast. I got my pictures of the entrance to the fort, with the old French inscription in stone; I hadn't seen it before since I came and went by chopper. This fellow was absolutely delighted when I gave him the aerial photos of the place from before, something he would never have imagined. I also gave him the equivalent of $50, in front of him and some of his comrades, and suggested he and his men get some beer and cigarettes, and have a party on me at this old fortress. I was, and always will be, grateful for his kindness. Maybe age still has its privileges, at least in the East :>).

Next stop was My Tho, where we got lucky again. Quang made some inquiries at the big Catholic church about the Protestant orphanage, and we were directed around the corner to the modest church and office. My pictures and a few phone calls turned up an old gentleman, still among us and lucid, who was the cashier of the orphanage when we visited in '67. We were taken to his home, and had a great visit. The daughter of the teacher in my photo lives literally a few doors away, so we visited her also. Her home is on the site of the original orphanage, disbanded by the new regime, and now a school. Her Mom, in my photo, lives in Saigon, and this whole group is very active in the Vietnamese Church in VN and in the US. The Mom has made many trips to the US in association with church work. When we went back to Saigon we had dinner with she and her family at her home.The fellow who was the U.S. Army Pastor for the Delta region is in contact with these folks; he and I are now in touch.

I am Buddhist, but it is irrelevant. Such a pleasure to meet up with old friends. OK, one more story. We stopped on the road to my former base at Dong Tam, and bought some sugar cane juice from an old dear. We took a break and chatted a while. Turns out her Dad was a VC, and she was a 14 year-old girl in 1967, had a job cleaning the camp when I was there. I didn't know her of course, but she said she used to draw maps of the camp and smuggle them out to Dad, who would meet up with his buds at night and drop rockets on us. We had a good laugh.In her 60s, I told her she was still a pretty lady; she blushed and said she was still single, never married. What a sweetheart. Left her a nice tip for the juice.

And so it went. Went on down the road to Ap Bac, site of a disastrous battle for the ARVN in '63; then back to Saigon, and more sights. Pleiku was just as good. Phong came up from Danang and met us with two other fine fellows - Hrill (Jarai) and Vinh (Vietnamese/Bahnar). I couldn't believe it when Hrill told me he was a grad of Univ of Hawaii Manoa - where I got my MPH. He had just returnedafter a full scholarship. Now working for an NGO, helping the Jarai.Talk about coincidences. He is now a 'bro of course. :>) Very outgoing, laid back island-type guy, very popular in the area, knew the stunning Vietnamese Pleiku TV news presenter, who was being photographed on the 'Road of Love' - a tree-lined road popular for pre-wedding photos. I knew of the sensitivity of the area after reading about it - the unrest and demonstrations against the regime and the ongoing surveillance. We found out first-hand after visiting several villages.

We stopped for lunch at a park-like restaurant very popular with the locals - rice wine, live classical music and good food. The owner was a friend of Hrill, so I got out my laptop and shared some of my old photos. We were gathered around this table outside when, unknown to me, a plainclothes policeman shows up to see what we have been up to.I guess he followed us, or someone reported. Anyway, he listened in for a while, and left, apparently satisfied we were not trying to organize the locals into some kind of anti-government sentiment. Vinh was adamant we continue the next day without Hrill, and we moved onto Kontum and Bahnar villages. I would not let this very minor incident deter your any clients from visiting this area in the least. I believe it was indeed minor, and routine surveillance of foreigners' activities. The guides made it very clear in advance that some areas we could not go to, and when they said it was time to leave a place, we move out. The last thing any of us visitors want to do is make life difficult for your guides or the locals.

Vinh was great. He apologized for his abrupt manner - necessary at the time - due to being 1/2 Vietnamese :>). We visited his monastery in Kontum where he studied to be a priest (became a teacher), visited some old battlefields and ambush sites, visited a Bahnar graveyard, had dinner at his home, did a Bahnar dance with his friends, and just generally had a really interesting and funtime. Everyone loves Hoi An. The rains let up at just the right time, giving Nid and I many hours of walking in old town. The Essence Hotel was fabulous. By far the most attractive, comfortable, hotel of the trip, with fantastic service and excellent food.Very high marks all round.

Hue and Hanoi were amazing; I'd like to return to take more in. The water puppet theater in Hanoi wasbeautiful and fun, loved the music. We connected with my friend's Dad and his wife in Hanoi. In fact I am very glad I left the last two full days free, as we really got on, and spent the time with them. It seems Trao was born in the camp where Ho Chi Minh hid out in 1945, where her father was a part of that group. She is an amazing and very determined lady, having gotten her PhD doing research on leprosy, and head of the Dept of Immunology and Molecular Biology at the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, Hanoi, formerly the Pasteur Institute. We found out while touring the Temple of Literature her great-great-etc. grandfather was a mandarin, and director of the branch university in Hue in 1737.His academic gown is on display in the Temple of Literature. Quite a family history. They are coming to Chiang Mai on Jan 1; looking forward to hearing more of their story. So, those are some of the highlights.

I tipped all the guides and drivers at least double the suggested rate, usually more. I cannot speak highly enough about them all. Without them we would not have seen what we saw nor meet the people we met. But you knew that ^_^. Is there anything more I can do for them regarding recommendations. I have droned on enough here. Of course I will put an outstanding review on your website, obviously shorter and to the point.


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