Going Back to Vietnam, by Capt. Bill Pike, Photography by Jim Raycroft (continued)
So What About Those Tears, Jim?
Maybe they were just being nice to us, but there were a few people we talked with in Quang Tri who told us we’d probably find an old PBR in the south, either on the busy Mekong River or on one of its many tributaries. A former South Vietnamese soldier who’d somehow escaped the wrath of the communists in 1975 even went so far as to promise we’d get lucky.
“They were strong machines,” he said, “You will see one, for sure.”
It was no dice, though. After taking a short flight on Vietnam Airlines from Hue down to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), we drove south to the town of My Tho, a jumping off point for boat trips into the Mekong Delta region. And there, as we boarded our final sampan, some 8 days after we’d jumped aboard our first, I showed my dog-eared PBR photo to a salty-looking 41-year-old skipper named Vo Tan Dat. He recognized the boat immediately, but then shook his head.
“He says he knows about them—but they have all disappeared,” Phuoc translated, “They were sold to the Thai military in 1975 and 1976 when the communists took over and they were also used to escape from Vietnam at that time. They are gone. They are no more.”
At this juncture, I’d begun to suspect as much myself. Vietnam’s progress since I’d last seen the country was stunning. Modern cities had arisen from flat, dusty military camps. Airfields had been replaced with giant modern industrial parks and hospitals. Dirt roads had been paved over with super highways with traffic lights and tollbooths. Bomb craters had been filled in. The war was a memory, it seemed, and so were the implements of destruction that had hallmarked it.
We pressed on with our boat ride anyway, however, and, after a long, windy tour of the Mekong, pulled in for lunch at Thoi Son Island where Raycroft and I sat by ourselves in an open-air restaurant for a bit, while Stilwagen did some souvenir shopping nearby. The place was crowded with Vietnamese families enjoying a holiday weekend.
“Jim,” I said, after a while, “why do you figure we both cried at that school the other day? Why did we both react in precisely the same way?”
“Well,” Raycroft replied, after a thoughtful silence, “guys like you and me, Bill—Vietnam veterans—have been living with the Vietnam war for years and years now. Both consciously and subconsciously. Maybe what we were feeling at that school was a giant exhale, a sense of relief, a sense of forgiveness. I mean, a helluva lot of people died on both sides. There was incredible suffering. Again, on both sides. But, for some reason, I don’t think there are any hard feelings here now. The war’s over for these people. They’ve moved on.”
“Huh,” I said, after indulging in a little thoughtful silence of my own, “Then maybe not finding that PBR is okay.”
“Yup,” concluded Raycroft, “I think we found something better.”