THE ADVENTURES OF ZIPPO AND FRENCHIE

THE RETURN TO LOC NINH
November, 1999


As told from Mark Smith's viewpoint


Old Mick Dumond, invited by me to the 1972 battle of Loc Ninh , decided to return the favor. At no time did he or I envision the results to be so similar. I figure I must be the only POW to return, peacefully no less, to his point of capture, only to find himself once more in the hands of the same enemy. I was not pleased, and the young Vietnamese authorities did not know how to handle the situation that developed.

When I arrived by taxi, a former ARVN Sergeant driving, of course, Mick and the folks from Canadian TV had not yet arrived. They had to pick up a former NVA tank commander and the women who would be tending them from the "People's Committee." I got out of the car and folks gathered around, old women cried, the police were stunned, and within five minutes I could have been elected mayor. A young NVA private was pushed forward and required by his father to shake hands with "Dai uy Zippo." I said I was promoted to Major and everyone clapped.

It was old home week, but coming down the road were Mick, the Canadians and "The Dragon Lady" of Binh Long Province unobserved. NVA Colonel Hoa kissed me on both cheeks and shook my hand. Then the "Dragon Lady" took over. She wouldn't let the Colonel sit with me. She also would not allow me to get into the van, though she did invite me to walk to the airfield of my old camp. She was really angry when I arrived on the back of a motorcycle driven by the son of the local hotel owner; his being a former Special Forces, hand-to-hand combat instructor, from Song Be Province.

The Lady tried to charm me and told me how good I looked for my old age. Then she told me I needed to return to Saigon (I don't call it by that other name) because I was not on the list of the "film company." I told her I was not from the "film company" and had just happened by at the invitation of Mick. She also told me it was "dangerous" for me in Loc Ninh. Now this was hard for me to believe since I had just been elected mayor, by acclamation.

Then the poor NVA Colonel came over and tried to make points with her by giggling at what she was telling me. So I told him he was the most fortunate NVA tanker at Loc Ninh. He asked "Why?" I answered, "Because you are still alive." She said I had to go now and asked a civilian-clothed policeman to give me a ride downtown on his motorcycle. But, alas, he was too tired, so I walked down the hill surrounded by school children, from the building I had helped build and refused to bomb.

We chatted and laughed as I gave them some history of the place. I must apologize to the 1st Infantry Division Engineers, the Loc Ninh District Advisors and the Special Forces Detachment from 1966-67 who assisted "a little bit" in building the school. OK, they did most of it, and my unit and I only donated money for it. But since they weren't in Loc Ninh this day, I told them I built it. I also told them I refused to bomb it and that the teachers and students were made to march up the road as cover for the NVA Sappers in April 1972. There was no white lie in that.

Late in the afternoon, after I had retired to the local restaurant for food and two "33" beers, Mick, the Canadians and the "Dragon Lady" came back from the airfield. I had given Mick back the microphone at the airfield and later this passing of a "listening device" would be a very big deal. Now, though, the biggest deal was my lack of departure for Saigon. I had also booked five rooms for us but, the "Dragon Lady" was left without air conditioning. Now we all should have known that Uncle Ho's daughters can't do without air. I gallantly volunteered to sleep under a fan. After all, as I pointed out, I had never slept with an air conditioner or a fan in all my past times at Loc Ninh.

This was not to her satisfaction, and she ordered the entire crew back to An Loc and left me alone in Loc Ninh. The Canadians were beside themselves and the producer tried to shove money into my hand. I said, "No way, this is Communist Asia, they fine you for what you have in your pockets." For the second time, I looked at Mick and he looked at me. It was Deja Vu, 1972 all over again. They split us up again. So much for "Peace and Love" and "the Vietnamese are inviting you to all come back and visit." That don't apply to Mark "Zippo" Smith.

As the sun went down in old Loc Ninh, I invited the town to sit down and eat and drink. There were nothing but smiles and a few tears. We had a ball and I insisted on paying for all of it. The total bill was 70,000 Dong. There are 14,000 Dong to the Dollar. I said it was much too cheap, but the owner said it was all that I owed. She was the former clerk at Quan Loi and I knew her well. So I said good-bye and retired to my room at the hotel. The owner told me not to worry and if the "Dragon Lady" would not let me in the van the next day, he would drive me in his new four wheel drive "Mekong" SUV.

What we did not know was that we would both spend a few hours with the police and Army the next morning. But, I "slept the sleep of the innocent." God, I loved that place and those people, and by God, they still loved me. The next day, they were determined to show it in the face of the "Dragon Lady," the Army and police.

