Hill 861 (Photo courtesy of Ron Osgood)
Vietnam War veteran and filmmaker Ron Osgood shares one of his experiences from the production of his documentary Just Like Me: The Vietnam War/The American War.
I got off the plane in Da Nang, Vietnam on the second of what would be five trips interviewing North Vietnam Army veterans for a film documentary, Just Like Me: The Vietnam War/The American War. It was June 2011 and, by coincidence, a United States-based tourism company, Vietnam Battlefield Tours, was also there. I knew Tex, the tour leader, and he invited me to join this group of veterans as they prepared to travel to Khe Sanh to visit the former American base. It was an easy decision.
A few days later, we arrived at a hotel near Khe Sanh, and Tex told the group that he and Thanh, a Vietnamese tour guide, would lead a hike to the summit of Hill 861 the following morning. I didn’t want to miss this opportunity and at 6 am, I met in the lobby with several others. We were warned that there was a chance of rain, but that didn’t deter us as we boarded the bus for Hill 861. The U.S. military named hills according to their height, and this hill was 861 meters, or 2425 feet high, a challenge even in good weather. Hill 861 was the location of an intense battle just days before the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh.
The hike started on a well-worn path, but eventually we encountered dense, razor-sharp elephant grass with little in the way of a trail. Thanh continued with Tex, and we followed. All of a sudden, one of the guys yelled, “Leaches!” Leaches were new to me. I looked down and my shoes and ankles were covered. The guys who had experienced leaches during their Vietnam service didn’t give it a second thought, but some of us continued to push them off with a stick or any other strategy we might think of, worried about the consequences if we didn’t.
Hill 861 (Photo courtesy of Ron Osgood)
As we reached the summit, light rain and fog made visibility impossible and I was getting really cold from the wind blowing on my wet clothing. We were all eager to descend after several minutes, but one of the guys was missing. We called for him and he appeared, proudly holding a piece of ordinance he had found, perhaps unexploded. Tex freaked out and yelled to get that damn thing away from us. Once Tex calmed down, he and Thanh tried to find the trail. Tex and Thanh had been here in the past, but the dense fog made it impossible to retrace our steps. They tried to use a satellite phone and GPS, but neither worked at this desolate location.
The cool, rainy conditions continued to take its toll on me. I was shivering and wet, feeling the effects of hypothermia. A few of the former combat guys knew what to do and moved me out of the wind and sandwiched me until I was a bit warmer. I had mixed feelings about this but realized that they knew what they were doing. They were right. Tex eventually ordered us (it seemed like an order) to follow him as he searched for an alternative path. We walked single file, six feet apart and eventually another order came from Tex to turn back since it was dead-end. We tried this a few more times before we gathered on the summit to decide what to do next. Tex looked concerned since the fog was not lifting and realized Thanh was not with the group anymore. We circled the hilltop looking for him. I don’t know how long it took, but eventually we saw a shadow walking towards us. It was Thanh. He looked distraught and his shirt was bloody from — you guessed it — leaches. After a minute to catch his breath, he told us that he found a trail that he thought would lead us down. It was a gamble, but our only choice.
Ron Osgood on Hill 861 (Photo courtesy of Ron Osgood)
We cautiously moved down the hill, constantly reminding one another to be alert for unexploded ordinance. As we made it to the bottom, we realized we were nowhere near where we had started. We came upon a Montagnard village with a few locals sitting outside. I’m sure we were quite the sight as their curiosity turned to laughter. We didn’t care and rested on the ground, removing leaches while hoping Tex was able to call the bus driver. He was, and we were relieved when the bus appeared.
My experience that day made me appreciate what those who served on Hill 861, as well as many other jungle locations, went through. As tough as it was, my experience didn’t have the added danger of an enemy soldier hiding nearby. I didn’t remember filming or taking photos that day, but it was serendipitous when I later found some footage and a few photos, and I used some in the opening scene for Just Like Me.
Just Like Me: The Vietnam War/The American War will be screened at IU Cinema on November 11 and will feature a post-film Q&A with Osgood and film subject Phil Zook.
Ron Osgood is Professor Emeritus in The Media School at IU, a documentary filmmaker, and a Vietnam War veteran. His previous veterans documentary, My Vietnam Your Iraq, broadcast on PBS and screened at the IU Cinema in 2010. Other documentaries include the three-part series Climate Change in National Parks, Shirts & Skins: The Psychology of Pickup Basketball, and the Emmy-winning Trouble No More: The Making of a John Mellencamp Album.