They came to look for landmines laid two decades ago, but they found haunting reminders of slain friends and friendly encounters with old enemies.
Bill Johnson, a 41-year-old sign maker from Manchester, Conn., was among the six former U.S. Marines who returned to Vietnam this week on a 10-day goodwill tour.He wept as he walked through Cam Lo and remembered the men he knew who died here. In 1968, he was part of the 11th Engineers, a Marine battalion that swept the highways of Viet Cong mines and planted their own to protect U.S. bases.
He remembers narrowly missing a trip to Cam Lo.
"Fortunately for me, we had gone on a detail to do some work and something fell on my foot and broke my toe," said Johnson.
It forced him to stay in the rear base at Dong Ha. Another sergeant took over for him as the Marines swept Highway 9 westward to Cam Lo, where they stayed overnight.
That night, a North Vietnamese battalion attacked Cam Lo. The first rocket-propelled grenades hit the squad's truck, around which the men were sleeping. Some died in the fire.
The string of U.S. bases from which these Marines operated was just below the former Demilitarized Zone that divided the warring North and South at the 17th parallel. But the former Marines, five of them members of that battalion, never got as far as the DMZ until this week.
"Ever think you'd be standing here?" asked Nate Genna, a 41-year-old maintenance worker from Boston.
"No way, brother," replied Gene Spanos, 39, a police lieutenant in Rosemont, Ill., as the two crossed the Ben Hai bridge that had divided the country until it was reunified in 1975 when the North won the war.
They were escorted by Col. Ho Minh Thanh,
who during the war had tried to kill the Marines by planting land mines on the highways they traveled.
"He put them in, we took them out," said Johnson. "He was putting in the mines at night that we were taking out in the morning in the road. That was his speciality. He said he was good at it. We're glad we were good at our work or we wouldn't be meeting each other today."
"Both the American people and the Vietnamese people don't like war," said Thanh. "Now we talk. We don't want to fight each other again. We want to be friends, not enemies."
"I don't feel any bitterness," said Johnson. "Some veterans may probably, some families who lost a son. If you look at the reality, these people were hurting as bad as we were. I hope nobody back in the States looks negatively on our visit here."
At the government guesthouse in Dong Ha where the Marines stayed, children waited at the gate each day to cheer them as they left and as they returned.
And when the Marines got out of their van and began retracing their steps northward, reminiscing, scores of children followed behind, almost as if they were leading a parade.
Mike Wallace, a 41-year-old farmer from Langdon, Kan., brought with him a photo of a Vietnamese woman and her infant son he had taken 20 years ago while building a road to Con Thien.
Wallace had asked Col. Thanh if the woman was still around.
Sure enough, Thanh knew her well and led Wallace and the other Marines to her thatched-roof hut in Chau Hau village, just off the dirt road.
There, to his surprise and delight, he was reunited with Hoan Thi Chit, 56, and her son, now 25. They smiled and posed for pictures. The son put his arm around Wallace's waist.
But there was a bigger surprise. As they left, Col. Thanh told him Mrs. Chit had been his top Viet Cong agent.
The Vietnamese colonel and the ex-Marine both laughed.