Always Sit With Your Back To The Wall

 

We often worked with Vietnamese soldiers who were either Chieu Hoi scouts or ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) regulars.  The words Chieu Hoi, pronounced "chew hoy", mean "open arms" in Vietnamese.  This was the name of our government's program to encourage enemy soldiers - Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army regulars - to give up the fight and join our side.

chieu1.gif (41815 bytes)We saturated enemy-held areas with Chieu Hoi leaflets and "freedom tickets".  B-52 bombers dropped hundreds of thousands of the dollar-sized pieces of paper in the border regions to entice North Vietnamese soldiers to defect, though probably few did.  If a soldier from the North changed sides, it meant he wouldn't see his family again.  I picked up several kinds of these propaganda leaflets while on patrol.  They were printed in Vietnamese, and told the soldiers they would be greeted with "open arms" if they surrendered.  The men were promised fair treatment, food and shelter.  As an added inducement, the leaflets carried pictures of big B-52 bomber squadrons dropping their payloads - probably a scene the average NVA soldier could relate to.

chieu3.gif (45383 bytes)The Chieu Hoi leaflets were more effective among the South Vietnamese Viet Cong soldiers.  These men were usually recruited locally, and were fighting near their villages.  In some areas we collected two or three Chieu Hoi's a day. Sometimes whole groups would turn themselves in.  After an unsuccessful ground attack on Keane, more than twenty men were waiting outside the wire the next morning to surrender.  For weeks more and more showed up, until bringing them in each morning became a regular activity.

The enemy also left propaganda for us.  I have two examples in my files.  The first came from Fire Support Base Keene - dozens were stuck into a slit atop a tall pole placed beside the road which we patrolled each day.  It said, "When encountered, throw away your weapons, cross over to the Vietnamese people you will be well treated."  I found the other while at Patton II.  It was longer, written in very poor English, and told us about GI uprisings at Cu Chi.  We were asked to refuse to go into the field, demand an end to the war, demand immediate repatriation, and let the Vietnamese people settle their own affairs.  We were also promised good treatment and a chance to go home to our loved ones, though I don't know just how they were going to make that happen.

Even though defecting didn't necessarily mean an end to combat, there were many reasons for the Viet Cong to switch.  First, it put them on the "winning" side!   All those helicopter gunships, Phantoms and dreadful artillery were suddenly working for you instead of against you.  Second, we offered spending money, clean uniforms, good food, and no tunnels.  Every Vietnamese man from 19 through 40 had to be in the service, so why not work with the good guys and have all the advantages?  Third, working for us was probably even better than working for the ARVN's - living conditions were better and the job safer.  And fourth, if you believe in right and wrong, all of the VC weren't necessarily fighting because they believed in Ho Chi Minh!  Many were "drafted" at the point of a gun.   Working with us meant working for better, safer lives for their own families (and usually meant getting to see their families once in a while).

chieu2.gif (38523 bytes)I remember the first Chieu Hoi leaflet I ever saw.  We were sweeping through a small village, checking out the hootches one by one.  After half an hour we stopped for a break.  The platoon was well spread out, and we were each standing where we had stopped, watching for anything out of the ordinary.  All of a sudden, no more than six feet away, I noticed movement in the bamboo hedgerow.  My eyes focused on a small man, standing with one arm extended towards me, his hand holding a piece of paper.  I hadn't seen him approach.  He started towards me, hesitantly trying to hand me the paper, probably not sure this was the right thing to do.

He had materialized so suddenly that I at first I just stood there, dumbfounded.   Then I signaled for him to come forward, and even managed a smile as I took the slip of paper.  I read it.  Part was in English, reminding me to respect the rights of the captive and not abuse him.  He was wearing a thin pajama-type garment of faded black cotton.  The pants were fastened with a brown leather belt, and the buckle had a faded red star in the center.  He had no other possessions--no pockets, no identification, no money or weapons.

I called to our platoon leader and handed him the Chieu Hoi ticket.  Since none of us spoke Vietnamese, we couldn't communicate with him, so we just sat him on the ground while we waited for a chopper to take him to Cu Chi.  One of us stood guard to be on the safe side.  And we gave him some chocolate.  After all, he might one day return to us as a scout.

One Chieu Hoi scout who joined us was a fourteen-year old boy.  He had received his weapons training from the Viet Cong and had been an eager pupil.  He could field-strip an AK assault rifle with his eyes closed.  He knew all of the enemy weapons - pistols, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades.  When we found such weapons, he would demonstrate how they worked, or take them apart for us.  He was familiar with booby traps too.

One morning he accompanied us on patrol through meadows of tall, thin grass.   Finally we stopped for a brief rest.  We had stood there for about five minutes when suddenly the point man shouted.  Booby trap!  A trip wire crossed the ground just a few feet in front of him.  Though his eyes were trained for such things, he had missed the telltale straight line until now.  Had we not stopped when we did he would have hit it.  The lieutenant called up our young Chieu Hoi, and the two of them moved cautiously forward in the point man's tracks.

When they were even with the point, the boy crouched down in the grass and crawled forward.  He reached out, slowly grasped the device, and then pulled the trip wire from a stick in the grass.  He wrapped the wire around the detonator and rendered the explosive harmless.

Then he looked about, and a moment later spotted another booby trap, off to one side.   He disarmed it, and then spotted and removed a third one.  Next he turned back to the lieutenant and announced it was safe to continue.  He marched confidently down the path the point had been following, and the rest of us followed along.  He had known just where the explosives would be planted.

