Video: Journey to Vietnam: A war veteran returns

  1. Closed captioning of: Journey to Vietnam: A war veteran returns

    >>> there are 84 men alive today who are recipients of the medal of honor . around here we have the great honor of working with one of them every stay. retired colonel jack jacobs is our military analyst. we're honored to have him as a friend and family member. most of us who know jack know his combat story in vietnam , how he came home badly wounded. but for jack, the story never really had an end. he wanted to return to that battlefield where his actions saved so many lives and where he nearly died four decades ago. he recently made the journey, along with him, nbc's chris jansing .

    >> reporter: far away from the noise, the bustle and the youthful optimism of modern day vietnam is a place where banana boats still navigate the rivers, mothers and daughters bathe along the shore and where time seems to stand still . and where so many of an american generation left behind their innocence. the mekong delta , 2011 . for the first time gins -- since the vietnam war , jack jacobs returned.

    >> it's almost as if time has gone backwards for me. one time we went on a patrol and we were in water about chest deep all day long.

    >> reporter: on a search for the battlefields where he very nearly died 43 years ago.

    >> this is the deal. we landed here and moved almost due north.

    >> reporter: armed with gps coordinates and images seared indelibly in his memory, he found it.

    >> this is it. this is it. this is all open field back then.

    >> reporter: the rice paddy has since been flooded for fishing, but in the eyes of a retired colonel, it's as if he can see himself all those years a lot. a 22-year-old first lieutenant caught in an ambush, seriously wounded in a hail of devastating machine-gun and mortar fire .

    >> i wonder if you can hear what you heard and what you smelled that day does it come back to you?

    >> oh, sure, the crack of machine-gun fire. and the explosion that wounded me, you don't even hear it, it's so close, you feel a rush of warm air and get lifted up. and so on. i was surprised initially. i thought that it was a mistake, i wasn't supposed to be wounded, it always happens to somebody else.

    >> you reach up and you have a hole in your head.

    >> right. and you're convinced -- you're convinced it's not happening. and then you realize it really is happening.

    >> reporter: bleeding profusely, blinded in one eye, his hearing permanently impaired. jacobs went back on the battlefield again and again and again, saving 14 lives that day. until he collapsed and was ed evac -- medevaced, unconscious after a harrowing rescue.

    >> for gallantry in action at the risk of his life.

    >> reporter: jack jacobs was awarded the medal of honor by president richard nixon .

    >> danger does not make heros, it creates them.

    >> reporter: it found jack jacobs on march 9, 1968 . all five feet four inches of him, with shrapnel in his head, ammunition flying, scenes that punctuate his occasional nightmares even now and so many years later drew him back to vietnam .

    >> it was important to me for an unexplainable series of reasons that it had to be here. and i had an opportunity to do so and here i am.

    >> the great work of chris jansing and the great work of our friend jack jacobs who's here with us in the studio. and you have loaned me, there's a palpable power that comes off this medal, the medal of honor . jack, i get to hang out with you guys. i know the answer to this, but when people say to you, better you than me because i could. have done that.

    >> but everybody could do that. when times are really difficult, we fight to preserve the union and we fight to accomplish the mission, but most of all we fight for each other. and if you ask anybody who's ever fought anywhere for this country, he'll tell you the same thing, we're all fighting for each other.

    >> how much did the ultimate outcome of this war get to you, matter to you, how much does it matter to you to this day.

    >> it matters to me in a larger sense, i like to think that i'm a student of history and what happened before has a lot of affect on what will happen in the future. but in the end, when i think about the war, i think about my friends, friends of mine who didn't come back, friends who got badly wounded, people i served with and fought with and that's what matters most.

    >> almost 60,000 names on that wall. i promise to give this back, thank you for this.

    >> you've got to hold on to it and you've got to touch it, because as sammy davis tells you, if you don't touch it, it means less. it has less value.

    >> well i'm touching it. thank you. i want to let everyone know, tomorrow night we'll have part two of this extraordinary story and this extraordinary journey and the thing that happened when jack sits down with the enemy, the viet cong commander who attacked jack's unit that's tomorrow night on this broadcast. and immediately after tonight's broadcast, colonel jacobs will be answering questions on our facebook page, it really will be him you're talking to.

    >> i intend to, yeah.

    >> i figured you stared down the enemy, facebook is not going to scare you.

By U.S. Army (Retired)
NBC News
updated 6/15/2011 7:14:53 PM ET 2011-06-15T23:14:53

There is a reason they call it the “infantry.”

