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      -- Essays On The Vietnam Conflict --
                                  The Haunting
                                By Phil McCombs

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2000; Page F01

TIME TO MOVE ON? Oh, yeah.

A quarter-century ago, the North Vietnamese Army entered Saigon and it became Ho Chi Minh City. I'd left at dusk the day before on a helicopter out of the back parking lot of the U.S. Embassy, which was a chaotic scene that hot, muggy April 29. 

Now, driving to work, I'm whistling the South Vietnamese national anthem. Then crying. After all, we went there to fight for freedom. With most Americans at a certain point, I believed that. It was John F. Kennedy who said we'd pay any price to do it. What a mess Vietnam became, though. Our nation was divided. We lost the war. We abandoned our allies. I'm still haunted by the pain, the grief, the terror of the free Vietnamese. We managed to evacuate only 45,000 those last weeks. Later, another million risked their lives seeking freedom in small boats on the South China Sea. Was our effort wasted? Or will historians see it as a critical though imperfect element in democracy's widespread triumph over Communist totalitarianism in the 20th century? I don't know. All I know is that it's time to move on.

But how? This quarter-century landmark brings the memories and pain flooding back--for me and millions of others. In the office there's a voice mail from a Vietnamese guy in New York I haven't heard from in a couple of decades. I'd helped get him and his family out in those last traumatic weeks. "I don't know if you remember me," he says. "I just wanted to call. I'm sorry it's been so many years since we've talked."

I remember him--and his whole dear, sprawling, extended family and the terror they felt as 19 NVA divisions rolled inexorably south toward Saigon that awful March and April. Panic swept the city. Da Nang and Hue, on the central coast, were among the first cities to fall. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled south as the soldiers of Saigon's defeated armies fell back, shedding their uniforms. 

I call the Vietnamese guy. We reminisce warmly. He invites me to a big family reunion in Upstate New York. After church the other day a man named McKim Symington and I study some old war maps together. I see him at church all the time, but this is different. We're back in I Corps, where Kim was a grunt adviser to Vietnamese troops. I visited the VC in the same jungles, different year. 

Suddenly, we're standing in front of St. Andrew's on Sunday morning, loudly using the worst profanity. Regression. Another guy at church, I notice, looks like a retired general. Shock of white hair. That vigorous, deliberate manner. We talk. Turns out he's Jack Morris, 78, West Pointer, retired three-star, built roads and airfields all over 'Nam, ran the Corps of Engineers from '76 to '80. "Now I'm trying to build 40,000 low-income housing units in Saigon," he says. Jack tries to maintain he's in it for the dough. But Tom Carhart, one of his business partners-- another West Pointer and a Vietnam combat hero-- just says it straight out: "I'm in this body and soul. "The reason I got involved is there's a big hole in my heart the shape of Vietnam."

Ghost Story

The U.S. Embassy has been torn down now. As our chopper lifted over the city on its way to the American fleet in the South China Sea 25 years ago, I saw Saigon's smoky hot sprawl ringed with fire. I cried then, too. I felt shame for my country, which had poured enormous treasure and 58,000 lives into an ill-planned crusade crushed by the determined Communist victors. Who have now built skyscrapers. 

"U.S. Begins Final Evacuation," the Washington Post banner headline said of that fateful day. "The Americans have decided to evacuate Vietnam," the story reported simply. "It seemed that a quarter of a century of American involvement was ending in a last, organized but hurried rush to be gone."

Now Americans return as tourists. My then-Post colleague Dave Greenway wrote that last story. He slipped out of the embassy--journalists couldn't file through official channels--and found a way to send it to Washington, then slipped back in through the angry mob. He risked his life, didn't mention it to me, and when he typed the byline put my name first.

Now, a quarter-century later, I phone Greenway at the Boston Globe. I guess I'm searching for something, some meaning to Vietnam--any kind will do. Dave, 64, is just back from a reporting trip there. "I wandered by the site of the old embassy, but even the fence is gone where everyone tried to crowd over on that terrible day," he tells me. "In the parts of town we knew are now brand-new buildings. "You have to wonder, well, which system won? Because they've gone for such a market economy. But you also wonder what they could have been without the dead hand of a Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist government."

Dave marvels that the Vietnamese, "much more than we, have sort of gone on from the war. There are 80 million people there now, and more than half weren't even born when these things happened. [The U.S. figure is 35 percent.] Demographics suggest there couldn't be more than 15 percent with firsthand experience of the war. "I felt like a ghost."

