MY FRIEND XANH – Bill Reeder in Vietnam
NOTE: This article first appeared in the VHPA Aviator magazine 2009 Vol. 27, No. 2. It is here in the Memories Book of the Battle of Kontum web site with the permission of Bill Reeder.
I began my second tour of duty in Vietnam on December 7, 1971. President Nixon’s policy of withdrawal through “Vietnamization” was well underway. The burden of fighting the war was being passed more fully to the Vietnamese and U.S. troops were being brought home at a dramatic rate. Indeed, and ironically in retrospect, the plan seemed to be going well. There was little enemy activity inside South Vietnam and the insurgent guerrilla war had pretty well ended. But the regular army forces of North Vietnam were growing in strength just across the borders in Laos and Cambodia, as our missions in support of MACV-SOG clearly showed.
The relative calm that had settled over the guerrilla war in the South was not to last long. In the spring of 1972, the North Vietnamese launched their major offensive of the war. It became known as the 1972 Easter Offensive. It was not an uprising of the insurgent Viet Cong, as had been the case in the Tet Offensive of 1968. Instead, this campaign was a series of conventional attacks by the regular North Vietnamese army across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) from Communist North Vietnam, and from sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia with advances designed to cut the country of South Vietnam in half through the Central Highlands, and to strike the Southʼs capital city of Saigon. The Communists failed in 1972 after some very hard fighting by the South Vietnamese army and air force, and the determined help of those American forces remaining.
The offensive began in April 1972 with advances of North Vietnamese forces toward Saigon from out of Cambodia, and attacks toward the ancient capital of Hue from out of North Vietnam across the DMZ. The final movement of this well orchestrated battle plan came from northern Cambodia and southern Laos as the North Vietnamese army attempted to replicate the 1954 successes of the Viet Minh against the French in wrestling control of a wide belt across the central part of the South, and destroying French military capability in the process. In 1972, the Communist armies achieved some initial success, but were denied every major objective. In the north, they advanced only to Quang Tri, and were there defeated by South Vietnamese airborne. In the south, they moved only as far as An Loc before being defeated. And in the Central Highlands, they captured some outposts surrounding Kontum, but were again defeated.
I recount this bit of history as background to a personal drama that played out at this time for me, and for a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot named Xanh Nguyen, or actually Nguyen Xanh by Vietnamese name ordering, for they always place the last name first.
When the 1972 Easter Offensive began, I was an AH-1G Cobra attack helicopter pilot with the 361st Pink Panthers, flying from the American base at Camp Holloway, near Pleiku, in the Central Highlands. Lieutenant Nguyen Xanh was with the VNAF Jupiter 530 Squadron, flying A-1 Skyraider fixed wing attack airplanes from Pleiku airbase at the same time. We did not know each other, had never met or even seen each other.
On May 9, 1972, I was launched at dawn on a tactical emergency as mission lead of a flight of two Cobras to support the besieged army camp at Polei Klang – almost due west of Kontum and not too far from the Cambodian border. There were North Vietnamese infantry and tanks attacking the base, and the situation was grim. We made several runs and expended all our rockets, grenades, and machine gun ammunition and headed to Kontum airfield to re-arm and re-fuel. My other crew member in the front seat of the Cobra, my co-pilot/gunner, was First Lieutenant Tim Conry from Phoenix, Arizona. Tim was the most outstanding young officer I had known, and for that reason, I tucked him under my wing as his platoon leader, and from his arrival in the unit, he always flew with me. He excelled as an aviator and as a man. And he would become a hero that day.
