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Returning to Vietnam: Day 8 — Wounded to welcomed: Marine's return nothing like ‘bad day’

RETURNING TO VIETNAM

Fifteen men gathered at an airport in Los Angeles on Friday morning, shook hands, chatted and then boarded a plane bound for the one place each had once desperately wanted to escape forever — Vietnam.

Most had never met before, but they shared a bond few can understand.

Fifteen men gathered at an airport in Los Angeles on Friday morning, shook hands, chatted and then boarded a plane bound for the one place each had once desperately wanted to escape forever — Vietnam.

Veterans of one of America’s bloodiest wars, these men were returning to battlefields they left in uniform decades ago. Some were searching for closure; others had more complex reasons to go back.

Day 8: Wounded to welcomed: Marine vet’s return to Vietnam nothing like 'bad day'

CAM LO, Vietnam — In March 1968, rockets and mortar fire crashed down on Lynn Stermolle in this central Vietnamese village, leaving the Marine littered with shrapnel.

On Monday, a different barrage greeted him -- a flood of schoolchildren welcoming him and others with smiles and questions.

“I am glad to meet you,” 15-year-old local Phan My said in near-fluent English, offering Stermolle, Marine veteran Bill Hutton and Timothy Davis, the founder and CEO of The Greatest Generations Foundation, a Coca-Cola from her home around the corner.

The bearded Stermolle, 68, beamed at the 15-year-old’s gesture.

“It is nice is to come back and look around and see everything’s changed. It’s really nice to see that,” he said of the village that has blossomed from a collection of grass huts into a modern district center with paved roads, a schoolhouse and a sprawling soccer complex. It’s his first trip back in five decades. “None of this was here,” he said. “It was entirely different.”

Stermolle and Hutton are among 15 Vietnam veterans visiting the battlefields where they fought as part of a program established by Davis’ foundation.

Facing a bombardment of questions from Phan and two dozen other students gathered in the streets, Stermolle, of Stephenville, Texas, handed out American flag lapel pins and shook hands with the children before walking to Phan’s house to meet her family.

He asked the students and their teacher -- a 37-year-old man who gave his name only as Phi -- about their knowledge of the war he fought in their homeland. He explained that he and the other veterans he was traveling with harbored no ill will toward the Vietnamese people.

“We like Vietnam,” he told Phi and Phan. “Vietnam is a beautiful country. The people are very friendly to us. We like it. We hold no animosity or grudge.”

The teenager told the war veterans she had only met one American — a teacher who came to her school to help with English studies.

She said she hopes one day to come to the United States.

“I really want to go to America, and maybe I can study there,” Phan said, possibly becoming a linguist.

The interaction was a far cry from Stermolle’s last experience in Cam Lo.

The Marine was a rifleman moving from the fire base at Cam Lo to another location. But he never made it.

As he moved through the village’s streets with his platoon, indirect fire came in from the North Vietnamese.

“You could hear it,” he recalled Monday afternoon. “Jump on the ground, and hope the explosion doesn’t get you.”

Eventually, it did. Stermolle was hit.

“The guys that saw it said they didn’t understand how anyone could live through it,” he said. “In truth, my flak jacket and my helmet gave themselves up for me. So, I just took a little bit of shrapnel.”

It was among the darkest days in uniform for Stermolle, who was medically evacuated from the battlefield and received a Purple Heart for his wounds that day. His other awards and decorations after serving in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969 include the Navy Commendation Medal with “V” device for valor and the Navy Achievement Medal with “V” device for valor. He left the Corps as a gunnery sergeant and went on to a 27-year career with the Los Angeles Police Department.

“I was very lucky that day,” he said. “It was a bad, bad day. A bad day.”

His demons from that battle have subsided, he said later Monday, explaining he no longer feels particularly emotional when he thinks about the war.

“I’ve cleared all my ghosts,” he said.

Day 7: At site of remote base, Marine vet recalls battle that claimed his best friend

DONG HA, Vietnam — Bending down to the sandy earth, Ed Niederberger scooped up a handful of dirt from the former Marine encampment he once called home just off the coast in what was then northern South Vietnam.

