Home Page Photo

Spooky Action At A Distance

Old Soldiers Never Die: They're Just Invisible

by Patrick J. Kelly MD FACS

In September and October of 2011, I went back to Vietnam, back to Danang to work with the neurosurgeons at Danang City Hospital. In fact I celebrated my 70th birthday alone in my small ($20/day) room at the Pacific Hotel in Danang. As I sat on the bed wondering what in the hell I was doing there, away from my friends and family, there was a knock at the door. A pretty young lady handed me a large bouquet of flowers and a stack of neatly wrapped presents.

"Here Sir," she said. "These flowers and presents from your friends at Danang Hospital." She smiled sweetly and said, "Happy Birthday to you, Sir!"

I thanked her and closed the door quickly before she could see the tear starting to run down my cheek. Why, in God's name, had I come back here?

I guess that the simple answer to that question was that I needed to find out what had happened. What do our allies that we support during our wars do after it is no longer politically expedient for our government to continue the war effort?

The rich, powerful, corrupt and connected get a free pass out of the country and a new life courtesy of the U.S Taxpayer. But what about the simple soldiers and locals that supported our troops while we were there but were on their own when we pulled out and their world collapsed. What happened to them?

I heard many stories while I was there. Here is just one of them:

Old Soldiers Never Die: They're Just Invisible

There is an "untouchable" class in Vietnam. These are men in their sixties or early seventies who had been soldiers in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and survivors of the "Re-education Camps". Those who didn't die from disease, malnutrition or while carrying out orders, such as clearing unexploded ordinance from fields and jungles, were detained for 10 years or longer. When released from captivity they re-entered an economically ravaged society, controlled by vindictive communists who had decided that they had not suffered enough for their "crimes".

They were pariahs that no business would hire. Many earned a living by begging, making things that could be sold to the few tourists that visited Vietnam and doing odd jobs that nobody else wanted to do. Some fished. Others became humble entrepreneurs – like the many older men with motorbikes who aggressively and desperately offer rides to any westerner they encounter. Most pass them by as if they didn't exist.

I recall one such man who used to "camp out" by the Pacific Hotel. Sitting on his old motorbike, he would always call to me when I was anywhere near that establishment.

"Hallo!" He would cheerfully call. "Need ride? No walk. Very cheap."

I would tell him that I'd rather walk. He was a man in his mid sixties (though I've never been good at guessing the ages of Vietnamese). As my wife would probably say, he was very rough around the edges. He usually needed a shave and a haircut, for starters. His clothes were worn and needed a good washing. And he was a little too aggressive with his sales pitch. If I even acknowledged his presence, he would trail me on his motorbike for a few blocks trying to sell me on a motorbike ride and "tour". I usually told him that I needed to walk. But sometimes, when I was distracted, I'd simply tell him to get lost.

Nonetheless, he always seemed cheerful. He would insist on following alongside me on his rickety old Chinese-made motorbike for a block or so when I left or returned to the hotel. Once early on, on a particularly hot day, I had turned down yet another one of his offers as I entered the bar that was attached to the Pacific Hotel. I needed a cold beer.

But I didn't know then, but quickly found out, that most Vietnamese bars do not have cold beer. So when the waiter brought a can of warm Heineken beer to my table, I was not happy. The waiter then brought a small bowl with ice cubes. He told me that when a Vietnamese wants cold beer, he or she simply puts ice cubes in the beer. To me this seemed disgusting and there was also the risk of picking up a parasite from the ice cubes; a parasite that did not bother Vietnamese but could reek havoc on the digestive systems of Westerners.

At that moment my motorbike entrepreneurial friend showed his face at the open window that was right next to my table. He smiled showing missing teeth and the remaining teeth in poor condition.

"Hallo," he said. This completed the fiasco: hot day, warm beer and this clown!

"Piss off!" I said.

"You like beer?" he asked, undaunted.

"Not particularly," I answered. I then passed him the glass and the can of Heineken, which he eagerly accepted. "Good!" I thought. That's one way to get rid of him. And I rose to leave. But as I stood up, there he was again.

"You have ice?" he asked. I passed him the bowl of ice and then left the bar as quickly as I could before he could return.

I used to see him from time to time outside the Pacific Hotel. He was always wearing his tan shirt, tan trousers, flip flops and tan baseball cap. It almost looked like a uniform, though not one that I could recognize. I wondered if this was the only set of clothes he owned. But I always turned down his offers for a ride on his motorbike.

In fact there were many men just like him in their late 50's or early 60's, some slightly better dressed than my "friend". Some had newer motorbikes as the tools of their trade. They would call to me from the other side of the street shouting "Hello. You need ride?" Perhaps there were other Westerners who would take them up on these offers. They may have thought, therefore, that any Westerner would be a potential customer.

