Return to Vietnam: Vets get their first look inside the Viet Cong operation

TAY NINH, Vietnam (WBAY) - Fifty-two Vietnam veterans received an up-close look at how the enemy operated against them during the Vietnam War.

Bob Stillman returns to Black Virgin Mountain in Tay Sinh, Vietnam. He was wounded on the mountainside in combat and received a Purple Heart. (WBAY photo)

Veterans on Old Glory Honor Flight's "Return to Nam" spent the day in Tay Ninh, observing a tunnel system used by the Viet Cong.

One vet returned to the place where he was wounded in combat.

Two hours northwest of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, daily mass is underway at the elegant Cau Dai Temple, home to a Vietnamese-founded religion that promotes peace.

And yet not far away, in Tay Ninh, is an elaborate tunnel system used in the Vietnam War against these men who are visiting today.

"I got a whole lot more respect for those Vietnamese after seeing that," Nick Patoka from New London remarked.

"Amazing the perseverance that the enemy had in building that complex of tunnels. It was very impressive, stunning," A.J. McCaskey of Wautoma said.

Originally dug by the Vietnamese people in the 1940's to escape French enslavement, the Cu Chi Tunnel System was then used by the Viet Cong during the war to hide from, and ambush, American troops -- 120 underground miles of tunnels, rooms and booby traps that also served as the headquarters for the 1968 Tet Offensive.

"Difficult, but you just move on," McCaskey said, "but it's really something to see the other side and how they fought and what they were fighting with. Incredibly resourceful. They weren't about to give up."

"I'm glad I came on this trip, because I had in my head the way I thought they were and it's totally different. I always thought of them as a primitive people, but, man, there's a lot of thinking going on there," Patoka said.

An illustration of how time can heal occurred during lunch, when the vets ate at a restaurant owned by a woman who served in the North Vietnamese army, earning the Viet Cong's second highest military honor.

And looking back on Black Virgin Mountain, Bob Stillman of Green Bay told us, "We were looking for body counts, and a good way to get a body count was to walk up the mountain and we'd kill a bunch of them and they'd kill a bunch of us, and then that made all the generals happy."

Stillman remembers that day in December, 1969, loading wounded soldiers on to a helicopter.

"And we got done, and the aircraft was just picking up and backing up, and it got hit by a B-40 rocket, and a B-40 rocket blew that up and the shrapnel from the rocket and helicopter combination wounded a bunch a people, myself included."

Stillman received a Purple Heart but lost a lot of friends.

"We felt bad, but there's nothing you can do about it. That's what happens in war," he told us.

The reconciliation and the healing is underway in Vietnam. More of that will come Thursday when we head south to the Mekong Delta, where a number of these vets served.

The second day of their Return to Vietnam wrapped up with a group photo in Tay Ninh with Black Virgin Mountain as a backdrop. (WBAY photo)

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