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Frederick Downs
Frederick Downs
No Longer Enemies; Not Yet Friends
ISBN: 0393030474
No Longer Enemies; Not Yet Friends
Mr. Downs, author of No Longer Enemies, Not Yet Friends: An American Soldier Returns to Vietnam and director of the prosthetic and sensory aids service for the Veterans' Administration talked about his experiences during the Vietnam War and his subsequent return to that country, between 1987 and 1989, as part of the Vessey Mission on Humanitarian aid. He said, "I really hated the Vietnamese until 1987 when General Vessey chose me to be a member of his humanitarian team." Mr. Downs lost his left arm in battle in Vietnam and was decorated with the Purple Heart four times. He has written other books about his experiences during the war and in hospitals after his injury.
No Longer Enemies; Not Yet Friends
Program Air Date: January 26, 1992

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Frederick Downs, author of the book "No Longer Enemies, Not Yet Friends: An American Soldier Returns to Vietnam." Why did you write this book?
FREDERICK DOWNS, AUTHOR, "NO LONGER ENEMIES, NOT YET FRIENDS": Well, I needed to give a different perspective than I'd always had since the end of the war. I really hated the Vietnamese until 1987 when General Vessey chose me to be a member of his humanitarian team to go back to Vietnam to review their humanitarian needs, and I couldn't quite believe I'd been asked. But this, you know, it's part of what I do is work for the government and do what they'd like for me to do. Besides which, I was tremendously curious about the country, but I hated the people and the country. And that had been my stance for years. I'd written a couple of books. In my position, I always was the hard-liner. So when I went to Vietnam in my subsequent trips, as I learned about the people, I learned about the country, I changed my point of view from hatred to objectivity and also trying to understand more of a global point of view and then also the human level these people that we had fought against and that I had hated for so long, you know. Why was that? And when I changed my direction about it, I thought I had an obligation to put those words down on paper, because as a lieutenant in Vietnam, why I felt that it was important to write about being a small unit commander, and those were my thoughts as an individual. Didn't know the global picture, but here's where I was on the ground. Here with this book, this is where I am as a humanitarian team and the people I deal with, and I'm not involved with the global issue, I'm involved right here, and I wanted to tell that story so that people understood better.
LAMB: As you know, you can't go anywhere without, as you write about, little kids noticing your artificial limb. How did that happen?
DOWNS: Well, in 1968, January 11th, I stepped on a Bouncing Betty in Vietnam near Chu Lai-Tam Ky area, which is up in the I-CORPS, and I was an infantry lieutenant in the US Army. And we were leaving for patrol early one morning, I stepped on the Bouncing Betty, which is a land mine that flies up out of the ground and explodes about waist-high, and it went off right by my hip and blew my arm off and severely damaged the rest of my body, too. But that was -- this January 11th, it'll be 24 years ago now.
LAMB: Can you remember that like it was yesterday?
DOWNS: Oh yes, very vividly, very vividly. It threw me through the air and I threw my arms up to catch myself, and that's when I noticed all the damage in this arm, and then there was nothing but a bloody stump here. And this tremendous feeling of sickness, depression, just all the horrors that you can possibly imagine sweep through you at a time like that when you see nothing but a jagged bone where your -- and the arm is gone. And then I landed on my feet maybe 25 feet away. I staggered forward two or three steps and then fell down. And then I rolled over on my back to keep my stump up out of the dirt and my arm up if I could, but I couldn't control myself very well and, except for mass body movements. And from the waist down in the back, my body had been shredded, but I didn't know that at the time.

So I was -- let's see, there were six of us wounded, I was the worst and the RTO, which is the man who carried my radio behind me. From the waist down, he had taken severe damage, and then four other men had been hurt also. So there were two of them screaming. And my machine-gunner ran up to me; he was a farm boy from Minnesota, and I was, at that time, was a farm boy from Indiana, so we had become friends, and he cut off my web gear and my equipment, and he asked me if there was something he could do, and I'd said, "Yeah, I want you to run over and pick up my arm. I don't want to leave it here in the village. I don't want them to know they got me," you know, because you're thinking those kinds of thoughts.

And so he ran over and got what was left of my arm and brought it back and laid it across my stomach and then picked this one up and laid it across my stomach. Then, of course, my platoon sergeant and other men had gathered around and formed a defensive perimeter. We'd been fighting in this area for a number of days. There were no villagers there any longer -- the war was going on. They called in a dust-off. They knocked down a hooch to make room for the helicopter to land. It landed; they loaded the six of us on there. I remember the medic on board the helicopter, a black guy, looked at me and asked if he could do anything, and he yelled in my ear, and I yelled back at him because of the noise of the helicopter and everything that he should cut my boot off because my foot hurt. So he did that. He lit a cigarette, stuck it in my mouth.

