This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.
CAM RANH BAY, Vietnam -- Forty-five years ago, American cargo ships filled this vast harbor, unloading supplies day after day for U.S. troops fighting the Viet Cong.
Today, the bay’s azure waters are largely empty, except for local fishing boats. The once-bustling U.S. airbase here, formerly home to fighter squadrons and a combat hospital, is abandoned, a reminder of the U.S. military’s exit from most of Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War.
But the Pentagon is plotting a return.
On Sunday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta flew in to Cam Ranh Bay, the first Pentagon chief to come to this deep-water port 200 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City since the war. He recalled “the great deal of blood that was spilled in this war on all sides — by Americans and by Vietnamese.”
He also made clear that the U.S. is hoping that hard history will not stand in the way of a U.S. return to the sheltered anchorage off the strategically-important South China Sea.
“Access for United States naval ships into this facility is a key component” of the U.S. relationship with Vietnam, “and we see the tremendous potential here,” Panetta told reporters, standing on the stern of a gray-hulled U.S. Navy supply ship anchored near the bay entrance, undergoing maintenance.
The vessel is one of only a handful of U.S. ships that the Vietnamese have allowed back to Cam Ranh Bay since diplomatic ties were reestablished in 1995. But it is unarmed and sails with a largely civilian crew, a requirement imposed by the Vietnamese government that has prohibited military ships from docking since 2002, when Russia closed the base it had there after the U.S. departure.
U.S. warships have called regularly at other Vietnamese ports since the guided missile frigate Vandergrift made a port call in Ho Chi Minh City in November 2003.
The Obama administration is reasserting the U.S. role as a Pacific power after a decade of war elsewhere. Seeking to counter China’s growing military might, Pentagon planners are seeking closer ties to countries on China’s periphery and access to ports and other facilities to beef up the U.S. presence in potential trouble spots.
“It will be particularly important to use harbors like this as we move out ships from our ports on the West Coast toward our stations here in the Pacific,” Panetta said.
Cam Ranh Bay is ideally located, right off the South China Sea. But a Vietnamese military officer accompanying Panetta on his visit said opening it up to U.S. warships was not possible because the port was a “restricted military area.” The officer refused to give his name.
He said he was a teenager in Hanoi during the war with the United States and did not fight. Most Vietnamese no longer view the U.S. as an enemy, but memories of the war remain strong for “the older generation,” he said.
Panetta, who flew to Hanoi later Sunday for talks with Vietnamese officials, said that being allowed to use ports like Cam Ranh Bay is important to the new U.S. strategy, which relies on rotating ships, troops, and other military equipment into the region from the U.S., rather than establishing permanent U.S. bases, as it did during the Cold War.
But Vietnam isn’t eager to grant the U.S. permission to reestablish its military presence, even at a size far smaller than it was during the Vietnam War. The relationship will develop “at its own pace,” said a Defense official.
As a fallback, the Pentagon is considering asking the Philippines to reopen Subic Bay naval base and Clark airfield, two Cold War-era facilities also close to the South China Sea. Vietnam views China’s burgeoning military power as a threat and Hanoi has accused Beijing of sabotaging oil explorations in its waters twice last year by cutting undersea cables, a charge China denies. The two countries each claim the Spratley Islands, among other territorial disputes.
But Vietnam still is nervous about antagonizing China further by forging too close a military relationship with Washington, U.S. officials acknowledged.
As Panetta’s motorcade wound through small villages circling the bay, women in conical hats squatted by the side of the road. There was little sign of the once-vast American presence. In 1966, then-President Lyndon Johnson stopped at the base in 1966 on a visit to the warzone to pin medals on wounded soldiers. Hanoi maintains a small naval base on the site of the former U.S.-built installation, as well as a small civilian port in another part of the sprawling bay. There is a new airport and plans to open beach resorts where U.S. Air Force fighter pilots once swam in the ocean after returning from missions.
During the war, the harbor was so busy that cargo ships carrying supplies for U.S. units had to anchor for weeks at a time outside the bay until there was room for them to enter and unload. Now fewer than five ships were visible.
Panetta was a young Army officer during the 1960s, though he did not serve in Vietnam. But he harkened back to the war Sunday, arguing that the scars it left on both countries should not prevent them from cooperating half a century later.
For the record, 3:30 p.m. June 3: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the U.S. guided missile frigate Vandergrift made a port call in Hanoi in November 2003. The vessel visited Ho Chi Minh City.
--David S. Cloud
Photo: U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, left, stands near Capt. John Sargent as he speaks Sunday to the crew aboard the cargo ship Richard E. Byrd in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. Credit: Jim Watson / Associated Press