In Honor of
CAPTAIN RICHARD L. BASINGER, USMC
Vietnam 2000 ...
... the trip of a lifetime
My father was Captain Richard Louis Basinger, and he was a Marine Corps helicopter pilot who was killed in the Vietnam war. In May of 2000, I made my own journey to that small country half way around the world to see for myself the place where my father gave his life.
My father was trained to fly helicopters in Pensacola, FL, where I was born in 1965. In August of 1966, he left for his tour in Vietnam. One of the great things about my father was that he kept a journal, and took several photographs. He had a great desire to document his experiences so that he could look back on his time there and probably share them with me.
On his first day of flying combat missions along the DMZ in September, he was shot down by enemy small arms fire. Four days later, his helicopter was hit again by enemy fire. This became the routine pattern of his mission and his life as a Marine Corps helicopter pilot for the next nine months in which he flew nearly 350 combat missions - flying in and out of danger on a daily basis - supplying the grunts with the weapons of war - rescuing the wounded - and retrieving the dead. In February of 1967, when flying as co-pilot on a mission near the southern tip of I-Corps, my father was wounded when an AK-47 round penetrated the cockpit and hit both him and the pilot. Upon arrival on the hospital ship, he was operated on by surgeons to remove the shrapnel and to repair the damage to his leg. He was then out of commission for about six weeks while he recovered from his wounds.
In April of 1967, my father's squadron, HMM-363 was stationed at Dong Ha just south of the DMZ. Also, at this time, he was promoted to Captain and was a Helicopter Aircraft Commander (HAC) and squadron leader among his peers. While at Dong Ha, the base would routinely come under rocket attacks, in which the pilots and crew if not out flying would need to seek shelter in bunkers. On May 12, 1967, my father was killed in action at Con Thien when his helicopter was hit by an enemy mortar or RPG round immediately after taking off from the LZ. He was 24 years old, and I was just 2.
What I have shared so far is pretty much the extent of what I knew about my father's experiences in Vietnam all my life growing up. That is, until August 1, 1999. On that day, on a Sunday afternoon, I happened to be sitting on the couch and was just flipping through the channels on TV when I came across a documentary about Vietnam on the Discovery Channel. I have always been interested in anything I could learn about the war and have always been looking for maybe just a glimpse at my father in any type of story about Vietnam. I soon realized that this documentary was very unique in that it was all about Marine Corps helicopter pilots and crews. I heard the men being interviewed talk about the same places that I had read about in my father's journal. I knew that at least some of these guys had to have known my father. At the end of the program, they showed how these men who once flew together now have a reunion association and meet every two years. I then got on my computer and went to the reunion association's web site - www.popasmoke.com. There I followed a link to my father's squadron's email list, and began sending emails to the men on the list, asking if anyone remembered my father and could give me any information. Within about 4 hours, I began to get responses from men who remembered my father. Then, within the days and weeks that followed, I received letters, phone calls, emails, etc from my father's comrades.
A few guys sent me some photos, and one of my father's closest buddies in Vietnam even sent me a video tape of some old super8 footage he had taken which included a couple of quick glimpses of my father. One night I was exploring links off of the popasmoke web site and stumbled upon a site for the 3rd Marines, where I learned that a return trip to Vietnam was being organized. I filled out a form and asked if I could come along. The organizer - Bill Ervin from Colorado and a former machine gunner - was eager for me to join the trip.
In the months leading up to the trip, I continued making more contacts, learning more details, and hearing more stories and memories from men who had known my father. As I shared with some of them that I was planning to go to Vietnam, of course some of them had no real interest in such a trip. But, I felt that it was an opportunity of a lifetime, and something that I just had to do. I also soon learned that our trip was scheduled to leave Los Angeles on May 13, meaning I would be leaving Columbus on May 12, 33 years to the day that my father was killed. I found this so ironic that I felt it was almost a divine sign that I was meant to take this trip.
In March of 2000, my mother and I were contacted by a writer from the Associated Press. He was writing a story on the legacy of the Vietnam War to be ran in April in a series of stories leading up to the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon [Click Here, then "American View" to Read AP Story]. Shortly after this story ran nationwide, I received an email from a man in Dallas, TX who had known my father in flight school. He said that one day he and my father were playing golf and were doing so poorly that they traded putters. He then went on to say that, to this day, he still carried my father's putter in his golf bag. He offered to send the putter to me, which I graciously accepted, and within a couple of weeks I received the putter.
