Back to Vietnam
The prospect of returning to the country where I had spent the most intense period of my life intrigued and frightened me. Unlike some of my friends who came back wounded, or as baggage in aluminum coffins, I was one of the lucky ones. I had served in the Mekong Delta in charge of a Navy patrol boat and spent a year patrolling rivers and canals with a crew of five. Bound closer than brothers, we spent our days and nights in sweat-soaked boredom or stark terror. Now I was returning to where I had bartered my innocence for nightmares and acquired the gunfighter’s habit of seeking safe corners in unfamiliar rooms.
Called the “Vietnam Challenge,” the bicycle trip for 40 was organized by World T.E.A.M. (The Exceptional Athlete Matters) Sports, a group that brings together able-bodied and disabled men and women through athletic events. It brought together veterans from both sides of the Vietnam conflict who were committed, according
to World T.E.A.M. Sports, “to working together to achieve a common goal, committed to demonstrating the healing and unifying power of sports. The team ... will be a powerful gesture of goodwill. They will provide a life-affirming example to all who witness their achievements.”
Like many of the other veterans, I was fiercely proud of my service and had gone through turbulent times of adjustment and denial. As our departure date neared, I still struggled with deep suspicions and anger toward both sides of the Vietnam War. Some of the veterans hoped for a healing of spiritual wounds—a resolution of unended nightmares. Some sought forgiveness for sins remembered—an escape from guilt. There were even a few, like me, who thought they had tucked Vietnam safely away. As our plane chased the setting sun, it didn’t take long for the faces of lost friends and violent memories to erode my composure.
Hearts beat faster as the team touched down at Hanoi Airport. This was North Vietnam, the place that had spawned the blue-uniformed, AK-47–brandishing enemy of our nightmares. Jerry Stadtmiller, another San Diegan, sat next to me. Jerry had been shot twice in the face during his Vietnam tour, and as he turned his deeply scarred face toward me, I could see the wet tracks of his tears glistening in the morning light. His mind had traveled back to that terrible night attack when the world exploded in his face and took his sight.
I touched his arm. “We’re almost there,” I said, feeling him tighten under my fingers.
“I know, and I am truly frightened,” Jerry said.
Our landing in Vietnam was the culmination of more than two years of intensive negotiations between World T.E.A.M. Sports and the Hanoi government. Dealing with one of the last hard-line communist governments had been a Vietnam challenge in itself. Because of the significant monetary investment in the event, and the unofficial, but clear, interest of the U.S. government, the Hanoi government knew it had an advantage to exploit. We were a cash cow ready to be milked. It didn’t take World T.E.A.M. Sports long to appreciate that their deal was a living thing that required frequent renegotiation and cash infusions to keep the bike ride alive.
Because of safety considerations and the media attention focused on the ride, the Vietnam Challenge was not going to be a free-flowing exercise in joy and unity. Hanoi tried to control every aspect of the event. There would be no wandering about, no spontaneous visits to any location. Where we went and what we did, individually and as a team, was strictly regulated and monitored. We were not viewed as tourists; we were considered a diplomatic delegation.
Predictably, Hanoi’s intense scrutiny placed our Vietnamese escorts under extreme pressure and made them nearly inflexible. This resulted in frequent—and often frustrating—meetings between the leadership of World T.E.A.M. Sports and our Vietnamese hosts. Every element of the ride became a negotiation, and there were several times, often during a single day, when World T.E.A.M. Sports didn’t know whether we were going forward. Sometimes it was a demand for more money to lubricate the deal. Sometimes it was a genuine concern for our safety, or that something we proposed might fail and make them look bad to their superiors.
My first night in Vietnam, I took a sleeping pill to combat my jet lag, but sleep refused to come. I tossed and turned and finally pulled out the log of my first tour in Vietnam. It opened in my hands to the account of the violent death of one of my crew members. A copy of a letter to Mac’s family was stapled to the page.
“Dear Mrs. MacDermott,” I had written to his wife, “all of us who loved him are struggling to understand why Mac, our brother, was killed. He gave his life to protect us, and we miss him more than words can express.” The night I wrote that, my crew found me curled up in the corner of my room. They carried me out, and I drank myself unconscious.
