Tet Project

Forty years after covering the Vietnam War for The Plain Dealer, the writer returns to Saigon, and memories of Clevelanders at war resurface — the shooter from Independence, the reluctant reservists from Garfield Heights, the Euclid biker
The room in Marymount Hospital in Garfield Heights is No. 217. It’s a single, and I’m the patient. They are running blood thinner through me like Drano. The problem is a foot-long clot in my left leg.

I’m in lament when he arrives. An icon of incorrectness, Terry Lambacher is pushing 300 pounds and sports a black beard. He has an unlit Cuban cigar in his mouth. The lapel of his black cashmere overcoatis adorned with a miniature blue medal, awarded by the government for representing America in firefights in foreign lands.

It’s his grin that gets people.

His appearance cheers me, but we share an uneasy history. Like that day in Cambodia 40 years ago when he flashed a Viet Cong the bird. Or the time our vehicle broke down just before dusk, stranding us on a highway in Vietnam amid a maze of hostile rice paddies: When a truck roared by that was not about to stop and help, he fired an AK-47 over its roof. It stopped.

In 1968, Lambacher, who grew up in Independence, was a former Green Beret and a civilian adviser to the Vietnamese district chief at Cu Chi. He lived in a dusty stockade pocked by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades and defended by small men in ill-fitting uniforms, helmets askew, carrying weapons too large for them. The nightly pyrotechnics were breathtaking.

Cu Chi is famous for its wartime tunnel complex. The Viet Cong poured out of those passageways like angry ants bent on a savage hunt. A sleepover there left a lifetime of nightmares.

I never asked how many of them he killed. That would be impolite. I do know it was enough for the Viet Cong to put a price on Lambacher’s head and for the South Vietnamese to award him a medal for gallantry.

Now he looks at me in the hospital bed, points the unlit cigar and says: “Weren’t you happy to get out of that hole alive then? You had to go back for more, didn’t you?”

The doctors say I got the clot on a 36-hour trip home from Vietnam. I went there on the 40th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, the turning point of the war, which I covered forThe Plain Dealer.

My odyssey to war began in 1967, when I spent the summer writing about a motorcycle gang in Euclid. The bikers — Blinky, Um, Charger Charley, the Hulk and their friends — wore Nazi helmets and swastika earrings, but they weren’t really a bad lot. They principally frightened old ladies.

That summer, several of them broke into a jewelry store to steal rings for their girlfriends. They were apprehended and given an option often offered in those days: jail or the United States Marine Corps. Jail might have been the wiser course.

The boys offered themselves as a few good men, and they were off to basic training at Parris Island, S.C. I was successful in begging the editors to let me go with them. I set off, clutching pictures of the boys in their Nazi regalia. The before-and-after possibilities were priceless.

When Rathvon McC. Tomkins, the general in command of Parris Island, saw the pictures, his eyes took on the gaze of a slot machine that just paid off.

“We’ll make men out of these people,” he said solemnly. At that moment, I failed to realize that I’d put an added burden on the gang. With the drill instructors aware of the Nazi earrings, training became especially intense.

I was granted a few minutes with Charley one day. I asked him what he thought of the Marine Corps.

“Sir, it is just a bigger gang,” he said, eyes forward, back attention-stiff.

It probably was the motorcycle gang stories that earned me the assignment to Vietnam. Many reporters coveted it. Vietnam was adventure, space to write and good play for stories. It was Hemingway redux.

One colleague created a resume of fiction, larded with bilingual capabilities, a military background and a profile as brave as a lion’s heart. When he learned the paper was sending me instead, he barged into the editor’s office and accused me of being short on skill, long on fear and a potential embarrassment to the rich tradition of Ohio’s largest newspaper. After that, he got drunk and offered a toast to my death.

The morning newspaper was never flush with camaraderie.

I awoke in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in the same Caravelle Hotel where I resided 40 years ago, in a room with virtually the same view. There was little traffic, and the evening light had a peculiar pewter cast to it.

I looked out across the way to the old Continental Hotel and thought of all the reporters and photographers that I had spent time with on the veranda. So many were dead now — some by war, the lucky by old age.

