A Pilgrimage To Nam Phong 

By Gordie ‘Gorgon’ Thomsen

 

 

It is really tough to just jump right in and tell the tale of the pilgrimage without getting into the whole of the adventure, but with a miniscule of background it could work. However, if you are ever bored for something to do in the future, keep checking back with me to see if I have finished the entire work of  “There And Back Again… A Pilgrimage To Nam Phong” where you will get the complete story of the trip, from  the re-patriating of a traitor General to communist gun boats on the Mekong River to monkeys picking coconuts on Koh Samui.

 

I guess the whole thing started in the late summer of ’83, shortly after the 10th Annual Meeting of the Yellow Back Barking Cobra Club of Nam Phong Thailand. I was living in Portland OR, and Ron Reagan had invaded Grenada to save some wealthy American students from a rebel faction of the “red menace.”  It had been great being up in Indiana and seeing a bunch of the guys again, made me think even more about the old “Rose Garden” and what, if anything, was still there. I had always said that some day I’d go back again but as of then I was still sitting on my ass not doing anything about it, then, on October 23rd, the whacko blew up the barracks in Beirut killing 243 Marines. That put me into action. Figuring that the world was fast becoming an unstable place, the trip must be planned now. I immediately sent out about 50 invitations, to every former member of ‘533 I had an address for, to join me on a trip to Thailand. I was pleased that only 15 or so came back marked “return to sender.”

 

After a few months, a few responses, and then a couple cancellations, the trip was set for December of ’84. The participants would be: myself; Ed ‘Potato Quebec’ Hensley, VMA-533, fire control shop, Nam Phong from the start until spring of ‘73; Jerry Polzin, former USMC, artillery, spent ’73 in Japan lobbing shells onto Mt Fuji; and last, but certainly not least, Frank ‘FPB’ Banholzer, VMA-533, com-nav, Nam Phong from the start til Aug ’72 then hurried back in Dec ’72 to stay through all the chickensh#t until the end, Frank worked for TWA and said he would “catch up with us somewhere along the way.”

 

Our day trip to find The Rose Garden began December 28, in Udorn at The Paradise Hotel, (room with ceiling fan still around $3, with broken A/C $6.) We had contacted a tour company the day before and negotiated a van and driver for the day. He was to take us to find Nam Phong and then on to Kohn Kaen later that evening. Frank had not yet “caught up with us somewhere along the way” so it looked like he would miss his third return to the garden.

 

We hit the road early because Hwy #2, “The Friendship Highway”, was still a pretty rough road in places. We pulled off the highway into a market near where we thought was the junction with the road that went east, by the base. Brain sensors long thought dead were telling me what the driver went off to confirm. Ten minutes and two cokes later the driver reappeared. He had talked to a few locals who verified that this was the road to where the old base was. We headed out, across the railroad tracks, bend in the road, Wat on the left, everything was where it was supposed to be.

 

After a bit we pulled into a large parking area filled with a bunch of sugar cane trucks, had to be  twenty or more trucks, the ornate ones, the size of a deuce-and-a-half roughly, covered with about 1000 pounds of decorative chrome. Across the road was a row of cheap low wooden buildings, probably the Thai version of a strip mall. There were no houses around to be seen, just the few places we had passed coming out from the main highway, lots of rice paddies and farmland. At the back of the parking area was a small guard shack with a lone sentry, the driver got out and spoke with him for a few minutes and waited while the guard made a call. I thought “how is this guy going to explain three stoned Americans who want to visit the old air base they lived and worked at 12 years earlier?” He must have been good, because he came back and asked for someone to surrender his passport, to be held til we came out. PQ was first to find one, so we let him hand over his, then Jerry and I spent the rest of the day laughing and telling him he would never see it again.

 

The road back from the guard post was no longer red dirt and dust, it had been upgraded to the yellow/gray dust of gravel. PQ and I were like someone watching a tennis match, looking out from one side of the vehicle to the other. Nowhere was there any sign of the Thai training facility you used to go past. The only thing I saw that looked odd was what appeared to be old falling apart dikes for something like a small water treatment pond. (Does anybody else remember anything like that on the way out?)

