Friday, April 19, 2013

DONG HA AND CAMP CARROLL'S BETRAYAL

Ngoc, my fixer, travel agent & waitress
Dong Ha today, in central Vietnam. This was a strategic crossroads town during the war.
After you’ve been in Asia for a while, you get to learn that through western eyes, most of the people that you meet here are actually older than they appear. Ngoc, my local fixer in Dong Ha, is a good example. This young lady looks fresh out of high school, appearing to be all of 18 years old.

“I am 25,” she tells me. Maybe it’s her petite size that throws me off; she’s barely five feet tall. I’m glad to hear she’s older than she looks, since I need to consult someone with experience. Ngoc is my travel agent for the old De-Militarized Zone (DMZ), the infamous Highway9, and everything else I’m doing in this part of Vietnam.

“I work here two year,” she tells me, in between taking and making phone calls in Dong Ha. Ngoc is a busy woman. In addition to arranging my route and driver, she also takes my lunch order. In this junction town, she works in a combination restaurant and travel office, making her both waitress and travel agent. Speaking passable English, Ngoc has found me good deals, arranging reliable guides during my stay.
She’s one of those rare people you find while traveling. A little ball of energy, she has the ability to multi-task. Bright, friendly and energetic, she has enough smarts to get ahead in any corporation, but she’s stuck here in Dong Ha. Still, for this town, she has a well paying job.

I come into the restaurant/office at early and late hours, and she’s almost always there. “I work 12 hour every day,” she tells me. As if that isn’t enough, she only gets one or two days off a month. I’m reminded that despite communism’s promise of helping the workers, in today’s Vietnam there is little done to give laborers sufficient days off, or overtime pay.

“My grandfather VC. He die from Americans,” Ngoc told me. She never knew her grandfather; he was killed before she was born. She says she doesn't have any problem with Americans today; Ngoc has arranged many trips around the DMZ for returning American war veterans. Soon after, Ngoc hands me a plate of chicken fried rice at my table. I wolf it down, just as my driver arrives.


“You go with him,” she tells me, pointing out the door. I look at my vehicle for the day, and groan. There are few taxis in Dong Ha, so I’m stuck
hanging onto the back seat of a motorbike, and today it looks like rain. My new guide is Nguyen. His English isn't fluent, but he’s able to get his point across. Nguyen is a former ARVN soldier; he was drafted near the war's end.
 

“I work(ed) in office," he tells me, "I work maps." Rather than a frontline soldier, his job was at a base in Quang Tri. Nguyen was luckier than most. Working inside a base, he was relatively safe from the fighting. “(When) I have 18 year, war finish,” he says. His unit surrendered to the NVA when Quang Tri fell. Like the soldier Duc I knew in Saigon, Nguyen was sent to a ‘reeducation’ camp. But since he had only been a soldier and low ranking private for six months, he was released in less than a year.

Bizarre sight: Vietnamese home built right next to old US built hangar on former Dong Ha Air Base
Nguyen hands me a helmet, and off we drive into Dong Ha’s streets. Located near the coast, Dong Ha is just 12 miles south of the old De-Militarized Zone that formerly divided North and South Vietnam. Trucks barrel through town on Highway 1, the main roadway along the coast. This throughway intersects with the westward reaching Highway 9, and from here the Laotian border is only 33 miles away as the crow flies. During the war, that proximity to the borders of North Vietnam and Laos made Dong Ha a very strategic place.

Nguyen winds the scooter through Dong Ha streets, before stopping in a residential neighborhood. I hop off, and I’m puzzled by what I see. I’m right next to one of those old half-cylinder shaped, US built concrete military hangars. These are the exact same kind still in use at Ton Son Nhat airport, but this one is different. It isn’t intact. A large hole has been blown into the side of it, almost big enough to walk through. The concrete on these protective hangars is very thick and strong, this hole must have been created by a massive explosion. 


Vietnamese memorial by ex-Dong Ha Air Base hangar
This was the site of Dong Ha Airfield, once a forward US Marine base. Since Dong Ha was so close to the DMZ, it was well within range of North Vietnamese artillery and it was attacked many times. During one heavy shelling in 1968, the base’s ammunition dump was hit, and the flames and explosions here continued for hours. Most of the aircraft parked here, and much of the base, were destroyed.

