Years before, my friend Phillip experienced this highland scenery, often while standing as an M-60 gunner in the door of a Huey helicopter. It wasn’t a view he relished back in wartime.
“It was horrible there,” he told me. “A lot of guys died up there in the hills.” This is Dak To, close to the Cambodian border. Some of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War took place up in the highlands surrounding this remote town.
|Old North Vietnamese Army tank in Dak To|
As a young recruit from California, Phillip was here in the 1960’s, when warfare in this region was almost constant. “I was Air Cavalry, I was in a support unit,” he told me. "The 5th Air Cavalry. You know, the one with the horse on the patch.” Originally manning mortars, Phillip later became a Huey door gunner. His unit often flew in to resupply American and South Vietnamese army (ARVN) units at firebases all over these mountains.
Next to me on this hilltop is a small abandoned airstrip. This was known as Dak To 1. “Special Forces had their own base,” Rick told me, and this old runway marks the location of one of the earliest American bases here. This was a CIDB camp, which stood for 'Civilian Irregular Defense Group'. Each camp was led by a team of Green Berets, a small unit made up of 12 men. These hardened soldiers fought alongside 200 local Montagnard militia. When the number of enemy in the mountains grew and the war escalated, Dak To 1 was abandoned for a better location, since this spot so close to town wasn’t as easily defended.
“They were tough,” Phillip told me about the Special Forces soldiers, and they were tough enough to back up their reputation with their fists. In the local bars of Dak To, Green Berets were the top dogs. “They’d walk in, and I’d give them my seat,” Phillip recalled. “I respected them. Some guys thought they were tough, and wouldn’t give up their seat.” Inevitably, the soldiers would fight, and the Special Forces soldiers always won. All those old bars are gone now, and so are the hard partying Americans.
|A cemetary for Vietnam's communist soldiers now occupies a former US Special Forces base|
I turn around from the abandoned runway, and right next to it today, is a military cemetery. This isn’t an ARVN graveyard; it’s for the soldiers of the communist side, who fought and died by the thousands from American firepower in these surrounding mountains.
This somber place is nothing like US military cemeteries. The main feature is a small Asian style pavilion, with pillars, a sloping rooftop and dragons at the corners. Sheltered beneath are two dark obelisks, inscribed with the names of hundreds of communist soldiers. Most that died trying to take Dak To weren’t local Viet Cong, they were soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army, also called, ‘The People’s Army of North Vietnam’.
Just behind the pavilion, are row after row after row of crimson grave markers. Many are nameless. Unlike headstones at Arlington, these lie flat on the ground, each with a small incense holder in front of it. It seems that the communists of Vietnam aren’t atheists after all.
There’s no grass to mow here either; between the headstones it’s all concrete. They are also packed so tightly together, that it seems that there isn’t enough space between them to bury a whole set of soldier’s remains. Then I learn the reason why; it’s because most headstones don’t have remains buried beneath them.
There are some remains interred here, but since the NVA and VC fought and died in South Vietnam on land that they couldn’t hold onto, most of their dead ended up buried in unmarked graves in the countryside. Their bones are occasionally still found by farmers digging up new fields, but since NVA and VC fighters didn’t wear dog tags, identification is difficult. Since the government has no money to pay for DNA testing, most remains that are found remain anonymous, and are reburied with military honors.
|Traditional highlander 'rong' house in Dak To|
The bizarre thing, is that more than three decades after the American war ended they are still building graveyards in Vietnam for dead communist soldiers. I recall passing a cemetery in the Mekong Delta that was still under construction. It had the familiar memorial tower, but scattered haphazardly across the ground in front were memorial gravestones. They hadn’t yet been put into place.
During the war far more ARVN soldiers died than Americans, and I ask my translator Mat where the graves are for the soldier’s who fought for South Vietnam. His answer: “Their graves in the regular cemeteries, with the other people.” It’s the first time I’ve caught Mat in an outright propaganda lie.
After the war ended, the communist government tore up and destroyed every single ARVN graveyard they could find. As horrible and insensitive as that sounds to westerners, it is even worse to the Vietnamese. Theirs is a culture where paying homage to your dead ancestors is very dear to them.
The southerners of Vietnam, may never forgive the northern communists for that post-war atrocity.