As Mac died in my arms, so did my John Wayne fantasies. The romance of my Vietnam adventure was over. My commander removed me from patrol status. Slowly, the numbness that gripped my mind was replaced by a numbness that deadened my heart. I returned to patrol status, but I withdrew into myself, and I kept my distance from those who would touch me.
After reliving that 30-year-old horror, I closed my journal. Sometime in the early morning hours, I fell into a troubled sleep.
The able disabled riders.
During our stay in Hanoi we met our bicycling Vietnamese teammates. Like us, they were a mix of able-bodied and disabled riders. For reasons we never learned, only a few were veterans, and none had served with our former allies, the South Vietnamese. The lack of reconciliation that this represented disturbed some of us. From the beginning, and through the earlier stages of the ride, the Vietnamese kept to themselves, politely resisting our invitations to join us on the road and at the dinner table. A few expressed thinly veiled anger and hate, which some of the Americans returned. We had been enemies once, and friendship, if it came at all, would come slowly.
Since the event was supposed to be about healing and unity, not competition, most of the U.S. veterans were recreational riders. Few of us had followed a training regimen, and certainly none of us had a racing agenda. The Vietnamese government had a distinctively different view. The Vietnamese riders had been training intensely for more than six months and, according to several of them, had been ordered to win.
The new year dawned in a misting rain, and we set the formation that would characterize our ride. The able-bodied and the amputees, outfitted with artificial legs, rode standard bicycles. The blind riders shared a tandem bike with a sighted rider. The paraplegics rode three-wheeled hand cycles. We were off down Highway 1, Vietnam’s historic artery of commerce and travel and the Street Without Joy of author Bernard Fall.
In the front of the pack, sirens wailing and lights flashing, was a vehicle loaded with five Vietnamese intelligence officers pretending to be policemen. Their job was to gather information and govern us. Their leader was a dour man in his mid-fifties who pretended, as did most of the Vietnamese, not to speak English. Constantly barking orders and controlling us at every turn, he was nicknamed “The General.”
Each day we set out at dawn and rode through driving rain, blistering heat or suffocating humidity. The temperatures rose with our southern progress, and we sorted out the kinks in our bikes, bodies and attitudes. The blessing of a midday rain would quickly churn dust and buffalo dung into a malodorous curse that was propelled into our faces by the tires of those ahead. Baked dry by the inevitable sun, it became an aromatic mantle that we carried through the day. At the close of each day, we were met by curious and cheering crowds that lined the roadway.
A little girl in the market.
We pedaled through scattered thatched huts and roadside villages. Dogs yelped in surprise and scrambled out of our way, and families gaped at the sight of us. We rode across cloud-dappled valleys with checkerboard patterns of rice paddies in brilliant shades of green, framed by mud dikes. Children laughed and waved to us from the backs of water buffaloes, and women rose from their bent positions, rice seedlings in their hands, and shaded their eyes to see the passing wonder.
We struggled to cope with the dust and the exhaust of the relentless traffic on Highway 1. Trucks and buses loaded to capacity with cheering passengers blasted by, missing us by inches, shaking us with their wake turbulence and spraying us with gravel and water-buffalo dung. You could hear them coming, honking and revving their engines. Each of us tightened our grips and hung on as we tried to stay our course.
With their agenda to win, the Vietnamese riders attempted to dominate the front of the pack, especially at the close of the day, just before the crowds and cameras came into view. Several of them would make their move, discarding all semblance of bicycle etiquette as they battled forward. It was often yield or fight—and none of us thought that a fistfight, especially with the press on the scene, would improve government or team relations. When we tried to explain that we were not in a race, the Vietnamese riders smiled as if we were backward children, unschooled in the ways of the world. The Hanoi press said it all with a front-page story that featured a picture of us entering a town with the Vietnamese in front. The headline proclaimed: “Our Vietnamese Riders Are Still Winning!”
At the end of each day, the local People’s Party leaders greeted us. In the north, they invariably delivered what we nicknamed “The Speech.” Apparently reflecting the north’s residual anger over the Vietnam War, the essential message was “Welcome, American barbarians and imperialistic butchers. While we cannot forgive your atrocities, we can accept your money. So tell your friends to come to Vietnam and spend.” It was sort of like being hugged and mugged at the same time.
