THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 7 NUMBER 1
NGO THE VINH
As observed by the intelligence staff of the headquarters operations center, there were signs of unusual infiltration activity by the enemy, the North Vietnamese communists. In the past, it had usually been the case that about ten days or so after units of Red Beret paratroopers engaged in battle, the enemy's fighting vigor decreased, as expected. However, this time, even though fifteen days had passed, and even though the communists had suffered heavy losses, South Vietnamese battalions still found themselves confronting a seemingly undiminished strength of opposing forces. I believed that this situation served as a most legitimate reason for our Airborne Ranger Group to leave Saigon and proceed toward the western border area to take part in the military operation aimed at liberating Krek, a town in Cambodia, from enemy siege. I had to admit that we all were just simply happy to be on our way there, which was not to mention the fact that everyday in Saigon we had longed like wild animals for a chance to return to the deep jungle, as we were the Green Berets, those most at home with the familiar border environment.
Having trained to adapt ourselves well to any circumstance, we had no qualms in knowing that this time our battlefield would be jungle areas across the border, deep inside the territory of Cambodia. This was terrain where the communists had set up numerous liaison stations, where their storehouses of military provisions were hidden, and where units from the two renowned North Vietnamese divisions, 5 and 9, were constantly on the move, dispersed to conceal themselves, complete with combat vehicles.
The normal duty performed by the reconnaissance teams of our unit was to be inserted into the enemy's terrain to gather information on their operational strategies, to discover their storehouses, and to capture prisoners in order to extract intelligence from them. Now, instead, after a week of such operations, the nature of this new battlefield propelled us toward a different task, more difficult and more arduous. It involved erecting blockades with small Airborne Rangers battalions, causing confusion in the rear of the enemy units' AO's, areas of operation. In spite of our instinct for self-preservation, we became a kind of modern Jing Ke who, once committed to the mission, had little hope of surviving. Jing Ke was the strong courageous warrior in ancient China who volunteered to take up the suicidal task of assassinating the evil cruel Emperor Qin Shi Huang; he failed, but left an everlasting example of heroism. In another light, it was also a good thing that each of us believed luck would be on his side; that thought was enough to kindle all hopes.
For a few days now, the endless stream of artillery shells landing on our departure base had made us rather tense. On top of that, there came the less-than-encouraging news about fast and constant encounters of the reconnaissance teams with the enemy. Though the teams were said to have emerged victorious, the high price paid was heavy losses sustained by two of our best teams. Having just left Saigon, and having been thrown into an abrupt change of environment, the soldiers were not psychologically prepared to face such a battle situation, riddled as it was with difficulties. Generally speaking, their morale was rather low, if not to say shattered. Perhaps that was what made me feel, after two years commanding an Airborne Ranger company, that it was about time I volunteered to rejoin a reconnaissance team, with the hope of projecting the air of invigoration sorely needed by the unit. The lieutenant colonel, commander of our Airborne Ranger Group, agreed to my request for transfer with much hesitation. What he was afraid of, rather superstitiously, was reassignment of former team leaders, those reckless war hawks that easily can have their wings broken.
Of Catholic background, not as superstitious as he was, I nonetheless had lived through and witnessed the chancy unpredictable outcomes of battles, and hence could not but believe in a number of omens and even in the alertness of instinct that forewarned of an impending mishap. Due to that, during my last stint with a reconnaissance team, I had declined to infiltrate the enemy's territory one last time before I left the team, after two other team leaders had been captured or lost in similar circumstances. But this time, after having spent a period in an Airborne Ranger company, I had almost forgotten the taboo and decided to lead a reconnaissance team once again an ill-omened move forward likely yielding no return, as had happened to another very well-known team leader. However, perhaps there lurked a secret reason that I myself had only come to realize just now, which was that the time spent in Saigon had bored me to tears. I wanted to restore, through ferment of death, the pride and vitality that had sunk low in me.
The orders for our operation were changed at the last minute. The team would infiltrate Cambodia an hour earlier because heavy rain was predicted in late afternoon. The 81st Recon Team was led to the briefing room where a very brief explanation of the operational plan was given. Quite unlike reconnaissance missions conducted inside Vietnam, this operation was without an American advisor and his interpreter. The whole helicopter squadron was composed of Vietnamese pilots who, aside from youth and courage, had had no experience with this type of operation, an operation where they were to drop eagle-like reconnaissance teams down into the jungle. In truth, in this last stage of Vietnamization of the war, the Americans wanted to wash their hands of the whole conflict. And in one way or another they were trying to pull out of the Indochina quagmire. Aside from all the ultramodern weapons which they provided, at this present juncture we really fought alone. Shrewdly, the Americans halted on this side of the dividing line, so that the fire and destruction on the other side were none of their responsibilities. Therefore, in the eyes of our unit, the U.S. participation in the war was defined simply by their leisurely presence in the rear. Amidst the tense and seething atmosphere of the war, the Americans stayed on the margins coolly sitting down for a card game, thumbing through Playboy magazine, or engaging in body-building exercises being virtually an indifferent audience to news of our happy victories or devastating losses.
