How a shared destiny brought together four men scarred by war and helped a village in Vietnam.
The winds of war can take many years and long roads before the pain begins to ease. Sometimes on that journey fate draws you back to the long-ago but never-forgotten place that shaped the rest of your life. And along the way you may find that your route converges with the journeys of others who seek healing.
Such were the circumstances that brought the paths of four men together for a humanitarian venture 45 years after they had experienced the war in Vietnam, when one was a young boy in a battle-torn village, two were U.S. Marines and the fourth was the high school friend of an American soldier killed by a booby trap. Here are their stories.
Binh Nguyen was just 9 years old when his father died in 1962. The family lived in the small village of Ky Khuong near Chu Lai, which is about 90 minutes by vehicle from Da Nang. The village was adjacent to Highway 1 in what was then called Quang Tin province (today part of Quang Nam province). Three years later the escalation of political turmoil in Vietnam and increased attacks by the Viet Cong brought thousands of U.S. Army, Navy, Navy Seabee and Marine forces to an air base being constructed at Chu Lai.
The Marine Corps, which arrived in Vietnam in March 1965, implemented a unique civic action initiative called the Combined Action Program, or CAP, which put squads of Marines in key villages to supplement the local Popular Forces militia that provided security for the village. CAP became an integral part of the U.S. “pacification” effort to achieve peace and democracy in Vietnam by assisting rural villages in a way that cultivated goodwill, improved security and helped destroy the Viet Cong’s strong influence in those areas.
More than 5,000 Marines and sailors served in the program, which began in the summer of 1965. The last Marine to be awarded a Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War, Lance Cpl. Miguel Keith, was a member of the 1st Combined Action Group, 3rd Combined Action Company, 2nd Platoon, or CAP 1-3-2, operating south of Chu Lai in Quang Ngai province. Keith, credited with stopping a North Vietnamese assault at An Diem village on May 8, 1970, was mortally wounded in the fight.
In conducting civic action programs, the Marines took their direction from Maj. Gen. Lewis W. Walt, commander of the III Marine Amphibious Force, in charge of all U.S. combat operation in South Vietnam’s five northern provinces. Walt was guided by his experiences as a young officer in World War II and the Small Wars Manual published by the Marine Corps in 1940. It states: “In small wars, tolerance, sympathy, and kindness should be the keynote of our relationship with the mass of population…the purpose should always be to restore normal government…and to establish peace, order, and security.”
In June 1966, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, reported that Navy doctors and corpsman were treating an average of 170 Vietnamese patients a day in clinics established by the Marines.
In early October 1966, the civic affairs section of the division’s 7th Marine Regiment and the Navy’s 1st Dental Company started treating Vietnamese children from Tri Binh village, south of the Chu Lai base. This program, Operation Toothbrush, was designed to bring basic dental hygiene to every child in the Binh Son school district.
In early 1967 dental clinics in the Chu Lai area had performed more than 13,000 treatments for villagers, acording to a report by Task Force X-Ray, activated in June 1966 as an additional operating headquarters for the 1st Marine Division in Chu Lai, in advance of the division’s move to Da Nang in October.
At age 14, Binh Nguyen started hanging around Task Force X-Ray to earn money by shining boots or doing other small jobs. The Marines called him “Charley,” and when one of them gave him a dictionary, Binh started learning English one word at a time until he became proficient enough to speak “broken English” better than the other children did.
Marine Lt. Col. John Zorack
At Task Force X-Ray, the legal officer, Lt. Col. John Zorack, took a liking to the resourceful teenager trying to help support his family. Zorack asked Binh to assist with translations in small villages around the Chu Lai base when Zorack needed to meet with village chiefs.
Translators were crucial for communicating with village leaders on legal issues concerning incidents of the military personnel at Chu Lai, and there was a severe shortage of translators within Task Force X-Ray. Binh helped Zorack at some of those meetings.