The helicopter pilot looked back at me and, of course, you could imagine a helicopter with six wounded people on board. Blood is everywhere, and when a lot of it's your own blood it's so bright red, it makes you feel, you know -- and you know that you're in danger of dying. So, to make a long story short, finally got to the hospital and all of a sudden my heart stopped, but the surgeons were standing over me, and they got me going again. But, of course, I didn't know that at that time. Years later, that surgeon and I got in contact, and he had written me in his diary, January 11th, because it happened to be his wife's birthday, and so that's how we made contact all those years later. And he explained that part of the story to me, so that's what happened to me. And it's always been very vivid in my mind. There was much more to it, but it would be very boring, I think, to go through it right now.
LAMB: How often have you had to tell that story?
DOWNS: Oh, numerous times over the years. I'm one of those kinds of people. I'm very gregarious, I think, is the word, and it was a catharsis for me. I wanted to talk about what had happened to me in the war rather than hold it inside, and I think that was a healthy thing to do. Because, for one thing, it was the most alive time -- most vivid time of my life. This was the fourth time I'd been wounded. We were in a lot of combat. You're a young man -- I was the second oldest man in my company, I was 23, company commander was 26, so the men with us were 18, 19, 20 years old, and at 23, I was considered an old man. I wish I was 23 again, but -- just leading those men in combat, keeping them alive, fighting the enemy, the intense combat we were in, I found out later we were in one of the five provinces in the south that was never pacified. And it was so intense that it's going to be in my memory cells forever, very vividly parts of it, certainly. And you can't get rid of it, you can't hide it, you can't deny it, it's there, and so you must deal with it and go on with your life, which is, I think, the philosophy I've always had. No matter how bad things get, you keep on going.
LAMB: Where were you born?
DOWNS: Kingman, Indiana.
LAMB: Where's that?
DOWNS: Fifty miles north of Terre Haute, Indiana, which is sort of central southern part of Indiana, along the state line of Illinois. It's way out in the middle of nowhere.
LAMB: How did you get to the Army?
DOWNS: Well, I went to college in Indiana State University at Terre Haute, and when I was a senior, I got kicked out. I was working my way through college and having a good time at the same time. And having a good time won out over working hard and studying hard, so I got kicked out. Joined the Army because I didn't want to miss the war and went into the infantry, then went to OCS.
LAMB: Which stands for?
DOWNS: Officer Candidates School -- graduated as a distinguished graduate, went into the infantry. And I found a home in the Army, as my friends would like to say. I loved the Army. It was a great life, and I enjoyed my job.
LAMB: How long did you stay in it?
DOWNS: Altogether, I was in it for three years. I spent a year-and-a-half in training, a half a year in combat, and then a year in the hospital. So the government didn't really get their money's worth out of me, but it worked out to almost exactly three years.
LAMB: And what year did you get out of the Army, and then what did you do?
DOWNS: January the 1st, 1969, I got out of the Army. And I was of mixed emotions about that. I didn't want to get out, I loved it, but I started back to college at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, because I had been assigned to the US Army Hospital at Fitzsimons, which was a big hospital, and that's where I was for the year I was recuperating. And so I started college back there. I went back -- it was very anti-war. I started writing for the school newspaper then. I was considered the hawk on the campus. And I thought I was just writing an objective point of view, but college students are very narrow-minded. They didn't want an objective point of view, they wanted their point of view to be expressed, and I would not express it.

So there were lots of confrontations, and that's when I became very combative about it, very aggressive, which is my nature anyway, and saying, "Well, there are more than one side to any stories." So then I went into private industry for a while. But when I was 30, I wanted to go back to work for the government. I enjoyed that work. Working for people, working with people was more important to me than working for money. And money's nice, don't get me wrong, but there's more to it than that, and at that time I was in a job where it was money and real estate and property and land deals in Colorado, and it just didn't suit me.

So I went to work for the government at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Administration in those days, and I've been with them 17 years now, and I've been the director of Prosthetics and Sensory Aids Service for the last 11 years. And as such, I'm responsible -- for instance, last year my service provided prosthetic appliances to over 1.3 million disabled veterans in the United States. And that's our responsibility -- is to provide those appliances, develop a policy to procedure, keep aware of the new technology, really involved with disabled communities in many aspects. Spinal cord injured -- the different computers that are now becoming available to help disabled people regain their independence and mobility -- it's just very exciting. What we're in the middle of now is this renaissance of equipment for the disabled now is coming available.
LAMB: Let me ask you about -- what's the correct term for your arm?
DOWNS: Well, it's a prosthetic appliance, prosthetic arm, artificial limb. I call it the hook. My little girls -- they call it the hook, "Daddy has a hook." And I talk a lot to children, give lots of little talks to school kids and such and also to newly disabled. And one of the things I tell them is that, "If you as a disabled person, if you're comfortable with yourself, then people around you will be comfortable with you. If you're not comfortable with yourself, they won't be comfortable."

