After 44 years, a return to Viet Nam
Jim Sysko of Newry served in the U.S. Army in Viet Nam in 1969. Earlier this month he returned for a visit. Following is his account.
Going back to Viet Nam was my son Dustin’s idea. I doubt if I would have ever done it without his urging and hard work organizing the trip.
When I left Viet Nam after 1.5 years as a combat infantryman in 1969 Viet Nam was the last place on earth I ever wanted to see again.
It took me several years to get over the jumpy feelings a soldier gets from remembering firefights and bombs. There was no psychological counseling or debriefing back in 1969 when I returned to Fort Lewis Washington- just a return of my civilian clothes and a check for my accumulated back pay and I was shown out the gate.
Dustin lives in Amsterdam, Holland. Our plan was to meet in Tokyo Japan and stay for a few days with Jason Fraser his old friend from Newry that now serves with the U.S. military at Yokosuka Navy Base.
After 3 fun packed days around Tokyo Dustin and I flew on to Viet Nam landing at 1 a.m. and spent the night sitting on a wood bench in Saigon’s (now Ho Chi Minh City) decrepit train station. I felt a strong twinge of the old jumpiness. We were waiting for the ticket office to open to get our seat for the 6 a.m. train to Qui Nhon 350 miles up the coast. We wanted to be first in line for any available seats.
Turns out we got the last two seats but they were not in the same car. Dustin was in car 10 and I was in car 4 for the entire 13 hour stop and go, incredibly beautiful ride along the South China Sea. Big Sur California came to mind with beautiful jungle covered mountains plunging into the clear blue green sea mixed with seemingly endless areas of rice paddies and coconut trees in former French Indochina.
My seat mate was a 21 year old girl college student that was taking courses in English. She and I talked off and on for the 13 hour ride to Qui Nhon. She’s since sent me a few emails and hinted at coming to the United States some day.
In the seat in front of me was another young student from the same school but he did not know her. However it wasn’t long before the three of us were fully engaged in conversation. I believe that meetings like this can have unexpectedly good consequences. That boy and girl were talking up a storm in Vietnamese by the end of the trip. Meanwhile Dustin was having his own adventure in car 10.
Qui Nhon, once a French relaxation retreat, is now a seaside resort for the Vietnamese. In 1969 our army unit sent soldiers that needed a break from combat to a small barracks on the beach for a day’s leave.
It was unusual for a combat soldier to carry a camera in 1969. The extra pound to carry, and hassle of dealing with the film, wasn’t something most guys chose to do but I tried to make the most of the huge adventure I was forced into taking by the military draft.
The pictures I took in 1969 were critical in finding some of the kids that hung with our unit. I hoped to do just that on this trip with Dustin. See picture of 6 boys and 4 girls all about 10 to 12 years old at the time.
You can rent (and we did) a motorcycle all day in Qui Nhon, with no questions asked, for 100,000 dong. That’s about $4. A half liter of beer costs 25 cents. Dinner for two was $1.00. Viet Nam is a bargain if you don’t mind the mystery meat and hot peppers. Dustin and I hired a cab to take us about 50 miles into the boonies back to An Chieu, the village we protected from the invading North Vietnamese army in 1969. The female cabbie hadn’t done this kind of thing before so asked for the outrageous sum of $1,000,000 dong ($40) for the all day trip along dirt roads and rice dikes.
With printed pictures in hand, and Dustin’s lap top holding another 150 shots taken in 1969, we made it to the village where the cabbie said she could stay for only an hour and a half.
Our unannounced visit had the whole village stop work and gather around us and the lap top. Three of the six boys and three of the four girls in the 1969 pictures were there!
Seeing the likenesses in the boys faces and confirmation by the crowd, Dustin and I were positive these three 55-year-old men were those same boys.
After hearing Dustin say he got four marriage proposals from young ladies in the crowd with several other older women crowding around me, I grew skeptical about the claims of the three women claiming to be the ones in the other, not so clear picture, but who knows.
The village visit was by far the high point of the trip and proof that the adventure will go on. After another 13-hour train trip and 18 more hours in the air I landed back in Boston. Back to the world, and a much easier transition than in 1969.
Moral of the story is “When in doubt, do it!” You never know.