Nearly 50 years after one of the Marine’s most traumatic battles — losing two close friends in a North Vietnamese ambush — the 68-year-old found something he did not expect Saturday at the former C-4 base. He found something resembling closure.

“I didn’t think it was possible to even get here,” Niederberger said, as he trekked up a dirt road through a tiny, remote Vietnamese village outside Dong Ha. “I certainly didn’t have any thought it would impact me like it did.”

Niederberger is among 15 Vietnam War veterans visiting the country where they fought five decades earlier as part of a program through the Greatest Generations Foundation. The nonprofit provides free visits to battlefields where Vietnam and World War II veterans served.

In an emotional monologue that Niederberger, of Anderson, Calif., said he had not prepared to give Saturday, he spoke of the brutal firefight Jan. 19, 1968, just a few miles from C-4 that would claim two friends. One was Lance Cpl. Bill Burgoon, a boot camp buddy from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.

Tears streamed down Niederberger’s face as he recalled the mission that left Burgoon and two other members of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, dead. As he spoke, Niederberger clutched a photo of him and Burgoon taken just three days before that fateful patrol.

“He was carrying 104 M79 rounds,” he said. “The night before I asked him what he was doing. He said he wasn’t going to be caught dead without ammo.”

Burgoon was a cut-up, Niederberger said. He was the class clown type, always messing around. His personality was evident in the photograph, depicting the two Marines holding a monkey.

As the Marine veteran finished talking about the operation, he received a surprise phone call. On the line from back home in California was son Chris and daughter-in-law Shannon.

More tears flowed.

“Chris, I can’t believe I’m standing here where C-4 was and talking to you,” Niederberger said. “This is crazy. This is beyond anything.”

Although it was not the first trip back to Vietnam for Niederberger, who left the Marine Corps as a sergeant after serving in the war in 1967 and 1968, he described the current trip as “special.”

When he first returned to the country in 1990, he said he did not visit what was once C-4 or other areas where he fought.

Visiting those locations Saturday, he said, was moving.

“When I came back in ’90 I thought I was cured. But I wasn’t. Coming here. This was, right here, this spot I’m standing on. I can still visualize C-4 right here. This is really something else.”

Day 6: Veterans of brutal battle of Hue visit the streets where they fought

HUE, Vietnam — It didn’t take long for the tears to come.

Richard Prince stood Friday afternoon on a small bridge leading into Hue’s imperial Citadel, looking up at the rebuilt Dong Ba Tower, where 50 years ago he was in the midst of some of the most hellish fighting of the Vietnam War.

Then a Marine lance corporal, the 73-year-old recalled the men he tried to save as his unit fought to take the tower on Feb. 13, 1968 — those who did not make it out alive and his own close call.

Prince, who was left with permanent vocal chord damage when a sniper shot him through the neck, on Friday walked the streets where he once fought. His tears, he said, were not from the pain he experienced here. They were “tears of joy.”

“I’ve got friends that passed away right here,” said Prince, who lives in Fort Washington, Md.,  and went on to a long career in law enforcement after his medical retirement from the Corps.

“You can’t help to miss them. But these tears are tears of appreciation. Because here I am in a place I’d never, ever thought I’d return, and that is just an incredible feeling.”

Prince and 14 other veterans of the Vietnam War — Marines and a Navy corpsman — are visiting the battlefields where they once fought as part of a free program sponsored by non-profit The Greatest Generations Foundation.

In 1968, U.S Marines, soldiers and their partners in the Republic of Vietnam Army had been battling to retake Hue for weeks, leaving the city nearly destroyed in brutal combat by the time Prince’s unit — Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines — arrived at the Citadel via landing craft. 

Artillery and small arms fire rained down on the Marines as they pushed toward the Dong Ba Tower, Prince recalled. At the top of the tower, Marines were taking casualties.

“When we hit the tower, I was down at the bottom of it, and a body was handed down to me so I pulled him down,” he said, pausing occasionally as he shared the story of the fight. “I looked at the wound I could see and began to try first aid as best I could.”