On our way back out, we were diverted to a larger attack taking place at another camp situated right at the Tri-Border, the spot where the borders of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia all come together. The place was called Ben Het. There was a Vietnamese ranger battalion of about 300 and two American advisors, Mark Truhan and Bob Sparks. They were under attack by elements for two North Vietnamese divisions (several thousand soldiers) supported by tanks. The tanks had penetrated the perimeter, and enemy infantry occupied much of the base. En route to Ben Het, I glanced toward Polei Klang as I flew abeam. There was a lot of activity, and I could see A-1 Skyraiders in their bombing patterns. I then saw one of the A-1s hit and crash in flames. The pilot ejected and I could see his parachute. I radioed for permission to go to Polei Klang and cover the rescue. Permission was denied. I asked again, denied, more tersely this time, again. I didn’t yet know the degree of urgency at Ben Het, but was infuriated at the moment for not being allowed to help another pilot in obvious need.
I flew into a hornet’s nest at Ben Het. When we arrived, we saw tanks within the perimeter wire, and enemy infantry everywhere. The friendly survivors had consolidated in the command bunker at the center of the camp and were fighting hard to keep the enemy at bay. We fired some ordinance and then supported a special helicopter with a new type of tank killing missile. When we’d expended all our ordnance, we returned again to Kontum to once again rearm and re-fuel. We then launched back out on our third combat mission of the day, returning to Ben Het.
After take-off from Kontum, we were asked to escort a re-supply helicopter into Ben Het. The beleaguered force was running desperately low on ammunition, and had no more anti-tank ammunition at all. We joined with a Huey helicopter carrying the ammunition resupply, and escorted him into Ben Het, low level, on the tree tops, as we’d done so many times before on our special operations missions across the border. We approached the camp with guns blazing, ours and theirs. In my front seat, Tim was laying down a well aimed path of protective devastation with the mini-gun and grenade launcher in our turret. I was firing pairs of rockets. At the same time, we were engaged by numerous enemy small arms and anti-aircraft weapons as we continued inbound. The Huey successfully completed its critical mission, largely because of Tim’s carefully directed suppressive fire. The Huey came to a very brief hover, kicked off the ammo boxes and lifted out. We turned to cover his departure and immediately began taking hits from several enemy weapons. My Cobra came down spinning and burning. We crashed and exploded a moment later. Tim and I just got out. He died later that day. I had a badly broken back, burns on the back of my neck, a piece of shell fragment sticking out of my ankle, and superficial wounds on my head and face. I was in the midst of many hundreds of attacking enemy soldiers.
Mark Truhan, one of the two American advisors at Ben Het, sent out a force to try to get to me, but after a number of casualties, they had to abort their mission. Gutsy move. Their own survival was tenuous. I could crawl about in great pain, and did move to cover and then out of the immediate area, able to evade my foes for three days before being captured. I was interrogated for a couple of days; treated pretty brutally. I was a physical mess. My back was broken. My ankle wound had filled my boot with blood that was now dried solid. I was three days unshaven. I’d had no control over my bowels or bladder and had soiled myself badly. And I’d had several leaches cling to my body, all of which I’d pulled off, except for one which unknowingly was half way into my left nostril. My captors got a laugh from that. I was questioned, beaten, threatened, and had my arms tied behind my back with the ropes increasingly tightened during interrogation, until finally both my shoulders dislocated as my elbows were pulled tightly together against my broken spine. Finally, the interrogations ceased, and I was marched for three days to a jungle prison camp that, by my estimation, must have been just across the border in northern Cambodia. I was given my boots back, but no laces and no socks. After three days of walking, my feet were like raw hamburger by the time I limped, in much pain, up to the entrance to my first prison.
The site was typical of the image many have of a jungle prison camp. It was carved out of the triple-canopy rain forest and built of bamboo. The camp was surrounded by a bamboo wall that was reminiscent of an old cavalry frontier fort in the American West. There was one wall concentrically within another, with a ditch dug between the two, almost moat-like. In the ditch were many punji stakes – pieces of bamboo, knife sharp, dipped in human waste and stuck in the ground. If you fell on these, you’d die of a wound to a vital organ, or bleed to death, or at least die of infection if you were not killed outright. Across this ditch was a log that one had to balance across to gain entry to the camp. Inside the walls were many bamboo cages that housed the prisoner population. There were South Vietnamese military, there were indigenous mountain people referred to as Montagnards or Mountainyards who had allied with U.S. Special Forces, and there were two Americans, myself and another helicopter pilot, Wayne Finch, captured a month earlier. At least a couple hundred prisoners altogether.