Like this young boy, other Chieu Hois knew the enemy well and could clue us in on his tricks and habits.  One day we came across a large clearing in the woods.  It contained four neat rows of small rectangular dirt patches, about one hundred in all.   Using sign language and his limited English vocabulary, our Chieu Hoi told us these were graves.  We guessed it was the cemetery of a nearby village, but he told us the graves contained Viet Cong.  Villagers, he explained, would never put the bodies in straight rows, so close together. In the village each family had its own plot, marked off from the rest, and the graves were decorated with as much ornamentation as the family could afford.

As a group, the Chieu Hois were as brave as the next man.  They pulled their own weight.  They fought beside us and scouted for us.  Though they didn't have to, they took the dangerous jobs.  When there was a tunnel to check out, it was they who went below.  It was a job none of us wanted to do, and we were grateful they would.

The Vietnamese ARVN regulars were another breed altogether.  Nearly every village had its own militia or ARVN fort, where the soldiers lived with their wives and children.   At night they closed the gates, and the men stood watch just as we did at our fire bases.  In some places entire villages were enclosed by concertina wire, and had bunkers placed at regular intervals around the walls to provide protection from Viet Cong attack.

Some ARVN forces were very active.  One, near Cu Chi, often had successful actions, and the bodies of slain VC were placed in rows in the central plaza alongside the highway where their neighbors could see the disadvantages of belonging to the other side.   Other units were not so aggressive.  They holed up in their forts at night and waited for the dawn.  They didn't shoot unless fired upon.  And since they had carefully passed this information along to their local VC chieftain, no one was about to fire the first shot.  We all knew of instances where enemy forces that attacked us had marched directly under the guns of nearby ARVN units, but were never challenged.

From time to time we worked side by side with our Vietnamese brothers-in-arms.   These were the times that tried men's souls.  Patrolling with ARVNs was like nothing else we did.  For us, patrolling was serious business.  We were hunting for the enemy and expecting to find him.  The ARVN approach to war was often a bit more casual.  As they walked along, random shots would ring out from time to time.   They always explained that they had seen something move.  I can say with certainty that if they really did see something move, it was usually just a tweety-bird, high in a tree.

But most of the time there were not even tweety-birds.  If the truth be known, the ARVN's were firing warning shots to their kin on the other side, letting them know we were coming through.  They didn't want to surprise anybody and end up in a real firefight.   Except with the most professional ARVN units, sneaking up on Charlie was out of the question on a joint mission.  Shots rang out all day long.  That's why we didn't do joint operations any more than necessary.  Of course, there were good Vietnamese units, too. But the amateurs far outnumbered the professionals.

One evening after dark we marched through Trung Lap, on our way from Patton II to Patton I.  Here and there, dim candles hung above shuttered store fronts, giving the village a funereal appearance, and silhouetting us against the black night all around.   Walking along the darkened street wondering if the village was really safe was sobering enough.  But just as we reached the center of the village, a burst of automatic rifle fire rang out from behind the buildings.  We froze for a second, and then realized it was just the ARVNs, "signaling".  A second burst answered the first, and so on until we reached the safety of the old fire base.  It didn't do much to calm the nerves.  But it was so like them!

AK-47 Ammo (What I Saw On The Ground)For the most part this indiscriminate shooting was just something we had to live with.   But once in a while it went too far.  We had searched through several villages for signs of enemy activity.  Just for the fun of it, we had brought along our loyal allies to help us search.  And of course it had been a day of continued shooting and random firing as we moved along.  Nerve-wracking, to say the least.  As we walked along a narrow trail into another village, I spotted a round of rifle ammunition sticking up out of the dirt beside the trail.  We stopped and searched the area, and found more loose rounds, and then full clips of AK ammo.  The evidence called for a more intensive search of the immediate village.  It was sure to be a VC hideout.   As we checked the hootches one by one, we found several grenades and other gear.

Half an hour later we had thoroughly searched the entire area.  I moved slowly out of a hootch into an open yard.  Directly in front of me in the courtyard was the entrance to an underground bomb shelter.  It was a square mud mound about three feet high.  Most of the hootches in these villages had a bomb shelter built of mud right in the center of the hootch, for family protection in case there was shooting.  This one was built underground, and could possibly even lead into a tunnel.

Just to be sure no danger threatened, I cautiously moved up beside the low doorway and eased my M-16 around the edge of the door, peering under the edge of my helmet in case someone was waiting inside.  I swung across in front of the opening, quickly scanning what I could see of the interior.  It was empty.  I lowered my rifle, and walked around to the far side of the mound.  It was hot, and I was tired from a long day of marching.  The others were beginning to find shade to take a brief rest.  I sat down on the mound, and removed my helmet.

In the next instant a burst of rifle fire on full automatic exploded right behind my back!  My heart dropped.  I believe my life, or brief portions of it, flashed before my eyes.  As my mind raced, it occurred to me that perhaps I hadn't checked the bunker carefully enough, and in my mind's eye I saw an enemy soldier emerge from the bunker and fire pointblank into my back.  The blast shook the air around me.

Just as quickly, I also realized I wasn't being hit, and dropping instinctively to the ground, turned and flicked the lever from safety to auto.  I almost shot the ARVN who was standing in front of the bunker entrance, unloading a thirty-round magazine into its recesses.  As I lifted the muzzle he explained he was just "checking it out"!  My heart pounded on for several minutes before quieting back down to near normal levels.  It was that sort of thing that endeared them to us.  No, I shall never forget how I felt at that moment as long as I live.

 

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Always Sit With Your Back To The Wall:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Ammo Picture Copyright 1995 Bob Lindgren
Last modified: March 02, 1995