Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir


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We met in Phnom Penh, in a guesthouse in the backpacker district of the capital. Faunce answered the door to his room in cargo shorts and an MIA T-shirt. A long knife hung from his belt. Faunce wanted to purchase a wheelchair for him here in Phnom Penh; some medication, too, if he could figure out exactly what pills Robertson needed. The trip would be taxing for Robertson, Faunce responded, but he promised we could call him later on that day. We did; no one picked up. I spent the next three days accompanying Faunce on his pre-expedition rounds. Soon it would be dry season, and Phnom Penh was already shadeless, swirling in diesel fumes and dust.

Tet Offensive

We drove to the offices of a local printer and loaded up a truck with bibles and Christian audiobooks. We stopped at a warehouse where Faunce haggled with the proprietor over the price of a pound bag of Chinese clothing. But there was still no news from Dong Nai, and I was getting anxious. Reluctantly, Soy punched in the numbers on his mobile.

The call was short. The police are there and he is scared. We said goodbye on bad terms. At home in the U. To no avail: The Vietnamese hotels and restaurants depicted in the film were nameless, the houses generic. Of course she remembered the con lai , or mixed-race man, she said—he lived in the next hamlet. And she still had his phone number.

The hills give way to shaded groves of rubber trees, the rubber trees again to city. As recently as the s, Dong Nai province was mostly wilderness, but at the end of the war, the victorious Communist government made it part of the New Economic Zones program, opening the area to hundreds of thousands of northerners.

Today, Dong Nai is a rapidly industrializing exurb of Ho Chi Minh City, full of rubber processing and machine-parts plants, indistinguishable in its unlovely sprawl from any other Vietnamese manufacturing hub. Smog clings to the horizon; petrol stands crowd the road. On the morning I visited, along with a photographer and an interpreter, I passed a half-dozen patients waiting on a bench outside the front door—one was holding a bag of ice to his chin. Over iced coffee, I pressed her on what she knew about Robertson.

She responded in the same way as nearly everyone I would interview in Dong Nai: He was of French-Vietnamese ancestry, one of dozens of mixed-race people left over from the long Western occupation of her country. But what about the documentary film crew that had brought the con lai to her office?

That must have signaled that there was something special about Dang Tan Ngoc. Another shrug. She dialed Ngoc on her cell phone. The next time I looked up, the man from Unclaimed was sitting on the bench outside the front door, alongside the waiting patients, one long leg crossed over the other, his hands gently steepled on top of his knees. He was dressed neatly, in creased slacks and a beige dress shirt. On his wrist he wore a fake gold Rolex. Not for the last time, I was struck by his placid demeanor: the unworried smile, the long cigarette collecting ash.

He declined a cup of coffee, accepted a glass of water, and folded himself into the chair to my right. While we exchanged pleasantries, I examined his face. His legs, he said. There was a lot of pain. I asked him about the card Mike Robertson had sent; he said he had not received it. He smiled and touched my wrist. The interpreter held up a hand. Yeah, because of the torturing sometimes even now his head still feels pain. It was almost one in the afternoon. Robertson did not want us to come to his house, but he happily accepted an offer of lunch. On his recommendation, we drove together to an open-air restaurant on the outskirts of town.

At a table in the shadow of a crooked palm tree, Robertson lit a fresh cigarette and recalled that the area had been full of tigers when he arrived. People had hacked at the jungle with knives to make their homes. Now things were getting better, but Dong Nai province was still poor. He was still poor. I asked if he worked. But he was getting too old for that. Could Robertson tell us about the crash? Anything he wanted to share.

Would it be possible for him to show us any of his government papers—identification documents, for example? His house had been robbed, he answered. The thieves had taken some money and all his papers. He pointed at his head. I was hurt. My memory is bad. But there was nothing stopping us from visiting his neighbors. At one house, a young amputee took a look at us and hopped off in alarm, calling in a high-pitched yelp for his mother. At another, a fearsome-looking dog was standing guard.

At the third, we asked the balding owner what he could tell us about the local con lai. We stopped at a roadside food stand to rest. In a hammock, a black-haired man with a panther tattoo emblazoned on his chest was sipping beer. The light was soft and golden, the shadows long.

The proprietor of the stand, an elegantly dressed older woman, confirmed that she knew a con lai called Ngoc, but not nearly as well as her father did—her dad and the con lai were close friends. The father was produced. His eyes were radically different colors, one brown and one lapis; his white hair stood up in a proud cowlick. The man rattled through the list: motor-taxi driver, quality-control inspector at a nearby factory, police officer.

Arriving, he shook my hand, lit a cigarette, and proceeded to talk, without interruption, for 15 minutes. Ngoc, Som said, had been born in and raised at an orphanage in Saigon. For a few years, Ngoc had been chief of police. Had any of the villagers spotted Western filmmakers in their hamlet? They had, he responded, but Ngoc had brushed off questions, and his neighbors had let it drop.

Som shook his head. In the stillness, I could hear him breathing. There was no guile in his gaze.

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Humping Heavy : A Vietnam Memoir by Philip Hoffmann (2012, Paperback)

Only shock. For the entirety of our conversation, the man with the chest tattoo had remained in his hammock, drinking his beer and listening quietly. Now he spoke up. He recounted the plot of the movie: An American helicopter pilot is shot down over enemy territory and nursed back to health by a kind-hearted Vietcong nurse. The nurse and the pilot fall in love and live happily ever after.

