Reflections of a 2/35th "Cacti"
Ben Youmans, a veteran of the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment (Cacti) , 4th Infantry Divison in Kontum returned in March, 2001, with a group of 2/35th veterans, to the countryside where he served in combat in Vietnam.. These are his reflections on his return after more than 30 years. I think you'll like the ending . . .
Back to the NAM
We are back safe and sound and I think a little bit more at peace with ourselves, or at least it seems that way when I talk to the guys who made the trip. Our group soon became the Dirty Dozen and seemed to bond very well despite the differences in our companies and years served. The commonality of our Cacti and Combat service bridged all the gaps and we became fast friends. We departed Seattle in our 2/3s full Asiana Air 747, and headed west toward Korea where after a long and tiring flight we landed in Seoul for a short 3-hour layover. How we survived that Pacific crossing without an international incident is beyond me and for a fuller explanation find one of us in the hospitality room at Reunion 2001 in KC. After our short wait we boarded a much smaller and fully packed plane bound for Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon to us Vets) and the tension and apprehension now began to set in with full force. I was not now as sure as I was 24 hours prior that I was ready for this homecoming. It was quite interesting to look around the plane and see many Vietnamese who were making the trip to their Homeland. We learned that for many of them it was also their first trip back since they had left some 25 years earlier. A lot of them had sons and daughters, who had been born in the US, accompanying them on this trip. For many of them it would be the first time to meet relatives, who had not been able or not wanted to leave when the South succumbed in 1975.
All in all it was a very eye-opening and educational experience to sit there and try to imagine what the feeling would be like if the situations were reversed. Arrival in Saigon was uneventful and we were ready to walk and stretch after over 17 hours of flying. We gathered our luggage and headed to Customs, which turned out to be a breeze with no hassles from the very staid government functionaries. Not a smile in sight. Waiting for us with a Welcome Cacti sign was Mr. Phong, (interpreter for 2/35th S-2/3 in 1966-67 and a former card playing friend of Don Duncans). After many hugs, handshakes and yes kisses, we loaded our bags on the bus and off we went. No screen wire on the windows this time, but I did notice that not one of us wanted to profile too much near the windows. The streets and sidewalks were full of activity even though it was 11:30 PM Tuesday night. We checked into the hotel, went up to our rooms, which were small but very clean and neat, and with all the modern conveniences to include AC and a 15-inch TV. A genuine Water Closet; sink a toilet and shower all in one. It was efficient and fine for two guys for would only spend sleeping time there. My roomie for the entire trip was Jim Andy Anderson and as we both snored we never woke each other up. Our first night went on until about 5am when our systems began to slip into our sleep mode.
It took most of us a day or two to readjust to the date loss and the
12-hour time difference. We had some strong Viet Coffee with thick cream and beers
(333 and Tiger are the labels of choice in Saigon) along with noodle soup,
spring rolls and omelets. The next few days were spent sightseeing and playing
tourist and you can read about all that in Ed Moseys stories in this newsletter.
We managed to see a lot of Saigon and had a nice boat trip on the Saigon River,
which included some two-pound prawns for lunch. A daylong trip down to My Tho and
boat trip across the Mekong River was our welcome to the Delta which most of the Highlands
Cacti had never seen.
We flew to Hue on Saturday morning and went from 90+ temps and clear skies to a city in the low 70s with constant rain and overcast skies.
The hotel in Hue was a couple of stars above the one in Saigon. Our rooms were about twice the size and we had a regular bathtub with shower. A nice feature was that the nightstand had a console with knobs and switches to control all electrical features in the room without having to get out of bed. Very handy and practical. From Hue we took side trips to The Citadel, Khe Sahn, the Rockpile, Dong Ha and down the Perfume River. All in all a nice place and I would like to see it again but with the sun shining and the sky clear. The next three days were spent riding a bus and City hopping south along the famous Highway 1 that many Cacti know so well from our year over in that part of the country in 1967. We drove through, stopped for a comfort break or spent the night in DaNang, Marble Mountain, China Beach, Quang Ngai, Tam Ky, Duc Pho, Qui Nhon and Nha Trang. The meeting with the former VC at Duc Pho was very remarkable in that we actually pulled out of the village in our bus after night had fallen and we got back to Highway 1 alive. Ask us at the Reunion about this one.