I'd always turn them down. If I really needed a ride, I'd take a taxi. At least in a cab I'd have less risk of a broken neck or fractured skull. Vietnamese motorbike driving tactics seemed close to a game of Russian roulette. I wanted no part of this experience.

I'd agreed to give a talk about Vietnam when I returned to New York. But in the last week of my time in Vietnam, I realized that I did not have enough photos of the high priced resorts along China Beach that would illustrate my point that most of the prized beachfront land was being gobbled up, not by Vietnamese businesses, but by foreign corporations.

But I had to get over to China Beach. This was a bit of a hassle. So I walked over to the Bamboo Bar to have a cold beer (they had them) and put some serious thought into how I was going to get over there and get my photos. On my way to the bar, I heard the sound of a motorbike as it came up along side of me.

"Hallo!" I turned and saw the old rickety motorbike and my "friend" in his tattered tan "uniform".

"Where you go?" he asked - as if it was any of his business. I kept walking. I'd learned that the best way to get rid of these pests was to ignore them and keep walking. But then he said something that stopped me in my tracks.

"You military?" he asked. I turned to face him. "You veteran!" he said. "When you here? You were here. In Da Nang!" Was it really that obvious?

For some reason I stopped walking and answered his question.

"1968-1969". And I told him that I was at the Naval Support Activity Hospital on China Beach.

He said, "I was ARVN! I been at that hospital many times!" He then rolled up his loose right pant leg all the way up to his groin to reveal an ugly scar that went from groin to inside of the knee."

"VC AK 47 went in here" he pointed to a scar on the side of his thigh, "And came out here" he pointed to the middle of the scar in the front of his thigh."

"Also got shot in neck," he pointed to a half-dollar sized scar in the side of his neck. And there was an oblique surgical scar in the front right side of his neck. "Helicopter take me to NSA Hospital. They operate on me real quick."

Normally, when ARVN wounded were dropped off at NSA Hospital we'd stabilize them with an IV, fluids and blood and then ship them over to the ARVN Military Hospital in Da Nang City. However, I quickly understood why we'd operated on this man. The bullet through his thigh must have severed his femoral artery. The long oblique scar in the front of his thigh was from the incision we usually made to expose and repair the femoral artery. Even in 1968 we had the techniques to do that. Surgeons at the ARVN hospital did not. They would most probably have amputated his leg.

But the neck wound could have been even more life threatening. This could have damaged the carotid artery or one of its branches. Bleeding inside of his neck could have deviated and occluded his trachea and he could have suffocated. The oblique scar in the front of his neck was made as surgeons tried to evacuate an expanding clot, decompress the airway, repair the carotid if necessary and stop the bleeding. His case was truly an emergency and he probably wouldn't have survived the trip if we'd shipped him over to the ARVN Military Hospital.

"I was only 18, 19. I worked a lot with Americans here in Da Nang!" he said. "I know where all American bases were."

He then excitedly opened the storage space under his motorbike's seat and withdrew a packet of documents about 4 inches thick and held together by two rubber bands. He removed the rubber bands and started to withdraw folded documents. Two of these were written on his behalf by US Military officers; one an Army Lt. Colonel, the other by a Marine Corps Major. They were like letters of recommendation telling the reader that Nguyen Loc Duong was a man of character, honest and a hard worker.

He showed me his old ARVN ID card: Nguyen Loc Duong; with a faded picture of a smiling boy in an ARVN uniform who had no idea of the foul hand that fate would deal him.

It was not clear how he would have been able to keep any of these documents. The NVA/Viet Cong would surely have confiscated and probably destroyed all traces of his prior identity as he embarked on a new life under communism. I asked him how he was able to preserve these papers. But although he knew a bunch of proper and slang English words and spoke these with enthusiasm and bravado, Duong had trouble either hearing or understanding questions. He rarely answered them as he continued with a manic monologue. Or perhaps he did not want to tell me how he had preserved these documents during his captivity.

However, I was able to ask him what had happened to him after the communist victory. He told me that he was captured and put in a re-education camp. He indicated that it was a miserable experience but he was a survivor. He was finally freed after 11 years. He did not want to discuss the details of his imprisonment nor was he specific about how he was able to make a hand-to- mouth living since his release in 1987. He was more interested in talking about his time working with the Americans as an ARVN soldier.

"Come Sir, get on bike. I give you tour of all the old military places," he said.

I was reluctant to do that because of the crazy way these Vietnamese drive those things. "How much will you charge me for that tour?" I asked, thinking that I could politely refuse because of the cost.

