War Trophy or…?
I made my first flight during the Vietnam War on January 18, 1968. The action was heating up and when the Tet Offensive started twelve days later I had already flown fifteen combat missions in the F-100.
Tet was the big push by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Regulars to take over South Vietnam and push America and her allies into the beautiful South China Sea. The last attack in that offensive was on February 10th. During the intervening eleven days 14,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed and 24,000 were wounded. I have maintained my sanity over the ensuing years by telling myself that none of them were in my target areas.
At 0300 on the morning of 31 January, Tuy Hoa, where I was stationed, was hit hard. I was jolted awake by the sound of explosions and machine gun fire. I didn’t know what to do. We weren’t allowed to have fighting weapons in our living areas, so I climbed on top of my hootch where I could hide and watch the action.
Enemy sappers breeched the base perimeter and threw satchel charges under our airplanes. Wings and tails were blown high into the black sky. The light from huge fires allowed our security forces to see enemy troops running around. Most intruders were killed but many disappeared back into the night.
About 0900 the fighting was over and we started taking inventory. The warm-eyed Vietnamese woman who did my laundry; a pleasant person whom I liked and gave soap to, was killed coming through the concertina wire. She was a Viet Cong soldier. Identifying her body was almost beyond the reach of my imagination.
It was a frightening scene at our Command Post, with AK-47s, hand grenades and rocket launchers littering the sand all around. I retrieved a small flag from the body of a Viet Cong soldier who didn’t make it through the razor wire. Our intelligence officer said the flag was one that had been hand-stitched in silk by a local Vietnamese family who was selling them as souvenirs to the GIs. The flags weren’t official, or issued, and had nothing to do with the war. All of that changed when the Viet Cong raided the small shop, killed the family, and took their inventory of flags.
So now, forty-six years after leaving the Vietnam War, I have successfully unremembered many details of my involvement. But I still wonder if my small 32-inch flag is a legitimate trophy from that conflict, or just the peaceful symbol of an unfortunate family that was caught in the middle, trying to make a living. What do you think?