Yeah, I know I promised something with explosions after last month's epistle, but this story was on top of the pile. It almost has explosions - for my part, I like it better that way.
Something I posted eight years ago:
I Speak PERFECT Vietnamese!
Throughout 1968, I spent a great deal of time working with the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) in the area between the old Imperial Capital, Huế, and the DMZ. I wasn’t a MACV military advisor - what useful advice could you get from a 2nd Lieutenant? I was attached to ARVN units to provide American artillery support. We were training them to be airmobile, and their own artillery was pretty immobile. There was, however, a huge concentration of US Army artillery in I Corps - hard to get out of range of all of our batteries. So, input Army artillery Forward Observer + radio, one each, and they were good to go to the boonies.
I never learned the language. We were pretty practical. Most of the Vietnamese officers had strugled to learn a little English, so we spoke that, dotted with Vietnamese phrasing. When I really got stuck, I’d bring out my high school French, which usually got the job done, for all that the ARVN officers would not speak French back at you. The language alone pissed ‘em off. They had their reasons.
I picked up a smattering of Vietnamese phrases - I could count to ten, could say “thank you” and “eat” and “artillery” and “mortar” and “run away” and “crazy” and some other things that seemed to cover all the bases. Utilitarian Vietnamese. We weren’t there to discuss philosophy.
Consequently, after a little while I achieved fluency in pidgin Vietnamese, i.e. I could converse successfully with any Vietnamese person about any topic that could be covered in ten random Vietnamese words, more or less, accompanied by hand-waving and dramatic facial expressions. I am an excellent hand-waver, and I will rate my dramatic-facial-expressions up with the masters, so I got by.
Chiêu Hồi !
What was astonishing was the effect my mad skills had on soldiers and Marines who were in the vicinity. It became an article of faith that I spoke PERFECT Vietnamese. By “article of faith” I mean “incontestable,” even by me. I guess the convenience of having someone at your beck and call who spoke the local lingo outweighed the need to closely examine the quality of the service so prized.
Strangely enough, this rumor of competence followed me south about a year later, when I finally joined up with an American
light infantry air cavalry company patrolling the jungle between Saigon and the Cambodian border. I was a 1st Lieutenant by then doing the same job, artillery Forward Observer, and known by my radio call-sign “Six-seven.” I think my “language skills” had somehow gotten into my 201 file by the time I joined the Cav.
Well, you know, my fake skills never did me any harm. Every VC or NVA we encountered knew how to say “Chiêu Hồi!", which was a magical phrase advertised on leaflets all over the jungle meaning: “I surrender! Re-educated and rehabilitate me, then give me a well-paying job!” Usually, that was all the Vietnamese we needed to know.
At worst, if my few Vietnamese words, arm flailing and making faces failed to do the trick, I’d just conclude that this particular Vietnamese-looking guy must be Cambodian. Send for an interpreter. People bought that. It was almost like they didn’t want to hear that I, in fact, couldn’t even speak passable Vietnamese, like they were afraid to look under the hood because the news might be bad.
Didn’t come up that often in the south. But when it did, boy howdy...
To Ellen'n Back
My Blues (aka “my company” - blue=infantry) got one week a month out of the bush. We would pull security and perimeter for a firebase, a kind of sandbagged circle cut into the jungle which hosted (usually) a battery of 105mm howitzers and a platoon of 155mm’s.
This one particular firebase, LZ Ellen, was a pretty tough nut to crack - concertina wire around the outside, backed up by sandbagged machine gun bunkers. Add to that a company of grunts who have broken their 81mm mortars out of storage and are taking R&R time on what most of the Americans in Vietnam would consider the “front lines.”
Naw. You could talk as loud as you wanted, smoke when you wanted to, catch a beer at high noon, listen to the radio, clean your stuff, get new gear and clothes, go back to base to see the docs if you needed to, get your mail on time, and get coffee and chow from someplace other than whatever you had in your rucksack. Was nice, most of the time.
Not this time. LZ Ellen had lost some of its charms for us. It was getting scouted and probed for a real attack by the North Vietnamese Army. They kept poking at us - random mortar and rocket attacks, people in the treeline checking us out. Seemed like they wanted us to pay attention to the treeline, and not risk keeping a steady eye on the perimeter.
They kept ratcheting it up. Then one night, they did everything again with only one addition - they sent sappers into the wire around our perimeter.
NVA sappers are explosive guys - sometimes literally. Their job is to clear a path through the obstacles we had around the perimeter. Their modus operandi was to crawl into the wire under cover of mortar and rocket fire, attach explosives to the concertina wire and barbed wire we had strung, disable the trip flares and claymore mines scattered through the wire, and blow a line of attack for the NVA infantry straight at the perimeter bunkers.
That night they were testing our wire, scouting us out. We didn’t even know they were there as they crawled in while we were getting hit by a shitload of rockets and mortar fire.
What they found out was that we weren’t sitting on our hands waiting for them. We were ready. Their rocket and mortar people had a bad night. The sappers penetrated the outer wire, and then found out that we had tanglefooted and otherwise improved the wire. Tanglefoot is low, tight barbed wire at about ankle level crisscrossed across a large area. Hard to get through, hard to crawl under.
The proof of that was evident next morning. The NVA sappers left one guy dead in the wire, and another wounded and so tangled up they couldn't get him out. He was trapped in a very shallow defilade in the tanglefoot - kind of a short puddle-maker, barely deep enough for him to avoid direct fire from our perimeter. We knew he was out there - he was moaning part of the night.
