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Veteran returns to Vietnam
By RUSTY DENNEN
The Free Lance-Star
Paul T. Scott never thought he’d want to revisit the place where he spent one of the most dangerous years of his life.
Not until the 68-year-old Stafford County attorney went to his Army battalion reunion last year in Colorado Springs.
Other “Wolfhounds” of the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division had returned to Vietnam to see the places they had been, and fought over, in 1966.
“Several of the guys had done it and encouraged me and some others to make the trip,” Scott said in a recent interview.
Scott, a lieutenant and leader of a medical platoon in Vietnam, joined Mike Mills, a former sergeant with Headquarters Company from Illinois; Jerry Elsenheimer, an infantry rifle platoon leader from Michigan; and Loyd Jones, an infantry rifle platoon leader from Texas, for the two-week trip in April.
“I had mixed feelings, and it was a long trip,” Scott said.
Another veteran, Norm Gill, who had made several return trips and served with Scott in Vietnam, helped them get started. A travel agency put the men in touch with a Chinese lawyer in Hanoi who runs a travel agency there and in Chicago, Scott said. Indochina Voyages made the arrangements.
They stayed in four- and five-star hotels along the way. The itinerary included Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), formerly a hub for U.S. forces, in addition to a former base camp, battlefields, several villages and a few tourist spots.
Scott, Mills, Elsenheimer and Jones had served in locations from Saigon to the Cambodian border.
Scott’s first trip to Southeast Asia, as a soldier, began in 1965.
That year, he graduated from the University of Virginia, where he was in the Reserve Officer Training Corps. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Medical Service Corps.
His father, David William Scott, was a longtime Fredericksburg-area physician. His mother, Margaret, was a nurse. His brother, David William Scott III, was in medical school at the time.
Paul Scott got his medical field service training in San Antonio, was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division’s Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and put in charge of a medical platoon. The unit was expecting to go to Vietnam as U.S. forces were on the leading edge of a massive buildup.
“We were training all the time in the mountains of Oahu,” Scott said.
On Dec. 31 of that year, “There was a deployment operation. We didn’t know if it was training, or what. We were told to prepare wills.”
The next day, the unit shipped out. The GIs—many of them seasick for days—sailed through the Philippines and the South China Sea, landing at a staging area near Saigon.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Scott said. When the gates of the landing craft dropped at the beach, “We’re rushing up, and there [to greet them] are girls with leis and a band.”
He smiled. “It was kind of anti-climactic.”
His unit was stationed on a rubber plantation in Cu Chi, northwest of Saigon. At first, the medics accompanied the troops on foot. But after six months, they were air mobile, hitching rides with infantry patrols dropped from helicopters.
During the interview, Scott stopped to point out a map in one of several large folders containing correspondence, newspaper articles and other memorabilia he has compiled over the years. It showed a diagram of a vast underground network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong to attack them.
“I don’t think the 25th Division knew the extent of the tunnels from Cambodia, all the way to Saigon. We were stuck right on top of them. At night, they’d come out and shoot us up,” he said.
That, and frequent patrols, kept him and his platoon of 36 medics busy.
“It was kind of miserable for a while. We had ‘tunnel rats’”—GIs armed with pistols and flashlights—to go in and kill the enemy. “One poor guy, I really admired him, got bitten by a rat” on one of his tunnel missions, Scott said.
“I gave him 14 shots in the stomach,” for rabies prevention. The day after he received his final shot, the man was killed.
Medics were exposed on the battlefield, at times even more than the infantry soldiers they were with.
“It was hot, and when the shooting starts and everyone is down kissing the ground, when they yell ‘medic!’ you had to get up and go,” said Scott, who was 23 at the time.
Many of his medics were wounded during their tour. One was killed.
“I can’t say enough good things about my medics,” he said. “They did a superb job under tough conditions.”
One of them, Pfc. Donald Smith, earned a Silver Star for valor during the battle of Cu Chi in January 1966.
“He was shot three times in the back while treating a patient,” Scott recalled.
Smith then charged the shooter, killing him with a pistol.