The young man’s bleeding subsided, Prince said, and he dragged him to a Navy hospital corpsman.

“I dropped him off and went back and got somebody else,” Prince said.

He would help pull four wounded men to safety from the tower. As he dragged one toward safety, Stars and Stripes photographer John Olson snapped an image that would become iconic: a young Marine dragging a wounded man toward the corpsmen.

The injured Marine had been buried in a pile of rubble as the tower collapsed amid heavy gunfire. 

“At the top of that tower my squad leader … looked down and there was a man’s hand sticking out of the rubble,” Prince said. “I saw it. I grabbed his flight jacket, and brought him to the surface … I put him on my shoulder, begin to move down the hill and we got down … my helmet fell off and I began to drag him toward the doc.”

That’s when Olson took the photograph.

After retaking the tower at heavy cost, Prince and two other Marines moved into the Citadel, where a bullet struck him in the throat as he peered over a wall searching for the enemy.

The battle for Hue began Jan. 30, 1968, after the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, storming the city which was defended only by a small contingent of U.S. Marines. When the battle ended more than two months later, 218 American troops were killed in the city and more than 1,300 more were wounded. It marked one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war. 

Despite the operation’s eventual success — recovering the city and killing more than 1,000 enemy fighters — barbaric images of the battle turned public opinion of the Vietnam War in America.

The Americans were not prepared for an urban battle, having trained to fight in the jungles and rice paddies that dominated Vietnam’s landscape at the time, said Steve Haas, another veteran traveling with the group who fought during the battle.

Haas, 68, volunteered to join Alpha Company 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, as they entered the city two days into the fight.

He said he was immediately struck by the brutality of the battle.

“We took loss after loss before we finally made some advances,” he said, standing just outside a hospital where 50 years earlier he fired rockets out of a window toward enemy fighters in the Citadel across the Perfume River. “Somewhere along the line, the brass started to figured out — after enough dead or wounded came out of this city — that it was in fact one hell of an engagement. Then we finally started getting some support.”

When he joined his unit, Haas, of Whittier, Calif., was the junior man on his team. Within a week heavy casualties left him the most senior Marine in his squad.

“I didn’t know anything,” he said. “But it was a fabulous bunch of guys to be with. You didn’t know them and they didn’t know you, but you were lifelong friends. They would help you, you would help them.”

Haas and Prince said Friday that they had some reservations about returning to Vietnam. 

Prince said he ran through nearly every emotion as he toured the site Friday where he experienced the most traumatic moments of his life.

“I feel great,” he said, as the site of the Dong Ba Tower disappeared in the background as the veterans left on rickshaws. “It’s difficult to come back. But I am so thankful and so appreciative of this opportunity.”

Haas described waking up Friday morning with butterflies in his stomach. 

“I was kind of worried about this trip a little bit, thinking that maybe some of the doors that would be opened up would be bad memories, but for me that’s not so,” he said. “Any thoughts about negativity — they are gone.”

Day 5: Friendships forged in Vietnam

HUONG THUY, Vietnam — Right on the front lines in the midst of the hell of war, lifelong friends Joe Silva and Ron Tingle marked one of the best days of their lives.

It was early 1968, and the two Texas Marines who had enlisted together and suffered side-by-side through boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, finally caught up with each other on the battlefield in northern South Vietnam.

Silva, an artillery forward observer, learned from a group of Marines that his buddy, who had deployed a few months ahead of him, had been assigned to protect a bridge on National Highway 1, Vietnam’s main thoroughfare, over the Troui River, about 10 miles south of Hue city.

“When I finally found out where Ronnie was I dropped my gear [at a base], hitchhiked down here and we spent the day together,” Silva said Thursday as he and Tingle looked out over the Troui River for the first time in 50 years. “We went swimming right there. We came out and picked all the leeches off. We thought it was the greatest thing we’d ever done.”

Silva, 68, and Tingle, 70, both of Irving, Texas, are among 15 Vietnam veterans visiting the battlefields where they fought, thanks to The Greatest Generations Foundation.