So that's my philosophy, and I always preach it, because when you need to feel comfortable and ask questions. It's an alien device at first -- well, how does it work; what's it made out of? There's lots of questions about it. And so to me, it's a lot of fun to go to classrooms and speak to kids about it, and especially little kids, they're the best, and ask them questions, and let them ask you questions. And I'll take my shirt off in a demonstration, and I'll take my arm off and pass it around. And I have some extra hooks and some hands I pass around. And they lose their fear of it. And then there's always a child or two in the room who has a parent or a relative or a friend who's disabled, and they're not afraid, then they'll talk about it. And I open up the hook and have them put their finger inside of it like that, and I'll show them how I can control that with my arms.
LAMB: Not to jump ahead, there's so much to talk about, about your book, but there's a point in your book where you ask the North Vietnamese, or the Vietnamese, across the table from you to stick their finger out, and you grab them with the finger?
DOWNS: That's right. We were discussing the appliances. And the Vietnamese, as you get to know them, they're very unpretentious, and so they're very curious also. And so we were asked -- they were asking me how my arm's working, and I said, "Well, here. I'll show you I can control it." So I would open my hook like this, and I'd ask one of them, "Well, put your finger in there, and I'll show you how I can grasp it." So I did that, and then all of them stuck their finger in it. And just like all people who are curious about it, "Well, how much of a grip do you have?" And they begin to lose their fear of it. Or certainly, if they're not afraid of it, to gain satisfaction for their curiosity. And it's a nice way to break the ice.
LAMB: I'm curious -- when I was growing up, you saw the hook...
DOWNS: That's right.
LAMB: ...but since then, there have been, you know, I'm not an expert on this, but there are a lot of new devices, even people that walk around with hands, a full hand.
DOWNS: Absolutely.
LAMB: Why did you choose to use this, which is so obvious as to what it is compared to the people that wear the hands?
DOWNS: Well, 22 years ago you had a choice, you could get the cosmetic hand and which looks reasonably human, or you could get the hook, which is functional, and I chose function over cosmetics. And it is hard for an upper extremity amputee to really accept these devices when they're newly disabled because it is so alien. And you find out that you can get along with one hand. And so it becomes difficult for a person to begin to fit it. And they are sort of an aggravation at first as you get used to it. But I chose a hook because I'm a very active person. And I was going to get over, you know, the psychological barriers I had. I was going to learn how to use this, I was going to wear it, and I was going to go out into public and not be afraid. And so made up my mind that's what I was going to do, and that's what I did.
LAMB: The one thing people can't see here is you're wearing cowboy boots, and I know that you mentioned that in the book. I don't know if we can get a picture of these cowboy...
DOWNS: Well, I can hold them up like this.
LAMB: Is this a trademark of yours?
DOWNS: No. Well, it is now. When I grew up on the farm, of course, in Indiana we didn't wear cowboy boots, but when I was stationed in Colorado, I started wearing cowboy boots, and I loved them. And my wife's family, they're all ranchers down in southeast Colorado. So I started wearing cowboy boots. Then when I got transferred back to Washington, why, everybody said, "Well, you're going to have to get black wingtips and the rest of them." I said, "Well, no -- why not? What's wrong with a good pair of cowboy boots?" Because in the West even formal functions, you wear your cowboy boots. So I've always continued wearing them. And that's what I do now.
LAMB: You've written other books, how many?
DOWNS: Two others.
LAMB: What were they about?
DOWNS: The first one was called "The Killing Zone: An American Soldier in Vietnam." It was about my experiences as a combat lieutenant. Then the second book was "Aftermath," and that was my experiences being in the hospital, in Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Denver, Colorado. And each book, I didn't know I was going to write, so then I wrote this book, which really makes it a trilogy now. So it's the first first-person trilogy I've ever, you know, I've ever seen really about a war and the experiences from -- that cover a 23-year span of personal involvement with that country and with the people.
LAMB: Not many people who work for the government as a civil servant write books for a living. Is that a conflict at all?
DOWNS: No. No. I'm asked that question many times, too, because -- especially as we have all these ethical dilemmas that we are faced with today in the government. But I write at night and on the weekends. In fact, I was telling my oldest daughter this holiday that it's the first holiday in years where I haven't had this sword hanging over my head knowing I've got to work on this galley, I've got to work on this proof, I've got to work, work, work on a book. There's no books; there's no articles. This is the first holiday in years that I can enjoy it. And so I really have. I have another book that I'm preparing information on, and soon after this holiday, I'm going to start working on it again.
LAMB: What's the subject?
DOWNS: This one is going to be about Indiana, the Midwest, and it's going to cover about 150-year span. Those are two of my great, great grandparents were in the Civil War, one on the North, one on the South. And so I'm going to really start the book at that time. But it's going to describe what it was like for the people themselves, and if I do it properly, why then, I hope it'll cover the whole span of the last century, but certainly most of this century, and the changes that occurred in that agrarian society. Agrarian, did I say that word right? Farm society, anyway.
LAMB: What's the draw to do that book after you've done three on Vietnam?
DOWNS: Well, it's always an interest of mine, history, and our history, and I think what is a lot of interest to me is the changes that have occurred that people really haven't paid a lot of attention to that have really strengthened the fabric of our country. And when I listen to the stories of the old people back home, like Katie Corry, who's 96 years old and her husband Wayne, who just died last year, he was 95, or 97, excuse me. What it was like, and they talk about their grandparents, we're talking early into the 1800s. And so those changes, I think, are very interesting to people and to describe them. If you read, like I like to read, is when I learn something as I read it really heightens the value of the book to me; it makes it more fun.
LAMB: We've talked for 20 minutes, and we haven't talked about this book. And I want to show the audience the index part of it and ask you to describe how you laid this book out, and over what period of time are you writing about here?
DOWNS: OK. I'm going to have to look myself. It has to do with the first five trips I made to Vietnam, and so the first four sections are the first, second, third, fourth trip to Vietnam. And the first trip took place in August 1987. And then the second trip to Vietnam was November of '87; third trip was January '88; fourth trip was March of '88.Then Dr. Bui Tung visited America on December of 1988, and Dr. Bui Tung was a member of the North Vietnamese delegation that we were meeting with. And then there's the fifth trip to Vietnam, which was May of '89. And the book covers that span of time. I, since then, have made two other trips. In fact, we had a three-week trip this summer. As you know, or may not know, the United States government, the State Department, the administration actually, decided to provide for the first time since the end of the war one million US dollars to help in humanitarian aid to Vietnam. And so I went over with Lloyd Feinburg from AID, and we went from Hanoi in the north all the way down Highway One to Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, then on to Konto in the Delta. So we covered that whole span of the country in a little over -- in about a three-week period. And it was an amazing trip. But that was part of it, and the reason we were there was to determine how the $1 million should be spent in Vietnam to effect the most good.
LAMB: What was amazing about that trip?
DOWNS: It was amazing because I've always traveled outside of Hanoi, but all of our trips, the first five trips were always in the north, never been south before, and this trip was traveling through the south and seeing the country at peace, which I'd never seen before. Went through some of my old battlefields. In fact, I stood at one of the bridges we'd guarded -- which over a period of time there were people wounded, there were people killed, there was lots of activity there, barbed wire, we had sandbags. And as we got close to the road, I told the person, the interpreter with us, to tell the driver to stop the van because I wanted to walk the rest of this distance up to this bridge. And it was a bright sunny day. Fields were green with rice and, of course, the mountains were around us on the west, and on the east, you could just barely see the white sandy beaches next to the ocean. So I started walking down the road, and all these Vietnamese were out in the fields working, and I walked towards this bridge, and in my day, it had been a bailey bridge because the original bridge had been blown up and had been laying alongside of the road, where the Army engineers had drug it off and replaced it with an old bailey bridge.
LAMB: What's a bailey bridge?
DOWNS: That's a temporary bridge that the Army uses to bridge a stream or a short river, and it's laid down, it's just angle iron that can actually, I think, almost take a tank in some cases. But it's a temporary bridge, and that's what we had been guarding on Highway One near Duc Pho, south of Duc Pho. Driving through Duc Pho was an experience. But, anyway, walking up the road and walking towards that bridge, which had been replaced in the south, not all the bridges had been replaced. In fact, we crossed over many bailey bridges that, as I said, these were temporary bridges. And so we crossed over many today that 23 years later still working. But this bridge had been replaced.

