BAN ME THUOT -- The
bridge which we had
come to on our walk through the jungle was a cabinet piece example of
the saboteur's art.
As the column of
I was with filed out of the
elephant grass where we had camped overnight, I stepped out of line and
walked to the end of it. The two concrete sections which crossed a
murky, swift river had been dumped into the water by an explosion which
had sheared the connecting beams as if they were sawed.
To get to the
bridge, I had to walk
around deep cuts in the road. These
were about three feet wide and the V.C. had dug them half-way across
the road, then moved down and dug the rest of the way. It left a little
path which the peasants could use, which a bicycle could use, but which
a truck or car couldn't negotiate.
Lt. Khanh, the
for this task force of marines and
engineers which was charged with opening Route 14 between Nha Trang and
Ban Me Thuot so that truck convoys could haul supplies to the American
outpost there, walked over and we sat on an intact section of concrete
and he told me about the road-cutting technique.
“The V.C. are
smart, very smart.
They do not get local people mad this
way, but they stop government and commercial traffic. Those cuts are
not too wide. Most businesses send scooter trucks up, three-wheel
Lambretti trucks with merchandise. They stop and pay ‘taxes’ and V. C.
lift them across. When we bring up a convoy, though, we have to haul
dirt to fill in the holes,” he said.
Lt. Khanh said he
was happy to have
a chance to practice his English
(he had a very emphatic Vietnamese accent while Lt. Chang spoke with an
inflection which was almost American) and handed me his address so I
could write to him.
“I like letter very
much. Make me
very happy to hear from you. You pay
us a very high compliment by staying with us out here. It is not nice
place and we know it is very hard and we thank .you very much,” he said.
He showed me the
cut-off which had
been built by engineers in an
earlier effort to clear the road and we found a steel Bailey bridge
span had been put in. The V.C. had pried pieces loose and had burned
the timber flooring of the bridge as well as having dug the ubiquitous
ditches across the detour.
“Very many people
help V.C. here.
Ambushes on this road before show
that there are many V. C. here too. We go up to plantation now because
that was where the company of V.C. we have had our little brushes with
yesterday and last night have been camping. Talk to Frenchman who owns
The marines were
filing across the
bare steel beams of the Bailey
bridge, some of them running to the river bank and filling canteens.
Lt. Khanh and I went down and filled our canteens and I loaned him
purification pills. Then I crossed the bridge and hurried on until I
caught up with Lt. Chang’s platoon where it was marching at the head of
An hour later, we
met the other
battalion’s scouts as they approached
from the other direction, and after a conference, our column turned and
headed into the brush. Suddenly we came out of it and were walking
through coffee bushes with chickens pecking away under them. The
marines scattered and chased chickens down, tying them by their feet
and hanging them on their packs.
A big villa was in
the center of
the plantation. The troops stopped and
Lt. Col. Yen and his staff, with Maj. William Lefwich the Marine
adviser looming tall and solid among them, walked up to the villa where
an elderly man with a large nose, a wooden leg showing under trousers
cuff and in an obvious temper, awaited. A loud argument in French
between him and Col. Yen ensued.
From the way the
owner waved to the squawking,
feather loads on the marine packs it was fairly obvious what the
discussion was over.
Maj. Lefwich turned
to me, hiding a
grin, and said:
“Col. Yen told him
that his poultry
must have been very sick as the
chickens all ran off into the jungles and died. He told the battalion
commander to have the men pay for the chickens but you know how that
is. They don’t have any money and the price of chickens out here is 10
times what the Saigon price is for some reason. We try to discourage
this, they do it in their own villages sometimes, but what can you do?
They arc expected to live off the country and what they can carry and
they have to eat to fight. It is pretty frustrating sometimes. This
time, well, the plantation pays its taxes to the V.C., I guess, or it
would be wiped out. So now he pays a little tax to the government is
about the way it works out I guess," Maj. Lefwich said.
when it’s some poor
peasant’s chickens, though. We have
a real problem there," he said as the conversation ended and the
Frenchman limped stiffly toward his villa.
We heard trucks
then and saw a long
convoy on the highway down the hill
below us. They stopped and the staff went down that way. I went back to
Lt. Chang's platoon. I saw Pvt. Honh and Pvt. Nae had acquired small,
speckled, feathery companions for the rest of the trip. Both hens were
hung by strings tied to their feet and looked resigned as they bobbed
on the packs of the two.
fill holes and put
new boards in bridge and we will go
ahead to the next bridge. Second battalion will stay here and guard,"
Lt. Chang said.
The process was
very similar all
day. We went out into the brush and
looped back to intersect the highway, L-19s put-putted overhead as
observation planes, choppers came in and shot up areas and roared away,
artillery thudded into hillsides and jungle, fighter planes worked over
an area on our left.
We came up by a man
the trail, his boot off and his foot
bleeding from an ugly puncture. The medic saw me and held up a wicked
thing made of wires twisted together like a child’s jack, four spikes
in a cross effect which put one up no matter how it was thrown. The man
had stepped into elephant grass to tromp a path and skewered his foot.
