|The runway of Dak To 2, once used for secret missions. But what's that brown powder covering it?|
I’m looking at the most bizarre sight I’ve seen in Vietnam yet.
I’m only a few miles from the Cambodian border, on another former US air base known as Dak To 2. This is one very long American made runway I'm standing on, lengthy enough for heavy cargo planes to use, though it hasn’t seen a take off or landing in years. Abandoned after the war, all the base's bunkers and buildings have been torn down, much like I had seen at Camp Enari. The looted building materials were recycled or sold long ago.
But that’s not what is so bizarre about this airfield. The strangest thing about the runway here, is not the runway itself, but what lies on top of it. I look down where the blacktop should be, and see it’s covered by a light brown substance. This isn’t the tarmac at all. I look from one end of the nearly mile long runway down to the other. The entire runway is covered with powdered cassava!
The source of tapioca, cassava is a plant grown in Vietnam for its starchy roots. After it’s been harvested around Dak To, it’s ground into a fine powder, and then poured out here all across the runway. The whole airstrip is now used for drying out the powdered plant. This is the strangest use of a former military base that I’ve ever seen. I scrape away at the layer of powdery substance, and find that the blacktop is still there underneath. Running the cassava through my fingers, I find it’s not quite dry yet.
|The runway is now used for drying cassava for animal feed!|
Way down on the other end of the runway is a farm tractor, driving back and forth with a scoop, turning over the cassava to dry it out. Sitting on the runway beyond, is a pile of powdered cassava two stories high. This is the finished product. From here the cassava is loaded onto trucks and sent for packaging. This doesn’t look like a very sanitary way to process food, and my guide Mat explains. “This not for people,” he says. “They make food for animal.” So this mile long stretch of cassava is for animal feed. I believe him, I think.
Leaving the main runway, we walk onto the old taxiway. Mat says, “American airplane here.” What he meant, is that US aircraft used to park here. The taxiway leads to a line of berms that were used to surround aircraft to protect them from attack.
I recall a conversation with Phillip, the war veteran I knew who had spent time here. “There were Special Forces guys based over there,” Rick recalled of Dak To 2. “Their planes were unmarked. We thought they were going into Laos and Cambodia.” This runway sits only six miles from the Cambodian border, with the Laotian border just to the north. Special Forces soldiers flew out of here on secret missions to attack North Vietnamese Army (NVA) supply lines, disrupting the ever changing network of jungle paths and roads, known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
With this strategic base so close to Cambodia, it made a tempting target for the NVA, and it was shelled often. There were a lot of landmines and unexploded bombs across this property from all the fighting here before, but most of them were cleared after the peace. Mat walks up a berm, telling me that it’s safe. “Here, see?” Mat says, and he picks up a piece of rocket shrapnel. Scanning the ground further, he finds a section from an M-60 ammunition belt.
|Holes on the old base are from scrap metal hunters. Sometimes they find unexploded bombs.|
“The 173rd Airborne went in there, pushed out the NVA. A lot of them got killed,” Phillip told me. The Air Cavalry flew in the Airborne troops, and some of the most ferocious battles of the war took place in those highland hills.
“It was terrible up there, man,” Phillip remembered. His unit had to resupply the Airborne troops on the battlefield, and evacuate the wounded. One day they had to airlift out the most grim cargo of all, the bodies of 30 American soldiers.
“Their hands were bound behind their backs,” he says, recalling how the bodies were found. “They were shot in the back of the head.” This was a unit in a heavy firefight that had been running out of ammunition. They had surrendered to the NVA, only to be executed. The NVA had even taken their boots.
After taking the hills and forcing out the NVA, the remote, vulnerable hill posts were abandoned. Later after things quieted down, they were re-occupied by the NVA. “Then they had to come back, do it all over again,” Phillip said of the Airborne. “I had a lot of respect for them.”
American Generals boasted of killing thousands of enemy troops, but the fact was that they still were fighting to take the same hills over and over again. “The war was a total waste,” Phillip told me with scorn. Even with a high enemy body count, it was becoming difficult for the American war effort to show real progress in Vietnam.