Conditions in this camp were deplorable. We lived like animals. We were kept in cages, most of which were not tall enough to stand up in. That wasn’t necessary anyway, because they kept our feet in wooden stocks. With my broken back, I could not lie back; so I slept sitting up. And every night rats scurried through the cages and nibbled on my ankle wounds, and I couldn’t move my feet in the stocks, and couldn’t keep them away, and I hate rats to this day. The only time we got out of these cages was for a daily toilet call at the camp latrine. The time never seemed to be the same on any given day, and if a prisoner’s internal schedule could not wait for the appointed time (many suffered dysentery) then he went all over himself in the cage. When they did let us out, it was a walk to the “facility” in one corner of the camp. On my first visit, I discovered that the latrine was a couple of holes in the ground that you squatted over to relieve yourself. Problem was that many of the sicker prisoners were not able to hold themselves until getting all the way to the holes, and left their waste in piles all around that area. Some of the very sickest prisoners, near death, were placed in hammocks right next to the latrine, and they would either lay there and soil themselves, time after time, or roll out of their hammock, if they could, and take a couple of steps and go there on the ground. The result was a substantial accumulation of human waste all around the holes that were the latrine. Those able to control themselves were forced to walk through that waste field and squat over the holes. On return to our cages, we had no way to clean ourselves.
I don’t remember water being a problem. It was delivered in pieces of bamboo, and there seemed to be sufficient quantities. It was supposedly boiled, but I still came down with bloody dysentery. Food was a problem. Our diet was almost exclusively rice. We’d get one grapefruit sized ball mid-morning, and another mid-afternoon. Occasionally, we’d get the treat of a tuberous root called manioc. It is very much like (and may be the same as) yucca in Latin American countries.
My weight went from around 190 pounds to something around 120 in just a few weeks. I was skin hanging on bone with beard that grew very long over time. I did not shave for over five months. And I received no medical attention at all. And no one fared any better. The South Vietnamese next to me in my cage had a severe chest wound that had been bandaged long ago, but I never saw the dressing changed, and the hole in his chest wall was never repaired. He was young and strong, but I’m certain he did not survive. We lived like animals, and under these filthy, starvation conditions, without medical care, it seemed that someone died almost every day. The bodies would be carried out and buried on a hillside just outside the camp.
On July 2, 1972, I was taken outside my cage and lined up with a group of prisoners. There were about 25 South Vietnamese and one other American, Wayne. I would soon learn that one of our group was a pilot who had been shot down the same day I had, in an A-1 Skyraider at Polei Klang. The very same Vietnamese pilot I’d asked to go rescue, but been refused. His name was Lieutenant Xanh. I would never forget his name. Never. We were addressed by the Communist camp commander and told that we were going to travel to a new camp, a better camp, a place where we’d get better food and medical care; where we’d get mail and packages from home. He said the trip could take as long as eleven days, and that we should try hard to make it. I envisioned another jungle camp, somewhat better situated, staffed, and supplied, somewhere not too distant in northern Cambodia, or just across the border in Laos. The comment about trying hard to make it did not register in my mind at all – until some days later. I set out barefoot with all of us tied loosely to one another.
After a few days, we’d no longer be tied because we all struggled to just keep moving forward. I was weak from malnutrition, sick with untold disease, and suffering from wounds that were infected and worsening with the aggravation of the journey. I soon began to become plagued by more leaches, on top of everything else. They’d suck blood and cause infections of their own. I must have been a site. Lieutenant Xanh was there suffering the same conditions, fighting his own personal demons, that every step of the way, threatened to destroy your physical ability, or derail your mental willingness to continue. And if you did not continue to march, you would die. In normal life, you have to take some overt action to die. You have to kill yourself. As a prisoner of war, under these circumstances, that truth is reversed. You have to reach deep within yourself and struggle each day to stay alive. Dying is easy. Just relax, give up and peacefully surrender, and you will die. Many did. They died in that first jungle prison camp, and they died along the trail. Some would complete a day’s journey and then lie down to die. Others collapsed on the trail and could not continue.