Finally, the day came to leave for my trip to Vietnam. There were going to be 14 of us going, mostly guys from the Denver, CO area, but a few more of us who had learned about the trip over the internet. We had 4 Marines and 2 of their sons, 2 Navy Corpsman, one Army guy, a non-veteran, and 3 journalists. We met up in Los Angeles on Friday May 12 to get to know each other the night before the big flight to southeast Asia. Our flight was on Thai Airways, with a stop in Tokyo and then the first night's stay in Bangkok. The next morning we then headed for Saigon, today called Ho Chi Minh City.
Our first few days of the trip were spent in Saigon. We stayed in a very nice hotel in downtown Saigon. I was amazed by the traffic - so many motorbikes and everyone going at the same time. At first, I was a bit suspicious of my surroundings, especially since we were told that although crime is very unusual in Vietnam today, if anything were to happen it would likely happen in Saigon. Fortunately, there were no such episodes for any of us on the trip. While in Saigon, we visited the former presidential palace and took a short day trip to the Chu Chi tunnels outside of Saigon. These tunnel complexes were an amazing and elaborate network of connected bunkers and tunnels that were so small, most Americans would not have been able to even fit in the tunnels. I did crawl through one of the tunnels and was quite ready to reach the other end.
After our time in Saigon, we took a flight up to Da Nang, where we stayed for about an additional 3 days. While in DaNang we went to China Beach, Red Beach, Marble Mountain, and Hoi An. One evening, we ate a lobster dinner on China Beach with 4 former enemy soldiers. They were very hospitable towards the American veterans and showed them great respect. One of the greatest things about that night was that we negotiated for a full lobster dinner for about 20 people or so, plus 98 bottles of beer, all for about $100. That was one of the coolest things about the trip was that the moment you cashed any travelers checks you were an instant millionaire.
Also while in Da Nang, we visited a small village where Greg, one of the Navy Corpsman, had lived with a CAP unit for a few months. He had a Vietnamese girlfriend back then and had a picture of her. We found her Aunt who said that the girl had gotten out of Vietnam and now lives in Georgia of all places. At our hotel in DaNang, I met a young man whose father had been a Captain in the South Vietnamese army and was killed when he also was two years old. We had a lot in common and shared some of our experiences with each other. After 1975, he and his family endured much hardship from the communist government because his father had been in the ARVN.
After our time in Da Nang, we drove by bus up to Hue along the Hai Van Pass. This was a very beautiful and scenic route through the mountains along the ocean. In Hue, we stayed at what was the most beautiful hotel I thought of all of our trip. It seemed as if everything was made of marble. While in Hue, we visited the Citadel that the North Vietnamese had occupied during Tet offensive. This was the scene of a fierce battle between the Marines and the NVA - one of the men on the trip had fought there. There was also still a lot of damage evident from the fighting at the Citadel. Just outside of the Citadel is a bit of a museum of much of our old artillery equipment. The Marine with us who had been in artillery gave us a walkthrough as to how he used to fire the artillery gun. One night while in Hue, we ate a dinner on a boat out on the Perfume River. There are a lot of little shops and vendors in Hue, and they are always trying to sell you something. The one thing I learned was, never pay face value for anything - always haggle. They expect it and if you pay too much it is your fault. Of course you win some and you lose some, and even if you paid 100,000 dong, you're really only out 7 bucks!
After our time in Hue, we drove up to Dong Ha. This is where things started to get interesting. First of all, from what everyone recalled, and from what we experienced, Dong Ha was and still is a dump. It was very run down when compared to the rest of the places we had been so far, and the rest of the country as you can imagine is still quite behind in terms of economic development according to our standards. The Dong Ha Hotel we stayed in was a real dump. It came complete with roaches, rats, and geckos. We slept in mosquito nets just to try to keep some of the critters out. Thank God we were only there for 2 nights!
Our first day in Dong Ha we went to Camp Carol and Khe Sahn. There really isn't anything left to speak of at these places. Areas that had once been completely barren of vegetation have now completely greened over. There was still the occasional remnants of a sand bag to be found, and a couple of guys even found some old shell casings. There are also now some monuments in some of these places, of course complete with communist propaganda. There is also still remnants of the runway at Khe Sahn - basically just a washed out strip of red clay. There were also other tourists from other countries when we went to Khe Sahn.
At some point along the way, we stopped at a village of monteniards. These people pretty much live the same way that they did 30 years ago. The kids there in the village were amazed by our video equipment, and they were very friendly. Whenever we stopped at villages, we always would give the kids candy and little trinkets. They would get so excited over just the smallest little thing.
