DMZ to Saigon the hard way

Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division moves through the tall grass during a sweep aimed at clearing the Communists off Go Noi Island, 10 miles south of Da Nang and five miles inland from Hoi An.


By JIM CLARE | Stars and Stripes | Published: September 24, 1969

(Editor’s note: Spec. 4 Jim Clare is hitchhiking his way from the Demilitarized Zone to Saigon, a trip never made in wartime. Clare, a Pacific Stars and Stripes reporter on TDY from the 1st Inf. Div., explains how he made out on the first leg of his trip.)


A Trip Down Route One – At Night, You Sleep

DEMILITARIZED ZONE, Vietnam — From here the only things that go north are artillery shells chasing after dots on a radar screen.

Everything else goes south. I wanted to go south too — about 500 miles — to Saigon. I wanted to stay near Route One to do a story on the road — if it's open and what's happening around it. It's been a long time since anyone has made this trip on the ground.

Fire Base Alpha-2 is the northernmost friendly position on Route One. From here you can see North Vietnam and the river that separates the two countries and the bridge across that river where the North Vietnamese fly a giant red flag. This is where the trip started Friday.

The Marines left this base and the Gio Linh area this summer. S o u t h Vietnamese soldiers (ARVNs) and American Army advisers are here now.

(The ARVNs are doing the job, a U.S. major said. They're stopping mass infiltration across the zone. Each night, the major said, radar picks up about 10 Communists moving around in this section of the ^southern half of the DMZ. They're greeted with artillery and naval gunfire.)

Though the Marines have already left Alpha-2, two Leathernecks came back to reclaim some equipment Friday. Then the monsoon rain washed out a 10-foot section of the road and on Saturday afternoon the Marines were still at Alpha-2.

But they were going to try to get out another way. "Give us a call if you make it," a sergeant said. The Marines headed south by jeep and I started the trip with them.

They detoured off Route One at a hamlet where the houses were built with bundled reeds and the people didn't wave or smile and the kids didn't yell at the jeep. They headed toward the South China Sea, but they reached the sand before they saw the ocean, and they turned right on the beach. The jeep followed tire marks across the sand like india ink tracking across grainy white art paper under a blue and gray watercolor sky.

Where they rejoined Route One there was a military outpost, and around it refugee huts with plywood sides and tin roofs held down with sandbags.

But Route One was little better than the sand. From the DMZ to Dong Ha, about eight miles, Route One is more pothole than pavement. At Dong Ha, I had to catch another ride.

After Dong Ha the road is paved. It is the Street Without Joy, that stretch from Quang Tri to Hue where so many French died in the 1950s. It is now paved and peaceful. It's something like a freeway.

The only obstacles are one-lane bridges, Vietnamese buses and Lambrettas that break down and stop right on the highway — and nightfall.

Night caught up at LZ Nancy.

At LZ Nancy, 12 miles south of Quang Tri, U.S. engineer, armor and artillery units each have their own area on top of separate foothills that overlook the road. That's about 30 miles from Alpha-2, not bad for the first day.

There may be fighting to the north, south, and west, said a medic for the 2/94th Artillery, but except for a few mortar attacks it's quiet here.

Someone recently went so far as to say the war was over for this battery and from now on the men would shape up their dress and appearance accordingly. The men didn't like this. Charlie's not in someone's chain of command.

Artillerymen have spent entire tours at Nancy without seeing any more of Vietnam than these hills and a 10-mile stretch of Route One. They ask how the war's going in other places.

At night there's a movie and two clubs. The movie was "Thoroughly Modern Millie." Both clubs were small and smelled of fresh plywood. In the officer-NCO club the music was a cocktail version of Lennon-McCartney. In the EM club a portable tape recorder played an Iron Butterfly album called "Ball."

"Maybe tomorrow," a man said, "we'll get you started with a ride in an ambulance."


Stripes Hitchhiker Continues Viet Trek

Friday, Sept. 26, 1969

SAIGON — Pacific Stars & Stripes' red-haired traveler Jim Clare continues his hitchhike marathon from the DMZ to Saigon.

By Tuesday Clare had made it as far as LZ English, a 173rd Airborne Brigade landing zone on the Bong Song plain, 135 miles southeast of Da Nang and about 400 miles north of Saigon.

It was near this LZ, 2V2 years ago, that French journalist Michele Ray was kidnaped by the North Vietnamese when she attempted a similar journey. She was later released. Miss Ray had been attempting to drive from Saigon to the DMZ.

But Clare made it through that area and was expected to come thumbing into Nha Trang Wednesday.

The last written report from Clare placed him at LZ Nancy north of Da Nang. Several rides later Clare wound up in Da Nang, where he spent the night.