On Thursday, the pair immediately recognized the spot where they met up in Vietnam, as the group traveled north up Highway 1 from Danang to Hue.

While Silva spent only an afternoon at what was then a wooden bridge outside the tiny village of Huong Thuy -- surrounded by rice paddies, steep hills and a few grass dwellings -- Tingle spent several months at the location, which was often targeted by the North Vietnamese.

Tingle, a mortarman assigned to 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, recalled bloody fights in the area, including the loss of several of his fellow Marines.

In one instance, he said, North Vietnamese soldiers were preparing an ambush on the area surrounding the bridge. His unit called in an airstrike to avoid a close-range confrontation.

“They had those grass hooches over there and we didn’t want to have any of our Marines killed,” he said. “The jets came in here and they flew so low you could see the pilots’ faces. They dropped 250-pound bombs, and they blew those grass hooches up in the air about 100 yards.”

Later, after the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive in late January, Tingle was wounded in action after his unit was ambushed along the Hai Van Pass mountain roadway during the battle to retake Hue.

“Bad memories and good memories,” Tingle said Thursday of his time in Vietnam. “It’s definitely something to be back here, though. Never thought I would be.”

Day 4: Reports from the front lines

DANANG, Vietnam — They were there to document the stories of fellow Marines fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, but when the shooting started, combat correspondents Steven Berntson and Bob Bayer were expected to return fire first and gather information later.

“If you were in the Marines as a military journalist or a photographer, you were also a Marine and expected to help out,” said Bayer, now 71, who served as a combat correspondent with the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968. “You could be along on a patrol, but when something happened and they needed help moving the wounded or [returning fire], whatever it may be, you did what needed to be done.”

Known as the Snuffies — referencing Snuffy Smith, a down-on-his-luck, often troublemaking comic strip character popular at the time — Bayer and Berntson served with the division’s Information Services Office, penning stories for the Marine Corps’ weekly newspaper the Sea Tiger and for Stars and Stripes. It meant spending the majority of their time in Vietnam out in the field, covering major operations that Marine infantrymen were conducting against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.

“Most people think [military occupational specialty] 4312 combat correspondent is someone sitting in the rear typing stories up,” said Berntson, 71, of University Place, Washington. “But that’s not how we operated. If you wanted to be good at this, you absolutely had to get out there.”

To get good stories, he said, correspondents had to earn the respect of the Marines on the front lines.

“And we got some great stories,” said Berntson, who along with Bayer and 13 other veterans is traveling Vietnam as part of a program through The Greatest Generations Foundation. “To be effective as a combat correspondent in the world that we were in, you would go out in the field and prove to the grunts that you belonged — that you’d been overnight in the mud and the blood, that you’d carried rounds, you’d carried wounded, you’d done everything.”

Berntson and Bayer traveled back to Vietnam last year with a group of combat correspondents, on another of the foundation’s trips.

Standing Tuesday on what was an airstrip on the former An Hoa Combat Base, south of Danang, Bayer recalled slinging artillery rounds 50 years earlier in a spot not far from where he stood.

An artillery battery outside the base was firing 105 mm Howitzer rounds just north of what was known as Freedom Bridge, recalled Bayer, of West Hills, Calif.

“They were firing in support of some operation out here, and they were firing these things off so fast that they enlisted the help of me and some other guys that were on this truck to pull these crates and unload these things and hand them to the artillery guys,” he said. “We did that for like half an hour, and it’s just like … ‘I feel like an artilleryman’ just doing that. ... It’s just little incidents like that that had nothing to do with our job, actually, but we were expected to do a lot.”

Sometimes the stories came at great cost.

Berntson and Bayer were wounded in action, earning Purple Hearts. Bayer earned the nickname “Ding” after he became the first of his group of Snuffies to be wounded, an injury he described as a “ding” to his neck. (For the record, shrapnel sliced down through his neck and lodged under his collarbone.)

