Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Vietnamese: part 1: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975


The Vietnamese: part 1

Who exactly were these Vietnamese who were beginning to take over my life? The average GI with his tour of duty of one year never had a chance to learn. There were those, both military and civilian, who spent years in the country and learnt the customs and ways of the people but were I fear never listened to in Washington.

It is not my intention to give an account here of their history. Only as I perceived it at the time. Later I was to learn much more. I bought three books on the country. A Village in Vietnam, I forget the author, but it was a very detailed account of village life which was the basis of Vietnamese society. The Smaller Dragon, by Joseph Buttinger, a very easy introduction to the history of the country. And, Viet Nam, by a Vietnamese, Do Van Minh, himself First Secretary at their embassy in Rome. I was to get to know, and still do, his family very well much later on.

The Vietnamese had progressed down from what was then North Vietnam during the centuries, destroying the Kingdom of Champa on the way. The Chams were a people of Indian origin, and then progressing into the Mekong delta region belonging to Cambodia. They were a very warlike people and had driven out the Chinese after a thousand years of domination and fought a civil war that lasted a hundred years. When the French conquered what they called Indo China in the late 19th century they divided it up into five entities. Cambodia, Laos, Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China. The last three were more or less the three cultural regions of Viet Nam. After the French were driven out Viet Nam was divided politically into two countries. The communist North Vietnam, and the Republic of South Vietnam.

All three regions spoke the same language although with different dialects. It is said the purest is in the north and the most incomprehensible in the centre. There are tribal ethnic minorities in the highlands. There were said to be 20,000 Chams still in the centre. About a million Chinese lived in Cholon, a city attached to Saigon. Many had migrated during the troubles in China in the 1880's. About a third of the population of the Meking delta were Cambodian. There were upwards of a million refugees from the north, mostly Catholic, often entire villages had moved with their priests and settled en bloc in the south. The main religion was Buddhism plus there were two main sects. The Cao Dai in Tay Ninh, and the Hoa Hao in Long Xuyen in the delta, the armed forces of the latter were I believe the last to fall to the communists in 1975. The language had been latinised by the Jesuits ( Cecil Rhodes) in the seventeenth century. Simple in structure an absolute minefield for westerners.

Leaving aside the political intrigues, personal jealousies and ambitions etc; it was an incredibly complex structure. In the north though, everybody followed the party line or died. Not democratic but efficient. Whilst trying to absorb these facts, apart from the various military forces I had to get to know the character of the people.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Road from Vung Tau to Saigon: part 2: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

The Road from Vung Tau to Saigon: part 2

I was to travel that road many times over the coming years. There were often blown up vehicles, destroyed bridges. Once I saw a Renault 2CV, so flattened I thought a tank had rolled over it. Security varied considerably over time and could change in the course of a few minutes. Once PB and I, playing the good Samaritan, saw an injured man beside the road. He was covered in blood. We took him into the car, but after a few miles decided he was drunk, had had a fight with a companion. He was difficult to get rid of.

The strangest sight I saw was this US army 3/4ton. There were two soldiers in front looking straight ahead. In the back were eight GI's. Four to a side. Looking inwards to each other! Backs straight as if on parade. Rifles held firmly by the muzzles. This might be the correct military posture for travelling at attention. I imagine they were utterly green, scared to death, lost and didn't know where they were going. The Americans would only travel that road in heavily armed convoys. Anyway it wasn't their zone. The thought occured to me that I should ask them if they needed any help. I felt though that any attempt to approach them might have so shocked them, it could have snapped them out of their trance and led to my instant death. Nervous soldiers are most unstable.

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Road from Vung Tau to Saigon: part 1

The Road from Vung Tau to Saigon: part 1

I had to go into Saigon on private business. A number of Decca people had private business concerns which I may deal with later. I took PB along as interpreter. I hired a car and chauffeur.

We left Vung Tau early in the morning, passed through Baria with no trouble and had gone a few miles further on when we heard an explosion up ahead. It was a beautiful day, after a number of years one gets used to the nightly crump, crump of artillery; one hopefully learns to differentiate the sounds of outgoing and incoming shells, mortars or rockets, machine gun fire etc. One learns to live with it. To have one's knee jerk for years after the war every time a car backfired or one heard a loud bang was for later. We pushed on and found a large crater in the road. As we were able to drive around it and there were no destroyed vehicles we were not unduly concerned. There was no traffic in either direction though.

