A Trip Down Memory Lane (A.K.A. Thunder Road)

By Ty Dodge

“Why in the world are you going to Vietnam?!?” I heard that question a hundred times last spring as my wife, Florence, and I prepared for our trip. Couldn’t they make the connection that this fifty-ish guy might have been there once before?

I’ll have to admit that questioning the question was far less difficult than answering it. Was I healing old wounds? Tying up emotional loose ends? Seeking affirmation of the sacrifice of so many brave Americans? Certainly all those things were kindling the flame to go back. But it really boiled down to this: Vietnam was one of the most significant experiences of my life—and going back was simply a chance to remember.

Florence and I started in Hanoi and worked our way south through Hue, Danang, Dalat, and Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam is, as you may recall, a place of extraordinary beauty. And the Vietnamese people proved to be among the friendliest we’ve ever encountered—especially when they discovered we were American! Toi la nguoi My! “I am an American!” Four little words that unlocked a thousand smiles!

It seemed that everything had changed—and nothing had changed at all. The communist country of Vietnam is striving mightily to capitalize on capitalism. Yet it is still the dirt poor country we remember from a quarter century ago. From Hanoi to the poorest villages, though, there were smiles and hot tea. Everywhere, smiles and hot tea.

But, if seeing the country and meeting the people was the main course, returning to Cav Country was the dessert! The last leg of our journey took us up Highway 13—Thunder Road—into Song Be and Tay Ninh Provinces. Names a Blackhorse Trooper will never forget flooded my mind: Ben Cat, Cu Chi, An Loc, Loc Ninh, Phuoc Long, Bu Dop!

My objective in Song Be was to find FSB Buttons. It was there that I Troop was hammered in the early morning darkness of November 4th, 1969. Jim Brady was killed. Several others wounded. I really wanted to stand again on that hallowed ground. Buttons, though, is far from a regular tourist stop, and our trip planners were somewhat skeptical we’d find it.

Like I say, though, things hadn’t changed much in a quarter century. A few old battle maps rescued from a footlocker in our basement, and several others graciously loaned me by COL Leach, put us right on the spot where 3d Platoon made its stand that night in ’69!

I had wondered for years how I might feel should I ever stand again on ground I’d defended as a 24 year old first lieutenant. Would it be painful? Or sorrowful? Melodramatic? Or filled with emotion? Now I know, though I’m not sure I can adequately describe those feelings. Perhaps they included relief in having survived Vietnam ... yet joy in reliving the experience ... thankfulness ... renewed respect for a worthy foe ... affirmation of the sacrifice made by so many. More than anything, it was a moment filled simply with excitement!

I was happy to be able to share this spot and this experience with Florence, who has listened to my Blackhorse stories for so many years. But I wished, too, that I could share it with the NVA soldier who fired his RPGs into my tracks. I wondered if he were still living. I suspect that he was simply fulfilling his duty to his country—as were we—that night of November 4th, 1969. And I wished that I could share the moment with John Brady whose memory endures on Line 27, Panel 16 West, of a black granite wall in our nation’s capital.

Just a few meters from where we stood, a monument rose above the trees. We walked to it. It was a memorial to the NVA who died in battle there. We stood in quiet respect, taking in the sheer immensity of the moment.

Actually, each side had a memorial on this battleground. Theirs was the tall, unkempt monument before me. Ours, the worn and broken berm behind me. And one more memorial was dedicated as Florence and I walked the now-silent battlefield: a handful of red earth I scooped up and sealed in a baggie. Many young men died that night twenty six years ago. Were the causes for which we fought honorable and worthy? Who knows. Not even the wisdom of history will tell us for sure. Yet it can be said without doubt that the men on the field of battle served honorably and bravely through that night.

A reminder of the war’s continuing influence on Vietnam lay half hidden in the grass at our feet: an unexploded artillery round. We learned later that three children died just a month earlier from such a piece of leftover ordnance.

Blackhorse blood had long been washed from Song Be’s soil, but I scooped up one last baggie of earth for old times’ sake. And, as we turned east and walked to the road, I noticed that my hands were once again the rust-red color they had been so long ago. In a way, I wished that color would stay with me forever, that I might always remember.