I went to the Caravelle’s rooftop bar, where I once drank with Walter Cronkite. We watched gunships strafe the outskirts of Saigon under the pale glow of parachute flares. The distant tremors from B-52 strikes rattled the ice in the drinks. Cronkite sat amid a group of us, asking us questions about the war’s progress. It was here that he made his decision to broadcast that the U.S. was losing the war. His commentary ended President Lyndon Johnson’s political career.

Across the square, the Rex Hotel also had a rooftop bar, where we sang “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” by the Animals every night, the refrain cascading out into the tropical darkness.

My arrival in South Vietnam in late January 1968 coincided with the start of the Tet Offensive, launched by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces on the lunar New Year. Since I’d never covered a war, I asked at theAssociated Pressoffice if I could accompany some of its writers.

I was lucky that one of the AP’s best photographers, Eddie Adams, had just returned for another tour in Vietnam. I teamed with him the next few days as the offensive swept the countryside.

One afternoon, Adams, Peter Arnett —who had just won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the war — and I were pinned down by fire in a place called Gia Dinh, just outside of Saigon.

We were lying on the dirt floor of a hut. The firefight was deafening. The hut’s roof, made of halved Coca-Cola cans, was becoming peppered with bullet holes.

We ran, jumped a stone wall and fell into the solitude of a cemetery, exhausted, our hearts beating like tom-toms. A gravestone took a hit, chipping a piece of stone into the air.

Then an old Vietnamese man crawled toward me with a beer cooler. He was smiling and said, “Drink, no die.” He wanted 200 piasters for a beer, about a dollar.

A few gravestones away, Arnett saw the beer salesman and yelled to me: “For God’s sake, don’t overtip him!”

I was with Adams the day he shot one of the great, macabre photos of war, though not witness to the exact moment of death of the Viet Cong prisoner executed by South Vietnamese General Loan. Adams won the Pulitzer for that photo.

I was too inexperienced to grasp how bad the fighting was. It seemed like a movie, only I was in it, and no screen could ever be wide enough to fully portray the scene. The excitement was addictive, the noise and confusion terrifying.

That year, I wrote as much as my nerve could handle: jet air strikes, helicopter assaults, swift boat patrols, battleship bombardments, Special Forces jungle forays and stories of suffering Vietnamese refugees and corrupt officials. (ThePD paid me $22,000 for the year, but asked for half of it back because there had been an accounting error.)

That year, the members of a Garfield Heights-based Army Reserve unit, the 1002nd Supply and Service Company, sued in federal court, trying to void the unit’s mobilization and deployment to Vietnam. They lost the case and arrived in the country a few months after Tet.

I traveled to Phu Bai to visit the unit. A press officer suggested I stay with the nearby 101st Airborne, not the 1002nd soldiers.

“The paratroopers are a little angry over the lawsuit,” he told me. “So they have been known to throw tear gas grenades into the Ten-O-Deuce’s hooches at night, a sort of welcome to Vietnam.”

Traveling north to cover the Marines in a military region known as I Corps was the worst part of the tour. The war there was mostly with the regular North Vietnam Army. The bad guys were tough hombres. The Marines came as advertised.

The featured attraction was Khe Sanh, a combat base near Laos, in a gloomy and forbidding valley. North Vietnamese artillery and rocket fire besieged Khe Sanh for 77 days. The only way in was by air.

Toying with the idea of visiting the siege, I traveled to the jump-off to Khe Sanh, the Marine headquarters at Dong Ha. As I talked with a press officer, Gen. Rathvon McC. Tompkins from Parris Island appeared like Mars himself. He frowned at my long hair and uniform, a mix-and-match of two camouflage patterns.

“You looking for the boys from the Island?” the general asked after a nod of recognition.

I really was not. I was still trying to package enough nerve to fly to Khe Sanh. He could see it on my face.

“Hell, this is nothing,” he said. “You should have been at Iwo Jima. Now that was a battle.” Tompkins beckoned to an aide and told him to try locating the former gang members.

