A Wandering Soul Returns Home

A few hours later the Hoang family met us with the remains, carefully hidden in a shower head box, because of the sensitivity in Vietnam about bodily remains. They could not take public transportation or hire a car, they had to use a private vehicle. We left Pleiku with the family traveling in a separate car, headed through the Mang Yang Pass to catch the train in Quy Nhon.

We planned to have a small ceremony to consecrate Dam’s remains at the first place we all easily pull off the road.

When we finally found a spot to pull off the road, our weird electrical problems continued.  In Hanoi, Jessica's rechargeable batteries were mysteriously drained, so she and I both had to purchase batteries locally.  She bought two dozen and I bought one dozen brand new batteries.  Then the first four out of my pack lasted only a few minutes.  The next four worked fine.  When we setup for the ceremony in the Pass, Jessica found her brand new batteries were all dead, so I gave her mine.  The next strange occurrence was when the TV crew set their camera on a very sturdy tripod, and from out of nowhere came a powerful blast of wind, that blew the camera and tripod over, breaking the camera.  This left the TV crew with only Jessica's small digital camera to record the ceremony.

As they worked on these problems I looked around and gradually began to realize that this area was very familiar to me. The terrain was steeper than I had remembered, but I guess that is because it was not so challenging as a physically fit 23 year old.  We had a very emotional consecration ceremony for Dam's remains. I think the emotions of the moment choked us all up and I know I lost it several times.  It all seemed to hit me at once.  I felt such sadness and at the same time a feeling of relief, that finally Dam would be returning to his home.

As I looked around in the quiet moments after the ceremony, I gradually began to remember that fateful day 39 years ago.  I remembered the helicopters landing us in the valley below the pass on the Pleiku side with orders to clear the ridge line to the left of the road.  As we began to approach the tip of the ridge line, it became obvious that it was really too steep to climb in the heat. I decided to march up the road to find a better point to climb to the top of the ridge.  As marched up the road, we came around a bend and there was a concrete covering over the hillside to prevent erosion and landslides.  It had steps up the middle section, which I quickly climbed, while the platoon took a break.  It was still too steep to climb in this section, so we continued about two klicks farther up the road, where it seemed the ridge could be climbed, even if still with some difficulty.  I spotted a tree on top of the ridge, that towered 50 feet above the rest of the jungle canopy.

We climbed to the top of the ridge, using the tall tree as a guide, then turned left and cleared that part of the ridge back to the valley.  On the way back to our starting point at the tall tree, we stopped for a short rest break, not concerned about security, since we had traversed and cleared this part of the ridge only an hour before.  That is when Dam and I met on the trail. We both saw each other and I already had my weapon leveled on Dam.  He attempted to take the rifle off his shoulder and fire. I yelled Chieu Hoi, the only words I knew for surrender, but he continued to bring his weapon up. In my terror, I hit him in the chest with a three round burst from my AR-15. He died instantly. You can read the entire account on the entry for 19 March 1969 on the Task Force Alpha page.

It took me quite awhile to believe the incredible circumstances which had just transpired.  Without any guidance from me and with no personal knowledge of the location themselves, the family had chosen to pull off the road to consecrate Dam's remains at the exact point, where I had marched my troops 39 years ago to climb the ridgeline, where I encountered and killed Dam.  The totality of this scared me.  So much so, that I waited until the next day to tell everyone.  I wanted time to relive it in my own mind and be sure about the memories.  I had forgotten about the details of landing in the valley and marching up the road, until I saw the concrete facing of the hillside, and spotted that same tree we had used as a guide us so many years ago.  It had to be Dam's spirit leading our thoughts.  There simply is no other way to account for such an incredible coincidence. 

We continued on the Quy Nhon, where we had dinner on the beach before catching the train just before midnight.

28 May 2008
Around 6:00 am we passed through the Hai Van Pass, between the mountains and the sea, quite scenic.

When we passed through Vinh, LTC Tien joined us with a case of beer, as she had promised. We had much time to converse with LTC Tien, and the Hoang family on the trip to Nam Dinh and Jessica conducted another interview with Wayne, me and the Hoang family, while on the train. I spent most of the time taking picture of the scenery passing by as we moved through the countryside.