I stood next to it, I looked around at all the areas where it had foxholes and bunkers and up on the ridge where we were attacked one day, had been shot at one day, the road where a land mine had gone off and killed an Army engineer, another section of the road where a land mine had gone off and killed three Vietnamese. In fact, I had fired a round that startled them as they were laying land mines at night, and they blew themselves up. I looked at the place where we had scratched a hole in the earth and buried them. Everywhere I looked around that perimeter was something that was very real to me. Here we had been attacked one night, and I called in artillery, and we took patrols around through the area. Very vivid in my memory.

And then standing there and looking at that all these years later and looking at the people working in the fields, and myself, and thinking of how time has a way of changing one's perspective, but also changes the situation so that at one time when you're an enemy and you would do anything to kill each other, given some time and -- both environment and situations, you can stand there peacefully and with the -- actually, I'm sure, many of the older people there that had been there when I was there, because Vietnamese don't move around a lot. And looking at the children out there and thinking, "Well, now they're not fighting each other, and I'm just a tourist in their country, a passerby on this bridge." One must think about those moments, because when you think of all the violence and the terror and the anxiety, all the things that happened then, and where we are today with Vietnam and where we're going, and you look at the people out there working, which is really what all this is about, our people and their people, then I think that, you know, I think Aristotle it was that said, "We act, we suffer, we grow." And I think the growth is something that we must always continue as human beings if we are to mature and go on with what is the right direction, sometimes not knowing what the right direction is. And so these are the things that motivate me in dealing with the Vietnamese now between our government and their government. And I'm certainly not in the policymaking areas. I'm just one of the people down in the ranks here that work towards whatever we're told to do.

And General Vessey and the administration, both the Reagan and the Bush administration, at least at the presidential level, are the ones who are backing this and have continued to back it. General Vessey with his expert team and with us as a humanitarian team, we continue moving forward in our way, in little increments it may seem like on the world stage -- in fact it's mostly unnoticed. The Vietnamese in their way moving forward in little increments, addressing our needs and concerns, and keeping this thing knitted together at this level, while at this upper level, the politics and the world situations, you know, rustle back and forth about, you know, where are we, are we going to recognize Vietnam, are we not, Cambodia, Laos -- everything's involved at this upper level. Meanwhile, down here, we keep the thing going because both countries want this to happen, and it's just a very laborious, tedious process which involve a lot of fine people on both sides. And that's what I try to tell the story about and also explain Vietnam from different perspectives than I'd always thought of it before.
LAMB: What's our current relationship with Vietnam government to government?
DOWNS: Well, currently we don't recognize Vietnam, and there's also a Trading with the Enemies Act which means that no American individual or company can do business with Vietnam and we also have a trade restriction on them. And these embargoes are all designed to restrict Vietnam on the world stage. And these are designed for various reasons. They've been in place really since the end of 1975. And their purpose and their motivation are designed to force Vietnam to do things in a way that we perceive as being the right way of doing it. And that's the reason for it. And Vietnam has changed over the years. The Vietnam of 1991 is not the Vietnam of 1975 or 1985.

As a matter of fact, because the Vietnamese themselves have changed, they've recognized in a pragmatic way that, all right, they fought 50 years against the Japanese, the French, and the Americans, and they won finally. But peace is a heck of a lot harder than war is, and the Vietnamese that I've talked to, and I think I've read this in other places, too, they will say to you very openly that our war leaders are not as good in peace and, therefore, we must get people into place who understand how to work with peace. And they don't know how to do that yet. And so there's lots of -- and also power struggles within the Vietnamese political structures as this change occurs. But is is happening rapidly now.

