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Pieces: The Recollections of Rifleman Blanco

Back to Nam, May 1989

Blanco with skinny cow
(click photo)

"The sight of those paddies steadied me."

Soon after landing at Tan San Nhut, a Vietnamese official politely, but firmly, pulled me off the line of disembarking passengers. I was escorted to a small security room that was furnished with only a table and two chairs and told to sit and wait. I was not surprised to find myself in that room. I had expected to be detained. After all, I was an American citizen arriving in a communist country without a visa. Our two countries had fought a long, bloody and bitter war and there existed some lingering animosity or misunderstandings; so much so that fourteen years after the war's end the two adversaries remained without formal diplomatic ties.

Blanco leaning on rented Toyota In was probably a little of both. When my marriage broke up, I decided to turn this painful event into something positive. I would view my new freedom, I told myself, as an opportunity to turn my Vietnam diary into a book, an idea I had flirted with since returning from the war. Soon the project took hold of me and led directly to my decision to return to Nam, so I could find a hamlet located somewhere outside the the city of Phan Thiet where buddies and a Vietnamese family were killed during a Tet firefight in 1968.

I had done my homework, but my chances of finding this anonymous hamlet in eight days were not promising.  After a year's worth of research the hamlet's name and exact location remained a mystery. I had visited the big New York libraries. I had visited the archives in Washington D.C. and Virginia where I obtained copies of my company's After-Action and Situation Reports. I had obtained maps from the US Army Department of History. I had written scores of letters to various US Army and government agencies. I had even visited Vietnamese officials at the U.N. I had phone bills of $500 a month. In the process I found over thirty veterans from my old company, Alpha Company. But the name of the hamlet still eluded me. 


My research yielded some important information. It convinced me the hamlet I was looking for was located just north of Phan Thiet, the capital of Binh Thuan province.  I had narrowed the search area down to a handful of hamlets. But which one?

Porch where Daneil was shotI carried with me 8x10 enlargements of photographs I had taken in the hamlet a few months after the firefight. One of the photos showed the porch of a big house where one of our men had been killed.  If this house was still standing, then the photos could be helpful in finding the right hamlet. 

 

My plan was simply to show the photos to the peasants in the area and hope that one of them would recognize the house. If I found the house, I found my hamlet. The photos were the key.


There was one more thing that might help. I planned to inform my Vietnamese guides that there lived in the hamlet I was looking for a woman with only one hand. The chanting woman. A woman whose hand we accidentally shot off during the firefight. She was in her thirties back then. In 1989 she would be in her fifties - if she was still alive. 

The Vietnamese official who had escorted me to the security room finally returned. He was a thin, short man in his twenties wearing a clean white shirt and no tie.  He sat across the table from me and began asking questions. He was polite and spoke slowly. His English was clear and distinct. He took notes of my responses. I explained why I had arrived without a visa. I blamed it on my Vietnamese-Canadian Travel agent, making him the culprit. I told the official that when I learned in Manila that my visa had not arrived as promised, I decided to board the plane anyway, even without a visa, certain that things could be straightened out in Vietnam.

The young official seemed to take it all in stride, as if Americans were always turning up at Tan San Nhut Airport without visas. When I had answered all his questions, he said he had to make inquiries, in other words, check out my story. Then he left the room.

I settled in for another long, hot wait. But a short time later he returned with several green forms. The Vietnamese Tourist Office had confirmed my story, he said. I was free to go, but first I had to fill out the green forms in triplicate and pay a $50 fee for a temporary visa. There was no carbon paper available so I had to fill out the identical green form three times. The forms were printed on a coarse, newsprint paper. After I submitted the forms and paid the fee, they made a cursory inspection of my luggage and released me. In all, I had been detained for a little over an hour.

With luggage in hand I left the security area and walked into the public area of the terminal. I saw a crowd of Vietnamese standing behind a balustrade waiting for the arrival of the next flight. I had made arrangements for someone from the Vietnamese Tourist Office to meet me at the airport. I scanned the crowd. I was the only non-Asian in sight. I figured whomever was waiting for me would have no trouble spotting me. I did not have to wait long.

"Mr. Blanco?" I turned to see a young woman in a pretty ao-dai dress. 
"Mr. Blanco?" she asked again, pronouncing it "Branco".

"Yes!" I answered. She smiled and introduced herself. Her name was Cam Nhung and she was my translator and guide. She asked that I follow her outside. We made our way through the throng of waiting Vietnamese and left the terminal. She led me to a green Toyota that was parked by the curb. It was hot and raining lightly when I slipped into the back seat of the air-conditioned car. Once inside, Ms. Nhung introduced me to my driver, Bich, who was behind the wheel. Bich, a chunky man in his late thirties, nodded and smiled. It was obvious to me he could not speak a word of English. Bich started the car and immediately began blowing his horn, a warning to the many bicycles, scooters, and pedicabs on the road that we were pulling out.

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Copyright 2000 Edward Blanco