Remembering Tet

January 27, 2008

Remembering Tet

Greene County man’s collection a virtual Vietnam War museum

By David A. Maurer / | 978-724

January 27, 2008

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Craig LaMountain stands next to two Army jeeps that are part of his Vietnam collection at his Greene County warehouse. (The Daily Progress/Andrew Shurtleff)


RUCKERSVILLE – Craig LaMountain sat at his kitchen table flanked by a piece of fresh crumb cake and a mug of steaming instant coffee.
When he was serving in Vietnam 40 years ago, the equivalent would have been a yellow plug of C-ration pound cake and instant coffee sipped from a metal canteen cup. Despite all the time that has passed, some memories of that war remain as fresh and vivid for the 60-year-old as the snow-covered meadows outside his Greene County home.
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive, which proved to be the turning point in the Vietnam War. One of the first areas hit was the Chu Lai base camp, where LaMountain was serving with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.
LaMountain has more than memories to remind him of his yearlong tour of duty in Vietnam. Not far from his home is a warehouse filled with an assortment of Vietnam related things including a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter that served in the war.
Now retired, the former auto mechanic spends quite a bit of his time using his collection to educate people about the war.
“What got me started doing this was my cousin who was a social studies teacher in Long Island,” LaMountain said. “Back in the early 1990s she told me that they covered the Vietnam War in one day.
“I said, ‘You do 10 years in one day?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ So I started going into classes to give slide shows about
Vietnam, and then I restored a jeep so it looks like the one I had in Vietnam.”
LaMountain didn’t stop there. For the last 12 years he has been hauling a Huey helicopter that served in Vietnam into schoolyards on a flatbed trailer. He received the surplus chopper as a “conditional gift” from the government with the understanding that he would restore it to look as it had in Vietnam, and use it as a historical teaching aid.
The Army veteran does more than take the helicopter around to schools and events to let people see the icon of the Vietnam War. He also displays an array of equipment used by American and North Vietnamese troops.
“If I just talked to kids about Vietnam it would be like a teacher talking and it wouldn’t mean much to them,” LaMountain said. “But when I pull the helicopter into the schoolyard and lay out all the memorabilia around it, it becomes real for them.
“They can walk from bench to bench and see the c-rations we ate, the punji stake booby traps we encountered, the uniforms we and the NVA wore. When I get finished they have some knowledge of what Vietnam was really like.
“My thought is that this isn’t just another day in history class for them. It’s something they’ll remember.”

Early-morning attack
LaMountain certainly remembers his experiences during the Tet Offensive. His unit was one of the first to be engaged in the brutal fighting.
In the early morning hours of Jan. 30, 1968, a breakdown in communications resulted in the premature launching of the offensive. Timed to coincide with the Vietnamese lunar New Year holiday, the countrywide attacks had been originally scheduled to start on Jan. 30, but were set ahead a day at the last minute.
Some Viet Cong guerrilla units, as well as North Vietnamese Army regulars, didn’t get word of the altered timetable. This resulted in thousands of VC/NVA troops striking six cities and towns in South Vietnam a day early.
“No one had been put on alert, so we were all sleeping,” said LaMountain, who had arrived in Vietnam on Aug. 23, 1967, his 20th birthday. “All of a sudden rockets started coming in, and some of them hit the ammo dump at the Marine airbase behind us.
“Hot shrapnel started blowing through the tents where we were sleeping. A lot of guys got messed up by it. That dump was full of things like 500-pound bombs, and all this stuff was going off and was raining down on us.
“We grabbed whatever weapons we had and dove into the rice paddies right behind us. We had no bunkers at that point, because we had never had a problem before.”
LaMountain hunkered down with some of his buddies at the perimeter wire. He was armed with an M-79 grenade launcher and .45 caliber pistol.
“When the jets and helicopter gunships started making fire runs it was almost like watching a Fourth of July celebration,” LaMountain said. “The NVA or VC were hitting our wire in different places, but you had to be careful where you were shooting so you wouldn’t hit your own guys.
“You were seeing all kinds of things, but most of the time you didn’t know if it was us or them. There was such a mass confusion, because nobody expected this. You had to wait until the enemy got close enough so you could see who they were, and then you started firing.
“It was frightening, but remember I was 20 years old and things then didn’t affect me like they would today. I was brought up on John Wayne movies, and he goes out there with his rifle to win. That was my mentality.”