In fact, if everything else in the world wasn't going on, people would be focusing on Vietnam because of the rapid changes there. Now the critics of Vietnam and the critics who say we should not change our stance of Vietnam focus on the fact that the Vietnamese still do some tough bad things. They throw people in jail for being political dissidents, for writing out, speaking out. They don't do it in the numbers that they used to, but they still do it. Human right violations are often pointed out. And the Vietnamese are struggling with this, but, you know, they have to accept the blame for these bad things happening, which really feeds the critics' point of view in that Vietnam is not responding and, therefore, we should continue the trade embargoes and not normalize with them.
LAMB: You write that the UN classifies Vietnam as 162nd out of a 164 nations in the world when it comes to ...
DOWNS: Poverty.
LAMB: ... poverty.
DOWNS: That's correct. In 1987, that's what it was.
LAMB: To someone who hasn't been there, can you describe what that means, what poverty really means?
DOWNS: It means that if you cut your finger, you can't go anywhere to buy a Band-Aid; you don't have the money to buy the Band-Aid; and there's no place to go. It means that the difference between the highest level government official and the lowest person in the society is like that. There is no upper or lower or middle class, so to speak, almost one class, everybody's so poor. The high government officials that we meet with, their monthly salary is about $20, $17- $20, US. Walking, riding bikes, gasoline -- when you're driving along the road to get gasoline, they do have gasoline pumps now in some places, but mostly you get gasoline from wine bottles that hold gasoline that are set up on wooden crates along the side of the road that entrepreneurs have set up to try and -- that's how you'll see people drive their motorcycles up next to it, get a wine bottle and pour in the gasoline and pay the dong to the ind ividualthere and go on down his way.
LAMB: What's a dong?
DOWNS: Dong is their method of payment, their money, what they call their money. In the south, there used to be piastas. Well, those are done away with, and now it's dong, D-O-N-G. So it takes -- inflation and such -- last trip, in July of '91, the inflation rate was about 8,000 dong to one US dollar, and that was in the north, when we went south it was about 9,000 dong to one dollar.
LAMB: You say in your book, it was 80 to one official at one point.
DOWNS: Officially in 1987, the official rate was 80 dong to one dollar. The black market rate at that time, I remember rightly...
LAMB: Eight hundred.
DOWNS: Eight hundred -- 800 dong.
LAMB: I think it was 800, and now it's all the way up to 8,000, 9,000.
DOWNS: But now it's recognized. See, then it wasn't, then it was controlled, and there was a big black market. So one of the changes the Vietnamese made was -- accepting reality -- is you let that dong float, which is what has happened now. And now it's controlled. It controls itself because of the inflation rate, and in fact, there's an even tradeoff and it seems to be working out much better for the Vietnamese. One of the books that they always ask us to bring if we offer to bring them something is a book on economics. And my friends and I laugh about that because to us economics in college was common sense made hard, but they insist -- they're trying to learn -- they don't understand economics very well, and one of the things that they're doing is that they're trying to read up on it, which, of course, be that as it may -- I think the most important thing they're doing is trying to bring in Vietnamese from outside the country back into the country to help them with designing systems that work.
LAMB: In your book, you are somewhat vivid from -- go back to '87, the colors and sunny days and cloudy skies and what the buildings look like and all that. Did you take a diary or did you keep a diary as you went through this?
DOWNS: Yes, I kept a little journal as I went along, and I have a good memory for scenes, not for names of people, but for scenes. And it's like a snapshot, and so I can describe a certain area, the colors, the surroundings, and that's how I remember things so well in that respect. Now I may have trouble with the names of people, and I really have to make sure I write those down if I get it right. But I can describe the village. Now, the village name is a problem to me, but the village itself is very clear to me. And then the atmosphere, the ambiance of the village itself.
LAMB: If we were to -- you and I decided we were going to go to Vietnam right now, get up and leave from this chair, first of all forget your official capacity, working for the government, could we get in there?
DOWNS: Yes, we could, but we couldn't do it through an American travel agency. We'd have to do it through a Canadian travel agency or go to Bangkok and go to a travel agency there and buy our tickets. Now we have to get our visas in Bangkok. We can't do any of that work here in the States. But, yes, it can be arranged. And they have -- in fact, at home I have some travel brochures, the Hanoi Tourism had printed these up, and I have the five-day, the seven-day and the 10-day tourist trips. Then they also have the special business trip. The business trip is not so laid out as far as where you're going to go. And that's all set up in Bangkok.
LAMB: How long would it take us -- if we decided today we wanted to go there, how long would it take us to get there?
DOWNS: Oh, I don't know, I've never done it as a nongovernment official, but talking to some of my friends, you have to go through some weeks of work because you have to contact the UN delegation, Vietnamese delegation up in New York, and you have to apply for your visas. And it's not because that they don't want you there, it's because their bureaucracy, their paper work just is very laborious. It doesn't track real well.
LAMB: But they're not members of the UN, are they?
DOWNS: As a matter of fact, they are, because in 1978 one of the things that President Carter did was to -- when the vote came up before the UN to allow Vietnam to come into the UN, one of the deals at that time that was struck was that we didn't vote for or against them. We abstained, America did, and so Vietnam was voted into the UN.
LAMB: It was South and North Vietnam that were not members before that?
DOWNS: I think so. You got me on that one, I don't know what it was like before.
LAMB: They are full-fledged members now?
DOWNS: But Vietnam is a member of the UN. And that was during Carter's era when he was trying to, in fact, the Vietnamese, if they had not been -- they made some strategical errors back in '78, and otherwise, normalization process would have moved forward. But in those days, the hard-liners were still in charge in Vietnam. And you have to remember one thing, the hard-liners in Vietnam, many of them, hate America as bad as the hard-liners in America hate Vietnam. And hard-liners on each side -- opposite side tend to reinforce each other's beliefs. But in those days, there were many of them -- they didn't care anything about Vietnam or America, and they didn't want to have anything to do with us, and so they did some things which caused at that time the Carter administration to stop all normalization processes and put it into limbo. Then Vietnam invaded Cambodia, and everything changed from that point on.
LAMB: To go to Vietnam, you fly where?
DOWNS: Well, we fly into Bangkok, and from Bangkok you can take either Thai Airways or Vietnam Airline. I recommend Thai Airways. Vietnam Air is the old -- they're the old Russian. I call them the Russian junkers that they would give or sell to the Vietnamese, old TU-134s. They are scary airplanes. In fact, one of the airplanes that we normally rode back and forth with, and one of our teams went in, they were scheduled to come out, and they took another flight to Laos -- well, the flight they were scheduled to take crashed on the approach to Bangkok International, and everyone on board was killed. It was said that they ran out of fuel about three miles short. Fuel is so expensive, and the Vietnamese are so hard up for cash that the airplanes are flying with just exact amount of fuel to get from one airport to another. And so they ran short and crashed about three miles short of the runway, and everyone was killed back in, I think it was '89.
LAMB: OK, you fly to -- I mean you flew to Hanoi, you write about it here, matter of fact, I've got a photo here of your group, and this...
DOWNS: There we are in the C-12, by the way, the American aircraft.
LAMB: And this was your first trip?
DOWNS: This was the first trip, and for the first trip for a part of diplomacy, we flew in a United States of America C-12, Department of -- oh, golly, for the defense attache -- I forget the -- Anyway, it was the defense attache's aircraft out of Bangkok, so it was the grey and white aircraft with the United States of America across the side of it, at the inside of it, and it was a two-engine propeller craft, turbo prop. We flew into Hanoi, then there's a van there to pick us up. And the van, by the way, even if you're a private citizen going over, you arrange to have a van take you into Hanoi from the international airport. It's about a 45-minute trip. Fascinating trip driving down the roads to Hanoi. And then when you get to the Red River, and you cross the bridge and you reach the levee on the other side, and you look out across Hanoi, looks exactly like what you have read about an old French provincial town in the 1800s.