Berntson was awarded two Purple Hearts and also received a Bronze Star Medal with “V” device for valor for his actions during the battle for the city of Hue on the 20th day of the Tet Offensive in February 1968. He spent months in a hospital recovering from his wounds. The group will travel to Hue on Thursday.

But Berntson said he chooses to focus on the better — often laughable — memories.

He recalled working out a deal to use a Navy chaplain’s brand new typewriter to file a story. Another time, he sent a handwritten story with a helicopter pilot from Con Tien, a Marine base at the Demilitarized Zone, less than two miles from North Vietnam.

“Everyone there just lived in the bunker and there were all of maybe two typewriters for everyone, so I wrote the story out in longhand, wrapped it up and went and stood down by the [landing zone] and when a chopper came in, I waved at the co-pilot and I told him who I was, and said, ‘Hey, can you get this to Danang and get it to 1st Division Headquarters?’ ” he recalled. “Lo and behold, I thought it would never make it, but it did. It showed up in the paper.”

Day 3: An Hoa

HOI AN, Vietnam — Nearly 49 years after arriving at An Hoa Combat Base on his first day in Vietnam, Paul Baviello stood in the middle of what remains of the runway that ran through the encampment, scrolling through old photographs on his iPad that showed what the Marine base looked like during the war.

Today, the cracked asphalt runway is all that is left of the base that served as a place to rest for Baviello — known as “Doc Buzz” — and thousands of Marine grunts who fought in the volatile Quang Nam province.

“This is weird,” the 70-year-old former Navy corpsman said Tuesday, as he and other veterans who served at An Hoa pointed out where buildings and a helicopter landing zone once stood. “This is too weird. Oh my God.”

Despite the lack of any American structures -- replaced by thick groves of trees and homes of the locals -- the area felt familiar, he said, pointing out the “unmistakable” shape of Charlie Ridge, a notorious Viet Cong stronghold in the distance.

“This was a special place — it was just kind of a place to come in, get rejuvenated a little bit, grab a hot meal,” said Baviello, of Eastvale, Calif. “So, we didn’t spend much of our time here; most of our time was out between here and the mountains, which was called the Arizona.

“That’s where most of my Marines took their casualties.”

Baviello is among 15 Vietnam veterans traveling the battlefields where they fought as youngsters. The program is run by The Greatest Generations Foundation, a nonprofit that provides free trips for Vietnam veterans.

He said he was surprised at his willingness to travel back to Vietnam, where he served from 1969 to 1970 and where he earned a Navy Commendation Medal with “V” for valor. He was unsure whether he wanted to join the group, which arrived this week in Vietnam and will continue its trip through March 7. Baviello, with a slight push from his wife, decided the return would be worthwhile.

The trip, he said, was in honor of the Marines he worked with, fought alongside and treated on the battlefields.

“That’s basically what I’m doing here. ... I hope it just gives them some closure for what they went through,” he said.

Day 2: Hill 55 and Camp Reasoner

DANANG, Vietnam — Little evidence remains of the thousands of American troops who served in and around this central Vietnamese city five decades ago, but for 15 U.S. veterans, the sight of the Marine Corps’ Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem on an old structure Monday proved worth the trip.

Although faded, the famous emblem built into a stone structure on a hill overlooking Danang at a former Marine reconnaissance base immediately caught the attention of Joe Silva, a Vietnam War veteran who served as forward observer in 1968.

“It’s the first thing I saw when we were driving up here,” said Silva, recalling the time he spent at Camp Reasoner, before he was sent to fight farther north. “It was a cool little thing — like, ‘Just look, the Marine Corps emblem.’ ”

The emblem and a nearby sign marking the entrance to Camp Reasoner, where the 1st and 3rd Force Reconnaissance battalions were stationed, are among few remaining relics of the American military presence in the country, said Jim Hackett, a Vietnam War veteran who is helping to lead the group of Marines traveling with The Greatest Generations Foundation. The nonprofit sponsors free trips for veterans back to the battlefields where they once fought. The majority of American structures and insignia throughout the country was eradicated by the Communist party after North Vietnam’s victory over the South in 1975.

