Chu Lai was my home away from home during the Vietnam War. Though you likely never heard of it, Chu Lai was much much more. What happened in and around Chu Lai turned out to be emblematic of the misery and tragedy of the entire war.
In some respects, Chu Lai is where the Vietnam War began and ended for the United States. The first major battle involving US troops took place there. The last major attack on a US field base was the surprise attack at Firebase MaryAnn—a Chu Lai outpost. And the air support for the final major operation of US forces in Vietnam–Operation Lam Son 719–was flown by Americal Division units from Chu Lai.
What happened in and around Chu Lai turned out to be emblematic. Virtually all the misery and tragedy that eventually turned the hearts and minds of Americans against the war, visited upon or germinated from Chu Lai. Civilian massacres. Rampant drug use. Fragging murders of officers by their own soldiers. Agent Orange poisoning of the countryside. Lies and deceit by the war runners. Chu Lai had it all. And an ocean view to boot.
The road there was a long one for me the first time around, in 1970. I dropped out of college in ’68 and lost my student deferment from the draft. Selective Service swooped me up in 1969, right before the national lottery. After basic training, permanent party status at a research desk at Fort Bragg, NC and an Army court martial worthy of Catch-22 (full disclosure: it involved love beads and I was acquitted of the charge), I wound up in Chu Lai with hardly 12 months left of active duty.
And yet, my return to Chu Lai in 2018, was perhaps even more convoluted. An entire lifetime intervened. Decades of marriage, births, deaths, children raised to adulthood, a heart attack survived, a rewarding career nurtured and concluded. Like so many others, I put Vietnam in the rearview mirror when I returned home. More precisely “Fred in Vietnam” got tucked away, out of sight and mind.
But in the last couple of years, Vietnam became an itch that I could not resist scratching. A top priority for my return was to “put boots on the ground” once again where I had been stationed during the war: The sprawling seaside base camp of the infamous 23rd Infantry Americal Division, Chu Lai. So on a hot and steamy March morning, exactly, 46 years and 9 months after I left the war, I found myself back on the beach at Chu Lai, looking for my past. What I found there was basically nothing. Physically, metaphysically, or otherwise.
Maybe that shouldn’t be such a surprise because Chu Lai, in the most technical sense, didn’t really exist until it was conjured from the ether, as were so many other fabrications woven to become the lore that we call The Vietnam War.
True, Chu Lai was among the largest of any of the US military installations in Vietnam. Before the war was done, it would be home to the largest Army division in Vietnam, a Navy Swift Boat port, and a major Marines fighter-bomber airbase. However, before the American military arrived in 1965, the Batangan Peninsula was a sleepy, boggy isthmus, hanging off the central coast of Vietnam like a stubby finger.
The words “Chu Lai” were nonsense; not even Vietnamese. Rather, they are a Mandarin Chinese abbreviation for the family name of US Marine General Victor Krulak. It was he who selected the area around Dung Quat Bay for construction of an air field and naval base as Lyndon Johnson shifted the US military build up into high gear. When the General learned the area had no name associated with it on the maps of the day, he rechristened the area in his own honor.
Chu Lai is about equidistant—some 900 kilometers—from Saigon in the south and Hanoi in the North. Tiny hamlets dotted its landscape back then, populated by rice farmers or fishermen. From these came our base workers of hootch maids, barbers, launderers and massage parlor prostitutes. Tam Ky, essentially a dusty ramshackle village where we’d go to buy dope and watermelons during the war, was the closest thing to a nearby city—some 30 clicks up the main road. Another 60 kilometers north, a 30 minute chopper ride, sits the major seaport, international airport and regional capital, DaNang.
Chu Lai occurs where the landmass of central Vietnam begins to widen from its narrow corridor between the South China Sea and the Annamite Mountains. The mountains form a natural border with Laos to the west, and the Mekong River Valley to the south. Chu Lai’s lowlands, coastal plains and rice paddies intercept the sea, forming a lagoon sheltered by grassy dunes, windy bluffs, rocky beaches and sandy coves.
The area takes its place among some of the most picturesque beaches of Vietnam’s entire 2,000 mile coastline. In 1970, it certainly was the most beautiful and exotic place I had ever seen, though that was a pretty low bar. I had never been on a plane until the day I was inducted into the Army. Until then, I had barely been beyond the five boroughs of New York, or Long Island.
In Chu Lai, the air was always moist with the sea. I could practically taste the briny mildew on my fatigues. Excruciatingly hot inland during the dry season, it could be bone-chillingly cold when the mountains held the rain clouds in. There would be days-long deluges during the monsoon season. Nonetheless, I never got over the area’s powerful beauty. For sure, that wasn’t the draw for the US military. Central Vietnam was a hotbed of revolutionary activity in the 1960’s. Serious “injun country” in the crude parlance of Vietnam era slang; and the terrain was ideal for land, air and marine facilities.