We finally reached Nam Dinh at 7:00pm.

Duration of train ride around 19 hours.

We got off the train and had a small ceremony outside the station as we said goodbye to the Hoang family members, who would carry the remains to their home in a private vehicle and prepare for the funeral.  We returned to the hotel by vehicle and Wayne and I did another audio interview for Jessica.

29 May 2008
We left Nam Dinh at around 5:00 am for the village of Thai Giang for the funeral of Hoŕng Ngọc Đảm. We got there around 6:00 am and Cat took us to meet with the People’s Committee.

There was an enormous tent in the courtyard, with hundreds of people gathered for the funeral. A military band was playing traditional Vietnamese music. After meeting with the People’s Committee, we were ushered into the tent and down front just to the right of the altar. We sat for about an hour and a half, watching family after family approach the altar paying their respects and lighting incense. One group of half a dozen veterans who had enlisted the same day as Dam approached and paid their respects. Finally we were asked to approach the altar and I helped place a large wreath we brought. We each took turns lighting incense and paying our respects.

I don't know about the others, but I couldn't see the tears were flowing so profusely.

Then we sat through several speeches about Dam. Finally I was asked to help the military honor guard carry the heavy concrete coffin to the funeral wagon,

where Wayne and I were asked to walk at the front of the honor detail who pulled the wagon.

As I looked back, we could see hundreds of people following the coffin to the cemetery, over a kilometer away.

We walked very slowly and the heat in the high nineties quickly dehydrated us. The military band played loudly all the way. I had not taken any fluids for several hours, and as I pulled the wagon along, I began to feel faint.  I was just about to step out of line and take a rest and look for some water, when a Vietnamese veteran came up and offered me his hat to protect me from the sun.  Our interpreter also showed up at the same time, with a bottle of water.  Jessica was walking with the altar just in front of us, and I saw an elderly Vietnamese woman come up and hold an umbrella over Jessica to shield her from the heat.  They seemed very conscious of us and took every opportunity to see to our needs.

The cemetery is in the middle of rice paddies. In the war heroes section of the cemetery, where Dam was laid to rest, only about 15 of the 180 or so bodies have been identified. The casket was lowered into the grave, and I was asked to throw in the first handful of earth. Quite an honor!  It caught me quite off guard.  The tears just flowed.  What incredible people!

Then Wayne, followed by the Hoang family members.

After the funeral had broken up, the Vietnam TV crew did a quick interview at the cemetery, and we all returned to the Hoang family home, where they had a set out a feast for the whole village. The mood shifted from somber to happy and relieved. There was much conversation, especially with the niece, who had been to distraught up to this point.  She seemed to make a special effort to get to know me.  She was very disappointed that I did not have a photo of my Mom.  She made me promise to send her a picture of the American Mom, who had protected Dam's documents for so long. After lunch, I met with the veterans who had enlisted with Dam and we had a good time sipping wine and talking about the war. It turned out that at least three of them fought in the same area I did.  We are pretty certain that we walked the same trails and ridges.

We finally said our goodbyes to the Hoang family, everyone of them making a special effort to invite me back soon and thanking me for my efforts to bring Dam's spirit back home.  The niece kept thanking me and holding my hand.  Tears kept choking my voice.  I felt so close to these Vietnamese farmers.  My own childhood farming days allowed me to bond with them easily.  Finally we left for our hotel in Nam Dinh, then drove back to Hanoi.

At the hotel Wayne, Jessica, a writer friend of Wayne’s and our interpreter Quan had supper together. I cannot express my gratitude to Quan for the wonderful job he did interpretation for us.  He knew not only how to listen and not break the speaker's line of thought, but was very gifted in taking the literal translation and putting it into proper English context, so that the mood and thoughts were properly conveyed to us.  He is quite quick minded and very tactful.  I think meeting him and getting to know him is one of the highlights of the trip.



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