Banyan Tree, Temple Useful Landmarks
ANKHE -- There will be two landmarks in South Viet Nam which members of the advance party of the 1st Cavalry Division will never forget. They will probably both give way to the gigantic heliport and hootch construction program needed to set up a division-size base in a hurry, but they will be passwords to the fraternity of the advance party for time immemorial.
One is “the banyan tree” and the other is “the temple.”
The area which the advance party and a crowd of refugee Montagnard tribesmen are clearing is being changed hourly. Every man, from colonel to PFC, has had his share of swinging a machete or a brush hook or pulling weeds to clear the heliport and camp site. There aren’t any good ways of locating anyone, arranging meeting places, etc., except for the banyan tree or the temple.
The banyan tree is a beautiful specimen of its kind. Its trunk, made up of twisting, separate roots which have grown together over the years, is 20 feet through and its foliage spreads like a huge awning. A trail runs under it. When you wish to meet someone in this area, you meet him at the banyan tree.
At the other end of the trail, a little Buddhist temple pagoda with an arch, a wrecked brick wall and a graveyard serves the same purpose. It will be moved to another location but the banyan tree, which now sits in the proposed helicopter area, may have to be cut down.
Capt. Ron Summers, the division civil affairs officer, left a group of Montagnard workmen arguing through an interpreter with SFC Edgar R. Smith, the construction boss, and drove toward the temple. We got out and looked around.
The colors were blue and white; the walls stucco, the roof red tile. Two pillars outside were topped with concrete lotus bud symbols. The arch had a big rooster of the same material astride the keystone. A massive pillar inside the arch, between it and the veranda of the pagoda, had set in its cement a dragon made from bits of broken china. A bit of blue and white porcelain from a broken saucer and a chip of red from a vase had been set into a mosaic which from a distance looked as if it were jeweled.
The temple was tiny and dusty inside. Carved wooden staffs and other ceremonial accouterments were stacked carefully, peeling paint showing that the temple had fallen into disuse. We went outside and Capt. Summers talked about the Ankhe area.
“This is the fourth time I have been in South Viet Nam,” he said. “I was over here on three six-month missions with the Fifth Special Forces Group. The Special Forces camp down the road from town is my old post here. I helped build it, too
“I brought the strike company down from Quang Ngai that still operates here, the Vietnamese Rangers wearing red neckerchiefs you see all over,” Capt. Summers continued. “They are good troops and have had their share of fighting, believe me.”
We went back to the jeep and he made a radio call, arranging to meet another jeep at the banyan tree and pick up PFC Charles E. Brown, a rifle platoon radioman from the First Battalion Ninth Cavalry, who was being rescued from a bamboo thicket attack for a stint as a jeep driver.
PFC Brown took over the wheel and headed the jeep toward Ankhe, trundling through muddy stream fords where bulldozers were laboring to make road bypasses for the oncoming division. We stopped while a Vietnamese woman and four little girls with long, black hair, barefoot and wearing black pajamas shooed a herd of water buffalo out of a pen and onto the trail.
Follow Water Buffalo
We followed the buffalo herd for the half mile on the mud trail until we entered Route 19. It splits here, with two long, single-lane concrete bridges handling the separated lanes of traffic. The bridge floors have been filled with sand and they are the only muddy bridges I can ever remember crossing.
“It has a concrete slab, but for some reason the floor of this span was built up with dirt. Now it’s a mudhole or dusty,” Capt. Summers said.
Little Vietnamese children ran to the front of hootches along a twisting, narrow street, shouting “Cha Ong” or “Hello...0K.” We waved back, and Capt. Summers made a note to get some candy to toss around.
We went to see the Catholic priest first, Father Huhn, who spoke a remarkable mixture of French, English, Vietnamese and Latin, and whose conversation is as interesting as the language assortment. It takes close attention but he is easy to communicate with and he is one of Capt. Summers’ closest connections in town.
“We have to have laundry service, we have to have garbage hauled away; we have to have laborers, we have to have lots of things,” Capt. Summers said. “When the local economy can provide them, and when we have poor people who need work as we do here, it is one of our best ways of making friends and influencing people.”
