For three decades, Gary Totten saw the world from the cockpit of the plane he flew for Delta Airlines.
Aerial views of jungles and other war-torn areas of Southeast Area were mostly tucked away as memories, along with photos, citations and medals, as part of his past as the pilot of the AC-119G Shadow gunship he commanded during the Vietnam War.
Then, an opportunity arose for Totten to revisit old haunts, to see up close what he had seen from the air amid banking turns, buzzing engines and strafing miniguns and cannons.
His wife, Kathy, ran across some information about a 14-day sightseeing cruise. Before long, the West Hall couple was booking a trip, Gary’s first to the region since serving there from September 1970 to August 1971.
The trip was made more special because Gary, who retired from Delta in 2003, was able to convince three former Air Force crewmates to join him.
"It brought back old memories," he said during a recent interview at his Harbour Point Yacht Club home overlooking Lake Lanier.
"It was interesting. It was sad in a way, the way (the war) all ended up, but we did what we had to do at the time and the cards fell the way they went."
The United States first sent combat troops to Vietnam in 1965 and fought there until a cease-fire in 1973. U.S.-supported South Vietnam fell to invading troops from communist North Vietnam in 1975.
The Vietnamese refer to the conflict as the "American War," the Tottens said.
Totten served at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Ho Chi Minh City, then known as Saigon, and at various times with Bob Mundle, Marty Noonan and Bill Cunningham.
They flew missions nearly every day, many into neighboring Cambodia, to provide air support for troops.
"The bombers could go in and bomb, but they couldn’t pinpoint (targets)," Totten said. "We could go in, talk to (friendly forces on the ground) and fire around them very closely ... until daylight or the enemy dispersed."
They didn’t receive much return fire.
"If they fired back at us, we could see it and we fired back at them with a lot bigger stuff," Totten said.
The rest of the time, the men mostly rested and geared up for the next mission. Totten recalled the occasional "hooch," or social gathering, among those on the base.
Wife had idea for cruise
After the war, the foursome parted ways and all began careers as commercial pilots. Ten years ago, they started meeting up at an annual reunion held by a gunship organization founded about 10 years ago.
The idea of returning to Vietnam started with Kathy.
"Gary doesn’t like to take cruises, so normally I wouldn’t be looking (for one), but we have a friend who found he had cancer and he needed treatment," she said.
"He said he would like to get away before that, so in trying to think of something we could do," Kathy ran across a cruise that involved Vietnam.
The trip, which ran from late January to mid-February, held personal appeal.
"Because we were married during that time and I had experienced that year of the letters, I always wanted to see what Vietnam was like," Kathy said.
The trip started in Singapore and ended in Shanghai, with stops in Bangkok, Cambodia and Hong Kong. The four couples visited three areas in Vietnam, including two where Gary had served.
"He had told me about the most beautiful beaches next to Panama City, so this was a great chance to check that out," she said.
Vietnam struggled economically after the war, but government reforms in the 1980s helped to modernize the ancient country, with tourism as a major force.
One of the couples’ stops was at the famed China Beach in Da Nang that later inspired a popular TV series by the same name. Totten was stationed at an air base there for about a month; he also spent about three months training South Vietnamese forces in Phan Rang.
Totten and the others tried to enter Tan Son Nhut but could not enter what is now a gated complex. They ended up taking a picture of themselves standing in front of an A-37 jet fighter that North Vietnamese forces had captured.
"It was hard for us to find the actual main gate — nothing looked familiar," said Noonan in a phone interview from his home in Long Beach, Calif.
"We tried to get our driver, who spoke limited English, to talk to one of the guards and let us in, but he didn’t want to talk to anyone who had a gun," Noonan said.
On the ship, the four men downloaded Google Earth from a computer and found that the old buildings they used had been torn down.
"We couldn’t even identify where the officers club was ... everything had changed so much," Noonan said.
He said wouldn’t mind a return trip to Vietnam but next time working on "getting some prior permission to get on one of the bases."
No resentment remains
Cambodia also was interesting, Totten said, because "we saw a lot of it from the air (during the war), but (during the trip) we saw a lot of it from the ground."
The whole experience — visiting a region where a war raged that forever changed America — was a bit surreal.
"You think back and how much (the region has) changed in that amount of time," said Totten, 65. "And then you get out to the country and it hasn’t changed a bit. They’re still planting rice ... and digging irrigation ditches by hand."
Totten said the couples were received and treated well.
But then, "most of the people you meet in Cambodia and Vietnam are younger," he said. "Most are born after the war — or were real young during it — and don’t know much about it. So there’s no resentment. They welcome you."
Kathy said she remembered someone on the trip suggesting that the relatively young population may have been a reflection of the heavy toll war had taken on older generations. Millions of soldiers and civilians died in the 16-year war, which took some 58,000 American lives.
Mundle, who lives outside Knoxville, Tenn., said he initially "had no real interest in going back to Vietnam."
But the trip turned out well, for several reasons.
He recalled encountering some street vendors in Ho Chi Minh City and ended up buying a book written by a Vietnamese man who had emigrated to the U.S. in 1975 as a boy.
"It turned out to be the highlight of my trip because it was one of the best books I’ve ever read," Mundle said. "So, I’m glad I went to Vietnam if, for no other reason, than to get this book."
But the trip also help another special treasure for him and the other men.
"We rekindled friendships," he said.
"We had a great time and vowed to get together again some place somewhere," he said. "I’m sure we’ll work it out."