Entries from Sep 1985
MIKE BARNICLE IN THE BOSTON GLOBE: The relics of our might


September 4, 1985

AN HOA, Vietnam – Liberty Bridge straddles a bend of the Phu Bon river where the flat, brown water ends at the edge of shoulder-high grass that stretches toward the distant horizon and the tall black mountains that run all the way to Laos. The bridge, in the heart of Quang Nam province about 25 miles southwest of DaNang, was built by the Americans in 1968 and destroyed by bombing in 1970.

Seventeen years ago, fierce fighting turned the area into a free-fire zone, causing people to flee the land and the rice fields that sit under a brutal sun. Now, the relics of our might rest under a swift current that swirls over chunks of concrete and the rusted steel shell of a Tiger Tank buried in 10 feet of water by time and war. “Many men died here,” Pham Dinh Dan was saying. “When I come here now, I can still hear the noise of the planes and the guns and the screams of the men who died.”

Today, Pham Dinh Dan is 44 years old. When he was a younger man, he served with the 91st Sapper Battalion, regular Viet Cong forces who fought the Marines near the narrow corridors of orange sand that weave in and out of the tall, yellow grass that borders the river banks.

“There was compassion on both sides of the battle,” he was saying. “We had a bitter hatred for the American government that sent men here, but there were times when we would see a soldier killed and his friend would be crying over his body and I would stop firing.”

Pham Dinh Dan was standing by the skeleton of the bridge and talking to a group of American veterans who had been invited back to Vietnam in August. He has a strong face and warm, brown eyes that give a life to his words beyond any interpreter’s translation.

“How old were you when you became a soldier?” Ernie Washington, an American who fought in 1967, asked him.

“I was 17,” he answered.

“Do you have any children?” Tom Vallely, another veteran, who served in 1969, wanted to know.

“I have a son who is 16,” said Pham Dinh Dan.

“I bet he’s smart, just like his father,” Vallely added.

“No,” Pham Dinh Dan said in a soft voice. “He is not so smart. He is not smart at all, really.

“You see, 16 days after he was born, my wife and my baby had to flee this area when the Americans raided our village near Que Son. They had to go into the jungles to live and it was very hard on them.”

“They were sprayed by the chemicals many times while they were in the jungles. He was very young then, and the chemicals had an effect on him. So he is not so smart now,” he said, pausing for a moment. “But he is a good boy.”

To his right, on the north bank of the river, there is a small open shack covered with a tin roof where once there had been a Marine bunker. Three women and two small children sat in the shade provided by the roof and asked the vistors for cigarettes.

“Our job was to destroy the fire base because there were so many big guns here directed at the area. Big guns. Eight-inch guns that we did not have,” he was saying. “We lost many men, but we kept on with our jobs because we were fighting for our own land.

“Many years ago we fought the Chinese here. Then we fought the French. Then the Americans came and we fought them, too. We would have fought forever.

“But when the Chinese and the French and the Americans left, they left behind all the machinery of war. They left many weapons and guns. And they left long-lasting poverty, too.

“I think that without all those wars and all the battles we would have been able to build an economy here. Now it is very poor and many people still die because of all the unexploded mines left behind.”

“Since 1975, we have lost 1,500 people in this province alone from bombs and mines, ” Pham Dinh Dam said. “After the war, we had a clearing operation and we were able to put away 65,000 bombs and mines and booby traps, but from time to time they still explode and kill people out in the fields. Like you, it will be a long, long time before we can finally overcome the consequences of war.”

At the jagged edge of the bombed-out bridge, a few initials and a date had been scratched into the cement when it was poured 17 summers ago. Both the Vietnamese and the Americans bent down to look at what had been written:”MCB, Charley Company, 6-14-68.”

“That seems like a long, long time ago,” said Ernie Washington.

“Yes,” Pham Dinh Dam agreed. “I wish we could have talked like this before we started the war.