Return to ‘Rock City’

By on June 10, 2015

In August of 1969, at the time of Woodstock, peace and love, I was a combat infantryman in Viet Nam with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, serving as a radioman in an infantry platoon. My outfit operated in the jungle northeast of Saigon in an area referred to as War Zone D, and also in Long Khan province near the Dong Nai river. My fellow infantrymen and I spent many hot, dangerous days patrolling through triple-canopy jungle in search of enemy bunker complexes and supply areas, and setting ambushes at night.

After days spent roaming the jungle, sometimes making contact with the enemy, our unit would return to a fire support base (artillery base) located at a strategic position, often at the top of a hill. From this position, US artillery would support the infantry in the field. We “grunts” would usually spend one to three days in the perimeter bunkers providing security for the “arty” (artillery), and then head out again via helicopters, tracks, trucks, and sometimes on foot, for our next mission into the jungle.

Wentzel at a remote Viet Nam fire support base in 1969. (Photos provided by Tom Wentzel)

Wentzel at a remote Viet Nam fire support base in 1969. (Photos provided by Tom Wentzel)

My company would often return to a certain fire support base called FSB Nancy, located on a hill outside a small village called Dinh Quan. This village was noted for its unique geological feature of gigantic boulders, many larger than a three-story house, strewn among the village and the surrounding landscape. A few of the boulders actually had small South Vietnamese security structures built on top. The GIs above, on Nancy, would refer to the village as “Rock City.”

After my Army discharge, college graduation, marriage and long career as a teacher, I toyed with the idea of returning to Viet Nam. In April of 2015, at the urging of my daughter, Laura, and her husband, Kevin Koveleski, who both volunteered to accompany my wife and me on the trip and even plan the itinerary, I agreed.

We visited scenic and historic northern Viet Nam for a little over a week, touring Hanoi, cruising through Halong Bay, and then trekking in the area around the village of Sapa, an ethnic Hmong village in remote northwestern Viet Nam.

To conclude the trip, my family and I flew to the former Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, and hired a car to drive us to Dinh Quan, the old “Rock City,” in search of any remnants or memories of FSB Nancy. Fortunately, Laura and Kevin share a friendship with the director of Brittany’s Hope, a local NGO based in Elizabethtown that facilitates and supports adoptions of Vietnamese orphans. This friend provided a contact in Ho Chi Minh City, named Viet, who spoke fluent English, and agreed to accompany us and act as an interpreter.

View of the gigantic boulders upon entering the village of Dinh Quan.

View of the gigantic boulders upon entering the village of Dinh Quan.

Leaving the former Saigon, I remarked how the road into the “boonies” toward Dinh Quan is now much more built up and modern, with thousands of motor bikes. Forty-five years ago it was filled with carts, bicycles, foot traffic and military vehicles. Upon entering Dinh Quan, I immediately spotted one of the gigantic boulders and asked the driver to stop. Viet asked an older woman sitting in front of a house if she remembered the fire base called Nancy, on the hill, and she immediately perked up and answered, “Nan-cee, Nan-cee, Yes!”.

She pointed back to a side road that lead up the hill, and also mentioned through Viet that she had been wounded in the neck during the war. By this time the car carrying us four Americans to the hilltop had attracted a small crowd of locals, who began to gather around us at the site of the former fire base.

Among this small crowd were two local men, Xay and Phuoc, who were young boys in 1969, and were very excited to talk about their memories of FSB Nancy. Both men recalled vividly the day when a huge munitions explosion occurred at Nancy, killing 12 American soldiers, and a number of Vietnamese civilians. Xay shared that his mother was killed in that explosion, and his ears had begun to bleed from the concussion. Through Viet, I ex-plained to the two men that the official Army after-action reports claimed the explosion was “accident, non-combat”, due to faulty explosives, while surviving soldiers who were there reported that it was an enemy booby-trap that caused the inferno. When asked his opinion, Phuoc re-called that locals claim the cause to have been people smoking near the explosives. Perhaps no one will ever know.

Wentzel met two residents, Xay and Phuoc, of Dinh Quan who shared memories of Fire Base Nancy.  Xay, in the middle, lost his mother in the explosion on the fire base in January of 1970.

Wentzel met two residents, Xay and Phuoc, of Dinh Quan who shared memories of Fire Base Nancy. Xay, in the middle, lost his mother in the explosion on the fire base in January of 1970.

After about 15 minutes of sharing Nancy memories, another motor bike arrived and the rider introduced himself as the owner of the land. After explaining to him what was going on, he agreed to show my family and me the remnants of FSB Nancy.

The hill top is now covered over in thin trees planted in straight rows, possibly a source of firewood, and lots of scrub brush. There are also a few government-built houses for the poor. The land owner took us a short distance into the trees and pointed to a few depressions in the ground, now overgrown with brush. The one he explained was a former artillery gun pit. I suggested that the second, larger impression could have been the original command bunker on Nancy. Other than the depressions, all that remained of the former base were a few fragments of sand bag material, and some pieces of broken concrete. After about 45 minutes of animated discussion I began to feel that, even though we were separated by many decades of different cultural experiences and thousands of miles, and I was a former American soldier returning to a place where the local residents likely retain some very bad memories, our conversation felt very natural, like a group of old friends recalling a shared, important event in their lives.

One very strong memory that confirmed I was back on the old base was the view looking out over “Rock City.” Peering down the hill, the huge boulders are still a prominent feature in the distance, the same view I observed while sitting atop my bunker 45 years ago and wishing I were home instead of on a remote hill in a combat zone many of thousands of miles away.

After some photos and more discussion about the fire base, the Vietnamese shared that I was the first former American soldier to visit the abandoned fire base. Then Xay exclaimed that he had a question that had bothered him for the past 45 years. I felt a brief pang of regret at stirring up so many disturbing memories for the local villagers, but was relieved when Xay asked, “Why did they name it Nancy?”

Not having an exact answer, I explained that Nancy is a woman’s name, and was likely the name of the wife, daughter, or girlfriend of one of the American generals or colonels that ordered the base built, and that other nearby fire bases were named after women as well.

Wentzel and his daughter, Laura, stand at the remains of what may have been the original command bunker on the base.

Wentzel and his daughter, Laura, stand at the remains of what may have been the original command bunker on the base.

I was also relieved to hear that the local villagers who remembered the base and had lived through the war feel no ill will toward Americans today. Upon my return to America, I’m not really sure if I feel glad that I made the decision to return, or just satisfied that I have another, alternative, image in my head of “Rock City.”

Tom Wentzel lives with his family in Warwick Township and is gainfully retired from public education. Tom’s Army tours included both Viet Nam and Germany. Currently, he is co-proprieter of Vintage Blues Guitars, where he restores and sells old guitars. He also conducts tours of the historic Lititz Moravian Church Square, and sings in the church choir.

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