Here is where the story takes an uncertain course. The general arranged for me to go to Khe Sanh by helicopter. Its crew chief, yelling into my ear above the wap-wap of the rotor wash, said to run like hell to the nearby trenches when we touched down. Never had I run faster, clutching my helmet and casting myself awkwardly into the trench, to the amusement of nearby Marines.

I stayed at the base for several uneventful days. There was no sign of Charley and the boys. When I asked the commander about the chances of us finding them on the hills, which had seen fierce fighting, he looked at me as if I were a fool. I was thankful.

Then, 20 years later, I was a guest on a radio talk show in Cleveland when a woman called and said she was Charger Charley’s mother. After the show, she gave me his telephone number in Florida.

The call went something like this:

“Charley, this is Mike Roberts. Remember me?”

There was a pause, and then an evil and unholy screech.

“You son of a bitch! Every time you show up, you’re trouble. My wife left me this morning!”

He had a point about my bad karma, between the motorcycle gang’s arrest, the Parris Island visit and now his wife. What I did not know was that, unwittingly, I might have nearly gotten him killed, too.

My diary says I arrived at Khe Sanh one day before Charley headed toward the base. A sniper hit him on Hill 758, 10 kilometers away. The bullet struck the radio he was carrying and ricocheted into his chest, just a half-inch from his heart.

I never knew whether the general’s aide located Charley, and he could not remember why he was returning to Khe Sanh the day he was hit. But the awful thought that he might have been ordered to the base because of me lingered all these years.

For several years, Charley called me every year on the anniversary of the Marine Corps’ founding. He’d leave a message that always concluded withSemper Fi, the Marines’ slogan, “Always Faithful.”

Returning to Vietnam was not a step back in time for me. The country is rapidly changing. In a few years, I might not even recognize it. Huge office buildings project skyward. Traffic is dense, and the air is thick with pollution from the endless waves of scooters and cycles rolling by. The riders wear masks to fend off the foul air.

In Cu Chi, a bank has replaced Lambacher’s fort, and the tunnels have become a tourist attraction. My wife, Pat, is fascinated, following behind young Vietnamese tour guides who explain the complex while others make food, sell souvenirs and perform weapons demos. One guide points out a crater from a B-52’s bomb.

In the background, occasional rifle fire sounds from a shooting gallery. The AKs have a familiar, spine-chilling pop. You can trigger off a round for about a dollar. Not for me — the sound is still too scary for sport.

Though taken with the tunnels, my wife is alarmed at the driving in Cu Chi. Our SUV was cruising at 65 mph, only six feet behind the truck in front of us. Horns honk in maddening staccato. It is here that I get my only flashback of the trip. Back then, an afternoon on this highway brought an adrenalin surge that sensitized every nerve. You traveled at great risk —mines, grenades, sniper fire, ambushes. Your heart pumped at red alert.

The mind so expected danger that it tried to will you into the safety of another time and place.

That time and place is the hospital room, 40 years later. Lambacher smiles at the nurse administering the blood thinner.

“Could you get us a couple of cups of ice? And bring one for yourself, too,” he directs. “I’ve got something that will really thin that blood.”

From a shopping bag, he pulls a bottle of Glendronach, a 15-year old Scotch aged in a cherry cask. My man is a connoisseur in every way.

The nurse returns with the cups and begs her leave. She wants no part in Lambacher’s medicinal regimen.

“Here’s to old times and good friends,” he says. The Scotch is smooth, and I feel its warmth course through me, a relaxing, mellowing comfort.

Lambacher smiles. His evil grin wards off even the worst of times.

After he and the Scotch are gone, I watch CNN’s report on America’s war du jour. A Marine patrol is fanning out across an Iraqi street.

The scene is oddly familiar: grim faces framed by helmets; flack-jacketed bodies hunched in a crouch, weapons at the ready; the tension hair-trigger. I can smell the rot of the place and feel that old, eerie ache of fear, the anticipation of sudden movement and a volley of fire.

The images haunt me. The Scotch creates a sense of distance, safety and sadness. I am overcome.

I try to escape by turning off the TV. But the images linger, as they always do for those who have borne the curse of war.
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