MODESTO, Calif. – Where were you on Easter 40 years ago? Ron Cone knows exactly where he was – dropping off South Vietnamese soldiers in a Mekong Delta rice paddy near Hoa Binh that suddenly erupted with Viet Cong firepower.

Although Cone faced other battles in his yearlong tour of duty as an Army helicopter pilot, it is the Easter Sunday battle on March 26, 1967, that has been engraved on his mind through the years.

He went back to Vietnam last month and spent March 26 at the battle site.

“Our main purpose for going back at this time is for us to remember the occasion and celebrate being alive and remembering our comrades,” Cone said before he left. “We don’t wish to relive the war. We want to see the country in a much more gentle way, in a different light.

“We want to take a few minutes to remember who we’ve been and who we are and to celebrate our lives. I’m not sure that I would feel my life would be complete without going back to that country.”

The trip, he said this week, far exceeded his hopes.

“It was even much more than what I expected,” said Cone, a real estate broker with ReMax Executive in Modesto.

A 1961 Downey High School graduate, Cone was drafted in 1965 at age 22. “Rather than let them have their way with me, I checked my options and found out they needed helicopter pilots,” he said.

He served in Vietnam from December 1966 to December 1967. He spent the first six months flying Slicks, “the Huey-type helicopters you’re so familiar with seeing in pictures of Vietnam. We did everything from carrying troops to carrying supplies to carrying medevac missions. A great deal of our time was done in combat assaults.” After three months as a co-pilot, he was in his first week as a pilot when Easter rolled around.

Those who flew Slicks were nicknamed “outlaws.” David Eastman, also a helicopter pilot, wrote “Outlaws in Vietnam,” a story of the pilots and battles in 1966 and 1967. He was in a different platoon than Cone, but they knew each other.

Eastman details the 1967 “Battle of Easter Sunday” in his book: “We were supposed to have a down day for this important holiday, so no flights were scheduled for the Vinh Long aviation companies. Therefore, it was with some surprise, and considerable irritation, to hear the alarm siren go off in the second platoon hootch right over my bunk while we were bent on sleeping in.

“”All Outlaws report to the flight line. This is a scramble! All flight crews move directly to the flight line! Move to your aircraft immediately.”‘

Cone said the scramble call got him moving.

“You were to get to the flight line as quickly as you could,” he said. “When everybody is ready, you crank up and take off as quickly as you can.

“We were putting South Vietnamese Rangers into this landing zone. I think we had 10 ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) in each aircraft.

“I was in the go-to slot to the right of the lead aircraft. When we started to touch down, that’s when the excitement started. That’s when the rice paddy came alive, almost like hail. All of a sudden, you hear “receiving fire’ and “taking hits.’

“We’re unloading and trying to push (the troops) out as fast as they can. My most vivid memory is the ARVN troops being shot by the VC (Viet Cong) and tumbling out from the aircraft in front of us. Something I don’t know to this day is whether any of the troops in my aircraft were hit.”

The battle, also detailed in the April 30, 1968, issue of Look magazine, was brutal. The Viet Cong used a line of trees bordering the rice paddy as a shield. The Outlaws’ cries for help brought U.S. jets and bombers, which pulverized the trees and the mud bunkers in the paddy. But each time a wave of bombers left, the Viet Cong slipped out of the mud, back into their bunkers and kept firing.

Cone had been in several assaults before.

“It wasn’t unusual to get shot at, to get your ship shot up,” he said. “It’s something that you kind of get used to. But this one particular day, the amount of fire we received was phenomenal.”

A U.S. report later said more than 100,000 pounds of bombs were dropped and more than 100 aircraft were involved. Three of the 30 U.S. choppers in the battle were downed in the landing zone, with another shot down while returning to base.

Four Americans were killed and 12 were injured, most of them severely. Among ARVN forces, 42 were killed and 69 wounded. There were 142 Viet Cong bodies “scattered among the bomb craters and grotesquely battered trees,” Eastman wrote.

Cone kept a journal of his Vietnam duty. In his March 26 entry, he wrote, “Today was a bad day. It’s Easter Sunday, but I guess the VC could care less. Delta 6 went down today, also OL 17, Dustoff and a T-bird. (Jon) Myhre didn’t make it, neither did Col. Demsey. I think Martinson and Maj. Casper are going to pull through.

“Out of all three platoons of the 175th, only five of us didn’t take at least one hit. I was one of the five. I prayed a lot. I don’t believe my whole body has ever been keyed up like that before.

“It makes me sick about Jon; he and I had become real close. He was supposed to meet his wife in Hawaii this coming Friday. He had never even seen his son! I heard the scream over the radio in the LZ (landing zone). That’s a sickening feeling to know the guys are going down and you can’t get to them.

“I wish I had my wife right now. I just want to hold her and cry, at least give some of this heartache a vent.”

Later, hearing from his mom, Cone learned something else about that Easter.

“My mother said she knew something was wrong,” he said. “She got out of her bed in the middle of the night, got on her knees and started praying.”

Not only was Cone safe, but there was another piece of good news in Cone’s journal the next day.

