U.S. vets, Viet Cong reconcile on new span in Danang
Forty years passed between Ed Mihalacki’s arrival in Vietnam as a young soldier and his return last spring.
This time he went in peace, in the company of a humanitarian organization working to ease the lives of the residents of the seaport city of Danang.
An Army veteran who enlisted at 17 during the height of the war, Mihalacki served in Vietnam from 1968-69.
Now a technology education teacher in the Hempfield Area School District, he was assigned to an area of operations south of Danang.
“You’re scared all the time that something is going to happen, but you’re too macho to admit it,” he said of his tour of duty.
On this trip, though, there was no fear. Vietnamese and Americans approached each other with hands extended in friendship.
“I always wanted to go back, but not as a tourist. I wanted to go back with a project,” Mihalacki said.
The purpose of the visit was a handover ceremony on the Hoi Yen Bridge, also called the Bridge of Reconciliation, linking the villages of Nam Yen and An Dinh. The two villages have 324 households and 1,370 residents between them, including 400 school-age children.
The villages are surrounded by the Cu De River and Hoi Yen stream. The wet season’s flooding isolated most villagers, leaving them unable to produce or purchase goods. It was difficult for the children to attend school.
The Pittsburgh-based Friends of Danang spent 10 days in country.
“We wanted veterans on the bridge,” including the Viet Cong, for the April ceremony, Mihalacki said.
The Vietnamese have their own version of a Veterans of Foreign Wars, he said, and representatives from various provinces and villages, along with young Communist leaders, attended the ceremony.
“The Vietnamese people seem to handle the war and its aftermath much better than us,” Mihalacki said. “The Viet Cong soldiers I talked to harbor no resentment, even though several of them lost limbs to our weapons.”
The veterans met in the center of the 200-yard bridge and exchanged military pins.
Communicating through interpreters and sign language, they discussed the war and their present lives.
“They were very curious,” said Mihalacki, 59, of Mt. Pleasant Township.
“They asked, ‘Where do you come from?’ … Crowds followed us,” he said. “We were an oddity.”
Mihalacki heard about Friends of Danang several years ago and was impressed with its members’ humanitarian work.
Over the past decade, it has raised money to build schools and a medical clinic in Danang. The bridge is the most recent project.
Every year, Wendover Middle School students participate in a charity dodgeball game. A few years ago they decided to contribute some of the funds they raised to the Friends of Danang, he said.
Not yet a member, Mihalacki invited several representatives to the school to present a check.
They talked about the bridge project. Then they told the gathered students, “We’d like your teacher to join us.”
Mihalacki paid for his trip and participated in numerous fundraisers the group sponsored to help raise the money for the bridge. It cost $55,000 to build, but by U.S. standards it would be close to $1 million, he said.
The Friends of Danang partners with nonprofits like the Vietnam Children’s Fund and East Meets West Foundation to funnel the money to particular projects.
Also on the trip was former Democratic state Rep. Tom Michlovic of North Braddock. Now a commissioner with the Pennsylvania Securities Commission, he and Mihalacki served in the same infantry company. Michlovic was shot in the knee in May 1968, one month after landing on Vietnamese soil, and the two never met face to face.
“Ed was an artillery officer,” Michlovic said. “When I went out on patrol with my platoon, he was covering us with artillery fire if we got in trouble.”
Because he was drafted, Michlovic, 62, was limited to one tour of duty.
“I got my Purple Heart, my Combat Infantry Badge and my ticket home,” he said.
Like Mihalacki, he always hoped to return.
“It’s a really beautiful country with gorgeous beaches. I was only there one month before I was wounded, and it was not a devastating wound. I recovered quickly. For me, the experience was not as negative as it might have been for others,” Michlovic said.
The two met up with a South Vietnamese officer who had been a liaison with the Americans during the war. The three immediately lapsed into “G.I.” speak: one-third English, one-third Vietnamese and one-third “made up and cuss words,” Mihalacki said.
And he visited Cuchi. Once one of the worst battle scenes, it’s now a theme park.
“It’s like a less sophisticated Gettysburg (National Military Park),” he said. “A ‘ruthless American aggressors’ version.”
Around the early 1980s, a student asked Mihalacki why he wasn’t “messed up like Rambo and (the soldiers in the movie) ‘Platoon’.”
“I realized they were getting the history of Vietnam from Hollywood,” he said.
Mihalacki started a middle school Veterans Day program in 1990. And he hopes to establish an exchange of art work and letters between the students of Wendover and those attending a school the Friends of Danang built.
Upon returning home from Vietnam, Mihalacki said, many veterans kept their thoughts and feelings to themselves.
The trip back gave him a chance to talk about those times with his peers, American and Vietnamese.
“Unless you were there, unless you were brothers, no one could understand,” he said.