The two old soldiers survived some of the fiercest combat in the Vietnam War, fighting side by side as they ducked behind enemy lines to run secret missions in Laos and Cambodia.
But when the war ended for J. Stryker Meyer in 1970, his Vietnamese helicopter pilot, Tuong Nguyen, continued fighting until Saigon’s fall in 1975 and then was shipped off to a Communist reeducation camp for eight years.
This year, Meyer, who lives in Oceanside, discovered that Nguyen, 59, now lives in Santa Ana. Another pilot, Thu X. Huynh, 60, lives in Vista and runs a dry cleaner’s. The two were among an elite group of Vietnamese helicopter pilots -- called Kingbees -- who flew Meyer and other U.S. Army Special Forces troopers “across the fence” to wage the secret war in the neighboring countries.
Forged in combat, the bond between the U.S. Green Berets and the Vietnamese pilots has survived time and distance.
Last weekend in Las Vegas, about a dozen of the Kingbees reunited with their U.S. comrades. Most of the old warriors had not seen each other in more than 30 years.
“We are all old now,” Huynh said. “But none of us can forget. It’s good that our American friends never forgot about us.”
The reunion stirred memories.
Meyer recalled Christmas Day, 1968, when Nguyen flew his lumbering Sikorsky H-34 helicopter into a hail of automatic weapons fire and plucked Meyers’ team of commandos from a burning hillside, pulling them away from attacking enemy soldiers who were already within hand grenade range. It was not the first time Nguyen had saved his life.
“Kingbees” was code for the South Vietnamese air force 219th Special Operations Squadron, which flew Green Berets from the Studies and Observations Group on some of the most dangerous missions of the war, often extracting U.S. soldiers from the jungle amid heavy enemy fire.
“Kingbee go down, now” -- the alert from the pilot that he was going in under fire -- were the sweetest words an SOG team could hear, Meyer recalled.
“We worked very well together and protected each other,” Huynh said. “The squadron lost many good pilots, and the Americans lost many brave men. But I have no regrets.”
Like the Kingbees, Meyer -- who led Spike Team Idaho -- and the other Americans who served in the Studies and Observations Group teams, were volunteers. The men -- Vietnamese and American -- were cocky and, some would say, carried a death wish.
Special Forces-led teams of fewer than 10 men were often vastly outnumbered when they brushed against Communist troops during their reconnaissance missions deep into enemy territory. The Vietnamese pilots faced even longer odds when they went in to pick up the teams.
Most U.S. combat troops spent a year “in country,” then rotated home. Huynh and Nguyen were in combat for a decade.
When Saigon fell, Huynh flew a UH-1 Huey helicopter loaded with 39 people, including his wife and three children, to the U.S. aircraft carrier Midway.
Huynh’s family was taken to a U.S. military base in the Philippines, then flown to Camp Pendleton, where they were housed with other Vietnamese until they could be sponsored by a U.S. family in Vista.
Nguyen’s tale is sadder. He escaped to Guam, where he had an opportunity to be resettled in the United States. Instead, he boarded a ship and returned to Vietnam, where he was arrested and held captive in the reeducation camp for eight years.
“After the war, I had nothing but my family. I didn’t even have a country. I had freedom waiting for me in America, but not my family,” he said.
“I had no choice but to go back.”
Meyer, now an editor at the North County Times in Oceanside and the author of a soon-to-be-released book about his war experiences titled “Across the Fence,” said finding Huynh, Nguyen and other Kingbees has been a powerful experience.
“For 30 years or more, they were always in my mind. I wondered if they were alive,” he said
. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be alive.”