"Nothing, Sir. For free. For you - free."

So that blew that strategy out of the water. But nothing is truly free. Nonetheless, I tried a new tack: "But I don't have a helmet. Police will give you, and probably me, a ticket if I'm not wearing a helmet."

"No problem, Sir. I have extra helmet," he said.

"Well, I don't want a goddamned ride or a tour," I said. "Bugger off!"

He was undeterred. " I give you tour for free. I have helmet. I know many old US Military places. You see. For free."

I was fresh out of excuses and thought, "What the hell!" So I kept my baseball cap on my head and put the extra helmet over that in case there might be fleas in the webbing of the helmet. And I climbed on the back of the old motorbike being driven by someone who would be considered a "street person" if he were in New York City.

So we took off down the Bach Dang heading south for one block against the traffic – the Bach Dang is one way going north. I remember thinking, "This is a BIG mistake."

"What rank you - in US military?" he asked as he cut in front of a car to make a right turn.

"I was a Lieutenant Commander," I answered.

"Lieutenant Commander? What that?" He asked.

"It's a Navy rank. Like a Major in the Army" I told him.

"Oh," he said. "Major; you were Major. Officer. Very good. Very good." From then on he called me "Major".

When it finally occurred to him that we risked certain death heading down Bach Dang the wrong way against traffic, he turned onto a side street and worked his way through the motorbike traffic to a round-about that led to what I recalled was the old American bridge. Forty-two years ago Marines with M-16s patrolled that bridge 24 hours a day, seven days a week, shooting at anything that moved in the water of the Han River below. This was to discourage "sappers" who might try to blow up the bridge – like they did in Hue after Tet of '68.

"There!" he said, pointing to some large warehouses on the city side of the river, "Those used to be American Navy supply houses." I could not recall this. Maybe they were.

When we started up a slight incline leading to the bridge, the old motorbike started sputtering. I looked over his shoulder and saw the red needle of the gas gauge resting on "E".

"Your tank is empty," I said.

"Will be OK," he answered.

We were now crossing the river and when the road leveled out, the hum of the motor evened out. "Used to be many Navy boats over there." He pointed to the west side of the riverbank near the large warehouses. Now a few blue and yellow-hulled fishing boats were tied up at the old dock. But I vaguely recalled the grey-hulled PBRs, Alphas and supply craft docked there 43 years ago. He was right. That's where they used to be.

On the other side of the river we took the old road, not the 4 lane new road that I had traveled on trips to China Beach over the past 4 weeks. The old road had two lanes, was quite narrow and went through a squalid set of houses and makeshift cafes and small businesses. This was the road we used to use in 1968 when we made the ill-advised trip from the hospital into Da Nang City.

"Over there," he said pointing ahead and to his left to a cluster of shacks. "Was MAG 11." Marine Air Group 11. Now there was no trace of it ever having been there.

There was a clutter of shacks here then also. At that time these were teaming with brothels and gangs of young boys who survived by petty crime, stealing whatever they could from military personnel riding in slow moving cars, jeeps or troop carriers. I recalled how on one hot summer day, one of these urchins reached through the car's window and grabbed my Ray Ban sunglasses then ran like hell. I considered myself lucky: he could have just as easily dropped a grenade into the vehicle. However, one of these little devils was not so fortunate.

This young thief had crafted an ingenious device: a long stick with a razorblade fixed to the end. Its purpose was to slit the back pants pocket of servicemen as they sat on the side supports of personnel carriers. Usually their wallets would slip though the hole in the pocket and drop onto the road where the little rascal would quickly collect them and run like the dickens. Unfortunately for him, one day he tried this stunt on the wrong soldier.

A four by four with ROK (Republic of Korea) troops was slowly passing by and came to a near stop in the traffic at the bridge. Several of them were sitting in the cargo bay with their butts hanging slightly over the sides – exposing their wallet pockets. The 8 year-old ruffian waited for the truck to slow to a stop, ran up to the truck and used his stick and razor blade instrument to slice through one of the ROK troop's wallet pocket.

When the wallet dropped to the dirt road, the thief snatched the wallet and took off down the road. The ROK soldier calmly drew and cocked his .45 semiautomatic. A single shot hit the kid in the back of the head and blew his brains out through the exit hole in his forehead. The soldier then jumped down from the four by four and calmly walked over, retrieved his wallet from the convulsing kid's hand, slipped his wallet into his good back pocket, holstered his Colt and jumped back up into the waiting four by four. He knocked twice with his knuckles on the metal side of the truck that then lumbered onto the bridge toward Da Nang City.

