Op-Ed

Remembering Vietnam: diary notes from a lost war

Perry Deane Young at refugee camp near Khe Sanh, Vietnam.
Perry Deane Young at refugee camp near Khe Sanh, Vietnam. Courtesy of Perry Deane Young

PBS’ documentary series “The Vietnam War has stirred up memories for many who served in Vietnam. The wartime diary entries of Perry Deane Young, a writer who worked as a UPI correspondent in Saigon during the Tet Offensive, appear below.

Most of those around me at the Fort Gordon Military Police School [in January 1967] will go directly to Vietnam. I’m in the Army Reserve and I will go to my job as a reporter in New York. There is only one class about Vietnam and “GO-rilla” warfare. It is a fun class that promises a fun war. “Awrite now class, what do you need to fight the gorillas?” “Guns.” “Propaganda.” “Bananas.” “Y’all better pay attention cause you’ll need this stuff in Vietnam. Ol’ Charlie may not believe in the cause either, but he’ll damn sure kill you if you don’t kill him first.”

In New York, I am 26 years old and having the time of my life waiting to be sent to Saigon as a UPI correspondent. I casually leave my Army Reserve obligation behind and head for the war in Vietnam – maybe the only guy ever to go AWOL in order to go to war.



***

Saigon, oh, Saigon, the Paris, the Pearl of the Orient. A French colonial gem set down halfway around the world and totally decadent by the time we get there in the 1950s and 60s. The travel agent who books my round-the-world Pan Am flight in January 1968 is so excited over sharing in a young man’s first visit to Saigon, he writes 15 pages on the beauty of the people and the city I will be experiencing – the beautiful girls in flowing white silk ao dais, the wide tree-lined boulevards, a long slow frosted glass of pernod on the terrace of the old Continental Palace. Graham Greene has been there as a reporter; now I am going too.



***

Tet 1968 is millions of firecrackers, matching the chaos of a million motorcycles in the streets. Everybody is out celebrating the new year of the monkey. Sheets of firecrackers are strung from the tops of buildings and lit to scare off the evil dragons. It is an oriental Mardi Gras. Young and naïve, I am overwhelmed by the joy all around me and embrace every bit of it. The whole city is one big party. Around 3 a.m. the explosions are no longer firecrackers. The dragons are firing real mortars and rockets. My office calls me and says Saigon is under attack: “If you can get across the street, come to work.”



***

Hungover and shocked beyond belief, Saigon awakes to an eerie calm as silent military ambulances roam about the city removing the wounded and the dead. Rounding a corner beside the splendid new American-built Presidential Palace, I stumble into a firefight between some Americans on the ground and a Viet Cong sniper high up in a new apartment building. Fresh out of MP school myself, I see the lifeless bodies of two of my young colleagues hanging out each side of a jeep. One tiny dead VC lies like a discarded rag doll behind the jeep. Two bantam roosters peck at the puddles of blood and then start trying to kill each other just like the other animals.



***

We stand waiting to get on a medevac chopper into the fighting across the river in the old Hue Citadel. Two medics come out of a doorway labeled “Make Love not War” and start cooking a goose they’ve just liberated from a nearby house. We watch as a spotter plane gets shot down just a few hundred feet from us. A jeep roars up with the pilot’s charred body. The medics unzip the bag so the body will cool.



***

At Charlie Med now at Khe Sanh waiting for a helicopter to come through the fog and carry me out of here with the wounded. 31 on the last two choppers. Nine dead here now beside me in those black rubber body bags that make it all seem so clean. Tape recorder plays Donovan singing about the sunshine coming in his window today. A young medic sweeps the floor with a bloody broom, whistling the tune.



***

I am standing at the Dong Ha Air Strip when the news of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination comes over a little transistor radio. An old gunny sergeant looks at me and says he doesn’t really understand how something like that could happen. But, hey, he says, “I reckon it’s the same thing you’ve got in a war: you don’t like somethin’ you kill it.”



***

Sean Flynn steps out of make-believe heroics to become a real-life hero, a connoisseur of war in Vietnam. He faces real death-defying dangers in the Ashau Valley his dad (the actor Errol Flynn) only saw on movie sets. Fresh out of rural Vermont, Dana Stone creates his own movie, becoming “mini grunt” to all the Marines. His short muscular body has more combat experience than any 10 Marines.

That last day, April 6, 1970, in Chi Pou, Cambodia, they sit taunting each other about driving their motorcycles into communist territory. Stone says it’s too dangerous; he’s got a wife back at the hotel. Flynn says, Of course it’s dangerous, that’s what makes it a good story. They drive down an embattled roadway, never to be seen again. Like Housman’s Athlete Dying Young, they will not live to grow old and wear their laurels out; they are forever enshrined in that last photograph, young and alive as they set off on another adventure.



***

So we’re back in the world now and nothing will ever be the same. Flynn warned us about that. I’m 28 years old and my life is all in the past. I know I’ll never experience such fear, such joy as I felt among my buddies in the war. Tim Page is horribly wounded. Flynn and Stone are still among the missing in Cambodia. Michael Herr, one of the brightest and best of our colleagues, is totally burned out by all he witnessed in Vietnam. I stop by to see him in his tiny village apartment. He sits staring at an old black and white TV with the sound off, smoking joint after joint into oblivion. He says sometimes you think the dead have just been spared a lot of pain.



***

Thirty-five years have now passed since the end of the war. We gather in Cambodia and Vietnam to pay tribute to those who did not survive. We sit among Buddhist monks on the spot where two American television crews were beaten to death. We stand where Flynn and Stone were last seen alive. We walk in horror among the human bones that still litter the killing fields. Someone asks the question that haunts us all: Why were we able to live on while so many others died? Matt Franjola says we were left to bear witness.

Perry Deane Young currently resides in Chapel Hill.

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