In the Suburbs / "Return to Vietnam"

From 1966--68, my good friend and veteran journalist Bob Stokes, of Westport, was a freelance journalist and later a writer for Newsweek magazine during the Vietnam war. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with our troops, reporting from the front, witnessing atrocities and senseless loss of life.

During his assignment in Vietnam, Bob was also wounded and thankfully was not left with permanent damage, but the conflict certainly affected him and his perception of this long, drawn-out conflict. His memories have remained vivid and often painful.

Just weeks ago, Bob and his wife Catherine took advantage of a wonderful opportunity -- to attend a reunion of journalists in Saigon. For Bob, 42 years later, it was a poignant return to a land ravaged by the horrors of a bitter and political war. Over lunch this week, I received a first-hand account. I wanted to share snippets of that account as a tribute to Bob.

I have to admit that I was very much removed from the war, other than seeing the movies The Deer Hunter and Born on the Fourth of July and having a brother-in-law, who served bravely and survived. At the time I was a teacher and was fortunate enough to secure a 3A deferment from the service.

But Bob brought it home for me with his vivid reflections about places like China Beach (now filled with five-star hotels and a casino), Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang, the Mekong Delta and the deadly Chu Chi Tunnels among others. He shared three pieces he will be filing for The Asbury Park Press, the newspaper where he was a reporter after his time in Vietnam.

In one vivid and pointed discussion about the Chu Chi Tunnels, Bob wrote, "Part Vietnamese Disneyland and part crude propaganda, the Chu Chi Tunnels, 180 miles of intricate underground complexes which housed the North Vietnamese military leadership of the war in the south, are the country's top tourist attraction."

Bob also spoke about a tour of the tunnels, which hardly gave him a warm and fuzzy feeling. Again, in his words, "I wondered about what those GI tunnel rats who died in those dark, claustrophobic passageways, would think about the war they fought being represented 35 years later as an amusement park spectacular. The first word that springs to mind is grotesque."

He walked out of the tour when a 10-minute audio visual presentation "represented American soldiers as a modern breed of Mongol warriors destroying everything that lived or moved."

During lunch, Bob spoke a lot about his tour guide, a young man who was spared under the regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia, because his family were farmers. Unlike millions of others, who suffered at the cruel hand of this tyrant, this young man survived by working in the fields every day to produce the necessary quota of rice.

"What struck me," Bob told me, "was that this man had no bitter feelings. He didn't call himself a victim and his attitude is probably what kept him going. He home schooled himself, he holds a good job and is proud of his family and the possessions he has, like his car. He has a wife and three children and speaks about them with real pride."

Bob explained that one of his missions in Vietnam was to find the Navy hospital where he had been treated for his injury, which I believe was a shoulder wound. I remember in an earlier piece I had read a few weeks ago that he was caught in the line of fire while accompanying helicopter crews and the soldier who shielded him from fatal wounds didn't make it.

His guide explained that the closest point to where the hospital might have been was a mountain called Marble Mountain. Unfortunately, the hospital was no where to be seen and instead there were a group of relatively new apartments. He noted that after 42 years a lot of things had been destroyed or replaced.

On the subject of the reunion itself, Bob became very animated as he described the connections and camaraderie he shared with the 40-plus journalists who had returned to Vietnam from the United States and probably some foreign countries as well. "It was very special and there were a lot of touching speeches about lost friends and reflections about times spent in Vietnam," Bob said. "There were journalists and photojournalists and they had special experiences they wanted to share. The event itself was covered by Vietnamese publications and many of us filed stories from over there to our chosen publications here in the states."

After lunch, Bob gave me copies of the stories and reading through them filled me with emotion. I could visualize him reliving the war time experiences and wanted to share a few vignettes of these rich and amazing pieces.

"CAI BE, Vietnam -- In 1967 and 1968, the only way to reach the main towns and villages in the fertile Mekong Delta was by helicopter with a gunship escort. And even then the chopper you hitched a ride on was often a target for Viet Cong snipers armed with .51 caliber machine guns hidden in the dense jungle canopy along the canals and rivers that cross the region."

"HO CHI MINH CITY (AKA Saigon), Vietnam -- Despite the myriad changes that have occurred in this city and the entire country since I left more than 40 years ago, the heat is the one constant reality that has not changed. ... Hordes of scooters -- 5 million by one estimate or one for every two residents -- foul the air and create a cacophony of sounds that vibrate inside the eardrums as our van weaves slowly out of the airport headed for our downtown hotel.

" `What do you remember most about that time?' my wife asked me. `The surreal aspect of watching those firefights from the rooftop 40 years ago, now replaced by the red, blue and pink neon selling fancy watches and jewelry to light up the Saigon night,' I said. `Is this what 56,000 American soldiers and Marines died for?' I wondered aloud."

I couldn't agree more, Bob. Thanks for sharing this amazing experience. I only hope I've been able to do it justice.

Steven Gaynes can be reached at steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.