Morning broke. I wanted to go out with our infantry company's Commanding Officer and do a battle damage assessment (BDA) of our counter-battery artillery and mortar fire the night before. Something more pressing came up.
One of our Platoon Leaders showed up at our Command Post (CP). "Where's Six-seven? We got a gook in the wire. I hear Six-seven speaks perfect Vietnamese." Yeah, no. Whaddya gonna do?
Oh well, could be interesting. I didn’t like going out through the wire, so I waited for the Blues lead the way. They threaded through tanglefoot and claymores and trip-flares, and established a perimeter just outside the wire.
They walked right past the wounded sapper. All I heard was some grunt yelling, "He's alive! He's awake."
My turn. I went out to where two grunts were pointing guns at this guy. The sapper was lying in his tiny ditch, clearly hurt a couple of places, one arm twisted behind his back. He was watching the barrels of the M16s pointed at him.
I knew the grunts. Standing back a couple of steps into the tanglefoot was Bo’, a tall, thin Black Spec4. He was from some rough neighborhood in the States (Bed-Sty?), was a very cheerful guy and a seasoned, solid soldier. He liked to talk. He had been grinning and chatting up the sapper before I got there. I’m not sure what effect a tall, grinning, cheerful Black soldier, speaking run-on, incomprehensible English and holding an M-16 pointed at his head had on the wounded sapper. Might have been reassuring. Might have been terrifying.
Bo’s squad leader was standing close in by the sapper in the tangle of wires where the sapper had cut our tanglefoot. He had his M-16 on the sapper, too. He wasn’t talking. Your field-name is whatever you write on your helmet - lot of guys were known by their home towns. The squad leader too - he came from the El Paso area, and I can’t remember his field name. Started with “D.” Let’s call him “Del-Rio.”
Del-Rio one of the ones who came back within a few days after 2nd Platoon got knocked down like nine-pins. By the time of this story, he was a squad leader, should’ve been a buck sergeant, probably still a Spec4. He was a small guy, about my size. Hispanic, about my height (so not freakishly tall to sapper guy), really thick mustache. He was a quiet man, very calm and steady, reliable.
Me, I was - and still am - a typical white guy, a cross between Irish & Scandinavian and whatever the hell my Father was made of, supposedly a mélange of Sooners, Native Americans and Huguenot refugees. The point is, none of us looked like we were from around here - hard to know what we had in mind, but the guns did not bode well for the sapper, I reckon.
In the Hands of the Enemy
The sapper was shirtless, in shorts and tennis-shoe boots. They worked that way up north, too. Sometimes skin is the last detector you have between you and a tripwire hiding in the night-dark maze of a firebase perimeter. The sapper had no sapper bag; I’m guessing he tossed all his gear and explosives to the guys who left him here. He was deepest in the wire - the dead sapper was right on the edge of the tanglefoot. The wounded sapper’s feet were completely wrapped in barbed wire, kind of torn up by that. Dried blood and mud everywhere. He was wheezing, hurting and disoriented.
I high-stepped my way over and squatted down beside him. He looked at me. I used my best Vietnamese. "Back see [bác sĩ], mote foot [một phút]." [Medic's coming, pretty soon.]
He looked at me puzzled. I said it a few more times. Finally, he said, "Bác sĩ?"
"Vâng duơc! [You betcha!] Bác sĩ, một phút!" Yeah, we're not going to torture him. He kind of lit up at that. “Chiêu Hồi!” he said. Right. Like we didn’t have him dead to rights anyway. Actually, we didn’t.
I decided it was time to turn on the charm. I spoke to Del-Rio, "Got a cigarette? Give him a cigarette." He lowered his rifle, fished out a cigarette and held it out to the sapper.
"Trung úy?" [Lieutenant?] said the sapper. Huh. He knows US ranks. Then he moved for the first time. His arm came out from underneath him, and he held out his hand to me - which was clasping a US grenade, no pin - right level with my groin. I froze.
Grace Under Fire
It's hard to back up quickly in tanglefoot. So Del-Rio did the next best thing - he dropped the cigarette and wrapped both of his hands around the sapper's hand. Bo’ - who gets the other "cool as fuck" award in this story - yelled, "Who's got a grenade pin?"
Somebody did - the guys kept spares in their helmet bands. The pin was carefully re-inserted, and the grenade was taken away. The medics arrived and showed their red crosses to the sapper, who let them go about their business.
That was about it. I swear, Del-Rio grabbed that sapper’s hand like he had done that 100 times before. He wasn’t panicked. He wasn’t even excited. All in a day’s work. He held it until Bo’ secured a grenade pin, leaned over and pushed it in. No awards, no ceremony. Their platoon though it was all hilarious. Del-Rio got some ribbing later. He took that in stride too.
The sapper started rattling off Vietnamese the gist of which, judging from his gestures, was that he would really like that cigarette now. I unfroze myself and helped to translate. He got his cigarette. Chiêu Hồi, my ass. Dude scared the socks offa me. Let him get cancer.
The sapper was, it turns out, an officer. So I guess we got our cigarette’s worth from him. I dunno. The memory of that grenade still makes my legs a little shaky. How long had he been holding that pinless grenade? How hurt was he? He could’ve blacked out and let go while we were all chatting so nicely in the tanglefoot.
I suppose fluency in a language is one way to measure how successfully one speaks it. I prefer another metric. It’s not a question of how much Vietnamese I mastered. The question was did I master enough Vietnamese?
Just enough. Perfect.
Subscribe to our newsletter
Promotions, new products and sales. Directly to your inbox.