A trip forward into the past (part 2)
You can hear the jungle before you enter. In Southeast Asia the Cicadas and birds and other insects combine to make a high pitched whine not unlike using a circular saw. You almost don't notice it at first and it builds and builds until you are asking yourself where the saw mill is and when you realize it is everywhere, the immensity and completeness of it is staggering. It's almost like a warning sign.
We are now very close to the Laos border and the 17th parallel. It's amazing that it seems like familiar territory. As we leave Hwy 9 and start down a dirt road, we approach The Rockpile and Razor Back Ridge. This is it. The reason we are here is to climb over Razorback one more time and attempt a climb onto what we call 362.
Finally, we leave the bus and start walking. We are walking into the jungle and we're told that once again plans have changed. We are to spend the next two nights near a minority village. These are Lao mountain people who were relocated here in 1975 to have better conditions. After a short trek, we enter the village and see that all the houses are on stilts and have thatched roofs. There is no electricity, no through road. The men are standing in front of their houses, most of the women and children are indoors or standing far back and sneaking peeks at us out of the window openings and around corners. We're told they are extremely shy and that we cannot take pictures at this time.
The villagers had 4 of the young adults stay out near our camp for us. They said there were occasionally wild animals and wanted to protect us. The guys told me that these young men got up every couple of hours and walked around the tents. They also had some herbs that we spread around our tents as repellents for the snakes.
I do not know what day it is, but this day we make our attempt on the hill which means we will go over Razor Back ridge for the 2nd time in 42 years. We are excited and nervous. We make sure we have our memorial stuff and we head out just like we were Marines again, in formation.
May 4th, 6:00 AM
We head out on the bus onto a two track road and go as far as the vehicle will allow. It's now time to saddle up and get on with it. We are all very excited about getting to the hill and planting our shrines. Joe Holt has a marble plaque that he wanted to bury and of course we have the stones with the names of those who died on the hill. We also have stones for those who lost their lives in the stream bed the two nights before and are hoping we can reach both spots, but 362 is our main goal. The excitement is palpable.
Joe tells us early in the morning that he has decided not to go. He doesn't think he can make it. I know this was a difficult decision for him. He will stay back with the bus and wait for us. I immediately approach Manuel, hoping that news will give him second thoughts as well. Since learning about his health issues, I fear for his well-being. However, he is adamant about going.
About 6:30 am we begin the climb around the Rockpile and over Razor Back. I am in the middle, 5th, as always. Manuel is in front of Don Eberle who is in front of me. This is good; I can keep a close eye on Manny. Every one is chipper and excited. Ngoc has brought along a local guide who says he knows where we are going. We're still very unsure about our coordinates. We are warned several times by our guides and the locals about unexploded ordinance and not to wander off the trail. Explosives of every description, hand grenades, booby traps, land mines, cannon shells and aircraft bombs from 250 to 1000 lbs, are said to be every where. It is a major concern.
At 10:30am, I talk with Major Carey and John Olsen about my concern for Manuel's condition. I tell Manuel that he should go back, that I can't let him go any further. Don says he doesn't think he can continue and volunteers to go back with Manny. Tom Gainer also accepts going back to assist Manny. Stan is wavering. He's already lost a lot of fluid. We are drinking water but the electrolytes we are losing at a rapid pace is putting people in danger.
Major Carey and Captain Crowell finally decide that we will all turn around and go back. Mike says that 42 years ago he did not have a choice. This time he does, and he is not going to lose another man to that hill. I am fuming inside but trying to keep my composure. Gary Crowell calms me down by saying simply: "Unit loyalty, Doc. You can't buy it." Only about 8 miles into our quest, we now will do the 8 miles back. We're only about three miles from the stream bed. So close to one of our goals.
As everyone begins to head back down toward the road, I take a last, long look up the trail. I know this hill no longer owns me. I want to bare my chest and proclaim it. I want to scream it. I am so close. I can feel my world changing. A bizarre combined sense of loss and new found power. For now, I must turn back and help my mates get safely down this trail.
Finally, we spot the road and soon after, the bus. Private Holt, who stayed back with the bus says in all honesty that he was very worried. He did not expect us all to make it back. He is a happy man and greets us like long lost friends. Eberle cannot take his pack off and needs help getting aboard. Stan is going to be ok but he's weak as a kitten, as is Sarge, who proved himself pretty well for an old guy. Manuel will be okay as long as he doesn't do anything exertional. We are all in a kind of daze. There is no talking on the ride back toward the campgrounds.
Instead of spending another night outside of the village we decide to go back to Dong Ha. We break camp and pack our gear quickly. On our way back to the highway we plant/bury the stones in a field at the base of The Rockpile. Not altogether unfitting. This is the spot we were extracted from long ago. This is where we got our last glimpse of an area none of us ever wanted to come back to, let alone remember.
Written by Doug Howell
Published on 12/25/08