Thursday, May 2, 2013


'War and Peace' on a Vietnamese dashboard
I’m on Vietnam's Highway 1, and this time I’m headed directly north, towards the former DeMilitarized Zone (DMZ). This route was so dangerous during the war, that you would have only wanted to ride this route from the inside of a tank. As Vietnam is now at peace, we settle for a tiny van.

On the dashboard of our van, I notice a small statuette of Buddha. Mounted right next to it, is a plastic helicopter, glued to the top of an air vent. The air flow is spinning the tiny Huey’s rotor blades as we drive. 'War and Peace', together on the dashboard. What a contrast...

It’s overcast today, and I’m hoping the weather will hold. We pass by a group of walking schoolchildren in blue and white uniforms, and soon we pull over by an embankment.

We’ve stopped by an overgrown field, and I notice a big and brown hulk of steel over above the brush. It’s a stripped M-41 tank. In this one, the empty engine compartment is totally open to the sky. Strangely, it has brush
Old US made M-41 tank next to Highway 1, flowers grow where the engine used to be
and flowers growing up out of it. It looks like a bizarre giant metal planter.

Walking up the embankment, a path takes us through high brush into a vast open field. My guide walks us toward two concrete bunker near the field’s center, where a cow on a tether stands watch. Bushes everywhere bear red, yellow, purple and white flowers. A butterfly flits away. We step atop one of the empty bunkers for a view of our surroundings. This is one of the highest points on what used to be a former US Marine base, and from here I see the coast only a few miles away. More importantly I can see all the way north, into what used to be North Vietnam.

This was Gio Linh Firebase.

The Marines battle at Khe Sanh is well known, but few know there was also a two month artillery battle here in 1967. Since Gio Linh was so close to the DMZ, it was a favorite target of artillery gunners of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), and it was one of the first US bases fired on from North Vietnamese territory. In those long days of bombardment, two Marines were killed, and 76 were wounded. Although those casualties sound light compared to other battles in Vietnam, there were only 120 men based in Gio Linh at a time.

A sign near the highway gives the Vietnamese name for this base: “Doc Mieu Firebase Relic”. Also on the sign is a misspelled name that anyone familiar with the Vietnam War will remember, “MAC_NA_MARA”.

Military bunker, built after US forces departed
Gio Linh was part of a project nicknamed, ‘McNamara’s Wall’. Named after Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the original idea of it was to establish a line of fortified bases just south of the DMZ that stretched from the coast all the way to the Laotian border. This would enable the US to watch the DMZ closely, and to block NVA troops from crossing into South Vietnam. That was the idea anyway. Since heavy Soviet made artillery guns hidden in North Vietnam could strike far past the DMZ, bases like Gio Linh were vulnerable. Even if the plan had worked, the NVA still had another route. They simply walked around the DMZ through the jungles of Laos, sending their troops south down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The concrete bunker I’m standing on looks fairly new, and it turns out that it’s not left over from the Marines. My guide of the day says that these two newer bunkers were built in 1994, long after the US had gone.
The Vietnamese weren’t looking north anymore, they were looking east to watch the South China Sea. Tensions rose again with China, over the Spratly and Paracel Islands off of Vietnam's coast. Like the Americans before them, the Vietnamese wanted this spot as a lookout.

I wonder about the scattered holes I see around these newer bunkers, and my guide shows me a large hole, with some brush growing in it. He points inside, and says matter of factly, “There, bomb.”
An unexploded artillery shell lies in a hole on the former US base
Beneath some branches, is the unmistakeable outline of a rusty artillery shell. Lying in their like a giant bullet, it hasn’t been disarmed yet. A couple of feet away, lies a second one. Since Gio Linh had withstood so many NVA artillery attacks, some unexploded shells are still left buried in the dirt where they ended their deadly trajectory. These accumulated over the years until the base fell to the north in 1972, and everything else above ground was looted. These two potentially deadly shells remained buried for years, until a scrap metal hunter found them while he was looking for shrapnel. Since these two hadn’t yet exploded, he left them in this open hole. The scrap hunter was very lucky he wasn’t blown to pieces when he first dug them up.

My old guide Nguyen isn’t along today, but I recall what he told me about unexploded bombs and the post-war economy around here. “After war, people have nothing to do, (no jobs) so collect metal, from bomb,” he said. “Unscrew the tail, take out gunpowder. Sell gunpowder. Sell metal. Very dangerous. Many people die.”

I’ve heard that after the war, former ARVN soldiers were forced by the communists to clear out unexploded bombs and minefields around the DMZ. Forced into this deadly work, they had little training, and little safety equipment. Many were killed or maimed. If Nguyen was forced to do this dangerous work, he wasn’t about to tell me. He still fears the communist government.

As Vietnam’s population grows, population pressure is forcing people to clear farmland and build new homes on old battlefields, bringing them closer to old munitions. There are even a few family homes built on the former Gio Linh Base, though the land around them is still a dangerous place for their children to play. As I leave, I'm careful to stay on the well worn paths. I don't want to step on anything dangerous.

Since the Vietnam War ended, more than 10,000 Vietnamese civilians have been killed by unexploded ordinance (UXO) and landmines, and more than 12,000 have been injured. A third of those killed were scrap metal hunters.

Decades after the war ended, Vietnam’s people are still dying from the remnants that the war left behind.

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