The group would be marched ahead, a rifle shot or shots heard, and the pitiful suffering prisoner was not seen again. We lost at least half a dozen of our small band of 27 captives, and by the time the journey was over, Wayne Finch, the other American in our group, would be dead as well. The trip turned out to be not an eleven day hike to a new camp in the same vicinity as the one we’d departed. It turned out to be a journey lasting over a three months, taking us several hundred miles all the way up the Ho Chi Minh Trail into North Vietnam and then on to the capital city of Hanoi. It was a nightmare, a horrid soul wrenching nightmare. Every step, every day wracked my body with pain. My infections became worse; disease settled in me. I was near death. My leg swelled at least double in size, darkened in color, filled with puss. It swelled so much, long cracks formed in the skin and puss and bloody stinky fluid oozed from the cracks. I drug my leg like a pendulous sodden club, and its every movement lashed my whole being with the most searing pain; pain that kept my face contorted and a cry shrieking within every corner of my consciousness; pain that was burning a blackened scar deep into the center of my very being.
My bloody dysentery worsened, and I got three different kinds of malaria and several intestinal parasites. And I hovered near death as I tried to reach the end of each horrible day’s journey of eight to ten awful, grueling miles. Each morning I’d begin a personal battle to stand and loudly moan or scream to myself through clenched teeth and pressed lips, as blood ran into my leg and brought a surge of new pain as gravity pulled blood and bodily fluids down into the carcass of leg and pressure grew against decaying flesh and failing vessels. And there was Lieutenant Xanh, suffering badly himself, but always encouraging me, always helping as he could. We’d eat a paltry morsel of rice for dinner, and he’d tell me this was not how Vietnamese ate. There were many fine foods in Vietnamese culture. A Vietnamese meal was a delight. Don’t judge the cuisine by what we were given to eat. I believed him, and did not. And he was right, of course. I tried to maintain a sense of humor. It was hard, but it was necessary. Your spirit is the most important factor in survival, and a sense of humor, even under the very worst conditions, helps maintain spirit, and in spirit lives hope. And again, Lieutenant Xanh helped. He was always concerned about me, and did all he could to help me remain positive, to be hopeful. As bad as things got, I never gave up hope, not even the day I would have died had it not been for Xanh. I mustered all my will each day just to wake, stand, and take a step. Then I fought hard for the remainder of the day to just keep going, to keep moving along the trail. I could barely walk, but somehow I continued, and survived each day, to open my eyes in the morning to the gift of one more dawn.
On the worst day of my life, I fought so very hard. I faltered. I dug deeper. I staggered on. I faltered again, and I struggled more, and I reached deeper yet, and I prayed for more strength. And I collapsed, and I got up and moved along; and I collapsed again, and again; and I fought, fought with all I had in my body, my heart, and my soul. And I collapsed, and I could not get up. I could not will myself up. I was at the end of my life. And the enemy came; the guard looked down on me. He ordered me up. He yelled at me. I could not. It was done. And then there was Xanh. Looking worried; bending toward me. The guard yelling to discourage his effort. He persisted in moving to help me. The guard yelled louder. Xanh’s face was set with determination, and in spite of whatever threats the guard was screaming, Xanh pulled me up onto his frail, weak back, pulled my arms around his neck and clasped my wrists together, and pulled me along with my feet dragging on the ground behind him. Xanh drug me along all the rest of that day. Occasionally, he was briefly relieved by another prisoner, but it was Xanh who carried the burden that day. It was Xanh who lifted me from death, at great risk to his own life, and carried me, and cared for me, until we completed that long day’s journey.