I call Jan Scruggs. Jan, wounded and decorated, was shocked by America's indifference to its Vietnam vets on his return from the war. He spearheaded the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982--the black granite wall in Washington where so many healing tears have been shed. Last week he was in Vietnam with veterans of the war who are now top American businessmen. "They've come full circle and want to do some good," he says, "for the people who our country sent us over there to help 30 years ago." Full circle.

On a visit to Vietnam back in December, Jan says, "I was impressed at how stoic and poor these people are. In rural villages, they're using water buffalo and the same tools they had 800 years ago!"

Don Oberdorfer was the diplomatic reporter on our little Post team covering the fall of Saigon, and has been back to study the country since. In '71 he'd written a famous book, "Tet," about the pivotal 1968 Communist offensive that shocked America and helped end Lyndon Johnson's presidency. I'll never forget Don, as Saigon was falling, shouting over the phone to an editor in Washington, "Hell, we're losing provinces between editions!" 

And now? The place is vibrant," he says. "The whole attitude of the Vietnamese is, 'We want to join the world!' You say you're American and they clasp you to their bosom. I never heard one word about the war." 

Not so here. "Vietnam is still such a controversial topic. There are almost 2,000 books about it currently on the market. On the 30th anniversary of the Tet offensive, my book was still selling!" Moving on is a process, I guess. A long one. Like many of my generation, I've been more or less obsessed with Vietnam my entire adult life. Originally I'd hoped not to go, attending grad school for the draft deferment. We'd all sit at night in the student lounge watching in bug-eyed fear as Walter Cronkite reported the war. Finally I got drafted, served as a military reporter for Pacific Stars and Stripes in 1969-70, and returned in '73 as The Post's Saigon bureau chief. A highlight of the tour was that two-week reporting trip with the Viet Cong in the spring of '74.

I slept in hammocks in the jungle, listened to their war stories and enjoyed stubby cigars they'd fashioned with home-grown tobacco while government "harassment and interdiction" artillery rounds-- meaning random shots-- exploded nearby. At one point the VC arrested me because my papers weren't in order, but the matter was happily adjudicated by a "people's court." It was surreal.

For years after the war I couldn't watch the movies or read the books, except for Michael Herr's bizarre and suitably surreal "Dispatches" ("Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar") --and that only a couple of paragraphs at a time before breaking down sobbing and laughing and having to wait a week or so before starting again. Took a couple of years to read the damn thing. In 1998 I returned to 'Nam with
a group of Marines and we visited Khe Sanh and the DMZ, where they'd fought and seen their friends die. I watched grown men weep in one another's arms as they visited spots where their lives had been changed forever. It often helped, but seldom healed completely.

After the trip and my resulting articles, Joe Galloway, who with Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore wrote the beautiful book "We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young," sent a note that said among other things: "Goddam war just won't ever go away, will it?"

Heartbreak and Joy

As the fall of Saigon neared, a Vietnamese friend hired to analyze the political scene for me broke down in convulsive heaving sobs, grasping my hand. "Nobody can believe in the government's ability to defend Saigon or in American help after the fall of Da Nang," he said. We were alone in my Saigon apartment with the sun streaming in. My friend said maybe he would get a small boat and the  thought made him break down all over again--his precious wife and children adrift on the sea! 

Now this man, Vu Thuy Hoang, 64, calls to say he's just published a book, "Saigon's White Snow: Vietnam, April 1975." I invite him to my office. "I'll never forget those days we were together," he says as we hug in the newsroom. "I'd like to present you with a copy of the book." His inscription refers to the "hell days" of 1975. I'm deeply moved, honored.

In the book, Hoang describes the desperate escape that brought him and his family to America. For years he'd been a political analyst for Washington Post correspondents covering the war. Later, he was in Saigon's army and surely would have been jailed in one of the infamous Communist "reeducation camps" had he not escaped. Since the fall of Saigon, however, he's been a librarian at the paper in Washington. Fortunately for Hoang and his family, the U.S. Embassy in the final weeks had organized a secret airlift for employees of American companies. It had to be secret because the South Vietnamese government --including gate guards at the airport-- didn't want to inflame the growing panic by letting anyone get out.

