May 12, 1966

S. Viet Nam Soldier Carries His Share

(EDITOR’S NOTE:  Charles Black, Enquirer military writer, is now in the field with troops of the 1st Cavalry Division in Viet Nam.  His dispatches on the war in Southeast Asia will continue daily in The Enquirer.)

Enquirer Military Writer

SAIGON - Despite the major commitment of American men to the Vietnamese battlefields, it is still the little South Vietnamese solider who is carrying on the bulk of the deadly day-in day-out fighting in that war.

He leads a tough life but usually is a remarkably cheerful trooper and, when well led, he usually is a brave one.

The Vietnamese soldier, marine, ranger or paratrooper, looks too small to carry the load of weapons, ammunition and gear he must take into the field.  He must carry his rations and cooking utensils, for example.

Most of the troops live on food which is a test of grim proportions for an American, and it really isn’t a favorite kind of diet for Vietnamese.  As one young marine lieutenant told me, while watching rice and dried shrimp boil in a pot shared by privates and sergeants in his platoon, with his radioman acting as chef, “. . . this is not what I order when I eat in a hotel in Saigon.”

A Vietnamese soldier carries cooked pork wrapped in a newspaper, sometimes sausages of rather doubtful health, sun-dried fish which smell horrible when thrown into the coals of a fire to splutter and char until judged ready to eat, and a sack of sun-dried shrimp which are actually almost good.  The shrimp boil, absorb water, and taste almost fresh, in fact.

There is always a bottle of Nouc Mang, the pungent sauce made of fluid distilled from fermented fish and laced with chili peppers, the universal seasoning of Viet Nam.  Soy sauce is also popular. American advisers serving with the Vietnamese troops, and who eat their rations, learn to handle Nuoc Mang and say it is one of the few available means of getting sufficient salt in their diet while with the local troops.

Inferior Weapons

The weapons we have given the South Vietnamese soldier, aside from the carbines seen all over the country in both friendly and unfriendly hands, are not as good as the ones the Chinese and Russians have supplied the North Vietnamese soldier.

The Vietnamese have M1 rifles, venerable weapons with worn barrels and minimal accuracy because of the erratic bullet tumble, the reliable and effective - but very heavy -Browning automatic rifle, and 81mm. and 60mm. mortars.  The American GIs envy them the latter.  They have been taken out of our equipment roster but they have great value in jungle and woods fighting and are light and easy to carry.

Field artillery support usually comes from either an American battalion, a fixed position battalion of 105 mm. howitzers, or 75mm. pack howitzers hauled by truck.  A marine task force of two battalions had four of the old 75s supporting it in a typical operation.

The four trucks which pulled them were the only vehicles the two battalions possessed except for the helicopter support from American aviation companies in the area.

Americans serving with such units have one very important assurance all too often denied the Vietnamese trooper.  If he is hit or becomes ill and circumstances permit - and heavy fire is often not enough to stop the  process -  the American will be evacuated by one of the brave “dustoff” pilots in his area and will receive quick medical attention on arrival at an American installation.

Sometimes the Vietnamese casualties are treated in a less prompt manner.  Their medical attention, even when an evacuation is finally called for is not the best in many cases and often there is little sense of urgency over the matter.

Set Siesta

Viet Nam is a country where siesta is observed from 1:30 p.m. until 3:30 p.m. and refusal by Vietnamese Army doctors to change this schedule simply because battle casualties have been brought in is not an uncommon thing.  There also seem to be a readiness to perform amputation of arms or legs which - to a layman’s admittedly unskilled eyes - don’t look that badly injured.

In one instance I am familiar with, for example, a heroic Vietnamese Civil Irregular Defense Group radioman, (these CIDG troops are called “strikers” and are hired and trained by U.S. Special Forces teams) was hit in the arm by machine gun fire.  He was credited with saving an American’s life.

He was evacuated to the Vietnamese hospital at Qui Nhon and later the men from the Special Forces team he had fought with went to see him.  They found his arm had been amputated and were shocked at the man’s poor condition and the general lack of care and cleanliness.  They used their own money to move him to a private hospital with a French staff where the youth recovered.  They then brought him back to light duty at a green beret headquarters.

This particular soldier was lucky, very lucky, because the Vietnamese wounded have nowhere near the remarkable recovery rate of American wounded.

Vietnamese battalions usually are just as good as their colonel.  Junior leadership and staff work is not up to very high standards in most instances and the battalion commander - if he is good - is forced to “overcommand” his unit to keep up its morale and efficiency.  If he is lazy or has other command faults, the battalion reflects this in its fighting ability.

American advisers with poor units lead an edgy existence, wondering if they will suddenly find themselves all alone on a firing line.  These men are apt to have very little good to say about the soldiers they worked with.

Americans with a good battalion commander, however, often find it hard to adequately express the admiration they feel for the same kind of soldiers.

In Field Forever

The Vietnamese officer who goes into the field is apt to find himself out in the field from then on.  Political ambitions, connections, all of the other old games are played with a vengeance in the scramble for good jobs and a way up in the Army hierarchy and the field soldier often is simply stuck.

The strain of long service in combat situations tells on these men sooner or later.  An exception is Col. Yen of the Vietnamese Marines, the most decorated single individual in Vietnamese service.  He has spent more than 20 years fighting out in the brush in one war or another in that country and looks good for 20 more.

A Ranger officer in a recent action, a man who had been through years of ambushes, attacks, and all the rest of the wilderness hell of Vietnamese fighting, simply reached the end of his span.

The American captain with him, an ebullient fighter who loves his little Vietnamese comrades and is deeply involved in the conflict there, said his “daiwi” (Vietnamese for Captain) simply “resigned in the middle of the fight.”

“He just suddenly withdrew and quit running things.  He just resigned it right there.  I was shocked.  Then I realized what that man had been through.  I know that my time is up in three months and I’m going to get a break, he just kept going out there with nothing in sight but more of it. This was just one more than he should have been asked to fight.  I took over and he didn’t ever change during the fight,” the American told me.

The Vietnamese was promoted, after he had rested and regained his control, and given a job which would keep him out of direct contact with enemy -  but he was a well worn and nearly broken man when the event came.

The Vietnamese is a stubborn and brave ally.  Properly led he is pugnacious and aggressive.  There are many exceptions to the general high caliber of these troops and there are many problems caused by these exceptions, but it has been a long and bitter war there.


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