HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- Weeping while gazing around a crowded market, U.S. Vietnam War veteran William H. Kruckmeyer says he is delighted to return, for the first time, to a country he knew as horrific battlefield.

Wiping his eyes, he's dressed like a walking neon sign: a baseball cap emblazoned "Vietnam Veteran" in golden letters, and a Hawaiian-style shirt festooned with American flags and motorcycles.

Grey-bearded Mr. Kruckmeyer is also a portal into the suffering experienced by many Americans who waged war on this side of the world, and his emotional story symbolizes their often blinkered lives today -- mostly forgotten as his generation ages.

"Please call me 'Krash,' all of my friends for 30 years do," Mr. Kruckmeyer, 67, said in an interview conducted via e-mail during August and September while he traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand with his wife, and after their return home to Westminster, California.

"My younger brother, another Vietnam Vet, is suffering from several cancers that the V.A. (Veterans Administration) has determined is Agent Orange connected," he wrote, referring to a chemical warfare herbicide which Americans extensively sprayed on Vietnam.

"Now due to the advanced stages of his cancer, he cannot eat through his mouth and is being fed through a tube -- 45 years later and still we suffer. I am crying now and must stop.

"All he can talk about is his name on the wall," Mr. Kruckmeyer said, describing yet another inevitable engraving on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC when his brother dies.

Americans who served in the military in Vietnam during the 1960s and 70s have trickled back on personal visits since this Southeast Asian nation began giving tourist visas more easily to U.S. citizens in the 1990s.

Many of the Americans say their trips are psychologically painful, but they often experience relief, a lightening of depression, and sometimes a joyous catharsis.

Others plunge right in and party at lively bars, chatting up Vietnamese women, trying their hand at businesses, and sometimes loudly ridiculing the political coziness between Washington and Hanoi after diplomatic relations were established 15 years ago despite Vietnam's documented human rights abuses.

Mr. Kruckmeyer's journey was more sedate and reflective, filled with anguish, grieving and peaceful breakthroughs.

The former U.S. Navy "petty officer, air crewman, second class" said he is extremely proud of "my era's comrades in arms," and "decided to return to a few scenes of my past exploits."

After enlisting as a young man, he had requested aviation and electronics training, and learned to fly Sikorsky SH3A helicopters and other aircraft.

In 1966, he arrived onboard an aircraft carrier in waters designated "Yankee Station" in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Communist North Vietnam, during a doubling of U.S. troops to 400,000, after the first 200,000 splashed ashore in central Vietnam in 1965 at the start of the war.

"They issued ragged old Army camo (camouflage) clothes to wear. They were full of holes and had all of the Army insignia removed. We later found out that they were recycled Army fatigues and some of the holes were bullet holes from the previous owners."

His mission included rescue flights in response to radio "Mayday" distress signals or other instructions.

"Several times we did rescue a downed crew or a sole pilot," he said.

"I also did recovery of our men in body bags and transport to a morgue."

After a second tour in the Gulf of Tonkin for another nine months, he extended for third year, achieving "1,200 hours of combat flying" before asking to be discharged in January 1969 to attend college.

"I only fired twice in a combat rescue. The pilots told me to spray the machine guns at a specific part of the jungle and I did. I have no knowledge of ever hitting someone."

Today, he perceives the war differently than he did from the air.

"I know now that we should have never taken over from the French," he said, referring to French colonialists who were defeated by Vietnamese in 1954.

"I would enlist again because my country asked me to," he said.

"Army, Navy and Marine Corps are our family's proud heritage. Being a rescue crewman gave me the opportunity to save many lives."

Today, revisiting war-era South Vietnam's Saigon -- renamed Ho Chi Minh City by North Vietnam's victorious Communists after they unified the country -- Mr. Kruckmeyer experienced culture shock.

"Now the city is full of skyscrapers and you don't have an expansive view to watch bombs landing," he said.

At a cemetery for Vietnamese who perished in the war, he was stunned when he saw a huge obelisk inscribed: "We Remember Your Suffering."

In a sudden "panic attack," he felt an urgent need to burn incense at the obelisk.

"I was compelled to say out loud, 'I also remember your suffering.' Then I balled like a baby and a huge rush of grief came over me. A few minutes passed and I felt a kind of peace like another chapter of my life closed.

"Every temple we visited for the rest of our tour, I took off my shoes walked up to the main alter and lit incense.

"Until I visited the National Cemetery, it never dawned on me that their vets were young guys like me that went out as ordered and fought the 'enemy'," he said.

Three million Vietnamese, on both sides, plus 58,000 Americans, died during the war.

"I couldn't help but have hundreds of flashbacks," he said, describing a tourist boat trip through the southern delta's jungle and rice paddies.

"I wasn't afraid of the passing sights but I remembered being very aware of movements and, yes, scared!"

He disembarked, barefoot, and asked riverside farmers to teach him how to plant rice.

"At first they looked at us like we were nuts but then as we planted rice with them, everyone started to smile and then laugh as the farmers corrected our planting and told our guide that we were too slow.

"The warm water and mud between our toes felt good and right."


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is

Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2010 Richard S Ehrlich)