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Healing War's Wounds : Today, Veterans Return to Vietnam to Find the Enemy Gone

April 26, 1992|GEORGE ESPER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sept. 16, 1966. 4 p.m. The sun is setting over the hills of Cong Hoa village. Cmdr. John Robertson and his co-pilot, Hubert Buchanan, are on a bombing mission against a bridge near Hanoi.

Over the horizon, four North Vietnamese MIG-17 interceptors close in on them. "They're getting in beautiful firing position," Buchanan radios Robertson. "They're going to fire pretty soon."

Shells explode over their canopy. The MIGs are only half an airplane away.

"He's even in a better position now," Buchanan radios. "The next time's going to be it."

With a burst of 37-millimeter cannon, the F-4 bursts into flames. Buchanan bails out.

"I didn't really remember doing it myself," Buchanan recalls more than 25 years later. "It's sort of dreamlike. I can feel this force. I couldn't see what was going on. Maybe the G-forces took the blood from my eyes.

"It was an eerie thing. I could tell something was going on. I felt the parachute open. I felt the pop, and then I could start seeing things. I could see Hanoi in a distance, floating in a parachute, fire on the ground."

Le Cong Su, a tiny peasant, captures Buchanan. The villagers are more curious, nervous and afraid than hostile. The crowd swells to about 100 people; to the children, he looks like a giant.

Few of the villagers are armed. Buchanan sees only one rifle and a number of machetes. They give him some water. Only when a political leader appears an hour later and whips up the crowd do things turn nasty.

He is marched past jeering Vietnamese in three villages and then to the Hanoi Hilton prison. He spends the next 6 1/2 years in Vietnamese hands.

Dec. 17, 1991. 4 p.m. Buchanan no longer is that 25-year-old farmer's son from Austin, Ind. He is 50 years old, married with four kids, living in Amherst, N.H., a pilot for Delta Air Lines.

Like other U.S. veterans, he is revisiting Vietnam, reconciling the horrendous events of his youth with middle-age perspective.

The sun is setting over the hills of Cong Hoa village. Buchanan arrives in an Army Jeep bearing photographs of his four children and stuffed animals, chewing gum and candy for a new generation of Vietnamese children. But the old generation is there, too, giving him a warm welcome.

"As we drove up, it was 4 p.m.," Buchanan says. "The day I was captured, I hit the ground just about 4 p.m. It was totally unplanned. It just happened that way. The whole village was there. It looked just about like it did 25 years ago. The scenery was remarkably unchanged.

"Some guy came walking up wearing a Boston Red Sox hat. . . . I said: 'Wait a minute. I got to get a picture next to this guy.' He had no idea of what the hat said. But it's so ironic to be there in this place halfway around the world with a guy standing there wearing a Boston Red Sox hat."

He and the villagers laugh a lot when a Japanese television crew photographs him with Le Cong Su, his capturer.

Su was on the lower side of a hill, which made him look even smaller. "Wait a minute," Buchanan yells. "Put him on the high side. He's supposed to look real fierce. He captured me.

"Come over here," Buchanan shouts. "You're supposed to be big and fierce because you captured me."

Buchanan spends two hours in the village. The shadows signal it is time to leave. Su doesn't want the evening to end. "You can stay with me and we'll get a chicken and get something to drink," he tells Buchanan through an interpreter. "We can talk more."

Seventeen years have passed since the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government fell to communist-led North Vietnam, with the U.S. Embassy personnel in retreat on that fateful last day of April.

The United States and Vietnam are on a negotiating course that inevitably will lead to a restoration of diplomatic relations. The U.S. Embassy will hoist the American flag in Hanoi. The U.S. trade embargo that has crippled Vietnam economically will be lifted. But there is a great deal of uncertainty when.

"Vietnam vets were pivotal in making this happen," says John Wheeler, a fund-raiser for the decade-old Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

"There's a lot of leadership among these vets and a lot of respect for them. There never would have been this healing unless the vets sought and affirmed it," Wheeler says.

The old soldiers and the peasants have found it easier to heal wounds than have their governments. "They're farmers in Vietnam, and my people are farmers in Indiana," Buchanan says. "Humanity's pretty much the same everywhere."

So the vets go back. Some seek a meaning for the war and why they were there. Others are there for the sake of adventure, curiosity or obsession, to recapture their youth and that elusive peace of mind.

Some feel guilty and bring food and friendship to compensate for the destruction they reaped. Buchanan, for one, never felt he was directly dropping bombs on women and children.

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