Even before the word became part of the English language about 500 years ago, it was always young people who bore the brunt of fighting, on the ground with primitive weapons, toe-to-toe with the enemy. The adults were to the rear, often on horses. The image that we have today, of a grizzled John Wayne, is the creation of modern media. It has always been the kids – scrawny, immature children – who did the fighting.

Most new soldiers are about 19 years old, and so when I went to war at 22, I was already middle-aged by infantry standards. But in the rear-view mirror of advanced age I look very young indeed. Combat is life-changing for anyone who experiences it, and while some things are difficult for old people to remember, the terrifying days you fought for your life are not among them.

An open, fallow rice paddy near Cao Lanh, Vietnam, was the site of a ferocious ambush in which I was caught a long time ago.

I was an advisor to a Vietnamese infantry battalion, fighting our way through the Tet offensive. One morning, we were caught in the open by more than 250 Viet Cong in prepared positions. Most of us became casualties in the initial seconds of the engagement, and it took us the rest of the day to fight our way out. (Jacobs was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. Read the official citation).

I had been meaning to return for ages, but I never stumbled across the opportunity. For me, as for many others, it was almost as if Vietnam wasn’t a real place and existed only as a faint memory. But a few months ago, I returned to stand at the place where, in the short time of a couple of hours, I had grown old.

To get there, I went first to Hanoi, a place I had never been before. Hanoi was the capital of North Vietnam during the war (today it’s the capital of the whole country), but at that time the only people who got to see it were those unlucky enough to become prisoners of war who ended up in the infamous prison we sarcastically called the “Hanoi Hilton.”

I expected Hanoi to be full of people but still somehow austere, since it is the capital of a single-party Communist state. And in that regard, it did not disappoint. It was handsomely decorated with the celebrations of Tet, but also with revolutionary slogans and homages to Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader who led the movement for independence from the French and was the president of North Vietnam during the war.  

Visiting the Hanoi Hilton produced no surprises.  Just as I expected it to be, it was a dark, musty and primitive facility, with lighting selected to enhance its ominousness. The guide explained in exquisite detail the indignities visited by the French on the Vietnamese, and the only mention of the American POWs, all of whom were tortured for years by North Vietnam, was the outrageous fiction that they were well treated.

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, seemed almost as if it is in a different country – different from Hanoi and certainly different from the sepia, sandbagged, wartime Saigon I experienced decades ago. Vietnam may be nominally communist – but it is a communist government that encourages foreign investment. 

Ho Chi Minh City is its city of lights, a southeast Asian Paris complete with Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Armani and Versace emporia, all catering to the substantial international community there. The shabby hotels that once housed American servicemen are now all luxury accommodations, out of the reach of the Vietnamese, and indeed too rich for anyone who is not on an expense account.

The trip south to my battlefield was a bouncing three-and-a-half-hour van journey into the Vietnam I do remember, into the heart of the Mekong Delta.

There is water everywhere. Canal banks were jammed with flimsy wood and corrugated metal shacks and enormous rice paddies, many of them 5,000 acres each. Roads were mobbed with motor scooters – not surprising, considering that there is a 200 percent tax on automobiles, putting cars far from the reach of the ordinary Vietnamese.

And at the end of the journey, there was my field. I expected to feel the strong tug of history, or at least the thin, personal thread of emotion gently but insistently tugging from the past, but there was none of that.

Everything was startlingly smaller than I had remembered it. The trail beside the open area from which I had been evacuated to a hospital was now filled with people on their daily business. The enemy bunkers – there had been a hundred of them –were now simple, innocuous paddy dikes.

No bullets, no shrapnel, no dead, no wounded. It had all receded into the past, and my battlefield of memory was now a square of flooded earth, a prosaic catfish farm.

The disappointment was my fault, of course. The prospect of being there again enticed me to assume that the visit would elicit the same visceral excitement and fear of 43 years ago.

For me and my fellow soldiers, there was real terror back then, enough to last a lifetime, and I think about it often. But it could never be the same…and perhaps that’s a very good thing indeed.

Jacobs is a Medal of Honor recipient for his actions during the Vietnam War. Read the official citation.

