There was a gentle breeze blowing across the departure runway at Hong Kong International Airport. While waiting for takeoff clearance, I was gazing westward at the embankments that line Hong Kong’s expansive, yet heavily populated lands. I couldn’t help but realize how fragile those natural barriers between main-land China’s Communist Government and their recently acquired SAR or Special Administrative Region known as Hong Kong were. A little bit of water and a few footpaths shield this thriving city of capitalism from the other side of the story. It is said, and appropriately so that East truly meets West in this city of 7 million.
N496MT, you are cleared for takeoff runway 07R. As we set full power and released the brakes on our unusually light aircraft I was even more excited about the journey before us. Although Hong Kong was intriguing and mysterious all in one slab of concrete, it was our deepening penetration into lands further southwest and over the South China Sea that awaited. How lucky I felt that our mission held new experiences for us on this fine February afternoon in 2009.
As we banked to the right and made a turn toward the South I smiled as I saw Disney Land beneath our wing. How fitting is it that Mickey has travelled here as well; now I knew there was something in Hong Kong for all. I have immense pride when I see some of the finer aspects of the American culture welcomed abroad. The Mouse clearly transcended politics in this corner of the globe. Continuing our climb to 43000 feet, it was smooth and uneventful as far as the logistics went. Our ship was now pointed towards our destination 3.5 hours away, the city state of Singapore.
As we paralleled the Southeastern shores of mainland China, we soon came upon Hainan Island, China. This was previously just a news story to me. On April 1st, 2001, a US Navy EP-3E surveillance aircraft and a Chinese J-8 interceptor jet collided. The interceptor crashed and the EP-3E made an emergency landing on Hainan Island. This international incident flooded the airwaves in the spring of 2001. The American crew was soon released and the aircraft was subsequently dismantled and flown home to the US for reassembly.
The sky had the slightest reduction in visibility due to some upper air moisture high above the sea. This did not prevent me from looking into the past, however. The past was a full 40 years earlier when two other young men visited this corner of the globe. Marine Corporal Thomas J Mallon and Chief Warrant Officer II Keith M Jackson served our nation bravely during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. These two cousins of mine were introduced to me not by their larger than life personalities but by photos of them in full dress uniform. The stunning photo of Thomas in his Marine Corp dress blues was particularly striking on my Uncle’s television set. I grew up wishing I could meet such a man.
N496MT, contact Ho Chi Minh Control on 127.85. That radio call sent chills through my spine for a full 60 seconds. We had left China behind and while I waited with anticipation for our brief crossing over Southeastern Vietnam, I had no idea of the immense and stirring emotions that I would feel as we came nearer. It took me that whole minute just to compose myself enough to make the call. Located in the former Saigon and the former South Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh Control would coordinate our flight through their airspace, eventually handing us off to Malaysian controllers.
My entire knowledge of two family members, two soldiers, two sons, and two brothers, flashed through my mind. They were mere kids when they made their journey to Vietnam. They endured each day in country with a selfless sacrifice. These kids were professionals in their duties. They kept their fellow soldiers and airman safe. I found myself peering to the Northwest near the DMZ, the former border area between the North and South. This was the area of some of the most persistent and deadly battles of the war. With a continual flood of North Vietnamese Regular Army and Viet Cong regiments probing their way into the South, the DMZ as well as the Ho Chi Minh Trail were where so much of the war was lost, not withstanding Washington DC.
In the hills north and west from the American fire base at Khe Sahn, the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment or sadly known as The Walking Dead, patrolled the countryside. Our boys had to go find the enemy as attacks on our fire bases were often less effective for the enemy and therefore mass numbers of NVA or Viet Cong soldiers never really sought to take on our forces in the early years. This was the area of Vietnam that the 20 year old from Park Ridge, New Jersey, Marine Corporal Thomas J Mallon returned to after a brief R and R. Tom’s photo taken by a fellow Marine on board his return ship from R and R may have been quite prophetic had someone who was not numb to the death of Vietnam seen it before March 3rd, 1967. The somber look in his sullen eyes told all who knew him from home that this man was enduring hell itself in the name of freedom and democracy.
