A trip forward into the past (the final part)
We have come, finally, to an end of this two year odyssey. A second trip to Vietnam, with just Major Carey and myself was organized with the intent of completing the original mission. During our time there we found the hill and the stream bed. We located both sites of ambush and recovered the stones that we buried at the foot of the Rockpile and the plaque that Joe buried nearby.
Tuesday, 24 March, 2009
Mike Carey, Phong and Thach, the local guide who accompanied us last year and I, climbed to Hill 362 and down into the streambed. We decided the night before to make these forays without the stones/plaque. Today, I am not sure why we made that decision, but we did. We reasoned that after finding our way to our goals, we could go back later with the memorial items. Getting to the hill was easier than we expected. A long walk uphill, for sure, but very doable for a wide range of people. The stream bed was another story. It is rough, with huge boulders to climb over and quite over grown with vines and brush. The water is just teeming with leeches.
While searching for the attack site at the stream bed, we all fell several times. Major Carey twisted his right knee and began to have some difficulty, although he did not mention any of it to us at the time. Eventually, Mike identified pretty clearly the spot of the ambush, and so we were set for a return trip with the memorial items. We had identified our hill top and our stream bed sites. On our way back to the Chua Village, where we left our car and driver, Mike's knee began to give him more and more trouble. He could no longer hide the fact that he was hurt. I felt almost dissociated from reality and could not get several different war movies out of my head, such as The Bridge Over The River Kwai. Mike is limping only slightly, but I know how much he is hurting. As I have indicated previously, he is one tough Marine. I cut a walking staff from a small tree for him which I think helped. I offered to take his pack but of course, he refused. There was no reason for us to hurry on this day, we had plenty of daylight hours left, and despite our challenges, we got back to the village without further problems. The ride back to the hotel in DongHa included a cooler of cold Huda beer. That is good enough to make tired men smile.
Wednesday, 25 March, 2009
We went in search of the stones and plaque. Joe Holt's pictures and instructions on where he buried the plaque were perfect. We found it immediately. What we did not expect was the blood stained Vietnamese Liberation flag that he buried beneath it. We all got very excited about that. Joe always has something up his sleeve. He's a good man to have around. I have just great pictures of that find.
The stones were a different situation. The only marker was John's GPS numbers which gave us an area about 20 meters in diameter. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. We spent about 6 hours total in our search that day. Quite disappointing. At that point we knew it was too late to start back up toward the hill and streambed and decided to call it a day with the intent to finish the job tomorrow. Phong was like a blood hound. He did not want to give up. We had to force him to get into the car and go back to the hotel.
Thursday, 26 March, 2009
Over breakfast, Phong, Ngoc and Thach wanted to return to the foot of The Rockpile to search for the stones. I was against the idea, thinking it was a lost cause and I was comfortable that the stones were ok right where they lie. Wherever that might be. This was our last day and the only shot we had of getting something planted up there. I really didn't want to spend more time searching for the stones. I requested that we give the search just one hour and if unproductive, we would head for the hill with just the plaque. Every one agreed. Phong had worked most of the night, trying to better pinpoint the location. He did some refiguring with map and some other figures and thought perhaps the stones were closer to the dirt road than we had originally thought. The road had been graded over at least once since last year. Once there, within 15 minutes he found a spot that appeared to have been previously shoveled over and bingo, he found the stones. Just like that. It was a very happy moment for all of us. Phong's determination is to be admired.
With both the collection of stones and the plaque in hand, we headed back to the Chua Village and the trek to plant them. It was agreed that I would go up the mountain with Phong and Thach. Mike's knee was in no condition to get him there and back. He could barely get out of a chair once he sat down and he did not want to be a liability.
I told my guides that I did not want to take any breaks. I just wanted to get up to the hill top site, find a suitable burial place and then down into the stream bed and back home. I was mostly concerned about the stream bed. It is just so rough finding one's footing down there.
Once on top of the 362, we had to bull our way through the very dense underbrush along the crest. I was in the lead with a machete but that proved very little help. The vines grabbed at every hand and foot dragging us back. At one point I thought we were beginning to get just a bit off crest and I climbed a tree to get my bearings. Right there, in front of me, was the saddle back. My heart skipped a beat and the hair on my neck stood stiffly on end. There was no need to go any further. We found the battle site we had been searching two long years for. I immediately thought of John and Mike and of the "Ten Good Men" who tried to find the way here last year, wishing we could all be together at this moment.
The three of us took turns digging and I had Thach take a video recording of me planting the stones and the plaque into the ground. I placed Lt. Kopfler's stone on top of all the others, then the plaque over that, said a short prayer and filled in the grave. Phong took a GPS reading at the site. I shot an azimuth back toward the spot we gained the ridge and we were done with this part of our job.
At this point, we decided to have a short lunch before heading down to the stream. While Phong and Thach were laying out the food, I reviewed the short video and broke down in tears. It has been a long time coming. John Olsen did so much work for this and he could not be here. Mike gave much of his time and energy and he could not be here. I felt so completely inadequate in this position. As I said to both of them later, I hope only that I represented the company well.
The guides could tell that I was very antsy about getting down to the stream and finishing our work once and for all so we cut lunch short. It was pretty easy getting to the water as we knew pretty much where we were going. We then had to turn up stream and find the site that Mike identified as the place of ambush, an L-shaped spot in the stream. We went only a few hundred yards before finding the site and set about placing the stones in an area that we thought would never get washed out. Again, we took many pictures and a GPS reading for documentation and future reference.
We found our way back up the very long embankment and onto our path and began the long walk back to the village. On the way, we stopped at a very small path-side shrine where a local person must have died. I lit some incense, said a prayer for the departed soul and we moved on down the path. The dangers of snakes and most of all, unexploded ordinance, were in our minds throughout the trip but we never talked about them out loud. We spotted many snake holes and even snake eggs but if there were snakes near us, they made themselves scarce before we could spot them.
Phong says we got back to the village in record time. We were very tired and were covered with leeches. It took quite a while to find and rid ourselves of all of them. The feet and ankles had the most of course, and my feet remained too swollen to wear shoes for about 6 days afterward. The itching is about the most intense I have ever experienced.
I want to say here that none of this could have happened without the incredible amount of research and work that Ngoc and Phong did and of course Thach, the local guide, who I took to calling The Rock Lady because she is so solid and determined. Their work was just spectacular. Phong in particular is an amazing young man who I have great respect for. Determination certainly is a trademark of the Vietnamese people.
This trip took much more out of me than last year, but bumps, bruises, diarrhea, leptospirosis and leeches aside, there is a very deep satisfaction with this accomplishment. It has been on all of our minds for 2 years and now the main work is completed. Future visits to this place will be to a spot found and marked. To a place for prayer, remembrance and healing. Our memorial to the men of India Company who gave up their souls so that others might live now rests on Hill 362 and in the stream bed below. Their names and their deeds will never, ever be forgotten. For me, for the "ten good men" who came last year and for those men who we came in search of, there is no greater honor than the title: United States Marine.
Written by Doug Howell.
Published on 4/11/09