On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Haunting Memories About Wars Past
Happy chronicles about growing up, parties, holidays, idyllic days in the sun, and travel to exotic places…all have their place in establishing a legacy to share with others. Sometimes, however; the sad memories of loss should be included in storytelling, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves that death and suffering are part of life. As befits the purpose of “celebrating” Memorial Day, this disjunctive chronicle focuses on those who suffered and died during times of war. That includes civilians, as well as military personnel.
The graphic accounts of war and its horrors that one sees on TV, especially during the Memorial Day period, forces the viewer to think things over. And when the Footloose Forester sat down to watch a TV documentary... he saw civilian Mike Benge as he described his five years and one month as a prisoner of war in a Viet Cong jungle enclave. At that moment, he forced himself to attempt a chronicle befitting the occasion.
Mike Benge was an International Voluntary Services volunteer in the Central Highlands hamlet of Ban Me Thout in South Viet Nam, when he was captured during the Têt Offensive of 1968. The Footloose Forester got to know Mike after he was released; and we collaborated on a few agroforestry projects since that time. When we did get together, it was to discuss forestry and agroforestry issues; but a few flashbacks did creep into the conversations. Both of us had been in Ban Me Thout, both of us had been through the Têt Offensive of 1968. The Footloose Forester was lucky to emerge unharmed. Mike Benge did not.
With emotion in his voice and tears in his eyes, Mike described how two of his IVS associates died in that Viet Cong prisoner of war camp. His interview, along with other former prisoners of war, was shown on the Military Channel, as part of Memorial Day tributes. All the others interviewed were military personnel, including Senator John McCain, who was imprisoned at the infamous Hanoi Hilton. Mike has since been adopted as part of that group, as shown in the videos of the annual reunion of that group of former POWs.
Although the Footloose Forester was unharmed during the Têt Offensive, ten of his civilian colleagues at Pacific Architects and Engineers were killed; twenty were wounded; and another twenty were captured and presumably sent to a POW camp like the one Mike Benge was in. One of those colleagues occupied the corner desk, two desks away from where the Footloose Forester sat; at their office at Tan Son Nhut Airport. At that time, some 12,000 VC massed to assault Saigon. The fallen colleague, who was an entomologist, had tried to evacuate his assistant from a part of town that was under enemy fire, and bring him to Tan Son Nhut to wait out the offensive. They got as far as the back gate to Tan Son Nhut. His jeep was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade. The area around the gate was so dangerous at that time, that the jeep and the dead bodies in it were left sitting in the sun for almost two weeks.
At the fall of Saigon in 1975, other people who the Footloose Forester knew also went to POW camps or were arrested and held. The war was over, but it did not spell peace for everybody. The father of our young neighbors in Honolulu was sent to Khe Sanh for five years. He had given up his seat on an evacuation flight and was arrested because of his influential position in the community. Thu’s cousin Trinh, who had escaped the Communists in Cambodia, was nonetheless captured in Viet Nam and was also sent to Khe Sanh after the war was over. She was eventually released to tell us her story.
The Footloose Forester never learned about what eventually happened to the popular American head of the Shoe Shine Boy Foundation, Richard Hughes; who had started a charitable group in Saigon to assist homeless orphans who had been displaced. All he knew was what he read in the post-war newspaper accounts; that Richard Hughes had been arrested by the Communists. The same was true of Matt Franjola, an Associated Press International stringer who the Footloose Forester had met during the war. Matt had chosen to stay as Saigon fell at the end of April 1975. Matt’s photo was in the US newspapers after his arrest; and he had a lot to fear from the Communists because he had also worked for Pacific Architects and Engineers. Matt and Footloose Forester had spent an hour together in a bunker outside of Da Nang during a mortar attack, so we got to know a little bit about each other.
During this Memorial Day week-end of 2013, inevitable thoughts emerge about those who were captives; those who were tortured; and those who died. Mostly, the faces and the names are unknown to most of us; thus might be abstractions. Yet, in a small way, the Footloose Forester does remember the faces and the names of a few people who he knew personally; people like Mike Benge, who survived over 5 years in a Viet Cong camp; people like Joe Fodor, who survived Stalag-17B during World War II; people like the Australian Hugh Waring who was tortured in a Japanese POW camp on the Malay Peninsula during the 1940s; and people like cousin (Trinh) Supheni Sun, who saw the ugliness of war in both Cambodia and Viet Nam.
About the author
What a horrible war Vietnam was and so many lives have been changes forever. I know my husband Tom could not fall asleep at night. He would toss and turn as the dreams intensified. It was so hard for him to fit in when he returned. If a bus backfired he hit the ground, oh how they needed help but nothing was available at the time. I'm happy to have him here to help him find some kind of normalcy in his life that he sacrificed for all of us.