With a few exceptions, we stayed in cheap and dirty Russian-constructed hotels where clean water was occasional and vermin were frequent. We paid $100 each for $35 rooms, with much of the difference kicked back to our gracious Hanoi hosts.
Each stop featured banquets that included Vietnamese food, beer and local entertainment. Party officials, turned out in gray, high-collared, Ho Chi Minh–design fashions, delivered more speeches. These grizzled veterans were starkly different from their younger Vietnamese subordinates, and the tension between these aging icons and their impatient successors-in-waiting was palpable. The young Turks were clearly eager to put aside memories of a war they had not experienced and discuss world events and potential business opportunities, while their elders kept their distance, glancing frequently at each other and cautiously gauging each other’s actions.
During my first few nights on the road, old habits took hold, and I caught myself checking my room for booby traps. I even eyed the toilet with suspicion and searched behind the water closet for wires. Many of us followed exhausting days with troubled sleep filled with the crackle of distant radios, screams for medical evacuation and the voices of our friends. “We’re hit! We’re hit! Jesus Christ, my gunner’s down, and there’s blood all over the boat. I need immediate dust-off. Get that goddamned med-evac in here right now!”
Each day, the shared effort, pain and exhaustion eroded the barriers between American and Vietnamese riders. Slowly, unconsciously, our suspicions and preconceptions were diminished by spontaneous acts: the passing of a water bottle, the tossing of a banana to a fellow rider, a shared laugh at the end of a long and arduous day. Actions not thought through but just delivered. Being surrounded at a roadside lunch stop by giggling children who tugged at our body hair or practiced their school English and asked us, “Where you from?” “How long you in Vietnam?” Elders at a roadside rest stop asking our Vietnamese teammates who we were, hearing them say, “They were once our enemies, but now they ride with us in peace.” The U.S. amputee showing an amazed Vietnamese amputee his modern prosthetic leg.
Wade Sanders aboard his Navy patrol boat in Vietnam, 1968.
From time to time, the American veterans met in private to discuss their reactions to returning to Vietnam. Emotions and tears flowed freely as each of us opened up. Some expressed guilt and shame for their service; others expressed pride. Each was as different as his or her own experience. One, a veterans’ counselor, told us of his clients who brought to their therapy sessions pictures of themselves taken in Vietnam. He came to realize that the person he was trying to reach and heal was not the 40-something person sitting with him—it was the young man or woman in those pictures, frozen in time. That’s what many of us were doing in Vietnam: trying to unfreeze ourselves in time.
Even as relations improved and friendships began to form between Vietnamese and American riders, things continued to deteriorate with our government escorts. It quickly became clear that they were more concerned about keeping to their schedule than with our safety and comfort. Once, after having driven us hard through a cruelly blistering day, ignoring victims of heat prostration and dehydration, our escorts discovered we were in danger of arriving before our welcoming committee. Their solution—arrived at in the comfort of their air-conditioned car—was to force us to ride the last two hours of a grueling day at an agonizing crawl, buffeted by speeding buses and trucks, pelted with gravel and choked with dust.
The General not only ignored all our pleas for a safer solution, he responded to this perceived attack on his authority by actually ordering a slower, more dangerous pace. We arrived beaten, sore and angry. The veterans took steps to deal with the problem. The leadership of World T.E.A.M. Sports was told that unless they took steps to protect us, we would take matters into our own hands: We were prepared to tell The General, or anyone else in charge, that unless we were treated with due care, we would contact Hanoi headquarters and the U.S. State Department and report their actions. We knew, and The General knew, that if this happened he would spend the rest of his career guarding a landfill outside Hanoi, and his family would experience the joys of a re-education facility. The message was delivered, and from that point on we were treated with more respect.
At the monument marking the former DMZ, or Demilitarized Zone, which once separated North and South Vietnam, we learned that our escorts had canceled a scheduled visit to Khe Sanh. This was especially disappointing to the veterans who had served or lost friends there. No reason for this summary action was given, and it reinforced an emerging pattern in which our Hanoi hosts were delighted for us to see the locations of their victories and our alleged atrocities, but not vice versa.