At five in the morning, I awoke to the sounds of loud voices and banging, I went to the balcony and looked down on the hotel owner confronting the cops and the "Dragon Lady." He told them they could come back at a decent hour and that trying to surround someone who had killed more people than anyone at Loc Ninh, would only result in a lot of dead bodies. As I listened in the shadow of the balcony, I figured since I was armed only with a knife and my Mahogany Swagger stick, my potential for mayhem was being slightly overstated. But I did appreciate the thought.

I was not about to leave without my passport. I had locked it up in the hotel safe. At six-thirty in the morning I stepped to my large window and snapped a picture of the little town's square. There were a lot of people looking up at that window. At seven I went downstairs to have coffee and await Mick and the Canadians, or the Communist authorities. After all, my driver the hotel owner, was now in custody.

The policeman who had refused to give me a ride the day before soon arrived and invited me to ride on his motorcycle to "see Mick at the museum." I told him, "I know where we are going." We went to Loc Ninh District Headquarters. I was led up to a room with cigarette butts an inch deep on the floor. The "Dragon Lady" smiled at me as I walked by her. I greeted her in Vietnamese with a traditional Richard Nixon "expletive deleted." I sat down facing four policemen. Three were young and pleasant, and one was the designated "hard guy." We settled that right away. I said I would not respond to anyone who spoke to me in that manner. I told them none of them had the authority to kill me or even arrest me. Besides, there are no prisons in that province. There aren't even any real jails, not jails that could compare to that POW camp in Kratie Province, Cambodia.

Then an Army Colonel came in. He asked what my real name was. I showed him my retired Army ID card. He asked why the people thought I was "Zippo?" I told him that was my nickname during the war. He looked at me and said that he thought I would look older. He then began to demand answers from the police. They all blamed the "Dragon Lady." Then in Vietnamese, he asked how he could describe to these fools what Mick, the Canadians, the Tanker Colonel, and I were doing in Loc Ninh. I said, "Su." He asked how you say that in English and I said "history."

Everyone became very nice except the guy who was the designated "hard guy." He was still offended by my not being afraid of him. After all, he was the "Secret Police Chief." That's not my description, that comes from the villagers. The Colonel asked if I would mind talking to the rest of the villagers, including the guy who for years served me beef soup every morning during the war. I knew for years that he was the VC main man in Loc Ninh and he knew I knew. I let him live, and in 1969 I explained to Bill Colby why: "We know who he is and he has to do what I ask him to do." But in 1999 he had told the cops they were crazy for taking me to District Headquarters. "The war is over, but if you make him angry, he may come back for you." Seems I had made a lasting impression on the soup vendor.

The cop was ordered to deliver me back to the hotel. Mick was there with the Canadians, and the hotel owner was determined that only he could drive me back to Saigon. The cop was smiling and I smiled back and said, "Why don't you come to America sometime? If you have a Visa, no one will keep you from going anywhere." He smiled even bigger and I stuck my finger in his chest and said, " But, don't you ever run into me again, here or there."

The people waved and the owner of the restaurant gave me two kilos of Loc Ninh coffee for Mick and the Canadians: "They wouldn't let them drink any with you." Then the Army Colonel's words came back to me: "Come back and I will personally take you everywhere." He told me how everyone kept out of my old camp because of the "mines." I told him that was baloney. There was one dead American there and literally thousands of dead North and South Vietnamese. He asked how many NVA died at Loc Ninh, and I said, "Ten thousand." He asked who told me that and I told him; "General Tran Van Tra." There were only two commanders in the battle, Tran Van Tra and myself. General Tra is dead. But the American Commander and a French photographer went back to Loc Ninh this month. People loved us, former enemies respected us, and some still feared our very presence. That is how it is supposed to be. I would not have missed it for the world.

I answered every question they asked and they, in true Communist style, wrote down every word. They asked me to review it as best I could. Unless they threw in a few nuances of language, it is pretty much what I said. All the police and the Army Colonel signed it. I asked if I could see it again. I then wrote my name and rank at the bottom. The Colonel then asked me why I signed it. "I spent ten months in a jungle POW Camp and never signed anything or talked on the radio. I figure you guys should have my signature at least once." He still couldn't understand, so I said; "Su Dai Ta - Su." He smiled and said; "History." I don't like any Communist, but, at least the Colonel was smarter than most. Especially one aging "Dragon Lady" from the "Peoples Committee" of Bin Long Province. Most of all, they now know that a microphone for a video is not a super secret spy device.


Copyright 1999, by Mark A. Smith, Major, USA, Retired

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