Monday, 24 September 2018
The Destruction of Phan Thiet
A large part of the town now was beginning to look apocalyptic. There is some strange fascination about watching napalm being dropped. The product itself is utterly loathsome. I had been watching these attacks for some time when jets started dropping what I took to be 1000 lb bombs just across the river from us. When they exploded everybody ducked although we were out of range of debris. The shock waves themselves though played on one's nerves. A member of the recoilless rifle team was taken away with shell shock. Perhaps there comes a moment when one has had enough.
They had flown in a battalion of montagnards. It had been said that neither the Vietnamese nor the Americans wanted to flush out the Viet Cong from the destroyed buildings. Quiet, undemonstrative fellows I had seen them sitting at the airfield earlier waiting for orders. I always felt they were often used by the powers that be as so much unaccountable cannon fodder. They sent them in now against the entrenched Viet Cong. A slow cautious advance. I saw a hand grenade tossed at them by the defending VC. A shell exploded in the river just in front of us. Which side had fired it?
Most of the town’s people had a resigned air to them. It was difficult to say where their sympathies lay. Many certainly hated or feared the Viet Cong but the Americans were causing most of the destruction. It is very easy to be detached when one has no family involved, when one can say, 'I've had enough', and just pop on a plane and fly home. One is not involved. For the Vietnamese people this had been going on in one form or another since 1940. There was a deep ingrained mistrust of anything to do with whatever government was in power. They looked to the village and family for security. With the destruction of village life, village headmen had been one of the first targets of the Viet Cong years before, and still were, it was to the family they looked to.
I went back to the relative security of the airfield carrying a couple of C rations with me.
Wednesday, 12 September 2018
All is not quiet in Phan Thiet
I crossed the bridge and found a South Vietnamese armoured unit at rest in front of the Provincial Headquarters. I took a few photos and wandered around. They had some US advisers with them but I did not interrupt their conversation. I went off and came across a 106mm Recoilless Rifle team. The whole street was destroyed, a pall of smoke hung over everything, and everyone was alert, although not with that nervous tension that worries me. Everyone seemed exhausted. There was a body sprawled on the ground. I asked what was up with him and somebody said he was sleeping. A good army habit to be able to sleep anywhere. They were largely uncommunicative. The closer to action a soldier is the less he has to say. Some more photos and I wandered off.
I fell in with a mixed group of South Vietnamese. Regular and Regional Forces. With them as escort I continued exploring. Hopefully they knew what areas were secure. We went through some more damaged and destroyed buildings, a school complex I think, and came across dead Viet Cong lying here and there. I started taking photographs. I felt completely emotionless. As I was taking a photo of a particularly gruesome bullet riddled corpse there was suddenly the sound of bullets whipping around my head. The Vietnamese took off with the speed of greased lightning. My reactions were a little slower but not much. Running, I tripped over some piping on the ground and went sprawling. Jumping up I continued in a blind panic. I turned the corner of a building and rejoined my companions who burst out laughing. I joined them in the laughing. When one makes a complete fool of one's self the best thing to do is laugh. Also I was beginning to understand this Vietnamese habit of laughing in happiness if one escapes danger. Much better than visiting a psychoanalysist.
Having had enough excitement for one day I returned to our camp.
Tuesday, 11 September 2018
A Ghoulish Corpse
I left the camp, driving slowly down the raised road through the cemetery. I was particularly alert as there were some Viet Cong entrenched in a building at the bottom to my right. I noticed some
fighting going on a few hundred yards away to my left. My eyes were drawn to the corpse of a Viet Cong not far off the road also to my left. It had been there some days, evidently the responsibility of nobody, and as it had begun to smell somebody had poured petrol over it and set it alight. With rigour mortis having set in, it's arms and legs sticking up in the air, it was now also burnt and blackened. Perhaps a cemetery was the appropriate place, but it was rather ghoulish.
Suddenly all the hammers of hell seemed to open up just above my head. My heart nearly jumped out of my mouth and for a moment I was in a state of utter shock. Luckily I had been crawling along, observing what was going on around me, and was able to bring the 3/4 ton quickly under control. I then saw and heard this jet fighter screaming off to my left. It must have been on a strafing run when it opened up with its multiple machine guns as it crested the road just as I passed under it. That is, I imagined later, how one ended up a casualty of friendly fire. I also wondered if the pilot had been laughing or cursing me as he narrowly avoided a collision fatal to us both.
In town I passed by the Advisor's compound to pick up my C rations. We had been living off them for some time now as nobody was doing any cooking. We had a supply at camp but our sergeant refused to issue them so I was still dependent on my trips down town. There were pockets of Viet Cong on our side of the river and they seemed to occupy, or at least to have created a no man's land of most of the other. The South Vietnamese were holding the Provincial Headquarters and an area around it. The town was full of its own refugees and displaced inhabitants. As was becoming my habit I took off to see what was going on.