A strong bond developed between the colonel and the boy. At times, Zorack provided financial help for the Nguyen family, who were facing a difficult life in wartime Vietnam. Before Zorack returned to the United States, he bought Binh a bicycle.
Binh also spent time with the Marines at Combined Action Platoon Kilo 1-4, (Camp Swann) near Ky Khuong village. He would go with the Marines on medical civic action programs (MedCap).
Marine 2nd Lt. Frederick Smith
In the summer of 1967 a young second lieutenant, Frederick W. Smith, reported to the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, as a platoon leader in India Company. Large-scale operations were occurring regularly as the Marines battled to clear Quang Tin province of Viet Cong and
rising numbers of North Vietnamese Army forces.
In September 1967, during Operation Swift, the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, was engaged in a huge battle. The battalion’s beloved chaplain, Navy Lt. Vincent Capodanno, was killed on Sept. 4. Capodanno, who served 16 months with Marine regiments in Vietnam and was known as the “grunt padre,” would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Smith’s platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Richard Jackson, was killed a few days later as the battle continued to rage.
In January 1968, Smith was given command of Kilo Company, even though only a first lieutenant, because the battalion had a shortage of officers. Over the succeeding months, Smith experienced the deaths of two of his platoon commanders, many other Marines in Kilo Company and a friend, India Company commander Capt. Henry Kolakowski Jr.
Dr. Charles F. Craft
In the small rural town of Hickman, Nebraska, Charles F. “Fritz” Craft lived near the Church family and rode the country school bus with Ralph Church to Norris High School. In June 1971, Army 1st Lt. Ralph Lee Church, platoon commander of Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, was severely wounded by a booby-trapped rocket-propelled grenade. Church’s unit had been operating at Firebase Brick, west of Phu Loc, 15 miles south of Hue. Church was evacuated to Japan and died 11 days later from severe wounds.
Craft was stunned, as was everyone in the community, when he heard the news about his schoolmate—the only Norris High graduate to lose his life in the Vietnam War. Church had been a star basketball player and voted 1965 homecoming king. For years his portrait hung in the school hallway in honor of the soldier’s service.
It was a hard death for Craft to understand, and he never forgot it. Craft graduated from high school in 1973 and later obtained a degree in dental surgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He became a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service and was assigned to Alaska in 1980.
Zorack returned to the United States. in June 1967 and two years later retired from the Marine Corps. Zorack had not forgotten Binh and knew that the teenager would never achieve his potential without a good education. Zorack wanted to get a visa for Binh to attend school in America.
The retired colonel used every military and political contact that he had but was unable to obtain a student visa for Binh. On one occasion, Zorack met with Gen. William Westmoreland, the top commander of U.S. combat troops in Vietnam, and asked for his assistance in securing the visa, but the general was unable to help.
Finally, his luck changed. Zorack was working as a legal adviser for the International Air Transport Association and had made a business connection with Anna Chennault, vice president of international affairs for Flying Tiger Line and the widow of Lt. Gen. Claire L. Chennault, who in World War II had commanded the American Volunteer Group fighter unit, famously known as the Flying Tigers, and later the 14th Air Force.
Well-known in Washington politics with high-level contacts throughout the world, Chennault told Zorack she had a trip to Saigon coming up and would personally ask about a student visa with a high-ranking government official who had connections to South Vietnam’s president, Nguyen Van Thieu. The visa was approved.
In April 1969, 15-year-old Binh arrived in Springfield, Virginia, where he lived with the Zorack family while attending Washington Irving Junior High School and West Springfield High School.
In September 1971, before completing high school, Binh left Springfield and returned to Chu Lai to visit his family and a girlfriend. When it was time to return to school in Virginia, Binh suddenly decided he couldn’t leave his girlfriend again.
“I was in a taxi heading to the airport, and when the car stopped at a red light I asked the driver to take me back to my apartment.” Binh remembers. “I also wanted to be closer to my mother and sister.”
