Return to Vietnam

'It was a strange feeling when we touched down'

Posted April 26, 2014

(Left to right) Clarence Williams, Paul Pope and Leonard Peebles in Vietnam. (Photo courtesy of Clarence Williams)

After an overnight flight from LAX to Taipei and finally to Ho Chi Ming City (formerly called Saigon), we indeed arrived in Vietnam. We all agreed that it was a strange feeling when we touched down, perhaps because of the history of this place.

Looking around Tan Son Nhat airport as our plane approached the gate gave us some moments to reflect on all who came into this place with the fear of entering a war zone ... not knowing what to expect. This was one of many places that our military embarked upon it's mission to engage the enemy. Today, the enemy was our own uncertainty of what to expect for these people whose lives we change for better or worse.

Across our runway, I spotted five old Army UH-1 helicopters that looked to be in working condition. I flashed back to all the guys who might have ridden those very same birds into combat. I thought about the many times at Fort Bragg and other places that I parachuted from the same model copters. Perhaps these five helicopters were upon hundreds that we left ... the booty of war?

I noticed a very large terminal in the distance with huge cargo planes surrounded by shipping pallets waiting to be loaded or unloaded. There were planes that were from around the world ... apparently this part of the country is economically well. The war footing that I remember is gone. There was a song from our times that goes, "Business goes on as usual, but now my Bobby is dead." How strange that I would think of that!

After passing through customs, we sought anyone holding signage that indicated they were from the tour company to pick us up. Leonard, Paul and I briefly had discussed expecting some bitterness, some resentment as we were clearly Americans.

Paul walked out the front of the airport reading the signs upheld by people awaiting visitors and loved ones alike. There were waves of people offering taxi rides or begging for money – nothing different here than in any international city. I rushed to check on Paul's success and to determine if I could help him look but was stopped by a young policeman. He asked for my passport, which I quickly produced. Paul came up from behind me with his passport in hand to tell me he found the guy holding a sign with my name on it.

I laughed at the assumption of "resentment" that didn't happen, because Americans have been visiting here since the war, spending money and doing humanitarian projects as we do. Even so we wondered how we would be received by the older citizens who were invested in that 40-plus-years-ago conflict that shaped the fabric of this country for better or worse.

Ho Chi Ming City is like any other crowded Asia city, with street-side vendors peddling all sorts of items, bikes and motorcycles, dangerously integrated with other vehicle traffic. The van ride to our hotel was eye-opening to say the least. Leonard sat up front and immediately went to the bar on our arrival "to settle his nerves" after we were almost in an accident(s) during that 20-minute ride. We arrived safety, except for the "nerves" being challenged.

We aren't scheduled to meet our tour guide until this evening, so exploration will be delayed for a few more hours as we recover from the long flight ... and van ride.


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  • USMC92 Apr 27, 2014

    i grew up living across the street from Leonard. In 1988 i joined the Marine Corps and in 2000 my younger Brother followed. I will never forget the day i told him i had joined, Leonard shook my hand and said Semper Fi. I think he was just as proud as i was. For Marines of my generation and later, Vietnam vets were our heroes growing up and still are.

  • Carrie Hurrelbrink Apr 26, 2014
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    Thank you for your service and you have my utmost respect. My cousin was a Marine who was killed in Vietnam at the ago of 20.

  • Walkin Man Apr 26, 2014

    Served in Nam in 68-69 as a combat medic with the 1/6th Infantry. I had that same feeling leaving country. As we were getting ready to board the plane In Cam Ranh Bay for home I could see what were obviously guys just coming in country. I couldn't help but think that many of them would die here. I felt a little selfish - going home. We boarded the plane and it taxied down the runway and took off, banked over the water headed home. In 13 hours we would be back "in the world" as we used to say. Even now I can remember that day clearly and those buddies that never made it back. Thanks for your service guys, we will never forget.

  • rbenson Apr 26, 2014

    Interesting your comments about the possibility of encountering bitterness or resentment. But if you understand that a majority of the citizens of Vietnam were born after the war ended, that should explain a lot the lack of.

  • holleyr Apr 26, 2014

    Thanks for your service, btw it's Ho Chi Minh city.

  • superflames Apr 26, 2014

    I appreciate your service. You have my respect and my gratitude.

  • tapoutnc Apr 26, 2014

    Thank you for serving!

About this Blog:

WRAL producer/director Clarence Williams is going back to Vietnam, where he served in the war 44 years ago. He'll blog about his experience during his 13-day trip and share stories and pictures along the way.