Sunday, 27 May 2018
The Ammunition Dump. Part 2
I was now aware that objects were falling out of the sky and every time the ammo dump exploded I ducked back down into the bunker. Then up again. My earlier calm had been replaced by a state of high alertness. There are times when I have really loved Americans. When those first helicopter gunships appeared was one. I remember asking them to zap hell out of the Viet Cong. After a while the camp was protected by dozens of them circling around in the sky. I was joined from time to time by one of the more adventurous of our soldiers with his M14. The others, including the machine gunner, remained in the bottom of the bunker.
The sergeant was still off somewhere doing what I don't know. This went on until perhaps 2.30 or 3 o'clock in the morning when things calmed down. The US army habit of suddenly laying down massive bursts of machine gun and automatic rifle fire at nothing in particular from time to time kept one's nerves on edge. I was able to get an hour or two's sleep where I lay and in the morning looked around at the debris scattered everywhere. It really was a wonder nothing had hit me on the head. The airfield was a complete mess with damaged or destroyed buildings everywhere. About a dozen aircraft had been put out of action and after this none stayed on the base over night. Our water storage shed was destroyed and as the town’s water supply had been contaminated earlier the only thing left to drink was beer.
Our major flew up from Saigon and we all got new flak jackets and helmets. We also had a proper new bunker built just outside our door controlling also the access from the cliffs. The previous bunker we had spent most of the night had been a miserable affair. This one was really first class
Friday, 25 May 2018
Sunday, 11 March 2018
The Ammunition Dump. Part 1
It was about 9 o'clock in the evening when the mortar rounds started coming in. Everybody rushed to their positions. I found myself, alone, behind a low wall. We had no helmets or flak jackets. I had my trusty sub-machine gun. The Viet Cong sometimes sent teams of saboteurs in under cover of these attacks. One of their points of entry was up the cliff at our back.
Suddenly there was a massive explosion and a sheet of flame shot hundreds of feet into the air. I thought to myself what a marvellous firework display. I knew the ammunition dump, situated about 150 yards away, had been hit but my mind refused to register the fact. It was a retreat into one of my shades of fear I have talked about. I took out my pipe and started to calmly smoke it. It was always most comforting under such circumstances. The night accentuated the repeated explosions, but luckily hid from me the mass of unexploded shells and shrapnel that were falling back down to earth. In the morning I would find the base littered with them. At the time I was mercifully ignorant.
Our sergeant however decided it was time to withdraw to a bunker so I rejoined the others. As we made our way there was another almighty explosion and everybody dived for cover. It is strange that a few minutes before, alone, I had not thought of cover, but now the herd instinct was beginning to take over. A 155 shell landed close by but did not explode. I was trying to crawl under a flimsy building; there was a six inch space between the floor and the ground, all fear of cobra's dispelled by a greater one. The corporal next to me was wounded by shrapnel, but not too badly.
We made it to the bunker. The sergeant took off somewhere. The military were in theory responsible for our security but I preferred to remember my Black Watch training. The others kept inside the bunker which was below ground. I stayed half out of the entrance. Somebody had to keep an eye open for Viet Cong. The thought of huddling in the dark not knowing what was going on didn't appeal to me either.
Sunday, 4 March 2018
Odds & Ends from Phan Thiet
Phan Thiet had been hit during the recent offensive. The camp barber had been found amongst the dead, evidently leading them as a guide. Our sergeant had shot up one of our own buildings with his machine gun. We went for a ride down town out as far as the hospital. This had a team of Chinese doctors and nurses. When the Viet Cong offensive was renewed they would be cut off. The South Vietnamese and Americans refused to rescue them and a mixed bunch of civilian contractors went in. They were ambushed and one killed. I don't know what the fate of the Chinese was. The town's water supply had a bloated dead pig floating in it. This part of town was absolutely deserted and rather creepy.
At night I remember sitting on a bunker with a cold beer watching a duel between a Viet Cong machine gun and one our Puff the Magic Dragons. The fire power was most impressive with their three six barrelled machine guns firing up to eighteen thousand rounds a minute.
There frankly wasn't enough work for ten men on a station. Two could have handled it perfectly well. We spent a lot of time on the firing range. I never did get to like the M60 machine gun but loved the M79 grenade launcher. A very dangerous weapon though. I remember reading of a GI who accidently fired one in the air in a crowded market. What goes up must come down and it killed and injured many people.
One of our GI's shot a cobra on the path between our living quarters and ops room. I can remember driving slowly down some isolated road in Phuc Thuy province when an enormous cobra suddenly reared up in front of me. Like some idiot I found myself slowing down not to run it over. I can understand the expression to be paralysed with fear. That was to happen to me once when shooting erupted at some Viet Cong. It can happen once. Twice is not wise. It’s funny how one can spend hours on a rifle range and when the moment one has to squeeze a trigger for real one can't. As I said I believe once is allowed.
We didn't have very good relations with the local people nor any chance to develop them. The town had not yet felt the full force of being liberated by the US army, but that was to come. It was at Ben Tre in the Delta that an American general had said the town had had to be destroyed to save it.
