A Different Perspective: Flying Jayhawks Exotic Vietnam and Angkor Wat Trip

Posted on Dec 2, 2019 in Alumni News and News

First, a disclaimer: This was my third Flying Jayhawks trip, but I’m not actually a Jayhawk (gasp!). My wife, son and daughter-in-law are the Jayhawks. I’m a West Point graduate, and I served more than 22 years on active duty in the Army, including fighting in Vietnam in 1971 to ’72 as an armored cavalry platoon leader, where I was wounded twice.

Tegan suggested to me that it would be interesting for the Flying Jayhawks to hear about my experiences in going back to Vietnam for the first time since 1972. I will leave it to another Flying Jayhawk to describe the entire trip, but here are my highlights.

Hanoi

We had a great local guide named Viet, a 40-year-old North Vietnamese man who was with us during our entire visit to Hanoi. He was smart, thoughtful and very willing to answer questions and give us his views, which sometimes didn’t correspond with the party line. He definitely was not a typical minder and was our best local guide of the entire trip.

Flying Jayhawks | Exotic Vietnam and Angkor WaThe most interesting part of the visit to Hanoi for me was visiting the Hoa Lo Prison (the “Hanoi Hilton”). Most of the prison has been torn down and only a small part of it remains as a museum. That museum highlights how badly the French treated the Vietnamese they imprisoned there during the French colonial era and their war in Indochina and includes mannequins that show how they were shackled, how they were tortured, and how some died there, often by guillotine.

The part of the museum devoted to the “American War” was limited to a display of a few items, including a POW uniform and some photos of prisoners relaxing, playing chess, cooking and putting up Christmas decorations. It was pure propaganda and intended to contrast their “humane” treatment of the Americans with the brutality of the French. I have a good friend and West Point company mate who was shot down over North Vietnam and imprisoned there from December 1972 to February 1973. He told me that the cell where he was held, part of what the POWs called the “new guy” section, was still there. I’m not sure I was able to identify the exact cell that was his, but the prison is a dark and gloomy place that was depressing to tour.

After telling Viet that I’d fought in Vietnam, I mentioned that my friend was a POW there and I asked whether I could tell our group about his imprisonment. That was well received and a number of folks told me they appreciated my telling his story.

Cu Chi tunnels

The Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon are a massive complex of miles of tunnels stretching from the Cambodian border towards Saigon. They were designed to allow the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army to move troops into South Vietnam and provide sanctuaries where they could rest, get medical care, etc.

Flying Jayhawks | Exotic Vietnam and Angkor WaDuring the war we discovered some tunnels but were unaware of many others, including a complex directly under a major U.S. base. We had a different but also good local guide, a South Vietnamese man, who gave us a tour of the site, which is one of two they take people to (not the one that was under the big U.S. base that I’d been to at one point in 1972). They had some tunnels that we could crawl through and our guide explained the measures they took to conceal the tunnel complexes from the Americans and demonstrated the types of punji stakes and tiger traps they used to deter Americans from entering the tunnels. I crawled through the longer tunnel—about 50 yards—and had to do part of it on my hands and knees, while my wife, Sondra, did a shorter one, which was a little larger; she was able to get through by stooping over in some places.

My experience in crawling confirmed that I never could have been a tunnel rat! As I did in Hanoi, I told our guide that I’d fought nearby in 1971 to ’72 (that got a startled expression) and asked him whether I could speak with the group about my experiences. On the bus after our tour I explained how we cleared bunkers and tunnels, what tunnel rats did, and how we used smoke grenades to identify air holes and exits. Sometimes we used CS grenades if the tunnel rats had gas masks.

Napalm Girl

Throughout Vietnam, I found the Vietnamese people to be friendly and mostly too young to have experienced the war. One other highlight of the trip was having Kim Phuc with us as a lecturer. She was the “Napalm Girl” in the iconic photo, which showed her running away naked from a napalm strike, and now she is a woman in her 50s. She was badly burned over most of her back and one arm, but she has recovered after multiple operations, although she still is in a lot of pain.

