10 - Dispatch from the DMZ

The last time I stood to attention and saluted on this spot, I was getting a medal. A crazy general had decided the hilltop called Con Thien was a good place for an awards parade. Con Thien means "Hill of Angels", but the GIs and Marines who worked here called it "the meat grinder." It is reported to be the most heavily shelled spot of the American War - just a rocket lob south of the border between the two warring Vietnams.

The first time I was atop Con Thien, I just wanted the little ceremony finished, so I could get onto a helicopter and get the hell out of there. This time, I had flown halfway around the world to climb into the old French bunker on the top, look north to see what the Demilitarized Zone looks like - and hear what this hill's angels may have to say to me after 40 years.

Walking through the elephant grass-lined path up the hill, there is little sign of its past infamy or glory. But closer attention notes bits of sandbags and identifiable debris mixed into the soil around the rubber trees that are being planted to cover most of our former bases around here.

We meet a man and wife, armed with hoes, clearing rows through the brush to plant saplings. They are paid 4 dollars a day to plant the trees, and get to sell any scrap metal they find - iron bombs and steel junk, brass bullets and copper wire - bringing in another couple of bucks per day. He pointed out their recent finds - a handful of bullets and 2 live M-79 grenades - he pointed with half a hand.

A De-Militarized Zone is the maximum oxymoron. Like the one in Korea today, the Vietnamese DMZ was the most militarized place of the war. Both sides had jets; both sides had tanks; both sides had huge artillery guns, and both sides lived underground - us in bunkered bases like Con Thien, and them in underground villages like the Vinh Moc tunnels.

We drive across "Freedom Bridge" into the North to go down into this amazing tunnel complex, now a tourist draw. Some parts are 60' underground. It housed an entire village dedicated to keeping supplies flowing to the DMZ forces attacking the South. Over 2 miles of large, stand-up size tunnels with kitchens and sleeping areas - and even room for the 17 babies born there during the war - 16 are still alive and in the army.

The small museum houses a 12.7mm anti-aircraft gun for me to try on for size. On the wall is a photo of a Birddog that was shot down nearby - that's what Catkillers flew … Army O-1 Birddogs. And these tunnels, the guns that protected them, and the bigger guns they supplied, are what Birddogs hunted.

As I stand in a tunnel entrance, it is easy to see why they were so damn hard to find from the air. The holes that held their protective anti-aircraft guns
without their camouflage, are easy to see from ground level - we pass several sets. Looking up, I can imagine how my little white face must have looked, peering down from a Birddog - a tempting target. They missed me, mostly … others were not so blessed.

One was my friend Lee. We went to flight school together - he lived next door. We had famously rowdy poker games - he once won another pilot's Oldsmoble, then gave it back the next day. He danced on the tabletops at the officer's club, we dueled with champaign corks - we lived life large. And he was large, and of a body shape that was not flattered by our flight suits, and so picked up the nickname "Blivet" after a joke of the day about "10 pounds of shit in a 5 pound sack".

He became a Catkiller, one of several of my classmates that were sent to the unit. I volunteered to join later. We were roommates in Phu Bai and he was my mentor - teaching me how to stay alive while flying in the DMZ. I was in my plane, Lee and his observer Steve, were nearby in theirs. We hung over a target talking on the radio - and then a shell came up and picked him. Not much more to say. Not much more is known. He was one of the best of us. I guess the angels didn't know.

It took effort to find the spot in North Vietnam where Lee ended his last flight - some research in Washington, the National Archives, CIA documents, MIA researchers work, etc. - and most importantly, my own maps from that time.

The maps were kept for many years by my mother, sent to her by another Catkiller that was taken too soon, Terry Scruggs. He became my new roommate and shipped all of my stuff home after I was medi-evaced out to a hospital in Japan. Thanks again Terry.

A good road now runs north from Con Tien toward the site … past the National Cemetery where tens of thousands of gravestones stand … across the Ben Hai River, and across the DMZ into North Vietnam. A cow path leads me further thru any mines, up a draw, past old trenches and craters and I am alone. There is a tiny creek running clear, adding its babble to the birds. This could be the spot … or not. It is not important - I am here for me, not them. 40 years is a long time but you are never too old to cry.

Trees have grown tall around a meadow, flowers bloom, bananas grow wild - it is a place at peace. May Donald Lee Harrison and all the others be at peace - and may the angels of this beautiful country never again take wing to war.

- Reunification Rod