I walk around to have a look inside the old hangar. Not surprisingly, there are no traces of aircraft left. Inside I see a couple of workmen doing carpentry in the hangar’s dim light. They don’t even look up, they’re so engrossed in their work. Piles of building materials and other junk are stacked up inside.  Since the damage to the hangar wall wasn’t repaired, that hole in the wall probably occured during the 1972 spring offensive, after the US Marines had already turned the base over to the ARVN. During fighting that year, much of Dong Ha town was destroyed by the advancing North Vietnamese Army (NVA). 

Dong Ha Air Base  was not surrendered back to nature like other bases. Strangely, it was turned into a residential neighborhood. It’s a bizarre sight to see this old military airport hangar closely surrounded by small family homes. One house was built so closely, that it nearly touches the hangar itself. Dong Ha Airfield exists no more, but the town has been rebuilt into a transportation hub. All this areas imports and exports going to and from Laos pass through here, as well as all of Vietnam’s north – south road traffic. There’s a memorial next to the damaged hangar, and at its base, I find a small ceramic bowl, filled with the remains of incense sticks from Buddhists praying here. This used to be an American base. I wonder, who were they praying for?


Decaying memorial on former Camp Carroll
There’s much more to see outside Dong Ha, so we climb onto Nguyen’s scooter, and head out of town. I lean forward as Nguyen tells me about the rural roadways back then. “In the wartime, it was bare. No trees, no houses,” he tells me. The NVA laid mines along the roads, hoping to disable American tanks or trucks. These were sometimes detonated by civilian vehicles. “We had buses, but we afraid of the mine,” Nguyen continues. “Sometimes bus hit the mine, and people die.”

We buzz along Highway 9, and I look at the skies, which have been gloomy all day. They finally open up. Nguyen pulls over, and pops open the seat compartment. I’m relieved to see that he has raingear for both of us. We don ponchos
before we get too drenched; soon we’re back on the road. 

He turns south off highway, and his scooter struggles to carry us both up a long hill. Then he pulls to a stop next to some kind of strange, artsy concrete sculpture that appears to be  under construction. I think this is a strange place for a sculpture, out in the middle of nowhere. Then I look at it closer. What this really is, is a war memorial that is falling apart. In recent years, local people came and carted away parts of this memorial to sell for scrap. Most of the surrounding fence is gone, and they’ve cut away all the metal pieces that they that could get. I had already seen this done to old buildings and bunkers on old bases, but this is the first time I’d seen a memorial made by the post-war communists defaced for scrap.

One of the informational plaques has been torn away, but the other is still there, and Nguyen translates it for me as follows, “This Hill 241, had very strong American artillery army base along Highway 9.”



Aerial view of Camp Carroll during the war. (Photo: USACMH)
Hill 241 was the NVA’s name for this post; American troops remember it as Camp Carroll, a heavy artillery base inhabited by US Marine and Army troops. Like many American bases in Vietnam, it was named after an American soldier killed near the base. In this case, it’s named after Marine Corps Captain James Joseph Carroll. During NVA attack, he was mistakenly killed when fired on by an American tank. This type of combat casualty was known as ‘friendly fire’, a really self-contradictory military euphemism. 

Walking around the former base, I see sections of sandbags lying in the dirt, like those I found in the highlands. We encounter one concrete foundation, which is the former foundation for the base mess hall. This strategic base once had 16 heavy cannons, including the feared 175mm artillery guns. These massive cannons could fire 174 pound projectiles as far as 20 miles away. As American troop numbers were reduced towards the war’s end, Camp Carroll was turned over to South Vietnam’s military (ARVN) in 1970. Later, the ARVN colonel in command surrendered the entire base to the NVA, without firing a shot. That same colonel now owns a hotel in Hue today... At the top of the memorial here, the stone lists the year of his surrender, 1972.


Camp Carroll today. It's been reduced to farmland.
On one of the dismantled concrete friezes lying flat on the ground, I can make out the frightened face of an ARVN soldier, with his hands in the air as he surrenders. More than 400 ARVN soldiers were taken prisoner here. After Camp Carroll was taken, Dong Ha, the town I was in earlier, fell soon afterwards.

