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Return to Vietnam: Meeting a formerly faceless foe

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.
Image: Pham Phi Hung, left, and Jack Jacobs in Cao Lanh, Vietnam.
Pham Phi Hung, left, and Jack Jacobs, right, in Cao Lanh, Vietnam.Courtesy of Jack Jacobs
/ Source: NBC News

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.

Jack Jacobs, left, and Pham Phi Hung 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.

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.

Pham Phi Hung, left, in Vietnam during the mid '60s.Courtesy of Pham Phi Hung



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.  

*

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