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  • JOSÉ LUIS VILLEGAS / jvillegas@sacbee.com

    Dinh Ngoc Truc, above left, joins ex-pilot Ken Fritz of Orangevale in a Huey "Gunship" parked in West Sacramento.

  • Dinh Ngoc Truc had fired at American choppers as a 19-year-old anti-aircraft gunner.

Viet Cong vet finds friendship with former foes in Sacramento region

Published: Monday, Oct. 3, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011 - 5:19 pm

A Viet Cong anti-aircraft gunner engaged several U.S. Army helicopter pilots Sunday in a Vietnam-era chopper parked inside a West Sacramento warehouse.

Dinh Ngoc Truc didn't have his big 37-mm cannons as he seized the controls of the olive-drab Huey UH-1C "Gunship" that flew with the Army's 175th Assault Helicopter Company out of Vinh Long South Vietnam in 1970.

"I used to shoot at these," Truc told Vietnam veteran Ken Fritz, who hosted Truc at his Orangevale home this weekend.

"Talk about sleeping with the enemy," said Fritz's wife, Marcia. "Saturday night, over beers and wine, they were talking about how they used to shoot each other like they were playing video games. They said it's a good thing we didn't meet back then, because one of us would be dead."

The unlikely friendship between former combatants 36 years after the Vietnam War ended began last November, when Fritz and fellow helicopter pilot Jack Swickard of Roswell, N.M., returned to Vietnam.

Vietnam, though still run by the communists, has a full-throttle capitalist economy, and the current generation of Vietnamese don't care about "the American War," as the Vietnam War is known there.

It's not easy to find many of the old battle sites, so Swickard and Fritz joined Truc, now a Vietnamese official with the International Press and Communication Cooperation Center.

"He's a funny guy who wears loafers – they call them 'lazy man shoes,' " said Fritz, 65, co-founder of the 10,000-member Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association. Its motto is: "On the eighth day God created the Huey."

A war hero himself, Truc had joined the Viet Cong at 18 and became an anti-aircraft gunner firing at South Vietnamese army aircraft along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

"My battalion shot down three planes," said Truc, who helped capture Saigon on April 30, 1975. He carries a snapshot of himself in front of the South Vietnamese presidential palace.

"I waved my arms up and down to inform my mom in Hanoi that I'm safe and alive," said Truc, 55.

Truc led the U.S. pilots on a tour of the demilitarized zone then separating North and South Vietnam. He took them to Khe Sanh, where the North Vietnamese laid siege to a Marine base for 77 days in 1968 in a bid to stop the U.S. clampdown on weapons flowing to South Vietnam along the nearby Ho Chi Minh trail.

"Khe Sanh is considered like Dien Bien Phu," where the Vietnamese defeated the French in 1954 after a bloody battle, Truc said. "Khe Sanh dealt a very big blow to the Americans. After this battle, the Americans start thinking they cannot win the war and start withdrawing troops."

"We never lost a battle, but people here in the U.S. lost the war," Fritz countered.

The North Vietnamese fired 130 mortar roundss at the U.S. base in one hour, Fritz said. "We lost 112 guys and they lost over 10,000, but we pulled out of there."

"We never say how many we lost at Khe Sanh," Truc said. "We win because the Americans stopped bombing us."

He took Fritz and Swickard to battle sites in Hue and Da Nang, where a huge U.S. air base has been converted to a commercial airport. They visited China Beach and Marble Mountain.

Next stop was Chu Lai, Fritz's home base in 1968 and 1969, where he logged 1,640 flying hours as an assault helicopter pilot.

"We were flying west of Quang Nai over some rice paddies and a guy jumped up and put a zipper of gunfire right through the middle of the helicopter," Fritz recalled. "My co-pilot got hit in the neck, and my door gunner, who was 18, took a round in his back."

As Fritz relived the war in Vietnam, "the hair stood up on my neck and arms, and chills went up and down my spine," he said. "Helicopters were like horses in Vietnam. The best job was leading the grunts out of the jungle, out of harm's way. The worst job was hauling them in."

But wherever they went in Vietnam, "the people were extremely friendly when they found out I was a veteran," Fritz said. "I felt like we made a whole lot of friends."

In West Sacramento, the restored Huey is parked at the Western Truck School owned by Mike Nord of Elk Grove, one of 140 former Vietnam helicopter pilots in Northern California.

After examining the Huey, the old combatants climbed into a truck trailer converted into a "Mobile Officers Club" featuring a corrugated tin roof and a bar made from a shuffleboard table.

The Officers Club is lined with battle photos, maps and a poster honoring those missing in action.

In Vietnam, Truc offered to let Fritz climb into his old anti-aircraft gun, but Fritz declined, saying "Jane Fonda already did that."

Fritz's wife admitted she too opposed the Vietnam War, which claimed about 58,000 U.S. lives – the average age being 23 years old. Another 292,000 were wounded. Between 1 million and 2 million Vietnamese died in the war.

Inside the trailer, Truc rubbed his black hair and remarked, "I feel the war was really stupid and good for nothing, and caused lots of casualties on both sides."

"We feel exactly the same," Fritz said. "We should never have been there in the first place. We were doing what we were told to do."

One of the pilots played "Red River Valley" on his cellphone for Truc, who fell in love with country music while secretly listening to the Voice of America as a child as B-52s bombed Hanoi.

"I feel very happy to be with my friends," Truc said. "We were on different sides, but we are now united."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Stephen Magagnini



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