I was working in Triage when they brought this young commando in. He was still breathing but basically was brain-dead. His forehead and part of his face had been blown away. A sobbing older woman had accompanied the boy – his mother or grandmother; it was hard to tell. A couple of US Marines returning from the R&R center at China Beach had transported the dying boy and the woman to our hospital – it was on the way to their destination: MAG-16 which was directly across the road from us. They had witnessed the incident and told us about it, marveling on what a great shot that Korean was with a .45.

There was nothing that we could do except cover the wounds with large dressings and have him transported to the USOM hospital in Da Nang where he could die without taking up a bed in our hospital that might be needed for one of our servicemen.

We turned the corner onto AH 17 heading south. I noticed that everybody was passing us as Duong guided his motorbike down the two-lane highway that was in the process of expansion to become a four-lane highway. Occasionally his old motorbike stuttered. The fuel needle was pegged on Empty but the speedometer needle was also registering zero miles per hour. So what was the problem? Broken speedometer and broken fuel gauge, or empty gas tank – or both?

I saw a petrol station up ahead. I told him to pull in there and I would buy him a fill up. He thought about it for a few seconds, nodded and then turned in. Sitting by the pumps were two ill-kempt, shabbily dressed men who appeared to be in their late sixties. They waved at Duong and he waved back, saying something to them in Vietnamese. They laughed. I don't know what he said; perhaps something like "I've got this dork of an American gonna buy me some gas". Anyway, filling the motorbike's gas-tank only required 50,000 VND (about $2.50) – which I paid. I then noticed that the fuel gauge was still on empty.

We rode on and passed the Glitzy Women and Children's Hospital that Dr. Bao and I had visited a few weeks ago. Duong pointed east across the road to the empty field with old cement covered Quonset huts and a watchtower in the distance.

"That used to be Army Airfield," he said while pointing to the Quonset huts that used to be hangers for airplanes. "Up here," he said, pointing ahead, "Is where Navy Hospital used to be."

"No," I said. "The Navy hospital was back there where that new hospital is now."

"No, No!" He replied. "I know where old Navy Hospital was. Up over there," he pointed ahead and to the right. "Not back there."

We passed a walled compound on the left with a fairly new, large yellow and red stucco building within the walls and two flagpoles carrying red flags; one with a yellow hammer and sickle the other with a central yellow star. "That used to be US Marine Corps base; now Vietnam Army headquarters and base."

We came to a crossroad heading east. "On other side of that road used to be Marine Helicopter base."

"Mag 16?" I asked.

"Yes, yes! MAG-16."

MAG-16 where they used to keep the big CH-53 gunships – the "Jolly Green Giants" that were big fat targets for the Viet Cong during the war. At night the VC used to lob rockets and mortars over our hospital trying to put the "Jolly Greens" out of commission. The Jolly Greens, that would occasionally land at our hospital's landing pad and dump off as many as 60 wounded men on our triage areas.

And then pointing to the right at a large area with some fairly new, scruffy aquamarine cement-block houses with corrugated tin roofs and an essentially empty field, Duong said, "There where your hospital – Navy Hospital was!"

We stopped. I got off the motorbike and walked away from the road into that empty field. I noticed a fairly substantial weathered cement wall and a two-story cement building about a hundred yards away. Duong drove his motorbike up beside me and saw me looking at the wall. This was not there in 1969; nor was the building. I pointed this out to him.

He stuck to his guns, "Wall maybe 30 years old, Building about 25 – it laboratory or something." Then he pointed to a structure I had missed. " There – old watch tower! Used to be on fence of hospital."

In an instant "flash-back" I suddenly realized that he was right! I now remembered it.

And beyond this, the small village with the Pagoda that was between our hospital and the Han River. The village had grown and the Pagoda had been enlarged. In 42 years, changes were expected. Duong then pointed across the road, "There … over there was MAG 16! Your hospital was right here. I know, I come to this hospital many times." My guess was that the hospital that had been here had once saved his life.

Dr. D'Ung, the old neurosurgeon from Da Nang, had been adamant that NSA–Da Nang Hospital had been at the present location of the new Women and Children's hospital up the road. But now, for some reason, I now believed this scruffy old soldier.

There was something, something that I cannot logically or scientifically explain, that seemed to tell me that this place, the place where we now stood, was where NSA Danang Hospital, Station Hospital No. 5, used to be. I have no idea of why finding this plot of land was so important to me – but it was. In the past 42 years, not a single day of my life had passed without me thinking about this place - the people and all of it – at least once. At last, I'd found it. This is why I'd come back here. But there was no revelation or epiphany. Thankfully, Duong kept his mouth shut.

