Footprints in the Sand
I witnessed one incident while in Bac Lieu that left an indelible impression on me. A spotter plane, called a Bird Dog, piloted by a Navy ensign, was flying west of the town and the pilot reported that a resident of a hamlet had come out of his home and fired a rifle at him. The pilot contacted the district base in Bac Lieu and requested an artillery response. Two 105 mm Howitzers fired more than 20 rounds at the hamlet, destroying the man's house, boat, and generally made a mess of things. I asked the US district advisor what each round of 105 mm cost and he said about $120, in essence a $2400 response to a rifle round. He also alleged that more rounds had been fired than necessary because there was a leak in the tube of the barrel, causing some inaccuracy, but this did not stop the fire. This encapsulated our overall response.
Later that day, I met the ensign who had been flying the Bird Dog. He was an Academy graduate, but out there, he was a cowboy. He carried an M-16 with him in the air and was known for shooting it at targets while flying. I could understand how someone could turn into, or revert back into what they have been before entering the Academy. Shades of our leadership, where a good education seems to have had no effect on attitude.
During my days spent in Bac Lieu, I met the only civilian psy-war [psychological warfare] district advisor who was from USIA. He took me to an interview with a Viet Cong captain that had just turned himself in hoi chan, as it was called. Because the government offered money for hoi chan, it was suspected that many who were doing it were just trying to escape being caught in the middle of a war and needed the money. In this case however, the advisor thought that man was an officer because he was carrying a .45 automatic pistol, still in use by the American forces. The reason that he gave for turning himself in was that he was being passed over for promotion by regroupees.
When a million Vietnamese went to South Vietnam after partician in 1954 and the election of Ho Chi Minh, about 400,000 went north. These were being infiltrated back into South Vietnam and according to the officer, taking over the command of the Viet Cong. The advisor thought that this would be a great message to capitalize upon in leaflet drops and posters.
Fortuitous trip to KL
Both fortunately and fortuitously, I went to Kuala Lumpur to be with my wife while our first child was being born. My wife, having not heard from me for nearly a month because I was in the field, insisted that her doctor induce birth, even a month early because she wanted me to be there for the event. Ironically, while helping the staff to move her from the bed to the birthing table, I felt a sharp pain in my abdomen and the next day, I was operated on for appendicitis. I spent the next week in the same bedroom as my wife, with our daughter between our beds. We were the talk of the hospital, a Catholic one no less. Ultimately, it turned out it was not appendicitis but rather an intestinal virus that was unknown at the time. Years later I read that a journalist had had the same experience in Vietnam.
When discussing my views about the war conveying the skeptic views that had been expressed to me by some district advisors, I was roundly criticized by some of the other researchers in essence saying why didnt I go home if I did not share both governments line about the war. At least one researcher, who had done work in North Vietnam in 1953 defended me saying that it was always appropriate to question research findings and beliefs.
Given my illness and fact that the firm had spent two thirds of the grant funds on one third of the survey, and the first of three waves of interviews with respondents, I was let go to return to the States.
I returned to Saigon from KL in mid-December and left on Christmas Day. A week later, the Tet Offensive occurred, forever changing the image of the war for the TV audience back home. One of the last things that I did before leaving Saigon was to cancel a rent-a-car that I had planned to drive with my wife and daughter to Phnom Penh. It had been expected that everyone would take a vacation, even the VC as had occurred during previous Tet observances.