After a sixty day leave stateside, I found myself on a plane ride back to Vietnam, with all the old memories starting to flood back from my first tour with the Riverines. It was a horrific year of violent encounters that took over 70% of our squadron. Most of us were between the ages of 18 and 25, with only dumb luck for those of us that made it back stateside in one piece.
I left Travis AFB in California only 28 hours ago, finally arriving in Saigon with a severe case of jet lag. I was returning for a second tour as a Naval Advisor, stationed with Marine Corps Advisory Team 43 in the Rung Sat Special Zone. I liked the idea of visiting villages in an effort to win over the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people for the South Vietnamese government. I would be directly involved with the Physiological Warfare group out of a place called, Nha Be, thirty miles south of Saigon.
Once my plane arrived, I took a short taxi cab ride to the Annapolis Hotel in Saigon for incoming Navy personnel, where I spent the night and drew my weapons the next day. Because of overcrowding I was glad to see morning come so I could be on my way. The Hotel had a huge amount of new, incoming replacements, with most of them still untouched by the atmosphere of hostility all of them would soon encounter. Most of them would stay drunk for their entire stay while waiting for transportation to their units scattered throughout the southern part of the country. The feeling among most of them was that they wouldn’t leave the country alive and so they would stay drunk to hide their anxiety until departing the next day.
I went out later that morning with an older sailor I met there, that was also a career man on his second tour in-country. During the war many career sailors volunteered for combat duty, thinking it would get them a “Field Promotion” that was quite unachievable for them any other way and never considering what may be waiting for them down the road. My ride to my new unit wasn’t expected to arrive until mid-afternoon, so we had enough time to see some of the sights of Saigon and buy a few necessities from the thriving Black Market found on any street corner. They issued me a 38 cal. Pistol, a M-16 and a K-bar knife, so the first thing I bought was a shoulder holster for the 38 and a Army drab green military watch with a compass made to slide on the watch band. It was almost impossible to get these Items through regular supply channels, but here on the streets of Saigon it only took a few hundred MPC’s (military payment certificates) to obtain just about anything we wanted.
Shortly after noon my new found buddy and I returned to the hotel to find a 1st Class Yeoman tolerantly waiting for me by the front desk. I said goodbye to my new friend and gathered up my gear for the ride to Nha Be. PO1 Oakley was sent out from Psyops. Headquarters at Nha Be to retrieve me from the stifling hot, bug invested hotel for sailors. He filled me in on what to expect in the way of quarters, responsibilities and the marines the way back. His name was Kevin and he thought of himself as a country & western song writer of sorts and promised to let me read some of his work once I got settled in. Only a couple of years older than me, he made good conversation on the hour long trip back to headquarters in Nha Be. I noticed the immaculate condition of his hands and his freshly starched, pressed uniform and could tell he probably rarely left the confines of his air conditioned building. He was strictly office personnel and with only the occasional errand to Saigon, he barely broke a sweat.
Our jeep soon arrived in the outer edges of the town of Nha Be with a small Vietnamese Army installation at the end and a small U.S. Navy base beyond that, reaching out into the river. The town was small in size but had the usual bars and laundry shops to support the military men stationed at the two installations. Kevin took me straight to the Commander in charge for introductions and then to one of the barracks where I would be temporarily bunking. The Naval base was small with only seven barracks, one for officers and the other six for enlisted personnel. It had Enlisted and Officer’s clubs, chow hall, chapel, supply buildings and some other buildings to support some of the other activities on base. There was a pier that stretched out into the large river that went up to Saigon, for tying up all the small boats. The advisors had two small fiberglass boats they used to go to the nearby villages and to insert small ambush teams at night. A refueling station at the pier serviced all the boats that provided various functions in and around the Rung Sat. There was a large helicopter pad with several helos parked to support all the other various units around the base. The base supported lots of intelligent groups, including the SEALS, Chinese mercenaries, and the Vietnamese Ruff Puffs supported by the Marine Advisors I would be attached to. From the small helo that sat off to one side of the helo pad marked Bell Telephone, the CIA must have had a couple of guys there somewhere that worked out of the headquarters building. I soon learned that this particular part of the Delta region, relied heavily on intelligent groups to support the many operations constantly going on in this area.
