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Return trip to ’Nam provides solaceTell North Platte what you think
 
Courtesy Photo­Image
Mike Sharkey on the airstrip he flew from as a pilot in Vietnam. The Marble Mountains are in the background.
Courtesy Photo­Image
Sharkey stands at the base of the US air control tower
Courtesy Photo­Image
Courtesy Photo­Image
A street in Hue, today
Courtesy Photo­Image
Sharkey's Puh Bai taxi driver & guide in Hue.
Courtesy Photo­Image
Imperial Palace in Hue

Mike Sharkey, the manager of the North Platte airport, returned to Vietnam in February.

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Sharkey's trip coincided with the 45th anniversary of the most intensive fighting of the Vietnam War.

Sharkey reflected on his time there during the war.

The trip as a civilian and tourist made him realize what a beautiful country Viet Nam is and how friendly and forgiving the Vietnamese are.

Sharkey, his wife and another couple spent a total of 21 days “in country” on the trip, visiting some familiar places as well as some he hadn’t seen.

Sharkey said he was curious to see the differences in the country now, explore it as a civilian and get to know the people on a personal level.

“This trip wasn’t really closure for me,” he said. “I consider myself one of the lucky ones that have been able to leave what I saw and did there behind and move on.”

During the war, Sharkey mostly flew a light airplane for the “Catkillers” -- one of many “Bird Dog” units. He piloted a Cessna L-19 for the 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company.

The Cessna pilots were forward controllers. They would fly durable little 213 horsepower, six-cylinder planes, find the enemy, call in fighter squadrons and artillery to stop would-be attacks on American troops.

Often the little planes and their pilots were targeted by the enemy. Some planes would return to base with hundreds of bullet holes. Those pilots are credited with saving a lot of lives and are highly respected by veterans.

Sharkey’s unit flew some of the most dangerous missions of all, many over the so-called Demilitarized Zone during heavy fighting.

He flew over Hue where an epic battle raged during the TET offensive. His unit was based at a small airstrip near Marble Mountains, not far from Hue. They were housed in Hue and drove across the Perfume River to the airstrip, where they flew two four-hour missions a day to where they were needed.

They were housed at the Citadel, the former Imperial Palace of Vietnam.

The Citadel, built of brick and square in shape, is nearly 6.5 miles in circumference, with walls 20 feet high and nearly 69 feet thick, with 10 entrances. On top of the walls are 24 bastions established for defense, and it is surrounded by defensive trenches. The Imperial Palace is located in the center.

The Citadel was a prime objective of the Tet Offensive, when North Vietnamese troops launched surprise attacks on several fronts to try to win the war.

When the North Vietnamese invaded Hue, Sharkey and his fellow pilots were trapped in the Citadel for three days until American troops retook the village and rescued them. They were taken to the unit’s headquarters in Phu Bai. Their airstrip at Marble Mountain had been conquered, and the aircraft burned.

Mike’s unit was assigned to fly back over Hue twice a day, directing air strikes and artillery. During that time the Citadel, which had once been their fortress, was leveled by American strikes.

The battle for Hue raged for more than a month.

It is a much different place now, Sharkey said.

“I was very happy to see that the damage in Hue was not as bad as I thought,” he said. “The Citadel has been restored, as has been the Imperial Palace -- another of the targets we thought had been completely destroyed.”

Sharkey said one of the hardest parts of the trip was crossing the Perfume River bridge and seeing the airstrip he once flew from every day.

“The old control tower was still standing, riddled with bullet holes,” he said. “There are remnants of the airstrip.”

A pagoda has been built next to the control tower with a painted mural, depicting the North Vietnamese Army taking the airstrip and burning the aircraft.

“That mural brought back memories,” he said. “Other difficult times were in museums where North Vietnamese victories were depicted, with photos of American soldiers lying dead in fields.”

“You still have to admire them though,” he said. “They are proud of their victories. This trip back proved to me that their country is much better now than in 1975 (when the war ended).”

Sharkey hired a young Hue man with a rickshaw to take him over the bridge to the old airstrip.

When he told him where he wanted to go, the young man knew exactly where it was.

Sharkey learned that the man’s father had been a South Vietnamese security guard at the airstrip and was killed in the battle.

The North Vietnamese burned their house and his family lost everything.

After taking Sharkey around the Citadel and the airstrip, he would not accept any money.

“I tried several times to pay him and he refused,” Sharkey said. “With teary eyes he hugged me and said thanks several times.”

Sharkey had a touching experience with an older Vietnamese woman.

He left the hotel in Hue to walk and think for awhile, he said.

“I was sitting looking at the bridge over the Perfume River when an older woman came up to me and asked, ‘You American?’ I told her I was and she handed me a 500,000-Bong Vietnamese note (approximately $25) saying, ‘Here, for you, thank you.’ I tried to refuse because 500,000 Bong is a lot of money to them. She looked startled and with tears in her eyes said, ‘Please, you take, thank you.’”

The woman also handed Sharkey a bag of green squash and a bunch of grapes.

“To this day I am not sure I know why she did this,” he said.

Sharkey said his white affected younger Vietnamese people, who came up to him and asked to touch their children’s hair -- sometimes even handing him babies to hold.

“When I asked my guide about this, he said that the Vietnamese are a very superstitious people and they revere the elderly very much. It is good luck for the children,” he said.

Sharkey made the trip with his wife and friends. They started in Hanoi, the former capital of South Vietnam, and were there for the TET celebration, which coincides with the Chinese New Year.

“The city was very festive and brightly decorated and the people in Hanoi were very friendly,” he said. “Most of them today are of the generation born after 1975 and were not directly involved in the war. Some took great fun from trying to speak the English that is taught in their schools now and were very amicable,” he said.

The Vietnamese have a “live and let live” attitude toward the war and are forgiving towards Americans, he said. They are proud the North won, because it finally unified the country after 2,000 years of wars, when China, France and the United States did all they could to keep the country divided, Sharkey said.

“Their country is in much better shape now than it was during and just after the U.S. was there,” he said. “You can’t blame them for being proud. They have worked out a good combination of communism and enterprise. The people seem to be very happy and prosperous.”

Sharkey said their touring took them into the Mekong Delta, the harsh jungle and swamps.

“I wasn’t in that area during the war and I could see how difficult it must have been for the GIs there,” he said. “All the rivers and branches make it like a maze. It’s beautiful, but I could see how dangerous it must have been.”

“I am so glad I went and I would recommend a trip like this to other vets,” he said. “Interacting with the Vietnamese was delightful and heartwarming and the accommodations are very nice and right now the costs there are very low,” he said.

Sharkey has managed the North Platte Regional Airport/Lee Bird Field since 1999.



This report was first published in the May 22 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.


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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 6/7/2013
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