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Vietnam veteran, jungle scout used life in war to fuel writing career

Updated: 
November 11, 2015 - 10:09am

CAPTAIN COOK — Richard Stevens was 4 years old when his uncle disappeared. Growing up, he remained haunted by the simple telegram from the War Department, conveying regrets for the bombardier’s disappearance in a B-24 bomber into the dark of the Amazon jungle.

The note brewed a storm of questions: How had the plane plunged into the Amazon when it was bound from the United States to the war in Europe? What was this jungle that had swallowed his relative?

Stevens’ young mind began a seething inquiry that would take him to a jungle of his own two decades later, under enemy fire, and bring him full circle. He would then learn to turn the horrors of war into his greatest gifts.

“I asked my parents, why don’t we go look for my uncle?” said Stevens, a professor and author who is now 76, standing in the yard of his coffee shack along Captain Cook Road.

Young Stevens was to learn that U.S. bombers sometimes took a South Atlantic route to Europe. Limited by fuel capacity and the need for daytime flying, the planes would hop from Florida to Trinidad in the Caribbean, then Brazil, then across to Africa and Europe.

The mystery was solved, but the jungle kept a burning fascination. Trying to escape the boredom of school one day, Stevens immersed himself in a book about World War II. The cover showed an American serviceman in a tree, preparing to ambush two Japanese soldiers approaching on a trail below him. Stevens was drawn to the picture without quite knowing why. Then one day, something really strange happened.

“The picture jumped off the page, and literally pasted itself to the inside of my forehead,” he said. “Twenty years later, I was in a tree in a camo suit. I felt that strange repeat of being 5 years old. The picture had been showing me that I would be the one in that tree, and there would be a trail below me with people on it, who were hunting me.”

The veteran would go on to take shrapnel from a grenade in the back of his skull and in his leg, ending his own trip into the Heart of Darkness. But not before enough had happened to fill two books.

Discovering the jungle

Stevens entered the Marine Corps when he was 19, then joined the Foreign Service and was flying over the North Vietnam jungle in 1965 as an adviser working with refugees who were fleeing the battle zone. Fascinated with trails since a young child, he had recently learned about the Ho Chi Min Trail — the remote and mysterious supply line leading down from North Vietnam.

Stevens looked down into the passing forest canopy until his eyes hurt, wondering where the trail was, and how he could get down there.

“The Viet Cong were like ghosts,” Stevens said. “There was always this thing about seeing them in their own world.”

In 1969, Stevens got his wish. Assigned to advise a group of 105 ex-Viet Cong, Stevens took part in reconnaissance on the trail, visiting with Viet Cong families and trying to get them to change sides. He and his men showed pro-South Vietnam propaganda films and even acted in dramas portraying the evil of the communists — bizarre affairs performed in villages in the dead of night, under lights powered by generators.

Stevens and his team also held night raids and ambushes in which they positioned themselves at dusk and waited for the Viet Cong to come down out of the mountains or up from their tunnels. In preparing for these raids Stevens teamed up “Viet,” a captured VC who had decided to join the enemy rather than be put to death.

Viet was extensively knowledgeable about the area, the VC and their habits, but his relationship with Stevens was always strung with the bizarre paranoia that defined the American experience in the conflict.

“Viet saved my life a couple of times, but I never trusted him,” Stevens said. “Was he a plant? Had his capture been staged? When we rode in the chopper and I sat on the outside, I would always strap myself in, because I thought how easy it would be for him to bump me off.”

Standing last weekend beside a picnic table spread with medals and a few copies of the books he has written about the war, Stevens related the final incident that ended his time in the jungle. As he spoke he began — ever so slightly — to shake.

A chance at a new life

“This one happened when we were moving into position,” Stevens said. “Viet was out front, on point, and I was right behind him. Behind me was a group of mixed forces, Army reconnaissance guys known as the Grim Reapers. This was right outside the American base in Quang Tri. The VC were circulating just outside the base, using this thin band to move between the base and the South Vietnamese forces.”