Indeed, without a doubt, the Americans had actually withdrawn from this theatre of war. You had only to witness U.S. bases and barracks left behind in utter disorder to realize that their departure was "hurried". And everyday, on the main road from the western border battlefront, convoys of American vehicles painted with white stars were seen moving, one following another, heading east toward Saigon, heavily loaded with weaponry. In the accompanying jeeps were weary, ragged GIs with long hair and thick beards puffing up clouds of marijuana smoke, the expressions on their faces suggesting presence of a feeling of gratification for an honorable withdrawal. Their "Kill for Peace" slogan was now a string of empty sounds. "Blood, Sweat and Tears", the rock group's name attached to the barrel of each Howitzer cannon, was buried and lost beneath layers of red dust. Disappearing like the lost meaning of a holy war without the Cross, these slogans had been stained by the recent exposure of secret documents designated the Pentagon Papers.
The team stood ready for insertion at the airport. The lieutenant colonel walked us toward our helicopters. He himself would fly in the command and control aircraft. In dangerous situations, his presence in the sky over the area of operation gave many of us peace of mind, largely because of his store of experience, his calm and cool demeanor, his adeptness at orderly solving of dilemmas by resolute decisions. The leader of the squadron informed us that another Slick helicopter had broken down at the last minute. It would appear that the maintenance skills of the Vietnamese Air Force would take many more years before reaching the expected standards.
Though the lieutenant colonel tried to contain his feelings, I could detect a fleeting anger on his face. As things stood, we would not have a rescue helicopter, but had to content ourselves with a command and control aircraft, a single aircraft to insert the reconnaissance team, and two gunships.
More than an hour before the appointed time of departure, rotating airfoils whipped up red dust. The fleet of four birds followed one another upon lifting off the runway, moved into formation at an altitude of three-thousand-feet, and headed directly in the northwest direction. The sky was the purest of blue, without a dark cloud to indicate imminent bad weather. Water of the rice fields shimmered highlights. We left behind us, in the distance, Black Lady Ba Den mountain its existence no less than a mistake made by the Creator of the universe, a deformity embedded in the Delta's otherwise unbroken topography which protruded denuded from the green flat surface of the plain. The mountain embodied many mysteries and legends: a habitat of bloodsucking and venomous mosquitoes; a place of malignant malaria caused by plasmodium falciparum; a site of horrendous battles; a ground where were buried our fellow fighters during an operation four years ago. Engraved in my mind was the image of moonlit nights, nights when Ba Den's lunar orb wore the pale face of one afflicted with malaria. On the jungle hat sitting upon my knees, worn out and faded from long exposure to seasons of rain, my memory tried to find the imprint of this place: Ba Den mountain among Daksut, Poleikleng, Mai Loc, Ashau, Khe Sanh, Bunard, Pleime, and dozens of other familiar place names. I had been in each of them a few times, and from each had carried away memories of sacrifices made. Through the full length of history, Vietnamese youths have been nourished from roots of misery and fed with death. Their youth was reckoned not in terms of months and years, but by changes in the environments touched by their combat shoes, the shoes that had been and were trampling on the remaining green grass of their beloved land of birth.
Mixed with the sounds of the rotor and the wind blowing through the aircraft, the voice of the sergeant who was the team's deputy asked me, "Grey Tiger, when will it be our turn, me and my fellow team members, to be dropped into Phnom Penh?"
At such an instant of anticipation of serious developments like that, I could only keep silent and smile at him by way of answering, instead of confirming it was possible a general offensive along the lines of Tet '68 in Vietnam would occur in Cambodia and that Phnom Penh would need us to come to the rescue. However, it would seem that with respect to the people's hearts and minds, we were at a disadvantage when setting foot in this land of wats and temples. The atmosphere of distrust and hostility was rooted in an obsessed memory of severe historical antagonism between the two countries. During my first border crossing together with a large division deep into Cambodian territory, I witnessed the devastation of a village hit by bombs and shells, and met a monk in a damaged wat. The Cambodian abbot, an old senior monk well-versed in the French language, had talked with me through his tears.
"It is truly unfortunate for us Khmer people," he said. "We can't possibly make any choice between the two Vietnamese sides."
His words echoed the heartfelt headline "How sad to be a Cambodian" written by an American correspondent describing the widening war in Cambodia.
Upon reaching Thien Ngon Special Forces camp in Tay Ninh province near the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, the squadron of helicopters had to change direction because from the ground heavy smoke rose high accompanied by sounds of explosions. The camp's underground gas tanks and ammunition storage had been hit by artillery rounds, and the fierce fire had continued since morning.