I walk with Mat across the berms, and find there are holes everywhere. But these weren’t from bomb craters, they're fresh, dug by post-war scavengers. “They look for metal,” Mat says, making a digging motion. Scrap hunters with metal detectors combed through here, digging up whatever they could find to sell for recycling. Between the berms, I notice that most of the old blacktop for the taxiway has also been torn up and removed.
|Charlie Hill, which ARVN troops defended to the last man. It's still covered with UXO and landmines today.|
“There was a lot of fighting up there,” Mat told me of the former firebases on the ridge line. the These mountains overlooking Dak To 2 were key to defending the highlands. By 1972 American ground troops had left the area, leaving ARVN troops in control. Although the ARVN soldiers were often accused in the past of being unwilling to fight, one unit fought bravely to hold one of the posts I see, called Charlie Hill. They fought for days, and refused to surrender to the communists, who had them surrounded. The ARVN soldiers made their last stand on Charlie Hill, and the 150 soldiers there fought to the last man. With the firebases taken, Dak To fell soon afterward.
By the time Dak To fell, Phillip the door gunner had already departed Vietnam, and returned to California. He left the military behind and became a corrections officer. While working at a California prison, he guarded over prisoners such as Sirhan Sirhan, and Charles Manson. After having already faced the NVA, they were easier for him to deal with.
But Phillip never forgot Vietnam, and he looked for an opportunity to come back. In the 1980’s he was among one of the first groups of American war veterans to return. “I came back because I wanted to see what it was like,” he told me.
Phillip returned many times and traveled throughout Vietnam, even to Hanoi. But he still hasn’t come back to Dak To. Like some other US war vets who have returned to Vietnam he hasn’t revisited the places where he had his worst experiences. That’s certainly understandable.
Mat says to me, “I don’t see my father in three months, stop my father’s house. You want to eat lunch?” I eagerly agree. I haven’t been in many Vietnamese homes, and his father’s house is close by. I’m curious to see how someone lives on the land of a former US base.
|'Snake wine', a preferred alcoholic drink among Vietnamese men|
We pull up, and his father comes out to greet us. He’s darker skinned than most Vietnamese, and a former engineer. He moved here from North Vietnam to work right after the war. Now comfortably retired, his well built house is larger than most in Dak To.
Mat shows me around, and out in the backyard, he points out a a pile of torn up asphalt. This was taken from the old base. Now I know where that blacktop went that was removed from the taxiway. I wonder how they are going to sell, or recycle it.
We sit down on a floor mat in the kitchen, and his mother serves us a traditional Vietnamese lunch. There’s loads of rice, salad, stir fried vegetables and fish. I eat my fill, it's delicious. It’s one of the better lunches I’ve had in Vietnam. Then his father takes out a large diabolical looking glass jar. Inside is a dark liquid, with herbs and other contents I can’t make out.
“Snake wine,” Mat tells me, and his father pours the strong liquor into tiny cups for the three of us. We clink glasses and drink. It’s strong, and tastes much like vodka. His father immediately pours out more. I’m the first American guest he’s had here, and he’s in a hospitable mood.
I hold up the jar and peer in, looking for the snake inside. It's usually a curled up cobra. I don’t see one.
“Snake eggs,” Mat says, pointing out the two eggs in the bottom. This should be more accurately called, ‘snake egg wine’. I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve seen snake wine before. Besides containing coiled up snakes, they sometimes have other dead animals fermenting inside the bottle along with them. I’ve seen scorpions in snake wine, and even a bird that still had feathers.
“My father drink snake wine every day,” says Mat. “he says this keep him healthy.” I wonder how true that is. His father lives in a home built on a former military base, a place that was probably contaminated with Agent Orange. Yet here he is in his 60’s, and he’s still healthy.
Although Mat and I are done drinking, his father downs another shot. “You should drink this every day also,” his father recommends to me. I don’t argue with him, but I think I’ll stick to vitamins. I didn't mind sampling his wine, but for me, drinking remains of snakes is not really my cup of tea.