Public’s attitude changes
The following night, Jan. 31, an estimated 84,000 VC/NVA troops launched attacks from one end of South Vietnam to the other. Within two days the enemy attacked 39 of South Vietnam’s 44 provincial capitals, and all but one of its six largest cities, including Saigon.
Despite an all-out effort and initial surprise, the Tet Offensive was a staggering military defeat for communist forces. VC guerrilla units were decimated, and would never again be a serious threat during the war.
By the time the fury subsided an estimated 58,000 VC/NVA soldiers had been killed in action. Although the Americans and South Vietnamese military had won decisively, it turned out to be a pyrrhic victory.
For months the American public had been assured by military leaders, as well as President Johnson, that the war was being won, and the endgame was at hand. Then in the face of these rosy reports came news of the heaviest fighting of the war.
The magnitude of the offensive stunned American military leaders in Vietnam, as well as the American people. Much media attention was focused on the fact that the North Vietnamese had even hit the U.S. Embassy and the Presidential Palace in the heart of Saigon.
During the ensuing four decades many books have dissected the Tet Offensive and its aftermath. Peter Braestrup’s two-volume work, “Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet in Vietnam and Washington,” concluded that media reporting was one of the major reasons why a disaster on the battlefield resulted in a strategic psychological victory for the communists.

Bewildering war
But even after four decades, Vietnam veterans like LaMountain remain bewildered by a war they won on the battlefield, but somehow lost anyway.
“I still don’t really know what happened there,” LaMountain said. “I read history books about it. I’ve been back to Vietnam seven times, but it still doesn’t make any sense to me.
“We kicked the hell out of them – all that has been written about. Everything militarily we won. But back here in the states, psychologically and politically we lost.”
LaMountain and countless other Vietnam veterans, like William Huppert, did everything their country asked of them. And when it was over, they were the ones who had been irreversibly changed by the experience.

Clearest memories
For Huppert the Tet Offensive will always be personified by his memories of a horribly burned young boy and a terribly wounded American soldier. Out of the countless patients he helped as an Army medic working in the intensive care ward of the 95th Medical Evacuation Hospital in Da Nang, those two are clearest in his memories.
“This young GI was too critical for us to transport to the hospital in Japan, because he wouldn’t have survived the trip,” said Huppert, who lives in Charlottesville and works at Oyster House Antiques on the Downtown Mall and operates a nearby kiosk.
“He had multiple shrapnel wounds in addition to being a double amputee above the knees. He was fully aware, and was always asking us if he was going to die.
“He hung on and hung on and we all knew he was trying so hard, but he eventually ended up dying. Less than five minutes after he died the ward telephone rang, and I answered it.”
Huppert remembers the female voice on the other end of the line sounded distant, otherworldly. It was the mother of the soldier who had just died calling from the states, trying to get information about her son.
Just a few feet away the ward doctor was removing tubes from the soldier’s lifeless body. It was almost more than the 18-year-old medic could handle.
“I guess I was pretty upset, and the mother could tell by the tone of my voice that something was wrong,” Huppert said. “I was sort of crying at that point, and she began to cry.
“We talked a little bit more, and then she said she needed to talk to someone over me. I said I could let her speak with the head doctor on the ward. I told him someone wanted to talk to him.
“He was just zipping this kid into a body bag, and he asked me who it was. When I said it was the dead GI’s mother, his face … I’ll always remember his face.”
The young soldier was one of 3,895 Americans killed during the offensive. The failed campaign also resulted in the deaths of 14,300 South Vietnamese civilians, including 2,800 citizens of Hue who were slaughtered by NVA/VC death squads.
It’s the memory of an innocent Vietnamese boy who had gotten caught up in the Tet fighting that has had the most profound effect on Huppert’s life.