Just west of that area and a few years later in 1970, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was bustling with soldiers in pajamas from the North and American bombs alike. To move South on the trail was so deadly for the enemy that truck drivers were handcuffed to their steering wheels so they wouldn’t abandon their cargo as American war planes and helicopters were heard coming toward. The 21 year old Army Chief Warrant Officer II Keith M Jackson commanded a Huey helicopter in this area on February 1st, 1971. Keith was attached to the 57th Aslt Helo Co. This was 9 days after his 12 month tour in country was due to expire. The Army offered to let Keith come home to Creskill, New Jersey for the Christmas holiday in 1970 if he just returned for this one final mission that commenced in February of 1971. Keith’s mission ended that same day over the jungles of Laos.
Ho Chi Minh Control, N496MT, flight level 430. I felt anger speaking to these people. My cousins’ souls climbed to heaven amid the mortar and rocket fire in this land beneath my right wing and all because of the name Ho Chi Minh. I cursed them to myself and off of the radio. I had never been so close to where they had perished. Etching their names off the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC was a start, but this was my best chance of healing yet. I’m not ready for that, though. I will continue to memorialize their brave efforts and do my best to convey to the American public exactly what it was they died for. These men paid the ultimate sacrifice for our nation during that period of great unrest in the world and the United States.
I anxiously peered out of my windows for a fleeting glimpse of something recognizable from the history books where I learned about this war. The lush jungles and the Da Nang Airbase served this curiosity well. Apart from that though, Vietnam came and went for me that February afternoon with a renewed vigor toward memorializing all of our fallen military personnel. My two cousins are but a microcosm of what we lost during those years. The one overarching lesson I have learned is that the Vietnam War was but a battle in the greater Cold War itself. That war was won and therefore not a single Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine was wasted in Vietnam. I salute these two young men and am eternally grateful to be able to call them family.
Travelling at Mach .80 and 43000 feet tends to make things pass quickly down below. Vietnam was no different. Soon, I could barely make out the Mekong Delta while looking back to the Northwest again. You can certainly say that I was happy to leave Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City behind, but I already missed the unique and special connection to two fallen heroes. Gone but not forgotten. There is no doubt that I will return. I have been spanning the globe in ever increasing frequency lately and Southeast Asia would certainly come up again.
The Malaysian coast was soon in view and that brought a whole new set up memories to mind. We were just a few years removed from the devastating tsunami that destroyed low lying Thailand areas and Sumatra Island itself. What a tough place on earth, Southeast Asia is to live. Finally, over the South China Sea, I am reminded of one of my favorite Ronald Reagan speeches. An American Sailor recounted a story to Reagan in a letter during the early 1980′s. It told of a time during the height of the boat people, the mass departure of Vietnamese refugees from Communist-controlled Vietnam, following the Vietnam War. An American carrier, the Midway came to the rescue of a bunch of refugees. As the boat people neared the USS Midway, one refugee spotted a sailor on deck and shouted,
Hello American sailor man, hello freedom man
We may have exited the theater in Vietnam, but we are still fighting the battle on the high seas. We are still winning hearts and minds as our force and stature and American flag circle the globe. We still stand for freedom. My two cousins furthered that cause just a few years prior and that in itself was noble and virtuous. At a time when so many Americans seem to feel a malaise about simply being American; there is an entire world out here that would like nothing more than to be American. How ironic it is. One needs to only travel outside the borders of the United States to see just how proud our story is, to see how the American spirit and ideals are alive and well. I know that spirit is alive and well in the jungles of Vietnam, I saw it on this day. Like Hong Kong, East met West in Vietnam, but the immortal spirit of our warriors will never leave the sights where they perished.