Read some of Jacob’s blogs from his trip back to Vietnam on Newsvine. He also recently wrote a memoir: "If Not Now, When?: Duty and Sacrifice in America's Time of Need"

See also the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Vietnam revisited

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  1. Jack Jacobs with a young Vietnamese officer, just after arriving in Vietnam in September 1967. Photo was taken east of Cao Lanh on a canal their battalion had secured to enable Vietnamese regional forces (a militia) to establish outposts. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. In December 1967, near the end of his tour before returning home to Hawaii, Staff Sergeant Ainsley Waiwaiole poses with Jack Jacobs. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Soldiers inspect damage to a civilian area near their base camp the morning after an attack by the Viet Cong. The Vietnamese-occupied home was hit by 82mm mortars. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Vietnamese soldiers rest in front of a horizon indicative of the terrain US forces encountered in Vietnam. Thousands of square miles of rice fields were an easy place for the enemy to hide. Jacobs said US troops had to choose between patrolling through rice fields in water up to their armpits or walk the dikes where soldiers ran the risk of being blown up by mines and ambushed by combatants in the canals’ shrouded in jungle growth. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Clutching an M-16, First Lieutenant Jacobs stands on Cao Lanh airstrip in typical uniform gear. On the strip, Capt. Joe Ganger, an airborne forward air controller, kept an old, unsophisticated high-wing O-1 Bird Dog, from which he would coordinate close air support strikes requested by Lieutenant Jacobs. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Soldiers stand in a formation at a base camp just to the west of city of Cao Lanh. There would be an inspection before each operation. M60 machine guns, new to the troops, rest at the feet of the soldiers. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Lieutenant Colonel Thanh sits in the advisors’ hootch, while Jack Jabos sits in the background on the telephone. Four people lived in roughly a 100-square-foot space. Nails driven into walls allowed soldiers a place to hang loaded M-16 machine guns, a gas mask, and ammo pouches. Soldiers slept on air mattresses on a cot with a poncho liner. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Lieutenant Thieu, a battalion operations officer, and Jack Jacobs pose for a photo not long before they embarked on an operation, where they were ambushed in early 1968. Jacobs, suffering from a head wound, pulled Thieu from the battlefield, but Thieu died of his wounds. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Jack Jacobs presents an award to a soldier at a battalion formation inside a base camp in Jan. 1968. The battalion commander would often ask Jacobs to participate in award ceremonies to cement the relationship between the American advisors and the Vietnamese. In the background and to the left, bunkers inside the base can be seen. The entire base camp was small - roughly 200 yards wide by 200 yards long. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. At dawn the morning after an all-night attack on their base camp, Jack Jacobs poses for a photo with the battalion commander in Jan. 1968. Soldiers’ bunkers can be seen in the background. The Viet Cong attacked under the cover of mortars and machine guns, and Vietnamese families living in the base camp were wounded and killed. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Jack Jacobs poses for a photo with the son of one of the soldiers in front of a window of the hootch in Jan. 1968. Roughly 500 people were crammed onto the base, consisting of a dozen or so primitive, tin-roofed buildings with about 8 living units each, and between 4 and 8 people to each one. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. First Lieutenant Jack Jacobs in early 1968 inside the hooch. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Jack Jacobs clutches an AK-47 near the bunker after another attack on their base camp in Cao Lanh in Feb. 1968. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Staff Sergeant Ramirez and Mit, the advisors’ Cambodian radio operator in Feb. 1968 inside. In the photo, barbed wire can be seen strung between hootches, so if the VC got into the space, it would slow them down. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Jack Jacobs poses with Mit, one of the Cambodians employed as drivers and radio operators. The watch Jacobs is wearing in this image was blown off when he was wounded. Mit was a captured VC, but "Instead of sending them back to the rear, we offered them food and cigarettes, all that was needed to convert them in the field. One day they were the enemy, and the next day they were working for us." (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. President Nixon presents Medals of Honor to four soldiers on the South Lawn of the White House on Oct. 9, 1969. Jacobs, then a captain, stands just to the right of President Nixon. Jacobs recalls how, during this ceremony, the gates of the White House grounds were opened to anyone who wanted to watch the ceremony. Pictured, from left, are SGT Robert Martin Patterson, CPT James M. Sprayberry, President Nixon, CPT Jacobs, Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, MAJ Patrick Brady, and Military Assistant to the President COL Vernon Coffey. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. CPT Jack Jacobs is awarded the Medal of Honor by President Nixon on Oct. 9, 1969 on the South Lawn of the White House. Standing behind the President are Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird. The Old Executive Office Building can be seen in the background. (Courtesy of Jack Jacobs) Back to slideshow navigation
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