Stark realization
“I never found out how it happened, but this boy who couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 had been burned over his entire body,” Huppert said. “His eyelids had been seared off, and his fingertips fell off.
“He was in such agony. I don’t think there was ever a hope that he could survive, but he was still kept alive. His parents would visit him, and at one point I think they tried to help him commit suicide by giving him something to choke on, but the doctors brought him back.
“He had been on the ward for about three months when I went to his bedside one day to check on him, and heard a gurgling sound. I asked him if he was in pain, but there was no response.
“I started to realize then what was going on, and I walked away from him very peacefully. He had bitten his tongue off and drowned in his own blood. But it was over for him. That was the whole thing. It was finally over for him.”
Huppert was silent for several seconds before he continued.
“My whole perspective of life was altered by that boy,” he said in a quiet tone. “That was actually the day that love died for me.”
Huppert said he has often thought about the young boy he named Bien Hoa, because he thinks it means peace and love in Vietnamese. Like LaMountain he finds it all but impossible to comprehend that 40 years have passed since those terribly trying days in Vietnam.
“Forty years,” LaMountain said thoughtfully as he looked out his kitchen window. “It surprises you when you realize how the years have flown by.
“But that’s why I do what I do with my equipment – you know, go into the schools to teach students about Vietnam, and what it was like for regular guys like me.
“I think people learn from history. You learn from your mistakes. That’s part of life.”
Schools and organizations interested in seeing LaMountain’s exhibit can contact him by e-mail at clamount

vietnamese commercial

October 1, 2006

Vietnamese Commercial idea:

hanoi vs saigon

October 1, 2006

Jam packed, with two couples sharing one table.
Saigon: Chairs in rows like bus seats.

Hanoi: Brought to you with the waitress’s thumb as a free extra.
Saigon: A bowl of noodles comes on a plate.

Hanoi: Seldom without MSG and bread.
Saigon: Must include herbs, bean sprouts and red (or black) chilli.

Hanoi: Good and sticky, wrapped in banana leaves.
Saigon: Terribly dry, sold in boxes or nylon bags.

Hanoi: Bia hoi (local draught beer) with peanuts, back home by 9pm.
Saigon: Must include herbs, bean sprouts and red (or black) chilli: Bottled beer with lots of rice, a hot pot, home after midnight.

Hanoi: Not much choice, but tasty.
Saigon: Good variety, cheap and acceptable but nothing special.

Hanoi: Small pieces of sweet and sour stir-fried pork ribs.
Saigon: Giant lumps of unskillfully grilled pork ribs.

Hanoi: Xe om drivers around Hoan Kiem lake wear suits.
Saigon: People go to the best hotels wearing shorts and sandals.

Hanoi: Women can wear socks without shoes.
Saigon: Men can wear shoes without socks.

Hanoi: You can cut across a car, but make sure to turn right only on a green light.
Saigon: You can ignore red lights, but don’t stray into the car lane.

Hanoi: You can’t turn right.
Saigon: You can even turn left.

Hanoi: Free.
Saigon: “VND2,000, please”.

Hanoi: Obsolete models rarely seen.
Saigon: Like a museum, where ancient models are still going.

Hanoi: You are shocked if someone says, “Thank you”.
Saigon: It’s normal for a receptionist to bow when you walk in.

Hanoi: “Let’s get one each”.
Saigon: “If you take it, I’ll go for something else”.

Hanoi: “What if I say no?”
Saigon: “Why not?”

Hanoi: If you have a lot of money.
Saigon: If you spend a lot of money.

Hanoi: Stop and chat in the middle of a busy intersection to let the whole world know how important you are.
Saigon: Stop, get onto the pavement, and keep a look-out in all directions in case someone tries to steal your phone.

Hanoi: Similar to its females, smouldering and persistent.
Saigon: Like its girls, attractive but soon over.

Hanoi: The staff are rude and surly.
Saigon: A comfortable place for a free read, especially for kids.

Hanoi: A quiet and uplifting place where you leave daily concerns behind.
Saigon: Noisy and secular.

Hanoi: Immense and romantic.
Saigon: No bigger than a pond.

Hanoi: Prostitutes pretend to be students.
Saigon: Students dress like prostitutes.

viet poster

October 1, 2006

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