Finally, we got back on the motorbike and headed further south toward Marble Mountain. For some reason I was sad. I was also tired of riding on this motorbike. I told Duong that I'd like to head over to and go back on the beach road so I could get some pictures of the new resorts on China Beach.

We rode a bit further south and then took a left turn on a small road at the base of the marble mountains. This road was lined with corrugated tin-roofed rough wooden shacks. Most of these were shops that sold large and small marble carvings of dragons, lions, people and whatnots. The various proprietors – most of whom were relatively attractive but unpolished women in their 30's or 40's – came out of their shops and tried to entice us to stop. We didn't.

"Many VC here in war," Duong said.

I recalled watching, from the roof of our hooch, the night flares, tracers from the gunfire and the night flights of "Puff the Magic Dragon" sweeping over Marble Mountain. "Puff" was a converted AC-47 (Douglas DC-3) that was equipped with three Gatling Guns shooting 100 rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition per second. It was said that this weapon could put one bullet in every square foot of swath 50 yards wide. Of course, the Viet Cong could hear and see them coming and simply duck into the many caves of Marble Mountain. Innocent and unsophisticated civilians would occasionally get nailed and included in the U.S. body counts that "proved" we were winning the war.

As we passed through this commercial shantytown, I happened to notice that many of the marble carvings in one store were exactly the same as those in other stores. Duong, without me asking, said "Most of these things made someplace else – sent here. Sell to tourists." He drove through this ramshackle little market town without even slowing down, scattering the pretty ladies like chickens running away from a speeding car.

We turned north on the Truong Sa – the Beach road – and were soon passing the many resort hotels; the Vin Pearl, the Crown Plaza, the Hyatt Resort Hotel, the Fusion Maia Resort, the Sandy Beach Non Nuoc Resort, the Silver Shore Resort, etc.etc. Duong slowed in front of each so I could get a picture. Duong pointed across the road to some old moldy cement covered Quonset hut hangers with an old U.S. watchtower. "Take picture that too!"

When we reached the Furama Resort I said, "I think that I'll get off here." I'd had enough of this old motorbike and Duong's constant and sometimes unintelligible jabber. A gin and tonic in the Furama's bar then seemed like a good idea.

Duong stopped the motorbike at the front gate. " I wait for you, Major. Take you back Da Nang."

I told him that I'd probably be there for some time and would take a taxi back. He gave me a card with a telephone number and said, "Call me, I come back; take you back Da Nang."

I told him that I'd had my fill of motorbiking for the day but offered to pay him for his trouble.

"That okay, no need," he said without much conviction.

I pulled out my wallet and gave him all the cash I had; about 600 thousand Vietnamese Dong (about $30.00 US). To me this was not very much – although, typically, a motorbike ride over to China Beach from Da Nang City would have been only about $4.00. But, for some reason, I felt that I owed this guy something and our country owed him and thousands of others like him a great deal more for the pain we'd caused them. Thirty-bucks seemed cheap.

He reluctantly took the money, though not too reluctantly. He probably wondered whether I really realized how much I was giving him. But in an instant he knew that I knew and I could tell that he was relieved and very grateful. In Da Nang he could live for a month on six hundred thousand Dong. For me that would buy a drink at the Furama's bar and a modest dinner if I didn't order wine, an appetizer or desert. I had a credit card for that.

We shook hands and I started up the driveway toward the Furama's main entrance.

"Major" he called.

What now? I thought as I turned around.

He pointed to his helmet that I still had on my head. "I need helmet."

I felt the top of my head. Damn! I'd forgotten to give his helmet back to him. We both laughed as I took off the helmet and returned it to him.

"Call if you need ride back!" he said.

I nodded and turned to walk up the drive to the Furama's front entrance. I didn't turn around for fear that I'd see him still waiting there.

© Patrick J. Kelly 2013

Editor's note: The old ARVN was right about the location of the hospital. The way I found it when I returned was by locating the temple next door using old photos. Now the temple is obscured from the road by new structures, especially a memorial to the Vietnamese war dead from that area. If Dr. Kelly had gone to the temple, he would have found the museum on the old trail along our concertina, now a road. The museum commemorates a secret area of support for our enemy centered around the temple. I have photos with my own memoir on this site of the temple and the hamlet behind the hospital from then and now.

My time overlapped with Dr. Kelly's time. I think I remember who he was, but time fades some of this and I as an enlisted man traveled in different circles. We had a friend in common there, Dr. Richard "Dicky" Butsch, who helped me get my start as a civilian with a recommendation for my first job. Though we may not remember faces, these are fellow humans with we have a special bond.

Jim Chaffee