Feeble phone connections make keeping up with Clare very difficult. It is not known with whom Clare has been hitching rides, although the original plan was to stick strictly with military vehicles.

Clare, unarmed, did pack a lot of film for his camera.

"Really, I just wanted to see some of the countryside," said Clare just before his departure. "If it proves that the road is open too, well, that's nice. But I expect to get some good pictures and talk to some interesting people."

It may be that Clare won't be the first to hitch-hike from the DMZ to Saigon. Spec, 4 Randy Hunter, 23, with the 31st Engineer Bn., 20th Engineer Brigade, claims to have made the same trip in August.

Hunter says that the October issue of Kysu magazine, a publication of engineers in Vietnam, will contain an article called “The Long Road" about his trip.


Highway 1 Remains Open Question

Saturday, Sept. 27, 1969

NHA TRANG, Vietnam — The question, the Army captain said, is why don't the Communists try harder to close Highway One.

It wouldn't be difficult, said Capt. Donald C. Alden, the Vung Ro Bay port commander for the 394th transportation Co.

Vung Ro Bay is where ammunition and supplies are taken off ships and put on trucks for a 15- mile trip north to the Army base and airfield at Tuy Hoa on South Vietnam's central coast.

For five miles north of Vung Ro Bay, Highway One snakes through boulder strewn hills — and ideal ambush positions.

"There are places where a sniper could hide and get a good shot at six different sections of the road," Alden said. "Two snipers could close off the road and it would take a company to drive them out."

T h o u g h Alden remembers eight shooting incidents on that part of the road in the past month and a half, it remains open.

In fact, Highway One has been open the 300 miles I have hitchhiked south from the DMZ since last Saturday.

The highway is passable, but its condition varied from paved roadway to dirt trail and when it left the coastal plains to cut through the foothills it was vulnerable to ambush.

Another favorite Communist ambush position was a few miles south of Due Pho, where a truck driver pointed to a railroad berm 30 yards away as we rumbled by. One day not long ago, the Reds popped up from behind the berm and opened up on a convoy.

The 19th Eng. Bn. units working there had to convert half their troops to security forces so the other half could work on the road.

Two engineers who have been through Red ambushes told stories of how one engineer had been killed for every 1,000 yards of this section of road finished.

Still the road stays open, construction continues and most sections of the road are fairly safe from the Communists.


Few Convoys; Jungles Ahead

Monday, Sept. 29, 1969

DA NANG TO NHA TRANG ALONG HIGHWAY ONE, Vietnam—In water- base fields the Vietnamese are harvesting rice now because of early rains. They cut the shoots, then spread the grain in large, cane-woven frisbees to dry in the sun.

Past this goes Highway One, and military vehicles—say, a truck carrying ice cream and a hitchhiker who is trying to go from the Demilitarized Zone to Saigon.

By Da Nang, Qui Nhon, and Nha Trang, the highlands elbow to the sea, crowding the road to the coast, the hills intimidating on the right and dropping off to the sea rocks just beyond the driver's left shoulder.

And where the road humps over the hill south of Qui Nhon, Vietnamese vegetable farms follow in step, terraced up and down the passes.

The road has changes, too. A lot of it is freeway paved. But parts are so torn up it's a wonder water buffalo aren't trapped in the pot holes.

The existence of a small scale deep water port at Vung Ro Bay says something about the road's condition. Ammunition and supplies are taken off ships at Vung Ro and trucked 15 miles north to the Army and Air Force at Tuy Hoa.

The large deep water port at Cam Ranh Bay is only some 100 miles south of Tuy Hoa, but Highway One between the two ports wasn't dependable for resupply because a section of it is now unpaved and susceptible to ambush.

But this section, along with most of the unimproved sections of Highway One, is being fixed up. From Dong Ha to Nha Trang, U.S. Army engineers, Marines, Seabees, RMK-BRJ construction men, and Korean civilian contractors are all working on different parts of the road.

Where the road has been improved, other changes follow. "This end of town is new since the road was paved," said a 173rd Airborne Brigade trooper as he drove past new brick buildings in Bong Son just south of the brigade's LZ English. "Look," he pointed to a building called the Bamboo Inn, that looked exactly like numerous bars called the Bamboo Inn back in the United States.

There are also large differences in the lifestyles of the Americans who live along Highway One.

A MACV adviser at Dien Ban lives in a small outpost, teaches English in the district high school.

At Chu Lai there is a $20,000 handball court. At LZ English there isn't, even a PX.