Greenway and I were able to hook up Hoang and others with the airlift. In his book, written and published in Vietnamese, Hoang recounts how he and his family barely made it to the plane through fear-swept streets. After many false alarms, they finally received the signal to surreptitiously board an unmarked bus that would take them to the airport.

Gate guards turned the bus back three times. Finally, with the men hiding under the seats, they got through. "When we finally took off for the Philippines," Hoang recalls, "all the Vietnamese on the plane wept." They went to Guam, Camp Pendleton in California, then on to their new lives. Hoang's wife, Catherine Vu, is a makeup artist for Chanel at the Tysons Corner Nordstrom. Duc, 29, is a senior engineer for an Internet firm. Phuong, 28, is a CPA with Toyota. Mai, 25, is an engineer for Nokia. "We never dreamed of living here," Hoang grins, "but certainly now we are very, very happy. "We love America".

I call my friend Nguyen Ngoc Bich, who was chief of overseas information in the old Saigon government. Now he directs the Vietnamese service of Radio Free Asia, broadcasting from Washington into Vietnam 365 days a year. One of Bich's recent books, a translation of the prison poetry of Nguyen Chi Thien, the outspoken former student who spent 27 years in a Communist jail, is titled "The Flowers of Hell."

"The system there remains evil," Bich, 62, tells me passionately. "All the basic freedoms are lacking. There are no private newspapers or publishing houses, no freedom of association, no political parties besides the Communist Party. Even religion has to be practiced according to various stringent rules of the government."

Bich tells me he still holds fiercely to his dream that his beloved Vietnam will one day be free. "I haven't given up," he says. "After all, it happened in Russia and Eastern Europe." 

Stripes

Jack's phone voice is low, warm as always. I remember in May 1970 when Fuller and I took a station wagon up Highway 1 from Saigon toward Phnom Penh in the middle of Vietnamese Gen. Do Cao Tri's tank assault into the so-called Parrot's Beak of Cambodia. Jack was driving bravely and resolutely while I sat in teeth-chattering terror with my head between my knees, about to vomit. It was a battlefield, after all. You never knew what might happen, but a lot of people were dying and you knew if something did happen it might not be good.

I remember we stopped and approached a U.S. adviser kneeling in a field studying a bunch of battle maps. He wouldn't talk with us but finally we asked, "How much farther can we drive before someone kills us?" He gazed thoughtfully into the middle distance for a few moments and said softly: "Eight klicks." A kilometer is about two-thirds of a mile.

Now I've called Fuller out in Chicago and he muses, "These friendships from the  war, including ours, are really extraordinary. How lucky we were to have been military correspondents, and not to get hurt--so very different than if we'd been infantrymen." After we'd served together as journalists (I was an Army sergeant, Jack a "Spec. 4" or specialist fourth class) on Pacific Stars and Stripes and I'd been first to rotate home, Jack always signed his letters, "Walk in peace." 

Now he's famous, of course. Tribune Publishing Co. President Jack Fuller. Paid $8 billion the other day for the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Newsday. Whatever. To me, Jack's one of my closest buddies from the war, and a quarter-century after covering the fall of Saigon he's one of the guys I need to check in with.

Serving in 'Nam was "a great shaping experience," he says, "not in the least because you got a lesson in contingency, big time, early in life long before most people realize in any deep way that they're mortal." Contingency. Jack always did talk algebra, but I get it. We were so close to death, for so long, and we were so young, and we got good assignments and survived because we were educated and white and a few other things that the word "luck" can't quite reach.

In 1984, "obsessional" to get the war on paper, Jack had published a gripping novel, "Fragments." The last sentence says, "And if I wept at all, it was not for the dead." I get that, too.

Seth Lipsky, another Stripes pal, answers the phone at home. Seth had gone on to a distinguished career at the Wall Street Journal, then took the helm as president and editor of the legendary Jewish newspaper, the Forward. His kids (two boys, 8 and 6, and a girl, 3) are screaming and laughing and roaring around in the background. "Guys! Guys!" he shouts. "Could you let me talk with my friend from the Vietnam War?"

We gab. Like Jack, Seth risked his life repeatedly in Vietnam. I remember how worried I was when he came under heavy shelling in April 1970 after being the first newsman to get into surrounded Dak Pek --a barren, blasted outpost in the Central Highlands--and what a great story he filed ("'Tonight,' Jong said, 'I want the VC to come and I wait' "). "I was one of those guys," Seth reminds me now, "who went there a dove and came back a hawk. I concluded we were right. It's been one of the touchstones of my intellectual journey."