It is unclear why remnants of Camp Reasoner remain at what’s now an active rock quarry.

“It’s weird,” said Bob Bayer, who served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 as a Marine combat correspondent assigned to the 1st Marine Division. “I really wonder why they left it.”

The area, near the old Freedom Hill — a site that boasted a massive post exchange, movie theater, beer garden and frequent USO shows — is nearly unrecognizable, Bayer said.

Camp Reasoner was named for the first Medal of Honor recipient of the Vietnam War, Marine 1st Lt. Frank Reasoner, who was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest honor for battlefield heroism for his actions as a platoon leader in 3rd Recon Battalion in July 1965. Reasoner was leading an 18-man patrol about 11 miles southeast of Danang when it was ambushed by 50 to 100 Viet Cong forces, according to his award citation.

Reasoner “repeatedly exposed himself to the devastating attack … skillfully providing covering fire, killing at least two Viet Cong and effectively silencing an automatic weapons position in a valiant attempt” to evacuate his wounded radio man, according to the citation.

While the Camp Reasoner sign remains in place, faded by decades of exposure, other former American-held landmarks show no signs they were ever occupied by U.S. troops.

On Hill 55, where Marines once held a headquarters base and an artillery battery, the only sign of the war is a massive monument dedicated to North Vietnamese soldiers.

Today, the United States and Vietnamese militaries appear to be working toward closer ties. The U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy is expected to visit Vietnam as part of the annual Pacific Partnership exercise. The Asia-Pacific’s largest humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief preparedness exercise begins Friday and will run through June.

The ship’s visit is expected to come after March, when the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier is set to stop in Danang — the first American carrier to port in Vietnam since the war ended.

Day 1: Landing in Danang

DANANG, Vietnam — In a convoy of rusty, olive drab Jeeps bearing U.S. military insignia, 15 American veterans who some 50 years earlier served in or around this coastal Vietnamese city cruised through its streets Sunday, attracting waves and cheers from locals.

For most of the group of 14 Marines and one Navy hospital corpsman who served in central Vietnam before or during the Tet Offensive in 1968, Sunday marked their return to Vietnamese soil since leaving decades ago in uniform, when they departed one of America’s bloodiest wars. Stars and Stripes is traveling with the group, brought back to Vietnam by the nonprofit The Greatest Generations Foundation.

“I’m telling you that’s going to be one of my prime memories of this trip,” said Steven Berntson, who served in 1967 and 1968 as a Marine Corps combat correspondent in Danang and other parts of what is today central Vietnam. “What beautiful people — that little group of people standing alongside the road and waving as we went by, all smiling and waving and happy. How amazing to see that.”

Fifty years after Berntson left, Danang looks strikingly different, he said from just off Red Beach, the site outside the city where the first American Marines arrived in March 1965. Decades after the war, when Danang was home to multiple American military bases including an air base, a Marine helicopter post, a rest and relaxation site and Marine surface-to-air missile batteries, Danang has grown into a modern city of more than 1.3 million people, boasting high-rise buildings and bustling, paved streets filled with locals on motorbikes.

Still, some of his “old stomping grounds” remain apparent, said Berntson, who was medically evacuated from Vietnam as a sergeant and received a Bronze Star with “V” device for valor and two Purple Hearts.

On Sunday, the veterans were wearing Marine Corps ball caps or T-shirts, which attracted questions from some of the Vietnamese people.

“I’m just amazed at how friendly they are,” said Jorge Azpeitia, a retired Marine who served in Danang in 1968, 1969 and 1970. “It’s been 50 years … but, I think they were happy we were here.”

Azpeitia, who retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a master gunnery sergeant in 1998, said he was struck by emotion Sunday as he spotted locations around Danang that he remembered. But he was even more stunned by the welcome the vets received, especially as they cruised in the old Jeeps.

“What I see from the Vietnamese people today — it’s what we didn’t get when came back home, with people calling us killers and all that,” he said. “To see people here greeting us in such a way — it brings me a sense of ... closure.”

Farewell: Coming Soon

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 23, 2018