Bill Gauntt unzips a small, red pouch and pulls out a triangular shard of clear plastic. Its edges are uneven and the plastic has yellowed with age. But Gauntt knows exactly what it is and where it came from.
“This is part of my canopy,” he says.
The canopy from his fighter jet that crashed in Vietnam in 1972; the jet that he and his “backseater,” Lt. Fran Townsend, ejected from after its tail was sheared off by anti-aircraft fire.
Both parachuted safely. Gauntt survived but was captured; Townsend was gunned down by North Vietnamese soldiers.
The plane slammed into the ground near the home of a nine-year-old Vietnamese boy who, 46 years later, gave Gauntt the canopy piece when the former pilot visited the crash site, now a fish pond.
“It was emotional,” Gauntt says in a seemingly vast understatement.
The man, named Phong, also said that once a year he holds a ceremony to honor Townsend’s spirit.
“They honor their ancestors. It’s part of their culture. So they honored his spirit,” he says. “It gives you a little faith in humanity.”
In February, a group of 10—including Gauntt and another Vietnam vet, Bill Raines—spent two weeks touring the country, visiting cities, villages and spots like Gauntt’s crash site and the buildings where he spent 18 months as a POW.
Traveling to Vietnam was “an educational experience” for everyone in the group and “exceeded all expectations,” said Robert Dooley, dean of the UTC College of Business and organizer of the trip . He has been to Vietnam many times in the past.
Returning to sites that held special meaning for Gauntt and Raines was “emotional” for everyone, Dooley says. “There were a lot of tears from everybody,” he says. “It was a real honor to walk where they walked.”
Dooley, who has been to Vietnam several times in the past, said the recent trip was “an educational experience” for everyone in the group.
Among the stops were the military firebases stretching along the former Demilitarized Zone, a 60-mile swath that once cut the country into North and South Vietnam. The firebases’ purpose was to prevent North Vietnamese soldiers from coming south. As a young captain in 1970-’71, Raines was charged with keeping the firebases properly supplied, not only with ammunition, food and health care but also with efficient soldiers to run them and maintain morale.
Raines, who retired as a U.S. Army major general, wanted to see a few of those bases, including one at the Khe Gio Bridge where Mitchell Stout, a 20-year-old sergeant from Lenoir City, Tenn., earned a U.S. Medal of Honor by picking up a Vietnamese hand grenade tossed into a bunker and using his body as a shield before it exploded. He died but saved several of his fellow soldiers.
Stout’s death took place three months before Raines took over the supplying of the Khe Gio Bridge firebase, but he wanted to return to the site where Stout sacrificed his life.
“It’s a small hill, very much like Orchard Knob here, that size,” says Raines, who retired as a U.S. Army major general. “When I was there, there was all sorts of concertina wire around it, bunkers on top; we had machine guns; we had dusters (anti-aircraft guns). We guarded the bridge.
“I just had to sit there and be quiet, and everyone left me there to soak up this hillside.”
Raines, who retired as a U.S. Army major general, had not been back to Vietnam since his tour of duty ended and was initially hesitant to return. It wasn’t so much the memories he might have to face, he says, but a lingering sense that Americans had failed the Vietnamese people.
But over the two weeks, his apprehension faded as he witnessed free-market entrepreneurship thriving throughout the country, including Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam during the war and now the capital of the reunited country. At one plaza inside the city, Raines says, he was able to stand in one place and see Popeye’s Chicken, Dunkin Donuts, Burger King and McDonald’s. The building where Gauntt’s POW cell was located is now a string of small businesses run by Vietnamese natives.
“It takes out of my recesses the memories of what the country was like when I left,” Raines says, “and replaces it with a dynamic, interactive—except for the name ‘communism’ as a trademark for the country—it’s got entrepreneurship and it’s freedom that I hope I can see it totally in my life. I saw 90 percent freedom when I was there.”
In his office at the Raines Group real estate investment company, Raines pulls out an unopened bottle shaped somewhat like the familiar shape of a beehive. It’s filled with a honey-colored liquid, but what’s floating inside is what catches the eye. In its mouth, a small cobra, hood extended, holds a jet-black scorpion the size of your hand. Yes, they’re real and this is Vietnamese snake wine. And yes, Raines tried some.
“It’s pretty much just sweet wine,” he says.
Selling snake wine is not what Americans would generally think of when the word “capitalism” comes up, but the beverage is indicative of the small businesses that now run the gamut across Vietnam. Whether it’s bike-repair shops, cafes or restaurants serving silkworm or jellyfish stew, the Vietnamese have not only embraced Western business techniques, they’ve embraced Westerners themselves.
Both Gauntt and Raines say the Vietnamese people show no animosity towards Americans and, in fact, are excited to see them.
“They welcome us with open arms,” Gauntt says. “That’s the transition that’s been made by these people. They love Americans; they love tourists. They love capitalism; they love to do business.
“We may have lost the war, but we have won the hearts and minds of the people, by and large,” he adds.
For Raines, the happiness of the Vietnamese people and their utter lack of anger at the U.S. means “our soldiers’ deaths were not in vain.”
“We’ve really won this war, not on the battlefield where we thought about it, but through the freedoms that I saw emerging. That to me is positive.
“I would encourage every Vietnam vet, if they could and if they wanted to, to go back to Vietnam and replace the thoughts, visions and memories that you had 47 years ago.
“We did some good. It was not the way we wanted it to be, but we did some good.”