Phan Thiet being liberated by the US airforce
Tuesday, 27 February 2018
Decca, Phan Thiet
Decca, Phan Thiet, was known as Green South since the development of the central chain. It was one of the three slave stations. It’s personnel had originally been housed on station but at one time in the past considering themselves the subject of Viet Cong sniper fire had moved down town. By the time I arrived there was only one Decca technician left and due to the deteriorating situation in town he had moved back on station. We now had a detachment of eight members of the 16th Signals Company who more or less ran the station. I feel our role now was purely advisory although we did shifts along with them. The isolation we had known, and perhaps were jealous of had gone. I once heard a story of a Decca technician, who, left alone too long on an island in the Persian Gulf, had opened fire on a relief ship.
US army jeeps in front of damaged building.
We had no problems in any case with them, and their sergeant was a very keen fellow. Messing was difficult for me. My fellow American Decca technician used to wear US army green fatigues and just walked in to the mess on base and was never questioned. With my beard and khaki drills I was not admitted. Officially Decca was attached to the Provincial Advisory Team which was based down town. Actually this pleased me as it gave me an excuse to drive down town three times a day to eat and get about. I had had enough of living on army bases when I was a soldier. Van Kiep had been different as it was largely a Vietnamese base.
Sunday, 25 February 2018
I was posted to Phan Thiet a few days later. I caught an Australian piloted Caribou. Always pleasant fellows to fly with. As I suffered from some form of vertigo their habit of flying just above the trees was most comforting as the fear engendered completely drove the vertigo away.
Phan Thiet was on the coast in 2 Corps, in the southern part of Central Vietnam. It was known for it's 'Nuoc Mam', that pungent fish sauce that accompanied almost all Vietnamese cooking. 'Nuoc' is a Vietnamese word that means liquid, the 'mam' is the fermented fish paste that is the base of the sauce. The best is said to come from the island of Phu Quoc. I would agree. I'm quite sure though that the smell of the fermenting fish is of the same quality in both towns. I like it, the sauce that is, and those that do not should not venture to Vietnam.
The Decca station was at the airfield which was on high ground to the south of the town, with a high cliff on one side dropping down to the sea. Between the airfield and the town was an unkempt cemetery with a raised road going down through it. The town itself was cut in two by a river.
The airfield was a base of the 101st Airborne Division when I was there. A very small company sized camp with a battery of South Vietnamese 155s, a field hospital in an old French building covered with lovely tiles, all of which would be blown off during my stay.
Saturday, 10 February 2018
Reunion in a War torn Saigon
The next day I went to find PB. Our separation had not been entirely smooth. The letters from each other going rather to extremes. No telephoning possible. In fact in all the years I was in Vietnam I was never able to make or to receive an international call.
The fighting had died down although there was still some going on in Cholon. Of course in cities like Hue the issue would not be resolved for many more weeks. As nobody knew what the situation was and solid news was always unobtainable one had to use one's own judgment. The streets were mostly deserted. The only people about were those that had to go somewhere. I passed a destroyed house. I had to walk as there was no transport at all. It was a most strange feeling.
As I walked down her street and saw PB coming towards me a pair of South Vietnamese Air Force AIE Sky Raiders passed overhead at roof top level. Were they trying to support the morale of the local population or frighten the Viet Cong out of hiding ? I always felt there was something frightening about very low flying aircraft even if they were on your side.
Later I would go to Cholon where the fighting was still going on. There as one first entered the deserted streets one could hear hushed voices behind the closed shutters. Then silence as one went along roads that had been completely abandoned by their inhabitants. It was not the silence of a Sunday morning because such a thing did not exist in Saigon. Then one passed through an area where the buildings had been damaged by the fighting. The further one went the greater the destruction. As I had become completely lost at that time I just headed on towards what I don't know. I think I was very scared. There was something very vulnerable about being the only person about. The streets were at times very long and as a foreigner I did tend to stick out in a crowd. Not that by myself I made very much of one. I knew there were Viet Cong still entrenched, but not where. I could hear the sound of gunfire but it is often difficult to tell direction in built up areas, even if built up was no longer an appropriate word.
I was only driven on by my own curiosity. I had my camera and took photos and fell into my role of photographer. At that time I did not know that a jeep load of four journalists had driven round a corner and run into the Viet Cong. The journalists had called out 'Bao chi, bao chi', which means press reporter, but the Viet Cong had shot three dead anyway although one had managed to escape. They had fired on Boy Scouts working with the Red Cross to help the wounded. The fighting had been very bitter. There were few rules when the Vietnamese set about killing each other. Finally I came across a group of Field Police, very distinctive in their own shade of camouflage and old M1 Garands. I had always found them very pleasant people. I say that as there were some Vietnamese units that gave me the willies. I stayed with them the rest of the day before making my way back. Not a relaxed walk either but gradually improving as I took the right direction back to civilisation.
My reunion with PB is not the concern of this story, but there could not have been a more dramatic background than this Saigon of 1968.