A few miles later we arrived at a large village. There seemed to be a lot of activity, traffic had piled up, not moving in either direction. Questions were asked about what had happened on the road we had just come along, and we were informed that a bridge had been blown up ahead.

Like any loyal subject of Her Britannic Majesty, I decided it was a good moment for a tea break and we duly found a tea house where we discussed the situation, in the manner of people deciding, due to cloudy weather ahead, if they should continue with their picnic or not. PB was North Vietnamese and they are a very steady people. We decided to abandon the car and driver, which could not continue anyway because of the blown bridge, and continue on foot and try to pick up transport further on. We came to the end of the village and left people and cover behind us. The road was raised above surrounding rice paddies. There was not a cloud in the sky, not a sound to be heard. A beautiful day for a young couple to be walking along a quiet country road. We came to the destroyed bridge. One span, about three feet wide, was still passable and we crossed over the first, destroyed part of the bridge. I then stopped and looked around me.

There was the wreckage of one of these three wheeled vehicles. I couldn't see the driver, perhaps he had fallen down below. I didn't look below; it was not the moment for idle curiosity. I looked to my left and saw a rather fat peasant woman. I couldn't see her face. Her body was in a most strange posture. Part of my own survival mechanism kicked in and I thought, 'What a strange manner in which to pray'. It was the eternal prayer of death. This was one of the shades of fear I have talked about earlier, an escape from reality. The body goes calmly through all the actions required of it, but the mind blankets out the truth. I looked to my right and saw a young girl sleeping. She must have been about twelve years old. A very beautiful face, untroubled in its sleep. I looked down her body and saw her guts hanging out onto the bridge, her stomach ripped open. Hers was the final eternal sleep of death. I looked around. Not a sound. No movement. Nothing. I looked up and high in the sky I saw a spotter plane. So high it might have been an eagle. I looked at PB, she remained very calm and without a word we continued. PB was always very brave. The fact that we would never show any weakness to one another I found quite natural. The fact that we might have both been nutty didn't occur either. There is a Vietnamese phrase 'dien cai dau' again with no accents, which Americanised was 'dinkydow' which might have been appropriate. It means crazy.

We continued on for a half mile or so and I saw movement to my left. A patrol of Regional Force soldiers was advancing quickly along the drainage ditch beside the road. They were led by an ashen faced officer, his right arm held out in front of him holding a Colt.45. His shaking hand all too visible. He did not give us a glance. He looked how I inwardly felt. We continued on until we came across a lone three wheeled taxi vehicle, which for an exorbitant fee took us to the next village where we found transport to take us to Saigon.

In Saigon I took care of my business. The evening was not quite as relaxed as I would have hoped. The dinner rather tasteless. We had to return the next day.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Decca Navigator team at Master South. Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

The Decca team at Van Kiep.
One US military, two US Dewho was there earlier.cca personnel, one Australian and one British.
Rather a rough lot. I'm still in contact with one in the photo and another

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Life on Station: part 2: Van Kiep: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

Life on Station: part 2

We had been issued with two steel helmets and two Garand MI rifles. It is an admirable rifle and I used to take it regularly down to the rifle range, which was outside the other end of town. At five to eight hundred yards it is comparable to the British Lee Enfield, a rifle I had almost lived with since the age of thirteen when I joined the cadets. The Vietnamese army were equipped with it at this time. It wasn't perhaps the ideal weapon for jungle warfare though, and much too cumbersome for them. The US army had the M14 which I found better than the British FN which we had had issued towards the end of my army service. I still preferred the old Bren gun to the US M60 machine gun.

Most of us bought personal weapons on the black market. At that time I had a Smith and Wesson revolver and a Swedish K submachine gun. It was a fine weapon but perhaps too heavy and I later got an M2 carbine which was the universal arm of choice. One could get almost anything on the black market. Luckily I was in hospital when the Vietcong attacked the rifle range. They killed the guards and took a company of South Vietnamese prisoner.

