I was a teenager in the 1960s, a tumultuous decade characterized by the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. There was the March on Selma and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Who can forget Woodstock? And then there was the War in Vietnam.
Having lived through these events, I always had a strong desire to tour Vietnam. I wanted to see in person the country where so many Americans had lost their lives. Anyone who is of my age will always recall the nightly news of the war in which young men who were slightly older than me were being brought home in body bags.
When I got to Vietnam I discovered that what I knew to be the War in Vietnam was referred to as the American War. I also became aware that the Vietnamese welcomed American tourists which helped to boost their economy.
After getting settled in Ho Chi Minh City (more familiar as Saigon in my generation) we took a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This was an extensive underground labyrinth from which the Viet Cong operated during the Tet Offensive in 1968. These tunnels were used both as hiding spots during combat as well as communication and supply routes for North Vietnamese fighters.
As tourists we were allowed to descend into this web to get a feel for what American soldiers referred to as the "Black Echo". Supplies of air, food and water were scarce. Also, infestations of ants, poisonous centipedes and other vermin were rampant. Disease was extremely common in the tunnels characterized by widespread malaria and intestinal parasites. This proved an enormous source of frustration for the Americans as they sought to search out and destroy the underground maze. Training began in tunnel warfare in which specialists known as "Tunnel Rats" would enter the tunnels with only a gun, knife, flash light and piece of string. Ultimately, up to 30,000 American troops were deployed in what was known as Operation Cedar Falls. B-52s started "carpet bombing" the tunnels which was eventually successful in their elimination. However, the effort turned out to be too little, too late.
Before going to Vietnam I had never heard of Unexploded Ordinance (UXO). These are explosive weapons that were planted in the ground including bombs, bullets, shells, grenades and land mines. Never having detonated, these weapons continue to pose a risk of exploding to this day. In fact, approximately 1/3 of Laos remains contaminated with UXOs left behind from the War in Vietnam.
In February of 1963 the US Army began accumulating an arsenal of 600 M48 Patton tanks. This model was built with diesel engines which rendered them less likely to catch fire.
Being a rational person, I tried to process all that I was seeing. Of course, I had a relatively good fund of knowledge regarding the War in Vietnam that had been contributed to by reading, the media and movies. However, this war was the first one that was prosecuted during my lifetime and occurred at a time when news was readily available. I remember having the distinct feeling that life is a series of circumstances of chance in which some people like me were born at a favorable time that made getting drafted less likely. I had the opportunity to go to medical school and to have a family while some people slightly older than me got drafted, ending their lives early. I appreciated having this experience and looked forward to learning more about the culture of the country that was so affected by the American War.