That's Seth: brash, honest, counterintuitive. So much shame has been heaped on America for its role in Vietnam --we pile it on ourselves!- -that we're in danger of forgetting what murderous aggressors the Communists actually were. I'd once visited the beaches east of Hue, scattered with human bones and the rope bindings used to tie the victims' hands. In the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese had arrested thousands of bureaucrats and citizens who opposed them, then sat them on the sand and shot them dead. 

Seth wrote about at least one village where a Communist attack resulted in heavy civilian casualties. At the same time, he came to admire his fellow American soldiers, the overwhelming majority of whom "conducted themselves decently and honorably" in trying to help the Vietnamese. In fact, the notion that Vietnamese peasants invariably opposed us is sheer myth. The peasantry, as Communist leaders Truong Chinh and Vo Nguyen Giap wrote in "The Peasant Question (1937-1938)," actually poses a problem for Marxist-Leninists because it consists of "rural petty-bourgeoisie . . . who own some means of production. . . . Peasants are not members of the proletariat."

The Communists often used terror --as an official instrument of state policy-- to bring them to heel. As we chat in this vein, Seth mentions My Lai, site of the March 16, 1968, massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese noncombatants, including women and children, by out-of-control American troops. 

"What a huge tragedy My Lai was!" Seth moans. "It will be talked about for generations. But I don't believe My Lai is a metaphor for the war. It was not." 
In a recent Wall Street Journal review of Trent Angers' "The Forgotten Hero of My Lai: The Hugh Thompson Story," Seth praises the U.S. helicopter pilot who "brought his chopper down amid the carnage, had his door gunners train their weapons on American GIs and brought the killing to a halt."

Now, on the phone, he ventures to add, "One could even say that the American GI was there as a rescuer of Vietnam from Communism in the same way Hugh  was rescuer of the people of My Lai." Suddenly, the shouting and laughter of his children envelop him. "Guys! Hang on, Phil. It's mayhem here."

The Women

Doing reporting on a completely different topic, I leave a voice mail for a woman named Grace Babbington. It says simply that I have to hold off on her story to wrestle with Vietnam. By return voice mail, Grace says she volunteered as a Red Cross nurse during the war at Walter Reed. "I remember some wonderful young men I worked with in the paraplegic, quadriplegic and brain trauma unit. These young men were truly heroes beyond what anybody will ever believe. To be paralyzed and, uhm, and have, uhm, have the wonderful attitude that--" She breaks down.

I call Grace, 56, now a social worker in Maryland. "One time at Walter Reed I was going up a dimly lit stairwell at night," she tells me, "and met a patient coming down and he started talking, sort of in slow motion. " 'I got caught in a cross-fire,' he said. 'There were women soldiers among the enemy and they 
shot up my whole company. You know what they did to us?' "And then he took my hand and he put my hand on his head, and my fingers sunk in. The scalp had grown over, but there was no top to his skull. I tried to keep my cool.
He said, 'They cut the tops of our heads off --the women did-- and that's not all they cut.' "

He'd pretended to be dead, Grace recalls, but had witnessed the nightmare. 
I checked in with my ex-wife, Gillian McCombs, who lives in Texas. We were in Vietnam with our two infant children, Heather and Willow, while I was The Post's Saigon correspondent. Gillian and the kids had escaped to the safety of Bangkok in March 1975 as the fear in Saigon spiked after the Communist capture of Banmethuot in the Central Highlands. The loss had set off a massive, disorganized exodus as tens of thousands of people fled the advancing enemy. Gillian and I had divorced 13 years later and had never, that I can remember, talked much about the war. Now, her words leave me reeling with forgotten memories.

"I always considered myself a Vietnam veteran," she says. "When I was there, 
I thought it was not my story-- it was yours. I felt disenfranchised, but later I realized my story is just as valid." Last year, Gillian, 54, "sat in tears" watching the award-winning PBS documentary "Regret to Inform," which related the life stories of the widows of the war-- American, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese.

"It was from the perspective of women and kids. The widows of a Viet Cong and an American were there saying, 'I hate you and I hate your country for what it did to me and my family.' It was very upfront." 

Gillian's personal memories?

"When you went behind the enemy lines and were captured by the Viet Cong, 
I'd sit on the terrace of the Continental talking to the Polish diplomat and it was like a Graham Greene novel. They [Communist diplomats] were the only ones who knew where you were."