With his schooling in the United States and background with the Marines, Binh was able to get a job at the U.S. Defense Attaché Office in Saigon. When Communist forces approached Saigon in April 1975, Binh assisted in the evacuation of American families and Vietnamese orphans leaving the city. By then Binh had married his girlfriend, Khoa, who was expecting their first child. A U.S. Consulate officer told Binh that if he wanted to leave, he and his family had to get out immediately.
Three weeks later, after stops at Air Force bases in the Philippines and Guam, the couple arrived at a refugee camp on the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton, California. Two weeks after Binh and Khoa’s arrival in the U.S., a son was born. They named him John, after Lt. Col. John Zorack.
Back in the United States, Binh took adult-education classes and received his high school diploma. (He would later earn an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2006.) Zorack recommended Binh for a position with a rapidly growing air transportation company called Federal Express Corp., founded in 1973 by the former commanding officer of Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines—Frederick W. Smith.
By 1989 Binh had worked his way into management at Federal Express. That year, he traveled to Vietnam to apply for a petition so his mother could immigrate to the United States. At that time business with Vietnam was forbidden by a U.S. trade embargo, but Binh foresaw a possible future market for Federal Express as Vietnam slowly recovered from the long war.
After listening to Binh’s observations from his trip to Vietnam, Smith started making plans for Federal Express to expand into Southeast Asia and Vietnam when the timing was right. In February 1994 the U.S. trade embargo was lifted, and two months later Federal Express opened an office in Ho Chi Minh City.
Also venturing into Vietnam in the early 1990s was public health dentist Charles Craft. During his service in Alaska, Craft traveled to parts of Asia to provide volunteer dental care, and he visited Vietnam in 1992.
Craft traveled from Ho Chi Minh City north along Highway 1 to Hanoi. He saw that villagers were still suffering under harsh postwar conditions. Medical care was almost nonexistent in the countryside. As Craft reached the area south of Hue, memories of Ralph Church at Norris High School returned. Suddenly all those confusing names and places Craft had heard in newscasts during his youth started to make sense. In 1992 there were still remnants of former U.S. military bases, and he was able to talk with former South Vietnamese soldiers. When Craft saw the poor children with little hope in their eyes, he began to truly understand the suffering of the Vietnamese people during the war.
In 1995 Craft returned to Vietnam and met Mark Conroy, country director for the Da Nang-based nonprofit organization East Meets West Foundation, founded in 1989 to partner with the Vietnamese people in health, education and development projects. Conroy was one of the first Americans to live in Da Nang after the war. His two older brothers had served in Vietnam during the war.
Craft wanted to establish a dental program for the poor children of central Vietnam, and Conroy agreed to help him with the project, which would be based in Da Nang. In setting up the program, Craft used the knowledge he had gained working for the U.S. Public Health Service. He obtained more than $250,000 of donated dental equipment and supplies from hospitals, clinics and dentists in Alaska.
Craft approached the Anchorage office of FedEx—as the transportation service had become known—and asked if the company would consider shipping a large amount of dental equipment to the EMW office in Da Nang for a minimal fee. The Anchorage manager said the shipping cost could be as high as $20,000, but two weeks later Craft got a call from the manager, who told him in January 1996: “You’re good to go. Our truck will pick up the equipment at your garage tomorrow.” Over the next two years, FedEx shipped to Vietnam several more containers with dental supplies at no cost.
The EMW dental clinic opened on March 25, 1996, with Vietnamese staff and a few international volunteers in a building near the old Marine Corps Marble Mountain Air Facility. Later, a beautiful marble plaque was placed outside the entrance and inscribed on it were the names of more than 50 donors who made the clinic possible. At the top of the plaque, next to the names of Craft’s parents, is “1st Lt. Ralph L. Church.”
