John Nelson III column 7-27-12

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 27, 2012

Alliances reshuffled, U.S. again utilizes Cam Ranh Bay

One doesn’t have to live that long to see a lot of changes. People, customs, and ideologies, fall in and out of favor, and sometimes former foes can become partners if not real friends.

Such thoughts came to mind recently while reading a newspaper article entitled, “Panetta sends message to China on Vietnam visit.” The article explains that from the deck of a Military Sealift Command cargo ship docked in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, our Secretary of Defense was letting China know that the U. S. would, in his words, “Work with our partners like Vietnam to be able to use harbors like this as we move our ships from ports on the West Coast toward our stations here in the Pacific.” The real message was that the South China Sea, strongly claimed by China, is still an international body of water that the U.S. will treat as such.

But things have certainly changed since my experiences in that port. China was then sitting on the sidelines smirking while we were sending a strong message to the North Vietnamese — one they never seemed to get. Their message to us was that we should pack up and go home, and eventually we did. But now it seems that we are tiptoeing back.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

I had previously visited Cam Ranh Bay  and was very familiar with the wide expanse of this very strategic, deepwater harbor, but in the summer of 1967, I got the chance to see this massive base from the land side. This opportunity came from hosting some soldiers on board our ship on a voyage from San Francisco. It was common in those days to have a few individuals from a unit to accompany their equipment over since gear left unattended on a Vietnamese dock could be appropriated by other commands.

Three of the passengers were Army captains about my age, and we spent a lot of time talking during the long voyage across the Pacific. I showed them the workings of the ship, and they explained their very interesting mission. As Army observation pilots, trained in ground combat before becoming aviators, they flew over combat zones in small Cessnas to sort things out and to mark enemy positions with smoke bombs. The dangerous reconnaissance allowed the Air Force boys to come in and pound the enemy with some assurance they wouldn’t bomb their own men.

The captains gained access to a vehicle soon after our arrival in Cam Ranh Bay, and during the days that it took to unload their gear, I found time to ride around with them and get some sense of the size of the base and the vast amount of military hardware stored there. I wasn’t around toward the end of the U. S. presence, but I’m told that it was still well stocked when we pulled out in ‘73. It’s no doubt that we supplied a lot of equipment for the postwar Vietnamese Army.

I often wonder what happened to those pilots. Since they went in low and slow, as they used to say, their planes could be brought down by as little as well-directed rifle fire. It was their high casualty rate that caused me to lose contact.

Today we can stay in touch with friends all over the world via e-mail, but then I just had their home addresses and phone numbers. I guess I never made the calls because I had the fear of upsetting a grieving family, and by the time that this would have been less of a concern, I had lost their addresses.

I particularly wonder about the captain from Alabama. His dream was to rise to the top ranks of the Alabama National Guard. It was certainly ironic, at that time when most young men saw the Guard as a way to stay out of Vietnam, that he viewed combat experience as an important step in achieving his goal. I’d like to think he’s over in Alabama right now sitting comfortably on a big Army pension.

Getting back to our new partnership with Vietnam, I guess that we shouldn’t find this much of a surprise. Considering that World War II was arguably the fiercest conflict ever waged on the planet, it wasn’t long afterwards before Germany and Japan became strong allies and leading trading partners.

The Vietnamese are clever people, and they soon realized that pure communism would take them down the road to starvation. And we helped them enter the global market — even to the point of letting them sell their cheap, dubiously-raised basa here in the U. S. as catfish. So we can thank our own Delta fish producers for giving up part of their earnings to help foot the bill for our renewed use of Cam Ranh Bay.

The passage of time can help heal old wounds, but it doesn’t guarantee reconciliation. Regaining harmony depends on circumstance and the character and mind-set of the former foes. For example, 59 years after and armistice was signed at Panmunjom, the North Korean remain a hard-nosed bunch. We can co-exist with them as long as we give in to most of their demands, suffer a lot of verbal abuse, and refrain from openly challenging their skewed view of history.

Come to think of it, those are about the same terms that we Southerners have had to accept for 150 years in order to get along with the Damn Yankees.

(Editor’s note: John Nelson III is a retired merchant mariner whose columns occasionally appear on these pages. He makes his home in the Chapeltown community.