What else?

"Remember those terrible cocktail parties your parents gave after we got back? No one wanted to talk about where we'd been. We'd say 'Vietnam,' and people would walk away." 

I don't exactly recollect.

"Remember little Heathy on the streets of Saigon when she'd see those little Vietnamese boys without arms or legs and she'd say, 'Why does that little boy have no arms?' How do you explain that to a 2-year-old?"

I don't remember how we explained. I don't even remember it happening. "Do you remember in St. John's, after the war, you'd have to leave in the middle of the sermon because you were flipping out because you thought you could hear the helicopters coming?"

Hope

Back in 'Nam, I'd known an anti-war warrior named Earl S. Martin. A conscientious objector, he'd chosen to do alternative service in Quang Ngai province for the Mennonite Central Committee, a relief and peace outfit. 
He lived with his wife, Pat, five miles from My Lai. It was a dangerous life. The Communists mortared the town regularly. U.S. and South Vietnamese troops mined the roads. A big, cheerful guy, Earl sported a pith helmet as he went around on his Vespa seeking ways to clean up unexploded ordnance. When I'd visited him in '74, we went to a place called Artillery Hill and were standing there talking when the scream of an incoming VC rocket sent us sprawling. Privately, I regarded Earl at the time as your basic far-out pinko, though I respected his courage. Now, it's a sweet surprise to call him after 25 years and hit it off warmly.

At 56, he's a carpenter in Harrisonburg, Va., where he and Pat have been teaching a course, "Justice and Compassion," at Eastern Mennonite University.
In 1978, Earl had written a book, "Reaching the Other Side: The Journal of an American Who Stayed to Witness Vietnam's Postwar Transition." "I feel a kinship with many vets I meet," he tells me now. "It's so profound. I thought about it again last week visiting the Vietnam Memorial [with a couple of students], finding myself in tears with the vets.

"Yeah, we were on the other side of an issue maybe, but we were in it together. We were together in experiencing all the trauma, seeing the useless deaths. We were all asking those same questions--'Why, God?' "

Reconciliation

Earl went to My Lai in 1993 for the 25th anniversary of the massacre. "About 1,000 farmers and students and a few government officials were there for the commemoration. The speeches were surprisingly unhostile. I'd expected something virulent, but it was more of a remembering. "They asked me to speak. I was the only American there. It had started to drizzle. I said, 'We are all so sad about what has happened to your village. The people of Vietnam are sad. The people of America are sad. Even the heavens themselves are sad.' "

Later, Earl slipped away to the irrigation ditch where much of the slaughter had happened. "I was kneeling in reverence and prayer when I became aware of this little hand on my shoulder. There was this beautiful little boy. . . . Then there was another child to my right, and another behind me, and I was soon surrounded by children.

"It was such a hopeful moment, realizing that life goes on, and there is once again delight and wonder and beauty in this village of My Lai." 

A New Mission

Still searching, I call Jim Roark out in Los Angeles. On my way back from 'Nam on that 1998 trip, I'd sat next to Jim, an aerospace industrialist who'd seen combat in 1969 as a Marine near the DMZ, and he'd told me a wonderful tale. 
His late brother, Daniel, was a B-52 pilot who'd bombed much of Vietnam and who returned home with an adopted baby. That child, a totally Americanized young woman, lives in California.

In Saigon on our trip, Jim wanted to find a Sister Anicet, who'd placed the orphan with Daniel. Since phone service is unreliable in Saigon, Jim went to the cathedral and prayed. Within an hour, he met with Sister Angelina of the Sisters of Providence, who knew Anicet well. "She's in Kontum," Angelina said, "running a school." "I want to help," Jim said. "I've done well. I want to pay back." "You," she whispered, "are the answer to our prayers." 

Now I'm calling Jim for an update. He's become "wonderful friends" with the nuns, he reports, and supports their schools financially. "They're angels on Earth, these women. They're barely tolerated by the government, but through all the chaos and catastrophe and poverty and tragedy of what's happened, they're still there, selflessly serving their Creator and their faith and the children of Vietnam.

"I'm no longer interested in visiting Khe Sanh and the DMZ. I've done that. That's the past. "But what a gift this is, being able to help!" I'm speechless. We say goodbye and I sit for a long time gazing at the photos of Vietnam on my office bulletin board. For the first time, I feel something like serenity.

I'm smiling.

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