Six former U.S. Marines landed in Vietnam on Saturday in peace, 24 years after the first American combat troops hit the beaches of Da Nang in war.
"Man, it brought so many memories, looking out at them rice paddies," said Frank Noe, a 40-year-old firefighter from Stoughton, Mass."Just seeing the children . . . to me when I was real young here - 18, 19 years old - I always felt for the children and I think that's what brought me back here, too. I had a real warm feeling for all those people. It's an honest-to-God feeling."
Gazing at the mountains in the distance, Nate Genna, a 41-year-old maintenance man from Boston, thought of his days as a 19-year-old Marine under fire from North Vietnamese gunners hidden in similar mountains in South Vietnam. "They look awfully familiar," he said. "They're not the same ones, but they look the same."
The former Marines are self-styled unofficial ambassadors of good will, hoping their 10-day visit will bring other veterans back and better relations between the two countries.
"As long as we can get veterans back over here to see what's going on here and to let the world know that these are fantastic, wonderful people, and they need help - if we can get that across to the American people I'd be happy," said Mike Wallace, a 41-year-old farmer from Langdon, Kan.
The other former Marines include Gene Spanos, 39, a Rosemont, Ill., police lieutenant; William Johnson, 41, of Manchester, Conn., a maker of electric signs; and Robert Dalton, a 54-year-old free-lance writer from Davidsonville, Md.
Their patrol into the past, a journey to heal their own pain as much as to look their former foes in the eyes, will take them to what is no more - the demilitarized zone along the 17th parallel that once divided Vietnam into North and South.
The 11th Marine Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, in which all of the men except Dalton served, planted about 100,000 land mines to protect a string of U.S. outposts along the DMZ named Cam Lo, Con Thien Gio Linh and Dong Ha.
After North Vietnam defeated the South in 1975, it reunified the country. Vietnamese officials say thousands of civilians were killed clearing the land mines for farming and housing in postwar Vietnam, but they say all the mines are gone.
The Marines are not so sure. Concerned that the mines are still causing civilian casualties, they want to attempt to verify the Vietnamese claims.
"It's a sense of accomplishment, given a chance to come back to a country where we fought," said Spanos. "We're looking forward to meeting the Vietnamese soldiers."
Johnson said he was unsure of himself when he arrived at Hanoi's international airport. "As I remember Vietnam, you had to be looking over your shoulder, and that's history now but still you're very unsure when you're going through customs. Everybody's in uniform."
His anxiety soon vanished, wiped away by the charm and friendliness of the Vietnamese children.
"I'm glad I came," said Johnson.
"None of us can describe what the emotion we feel is," said Wallace. "It's different now," said Noe. "Nothing wrong is happening."