 

The road we came in on, I believe, was the road the Task Force Delta HQtrs was on. There was not a trace there, nothing but scrub forest and bush boo’ies. We came up and around to the left and ended up behind the flight line buildings and stopped behind the largest one in the center. We all got out of the van. The driver went off around the building and PQ and I just stood there, silent, and gazed around. I don’t remember if I did a little dance or what. Then we just looked at each other and began laughing.

 

We were standing approximately in the area of the first mess hall, the one with the incendiary garbage cans and tarp roof . To the left was where we had the “Base PX” (trailer) and the post office. Now there are a couple of small “residence” looking buildings. On our right were the “hangar” buildings, of which there were still six, the first three were 115, 232 and 533, then the large one and then two more smaller ones that I never knew who was in. Right then was when I realized we had messed up, neither PQ nor I had brought along our cruise book. What a couple of jarheads! Photographic record of what the Rose Garden was would have blown away the present day residents.

 

Our driver came back with the young man who was apparently the one who spoke with the guard out by the road. He spoke pretty good English, and said he was happy to meet someone who had returned so far to such a remote place. As we walked around to the front he was asking us all about 1972, and we were hammering him right and left about everything since then. He explained briefly that Nam Phong was now a Royal Thai Reserve Air Force Base and Satellite Transceiver Station. It was “home” to a small contingent of regulars that staffed the satellite dish, and reservists that came in as weekend warriors and trained once a month. He was a staff sergeant, and worked in communications, with the dish. The next month he would be going to Kansas City for six or eight weeks of training, then back to Nam Phong.     

 

We got around to the front of the hangar and stared out at the empty expanse of the flight line. There wasn’t a single plane in sight, but ghost sounds of A-6’s, F-4’s, C-130’s and helicopters were playing in my ears as we watched a solitary orange windsock flapping out across the concrete where my old shop had been located between the flight line and taxiway. For some reason I felt a little sad and never walked across to see if any trace of the fire control shop remained. All that steel matting, all the sweat, all the mud…gone. It reminded me in a way of when we first got there. All you C130 and helicopter guys that laid all those acres of steel matting on the north end, sorry…gone.

 

We weren’t allowed to go in the first three buildings, 115, 232 and 533’s hangars. They are used as temporary living quarters for the reservists, and other pertinent squadron business. The large hangar in the center was fenced off across the front, but we looked in. Except for a few pieces of equipment it was empty. We couldn’t go in the next building either, but were invited into the sixth and southernmost one, which is now their recreation hall. Inside were a few wooden picnic tables, a little area with some furnishings (a couch or two etc), a small pool table and built into the back corner was a snack bar/grill. That was where we started drinking the rice whiskey.

 

In one shady corner, (which is why the photo probably didn’t come out, it might have been the whiskey but I think it was the shade), was a bulletin board, a large one with two groups of pictures on it and a third area with some pages of text written in Thai. The photo’s were individuals, of each squadron member, officer and enlisted easily discernable, officers wore an ascot, enlisted held a wrench. Everyone, however, posed in front of the same aircraft, an old Piper Cub painted black with a small dent in the engine cowling.

 

We sat at a table by the pool table, three old salty veterans of a distant war of another decade, our “base host” and two more regulars that spoke a little English, swapping stories new and old about the hardships of Nam Phong . Our host pointed out the writing above the service window of the snack bar, he said “it says, loosely translated, even though water is hard to come by, it takes heart to stay in Nam Phong.”  Amen to that brother! (Remember how hard it was getting water?)

 

After several games of pool, winning and subsequently losing the Championship of Nam Phong, and consuming mac mac whiskey, the driver was getting familiar enough with our story that he could explain it to the newcomers, who had come to see about the crazy Americans who came clear out here into the middle of no where, to apparently drink and tell stories. The most frequently asked question was, “Why are there large slabs of concrete out in the woods at the bottom of the hill?” They had a hard time comprehending the mess halls, the living areas, and the fact that around 3000 Marines were once stationed there. Again I kicked myself for forgetting the cruise book.

 

It was time to hit the road and head down Rte 1a, towards E-row, our old living area in the “Hawks Roost.” I suppose here is where I should explain my names for the roads. Everybody look at your aerial photo of the base, the closer up one. Figuring the direction of the runway to be approximately north south, with the base on the west side, Rte 1a would be the southernmost road, that started on the south side of the flight line area and went westward down into the valley of the snuffies, across the “When It’s Rainin River” and up into officer country. I call it Rte 1a, because it was the newer bigger road and was built just parallel to Rte 1, the original track into the area. You can just barely make it out in the photo, a straight strip running about 100 ft from the new road. It only went past H&MS living area and then stopped at 533’s.

