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Sunday, 21 November 2010

Memories of Vietnam 1965 1975: A Ghoulish Corpse


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 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.


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.


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.


Anonymous said...

Nice photos. If your entries on Phan Thiet are from Tet 1968, the 'battalion' of Montagnards was two companies from the Pleiku Mike Force, I believe the 25th and 26th Companies, if memory serves. They were attached to a battalion of the 101st Abn. I was much further up Highway 1 at the time, at Dien Khanh, near Nha Trang.

Rozier said...

Thanks for the information. My photos and articles on Phan Thiet relate to the fighting of Tet 1968 and further fighting later on that year.

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