April 23, 2000, By The Associated Press
VINH TRUONG, Vietnam (AP) -- Ray Winters looked out over the more than 10,000 graves of communist fighters near the battlefields where he fought a losing war in another time.
``My hat's off to these guys that are here,'' he said of his foes, many of whom were killed along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. ``They did an incredible job. That was no walk in the park trying to construct that road with us hammering them night and day with B-52s and artillery.''
Winters, 52, of Chatsworth, Calif., fought with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, more than 30 years ago in the hellhole known as Quang Tri province. They were based just below what was once the Demilitarized Zone that divided Vietnam into the communist North and U.S.-backed South.
Now, 25 years after the war ended with 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese dead, the country is reunited. There are few traces of the former dividing line across the narrow waist of the country or even of the old battlefields that saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war.
In the region where Winters once fought, fields are lush green with rice shoots and coffee trees, the voices of children at play ring out, and the country is bathed in festivity.
Was Vietnam worth the price paid in lives cut short and ruined?
``Hell no,'' Winters replied without hesitation. ``Hell no.''
For Winters, it was a ``completely miserable year out of my life.''
``It was obviously a very intense experience,'' he added. ``You are very close to death frequently and you don't walk away from an experience like that unchanged.''
The 72 cemeteries in Quang Tri alone, including two national burial grounds, are the most obvious reminders of Vietnam's losses.
At Truong Son National Cemetery, where Winters visited, men and women in conical hats and orange rubber gloves cleaned the tombstones, an annual ritual. It is particularly significant this year, the 25th anniversary of the end of the conflict.
Nineteen miles away is the Route 9 Cemetery, where another 9,500 Vietnamese soldiers rest, most of them under headstones marked ``unknown martyr.''
But otherwise, you have to hunt to find traces of the battles.
In Hue, the historic imperial capital on the coast near the former DMZ, bulletmarks are still visible on the walls of the famed Citadel, part of the imperial complex.
But most of the city has been rebuilt after it was largely destroyed in 24 hours of house-to-house fighting in 1968 that killed 142 U.S. Marines.
And now Hue is looking ahead to the future: banners hung in the city proclaim, ``Vietnam: A Destination for the New Millennium.''
Khe Sanh, the military base where Marines withstood a 77-day siege at a cost of more than 200 dead and 1,600 wounded, is a coffee plantation. Tourists from around the world visit a memorial museum, an old American tank and artillery piece rusting outside.
Nearby, Vietnamese men peddle what they claim are authentic Marine dogtags for $3 a pair, along with bomb and shell casings and other memorabilia. Other dealers sell iron scavenged from bombs and shells for less than 20 cents a pound.
North Vietnamese gunners pounded the Khe Sanh garrison with more than 1,000 rounds of artillery, rockets and mortars on some days. American warplanes retaliated by pounding North Vietnamese positions in the surrounding mountain ranges of Vietnam and Laos with 100,000 tons of bombs -- one-sixth the total dropped by the United States during the entire Korean War.
On sites of other former U.S. bases, trees as tall as 20 feet stand, planted by PeaceTrees Vietnam, a U.S. volunteer agency, and Britain's Mine Advisory Group. The two groups are slowly clearing the former U.S. bases and planting trees in their place. Later they plan to build homes on the battlefields and resettle the poor on their ancestral grounds.
The Vietnamese, almost like a mantra, say they bear no grudges.
Tran Van Mung, 70, and wife Hoang Thi Muon, 58, who fought for the communists in Quang Tri, lost relatives in the war and were held prisoners for six years, say they know that many back in the United States protested against the war. They only hold the U.S. administration responsible.
They fought, they say, because they wanted to free their country of years of foreign domination, and won because of overwhelming nationalist sentiment.
Winters says he returned for the first time since 1969 to ``look for the good parts'' and for the beauty of the country, something he could only occasionally sort out from the ugliness of the war.
``And the people can be awfully nice, just really good people at heart,'' he says. ``I wanted to see how everything affected them, how they were doing now that it's one country again ... They tend to be overall very happy. I think the country is very backward still because it's communist.''
Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations
© 2000 by Neil Mishalov