The next morning, I went through the normal agonizing ritual of waking up, and standing, and dragging my leg through those first determined steps. It was more of a struggle than ever before. I mustered the will, and I went on. At the edge of the encampment was a broad log that spanned the rapids of a river. I started across, tried to balance. Pain awful, very weak, equilibrium gone. No sense of balance, worthless leg is throwing me off; begin to slip off the side of the log, then falling onto the rocks in the rushing water below. Xanh and Wayne moved back off the log and came to my rescue. They pulled me from the river and onto the bank. They pleaded for the group to remain at this camp until I was able to travel again. They were ordered away. They would not leave me. They were drug away and forced across the log bridge at gunpoint. And they were marched away with the rest of our prisoner group. I never saw Xanh again.
As far as my fellow prisoners knew, I was left at that camp to die, as others had been. But for some reason, the Communists decided to give me penicillin injections for several days. I began to show some improvement. After a time, I was able to stand, and as soon as I was able to walk again, I was put back on the trail, this time traveling with groups of North Vietnamese soldiers moving north, and accompanied by my own personal guard. It continued to be an agonizing trip, but the worst was behind me. I even found the opportunity to escape once when I got one turn ahead of my guard on the jungle trail. But he quickly tracked me down, and once he decided not to shoot me in his rage, he recaptured me, and the journey continued.
Eventually, I joined with another group of South Vietnamese prisoners as we entered North Vietnam. I was still in pretty bad shape, and very much appreciated this group of South Vietnamese prisoners who helped me continue my awful march north. One in the group became a special friend, to whom I also owe my life. He is Lieutenant Colonel Ke Nghiem. Ke had secreted a gold Cross pen away in the lining of his uniform, for use to gain him some future advantage during his captivity. Instead, at one point when I was very ill with malaria, he traded the pen for six potatoes and then ensured they were prepared and fed to me, one each day. Ke also became my motivator and mentor in the ways of surviving in this beautiful, but hostile land. My journey continued painfully, agonizingly, but ultimately I reached Hanoi. There I went into North Vietnam’s prison system, and ended up at the infamous Hanoi Hilton from where I was released at the end of the war.
I inquired about Lieutenant Xanh after I returned to the United States. I could not find any information. I asked Vietnamese military students attending U.S. Army courses. No one could find any information. After the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, I intensified my search. No information. After several years, I was reunited with one former member of my first group of South Vietnamese prisoners, Tang van Pham, and also one from the second, Ke Nghiem. They sought information for me. First nothing, and then word that Xanh had been re-imprisoned after the fall of Saigon, and then the conclusion that he’d probably died after years of imprisonment. But I still hoped to find some information about what had happened to Xanh and maybe a little about him and his family. I’d done internet searches in recent years, always with no luck. Then a few weeks ago, I tried again. I stumbled onto a site for pilots who’d flown A-1 Skyraiders in the Vietnamese Air Force, some from Xanh’s old unit. I dropped a note to the webmaster, and within days found myself in e-mail contact with Xanh, and then a phone call – the first time we’d spoken in 35 years. I then saw Xanh a short time later in an emotion filled reunion in Southern California. I met his wife and spent two wonderful days sharing stories, good food, and enjoying each other’s company. At our first encounter, I looked upon an older man, but instantly I saw the soul of my beloved friend in his eyes. I’d not seen him since I watched him forced across that log and marched away, knowing that I owed him my life; what there was left of it. But there in the jungle, I made a promise to myself and to Xanh. Since he’d worked so hard to help me live through those two toughest days of my life, I felt like I owed him my very best to try to do my part to make his efforts worthwhile – to survive the rest of my journey and somehow get home at the end of it. What he’d done for me saved my life, and Xanh’s selfless actions gave me even more determination to overcome everything between me and the freedom that waited at the end of my captivity. Xanh Nguyen has always been a great man, and now he is a great American. I am so thankful he was my friend when I needed him, and I am grateful I have found my friend again.
William S. Reeder, Jr., Ph.D. Colonel, U.S. Army (retired)
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