Return to the Battleground: Veteran visits Vietnam for first time since war

Jacob Fuller
(Left to right) Tour Guide Tran Thanh, John Hembrough and Ken Ward pose for a photo in front of a former church that was destroyed during the Battle of Hue.

John Hembrough was just 19 when he first left his Illinois home to go to Vietnam. Less than a year later, he returned without most of his right leg below the knee.

Just short of 44 years later, the retired telecommunications worker returned to Vietnam to see the land he fought to secure from communism, now ruled by that very governmental system.

The Dothan, Ala., resident and owner of a condominium in Destin recently visited The Log office, less than a week after arriving home from his return to Vietnam, to share his story.

Surprise Attack

On the morning of Feb. 25, 1969, Hembrough closed his eyes and tried to catch a little sleep inside a roofless, unfinished bunker at Landing Zone Russell, a small, hilltop U.S. military holding on the edge of the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone. He was one of about 300 Marines who, along with a small group of Navy medical corpsmen, guarded the helipad and six 105mm Howitzer artillery cannons at LZ Russell.

Moments later, at 3:50 a.m., North Vietnamese mortar shells bombarded the bunkers. One of the first mortar shells exploded right by the bunker where Hembrough was trying to sleep, mortally wounding one of the other men in the bunker. Hembrough rushed to the side of the Marine, who was still alive, but barely.  

As Hembrough tended to the injured Marine, North Vietnamese soldiers ran to the fence line of LZ Russell and detonated the explosives they were wearing, creating a passageway for the other 200 North Vietnamese behind them. North Vietnamese rushed the Marines and a bloody, brutal battle ensued.

A North Vietnamese soldier threw a grenade into the bunker where Hembrough and the wounded Marine were caught off guard. The explosion tore through Hembrough, ripping off his right foot and part of his leg. Fellow Marines came to Hembrough's aid, and helped him hobble up the hill from the bunker to the helipad.

Pilots were trying to get helicopters to the landing zone, but the high altitude and low cloud cover made it nearly impossible. Eventually, choppers were able to land on the pad. A Navy medical corpsman named Richard Woy loaded Hembrough on the helicopter, a move that Hembrough credits with saving his life.

The helicopter took off, amongst a barrage of bullets and explosions, and took Hembrough to the base hospital in the Quang Tri Province. There, doctors cut off excess bone from Hembrough's leg, leaving little below the knee. Exactly five months, several hospitals and surgeries later, Hembrough walked out of the hospital on a prosthetic leg, attached just below his right knee.

"I was very fortunate. This is just a scratch,” Hembrough said.  “So many got killed, at least 29 killed and 97 wounded. It was a blood bath,"

Ten days after leaving the hospital, on Aug. 4, 1969, Hembrough was back at work in Illinois with GTE, the telephone company he first joined three days after graduating high school at 17. He worked for GTE, where he met his wife, Joyce, for more than 30 years before retiring.

Reunions and Woy's Heroics

In the early 1990s, Hembrough began attending reunions with his fellow Vietnam veterans. At one reunion, in 1991, he met Woy, the man who put him on a helicopter on that bloody February morning in 1969.

When Hembrough later visited Woy and his family, he learned the young Navy medical corpsman had disobeyed the chain of command in orderto save his life that morning.

"He was telling his parents — we were down there for Thanksgiving — he said, 'You know, I wasn't supposed to load John.' I just looked at him. He said, 'I was just supposed to load the ones that could be patched up and then sent back out to fight,' " Hembrough said. "So thank God for Richard Woy."

Woy, an Ocala resident who regularly vacations in Destin, had only been in Vietnam about a month when the North Vietnamese launched the surprise attack on LZ Russell. With several of his fellow medical corpsmen dead or wounded, he was one of just a few able to treat Marines during the battle.

He credited his youth and state of shock at the time for getting Hembrough on the chopper.

"I didn't want to see anybody die, especially anybody under my watch. I probably didn't do things like they should have been done, but I did the best I could," Woy told The Log. "Saving anybody's life is up to God. I don't save anybody."

At reunions, Hembrough made friends with several of the men who fought along with him at LZ Russell. One of those friends, Captain Ed Garr, has made over 105 trips back to Vietnam as a historic tour guide. He continuously asked Hembrough if he was going to go on a trip with him.

"For many years, I thought, 'You know, if I'm going to go anywhere, I'm going to go to Australia," Hembrough said.

Once fellow LZ Russell veteran and close friend Ken Ward began trying to convince him to return with him, Hembrough decided it may be for the best.

The Return to Vietnam

Almost 44 years after he first arrived in the thick jungles of Vietnam, a mere boy in the middle of a drawn-out and brutal war, Hembrough once again entered the land that took his leg. What he saw was far from what he remembered from his first trip.

"We were always out on the front lines, in the bush. We never saw civilization, paved streets (or) electricity, very often," Hembrough said.

That quickly changed, when he recently arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's largest city, which is named for the former president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and enemy of the United States in the Vietnam War. One of the first things he noticed was the devastation the war and its aftermath had on his and older generations in that country.

"I can count on one hand how many people my age or older that I saw the whole time I was over there," Hembrough said.

While there, he saw nearly the whole country, a 1,770-mile trek from Ho Chi Minh City in the south, to Hanoi in the north, much of it by bus. His transportation was noticeably more accommodating, though, than the most common Vietnamese mode of transportation: motorcycles.

"I've seen, with smaller children, a family of four on a 100cc bike, carrying groceries," Hembrough said.

On the tour, the veterans passed the hill that once was home to LZ Russell. No roads lead to the hill, so Hembrough and his companions were not able to walk the hill again, but they did get to see it from a distance.

Whether or not the trip will provide any closure, Hembrough said he still isn't sure. It did seem to further cement the beliefs about the war that he has only recently begun to admit, to others and to himself.  

"That was a totally unnecessary war. Not one thing was achieved. Twenty years ago, you'd never get me to admit that. I can honestly say, there were over 58,000 lives lost over there, we killed over 3 million of them — and for no reason, except money and politics," Hembrough said.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story stated that Hembrough went back to work Aug. 4, 1970. It also referred to North Vietnamese soldiers as "Viet Cong." These errors have been corrected.