The second day at Dong Ha was going to be the big day for me. On this day I would visit Con Thien. I didn't sleep very well the night before because I was pretty nervous. In the morning, I wandered down to the market and bought a wreath of red and gold flowers to place at the site. But first, we went on a little hike up to Mutter's Ridge. Well, actually, it was a pretty long hump for a 35 year old overweight guy like myself. About 18 kilometers round trip in 90+ degree heat and humidity - not exactly a walk in the park. We started out on a red clay road, and slowly the path got narrower and narrower. The guides would say to stay on the path, but eventually there was no path - just tall grass, thorn bushes, and the occasional fox hole to fall down into. I made it to the top of the ridge, but then there was a new top to the ridge we couldn't see from below. That was the end of the road for me and the artillery guy. A few of the rest of the guys continued on to the very top of the ridge, where they found old fighting holes that they had dug over 30 years ago. If there was ever any real danger on this trip, it was at this time. This area along the DMZ still has not been cleared for land mines, so we had to be very careful of where we walked. There were also several stretches of bomb craters all about - some from B52's that were now small ponds. Up in the mountains, you could see the indented pock marks of bomb craters that have since greened over and almost look like dimples on a golf ball. I was doing pretty well on the hike until I stopped. I then became way over-heated and basically fell out. The rest of the guys had to hump my stuff, share their water with me, and keep pouring water over my head. I eventually cooled down and was fine.
The hike up to Mutter's Ridge and back took most of the day - probably about 6 hours or so. After this, we drove over to Con Thien. Bill Ervin had a map of the grid coordinates where my father's helicopter had gone down. We then used a GPS device to find the spot within about 100 feet he said. We walked through some brush into a small and peaceful clearing - this was the spot. There was a rock sitting on the ground, so I placed the wreath there, then knelt and read a prayer I had written the night before. Of course I was over come with emotion, but at the same time I felt a sense of peace come over me that I had never known my whole life. I felt in some respects that I had faced a fear of mine head on, and I had prevailed. The Vietnamese with us placed incense around the wreath to honor my father. It was a very touching little ceremony and there was not a dry eye in the house. The marines who I went with were always there and supported me throughout the trip - especially at Con Thien. We stayed for just about 15 or 20 minutes, and then I was ready to go.
After Con Thien, we went back to Dong Ha to the hotel. We were so beat and just wanted to go to bed, but our hosts had prepared a huge feast for us and insisted that we stay and eat. I had been a little leery of the food prior to the trip, but I found out that for the most part I really liked the Vietnamese food. The food at Dong Ha was excellent, but we all figured that if you were going to get sick anywhere on the trip from the food, this was the place where it was going to happen. I never drank any water there except for sealed bottled water and other than that we pretty much drank beer. I'm not really a big beer drinker anymore, but over there it was pretty much beer or water - and actually the Vietnamese beer is quite good.
The next day we left Dong Ha and went back to Hue for a day. The next day we then flew from Phu Bai to Hanoi. It definitely seemed a bit strange for the veterans - and myself for that matter - to be walking around in Hanoi. Hanoi is much different than Saigon and Hue. It is more reserved, the people are not quite as out-going. While in Hanoi, we went to Ho Chi Minh's home and tomb, the Hanoi Hilton, and the site where John McCain had been shot down and pulled from a lake that is in the middle of the city. The irony of the Hanoi Hilton is that it is now literally right next door to the modern day Hilton Hotel - which is a beautiful skyscraper towering over the former prison. There was also many more shops and vendors than most of the other places we had been. I picked up quite a few pieces of artwork and other mementos to take home. The last night in Hanoi, we were treated to a dinner complete with live music and then a trip by cyclo over to a modern day discotheque.
After Hanoi, we went back to Bangkok for another overnight stay before making the long flight back to Los Angeles. I had a connecting flight from LA to St Louis, to Columbus, and had been enroute for about 31 hours when I finally got home.
All in all, this trip was everything and more than I could have ever expected it to be. The Marines that I went with truly took me in under their wing, and treated me as one of their own. We laughed together, and we cried together. We had some really fun times, and of course some very serious and emotional moments. Also, the Vietnamese people treated us with the utmost respect and hospitality. There were no bad experiences, and only occasionally would someone be anything but overtly friendly towards us.
In the end, I am very glad that I took this trip. I know that not everyone feels this is something that they would want to do. But I learned, and so did the Marines who went on the trip - that Vietnam is a country - not just a war. It is a place with a rich culture and with interesting people.[top of page]
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