She defected with her husband to Canada some years ago, has two children and is now a UNESCO Ambassador for Peace who tells her story around the world. She’s a remarkable woman, and through faith she has been able to turn her life around from anger and resentment to forgiveness. She is always smiling. Sondra and I made a personal connection with her, and I told her that I operated very near her home in Trang Bang six months before her horrific injury.

Bangkok

Tired of visiting temples, Sondra and I daringly broke away from the group itinerary and, at Sondra’s suggestion, took an all-day excursion with a private guide and driver to the bridge over the River Kwai.

You may know the general story of the bridge and what they call the Death Railroad from the 1957 movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” We discovered that the movie, although based in fact, is not historically accurate. The short version of the real story: the railroad was built during World War II in 1943 by the Japanese to connect existing north-south railroads in Thailand and Burma and allow the Japanese to move troops and supplies into Burma for their attack west into India.

They used around 200,000 conscripted local Thaisand other natives and more than 60,000 POWs, mainly British, Australian and Dutch, many of whom had been captured when Singapore fell, to build the railroad. Working in terrible conditions, more than 100,000 laborers (both natives and POWs) died from malnutrition, chronic dysentery, malaria, cholera, and other diseases; brutal treatment from sadistic Japanese guards; and unfortunately, from bombing by the Allied Air Forces who were unaware that the camps housed POWs.

Flying Jayhawks | Exotic Vietnam and Angkor Wa

This is one place where the movie presents an unrealistically rosy picture of the conditions in the camps. The famous bridge was built using POW forced labor (designed by Japanese engineers, not British ones as shown in the movie), and actually consisted of concrete and steel spans rather than wood scaffolding and was not blown up by British commandos but was bombed by US B-24s in June of 1945, which dropped three central spans. The bridge was rebuilt after the war by replacing the dropped spans, and the eastern two-thirds of the railroad is still in use.

We drove about three hours from Bangkok, got on a train with hordes of tourists and Thais, rode over the bridge on the train and later walked back over it. In addition to seeing the bridge, there is a superb museum there, which alone was worth the visit. Near the museum, there is a cemetery that is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and includes the graves of thousands of POWs who died building the railroad. They did an amazing job of identifying remains and collecting them in the cemetery. Apparently if they could identify family or NOK of the dead, they allowed them to include personal messages on the markers, most of which are heartbreaking. A few of the messages I read were: “A voice we love is still, a place is vacant which we can never fill,” and “We think of him still as the same and say: ‘He is not dead, he just is away.’” These messages really brought home the sacrifice and loss of those young men long before their time. The visit, although it took all day, was memorable and I’m very glad we made the trip.

Side note: People have asked me how it felt to go back to Vietnam and whether I recognized any of the places I had been. I didn’t have any extremely traumatic experiences in Vietnam, so I found I was OK with going back, although the visit to the Hanoi Hilton was emotional. Although my unit operated in an area northwest of Saigon very close to both Cu Chi and Trang Bang, I didn’t expect that I’d recognize places I had served, and that was the case. I spent almost all of my tour in the jungle, bashing through the trees on armored vehicles looking for bunker complexes or leading dismounted ambush patrols in search of Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army, and jungle looks pretty much the same, no matter where it is. My sense was that Vietnam is much more built up than when I was there in the ’70s—roads that were dirt when I was there are now paved, and there are far more buildings, small businesses and houses than there were almost 50 years ago.

Bill Knowlton
Flying Jayhawks passenger, Exotic Vietnam and Angkor Wat

The Flying Jayhawks “Exotic Vietnam and Angkor Wat” trip took place Nov. 5-19, 2019. The trip was hosted by Tegan Thornberry, d’05, g’09, the Alumni Association’s director of membership. View more photos from the trip; pictures may be downloaded for personal use. Find more information about Flying Jayhawks trips, including a schedule, or sign up for travel emails.

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