A return to ’Nam

An idea that germinated at an aviation event led to an unforgettable journey for 52 Wisconsin war veterans.

It’s ironic that Vietnam has become an idyllic vacation destination for Americans. There was a time, of course, when, for hundreds of thousands of soldiers, it was hell on earth. From 1965 through 1975, more than 58,000 Americans died there and another 153,000 were wounded. Those who returned came back to a country torn apart by the war and were caught in the crossfire.

For those who served, a visit to Vietnam half a century later can be unsettling but also cathartic. In February, 52 randomly selected veterans from northeast Wisconsin boarded a flight bound for their former battlegrounds. For some, the trip was one of closure. For all, it was unforgettable.

Keith Johnson  Photo: Jim Koepnick
Keith Johnson Photo: Jim Koepnick

The northeast Wisconsin contingent of the nationwide Old Glory Honor Flight network organized and funded the trip. The usual mission for such contingents is to transport veterans to visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., or attend some other reunion or event. But the Wisconsin group wanted to do more. For the past seven years, it had arranged transportation for veterans to attend the Experimental Aircraft Association's (EAA) annual AirVenture event in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. That’s where the idea of going to Vietnam originated.

Diane McDonald, treasurer of Old Glory Honor Flight, says, “People from around the world responded. We raised $220,000 to help fund the trip.” The veterans flew from Chicago to Shanghai and finally to Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon). They visited the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Presidential Palace, the Army Museum, and the site once occupied by the U.S. Embassy, the building shown in the famous April 30, 1975 photo and footage of the last U.S. helicopter leaving from the roof.

Photo: Jim Koepnick
Photo: Jim Koepnick

The group also toured the Cu Chi Tunnels, about 35 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City. The network consists of some 130 miles of underground passageways and dugouts, the deepest of which are 40 feet below the surface. From the tunnels, Vietcong soldiers would hand-build the mines and booby traps made from unexploded U.S. bombs dropped by B-52s. It was here that the North Vietnamese planned and launched the Tet Offensive in January 1968.

The group visited the Mekong Delta, site of some of the war’s deadliest fighting, and flew on to Da Nang, from which they went to China Beach, Hill 34, the Marble Mountains, and the Forbidden City, among other sites.

Along the way, McDonald says, the veterans would revisit memories, often long buried. One common activity was distributing “leave-behind” coins at locations that had specific poignancy. For some, it was a site associated with a particular battle, the loss of a friend, or a story involving a Vietnamese civilian, she says. The veterans would bury the coins or drop them in a river. 

“What happened was very close to what we’d hoped would happen,” McDonald adds.

In Hue, Quang Tri Province, in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the group visited Dong Ha, the northernmost city in the former South Vietnam. This is the site of the 1972 destruction of the Dong Ha Bridge. In Hanoi, the veterans saw the “Hanoi Hilton” prison, the John McCain monument, and the Army museum.

Photo: Jim Koepnick
Photo: Jim Koepnick

Throughout the trip, McDonald says, the veterans experienced “kind, open, and gracious” treatment from the Vietnamese. In many cases, they were meeting with former enemies or their relatives, but there was no animosity on either side. She says, “They agreed with the people they met: ‘we had a job to do, and so did you.’ It was cathartic. All of them wanted to shake the hand of a former enemy.”

One member of the tour had a particularly special mission. Keith Johnson served in the Mekong Delta in the late 1960s, along with his brother Dwayne. Dwayne had always wanted to return to Vietnam, but he passed away in 2014 before he got the chance. One of his desires was to have some of his ashes scattered in the area where he faced such a pivotal point in his life. Keith was able to grant his brother’s wish.

“Keith also arranged to have a Buddhist ceremony as they scattered Dwayne’s ashes,” says McDonald. “They burn some items of significance—money, clothes, cards—so the deceased will have them to carry on their journey. They did that for Dwayne. It was very moving.”

Longtime EAA photographer Jim Koepnick went along on the tour to shoot pictures of Vietnam and memorialize the experiences of the veterans and their hosts. Old Glory Honor Flight is assembling a book that includes the 52 men’s biographies, accompanied by Koepnick’s images."There are pictures of Vietnam and its people, but the biggest thing was the vets,” he says. “It was them going back and trying to capture some of their emotions and what they went through and saw."

The book Return to ’Nam will be available this fall via the group’s website.