For my return, I connected with Cau Nguyen Huu, a former translator for one of our Infantry brigades, to serve as my guide. And the first place he took me was up a 150 foot hill-climb to a towering memorial, erected in honor of a battle that the Viet Cong instigated as a welcome to the US Marines in May of 1965. The so-called Battle of Ba Gia commenced barely two weeks after the Marines got to Chu Lai. Though little known, this rout of the South Vietnamese forces in the area and their US military advisors, was instrumental in convinced President Johnson the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) couldn’t go it alone.
Three months later, with the first wave of Marines firmly established in country, the Americanization of the war hit full stride. The US went on the offensive in Chu Lai with “Operation Starlite”. This was a sustained, bloody and controversial week-long battle. It was the debut of air mobile helicopter assaults that became ubiquitous throughout the rest of the war. Almost 50 US Marines died, and more than 200 were wounded. The US reported more than 600 Vietcong killed in action. Two US soldiers in the operation received the Medal of Honor, one of whom died of his wounds. The battle was the first major fight by U.S. forces against a sizable Viet Cong unit. Despite US claims of success, the Viet Cong announcing that they had inflicted 900 American casualties, destroyed 22 armored vehicles, and downed 13 helicopters.
A highly respected news reporter documented the deadly ambush and destruction of a US armored convoy during Operation Starlite, which was never officially acknowledged by military officials. The convoy was first bogged down and crippled by the rice paddy terrain, which was unfamiliar to US soldiers. Then the unit was decimated by an overwhelming and unrelenting enemy siege. When shown photographic proof of the event, the commander who denied that it happened relented by saying: “I was misinformed”. If ever there was a tone deaf quote of Bogie’s Rick Blaine from Casablanca, that was it.
After we left the war memorial, Cau directed us past what had been the main gate of my former base. It’s a Vietnamese Army post now, obviously off limits to me and all other civilians. Most of the sprawling facility has been subsumed by nature over nearly half a century. Cau still knows the area intimately. We took an unmarked road past the base’s old airstrip. Pretty soon we were high stepping through scrub brush and hacking through gnarly vines on an overgrown bluff to get within earshot of rock-smacking waves on the beach below.
The bluff where the 91st Evacuation Hospital stood is still there, but it is silent and deserted now. All the plank wood walls, corrugated tin roofs and every other piece of salvage and scrap was long ago carted off to become the stuff of daily living for the residents of An Tan and other nearby hamlets. There’s no trace of the parade grounds where our division hootches were clustered, or the amphitheater where Bob Hope and Raquel Welch performed. The hill where the Donut Dollies and the base commander had their air conditioned trailers is a mere memory. The base I knew is buried and forgotten under five decades of post-war foliage.
There’s a handful of thatched roof restaurants right above the high tide mark where our base’s Combat Training Center used to be. Cau leads us there and we feast on a seafood lunch among the locals: Fresh oysters and clams roasted with fish sauce, chilies and peanuts. A whole grilled fish, pungent with garlic, scallions, ginger and lime. Summer rolls, tiny dove eggs, cold beers. I wade in the surf and squint my eyes to recall walking, driving, patrolling these shores. With all my might, I try to reawaken my infatuation with Chu Lai’s lush rural beauty; the fabulous seascapes; the pastoral rice paddies.
In 1983, the Chu Lai area officially became the Núi Thành District, much as the Vietnamese originally called the region. Today, the district is a busy, fast developing, industrial area of the modern Vietnam. It boasts a world class seaport for shipping. It’s home to the country’s only privately financed automotive manufacturing plant, a joint venture with Korea’s Kia Motors, building cars, trucks, buses for domestic use and export. The former military air base has found a new life as the Chu Lai International Airport, the largest in the country and rapidly becoming one of the busiest. Industrial parks abound. The only thing still to come are the tourists.
At the end of November, 1971, months after I departed, a powerful typhoon came ashore at Chu Lai, virtually leveling the base. The Army decided that was Heaven’s way of saying “enough.” The Americal Division abandoned Chu Lai, departed Vietnam, and officially deactivated in Fort Lewis, WA., ironically, the original point of my departure for Vietnam. The Chu Lai I had been holding onto for decades, had virtually evaporated mere months after I left. It took my return 47 years later to wipe it from my mind. My Chu Lai, the Chu Lai of General Krulak, is gone. And we are all the better for it.
I am exhaling now.