One of those visits was to a province cemetery for the war dead in Quang Tri. After lunch, a Vietnamese veteran amputee challenged one of the American amputees to a foot race. They adjusted their prosthetic legs, took their marks and sprinted for the end of the cemetery road. They raced by the graves of men who had fallen in combat against the Japanese, the French and then the Americans, and finished in a dead heat. As they embraced in laughter, their galvanizing display of courage and spirit brought us even closer together.
Lingering in the background, near the cemetery gate, was a one-legged man in filthy, ragged clothes. Leaning against his primitive and worn wooden crutch, he quietly watched us eat our lunches. When he found out we were American veterans, he cautiously approached us and revealed he was a former South Vietnamese soldier.
“I fight for South Vietnam and freedom,” he whispered quietly to us. “I am so happy to see you. You come to stay?” Glancing warily at our North Vietnamese escorts, he told us how he had survived his wounds and the northern conquest, including his time in a re-education camp. Our escorts glared at him and made threatening gestures. After we left, I wondered what price he might pay for that encounter.
As we left the former North Vietnam behind, the atmosphere as well as the temperature warmed. “The Speech” was replaced by words of friendship and hope. Southern Vietnamese smiles seemed wider and more genuine. Evidence of our presence decades ago was everywhere. Venerable International Harvester Army trucks and Caterpillar bulldozers were still in service, and we passed many former military bases. Our Hanoi escorts were treated with coldness and suspicion by the locals. Few in the south embrace Hanoi’s interpretation of the Vietnam War as a “war of liberation.”
Riding through the sweltering heat.
After Hue, we faced our most demanding physical challenge, a 5.5-mile climb to the 5,000-foot summit of the Hy Vanh Pass. The temperature topped 100 degrees as we struggled up the grade, fighting the heat and our pain, gulping water and trying to maintain momentum. The climb was especially hard on the hand cyclists, who relied solely on upper-body strength.
At the summit, we fell exhausted into the arms of our teammates. We had triumphed over our limitations, and former enemies and strangers embraced, laughing and crying together. Covered with road grime, I felt more alive than I had felt in years. Wiping the salt sting of sweat and tears from my eyes, I looked down to the white beach coastline of Da Nang, stretching to the horizon. A profound feeling of serenity filled my heart. We were no longer Americans and Vietnamese, separated by a war or disabilities—we were teammates. We had shared in the same effort, and we had given our best, and that is all there is to give.
Just prior to leaving Da Nang, we were told that a tour of Song My Village, the site of the My Lai massacre, had been arranged. All of us were painfully aware of the tragedy that had occurred there, and we shared a profound sadness. But we knew the visit was going to be exploited, so some of us asked not to be included. Our Vietnamese escorts promised our request would be respected—and then deliberately broke this promise by diverting all of us to My Lai. Some of us left the entourage at the entrance and refused to ride in.
After this incident, our escorts relented, perhaps out of reaction to our complaints, and permitted a select few to visit areas where they had served. Some slipped away without permission, which is what one of our nurse veterans did during our stay in Qui Nhon. She located the site of a hospital at which she had once served. Abandoned and partially demolished, the building brought back bittersweet memories and tears.
Another veteran visited his former base camp at An Khe. He sat in the wheelchair that cradled his paralyzed legs and recalled, between sobs, the night North Vietnamese Army regulars overran it. “They came in the night,” he said, “so many of them, we couldn’t hold them back.”
On January 15, we rose before dawn and began our longest ride, 120 miles to Vung Tau. By now we were riding as a single unit, and most of the aggressive competitiveness of our Vietnamese teammates had moderated. This was helped along by keeping the front section of the pack equally integrated. Of course, once we neared a town and the ubiquitous media, the Vietnamese went for the lead again, although with a gentler hand. They still had their orders to win, and business was business.
About midday, we climbed out of the scrub and cactus of the coastal desert into lush forests and rubber plantations. About 30 kilometers from Vung Tau, we passed through several Michelin rubber plantations. Our lone Aussie teammate nodded towards a stand of rubber trees and said, “Over there’s Nui Det, mate. I lost a lot of friends there. They walked in, but they didn’t come out standin’ up.” I looked over at his face, hard and reddened by more than the sun. He was back in those trees, fighting to save his mates. I knew Nui Det; I had spent available Sundays with the Aussies, playing rugby and drinking beer. Glorious days of contusions and scrapes, anesthetized with Foster’s Lager.