There's hardly any building taller than the trees, and, of course, there's a haze usually over the city because of the moisture in the air and the dust, and so it's very -- it's almost like an impressionist painting. Very beautiful. And if you get there when the sun is going down in the afternoon and the sun rays are slanting in and coming up out mist of the city, it's very, very beautiful. And you drive down off the levee into the city, and I don't think there's -- in that part of the world there's any city more populated than Hanoi. Now I'm not talking about India, but certainly in that part of Asia. Hanoi is tremendously populated. And I don't even know if they have an account of the people there. But everywhere you go, there are people everywhere, simply everywhere. And then you have the embassy row, which is right next to the Hanoi Hilton.
LAMB: How many people live in Vietnam?
DOWNS: About -- at the last -- since I read, 65 million people. Both the Mekong Delta in -- in the south and the Red River Delta in the north are two of the most heavily populated deltas in the world as far as the number of people.
LAMB: Do you have a rough idea of how many people live in Hanoi?
DOWNS: Oh, I've heard anywhere, two to three million. It's a small city.
LAMB: Now, I vividly remember one of your accounts of chomping into a piece of bread.
DOWNS: Oh, yes.
LAMB: With some characters in the bread.
DOWNS: That's right. Well, when we first made our trip in, why, there were three of us on humanitarian team, Dr. Carl Savory, Dr. Larry Ward and myself. And so to accompany us in, the JCRC team went in, and that's the crew that's been working since 1973 on working on the recovery of MIA remains, POW.
LAMB: Just looking at this picture of -- Larry Ward's on the left, on the right looking at the screen, and Carl Savory's on the...
DOWNS: Dr. Carl Savory's on the left, that's me in the middle there. So to help us along on this first trip, doctor -- or General Vessey thought it would be a good idea to send in the JCRC team because they had been going in there ever since '73.
LAMB: All right, let me stop you, because I never did ask you who General Vessey is, who is he?
DOWNS: I'm sorry. General John Vessey Jr., who's a former chief of staff and...
LAMB: Of the Army.
DOWNS: Well, actually, chief of staff, what am I saying, he was...
LAMB: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the military.
DOWNS: Yeah, that's right. He was in charge of everybody at the Pentagon under Reagan. Why, he retired. And then he was made by President Reagan -- he was appointed as a presidential emissary to Vietnam on POW-MIA affairs.
LAMB: Is he still doing that?
DOWNS: And he's still doing that. When Bush was elected, why, Bush reappointed him to that position. So Vessey has made many trips over there. He deals at the highest levels with the Vietnamese and is really the one who carries forward the American policy as determined back here by the administration.
LAMB: And JCRC means what?
DOWNS: Oh, I knew you -- I knew you were going to ask me that. The Joint Recovery -- it's the Joint Recovery Commission -- I can't even think. We'll have to look in the back on the index.
DOWNS: I call them JCRC, and I've used that acronym for so many years I don't even know what it means any more. I just know it's the -- the guys that do all the work as far as working with the Vietnamese, meeting with the Vietnamese, going through the records, going out to the search the wreck sites and digging up the search sites, looking for MIA remains. They're the Americans who've been doing this since '73.
LAMB: Joint Casualty Resolution Center.
DOWNS: That's it.
LAMB: And they've been doing this since '73.
DOWNS: That's correct.
LAMB: And you got into this in '87?
DOWNS: That's right, '87. And I'm not a part of their team...
DOWNS: ...but this is where it gets really --it's kind of delicate how it was done, but our humanitarian team, one of the ... What happened when General Vessey went over in spring of '87 and in August of '87, the arrangement he worked out with the Vietnamese was to separate out the humanitarian issues from the political and economic issues that separated our two countries. Now, this was a key because up until that time the Vietnamese wanted to include the humanitarian issues with the political and economic, and our humanitarian issues were POW-MIAs, Amerasian children, the orderly departure program, getting our former allies out of the re-education camps -- those were all our concerns.

