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40 years later: A return to Vietnam

Posted: July 17, 2008 12:31 a.m.
Updated: July 17, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Vietnam War veteran Bill Reynolds stood in a rice paddy on June 19, 2007, holding a piece of paper with the names of fallen American soldiers.

His hands shook and his voice flattened as he steadied himself, ready to read the names after 40 years.

He stood in front of a small group of Vietnamese villagers who didn't understand English, but some were old enough to understand why he was unable to speak. Some listened and understood his silence.

For Reynolds, it wasn't as easy as he had planned, having convinced four fellow Vietnam War vets to return with him to Southeast Asia and confront not only the past, but one of the fiercest battles in Vietnam. Reynolds, however, pressed on with his plan to read each and every name of the men who died June 19, 1967, as his son, Mike, stood by his side.

"I couldn't even start," Reynolds said from his home in Valencia. "I had to stop and gather myself. I'd be doing fine and then I'd come to a name and I'd stop and think 'Man, I remember this guy.'

"It was hard," he said proudly. "I read their hometown and their age."

When he was done reading, Reynolds had done exactly what he said he was going to do - return to Vietnam and stand in the same swampy water of the very same rice paddy on the 40th anniversary of the day he almost died, the day he watched 11 of his fellow servicemen, his friends, cut down by the Viet Cong in one of the bloodiest days of the Vietnam War.

For years, since his return from the war, he and other vets met and talked about returning to Vietnam.

On Veteran's Day 2006, Reynolds threw down the gauntlet.

"Finally, at our last reunion in Washington, I stood up and said 'You know what? I'm going. Anybody who wants to go let me know, but I'm going back.'"

For Reynolds and four other Vietnam vets, the June 2007 journey halfway around the world was the beginning of a return to a strange place from a strange time.

* * *

When Vietnam War veteran Tim Howard heard of Reynolds' plan to return, he jumped at the chance.

"It meant a lot," he said when reached by phone at his home Saturday in suburban Ohio, 30 miles south of Cleveland. "It was emotional, far more emotional than I thought it would be. I dreamed of the chance to go back there a few times.

"When we got there, right in that area, nothing had changed," Howard said. "The only change was they had electricity. That was it. The smell, the mud, everything was exactly as I remembered it after 40 strange years. I don't know what it was, the mud or what, but I haven't smelled that smell in 40 years. It all came back.

"I caught myself saying 'Oh, my God, I really am here.'"

Howard said the trip changed him for the better.

"I had a lot of bitter feelings before the trip," he explained. "When I got there. One of the days we took a trip to Toi San, we called it Cong Island, and we encountered the daughter of a man who fought with the Viet Cong. His daughter translated.

"At first, I thought 'I'm not so sure about this.' But, when it was all over, that bitter feeling went away. He did a little crying, we did a little crying.

"When we got back to the hotel room, (fellow vet) J.R. (Johnson) looked at me and said 'now that was a healing experience," Howard said. "He was right."

Other vets who joined Reynolds, Howard and Johnson were Idoluis Casares and George Gadsden.

The five brothers in arms made the personal journey together, some with family and friends, revisiting one of the most horrific days of their tours in Vietnam.

* * *

It was June 19, 1967, a steamy sweltering hot day in the Mekong Delta, when Reynolds and the others in Charlie Company 4th of the 47th Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, received orders to search and destroy enemy posts located up the Mekong River, from Ap Bac, in what was then South Vietnam.

"Our intelligence unit reported this particular area is where the Viet Cong 5th Nha Be Battalion was located," Reynolds said, pointing to a laminated copy of the Los Angeles Times with a front page banner story on the devastation that day.

"The battalion was known to be occupying that area. And, that was our job," he said about the young men in his division. "To go and find them. We were part of this mobile rivering force."

In all, four companies (Alpha, Charlie and two Bravo units) were dispatched up the Mekong for what was going to be, undeniably, a confrontation with the enemy.

"So, we went up there searching for these guys," Reynolds said, recalling that trek up river in front-loading Tango boats when the intelligence units reported a last minute change to the location of the enemy.

"They picked us up by boat and dropped us off again. Everybody was repositioned. It was one heck of a deal, shifting at the last minute. It was around 10 o'clock in the morning. I happened to be the point man - the guy furthest out, patrolling this small creek.

"In mere moments, it was crazy. Bullets were everywhere."

When the first shots were fired, Reynolds and the others in Charlie Company were completely exposed. The Viet Cong, hidden in bunkers, waited for the Americans to walk toward them across the rice paddy.

Reynolds said he and the others were in an open rice field when the Viet Cong started shooting at them. They ran to a small raised berm a little bigger than a speed bump in an otherwise flat rice field. They jumped behind it and hid as bullets struck the berm and passed over their heads.

Eleven guys never made it to the berm.

Farther up the river, at about the same time, members of Alpha Company found themselves in a similar rice field, only they had no berm to run to. Twenty-seven American soldiers were killed in that confrontation. In all, 48 Americans died that day.

For Reynolds, the encounter was sudden and overwhelming.

"We were in the middle of a rice paddy," he said. "I scrambled to this berm and then everybody was scrambling to this berm. It was so noisy. It was hair-raising. So, there we were pinned down behind this berm. A company, about 800 meters to the north, were caught in a similar situation. They lost almost 30 guys. They had nowhere to hide."

For Bill Reynolds, June 19, 1967, became one of the longest days of his life, huddled down behind the berm for more than six hours as an aerial assault rained overhead the entire day.

The Viet Cong remained in bunkers just 30 feet from Reynolds and the others hunkered down behind the small embankment.

"We had artillery coming in, jets coming in, helicopters coming in, firing rockets on the other side. For us, 20-something guys, to see this stuff coming in was amazing."

Reynolds returned to the United States with a Purple Heart medal and a mission: Never to lose focus of what mattered that day - the men who served and died.

* * *

From his home office in Valencia, under a mural of wall photos of soldier pals, Reynolds runs a current and constantly updated Web site devoted to Vietnam vets:

He keeps in touch, not only with the people who served, but with the surviving members of fallen soldiers.

He helps organize reunions.

He made an 88-minute documentary about his return to Vietnam called simply: Ap Bac Revisited, completed this past week, just in time for Veterans Day.

On Sept. 21, he stood proudly on the steps of City Hall beneath a flag honoring servicemen and women believed missing in action. The flag flew high over Santa Clarita for the first time because Bill Reynolds worked to see it done.

The flag flew in honor of the National League of Families' POW/MIA. It was raised in support of National POW/MIA Recognition Day across the United States.

Some days, when it's not Veterans Day or Flag Day or Independence Day, Bill Reynolds simply stands tall by the street with a sign held high: 'Vietnam Vets Support Our Troops.'

On those days, he says he's never surprised when a motorist stops, walks over to him, picks up a sign and introduces himself as a vet.


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