Nguyen tells me that in the post-war years, the only visitors that bother to come all the way up here were American war veterans that served in Camp Carroll. That explains the dilapidated state of the memorial. The government had no interest in preserving the old base, it is more useful now as a farm. Rubber trees, pepper plants, and cassava grow on a hill that used to be covered with bunkers, tents and artillery. On this gloomy day there aren’t even any farmers present, only a water buffalo chewing on grass.

I ponder the difference that I saw between Dong Ha, and here. Dong Ha is at a major crossroads, so it has been rebuilt. But since Vietnam is now reunited, Camp Carroll’s location is no longer strategic. With the heavy guns long ago captured and carted away, this former military base is now nothing more than a quiet, unimportant hilltop in central Vietnam.

33 comments:

  1. Vietnam is an attractive tourist destination.I think there are still many places in Vietnam, you should explore.Special Vietnamese cuisine are also very popular and you should try once.Hope to see you one day in Vietnam.
    Travel to vietnam with Threeland Travel

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  2. Thanks for your comment Tony. I agree that Vietnam is a very good place for tourism these days. And yes, the food I had there was excellent! Best regards to you.

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  3. Stationed at Dong Ha '67'68...visited Camp Carroll on occasion. Appreciate the vicarious visit so many years later.

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    1. Lanny, my dad was stationed there at the same time as you. I am curious as if you knew him? His name was Edward (Mickey) Beckett.

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  4. Thank you Lanny, I'm glad you enjoyed reading my story. All the best to you.

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  5. My late husband was a Marine and served at Dong Ha from Oct '66-Oct'67....He talked about going to Camp Carroll also. Thank you for the interesting article.

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  6. My husband served at Dong Ha from October '66 to October '67. He was in the Marine Corps. He also visited Camp Carroll on several occasions. Thanks for the article.

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  7. Hello Joanne, you're welcome, and thank you too for taking the time to read my story. It certainly was interesting to visit those former US bases, and see how they had changed. Best regards to you.

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  8. ooops. how did that happen? sorry...

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  9. G.,
    I served in Dong Ha with C Company, 3rd Shore Party Bn in late '66. I was stationed at the LSA where the fuel bladders and ammo magazines were hit. Fortunately, I wasn't there for the attack; I was at Bn. HQ in Danang at the time.
    Last June I returned to the area on a two-week vacation. My wife and I visited Danang, Hoi An and Hue and took day trips to all of my old compounds and battle grounds. Dong Ha, Cua Viet, Thuan An Island, Quang Tri and the Rockpile where I spent 10 days on top relaying message traffic back to that same LSA. We even hiked back through a rubber plantation to the compound at Con Thien.
    We're returning to Vietnam in February to recon some places to live, Saigon mostly. But we'll check out Halong Bay, Hanoi and return to Hoi An for a few days. I can't wait. And though making such a move at my age will be daunting, I'm excited for a future there.
    Your blog is awesome! I'll dig in and read all your posts. Thanks for sharing your stories.
    Jim Robinson
    Minneapolis

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    1. Hello Jim, thanks for your comments, I'm always glad to hear the opinion of vets who were there during the war. It also sounds like you had a good vacation there when you returned. Best of luck on finding a good place to live, hope you will find a good place. I'm glad you like my blog, thank you for reading.

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  10. Tony,

    Our family lost my brother in 1972 there. He was an MIA and several years later declared dead. I want to find his body, which was buried somewhere near Dong Ha. After the war, info was locally attained from people that remembered him being found dead in a jeep with his radio still on his back. Where do I start? Here is a link to James Worth and please look at the last entry that describes the event. My email is rapper@hughes.net

    http://www.virtualwall.org/dw/WorthJF01a.htm

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  11. Need help finding brother's body

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  12. I would recommend starting at the website of the National League of Families of POW/MIA Families, http://www.pow-miafamilies.org/
    There is information within the website on how to contact them, and they can refer you to more resources to help you with your search. Hope that helps.

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  13. I was on detachment in 1966 from Phu Bai with Mobile Construction Battalion 7 (SeaBees) and laid the air strip and subsequently started building permanent structures.

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  14. Was with the 108th Arty at Dong Ha in 1970, when I arrived it was wet, wet , wet and cold(January). Worked commo for a short time and then out to Carroll.

