HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – On the eve of Veterans Day, FOX31 has just returned from an exclusive mission to Vietnam alongside survivors of one of that war’s deadliest battles.
The men of the US Army 7th Cavalry just spent ten emotional days in Vietnam, at the invitation of The Greatest Generations Foundation. The charity, founded in Denver in 2004, returns war heroes to the battlefields where they served all over the world.
These heroes took part in a battle that changed the course of the war, and left hundreds of Americans dead and wounded. It was the Battle of Ia Drang in November 1965. US Army soldiers who’d been dropped by helicopter at landing zones in Vietnam’s Central Highlands were ambushed by hundreds of soldiers from the People’s Army of Vietnam. The casualty count was staggering. Some 237 US soldiers were killed and 258 were wounded.
The battle was made famous by the 2002 Mel Gibson movie, “We Were Soldiers.”
James Lawrence, 78, of Birmingham, Alabama was injured in the battle and never returned to Vietnam until now.
“The most memorable thing was simply being shot at, and coming to the realization that they were trying to kill us. They were trying to kill me. And we had to fight back to survive,” Lawrence told FOX31.
On this return trip, the men traveled the streets of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) in war-era Jeeps, fired machine guns at a weapons range, and climbed through a network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war. More than half a century after their first visit here, the Vietnam of today is a much different place.
“I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to come back,” said John Cahill, 77, of Leominster, Mass.
“Fifty years ago there was a Vietnam that we knew back then. You’re coming back now and I see the changes and the difference in the people. It’s good to come back,” he added.
The return to Vietnam was emotional for Jesse “Bud” Alley of Signal Mountain, Tenn. He was a platoon leader at Landing Zone Albany in the Battle of Ia Drang. A friend, Garrett Lee, died in his arms.
“And he was wounded so bad I tried to save him and did all I could to try and save him. He was hurt so bad, and so I just lay there beside him when he died. That’s the face – that’s the face I see every night when I go to sleep. That’s the ghost for me,” Alley said.
That’s why these survivors returned: to honor the fighters who died, and confront the haunting memories of war.
“I’m looking for closure, you know, and I’m not sure that I’m ever going to find closure,” said Robert Jones of Cape Cod, Mass.
They left Vietnam once, but it never left them. And after this return trip, it’s clear – it never will.
“Today it’s a whole different place. And if we don`t step forward then you’re going to get stuck back where you were,” said Cahill.
To learn more about The Greatest Generations Foundation and the work they do returning soldiers to the battlefield, visit their website.