 

Rte 2 was the road that went by the enlisted mess hall, on the south side. I would go from the flight line area, behind the PX, cut through the bush boo’ies and comm. center, cross Main Street at Task Force Delta, past the Generals one holer, out across that cross road onto Rte 2, and down the hill to chow. That was the fastest walking route.

 

Those were basically the only roads I used. So now, back to the story…

 

We staggered out of the “rec center” and proceeded to Rte 1a. At the intersection of Main St, across from where would have been the laundry shack, was a bunker! Had to have been made by us, those green woven poly fiber bags filled with red dirt. Several had started to fall apart, but for the most part after 12 years of complete neglect, they were holding up nicely. The whole thing looked as if it had been through a fire.

 

We passed Main St and continued down Rte 1a. The cross road that went behind HQ was still there, (although we didn’t take it at this time), further down the sloping road we bottomed out at the When It’s Rainin River. The culvert that had been put in had long since been taken out. The locals probably had a better use for it after we left, (as they no doubt had for most everything that wasn’t anchored in well.) Water coming down had cut through the road making it impassable for about a fifty yard stretch to the other side of the wash. I looked for a way to get down and over, but it looked very user unfriendly.

 

Standing on the road and looking in at where we used to live, we figured we were about adjacent to E-row, our last row of tents. There were a few taller trees lining the wash and we wondered if one of them could be the party tree. I thought about going into the brush and nosing around, a metal detector may have yielded Nates decade old stash can. A closer look at the thorns on some of the flora changed my mind. The brush seemed so hostile, thorny and dry, and if there was a snake in there he had to be a mean bastard. I remembered times when one could slip over or under the wire at the culvert and head into the bush and it was green and lush (and very very eerie at midnight.)

 

We back tracked up the road to the cross road, went over to Rte 2 and proceeded down. There, on the right, half way to the wash was the slab everyone wondered about. It was in the right area, and had to be the mess hall, but it looked so small. Perhaps part of it had been broken up years before. Our guide pointed out that another was further down, also on the right. That made sense as it would have been the officers mess. At the bottom here, as on 1a, the culvert had been removed and the road washed out, no going over to officer country without getting in the briars.

 

At the top of Rte 2 we went into the bush. There was a little trail that went from the cross road over to Main St. We were keeping our eyes peeled for any sign of the Generals one holer. Surely, to bring home the red door with one gold star would be a treasure of insurmountable value. No such luck, all we found was a big ass ant hill and got bit by  savage  black ants. We came up to the satellite dish from the back, a little square clearing with a pretty good sized dish, maybe 15 ft in diameter and a driveway that went out to the road. The location of the dish had to be close to where you can see eight steel roofs in the photo, lined up in two rows of four. Just to the right of the HQ buildings.

 

Coming out on Main St we turned right, heading back towards Rte 1a. Half way between the driveway to the dish and Rte 1a was another driveway. This went up to a little concrete house. This was where our host lived. He went in and quickly returned with a couple more chairs to go with others sitting around a low table beside the house. We sat down and were soon introduced to his wife and children, who began bringing out all kinds of strange things to eat.

 

This was all to cool, because right there, right there in the middle of “The Rose Garden”, was a little house…and a flower garden! With roses! The guys wife was into brightening up the place by keeping a garden. It wasn’t much, as compared to other gardens, but to come all that way and find roses was absolutely incredible.  Turns out he had been stationed there nearly three years and it was her way to keep from going nuts. (And we thought we had it rough having to stay for 1 year.)

 

To go with the food, our host got out another bottle of that nasty ‘ol rice whiskey. We sat there in the sun and ate and drank til the shadows began to grow beyond us. At that point our driver let us know that we had better be on our way if we were to find a place to stay in Kohn Kaen. We hated to leave, but we had accomplished what we set out to do, find Nam Phong and see what was there.

 

Now it has been nearly eighteen years since the Pilgrimage and I find myself still wondering about Nam Phong. Is the reserve base still there? Is the satellite dish still there? …… Is the rose garden still there?    Maybe it’s time for another trip.

 

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