The Garment District

 

Brought up in a culture of wealth and plenty, it was sometimes difficult to put things into perspective in a different, more primitive society.  In America, farm implements included tractors, plows, and other mechanized devices.  In Vietnam they used a water buffalo and a couple pieces of wood.  To us, a kitchen had running water, an oven, a refrigerator, and cupboards full of dishes, pots and pans.  To the Vietnamese in the countryside, a kitchen was a corner of the mud hootch with an open fire on the floor.Helping Villagers Move Their Few Possessions

We stumbled onto the garment district in a very accidental sort of way.  Our day began with a heliborne into a village on the outskirts of the Ho Bo Woods.  No village this close to an enemy stronghold could be considered friendly.  The last units into this area had taken casualties in a mortar attack, so we came in expecting trouble.  Our formation swept in just outside the village to gain the element of surprise.  We jumped to the ground as the choppers slowed to a hover, and then they lifted forward without touching down, and were away in less than a minute.  We spread out quickly and started for the village to take up covering positions for the second lift.   Within minutes, the rest of the company arrived and moved toward the village.   They reached us just as a volley of mortar rounds exploded where the choppers had been.

Covering gunships were on station and swung around to fire into the forest beyond the village.  We had no more trouble with mortars for the rest of that day!  Then we moved in to search the village.  There were only six or seven hootches, the typical mud huts with thatched roofs.

The captain was expecting results and we were instructed to be thorough.  Each of the hootches received a careful examination.  The hootches themselves contained little - a few beat up cooking vessels and utensils, a handful of clothes.  The people living in such areas as this usually had little wealth.   Most of the villagers left when the Vietnamese government relocated the inhabitants to safer areas.  We could be fairly certain that those who remained were supporting the enemy.

Two of the hootches had ancient Singer pedal-operated sewing machines.  It had been years since I'd seen models like these - and then only in antique shops.  They were worn out and rusty, but still working.  The thought occurred to me that for the villagers this was high-tech state-of-the-art equipment compared to what they had probably used for centuries.  In America, we used machines such as these only for decoration.   Our two cultures were worlds apart.

Completing the interior search, we took thin sticks and poked around the base of each hootch.  Suddenly one GI hit something hard with his stick.  Carefully we dug into the loose soil.  The lid of a .50 cal. ammo can appeared.  Inside we found a pistol and several handfuls of ammo.

Spurred on by this discovery, we searched and probed the area again, but by noon we had found nothing else.  The captain called a lunch break.  We moved to a grassy area beyond the village and sat on the ground to eat our C's.  No one moved around much for fear of booby traps.

As we sat eating a yell went up nearby - one man had noticed something lying in the grass behind him.  It was a wooden frame - a trapdoor entrance someone was just building.  The device was about ten-inches wide and fifteen-inches long.  Inside the wooden frame a single board was hinged with a piece of heavy wire.  That was the trap door itself.  The door had a five-inch box on top of it to be used as a "planter". Charlie would fit the door over a tunnel opening, fill the box with dirt and seed, and in a few weeks it would be completely hidden by the new grass.  It would be invisible.  Then we would have found it only by standing right on top of it.   And so small!  I couldn't have put one of my legs through it at the thigh, let alone my hips!  Trap doors suggested tunnels.  Perhaps we had been looking in the wrong places.  Our search began again.

In a matter of minutes we made a new discovery when one GI fell into a hole.  As he climbed out, we saw a 55 gal. drum buried in the ground.  It was filled with cloth!  We emptied the drum, and counted hundreds of cut or sewn sets of clothing - what we called "pajamas".  Most rural Vietnamese wore these two piece suits of thin cotton cloth.  The pants were like pajama-bottoms with an elastic waist or a drawstring.  The tops either opened at the front with a row of buttons, or were made in a pullover version.

Zippo (35th ARVN Ranger Battalion)Zippo (Ngo Viet Hung - Hoang Dinh Dung)Soon we found a second drum.  In all we had more than five hundred sets of clothes - this village was actually an enemy supply depot.  Here, North Vietnamese soldiers traveling south to Saigon could change from their old, worn uniforms into new clothes, and at the same time camouflage themselves to look just like every other Viet.  Enemy units were obviously moving through here in force.  The irony of it all!  To us a supply depot consisted of warehouses, large supplies of crates and boxes, big trucks, clerks and perhaps computer systems to keep track of everything.  To our Vietnamese enemy, a supply depot was two metal drums buried in the earth - and two very old Singer sewing machines.

We destroyed the sewing machines and tore up the gardens.  Then out came the cigarette lighters to torch the roofs.  The bales of captured uniforms were sent ahead to battalion HQ to be redistributed in the village of Cu Chi.  For us it was a successful day.  The garment district had made its last sale.

 

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The Garment District:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Pictures Copyright 1995 Bob Lindgren
Last modified: March 02, 1995