Chau Duc, Ben Tre and
Dong Tam (second visit)
Monday, March 27, 2001-Saigon
After my weekend in Chau Duc, I returned with my group to Cao Lanh, said goodbye and hired a driver to take me to My Tho. I spent the night in the Chuong Duong Hotel overlooking the Mekong river.
I arose early Monday morning, walked the riverfront of My Tho and then left with my guide and driver for Ben Tre province (formerly called Kien Hoa Province before the reunification of 1975). My guide informed me that about five years ago (it's always about five years ago when you ask when something happened), the My Tho ferry site was moved down the river about 500 meters toward Dong Tam. I did go back to the old ferry site and photographed the access road as well as the old concrete pilings for the pier.
After boarding the ferry, I arrived at the Ben Tre side of the river. How it has changed! In 1968 the ferry site was surrounded by a few small single story buildings containing a couple of small places to eat, a couple of small stores and a small vegetable market. Today there are multistory buildings and a very large market area stretching about the length a city block. The entire road into Ben Tre is now very wide, well paved and surrounded on both by various commercial buildings, small shops and homes The old dilapidated French bridge that we used to cross is now replaced with a new concrete one. I stopped for a photo and discovered the remains of the old RFPF compound that used to protect the bridge. In 68 it was a concrete barracks with an adjoining concrete tower, shaped like a silo, that stood about 20 feet high. It has small shooting windows coming out the side for small arms fire and on the top you can see where the machine gun parapet was located. It is about the only remaining military defensive position I have seen to date.
I continued on to Ben Tre City and stopped at the old soccer stadium with it's surrounding concrete walls. My platoon spent a night there in the company of the occupying artillery battery that was based there. Back then the field was full of 105 Howitzers, tents, and bunkers and the walls were manned by our guards. Today it is once again being used for what it was intended, Vietnamese Football (soccer).
Across the street from the stadium stands a park honoring the Vietnamese battle against the French. It was just "my good fortune" to arrive in the middle of a ceremony celebrating the 70th anniversary of the coming of communism to Ben Tre province. There was a marathon being run, school children were marching in a parade and the local communist party officials were presiding. While I couldn't read the Vietnamese red and yellow banners, I did notice the word "Ho Chi Minh" on several of them.
Finally, after maneuvering our car around the celebration, we came to the city center and headed left to the east of My Tho. We drove the road that parallels the Ben Tre river until we came to where the Chet Sey river intersects it, about ten kilometers out of town. This was my destination. The old bridge that crossed the Chet Say had been blown up by the VC and when we were there in 68 there was a ferry to the other side of the river. Next to the ferry landing was an RFPF compound that was protecting the crossing. Next to the RFPF compound was a rice paddy where my D Company, 15th Engineers built what was to be called "Fire support Base David". I understand it was named after the son of some high ranking Army officer perhaps Col. Ira Hunt, our incompetent division chief of staff for whom I have nothing but contempt. But, that's another story.
Before I continue, let me digress. During my tour in the Mekong Delta, I spent most of my time split between the 9th Infantry base camp at Dong Tam and the Navy ships that carried the Mobile Riverine force (MRF) around the delta. While supporting the MRF with our demolitions, our mission was to blow up enemy bunkers, booby traps, sampans, munitions and mines the we might capture and anything else that was deemed to being in need of destruction. We would get into the tango boats and be transported by water to our theatre of operation where we were inserted onto land for what might be a two or three day tromp through the rice paddies, looking for the VC. Rarely did we know exactly where in the hell we were and consequently today, even though I can recall several locations and events in nameless places, I would not be able locate or return to where they were. Fire support David was unique in that D Company sent two platoons with heavy equipment there by road and ferry in order to construct it. Consequently, I was able to remember how to drive there now.
1 - Boat yard on the site of the former FSB David
2 - New bridge over the Chet Say river at FSB David
3 - Another view of where FSB David was located
4 - Chet Say river bridge showing the rubble from the bridge that the VC blew in the late '60s
For the engineers, infantry and artillery men who were on Fire support base David, it turned into a living hell. It was ill conceived from the beginning. We were there in September during the rainy season. As we pushed up berms in the rice paddy and built our bunkers and artillery emplacements, the rains began. Before long we were all muddling around in about eight inches of standing water. What a surprise this must have been for the top brass, water in a rice paddy in the middle of the monsoons. Can you imagine that? Our dozers and front end loaders were stuck and the Artillery could not manage their guns. One night, about ten days after we started construction, we underwent a VC mortar attack that was devastating. The first round landed in the middle of the Infantry company's CP tent and hit the first Sergeant in either the back or the chest. He and several other were killed or wounded by this first round. Other rounds followed in rapid succession killing and wounding our guys as they struggled through the water in the dark, searching for a bunker or anything which might provide shelter. I myself crawled into a dozer track rut and submerged my body as best I could, keeping only my nose and eyes out of water. The intermittent flash of exploding mortar rounds yielded the only light with which to illuminate possible sources of shelter. Men were screaming for medics and the cries of the wounded could be heard everywhere. The infantry company suffered the most causalities but some of our engineers received wounds as well. Fortunately, Delta Company had no KIA's. Med evac helicopters flew all night long and the sky was patrolled by circling Cobra Gun ships, searching for the flash of VC Mortars. We manned the berm for the rest of the night, expecting the ground attack that never came. We did receive small arms fire from across the Chet Say river the day before and had a brief fire fight with the VC. In any event, By day light it was apparent that we had suffered severe casualties. Although I do not recall the exact count, it is my recollection that of about 150 men on the fire support base, nearly a third were evacuated as dead or wounded. For those who have never been through a mortar attack, it is much like playing a perverse and deadly game of cards. The mortars are indiscriminate in who they kill and luck has everything to do with who gets hit and who doesn't.'