“We drive a good bargain and we expect our money’s worth,” he said. “They know they are earning it, and we get the things we need to be able to live more comfortably.”
Priest Assists Hiring
He had arranged for more Montagnard refugees to come to work. There had been 576 that day, he told the priest. He would like “many more, more than 650 even.” The priest announces the needs at the chapel, which is really a building complex of its own.
The priest oversees a concrete industry here which makes culvert pipe the engineers are using in their road work. He provides the machinery and materials and the people take the profits in wages except for those needed to keep the operation going. A big lowboy loading culverts was parked in front of the chapel yard as we drove out, a crowd of Montagnards and children running behind the jeep and waving.
Next stop was at Mr. Kai’s. Every city has a Mr. Kai, and it is necessary for a civil affairs officer to be able to find him and meet him.
Mr. Kai is the one who can supply ice by hauling it on trucks from Pleiku - despite the fact that the Viet Cong are very active on this last stretch of Route 19. Mr. Kai is the one who can supply screen wire, tarpaulin, shower heads, pipe, reed mats, soft drinks, or come up with carpenter crews and other skilled workmen.
Man to See
“You could say Mr. Kai is a contractor, a merchant, a land speculator, a black marketeer, an importer and exporter - you name it - He is the man you see,” Capt. Summers said. “We need ice. We have some soft-drink-hungry lads out there. We need light bulbs, we need an air mattress fixed or a plumbing connection or something nobody else can supply, we see Mr. Kai.”
Mr. Kai has an unprepossessing, junky store which has everything in it from bottled nuock mang (a native condiment) to hair pomade, and from rolls of canvas to carburetors. Mention the need, one of his many English-speaking nephews or sons nods, prowls in the mysterious depths of the building behind the store and office front, and the item comes out with a typed price list to verify its value.
Somehow, in a town which is practically cut off from normal civilization, without an ice factory, Mr. Kai had arranged for long cubes of ice with a hollow in one end for a hand hold to come to Ankhe from somewhere. They were packed in rice hulls and the water had been treated so that it was potable and could go right into a can of tea or a lister bag. The difference between Mr. Kai and the priest is a matter of motivation.
Tries to Ease Poverty
The priest received the laundry bags from the camp and handed them out to the refugee families according to the amount of work each could do and according to who needed the work the most. He was trying to ease the poverty of the 1,200 refugee families clustered in huts around the church. Mr. Kai makes his computations on an abacus, drives as shrewd a bargain for a flashlight as he does for 1,000 meters of rope, and tries to ease the burden of keeping up the huge Kai family in a comfortable manner.
“Some things you see the priest about, some things you see Mr. Kai about,” Summers said. “The priest provides the labor force, Mr. Kai provides the materials and know how, let’s say.”
We pushed through a crowd of children eyeing the two bags of candy we were carrying.
I got in the jeep and held up one finger and they all shouted “One.” We went up to “Ten” in English and I shouted one of my few Vietnamese words “Dec!” which means “go”, and threw a double handful of candy in the air.
Scramble for Candy
It was one of the most disastrous civic action programs in the history of Ankhe. Old men, women with babies, boys and girls together all piled into a kind of good-natured free-for-all, and I think the cute little guy I really wanted to get a piece of the sticky, green, paper-wrapped stuff had his taken away by an old fellow with a gray goatee.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to toss that stuff around town. We’ll wait until we get out on the road,” Capt. Summers said reflectively, looking at what had been an orderly smiling and curious crowd until I had launched a football game on the mainstem of Ankhe.
“It looks like you could have a pretty good riot there if you wanted one.”
We saw the ice truck safely away, saw the first loads of laundry heading for the camp, spoke to a dignified little barefoot man on a bicycle with a big star on his chest who was chief of security police, and headed back to camp for evening B rations (dehydrated hot food as opposed to the Cs served for lunch), being careful to scatter out the candy tossing program. It made us some friends along the road, real cute little friends who now shout “Hello Charlie” when they see me and then begin shouting “Ten!”
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