May 13, 1966

Greenery, Thorns, Ants Abound in Viet Nam

(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 -The color of Viet Nam is green.  Sometimes the green is pure torture for the infantryman contending with it and sometimes it is a pleasure.

The country grows things like the legendary beanstalk Jack planted.  It has elephant grass with knife edges 18 feet high; a kind of bamboo with thorns on it; vines with thorns; trees with thorns eight inches long interspersed with smaller thorns; all covered with voracious red ants just in case none of the other natural devices work.

As if the natural vegetation isn’t enough -  a classic comment came from an infantry lieutenant who looked at his lacerated arms and hand and said “. . .if I picked a water lily in this place I’d spear myself on a thorn. . .” - some man-made modifications are also available.

Almost every village has impenetrable walls of cactus planted in strategic areas. The cactus is flat-leaved, like prickly pear, and stands stiff and erect in thorny rows in just the places to hamper a rifleman going about his mission.  The cactus was planted as a combination fence and defense project.  (The fence keeps out the buffaloes from places where they shouldn’t lumber and graze and the defense application is the same as that served by barbed wire emplacements.)

The Other Kind

Sometimes a village presents a restful look to an infantryman, of course.  These are the ones in secure areas where the Viet Cong don’t snipe with one hand and wave cheerful greetings with the other.

Coconut palms, banana trees, orange trees, grapefruit trees and mango trees grow all around these villages.  Pineapples grow in unlikely little rows in gardens where melons and red peppers seem to share equal favor.

The coconuts are always a popular item with the troops.  They hunt green ones so they can drink the milk, but they have also become entranced with a native custom which turns a coconut into a kind of light, spongy pudding.  The peasants set them in rows and let them just start to sprout.  The inside of the nut turns into something like coconut-flavored angel food cake.

Lots of Leeches

Rice paddies are green areas, unless dry in the off-season when they are brown, (the other color of the landscape, which troops have learned to dislike.)

A paddy has earth dikes around it, turning a valley into a checkerboard of knee-deep mud and water squares surrounded by grass and hedge covered walls which the Viet Cong dig into to make ambush sites.  Many of the paddies have ravenous leeches in them.  Some are so full of leeches that the little vermin are mistaken by GIs for schools of tadpoles.

Out in the deep jungle areas the trees grow in layers.  One layer may be 175 to 200 feet high, a thick mat of interlaced branches, leaves and vines.  Below it will be a medium-high layer and under this the tangle of underbrush which men have to hack with machetes in order to make 100 yards an hour.   

The air under this multilayered canopy of green is dead feeling.  It is constantly damp, dripping and hot and the smell of rotting vegetation is thick.  Leeches actually subsist on the wet leaves of the brush here and drop off on men coming through their abode.

Those who have experienced deer hunting in Georgia’s Blue Ridge area may have a feeling for Vietnamese hills.

Georgia mountains have thick tangles of ivy and laurel bushes on some of the deeper ravines and steeper slopes.  If these thickets were given a full quota of the kind of thorns  a well-matured hedge tree can boast and were sometimes woven even more tightly with a hard-surfaced growth of big bamboos, some of the trouble with the green of the hills can be imagined.

Cambodian Scenery

Over near Cambodia, in the border area which is now so battle-scarred, the country opens out into a rolling plateau with ranges of mountains climbing up from it at intervals.  This area is Viet Nam at its most beautiful.  The hills there have scattered trees with short, curling grass and deep, black rock formations for contrast.

The area around Pleiku is another typical kind of terrain, but it is a rusty brown.  This is largely without trees, a high, open plateau with tall grass cut by the long, straight and narrow red lines of paths beaten into the clay dirt by Montagnard tribesmen in their journeys from village to village. 

Along the coastal areas, white sand, some of it desert-like, and hills such as are seen in Southern California, without trees but heavily grassed, are interspersed with heavily foliaged trees growing almost to the water.  Rivers empty into the ocean and rice paddies, canals, etc., make the area look like a flood disaster.  Villages perch on little hammocks left in the midst of the rice fields.

The country, from flying altitude, is beautiful.  It remains beautiful, with reservations concerning temperature, moisture and sometimes sanitation when on the ground in certain areas.  There are other places, though, where Viet Nam just isn’t a good place to take a walk.

Most infantrymen are completely certain that their operations officers have a special map which is filled with details on the hardest possible places for a man to travel through, and plan field work with full attention to available discomforts.


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