We flew from Nha Trang on Friday back to Saigon for our final few days. That night many of us went over to Mr. Phongs employers office/house for a dinner party that included Southern style Fried Chicken. Hmmm good. Gene Morris is a former Air America pilot who now resides in Saigon having returned in 1995. Gene and family left the country on April 29th 1975 just a day before the fall. Gene is a great person and looks out for the welfare of Mr. Phong quite well and for that we are grateful. Anyone planning a trip over there would be well advised to spend some time visiting with Mr. Gene. Make sure you go to Jacques for a great French dinner.
Our last day Sunday was spent frantically rushing around to make those last minute bargain souvenir purchases and trying to consume our fair share of the good local beer. Ask Don Duncan about buying stock in Tiger Brewery. That night was our final feast and Rat was the main entre. An item of import here is that while at the Saigon Airport waiting for our flight we had the privilege to meet Hugh Thompson who is the Helicopter pilot who back in 1968 landed and saved some of the villagers in My Lai that were being shot by Calleys unit. Hugh and his door gunner Larry Blackburn were there with their families and had been visiting the people from the village at My Lai. This was a very nice moment that I will definitely remember.
A little after midnight we lifted into the sky headed for Seoul Korea for our first stop. A small sigh of relief emanated from the Dirty Dozen but I think most were like me, a little sad to be leaving, yet happy. After a long 10-hour layover in Korea and a dozen Dunkin Donuts (yes in Korea) we headed to Seattle on a fully packed to the gills 747. A long uncomfortable 11-hour flight and a couple of movies later we were back on the terra firma of the good old U.S. of A.
Ah, Home Sweet Home. I arrived home late Monday night to a loving wife and 4 cats and they all had missed me. I was home and safe and secure now. I got good nights sleep Tuesday (travel weariness) but Wednesday and Thursday I kept waking up and asking where are the guys? I was looking for the Dirty Dozen. I kept thinking we were still in Nam.
We had and experienced something very special. It is not as special as if we had actually fought side by side as did Ed Mosey, Al Olsen and Tom Mahon, but this trip is unique, for we bonded not as young men at war but as mature older men in a Memory Lane type adventure that was so incredible it is hard to describe.
The reporter interviewing me at the Tampa Tribune newspaper asked, "Did I find what I went to Vietnam seeking". My answer was yes, but I am not sure what it was, I only know I found it... I think now that I was seeking to experience once again those bonds of brotherhood that had been forged in combat, in 1968 and 1970. Since then, I have never had friendships that were so close. And now while on this trip, with my Brother Cacti, we renewed those bonds of friendship. We all have over 30 years of being apart and most didnt even know each other in Nam but I felt like I had known those guys forever. I feel more at peace and rested and serene than I have in years. I think Nam was calling me back and I never knew it.
I know now that it was not all a dream, it was real; that it was not a nightmare, that it was not a figment of my imagination. I also know that I beat the tiger. I went back and I still have my sanity. I went back with associates and returned with brothers, with friends, with comrades who mean more to me than any of the people (other than my wife) I have met in the last 30 years. I conquered the fears of going back by being with men who also probably had the same fears and together we faced the elephant. We proved, if only to ourselves, that we could face that time in our lives that we probably hated the most yet loved the most. We went back and renewed ourselves if only in our minds. I did, and I hope you all understand what I am trying to say.
I feel alive again, I feel cleansed, I feel reborn, I feel harmony, I feel and that is what really counts. I think that in the coming years when March 05-19 comes, at some point we will establish a date and promise to all stay in touch and on that date we each will lift a glass of water, beer, scotch, wine or cola and toast ourselves, toast our families, toast our rebirth. For I now have new memories of Vietnam that hopefully will push out the bad ones. Maybe my new memories arent better but they are different and that is what counts. Never have the words of Shakespeare meant so much as now and with these words I pass to you all the Lamp of Cacti Brotherhood.
"And Gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here
And hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispins day."
"He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors,
and say tomorrow is Saint Crispian;
Then he will strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say," these wounds I had on Crispins day."
" Henry V", Act 4 Scene 3, Wm. Shakespeare
(A special thanks to Tim Peters for this quote)
Tales of a War Far Away: Reflections
Copyright © 2008 Ben Youmans
Last modified: February 02, 2008