And their concerns, which is the reason I was included in our humanitarian team, was to look at their needs for the disabled, particularly in the area of the amputees. And so that was the reason I was on the humanitarian team that Vessey put together. So our humanitarian team was separate from the POW-MIA team for those reasons, that was considered -- we didn't want a tit-for-tat kind of thing, even though it probably looks like that, and many ways, it probably is construed that way. So for our first trip in, the JCRC team went in with us, and so they kind of guided us through the -- telling us what was going on, where to go, and they speak Vietnamese very fluently. In fact, on that team that went in with us, two of the men are married to Vietnamese women, and so, you know, it's -- they're very Vietnamese-oriented as far as the culture and how it goes within that country.

And they had been meeting with the Vietnamese for so many years, why the Vietnamese and the JCRC team men had a lot of common knowledge about what was going on and how it was going to happen. And so the humanitarian team was the new player in the game. And everyone was concerned, or actually curious about, well, were the Vietnamese really serious about this humanitarian concept? And we didn't know what was going to happen, and so when we went into Vietnam in Hanoi, we were literally going in blind as to whether this was going to work, or was it just a Vietnamese ploy? And it turned out the Vietnamese were dead serious about it. And based on our experiences there, why, we write the reports and we write about the needs of the Vietnamese, and we went forward from that point on to determine how we could best help the Vietnamese, and that's what we worked on.
LAMB: We'll come back to that because I don't want to lose track of it, but the bread ...
DOWNS: Oh, the bread. I'm sorry.
LAMB: I mean, and the reason I bring it up is because of the conditions you found when you first went there.
DOWNS: That's right, because -- and to get back to being on my story is, I was sitting across the table from the JCRC team, we were at the government guest house, and I was eating the bread, and it tasted good, had a kind of a smoky flavor to it, but it was crunchy like it had poppy seeds inside of it. And so the -- the four JCRC guys were sitting there with big grins on their faces, and so I'm talking about this bread, and I wondered what the crunchy part of it was, and they explained to me that that was weevils that were baked in the bread when they baked the bread. And so the bread was full of weevils, little black specks, and I was crunching down on them, and I stopped eating the bread and thought, well, everybody else seems to be eating it, it's OK, and it's been cooked, so all the germs have been killed, so I continued eating the bread. After that point, it depended on the season of the year, you get more weevils than others. But that was really an experience for me, eating the bread with weevils, baked weevils in it.
LAMB: How about the living conditions in the hotel?
DOWNS: Very spartan in those days. A straw mallet, a cot on a hardwood bed. And and the pillow was also straw. Had the mosquito netting over you at night.
LAMB: You say "in those days." Has it changed?
DOWNS: Yes, it has. I went to the government guest house last year. Why, they now have a foam mattress, and they've improved their air conditioner, their window units.
LAMB: You write it sounds like you had a truck coming through your room.
DOWNS: Oh, it was. This was some East German air conditioner, God knows when it was built, but all it did was make noise, and it pushed out a stream of cold air in front of it, about that long and about that big around. And beyond that the air was so dense, so humid, so hot, the air conditioner just wouldn't work. And so I'd lie there in bed with this mosquito netting over me, just sweat pouring out of me, and wishing that the thing would work, and it was in a window which was a wood frame, glass that was just shaking like this, and I expected the whole side of the wall to collapse in. And this was the best hotel that North Vietnam had to offer, which was the government guest house that had been built by the East Germans, I think, who they considered their friends.

And it was just a typical, what I considered communist architecture, shoddy materials, but you get used to it. It did have an indoor toilet. Don't dare drink the water. I would never drink the water in Vietnam, not on a bet. Only bottled water. And the joke is that you don't want to watch them when they bottle the water, because they just go and turn on the spigot. But so far, I've never been sick in Vietnam, and I've eaten a lot of the food and done a lot of traveling in the country, Haiphong Harbor, Ba Vi, of course, all through the south. So I just drink bottled beer and bottled water and anything that's inside a bottle or a can I eat. I'm not afraid of that.
LAMB: We're running out of time, and I can't believe how much I haven't asked you about yet. And those that buy the book will get all the details on your negotiations sitting across the table from your group. But I want to ask you about Bui Tung.
DOWNS: Dr. Bui Tung.
LAMB: Who is he and why did he eventually come to the United States?
DOWNS: Dr. Bui Tung was on the North Vietnamese delegation representing a medical side of the team and his job, as he was in charge of the prosthetic centers in the rehabilitation centers in the north and the south. And he was the professional expert that we dealt with all the time, and we made the offer to him to come to the United States and to visit with us. He was one of the first, not the first, but one of the first North Vietnamese government officials to be allowed in the Washington, DC, area, outside the 25-mile perimeter of New York of the UN. And so our State Department and DOD and, of course, other individuals and government went in there fully aware of this. In fact, it all had to be agreed at the administrative level -- the administration level before this could be done. Once it was done, then the decision was to let Bui Tung be taken care of by, at this time, the other member of the humanitarian team, Dr. Bruce van Dam, who was an Army colonel at Walter Reed, and myself. And so we hosted him while he was here in the Washington, DC, area. I had him for about a week, and van Dam had him for about a week and a half. And also Dr. Bui Tung then went south to Williamsburg and presented a paper to the Society of Army Surgeons.
LAMB: What was he during the war?
DOWNS: Well, during the war he was a surgeon, and in fact we asked him, Bob Kerrey, who in those days we knew him and he was a friend of ours, and he is an am...
LAMB: Senator Kerrey.
DOWNS: Yes, Senator Kerrey. He is an amputee, so I invited him to come along and meet Dr. Bui Tung. So we were sitting at Bullfeathers having a beer and...
LAMB: The restaurant here on Capitol Hill.
DOWNS: That's correct. And Dr. Bui Tung was looking around at all what's going on, and Bob Kerrey says, "Where did you get your medical training?" And Dr. Bui Tung said, "Jungle." And so all of us looked at him and said, "Jungle, what do you mean?" He said, "Well, I joined the Viet Men when I was a very young man ..."
LAMB: What's the Viet Men?
DOWNS: The Viet Men was the name of the Vietnamese group or guerrillas that fought the French. So he joined the Viet Men, and he was a young man, I think 19 at the time, studying in medical school. And so during the wet season, why, they studied in the jungle and he started to become a surgeon. During the dry season, he would go out into the battlefield and do OJT, on-job-training, and be a surgeon out there. And then during the wet season, he'd go back into the jungle to the schools that the Viet Men were conducting, dry season back to the battlefield. So he did this for five years fighting the French. And that's how he got his training. Very, very fine individual, very tough man, very tough, but also a very sensitive man, and I've grown to like him a lot. My family and I think very much of him.
LAMB: Why did you take him to The Washington Post while he was here?
DOWNS: Well, because I know some people down there, and to me Washington Post represents a newspaper that is what America is all about. In other words, we're very -- we want to know what's going on everywhere. And so this is a direct dichotomy to the Vietnamese and the communist way of thinking, I should say. And so I wanted him to see what a big newspaper was like in a city like this. So I took him down there and showed him around.
LAMB: What was his reaction?
DOWNS: Well, he liked that, he liked that. He liked that part of our society, he liked the openness of it. It's hard for the Vietnamese hierarchy to really understand how open we are in America. And I think another thing that is hard for the Vietnamese to understand is that we have open dissension in our Congress and on TV, and it's hard for them to realize that this is the honest debate that goes on in this country. It doesn't mean that if I say today we're going to normalize relationships that as a government official that that's going to happen, because it's my opinion. No. It mea ns it may be in my opinion, and your opinion may be directly opposite to it, and we'll argue about it on here. Well, the Vietnamese way of making decisions is they all get in a closed room, make a decision on what they're going to do, and then they all say, "This is what we're going to do." And that's how they do it. And to them it's alien to discuss this outside open doors. And so I wanted to show him this is the way America does things. And so they had -- Dr. Bui Tung could go anywhere.

