Knowing your friends from your enemies among the Vietnamese was
difficult. They all looked alike. Not knowing the language or the customs, we
had only one way to tell one from other; it was generally safe to assume the guys who were
shooting at us were the enemy!
We had entered a village area to search for enemy activity. The houses were cool
and secluded beneath tall trees, with thick bamboo hedgerows forming fences between the hootches. We spread out and searched one by one. As
usual each hootch had its pile of the thin garments we called pajamas, its few cooking
implements piled in one corner, and a bunker, which we always checked. The only
thing out of the ordinary was that most of the hootches had a large bin full of rice,
perhaps three or four feet high and three feet across. The next crop was even now
ripening in the wet paddies around us. Soon it would be time to drain the paddies to
let the rice mature before harvest. We figured the rice in the bins was probably
seed stock set aside for the next planting season.
Before long we had examined every house, and found nothing. As we left the
village and headed across open paddies toward the next, a muffled explosion sounded
nearby. We turned in the direction of a lone hootch sitting among the rice paddies.
A small group of GIs stood nearby, and as we watched, several more came out of the
door dragging a small man, probably Vietnamese. The soldiers went back inside, and
in a moment returned with a second prisoner.
The GIs formed into a column and started toward us. The two prisoners were in the
middle of the column, being half dragged and half carried. As they came closer we
could see these GIs belonged to a special unit, not regular army. We soon recognized
the notorious Captain Phelps and his Bandits. We had met them once before on an
Eagle Flight to the North Oriental River. Captain Phelps could speak Vietnamese, and he
and his men were trying to interrogate the two prisoners.
The Bandits had seen them sneaking into the hootch while we were searching the village.
The Bandits stealthily crossed the open paddies to surround the hootch. At
the last moment, the VC had seen them coming and dived into a tunnel in the floor of the
hootch. A GI grenade had followed close behind them.
Though the two had managed to escape the direct path of the grenade's shrapnel, they
couldn't get far enough away to escape the force of the blast, compressing the air in that
tight space. Their noses were still bleeding, and blood was coming out the ears of
one of the men. Both were still dazed and could not stand on their own. Phelps
was trying to talk to them, but he wasn't getting through. He kept at it, and
finally one of the VC responded.
Then we learned that a VC unit was holed up about a mile away in a tunnel complex, and
that a large shipment of rice had been sent into the area to feed them. The rice, of
course! We had seen it in every hootch. We had run our hands through it
searching for hidden weapons. It was the weapon! Such simple things, the
everyday things, were the ones hardest to detect.
We did an about face and returned to the village. Before long, trucks were on
their way to pick up the rice. Our captain posted guards around the village.
The rest of the men began loading rice onto the trucks.
I was posted in the paddies between the two villages, alone. I had only been
there a short time when a small woman left the village and came walking toward me along
the top of a dike. She wore faded blue pastel pajamas, and a broad-brimmed straw
hat. A big basket hung from each side of a stout bamboo pole which she carried
across her shoulders. Fifteen feet from me, without looking up, she turned and
started off toward the other village. I watched her go, reflecting on the harsh life
of these simple people caught between two warring forces in their own country.
Then it dawned on me. She was carrying rice! She was transporting some of
the rice to the enemy even while we worked to load the trucks. And she had walked
right past me. I called out to her, "Dung Lai!" ("Stop!" in
Vietnamese). She kept right on going, ignoring me. I called again. I
couldn't believe I was doing this as I raised my rifle and pointed it at her. I
yelled, "Dung Lai!", one more time, and prepared to fire a warning burst in
front of her, all the while wondering if I was going to have to shoot her, and if I
Finally, she stopped and turned toward me. Keeping my rifle leveled at her, I
extended my arm, and with palm down waved my fingers and called out, "La Dai",
"Come here." Slowly, she started back. When she reached the junction
of the two dikes, I pointed back toward the village, and escorted her all the way back.
There I turned her over to the Bandits.
She was a brave woman. It took a lot of courage to risk being shot just to escape
with a few baskets of rice. But, perhaps much was at stake. Perhaps her family
would be killed or tortured if she didn't try. Maybe she was VC herself. It
was impossible to know. It just goes to show how hard it was to tell who was friend
and who was foe.