Moving in utter darkness through a graveyard, Stevens and Viet were suddenly face to face with VC rising up out of a stream valley. They emptied their magazines into the dark, and saw ghost-like figures fall back into the stream bed.

“As soon as our magazines were empty, it was like every gun in the world opened up on us,” Stevens said. “Viet completely disappeared in the night. I started crawling to get out of the kill zone. An overhead explosion, probably a grenade, slammed my face into the ground.

“I felt like I had died right there, but I willed myself to keep going, keep crawling toward the cover of the next grave mound. Now grenades were going off everywhere, and I felt my leg get moved like a whip. I knew I’d been hit. I thought, ‘my rifle is empty. At least I need to toss some grenades.’”

Stevens pulled a pin, still holding down the spoon on the grenade. As he did so, the night went silent.

“So I’m still holding the grenade and spoon. I think, ‘if I throw this grenade now, the spoon will make a ping sound as it flies off, and they’ll know where I am.’ I lay there holding the grenade to my chest. My leg feels wet. I worry my foot is blown off and I’ll get weak and let go of the grenade and blow myself up.”

Stevens battled a grisly parade of images: his own capture, prison, execution.

“I thought, I could let go of this grenade right now and it would be over in an instant. I was contemplating how easy it would be to just let go.”

But Stevens decided to hold on. Then Viet appeared beside him.

“I told him, ‘I have a live grenade in my hand.’ He said, ‘give it to me.’”

Viet carefully rolled the grenade out of Stevens’ hand. In the dark, to Stevens’ utter amazement, Viet was able to reinsert the pin. He put the grenade in his pocket.

“Still, I’m thinking, now he has one more grenade to use against me,” Stevens said.

Something had ended when the first grenade burst over Stevens head. Whatever had propelled him so relentlessly into the jungle since he was 5 was now over. The picture pasted to his forehead no longer had power.

“I had taken it to the limit on the battlefield,” Stevens said. “Now I had a chance at a new life.”

Besides his purple heart, Stevens received South Vietnamese citations, including two crosses of gallantry. Of the foreign decorations, he’s most proud of a North Vietnamese Presidential Medal. It was given to him during a return trip in 1995 by the North Vietnamese commander who oversaw the province where Stevens had fought. It represents the reconciliation of men who had fought to kill each other, hugging and crying 25 years later.

Lessons from the jungle

Before Stevens left the war for good, he sat one day looking out from the top of a tree in the jungle, across unbroken forest, as far as the eye could see.

“I knew then we could never win,” he said. “The other side was immersed in nature, and was winning. We could not scrape bare every mountain and scorch every forest. We were fighting nature and it was too much.”

Stevens also felt responsible for his own role in calling in artillery that decimated forests which he had seen earlier in pristine condition. The guilt stuck with Stevens on his travels out of the war zone, first to the mountains north of Taos, New Mexico, where solitude in a cabin at 8,000 feet helped loosen the trauma. His experience poured out into 2,000 pages of manuscript, which he submitted unsuccessfully, in a cardboard box, to the publisher Doubleday.

Stevens later moved to Hawaii and received his doctorate in history from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Continuing to wrestle with the themes of Vietnam, he wrote two books. One, his 1993 dissertation, is titled “The Trail: A History of The Ho Chi Min Trail and the Role of Nature In Vietnam.” The other book is titled “Mission On the Ho Chi Min Trail,” published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1995. Stevens is also the author of two books about organic and traditional gardening in Hawaii.

“War is the territory of the dark side,” Stevens said. “Peace is a lot better. I consider myself a warrior for nature now.”

At Hawaii Community College — Palamanui, Stevens teaches a course called “Writing Personal History.” Through his use of story, he helps other aspiring writers tap the creative force within their own histories and traumas. Working for the state Na Ala Hele trail system, he has also uncovered dozens ancient Hawaiian trials in North Hawaii.

“I still use the energy of Vietnam,” he said.

His backyard is a nursery of dryland forest trees, which he and numerous volunteers use to replenish deforested areas. He and his students have planted thousands of seedlings in the West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery since 2005.

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