Beginning in 1998, Craft and Conroy, loaded with portable dental equipment, made trips into the rural areas of central Vietnam, where villagers had not seen foreigners in almost 25 years. The two men were not sure how they would be received, but they were given warm welcomes when the villagers found out they were Americans. The Vietnamese shook their hands, embraced them and wanted them to meet their families.
Craft did not expect that reaction. These were the same people who suffered so much during the war. Craft was puzzled by the outward display of affection that occurred again and again. He asked his interpreter to have a village elder explain the warmth shown to them.
This is the general translation: “The rural people of Vietnam understand war. We know suffering, fear and death. For over 50 years our countryside and homes were torn apart by war from many armies; the Japanese, French, Viet Cong, American, the former Army of the South, and the Army from the North. Only the soldiers from one of these armies tried to help and not exploit us. Our lives have improved very little over all these years. It was only the Americans who came into our villages and built roads, bridges and schools and dug wells. They helped us farm the land and provided medical care for us and our children. Some of the American Marines lived side by side with us. The Americans showed us promise for a better life someday in the future. It is the memory of that brief time of hope that allows us to forget the pain of the past and smile today when we see an American.”
Closing the circle
The Vietnam War experiences of Binh, Zorack, Smith and Craft came full circle during a March 2012 EMW dental outreach event at the Phan Chau Trinh junior high school in Tam Giang Commune, near Chu Lai. Construction of the school, which opened in December 1999 near where Smith had served, was funded by FedEx working through the Vietnam Children’s Fund.
The 2012 event commemorated the 100,000th patient treated during the 15 years since the founding of the EMW dental program, which has grown into one of the finest dental nonprofit organizations serving the developing world. (In 2014, East Meets West Dental became a stand-alone organization.)
Six of the program’s original sponsors were at the Chu Lai ceremony: Conroy, Craft, Dr. Robert J. Allen, Dr. Ron Berquist, Dr. Wendy Crisafulli and Dr. Stan Shulman. Joining them were international dental volunteers, several Marines who served during the war and Binh, now FedEx’s Indochina senior country manager—whose presence reflected the influence of Colonel Zorack’s kindness. The transportation required to move 2 tons of dental equipment and supplies from Da Nang to Chu Lai and back was provided by the FedEx licensee in Vietnam.
Since the Phan Chau Trinh school opened, FedEx has continued to build schools in Vietnam. The second opened in 2004 and was dedicated to a man Smith had never forgotten: Father Vincent Capodanno, the grunt padre whose posthumous Medal of Honor was awarded in January 1969.
A third school was completed in 2006 and named in honor of Smith’s Yale University classmate Richard W. Pershing, grandson of legendary World War I Army Gen. John J. Pershing. Army 2nd Lt. Dick Pershing was killed in Vietnam near Hue on Feb. 17, 1968, while serving with the 101st Airborne Division.
“Dick Pershing was one of the most interesting friends I ever had,” Smith recalled. “Dick was a great wit, well-liked and highly intelligent. I’m confident Dick would have been a great success after Vietnam. I think about him…and many other friends on the [Vietnam Veterans Memorial] Wall, often.”
The fourth FedEx school, completed in April 2012, honors the memory of two lieutenants who served as Smith’s platoon commanders in Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, and were killed: Joseph T. Campbell and John R. Ruggles III.
By 2017, the EMW dental program had treated more than 150,000 patients with over $27 million worth of free care, Craft said. “It has truly been a professional honor to serve the Vietnamese people and to carry on the tradition of humanitarian assistance implemented by the [Marines], whose legacy lives on within the hearts of many who lived near the CAP villages.”
Out of the pain and suffering during the war—and from many years of rebuilding through the efforts of dedicated and compassionate people—has come a new time of promise and hope for a better life that the Marines and General Walt envisioned 50 years ago for the rural villagers in Vietnam.
Jack Wells served in Vietnam during 1968-69 as a first lieutenant with Alpha and Bravo companies, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, and later as executive officer of H Battery, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. He has been involved in fundraising for East Meets West Dental for the past eight years.