Image: Pham Phi Hung, left, and Jack Jacobs in Cao Lanh, Vietnam.
Courtesy of Jack Jacobs
Pham Phi Hung, left, and Jack Jacobs, right, in Cao Lanh, Vietnam.
By U.S. Army (Retired)
NBC News
updated 6/16/2011 7:06:24 PM ET 2011-06-16T23:06:24

Col. Jack Jacobs, a Medal of Honor recipient for "conspicuous gallantry" during the Vietnam War, returns to  Vietnam for the first time in over 40 years and meets his former adversary.

All the good guys have families, backgrounds and personalities. The bad guys are faceless.

When you live in close proximity to people, when you are jammed together into small defensive positions, when your lives depend on each other, you know everything about them. They become discrete characters, and each is like no other in the world. They are your family. When they are wounded, you bleed, and when their young lives are extinguished in the violence of armed combat, a piece of you dies as well.

But the enemy is an amoebic mass, a single-minded monolithic inhuman force. Killed in action, they are only a logistical problem, and you get a feeling of them as individuals only when you capture them, scared, wounded and shivering. They are no longer part of the enemy organism, and it is only then they come to life as people.

Image: Jack Jacobs, Pham Phi Hung
Courtesy of Jack Jacobs
Jack Jacobs, left, and Pham Phi Huang, right, in Cao Lanh, Vietnam.

I recently returned to Vietnam, for the first time in about 40 years, to see my old battlefield in the Mekong Delta.  And on that day I also visited a man named Pham Phi Huang.

He and I first met on March 9, 1968, but we never saw each other. He was the commander of a force of more than 250 Viet Cong who had lain in wait for my battalion of South Vietnamese soldiers to walk innocently into the kill zone of a large and deadly ambush.

Another officer and I were with the two lead companies of our battalion. We were with South Vietnamese soldiers, but combat had made us closer than any countrymen could be: We were brothers.

I lost friends, comrades and a lot of blood that day, and it changed me forever.

All these years later, I approached my meeting with the enemy commander with a peculiar detachment, rather than anger or even sadness. The life of a soldier is one of violence, but success in war is more often the result of sober analysis and unemotional reflection. So after 40 years, perhaps curiosity had overcome pain and rancor. I wanted to ask him dozens of questions about that day, and I did.

He is 82 years old and a bit wobbly and stiff-legged, understandable in view of his age and the many wounds he has received. Shot up, blown up and banged up in combat as young kids, we are all re-visited by these wounds as old soldiers.

Story: Going back to a terrifying place where a young man grew old

Like most Viet Cong, he lives not far from where he fought, and he now receives a pension as a retired brigadier general. His house, which was attached to a bicycle repair shop, was small but brightly decorated, undoubtedly by the government and especially for this visit.

He received me dressed in his uniform. Huang was effusively, contagiously friendly, holding my hand in the typical Vietnamese way during most of the visit. At one point he hugged me, and the hard edge of his right epaulet cut my lip. He’d wounded me again.

About the battle he was fuzzy with some things, but others he remembered in detail. Yes, he had known about our operation in advance – a spy in the province chief’s headquarters had tipped him off – and he had three days to construct the ambush.

Image: Pham Phi Hung, left, in Vietnam during the mid '60s.
Pham Phi Hung, left, in Vietnam during the mid '60s.

He assembled more than 250 Viet Cong, an astonishingly large number in that area, and they prepared bunkers with deadly overlapping fields of fire. I asked him where he had placed himself, and he pointed to a spot on my drawing that was the apex of the L-shaped arrangement of bunkers, the best position for a commander in that tactical situation.

An amiable, chatty man, Hung spoke freely, but, as expected from a person who is really something of a government employee, he carried the party line and spoke most insistently not about war, but about friendship.  After all these years, my Vietnamese is creaking and rusty, but there was no mistaking the implied pun when he said repeatedly that we used to shoot at each other, and now peace has made us friends: in Vietnamese, the words “shoot” and “friend” are pronounced nearly identically.*

I am not his friend, but I am no longer his enemy either.  

* Shoot: ban

Friend: ban

Col. Jack Jacobs was awarded the Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty” in the battle he describes above. Click here to read the complete Medal of Honor citation

He is the author of a memoir: “If Not Now, When? Duty and Sacrifice in America’s Time of Need”

The 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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Video: After 43 years, a Vietnam vet faces his former foe

  1. Closed captioning of: After 43 years, a Vietnam vet faces his former foe

    >>> last night here we took you on a journey with one of our nbc news family. retired army colonel jack jacobs , has beened to be one of the 84 living recipients of the medal of honor , awarded by president nixon after jacobs sustained grieve you wounds on a battlefie battlefield in vietnam. he recently returned back to that battlefield and last night we watched as he found the exact spot where everything briefly went blank one day in combat 40 years ago. tonight we see him meet the enemy, the former north vietnamese commander who was responsible for that incoming fire that day. with him on that story, nbc 's chris jansing .

    >> retired colonel jack jacobs is looking for answers to 43 years of questions. on that vietnamese battlefield where he fought and bled. in a modest home, an unlikely reunion with a retired brigadier general, the man who gave the order to attack jacobs battalion battalion, killing or wounding after of them. but even war wounds heal, the sharp edges of combat with time fade and the adversaries of 1968 find common ground.

    >> the emotional part is meeting for the first time again. somebody who also fought for hiss soldiers. that's a bond that's impossible to break, no matter what country you belong to.

    >> even though you were enemies?

    >> even though we were en -- we were enemies on paper. i was right here actually.

    >> reporter: making rough sketches, colonel jacobs , now a west point professor of military strategy wants to know --

    >> how many days before we got there did he know we were coming?

    >> three days in advance.

    >> reporter: it was an unrelenting ambush, seen from the air by the helicopter pilot he radioed for help.

    >> he said don't bother, it's really hot down here, it's really bad. i said tell me where the enemy is, he says all around us.

    >> a vietnamese farmer heard the helicopter. i remember the day in march 1968 , bombs exploded over there. two americans were hit badly. were you injured general hung asked?

    >> yes, my head. my last surgery was last year. so i have a lot of surgeries.

    >> reporter: but this is a story perhaps better told not in words but gestures. a clutched hand, a laugh, and time and again, spontaneous hugs.

    >> you know, it's good that we, after all the fighting we both survived, to meet each other in friendship.

    >> reporter: in just an hour, two old soldier who is battled fiercely in combat, find understanding, respect and in the end, true affection, making peace with the enemy and with themselves. chris jansing , nbc news, the me mekong delta .

    >> you can see more of his story on our website, that's nightly.msnbc.com. thank you for

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