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Ghosts, golf and Elvis in modern-day Vietnam

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

CHU LAI, Vietnam - I didn't serve in the Vietnam War but like many of my generation, I knew a lot of people who did.

Viet Nam -From the rough
Old U.S. airplane hangars can still be seen at Chu Lai military base.
Viet Nam -From the roughViet Nam - From the roughViet Nam - From the rough

While I was sweating out my lottery number, 102 - I remember it to this day, more than 30 years later - quite a few of my friends and relatives were over there fighting and sometimes dying.

I couldn't help but think of them on a recent media tour in Vietnam. The purpose of the trip was to cover golf and golf courses in the country - not exactly tough duty - but everywhere I went, my thoughts inevitably and usually against my will, turned to the war.

This set me apart from most of the Vietnamese people, two-thirds of whom weren't even alive in 1975, the year Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, fell. Even the ones I spoke to who were alive at the time, including some of whom fought in it, from both sides, didn't seem to dwell on it. All the Vietnamese I encountered were genuinely friendly and curious.

After all, Vietnam has had a war since, known as the Sino-Vietnamese War, when the country sent troops in 1978 to help Cambodia against Pol Pot, after Pot's regime, supported by China, massacred a number of ethnic Vietnamese during repeated raids into their country.

Still, the thoughts wouldn't leave me. From Da Nang, I called up my best friend, who had fought in the war. We had talked about his Vietnam experiences many times but this time was very different - I was there. He could hardly believe it, even though he knew I was going, and you could tell, over the cell phone connection and half a world away, he was reliving some of it.

Specialist 4 Tom Cain is about as forgiving a guy as you can imagine, and has enormous respect for both the Vietnamese people and the Viet Cong soldiers he helped fight - "Sir Charles" as he and his fellow G.I.s sometimes referred to them. But, there was no denying the ambivalence in his words and voice. Then and there, I decided to break away from the press group for a day and visit Chu Lai, where he had been stationed.

Chu Lai was a U.S. Navy base during the war. It had an airfield and served mainly as a support facility for the larger base in Da Nang, where only a few days earlier, the remains of six American soldiers missing in action during the war were handed over to American authorities.

Chu Lai is still a military base maintained by the Vietnamese government, which has plans to turn it into a industrial and transportation hub. My Lai, the site of the infamous massacre, isn't far away.

Any advice?

"Think about the ghosts," my friend said.

As we approached Chu Lai, the land changed. Vietnam is a crowded country, but suddenly the crowds were gone. Ominous may be overstating it, but it was certainly bleak, until we hit the sea. The terrain became clay-colored, rising into dunes, bordered on one side by the South China Sea. Low hills were in the distance, hills I knew to be named by the troops there at the time as numbers like 54, 69, 707 and others.

Directly ahead was a small military building, with a guard rail lowered across the entrance road. Inside was a soldier watching us, and as I raised my camera to get a picture, the driver, a Vietnamese named Ho, gently grabbed my hand. I didn't argue.

By that time, a steady rain had turned into a fierce storm and we turned and drove toward the sea, following the road as it turned to parallel the water. There were no other cars, only the thunder and lightning and a herd of water buffalo wandering aimlessly in the middle of the road.

Deciding to wait out the rain, we turned into one of the dozen or so open-air bars that line a road close to the base, the only shelter around. A woman brought us drinks and while Ho settled in to read the newspaper, I paced and tried to think about ghosts.

But I couldn't, and so as I watched two boys in small, circular boats that looked like bathtubs getting tossed around on the storm seas, I settled on thinking about what it must have been like to be in this beautiful place by the South China Sea with people trying to kill me.

Even that was difficult, so eventually, I wandered next door to another bar where a group of women greeted me warmly, and where I spend the next few hours. None of them spoke English but they laughed hysterically when, not knowing what else to do, I stared singing Elvis Presley songs. After an hour or so, a soldier joined us. He didn't speak English either but he was as friendly and welcoming as the women. He bought me a drink.

The rain never let up and eventually we left, mission only partly accomplished. At least I got to see the place that had had such a dramatic effect on my buddy's life.

The U.S. and Vietnam have had official diplomatic relations for about 12 years now and the two countries continue to cooperate on different levels, including finding and identifying the remains of American soldiers missing in action. Authorities predict that task will take at least another five to seven years.