Weapons discipline was very slack. A friend visiting another friend (both Decca) whilst the latter was still in bed picked up his pistol, a Colt .45, said "Is this your pistol?", and squeezed the trigger. The bullet hit the wall a few inches above the head of the fellow who was in bed. 

I was talking with a group of people. The fellow on my right asked if he could look at my revolver. I took the rounds out, put them on the table, handed it to him and went on talking to the person on my left. He handed it back to me, cocked, and asked how it fired. I pointed it in the air (habit) and squeezed the trigger. I shot a hole in the ceiling. The fool had reloaded it.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Photos from an old Vietnam: Vietnam notes & photos

Photos from French Indo China. A land owning family in the Mekong Delta known as Cochin Chine.

In fact the old man with the beard was Chinese who had mved into Vietnam during the troubles in China in the late 19th century.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Life on Station: part 1: Van Kiep: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

Life on Station: part 1

I would not want to give the impression that no work was done. I just cannot think of anything more boring to recount than the daily duty of a Decca technician. I always found it was the life that went with it that was fascinating.

There was a film on the Vietnam War on television the other  night. I found it completely nauseating and didn't watch more than ten minutes of it. I am incapable of watching anything on Vietnam unless it is documentary.

There were long periods of quiet. This was one. Sometimes we were on duty for two or three days. I can remember staying up all one night trying to keep our last diesel generator alive by pouring water into it every half hour. We had a new generator shipped down by helicopter. They put it on our airstrip half a mile away. When they had brought a porta camp by helicopter previously they had dropped it on the camp, luckily without killing anyone. The US army in Vung Tau said they would take three or four weeks to send a fork lift to move it, if of course I filled in all the necessary paper work. Coming back from the air strip a day or two later I came across a lone Australian driving a fork lift. I asked if he could help. In no time at all he had it lifted up and taken to our diesel shed. I've always had a soft spot for Australians. We had one in our team, ex Australian Air force. They were starting to arrive in our province now. Contrary to the Americans who bulldozed everything flat and turned a camp into a dustbowl, the Australians blended into nature so no one knew where they were. I could now continue in praise of Australian beer, but I won't.

John was fixing a vehicle, on his back without a shirt. Then great consternation. He found he'd been lying on a red ant's nest. I had to keep him company that night whilst he drank to take the pain away. An American officer I knew went off with his battalion of Vietnamese. They were all wiped out in a rubber plantation a week or two later. We had an alert. Lots of shooting. In the morning one dead pig.

 A visitor, nameless, from our Saigon office, came down. Went to sleep, perhaps not too sober, on our water tower. In the morning not knowing where he was he stepped off. He was saved from death if not exactly from injury by landing on the barbed wire below. 

I put up a Union Jack in the window of our porta camp. At night it shone rather beautifully all over the US advisers compound. They were not allowed to fly the Stars and Stripes at this time. We were, after all, that little corner of England in a foreign land. An Australian didn't take too kindly to it though and was going to do all sorts of horrible things to me. That's the other sort of Australian, the type I don't get on with.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Road to Baria: part 2: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

The Road to Baria: part 2

Once coming back from Baria I saw a vehicle on its back in what used to be known as Madame Nhu's shrimp farms. This had been a project of the sister-in-law of the then president Ngo Dinh Diem. Now they had reverted to nature. In fact the whole length of the road between Baria and Vungtau was bordered by mangrove swamps. Mud at low tide, water at high tide.

This was low tide and the vehicle was lying on the mud. There were a dozen or so arms or legs sticking out. It was obvious to me it had been a simple accident. I wasn't driving. I asked the driver to stop. He put his foot on the accelerator and took off at high speed, a sort of wild look on his face. I forget his name, I wouldn't mention it in any case, but he was beginning to crack up. There is a certain fear which over time builds up in one, one gets jumpy and panicky for no reason at all. This is another of what I call the shades of fear. I thought it a pretty poor show, but then maybe I had been in the scouts and he hadn't. There was a tendency on the part of some people to never get involved in anything outside their job. All I saw was a simple accident that required the help of passersby. He saw a vehicle, perhaps blown up by the Vietcong, and panicked. It's strange how after a period of forty years things still irritate one. It is probable that at the time I was angry for a day and then shoved it to the back of my mind for many a long year. | Trang chủ | Tin thế giới
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