According to Vietnamese film archivist Do Thuy Linh, downed American pilots and their noble Vietnamese saviors were a central trope of Vietnamese cinema in the s and s. In the adventure film Con Lai Mot Minh translation: Left for Dead , for example, a dying American aviator receives succor—and at one point breast milk—from a Vietnamese peasant.

Liberal Crackup

Still, Linh was unable to locate a movie starring a lead that resembled Ngoc. Reality, for a moment, stutters. Night fell over the hamlet. In the surrounding trees, the birds were singing. We said our goodbyes to Som and the proprietor of the stand and her father, and drove back by taxi to Ho Chi Minh City.


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How amazing that those few incontrovertible details had come to form the foundation of such vivid fiction. And not just any fiction, but the type of fiction that held up a mirror to the people consuming it, allowing them to locate in it a piece of themselves. It was a fable that had fulfilled dreams and answered prayers.

And what sustained it? Only the willingness of a poor con lai in Dong Nai province to say yes. Yes: I will tell you I am a long-lost American soldier. Yes: I will travel to the embassy in Phnom Penh for a fingerprint test. Yes: I will remove my pants for you. Yes: I will offer you my molar. Yes: I will accept this shiny new motorbike. Two weeks after returning from Vietnam, I received a strange email from Tom Faunce.

Faunce could not be budged from his insistence that Ngoc was Robertson. Firestorm to come. Help the little guys! I have been similarly unable to verify that Ngoc has relatives in the U. Hugh Tranh was more standoffish. Tranh still talks regularly to Ngoc and has helped raise money to send to Dong Nai. To Tranh I could only respond that sometimes we see what we want to see. My last conversation with Tom Faunce took place in April. We spoke for an hour, during which Faunce appeared to be ricocheting from one stage of grief to another: anger to denial, denial to acceptance, acceptance to sadness.

Then he took it back, saying he had found the missing Green Beret, or at the very least an American citizen. But there was still time to get to the bottom of it: Soon, Faunce plans to return to Cambodia on a bible-distribution mission. To read more, join The Atavist Magazine. Join Already have an account? For the love of stories Support great writers and their work by becoming an Atavist member today.

Join No Thanks. Half a century ago, an American commando vanished in the jungles of Laos.

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Many Americans, however, were city-bred. It was hard for them to walk easy through thick cover, in which paths were likely booby-trapped. Where visibility was only a yard or two, each man had to keep his eyes intent on the one in front: the careless strayed and vanished. Most Americans moved noisily. A unit that sought to move fast made as much racket as an elephant herd, snapping branches and bamboo.


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In heavy and hostile country, a prudent point man might advance only one pace every five or six seconds, ten a minute, three hundred yards an hour. A long-range patrol, religiously dedicated to concealment, could take a day to cover a mile, with the rear man responsible for erasing tracks.

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Though an officer navigated by map and Lensatic compass, an enlisted man was designated to count the paces they advanced. Space — at least five yards between men — was critical, especially in heavily booby-trapped areas: bunching meant multiplying mutilations and deaths. Action seldom started in the middle of a column, which made that a popular place to be. One day up near Chu Lai, a notably stoical black soldier named Davis took a bullet as he hit the ground, but kept shooting back. You dying, and you know you dying. You might as well come on and take some of these gooks with us.

Twenty-nine-year-old company commander Vince Felletter once lost six men who jumped from a stricken Huey helicopter, only to have the wreck flip on top of them, rotors flailing, which imposed on survivors the ghastly task of sorting body parts. On foot, scent could kill almost as surely as noise. Both sides cherished their scouts, some of whom had supremely refined senses.

Scout dogs could be an asset, but were vulnerable to dehydration: more than one handler wound up carrying his canine charge. The chronic wet rusted grenade pins, cans, guns, electrical circuits. The best way to ward off insects was to soak clothing and boots in repellent, but often juice was short.

They could be removed with a burning cigarette only at the evening halt. Booby traps were most often spotted early in the day, when troops were fresh. Sgt Mike Sutton was wading thigh-deep through a swamp when among a heap of cut bamboo he found himself hard up against a tripwire; he never forgot the seconds of cold sweat before he stepped back. The most dangerous time came in late afternoon, when men were filthy, hungry, riddled with bug bites, weary of climbing hills, negotiating swamps.

Your nose, ears, eyes, working all of a sudden better than ever before. It is a real rush. Every platoon had such people. After a killing fight, men tried to gather to say a brief prayer over fallen comrades, although that indulgence had to be abandoned where casualties mounted. The practice of mutilating enemy dead was widespread. An October episode brought shame on the media: a CBS cameraman handed a soldier a knife with which to sever the ear of a dead communist for the benefit of TV viewers.

It was well known, however, that men took such souvenirs. A unit in the field usually halted in late afternoon, where possible on higher ground, commanding a view. Men finished the day coated with red dirt baked in sweat which it became ecstasy to scrub off with sand in river water, if there was any near by. Most evenings they had to dig, which everybody hated, although it often made the difference between living and dying.

Good units sank two-man foxholes 40in deep, cursing the rocks and roots they encountered below the thin surface layer of clay.

Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir
Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir
Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir
Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir
Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir
Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir
Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir Humping Heavy: A Vietnam Memoir

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