At Chu Lai during the night men working the second shift sit typing in offices, while beside the stage at the base of the deserted amphitheater a soldier in Special Services and a Red Cross girl sit facing each other singing folk songs. Up from the amphitheater on a hill by the sea you hear the noise from the clubs, the sound track from a movie and the pounding of a handball.

LZ English and Vung Ro Bay also have clubs and movies, but after dark at LZ English a lot of men go out to the perimeter, sit by the bunkers, and look at the night.

There are also different viewpoints about security along Highway One. Soldiers at Vung Ro Bay carry M14's even when walking inside the base. But Barney Jones, an RMK-BRJ safety engineer, drove unarmed from Vung Ro to Nha Trang. His main concern was that the Workmen along the way get their hard hats on, and close the doors when they get out of their trucks.

Before, I had ridden with U.S. military vehicles, but I went along with Jones because I'd waited all morning and no one was going to Nha Trang, and from noon to 3:30 p.m. there would be blasting on the road and only RMK trucks could get through.

Besides, if you can't depend on a safety engineer, who can you trust?


45 Miles to Dalat – a 3-Day Trip

Thursday, Oct. 2, 1969

DALAT, Vietnam—Dalat, an old French resort in the central highlands, looks more like a vacation center in the Poconos than a Vietnamese town.

The houses are solid and Western style. The air is 20 degrees cooler than on the coast. There are pine trees everywhere.

Dalat, good place to be, was a long time coming. It was Tuesday afternoon and it has taken three days to get here from Phan Rang, only 45 miles away.

I was trying to hitchhike from the DMZ to Saigon and a Texan working for the Alaska Barge and Transport Co. dropped me off in Phan Rang Saturday afternoon.

Then the shuffling started as I traveled back and forth a short stretch of Highway One, trying to get a ride to Phan Thiet, 80 miles away.

Moving slowly south from Phan Rang, I visited MACV advisers at the village, district and provincial level. The U.S. advisers for President Nguyen Van Thieu's home province of Ninh Thuan live right in Phan Rang. Those for An Phuoc District live 10 miles further south.

Riding with elements of the 589th and 593rd Eng. Bn. Working on the road, I made it Monday morning 25 miles south of Phan Rang to Ca Na village and MACV Advisery Team No. 45.

From Ca Na, I rode west 20 miles on armored personnel carriers of A Troop, 2nd Sq., 1st Cav., to Firebase Panzer. Panzer had mountains on three sides and was surrounded by small scrub trees.

The firebase itself was mudholes and what remained of a tower and a building from a French soda factory. Men took showers in warm mineral water. And when the creek rose, some of them took a bath.

"The monsoon rains backed up the stream," said troop executive officer 1st Lt. William D. Whitmill, "and flooded us so badly that some of the men floated out of their bunkers on air mattresses."

the monsoon had also washed out large sections of Highway One, under five to eight feet of water. Until two weeks ago, convoys had run regularly from Phan Rang to Phan Thiet. No longer.

Another Cavalry troop west of Panzer now ran dismounted operations because they couldn't get their tanks and APC's out of their firebase.

"If you want," asked troop commander Capt. William Rollins, "you can take a chopper to Phan Thiet."

I said no thank you and went back to Phan Rang and started hitchhiking again Tuesday morning. After three rides and 6,500 feet of elevation up winding Route 11, I was in Dalat.


Saigon – After 13 Days, 500 Miles

Saturday, Oct. 4, 1969

SAIGON—From Dalat it was all downhill, all 180 miles on the road home to Saigon.

The Central Highlands sank through the passes and pine trees south of Dalat on Route 20. First came tea leaves and coffee plants, Montagnard villages, trucks hauling tree trunks, peasants carrying sticks of wood on their backs, and brown-mud igloos where charcoal was made.

Later came rubber trees growing in grid patterns and oozing white sap. Then finally the flat lands, and that meant that after 13 days of hitch-hiking from the Demilitarized Zone, Saigon was no longer far away. It had been a long trip.

There's a lot of civilian traffic on Highway. 20—big diesel buses packed with people and heavy trucks carrying vegetables from Dalat to Saigon and taking hard goods back up to the hills. But not many Americans travel the entire distance—in fact little U.S. traffic passes between II Corps which is supplied from Cam Ranh Bay and III Corps which is supplied from Long Binh.

I left Dalat Wednesday morning in a Pacific Architects and Engineers jeep. Two rides later I landed at a 19th Eng. Bn. base called Bizarre and that's where I spent the night.

Thursday morning the 19th Engineers took me into III Corps to the 169th Eng. Bn. which was also working on Route 20. Since it was just after payday, a two-and-a-half ton truck full of engineers was going to Xuan Loc where the troops could go to the PX and take care of a few other affairs. I climbed aboard.