Vung Tau, marked by a grouping of small mountains, rose ahead of us from swamps and tangled mangroves. It dominates a point of land that extends into the South China Sea and marks the mouth of the Soi Rap, the main river to Saigon. I could see two huge wire radio antennas at the top of one of the mountains, probably the same ones that were there when I first landed in May 1968.
As we rode the last few miles into Vung Tau, I searched for the gates to the Cat Lo Navy Base, where my patrol boat had been stationed. So much had changed. Where there had been was a narrow, rutted road, marked by scattered groups of huts, there was now a full-fledged two-lane blacktop flanked by an unbroken line of small houses. I wondered if I would be able to find my old home. Two or three times I was sure I saw it in the distance, only to be disappointed.
Then ... wait a minute, that wall looked familiar ... but where were the little “off-limits” massage parlors and raucous bars that were once clustered outside the front gate? Standing in my pedals, I stretched and tried to look over a concrete wall, topped with concertina wire, to catch sight of something familiar, and there it was —the old Quonset hut where I slept after long patrols. And there was the chow hall, and the piers where the patrol boats were tied. A chill surged through my body as I passed the front gate. I caught a glimpse of the water and the docks in the distance.
But the Riviera of Vietnam had been overwhelmed by stucco and poured concrete. As the sun set into the South China Sea, we turned in at the courtyard of our hotel and found ourselves in the middle of a media storm. Among those greeting us were Senator John Kerry and Ambassador Pete Peterson, both decorated veterans (the latter the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam since the war).
John Kerry and I had served together on river patrol boats in Vietnam. After the usual celebratory banquet and speeches, we detached ourselves from the crowd and walked into the Vung Tau night. We wanted to see what had changed and what remained the same. It was “Wallaby 54” and “Rock Jaw” (our old patrol boat call signs) together again in familiar haunts. We walked the old French beach promenade and found the Grand Hotel. We had spent many nights at this beautiful colonial casino. In our time, and in the times of many soldiers and sailors before us, she had been lit like a chandelier, and her walls had echoed with their songs and laughter.
The last few miles into Saigon seemed anticlimactic. We rode past the former U.S. Embassy, where in the early hours of Saigon’s last days, frantic officials burned millions of dollars in American currency as refugees tried to storm the gate. We rode the streets that had carried the weight of victorious Soviet-made tanks as they led the way for a North Vietnamese Army that came to rape and pillage in the name of liberation. And we ended our “Vietnam Challenge” on the steps of Reunification Hall, which, ironically, celebrated the liberation of Vietnam from the imperialistic oppressors. Vietnam had known so many oppressors, but none had been so vicious as her own countrymen.
As we had at the Hy Vanh Pass, we embraced and celebrated, but this time our joy was tempered with the sadness of knowing that we had reached the end. Our preconceptions of ourselves and of Vietnam had melted away, and what we celebrated in the closing moments of our odyssey was not the reunification of Vietnam, or the improvement of relations, or our role as life examples. We celebrated our stamina, our endurance and ourselves. We were part of something that had taken on a life of its own and prevailed over petty corruption, veterans’ preconceptions and the political agendas of two governments.
There had been many challenges, and one of them happened to be a bicycle ride. We had traveled more than 1,200 miles without incident, and we had beaten all the odds. But most of all, the love we gave and received as we pushed ourselves through rain and blistering sun, beyond our known limits, had brought us home. We had completed a circle, and in a very real sense, we had freed ourselves from Vietnam by becoming part of her.
San Diegan Wade Sanders, an attorney and oft-published author of articles on contemporary issues, served as deputy assistant secretary of the Navy from 1993 to 1998. He did two tours of duty during the Vietnam War, earning the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Sanders retired from the Naval Reserve as a captain in 1997. A television documentary on the veterans’ bicycle tour, Vietnam: A Long Time Coming, is scheduled to air on NBC on Saturday, April 17, at 1 p.m.