We had been held up several minutes while marines gingerly probed the
area, finding several dozen of the things. I saw more medics coming
back along the path, carrying a canvas stretcher.
“When we get out of
the trees, we
will probably signal for a helicopter
and evacuate him,” Lt. Chang said. “Maybe he is lucky.”
We passed another
marine then, the
sweat and pallor of heat exhaustion
showing, a medic pouring water on him from a canteen. The temperature
was back up to 120 or more again and the damp air was heavy and
I heard the chopper
in back of us later when we had
crossed a field and Lt. Chang said the two men had been taken back to
calls in the
helicopter on the radio and gives a
signal with a grenade. A gun ship flies over and marines stay in
circle. Very bad time for V.C. to hit when we must take out sick men,”
Lt. Chang said.
We went by two more
the day, each time holding in a
perimeter until the engineers came up and then leaving a battalion
behind to guard them as they fixed the damaged structures. Both
concrete bridges were blown and the Bailey bridge substitutes had the
flooring burned out. The cuts in the road were thicker in this area
than they had been around the plantation, now about seven miles down
We ate cold rice
twice. Once at 10
a.m. and once about 2 p.m., grabbing
out handfulls from the pot on Pvt. Honh’s pack now beside the chicken
and eating it from our hand as we took brief rest halts. It was much
harder for me on this march than it had been Tuesday because I felt
weak and no matter how much water I drank, I wanted more. There was no
salt available and my rucksack was becoming something I hated the sight
of. I almost threw away the typewriter and extra clothing once but
managed to scrape up resolve enough to hang onto what I had started out
Camp that night was
beside the road
in a grove of mango trees. The
grass and vines were thick but not as tall and it commenced raining
almost at the moment I had my hammock swing. I ate some mangos I found
and threw away a melon because it had become gourdlike from being
overripe. I was too tired to wait for Pvt. Honh to coax wet twigs into
a fire under a poncho he had rigged as a tent, and went to sleep. I
slept through two mortar rounds which exploded in a grove near us,
hurting a Vietnamese boy very badly and Lt. Chang had a very hard time
getting me awake when it was time to pack up and move again.
The helicopter came
down onto the
road for the wounded boy as we were
leaving and Maj. Lefwich stood there, looking very tall and untired. I
grinned at him weakly and found that the pace was too fast for me as we
headed directly up a steep hill, keeping to the road and almost
running. The morning heat and the steam of the drying roadway was more
oppressive than ever and suddenly, less than 1,000 yards from where we
had started and just as the two helicopters whirled off with the
wounded man aboard, I simply blacked out and fell on my face.
I came to with a
water on me and fanning me with the
bush hat I had been wearing. I felt very disgusted with myself and
tried to get up, but my head went dizzy and I fell down, this time on
my back with my rucksack under me. It was the first time I had ever had
this happen on march and I was ashamed of myself. I kept telling the
marine I would be all right and to go ahead. He ran off and another one
ran over and poured water on my face, then he ran on to catch his
I got out of the
rucksack and tried
to get up, but then I became
nauseated and had some very bad stomach cramps which doubled me up and
I heard Major Lefwich talking
getting you out on
that chopper. We have two others
down from the heat just ahead. I’m calling it in now. Stay put, we’ll
get you out of here.”
I saw some green
smoke, heard a
roaring and felt the sting of dust as
the chopper came down behind me in a clearing, then two Vietnamese
medics, both very small, were trying to lift me and I got my arms
around them and we made it to the chopper. They pushed my rucksack in
behind me and an American pulled me onto the floor, putting a jacket
under my head and hollering something I couldn't understand. I got on
my back and the wind felt good and cool, but I was wringing wet and
became chilled then.
The boy who had
been hit with the
mortar was by me in a stretcher and
his wrist was over my legs, blood from under a field bandage on his arm
was splattering my jungle fatigues. I couldn't remember anything else
about the ride until I was in an ambulance in a stretcher.
An Army captain
hung a bottle of
saline solution on a wire in a little
stucco dispensary at Ban Me Thuoc, put a needle into my right arm, and
prescribed “…lying there and keeping quiet for about three hours, then
lying someplace else and keeping quiet for about three or four days.”
“You hit that
country too quick.
You are dehydrated and are lucky
you’re not going to Nha Trang to the hospital as a serious case. You
let your pulse and blood pressure get back to normal. We’ll get a lot
of sweet, black coffee into you to get some nourishment working and
we’ll get your salt content up and liquids into you. Hang around here
tonight, stay in bed and we 11 probably let you get up and walk a
little tomorrow,” he said.
That was how I made
acquaintance of Capt. Leon E Curry, commander
of the 10-man medical detachment at Ban Me Thuot, and of the group of
heroic young medical specialists he has working for him. It was almost
worth a touch of heat exhaustion and the other odd lot of things
bothering me then to have met this group. Two of them had served in the
11th Air Assault Division before it became the First Air Cavalry, and
when I felt better that evening, they both said they were “glad to see
the outfit come over here, we’ve needed them!”
The story of this
detachment is a heartening one. They are
doing quite a job.