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  15. Was in Camp Carroll in "67", we made a material delivery with about 14 vehicles. Cannot remember when the actual date was but the 175's were spitting them out constantly. Then went on thru the night, never did sleep, we had Vietcong coming up the hillside! We came from Camp Barnes, MCB 11, Dong Ha. We were constantly getting mortar attacks, rockets. Knew a lot of great people, great hero's! As a lot of us we were young, and seen some buddies get killed! I remember there was a unit, I do not know if they were Marines or Army were I heard and seen it took me 30 years to get over it, if it wasn't for believing in My LORD JESUS, I do not know were I would be today! I guess it was so horrific I buried it, but it haunted me for a long time! I honor all our Veterans who gave so much!

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  16. made a lengthy comment and not signed in so it went into Internet penalty box , go figure. I was a young LT C/1/44 ADA Dusters from 9/68 to 3/69 when the Battery moved toward Cam Lo , Vin Dai Rock Crusher Site , MCB 62 , Gulfport MS. C/1/44 did base security of JJ , Rockpile and LZ Stud (Vandegrift , Ca lu) Every morning at 1st light the Dusters accompanied Marine minesweeper personnel and did part of Rt9 until meeting Rockpile Dusters west of JJ and Dong Ha Dusters around CamLo. LZ Stud Dusters swept Rt 9 to Rockpile . In all Rt 9 from Dong Ha to LZ Stud were covered each day as well as Rt 1 to DaNang by other Batteries of 1/44 a note on concrete pad. our mess hall was on concrete pad ; I went back in august 1999 and it was exactly were I remember it so possibly it was our mess hall and not gun emplacement some people have seen ; Ccamp JJ was site of major ambust about Jan 24, 1968 ; truck convoy ambushed by major division/regiment ; tracks raced to ambush site ; tracks fired from JJ and Hill 250 anda reaction force came from Dong HA ; a good Friend (LT) got one of three Silver Stars ; many purple hearts and NVA body count about 600 ; really angered at surrender ny South Vietnamese Col , actually NVA colonel

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    1. I was riding on he lead tank that drove into the ambush on Jan 24th 1968. Seven of us walked away from that ambush. Billy Whisenant USMC

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    2. Hello Billy, thank you for sharing your comment on the blog. I hope you are doing well these days. Best regards.

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  17. was there 9/68 - 3/69 with C/1/44 ADA Dusters as young LT . lots of stories of Rockpile , LZ Stud and support of 3rd Marine Division 3rd time tried to post and truncating this until someone asked questions

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  18. Hello Steve, thank you for your comments. It's always good to hear from veterans that were in the places where I visited in Vietnam. Sorry if posting comments here doesn't work perfectly. The blog website system has some issues now and then.

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  19. Thanks for update on some old ground I covered as Marine in '67 and '68. Shouldn't have been there.

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  20. You're welcome David. Good to hear from you.

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  21. this was our rear area few times out of bush i was there dec 67 tet68 etc usmc 2/9 3rd marines h company.i was one of the tet jan 24 68 battle below camp jj carrol.

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    1. Did you know Hernando Vargas? He was my cousin. Late 67' to early 68' in Dong Ha.

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  22. Hi Geoffrey, thank you for your comment, I'm always happy to hear from veterans that were there. Happy New Year to you also.

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  23. Just an FYI, unless the Marine ammo dump at Dong Ha was hit twice, the date would have been sometime around July August of 1968. I was standing in the chow line south of there at LZ Betty. May have been hit twice??? It was Bad, unexploded shells for miles around, looked like a war zone. LOL Flying Circus, 1st Cav.

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  24. Hi Sam, thank you for your comment. My apologies, I have changed the date to 1968. Best regards to you.

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  25. In 9/68 I was a young Cpl recently arrived in country and assigned to Camp Carroll as a crypto linguist with the 1st Radio Battalion. Being a newby I would sometimes go up on top of the shower after dark to look around. One night I heard a "ping" as something hit the heater chimney next to me. I quickly got myself down. Next morning while filling the tank someone found a "bullet" hole in the stack. I never went up there again after that.

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  26. Greetings John. That certainly was a close call. Thank you for leaving a comment, it is always good to hear from veterans that were there before me.

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  27. I served with 3/3 kilo company. 1966-1967 looking for those who came back "to the world"

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    1. Hello good to hear from you. If you would like to communicate with some of the other veterans, I recommend trying to contact some of the veterans in the comments listed above.

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