HEARTS AND MINDS
A few months into his tour, Scott met Tran Van Phan, a Catholic priest in charge of the Minh–Tan mission school in Bac Ha village. It was part of the Army’s Medical Civic Action Program, where medics would treat villagers “to win hearts and minds,” Scott said.
Scott was not Catholic, but became friends with the priest, who told him he desperately needed school supplies. In March 1966, he wrote the Key Club at James Monroe High School asking for help. Scott had been a member in high school.
“The [club] was always looking for projects, and my father was in the Kiwanis Club. They had this big drive, and collected money, too.”
The effort blossomed, with the Key Club at Stafford High School joining in, according to an article in The Free Lance–Star. The groups raised 200 pounds of school supplies. Hilldrup Moving and Storage, now on U.S. 1 in Stafford, shipped part of the load.
“Someone knew a general who was flying in and out of Vietnam,” Scott said. The six large boxes wound up sitting outside a depot in Saigon.
“I was sitting around at base camp and a [truck] drove up.” The driver asked for Scott. It was providential, he says now.
“Somebody saw [the boxes]. Nobody told him to deliver them.”
A picture that ran in The Free Lance–Star that spring showed Scott in Bac Ha, amid the boxes, with children gathered all around.
Tran Van Phan sent a letter to Scott, thanking him, the Army and the folks back in the states.
“We hope our school will always stay in your memory,” he wrote.
VALOR UNDER FIRE
By November 1966, Scott and his medics had been through numerous engagements, but the biggest was just ahead.
On Nov. 1, American forces were sent into a jungle area west of Dau Ting in Tay Ninh Province north of Saigon, searching for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units.
“We were ambushed. We had stumbled upon the 9th Viet Cong Division headquarters. Company C was terribly chewed up,” Scott said.
Other companies were brought in to reinforce the greatly outnumbered Americans. The battle lasted a week.
“Our part was four days,” Scott said. It was the largest engagement of the war, up to that point.
A combat reporter recorded part of the radio communications during the height of the battle. The audio is punctuated by steady small arms and machine gun fire, officers yelling instructions and calling in air and artillery strikes.
Scott was among those in on the frantic conversation. He made a transcript for posterity.
During the fighting, Scott was cut off from the battalion doctor and set up a forward aid station. Later, he went back and forth from a landing area to the front lines.
Scott earned a Bronze Star with a combat “V” for his actions there, his second Bronze Star of the war.
BACK IN ‘NAM
Scott didn’t know what to expect on his first day back in Vietnam in April.
As the tour van brought them closer to Cu Chi, their former base camp, “We all just were glued to the countryside, because it had changed so much,” he said.
Gone, for the most part, were the grass huts.
“Today, Cu Chi, is a solid highway with commercial buildings.” And farming in the countryside had changed. “There’s no water buffalo. You see tractors now.”
Even finding the site of the Attleboro battlefield, named after a town in Massachusetts, was a challenge.
“We expected to walk back into the jungle where it was. They’ve cut down all the jungle. Now you’re in the middle of a fish farm,” he said.
Norm Gill, the buddy who helped them arrange the trip, connected them in advance with some of their former enemies. One, a woman, was a Viet Cong armorer; another was a sapper who placed explosive charges.
Scott and his companions weren’t sure how they’d be treated.
“We sat down with five Viet Cong. They said, ‘The war’s over. We’re friends now.’” Scott said.
After four days, “I said if I had to go home today, the trip would have been worth it.”
Jones, 71, an attorney in Tyler, Texas, said the trip gave him a new perspective on Vietnam and his service.
The highlight for him was locating the Attleboro battlefield. Jones supplied map coordinates to the tour guide, who was able to find it with a GPS unit. All four companions had been involved in the battle.
“It was emotional,” he said.
Scott returned to Fredericksburg after his Army service, and was stationed at a field hospital at Fort Belvoir, then at Fort A.P. Hill, where he was in charge of a hospital unit training reservists.
After his discharge in 1967, he entered University of Richmond Law School and later was associated with several area law firms. He now has a solo, part-time practice.
Scott says one of his most memorable moments of the trip was stopping by the new church in Bac Ha, the village he helped to get school supplies.
“The [priest] survived the war. He died in the 1980s.”
The Americans visited his grave, Scott said.
“I got a picture of it.”
Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431