In the Spring of 2003, writer Christopher Upham discovered a website for the Army Battalion, where he served as an ambulance driver during the Vietnam War. For the first time in 35 years, Upham had an opportunity to contact his long-lost comrades. When he wrote to his fellow soldiers, Upham learned an unsettling truth - they had thought that he was dead - killed in 1969 at the siege of Dak To, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
An intense period of written correspondence and reflection followed, and then culminated at a reunion of over 100 members of the 299th Engineer Battalion, who had served at Dak To.
Documentary filmmaker S. Smith Patrick accompanied Upham to the 299th reunion in upstate New York, 35 years after the war.
More than a reconnecting of soldiers bonded through the travails of war, the 299th Engineers reunion served as a catalyst where the men revealed feelings and frustrations buried for decades. Vibrant exchanges brought forward a hidden scar in US military history; the 299th Engineers had been left in Dak To - as a decoy to lure the North Vietnamese Army in contradiction to stated US policy.
A July 1969, a Life Magazine photo story on the Battalion by famed war photographer Larry Burrows brought worldwide attention to the 299th. An evacuation of the battered battalion - shortly after the North Vietnamese Army withdrew - fueled the worst fears of the soldiers: that they had been pawns in the failed political strategy of Vietnamization, kept in Dak To on orders 'from the very top'.
Return to Dakto
In November 2004, five veterans of the 299th Combat Engineers journeyed back to Vietnam - Ohio plumber Bill Christie, Oregon nurse and massage therapist John Marcoulier, California agricultural CEO Duffy Dubendorf and the 299th commander - Colonel Newman Howard (Ret.) - journeyed with director Christopher Upham to confront their ghosts, their former enemies and the long term legacies of the war.
For 21 days, these five veterans roamed the jungles and valleys of Vietnam confronting their pasts and the vibrant country that had moved on more than they had.
In a large Mercedes van, accompanied by cinematographer/filmmaker Smith Patrick they toured vibrant Saigon, explored the waterways of the Mekong Delta and the famed Cu Chi tunnels where over 40,000 Vietnamese soldiers lived and fought from elaborate underground bases that stretched over 40 square miles.
They ate dinner (and sang songs) as a guest of former NVA commander. They visited many temples and indigenous villages, orphanages and towns interacted with a wide array of Vietnamese people - not one of which bore any grudges toward them.
The journey culminated in an emotional ceremony for their lost comrades on the former airstrip at Dak To, where they put their ghosts finally to rest.
Return to Dakto tells the lively story of these five soldiers and their journey back to Vietnam. Interwoven with this road trip, the film also tells the story of the past - the events of the siege of Dak To and the first person effects of betrayal by their country on the memories of these men will be shown using a combination of rare archival footage, still photographs and animation to recreate images which have loomed so large in their minds for so long. Using the voices of the men who fought there, the siege at Dak To will be as vivid as the present day journey.