“March 27. I can’t believe it. A miracle happened at 1 o’clock this morning. They found Jon in the LZ alive! They brought him in and he is in bad shape but we found out today he’s going to make it OK. … The man had already been reported dead.”

Eastman recorded it this way: “Jon Myhre had indeed risen from the dead on Easter Sunday.”

Cone and seven other veterans plus the wife of one of the men flew to Vietnam on March 21. One was Rex Latham of Virginia, the man credited with finding and rescuing Myhre.

The group stopped first in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, and stayed in the Rex Hotel – “where all the American newspeople stayed during the Vietnam War,” Cone said.

They traveled to Vinh Long, a town near their air base.

“We wouldn’t have recognized any of these cities; they’ve grown so much,” Cone said. “Saigon is now 8 million people.”

On the morning of March 26, six of them – the men who had been in the Battle of Easter Sunday – got into vans to try to find the site.

“This is it – 40 years to the day of our memorable Easter in Vietnam,” Cone wrote in his trip journal. “None of us knew what to expect and/or if we would be able to accurately identify the battle area.”

They rode to a village east of Hoa Binh.

“Our guide asked the locals where the location was. From the village, we had to take a dike line (separating rice paddies) out to the site. We weren’t looking forward to walking two miles on such a hot day, but we weren’t going to stop.

“Fortunately, there are a lot of young men with their motorbikes waiting for foreigners to ask to be taken somewhere. … Within minutes, we had scooter boys waiting to take us.

“Now we’re out in the countryside on these dike lines. We pull over at a walled compound, probably 16 yards wide by 80 yards long with about a 7-foot wall around it. It’s got these metal gates in the front entrance.

“Behind these gates, there’s this monument to the Battle of Easter Sunday. It blew us away. Out in the countryside, this monument is two stories tall. There are pictures of the battle all around it and the Vietnamese story of what happened.

“What blew us away is this monument has, of all things, three helicopters going down in flames. We just couldn’t believe it. It was put up by the Viet Cong for their people, but it was also important to us. The helicopters showed our part in it.”

The surprises weren’t over. An elderly man pointed out an area about 200 yards away where the 1967 battle took place. It’s still a rice paddy.

“When we went there, another man who was 12 years old (in 1967) walked out into the rice paddy and showed us where the choppers went down. We weren’t sure we’d be able to recognize one rice paddy from another. He walked us in and points and says, “Right here; this is where a chopper went down.’

“Right where he showed us, they had a burn, where they burn the chaff off the rice, and it looked like a chopper could have gone down there yesterday. It was almost eerie. It was overwhelming.”

The six men gathered in a circle and sat down. Cone offered a prayer, thanking God that they were alive and asking for the ability to get their thoughts and feelings out. Then the men took turns speaking.

“I was the last to speak,” Cone said. “I talked about the young men we were versus who we are now. How the brief time we were in and out of the battle never leaves you. I talked about our enemies at that time, and our men and our families, including mine, and the unborn (children who might have been born if the dead soldiers had lived) and what might have been for their families and the world.”

The men got up, to have some time alone.

“I sat on a dike line and thought about how lucky I am to have what I have,” Cone said. “I thought about what any other person would think of – what brash young men we were at the time; how fortunate we are to have made it; and so sad that so many families and lives were impacted by the war.”

Later that day, the men tried to find their air base, and a convent and orphanage that were nearby. Because the Vietnamese government tried to wipe out all evidence of the conflict, Cone said, they could find no trace.

But one man spotted a building with the name “Fatima” on it and thought it might be a Catholic church. The group approached, and a priest came out to talk with them.

“He was a very cordial priest,” Cone said. “He had been there 40 years ago, in seminary at the time.

“He told us that when the Vietnamese were breaking up our base, the church had purchased a whole bunch of the broken up concrete from there to do the walkways on the church grounds. He said he could even show us where some of the writing was in the concrete.

“We had a supply sergeant on the base whose name was Robert Sears. You could see the words “Sears Roebuck Supplies,’ which he had put on the concrete as a little twisted humor. It was so meaningful to see this concrete; it meant they couldn’t wipe all existence out of the air field.”

The priest also showed them the walls of the old convent and the general site of the old base.

Even though Cone talks of the VC and the Vietnamese government’s attempts to erase the images left from the conflict, he said he felt no lingering animosity nor experienced any while visiting Vietnam.

“We felt welcomed,” he said. “They seemed to enjoy having Americans come to their country. We met at different times men who had been in the South Vietnamese army, as well as the Viet Cong, and there was no animosity.

“After 40 years, you just accept each other as warriors on different sides. The situation we had no control over put us in the same boat.”

He saw other sights in Vietnam and Cambodia, but the trip to the battlefield was by far the highlight.

“We were all totally emotionally wiped out the next day,” Cone said. “The whole ordeal is an overwhelming emotional experience, but something we needed to go through. We’re glad we went through it.

“All of us left a part of ourselves in Vietnam so many years ago. We’ll have a piece of Vietnam that will stay with us always. But we feel we’ve come full circle. Now I feel that part of my life in Vietnam is complete.”

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