The war was made horrible not only by encounters between combatants, but more than that, by artillery fire and rockets. In this theater of battle, man could predict or determine nothing; he could only accept luck, good or ill, as being a matter of fate.
It was the turn of another team member, Luong, to voice his aspiration: "If we find an underground shelter of 122 mm rockets, please try to get me another chicken wing, would you, Grey Tiger?"
He was using a slang term, common among ARVN soldiers, to refer to a stripe in an insignia which, having the shape of an inverted V, suggested the image of a chicken wing. Luong had served as a corporal for more years than anyone else, ever since I had previously been assigned to the team.
Gently giving him a playful knock on his completely bald head, I shouted in his ears, "Not only a chicken wing. You'll receive another medal for valor."
I was referring to the most honored medal for valor under fire, that given for feats of arms performed outside the national borders or within enemy-controlled territory. Luong had received this kind of medal twice. As much as he performed excellently and was intrepid in the jungle, he was riotous whenever he returned to the city. He was a champion in both winning medals and being disciplined for many days, and hence even after six years he had not been promoted to sergeant.
"This time when we go back to Saigon, if I still haven't got myself a chicken wing, would you allow me to desert the army, Grey Tiger?"
He trusted me enough to say such a thing. But why was it that even though it was meant as a joke, there was this very unusual change in his countenance that was not at all cheerful? Could it have been a harbinger, a predictor that this time he would be gone, I thought to myself, and immediately tried to dismiss that crazy thought from my mind.
In order to avoid antiaircraft fire, the squadron swerved and flew along the national highway, which was no more than a red dirt road extending like an arrow of flame straight into Cambodian territory. On this highway numerous convoys of GMC trucks, packed with provisions and ammunition, were heading toward the ongoing heavy battle at Krek in order to deliver these supplies to our troops.
About 15 minutes into the flight, I realized that perhaps we had left our homeland, as down below among green fields curved roofs could be detected, a special architectural feature of Cambodian wats, their Buddhist temples. Cambodian villages did not look much different from Vietnamese villages, only more spacious. Many red-tile roofs stood close to one another, interspersed with dung-colored thatched roofs. Wispy columns of grey smoke rose gently from late afternoon cooking fires, children played, and buffaloes and cows returned to their paddocks. How much longer could that romantic scene last in an area of Asia still rather peaceful? Or had its better time already passed, after fifteen years of skillful swinging above a sea of fire by Prince Sihanouk? In the distance toward the south, the afternoon sun was scattering its golden rays over the Mekong river, so abundant with fish and silt. Rolling rubber tree forests blended into the wild jungle. Soon there appeared below us deserted villages marked with rows of craters left by B-52 bombers. In fact, no trace was detected of human or other living beings. Was I not seeing a repetition of Dakto, Khe Sanh, or Son My in Vietnam? I asked myself. To where had the armed struggle between Vietnamese opponents driven away the Khmer people born of those villages? Being carried forward by the intoxicating sweep of history, who would stop to consider the fact that war among the Vietnamese could widen its effects to diminish the glory of an ancient Angkor civilization? In the desolate quietness of an early evening, in one of those ruined villages, I imagined, there remained a certain unknown woman who resignedly sat holding and breast-feeding her baby. Was not that, after all, a most comfortingly beautiful and everlasting image which symbolized the significance of survival of the human species?
Indeed, to me, the image represented life full of its challenges, and also suggested a generous forgiveness for this protracted and futile war marked with senseless destruction by men and weapons. But such feelings of concern were of no help to us at this moment, a moment when everything had been arranged for us and all we ought to do was submissively throw ourselves in. Present day Cambodia had become an arena wherein Vietnamese were brutal gladiators armed with ideological contradictions and ignorance. For thirty years now, what we had not been able to learn for ourselves was that the thoughts and feelings of each Vietnamese had been unilaterally conditioned to the extent that we no longer saw one another eye to eye. When talking with a North Vietnamese communist prisoner, I could not believe that while the both of us were Vietnamese conversing in our mother tongue, we no longer spoke the same language. Not only because of the deadly effects of bullets and guns, but this was precisely a mental impasse which had made us incapable of thinking and reasoning on any issue. Our brains had been reduced to broken masses of grey matter, so that we were only capable of passive acceptance as one would nominally embrace fate, going straight into mindless killing. Perhaps the only thing left to us was the pulsation of the Vietnamese heart, a heart that had not changed, a heart that knew no joy and shared in a painful collective hatred. I was clearly aware that in a short moment, we would jump from our helicopter onto Cambodian land while the news was still fresh that President Nixon was about to go to Peking, that Moscow was preparing for dιtente with the U.S. In the end, what we would face was shameless opposition and animosity between two Vietnamese sides another instance in the history of division, an inevitable tragedy.