The following day I was presented to my new boss, a marine CWO (chief warrant officer) Johann Von Haferkamp. He was in charge of Psyops through out the notorious area known as the Rung Sat Special Zone. Everyone called him “Gunner”, a name given to gunnery sergeants in the Marine Corps, and I would be no exception. There was a certain informality where the marines stayed just outside the Navy Base gate. There was a small single story building within the ARVN section of the compound that served as a bunk room, office and rec-room/kitchen area, for the Marines. A Marine Major Battolato was in charge and when he spoke, everyone jumped… there was no doubt he was a Marine’s Marine. Gunner took me over to a ware house on the Navy base and showed me where all of our supplies and equipment were stored. Later that afternoon, we grabbed two boxes of leaflets and a skid-mounted speaker system and went for a helicopter ride over the Rung Sat. We toured the entire area, buzzing all the villages. We strapped the speaker system to the landing gear of the helo and played a cassette of propaganda when we reached an area where suspected Viet Cong were. I got as close to the edge of the door opening as I could and started throwing out Chieu Hoi leaflets, saturating the ground below. The Chieu Hoi leaflets were a dollar bill size leaflet with the configuration and colors of the South Vietnamese Flag. Any enemy combatant that wanted to turn their selves in could use the leaflet for safe passage for surrender. Actually I had quite a time that first day, cruising along at 500 feet and then diving down to just above the tree tops at 80 knots. Some of the Army helo pilots were tricksters and loved to perform aerobatics whenever they could get away with it. There’s nothing like speeding along tree top level at a breakneck rate, knowing that any miscalculation on the young pilot’s part could end in total disaster for us all… but oh what fun!
For the first few months I stayed in a barracks on the Navy Base and would make the short walk outside the gate to the Marine’s headquarters each morning. I timed it so I got there after the Marines had their morning muster and went over their POD (Plan of the Day). I usually mustered with Oakley over at headquarters on base, because it was a lot more informal, but soon Gunner wanted me to become more of the team with them, mainly because I spent all of my time with the Marines at their headquarters’ building during the day. I started going up on daily helo rides over the Rung Sat by myself and taking the two small boats we had out for a spin in the River to make sure they were kept fully operational. The rest of the day I just hung around with the Marines, sometimes tagging along on trips to Saigon or flying down to one of the villages to take supplies and mail to our guys that lived in one of the villages called Can Tho.
There were six villages in the Rung Sat, with Can Tho being the largest that supported its self by fishing to sustain their existence. We would frequently fly supplies and mail down to our team that lived in Can Tho, the biggest of the six villages that was located out on the peninsula that reached out into the South China Sea like a large finger. The other villages mostly lived off the land, catching fish and crab, cutting dead wood for cooking and planting small crops to support their existence. The Rung Sat Special Zone was notorious in nature and had a violent historical past. In the days of tall ships or sailing vessels, all the shipping that came into the ancient city of Saigon, had to navigate the waters of the two large rivers that went around the Rung Sat and merged into one river that eventually ended up in Saigon. Once the rivers started their trek up on each side of the Rung Sat, the pirates of the time would attack the ships and steal the booty. Later when the French arrived, the area was taken over by the Viet Minh used to attack and fight the French. After the French was driven out, the area was taken over by the Viet Cong battling the government forces of South Viet Nam. Then came the Americans to back the South Vietnamese and it would be our job to drive the Viet Cong out of the Rung Sat and win over the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese that just wanted to live their lives in those villages. Most of the Vietnamese had a mistrust left over from the French or any foreigners, so our task would be daunting one for sure. Our job was to assist the Vietnamese “Rough Puffs” in the field and win over the civilians with friendly casual contact. We took dental and medical team in to treat the villagers and special projects like showing movies in Can Tho. A run into Saigon once a week, netted several motion pictures from special services at MACV (Army) Headquarters. I always tried to get westerns, because when I showed westerns the whole village would turn out. They couldn’t understand a word of English, but rooted for the good guys in white hats just like any American audience.
Within a few months I became an old hand at the lay of the land and was a familiar sight in most of the villages from the Medical and Dental visits on the week-ends. From time to time I would travel to the Village of Can Tho and stay with Marines for a few days, showing movies at night in the village square and walking the village during the day smiling and saying hi to all I passed. I couldn’t speak much Vietnamese, but took an interest in their social habits and customs, stopping to inquire about the many different oddities I found throughout their small community of huts and shops. One of my favorite treats that I could find in any of the villages was Mhi soup, a vegetable noodle soup with some meat that many thought was from the growing stray dog population that occupied the interior spaces of all the villages. Can Tho was a fishing village and brought in fresh fish and other seafood delights from the South China Sea on a daily basis. There customs and foods were as foreign to me as anything could be, but after showing a willingness to participate in their daily routines by simple gestures of good-will, I was bowed to and addressed with smiles of trust on any of my benevolent tours.