We took him down to the Wall, the memorial to the Vietnamese veterans, and he got to see the names on the Wall. Took him to the White House, took him to Congress, showed him around the city, took him down to a couple of bars, took him to some restaurants, took him to a Chinese restaurant, and just showed him everything. He saw prostitutes on 14th Street. We'd be driving down the road, he saw drug deals on 14th Street, he saw the homeless. And for me to try to explain to him as a communist, our way of life is better, and then he would say, "What about these people and these people?" And I'd say, "Well, part of America's greatness is that we allow people to do these kind of things even though sometimes it's not good for them." And, of course, that was the year we had a big murder rate in the country, and it was hard to explain why we don't put all these people in prison forever, we have to give them rights, too. It's a great lesson in civics.
LAMB: Here's a monument in North Vietnam. And you can't see it very well in this picture, but that is a blackened face of John McCain, the senator from Arizona. What's this all about?
DOWNS: Well, that is a commemoration to the Vietnamese people for shooting down the American air pilot -- air parts, as they call them, and John McCain was shot down in that lake that you see behind the picture, and he was dragged out of the water by a Vietnamese peasant. And that memorial there -- commemoration to the Vietnamese people for their dedication to the war, for shooting down that day I think 10 pilots, American pilots, and they gave his name as an example of the type of people that they were shooting down.
LAMB: What's this picture?
DOWNS: That's the Hanoi Hilton. That's where all of our prisoners ended up being located after the raid up near Ba Vi.
LAMB: Son Tay?
DOWNS: At Son Tay, yes.
LAMB: The prison at Son Tay, they aborted -- the one that didn't work.
DOWNS: The one that didn't work, but it didn't work as far as getting prisoners out, but it turned out it worked, and it worried the Russian advisers and the Vietnamese that we'd be able to do this, and, therefore, they started collecting all of them into a central prison in Hanoi.
LAMB: Because we're almost out of time, does anybody come up to you and say "Fred Downs, you used to be one of us, a veteran of this war, you hated the Vietnamese, and you've sold out"?
DOWNS: Yes, yes, there are people who think I have sold out, people who think I'm -- that my head's been turned by these stories, that I have betrayed them, that I've betrayed some of my contemporaries. And so that's been something I've had to deal with because I certainly haven't. I've just looked at things in a different manner. Doesn't mean that I accept the problems that still exist. It doesn't mean that I condone the evils that still exist. It means, though, that I have flexibility on some issues, and they don't.
LAMB: If the doors ever come open entirely and diplomatic relations are there again, would you recommend to people that went through the war like you did, that they get on an airplane and go over there and go through this?
DOWNS: I think it's a good experience for them, to meet the people in a non war situation. This last trip in July, I learned to really like the people, especially the ones in the south, and I didn't like the ones in the south any more than I did in the north in the old days during the war. It's just nice to go back to the old area and see how nice it is. And one of the nice things is walking along the road or in the village and not being afraid of being shot at or a booby trap or somebody throwing a grenade at you. It is a country at peace, and those of us who fought there recognize it was a beautiful country. But to be able to really take time and enjoy it is very relaxing. Relaxing, I think, is a nice word.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like, "No Longer Enemies, Not Yet Friends: An American Soldier Returns to Vietnam." Our guest, Frederick Downs, the author. Thank you.
DOWNS: Thank you. It was a pleasure being here today.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1997. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.