Detaching from the fleet and gradually decreasing in altitude, the helicopter which was tasked to insert the team wavered over treetops. Not finding a landing zone, we prepared ourselves to go down by a rope ladder. All our senses became alert again, disposed to action. We were poised on a hair-trigger, tense with the demeanor of those set for offense. There would be precious little discrimination on the battlefield, where reflex differentiated friend from foe from non-combatant. Guns and bullets would engage in no dialogue. There would only be Vietnamese of fortitude from both sides who volunteered to offer their bodies as torches to heat up the Indochina war.
How many pages of a book would be needed to recount outstanding feats of arms performed by the nameless heroes engaged in this operation on Cambodian land? The 81st Recon Team's activities for the duration of 96 hours, from the moment their feet were on the ground, could be viewed as the unfolding of a splendid epic even though for those who lived to tell, it was no less than an experience of hell. The story was retold many times.
The aircraft inserting the team took heavy fire soon after lowering itself to near the ground, and had to lift abruptly, pulling with it on the rope ladder the sixth team member being inserted, who had been killed. The whole team should immediately have been extracted and returned to their base. But upon request of the team leader, the TOC, the Tactical Operations Center, agreed to allow the five members on the ground, including himself, to continue with the assigned task. Through six heavy encounters with the enemy, they counted as victories the effective ambush of a convoy of four Molotova vehicles, and the complete demolition of an 88 mm cannon emplacement. They performed extraordinarily well and fulfilled their task beyond expectations.
By hour 96, however, the team was almost done for. Only two of the five remained, and they had been unable to locate the corpses of their fallen team members. These survivors were the team leader, who had received a bullet through his left hand, and a sergeant critically wounded in the chest. The two gave their best effort to fight to the death with their assault rifles and grenades. During the many hours of the mission, while surrounded by opposing forces who seemed inclined to capture them alive, they broke three waves of assault and caused heavy loss of life to the enemy. But in the end they were overwhelmed. The last sentence heard from them through the field radio was short: "A huge number of enemy troops are moving against us.
The TOC then completely lost touch with them. A rescue attempt could not be carried out because bad weather had paralyzed all activities of the Air Force. Only two days later did the weather return to normal. At the earliest possible opportunity, all resources were mobilized for the rescue mission. After 72 hours of intense but hopeless search throughout the operational area, after having checked and digested information from various sources, the officers in the TOC resigned themselves to the conclusion that the 81st Recon Team was to be considered missing in action, if not having met death with fortitude. To salvage the situation, and also to be in compliance with standard operating procedures, G-3, the headquarters operations staff, asked for and received clearance from the TOC to conduct an air strike. Several hours later, four B-52s were in flight carrying thousands of tons of bombs to transform the involved area of jungle into a sea of fire, a fire fierce enough to cremate the corpses of our fallen fellow fighters, and, perhaps more notably, sufficient to neutralize the enemy's desire for victory.
Afterwards, while looking at aerial photos when reviewing the event, a pilot from a U.S. "Pink Team" the OH-6A Cayuse light observation helicopter was quite effective as a military scout when teamed with the AH-1G Cobra attack helicopter commented, "Here we have created a small Arizona desert in Cambodian marshland."
As for the significant effects of the 81st Recon Team's combat activities, this was once more confirmed by concrete evidence in the form of a copy of a top secret flash-priority message captured by a paratrooper unit when it inspected the targets of the air strike. The flash-priority message had been sent by unit K30 to NVA Division 9 noting the presence of a South Vietnamese unit, whose designation could not be determined, which was operating in their rear, describing its operational signature and requesting any information available. Moreover, destructive activities conducted by South Vietnamese reconnaissance teams in general had propelled COSVN, the Central Office for South Vietnam, the communist headquarters in the South located near the Vietnamese-Cambodian border to issue and circulate a communications bulletin exposing activities of ARVN Airborne Ranger teams whom they called "Spy Groups that infiltrated their pacified areas to cause unrest. The last part of the document contained guidelines to help all units become more alert to such ARVN operations.
Not very far from that same headquarters, in the northeast direction, after seven days lost in the jungle wilderness, two ghost-like figures made it with difficulty to a ruined village, the man slung over the shoulder of the other being near death. And throughout that night, in a deserted Cambodian wat, a Catholic ARVN soldier, exhausted and full of sorrow, knelt down by the corpse of his fallen companion. Directing his tear-filled eyes toward the serene face of the Buddha statue, he prayed with all his heart for the soul of his unfortunate comrade soon to be liberated.
Outside, pounding rain raged relentlessly. Wind shook the long dark night enveloping the entirety of mainland Southeast Asia.
NGO THE VINH
Krek, Cambodia 1971
[From The Battle of Saigon to be published soon]
Editorial note: Works published in this issue may be simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge Magazine Issue 6 January 2005 (ISSN: 1540-1723).
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