On one of my many trips to Saigon, I was able to purchase a Polaroid camera from a massive PX and a carton of film packages that I used to take pictures of children of the villages and pass them out. The kids would come running whenever they saw me, hoping to get pictures to show their family and friends. I soon learned to love the environment of their humble existence and the people that showed incredible perseverance in a tough and hostile environment.
The Rung Sat was filled with small tributaries of waterways that meander throughout the entire area connecting one side of the Rung Sat to the other and was used by the villagers for transportation to the larger rivers for fishing and trading goods with other villages. After sunset a curfew was imposed to keep the enemy from moving openly and for the safety of the civilian population. When night fell over the land, even the stray dogs knew to stay inside. Many of the intelligent groups went out in the deepest parts of the jungle and set up ambush sites and killed anyone that past by those positions. The Marines of Advisory Group 43 were no exception, going out at night several times a month. When they went out by boat, it was part of my duty to operated the small boat of Marines to the ambush site, somewhere deep in the interior of the jungle where the Viet Cong would be. We relied on intel from the many different intelligent gathering groups that operated in our area. Our boat was a shallow hulled fiberglass boat about twelve feet long and four feet wide, with twin Johnson outboard motors on the back and console for steering. The boat was called a “Kenner Ski Barge” and could take five of us, deep into enemy territory on our nocturnal raids on our adversaries.
We painted our faces with black grease and camouflaged ourselves and equipment to blend into our surroundings, to prepare for the long night of setting perfectly still waiting for our prey to appear. Most nights nothing showed up and we would break ambush around four in the morning. Sometimes though… we would make contact and all hell would break loose. Sometimes I thought of the souls that were on the receiving end of all that fire power and wondered what their last thoughts could have been. I had to keep telling myself that if the Viet Cong had me in their sights, they would certainly kill me. Being exposed to all the killing on the river just a year earlier with the Riverines, I became callous to all the surreal fighting surrounding me on any given day. On those occasions that we made contact with the VC, we opened up with everything we had with there being very little left of the sampan or its contents when the shooting stopped. We had to recover any bodies, papers or weapons for Intel and then it was my job to start the engines and get us out of there as quickly as possible. After most of those brief encounters I found myself grunting like the rest of the Marines, while speeding away at 30 knots. It got so I started to like going out on ambush and would join in on the camaraderie when we got back to the team house. This was all in such contrast to what I did during the day light hours, trying to create this harmonious existence between me and the people of that area. The biggest problem was that some of the very people I passed by during the day in those villages, were in fact Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathizers and would love to kill me if given the chance. The reality was that I was a killer at night and a goodwill ambassador during the day so I could fulfill my military mission. The stark reality of those circumstances still haunts me to this day.
Sundays were days we used for flying in on helicopters or in some cases riding in on the boats, to provide medical and dental assistance to all who were in need. I usually worked with the Dentist acting as an assistant in handing his instruments to him. He preformed tooth extraction mostly, as there wasn’t any electricity to drill cavities. When some of the older people’s teeth were pulled, it left a large hole that could if left open could get infected. In those cases the doctor would perform something called a “Flap” and suture the opening left by the extracted tooth. I became quite good at finding the different tools that were needed by the doctor and could identify most them with no difficulty. At the end of each visit, the villager was handed a large plastic bowl filled with basic toiletries, a South Vietnam flag and other government items to win over their loyalty to the South. Afterwards we would all gather at one of the local eating places and enjoy a 33 beer (Vietnamese beer) and some of the local delicacies. The choice on most days was boiled crab, cracked open and dowsed with something called Nuoc Mam sauce. The sauce smelled to the high heaven, but tasted pretty good.
The time went fast for me in the Rung Sat and I enjoyed most of what I was doing and earned the respect of many villagers that were ]now calling me by name. Eisenlord was much too hard for the average Vietnamese to say and so I became known as “Adee” or Sergeant, even though I was a Second Class Petty Officer in the Navy. I had completed about eight months of a twelve month tour and was fairly confident when strolling off by myself in and around the villages. I rarely cared my M-16 rifle, just my 38 pistol and a canteen of water. Almost all of the villagers recognized me now and I could just about always depend on some friendly teasing from most of the passerby’s. A lot of bowing and smiling went along way in the daunting task of winning the trust of the people.