Writing about golf in Vietnam is such an innocuous thing, compared to what happened there between our two countries in the years spanning 1965 to 1975. Already, I've received a few negative comments and I can surely understand that.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Beautiful story

    Denise Dube wrote on: Feb 27, 2007

    I remember the day you went to Chu Lai while we on the Vietnam trip. I wondered what you found and learned. All I saw was a blur of dilapidated airplane hangers as our van sped past the site. I know you have probably received negative comments. I did too, for similar reasons. I'm sure your search and subsequent words probably helped many soldiers,especially since the story has already been picked up by a military website.
    Take care, Tim.


  • Vietnam Ghosts

    Jim Murtaugh wrote on: Nov 6, 2006

    Thank you for your Vietnam story.I
    am a Vietnam vet,Marine 1967-68.I have returned to Vietnam four times
    in the last six years.It is a happy
    place now and I have learned to let
    go of the ghosts of the past thanks to the kindness of the vietnamese people.
    I hope that your friend will think
    about returning to Vietnam and that
    he also will let the ghosts of the past be set free,at long last.
    I am living proof that the wounds
    of the heart and head can heal.
    Thanks Again,
    Jim Murtaugh


  • Chu Lai Ghosts

    Tom Cain wrote on: Oct 31, 2006

    Tim McDonald's thoughtful article has moved me to the verge of tears. Part of it is an old man of 60 looking back through the mist of time, knowing he'll never again look back that far in this life. The other part of it is having done a tiny something for this country. I am proud of that. Very proud. Even though I am sure I was a terrible soldier. At least I was there. My country called and I answered. I didn't agree with the war, but I went. Maybe it would have taken more courage to go to Canada. I don't know. I do know it makes me feel good to have served in the Nams during 1969-70. I told Tim to look for the ghosts. Like the ghosts I told Tim about when 12 or 15 GIs came into Chu Lai from the bush. They were infantry. Young, cool guys with an easy gait. All in good shape, tending toward thin. They were going to the Post Exchange. No weapons, save a couple of them with knives attached to their shoulders. Pant legs tied to keep the leeches out. Some had colorful beaded necklaces. Their manhood wasn't in question. Everybody gave them a wide berth. Guys, including me, were reluctant to even look their way. Chu Lai was primitive. To these boys, though, it had to seem like Gay Paree. They had seen stuff nobody ought to ever see. They had heard the men and the monkeys in the jungle scream. Killed and been killed. They were in Chu Lai on a three-day stand down. Then it was back to the Show. They were the coolest and deadliest-looking guys I have ever seen. They walked assuredly and hardly talked at all. I will never forget that. Those were warriors, my friends. Those were the ghosts I told Tim to look for.


    • RE: Chu Lai Ghosts

      Kay Roberts wrote on: Jan 21, 2007

      I found your article through the internet. My husband was a marine at Chu Lai around 1969-1970, and we are considering a trip there this summer. Do you have any comments that could make our trip worthwhile? I would appreciate any information.
      Thank you.


      • RE: RE: Chu Lai Ghosts

        jeff wrote on: Sep 23, 2011

        I Spent most of my tour at Chu Lai.
        I have ghost from Chu Lai.My Ghost
        are the sappers that would try to get
        through the wire on the beach and other areas around the compound.So scary to see them almost make it through.My hootch would of been the frist to be hit if it wasn't for that
        first flare that went up and all hell broke loose.Thank You perlimiter guards.I have dreams that they made it
        through.As I woke up one was about to cut my throat.I scream and wake up shake sweat but it was just a dream.
        Chu Lai Vet


        • RE: RE: RE: Chu Lai Ghosts

          Steven Roberrt Farrer wrote on: Jun 25, 2013

          I was with MABS-13 from 5/69 -6/70. I was a Platoon Sergeant with con-current duties as Platoon Commander. The only Officer we had was a 2nd Lt. as Company Commander. Our job was to provide perimeter security for the air base. The majority of our Company was 0311 infantry. Occasionally we would get E-1, E-2, and E3's from the Squadrons to help stand watches in the bunkers on a 30 day detail. Your thanks is well appreciated.


          • RE: RE: RE: RE: Chu Lai Ghosts

            Ted Hendrick wrote on: Apr 23, 2015

            I was with MCB-7 (Seabees) 69-70 so we were there at Chu Lai at the same time. We built a lot of the concrete halo's and revetments for MAG's 12-13.


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