After the mortar attack, division headquarters decided to abandon Fire Support David. My platoon of engineers were the last to leave. I can recall looking back at the small impoundment as I left. It was empty of all equipment and all that remained were empty boxes that had contained C-rations and other useless trash. A few pieces of culvert halves with sand bags on top had served as inadequate bunkers and were now available for the local Vietnamese to salvage. It had been a dreadful place and we were all glad to return to Dong Tam where cold showers and hot chow were waiting for us.
As I look back on that night, there are many more specific memories that will forever be with me. But now is not the time to talk about them. I am sure many of my platoon members could recount their experiences there as well.
Now, lets get back to the present. Today a boat yard occupies the land where Fire Support David once stood. On it stands a large metal roofed building under which boats are being built and repaired. I walked around it for a short time and then wondered down a path to what would have been the woods surrounding the outside of the perimeter. Today it is a residential area with several small houses surrounded by orchards and gardens. It felt very tranquil. Birds were singing and a rooster was crowing in the distance. It was so difficult to believe that it has such a violent history.
After a few minutes of walking and reflecting on the past, I returned to my guide and driver at the bridge. I noticed a pile of rubble nearby which I identified as part of the old bridge the VC had blown up. I also saw several old Navy Boston whalers stacked up not far from the road. I then got into the car and left Fire support David for what will be my last time.
After returning to MyTho, I directed the driver and guide to take me back to Dong Tam. I still felt uncertain that I had seen the old gate to the base camp and wanted to explore further. Sure enough, The snake farm is located at a new gate entrance, not the old one. I stayed on the road that parallels the MyTho river until the pavement ended and then continued down a dirt road. In looking to the right, I suddenly recognized the old Catholic orphanage that was run by Father Duc and which we used to help support. My guide told me that he knew of Father Duc and that he had died "only five years ago". I continued on down the dirt road, passing another gate to the VN military training center on Dong Tam, until I came to a bridge over a canal. I got out of the car, walked up onto the bridge and there, to the right, was Dong Tam. I was standing over the canal that defined the base camps western perimeter. In the near distance, coming off the canal to the right, was the old Navy basin. It was all there. I could see what I believe to be the old runway for fixed wing aircraft in the distance, running parallel to and not far from the western canal. I could make out a couple of old tall metal buildings, possible remnants of the Navy sheds that lay between the base camp and the basin. Contrary to what I had been told, there was no sign of any of our old boats in the basin. In fact, there was not a boat to be seen. I could see what I think was the old air boat ramp coming out of the basin, however it may simply be a launch for tailored boats today. In the distance I could make out a few buildings on Dong Tam, but, even from the elevation of the bridge, it was difficult to see them for all the vegetation that is growing on the base. My guide and driver were extremely nervous about my being there and urged me to get back into the car to leave. I got some good photo's of the basin, the distant base camp and the old gate area before being hustled out of this restricted area and back to the old Dong Tam road to Hwy 1. As I left the area I got photo's of the old school house on the Dong Tam road and also the intersection at Hwy. 1. I then continued on to Saigon.
note: To see Lt. Houghton's photos of Dong Tam click HERE
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All in all, it was a busy and exciting day, filled with amazement at how much things have changed and emotions over what it once was. I have seen what I came to see; Dong Tam and Fire support base David. My curiosity has been satisfied. I would dearly love to drive back onto Dong Tam, but at this time, military security does not permit it. Perhaps others who return in the future will have that opportunity. Many of you may wonder about how I am handling my emotions. I'm doing just fine. As I recounted the events that took place on Fire Support David, I could feel the adrenalin running through my veins and a sense of anxiety came over me. But, this is nothing new, I get that way whenever I talk about things that happened during the war. I just don't talk about the war very often and find that few people want to listen..
Tomorrow I will visit the tunnels at Cu Chi and the war museum here in Saigon. I will then continue my journey to Da Nang, Hue, Hoi An, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. I will see much of Vietnam that I have only read about or seen on TV. I will enjoy myself and try to see it outside the context of my war experience.
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