They left me off at the intersection of Route 20 and Highway One. I had started my trip at the DMZ Sept. 20 on Highway One, but had to leave it Tuesday at Phan Rang because a section of the road was washed out between there and Phan Thiet. Once back on Highway One, it took just three rides to get home.

The last, from Thu Due, only eight miles outside Saigon, was in a three-quarter-ton truck with two men from the 4th Transportation Command, Sgt. 1.C. James Robinson and Sgt. Henry Wilkins. They had been reading about the trip, they said, but they didn't know who I was when they stopped.

It was Thursday afternoon and it was raining as we drove Over Newport Bridge where the ocean-going ships were docked, and there sprawled out in front, was Saigon.

It's hard to describe Saigon. It's too big, too varied to fit into any one picture, although the main question I heard along the way was: "How's Saigon?"

Saigon has one Presidential Palace and a lot of tin-roofed refugee huts. It has temples and cathedrals and it has small, wheeled stands that sell books, and dried squid and ice cream.

Most of all, Saigon has traffic. The motorcycles and scooters and blue and yellow taxi-cabs that look like bumper cars and drive the same way and jeeps and trucks and three-wheeled cycles all hustling through the streets looking for part of the action.

I had been on the road for 13 days, and had spent many hours without seeing more than one or two vehicles. Saigon was like being inside a pinball machine ready to tilt.

Saigon also has lots of bars, and restaurants and tailor shops. It has many girls in ao dais, mini-skirts and bell bottoms. It has air pollution and dirt. It was home and it was good to be there. It will probably be even better to be in Sydney,


Route 1: A Long 500 Miles

Monday, Oct. 6, 1969

SAIGQN—The road from the Demilitarized Zone to Saigon is longer than I thought before I started the trip.

Measured on a map it's about 500 miles, but it's closer to 700 road miles. Once it was longer than that. Highway One used to be a main street for Southeast Asia, running from Hanoi to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

Now the road is something like a symbol of the war: wired off at the DMZ and broken up internally so that it doesn't serve the entire country, but only sections of it. For the most part, civilians stay near their villages, and soldiers stay near their bases and they know only short stretches of the road. Most long-distance travelers go by air.

Once Highway One was an improved road, the Vietnamese equivalent of a freeway, but for several years it has been worn away by heavy trucks and tracked vehicles.

Now the road is being fixed up throughout the country, and maybe that's an example of how the war's going. On the trip I heard rumors of war and passed many signs: house fronts pockmarked with bullet holes, refugee huts built of plywood and tin, abandoned tank treads, the rusted shells of cars blown up by mines. But I saw no fighting, was never shot at, heard no mines explode. But as the saying goes, these things take time. It will be a long while before the road is finished.

In the meantime, there are a lot of Americans along the road — enough to get me from the DMZ to Saigon with a lot of short rides. The Americans live everywhere from giant base camps — "Welcome to Little America" the signs read — to small outposts consisting of a cottage-sized bunker and a barbed wire fence.

And the Americans work at many jobs that aren't directly related to combat. The 362nd Signal Co. at Dalat showed me their tropospheric scatter communication set-up, the equipment that carries telephone calls through the central highlands. The 577th Eng. Bn. at Don Duong showed me a huge rock crusher, and the 19th Eng. Bn. showed me potholes in Highway 20 south of Bao Loc that they would continually fill in until the dry season comes. Then they'll be able to pave it.

In addition to doing their jobs, giving me rides and making sure I had enough to eat and a place to sleep, the men along Highway One talked about the war and the U.S. and going home:

"I'm very optimistic at the progress we're making here," a deputy province senior adviser said. "Of course it's slow work. You move ahead by inches That's how you measure the progress."

"This is my second tour," said a MACV adviser in the same province, "and the thing I noticed when I got back was a Vietnamese middle class that wasn't here before. That's the men who have picked up mechanical skills working on Hondas and U.S. generators and pumps and other equipment. They know their skill will support them and they won't take to communism."

Another officer in a supply unit was not so optimistic: "We haven't won and now we've said we're getting out That's it."

Whatever happens here, most of the enlisted men have plans about going home. "After the Army, I've got it made," a driver said, "I've got a job, a wife, gonna build a house and take care of things."

"I think when I get back my first responsibility is to the brothers and sisters," a Negro medic said. "I want to say you can get an education. I did. You can make it. Be proud. When I was a kid, nobody was there to tell me black is beautiful It was just something you weren't supposed to be."

But for a few GIs, Vietnam will be a future as well as present home. "I like the people, the country/' said one engineer with "I Love You" tattooed on his forearm in Vietnamese.

"When I get out, I'm going to come back and get a job with a civilian construction firm."