It was mid afternoon and I decide to go for a walk over to one of the larger rice paddies to watch the women of the village harvest the rice. The Monsoon season was over now and the afternoon sun made me realize why the Vietnamese wore those large straw “Coolie” hats. Besides shedding the rains of the Monsoon season, it shaded them from the hot tropical sun. As I approached the edge of the village, I looked for a shady area under one of the many banana trees that lined the outskirts of the rice paddies. There were a series of earthen dikes separating the rows of rice plants that grew submerged in a flooded plane. It didn’t take long for the women to notice me sitting there and start laughing and motioned me to come in. The task of harvesting the rice looked to be labor intensive, but like a well trained troop of soldiers they all preformed their chore with the utmost efficiency.
I sat there watching the process of the women harvesting the rice and although laborious, I thought it was something I would like to try and hopefully in doing so, I would continue to win the respect of all the villagers. I couldn’t ever remember seeing any of the men take part in such an activity, but I wasn’t Vietnamese and as far as I knew I would be the first American to ever harvest rice in Viet Nam.
There were about a dozen or so women that walked the rows of rice, grabbing bunches of rice stalks with one hand and swinging a long machete like knife to cut the stalks. After they gathered a large bundle, it was then handed off to younger girls that carried it back to a dry spot on the edge of the paddy. There a large round wooden block that was used to dislodge the rice by swinging a small bundle of rice stalks down onto the block, completing the extraction process. Several younger girls would then gather up the rice in large weaved baskets for transporting to a storage place in the village.
The women’s teasing elevated to a point where I felt I was a distraction and was interrupting the work that was so vital in the village’s well being. I left my boots on wading in and that was met with resounding laughter, which was completely expected with anticipation by me. All the Vietnamese were bare footed with their black silky pajama bottoms rolled up above the knees. I asked to start with cutting the stalks and they seem to be taken by surprise by the shocked look on their faces. I didn’t think they actually expected me to participate. After about twenty minutes of hacking at the rice stalks with my machete, I became more proficient with every stroke. An older lady must have seen me sweating profusely and handed me a coolie hat that helped keep the hot sun off my head. I noticed a couple of Vietnamese soldiers now sitting by the banana trees and they were getting quite a laugh at my newly found skills, as they smoked their cigarettes from a squatting position.
I tried all the different tasks that were needed to complete the rice harvest and found that the work was not as easy as it looked. I spent about a half an hour performing each job and by the time I reached the part where the rice was being gathered up, I was utterly exhausted. Anyone seeing the spectacle from a distance with me and my coolie hat and my unorthodox skills, probably thought I was a drunken Vietnamese soldier lending a hand. I worked with the women for about two hours total and decided I interfered with this critical project long enough. I said goodbye to all and gave the coolie hat back to Mama-san and headed for the spot where the two soldiers were sitting. One extended his hand and helped pull me from the paddy saying something in Vietnamese that must have been hilarious from the laughter by the women close by. I smiled and put my beret back on as I started to walk away with both of the soldiers patting my back.
By the next day the story of my rice harvesting was all over the village, including our team hut where the Marines teased me for the rest of the day. At the conclusion of my four day visit, Gunny Leigh shook my hand and congratulated me on a good job. This was remarkable in itself, because Gunny never recognized anyone for doing anything, let alone crack a smile. As I took a final tour of the village on my last day, I was invited in for tea by many elders. Being invited in a Vietnamese hut for tea was a big honor and I was overwhelmed by their generosity and realized the obstacles that were overcome with just showing a willingness to work at their level. Most of the stereotypes I had heard about the Vietnamese people were inaccurate and not worthy of acknowledgement.
Upon returning to headquarters at Nha Be, I was summoned by the major that must have caught wind of my extracurricular activities in the rice paddies. His demeanor was callous as expected, but as I glanced around the room I noticed several of the marines were holding back smiles. At first the major started chewing me out for being out of uniform and wearing a “coolie” hat, but ended with a Vietnamese Di Wee (Captain) presenting me with the Vietnamese Psyops medal. The major then stepped forward and congratulated me for a job well done and presented me with a plaque from the advisory group in the Rung Sat.
The people I lived and worked with in that very short second year, were hard working, industrious, respectful people, who were ready to accept and trust an awkward American that learned more than I ever taught. As I look back now, I wonder how those villages of the Rung Sat have changed and if some of the younger people were still fishing and living out their simple lives in the Rung Sat Special Zone.
This is a true story by: A. G. Eisenlord