My son, Adam, recently made a solo journey to Vietnam, visiting many of the places I had been during the war. The following year we went together, and he was able to guide me, knowing, as he did, geography unstained by memory.
He also knew the story of Jim Childers, a boy who, at 19, had died when our duty times were switched and he flew gunner on a mission I otherwise would have taken. Flying from our helicopter base near Marble Mountain, he had been shot while landing on a nearby hill. Adam had gone to pay tribute to Jim, climbing to one of the Marble Mountain summits and lighting incense, as he later wrote, in the hope that his “muttering, stumbling thank-you was enough for a man I had never met.”
Traveling together, we drove to Da Nang over the Hai Van pass, a cut in an east-west finger of the Truong Son range. Here lay Khe Sanh, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the A Shau Valley and, farther south, Kontum, the Iron Triangle, Black Virgin Mountain. “Finally, only the names of places had dignity,” Hemingway once wrote. “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages…the numbers of regiments and the dates.”
En route to Marble Mountain, Adam and I visited Khe Sanh, seeing the now peaceful hills from which the base—5,000 Marines surrounded by 40,000 North Vietnamese—had been shelled for 77 days, and where, a year before, U.S. Marines and the People’s Army had locked together in a 12-day series of vicious battles over Hills 861 and 881. Out of the two main American battalions in the fighting, 168 Marines and corpsmen were killed and 443 were wounded. The North Vietnamese lost more than 1,200 dead. Dozens of dead Marines were found lying beside their stripped-down M-16s: The newly issued weapons jammed frequently because, a congressional inquiry later discovered, the Army had gone cheap on the powder used by the rifle.
We drove along Route 9 past the old landmarks of the Rockpile and Razorback Ridge I’d flown over as a helicopter gunner during Operation Hastings in 1966, the first American offensive against regular North Vietnamese army troops. Hundreds of Marines and thousands of North Vietnamese had died that summer in these now verdant hills: On the first day of Hastings, the NVA used quad .50 machine guns and 12.7mm antiaircraft guns against our choppers. Our squadron and another lost a total of four helicopters, their strewn wreckage lending the area the sobriquet Helicopter Valley. Men had burned to death in those helicopters, some dying when the aircraft fell on them, the rotors chopping their bodies to pieces. Childers’ death had been comparatively less painful—or so I liked to think.
Coming into Da Nang, we skirted Red Beach, where a battalion of Marines had landed in 1965, initiating the U.S. ground war. At that time, the road from Da Nang was lined with ramshackle cardboard and tin shacks, filled with desperately poor refugees from the countryside. That same road is now well paved, its sides crowded with new housing—architecture of monotony rather than desperation. The Vietnamese army now occupies the onetime helicopter base.
Marble Mountain (Ngu Hanh Son in Vietnamese) comprises five formations, each named after an element—water, fire, wood, earth, metal. Caves used as Buddhist shrines honeycomb these hills. During the war, the Vietnamese manned mortar emplacements here. One cave that doubled as a Viet Cong hospital lay no more than a mile from our former camp and closer still to Charley Med, the field hospital where Childers died.
Standing at the foot of Water Mountain (Thuy Son)—Viet Cong territory during the war—I hesitated before a series of carved stone steps, feeling I was crossing some internal border, a seam in memory and time. We climbed the steep incline, walked through bullet-scarred gates to a pagoda, then scrambled up a vine-draped cliff. Threading a narrow rock spout, we emerged on a small, stone-crenellated plateau.
We now stood on the opposite side of the mountain from the helicopter base, at a height choppers sometimes flew. To the east is the sea. To the west stretches a long river valley— site of many battles—patched with jade and gold rice fields. Flanking the valley is the mottled green-and-brown hump of Hill 327, where Childers was shot.
I had told myself I wouldn’t betray any emotion, be the weepy vet. It wasn’t working out. It was all coming together, all the elements, all the deaths focused into that one death that had become a never-paid debt. That boy who died in my place, in our collective name. Then my son came over, put his arm around my shoulders and passed, for me, into manhood—a moment of light that had been stolen forever from Jim Childers.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.